Printed in Shamanic Applications Review, Issue 3
Much has been written about the role of near death experiences and healing from prolonged illness in the shaman’s receiving his/her spiritual calling. It is my belief that prolonged trauma can be a contributor as well. Psychologist Colin Ross found that patients with multiple personality disorder (origins of which are the effect of extreme prolonged childhood trauma) had nearly four times as many paranormal experiences as patients in other psychiatric categories, and that people with histories of childhood abuse had nearly twice the number of paranormal experiences as those who had not been abused. Ross was led to hypothesize that something about trauma activates psychic experiences such as ESP, precognition, contact with or possession by spirits.
My understanding of trauma’s unique role comes from reflecting on my own healing process as well as twenty-two years of psychotherapy practice. It is also the outgrowth of nearly a decade of applying shamanic knowledge and tools to my own healing as well as people’s problems in my private practice and in a community mental health center.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. We were the only Jewish family in what was a very fundamentalist Christian area. As a child, I was the target of verbal, physical and sexual violence. These attacks lasted for ten years, most of which I avoided by hiding, escaping to a safe area which whenever possible meant a place in nature.
Of particular worry were the times when I was left alone at night which occurred frequently. As darkness settled, the enemy forces rose. I locked the doors, closed curtains, drew the blinds. In the shadows the ritual would begin. Voices drummed at the windows. “Come out, Jew”, they would sing. “Come out and face your revenge.” “Christ killer.” Over and over and over. Like a wild animal I scampered around the house seeking safety. My heart beat faster as the rhythm picked up. I was filled with the nausea of fear.
In the house, retreat always meant my closet. A panel in the wall opened to my hiding place. There cool pipes soothed my skin.
There I kept a flashlight, books, food, water…I could last for days. A safe place where no one can find me, a place where dreams are made, a place to wait for life. And there I would stay until my parents returned.
The significance of this memory reemerged seventeen years later in the mid-seventies through a series of personal and professional experiences that altered the course of my life. I began to experience spontaneous trance journeys where I would leave what I later came to identify as ordinary reality and find myself undergoing bizarre experiences. These included several episodes of being dismembered by animals and being put back together, something for which I had no references. I also met people from a different time and place who said they were my ancestors and would prescribe rituals for my healing. These experiences would happen in my normal day to day life.
One particular ritual I was told to do was to return to my old neighborhood and literally walk through my history as a visible man. I was told I had to reclaim my soul. Here I was an adult, rational, professional man living in Wisconsin. I felt crazy that I was listening to these unreal experiences, but felt I had no choice but to do what I was instructed.
When I revisited Indianapolis, the composition of the neighborhood had become primarily African American. All who had lived there when I was growing up had moved away. I did the ritual as instructed until I found myself in front of the house of one my worst tormentors. I went into a foaming-at-the-mouth rage, yelling, screaming, and throwing rocks at the house.
As I calmed down, I found myself surrounded by a large group of people from the neighborhood. A man asked me incredulously, “What the fuck are you doing?” I told them my story. With wet eyes, the person who now lived in my childhood home invited me in.
I immediately went to my room and found it largely unchanged. I went to the closet to find my safe room. My hope was to find writings and books I had left there. Much to my surprise there was no panel, no room. Questions led to the sure knowledge that nothing had been physically changed. And yet that retreat space was as real as real can be to me. I left feeling in some ways healed and in others pretty confused and crazy, a feeling that characterized much of that period in my life.
Years later as the result of a soul retrieval I received from Sandra Ingerman and my own journeying experiences I was able to refind my place of hiding. My safe retreat space turned out to be in non-ordinary reality. I had left part of my soul there for many years. I understood even more profoundly how vivid and real non-ordinary reality experiences are.
At the same time these events took place, I was working in an inpatient psychiatric facility. There were times when the line between staff and patient felt pretty thin for me. I was having a range of experiences for which I had no context or container. Only later when I learned to journey shamanically, did I find a context to explain my unusual experiences. Then I could look back and understand my expanded sense of reality. A particular hospital patient of that time became a catalyst to my using these experiences to help others.
A man in his early thirties, I will name Hank, was admitted to the psychiatric unit of the hospital in a severe psychotic state. He had gone over the edge after the death of his mother. Married with two young children, he had no previous history of psychiatric difficulty. Hank fascinated me. Twenty-four hours a day he wandered around the unit with his arms stretched out as if on the cross. He said one of two things: ‘Messiah, Messiah, I am the Messiah!” or “O hell hell o, o hell, hell o.” Because he walked into other patient’s rooms and disturbed their sleep, he was kept in the locked quiet room. I started spending hours of my shift locked up with Hank.
Medications had not influenced his thought process, so in an attempt to understand his world, I would assume the crucifixion pose and mirror his entire experience for extended periods of time. Perhaps in this way I could find the key to his psychotic condition. At night when I slept, I began to have visions of disasters and compelling feelings that I had to save the world. I would wake with Hank’s illness reverberating in my being and pace for hours at night unable to sleep. In one dream I ran around screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling.“ I wondered who he was trying to save.
A family therapy session was suggested. From all over the country Hank’s family gathered in the heroic struggle to save him. The family included his wife, his father’s siblings, and his mother’s twin sister. When his father and aunt were questioned about family dynamics, Hank‘s messiah behavior began to escalate culminating in a fight between him and the psychiatrist. The struggle was fierce and furniture was smashed as Hank tried to choke the doctor. The aunt, a psychiatric nurse by training, began screaming hysterically. Hank ran out of the room. I gave chase and found him weeping in the quiet room. He was totally lucid and filled with grief about his mother’s death and the dissolution of the family. His aunt became psychotic and was admitted to the psychiatric ward. Hank was quickly discharged to be with his wife and two young children. “Classic homeostasis, “ the psychiatrist smiled in conclusion. The family had to maintain its unhealthy balance. I was left with unanswered questions and a sure knowledge that there was more to Hank’s experience than met the eye.
Nearly twenty years later, I find myself looking at this incident differently. My subsequent experiences using shamanism with traumatized, mentally disturbed clients have altered my understanding profoundly. Based on cases like Hank’s and my own spontaneous trance experiences, I began researching and actively testing whether psychological constructs could account for the full range of human experience.
In our culture, we are taught not to accept our experience unless we can describe or explain it in “normal” reality. In particular, social and spiritual dimensions are rarely accounted for in psychological models. I have come to see that, from a psychological perspective, this may be most damaging to our individual psyches, both invalidating our individual experiences and limiting our understanding of reality.
In traditional psychotherapy, clients are plugged into a paradigm as if it is the reality of the client’s experience. When clients don’t fit the model or don’t respond to treatment, then it is said that they are a “difficult” client and as such, unable to be helped. The undercurrent of despair in the mental health profession with regards to “difficult” clients is disturbing. Psychotherapists are asked to intervene in a growing complexity of human issues. Each year I hear more and more of my colleagues pose the question, “Do you think people are getting more wounded and crazier?” I cannot answer that question. My guess is that the question reflects their increasing struggle with how to help their clients.
Furthermore, clients who cannot be helped by traditional psychotherapy typically respond by internalizing the failure and making themselves the problem, thus compounding their problems. After some years of using both traditional therapy and shamanism with clients my belief is that therapists have been putting their attention in the wrong places. To use a metaphor from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, we’ve been “watering the wrong seeds.”
Let me return to Hank. From the beginning there was considerable uproar from fellow staff about my attempt to enter Hank’s world so completely. It was too scary for them to imagine going so far in the attempt to heal someone. Yet for me, it was the next logical step in trying to understand him. Later I discovered that this was in fact a classic shamanic approach to healing. In his article titled “When Insanity Is A Blessing: The Message Of Shamanism”, Holger Ralweit writes: “The shaman frequently enters a patient’s state so thoroughly that he himself experiences the symptoms of the illness and, in this way, acquires special knowledge as to its cause.”
My own personal experiences of non-ordinary reality coupled with cases like Hank’s ultimately led me to embark on a serious study and practice of shamanism primarily with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Over time I found that it was in the world of the shaman that acute psychological distress could best be understood. Ultimately I learned that more often than not it is in this world that successful treatment can truly begin.
The shaman lives in two worlds. One is very ordinary, the other is extra-ordinary, full of mystery and seemingly mad. The ability to enter into shamanic states of consciousness and return at will is one characteristic that distinguishes shamans from the mentally ill. In shamanic cultures, this difference is understood. Michael Harner, one of my teachers of shamanism, recounted in a workshop, “When I was with the Jivaro or Shuar tribe, there was a man who wandered the forest day and night talking to spirits. So I asked if this man was a shaman. “No,” they said, “he’s crazy.” Was he crazy because he was seeing things? No, because they had seen them too. He was crazy because he was stuck out of control—he couldn’t turn it off. This notion of being stuck in the other world (i.e. a shamanic state of consciousness) reminded me of the symptoms of dissociation. It got me interested in learning more about that world and how to bring people back from it.
For me, shamanism has provided both theoretical and practical ways of understanding and meeting the needs of mental health patients: first, by accepting nonmaterial or spiritual dimensions of reality as real, and second, by dealing with clients in terms of soul wounding. My subsequent study and practice of shamanism gradually led me to integrate shamanism increasingly into my psychotherapy practice. For clients in acute distress more traditional therapeutic treatments were often more useful during or after shamanic work.
Transpersonal psychiatrist John Nelson theorizes that reality is state bound, i.e. dependent on the state of consciousness (ordinary versus altered) of the observer. In beginning to apply shamanism to persons with acute mental disturbances, my working theory was that shamanic tools could be used to alleviate client distress and, at least in some cases, restore healthy balance. A sampling of composite mental health stories follows to illustrate the effectiveness of working with people in crisis using shamanic healing methods. The sample is limited to cases where there were serious questions regarding the client’s sanity either by the client or staff or both.
LEAVING HOME IS HARD TO DO
A young woman in her late 20’s comes to see me for psychotherapy. She had been referred by her brother-in-law who had taken a shamanism workshop. Nonresponsive to traditional therapies, she had a long history of depression with visual and auditory hallucinations, and little success at personal independence. She was living with her parents after having returned home to help with her sick grandmother who subsequently had died. Her previous psychiatric diagnosis was depression with atypical psychosis. The family history was chaotic with verbal and occasional physical violence.
On the surface, she looked quite functional. Her major symptoms were severe at night when she would see men in the house attempting to hurt others and would wake up her family in acute distress. Family attempts to reassure her that this wasn’t happening were not working and led to intense conflict. In frustration, the family would resort to verbal attack. Often she would see the spirit of her grandmother walking in the house. She was obsessed with one particular niece and was constantly fearful for her well being. In our sessions, she was quite coherent but steadfast in her belief in the reality of the nighttime occurences as well as voices in her head that convinced her she was possessed. Prior attempts to medicate these symptoms with psychotropic medications had failed. She was not on medication at the time I met her.
Recognizing the inherent risks, I decided to have her do a journey to her power animal. Given her lack of personal power in her life and with her family, I thought this might help her mobilize. My primary concern was that it not add to her distress. There was a glazed quality to her eyes that made me think she was stuck in an altered state and that the journey might help her learn to come back.
In her journey, she met a dolphin. She merged with the dolphin for a delightful swim to an island where grandmother’s spirit tells her she is okay.
As the dolphin, she reports being taught she needs to learn to swim in her own right. She also experiences a hole in herself which the dolphin swims against and covers. When she returns she asks if there is healing work that can be done to close the hole. After long discussions about shamanic healing and the nature of the work, I agree to do a journey to Spirit on her behalf.
The healing journey revealed a need for soul retrieval, the bringing back of soul parts lost earlier in her life. The first part involves soul theft: both parents are holding on to and fighting over her. The struggle to secure this part is difficult and requires distraction of the parents by one of my power animals. Another part is found at her grandmother’s grave trying to join her grandmother, the only safe adult she had known. The third part is an eight year old girl afraid of her parents’ violence. I am also instructed to extract spiritual intrusions that my power animal says are caused by the family’s emotional hostility.
The results were phenomenal. The voices in her head stopped completely. Over the next few weeks, there were no reported incidents at night and she slept through the night for the first time in years. She reported feeling less fearful and managed to find a part time job. The progress continued until af amily incident during which her father beat her. The effect of the assault was that her symptoms returned in full force. This incident raised questions as to whether her growing inner power could withstand the family field as well as issues of how to work on life after healing. Another healing journey reveals the fathers attack had regained his hold on her soul. Another soul retrieval was done with the same immediate alleviation of her symptoms. The focus in her treatment and in her journeys changed to learning how to develop self-protection skills and make a safe break for independence from her parents.
What happened in this case was not new to me. Many mental health practitioners have seen a client get healthier only to lose progress after a family visit or in cident. What was new was the method of understanding and responding to the family influence. This client continues to he symptom-free and is slowly making strides in her life. (Note: I have seen several clients where the lack of ritual for adult independence and individuation elicits symptoms of depression along with thought disturbance. Without real concrete life changes which cut the energy cord to the parents, soul retrieval work did not take long term hold.)
As I mentioned earlier, a key to working shamanically with clients is the acceptance that the client’s experience is real. The shamanic perspective easily supports this idea and leads to a different way of responding to what are seemingly unreal experiences. A case picked up by a graduate student under my supervision illustrates this.
Delusion or Reality
The woman was a diagnosed schizophrenic and had been referred for long term supportive counseling. For the last few years she had been a difficult and expensive case to treat for the county mental health system. Multiple suicide attempts in response to auditory hallucinations and numerous hospitalizations were followed by numerous unsuccessful psychotropic medication regimes. Attempts to stabilize and maintain her in the community had been difficult at best.
The woman’s personal life history had been severe in tone. She had worked as a prostitute and had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. There was a suspicion of childhood sexual abuse as well as known family alcoholism. She had had a son out of wedlock to whom she was quite attached. At the age of three, her son was murdered by her boyfriend while she was at work. She immediately became psychotic and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Her delusional system insisted that her son was not dead and that she talked to him all the time. In fact, all of her suicide attempts were during times when she was trying to get to her son. The graduate student was particularly concerned that she find a way to help this young woman grieve the loss of her son. In my own mind I wondered if the woman was indeed talking to her son‘s spirit. From a shamanic point of view I could imagine his spirit being stuck in the middle world, not knowing he was dead. His mother could be stuck in denial
because of his traumatic ending. I researched more about the son’s death and where it had occurred.
I told the graduate student I was going to do an experiment and would tell her only when I had done it. Her job was then to tell me if she noticed any difference in the woman’s mental status. I journeyed with my spirit helpers to see if her son’s soul had crossed over to the other world. I found him in the middle world, in the house where he had been living crying for his mommy. He was quite frightened and I spent much time calming him down. One of my power animals gave him lots of cuddling and they played together for awhile. The boy told me many details of what happened to him prior to the murder (details I was later able to confirm). In the journey, I help to conduct his soul to the other world.
The results were staggering. The graduate student reported that her client had stopped talking to or about her son. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from her and she had woken up. The suicide gestures stopped, and she was able over time to live in a group home and work part-time in competitive employment. With
counseling, she began to grieve the loss of her son. But the hardness of her life and the traumas she had endured made it hard for her to survive without a great deal of community support. Although much improved by shamanic healing, like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put her completely back together again.
No Room at the Inn
Carol sat before me, hugely overweight and full of childish energy. Wiggling and squirming in her seat, she playfully engaged me as she told her story. She held a doll in her own likeness, a doll with a special name to represent a part of her. She reported feeling empty inside, looking for something lost long ago, and came for counseling because it felt right. Carol’s life had been hard. A survivor of a physically abusive marriage she could no longer work as a nurse because of her own healing process. Despite her disability, her pure energy and genuine love of life were striking.
She told me of a recent dream in which aspects of herself had taken her to see a bald man saying, “He can bring us home.“ Through inquiry and description, her dream ultimately led her to me – a bald man- for a soul retrieval. Several soul parts were subsequently restored that had left due to childhood violence with a subtheme of ritual sexual abuse. I did not share the subtheme as she had not reported it. Not knowing whether it had actually occurred in ordinary reality, I did not want to frighten her. My inner sense was to wait and see what happened. A few days later she called to report she was no longer thrashing in her sleep or waking in full body sweats. Over the next few weeks she began to lose weight without special effort and continued to feel good about the soul retrieval.
Several months later Carol called and asked to come in so she could share some things with me. During the appointment she told me that since the soul retrieval she had begun to hear voices. It had been increasingly disturbing to her but she had not wanted to share this with me as she felt so strongly that the soul retrieval had helped. She admitted that the internal disturbance had been distracting her every day.
I asked her to go inside, to notice her own feeling state and to pay attention to the voices. Carol reported several voices were coming through. By her physiological signs I observed that she was going into trance. I then asked if the strongest voice would speak through her. A different woman’s voice said, “I have to protect
the children.“ I ask “What children?” and find out there are nine children spirits this woman is protecting. The voice goes on to describe the scenes of ritual abuse I had seen in the original soul retrieval. I learn the adult spirit had taken on the nine baby spirits to protect them from evil and stepped into Carol when she was a child. I engage in a negotiation process with the adult spirit about crossing over to the other world where she and the children can be received in love, safety, and healing. The spirit is extremely distrustful, and overly concerned with the children’s protection. Three hours later, calling upon all the love and spiritual resources I know, she finally agrees to go into the light with the children. I am wringing wet and supercharged by the process. Carol reports the voices in her head are gone.
One year later I call Carol to learn what had happened since our last session. She reports continued healing in her life and a deep sense of inner peace. Over time she was able to recall the fullness of her childhood abuse and had been able to assist her sister (also a survivor) in her healing process.
A therapist comes out of session with a client acting quite disturbed with trance like symptoms. He reports his client had thrown a pillow at him during the session and he was frightened of the client’s rage. In minutes it became clear that he was in severe distress. He was talking in word salad, putting together associations that made no sense. His affect would shift from euphoria with spiritual laden content to extreme rage with paranoid delusions. Over a period of hours his condition deteriorated to the point where he was not in any reality contact and police had to be called to physically control him. He is taken to the hospital emergency room.
Once at the hospital, the staff there are quite concerned. Here was a mid-fifties male therapist with no history of psychiatric problems in full distress.
Concerns were voiced about drugs or some sort of physical organic process contributing to his mental state. While I am alone with him in the exam room, in one of his psychotic rages he manages to break out of his four-point restraints, a feat of tremendous energy and strength. The hospital staff examines every medical possibility they can imagine. I ask his wife if she would allow me to do shamanic healing work in the hospital. She asks that I wait. His condition does not improve and the medical staff decide to knock him out with medications. The next day he leaves the hospital against medical advice. Though better, his associations remain quite loose and his affect labile. In a lucid moment, he asks me to do work with him. With several support persons present I proceed.
I journey to my power animal and am taken immediately to the clinic the day before where I find his soul had left during his session with the angry client because of his fear that she was going to kill him. My power animal then took me to a part of him that left when he had heard his brother had been murdered thirty years earlier. He was in Europe at the time and not able to get home for the funeral. His family had never grieved their shared loss together.
Immediately upon blowing these soul parts back into him, the glazed look leaves his eyes, and he literally wakes up. Before I even say anything, he tells me, “You brought back the part that left when my brother was murdered.” He begins to sob and express feelings that had waited thirty years to be experienced. The soul retrieval along with both therapeutic support and his own spiritual practice helps him avoid a psychiatric hospitalization as well as further use of medications.
Several months later he reports being calmer than ever and views what happened to him as an intense spiritual experience. He adds that his compassion for what his clients go through has increased immeasurably. At the same time, this traumatic experience has left him with a lack of self-confidence. He chooses to heal this through his continuing spiritual practice.
By no means does this sampling speak to the full range of effect trauma plays in people’s lives or on the earth. What these cases do represent is an overview of types of experiences that responded to spiritual intervention.
Wounding cuts deep into the souls of all things. It is not easily or quickly healed and leaves scars. I must also say that the overall results from applying shamanic healing to individuals in crisis were not consistent. Successful amelioration of primary symptoms occurred in about 75% of the cases. Professionally, I am more convinced than ever of the reality of people’s experiences. At the same time, shamanic healing is not a substitute in all situations for traditional psychiatric intervention. Often follow-up therapy is an important part of the healing process after the crisis has passed.
In my childhood Indianapolis neighborhood, the boys would terrorize cats. Cats were viewed as sissy things and the last thing these kids wanted was to be called a sissy. The cats developed all the symptoms of trauma. They would scream, hiss, and show their claws if you came near. The fear was so intense their backs would curl and the fur would stand straight up. Paranoia would set in and often they failed to eat. This led to severe weight loss and matted, dull fur.
My response was to sneak food out on a plate to the cats. Although extremely hungry they would not come to the plate or anywhere near me. I’d retreat to the house and watch from the kitchen window. At first they crawled very close to the earth on their bellies toward the plate. It might take an hour before they would even get up to the plate. Once there, often they would not eat. Heads turned from side to side. After carefully checking that the coast was clear, sniffing would begin. Then came the first bite before ravenous desires finally took over. I couldn’t understand how an animal so hungry could blatantly deny its own needs. This ritual went on for months.
