Creating and Maintaining Healthy and Vibrant
Shamanic Drumming Circles.

An Offering at Oracle 2000

Submitted by Sharon Stevens

Recently at Oracle 2000, a shamanic gathering organized and sponsored by Tending Sacred Circles, a group of shamanic practitioners shared their experiences of shamanic circling. The following commentary comes from that discussion and responses to a questionnaire that focused on circle experiences. Questions are posed to invite reflection on the health of your own shamanic drumming circle. In a two hour session, we touched on specific challenges the circles represented experienced. These included: membership of the circle, training and preparation for shamanic circling, growing pains of a circle, struggles to find a working model for leadership and organization, difficulties with personality clashes, and shadow issues. This article does not attempt to thoroughly address each of these topics but to share our experiences and discussion.

Clarity of Purpose

It is usually understood, but not always stated, that shamanic circles differ from other types of circles in that there is a focus on techniques of altering consciousness to open the doorways to the spirit world and to commune with spirit helpers. Once this connection is made, one can ask, "why and for what purpose are we doing this?" When a circle forms it is imperative to have a purpose, a strong vision and clear intention. Why is the circle gathering and what will be its stated focus? Clarity helps hold the energy of the circle. Is the circle simply a safe and sacred place for shamanic journeying? Does the circle choose to be of service to the community? Is the circle a place to build shamanic skills for healing? Does the circle want to explore a specific aspect of shamanism, i.e.: ancestral shamanism, BearMedicine? Is this a circle focused on building shamanic community? The intention of one of the circles represented in our discussion was to work with the spirits to empower women, to facilitate healing from a wounded past and to learn how to walk in the world in power. Another individual carried the vision of creating circles for people who need a spiritual path; to be available to disempowered individuals. Another circle purpose was to be of service to the gay men of Los Angeles. A Canadian circle was dedicated to modeling a healthy spiritual path by being a companion with success. As you can see there are many directions and possible applications for shamanic work. What is the vision of your circle?

Circle Membership

The size of the circles represented varied from 4 to 20 members. Everyone present to our discussion agreed that it is necessary to have a core membership committed to the purpose. Suggestions to foster circle commitment included a consistent schedule for meeting whether it be weekly, every other week or monthly. Several circles stated that meeting the same time, day and place was very helpful in maintaining regular participation by its members. To further assist in creating a sense of belonging and commitment, it seemed to be important for circle members to have some responsibility to the circle.. These responsibilities might include helping create sacred space, calling in the spirits, drumming, leading songs or cleaning up after the circle. Other responsibilities include managing the contact information for the circle or being a journal keeper to record the teachings from the spirits and circle activities. Are the responsibilities of tending your circle shared among the members? Going on retreat, potlucks, planning and carrying out seasonal celebrations were all reported to be extremely valuable in vitalizing the energy and building strong connections between circle members. The Gay Spirit Medicine circle went so far as make an agreement for circle members to be available for other circle members at anytime for anything.

Training and Preparation:

"Opening the circle to "anyone" didn't work, the circle became a workshop of constantly teaching people about journeying."
Marigold Love

Common frustrations experienced by circles were how to include new people and still maintain the energy of the circle. One circle requires that anyone considering joining the circle go through an 8-week basic training. It consists of 3-hour sessions on Saturday mornings and is taught by members of the circle. The training includes journeys to the Upper, Lower and Middle worlds, journeys on behalf of the self and the group and learning about ceremony and ritual. They found that usually 2 or 3 out of 15 would then continue on with ongoing shamanic work. Other circles required potential participants to take the Foundation of Shamanic Studies Basic Training or its equivalent. The consensus was that some form of introductory work was necessary. Another option discussed for including new members was to bring people in gradually. Prospective members can be invited to join the circle on a trial basis and at some point an invitation extended to be a full time member. It also was suggested to have an open circle from time to time to allow individuals an opportunity to experience a shamanic circle. A concern for keeping shamanic training affordable and accessible was discussed. Over the years, it seems that fees for workshops and retreats keep climbing and that local shamanic drumming circles can play a vital role in keeping shamanism readily affordable. We wondered if there is an optimal size for circles. Several circles experienced growing pains when the circle grew to 20 as there was less intimacy and many stopped coming. We discussed how to work with varied shamanic experience levels from the point of view of eldering. Those with more experience being considered elders, while those new to the shamanic path being shown and taught by the elders. Elder in this instance has more to do with experience than chronological age. Elders in the circle hold a responsibility to lead and to teach.


