What is shamanism?
The practice of shamanism is not easily defined. The best I can do to get you started is to define a few parameters.
A shaman is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness at will. While in this altered state, he or she makes a conscious choice to journey to another reality, a reality which is outside of time and space. This other reality is composed of three layers: the lower world, the middle world and the upper world and is inhabited by helping spirits. The shaman is able to establish relationships with these spirits and to bring back information and healing for the community or the individual.
Most importantly, shamanic work makes a practical difference in this world we live in. The work brings about a change. The journeys are undertaken with a specific purpose in mind.
A basic principle of shamanism is the belief that everything has a spirit and is alive. The tree has a spirit, the rock has a spirit, my drum has a spirit, and yes, even this computer has a spirit. If everything has a spirit and is alive, we humans then find ourselves in a position of equality rather than dominance. If you follow this logic, you begin to realize that shamanism is a radical act. Shamans don't follow the laws of man; they follow the laws of spirits. They don't dominate the earth and its creatures; they strive to live in harmony and balance.
Shamanism has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the last twenty years. Sandra Ingerman's book Soul Retrieval, Mending the Fragmented Self and The Foundation for Shamanic Studies (directed by Michael Harner) have contributed to the heightened interest. Many indigenous shamans have come forward in recent years to help train others and share their knowledge. Their prophecies have urged them forward.
The Foundation for Shamanic Studies states
"Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the world discovered how to maximize human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving. The remarkable system of methods they developed is today known as "shamanism," a term that comes from a Siberian tribal word for its practitioners: "shaman" (pronounced SHAH-mahn). Shamans are a type of medicine man or woman especially distinguished by the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. Most commonly they do this by entering an altered state of consciousness using monotonous percussion sound.
What we know today about shamanism comes from the last living bearers of this ancient human knowledge, the shamans of dying tribal cultures scattered in remote parts of the world. Few of them are left today, due to the destruction of their peoples and cultures, and to deliberate attempts to eradicate the shamans and their knowledge, even though shamanism is not a religion, but a methodology.
Now, at the last moment, open-minded Westerners are beginning to discover for themselves that the shamanic methods can yield astonishing results in problem-solving and healing, for themselves and for others. As a result of their use of the methods, they are acquiring a new awareness of their spiritual unity with all beings, with the Planet, and with the Universe. They are also discovering that there is a dimension of reality beyond that ordinarily perceived."
A belief in some cultures in the existence of a spirit realm (in addition to the normal world) that can be experienced through altered states of consciousness. A spiritual discipline in which the shaman seeks to interact with this other world to learn and to communicate with spiritual beings to heal themselves and others. Shamans have also been called medicine men or witch-doctors.
Shamanism is a traditional belief system that considers the entire universe to be alive and interconnected. Ceremonies are meant to heal and expand enlightenment using rhythmic music, repetitive dance, mind-altering plants and drugs, and journeys into the spirit realm. The word Shaman has many definitions, but can be translated as "one who knows" or "seer." A personal quest for knowledge and inner power. A shaman may exhibit a particular magical specialty such as control over healing, fire, wind or magical insight. The shaman may make use of spirit helpers with whom he or she communicates. It is very important to note that while most Shamen in traditional shamanistic societies are men, either women or men may, or have, become Shamen.
Regarding Native American Belief
Several important things to remember about Native American practices in regards to this. First, magic is not a part of anything that is Native American. Second, no one in the native community would ever call him/herself a shaman or medicine person. (The word shaman is not a Native American term.) It is considered to be very disrespectful to claim such a title for oneself. The above is a mix of many different beliefs, some of which are consistent with Native American practice, but the language used to describe them is vastly different from the native way.