Updated: Nov 9, 2022
When you think of a shaman, what's the first image that comes to your head?
Did the image of your acupuncturist come into mind? Most likely not.
But after reading this post, that may change.
Acupuncture and shamanism--how could these two things possible connected? Let me offer a brief history.
Shamanism dates back as far as 11,000 BC, in Asia. Yup, you read that right! The lineage of Shamanism worldwide can actually be traced back to Asia before it ever reached the Americas via the Siberia-Alaska bridge. Shamanism is truly the oldest healing practice known to mankind, and shamanism is the root of all traditional medicines, including Chinese medicine. Acupuncture itself was birthed out of shamanism. As one of my mentors always reminds me, "What we do comes from the shamanic branch of Taoism", meaning that our work as acupuncturists is rooted in the elements of nature and ancient cosmology.
In China, the term for shaman is wu, and the Chinese character for wu roughly translates into "one who mediates between the human and divine realm". In ancient China, the wu-shamans were female, and they practiced drumming and dancing to merge with the heavens to develop their shenming, or spiritual clarity, and to connect with the ling, or the magic of the cosmos.
Knowing this, the term shamanism itself can be broadly defined as: a practitioner tapping into the ling-cosmos for healing, knowledge, and insight, serving as a pivot between the physical and the spiritual.
If you have sat in any sort of plant-medicine ceremony, then this definition surely matches your perception of a shaman. But does it match your perception of an acupuncturist? Let's dive a little deeper.
The earliest Chinese physicians were the wu-shamans. Before any modalities like acupuncture existed, the wu used tools such as drumming, dancing, divination, cosmology, talismans, incantations, qi gong, and herbalism to release "evil" energies and to bring body, mind, and spirit into harmony.
As Chinese medicine evolved, acupuncture arose. Practitioners were using needles, i.e. energy conductors, to connect to the spirit and balance the individual. Acupuncture soon became the most popular branch of Chinese medicine alongside herbal remedies. By the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 19th Century, the People's Republic of China had intentionally de-emphasized the spiritual, esoteric, and non-material aspects of Chinese medicine. If it was not a tangible modality such as acupuncture, cupping, or herbs, then they determined that it was not to be trusted. Much of the shamanic aspects of the medicine became deemed as superstitious by the government, and what we know today as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) actually came as a result of this Cultural Revolution. In the modernization and "westernization" of the medicine, the spiritual started to be lost, although not entirely. . .
Whether one acknowledges it or not, Chinese medicine physicians today use acupuncture needles to do the same thing the wu-shamans did - to simultaneously tap into the physical and the spiritual realms to clear out the energy blocks and bring balance to the individual. The shamanic origins of Chinese medicine are incredibly relevant to the work us acupuncturists do today. As one of the fathers of Chinese Medicine, Sun Si Miao, once wrote, "A physician without shamanism is a man who sightlessly wanders in the night stumbling each step of the way." Meaning, every step we take as acupuncturists must be guided by the ling-cosmos and our shenming-clarity.
Think about how you feel after an acupuncture session. Lighter? Happier? Peaceful? Free? Rejuvenated? Acupuncture awakens the soul, and can actually create a spiritual awakening within a person. Consider a basic definition of a spiritual awakening: to experience a shift on the spirit level, suddenly feeling different, lighter, blissful, uplifted, charged, and having a sense of clarity. Any of this sound familiar to how you feel after receiving acupuncture? This is that "acupuncture after-glow"!
Acupuncture and shamanism are so intricately connected that even when the Republic of China tried to erase shamanism, it continues to live on in every tap of the needle. There is sacred ritual and spirit activation in acupuncture that cannot be removed. Acupuncture enhances your mind-body connection and offers an opportunity for expansion and healing. Just as shamanism opens gateways to the cosmos, so too does acupuncture. The two are so deeply intertwined in their history that one cannot exist without the other.
This rich history is our reminder that healing can exist outside of scientific reasoning. And I truly believe that this inherent link to shamanism is why acupuncture is so effective.
"When we treat the Spirit, we are walking the path of the shaman." - C.T. Holman, L.Ac.