The role of a Shaman is that of a healer. Shamans heal people, communities, systems, the world as a whole… As such, their healing is an expression of compassion. We’ve already discussed Idiot Compassion, the notion that sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for another human being is to ignore what they’ve asked for and instead act to make their situation better.
Idiot Compassion is an easy trap to fall into for a healer.
When you see a person who is in pain, it’s natural to want to help them, to eradicate the pain for them. To take all their suffering into yourself, leaving them with only peace and happiness. But sometimes, that pain and suffering is doing good work, and by interfering with it, you’re hurting them in the long run. Discernment between a pain that does need to be met with healing and a pain that needs to be lived through is a difficult lesson to learn for any Shaman, any human being.
Pain can be a great teacher.
Shamans know about pain and suffering; you don’t get to be a Shaman without experiencing pain and suffering first hand. You can’t fight a thing you don’t understand on a bone deep level: Shamanism is about facing pain and suffering and still standing up and fighting to make the world better than it was before. The Bodhisattva Path is all about alleviating the suffering of all beings, but nothing says you have to do it all at once, and nothing says you have to be an idiot about it. Pain teaches us not to touch the hot stove, it shows us how not to use our bodies, and it directly creates empathy for others. When you see someone suffering, you have to work on discerning whether or not that pain is teaching them something, or whether they would learn a better lesson from the ending of pain.
Shamans are healers, and we see pain and suffering as a symptom of sick systems.
Communities are systems that humans have created to live within, to get our needs met collectively. When a community is sick, Shamans see the overarching symptoms and the individual symptoms as well. When the pain one experiences comes from a sick community or sick overarching system, treating the symptom in the individual will help that one person for a little while, but leaves the illness behind, to re-infect the individual as well as others within the community.
How does a Shaman heal a community?
Think of a community as a complex living organism. Just as with an single person, communites first have to come to an understanding that they are sick before healing can begin. You don’t go to the doctor for medicine when you think you’re healthy, and a community or group won’t seek out assistance for systemic illness when it thinks itself healthy. The group as a whole must recognize the need for healing, and then seek it out. One lone Shaman on the edge yelling about how the system is sick is useless, because the forces of the sick system will turn against the Shaman and remove the noisy irritant yelling about how ill the system is.
Communities don’t heal without recognizing that they are sick. Communities only heal when the members of the community all come together and seek healing as one group. A Shaman can stand in the community and point out the illness, and raise awareness, and do rituals and cleansings and try all sorts of things to bring health, but the community as a whole, just as an individual person, will not heal without direct participation.
Every community and group is different, so the needs of that group when it comes to healing will be different.
There is no one size fits all healing ritual for communities, or for people. You must meet the group or person on their own ground, as they are. You can’t make one ritual and then use it for all purposes. One group might need to do trust falls and then use a talking stick and then work on group empathy, while another might need to do a sweat and get sage-cleansed and then swim in the wild waters for a while. One person might need a guided journey, another a salt bath, another to be held while they purge and cry and scream out the pain. You can’t force a community to heal in the way that’s most convenient and easy for you.
Idiot compassion tells the Shaman that the easy way would be to just step in and ‘fix’ things.
Idiot compassion is, as the name implies, an idiot. Shaman, you can’t fix things for people, they have to do the work themselves. You can guide, you can help, you can point things out and provide insight and be supportive, but you can’t actually do the work for them. Not for a person, not for a group, not for a community. You may see exactly what the problem is, and how to make things better, but, ethically speaking, practically speaking, you don’t get to just rule over people and make them do what you want.
So, how does a Shaman deal with a sick community?
First, you get yourself right. Remember to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. Get yourself healthy, healed and whole. Work on your own home, your own family, then expand out. Think in circles and layers, like an onion. Start at the center and let your health radiate out to the world. “Think globally act locally” is not just a saying for a Shaman. Make your personal part of the world better, and then, as you can, move outward from there and help your community heal and leave pain behind.