From Revenge to a Healing PeaceBy
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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