Madness and ShamanismBy
Printed in Shamanic Applications Review, Issue 3
Much has been written about the role of near death experiences and healing from prolonged illness in the shaman’s receiving his/her spiritual calling. It is my belief that prolonged trauma can be a contributor as well. Psychologist Colin Ross found that patients with multiple personality disorder (origins of which are the effect of extreme prolonged childhood trauma) had nearly four times as many paranormal experiences as patients in other psychiatric categories, and that people with histories of childhood abuse had nearly twice the number of paranormal experiences as those who had not been abused. Ross was led to hypothesize that something about trauma activates psychic experiences such as ESP, precognition, contact with or possession by spirits.
My understanding of trauma’s unique role comes from reflecting on my own healing process as well as twenty-two years of psychotherapy practice. It is also the outgrowth of nearly a decade of applying shamanic knowledge and tools to my own healing as well as people’s problems in my private practice and in a community mental health center.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. We were the only Jewish family in what was a very fundamentalist Christian area. As a child, I was the target of verbal, physical and sexual violence. These attacks lasted for ten years, most of which I avoided by hiding, escaping to a safe area which whenever possible meant a place in nature.
Of particular worry were the times when I was left alone at night which occurred frequently. As darkness settled, the enemy forces rose. I locked the doors, closed curtains, drew the blinds. In the shadows the ritual would begin. Voices drummed at the windows. “Come out, Jew”, they would sing. “Come out and face your revenge.” “Christ killer.” Over and over and over. Like a wild animal I scampered around the house seeking safety. My heart beat faster as the rhythm picked up. I was filled with the nausea of fear.
In the house, retreat always meant my closet. A panel in the wall opened to my hiding place. There cool pipes soothed my skin.
There I kept a flashlight, books, food, water…I could last for days. A safe place where no one can find me, a place where dreams are made, a place to wait for life. And there I would stay until my parents returned.
The significance of this memory reemerged seventeen years later in the mid-seventies through a series of personal and professional experiences that altered the course of my life. I began to experience spontaneous trance journeys where I would leave what I later came to identify as ordinary reality and find myself undergoing bizarre experiences. These included several episodes of being dismembered by animals and being put back together, something for which I had no references. I also met people from a different time and place who said they were my ancestors and would prescribe rituals for my healing. These experiences would happen in my normal day to day life.
One particular ritual I was told to do was to return to my old neighborhood and literally walk through my history as a visible man. I was told I had to reclaim my soul. Here I was an adult, rational, professional man living in Wisconsin. I felt crazy that I was listening to these unreal experiences, but felt I had no choice but to do what I was instructed.
When I revisited Indianapolis, the composition of the neighborhood had become primarily African American. All who had lived there when I was growing up had moved away. I did the ritual as instructed until I found myself in front of the house of one my worst tormentors. I went into a foaming-at-the-mouth rage, yelling, screaming, and throwing rocks at the house.
As I calmed down, I found myself surrounded by a large group of people from the neighborhood. A man asked me incredulously, “What the fuck are you doing?” I told them my story. With wet eyes, the person who now lived in my childhood home invited me in.
I immediately went to my room and found it largely unchanged. I went to the closet to find my safe room. My hope was to find writings and books I had left there. Much to my surprise there was no panel, no room. Questions led to the sure knowledge that nothing had been physically changed. And yet that retreat space was as real as real can be to me. I left feeling in some ways healed and in others pretty confused and crazy, a feeling that characterized much of that period in my life.
Years later as the result of a soul retrieval I received from Sandra Ingerman and my own journeying experiences I was able to refind my place of hiding. My safe retreat space turned out to be in non-ordinary reality. I had left part of my soul there for many years. I understood even more profoundly how vivid and real non-ordinary reality experiences are.
At the same time these events took place, I was working in an inpatient psychiatric facility. There were times when the line between staff and patient felt pretty thin for me. I was having a range of experiences for which I had no context or container. Only later when I learned to journey shamanically, did I find a context to explain my unusual experiences. Then I could look back and understand my expanded sense of reality. A particular hospital patient of that time became a catalyst to my using these experiences to help others.
