Indigenous healing practices are often dismissed by Westernized medicine as primitive or backward in theory and practice; however, shamanic practices may provide a better understanding of the human mind and its maladies.
In many indigenous cultures around the world, spiritual practitioners referred to as shamans or healers are responsible for maintaining communal health by performing duties that range from attending births to ensuring individual prosperity. Shamanic practices are rooted in a belief that spiritual entities exist and can be harnessed to prevent illness or treat disease. Shamans typically work around their community, but indigenous healers are not limited to a specific setting (the field does not confine them). In fact, Sharanahua wanderers travel from village to village, offering healing services to anyone who will pay them.
Sharanahua means “spiritual power” or “healing,” and refers to a specific shamanic lineage that dates back to Palencia. In the Amazon region of Peru, sharanahui are considered spiritual practitioners who enter altered states of consciousness that allow them to treat illnesses of all kinds by creating new spirit allies (jaguars, pumas, etc.), which then protect people from sickness and cure their physical ailments.
Shamans are said to be able to “walk” between the worlds of the living and dead, and they are often able to perceive illness. At times they may experience hallucinations that allow them to treat people by “seeing” a person’s illness or problem and then creating a spirit ally to address the health issue. In traditional medical practice, most illness is considered unrelated to mental disease and therefore is not approached as such. However, in shamanic practice, the nature of an ailment often depends on how it interacts at various levels of reality, either spiritual or corporeal. Thus Sharanahua shamans may approach individuals who are suffering from multiple personality disorder and explain the health issues as a “split soul.”
Shamans use sacred substances such as tobacco, ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic brew that is used in spiritual rituals), and vegetalista. Vegetalistas are said to gain their knowledge and power to cure from the vegetales, or plants of the region. Shamans also use plant medicines to induce an altered state of consciousness in which they can see their spirit allies. While in the altered state, shamans can see a person’s soul leaving its body or traveling to different realms, and can come back with information about where it has been and what is affecting it. Shamans are believed to be able to cure illnesses by harnessing forces of nature and spirits to restore an individual’s health.
From a Westernized perspective, such practices as the use of hallucinogens and the visionary experience may represent mental illness or disease. However, these same manifestations are considered sacred in shamanic practice and essential to the healing process. According to anthropologist Michael Winkelman, “Shamans learn how to use their mind and consciousness as tools for healing. Thus by talking to invisible beings and gaining access to hidden information in the spiritual world, shamans are able to change reality – including human mental states – for the better.”
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