From Shamanism Spring & Summer 1993, Vol. 5 No. 4 & Vol. 6 No. 1
For six years I worked openly practicing shamanism in a community mental health center. I was able to do this work with the support of my supervisor and the administration. In the course of that time, there were many successes, some non-successes, and a growing acceptance of shamanism as a culturally diverse method for addressing the needs of the center’s clientele. Most importantly, it was a proving ground for returning shamanism to the community setting.
The Mental Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, serves a population of approximately 300,000. As the primary provider of mental health services for the county, it offers a multitude of services for a wide variety of needs. The center is recognized as one of the best in the world and is visited by numerous professionals who wish to duplicate its programs. In my years there, there were hundreds of opportunities to apply ancient knowledge to modern problems. Most of the clients were poor, of varied cultural background, many experiencing extremely traumatized lives, and exhibiting severe emotional difficulties with little resources internally/externally to effect change.
There has always been a part of me that has been curious about wounding and healing. I grew up in an inner city neighborhood of a large Midwest city in the 1950’s. The place was a transient mix of poor whites from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and poor blacks from what was then called the Deep South (Alabama/Mississippi). All had moved north during and after World War II for good paying factory jobs. All the problems of poverty, violence, and racism were ever-present.
One of the unique qualities of the neighborhood was the large families that would have several children and 90 percent would be boys. These boys would terrorize cats…kick them, cuss at them, and throw rocks at them. Cats, after all, were sissy things and the last thing you wanted to be was a sissy. These cats would develop 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 the failure to eat, scavenging what they could, led to severe weight loss and an uncombly, matted look to their fur. At six years old, I was observing my first lesson of wounding.
Unbeknownst to my mother, who would have killed me had she known, I was sneaking food on a dish out to the cats. They would not come to the plate even though you knew that they were extremely hungry. The scared, defensive behavior would predominate. I would retreat to the house and watch from the kitchen window. At first they would crawl very close to the earth on their bellies toward the plate. This process would take an hour before they would even get up to the plate. And still they would not eat. Heads would turn from side to side. After careful checking that the coast was clear, the sniffing would begin and then the first bite before the ravenous desires took over. I couldn’t understand how an animal so hungry could blatantly deny its own needs. This ritual went on for months. As the months went by, they would come to the plate when I came out with food. Yet any time I would try to offer a soft touch, immediately the back arched and the screeching began. The association rang strong, stronger than the loving attention I offered. Love couldn’t heal everything.
This story rings true of many of the people I had the opportunity to engage in the mental health center. Many came from awful histories. It was not uncommon that they had long histories of treatment without success. Some had migrated from the streets of Chicago to get away from the violence. Some were Boat People from Cambodia. Many had stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and neglect in childhood. In some way, the metaphor of the battered cat would come back again, and again, and again. Whenever I think of how we are going to heal as wounded animals on this Planet, I can’t help but think that connecting to one’s own power animals and learning from them is a crucial link in healing the human spirit.
For most of these people, there is little hope offered. More often than I care to admit, I hear mental health professionals express expectations that there is little to be done. There’s not enough time, not enough resources, not enough possibility. This is “reality.”
Expert “reality” closes the mind to the possibilities of the exception, of the miracles that happen every day. Doing shamanic work has shown me that reality is much broader than what our culture embraces.
It was never my intention to introduce shamanism into the mental health center. What began as a seed blossomed into a fertile testing ground. Staff were referring more and more clients to me even though I did not talk with anyone there about what I was doing nor about the results I was having until I was about to quit.
They knew that I was using shamanism with clients and were open to it for reasons unbeknownst to me. In my last month there, I finally told some of the stories of what had transpired, what I had learned from applying a spiritual perspective to psychological/social problems, and my deep belief that new paradigms were needed to address the emotional/mental/spiritual needs of the community.
Over the years, I found that most of the clients who came my way had profound spiritual experiences in their lives. They would not necessarily call these experiences shamanic. What I did find was that shamanism helped provide a means of understanding unusual experiences without having to see them as crazy or weird.