As time went by, the cats would come to the plate when I put out the food. Yet any time I would try to offer a soft touch, immediately backs arched and the screeching began. The association rang strong and deep, stronger than the loving attention I offered. Love couldn’t heal everything. At six years old, I had my first lesson in wounding and healing.
This story speaks to the caveats of this work and brings me to another crucial part of the healing process. One of the key variables in healing from trauma is the presence of a supportive community. In traditional shamanic cultures, healing was a part of the larger community life. My own healing has certainly been a case in point. Both a personal and a spiritual community were and continue to be significant in my life.
Contemporary urban life simply does not provide community support either personally or spiritually. People need to create these communities step by step. There were many times when I had to help clients through the night with their healing. Often the work was repetitive. Without significant life environment changes, the possibility for being retraumatized was significant. Healing sessions were often repeated as clients gradually learned concrete and spiritual means of safety and protection.
To some extent, I have found that working within the confines of a psychotherapeutic model continues clients’ isolation. While I worked within a community context as much as possible, many of these people had been so battered that they had withdrawn from any human – or other – support and literally had no safety nets. In effect they had disconnected from what they perceived as a hostile, unsafe world.
It has become clear to me that ultimately healing requires being received by – and creating a life within a larger community both in ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Jungian therapist James Hillman makes the case that the depression of our times could be a reaction to what we are doing to the world, “a mourning and grieving for what we are doing to nature and to cities and to whole peoples—the destruction of a lot of our world.” From this viewpoint, we need to find ways to restore our connection to the world around us, to all our relations. Again, the traditional shamanic model seems to address this issue head on.
Traditional therapy focuses on the individual and their internal process. Shamanic work focuses on the connection of all things. Through my own healing process, I discovered that something happens in me when I shift from the “I” place to “all”. I can retain the urgency of my own life without moving into a space of self-importance. The shift helps me walk more gently, to notice the weight of my own step. In this way, all that I am and will be is connected to the larger fabric of life. Individual healing fits into a bigger picture that touches and heals us all.
Both my ordinary reality community and my shamanic connections were of tremendous help with the last step in my professional life, namely leaving my traditional therapeutic practice completely to research, write and teach, but that’s another story and it’s still being written.
Eshowsky, Myron. “Practicing Shamanism in a Community Health Center”, Spring/ Summer, 1993. Shamanism, quarterly publication of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman, New York, Bantam, 1982.
Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael. We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherary And The Worlds Getting Worse, San Francisco, Harper, 1992.
Ingerman, Sandra. Soul Retrieval; Mending the Fragmented Self San Francisco, Harper, 1991.
Kalweit, Holger. “When Insanity is a Blessing: The Message of Shamanism” in: Stanislav and Christina Grof (editors) Spiritual Emergence: When Transformation Becomes A Crisis, Los Angeles, Jeremy Tarcher, 1990.
Nelson, John. Healing, the Spirit; Madness or Transcendence, Los Angeles, Jeremy Tarcher, 1990.
Roberts, Susan C. “Multiple Realities: How MPD is Shaking Up Our Notions of the Self, the Body and Even the Origins of Evil” in Common Boundary, May/June, 1992.
Article written by Michael Winkelman, PhD, MPH
Republished with Permission from Winkelman American Journal of Public Health | April 2003, Vol 93, No. 4
Recent publications reveal that substance abuse rehabilitation programs have incorporated drumming and related community and shamanic activities into substance abuse treatment. Often promoted as “Drumming out Drugs,” these programs are incorporated in major rehabilitation programs, community centers, conference workshops and training programs, and prison systems. Although systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of drumming activities are lacking, experiences of counselors and clients indicate that drumming can play a substantial role in addressing addiction. Evidence suggesting that drumming enhances substance abuse recovery is found in studies on psychophysiological effects of drumming[9–13] and the therapeutic applications to addictions recovery of altered states of consciousness, meditation,[15–19] shamanism,[20,21] and other shamanic practices.[22–24]
This report is based on information acquired from observations of drumming activities in substance abuse programs; interviews with program directors and counselors about
the effects and experiences induced; a pilot program introducing drumming for recovering addicts; and on-line discussions and published material on drumming effects. Because of confidentiality issues, the programs observed did not permit interviews with clients. Clients’ perspectives were provided by the directors and counselors involved in the program.
The following summarizes research done during 2001 on programs in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Participant observation was carried out in the first 2 locations; interviews and published material were used for descriptions of activities and assessment of their effects at all sites.
Objectives. This article examines drumming activities as complementary addiction treatments and discusses their reported effects.
Methods. I observed drumming circles for substance abuse (as a participant), interviewed counselors and Internet mailing list participants, initiated a pilot program, and
reviewed literature on the effects of drumming.
Results. Research reviews indicate that drumming enhances recovery through inducing relaxation and enhancing theta-wave production and brain-wave synchronization.
Drumming produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming alleviates
self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and
applying spiritual perspectives.
Conclusions. Drumming circles have applications as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counseling modalities have failed. (Am J Public Health. 2003;93:647–651)
Mark Seaman and Earth Rhythms of West Reading, Pa
Seaman is recovering from addiction; he began drumming as a way to express himself and become part of a community. He was searching for natural altered states of consciousness. His engagement with drums led to a personal transformation and an involvement with the recovery industry through counselors he knew at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pa. They wanted to expose adolescents in substance abuse treatment to drumming. The counselors said that these shut-down, angry, disenfranchised youth came alive as drumming gave them an avenue of expression. Initially, his programs were closely tied to the therapeutic process. Now, however, they are offered as recreational activity, and use drumming to create healing energy.
Activities. Seaman’s programs begin with his drumming as people enter the room. They pick up drums and are free to play them as they choose. He then introduces warm-up exercises to make people feel comfortable with the drums, teaching people how to hit the drums without emphasizing anything technical. A vocal element is introduced to engage the group in coordinated chanting/singing activities to get their energy going. He allows people to play spontaneously to lay the groundwork for nonverbal communication and asks participants to show how they feel through playing a rhythm on the drums. Call-and-response activities are used to connect the group. A subsequent activity gives each participant the opportunity to briefly use the drum to express feelings. The group engages in the creation of improvisational music that produces a feeling of great accomplishment and engages a “letting go” process through visualization. Seaman ends his program with an application of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ 11th step (meditation), using meditation music and a variety of percussion instruments to reinforce a visualization process to connect with a higher power. “I get people relaxed, give them permission to leave their body and go on a journey. I talk about forgiveness, acceptance and surrender. I work [on] release of guilt from the wreckage that they have produced through their addictions. The visual imagery connects with the inner child, to release baggage, to awaken true potential, to image contact
with higher power that covers and embraces them in a space of joy and healing.”
Effects. The participants enthusiastically receive the drumming. Staff emphasized that the youths particularly need drumming when group dynamics are stressed because of conflict within the group, and when the group’s sense of unity and purpose is disrupted by a client’s relapse to drugs. Seaman finds that drumming pulls a group together, giving a sense of community and connectedness. The terminal meditation activity induces deep relaxation, eases personal and group tensions, and often leads to strong emotional release. Seaman suggests that drumming produces an altered state of consciousness and an experience of a rush of energy from the vibrations, with physical stimulation producing emotional release. Because addicted people are very self-centered, are disconnected, and feel isolated even around other people, the drumming
produces the sense of connectedness that they are desperate for, he says. “All of us need this reconnection to ourselves, to our soul, to a higher power. Drums bring this out.
Drums penetrate people at a deeper level. Drumming produces a sense of connectedness and community, integrating body, mind and spirit.” Seaman’s program is designed to induce a spiritual experience that is upbeat and fun. Meditation, “letting-go,” and “rebirthing experiences” allow people to leave behind the things they don’t want (e.g. their addictions) and engage the themes of recovery within the dynamics of group drumming.
Ed Mikenas and the Lynchburg Day Program
Ed Mikenas has a background as a musician, music therapist, and substance abuse counselor; he has also taken training from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He first discovered the positive effects of drumming for recovery when he worked as a substance abuse counselor at a group home for girls. Mikenas’ interest in drumming preceded this program, beginning with a concert for the Partnership for Prevention of Substance Abuse. Currently, his programs are provided in colleges, after-school programs, city programs, and psychology and addiction conferences. The drumming reinforces other programs for both prevention of and recovery from addiction in a community context. Drumming emphasizes self-expression, teaches how to rebuild emotional health, and addresses issues of violence and conflict through expression and integration of emotions, says Mikenas.
Activities. Mikenas uses group drumming in substance abuse counseling to activate and reinforce the recovery process. Participation as a group leader or follower induces experiences that can mirror the recovery process—confidence, uncertainty, insecurity in leading, security in following, desire for change, or novelty. Drumming activities allow spontaneous expressions of leadership skills. Mikenas exposes participants to a variety of percussion instruments and helps them learn basic sounds, rhythms, and complex polyrhythmic dances. Sessions begin with warm-ups on bass tones to give safe and easy exercises and to coordinate the group. These are followed by edge tones
at greater acceleration and the use of stop and start signals. More complex movements (heel-to-toe, switching hands, slap tones) are then introduced, emphasizing the use of the non-dominant hand. Mikenas uses Afrocentric traditions, particularly Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms and the Afro-Caribbean Yoruba based religions. The gods are used as representations of archetypes to help people access their unconscious dynamics and connect their experiences with spirituality and community. Mikenas says that these spiritual experiences connect clients with a “higher power” and reestablish connections with their “natural selves.”
Effects. Mikenas finds that the activities of drumming produce entertainment, an altered state of consciousness, and an energy that draws people in. Drumming also provides opportunities for coordinating sound and movement to assist in mental, physical, and emotional development processes. The pulse of drumming in a context that combines self-expression helps coordinate activities and solve problems, says Mikenas. Drumming gives an opportunity to learn leadership and discover one’s own potentials. The drum’s sounds, rhythms, and energy elicit emotional issues and may work as an “eraser” to remove effects of trauma. Mikenas suggests that “with drumming, a group of people go from chaos and noise to an orderly sense of feeling all the same. Drumming helps express and address unhealthy emotional reactions that allow drugs to appear to meet emotional needs.” He says drumming entrains the brain and stimulates pleasurable feelings without drugs. “Drumming makes you feel good. When they
connect, it makes them glow. It helps people fit in. Drumming teaches nurturing, respect, participation, and personal relationships. Drumming changes speaking, feeling, and acting, and helps you learn to act from the heart.” Because group drumming gives participants different roles, individuals have to coordinate their parts. Therefore, they must focus on others. This gives them an experience with working together in a structured way. Mikenas says that a structured positive learning experience in lives that are often chaotic helps participants establish contact with themselves and connect with the collective consciousness. Mikenas considers benefits of drumming to include enhanced sensorimotor coordination and integration, increased bodily awareness and attention span, anxiety reduction, enhanced nonverbal and verbal communication skills, greater group participation and leadership skills and relationship building, and self-skills for self-conscious development and social and emotional learning.
Myron Eshowsky’s Shamanic Counseling Approach
Myron Eshowsky was trained as a shamanic counselor by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. His experiences, beginning in the mid-1980s, range from inpatient psychiatric
acute care settings to private practice, community mental health centers, and prisons. Eshowsky worked with adults in a community mental health center in Madison, Wis,
employing shamanic counseling approaches to apply spiritual perspectives to address psychological, emotional, and spiritual problems. His success led the drug/alcohol unit of his agency to refer clients with a history of severe addiction and significant mental health issues. He subsequently worked with at-risk youth and gangs at an alternative high school and provided programs for mental health centers, community-based antiviolence groups, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, public schools, and prisons.[1,2,26,27]
Activities. The shamanic drumming programs provided by Eshowsky include a mix of activities—story telling, journeying, healing work, dancing, spiritual divination, and group ceremonies. He engages adolescents in drumming activities and teaches them to journey on their own; he also often journeys himself to do healing work. Eshowsky uses shamanic journeying to find out information about clients, their power animals, spiritual intrusions, and soul loss. These shamanic activities may provide
healing (e.g., “soul retrieval”) or information subsequently used in ritual therapeutic interactions that involve other family members to provide community support. He uses ceremony and ritual to provide a context for clients to connect with their issues while simultaneously placing them in a global context. He says that this provides healing and a sense of belonging that helps clients define who they are.
Effects. Participants report that drumming and shamanic journeying calm them down and help them deal with their high-stress lives. “Drumming helps them to experience a
kind of peacefulness and provides a spiritual learning context that allows them to talk about their deeper concerns. It provides an opportunity for being heard that they don’t
often feel [they have].” Eshowsky reports that participants have a major reduction in crack cocaine and marijuana use as well as a reduction in drug-related violence and contact with the criminal justice system. This also enhances their school participation and performance. Eshowsky’s work with shamanic healing is often effective for people in desperate situations, when other counseling modalities have failed; he reports a number of remarkable recoveries.[1,2,26,27] A particularly successful application has been with youth in street gangs, for whom application of the principles of core shamanism has been useful in providing healing and spiritual justice by addressing issues of despair and powerlessness.
Daniel Smith’s Shamanic Approach
Daniel Smith is the former director of the Center for Addictive Behaviors and program director of the Herman Area District Hospital Alcohol and Drug Unit in St. Louis, Mo. After years of use of shamanic drumming techniques and training by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, Smith introduced drumming into his work as a licensed clinical social worker in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. He has taught drumming and shamanic techniques as an alternative and complementary therapy for addiction at wellness events, professional trainings, large conferences, and weekend retreats.
Activities. Incorporation of core shamanic principles within managed care has created tensions, but Smith says that he has found an uneasy acceptance among the staff of the psychiatric settings through bridging activities such as yoga, breath work, music therapy, mask making, and addressing issues of the inner child and family-of-origin dynamics.[13,15–19,30,31] Smith uses the shamanic approach for clients who repeatedly relapse. For clients who know what they need to do for recovery but cannot achieve sobriety, the concepts of soul retrieval, depossession (e.g. exorcism), extraction, power animal, and spirit retrieval may be applicable. Smith focuses on “rebirthing,” a kind of “spiritual surgery” akin to what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a spiritual awakening. This experience causes the addicted person to undergo a profound change in his or her response to life, says Smith.
Music and dance activities are used for both cognitive restructuring and physical exercise. Smith finds that yoga activities produce mental–physical bridging and the integration clients need to detoxify their bodies. He says breath work produces mental–physical integration and takes clients into altered states of consciousness. Mask making and rituals help solidify powers accessed in the nonordinary reality experiences; mask wearing incorporates helping spirits and the changes in personality necessary to create a new sense of self as a recovering person, says Smith. Shamanic techniques are introduced and reinforced through rituals with symbols of flight (birds, feathers) that help prompt visionary experiences reflecting common themes in recovery—symbolically flying from the hells of addiction and soaring through the sky. The technique to which Smith attributes the greatest success in working with chronic recidivists is “shapeshifting,” which borrows from techniques of Perkins. Rituals orient clients and help provide a sense of calm, a sense of inner balance, and connection with a greater power. Stone (rock) divination procedures are used: clients look for answers to
their questions through what they see in a rock. This process allows them to connect with the power of the universe, to externalize their own knowledge, and to internalize their answers; it also enhances their sense of empowerment and responsibility, says Smith.
Effects. Smith says that drumming and shamanic activities address addiction through reintegrating aspects of the self in rituals for soul retrieval and power animal retrieval.
Through these activities, people gain access to traumatic assaults that have driven their abusive relations with drugs. Spirit world journeys provide direct access to these early experiences in a context that reduces barriers to awareness. Ancestor spirits or other helpful spirit guides and allies encountered in rituals and journeys facilitate the resolution of trauma. These experiences are healing, bringing the restorative powers of nature to clinical settings. Shamanic activities bring people efficiently and directly into immediate encounters with spiritual forces, focusing the client on the whole body and integrating healing at physical and spiritual levels.
Pilot Program at the Phoenix Shanti Group
Before conducting the research reported in the previous sections, I presented a shamanic drumming circle based on the principles of core shamanism [28,33,34] to clients of the Phoenix Shanti Group as part of MPH internship activities. These clients were HIV-positive, and most were addicted to crack cocaine, methamphetamine, or opiates. These drumming activities were not part of regular program activities but were offered as a voluntary supplemental activity. The shamanic drumming activities were explained to the group in terms of their potential for inducing relaxation and natural altered states of consciousness that substitute for drug-induced highs. Suggestions for successful participation from the clinical director that were conveyed to the group included explaining the need for consistent attendance to achieve positive results. Additional recommendations included journaling of the session experiences to integrate them and chart the client’s development.
A few clients attended drumming groups held immediately after mandatory group sessions, but most declined. None of the clients currently in the intensive treatment program at Shanti attended the regular weekend evening sessions offered across more than a year, although some of Shant’s prior clients (graduates of the program) did attend. This lack of voluntary participation in supplemental activities suggests that successful introduction of drumming activities in rehabilitation requires that they be incorporated into the mainstream of the program. Clients’ interest will likely be strongly affected by the attitudes expressed by regular counselors.
Inquiries posted to an on-line drumming Internet mailing list provided additional important information about the use of drumming in rehabilitation and on the relationships between community drumming activities and drug use. One respondent said, “I have found that music, especially drumming, creates that same kind of bonding and interdependent unity without putting chemicals and smoke in my body. I really like being high on community drumming and want to share that.” Another noted, “There is no doubt in my mind that the drum circle and other musical initiatives are having a positive effect on the whole community. Drumming prevents children from getting into the drug culture, creating something positive and creative that children can identify with at an early age to build up their confidence and self-esteem. A sense of belonging to a community is the best protection there is. Drum circles give them tools to create a sense of community purpose and groundedness in their lives.”
In contrast, others commented on widespread drug use in drumming circles. Many drum circles accept (or fail to challenge and exclude) the use of drugs before, during, and
after drumming sessions. This tolerance makes existing community drumming circles an uncertain source of support for maintaining sobriety. Successful use of drumming to
guide and maintain sobriety probably requires the creation of programs specifically designed for the recovering community.
Physiological Effects of Drumming
Drumming produces a variety of physical and psychological effects. A recent popular book on drumming reviews research suggesting the positive effects of drumming in the
treatment of a wide range of physical conditions, mental illness, and personality disorders. Drumming enhances hypnotic susceptibility, increases relaxation, and induces
shamanic experiences. Drumming and other rhythmic auditory stimulation impose a driving pattern on the brain, particularly in the theta and alpha ranges.[9–12,33,35] The enhanced theta and alpha wave entrainment produced by drumming typifies general physiological effects of altered states of consciousness[33,35,36] and meditation. ASCs involve a mode of consciousness, a normal brain response reflected in synchronized brain-wave patterns in the theta (3–6 cycles per second [cps]) and alpha (6–8 cps) ranges. This response is produced by activation of the limbic brain’s serotonergic circuits to the lower brain. These slow-wave discharges produce strongly coherent brain-wave patterns that synchronize the frontal areas of the brain with ascending discharges, integrating nonverbal information from lower brain structures into the frontal cortex and producing insight.
Physiological changes associated with ASC facilitate healing and psychological and physiological well-being through physiological relaxation; facilitating self-regulation of physiological processes; reducing tension, anxiety, and phobic reactions; manipulating psychosomatic effects; accessing unconscious information in visual symbolism and analogical representations; inducing interhemispheric fusion and synchronization; and facilitating cognitive–emotional integration and social bonding and affiliation.
Drumming produces physiological, psychological, and social stimulation that enhances recovery processes. Drumming induces relaxation and produces natural pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, a release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming addresses self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives to the psychological and emotional dynamics of addiction. Drumming circles have important roles as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counseling modalities have failed.
Drumming circles and other shamanic altered state of consciousness activities can address multiple needs of addicted populations.
• Physiological dynamics, inducing the relaxation response and restoring balance in the opioid and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems
• Psychodynamic needs for self-awareness and insight, emotional healing, and psychological integration
• Spiritual needs for contact with a higher power and spiritual experiences
• Social needs for connectedness with others and interpersonal support
Drumming may reduce addiction by providing natural alterations of consciousness.[8,18–19] Shamanic drumming directly supports the introduction of spiritual factors
found significant in recovery from substance abuse.[21,37–39] Because recidivism is widespread, treatment success may mirror the natural recovery rate, and current methods have little success, the use of drumming and other altered states of consciousness as complementary therapies with considerable promise is justified.
Drumming groups may also aid recovery by enhancing health through their effects on social support and social networks. The health implications of social support have
been increasingly recognized.[42–43] These forms of support are of considerable significance for well-being in an increasingly atomized society in which traditional family- and community-based systems of support have become seriously eroded. Thus, deliberate enhancement of social support is a potentially significant contributor to physical, emotional, and mental health. The social support available from community drumming circles is one such source. These social effects are not merely palliative but constitute mechanisms for producing psychobiological effects. Central to these effects is an amelioration of the stress response, a significant factor in drug use and recidivism.
The use of drumming as part of substance abuse rehabilitation is far more widespread than the few cases reviewed here might suggest. Incorporation of drumming within Native American treatment programs has been repeatedly mentioned to me. A recent book reviewing the scope of research on the effects of drumming reports on programs in New York and California in which drumming is incorporated into addictions treatment. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies has several decades of experience in applying shamanic altered state of consciousness in both training and therapy. They have identified a variety of contexts in which shamanic approaches may be useful in reducing substance abuse.
