How to Live a Joyful Life: 5 Lessons from Shamanism
I want to live a happy life. Most people do.
But it can be bewildering. Our culture teaches us to strive after so many things that don’t lead to happiness. Money. Status. Power. Fame. Instant gratification. Material possessions. The perfect body. And on and on and on.
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And so all of us are on a journey to discover how to live a joyful, meaningful life. We try to figure out how to shed the conditioning that has proven to be so shallow, and do things differently. But what does that look like to do things differently?
The path that I have taken is a shamanic one. I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, and would like to share them with you here.
But first, what is shamanism? “Shamanism” is an umbrella term that encompasses diverse spiritual practices all over the world that support healing and wholeness. The common threads that run through many of these practices are: 1) a close, spiritual relationship with the natural world, 2) a belief that each of us has Spirit Helpers who can provide guidance, support and wisdom to help each of us live our best life, and 3) the practice of communicating with these Helpers through what is known as a shamanic Journey.
I have always felt a deep connection to nature, and so when I learned of an opportunity to work with a shamanic practitioner, I was intrigued. I didn’t know if I believed in the existence of Spirit Helpers, but I decided to give it a try. The guidance I received helped, and it felt true. So I went back. Before long, I decided I wanted to learn how to contact my Spirit Helpers directly, without the support of my teacher. This enabled me to receive their support and guidance for free, whenever I needed. And then, I began working with others, supporting them to communicate with their Helpers.
This path has transformed me. Instead of the baseline of discontent I used to feel, I experience a baseline of contentment and deep joy. Of course frustration, anger, sadness or fear still arise in response to difficult events—this is the human condition. But I can always return to the deep joy of living my life. And it is wonderful!
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about living joyfully:
1. Accept the Invitation
When I was first learning to Journey, one of my Helpers, a Wolf, invited me to play with him. He chased me around boulders and trees, pounced into a pose with his rump high in the air, baited me to chase him in turn.
Sometimes I grew impatient. “What does this have to do with the problem I’m facing?” Wolf just insisted that I join him. Only once we had played and I had lightened up, would he proceed.
I didn’t think much more about this until I began supporting others to Journey. Apparently this is a common experience! One client sees an otter delightedly playing in the water, and she joins in. Another dances high in the boughs of a tree on a moonlit night. Another sees a bear making a fool of himself, encouraging him to laugh and play in kind.
Does this sound frivolous? Silly? Like a waste of time? We’ve been taught to think so. Joyful play is for kids, but adults should work on serious issues. There are so many problems, so much suffering. We should spend our all of our time urgently trying to alleviate it. Or: we should spend our time producing things, providing for others, creating something that lasts. Our identities are built around this, and so an invitation to play can threaten our self-image and internal order.
But a primary, and often early, lesson of Spirit Helpers is this: joy is a force for good. It will not only sustain you in your work in the world, it may even help you to discern what that work is (more on that below). Welcome it, open to it, lighten up. And enjoy.
2. Know that You are not Alone
As my shamanic Journeys grew more intense, my agnosticism ebbed away. The belief grew in me that there really are Spirit Helpers out there, separate from our own intuition or inner knowing. I even began to feel my Helper’s presence in little glimpses here and there in daily life.
I also began opening to the idea that nature might be alive in ways that I hadn’t considered before. Does a tree have a soul? Can it communicate with me? I tried reaching out with my heart and intuitive mind, and was surprised to feel a response.
It took me awhile to get used to this. In the West, we’re taught to treat animist beliefs with superiority, condescension and derision. I can still see it so clearly: photo in a 6th grade social studies textbook that pictured a Native American with his hand on a tree. The caption read something like this: "primitive peoples believed that inanimate objects have souls." But of course inanimate objects can’t have souls! The very structure of our language insists on it. As someone who obtained undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Philosophy of Science, I was especially well-schooled in this derision.
But when I allowed myself to shrug off that conditioning and try the idea out, to test it in my own experience, I could feel the truth of nature’s soulful aliveness deep down below the reaches of scientific thought. The more I saw with my heart rather than my head, the more the mountains came alive. As I walked “alone” through the trees, I realized that this aloneness is an illusion. I am surrounded by loving, welcoming, wise souls! It is pure joy to be a part of it.
