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Shamanic Best Practices: Ethics and Integrity

Shamanic Best Practices: Ethics and IntegritybyDr. Steve Serr

Shamanic Best Practices:
What We Can Promise

by Steve Serr

What is shamanic integrity? What is ethical in shamanic practice? These are matters about which I hope practitioners might eventually come to some agreement. Shamanic practice involves situations where people are in need. Naturally, these are times when they are also vulnerable. It is simply a factor when working in shamanic practice - as it is in other areas of human caregiving - that challenging ethical situations eventually arise. In order to help deal with this, professions such as counseling, psychology, medicine, social services and nursing are some of the many that have developed codes of ethics and integrity to help solidify their field's best practices.

With the last few decade's resurgence of shamanic interest, some very thoughtful and experienced shamanic practitioners have started facing the importance of ethics and integrity with respect to their field as well. Several years ago, I sat down to write this letter and list with the hope that shamanic practitioners contemplate the ethics on which we stand and the integrity with which we maintain it.

At the time, I began working on this from what appeared then to be the best available effort towards establishing such standards for shamanic practice, which was a platform developed by the Society of Shamanic Practitioners. I felt there was room for some development or at least, some clarification that could (respectfully) justify a little tinkering. Recalling my own caregiving career, I proceeded to develop and clarify what I came to refer to as a set of practitioner 'Promises' from which shamanic practice might further construct its own best ethics and integrity. I also need to nod my appreciation to my former professors of psychology and counseling for their dedicated insistence that the service of human caregiving be treated with the ethical depth that it deserves, impressing this on me in a way that undoubtedly contributes to my efforts here.

Now, nearly four years later, I have been prompted to return to this letter and list to see what I might change or word differently. I made some adjustments for clarity, but I am happy to say that I feel as good about its content today as I felt then. Also, as then, I have no pretensions that the consequence of my tinkering (and perhaps some hammering) is a complete and lasting series of principles. For one thing, it has not passed the muster of widespread shamanic experience and testing, from which rethinking, rewriting and back-and-forth discussion eventuates in a list of principles that can be roundly accepted and passed forward. Thus I propose the following as a working text that might stimulate others in thinking through precisely what a practitioner can and cannot promise if he or she is stepping up to their best practices as a professional.

So, there is absolutely no copyright on the following material. In fact, among shamanic practitioners, I hope that these promises as well as this little introductory letter, will not only be copied or even recopied, but that it is as wildly and broadly bandied about, torn up, smeared, defaced and rewritten as is humanly possible! I encourage practitioners to work from this document then, as their starting point, for each of us must eventually develop a statement of ethics and integrity that speaks from our own heart. Such a statement not only gives our clients something they can depend on, but it gives us the backbone with which we can hold ourselves up strongly amidst the confusions and challenges that are the hallmark of human caregiving.

In the bigger picture, I present the following to help us guide as best we can the development of our field of shamanic practice. Perhaps we ultimately will come up with a broad and likeable enough statement of shamanic ethics and integrity to which we can make allegiance. We are, after all, in a remarkable period of shamanic resurgence as we rekindle, re-approach, rethink and in many cases rewrite shamanic practice as we step forward to meet the demands of the present and future eras. My hope is that this short letter and list can help.

With love and respect,

Steve Serr

Ben Lomond,
March 1, 2014

As a shamanic practitioner,
I promise to the best of my ability,

1) to work in sacred alliance with the Spirits.

The shaman cannot do her or his work alone. It is entirely by teaming with spirit helpers that any shamanic healing or divination can be done at all. This is essentially, a humble reminder to help thwart an urge to grandiosity and claim that it was the shaman who was the powerful one. This also helps those who seek shamanic help to not laud the shaman with unnecessarily high payment and gifts.