The physiological effects of drumming and the positive effects of group drumming experiences on recovery that are attested to by counselors who have incorporated these activities into substance abuse rehabilitation programs provide a compelling rationale for the utilization and evaluation of this resource. Winkelman suggests a variety of ways in which the shamanic paradigm and altered states of consciousness can be applied to substance abuse rehabilitation.
About the Author
Michael Winkelman is with the Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University, Tempe.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Michael Winkelman, PhD, MPH, Department of Anthropology
P.O. Box 872402
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 852872402
This article was accepted May 20, 2002.
The research was supported by a National Institute of Drug Abuse postdoctoral fellowship awarded to the investigator through the Arizona Center for Ethnographic Research and Training.
I thank the individuals who made this research possible, particularly Scott Reuter and the Phoenix Shanti Group; Mark Seaman of Earth Rhythms, West Reading, Pa; and Ed Mikenas of Urban Wilde, Lynchburg, Va.
Human Participant Protection
Research was approved by the institutional review board of the Arizona State University and by the Shanti internal review board.
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From Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12 No. 1
“There comes a time when we must stop crying and wringing our hands and get on with the healing that we are so much in need of”
—Art Solomon, Ojibway Elder 
This article focuses on bringing shamanic understandings to problems related to prisons. It is based on working with hundreds of inmates over the last four years in federal and state prisons and local jails.
In tribal cultures, soul loss, power loss, and spirit intrusions and possessions are not considered individual problems per se. To quote Larry Peters, an anthropologist and psychotherapist: “Rather, they are seen as problems involving the whole social network, and the balance and relationship to the spiritual forces of the cosmos. That is, because ‘illnesses’ are considered transpersonal and sacred crises; they involve the intense participation of deity, family, and social network. Thus treatment is simultaneously psychosocial and spiritual.” 
In this world view, illness (here defined as including prisons) is symptomatic of an imbalance between society and the spiritual realm. This larger view is critical to being able to do shamanic work in the prisons.
The United States has a crisis in prisons. The number of people incarcerated as of June 1997 was 1.7 million.  For the first time in history, state and municipal governments are spending more money on the criminal justice system than education. Prison building has become a growth industry with stocks sold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Since the 1970s, there has been a shift from rehabilitation to punishment in the criminal justice system. Haney and Zimbardo  argue that the cultural rage to punish and expand strategies to make offenders suffer has led to this huge prison expansion. Rehabilitation has died as an overall emphasis in the prison system and the general attitude of many prison staff is “nothing works.”
Shamanic Work in Prisons
The first time I worked in a federal prison, I was not quite sure what the compelling forces of Spirit I sensed had in mind. I felt drawn there like a magnet and felt myself there even before I physically arrived. I was soon to learn the importance of doing shamanic work in this setting.
As I would discover many times over, correctional facilities are built in beautiful areas. I wondered what it would be like if I were an inmate surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Would it taunt me, knowing I could not walk freely in the beauty that surrounded me? Would I feel cut off from the world I left behind? It felt important to me to know that feeling within myself before I entered a facility.
In all the places I work, I contact the spirits of place and work carefully to honor my being there. I have found that every prison I have worked in is built on sacred land. Most often they are built on burial grounds and places of healing. I have found this to be true of state mental health hospitals as well, and often wonder why this occurs. There is always a guardian spirit at the site who is angry or distressed by what is happening there. I do what work and ceremony I can to bring healing to the place.
Entering a prison with a drum and rattle requires a sense of humor. It takes months of paperwork and security clearances before one can enter such a facility. Paperwork has to be at the entry point and in the prison guards’ hands before entry. Everything I bring into the facility has to be pre-approved by the warden. I have experienced a number of incidents at the entry point. For example, in addition to having been detained several times because they did not have the paperwork, my African gourd rattle was once x-rayed seven times to “make sure this is not a bomb or that you’re not smuggling in drugs.” While I could speculate on the intent behind comments about the rattle or drum, I mostly work to engage the guards and be lighthearted with them.
A typical visit lasts a couple of days. I work with circles of 45 men for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. While the format I follow is essentially consistent, I journey prior to each visit to learn what I should do. Most often, my work involves a teaching story, a group healing ceremony, a truth speaking time, and a closing prayer.
Most of the teaching stories have the intent of teaching about spiritual healing and come from my personal history. The specific stories I use and format I follow are always guided by journeys I take prior to working in a specific prison. The following is an example of a story I have used for this purpose: I grew up in a poor inner-city neighborhood where we were the only Jewish family. Because of religious hatred, I was often gang beaten and/or sexually assaulted. When alone, hiding in my room, I would pray to God that I could get even with the worst of these bullies. As luck would have it three of the four died violent deaths before I graduated high school.
After I left high school, I dreamt everyday of killing the one who was still alive. In my dream, I would go to my tenth high school reunion and kill him point blank in front of his wife and all who were there.
In my early twenties I left Indiana, and moved to Wisconsin. Shortly after moving, I received a letter from my mother who wrote that she was in the hospital with cancer. I had lost my father a year earlier to the same disease. This news meant I needed to immediately make arrangements to be with her.
After driving for six-plus hours, I pulled into a parking garage across from the hospital. I drove to the seventh level, where I found a parking place. I got out of my car and started walking toward the elevator when the bully I had dreamt of killing drove up. Recognizing me, he parked and got out of his car. In the next moment we were face to face. It was the first time I was facing him without someone holding me down for him to kick or hit. Posturing, he began shouting antisemitic epithets and threatened that he was going to beat me up like he always had. In the incongruity of the moment, I began to laugh hysterically. The madder he got, the redder in the face he got, the louder I laughed, tears rolling down my face. Inside myself, I knew that I had enough rage to kill him. But then, a miraculous thing happened. He fell apart and began weeping. And then he ran off. I had a horrible feeling about this and tried to catch up to him, but to no avail.
After a story like this, I can begin to engage the men. Most of the time, they do not understand why I felt bad. I talk about how healing needs to happen for my adversary as well as myself. I talk about how making another person suffer does not alleviate our own suffering, instead creating the seeds for more spiritual illness. Usually, they will share some stories about themselves that my story evokes. Many of them tell what I call “dissociation stories.” Two examples of these stories, which are typical of persons incarcerated for murder, are:
1. I got angry while making a drug buy. I don’t know what happened. All of sudden, I was speaking in this language I didn’t know—like Arabic or something. And then I watched myself shoot him in the head.
2. My old man was always beating me. I don’t know why. I was filled with so much pain and hate. But I felt good when I hurt people. But you know, it never felt like me. It was like someone else did it— even though I know I did it.
Interaction with the men leads to talk about soul loss, symptoms of soul loss, and the need to connect with Spirit. I talk about what shamanism is and how shamans work. It is consistently my experience that they want to connect with this in a direct way. Many of them speak of frustration with prayer and meditation. They feel they must be doing something wrong when they cannot find their place of connection. The desire to be healed is strong. Their biggest complaints are of emptiness, numbness, or intense internal pain.
In a typical first visit, I talk a lot more than the men do. It is prison and “everything you say can and will be used against you.” That aspect of the dynamic usually makes it difficult to know fully what is occurring in the minds of the participants. When I teach journeying to the men, I get four or five at best who will admit something happened for them. My journeys about this issue consistently give me the message, “there is so much soul loss here, their fear will not let them go.”
As a result of this guidance, I put more emphasis on group healing ceremonies. I tell the men who do not want healing to sit outside the circle. In four years, I have had only one man remove himself. Afterwards, I ask the men to share their experiences. They report hearing chanting, someone touching them, a feeling of electricity in their body, or a dead family member appearing to them. They are surprised when I tell them I was not singing nor did I touch any of them.
There also have been incidents with staff in these ceremonies worth noting. A number of staff members who were watching have left with tear-filled eyes. The law of “everything will be used against you” applies to them as well.
In one incident, a prison guard saw a Native American Medicine Man dancing behind me as I did the work. It shattered him. He had been having spiritual dreams of this man for months. A born-again Christian, he had been advised that these dreams were the Devil’s work and that he needed to deny them to keep them from occurring. Another part of him felt the power of the healing work. The incongruity of experience and belief created a huge quandary for him. Fortunately, a staff psychologist sympathetic to my work took the time to help him talk through his experience. In another incident, my spirit teacher told me to stop a ceremony when we were right In the midst of it. I felt a blast of pain come into my heart. When I looked in the direction from where it was coming, I saw a prison guard with absolute horror etched on his face. As it turned out, he was having a flashback to a prison hostage situation of ten years prior. He was convinced I was being held hostage because the lights were slightly dimmed. Private
discussions led to an agreement to do the ceremony under full lights. I had to find a way to let him save face in front of the prisoners.
Case Examples of Work with Inmates
It is difficult to summarize the totality of my experiences in the prisons. One way is to share a few stories as a way of giving readers a flavor of the work that I have done up to this point. I have changed people’s names and omitted prison locations so as to protect their confidentiality as per my agreement with the prison staff. The majority of the inmates I have worked with are African-American, Native American, and Hispanic. Most of them are incarcerated for drug offenses, murder, or illegal immigration. Surprisingly, this diversity yields no discomfort with the kind of work I do. Most of these inmates have had some sort of exposure in their lives to spiritual healing. The stories will reflect that diversity.
Case # 1—Carlos
“Carlos” is a young man in his late twenties from Columbia. He says his family is Kogi, though he lived in a city his whole life. I met him when I was asked to work with a Native American group by the Religious Services Department. I was told they could not get any Elders to come into the prison and needed to find some way to support the prisoners who wanted to practice their religion. When I met with the group, I was quite astonished by its diversity. Several were from Central and South America. A diverse number of tribes were represented, including Seneca, Lakota, Apache, Seminole, and Cherokee. Two of the men were African-Americans who had Cherokee relatives. There were also several European Americans who thought they had Native American ancestry, but were not sure.
Carlos was sitting directly across from me in the circle. Everything about him was depressed. It was like a black cloud hung over him. After a brief talk about soul loss and healing, he became the most active talker in the group.
“I want to die. If I journey, will it help me die? Do I have to come back? I’m a heroin addict. Heroin killed my spirit. I don’t want to be here. I‘ve tried to kill myself in lots of ways, but they always bring me back.”
At this point, he pulled up his sleeves and showed all his knife scars. Then he pulled up his shirt and showed all of his bullet hole scars.
“All I feel is pain. When I was young, I saw people like you. They scared me. I saw things you would not believe. But my spirit is sick. I ran drugs into this country so I could have heroin. I killed people so I could have heroin. I am cursed.”
Further discussion revealed he had grown up in poverty and did not have much knowledge of his ancestors. On this particular day, I did a group extraction ritual and some soul retrievals. Carlos happened to be one of the people for whom I was guided to do more specific healing.
I learned later that day from prison staff just how destructive towards himself he had been, as well as the full range of his criminal record. He had not exaggerated.
When I returned six months later, I was shocked when I saw him. He was bright and glowing and very much at peace. He was participating in educational activities for himself, and the staff reported he was a changed man.
“Tony” is an African American man who, when I first saw him, I thought to be in his early twenties. He was actually 37. He is a strikingly beautiful man—an “adonis” type. He expressed a great concern about what I would be doing because, as he explained it, he was a “Christian man,” and was skeptical that there was anything to my work.
As I began a group healing ceremony, a vision of an old Cherokee woman came to me. She said she was Tony’s grandmother and that I should tell him she had been visiting him in his dreams. When it was time to end the circle, I pulled him aside and told him what I had experienced. He was totally shocked. He shared with me that he had been having dreams about her and that he had not seen her since he was five years old. He had been taken to see her then and vaguely remembered being at a ceremony. It was why he came to see what I was going to do. He added that his mother was Cherokee and that his people had been taken in by the Cherokee long ago. The dreams had been disturbing for him. He felt torn between what he was being taught by his Christian minister and his pull towards Cherokee spirituality. We were able to have some time to talk about how they could complement one another. Over the months, he wrote me a few letters, so our dialogue continued. His dreams were becoming more profound and disturbing to him. In effect, he was learning the Cherokee ways through his dreams.
In my next visit to the prison, Tony asked me to teach the circle journeying, which I did. He was able to talk with his Cherokee grandmother, African ancestors, and Jesus in the Upperworld and was told he was to help bring all the “colors” of people together. Typically a very guarded person, he opened up in the circle and shared much of his story. He asked me if I would do a soul retrieval for him, which I did as part of the group healing ceremony. Much of the focus in the soul retrieval journey was on the trauma of losing his family roots. Tony has since been paroled and has written me once saying what he learned continues to help him in his life.
“John” is Lakota. In four different circles with me, he never said a word. I knew him by name and knew he had grown up on Pine Ridge, for I asked all the men to tell me their names and where they were from. But that was all I knew.
After not seeing John for about a year, we were finally in circle together again. I had worked with many of the men there before so I asked how they all were doing. I was surprised when John started talking.
“Don’t know what happened since you were last here. I haven’t had a drink since you were here. Don’t know why, just didn’t feel like it. People here get juice, something, and let it ferment ‘til you can get a buzz off it. People invite me to drink with them, but I just say, ‘No thanks.’ I don’t feel empty inside like I used to. That ceremony we did, I felt something come into me—it was like electricity. It stung me like a bee and I was hot. I began drinking every day when I was six years old. My father would get drunk and violent. I became like him. For the first time in 30 years I’m not drinking and I feel good inside. I feel blessed by the Creator.”
Mike approached me after I told the story about myself mentioned earlier in this article. He shared with me that he thought a lot of what I had to say made sense and he thought I could help him. At the same time, he admitted it took him aback. Mike was a national leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in prison for murder and a variety of hate crimes. I told him that his approaching me was a healing for me and I thanked him. It was not what he expected to hear.
In time, I did do a couple of soul retrievals for him. He came from a horrible background of beatings by his father. Most of our talks and writing focused on how to heal the bad we had done. His desire was to find a way to make amends. Most of our work consisted of him talking and me listening. He talked about his discomforts being incarcerated with many of the people he had hated most of his life. He talked about wanting to turn his life around. We talked about baseball—it really did not matter what we talked about. He needed to talk and I needed to listen. I think Spirit healed hatred that lived in both of us.
“Scott” was a leader among the Native American prisoners. Doing sweats (many prisons allow sweat lodge ceremonies) and other ceremonies were important to him. He expressed bitterness about the sweat lodges at the prison. He noted that almost none of the Native prisoners had ever been in a sweat lodge before, Native people from outside the U.S. were lumped into the group who were doing sweats, there was a lack of sacredness in the sweats, and many who were in gangs used the sweatlodge as a time to talk and create “bad medicine.”
Whenever I am in circle with Native American prisoners, I tell them l am their guest and I follow their lead. Typically, everyone smudges and then someone offers a prayer, followed by some drumming and chanting. At this point I usually share my teachings and do a healing ceremony. Native American prisoners feel that prisons work to keep them away from their practices. They cry for Elders, for many have little to no knowledge of their traditions. Scott is one of the most articulate of the inmates in expressing these concerns.
I agreed to meet with Scott alone as per the request of the prison Chaplain. Scott has great bitterness and anger, but wants to be on a good path. I learned that he killed a man in a bar fight. He is filled with sadness because his mother died while he was in prison, and very recently, he learned his brother also had died. He could not be with them, nor could he go to their funerals. These were the two people who he felt cared for him. Many of his family members had cut themselves off from him. In his anger he was easily depressed and thought of suicide daily. His biggest physical complaint was severe daily migraines, which I learned from prison staff was a major concern at the prison. In my discussions with him, I promised to help find an Elder who would be willing to come to the prison. I also did a soul retrieval for him.
I did not know how difficult it would be to get an Elder into the prison. The Chaplain explained that the Medicine People would not come in because it is a federal facility and they hold great bitterness towards the federal government. He said he had tried many times to get someone to come in.
Through people I knew, I found three Elders who were willing to come in and work with the men. Two of them had been in jail early in their lives, had turned their lives around, and were living exemplary lives. Prison officials insisted they fill out security clearance forms. I was told that their policy was that no one with a prison record would be allowed in. I argued, who better to talk about getting on a good spiritual path than someone who has done it? This point fell on deaf ears. One Elder was cleared after prison officials agreed not to do a security clearance on him. However, they insisted on a contract with the Elder involving payment for his services. This raised a number of issues concerning Native American cultural beliefs. In my discussions with the Elder, he said it would be nice to have his expenses paid for travel, food, and lodging. It was not his way to sell his services or ask for a fee. Fortunately, there was a sympathetic prison psychologist who helped resolve these issues. I found the prison and prison policies to be the obstacle to letting Elders in to serve the Native American inmate population and not the “tribal resistance” being expressed by prison personnel.
By the time the Elder was able to come, Scott had already been transferred from the prison to another facility. I wrote to inform him I had kept my promise. He wrote back, saying this gave him a good feeling in his heart. He also told me his bitterness and migraine headaches were gone for the year since the soul retrieval.
Kareem is an African-American prisoner and a Black Muslim, a religious organization that does a tremendous amount of service work in the prisons. They offer spiritual support, educational tutoring, and mentoring in almost every facility where I have worked.
In a circle of inmates that included Kareem, we did what I call a “Jewish extraction/soul healing ritual.” A group of my teachers whom I call “People of the Just” said they wanted me to do this ritual. I taught the men a Hebrew song that invokes my teachers to come and help take spiritual intrusions away. The song had a lot of power that day as the men sang with deep booming voices. It was surprising to me to experience the men so fully letting go.
In this ritual I work to pull out intrusions. I never touch anyone. In Kareem’s case, I was shown a five year-old part of his soul to bring back. I also was shown his father in a drunken rage beating his wife and beating Kareem for trying to protect his mother.
When the ritual was over, Kareem was the first to speak. “Did you touch me?” I simply shook my head, “no.”
“I felt hands all over me. And then later on, I felt like a balloon being blown up. What was that?”
I asked him if he wanted me to speak about my experience in the group or talk with him later.
He said he wanted to know now.
I told Kareem about my experience of being asked to bring a piece of his soul back and what I had seen.
He began to weep and through his tears said, “How did you know that?” As he wept, it was as if a tidal wave hit the whole circle and all the men began to cry. It was one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed.
Universally, the research asserts that imprisonment does not stop crime. It is ironic that incarceration is booming at a time when crime rates are falling.
Ultimately, shamanism is a system of learning and understanding the hidden forces that effect us all. I would not argue that it works for all the men in prison, and yet it offers a way of looking at alternatives to punishment. Saulteaux Elder Campbell Papequash, who works in the prisons in Canada observes:
“You will learn whatever you desire that you want to learn. Learning can’t be told. It has to be experienced. As we learn, we always change. So does our perceiving. If man wishes to grow, he must become a seeker. Our first teacher is our hearts. It is not enough to want to change. We have to take steps to change whatever we want to change: the Mind, e.g., the way we think; our character; our conduct; our personality.” 
In one of the prisons, a drumming/journeying circle has been established. A nonrequired event in the facility, it grew in popularity. Like anything new, it had growing pains. There were some power struggles that needed to be worked through. These struggles were mostly resolved through journeying and by the men learning to work with the guidance of spirits.
Until recently I had done no reading about prisons. It struck me how prisons did not exist in tribal cultures. Rather, there were systems in place for working on restoring balance. Most often, banishment was a last resort. The power of the community was brought together to bring a person back to a right path. A question I now hold is: How do we restore our culture to a place of healing where prisons are a last resort solution to our collective problems?
I end with a few words from Ojibway Elder Art Solomon, who works actively on behalf of Native peoples in the prisons: “When Christopher Columbus landed in North America not one Native person was in prison, because there were no prisons. We had laws and order because law was written in the hearts and minds and souls of the people and when justice had to be applied it was tempered with mercy. The laws came from the ceremonies which were given by the spirit people, the invisible ones. As a people we were less than perfect as all other people are, but we had no prisons because we didn’t need them. We knew how to live and we also knew how not to live.” 
1. Keen and Posluns 1994:51
2. Peters 1994
3. Bureau of Justice Statistics 1998
4. Chambliss 1994
5. Haney and Zimbardo 1998
6. Waldrum 1997: 81-82
7. Keen and Posluns 1994: 118
Bureau of Justice Statistics
1998 “Nation’s Prisons and jails hold more than 1.7 million. Up almost 100.000 in a year.” January 18 press release. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice
1994 “Policing the Ghetto Underclass: The Politics of Law and Law Enforcement.” Social Problems 41: 177-194
Haney, Craig and Philip Zimbardo.
1998 “The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty-Five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment.” American Psychologist 53
Kneen, Cathleen and Michael Posluns, eds.
1994 Eating Bitterness: A Vision Beyond Prison Walls, Poems and Essays of Art Solomon. Toronto: NC Press Limited.
1994 “Rites of Passage and Borderline Syndrome: Perspectives in Transpersonal Anthropology.” ReVision 17.
Waldram, James B.,
1997 The Way of the Pipe: Aboriginal Spirituality and Symbolic Healing in Canadian Prisons. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press.
