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A Look at Ethics and Shamanism

A Look at Ethics and ShamanismbyDr. Steve Serr

Shamanic ethics is the responsibility of all practitioners. I have included this short article because I hope that it is read and passed on as widely as possible throughout the practicing shamanic world. Shamanism is a helping profession, and has been so for more years than there have been civilizations. Shamanic Healing Ethics is not, however, a course you will normally encounter. In what is most likely the vast majority of the shamanic classes and workshops that have been provided over the past decades, the ethics of shamanism has probably not received much more than a few minutes of time or a couple of comments scattered here and there, if that.

Caregiver sensitivity in ethical matters, so carefully studied, discussed and disseminated throughout the many other contemporary helping professions, has not reached nearly as wide an audience among contemporary shamanic practitioners, and far less than that, among their clients. Shamanic practice involves the direction of power among vulnerable human beings. This combination of power and vulnerability brings it to the very front of our attention, if we are acting responsibly.

Just to get the matter straight, I am not going to fabricate or perpetuate any kind of romantic myth about shamanic ethics. Shamans are people, just like the rest of us. They grow up in certain social and environmental contexts, and are as limited and as unlimited in their potential as any other human being on the planet. I know shamans who are compassionate and wise, and I know shamans who are cagey and ignorant, and in both cases, they can be keenly intelligent. It seems that with shamans as anyone else, it is not a matter of how smart one is or how much one knows that determines whether they do helpful or harmful deeds.

By now, many of us have heard stories of people who, drawn to shamanism, trekked into mountains or jungles or simply into some suburban home across town to experience what they could, only to come out feeling abused, disempowered, and possibly harmed. Just as with businesspeople, academics, shopkeepers and politicians, intelligence or knowledge does not automatically equate with ethical practice.

On the other hand, we have heard stories of shamanic seekers meeting extraordinary, wise, patient, helpful and compassionate people, who are also shamans. People are people: in the case of shamans, their area of expertise does not indicate immunity to human shortcomings. Human beings all are vulnerable. Shamans are no exception.

Shamanic Ethics and the Responsible Shaman

First, the shaman takes charge of and provides the ethical direction of what does or does not happen in shamanic work. Not the spirits. The spirits provide the information or the healing, but the practitioner always has the ultimate decision and 'veto power' as to whether any work will be done, and if so, how. It is impossible for the spirits to force a shaman into doing something. If that is what a shaman tries to tell you, they are trying to put one over one you.

Well, either that, or what is also likely, they may simply be unable to manage their own shamanic practice. The responsible shaman is always an equal partner in a healing team that also includes compassionate spirit helpers, and his or her participation requires the constant option of self-discipline and choice when participating in any kind of shamanic practice. The failure to assume this responsibility may be out of recklessness or simply ignorance, but in all cases such persons can wreak havoc and harm, and should not be engaging in shamanic work.

Secondly, since so much of the shaman's activity involves the lives of others, she or he always holds in mind that their scope of practice includes matters that will often be intimate and sensitive, and everything around this needs to be treated as such. The ethically responsible shaman uses extreme care, delicacy and awareness in all healing and divination practices.

Thirdly, an ethically responsible practitioner, given the availability of medical, psychiatric, psychological or other helping professions, is required to refer someone to such alternative professions when he or she senses their applicability to a person’s well-being. This is no different than in any other helping profession: ethical practitioners must refer those they encounter to approaches other than their own when it is possible that these, whether singly or in conjunction with one’s own, best suit that person’s needs.

The Necessity of Request

It is likely that you will be aware of situations where your expertise might be helpful, long before this is recognized by someone who needs help. Nevertheless, specific shamanic work for another can only be performed when it is requested. Even when your seasoned intuition clearly suggests to you that someone could benefit from a specific healing, you must withhold from suggesting this directly.

For instance, let’s imagine that everything points to the probability that the retrieval of a power animal would be very helpful for a particular person: it is considered unethical practice to ‘out of the blue’ inform them of your hunch. This is understandably hard for many caring persons to do, yet deserves to be said since (and thankfully) it is caring people who often enter the healing professions. A suggested option to blurting out your intuition would be to provide general information about the loss of power and its potential effects in one's life, along with other areas of shamanic scope of practice. Then, they can decide if this ‘fits,’ and possibly choose to come to you for help.