3. Meet your Soul-Spirit Self
Who are you, at your core? Your mind? Your personality? Emotions? Ego? Body? Gender? Possessions? What you do for a living? The activities you engage in, the adventures you choose to have? Your relationships with others?
One day, my Spirit Helper cut through all of this and introduced me to my Soul-Spirit Self. This is the essential part of me that will live on after my body dies. I saw it as a brilliant bright light in my core. And guess what: is full of joy! It dances with delight!
My Soul-Spirit Self, I learned, is not disturbed in the least by the daily hurts of living in a human body. It could care less about material possessions or status in life. It approaches each new experience with curiosity and wonder. What can I do here? What can I learn? How can I help?
I learned that my Soul-Spirit Self doesn’t even fear the future event that, in my embodied form, I fear most: the death of my parents. My Soul-Spirit Self told me that, while my human form will naturally grieve, my Soul-Spirit Self will be just fine, because it knows that all of life, including death, is wonderful and sacred, and that death is a transition within the larger context of life, not the end of it.
This had a profound effect on me. No matter the ups and downs of my daily life, I can return to my awareness of my authentic, joyful self, knowing that this essential self is okay and ready for the next day, the next adventure, the next opportunity to help.
I have found that this experience, too, is a common one. I have supported others to meet their own Soul-Spirit Selves, and witnessed the joy and resilience this provides.
4. Find and Follow Your Purpose
One day my Helpers explained to me that each one of us has a purpose for being here. Our Soul-Spirit Selves choose to come to this place, this time, in this body, in order to fulfill that purpose.
I had been experiencing a lot of frustration with my work life. Even though I have worked in meaningful nonprofit jobs for my entire career—producing independent media, working for human rights and environmental sustainability—I kept burning out. This is because, my Helpers explained, I was not following my purpose. Yes, I was helping. Yes I was doing important, passionate work. But it was not what I came here to do.
Then they shared with me insight into my true purpose. At first I wasn’t sure what it meant or how to act on the information. But over the years, I have reoriented my life in order to live it. I am discovering that every time I help someone in a way that is aligned with this purpose, I feel deep, inexpressible joy!
As theologian Frank Buechner said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now I know what that means. When we are living our purpose, we can live with deep joy.
5. Stop Trying to get Comfortable!
We Americans strive for comfort like it’s the be-all and end-all of life. We hold our rooms steady at 70 degrees in the winter and 65 in the summer (no matter the impact on the planet). We want the perfect house with the remodeled kitchen and glistening floors. If we feel the slightest bit of pain or boredom or anxiety, we turn on the TV, or go get a drink, or ______ (you fill in the blank). We want to shove away pain and thoughts of grief. We’ve confused lasting happiness with instant gratification, comfort and ease.
I am still struggling to learn this lesson. For the past year, I’ve been living with a foot injury that prevents me from doing things that I love: trailrunning, hiking and backpacking. I find myself in tears every few weeks, desperate for my feet to heal.
But my Helpers have been using this opportunity to teach an important, lifelong lesson: living a joyful life isn’t about being comfortable. They often have to repeat themselves: Living a joyful life isn’t about being comfortable.
Living in a body means that you will sometimes feel pain, sorrow and discomfort.
While it’s important to allow yourself to feel this way, my Helpers say, don’t get stuck there. Fighting these experiences will just get you even more stuck. Picture a truck stranded in deep snow, spinning its wheels and only digging a deeper hole.
Instead, accept what is happening and allow the emotions to move through you. And then re-focus your attention on connecting. Connect with your Spirit Helpers. Connect with the natural world—and if you can’t hike in it, connect to the sun, sky, wind and trees while sitting on your front porch. (Who cares what the neighbors think). Connect with your most essential self, your Soul-Spirit Self. Invite your Soul-Spirit Self to lead you in living your purpose, and act on what it calls you to do. And play!
Doing all these things will invite joy. And then, you remember that it is always, already there.
Kris Abrams is a psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner with Cedar Tree Healing Arts.