Archive for Healing
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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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.
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.
“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.