Suppose that during a shamanic journey, you stumble on the knowledge that someone you know has been suffering from a loss of power. Or alternatively, without your direction, one of your spirit helpers decides to show you this person's power animal that was separated from this person for a long while. Now, you have a piece of knowledge that would be extremely helpful for somebody: a power animal that is ready to come back to its person. In this instance, the information came to you without your intent. However, such matters are an intimate part of a person’s life, and we are ethically unable to help restore a person's power by reconnecting them with their animal spirit helper without that person’s expressed permission.

You are a caring person, so what do you do? Let’s imagine that later, after you have returned from your journey (in which you discovered this information), you are in contact with this person suffering from power loss. What you cannot do is launch into a “Well, I was journeying the other day and I was shown your animal spirit helper. You're one suffering person and definitely need your power animal returned.” The intimate details of another’s life, such as their lack of power in certain areas, are delicate and deserve to be treated with sensitivity and respect.

Secondly, you need a request for your work. How do you obtain this? The suggested option is to talk about shamanic services in general terms, and inform them of what you offer, but not the specifics of what you know about them. For instance, you might say “I offer shamanic services. Sometimes this is helpful if one feels such things like a part of one's power is missing.” Perhaps they will reflect for a minute, and respond with an acknowledgment that this indeed, is something that has been gnawing at them. At this point, you can certainly make it clear that work in this area is something that you do, and you can offer to do a divination (a shamanic diagnosis), perhaps to be followed by a power animal retrieval. Still, you are not in a position to inform them of what you might already know. If they agree to a healing session, it is then when you get together, that you do your work and inform them of that which is appropriate.

How then do we make our insight, training and experience available and participate in healings that so need to be done? The answer is in how we offer ourselves. The shaman simply makes his or her presence known and – generally speaking – educates about and then describes their kinds of services. This was never an issue in tribal and indigenous societies, as nearly everyone knew the strengths and weaknesses of nearly everyone else. In the contemporary world where such community relationships have been displaced, making ourselves known for our skills takes additional steps in education, advertising and spreading the word of our availability. This is the contemporary substitute for the natural awareness of an indigenous society, where a potential client or their friends and family would already know who to seek out for whatever specific skill was needed.

It is up to a client to determine if a shamanic healing is something they want to pursue. Then, it is also up to the client to accept and utilize your healing efforts. This is sometimes hard to do, but no matter how much suffering you see, you cannot presume to direct the course a client’s life, even if you know that their current course will lead to further suffering. This holds if you have never worked with them, during your work with them, or even after you have worked with a client. The client has the right to make their own decisions, even when you see that a certain path they take might result in harm to them.

The only exception to this is the initiation of a general, distance healing to a family, a people, or a region, such as when healing is sent to a disaster area. Moreover, this must be a non-specific healing request you are initiating, the specific healing actions to be determined by the spirit helpers you send there.


Along with the necessity of request, serving as a practitioner involves another factor: we always need permission before we can do shamanic work for a specific person. This permission can (and often should) be a general permission, insofar as you ordinarily do not know what specifically needs to be done until you have begun the work and your spirit helpers have informed you.

How then, do you work with a person is unconscious, where a person’s request and the granting of their permission is simply impossible? In this case – ‘Good Samaritan’ ethics prevail – you can initiate shamanic healing because the individual is unable to make the request, the matter is of critical importance to that person, and you have every reason to rightfully believe this is what they would want if they were conscious and could request this.

An adult’s permission must be granted by each individual for whom it is requested. Whoever is giving permission can only give you permission to work for him or herself alone. Let’s look at the case of a couple, one of whom is seeking help for their relationship. In this situation, your work would be limited to healing the person seeking your help. It is always possible that part of the effect of your work with this person will be a change that will in turn, affect the relationship between the two. However, unless you have the permission of both, you are unable to help with ‘the relationship’ for this is necessarily a matter involving two people. Whenever your work involves the life of more than one person, you must have permission from the others as well.

