Contemporary Shamanism

Leo Rutherford


Picture by Joe Sinclair

 I call the work contemporary shamanism because whilst it is based on the teachings of the ancient shamans - the “Wise Ones” and visionaries of the old cultures - it is nevertheless modern in approach, and deals with the issues and difficulties of contemporary life.  Shamanism has always been a non-dogmatic, adaptable set of attitudes and philosophies, as it has always responded to the needs of the people of the time.  Shamanism is not a set of beliefs, it is about knowledge.  This is the essential difference from religion.  While religions place themselves and their prophets or saviours between the people and the Divine, shamanism does not.  It is a path to knowledge which is gained through experience of life, through rituals, ceremonies, prayer and meditation, trials and tests.  Knowledge is something taken on from outside, from others.  Wars are fought over beliefs, never over knowledge.

   The word shaman, or saman, comes from the language of the Tungus reindeer herders of the Lake Baikal region of Russia.  The shaman is a visionary, prophet, healer, psychotherapist, ceremonialist, and often herbal doctor - a “Doctor of the Soul” for both individuals and the community.  S/he is always concerned with the health - “The Spirit” - of the people, and with keeping the vision alive of who they are and where they are going.  Consider for a moment just how many people in our culture are dispirited.


The Medicine Wheel is the basis . . .

The work of Eagle’s Wing is to assist seekers to come to a place of balance and harmony within themselves, balancing the four directions of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, as so beautifully described and defined by the Medicine Wheel.  The Medicine Wheel is the basis of didactic teaching, and it serves as a framework through which to see the world and the actions and interactions of people and the cosmos.  We work with ceremonies, including sweatlodge, visionquest, and many other ceremonies about facing the four directions of ourselves, and balancing the dark and light within.  I work with many techniques from psychotherapy, where appropriate, as it is essential to start with the trials and traumas of the emotional body.


Erasing personal history

The first step on the classical shamanic journey is called “Erasing Personal History”.  This is represented by the South direction on the wheel, and it means dealing with the emotional stuff of the past.  This is the painful bit.  I like to call it the “nitty-gritty-shitty”!  There is no way to avoid this step, and it must be done first or a person will not be able to handle the powers of the other directions.  The enemy is fear, and the ally trust, and we have to do battle within ourselves.


Making death your ally

The West symbolises the chaos, the depth of incarnation, the physical realm, and the Earth.  It is about the enemy of old age and inertia (being “old” before your time), and the quality of introspection and the development of intuition which comes as we dare to look deeply within.  The movement here is called “Facing your death and making death your ally”.  It is ultimately about daring to live fearlessly.  To quote Inca shaman don Eduardo Calderon with whom I travelled in Peru in 1986, “a shaman is someone who is already dead and thus has no fear of death or life”.  Sometimes a life-threatening crisis is what calls a person to the way of the shaman.

   We do a lot of work with dance, as far as possible with live drummers, to take people deeply into themselves and into the passionate, heartful, open, vulnerable place that we can experience through truly feeling the primal beat of the drum.  Our friends N’Goma Kundi Drums work with us and we have a regular Tuesday evening session in North London.


Stopping the World

The North of the wheel represents the mental realm of thought and philosophy, and the enemy here is usually called “clarity”.  I have found a lot of people get confused by this, so I have taken to calling it “bullshit” as there is no confusion then!  The ally is “Wisdom and Knowledge” and we are all capable of knowing the difference and recognising when we are listening to one or the other.  The task in the North is to “Stop the World”.  This mind and its continuous inner dialogue, so that one can see - perceive - the world as the multitude of energies that it really is, without the overlay of projections and assumptions that we normally make.


Seeking vision and purpose

The fourth direction, the East, is about “Seeking Vision and Purpose” and this is the time to go quietly up the mountain, physical or metaphorical, and spend time alone meditating, praying and listening.  The inner battle here is between illumination and the gaining of power which results  from that, and the difficulty of handling that power rightly.


Through the work of Eagle’s Wing I seek to share the knowledge that I have picked up in my journey over the last eighteen years as I have been lucky enough to travel and meet medicine people, go through many experiences which have helped me transform my life, a process which goes on and on . . .! 

The Eagle’s Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism in London was founded by Leo Rutherford in 1983 with the aim of helping people to connect to their inner and outer worlds, to heal the old wounds within, to become able to bring dreams from the world of spirit into matter and thus enjoy a creative and fruitful life.  [To dance their dreams awake!]  

  [Medicine wheel graphic designed by Joe Sinclair]

Leo Rutherford writes: I worked in industry for twenty years and for the last twelve years of that was Managing Director of a manufacturing company which made tin cans and drums.  By the age of forty I was suffering from acute stress and depression, and normal life did not make sense to me any more.  I took my life apart and set out to find an alternative path, a path with more heart.  I went through all kinds of therapy, learned to dance, sing and play in a way I hadn’t since childhood, and I gained my MA in Holistic Psychology at Antioch University in San Francisco where I lived for five years. Quite unexpectedly I came across the beautiful ancient wisdom of the indigenous shamans.  As I have got older so I have become younger.  It is my great joy to pass on to others some of the experience and knowledge that has helped me to transform my life.  A process that goes on and on . . .