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