Archive for Peace Making
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.)
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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.
“We did not take up weapons for that is not our way, but in the strength of our minds we stood against them offering healing where there was pain and returning kindness for anger.”
—Waitaha Elder speaking of the invasion by the Maori long ago
Shamans have been utilized to help heal the conflicts of fifteen years of civil war in Mozambique and in post-Apartheid South Africa, where they serve a community role in helping maintain the health and welfare of the village. However, the topic of what tribal peoples may have to teach us about living together in a more connected and harmonious manner remains largely unexplored.
In a shamanic worldview where everything is interconnected, all conflict is ultimately community conflict. Malidoma Some’ expresses this sentiment when he writes:
“Indigenous societies concede the existence of conflict but view it as something of importance and of interest to the community. The conflict is some sort of message directed to the entire community but expressed through the individuals embroiled in the conflict. Interpersonal conflict is therefore not really interpersonal to the indigenous: all conflict is community conflict. The message for the community that lies behind the friction two people are experiencing must be assimilated and resolved successfully to serve the greater good of the community.”
This article explores the diversity of approaches used within the shamanic traditions. Case examples of healing approaches used in specific conflict situations are shared to demonstrate how these methods might be adapted to Western culture.
In the West, approaches to resolving conflict focus primarily on communication by aggrieved parties, negotiation, compromise, and agreement. Most importantly, the emphasis is on outcome, i.e. resolution. In practice, compromise can leave seeds which blossom into future conflict. Since many of the conflicts are polarized and seldom resolved, they can fester into larger ones. An easy example of this is divorce where fighting between divorced partners can continue involving other parties such as children, former friends, family, etc.
From a shamanic perspective, these conflicts are spiritual. The source of these conflicts may not readily be apparent, being hidden from ordinary modes of perceiving and understanding. Having a shamanic worldview helps people understand the damage being done on the spiritual level. Michael Harner makes the point in an interview:
“From a shamanic point of view, all people have a spiritual side, whether they recognize it or not. When people get angry, jealous, or have a hostile emotional attitude, they can vent not only verbal and physical abuse, but spiritual abuse without even knowing it. In other words, if somebody is ignorant of shamanic principles, they can do damage to other people on a spiritual level . . . This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get angry at people. It just means that you should have discipline and know there are parameters. You can get angry with somebody and verbally let out steam and at the same time control your spiritual side.”
Rituals and ceremonies are practiced to support the expression of these energies. Among certain tribes, a common practice is to barely whisper your angry feelings as you walk by a person with whom you are in conflict. Malidoma Some’ describes “ash circles” used by the Dagara for conflict resolution. After a ritual of “truth-telling” in front of the community, wherein both parties in conflict are given the opportunity to state their side of the disagreement without interruption, they retire to a sacred space created by a circle of ash. The “ears” not only of the tribe are present, but also of the ancestors and spirits. As the two persons in conflict enter the ash circle, each takes a mouthful of water from one of two bowls. To the Dagara, water symbolizes peace and life; ash symbolizes protection. They face away from each other, eventually spitting the water out. They then face one another and scream at each other wildly, but without physical violence. At some point a catharsis occurs and they throw the remaining water in the bowls at each other, ending the ritual in tears and grief release. The community also is actively involved by verbalizing the importance of the conflicted parties in the tribe, playing a key role of support and personal affirmation.
Among the Yanomami, a form of ceremonial dialogue called wayamou is used. In preparation for this ceremony, the aggrieved parties paint their bodies and adorn themselves. As they enter a sacred circle, they are greeted with shouts, whistles, and the sounds of arrows beating on the walls. They get into hammocks. The Elders may say a few words. Often, they are offered tobacco to chew and perhaps some food. Once night falls, the dialogue begins. They argue, with full and open expressiveness, saying what they need to say. In the turn-taking, the listener must do so meekly, awaiting a turn to speak out. The volume and tempo of the exchange tends to go in waves. At some point there is a calming and the anger subsides. The ceremony always ends at the beginning of the new day’s light, after which there is a gift exchange and sharing of food.
In the Kalahri Desert of southern Africa, the Ju/’honansi integrate the relieving of conflict tensions within their dancing healing rituals. The use of dance for the resolution of conflict is also used in several Melanesian cultures as well. Partly the intent of the dance is to bring the people together to honor each group member’s importance to the tribe. If two women are at odds, others will arrange for them to be next to each other in the singing circles, hoping that sisterhood between them will be re-established. Inherent in their approach is the belief that these tensions can create illness in the group. It is common for them to express these tensions as healing occurs within the dancing healing ritual. An example of this ritual expression, related to an ongoing dispute about a prospective divorce, resulted in the energy of the dance lacking power and the singing being flat. Rather than being a full circle of singing women, they had broken into two curved groups.
Arguments begin between the two lines of women, shouts about each other’s “stinginess” or “bad manners.” The shouting escalates, dominating the dance for a moment. Then two older women, facing each other at opposite ends of the two lines, bring the angry exchange to a climax. Suddenly, as each feels some redress has been won, they agree to resolve their differences and move on with the dance.
The circle reconnected and eventually the mood lightened and laughter broke out. The healing dance was then able to continue rather than be poisoned by the conflict.
