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Features, Thomas Goforth, Tools of Transformation

Tools of Transformation #14: Longing for the Healing Values of the Tribe



In this edition of “Tools,” I intend to continue to explore the practices of Shamanic Healing. In doing so I will introduce Carol Lee Flinders’ notion of the Values of Belonging, which provides a contextual understanding for those shamanic healing practices, and paints a clear picture of the tribal landscape in which the Shamans did their healing work. I will also include another example of my personal experience with a shamanic journey for soul retrieval, and some thoughts based on an interview with Amara Emerson, who practices shamanic healing in the Chicago area.

I have sometimes speculated on what the outcome might be, if it were possible for each of us now alive on Planet Earth, to trace our origins all the way back to our first ancestors. This genealogy would take us far beyond the distinctions of nationality, race, and religion, to our tribal identity as hunter-gatherers, indigenous nomadic foragers who inhabited our pre-history. What effect would it have on the way we see the world and experience our lives here, if we could somehow witness the lives of our kinsmen and kinswomen, thousands and thousands of years ago?

My interest in indigenous people began when I was quite young. Once we were able to read on our own, my Mother would take my sister and me to the Skokie Library every other week. I believe I was in third grade, when I discovered a book on Chief Black Hawk and the Sauk Tribe on one of these outings. What I recall vividly from my experience of reading it was the feeling of total absorption that I experienced. I remember reading a passage that described in detail Black Hawk’s father teaching him to walk in the forest without making a sound. As I read the account, I began to inhabit it in my imagination. It was as if I were this young brave learning to move through the forest without announcing my presence with cracking twigs, rustling leaves, or heavy footfalls. Looking back on my experience of the story, it seemed as if I already knew how to navigate the landscape in this way.

Twenty years later, while I was working as a Chaplain at the Cook County Jail and St. Leonard’s House in Chicago, I decided to look for property that I could use as a retreat from my demanding work life. I drove north through Northern Illinois and on into Southwestern Wisconsin looking at small farm houses with some acreage, none of which I could afford. Eventually, about 80 miles west of Madison, I re-discovered an area where I had gone camping with friends while I was at the University of Wisconsin. This particular area was rugged farmland of bluffs and valleys that the Glaciers had missed on three separate occasions. As a result there were more forested areas and only a small percentage of tillable land per acre. As soon as I recognized the familiar landscape, I felt the feelings I had experienced on my previous visits. I found a sense of belonging that I did not feel in Chicago, a feeling of being nurtured and soothed. I felt what the Native Americans and early settlers who discovered this land must have felt. I had found my home.

2Canoeing on the Kickapoo River

After some friends and I bought some open acreage we could afford in this area, I discovered that this property was only ten miles from where the Battle of Bad Axe had been fought on the banks of the Mississippi River. In that battle, the U.S. Calvary massacred the Sauk Tribe they had been pursuing for some time during the so called Indian Wars. Of the 1200 tribesmen who had led the Cavalry on a wild goose chase for months, only 120 survived that battle. One of those survivors, who were captured and imprisoned after the battle, was none other than Chief Blackhawk, with whom I had identified so closely when I read about his boyhood. This discovery sent chills up my spine. I was not a believer in past lives in 1969, but I wondered what to make of my connection to the Sauk Tribe and this place that felt like home. Although my friends and I sold that particular piece of farmland, I soon bought a farm of my own in that same Kickapoo River Valley. It served me well as a spiritual retreat and sanctuary for myself, my friends, and my family for twenty-seven years. I visited the bluffs above the place where the Battle of Bad Axe was fought on several occasions to watch the eagles that nested there, to meditate on the beauty of Mississippi River, and to reflect on the Native People who knew this land was Sacred Ground.

3Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Tribe

As Carol Lee Flinders points out in her wonderful book, “Rebalancing the World,” when the white settlers, who were making their way across the country, encountered Native Americans, it had extraordinary historical significance. “Across an immense cultural divide, humanity as it had been for its first few million years gazed at humanity as it had become over the past ten thousand years.” Flinders points out that the settlers and the Native Americans represented two very different cultures with two different sets of values, the culture of Belonging and the culture of Enterprise. The healing methods of shamanic healing belong to the culture of Belonging. The healing methods of modern medicine belong to the culture of Enterprise. It is the values of the culture of Belonging that I wish to explore here, as the context in which Shamanic healing grew and flourished.

To quote from Ms. Flinders’ introduction to “Rebalancing the World”:

“There is a way of being in the world that recoils from aggressiveness, cunning, and greed, and there is a constellation of values that supports that way of being. Rooted in a sense of interdependence so profound that it extends to even the smallest life forms, these values were the basis for human existence everywhere for our first several hundred thousand years. They arose out of the relationships our hunter-gatherer ancestors had with the natural world, one another, and Spirit.