What does it mean to work in sacred alliance? Even though they are a team, there are broad and crucial areas that only the shaman, and not the spirits, can effectively address. Because he or she is a human being and not a spirit, it is the shaman who can understand and make appropriate decisions regarding 1) the limits of human capability in general or that of a specific client, 2) the specific intentions and situational conditions of and surrounding a particular healing or divination effort, and 3) decisions involving matters of human ethics. Though both the shaman and the spirits can individually veto any action, it is the shaman who must, in addition to their other specific skills, maintain responsibility over these three areas in particular.

Though the shaman and their helping spirits make up a team, the shaman has the power to veto anything that the spirits suggest. Of course, the wise practitioner is always consulting with their spirit helpers, yet in this sacred alliance, it is because of their veto power that the shaman must carry the burden of ultimate responsibility for any work they are involved with.

2) to recognize the wholeness inherent in each person, group or circumstance that comes for healing.

Here is a capsule summary of the essence of the shamanic paradigm: the effort to restore wholeness. Whether it is a split or drained part of one’s power, or a split part of the soul, the shaman and spirits work together to restore what is the whole of a true self.

3) to honor whatever form pain is presented.

What is painful to one may not seem so for another. When one suffers, their suffering is to be honored, respected, and accepted as it is. All symptoms of pain need to be heeded as indications that something is not well. Our role is to approach our spirit help to discern what the unwellness might be, and receive guidance in how to proceed towards its healing.

4) to be mindful of speech, thought, and action and their impact on building relationships.

Simply because someone is practiced and capable of teaming with spirit help to bring healing and information, does not mean that he or she can ignore the sensitivities of beings in need. A strong working relationship with other human beings as well as the spirit world is the only way shamanic work can be accomplished. As speech affects others and thoughts affect action, so the shaman must be mindful of all of these, as they all affect the world in some way.

5) to be respectful of clients and colleagues, even in differences.

Reminiscent of Carl Rogers, this is a posture towards clients and colleagues of unconditional respect that leaves the door open for good work to be done and a good influence to be extended.

6) to work with compassion and non-judgment.

'Judgment' refers to the presence of a practitioner's personal opinions. Where unbiased assessment is needed, personal opinions extinguish any hope for the neutrality from which good assessment derives. When it comes to shamanic practice, personal ideas, expectations, hopes, opinions and feelings, are even more detrimental, for they are precisely what clogs the ability to clearly access the wisdom and healing capacity of the spirits. The shaman must maintain the 'hollow bone' through which they have any hope of accessing the specific information or helping to catalyze the kind of healing for which they are specifically trained. Compassion, on the other hand, is a posture of understanding, awareness, and sincere service.

7) to set personal interests or concerns aside so that efforts are focused on my client’s wellbeing.

Personal interests or concerns only impede professional care-giving. There is no cunning, manipulation, or ‘what’s in it for me?’ in a shaman who maintains ethical integrity. However, shamans are people too, and just like government officials, businessmen and women, police, accountants, and representatives from any other field of practice, shamans have been known to approach their work unethically and without integrity. Which, is precisely why promises of integrity like these are created.

8) to strive to the best of my ability, to do no harm.

If you cannot do well, at least, do no harm. However, 'doing well' to a shaman is resolution to do one’s best. The passionate strength of the practitioner's intention to be successful is one of the key factors that actually makes for practitioner success.

9) to never engage in sexual or business misconduct and abuse client trust.

It is easy and natural for a client to want to express their appreciation for good work. The shaman, as with many other public figures, may have become elevated, respected, and trusted… perhaps loved. Thus, it is probable that at one time or another, a practitioner is offered money, sex, gifts or power from clients and families that are all too eager to demonstrate their affection and gratitude for what they see as the shaman's work. Of course, what most observers don't see is that it was actually the spirits who did the work, and that the shaman merely went to them for their help. However, clients are not typically so well informed and may be unaware that the shaman is actually only a secondary, and even minor conduit by means of which in any healing or divination might take place.

Moreover, clients can easily blur the boundaries between the shaman as a professional, and the shaman seen as a potential friend, lover, associate, etc. It is incumbent as a professional practitioner to always retain such boundaries, especially when the client fails to do so. Only in this way will the practitioner retain the public's trust and respect.