From Shamanism Spring & Summer 1993, Vol. 5 No. 4 & Vol. 6 No. 1
For six years I worked openly practicing shamanism in a community mental health center. I was able to do this work with the support of my supervisor and the administration. In the course of that time, there were many successes, some non-successes, and a growing acceptance of shamanism as a culturally diverse method for addressing the needs of the center’s clientele. Most importantly, it was a proving ground for returning shamanism to the community setting.
The Mental Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, serves a population of approximately 300,000. As the primary provider of mental health services for the county, it offers a multitude of services for a wide variety of needs. The center is recognized as one of the best in the world and is visited by numerous professionals who wish to duplicate its programs. In my years there, there were hundreds of opportunities to apply ancient knowledge to modern problems. Most of the clients were poor, of varied cultural background, many experiencing extremely traumatized lives, and exhibiting severe emotional difficulties with little resources internally/externally to effect change.
There has always been a part of me that has been curious about wounding and healing. I grew up in an inner city neighborhood of a large Midwest city in the 1950’s. The place was a transient mix of poor whites from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and poor blacks from what was then called the Deep South (Alabama/Mississippi). All had moved north during and after World War II for good paying factory jobs. All the problems of poverty, violence, and racism were ever-present.
One of the unique qualities of the neighborhood was the large families that would have several children and 90 percent would be boys. These boys would terrorize cats…kick them, cuss at them, and throw rocks at them. Cats, after all, were sissy things and the last thing you wanted to be was a sissy. These cats would develop all the symptoms of trauma. They would scream, hiss, and show their claws if you came near. The fear was so intense their backs would curl and the fur would stand straight up. Paranoia would set in and the failure to eat, scavenging what they could, led to severe weight loss and an uncombly, matted look to their fur. At six years old, I was observing my first lesson of wounding.
Unbeknownst to my mother, who would have killed me had she known, I was sneaking food on a dish out to the cats. They would not come to the plate even though you knew that they were extremely hungry. The scared, defensive behavior would predominate. I would retreat to the house and watch from the kitchen window. At first they would crawl very close to the earth on their bellies toward the plate. This process would take an hour before they would even get up to the plate. And still they would not eat. Heads would turn from side to side. After careful checking that the coast was clear, the sniffing would begin and then the first bite before the ravenous desires took over. I couldn’t understand how an animal so hungry could blatantly deny its own needs. This ritual went on for months. As the months went by, they would come to the plate when I came out with food. Yet any time I would try to offer a soft touch, immediately the back arched and the screeching began. The association rang strong, stronger than the loving attention I offered. Love couldn’t heal everything.
This story rings true of many of the people I had the opportunity to engage in the mental health center. Many came from awful histories. It was not uncommon that they had long histories of treatment without success. Some had migrated from the streets of Chicago to get away from the violence. Some were Boat People from Cambodia. Many had stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and neglect in childhood. In some way, the metaphor of the battered cat would come back again, and again, and again. Whenever I think of how we are going to heal as wounded animals on this Planet, I can’t help but think that connecting to one’s own power animals and learning from them is a crucial link in healing the human spirit.
For most of these people, there is little hope offered. More often than I care to admit, I hear mental health professionals express expectations that there is little to be done. There’s not enough time, not enough resources, not enough possibility. This is “reality.”
Expert “reality” closes the mind to the possibilities of the exception, of the miracles that happen every day. Doing shamanic work has shown me that reality is much broader than what our culture embraces.
It was never my intention to introduce shamanism into the mental health center. What began as a seed blossomed into a fertile testing ground. Staff were referring more and more clients to me even though I did not talk with anyone there about what I was doing nor about the results I was having until I was about to quit.
They knew that I was using shamanism with clients and were open to it for reasons unbeknownst to me. In my last month there, I finally told some of the stories of what had transpired, what I had learned from applying a spiritual perspective to psychological/social problems, and my deep belief that new paradigms were needed to address the emotional/mental/spiritual needs of the community.
Over the years, I found that most of the clients who came my way had profound spiritual experiences in their lives. They would not necessarily call these experiences shamanic. What I did find was that shamanism helped provide a means of understanding unusual experiences without having to see them as crazy or weird.
The client I first used shamanism with was a 47 year-old woman who came to Madison because of a rare liver illness. It turned out that the only M.D. in the country to work with these cases was at the university. She and her husband had moved from Florida, leaving a high-paying corporate position. Now a year of medical bills and his inability to find work due to his age had left them impoverished. She was referred for counseling due to depression reaction related to her illness process. Her illness symptoms included the following: yellow skin, severe edema, red dots of burst blood vessels covering her whole body, severe exhaustion (walking up five or six steps necessitated hours of rest).
One year of treatment had yielded no improvement. Because I did not know what else to do, I had her do a journey to meet her power animal. She had a delightful experience in doing this.
In the journey, she found herself at a beautiful pond. There she was met by a large dog. She learned that this was her power animal and asked his assistance in healing her illness.
He instructed her to take off all her clothes. She lay down by the pond and a beam of light, filtered through a crystal in the sky, flooded her body in a rainbow of colors. The dog then licked her entire body. She came back from her journey saying she had more energy than she had felt since getting ill.
Two days later she called and said that the swelling in her body was reducing, the yellow hue to her skin was leaving, and the red dots were disappearing. Two weeks later, the doctors reported that her illness was in complete remission. The doctors could not explain the change and cautioned that a relapse could happen. Her husband then found a job in Illinois, and they moved to rebuild their lives. For the past several years, I regularly get a card from her stating another year has gone by without a relapse.
As you can imagine, my experience working with her reinforced me in proceeding forward in bringing this work to other clients at the center. The spirits in my journeys
said to do the work without making anything of it. I was assured I would be under their protection and guidance.
When Is Crazy Truly Crazy?
One of my graduate students picked up a case that was referred to the center for long-term supportive counseling. This woman was diagnosed schizophrenic and had
been one of the most difficult cases to treat in the county for the previous few years. Her story was one of multiple severe suicide attempts in response to her auditory hallucinations. There had been numerous hospitalizations and she had been placed, with little success, on numerous psychotropic medications.
Attempts to stabilize and maintain her in the community had been difficult at best. As my student began to share the story of this woman in our supervision meeting, some interesting themes began to emerge. This woman had been a prostitute and drug addict, with an early life history of family alcoholism and probable childhood sexual abuse. She had a young son born out of wedlock to whom she was quite attached.
At the age of three years old, her son was murdered by her boyfriend while she was at her job. Her psychiatric condition deteriorated immediately. She became psychotic and was hospitalized. Her delusional system insisted that her son was not dead and that she talked to him all the time. All of her suicide attempts were during times when she was trying to get to her son.
My graduate student noted that no one had ever tried to help her grieve her loss — mostly she had been confronted again and again with the fact that her son was dead. In my own mind, I wondered if a spiritual understanding would lead to a different approach in this woman’s case. I had my student learn more about the murder of the young son, in particular, where it had occurred.
I told my student I was going to do an experiment and I would tell her when I had done it. The student was to then tell me if she noticed any difference in the woman’s mental status. I journeyed to see if the young boy’s soul had not yet left the Middle World. I found him in the house where he had lived, calling for his mommy. He was quite frightened and I spent much time calming him down. He told me many details of what had happened (details previously unknown to me, which I later was able to confirm). Then doing psychopomp work, I was able to help his soul leave the Middle World.
The results were staggering. My student reported that her client, by all parties’ reports, had stopped talking to or about her son. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from her and she had awakened. The suicide gestures stopped and over time she was able to live in a group home and work part-time in competitive employment. With counseling, she began to grieve the loss of her son. The traumas she had endured had made it hard for her to survive without a great deal of community support. I have never met this woman. I do know she has had a stable life over the last few years without a recurrence of her troubling symptoms.
Over time I came to work with many clients who had long histories of auditory hallucinations as well as with clients in acute episodes of psychotic break. In about two-thirds of those cases, they had immediate relief from auditory hallucinations. Most significant within the organization was the openness of traditional psychiatrists to having me use these methods with persons whose delusional/hallucination material had spiritual themes. While not all were helped, over half were able to thereafter manage without psychotropic medications or major community support interventions.
As word spread about the usefulness of spiritual methods for some of the clients referred to me, I began to be approached by staff in units other than the one in which I worked, the adult outpatient unit. I was approached by staff in the drug and alcohol unit to do adjunct work with some of their more difficult clients. In all of the cases, there was a history of 20 years or more of chronic substance abuse and an inability to maintain sobriety for longer than two to four weeks. All had been in every treatment option available.
One of the first cases was a mid-40’s gay male, a person of color, with a history of chronic alcoholism, suspicion of childhood abuse (sexual, verbal, and physical), agoraphobia with severe panic disorder, and suicidality. He had never had a sexual experience as an adult while sober. His job history was spotty at best and he was supported through a form of public assistance.
We began by talking with each other about what was spiritual for him. There was a deep artistic sensitivity and love of animals behind his life of fear. We began by doing shamanic counseling (Harner Method) and then having him do work with drawing and clay to express his experiences. The connection with his power animal energized him and he reported being able to do more at home for one to two days after a journey.
Our contract called for him to not do a journey with me if he had used alcohol in the prior 24 hours. In the early stages of our work, he was able to keep this agreement without fail. Later, for reasons that will emerge, he relapsed. I then had him read an article by Sandra Ingerman on soul retrieval which both frightened him and excited him. With his repeated requests to have a soul retrieval done, and the putting together of a support plan with his alcohol counselor, we proceeded in this direction.
At the point that I did the soul retrieval for him I knew very little of his childhood. He could not remember much. He had grown up in a large metropolitan city. Both his parents were highly regarded professionals. His parents had divorced after all the children left home. His relationships with parents and siblings was mixed at best.
In the soul retrieval, I brought back three child parts. The images I got during that journey was of soul theft and violent sexual abuse by his father, but I did not speak of that to him. Immediately after the soul retrieval, he reported feeling hyper-aware, as if on an acid trip. Things seemed brighter, clearer.
During the next week he began to remember the abuse. He continued to feel exuberant. He went out and found a job that week. He refrained from alcohol and began to get out of his apartment and go to social meetings. Within a month, he was having dinner parties at his apartment and maintaining sobriety. It seemed too good to be true. His counselor and I wondered whether there had been some sort of flight into health.
Then, he received a telephone call from his mother saying that the father (her ex-husband) was paranoid, crazy, and holed up in his house with a gun. His mother told him to get home and do something about his father. He immediately relapsed and withdrew to his apartment.
I received a call from him about two weeks later. He was quite inebriated. He said that he felt that something which is not supposed to be there is inside of him and that it was driving him crazy.
He questioned whether I had done him harm with the soul retrieval and put something in him. He demanded that I undo the soul retrieval as he was extremely suicidal and could not take the pain.
On the surface, it looked like classic homeostasis in the family system. If he no longer was the alcoholic/crazy one for the family, then the balance in the system would have to reestablish itself somewhere else to maintain system equilibrium.
I was quite discouraged by what was happening. I had never been asked by a client to undo a soul retrieval. His therapist, frightened by the events, was quite angry with me despite the few weeks of remarkable change. I journeyed to my teacher in the Upper World who pointed out that when I had taken the client’s soul back from his father who had stolen it, I had not done anything to fill the void that his father then felt. My teacher also showed me that in the moment my client had received the call from his mother, he had experienced soul loss again and I saw a spirit then step into his body.
I called the therapist and suggested that we all meet for a session to try to remedy whatever was going on. In that meeting, I asked the client to go inside himself and notice what it felt like in his body when he said “something is in me.”
As he went into trance, I asked the presence to come forward. A lost spirit came through and I began to work with it to help it leave the Middle World in the way I had learned from Michael Harner. Immediately afterward the client reported feeling that he had been cleared of the intrusive presence. His therapist was bewildered and said she did not know what to think. Years later, he still maintains sobriety and is without agoraphobia/panic attacks. He is employed and has developed a community of friends.
In every case of working with persons having a history of chronic drug/alcohol abuse, there has been a crisis after a soul retrieval. These crises are most often characterized by suicidal impulsivity as they are flooded with feelings previously lost. While not all maintain sobriety, the period of sobriety is significantly longer than previous attempts through traditional therapies.
In the mental health center, there is a unit that works with children, adolescents, and families, with a variety of programs designed to meet the needs of this population. This unit asked me to facilitate a couple of sessions with a group of adolescents identified as among the most troubled in the city. All come from poor family backgrounds; most had histories of drug/alcohol abuse, truancy, and violence. Significant in their difficulties was a profound sense of alienation and lack of connection to their past or their future. The two therapists for this group hoped a spiritual orientation might help the adolescents feel more connected to something larger, which in turn, might bring hope and renewed self-esteem into their lives.
The adolescents were pretty unruly at first, but the drumming would start, and more and more of them would drum, and eventually, a transformation would occur. In the first group sessions they journeyed to their power animals. Many of them had significant journeys and were deeply affected.
The power of their own wounding was so intense, they did not know what to do with these experiences. For some, It meant they had to joke it off. Others were speechless and would come up to me in a private moment to share their experiences. Eventually, we did the Dream Dance to journey to the ancestors and to create rituals together. Having little sense of family, there was little connection to a sense of roots.
The therapists reported there was an observable change over time. Because my own role was short-term, I have not been able to track the effects closely. I have seen a number of these kids on the streets. They would come up to me and say, “You’re the drumming guy aren’t you?”
Many shared that the sessions made a difference for them and that they wished they had a way to continue to drum and journey. The therapists who have followed these adolescents over time felt the experience was of benefit. As of this writing, there are two groups using drumming with troubled adolescents in the mental health center. The work continues.
Culturally Diverse Treatment
The population of the United States is changing rapidly, but many of the psychotherapies have a white, middle-class bias. A key in the field of mental health is to develop culturally diverse services. Developing services that respond to cultural differences has been the focus of a major debate in the local mental health center. There are significant African-American, Hispanic, and Asian populations in Madison. Within these populations are diverse groups reflecting different beliefs, attitudes, and histories. Some of these groups, such as Haitians and Mexican-Americans, have traditions of folk healing and even shamanism, such as the Hmong people from Laos. Major mental health interventions within these populations were more easily accepted by recognizing their spiritual cultures. The following is a Mexican-American example.
A therapist working with the Spanish-speaking clientele at the mental health center asked me to help him with a client about whom he was increasingly concerned. The client was a 40 year-old single mother from Mexico with three children. Diagnosed as having cancer, she had become extremely depressed and, for all practical purposes, had given up, even failing to care adequately for her children.
The doctors felt that her cancer was treatable with surgery and radiation, but she did not believe it would work, viewing her illness as punishment by an evil spirit. In her history, she had often used curanderos for her complaints and was open to spiritual approaches. She agreed to see me when her therapist told her I was a healer who worked with spirits.
In our meeting she agreed to do a journey. Her power animal told her that she had to live for her children and that she would get well if she worked with the doctors. In the journey, she was spontaneously dismembered and experienced death and a rebirth.
Prior to the journey all she wanted was to join Death. Something in her was transformed during the journey and she began to cooperate with her therapist. Next I did some extraction work for her and more shamanic counseling. She became alive with her energy and stopped giving up. The medical treatment of her cancer was a success, and she lives to this day. The significant aspect of this case was the repeated failure in psychotherapy to get her past her ruminations about death and to mobilize her.
As a consequence of such shamanic work, today there are a variety of settings in Madison where shamanic counseling is being used by practitioners other than myself. These settings include: hospice care; psychiatric inpatient facilities; drug and alcohol treatment settings; outpatient mental health; medical hospital; juvenile treatment facilities; jail; and the school system.
That there has been so much openness to shamanic practice in what is essentially a conservative treatment system remains a mystery. The bottom line seems to be that people respond to what works. Bringing shamanism into already existing systems requires deep confidence, for a great deal of skepticism and resistance had to be overcome. For example, many doctors reacted skeptically when clients told them that they felt great after a soul retrieval or meeting a power animal. Much of this skepticism was expressed in the form of joking with me.
I think the main reason I and others practicing shamanism in Madison have not had more flak has been the honesty and integrity of the work. There were, of course, times when nothing helped, and those times elicited despair and deep questioning. There is a trust, based upon personal experience, one must embrace. Significantly, the introduction of this work into the community mental health setting never felt forced. It was as if the flow was guided by the spirits. At no time could I say I knew what I was doing or where this would all lead. Looking back I can only reflect that the timing was right. Today I found some words that reflect the process of bringing shamanism back into the world.
“…great truths do not interest the multitudes,
and now that the world
is in such confusion,
even though I know the Path,
how can I guide?
I know I cannot succeed
and that trying to force results
I shall merely add to the confusion.
Isn’t it better to give up and
But then, if I do not strive,
SHAMANISM—Spring/Summer 2004—Vol. 17, No.1
The smallest vengeance poisons the soul.
If you want revenge, dig two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself
—Middle East proverb
In May 2002 and 2003, I traveled to present workshops about shamanic approaches to peacemaking and participate on several panels at the International Conference on Conflict Resolution held annually near St. Petersburg, Russia. My presentations included “Soul Retrieval and the Healing of Trauma”, “The Role of Healing the ‘Spirit of Place’ in Peacemaking”, “Healing the ‘Spirit of Revenge’”, and “The Role of Spirituality in Peacemaking.” This conference is a powerful one that unites peacemakers from all over the world to share various perspectives on how to bring healing to every nation. The international community of peacemakers has been extremely interested in peacemaking using tribal and shamanic wisdom. This positive reception has led to ongoing global contacts and collaborations to bring peace and healing to our world. My intent in this article is to give readers an overview of some experiences, ideas, and concepts presented.
The positive reception is articulated by Johan Galtung, considered the grandfather of Peace Studies, and his colleagues who now list indigenous wisdom as one legitimate form of peacemaking:
Planet as mother, universe, caretaker. Chaos a life force companion, generator of world and order, or world out of order, and needing to be restored. Humans existing in relation with all other creatures, without spirits reflected in the natural world, in animals, plants, earth, fire, water. A fifth sacred thing: spirit, understanding, harmony. Small societies, everyone has a role, everyone is related to everyone else. Human beings as caretakers, caring for the world, for each other.
A Healing Peace
Our times offer great opportunity to bring our highest spiritual values to healing the past that influences us and to create a healing and sustainable peace that connects us all. Many indigenous beliefs hold that everything is interconnected in the web of life. Healing in our times requires that we move from a world of separation and disconnection to one of inclusiveness, healing, and forgiveness—a world of justice. Justice asks that we heal our relationships to bring us back into interconnectedness. It is not a justice of punishment and shame, but rather a justice of healing and restoration of sacred relationships within ourselves, with others, and with the web of life. This is the essence of a healing peace.
According to writer James Baldwin, “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are consciously controlled by it in many ways, and that it is literally ‘present’ in all that we do.” We who live in this time are the inheritors of a century of post traumatic stress disorder. It is estimated that approximately 110,000,000 people were killed in the ever escalating wars of the last century. Milton Erickson, developer of an approach to hypnotherapy, believed that people who are traumatized get stuck in one frame of reference, in one way of thinking about the world, themselves, and their difficulties. It is that “stuckness” that imprisons the soul, for it knocks us out of connection with our bodies and our senses. We feel we have lost our spirit from our lives. For shamans, this disconnection from spirit is called soul loss.
Advocating war in lieu of all other creative options is the ultimate form of traumatized “stuckness.” Never is trauma so prevalent as in war. One thing that has struck me so often in my work with gang members, prison inmates, war survivors, and Viet Nam veterans is how much the past and present have merged. There is no separation of time; there is no sense of history. They have become a-historical and for them every moment is a battle, always beginning and never ending. When a culture becomes a-historical, it “forgets” all that it “knows” and is condemned to repeat its lessons.
In our times, we possess the knowledge to understand the world we live in, but not necessarily the wisdom to determine the best path for action. Spiritual wisdom born out of our experiences, rooted in our values, and bonded in our connection with helping, compassionate spirits gives us guidance in a time where there are more needs for healing than clear answers for how to meet these needs. We must remember what we know and also dream new possibilities for a healing peace. As Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist peace activist, reminds us: “Oral histories and literary and folk traditions often contain abundant wisdom accumulated through long experience. Throughout the process of modernization people have overlooked or undervalued the old and have abandoned things nurtured in tradition. But to break with the wisdom accumulated and distilled over hundreds of generations is a tremendous loss. Listening humbly to the wisdom of our forebears can enrich our modern life.”
Shamanism for a Healing Peace in the World of Revenge
An ongoing topic at these conferences is the issue of how we move from fear and revenge to compassion, forgiveness, and healing. We live in a world where violence is met by cries for revenge and more violence, and this leads us farther away from the possibility of harmony. In a shamanic worldview revenge can be seen as a spiritual illness of the soul. Revenge is not “hunger” as it is sometimes portrayed, but rather another kind of craving from deep within. It is an attempt to relieve the intense pain within the soul and give it release to someone else. That act of release, which only temporarily eases the inner soul’s pain, puts us in relationship forever with the offended parties who also want their revenge. It gnaws at us until that craving is met, and then leads to the discovery that meeting the craving does little to satisfy the pain that gnaws within the soul. Revenge is a force that we try to walk away from, but cannot because something pulls us back; this is the soul, spiritually linked to the soul of the offender upon whom we seek revenge. It is similar to what shamanic cultures see as soul theft. We keep turning back to the person(s) upon whom we seek revenge, for the body will always be pulled toward where our soul is. Revenge is the sickness of the world of separation, for it gives us identity with some, while denying our interconnectedness as spiritual beings.