Pre-agricultural human beings didn’t see themselves as sharply separate from the natural world, or superior to it, but as members of one family or tribe among many others, doing their best to stay alive… (They) didn’t imagine for a minute that they were the masters of the world they surveyed, and that may have been why they didn’t imagine their gods to be their own masters. The keen sense of mutual reciprocity that defined one’s relationship to the natural world defined one’s relationship with the sacred as well…God was multiple, fluid, and everywhere: God was the earth, and because the earth went on feeding us after we left our mothers’ breasts, God was Mother.”

4Carol Lee Flinders

Ms. Flinders goes on to characterize the values of pre-agricultural humanity, as the Values of Belonging, in part because of her understanding of the radical difference between two states of mind: “the one in which we look out across a forest or a valley and say to ourselves, “This is where I belong,” and the other, so intrinsic to Western civilization, in which we hear ourselves say, “This belongs to me.” Out of that first state of mind, what I call the “values of Belonging” flow almost inevitably:

*Intimate connection with the land to which one ‘belongs.’ Not merely sentimental affection, but concrete     knowledge of issues such as where the region’s water comes from, what kind of grasses and trees flourish there, and what threatens it.

*Empathetic relationship to animals. An understanding of their diversity and splendor; an understanding of what they need, what they can teach me about myself, and what threatens them.

*Self-restraint. A holding back because greed kills.

*Custodial conservatism. Tremendous respect for the web of life as it exists, and reluctance to make changes whose impact we can’t know.

*Deliberateness. The choice not to hurry, but to be fully present always.

*Balance. The middle path through the contrarieties that we are always poised between.

*Expressiveness. Clarity and honesty with others; and understanding that secrets and grudges damage the trust that cooperation among individuals requires.

*Generosity. The unchecked flow of all things-information, resources, and ordinary kindness-so that everyone benefits.

*Egalitarianism. The belief that no one individual is substantially ‘more equal’ that others, that the very best hunter is only one injury away from dependence.

*Mutuality. The ability to see oneself in others (and others in oneself) and to take differences lightly.

*Affinity for alternative ways of knowing. A way of viewing and processing the world that incorporates all the senses, but especially the sixth. (Intuition steps in… because reason alone can’t provide all the information one needs to survive in nature.

*Playfulness. A setting aside of seriousness that relieves tension and facilitates intimacy.

*Inclusiveness. Interdependence grounded in the knowledge that excluding certain species, or believing them to be expendable, may result in discarding something or someone crucial to survival itself.

*Nonviolent conflict resolution. Because violence has only ever begotten violence.

*Openness to Spirit. A belief that the fundamental reality is Spirit, and that Spirit can be experienced firsthand.

These are the core values of belonging…, which were adaptive to a nomadic, subsistence level life supported by foraging and involving little contact with anyone outside one’s kinship group. Yet while these values were ‘merely’ adaptive, we lived by them for so long that they’ve formed the equivalent of a thick geologic stratum in human consciousness: they are deeply constitutive of who we are and what we need, both as individuals and as a species. So when the basic conditions under which human beings lived radically changed with the rise of agriculture ten thousand years ago, the psychic cost was inconceivably high.” (Flinders, Introduction, pages xiv-xviii, “Rebalancing the World”)

I have included so much of Carol Lee Flinders writing here partly because her book is woven together like a fine tapestry. Elegant simplicity and complexity are beautifully integrated into the fabric of her work. Equally important to me is her revelation of a major source of conflict between the genders, that the values of belonging, as they were replaced by the values of enterprise: control, mastery, inventiveness, great strength, aggressiveness, hard work, competitiveness, acquisitiveness, ambition, recklessness, irreverence, and the ability to keep secrets; faded into the background and were devalued. The values that came to the forefront as we developed agriculture and later industry became the property and privilege of men, while the devalued tribal values of belonging were handed over to women and to the clergy. The cooperative and appreciative gender relations of nomadic people were replaced by an emphasis on the differences between masculinity and femininity, and by the insurgency of male superiority.

I agree with Flinders’ hypothesis that in the tumult and necessity that the rise of agriculture brought with it, we lost half of ourselves. The harsh realities of daily life made it impossible to integrate these two sets of values. “But” Flinders says, “here, now, in the most technologically advanced nation in the world, where inventiveness, competitiveness, ambition, and acquisitiveness are cardinal virtues, the consequences of choosing these virtues is perilously clear. The entire world stands in acute and perilous imbalance.” Flinders contends that “the missing half of who we are is the constellation of values that defined pre-agricultural life-a coherent, radiant whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. The retrieval of those values would be the best thing that could happen to humanity…” (Flinders, Introduction pages xx and xxi.)