The client I first used shamanism with was a 47 year-old woman who came to Madison because of a rare liver illness. It turned out that the only M.D. in the country to work with these cases was at the university. She and her husband had moved from Florida, leaving a high-paying corporate position. Now a year of medical bills and his inability to find work due to his age had left them impoverished. She was referred for counseling due to depression reaction related to her illness process. Her illness symptoms included the following: yellow skin, severe edema, red dots of burst blood vessels covering her whole body, severe exhaustion (walking up five or six steps necessitated hours of rest).
One year of treatment had yielded no improvement. Because I did not know what else to do, I had her do a journey to meet her power animal. She had a delightful experience in doing this.
In the journey, she found herself at a beautiful pond. There she was met by a large dog. She learned that this was her power animal and asked his assistance in healing her illness.
He instructed her to take off all her clothes. She lay down by the pond and a beam of light, filtered through a crystal in the sky, flooded her body in a rainbow of colors. The dog then licked her entire body. She came back from her journey saying she had more energy than she had felt since getting ill.
Two days later she called and said that the swelling in her body was reducing, the yellow hue to her skin was leaving, and the red dots were disappearing. Two weeks later, the doctors reported that her illness was in complete remission. The doctors could not explain the change and cautioned that a relapse could happen. Her husband then found a job in Illinois, and they moved to rebuild their lives. For the past several years, I regularly get a card from her stating another year has gone by without a relapse.
As you can imagine, my experience working with her reinforced me in proceeding forward in bringing this work to other clients at the center. The spirits in my journeys
said to do the work without making anything of it. I was assured I would be under their protection and guidance.
When Is Crazy Truly Crazy?
One of my graduate students picked up a case that was referred to the center for long-term supportive counseling. This woman was diagnosed schizophrenic and had
been one of the most difficult cases to treat in the county for the previous few years. Her story was one of multiple severe suicide attempts in response to her auditory hallucinations. There had been numerous hospitalizations and she had been placed, with little success, on numerous psychotropic medications.
Attempts to stabilize and maintain her in the community had been difficult at best. As my student began to share the story of this woman in our supervision meeting, some interesting themes began to emerge. This woman had been a prostitute and drug addict, with an early life history of family alcoholism and probable childhood sexual abuse. She had a young son born out of wedlock to whom she was quite attached.
At the age of three years old, her son was murdered by her boyfriend while she was at her job. Her psychiatric condition deteriorated immediately. She became psychotic and was hospitalized. Her delusional system insisted that her son was not dead and that she talked to him all the time. All of her suicide attempts were during times when she was trying to get to her son.
My graduate student noted that no one had ever tried to help her grieve her loss — mostly she had been confronted again and again with the fact that her son was dead. In my own mind, I wondered if a spiritual understanding would lead to a different approach in this woman’s case. I had my student learn more about the murder of the young son, in particular, where it had occurred.
I told my student I was going to do an experiment and I would tell her when I had done it. The student was to then tell me if she noticed any difference in the woman’s mental status. I journeyed to see if the young boy’s soul had not yet left the Middle World. I found him in the house where he had lived, calling for his mommy. He was quite frightened and I spent much time calming him down. He told me many details of what had happened (details previously unknown to me, which I later was able to confirm). Then doing psychopomp work, I was able to help his soul leave the Middle World.
The results were staggering. My student reported that her client, by all parties’ reports, had stopped talking to or about her son. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from her and she had awakened. The suicide gestures stopped and over time she was able to live in a group home and work part-time in competitive employment. With counseling, she began to grieve the loss of her son. The traumas she had endured had made it hard for her to survive without a great deal of community support. I have never met this woman. I do know she has had a stable life over the last few years without a recurrence of her troubling symptoms.
Over time I came to work with many clients who had long histories of auditory hallucinations as well as with clients in acute episodes of psychotic break. In about two-thirds of those cases, they had immediate relief from auditory hallucinations. Most significant within the organization was the openness of traditional psychiatrists to having me use these methods with persons whose delusional/hallucination material had spiritual themes. While not all were helped, over half were able to thereafter manage without psychotropic medications or major community support interventions.
As word spread about the usefulness of spiritual methods for some of the clients referred to me, I began to be approached by staff in units other than the one in which I worked, the adult outpatient unit. I was approached by staff in the drug and alcohol unit to do adjunct work with some of their more difficult clients. In all of the cases, there was a history of 20 years or more of chronic substance abuse and an inability to maintain sobriety for longer than two to four weeks. All had been in every treatment option available.
