As interest in psychedelic healing has reemerged in recent years, so has interest in the cultures that originated entheogenic medicine. Most of these cultures exist outside of mainstream American spiritual and medicinal understanding—and the legal climate for psychedelics in the US doesn’t help matters. For these reasons, many seekers of psychedelic healing wonder whether a Western trained therapist or a more traditional shamanic approach would be most appropriate.
With shamans, psychedelic therapists, energy healers, spiritual advisors, and so many other terms to understand, how can you know who to trust along your healing journey? Here, we’ll discuss the differences between Western therapy and so-called “shamanic” healing, along with what to expect from each. You’ll gain tools and insight to help you discern which practitioner, tradition, or approach will best suit your healing goals.
About the Term “Shaman”
All disciplines have their controversial terms, and in the realm of psychedelics, shaman is similarly polarizing. This is for a variety of reasons, which we’ll cover below. However, we use the term here largely to open conversation, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking around its prevalence.
The word shaman is used in modern contexts to refer to any tradition of physical and spiritual healing within a community. This understanding came from anthropologists, which is in itself a large part of the word’s controversy. Originally derived from the Tungusic (of present-day Siberia) word for a community healer, shaman eventually grew to be applied to any community healer or wise person.
In some ways, shaman is an improvement over the previous (and problematic) term, witch doctor. However, better does not necessarily equate to good.
The general, catch-all use of the term shaman has led to some wildly inaccurate, often presumptive ideas about what “shamanic” practice entails. It’s also developed an undeserved and seemingly indelible connection with psychedelic substances (more on that in a moment).
There is a misconception that there is some sort of unified standard of “shamanism” that connects distinct spiritual and medicinal traditions of various cultures. While it is fair to say that there are common themes and lessons reflected in different traditions, the cohesive concept of “shamanism” is a myth. A practice or tradition may be shamanic in nature, but not every practitioner of one of these traditions calls themselves a “shaman.”
More often than not, practitioners of specific traditions will use the name for a healer or wise person within that tradition or culture over the term “shaman.” Most of these traditions involve using some combination of energy, plants, music, dance, sensory experience, altered consciousness, meditation, and connection to spirit (god, creator, universe, whatever term fits best for you) to perform a role of healing and spiritual guidance within their community. These practices may involve psychedelic herbs or plants, but many do not.
The point of all this information is to stress the importance of specificity when looking for a psychedelic healer. We prefer the terms guide, healer, and teacher to make general references to psychedelic practitioners at large, though we recognize that individual practitioners may choose to use shaman to identify themselves. Where possible, we elect to use the correct, culturally-specific terminology, and we encourage readers to make an effort to do the same.
Beware of the Plastic Shaman
If you’ve spent any time examining the broader community of psychedelic enthusiasts and advocates, you may have noticed the term “plastic shaman” floating around, often in a negative or pejorative way. The term was coined to reflect a growing number of people using piecemeal knowledge of traditions they have no connection to in order to bolster their own credibility.
In a way, the “plastic shaman” is a part of the larger conversation around cultural appropriation, but in a specific context. A plastic shaman may use terms to describe their practice that are not reflective of what they actually do; misrepresent their heritage in an effort to appear more legitimate; or misinterpret the origins of their “teachings.”
Sometimes, plastic shamans are easy to spot. They’re usually the ones ostentatiously presenting their spiritual prowess (they might even use those words!) or dropping “subtle” hints about how enlightened or powerful they are.
Other times, however, they’re able to fool us with charm and falsehoods. While being taken advantage of is never the fault of the victim, it’s important to be mindful that these individuals exist and practical and mindful in your due diligence.
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to avoid people claiming some kind of guruship or unique connection to the divine. This type of power imbalance is often wielded as a weapon against seekers, usually without them even realizing it. A good teacher will make you feel empowered to walk your own path and understand that everyone has some connection to the divine, instead of being dependent on them for your journey’s progress.
