Is the Heart Path a Religion?
My programs at Great Plains Guide Co. have their roots in the nature-based spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures. The aspects of those traditions that are similar across cultures (e.g. the belief that every living thing has a spirit) have been called shamanism. Shamanism is a modern term best understood as the shared beliefs and practices--the "bundle of sticks"-- common to these many different cultures.
Anthropologist Michael Harner writes, “Shamanism is a methodology, not a religion. It is a system of knowledge, based on firsthand experience, not a belief system.” This is an important distinction, especially for those who assume anything having to do with the sacred involves some form of religion.
The term shaman is taken from the language of indigenous Siberian people and means one who knows, or one who sees. In these cultures, the shaman is not a religious pastor or worship leader in the modern sense. Rather, she is more like a wise and helpful spiritual guide who retains that role only as long as he or she is actually being helpful.
Shamanic healing practices can provide practical tools helpful to anyone today, regardless one's personal faith. For example, you can enjoy the experience and insights from a drumming journey without changing your personal faith (or joining a new religious group), just as you can practice yoga without becoming a Hindu, or learn meditation practices without becoming a Buddhist.
This nonreligious character of shamanism can be confusing to people raised to divide the world into believers and unbelievers, or into "people of faith" (typically their own faith) and people without faith. It can be difficult for some to imagine an authentic spiritual path without a sacred book to follow, a church building to worship in, ordained clergy to preach and maintain correct doctrine, and so forth. But shamanism is an experience-based wisdom tradition that was passed on orally through stories and practices. It is not a doctrine-based tradition of books, beliefs, creeds, and human saints or saviors.
In my 20-year career as a board-certified Catholic Christian chaplain I served in hospitals, university settings, nursing homes, cancer treatment centers, and hospices. I supported people from all religious and spiritual traditions around the world and saw the importance of respecting individual beliefs. And I learned that a true spiritual healer is not a religious know-it-all, but rather a border-walker who travels respectfully between the meaning-worlds of both faith and culture, and between the visible and spirit worlds. Doing so requires the practitioner to honor the perspectives of people with strong religious beliefs and those with no religious belief at all. As to the latter, “shamanism is for skeptics”, says Harner, “it is a system of direct experience”.
In my programs the accent is placed on the heart and soul rather than on "shamanism." Shamanism provides a helpful conceptual orientation and intellectual reference point for those needing them, and for those interested in deeper study of the lineage. But the earth-honoring spiritual practices utilized in my programs transcend particular religious ideology and have roots in every person's heritage, regardless of culture.
The realm of the human heart is as wide and universal as "Christ consciousness" or "Buddha nature." The sacred text of my programs is not found in a book written by humans in ink or by an angry God on stone tablets. Rather, the teachings come quietly and gently through the Great Spirit alive in our hearts and in every living thing around us, all the time.
“I treasure my Christian faith, and I appreciate how Jeff can guide me to a deeper understanding of myself using the tools of shamanism in a way that feels very respectful to my faith. The human heart is not easy terrain to explore, and Jeff’s help has been so valuable.” -Jennifer, mother and graduate student
“I trust Jeff’s experience and training. I trust that he has done ‘the work’ for his own inner journey to live generously with and for the rest of us. He uses non-traditional methods that enable my heart to speak and be more fully alive.” -Cynthia, MA, D.Min., Catholic health care chaplain