A man in his early thirties, I will name Hank, was admitted to the psychiatric unit of the hospital in a severe psychotic state. He had gone over the edge after the death of his mother. Married with two young children, he had no previous history of psychiatric difficulty. Hank fascinated me. Twenty-four hours a day he wandered around the unit with his arms stretched out as if on the cross. He said one of two things: ‘Messiah, Messiah, I am the Messiah!” or “O hell hell o, o hell, hell o.” Because he walked into other patient’s rooms and disturbed their sleep, he was kept in the locked quiet room. I started spending hours of my shift locked up with Hank.
Medications had not influenced his thought process, so in an attempt to understand his world, I would assume the crucifixion pose and mirror his entire experience for extended periods of time. Perhaps in this way I could find the key to his psychotic condition. At night when I slept, I began to have visions of disasters and compelling feelings that I had to save the world. I would wake with Hank’s illness reverberating in my being and pace for hours at night unable to sleep. In one dream I ran around screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling.“ I wondered who he was trying to save.
A family therapy session was suggested. From all over the country Hank’s family gathered in the heroic struggle to save him. The family included his wife, his father’s siblings, and his mother’s twin sister. When his father and aunt were questioned about family dynamics, Hank‘s messiah behavior began to escalate culminating in a fight between him and the psychiatrist. The struggle was fierce and furniture was smashed as Hank tried to choke the doctor. The aunt, a psychiatric nurse by training, began screaming hysterically. Hank ran out of the room. I gave chase and found him weeping in the quiet room. He was totally lucid and filled with grief about his mother’s death and the dissolution of the family. His aunt became psychotic and was admitted to the psychiatric ward. Hank was quickly discharged to be with his wife and two young children. “Classic homeostasis, “ the psychiatrist smiled in conclusion. The family had to maintain its unhealthy balance. I was left with unanswered questions and a sure knowledge that there was more to Hank’s experience than met the eye.
Nearly twenty years later, I find myself looking at this incident differently. My subsequent experiences using shamanism with traumatized, mentally disturbed clients have altered my understanding profoundly. Based on cases like Hank’s and my own spontaneous trance experiences, I began researching and actively testing whether psychological constructs could account for the full range of human experience.
In our culture, we are taught not to accept our experience unless we can describe or explain it in “normal” reality. In particular, social and spiritual dimensions are rarely accounted for in psychological models. I have come to see that, from a psychological perspective, this may be most damaging to our individual psyches, both invalidating our individual experiences and limiting our understanding of reality.
In traditional psychotherapy, clients are plugged into a paradigm as if it is the reality of the client’s experience. When clients don’t fit the model or don’t respond to treatment, then it is said that they are a “difficult” client and as such, unable to be helped. The undercurrent of despair in the mental health profession with regards to “difficult” clients is disturbing. Psychotherapists are asked to intervene in a growing complexity of human issues. Each year I hear more and more of my colleagues pose the question, “Do you think people are getting more wounded and crazier?” I cannot answer that question. My guess is that the question reflects their increasing struggle with how to help their clients.
Furthermore, clients who cannot be helped by traditional psychotherapy typically respond by internalizing the failure and making themselves the problem, thus compounding their problems. After some years of using both traditional therapy and shamanism with clients my belief is that therapists have been putting their attention in the wrong places. To use a metaphor from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, we’ve been “watering the wrong seeds.”
Let me return to Hank. From the beginning there was considerable uproar from fellow staff about my attempt to enter Hank’s world so completely. It was too scary for them to imagine going so far in the attempt to heal someone. Yet for me, it was the next logical step in trying to understand him. Later I discovered that this was in fact a classic shamanic approach to healing. In his article titled “When Insanity Is A Blessing: The Message Of Shamanism”, Holger Ralweit writes: “The shaman frequently enters a patient’s state so thoroughly that he himself experiences the symptoms of the illness and, in this way, acquires special knowledge as to its cause.”
My own personal experiences of non-ordinary reality coupled with cases like Hank’s ultimately led me to embark on a serious study and practice of shamanism primarily with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Over time I found that it was in the world of the shaman that acute psychological distress could best be understood. Ultimately I learned that more often than not it is in this world that successful treatment can truly begin.