Western-style Psychedelic Therapy
Modern Western talk therapy established its roots much more recently than any of the indigenous traditions continued by shamans, teachers, and guides. Specifically, this style of therapy originated in Vienna, Austria in the late 1800s with Sigmund Freud. Yes, that Sigmund Freud, originator of the Oedipal complex and other strangely sexual theories.
While Freud said and did a lot of odd things that we don’t condone today, he did give us the format of talking to another person and working through our thoughts and feelings out loud in formalized sessions. This structure remains consistent today in most types of therapy, though many different schools of thought have developed in the years since Freud.
Today, a psychedelic therapist with a Western approach might combine some form of talk therapy with sensory, art, music, dance, or nature therapy during a session. These sessions are structured in a different way and feel quite different than a shamanic psychedelic healing ritual.
The psychedelic experience is conducted within a controlled environment under the supervision of the practitioner. Much like with non-Western psychedelic medicine, the session may be individual or may take place in a group.
Unlike Western practice, however, the focus is often (but not always) more secular than spiritual or mystical. Some seekers of psychedelic healing may prefer this approach, while others may desire a more “authentic” experience.
Perceived Authenticity in Psychedelics
Because there are so many different (and potentially beneficial) ways to use psychedelics for healing, the idea of “authenticity” or “legitimacy” between Western and non-Western approaches is a bit silly. Both approaches have valid applications and documented benefits, and both sets of ideas offer important insight into the ways psychedelics help us heal.
It’s true that there is great variability among different traditions, cultures, and time periods of psychedelic healing. This is, perhaps, the most compelling testament to their effectiveness at promoting healing and recovery.
Across varying healing contexts and spiritual traditions, psychedelics act as medicine for body and spirit. Taking an “unorthodox” path is no less valid, so long as the journey is taken mindfully and respectfully.
Finding A Therapist or Shaman You Trust
Ultimately, whether therapists or shamans and healers are more “legitimate” is sort of an unanswerable question. Legitimacy is subjective and substantially less important than how well it works for you. Additionally, a “legitimate” practitioner who uses their perceived authority to create a power imbalance is nobody you want to place your trust in. This can happen both in Western oriented and shamanic healing scenarios.
At the end of the day, finding someone to help guide you along your healing journey with psychedelics is about what helps you connect with the source of healing. If that’s a Westernized talk therapy session with sensory play and art therapy, that’s fantastic. If that’s a week-long retreat in the rain forest with a small group of friends as part of an indigenous healing ceremony, that’s also great.
Psychedelic wisdom can reveal itself in many different forms, and whatever perspective helps you receive that wisdom is exactly the right one for you. Provided your guide or healer teaches you to find that wisdom within yourself and not in some external source, you’ll come out evolved on the other side.
To us, the biggest difference between Western therapists and shamans is that most shamans work with energy—the stuff you can’t see—and Western therapists do not receive this same training.
For those of you who are more into natural healing and spirituality, you’ll likely appreciate the approach of a shaman who is tuned into these subtle energies. Alternatively, if you derive more comfort out of knowing that someone has a formal background in mental health, we advise you to seek out a Western trained therapist.
Regardless, there is so much of the psychedelic experience that cannot be explained through science or text, and this is where experiential learning becomes so important. We recommend you only work with a practitioner who has previously ingested the substance themselves—otherwise, they won’t know what you are going through.
Because Western and non-Western approaches to psychedelic therapy are so different, it can be tempting to think that one is intrinsically better or worse than the other. While we are likely to gravitate toward a particular tradition (or certain aspects of multiple traditions), we should take care to refrain from making assumptions about the perceived legitimacy of another tradition.
Ultimately, psychedelic therapy is intended to facilitate healing and growth across all medicinal contexts. In that light, any respectful and mindful approach that brings peace and healing to the seeker is valid and perfectly legitimate. If you need help before, during, and after your psychedelic experience, we encourage you to book a call with a psychedelic guide today.