In some tribal societies, shame is the only lawful motive for homicide. Within cultures that value reputation and respect, street gangs, for example, revenge is expected for the most minor of insults. In Saudi Arabia, tribal law called the period following a homicide the “boiling of blood.” Interestingly, this terminology is commonly found in many African shamanic traditions to describe a sickness of the soul requiring healing. The Gilyak aborigines of Russia believed the soul of a murdered man came back as a bird, pecking at his relatives to take up revenge for up to three generations. The Gallinomero (Native American) tribe believed that bad people who had acted out of revenge returned as coyotes. In Polynesia, when a sorcerer wanted to get back at a man, he stole some thing connected with him—nail clippings, a lock of hair, some earth dampened with his spit—and cast a spell over it. Vikings believed that the evil ones, upon whom revenge was due, would find themselves in death condemned to an icy hell where a goddess with green rotting flesh from the waist down would make them perpetually vomit.
Tribal societies recognize that healing the soul is a central aspect of healing revenge, but not the whole process. The focus is on how to return to balance: “People who offend against another—are to be viewed and related to as people who are out of balance—with themselves, their family, their community and their Creator. A return to balance can best be accomplished through a process of accountability that includes support from the community through teaching and healing. The use of judgment and punishment actually works against the healing process. An already unbalanced person is moved further out of balance.”
As one moves from an “us versus them” consciousness of separation to one that views the world as interconnected, as is experienced in the shamanic consciousness, one’s questions and intention reflect this relational shift. The “question intent” for the shamanic journey begins to look at how the specific conflict speaks about the healing needed. What is out of balance here? What are the hidden forces contributing to the situation calling for revenge? On the most simple level, when we journey about situations of conflicted and traumatized “stuckness,” we enter a world of new patterns of understanding. In the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), the journeyer can see a web of relational factors interwoven in the situation. These spiritual insights allow for new integrations to occur, and hosts of possible responses begin to emerge.
Many of these conflicts exist out of time, hidden in the stored memory of a place. Siberian/Mongolian shamans, for example, understand that places of war and violence hold the desire for vengeance. The dead souls “implant desire for revenge, violent thoughts, mental confusion, despair, and illness in these places and thereby the violence and misery has continued.” In recent times, when President George W. Bush called for a “crusade against terrorism,” there was a strong reaction to his choice of words in the Middle East. Though it has been a thousand years since the Crusades, the land remembers the traumas of that time and it lives there with the people. During my attendance at the peace conferences in Russia, two examples of the history of place made themselves apparent. One of these was the place of the conference itself, and the other was Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear reactor meltdown.
The conference was held in an old summer palace of the Czar, now converted into a hotel/conference center outside St. Petersburg. In the morning of a day long session on shamanism and peacemaking, I had roughly seventy-five people do a journey to meet the guardian spirit of the place and to learn how we, as a circle, could honor the place. As people began to journey, locked doors unlocked, and closed windows opened on their own. Several people in the circle encountered disembodied spirits needing help, and psychopomp work was done to help these confused spirits move on. The morning spiritual experiences increased attendance fourfold for the afternoon session. Places have a way of letting us know that they need attention, as in this situation.
The issue of Chernobyl came up in several different ways. In my own journey to the guardian spirit of the place of the conference, I was met by some of my own ancestors who kept insisting that I go with them to the land of my ancestors. I was taken to an area where I could see Chernobyl. In the journey, my ancestors were quite distressed about what had happened there and said that working on healing this place would be important. They kept showing me their little bags of earth. They introduced me to ancestors known to me only in stories. In my ordinary life, I have had contact with many Russian Jews of my grandparents’ generation who had carried a bag of earth from Russia with them when they came to America. They had not wanted to leave the land they knew, but had wanted to leave the oppression of the Czar for the opportunity of America. Like many Russian Jewish families, my grandparents had kept in letter contact with the ones who chose to remain, until contact was cut off by Stalin in the post-World War II years. I could only assume that unknown family members had been affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
On my second conference visit, a translator I had made friends with on the first visit asked me if I would do healing work for her. A woman in her early 40s, she told me she had been a widow for many years. I discovered that when the Chernobyl accident had occurred, she and her husband rushed there to check on his family, for that was his home area. At that time, the Soviet Government was minimizing what had occurred. The radiation exposure they received led to cancers and leukemia that killed her husband and his family. She suffers from many physical complaints and constant pain. She received some relief from the work we did. At the same time, two young women in their early 20s asked for my help. Both had cancerous thyroid tumors. I learned that they had been young children while living in the exposed areas. My research on the Chernobyl disaster points to a high incidence of thyroid cancers among those with childhood exposure.
Clearly, the spirits were alerting me in the earlier journey to work they wanted to do. In seven of the eight cases I have worked with involving people exposed to radiation from Chemobyl, I found a tremendous amount of anger and vengeance, and also, passivity. The shamanic healing work I did was in part individual healing work. I also found that the spirits kept bringing me back to the place, and that much of the work related to healing the departed ones still there who were angry about their lives being shortened. It also dealt with healing my own ancestors who were angry that the land had been contaminated. Several of my journeys have focused on healing the history of the place, and rituals have been prescribed that I will perform on my next visit to Russia in May 2004. The people in Russia I have maintained contact with all feel that the shamanic healing work has helped them feel less pain and become more hopeful. While they remain sick, they report no longer carrying so much anger and vengeance about what happened to them and to their families.
The spirit of a place is the context of the spiritual “field” influencing the spiritual beings who come into contact with that field. All of us are spiritual beings who carry our own history and the history of our ancestors. The interaction between our own internal soul wounds and the hidden forces of the place is the relational arena that shamanic healing work addresses. Sometimes the spiritual field configuration will resist change out of attachment to the angry disembodied spirits who want revenge for their suffering and early ending of their lives. Sometimes the resistance is internal to the person who may be attached to the status of their victimization or another aspect of their identity.
For example, it is not unusual when I work with gang-infested areas that l find resistance in the spirit of a place to healing. Often, these places have been transitory and traumatized places for many racial and ethnic groups. An example is a building in which I worked with gang kids for several weeks. The social service agency housed in this building had been rife with ongoing board conflicts and an inability to function effectively. The neighborhood was a battle zone for African-American and South East Asian gangs. All of the gang members with whom we had contact could only agree on one thing: they all believed the building was “spooked.”
By working with this notion, we were able to engage the kids in working on clearing the building of “spooks,” which took several journeys and healing rituals. The organizational “stuckness” shifted and recently new community efforts have emerged to build real resources in that place. Concurrent to the healing of the place was the eruption of the constant push for revenge and respect between the rival gang leaders. Spiritually, this revenge and honor energy is the fire energy. Fire energy cannot live on its own unless it is fed. There is a constant competition over who is more victimized/disrespected that maintains the separation between the groupings. Fairly consistently, we have witnessed that when a fight does occur, there is a “shut down” that follows, and it is in these times that the kids are most amenable to healing. Underneath this expressed revenge is a deep desire to connect, and more often than not the healing leads to the combatants becoming good friends.
Shamanic wisdom offers a unique means of looking at the hidden forces influencing the undercurrents of anger, hurt, and grief in situations calling for revenge. There are situations where the undercurrent is sufficiently strong that dialogue is simply not possible. Willis Harman, in his study of how to bring peace on Earth, states: “Unconscious beliefs held collectively are the most fundamental cause of global dilemmas that beset the world, and thus a major contributor to non-peace.” Shamanic journeying offers a method for learning about the unconscious and hidden forces, and offers possible responses to bring healing to the situation.
In confronting the issue of the desire for revenge and how to transform it into compassion, healing, and forgiveness, we are reminded to acknowledge our limitations as spiritual beings by Steve Olweaan, who states:
“In our humanness, as long as we experience unconscious fear of the unknown and some degree of stress, insecurity, and vulnerability in our psyche, there is the likelihood of some degree of discrimination and intolerance in our thoughts of others. It is not just impractical to expect we can totally eliminate these kind of thoughts, it is detrimental. To demand it dooms us to failure, self condemnation, and denial, and undermines our contact with and control over our human process.”
If revenge is a force so strong that we are willing to react no matter how much harm we do to ourselves, then our humanness asks of us to acknowledge the limitations of our power and to ask for help from the compassionate spirits to bring healing to ourselves and to those around us. In this way, we can live the wisdom of words attributed to Chef Seattle: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” It reminds us as we confront the possibility of moving from revenge to healing that we humans, striving to create a more peaceful world, are inescapably interconnected.
1. Galtung, et al. 2002: 82-83.
2. Baldwin quote cited in Foner 2002: IX.
3. Krieger and Ikeda 2002: 104.
4. Blumenfeld 2002: 81.
6. Ibid., 201.
7. Ibid., 188.
S. Ibid., 201.
9. Hollow Bone Reservation, Canada position paper on restorative justice cited in Ross 1996: 253.
10. See www buryatmongol.com/peacetree.html.
11. Harman 1984: 77-92.
12. Olweaan 2002: 122.
13. Chief Seattle’s speech, delivered at an ocean-side meeting with Governor Isaac Stevens in 1854, was paraphrased (from
notes Dr. Henry Smith had taken) years later by him in a newspaper article published in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887. Seattle’s speech, delivered in either Duwamish or Suquamish, was translated into Chinook jargon as it was delivered. Screen writer and Professor Ted Perry rewrote the speech in 1971-72 for a film project on which he was working. The film makers took further license, changing it into a letter from Seattle to President Franklin Pierce. This version has been widely quoted and attributed to Seattle. The phrasing here is from that source. However, the words, regardless of their historical provenance, are powerful metaphors for the concept of connectedness. (The editor.)
2002 Revenge: A Story ofHope. New York: Simon and Schuster.
2002 Who Owns History? New York: Hill and Wang.
Galtung, Johan, carl G.Jacobsen, and Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen.
2002 Searching for Peace: the Road to Transcend. London: Pluto Press.
1984 “Peace on Earth. The Impossible Dream Becomes Possible.”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 24 (3): 77-92.
Krieger, David and Daisaku Ikeda.
2002 Choose Hope: Your Rote In Waging Peace In The Nuclear Age. Santa Monica, califorala: Middleway Press.
Olweaan, Steve S.
2002 “Psychological concepts of the ‘Other’: Embracing the compass of the Self.” In The Psychology of Terrorism: vol.1 (chris E.Stout, ed). Westport, Connecticut:
1996 Return to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice.
Toronto: Penguin Press.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes
beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called here
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known
The forest breathes, listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again,
No two trees are the same to Raven
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The
forest knows where you are. You
must let it find you.
Many years ago I heard a story being told by Caroline Myss. She spoke of a village in the Ukraine where the Nazis had gathered up all the Jews in the area and herded them into the local synagogue. Once the building was filled, they set it on fire. All the people perished in the fire. Years later, a major nuclear electrical power plant facility was
built on this land. This place is Chernobyl. The very spot where the synagogue had been burned down is where the nuclear reactor meltdown occurred. It is of interest to me that of all the reactors there, this is the one that melted down.
One of my early teachings from my great aunt Soshie, a self-proclaimed dreamer and Russian Jew, was how a place holds the history of all that has happened there. She used to say that often it takes the form of elemental energy. To use her description, Chernobyl was a place of too much fire. When they brought more fire to this place, it led to its own logical conclusion, a nuclear meltdown. As spiritual beings, we sometimes forget that we are influenced by what is in the spiritual field around us. What is in the spiritual field brings out what is within us that calls for healing, and if not addressed, may lead to imbalances which create spiritual illness. What I am writing about speaks as much to what needs to be healed in “place” as well as the power of “place” to heal and guide us. Specifically, I am writing about how we as humans influence the space around us. It is my desire to share some of the stories of “place” where what has occurred in the past affects the present. When we heal the history that has been created by humans of the past, we heal the place and restore the power inherent in that place. When we heal the past, we bring healing to the present and those yet to come.
Whenever I work in any sort of community healing situation, I always begin by journeying to the guardian spirits of the place. I ask for permission to be there and ask how I can be of service to the guardian spirits before asking for their help. I learn what has occurred there and what is calling for help. It has always been interesting to me that all of the prisons and mental hospitals where I have been invited to do shamanic work were built on sacred land. Here in Wisconsin where I live, the state psychiatric hospital is built on burial mounds and other sacred ceremonial sites. I consistently find that the history of place influences the issues addressed in these facilities. How I respond to what is needed varies. It may be doing traditional psychopomp work, it may be rituals and ceremonies prescribed by Spirit, it may be soul retrieval for “place”, it may be addressing the elemental imbalances of that place, or it may simply be maintaining relationship with the helping spirits of that place.
My great aunt used to focus on how the excess of elemental energies in a place would bring out that same quality in people who had too much of that imbalance as well. I liken it to how people will say they act differently in a crowd than they would on their own. It is a way we can accept that we are influenced. Interestingly, similar teachings of elemental imbalances can be found in the work of Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) of Bratslav, a renowned Jewish mystic.  When there is too much of an element, it may manifest itself in people in one of the following ways:
“Fire causes heat to rise. It is the source of arrogance, of one regarding oneself over others. It is the source of anger. Anger and arrogance often manifest as irritability and the desire for power/honor.
Air is the source of idle chatter. The person may speak about worthless subjects, be prone to falsehoods/flattery/slander and be mocking in his/her speech. It is the source of excessive boasting.
Water brings desire for pleasure. It is the source for cravings and lusting. It causes jealousy and envy and leads to dishonest behavior such as theft.
Earth is the heaviest element. It brings about laziness and depression. There is a tendency to focus on the material aspects of earth life and the feeling of never having enough.”
The spirit of “place”, as James Swan  likes to remind us, is “one tool in the shaman’s medicine bag.” The spirit of “place” communicates to us in a different way. Its language speaks to us in rhythm and vibration. When we are there, we are moved and we are stirred in a language without words. The spirit of “place” is the power manifested in it, and it remembers all that has happened there. In China, for centuries, a special kind of Wu shaman, the feng shui, would divine the spirit of each place to ascertain the right actions/rituals to undertake in order to restore and preserve harmony.
“In many traditions, including the Persian Magi, the Freemasons, the Druids, the Hawaiian Kahunas, and the African Voodoo priests, we find a similar art of divining place. Usually this includes reading land forms, assessing local energies and biological features, consulting spirits, and reading the patterns of the heavens above.” 
It is my hope to share some stories to illustrate the interconnectivity of “place” and healing as well as to give a sense of how my work evolved.
LOCKED PSYCHIATRIC UNIT
In the early 1980s, the economic recession in the United States led me to leave private psychotherapy practice and find a job. The job I found at that time was as “Treatment Director” for a locked psychiatric unit in a county hospital. An old institution, it had been what used to be called “the poor house.” Set in the country, patients in the 1800s would live, work, and die there. Remnants of the old farm were still there from the days when it was a total institution. It was understood that many former residents were buried there, though there were no obvious demarcations for the grave sites.
A 28-bed unit, the locked ward had not discharged anyone to a less-restrictive setting in more than four years. The waiting list was very long and the county mental health system was frustrated by the high cost of using state-run facilities for people they could not serve. In communicating with my spirit helpers, I found disembodied spirits wandering throughout the facility complex. In many ways, the patients were living in a ghost town.
I was told by Spirit that there was more life in the soil than in the building; in other words, too much earth. My guidance clearly said it would take great ceremonies to clear out the facility. My concern as the new Director was how to do this at a time when I would be scrutinized by staff who were wary of the “new kid on the block.” The staff was tired, embittered, depressed, and clearly stuck. They viewed change as a threat to the status quo they at least knew how to manage.
Interestingly, my guidance was to use boasting humor (air element) to distract from the greater purpose of what I was doing. I performed the ceremonies as I had been shown to do them. On the designated day, I walked in wearing long robes over my clothes. I walked up to the nursing station where all the staff and patients were gathered and proclaimed, “I am God and a miracle is going to happen today!” Waving my arms, I touched the back of the heads of many of the patients and staff and yelled, “With the power of God, I heal you! Let the miracle begin!” Each time I did this, I was removing the attached disembodied ghostly spirits and sending them to the other side. Interestingly, one of the patients remarked to the staff in a psychotic banter, “He’s healing the dead, he’s healing the dead!” I responded whimsically, “The Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead.” Because I was so whimsical in the ritual, the staff thought I was being playful and humorous. In fact, I was saying that the only way to heal craziness is to be crazy. I said it was much too serious there and we needed to make our work more enjoyable.
What this story suggests is that staff and patients alike were affected by the history of the place and the ones left behind. When I first started there, I was struck by how depressed the staff was. They felt as stuck as the patients they were caring for and the ones they did not even know they were caring for. In a few short months, the vast majority of the patients were removed to lesser restrictive settings. I did virtually no direct patient care. Instead, I focused on healing the place and shifting the vibrations in the air. This created a ripple effect which continued from that point on. Staff members worked to move people out and patients responded to seeing others leaving.
THE PENTHOUSE SUITE
I received a call from a young couple with a newborn baby, complaining that their place was haunted. The young mother was frightened for the well-being of her child. She told me of two specific events that frightened them both. In the first instance, the mirror in the entryway flew several feet in the air and smashed itself against the wall. In the other instance, her husband woke up on the middle of the night and felt hands on his neck. He proceeded to fight with what he called a ghost. I agreed to come and see if there was anything I could do.
When I came to their building, I was struck by the beauty of its location along a lake, and its sheer wealth. They lived on the top floor, surrounded by windows. You could see for miles in every direction. The rooms were huge. Each of the six bedrooms had its own full bath. This was no ordinary place for a young couple. It turned out they had won some money and put it into this place.
As i moved from room to room, I let myself notice where I felt uncomfortable or uneasy. In one bathroom, plates started to move. Here, as I shifted consciousness, I found two spirits who needed my help. One was an angry Native American and the other a deranged, out of control, older man. Bother were difficult to help move on, but once I did so the place never had problems again. But, another situation many months later brought me back and led me to learn the real source of problems with this place.
A good friend of mine who was staying at her father’s place, called, saying she was feeling “spooked out” and asked if I could come and check it out. Much to my surprise, it was the same building. When I worked in her father’s place, I had the same experience of meeting an angry Native American ghost and a deranged, out of control young man.
Further exploration of the history of the place brought me new understanding of the power of this land. My friend reported that her stepmother had experienced a psychotic breakdown after they had moved into this building. Her father decided they needed a vacation once his wife was discharged from the hospital. What I learned was shocking to me at the time. The building had been a state mental hospital for the criminally insane. Built in the 1880s, it had been closed in the 1970s with the advent of desinstitutionalization. Since it was on a beautiful peninsula in the lake, developers had bought the building and turned it into posh condominiums. I also learned that the institution had been built on burial mounds and was surrounded by a variety of “eagle” and “bear” mounds.
In working with the guardian spirits of the place over time, I was able to involve a number of building residents in honoring rituals and ceremonies. The guardian spirits were vocal about not wanting tobacco or sage, for they felt the people would think they did not have to do much to honor their relationship to the spirits. The rituals were to be done in the spring and fall and involved building altars to honor the dead and leaving offerings of food to the ancestors. More importantly, there was to be a “peace bowl”, filled with water, which needed to be maintained. Over the years, as people have come and gone from the building, I have been called in a number of times to address the hauntings. But with more consistent owner involvement in the ceremonies and rituals, a gradual peacefulness has been restored. Each year, I return to the land there to do a ceremony to honor the land and the ones who are buried there. I promise in my prayers to not forget and my role remains one of mediation between the local spirits and the people in the building.
COMMUNITY HEALING RITUAL
In Spring 2000, I was asked to participate in an ecumenical healing ritual for the place in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer, a famed serial killer, had lived. The building where he had murdered young men had been torn down and nothing had gone up there since. The neighborhood felt considerable shame about what had occurred in their midst. It was hoped that some sort of spiritual service could help restore vitality and bring healing to the area. The neighborhood association at first was embracing, but later asked that the service not be performed as a public event. There was fear that the attention would bring more shame to their area.
In my preparatory journeys, I was told there was too much fire and that I was to bring as much water as possible to bless the land. I saw many dead there, but did not think much of it, given how many people Jeffrey Dahmer had killed. When the time for the ceremony came, none of the ministers who were expected to come did so, except for one Catholic priest. He and I were left to orchestrate the ritual. Because of the call for water, I asked him if he would be willing to bless the land. He agreed to do this as he did not know what else to offer.
