When I teach the Andean tradition through the lineage in which I was taught, I make it clear that what I am sharing is a mystical tradition rather than a shamanic one. I have a lot of experience with both mystical and shamanic practices, and as a former academic am rather a stickler for the historical context of such concepts, so this is not a trivial distinction to me. To my mind, if you are going to engage a tradition and its practices, you would want to know what it is you are doing, right?
So let me make the case that Andean practices are mystical, and not shamanic, by starting with generally accepted definitions of the concepts mystic/shaman and mysticism/shamanism.
The Cambridge English Dictionary definition of shaman is: “In particular religions, a person who is thought to have special powers to control and influence good and evil spirits, making it possible for them to discover the cause of illness, bad luck, etc.” Merriam-Webster’s definition is: “A religion practiced by indigenous peoples of far northern Europe and Siberia that is characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shamans.”
What do some academics and authorities have to say about the meaning of shamanism or what a shaman is? Let’s look at a couple. Carlos Castaneda, an academic who was perhaps the most instrumental practitioner and purveyor of Yaqui shamanism in American popular culture, taught that shamanism is the ability to enter, at will, “non-ordinary” states of reality. Another academic, Roger Walsh, in his book The Spirit of Shamanism, writes, “Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit[s], traveling to other realms at will, and interacting with other entities in order to serve their community.”
Walsh makes an important point at the end of his statement: “to serve their community.” If you read the historical and academic literature, especially world authority Mircea Eliade, you will learn that no one calls themselves a shaman. It is a title conferred upon someone by the community in recognition of that person’s skills and talents. Shamans traditionally played multiple roles in their communities, acting as peacemaker and arbiter, psychologist and priest, intuitive and visionary, helper and healer. Their primary way of accessing information by which to carry out these roles were shamanic—that is, using altered states of consciousness or non-ordinary ways of accessing information and insight.
Depending on the culture, a shaman usually undertakes an arduous training to learn various ways to shift to a non-ordinary or altered state of consciousness: psychoactive substances, fasting, trance dancing, drumming, chanting or singing, and so on. Once in an non-ordinary state of consciousness, the shaman can shape-shift into non-human forms, travel inter-dimensional realms, meet beneficent spirit beings for counsel or do battle with evil spirits, among other endeavors. Because he or she is always working on behalf of the community, the shaman undertakes this journeying to non-ordinary realms for a specific purpose: to divine where the best hunting is, to discern the cause of an illness, to predict when the rains will stop or start, and so on.
Of course there is so much more that could be said, but the points I have made provide a broad overview of what it means to be a shaman and what a shaman does.
Let’s now turn to the mystic and mysticism. The Cambridge English Dictionary definition of a mystic is: “A person who tries to communicate directly with God or other forces controlling the universe.” Merriam Webster’s says that the mystical means “having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence. Involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” A mystic is, generally, speaking “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.”
Whereas shamans are able to enter non-ordinary reality at will and through specific practices, mystics generally do not use ceremonial or proscribed practices, instead seeking an immersion in and direct apprehension of nature. Generally speaking, a shaman is seeking to leap beyond the human world, whereas a mystic is immersing him- or herself in the natural world and by doing so sometimes is able to transcend to the world-within-the world. Generally, mystics are seeking a solitary and deeply personal experience and pursuit, although they may work with healing and on behalf of others. However, their practice, unlike the shaman’s, is largely invisible. They are “non-doing,” using practices such as focused attention, contemplation, and meditation, by which they may experience perceptions of oneness and of timelessness and infinity, loss of the boundaries of the self and integration with the “other” (be that a tree or God), ecstatic joy, and more. Well-known mystics include Rumi, Meister Echkart, and St. Teresa of Ávila.
I think you can see, from this discussion so far, that Andean practices are much more mystical in nature and form than they are shamanic. The core of the definition of a shaman is someone who can alter his or her state of consciousness at will or through a practice such as drumming or singing. Paqos are not altering their consciousness. They are working in “normal” states of awareness, albeit energetic ones. They don’t preform much ceremony (usually only the despacho), instead practicing ayni, which is energetic reciprocity with the living cosmos through the power of their intention. They are seeking conscious evolution for themselves and others. Can Andeans receive counsel from the “spirit realms”? Yes, but they receive that counsel through contemplation, through listening—through ayni, which is purely intentional and energetic. They don’t have to perform preparatory or elaborate ceremony or travel to non-ordinary realms to do that. And since the natural world is made only of sami, they never have to do battle with evil spirits.
One of the points of confusion, I think, is that the word “shaman” has entered the popular vocabulary and been co-opted by so many different groups with differing belief systems and practices that it has lost the distinction of definition it once had. I remember having a conversation with one scholar of shamanism, Timothy White, who was the founder and editor of Shaman’s Drum magazine. He was a stickler for terminology, and he insisted that modern practices in Western countries must be called “shamanistic” only. That is, they resemble certain aspects of the indigenous practices historically associated with shamanism. I think that is a wise distinction. When a word can mean anything you want it to, it is bled dry of any meaning at all. There is a world of difference between saying you are a shaman and saying that you practice shamanistic techniques. I don’t think I am splitting hairs here. . . .
Juan Nuñez del Prado, my primary teacher in the Andean tradition, says that his masters told him one the several things a fourth-level paqo must know is his or her lineage. There are shamanic and shamanistic practices in the traditions of the North Coast of Peru and the Amazonian regions, but there is little evidence there is in the Andean tradition (which means the tradition of the Andes mountains). Our lineage of paqos were, and still are, much more mystical than shamanic. And using these non-shamanic practices, they are able to perform all of the things a shaman can. Of course, you are free to call yourself and what you practice anything you want, but I hope that this discussion has at the very least provided some information by which you can better understand those of us who do make a distinction.