Community Shamanism: Youth, Violence, and HealingBy
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.