When we first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the sense of death at the place where the building had stood. The lot was devoid of any plant life. It was surrounded by a locked fence. The land was filled with rubble, stones and a dead tree. Nothing there was alive, and as I looked at the lot, I saw hundreds of ghosts standing there. Many were Native Americans who kept saying “Bring us peace, bring us peace!” Neighborhood people, family members who had lost loved ones to murder by Jeffrey Dahmer, and other community people had gathered to bring healing to this place. As I invoked the circle, I asked all to speak from their hearts. Many tears flowed. This, too, was the water of healing for this land. As people shared their grief, their shame, and their prayers for healing, I began to realize that others were coming out to watch. They came up and thanked us for what we were doing. After Father Paul blessed the land with water, each person was given water and seeds to offer as healing for this place. In the midst of all this, a neighborhood person shared a story with me that revealed a different slant to the reason we were there.
This place in Milwaukee is the highest point in the city. In the old days, the native people of the area would meet there to hold peace councils when there were conflicts. For them, this was the power of the place. In the early 1800s, during one of these peace councils, U.S. troops massacred those who had gathered. It thus was the site of a mass killing. Later, an apartment building was built there–the building that Jeffrey Dahmer was to live in and the site of his murders. From what I know of his personal history, Dahmer had done some bizarre animal killings earlier in his life. When he came to this place of mass human killing, it may have brought these urges within him even more to the forefront. All of the healing work we did on that day had been to heal what had occurred there long ago. Water is often called the element of peace. And water is what was offered.
The city of Milwaukee owns the land there and refuses to do anything to bring healing and restoration to this spot. Efforts continue to express the wishes of the guardian spirits there, to continue the process of healing the land, and to support community involvement in the healing process.
The following account is by Don Cochran, a professor of Archeology. 
“One of the first sites that I worked with shamanically was a local burial mound that had been dug into by collectors. The excavations had continued oer a number of years, but a new law had stopped further digging without a permit from the state. A large hole in the mound had been open for several years and there was no movement toward getting it refilled. As the excavation of the mound was the direct cause for passage of the state law protecting archaeological sites on private property, this site was a hot political issue. The parties involved included the property owner, the excavators, state government, concerned citizens, and native peoples. At the time we bagan working with the site, we had formed a small drumming circle chiefly composed of archaeology graduate students. Initially, we were not exploring archaeological issues, but were learning to work in non-ordinary reality through journeying on common themes and problems. We decided to journey to the open mound, as we were concerned about its lack of protection. During the journeys, members of the group encountered spirits associated with the site and several of us saw energy streaming out of the mound like blood from an open wound. We were in a quandary about getting involved, but with guidance from our allies were able to mediate between the various parties. Working with a local avocational archaeology group, we obtained a permit and held a raffle to raise money to backfill the mound and obtained the blessing of the landowner. The gaping hole in the site was refilled and we no longer saw energy streaming out of it. At the time we were amazed at how easily and smoothly the problem was resolved. And while that is generally the case, not all efforts at mediation of the destruction of archaeological sites go so smoothly.
The most challenging mediation that we have engaged in involved a large prehistoric shell mound that had been damaged by mining. Considerable controversy surrounded the mining operation. The importance of the archaeological site was used as a tool in the legal battle by each of the opposing parties, which included the mine owner, several agencies of state government, and citizens’ organizations seeking to close the mine. When I journeyed to help with the project, I was told that we had been chosen for the work and that spirit would help us. Our work was being monitored by all of the opposing parties and we worked under constant pressure. I could feel the hostility that was being directed toward the project and our work. One day, while asking the spirits for support, I noticed numerous swallows darting and swooping over the site. I was told they were catching the negative energy that was being directed toward us. The project was eventually completed, but not without many difficulties. Without the help of the swallows, I am sure it would have been far more difficult.” 
HEALING COMMUNITIES PROJECT
When I first started doing work with “youths at risk” in the Allied Drive area of Madison, Wisconsin, I was fully aware that this area has always been a source of problems to the community. Since I first came to Madison in 1975, there has been ongoing mayoral concern that something needed to be done with Allied Drive. It is one of a few pocket areas of poverty and high crime in Madison. Currently, the population there is primarily African-American; secondarily Southeast Asian. Many of the African-American families I have met there left the projects in Chicago in hopes of leaving street violence behind. Unfortunately, many of these problems came with them.
The neighborhood center where I meed with the kids has its own history of in-fighting and embattlement. It reflects the tone of the area. One of the first issues that came up with staff as I explained what I would be doing with the kids, was their own spiritual curiousity. They spoke of all the conflict that had occurred in meetings held in the board room. One of the staff members spoke of seeing ghosts in that room “that gave me such a chill that I don’t like to go there.” As we talked about this issue, they themselves asked if “place” could make people act so angry. They asked if I would work spiritually to clear ghosts out of the building. I agreed to see if that was needed.
The staff told the kids I was going to do “ghostbusting.” Many of the kids asked if they could come and watch. We went into the board room and I asked them to close their eyes and notice how they felt. I spoke of how every place has a feel, every place has its own energy, and told them to let the place speak to them. Interestingly, several of them reported feeling cold and some said they saw a Native American-like spirit who was angry and some dead people they knew from either Madison or Chicago. In one of the first journeys they did, we met the guardian spirit of the land. Many of them met the aforementioned Native American, who said that this had been a land of peace and healing and that its soul had been cut out. Almost universally, they were asked to bring their ways to the land in the form of dance and music. The guardian spirit stated that the land missed the drum, that the land missed the songs, and the land missed the dancing and laughter. In my own journey to the guardian spirit, I was shown that all the trauma of all the people who had come there to live was in the land and that no healing had been done. It was presented to me as a huge pile of bloody images of history piled on top of each other.
Then I did psychopomp work to help the departed ones in the building. Some of the kids saw a light from the sky come down. They asked the guardian spirit in journeys how to clear the anger and got the message to “air out the building.” We smudged and we sang some songs.
Since clearing the space, board meetings, which had a long history of contentiousness, have shifted to a level of productive cooperation not previously seen. And due to some journey work done by the kids, a community healing ritual utilizing African drumming and dancing, extraction, and feasting is planned for the spring/summer of 2001.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Throughout all the community work I have been doing, the spirits of “place” have been the central factor. Inherent in the restoration of theh role of the shaman in community life is working to bring balance and harmony to the places we live. It is my belief that a part of the work of healing the historic inheritance we share is in the work with “place.” The practice of mediating between the spirits of “place” and the ordinary world is a natural aspect of shamanic practice. My intention in presenting the case stories above is for them to give the reader a sense of the complexity of the questions and the healing responses that are called for. There is no single methodology that can be used. 
Once I went on a healing walk on some sacred land with Corbin Harney, a Shoshone Medicine Man, and others. At one point, Corbin stopped and began to sing a beautiful song over and over. When done, he turned and said to all of us, “The trees are dying. The plants are dying. This place is dying. No one sings for the trees anymore. No one sings for the plants anymore. No one sings for this place anymore. You must remember to sing!” It is a reminder that our relationship to “place” is, in fact, relational. The spirits of “place” are there for us as much as they need us to be there for them.
1. Kramer 1998
2. Swan 1988
3. Ibid: 158; Fuan 1979
4. Cochran 1999
5. Permission to include this story by Don Cochran is gratefully acknowledged.
6. For related perspectives on contemporary community healing, see Eshowsky 1998 and 1999.
Cochran, Donald R.
1999 “Archaeology and Shamanic Practice.” Community Shamanism, vol. 1.
1998 “Community Shamanism: Youth, Violence, and Healing.” Shamanism 11, no. 1, Spring/Summer.
1999 “Shamanism and Peacemaking” Shamanism: 12, no. 2, Fall/Winter.
1998 Rebbe Nachman of Braslav: Anatomy of the Soul. New York: Bratslav Research Institute.
1988 “Sacred Places in Nature: One Tool in the Shaman’s Medicine Bag.” In Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment (Gary Doore, ed). Boston: Shambhala.
1979 Landscapes of Fear. New York: Pantheon Books.
IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do.
Hey, who is in charge here?
It’s a jungle out there,
Poison in the very air we breathe
Do you know what’s in the water we drink?
Well I do and it’s amazing.
People think I’m crazy,’cause I worry all the time
If you paid attention, you’d be worried too
You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much might just kill you
I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so
It’s a jungle out there.
(Theme song from MONK)
Today, I find myself at the gym running on a treadmill. In the gym each treadmill has its own television screen and I settle on watching the show MONK. The main character of the show, Adrian Monk, sits well with my fondness for unusual characters. His crime investigations have their own unique blend of curiosity, unusual interpretation of information and profound intuition. It so happens on that day the episode is titled “Mr. Monk Sees an UFO”.
A part of the storyline is the frenzy that occurs when people believe UFO’s have been sighted in the area. A lot of people dressed up in all sorts of outer space type costumes arrive and begin to seek verification for the story they are sorely attached. In the midst of it, they are convinced that Monk is an alien and that in their story aliens don’t have belly buttons. Monk’s refusal to lift his shirt is seen as evidence he is indeed from outer space. Throughout the story, the people who are attached to the story of aliens, alien abductions refuse to believe any information that contradicts the story they want to believe.
When I was researching for Peace with Cancer, I wanted to read as wide a range of literature as I could possibly find. Along the way, I found this article written which cited a study by Jeanne Achterberg providing evidence-based research of shamans and healing. The author of this article, who is well known, was using this study to support his article’s main thesis. I immediately went to find Dr. Achterberg’s study, as the article’s claims were useful for my own writing.
When I found the study, I was quite taken by what the study showed. It was, however, not at all what was written in the aforementioned article. It was a reminder to not assume that was cited in one article made it true. Her study looked at the effect of distance healing by a variety of alternative healing modalities. Some of the healers were trained in some sort of shamanic tradition; many other types of healers were included. What the study did show in its small sampling was fascinating. In those cases, where the healers knew the client and had worked with them, Achterberg found evidence for correlations between distant intentionality and brain function. What was more striking was the lack of measurable effect when the healers did not know the client to whom they were sending healing intent. The study raises questions of the role of compassion, empathy and relationship in healing.
Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person’s difficulty. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate suffering and conflict, to detach ourselves from our needs and put another there, and requires a commitment to personal sacrifice that serves a larger possibility. It asks the question of “Am I willing to walk with (another person’s pain, my own illness, or something else) in order to support the possibility of healing. Compassion is our ability to imagine lives that are not our own.
It is not always an easy thing to find empathy and compassion for an illness or the seeming delusional attachment to one’s story, as is the case in the “Monk Sees A UFO” episode. After many attempts to convince otherwise, Monk gives a speech joining with the group beliefs and offers new possibility to their imagination. In the end, it is the only way he can bring influence and healing to the moment. It was his way of walking with the
Thus far, I’ve been writing about some important tenets:
1. Things are not always as they seem
2. Compassion is a necessary component of healing
3. Even in the face of information that indicates otherwise, people will stay attached to their rigid belief.
I want to share a recent healing case as it reflects these tenets and the challenges of healing:
Earlier in the year I saw a family with two adopted boys for healing and mediation. The boys were brothers and adopted together. The older of the two boys was seen as cursed by the adoptive parents. In a first meeting with the parents, the mom went into a long story about a shamanic journey she had done after having seen a psychic about her oldest son’s behavioral problems at school and home. The psychic she had seen told her that her son was cursed by the karma of his biological parents and that this karmic bond needed to be broken for him to thrive. She then went on to tell of the journey she had done where she was “frightened half to death by all the horrible and evil things around her son” and how her spirit guides had told her he was doing evil rituals trying to curse her. She went on and on about how nasty this boy is and how he will never get better. She was questioning whether they should unadopt this boy.
Later that week I did a soul retrieval for the boy and worked out some issues between the parents. It turned out she had not wanted to adopt the older boy but her husband had prevailed. Recently, I had occasion to meet the boy’s therapist. She reported that the boy had miraculously turned around since the healing work and she talked of how amazed people at his school were with his changes. A couple of days later I bumped into the mom at a local building supplies store who went on and on about how “he is just evil and horrible and he’s getting worse.” When I told her what I had heard through the grapevine (improved grades, loved by all his teachers, numerous reports of acts of kindness they had witnessed), she went straight back into the story about the psychic saying it would get worse and worse. She could not hear a word of what I was saying. Inside myself I had many questions about the psychic’s power of suggestion and how eagerly the mom embraced this direction with her son. She was incapable of letting herself look at her anger with her husband around the adoption. Her level of stress was palpable.
Lessons taught by stress
Stress isn’t stress unless there is resistance. Resistance comes when we try to make something happen or we defend against something being insisted upon us. It is the resistance that causes tension (reaction) and the tension (constriction) may become a contributor to illness forming. Stress isn’t all bad as its vital to building muscles, keeping us moving and breathing, and being awake to what is occurring around us.
The life giving solution to stress lives in our spiritual imagination. Spiritual imagination allows us to embrace whatever challenges us (illness, life stresses, earth/world events). Imagination helps us transcend the narrow, the shortsighted, the limitations, or dead ends. The purpose of spiritual imagination is to bring about possibilities not imaginable in current terms. As is so often the case, to paraphrase Bruno Bettleheim, “violence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand.”
Spiritual imagination is the realm we enter when we do a shamanic journey or other spiritual imagination practices. Spiritual imagination is mobilized towards a healing possibility when four capacities are involved. They are:
a. We embrace the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that include our enemies (or illnesses).
b. We sustain a curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on simple explanation or dualistic polarities.
c. We hold a fundamental belief in the pursuit of the creative act/power of Spirit.
d. We accept the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the too familiar landscape of violence/illness.
These four capacities allow us to move out of a stuck narrative into a process of restorying. What I mean by the word “restorying” is the capacity of our souls to move out of constriction into connection with the larger story of the spiritual realm. Our soul actualizes these capacities through three primary disciplines.
First is the discipline of stillness and patience. Before we act, we must take the time to notice what exists. Stillness allows spiritual influence to seep in. Patience brings us into relationship with the human community but also the animate and inanimate world. The sky, earth,rocks,trees, and plants, water, the animals are all talking to us. With great patience, we can observe and listen deeply to what is around us. Literally, there is much information right at our feet.
The second discipline is our capacity to live with humility. Humility asks us to find a balance between a purposeful life and the recognition of our smallness in the whole. It puts us in touch with the precarious life of meaning we live. Learning and truth seeking are life long pursuits. If one has full truth, the process of curiosity and questioning ceases. Spiritual humility accepts that we are in an ongoing quest of understanding the great mystery and understands what we learn is an unfolding with no end point.
The third discipline is the embracement of sensuous perception. Sensuous perception is our capacity to use and keep open our full awareness of that which surrounds us. We must learn to feel, smell, and hear what is occurring around us, both in the physical world and the spiritual realms. Often as we do this, new and unexpected creativity can emerge which feeds our spiritual imagination. Our senses guide our desires and each of us heals towards what we desire.
When we venture into the unknown, the creative process of the artist is at play. The artistry and poetics we bring to healing is a path of discovery and imagination. Ultimately this becomes a path of vocation i.e. a form of spiritual calling. For those who take up the journey, the possibility of healing expands beyond our desired or hoped for outcomes.
An approach for lightening the load
I want to offer a simple practice for the readers based on the concept of embracing our enemies and the possibility there is another story. In Peace with Cancer, I invite readers to journey to and learn about the spirit of their illness. Instead of treating illness as an enemy we want to get rid of, we choose to be in relationship with the illness so healing change may be possible.
Journey to the spirit of an illness or an emotional issue that troubles you. With the aid of your spirit helpers, tell the illness or emotional issue of your concern for them and how it’s your job to be of help. Let the illness know you know it has a larger purpose and it carries burdens, which undermine its purpose. Ask the spirit if it is willing to share those burdens with you. Be non-judgmental of what the spirit tells you of its purpose or its burdens. Suggest to the spirit of the illness it could unburden itself of the burdens it has been carrying. Ask the spirit if it would like to give the burdens to air, fire, water, or earth. Each element offers different ways of transforming and healing. Once the spirit of the illness names the element it would like to give its burdens to, you may need to ask what quality of the element it wants to work with. For example, it may want to bury it in the earth but you can ask what type of place it wants to do so. Or if fire, does it want a little fire or a bonfire? Or if water, is it a river, a lake, the ocean, a rainstorm? With your spiritual allies, help the spirit unburden. Once unburden ask the spirit of the illness/emotional issue what it wants to fill up with instead and to embrace that intention by standing in a beam of white light from the sky. Then simply say goodbye to the spirit, let the spirit know that you will be back, and return from the journey. Note over the coming days, what you experience.
Much of this posting reflected on the importance of compassion to healing.
I want to encourage readers to read the Charter for Compassion and consider signing the affirmation of its call for creative, practical, and sustained action to meet the problems of our times. Crafted by people all over the world, the charter seeks to embrace the concept of compassion into our daily discourse and make it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt—be it public or private discourse—has failed the test of our time. Please go to
For future postings, your responses and questions are greatly appreciated. When possible the postings will attempt to address the concerns and curiosities raised. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Evidence for Correlations Between Distant Intentionality and Brain Function in Recipients: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Analysis” by Jeanne Achterberg, et al. Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, vol.11, no.6, 2005, pp.965-971
Historically, shamans have been viewed as mediators between the life of the ordinary world and the extraordinary world of the spirits. Beyond being healers of disease, their concern with restoring balance and harmony to the collective soul of the group reminds us of the critical role shamans play in community peace.
This article explores the issue of youth violence, particularly street gangs, and shows how the use of core shamanism and general shamanic principles can be utilized to yield healing and spiritual justice in situations of great despair and powerlessness.
Youth violence is becoming a major health issue in our times. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has been monitoring the Black male homicide rate for children, ages 15-24, in the same way it monitors an epidemic. The World Health Organization is doing similar monitoring as youth violence is rising worldwide.
A shamanic view requires looking at violence as a spiritual issue. It requires us to look at the larger picture of interconnection as we try to understand it, as well as foster healing. Jim Wallis articulates this in his book The Soul of Politics:
We face a kind of violence born not only of poverty but also of perverse values, a disintegration caused not only by the lack of good jobs, but also the lack of spiritual formation, a crime rate rooted not only in economic disparity but also in the nihilism of a society whose materialism is its only real god. (New York: The New Press, 1994: pp. xvii.)
According to Sandra Ingerman, author of Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, a major cause of illness from the shamanic perspective is soul loss. She points out that soul loss often results from such traumas as violence, addiction, and the stress of combat. ( San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991) Repeatedly the literature on youth and violence describes children as having all the symptoms of war survivors.
In a book which tells the story of the Bloods and the Crips in Los Angeles, there is a statement made by A.C. Jones, an ex-gang member and now a staff member at a juvenile detention camp. Jones observes:
The very fact that a kid is in a gang means that something is missing. So many of them are functioning illiterates. So many of them come from abusing backgrounds. The hardest cases were probably sexually molested or they were routinely beaten — probably both. Depends on what kind of father influence was around the house. If any. You find a gang member who comes from a complete nuclear family, a kid who has never been exposed to any kind of abuse, I’d like to meet him. Not a wannabe who’s a Crip or a Blood because that’s the thing to be in 1990, I mean a real gangbanger who comes from a happy, balanced home, who’s got a good opinion of himself. I don’t think that kid exists. (Bing, Leon. Do or Die. New York: HarperCollins, 1994: pp.14-15)
The soul loss symptoms of feelings of alienation, disconnectedness, and fragmentation are expressed in the social soul of communities; i.e., a greater form of collective soul loss is being felt. In social soul loss, invisible boundaries separate us and make us oblivious to each other’s suffering and pain. The fears of trauma and violence are dividing us from one another and this division is becoming what Wallis calls “the defining story of our modern world.”
Violence and the Social Soul
More than three years ago, I had a dream that set me on a path of bringing shamanism to street gangs and youths at risk. While it has always been my focus to bring core shamanism into the mainstream of community life, the dream pushed me to work in the realm of healing violence. In my dream, I awoke to find Merlin and my teachers I know as the “Just Ones” standing at the foot of my bed. Merlin motioned me to come with them and we flew over different cities across the United States. I watched drive-by shootings in different neighborhoods, street fights, young women being beaten and gang-raped, and drug dealings that ended in violence. The images flashed by like a montage of life whirling before my eyes. The images struck me as chaotic and out of control. I felt sick to my stomach from all the violence I had witnessed.
Merlin stood before me and said, “We want you to bring healing to the streets.” As is my nature, I argued, “How can I do this? Where would I begin?” Merlin’s response was simple: “You will know.” The Just Ones spoke as well: “Give us their pain. We will help you bring healing to the streets. It is a time for healing and a time for spiritual justice. We have chosen you to be our messenger.” Merlin added, “Call it ‘The Taking It to The Streets Tour.’ And tell others. They will help you.”
I awoke from the dream knowing I would be asked to do what I had just dreamed. Two days later I was approached by a grass-roots community anti-violence group, wondering if I would speak on shamanism at a spiritual development class for young Black male gang members and wannabes. I was told they had been inviting people from every spiritual perspective in hopes of sparking spiritual and moral development in the kids. Typically, these classes drew five to ten kids who would share very little. I was told the adults involved would probably ask all the questions.
When the day I was to speak arrived, I did not know what to expect. Like many of the places I have since visited, the doors had large chains and padlocks on the outside. Metal detectors on the way in checked for hidden weapons. Forty-five young adolescents in the thirteen to sixteen-year-old range showed up. They wanted to meet the “shaman-man,” an image I discovered was fueled by television depictions they had seen. Not knowing what to do, I talked about trauma and soul loss and how shamans do healings. I could see their heads nodding and I knew they understood. And as I would find time and time again, they were hungry for connection with anyone who might help them heal and who could offer spiritual guidance.
That particular day, I was only given an hour and a half to talk and take questions. The staff was a bit taken aback, not only by the turnout, but by the number of questions the kids had about healing. Afterwards, most of the boys lined up to have a few minutes with me, one-on-one. Every one of them wanted to tell me his story of personal spiritual experience and to know my thoughts about it. Almost all of their stories were ghost stories, involving people they had known who had died, either in drive-by shootings or some other violent way. I was struck by the gravity of persons so young being so intimate with death. Every time I have worked with similar kids around the country, I always am told ghost stories.
It is not difficult to be invited to work with these kids. Most of the staff members (social workers, police, school teachers, and community activists) are frustrated as they struggle to find things that work. The most common statement one hears is “Let’s give up on the older ones and focus on the younger kids before they get involved.” Lots of the work with staff is helping them understand there is a spiritual way to view these problems. The situations where I have had the least success have been the ones where staff members were invested in proving how bad things are or that shamanism is “kooky.”
In sharing some stories of interventions, I hope to give examples which highlight some of the issues and challenges in working shamanically with these groups. Often the very nature of the gangs makes the work easier. Kids join gangs for a variety of reasons: identity, recognition, belonging, discipline, love, money, and to avoid harassment. Gangs have their own art, signals, clothing/colors, rituals, etc. Elements of tribalism are readily apparent in gang life, which many of us see as dark or sinister. The very nature of the group attracts the kids to working ceremonially. Even in non-gang situations, I have found working in natural groups makes it easier to work shamanically.
Finding the Natural Healers
One of my earlier invitations to work with young, troubled males occurred in Wisconsin where there was a Southeast Asian community, consisting mainly of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong people made refugees by the Viet Nam War. Violence and other criminal behavior were increasing among adolescent boys in this community. Gang recruitment from Minneapolis and Chicago had increased significantly.
At the time I was invited in, the providers in the community had reached the point where it was commonly accepted that boys past age twelve were unsalvageable. I found the providers to be in an adversarial position with the older boys. (This pattern is the norm for providers in all the cities where I have worked.) While it was important to allow them to vent their feelings, the system’s adversarial nature meant they were more vested in determining who was right or wrong than how to improve relationships. They were more interested in supporting their own power than working on understanding and connection with the kids. Usually, this means an increasing use of control and punishment as strategies for creating change. At this juncture, it was important to accept the providers as they were before trying to move them in a new direction. Without their support, any intervention that attempted to work with the boys in new ways would fail.
Typically, I begin by giving a talk on the difference between shamanic cultures and the dominant themes of Western culture. Briefly, I point out that shamanic cultures share the perception that all things are connected. Community life is a priority. Individuals are an expression of their community. This contrasts with the more individualistic notions of Western culture where the individual operates separately from the community. The talk focuses on reclaiming roots and reconnecting to our ancestral past. It stresses looking at the issues before us as spiritual.
I use an aikido exercise as a teaching tool for some of the main points of the talk. In this exercise, an attacker holds both wrists of another person so this person cannot break free. In the West, freedom typically means freedom of movement. In this aikido exercise, the focus is on where you are free. Thus, the attacked person should notice where they can move. They can move in and out, side to side, roll their shoulders and elbows, or twirl their wrists. The point being made here is that the hold is a metaphor for a community and culture focused on relations. The wrists are the point of connection, and within that context the individual has freedom of movement and expression.
Malidoma Somé, an African ritual specialist, contends that without community a person cannot know who they are. The exercise and the talk help the providers to begin to think about how to work with the older boys in a larger group, in a community-building way. In this particular example, it was agreed I would facilitate a two-day camping and learning experience with a group of the boys.
The two days began with a ritual and blessing led by a local Hmong shaman. In the ritual he asked his powers to provide protection and good fortune for the next six months. The boys were jittery as they witnessed this strange man speaking a language they no longer knew, sing, rattle, and dance. At one point I saw a leopard spirit jump out of him and wondered if the boys saw it as well. Blessings were experienced by a number of the boys. They talked a lot about spiritual protection and their fears of the spirit world. Privately, they asked me if they would be safe. The two days were a mix of journeying, drumming, healing, storytelling, holding council, and recreation. To the surprise of the providers, there were no fights.
The biggest issue was the conflict between the adults and the boys. When the boys talked about how they like to fight, the adults would say they were stupid. Communication would immediately stop. I asked why they liked to fight. Statements like “because it feels good,” “I get respect,” and “I like the feeling of pain,” were commonly offered. Whenever the conversation persisted, I would learn eventually that fighting was one of the few times they felt much of anything.
One Hmong boy in particular, who I will call Chou, drew my attention. Chou was significantly larger than the other boys and bragged openly about his fighting prowess. All the other boys clearly looked up to him and followed his lead. The first day he was resistant and disruptive to some of the work I was leading.
That night’s activities were a campfire and storytelling. A local Hmong man (and shaman’s apprentice) told the story of how his family escaped in the night and how they had to kill enemy soldiers. Many members of his family did not survive the trek. He led the boys in the dark through the woods in a reenactment of his story.
After the evening’s activities, when the camp was quieting down, a boy from outside the campsite came to challenge Chou to a fight. The stories I heard about it later made it sound a little bit like an old Western movie where a gunslinger challenges another to find out who is the fastest. Chou broke the challenger’s nose.
The next day Chou was withdrawn, morose, and uninvolved in all camp activity. His bluster was gone. I convinced him to accompany me to the woods. While there, he admitted privately not liking to fight. He felt terrible about this last fight. In that window of opportunity he asked me to do a healing for him. Using the rattle I was carrying, I began to journey on his behalf. Many of his lost soul parts were lost in reaction to the abandonment and violence he had felt. Toward the end of my journey many Hmong adults came to me carrying a bright, heart-shaped heart. “This is the soul of our people. Please take this with you. Tell him to remember us as we remember him. We have chosen him to be a healer for our people. Let him know the soul of our people is old and precious. He is the carrier of our hopes.” I blew this and the other soul parts into him.
During the rest of our time together as a group, Chou was completely different. The group resistance changed markedly as he convinced many others to focus and do the suggested journeys. And he worked hard to get them to share and draw pictures of their journeys afterward. Many of the providers there asked me how this could have happened. Chou had been labeled the most unworkable of the kids. I just shrugged.
Being the Peace
I was sitting in a room of about 50 African-American adolescents, working on peacemaking with them. Many were members of the Black Gangster Disciples. The school had invited me to do a presentation. They were attempting to create an “alternatives to conflict” program.
One of the things I have learned is the importance of listening. These kids know what their problems are. Often they have lots of ideas about what is needed. Certainly, they bring up many issues that fall in the “social justice” category, but many are personal and spiritual.
I told them about shamanism, which brought the response, “How do we find a spirit? We need spiritual power. Our problems are so big that only God could deal with them.”
I had the group journey collectively on what was needed to bring them healing and peace. Strikingly, many came back with journeys that spoke of the wounds of slavery. “We don’t want to be slaves no more,” was a common refrain. One of the journeyers got an image of dancing out the conflict of the slaves. The strongest thread connecting their journeys was that we were to create a ritual to heal the wounds of slavery.
For this ritual, some of us drummed for those who volunteered to dance. I invited the dancers to journey to slave ancestors and let them lead the dance.
As the dancing began, it was aggressive and fast. Then, some began to vibrate as if spirits were taking hold, and a rhythmic chant began to emerge. The dance shifted and became more flowing. Still strong and fierce, it lacked its earlier aggressiveness. I encouraged more of the boys to join the dancers.
Later, the dancers described that they felt as if something had taken them over. They wanted me to tell them what had happened. I could not. I asked them what it would be like if they danced “reputation,” “respect,” and “revenge” instead of acting them out (these are key words in their lives).
During conversations that followed, a conflict between two boys developed. I asked if we could work out the conflict for them. They agreed. One of the other boys and I journeyed to the spirit of each boy and, as we merged with their spirits, began to dance their dance. As we danced, others journeyed and asked for guidance on what to do to change the dance. After awhile, they began to join the dance and change it. Their changes were a change in a movement, a few words, or a whole song — whatever came to them. At the end we brought the two conflicting boys into the dance and had them take part.
Afterwards, the two boys shared their surprise at how “real” the dance seemed to them. I asked if they were as angry as they were before. Both said they were not. “Dancing out the spirit of conflict” is something I have done many times since. In this particular case, the feedback from the school (though anecdotal) was positive. Many of the participants are now less truant, are getting better grades, and there have been fewer fights at the school.
Windows of Opportunity
I often have the feeling that spirits deliver and guide the interventions with kids. For example, I was in Cleveland to teach a workshop when I decided to walk from where I was staying to find a place to eat. As I walked toward the nearby business district, a man approached and asked for my money. Before I was able to respond, he hit me in the stomach and ran off. I fell down with my wind knocked out.
Two fourteen-year-old boys saw what happened and ran to see if I was ok. They were heading in the same direction as I, so we walked together.
Eventually, they asked where I was from and then why I was in Cleveland. I told them I was there to teach shamanism and how to heal people.
When we got to the business district, there was an area where many kids had gathered. A few were playing on djembes, while others “schmoozed.” I was introduced to the drummers and eventually found myself in the midst of a large circle, talking about healing. In the dialogue that ensued, I learned most of the kids were runaways. They shared their stories of life on the street: begging, stealing, prostituting, dealing — doing whatever they needed to survive. The few willing to talk about their families told stories of abuse, broken families, lack of connection, or fighting with parents. Many had stories of crazy violence they witnessed or were recipients of on the streets. Mostly, they wanted to talk about X-Files and similar kinds of experiences. I told some stories and listened to theirs. Slowly others began to listen-in, hanging on the edge of the group. I borrowed a djembe and slowly beat on it as I told a story. I could hear my teacher whispering to me. It was a story of long ago, when people gathered together to help bring healing to each other.
Everyone in those times was a healer and everyone helped each other. Without even realizing it, a ritual was unfolding. I began to sing a repetitive chant as part of the story, and soon other voices joined mine. I looked around the circle and saw shimmering lights moving among the people there, pulling things out of them, and sending them to the sky. The story ended with the refrain: “someday we will all come home again, and when we do we will be healers once again.”
When I finally left, I wondered how these kids would think of our time together: a strange man out of nowhere teaching about shamanism on the streets. The next morning I went out to get a cup of coffee and found about a dozen kids still there. They had been there all night. I bought a bunch of breakfast food for them, and my coffee. Without asking, they shared with me that something had happened for them that night. They could not identify what it was. Several shared that the words “we are all healers” made them feel better.
It is difficult to say definitively what the effect of my work has been. Most of my interventions have been short. I only hear anecdotal stories. What I have learned is this:
a. There is a deep hunger for Spirit in adolescents I have met. They are wounded, and beneath their bluster is a deep desire to heal the pain they feel. They love to share their spiritual experiences and to have someone affirm them, particularly the ghost stories and how they can bring healing to people they know who have passed on.
b. There is a lot of frustration and despair on the streets, as many of the approaches to handle conflict and bring peace are not working. The general response from providers who are trying is renewed hope when they see there can be another way.
c. A few of the groups have remained violence-free after experiencing healing rituals. Most commonly, there are reports of decreased truancy, better school performance, and less fighting in school. In certain situations, attempts have been made to continue drumming circles for the boys.
d. Young people know what is true in their lives and have many good ideas about what is needed. Unfortunately, this culture disempowers youths and tends to demonize them. When the L.A. gangs stopped fighting and put together a proposal “Bloods/Crips Proposal for L.A.’s Facelift,” it was highly regarded as comprehensive and forward thinking. Many saw it as vastly superior to what government had been putting together. These proposals remain unheard.
e. I have found consistently that natural healers among young people are the ones who, on the surface, seem the most difficult. When they have successfully channeled their energies to lead in a healing way, major successes have occurred. It is as if the challenges of their lives initiate them to a calling
This is not easy work. Healing the spirit of the people is a day-to-day endeavor. Stronger inside, stronger together — maybe it makes the tasks of creating a better life a little easier. Who knows for certain? So many times I think of all the workshops and other places where I have taught that in many cultures the word referring to a shaman often means “one who sees in the dark.” There is much darkness here. My great-aunt, who called herself a “dreamer,” used to tell me as a young boy that “light grows out of the darkness.” I understood her to mean that the trials and tests of life bring us suffering and sacrifice. For many of the youths I have had the honor to know, their trials and tests lead them to believe there is no future for them. What I hold out to them is the possibility that they, too, are shamans for their people. Somewhere in the darkness the light of hope dwells. Somewhere in the darkness Spirit is living and growing.
Myron Eshowsky, M.S. (Counseling Psychology, 1974) is a teaching faculty member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He has written extensively on the application of shamanic methods in community mental health, health care settings, prisons, and with youths at risk.
Author’s note: Special thanks to the many who have contributed to making this work possible. They are Annette and Frank Hulefeld, Diana Coates, Karen Berger, Jerry Rousseau, Dagmar Plenk, Mary Linville, and Sharon Gale.
“We did not take up weapons for that is not our way, but in the strength of our minds we stood against them offering healing where there was pain and returning kindness for anger.”
—Waitaha Elder speaking of the invasion by the Maori long ago
Shamans have been utilized to help heal the conflicts of fifteen years of civil war in Mozambique and in post-Apartheid South Africa, where they serve a community role in helping maintain the health and welfare of the village. However, the topic of what tribal peoples may have to teach us about living together in a more connected and harmonious manner remains largely unexplored.
In a shamanic worldview where everything is interconnected, all conflict is ultimately community conflict. Malidoma Some’ expresses this sentiment when he writes:
“Indigenous societies concede the existence of conflict but view it as something of importance and of interest to the community. The conflict is some sort of message directed to the entire community but expressed through the individuals embroiled in the conflict. Interpersonal conflict is therefore not really interpersonal to the indigenous: all conflict is community conflict. The message for the community that lies behind the friction two people are experiencing must be assimilated and resolved successfully to serve the greater good of the community.”
This article explores the diversity of approaches used within the shamanic traditions. Case examples of healing approaches used in specific conflict situations are shared to demonstrate how these methods might be adapted to Western culture.
In the West, approaches to resolving conflict focus primarily on communication by aggrieved parties, negotiation, compromise, and agreement. Most importantly, the emphasis is on outcome, i.e. resolution. In practice, compromise can leave seeds which blossom into future conflict. Since many of the conflicts are polarized and seldom resolved, they can fester into larger ones. An easy example of this is divorce where fighting between divorced partners can continue involving other parties such as children, former friends, family, etc.
From a shamanic perspective, these conflicts are spiritual. The source of these conflicts may not readily be apparent, being hidden from ordinary modes of perceiving and understanding. Having a shamanic worldview helps people understand the damage being done on the spiritual level. Michael Harner makes the point in an interview:
“From a shamanic point of view, all people have a spiritual side, whether they recognize it or not. When people get angry, jealous, or have a hostile emotional attitude, they can vent not only verbal and physical abuse, but spiritual abuse without even knowing it. In other words, if somebody is ignorant of shamanic principles, they can do damage to other people on a spiritual level . . . This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get angry at people. It just means that you should have discipline and know there are parameters. You can get angry with somebody and verbally let out steam and at the same time control your spiritual side.”
Rituals and ceremonies are practiced to support the expression of these energies. Among certain tribes, a common practice is to barely whisper your angry feelings as you walk by a person with whom you are in conflict. Malidoma Some’ describes “ash circles” used by the Dagara for conflict resolution. After a ritual of “truth-telling” in front of the community, wherein both parties in conflict are given the opportunity to state their side of the disagreement without interruption, they retire to a sacred space created by a circle of ash. The “ears” not only of the tribe are present, but also of the ancestors and spirits. As the two persons in conflict enter the ash circle, each takes a mouthful of water from one of two bowls. To the Dagara, water symbolizes peace and life; ash symbolizes protection. They face away from each other, eventually spitting the water out. They then face one another and scream at each other wildly, but without physical violence. At some point a catharsis occurs and they throw the remaining water in the bowls at each other, ending the ritual in tears and grief release. The community also is actively involved by verbalizing the importance of the conflicted parties in the tribe, playing a key role of support and personal affirmation.
Among the Yanomami, a form of ceremonial dialogue called wayamou is used. In preparation for this ceremony, the aggrieved parties paint their bodies and adorn themselves. As they enter a sacred circle, they are greeted with shouts, whistles, and the sounds of arrows beating on the walls. They get into hammocks. The Elders may say a few words. Often, they are offered tobacco to chew and perhaps some food. Once night falls, the dialogue begins. They argue, with full and open expressiveness, saying what they need to say. In the turn-taking, the listener must do so meekly, awaiting a turn to speak out. The volume and tempo of the exchange tends to go in waves. At some point there is a calming and the anger subsides. The ceremony always ends at the beginning of the new day’s light, after which there is a gift exchange and sharing of food.
In the Kalahri Desert of southern Africa, the Ju/’honansi integrate the relieving of conflict tensions within their dancing healing rituals. The use of dance for the resolution of conflict is also used in several Melanesian cultures as well. Partly the intent of the dance is to bring the people together to honor each group member’s importance to the tribe. If two women are at odds, others will arrange for them to be next to each other in the singing circles, hoping that sisterhood between them will be re-established. Inherent in their approach is the belief that these tensions can create illness in the group. It is common for them to express these tensions as healing occurs within the dancing healing ritual. An example of this ritual expression, related to an ongoing dispute about a prospective divorce, resulted in the energy of the dance lacking power and the singing being flat. Rather than being a full circle of singing women, they had broken into two curved groups.
Arguments begin between the two lines of women, shouts about each other’s “stinginess” or “bad manners.” The shouting escalates, dominating the dance for a moment. Then two older women, facing each other at opposite ends of the two lines, bring the angry exchange to a climax. Suddenly, as each feels some redress has been won, they agree to resolve their differences and move on with the dance.
The circle reconnected and eventually the mood lightened and laughter broke out. The healing dance was then able to continue rather than be poisoned by the conflict.
Not all of these rituals and attempts to diffuse tensions are so openly expressive. The Jivaro shaman, for example, buries a lance said to contain the animosity between the conflicting parties in a place hidden deep in the forest so the antagonists can’t uncover it. The Iroquois Nation held council to resolve problems and conflicts within the confederation. In some cultures, very specific rituals for presenting one’s case to the Elders exist. These often involve deep questionning and an attempt to make right through actions as well as prescribed ritual. The Hawaiian practice of Ho’Oponopono as well as systems of circle justice practiced by First Nation people in Canada and by the Maori of New Zealand are examples of this type of ritual.
Applications in Western Culture
The following case history is offered as an example of the application of shamanic methods to heal conflicts. It is shared to give the sense of living story that these rituals often become and to reflect the belief that the work is often with the hidden forces of the conflict.
I am in a room of about 50 African-American adolescents, working on peacemaking with them. Most of them are gang members and wannabes. The school had invited me to do a presentation as part of their attempt to create “alternatives to violent conflict” programming.
One of the things I have learned is the importance of listening. These kids know what their problems are and often have lots of ideas about what is needed. Certainly, they bring up many issues that fall in the “social justice” category, but many are personal and spiritual.
I tell them about the spiritual traditions of shamanism which elicits a response typified by, “How do we find a spirit? We need spiritual power. Our problems are so big that only God could deal with them.” So I teach them how to do a journey to meet their spirit helpers in the way shamans do. The intent of the journey is to ask what was needed to bring them healing and peace. Strikingly, many came back with journeys that spoke of the wounds of slavery: “We don’t want to be slaves no more.” One of the journeyers got an image of dancing out the conflict of the slaves. The strongest thread connecting their various journey experiences was the need to create a healing ritual.
For this ritual, some of us drummed for those who volunteered to dance. I invited the dancers to journey to slave ancestors and let them lead the dance. As the dancing began, it was aggressive and fast. Then some of the boys began to vibrate as if spirits were taking hold, and a rhythmic chant began to emerge. The dance shifted and became more flowing. Still strong and fierce, it lacked its earlier aggressiveness. More boys joined the dancers.
Later, the dancers described that they felt as if something had taken them over. They wanted me to tell them what had happened. I could not. I asked them what it would be like if they danced “reputation,” “respect,” and “revenge” instead of acting them out, as these are key words in their lives.
During the conversations that followed, a conflict between two boys developed. I asked if we could work out the conflict for them. They agreed. One of the other boys and I journeyed to the spirit of each boy and, as we merged with their spirits, began to dance their dance. As we danced, others journeyed for spiritual guidance on what to do to bring healing to this dance. After awhile, they began to join the dance and change it. Their changes were a change in a movement, a few words, or a whole song they would sing—whatever came to them. At the end we brought the two conflicting boys into the dance and had them take part.
Afterwards, the two boys shared their surprise at how “real” the dance seemed to them. I asked if they were as angry as they were before and both replied they were not. “Dancing out the spirit of conflict” is something I have done many times since. In this particular case, the feedback from the school was positive. Many of the participants were reportedly less truant, getting better grades, and less involved in fights at the school.
Conclusion and Lessons
There are several principles that emerge from working with conflicts in this way. They are as follows:
The importance of non-attachment to outcome
Often the way the conflicts work themselves out ritually is unique and unexpected. The belief is the spirits do the healing that is needed and the range of resolutions can be from a simple shift in perception among the conflicted parties to what are perceived as bolts out of the blue, i.e. major miracles.
All conflict work requires stepping into the shoes of each party involved in the conflict in order to have full understanding and compassion for what is involved. Shamans often wear clothes of the clients in order to step into the clients’ world.
The fact that in every conflict, the issues are much deeper than they appear on the surface
There is a spiritual field that influences the conflicting parties. Hidden from our normal ways of perceiving, a complexity of forces calling for healing underly the conflict. Every conflict has its own unique configuration. Some of these are personal issues calling for healing, such as soul retrieval which addresses the harm of trauma. Some are the influences of history and the ancestors: issues left behind or in the history of a place waiting for spiritual resolution. Ultimately, none of these issues are personal, but rather relational within a spiritual context. Recognizing the patterns of connection and what is needed to restore balance and harmony is the work that needs to be done.
The importance of language in doing this work
We live in a linear world without full understandings of different ways of perceiving. In part, the impasse caused by frustration opens up the possibility of bringing new healing approaches to these issues. What is sometimes said in these situations to the people involved is that there are “some issues so overwhelming to what we know how to do that we pray to God for a miracle to happen and maybe that is what we need here.” It doesn’t say what the new balance and harmony might look like, only that it is beyond what we know.
1. Brailsford, Barry 1994
2. Honwana, 1997; Engle, 1998
3. Some’ pp.303-304
4. Horrigan, 1996: 73-74
5. Katz, pp.105-106
Brailsford, Barry 1994 Song of Waitaha, Christchurch, New Zealand, Ngatapawae Trust
Engle, Gilliam 1998 “Promoting Peace by Integrating Western and Indigenous healing in Treating Trauma,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 4(3)
Eshowsky, Myron “Community Shamanism: Youth , Violence and Healing,” Shamanism: Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, vol.11,No.1, 1998
Eshowsky, Myron “Shamanism and Peacemaking,” Shamanism: Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, vol.12, no.2, 1999
Honwana, Alcinda Manuel 1997 “Healing for Peace: Traditional Healers and Post War Reconstruction in Southern Mozambique,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 3(3)
Katz, Richard; Megan Biesele, and Verna St.Denis 1997. Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation among the Kalahari Ju/’honasi. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions
“The words we speak of are powerful. They have their own power. When we treat them—use them dishonestly or without care—they can do serious harm to ourselves and others.” Ratu Noa in The Straight Path
Words have power and few words evoke more fear in people than “cancer.” As a word, it is used to describe every type of cancer there is, no matter how slow, aggressive, or life threatening it may be. Its power lies in our response to the word itself. Many will constrict in fear. Some will want to go to battle for their lives and refuse to give in while others may collapse and accept their fate. A body at war with itself brings a medical response of war. Allopathic medical practitioners respond by speaking of the “war” on cancer and stating that “we’re going to treat this aggressively.” Armed with weapons of surgical precision, chemotherapy, and radiation, Western medicine fights the fires of a cancer eating away at the body with its own versions of fire.
Shamans have long known what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Many say the malignant behaviors of humans towards the Earth brings malignancy to us as humans. Sandra Steingraber shares numerous examples of communities where the chemical pollution and radioactivity of the air, water, and land has consistently led to higher rates of cancer and other environmental-related illnesses. My goal here is to share a shamanism-based model that works to restore balance and harmony; brings peace and healing as a response to illness (versus war), and offers empowerment to cancer patients. I draw upon more than thirty years of healing work with cancer patients including, but not limited to, Vietnam vets with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Agent Orange exposure), Chernobyl survivors and others exposed to radiation such as Gulf War veterans (depleted uranium), farmers exposed to pesticides, and persons living in environmentally (chemically) contaminated land and/or rivers.
Cancer:War or Peace
Thirty-two years ago, I spent a year with my father as he went through his cancer and dying process. What started out as colon cancer progressed later into bone and brain cancer. Contemporary Western medicine notes that as cancer cells conquer an area of the body they send out scout cells whose function it is to find territories in the body in which to establish new colonies. Elementally, cancer is like fire: fragile in nature, it needs to be fed and will do all that it can to keep itself sustained. This is how I now think of the spreading disease I watched in my father’s body. What struck me most in those days became the clues for my later understanding in working with cancer patients.
My father remained a strong warrior until the doctors said they could do no more. I watched the power of those words speed his ending. His last weeks were spent living in World War II, a defining traumatic moment in his life, and in screaming pain. He recognized me, but no one else. Each day I entered into his mind spiritually and watched the war that lived in his soul. It was the only way he knew how to process the losing battle in his soul. Spiritually, I learned the songs that were in his bones where the pain was greatest and I spent hours singing to create resonance with the pain. The singing seemed to stop the screaming and somehow make the pain less. Those two things, and prayer, were all that I knew then to do.
Healing a sick person requires a basic understanding of what it is like to walk in the shoes of that person. More than the illness itself, it is the person who has a particular illness that is critical to the approach of the work. Each specific cancer is spiritually distinct, even though it and others are of a particular type. As beings, we exist in two realms: the physical and the spiritual. The two are vibrating back and forth, making a song. Learning that relationship between body and soul through this resonance teaches much about disease. In many ways, disease is like a song sung off-key. In its essence, all shamanic healing is about restoring relationship: within oneself, with one’s family, with one’s community, and with the spirits.
The factors contributing to the development of cancer are multifarious. Genetics, general system health, social milieu, exposure and sensitivity to environmental pollutants, viruses, nutritional habits, and profession have all been cited as contributors. However, even with this understanding of factors, it still comes down to the specifics of the particular person in whom this disease occurs. For example, having worked with dozens of people exposed to radiation at Chernobyl as children who as adults developed thyroid cancer, I have learned that they represent only about 25% of those exposed to the radiation. Therefore, I stress an approach that asks, “who is the person with this illness?” This approach helps to understand that “one size does not fit all.” While soul retrieval, extraction, power animal retrieval and other healing techniques of traditional shamanism are used, the uniqueness of the person influences the specifics of the path taken.
Typically, the approach I use focuses on empowerment for the cancer patient. Rather than them being a person who has things done to them, we work to create an alliance together, and with the spirits, that allows them to work on their own behalf. I often tell them the following Jewish folk tale about healing.
A doctor goes to a patient who has been sick for a long time. “Let me explain something to you,” he tells the discouraged man, “in this room, there are three of us—you, me, and your disease. If you and I join forces, then we’ll outnumber the disease two-to-one, and we have a good chance of winning. But, if you join forces with the disease, there is not much I can do.”
A response I often hear when I tell patients this story is: “So you are telling me that the more I think about this disease, test for it, and wonder about it, the more I’m aligning myself with it.”
Right at the beginning I want them to journey on their own behalf. I teach them how to connect with their power animals and spiritual teachers. Typical questions (and the reasoning behind them) I have them journey on include:
a. What is the spirit of the illness telling you; what is its message? This moves the patient from conflict to a relationship with the illness so they can influence, with the help of the spirits, a healing direction with the spirit of the illness .
b. What is it that I see, hear, feel that I do not allow to get to my heart? This question is based on the notion that the heart is the seat of the immune system.
c. Sometimes there is a quality to a person, where I will say: “The ancestors are trying to get your attention via this disease.” I have him or her ask: “What is the healing the ancestors are asking of me?” This helps create a discussion of how the disease is more than just about one’s self. It may reflect larger healing needs for the ancestors and the community at large.
d. Some cancers create cocoon-like barriers around themselves so medicine will not get in. To address this, I have them ask: “How can I get around the cocoon to remove the illness?” Similar to this is having them journey to the spirit of the chemotherapy medicine. It empowers them to bring a spiritual influence to their own healing.
e. Journey to the Spirit of Death and ask this spirit: “Teach me how to use you as a healer.” This journey helps certain patients with their fear of death as well as develops a spiritual sense that death gives life as well as taking life. This is also drawn from the work of Jonas Salk who used inactivated or “killed” viruses for his immunology. His work revealed the persistence of a reactive energy beyond the death of matter.
f. In certain cases where there is something in the patient’s personal story such as their own trauma history, for example, I will have them do a journey to heal the memory in their cells that perhaps no longer serves them. As spiritual beings we are adaptive and we change as our needs in the world change. In the story of malaria in Africa, human blood cells changed as an adaptation to protect against this disease. However, this change also is the basis for sickle cell anemia, which is particularly troublesome in areas with no malaria where people with this change immigrated. Operational attack memories get infused in the cellular memory which is part of how some cells become cancer (attack) cells.
g. Spiritual sickness and health exists outside the construct of time. I often do a ceremonial journey with patients where I wrap them up in a white sheet and ask them to journey with the help of the spirits to a time before the conditions for cancer were in their bodies and to learn as much about that state of balance and harmony as they can. I have often found that this restores the body towards its own healing possibility.
h. Journey to the spirits to learn about how the illness represents “stuckness” in their lives, and then how to get unstuck. This journey is relevant for people whose presentation reflects passivity and hopelessness about life. Much of the psychoneuroimmunoligical literature speaks about how patients who are able to express anger often have better outcomes with certain cancers than people who are more passive.
i. Since all healing in shamanism is in some way about healing relationships, I reframe for the patient the issue of “ what caused me to get sick” into “ what are the spiritual relationships involved in my sickness that need balance and harmony?” Part of the reasoning here is that they can work on restoring appropriate relationships in their lives; they cannot always know the “why.”
The healing work itself varies case by case. Working in alliance with the spirits, one sees soul retrieval, extraction, power animal retrievals, and depossession as central to the work. Since cancer is by its nature of the “fire” element, the work entails removing intrusions caused by negativity, but also encourages other approaches to cool the “fire” element aspect of the disease. Some of it may come to peace vis a vis the journeys the patient is doing on their own behalf. Sometimes the spirits will guide me to have them do a fire ceremony to release anger that they hold onto that feeds the disease. Sometimes the person is directed to go to water spirits, to pray for forgiveness and to learn the sacrifices he or she must make to bring a larger possibility into his or her life. Sometimes the journey I do for a patient will show that the illness is “spirit sickness” (like the initiatory illness of a shaman) and the illness is a calling to that person to live their spiritual gifts in the world. Most often in these cases, I am directed to have the patient work with the “water spirits.”
In working with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, the best results are often within the context of a large circle with several healers involved. A model for this that the spirits gave me in my own journeys that I have used many times with success involves healers taking different roles in the healing ceremony. There are two different versions that I most often use. One involves a healer who journeys to fill up with power by merging with his or her power animal and then goes in this merged condition to meet the spirit of the patient’s cancer. The healer learns this spirit’s dance and then dances the spirit of the person’s cancer . Another healer journeys to merge with his or her power animal and asks to learn the dance of healing, which he or she then dances. The circle of drummers keeps all of their attention on the person who is dancing the healing, ignoring the first healer who is dancing the spirit of the cancer. As the cancer spirit loses power, more people are brought into the circle to learn the dance of healing and help build its power. The patient watches, and if able, eventually joins the dance.
The other ceremony involves healers taking on four different roles. One journeys to do a creative intervention. He or she goes to his or her helping spirits to get a healing story or poem, an image of art to draw or sculpt, or some other form of creativity that brings healing to the patient. A second operates in the traditional shamanic healer role and does whatever healing the spirits direct. A third journeys and asks the spirits how to bring in disruptive power that can break through the spiritual blocks contributing to the disease or is preventing spiritual healing power from getting through. They might yell, scream, drum loudly, sing loudly, or dance fiercely to accomplish this. The last healer works with the spirits to send unconditional love to the patient, as love is the strongest healing force.
Except for name changes for the sake of patient privacy, the cases offered here accurately depict the work patients and I did together and the outcomes that were achieved. The cases were chosen based on their being representative samples of clusters of similar cases.
Case 1: The patient was a mid-fifties male with an initial diagnosis of prostate cancer. He had undergone surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but the cancer had taken an aggressive course. Typical of most cancer patients that I see, he was pursuing our work together as a last resort, i.e., the cancer had spread throughout his body and he was told by his oncologist that there was nothing else they could offer. They essentially said his time was short at best. Professionally a teacher, he did not want to leave his work, his wife, or his children. He felt there were things he needed yet to achieve in life and he was willing to do whatever I suggested.
The initial healing work involved soul retrieval and extraction work. Most striking in my journey for him was the burning fire in his belly that had a steel door locked around it. My power animal said that this fire was his own anger trapped within and it was eating him up. Energetically, he was much brighter after the healing work, which lifted his wife’s mood as well. We immediately had him journeying to his own spirit helpers to assist him.
In his first journey, he was met by Snake and Bear. Snake ate through his whole body and during the whole journey, I watched his body go into non-stop spasms. Snake then took him to a piece of land that he held dear to his heart. Snake began teaching him about how He had taught the people long ago to live in harmony with this land. He showed him the contours He had made so the water would irrigate the land and the way He had taught the people the best places to plant. Bear came and merged into his body. My client felt a surge of strength that had been missing throughout his whole illness process. Bear began to tell him a story and told him to begin writing it down because they had books to write and time was of the essence. Both Bear and Snake told him he needed to purify his body and work to heal the fires burning in his belly. Per his journey instructions, we arranged for a sweat lodge ceremony on his behalf as well as a community fire ritual.
In this case, we did much journeying and healing work together. At no time did his medical markers such as his PSAs or scans done of his body show any improvement. In fact, the medical people kept saying the cancers had spread and grown larger. For seven years, he lived pain free for the most part, continued to teach full time, wrote two books guided by the spirits, and looked by all accounts to be full of life and not sick whatsoever. The oncologist involved told me that he could not believe or understand how he had become so robust, for everything spoke to the opposite. He died one day after what he thought of as the more important book was published and delivered to his home. This case is indicative of dozens of cases where the strong spiritual connection developed by a patients enhanced the quality of their lives and brought them a sense of control, zest for living, fullness, and grace they had not known previously.
Case 2: Natalia is a young (early 20s) Belorussian woman I met at a psychology conference in Russia where I was presenting on shamanism, peace, and healing. She struck me as expressionless facially, though most would see her as pretty. Her thyroid was extremely enlarged and looked like a grapefruit growing out of her neck.
She had attended a demonstration I had done at the conference and asked me if I would do healing work on her behalf. We had to work through an interpreter. Natalia told me that as a child she had lived very close to Chernobyl and that many in her family were sick. She said she knew that her thyroid cancer was because she was exposed to radiation as a child. The interpreter, it turned out, was a widow whose deceased husband had rushed off to Chernobyl because his family was living there at the time of the meltdown in 1986 and had died as a result of his exposure.
What struck me most about Natalia (and many of the other Chernobyl survivors I have worked with over the years) was the profound “flatness” to her expressions and her lack of “life force.” Some of this was due to her fear that she could not have a normal life, a common fear being the likelihood of deformed babies if she were to marry and conceive.
In the journey I took for her, I was taken to fields around Chernobyl and shown flowers that had once grown there. I could hear them singing within the journey. My power animal told me I must sing this healing song to her neck while also singing the song of the cancer at the same time. It was a little bit like Tuvan throat singing as I sang back and forth on the inhale and exhale. Then, I was told to put a red cloth around her neck with tobacco to help extract the poisons that were in her. This was followed by my being told to sing again to the cancer in her throat. When we were done with the healing work, the grapefruit sized tumor was gone. The interpreter, who is a deeply religious Russian Orthodox Christian, was quite shocked by the work and reported to me that the aches and pains in her back and joints (which she attributed to Chernobyl) also had all gone away.
Natalia was happy that the tumor was gone. Later medical testing, since she was scheduled to have her thyroid tumor removed, showed remission of the cancer. At the same time, her “flatness” remained intact despite the spiritual miracle that had occurred.
Before the conference ended, I did one more healing session with her that involved bringing her a power animal as well as some soul retrieval work. A year later she returned to the same conference to say hello to me. She remained cancer free , had married unexpectedly and was much happier. But, her general view of the future including having children remained pessimistic.
Case 3: A middle aged woman I will call Donna came to a shamanism workshop in the Midwest to check me out. She approached me during a break and told me she had tumors throughout her body and was going to have surgery that week. Her prognosis was not good and she had only agreed to the surgery because the doctors said it would remove some difficult tumors and extend her quality of life. She asked if were going to do any healing work in the workshop and I said we would. We did the earlier-described healing ceremony where different people embrace different roles; a healing story, unconditional love, the provocateur to break through the spiritual blocks, and a shamanic practitioner. The person journeying for a story was given one to tell her that went something like this:
Once you were a river and you flowed everywhere. All life was supported by you and much was lush and green. But, one day things changed and you became a road, but in your soul you were a river. As a road you became very hungry and you wanted to eat, and eat and eat. But, the river that brought lushness was no more and the food disappeared.
One day an ant came and began to eat the road and each bite released water; the road was very juicy. Other ants came as they heard of the juiciness and the road slowly, but surely, became a droplet of water, then a puddle, then a creek, and then a river.
The provocateur was jumping and yelling all around her: ”Let Me In! Let Me In!” The one bringing in unconditional love, loved, and the shamanic practitioner did extraction and soul retrieval. When it was all over, she approached me and said: “Nothing happened; I felt nothing.” I replied that the spirits work in whatever way they do and that I had long ago learned to work from a place of non-attachment to outcome.
A year later she came to another workshop and shared that when she went to see her doctor for the pre-surgery physical, they had found her to be in full remission. What I have seen many times over in cases like this has been the revelation that the ones who report feeling nothing noticeable have been the ones with the strongest results.
Case 4: Bill was a Viet Nam vet diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He had been exposed to Agent Orange during the war and, like many veterans, developed problems later on. A postal carrier professionally, he had been proud of his level of fitness. He had led a life characterized by distancing himself from his daughter, from his romantic partners, and friends. He admitted that since the war, it had been hard for him to be close to people or tolerate being confined in any way. His feeling was that the postal carrier job was perfect for him. It allowed him to be in his own rhythms and outdoors. He reported right away in our work together that he had no desire to live.
My initial healing journey was very much like going into a war zone. Fire was burning everywhere in his body as I began to diagnose with the spirits what was needed. I watched water being poured from every direction on the fires, but it had no impact. Shouting voices were everywhere in a language I did not know. The message I received from the spirits was to not do healing work as he wanted to die in peace. I was to help him find that peace.
As I reported this to him, I watched his breath deepen and his eyes sparkle a bit. He told me that he was, in truth, more concerned about finding peace in his life than whether he lived or died. Our work focused on his journeying for spiritual direction on how to end the war within himself and reconcile his relationship with his daughter, who was his only child. His journeys guided him to write a letter from his heart asking for her forgiveness and to ask if she would meet with him in counseling to try to bring reconciliation into their lives. A journey we both did around forgiveness ritual helped design a process for them to speak truthfully from their hearts in a sacred circle, for Bill to give her things of importance to him and her from his life, and for him to create a gift for her that represented the gift he found for her while going so far away from her and others over the years. It was a powerfully emotional sharing of the hearts, and Bill, who typically was stoic, shifted to become more emotional and appreciative in his interactions with family and friends. The rest of our work was journeying on how he wanted his life to end, the type of funeral, etc. He died surrounded by his daughter and friends.
In tribal societies, spiritual lessons come in the form of stories. Stories remind us of what we have forgotten during this time. An elderly World War II veteran, prior to the recent invasion in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, said to my wife,
No war is worth fighting; they should always try to resolve these things through negotiations. You know I was laying in a hospital during the war and I was in great pain from the gunshot wound that got me there. In the beds around me were German soldiers. You know, they were screaming in as much pain as I was.
This man, who at the time was dying from cancer and at peace with his life ending, served as a reminder that healing restores our sense of commonality and unity.
Anecdotally, I have witnessed many stories of miracles through the healing interventions of the spirits. In some cases, it is spontaneous remission and in others it is an extended quality of life. Bringing healing and peace in work with cancer patients involves more than traditional shamanic healing and contemplation. The healing advances through actions taken to set things right, deeds that flow from the revelation and guidance of the spirits. It calls for healing reflection, for that reflection allows us to have a more liveable grasp of our troubling experiences. What makes for healing ultimately is not how much we do (or fight), it is the dedication and heartfulness that we bring to the healing commitment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Spirit is nothing to hold onto. We are always losing it and always having to regain it.” In working with cancer patients, there comes a point where what they lost in becoming sick, or what they had, is no longer adequate for the challenges they face. So, in that moment of vulnerability, of facing death head on, they and the shamanic practitioner are given a great task of how to find what is sacred in that moment and how to restore their relationship with the spirits that is healing not only for ourselves but for all around us. In the end, it is in the heart and the commitment to the task at hand that the shamanic practitioner best becomes the vessel of the spirits to bring healing.
1. Ratu Noa in The Straight Path
2. Sandra Steingraber
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
200? The Straight Path
200? Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.