The shaman lives in two worlds. One is very ordinary, the other is extra-ordinary, full of mystery and seemingly mad. The ability to enter into shamanic states of consciousness and return at will is one characteristic that distinguishes shamans from the mentally ill. In shamanic cultures, this difference is understood. Michael Harner, one of my teachers of shamanism, recounted in a workshop, “When I was with the Jivaro or Shuar tribe, there was a man who wandered the forest day and night talking to spirits. So I asked if this man was a shaman. “No,” they said, “he’s crazy.” Was he crazy because he was seeing things? No, because they had seen them too. He was crazy because he was stuck out of control—he couldn’t turn it off. This notion of being stuck in the other world (i.e. a shamanic state of consciousness) reminded me of the symptoms of dissociation. It got me interested in learning more about that world and how to bring people back from it.
For me, shamanism has provided both theoretical and practical ways of understanding and meeting the needs of mental health patients: first, by accepting nonmaterial or spiritual dimensions of reality as real, and second, by dealing with clients in terms of soul wounding. My subsequent study and practice of shamanism gradually led me to integrate shamanism increasingly into my psychotherapy practice. For clients in acute distress more traditional therapeutic treatments were often more useful during or after shamanic work.
Transpersonal psychiatrist John Nelson theorizes that reality is state bound, i.e. dependent on the state of consciousness (ordinary versus altered) of the observer. In beginning to apply shamanism to persons with acute mental disturbances, my working theory was that shamanic tools could be used to alleviate client distress and, at least in some cases, restore healthy balance. A sampling of composite mental health stories follows to illustrate the effectiveness of working with people in crisis using shamanic healing methods. The sample is limited to cases where there were serious questions regarding the client’s sanity either by the client or staff or both.
LEAVING HOME IS HARD TO DO
A young woman in her late 20’s comes to see me for psychotherapy. She had been referred by her brother-in-law who had taken a shamanism workshop. Nonresponsive to traditional therapies, she had a long history of depression with visual and auditory hallucinations, and little success at personal independence. She was living with her parents after having returned home to help with her sick grandmother who subsequently had died. Her previous psychiatric diagnosis was depression with atypical psychosis. The family history was chaotic with verbal and occasional physical violence.
On the surface, she looked quite functional. Her major symptoms were severe at night when she would see men in the house attempting to hurt others and would wake up her family in acute distress. Family attempts to reassure her that this wasn’t happening were not working and led to intense conflict. In frustration, the family would resort to verbal attack. Often she would see the spirit of her grandmother walking in the house. She was obsessed with one particular niece and was constantly fearful for her well being. In our sessions, she was quite coherent but steadfast in her belief in the reality of the nighttime occurences as well as voices in her head that convinced her she was possessed. Prior attempts to medicate these symptoms with psychotropic medications had failed. She was not on medication at the time I met her.
Recognizing the inherent risks, I decided to have her do a journey to her power animal. Given her lack of personal power in her life and with her family, I thought this might help her mobilize. My primary concern was that it not add to her distress. There was a glazed quality to her eyes that made me think she was stuck in an altered state and that the journey might help her learn to come back.
In her journey, she met a dolphin. She merged with the dolphin for a delightful swim to an island where grandmother’s spirit tells her she is okay.
As the dolphin, she reports being taught she needs to learn to swim in her own right. She also experiences a hole in herself which the dolphin swims against and covers. When she returns she asks if there is healing work that can be done to close the hole. After long discussions about shamanic healing and the nature of the work, I agree to do a journey to Spirit on her behalf.
The healing journey revealed a need for soul retrieval, the bringing back of soul parts lost earlier in her life. The first part involves soul theft: both parents are holding on to and fighting over her. The struggle to secure this part is difficult and requires distraction of the parents by one of my power animals. Another part is found at her grandmother’s grave trying to join her grandmother, the only safe adult she had known. The third part is an eight year old girl afraid of her parents’ violence. I am also instructed to extract spiritual intrusions that my power animal says are caused by the family’s emotional hostility.