If the work requested for a third person involves or focuses on a child, you first need to ask for permission from the caretaking and legally responsible adult in the family.

During your work as a practitioner, you may get requests from people to do a healing on a third person, or to ‘find out’ what another person is up to. You are ethically ill-advised to do this. Sometimes such requests are made out of compassion and a desire to help, and sometimes they are proposed with a bad intent. In all cases you should desist. If the request comes from wanting to help, you can encourage the one making the request to invite the person to get in touch with you. Alternatively, you can suggest that anyone needing help can always give you permission to do a distance healing. If a person is maliciously seeking your assistance to cause ill, gently send them on their way. To work with shamanic power in a bad way (sorcery) is a sure way to accelerate a bad end to what otherwise might have been a great career.

What Can We Disclose? How Do We Communicate This?

There are specific criteria that determine what we can ethically share with a person and how we do this. Let’s suppose that while you are journeying for information about your client, you are informed that the client’s husband or wife is having an affair, and your client does not know this. What do you say?

The spirits provide us with delicate and powerful information about a person or life circumstances: information that is factual, because spirits can do this. Ethically, however, we only have the privilege of sharing with a client that which is about the client, not about someone else. There are many things that may ultimately concern a person’s life, yet as much as we may conjecture that something (in this case an affair of a significant other) will affect our client, we simply do not have the authority to divulge information we receive about the lives of others. (The exception here is when regarding a dependent minor, which we will discuss below.)

Let’s pursue this potentially tricky (but not uncommon?) example of the spirit’s informing us of the affair. It is not ethical to disclose information you discover about the lives of others, no matter how intensely the others’ actions might affect your client. Right then and there, during the journey, it would be appropriate to immediately ask the spirits if, given this situation the client needs an empowerment or some kind of healing, and if so, how then to proceed. It all goes back focusing our attention on the client and keeping it there. Again, the exception would be the case of a minor dependent whose needs and situation demand an adult caregiver’s awareness. Their authority and your ethics give you that permission.

Additionally, we only have permission to share what a person has given us permission to share. For instance, lets imagine a not uncommon situation where during an extraction, the spirits tell us something that is important about a person, yet has nothing to do with the extraction. Unless we get our client’s permission to disclose this additional information, we cannot automatically report it. It is always helpful to get a kind of ‘freedom pass’ from a client to share with them whatever we discover, so long as it is appropriate and helpful.

Here, the nature of what exactly is ‘appropriate’ or ‘helpful’ may demand considerable reflection. For instance, following an extraction it is extremely inappropriate and unhelpful to share the specific nature of what was removed, despite the common inquisitiveness of understandably curious clients. The goal of an extraction is to eliminate a connection between a client and that which has been extracted from them. However, a client’s continuing considerations about their extraction completely reverses this, and instead, counterproductively reinforces and strengthens that very connection we are trying to eliminate.

The general ‘rule of thumb’ is: when talking with a client, always utilize compassionate speech. How you present what you have learned can impact the client as much as what it is you have to report.

It is the Shaman, not the Spirits, Who Determines the Ethics

One final note: all of this talk about ethics is because this is a matter that only the shaman is capable of ascertaining. Not the spirits. They may, in their benevolence, suggest you do something that might be compassionate, but not ethical. Oh yes, those beings from the upper and lower world who are your teachers and your spirit guides do want to help. They are also wise, powerful, and capable. But, they are not guided by human ethics.

On the other hand, compassionate spirits are not constrained by problems with flying, blistering heat, freezing cold, living under the water or handling toxic spiritual materials, although humans are. They do things we can’t do, and we do things they can’t do. It is a team and we work together, and though they are benevolent, they are not ethically bound. It is up to the shaman to determine in the human middle world ordinary reality, what is ethical to do and say

About the author:
Dr. Steve Serr, Ph.D. set out to make accessible and affordable, quality shamanic training available worldwide. He has found that technological advances in the internet allow the education in shamanic spirituality in a surprisingly traditional, one-on-one approach. His beginning, intermediate and advanced certification courses in divination and healing are training students residing throughout the world. He holds a master’s of divinity in sacred naturalism, his doctorate is in clinical psychology, and maintains a small private practice in Ben Lomond, California.


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