PTSD Spirituality: Voluntary Call to Shamanism

While most PTSD survivors did not embrace the voluntary call from the spirits to have an ecstatic trauma event, it remains valuable to understand the voluntary side of shamanic initiation.  This will help us understand better why so many traumatized people later commit suicide, even though they survived the physical damage of their trauma.  We will also briefly discuss the Jesus and early Christian parallels to the shamanic initiation model.

The Voluntary Call to Shamanism:

In the case of traditional shamanism, the senior, established, mature shaman selects and trains a man or woman to be a shaman.  The would-be shaman receives training in how the world works, how the physical, mundane world works, and how the spiritual world operates.  In this process the trainee learns how interpersonal relationships develop and grow.  All of these aspects are important, including the one about relationships, as, after all, the shaman, mediates for the community and offers guidance to community leaders and individuals.  None of this training occurs in a weekend or in a few easy steps.  Rather, the process is one of apprenticeship. 

The apprenticeship requires a long term commitment that involves personal discipline and sacrifice.  Lastly, the apprentice is not taken into the shaman’s orbit on a whim.  The established shaman studies the would-be apprentice and accepts of rejects that person.  The discipline is obvious, learning all there is to know about the world, its inhabitants, and their respective interrelationships is a life time task.  The apprentice’s personal sacrifice is a commitment on several levels: the lost time of not doing something else, foregone pleasures, lost relationships, and physical and spiritual dangers. 

When the senior shaman knows that the apprentice is ready, when the apprentice has acquired enough information, sees how they inter-relate and shows an understanding of the community, then the apprentice is sent out engage the spirits.  Some form of supervised encounters have probably already occurred.  But now, the apprentice is sent out on their own to sink or swim, live or die, often literally so.  (I am aware that not every shamanic initiation works this way, but the core elements remain consistent).

In the early training, the apprentice is accompanied by their teacher on the learning journey.  But at some point they must apply what they have learned out there, independently, on their own.  When the senior shaman decides that the apprentice is ready, he is sent out alone into the wilderness. 

In the wilderness the apprentice is exposed to the elements on the physical and spiritual level.  The ascetic practice of vigil and fasting are brought to the fore.  Part of this voluntary suffering is to wear down the dominance of the body and over time.  Eventually, the body is worn down to where the spirit is more attuned to its surroundings and can seen reality beyond the physical.  At this point the spirit world is more directly encountered.  Practitioners of cultural and religious anthropology, taking oral histories, report that the apprenticed shaman encounters the spirit worlds in a number of ways.  They may walk the spirit world and see where good and evil reside as well as their respective spirits.  If they are careless, or were inattentive to their teacher’s instructions, they may be killed by evil spirits ort lose their souls in the wilderness. 

If an apprentice dies in the wilderness at this stage, the modern scientist would record it as an exposure death and dehydration (and then microwave a cup of instant coffee).  The shaman would sing about the loss of one who failed the call and did not learn how to properly navigate the spiritual landscape.  Then the shaman would begin to seek a new apprentice (and boil some bark for tea over a fire).  I suppose they are both right (but microwaves contribute to global warming) depending upon your point of view.

If the apprentice does not die in the wilderness he makes the way home to the senior shaman and is quizzed about the experience.  The apprentice shaman might have been so well prepared before the wilderness experience so as not to require much input from the senior shaman at this point.  Or, they may still need some guidance.  In either case, they discover the totem of the new shaman.  What aspect of nature, usually an animal, is the sacramental connection between the shaman and the spirit world.  The sacramental connection is an axis mundi, a point where heaven and earth touch.  Usually understood in terms of place, like a church, mosque, or shrine, it can also apply to a thing like a totem animal.  The totem animal provides a (usually) safe link to the spirit world which helps the shaman mediate for his or her community.  (Again, I am aware that this is a generalization and specific shamanic systems possess their own individual traits)

In Christian terms, one may recall the Temptation of Jesus.  This is the Synoptic Gospel tradition of how the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).  Matthew and Luke have fully developed accounts of the Temptation Scene.  Mark’s is considerable shorter than theirs.  To quote Mark:

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”

Of the Matthean and Lukan additions to the Markan narrative, it is worth pointing out they are consistent in that the Spirit causes Jesus to go into the wilderness, and that it lasted forty days.  They also explicitly state that Jesus fasted or ate nothing during this time.  All three agree he was tempted/tested by the devil/Satan.  In a shamanic model this is the Call of the Spirit.

The number forty (40) is also important in understanding the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Alas, it will have to await a separate post in the nebulous future.  But, be aware that the number forty has spiritual significance and it is no accident that it is used to describe Jesus’ experience in the wilderness.

The word used to translate “wilderness” can mean desert or even grassland.  The key to its translation is recognizing it is a lonely, isolated place, away from people and civilization.  In first century Palestine such was the place of evil spirits, bandits, and wild animals.  After the time of Jesus and the Apostles, it was understood as a place to withdraw and be tested in constant prayer.  In modern times it is understood as a place to drill for oil and send troops.

 Like the apprentice shaman, Jesus received some training from another (John the Baptist and his Mother), and then spends time in the wilderness navigating its physical and spiritual topography.  After this, he is able to begin his public ministry and minister to and mediate for the human community.

 For both traditional shamanism and the model of Jesus (and also to some extent Elijah) the wilderness experience is certainly part of the call from the spirits, but it also overlaps with the second part of shamanic initiation of illness and dismemberment. 

 But enough of this!  I’ve spent a lot of ink and electrons discussing the voluntary call from the spirits.  We need to examine the involuntary call from the spirits.

 When it comes to the first part of Shamanic Initiation, The Call of the Spirits, most PTSD survivors do not experience the call as voluntary.  I have gone on about the voluntary call at some length to explain it in and of itself, but also to help understand why the involuntary response generates such a high mortality rate amongst traumatized individuals.

 A future post in this series will focus on the Involuntary Call to Ecstatic Experience that most PTSD survivors encounter.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. Hi I just found your blog. Great work. I have late onset PTSD it came on three years ago when my childhood trauma surfaced. Can you please explain the significance of the number 40 more? It would really help a lot. I am trying to understand why I am suffering greatly, yet people just keep saying I’m a shaman. I feel like I dont get the connection, it doesn’t seem like one has anything to do with the other because I still suffer, shaman or not. I love your blogs about it though your words help. What does 40 mean?

    • Hi Lisa, I am soon off to school to teach but will try to write a proper response to you about the significance of the number 40. As far as shamanic suffering goes: It is my view that a shaman continues to suffer, it can be managed, but it never fully goes away. People who tell me they are shamans but who have absolutely no suffering strike me as a bit plastic. The plasticity comes through in terms of their advice and their lifestyle. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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