Not all of these rituals and attempts to diffuse tensions are so openly expressive. The Jivaro shaman, for example, buries a lance said to contain the animosity between the conflicting parties in a place hidden deep in the forest so the antagonists can’t uncover it. The Iroquois Nation held council to resolve problems and conflicts within the confederation. In some cultures, very specific rituals for presenting one’s case to the Elders exist. These often involve deep questionning and an attempt to make right through actions as well as prescribed ritual. The Hawaiian practice of Ho’Oponopono as well as systems of circle justice practiced by First Nation people in Canada and by the Maori of New Zealand are examples of this type of ritual.
Applications in Western Culture
The following case history is offered as an example of the application of shamanic methods to heal conflicts. It is shared to give the sense of living story that these rituals often become and to reflect the belief that the work is often with the hidden forces of the conflict.
I am in a room of about 50 African-American adolescents, working on peacemaking with them. Most of them are gang members and wannabes. The school had invited me to do a presentation as part of their attempt to create “alternatives to violent conflict” programming.
One of the things I have learned is the importance of listening. These kids know what their problems are and often have lots of ideas about what is needed. Certainly, they bring up many issues that fall in the “social justice” category, but many are personal and spiritual.
I tell them about the spiritual traditions of shamanism which elicits a response typified by, “How do we find a spirit? We need spiritual power. Our problems are so big that only God could deal with them.” So I teach them how to do a journey to meet their spirit helpers in the way shamans do. The intent of the journey is to ask what was needed to bring them healing and peace. Strikingly, many came back with journeys that spoke of the wounds of slavery: “We don’t want to be slaves no more.” One of the journeyers got an image of dancing out the conflict of the slaves. The strongest thread connecting their various journey experiences was the need to create a healing ritual.
For this ritual, some of us drummed for those who volunteered to dance. I invited the dancers to journey to slave ancestors and let them lead the dance. As the dancing began, it was aggressive and fast. Then some of the boys began to vibrate as if spirits were taking hold, and a rhythmic chant began to emerge. The dance shifted and became more flowing. Still strong and fierce, it lacked its earlier aggressiveness. More boys joined the dancers.
Later, the dancers described that they felt as if something had taken them over. They wanted me to tell them what had happened. I could not. I asked them what it would be like if they danced “reputation,” “respect,” and “revenge” instead of acting them out, as these are key words in their lives.
During the conversations that followed, a conflict between two boys developed. I asked if we could work out the conflict for them. They agreed. One of the other boys and I journeyed to the spirit of each boy and, as we merged with their spirits, began to dance their dance. As we danced, others journeyed for spiritual guidance on what to do to bring healing to this dance. After awhile, they began to join the dance and change it. Their changes were a change in a movement, a few words, or a whole song they would sing—whatever came to them. At the end we brought the two conflicting boys into the dance and had them take part.
Afterwards, the two boys shared their surprise at how “real” the dance seemed to them. I asked if they were as angry as they were before and both replied they were not. “Dancing out the spirit of conflict” is something I have done many times since. In this particular case, the feedback from the school was positive. Many of the participants were reportedly less truant, getting better grades, and less involved in fights at the school.
Conclusion and Lessons
There are several principles that emerge from working with conflicts in this way. They are as follows:
The importance of non-attachment to outcome
Often the way the conflicts work themselves out ritually is unique and unexpected. The belief is the spirits do the healing that is needed and the range of resolutions can be from a simple shift in perception among the conflicted parties to what are perceived as bolts out of the blue, i.e. major miracles.
All conflict work requires stepping into the shoes of each party involved in the conflict in order to have full understanding and compassion for what is involved. Shamans often wear clothes of the clients in order to step into the clients’ world.
The fact that in every conflict, the issues are much deeper than they appear on the surface
There is a spiritual field that influences the conflicting parties. Hidden from our normal ways of perceiving, a complexity of forces calling for healing underly the conflict. Every conflict has its own unique configuration. Some of these are personal issues calling for healing, such as soul retrieval which addresses the harm of trauma. Some are the influences of history and the ancestors: issues left behind or in the history of a place waiting for spiritual resolution. Ultimately, none of these issues are personal, but rather relational within a spiritual context. Recognizing the patterns of connection and what is needed to restore balance and harmony is the work that needs to be done.
The importance of language in doing this work
We live in a linear world without full understandings of different ways of perceiving. In part, the impasse caused by frustration opens up the possibility of bringing new healing approaches to these issues. What is sometimes said in these situations to the people involved is that there are “some issues so overwhelming to what we know how to do that we pray to God for a miracle to happen and maybe that is what we need here.” It doesn’t say what the new balance and harmony might look like, only that it is beyond what we know.
1. Brailsford, Barry 1994
2. Honwana, 1997; Engle, 1998
3. Some’ pp.303-304
4. Horrigan, 1996: 73-74
5. Katz, pp.105-106
Brailsford, Barry 1994 Song of Waitaha, Christchurch, New Zealand, Ngatapawae Trust
Engle, Gilliam 1998 “Promoting Peace by Integrating Western and Indigenous healing in Treating Trauma,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 4(3)
Eshowsky, Myron “Community Shamanism: Youth , Violence and Healing,” Shamanism: Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, vol.11,No.1, 1998
Eshowsky, Myron “Shamanism and Peacemaking,” Shamanism: Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, vol.12, no.2, 1999
Honwana, Alcinda Manuel 1997 “Healing for Peace: Traditional Healers and Post War Reconstruction in Southern Mozambique,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 3(3)
Katz, Richard; Megan Biesele, and Verna St.Denis 1997. Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation among the Kalahari Ju/’honasi. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions