What Happened to Shamans?

The ancient world had shamans, spiritual leaders far different than we see today. What happened to them?

It’s been a really interesting week for me, especially considering how interesting this past couple years have been. My whole life, up until about two years ago, I thought I was broken. Turns out, I’m an introvert, and that that is a real thing. The brains of introverts respond differently to dopamine and acetylcholine than those of extroverts. Learning this fact changed a lot for me, it explained a lot about my life for me, and started me down a path of self-discovery that has been amazing and enlightening.

Soon after discovering this, a friend looked me in the face, dumbfounded and said, “You know you’re an empath, right?”

A few years earlier, I considered that word to be metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, like ESP and a sixth sense. But now I have a different view. Everyone has the capability for empathy, to feel what another person is feeling. Tony Robbins teaches an exercise where one person mimics the body language of another, then guesses what emotion the subject is feeling. Its a very powerful example of our capacity for empathy. An empath is someone who does this so easily its seamless to them, they just feel what other people feel – and not knowing I did this, I had no idea many of the emotions I felt weren’t even mine!

It was another powerful realization for me. Learning it not only explained so much about my life up to that point – mood swings, my need to get away from people, using alcohol to dull things so I could function in crowds, etc. – it also lead to me learning to recognize and learn to control my empathy.

I remember walking into work one day. I was in a great mood. Then within seconds of entering the building, I suddenly felt depressed. The 26,000 square foot building was almost completely empty except for me and my manager, who was sitting at the other end with her back to me. As soon as I talked to her, and heard the difficult things she was going through that day, I realized my mood had changed because of her! Before I even spoke to her, just noticing her and reading the subtle body language from across the room was enough to trigger my empathy. But by then I knew what I was, and that I did not have to feel her emotions. By recognizing they were hers, not mine, I was free to feel good again. Suddenly, my emotions were within my own control.

Not long after that I took a Meyer’s Briggs Personality Profile and learned my MBTI “type” was INFJ. This was another huge eye-opener for me. INFJ’s are the rarest of the 16 types, an in many ways they think and view the world very differently than other people. Some of us call ourselves “aliens” because we are so different than other people. Truth be told, for much of my life, I did feel like an alien! My normal human desire to fit in and be understood was constantly at odds with my in ability to process how other people couldn’t simply understand me the way I understood them. I felt like they weren’t trying, they didn’t care enough – now I know they don’t experience the world the same way I do, they process and interpret things differently than I do, and that’s ok.

So what does all this have to do with Shamans?

I think a lot about ancient man, the small nomadic tribes of human before the agricultural revolution. I think its important to understand how they lived then, to understand how to best live in our current culture. Our technology has advanced incredibly in the last 10,000 or so years, but our DNA has not. In many ways, we are no different as being as we were then, and we need to understand that to cure many of our current social ills.

Ancient tribes consisted of between 100 and 150 people. Larger than that became too difficult to manage and would split into two groups. This is evidenced by the fact that, even today, we can’t maintain truly meaningful relationships with more than about 150 people at a time, no matter how many Facebook friends you have. So a tribe would only be so large, and consist of people ranging from newborns to the elderly, each serving various roles in the community – hunters, gathers, care takers, leaders, makers, etc.

The various personality indexes devised by modern psychology, like Meyers-Briggs, help us understand people better, that not everyone thinks and acts alike, that we all view the world a little differently, and all have different strengths and weaknesses. For an ancient tribe, this would be important. The mix of qualities among its members created a matrix that filled all the needs of all the people and allowed the tribe to survive and ultimately humans to flourish.

Different types exist in different proportions to each other. Too many of one type or not enough of another might through the balance off enough to cause the tribe to suffer or even die entirely. In fact, its believed that humans did almost go extinct at one point. Perhaps this was a period when natural selection was working out the right mix of personality types?

We know at that virtually every tribal culture studied have shamans. Individuals that serve the spiritual needs of their community. They are usually viewed as wise and magical, with powers to see and understand things others cannot.

In a tribe of 100 people, there would probably only be one adult, “full” shaman, and perhaps one or two younger fledglings in the wings. 1-2% of the tribe. The tribe didn’t need more than that. Which conveniently is the exact proportion of INFJs in the population.

INFJs see and understand things other people don’t, we make connections other people don’t, and often we do it intuitively. That’s one of the hardest things for me to express to people. All my life I’ve just understood some things, been able to predict outcomes long before there was enough empirical evidence and far more often than not I’d be right. Its not that I can see the future, its that I see patterns of behavior and understand connections and what seems obvious to me is not obvious to others. To many, this seems magical, and I imagine it would seem even more so to ancient peoples.

Thus, I now believe that people like me, INFJs, exist in society to fill the role of shaman. However, that role is a little different now that it was thousands of years ago. As culture and technology advanced, the expression of the role changed. Shamans became priests (and some other personality types seek out that role for reasons different than INFJs). Today a lot of INFJs, including myself, gravitate toward roles that help other people understand themselves, careers like therapists, counselors, coaches, activists, etc.

All of this has helped to further crystalize my own choice of becoming a life coach, I feel its what I’m here to do in life, how I best serve my community.

What do you think? Are you a modern shaman, or do you know someone who is (even if they don’t consider themselves one)? Has there been someone in your life who has helped guide you in a way no one else could that make a big impact on you?

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