The results were phenomenal. The voices in her head stopped completely. Over the next few weeks, there were no reported incidents at night and she slept through the night for the first time in years. She reported feeling less fearful and managed to find a part time job. The progress continued until af amily incident during which her father beat her. The effect of the assault was that her symptoms returned in full force. This incident raised questions as to whether her growing inner power could withstand the family field as well as issues of how to work on life after healing. Another healing journey reveals the fathers attack had regained his hold on her soul. Another soul retrieval was done with the same immediate alleviation of her symptoms. The focus in her treatment and in her journeys changed to learning how to develop self-protection skills and make a safe break for independence from her parents.
What happened in this case was not new to me. Many mental health practitioners have seen a client get healthier only to lose progress after a family visit or in cident. What was new was the method of understanding and responding to the family influence. This client continues to he symptom-free and is slowly making strides in her life. (Note: I have seen several clients where the lack of ritual for adult independence and individuation elicits symptoms of depression along with thought disturbance. Without real concrete life changes which cut the energy cord to the parents, soul retrieval work did not take long term hold.)
As I mentioned earlier, a key to working shamanically with clients is the acceptance that the client’s experience is real. The shamanic perspective easily supports this idea and leads to a different way of responding to what are seemingly unreal experiences. A case picked up by a graduate student under my supervision illustrates this.
Delusion or Reality
The woman was a diagnosed schizophrenic and had been referred for long term supportive counseling. For the last few years she had been a difficult and expensive case to treat for the county mental health system. Multiple suicide attempts in response to auditory hallucinations and numerous hospitalizations were followed by numerous unsuccessful psychotropic medication regimes. Attempts to stabilize and maintain her in the community had been difficult at best.
The woman’s personal life history had been severe in tone. She had worked as a prostitute and had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. There was a suspicion of childhood sexual abuse as well as known family alcoholism. She had had a son out of wedlock to whom she was quite attached. At the age of three, her son was murdered by her boyfriend while she was at work. She immediately became psychotic and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Her delusional system insisted that her son was not dead and that she talked to him all the time. In fact, all of her suicide attempts were during times when she was trying to get to her son. The graduate student was particularly concerned that she find a way to help this young woman grieve the loss of her son. In my own mind I wondered if the woman was indeed talking to her son‘s spirit. From a shamanic point of view I could imagine his spirit being stuck in the middle world, not knowing he was dead. His mother could be stuck in denial
because of his traumatic ending. I researched more about the son’s death and where it had occurred.
I told the graduate student I was going to do an experiment and would tell her only when I had done it. Her job was then to tell me if she noticed any difference in the woman’s mental status. I journeyed with my spirit helpers to see if her son’s soul had crossed over to the other world. I found him in the middle world, in the house where he had been living crying for his mommy. He was quite frightened and I spent much time calming him down. One of my power animals gave him lots of cuddling and they played together for awhile. The boy told me many details of what happened to him prior to the murder (details I was later able to confirm). In the journey, I help to conduct his soul to the other world.
The results were staggering. The graduate student reported that her client had stopped talking to or about her son. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from her and she had woken up. The suicide gestures stopped, and she was able over time to live in a group home and work part-time in competitive employment. With
counseling, she began to grieve the loss of her son. But the hardness of her life and the traumas she had endured made it hard for her to survive without a great deal of community support. Although much improved by shamanic healing, like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put her completely back together again.
No Room at the Inn
Carol sat before me, hugely overweight and full of childish energy. Wiggling and squirming in her seat, she playfully engaged me as she told her story. She held a doll in her own likeness, a doll with a special name to represent a part of her. She reported feeling empty inside, looking for something lost long ago, and came for counseling because it felt right. Carol’s life had been hard. A survivor of a physically abusive marriage she could no longer work as a nurse because of her own healing process. Despite her disability, her pure energy and genuine love of life were striking.
She told me of a recent dream in which aspects of herself had taken her to see a bald man saying, “He can bring us home.“ Through inquiry and description, her dream ultimately led her to me – a bald man- for a soul retrieval. Several soul parts were subsequently restored that had left due to childhood violence with a subtheme of ritual sexual abuse. I did not share the subtheme as she had not reported it. Not knowing whether it had actually occurred in ordinary reality, I did not want to frighten her. My inner sense was to wait and see what happened. A few days later she called to report she was no longer thrashing in her sleep or waking in full body sweats. Over the next few weeks she began to lose weight without special effort and continued to feel good about the soul retrieval.