One of the first cases was a mid-40’s gay male, a person of color, with a history of chronic alcoholism, suspicion of childhood abuse (sexual, verbal, and physical), agoraphobia with severe panic disorder, and suicidality. He had never had a sexual experience as an adult while sober. His job history was spotty at best and he was supported through a form of public assistance.
We began by talking with each other about what was spiritual for him. There was a deep artistic sensitivity and love of animals behind his life of fear. We began by doing shamanic counseling (Harner Method) and then having him do work with drawing and clay to express his experiences. The connection with his power animal energized him and he reported being able to do more at home for one to two days after a journey.
Our contract called for him to not do a journey with me if he had used alcohol in the prior 24 hours. In the early stages of our work, he was able to keep this agreement without fail. Later, for reasons that will emerge, he relapsed. I then had him read an article by Sandra Ingerman on soul retrieval which both frightened him and excited him. With his repeated requests to have a soul retrieval done, and the putting together of a support plan with his alcohol counselor, we proceeded in this direction.
At the point that I did the soul retrieval for him I knew very little of his childhood. He could not remember much. He had grown up in a large metropolitan city. Both his parents were highly regarded professionals. His parents had divorced after all the children left home. His relationships with parents and siblings was mixed at best.
In the soul retrieval, I brought back three child parts. The images I got during that journey was of soul theft and violent sexual abuse by his father, but I did not speak of that to him. Immediately after the soul retrieval, he reported feeling hyper-aware, as if on an acid trip. Things seemed brighter, clearer.
During the next week he began to remember the abuse. He continued to feel exuberant. He went out and found a job that week. He refrained from alcohol and began to get out of his apartment and go to social meetings. Within a month, he was having dinner parties at his apartment and maintaining sobriety. It seemed too good to be true. His counselor and I wondered whether there had been some sort of flight into health.
Then, he received a telephone call from his mother saying that the father (her ex-husband) was paranoid, crazy, and holed up in his house with a gun. His mother told him to get home and do something about his father. He immediately relapsed and withdrew to his apartment.
I received a call from him about two weeks later. He was quite inebriated. He said that he felt that something which is not supposed to be there is inside of him and that it was driving him crazy.
He questioned whether I had done him harm with the soul retrieval and put something in him. He demanded that I undo the soul retrieval as he was extremely suicidal and could not take the pain.
On the surface, it looked like classic homeostasis in the family system. If he no longer was the alcoholic/crazy one for the family, then the balance in the system would have to reestablish itself somewhere else to maintain system equilibrium.
I was quite discouraged by what was happening. I had never been asked by a client to undo a soul retrieval. His therapist, frightened by the events, was quite angry with me despite the few weeks of remarkable change. I journeyed to my teacher in the Upper World who pointed out that when I had taken the client’s soul back from his father who had stolen it, I had not done anything to fill the void that his father then felt. My teacher also showed me that in the moment my client had received the call from his mother, he had experienced soul loss again and I saw a spirit then step into his body.
I called the therapist and suggested that we all meet for a session to try to remedy whatever was going on. In that meeting, I asked the client to go inside himself and notice what it felt like in his body when he said “something is in me.”
As he went into trance, I asked the presence to come forward. A lost spirit came through and I began to work with it to help it leave the Middle World in the way I had learned from Michael Harner. Immediately afterward the client reported feeling that he had been cleared of the intrusive presence. His therapist was bewildered and said she did not know what to think. Years later, he still maintains sobriety and is without agoraphobia/panic attacks. He is employed and has developed a community of friends.
In every case of working with persons having a history of chronic drug/alcohol abuse, there has been a crisis after a soul retrieval. These crises are most often characterized by suicidal impulsivity as they are flooded with feelings previously lost. While not all maintain sobriety, the period of sobriety is significantly longer than previous attempts through traditional therapies.
In the mental health center, there is a unit that works with children, adolescents, and families, with a variety of programs designed to meet the needs of this population. This unit asked me to facilitate a couple of sessions with a group of adolescents identified as among the most troubled in the city. All come from poor family backgrounds; most had histories of drug/alcohol abuse, truancy, and violence. Significant in their difficulties was a profound sense of alienation and lack of connection to their past or their future. The two therapists for this group hoped a spiritual orientation might help the adolescents feel more connected to something larger, which in turn, might bring hope and renewed self-esteem into their lives.