There seemed to be confusion around models for circles, leadership roles and relationships between members. Are we all brothers and sisters? Are we a peer group? Is this a teaching circle lead by one or more individuals? Does the circle have shared leadership? Albert Einstein once said, " You cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it." It was suggested that we consider as shamanic practitioners we are connecting with a tribal consciousness. We are using core shamanism as a base but developing our own new traditions. We are finding a new consciousness or another way of being that doesn&Mac226;t necessarily have a model. We were aware of the challenges and rewards of leading a circle. The teacher often takes on many responsibilities and actively holds space for the circle.. Much time and energy is spent listening to the spirits, preparing for the circle and being a conduit for energy and wisdom. When is the last time you acknowledged your teacher and offered to assist? Many circles voiced challenges in moving from a teaching circle to one of shared leadership. Those facilitating the circle would encourage others to step forward and were often met with reluctance on the part of circle members to grow into leadership roles. A possible reason for individuals not stepping forward to share in leadership may be a lack of confidence. Partnering with someone else to lead a circle or call in the spirits will help to build confidence. This is an opportunity for eldering , the pairing of inexperienced individuals with more experienced individuals. It was also discussed that different people bring their own unique gifts to the circle and space for each of those gifts to come forth needs to be nurtured. For example, someone may be very interested in creating and maintaining the sacred space of the circle while someone else may be called to be a ceremonial leader, drum leader or song leader. Individuals in the circle have a responsibility to step forward and offer their gifts. We were aware of different scenarios that often play themselves out in circles and may contribute to the difficulties of shared leadership. One of these is a power struggle between individuals and/or teacher and students. One form the power struggle may take is in the unwillingness of the teacher to let go of the being "teacher". One circle reported a teacher who was regularly one upping the students. If the student reported seeing 1 eagle in a journey, the teacher saw 2. What are the dynamics being setup by the teacher? Is there really space for individuals to grow into leadership roles? Is the teacher fostering a way for individuals to find their way to power and making space for gifts to be manifested? As a teacher or circle leader, are you making room for others to blossom?

Going Deeper:

All the circles report an advantage to closing the circle for a period of time. This allowed the power and integrity of the circle to build and the shamanic work to become more focused. Exercises included time for dreaming and visioning on behalf of individuals and the circle. Circles seemed to be enhanced when individuals expanded their shamanic skills outside the group and then returned to share with the circle. When journeywork was linked to people&Mac226;s personal process the circles seemed to flourish. Circles reported that when they studied a specific theme and journeyed more that once on the same theme changes resulted and the circle went deeper. Circles that were able to communicate well with one another seemed to be able to withstand personality clashes. Use of a talking stone or stick helped to keep speaking and sharing focused. One circle regularly scheduled a time to do shadow work. The shadow work could relate to either individuals or to the circle. In this case shadow work referred primarily those to things unspoken or not being talked about. Circle issues might include issues of attendance, tardiness, energy leaks, listening and sharing in the circle, and confidentiality. They found that by bringing forth these shadow issues they were diffused and they often lost their power. Shadow issues might also include ego work. The spirits will often take care of this but if not it&Mac226;s a good time to check in with the elders of the circle. It&Mac226;s not unusual for some individuals to be seeking personal power. In some cases, people have been asked to leave the circle.

Support systems and networking:

Another topic that was discussed briefly but seemed very important was how do experienced shamanic practitioners find support, maintain their energy and network with other practitioners. This is not to advocate some type of professional organization but rather find a way to support one another and offer an objective view when difficulties or challenges arise. Several of us are very interested in networking in this way. One suggestion was to follow in the footsteps of Tending Sacred Circles, and use the Internet to have an ongoing discussion group. (If you are interested in participating in an Egroup for experienced shamanic practitioners as a place for discussion and sharing please contact Another suggestion was to have additional gatherings similar to Oracle 2000, for shamanic practitioners to share their knowledge and skills but also to rekindle our shamanic connections in both ordinary and nonordinary reality. We recognized what a gift Oracle 2000 was for each of us.


While the books listed below do not necessarily pertain specifically to shamanic drumming circles, they do offer insight into successful circle techniques and group facilitation.

Women Circling the Earth A Guide to Fostering Community, Healing and Empowerment
Beverly Engel

The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and the World The Essential Guide to Women's Circle Jean Shinoda Bolen

Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery

The Spiral Dance

Sacred Circles: A Guide to Creating your own Women's Spirituality Group
Robin Deen Carnes and Sally Craig

Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self-discovery and Community Building in Small Groups.
Charles Garfield, Cindy Spring, and Sedonia Cahill

Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture
Christina Baldwin

Circle of Song
Kate Marks

The Ceremonial Circle: Practice, Ritual and Renewal for Personal and Community Healing
Joshua Halpern and Sedonia Cahill

A Circle of Men: The Original Manual for Men's Support Groups
Bill Kauth

Compiled by Sharon Stevens 4/2000