Several months later Carol called and asked to come in so she could share some things with me. During the appointment she told me that since the soul retrieval she had begun to hear voices. It had been increasingly disturbing to her but she had not wanted to share this with me as she felt so strongly that the soul retrieval had helped. She admitted that the internal disturbance had been distracting her every day.
I asked her to go inside, to notice her own feeling state and to pay attention to the voices. Carol reported several voices were coming through. By her physiological signs I observed that she was going into trance. I then asked if the strongest voice would speak through her. A different woman’s voice said, “I have to protect
the children.“ I ask “What children?” and find out there are nine children spirits this woman is protecting. The voice goes on to describe the scenes of ritual abuse I had seen in the original soul retrieval. I learn the adult spirit had taken on the nine baby spirits to protect them from evil and stepped into Carol when she was a child. I engage in a negotiation process with the adult spirit about crossing over to the other world where she and the children can be received in love, safety, and healing. The spirit is extremely distrustful, and overly concerned with the children’s protection. Three hours later, calling upon all the love and spiritual resources I know, she finally agrees to go into the light with the children. I am wringing wet and supercharged by the process. Carol reports the voices in her head are gone.
One year later I call Carol to learn what had happened since our last session. She reports continued healing in her life and a deep sense of inner peace. Over time she was able to recall the fullness of her childhood abuse and had been able to assist her sister (also a survivor) in her healing process.
A therapist comes out of session with a client acting quite disturbed with trance like symptoms. He reports his client had thrown a pillow at him during the session and he was frightened of the client’s rage. In minutes it became clear that he was in severe distress. He was talking in word salad, putting together associations that made no sense. His affect would shift from euphoria with spiritual laden content to extreme rage with paranoid delusions. Over a period of hours his condition deteriorated to the point where he was not in any reality contact and police had to be called to physically control him. He is taken to the hospital emergency room.
Once at the hospital, the staff there are quite concerned. Here was a mid-fifties male therapist with no history of psychiatric problems in full distress.
Concerns were voiced about drugs or some sort of physical organic process contributing to his mental state. While I am alone with him in the exam room, in one of his psychotic rages he manages to break out of his four-point restraints, a feat of tremendous energy and strength. The hospital staff examines every medical possibility they can imagine. I ask his wife if she would allow me to do shamanic healing work in the hospital. She asks that I wait. His condition does not improve and the medical staff decide to knock him out with medications. The next day he leaves the hospital against medical advice. Though better, his associations remain quite loose and his affect labile. In a lucid moment, he asks me to do work with him. With several support persons present I proceed.
I journey to my power animal and am taken immediately to the clinic the day before where I find his soul had left during his session with the angry client because of his fear that she was going to kill him. My power animal then took me to a part of him that left when he had heard his brother had been murdered thirty years earlier. He was in Europe at the time and not able to get home for the funeral. His family had never grieved their shared loss together.
Immediately upon blowing these soul parts back into him, the glazed look leaves his eyes, and he literally wakes up. Before I even say anything, he tells me, “You brought back the part that left when my brother was murdered.” He begins to sob and express feelings that had waited thirty years to be experienced. The soul retrieval along with both therapeutic support and his own spiritual practice helps him avoid a psychiatric hospitalization as well as further use of medications.
Several months later he reports being calmer than ever and views what happened to him as an intense spiritual experience. He adds that his compassion for what his clients go through has increased immeasurably. At the same time, this traumatic experience has left him with a lack of self-confidence. He chooses to heal this through his continuing spiritual practice.
By no means does this sampling speak to the full range of effect trauma plays in people’s lives or on the earth. What these cases do represent is an overview of types of experiences that responded to spiritual intervention.
Wounding cuts deep into the souls of all things. It is not easily or quickly healed and leaves scars. I must also say that the overall results from applying shamanic healing to individuals in crisis were not consistent. Successful amelioration of primary symptoms occurred in about 75% of the cases. Professionally, I am more convinced than ever of the reality of people’s experiences. At the same time, shamanic healing is not a substitute in all situations for traditional psychiatric intervention. Often follow-up therapy is an important part of the healing process after the crisis has passed.