The adolescents were pretty unruly at first, but the drumming would start, and more and more of them would drum, and eventually, a transformation would occur. In the first group sessions they journeyed to their power animals. Many of them had significant journeys and were deeply affected.
The power of their own wounding was so intense, they did not know what to do with these experiences. For some, It meant they had to joke it off. Others were speechless and would come up to me in a private moment to share their experiences. Eventually, we did the Dream Dance to journey to the ancestors and to create rituals together. Having little sense of family, there was little connection to a sense of roots.
The therapists reported there was an observable change over time. Because my own role was short-term, I have not been able to track the effects closely. I have seen a number of these kids on the streets. They would come up to me and say, “You’re the drumming guy aren’t you?”
Many shared that the sessions made a difference for them and that they wished they had a way to continue to drum and journey. The therapists who have followed these adolescents over time felt the experience was of benefit. As of this writing, there are two groups using drumming with troubled adolescents in the mental health center. The work continues.
Culturally Diverse Treatment
The population of the United States is changing rapidly, but many of the psychotherapies have a white, middle-class bias. A key in the field of mental health is to develop culturally diverse services. Developing services that respond to cultural differences has been the focus of a major debate in the local mental health center. There are significant African-American, Hispanic, and Asian populations in Madison. Within these populations are diverse groups reflecting different beliefs, attitudes, and histories. Some of these groups, such as Haitians and Mexican-Americans, have traditions of folk healing and even shamanism, such as the Hmong people from Laos. Major mental health interventions within these populations were more easily accepted by recognizing their spiritual cultures. The following is a Mexican-American example.
A therapist working with the Spanish-speaking clientele at the mental health center asked me to help him with a client about whom he was increasingly concerned. The client was a 40 year-old single mother from Mexico with three children. Diagnosed as having cancer, she had become extremely depressed and, for all practical purposes, had given up, even failing to care adequately for her children.
The doctors felt that her cancer was treatable with surgery and radiation, but she did not believe it would work, viewing her illness as punishment by an evil spirit. In her history, she had often used curanderos for her complaints and was open to spiritual approaches. She agreed to see me when her therapist told her I was a healer who worked with spirits.
In our meeting she agreed to do a journey. Her power animal told her that she had to live for her children and that she would get well if she worked with the doctors. In the journey, she was spontaneously dismembered and experienced death and a rebirth.
Prior to the journey all she wanted was to join Death. Something in her was transformed during the journey and she began to cooperate with her therapist. Next I did some extraction work for her and more shamanic counseling. She became alive with her energy and stopped giving up. The medical treatment of her cancer was a success, and she lives to this day. The significant aspect of this case was the repeated failure in psychotherapy to get her past her ruminations about death and to mobilize her.
As a consequence of such shamanic work, today there are a variety of settings in Madison where shamanic counseling is being used by practitioners other than myself. These settings include: hospice care; psychiatric inpatient facilities; drug and alcohol treatment settings; outpatient mental health; medical hospital; juvenile treatment facilities; jail; and the school system.
That there has been so much openness to shamanic practice in what is essentially a conservative treatment system remains a mystery. The bottom line seems to be that people respond to what works. Bringing shamanism into already existing systems requires deep confidence, for a great deal of skepticism and resistance had to be overcome. For example, many doctors reacted skeptically when clients told them that they felt great after a soul retrieval or meeting a power animal. Much of this skepticism was expressed in the form of joking with me.
I think the main reason I and others practicing shamanism in Madison have not had more flak has been the honesty and integrity of the work. There were, of course, times when nothing helped, and those times elicited despair and deep questioning. There is a trust, based upon personal experience, one must embrace. Significantly, the introduction of this work into the community mental health setting never felt forced. It was as if the flow was guided by the spirits. At no time could I say I knew what I was doing or where this would all lead. Looking back I can only reflect that the timing was right. Today I found some words that reflect the process of bringing shamanism back into the world.
“…great truths do not interest the multitudes,
and now that the world
is in such confusion,
even though I know the Path,
how can I guide?
I know I cannot succeed
and that trying to force results
I shall merely add to the confusion.
Isn’t it better to give up and
But then, if I do not strive,