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 all around the world. The aspects of those traditions that are similar have been called shamanism, a modern term best understood as the shared beliefs and practices--the "bundle of sticks"-- common to many of these cultures regardless of location.
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. The shaman is not a religious pastor or worship leader in the modern sense. Rather he or she is more like a wise and helpful spiritual guide who holds that role only as long as he or she is effective and being helpful to the community.
Despite these ancient roots, the time-tested practices offer powerful healing and visioning tools for any modern person today, with no need to conflict with one's personal faith. For example, you can enjoy the experience and insights from a drumming journey without changing your personal faith, 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 see the world as divided between believers and unbelievers, or between "people of faith" (one's own faith, of course) and everyone else. For many it can be difficult to imagine an authentic spiritual path that does not have a sacred book to read, a church building to worship in, or ordained clergy to preach and enforce correct doctrine. But shamanism is not a book-based, doctrine-teaching, institutional religion. It is an experience-based wisdom and healing tradition passed on orally for tens of thousands of years through stories and practices. And it is alive and well today though many people, even religious clergy and scholars, know nothing about it.
In my earlier, 20-year career as a board-certified Catholic Christian chaplain I served in medical centers, university settings, nursing homes, cancer treatment centers, and hospices. I supported people from all religious and spiritual traditions around the world and know first-hand the importance of respecting individual beliefs. I learned that a true spiritual healer is not a religious know-it-all, but rather a border-walker who must travel respectfully between the meaning-worlds of individual faith and culture, and between the visible and spirit worlds. Doing so requires the practitioner to honor the spiritual perspectives of the entire spectrum of human beings ranging from those with strong religious beliefs to those holding no religious belief at all. As to the latter, “shamanism is for skeptics”, says Harner, “it is a system of direct experience."
In my own programs the accent is placed on the heart and soul rather than on "shamanism." Traditional shamanism provides the source, conceptual orientation, and intellectual reference point for my practice and for those needing to know such things, like people interested in deeper study of the lineage. But the actual earth-honoring spiritual practices utilized in my programs transcend religious ideology and have their roots in every person's shared heritage as human beings in a dynamic relationship with nature and mother earth, regardless of culture.
So no, the heart path is not a religion. 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 each of 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