10) to maintain clients' right to privacy and confidentiality.

The shaman deals with particularly intimate and sensitive matters. In order to garner and retain client trust, a client must always know that their concerns will be held sacred and private by the practitioner. The only exception to this is when a client is a credible risk to their own safety or that of others, in which case the professionally responsible and legally entrusted authorities need to be contacted.

11) to be honest with clients and other practitioners and truthful in how one presents him or herself personally, in public relations and in advertising.

Honesty is always the best way to gain and maintain a community’s respect and trust. Without honesty, it is impossible to maintain one’s own integrity.

12) to offer fair and appropriate fees.

A practitioner's time and training is valuable and needs to be respected and honored. On the other hand, shamanic training does not give one the right to abuse people in need. Though I have not actually counted, I can fairly estimate that there are not nearly as many shamans available in the world generally, for instance, as auto repair persons. We know how much auto repair can be.

How much more leverage has historically been available to the shaman! The abusive shaman has in many instances earned the reputation of demanding exorbitant compensation for healing or divination services. Unfortunately, even shamanic teachers have occasionally put greed above standards of best practice by charging much more than was fair and appropriate.

The establishment of a fair and appropriate fee for shamanic service is a matter of balancing compassion with fairness. Actually, many caregivers are quite willing to under-charge for their work. Businesses built around some form of care-giving may actually be taking advantage of difficulties compassionate employees have with accepting remuneration for compassionate work, by paying them less!

The shamanic practitioner is performing a valuable and difficult function for which many years of training and experience may be needed and he or she deserves to be compensated in a fair manner. Look around, gauge your abilities, gauge the economics of your area (hardship vs. wealth) and determine this fee for yourself.

13) to keep my own life and personhood in balance to the best of my ability and seek assistance when needed.

It is very easy for many caregivers to follow their care-giving passion, even to the detriment of their own self-care. It is also the case, that the strength of one’s ability to care for others is directly influenced by the balance in one’s personal life. What goes into a balanced life? What makes for a vital, thriving person? We are encouraging this in others, should we not apply this as well to ourselves?

I love rewriting the anecdote about the respected caregiver who was giving a series of much anticipated talks about the process of providing care to a large group of caregiving professionals. Those present represented many fields: rehabilitation specialists, physicians, counselors, psychiatrists, hospice workers, social workers… there was even a shamanic practitioner or two present. They had just finished a huge meal and were pushing back their chairs to hear another of the speaker's presentations.

The speaker asked them to pull out a piece of paper and a pen and jot down ten things that as a professional, they most readily recommended to someone who needed to take care of him or herself. Notepads and napkins spread out in a hurry, and they chuckled to themselves and grinned as they quickly wrote out their own, special lists of best self-care tactics. After all, this was their job.

Then, the speaker asked them, in a low, soft voice, to put a check mark next to the items on their lists which they had actually done for themselves over the previous six months. The room fell suddenly silent as nearly a hundred caregivers scanned their lists, reflectively realizing to their illuminated discomfort, that they had not applied the same wellness tactics to themselves.

14) to consult with appropriate professionals and peers when I have questions about care, ethics or technique.

This is simply a matter of maintaining best practices in any profession. It is incumbent on a professional caregiver to seek peer consultation in cases where there is any question regarding the best approach or any other significant matter about which the practitioner is unsure. Professionals commonly establish an informal network of peer associates. Reach out to colleagues, former teachers, or other professionals to whom you know you can consult with confidence and confidentiality. In this way you gain another perspective, other experiences, and the possibility of dialoging towards the level of reasonable assurance you need to proceed.

About the author:
“My goal was to create a shamanic training program that could provide anyone, nearly anywhere, with access to their natural, humanly indigenous spirituality and relationship with the Earth.. What is probably most important to me, and something I bring into all of my classes, is that shamanism is a profound, personal, and lifelong path of growth and healing. It is a spiritual path. This is what truly inspires me." Steve Serr, PhD, MDiv, Shamanism 101 On-Line Shamanic Training


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