In my childhood Indianapolis neighborhood, the boys would terrorize cats. Cats were viewed as sissy things and the last thing these kids wanted was to be called a sissy. The cats developed all the symptoms of trauma. They would scream, hiss, and show their claws if you came near. The fear was so intense their backs would curl and the fur would stand straight up. Paranoia would set in and often they failed to eat. This led to severe weight loss and matted, dull fur.
My response was to sneak food out on a plate to the cats. Although extremely hungry they would not come to the plate or anywhere near me. I’d retreat to the house and watch from the kitchen window. At first they crawled very close to the earth on their bellies toward the plate. It might take an hour before they would even get up to the plate. Once there, often they would not eat. Heads turned from side to side. After carefully checking that the coast was clear, sniffing would begin. Then came the first bite before ravenous desires finally took over. I couldn’t understand how an animal so hungry could blatantly deny its own needs. This ritual went on for months.
As time went by, the cats would come to the plate when I put out the food. Yet any time I would try to offer a soft touch, immediately backs arched and the screeching began. The association rang strong and deep, stronger than the loving attention I offered. Love couldn’t heal everything. At six years old, I had my first lesson in wounding and healing.
This story speaks to the caveats of this work and brings me to another crucial part of the healing process. One of the key variables in healing from trauma is the presence of a supportive community. In traditional shamanic cultures, healing was a part of the larger community life. My own healing has certainly been a case in point. Both a personal and a spiritual community were and continue to be significant in my life.
Contemporary urban life simply does not provide community support either personally or spiritually. People need to create these communities step by step. There were many times when I had to help clients through the night with their healing. Often the work was repetitive. Without significant life environment changes, the possibility for being retraumatized was significant. Healing sessions were often repeated as clients gradually learned concrete and spiritual means of safety and protection.
To some extent, I have found that working within the confines of a psychotherapeutic model continues clients’ isolation. While I worked within a community context as much as possible, many of these people had been so battered that they had withdrawn from any human – or other – support and literally had no safety nets. In effect they had disconnected from what they perceived as a hostile, unsafe world.
It has become clear to me that ultimately healing requires being received by – and creating a life within a larger community both in ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Jungian therapist James Hillman makes the case that the depression of our times could be a reaction to what we are doing to the world, “a mourning and grieving for what we are doing to nature and to cities and to whole peoples—the destruction of a lot of our world.” From this viewpoint, we need to find ways to restore our connection to the world around us, to all our relations. Again, the traditional shamanic model seems to address this issue head on.
Traditional therapy focuses on the individual and their internal process. Shamanic work focuses on the connection of all things. Through my own healing process, I discovered that something happens in me when I shift from the “I” place to “all”. I can retain the urgency of my own life without moving into a space of self-importance. The shift helps me walk more gently, to notice the weight of my own step. In this way, all that I am and will be is connected to the larger fabric of life. Individual healing fits into a bigger picture that touches and heals us all.
Both my ordinary reality community and my shamanic connections were of tremendous help with the last step in my professional life, namely leaving my traditional therapeutic practice completely to research, write and teach, but that’s another story and it’s still being written.
Eshowsky, Myron. “Practicing Shamanism in a Community Health Center”, Spring/ Summer, 1993. Shamanism, quarterly publication of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman, New York, Bantam, 1982.
Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael. We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherary And The Worlds Getting Worse, San Francisco, Harper, 1992.
Ingerman, Sandra. Soul Retrieval; Mending the Fragmented Self San Francisco, Harper, 1991.
Kalweit, Holger. “When Insanity is a Blessing: The Message of Shamanism” in: Stanislav and Christina Grof (editors) Spiritual Emergence: When Transformation Becomes A Crisis, Los Angeles, Jeremy Tarcher, 1990.
Nelson, John. Healing, the Spirit; Madness or Transcendence, Los Angeles, Jeremy Tarcher, 1990.
Roberts, Susan C. “Multiple Realities: How MPD is Shaking Up Our Notions of the Self, the Body and Even the Origins of Evil” in Common Boundary, May/June, 1992.