So if we take Carol Lee Flinders’ work seriously, as I believe we absolutely must, we can begin to make sense of many of the cultural developments that have taken place since the 1950’s. We could, for example, see the great sweep of “revolutionary change” that defined the late 1960’s and the decade of the 1970’s, that included the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the LGBT movement and their resulting backlashes, as a dialectical struggle between these two very different sets of values. Clearly, the struggle is ongoing today in our political parties, our differing preferences, and our clashing views on gun control, ending our wars abroad, and women’s reproductive rights.

So what does all this have to do with Shamanic Healing and Soul Retrieval? I would suggest that the values of enterprise have contributed to massive soul loss over the years of its ascendancy. We are caught between the success of those values financially, and their impact on an individual’s status and power, and the disastrous consequences of our no longer seeing the importance of the integrity of the web of life or the importance of our connection to the planet and to one another. If we look closely at the continuing emergence of environmental causes, animal rights groups, anti-war demonstrations, the Occupy Movement, voter’s rights demonstrations, we might realize that this is an expression of the need for the healing power of the Values of Belonging.

What the Shadow knows is that we have lost very important parts of ourselves that our families, our schools, and our society forced us to reject in an attempt to socialize us. What the Shamans know is that in order to retrieve the lost parts of ourselves and our souls, we must realign ourselves with Spirit, with the God of our ancestors that is “multiple, fluid, and everywhere.” When we align ourselves with our inner guidance system, the Spirit that is moving and alive inside of each of us, we regain our ability to recover the lost parts of ourselves and our souls.

I had the good fortune of having an enlightening conversation with a woman healer, who is a practitioner of shamanic healing. I had sought her out because I wanted to learn more about the specific tools the shamans used, in addition to the Journeys for Soul Retrieval or Divination. When I mentioned my curiosity about these methods, a number of my friends told me that I needed to meet with Amara Emerson. Upon meeting with her for the first time, I asked her if she could tell me the specific rituals that accompanied extracting something that was harming the soul, and also the ritual surrounding what is sometimes called “the gift of dismemberment,” which I believed was a method for shrinking the ego. My teacher, Dick Olney, had demonstrated both of these methods in workshops that I attended some years ago, but I had forgotten the structure of those practices, since I had not experienced them personally.

Amara, in her kind and gentle way, let me know that I was approaching this matter like a typical western male, though she didn’t say that directly. Instead she told me that the Shamans were guided by Spirit, and so let Spirit guide the healing process. If an extraction or dismemberment or any other healing was needed, Spirit would make it clear. I am not quoting Amara here. Her teaching was so elegantly delivered that I didn’t get the implication of what she was saying for a few days. Then I had to laugh at myself. After years of working with altered states and unusual healing practices, I was still very invested in my intellect. I wanted the correct procedure, one that I could memorize step by step. As much as I value my intuition, I had left it out of the equation entirely. In spite of two successful soul retrievals, I still needed to utilize the returned parts of myself more fully. So this coming Friday, I will return to meet with Amara again to seek the guidance of Spirit in my ongoing healing process.

So here, as promised, are my notes on my second soul retrieval. This took place in a group training session during the late summer of 1991, I believe. I had decided to ask for a second soul retrieval experience because I was aware that retrieving my lost five year old soul was insufficient. I knew that a part of my adolescent self was missing as well. I took my turn in the workshop and asked Dick Olney if I could do a second retrieval. He nodded in agreement and asked me to sit on a folding chair in the center of the circle. He asked me to allow myself to relax and to be aware of whatever I was experiencing. He then began to shake his rattle in a repetitive rhythm. I soon became aware that I was slipping into an altered state and that I had returned to the bridge to the “other world.” Once I crossed the bridge, I was quickly met be my Power Animal, the large Brown Bear from my first journey. We took a different path this time, one that led through some beautiful foliage and then to a walkway alongside an ancient aqueduct similar to ones I had seen in photographs of Rome. Along the way, I had visions of my young father teaching me to swim, of Burl Ives and Charlie Chan who said they were teachers of mine, but not for this journey, and Dickey Keyworth, an acquaintance from grade school who had pushed me over his wagon, chipping one of my front teeth. The path the Bear was leading me on began to wind upward. “You are going to the Upper World,” said Dick, and soon I was standing on a promontory that jutted out of a rocky crag. The Bear said he was going to have to leave me there. He couldn’t go any higher. Suddenly, as I sat waiting for what would come next, my arms started moving spontaneously in a flapping motion. I caught a glimpse of an eagle, and then realized that I had become the eagle. I felt my body rising off the chair, even though I knew I was still sitting on it. As I rose higher, I started to bounce off the ceiling. It didn’t hurt because this was some kind of altered state experience, but I couldn’t go any higher. I told Dick of my predicament and he said, “You know how to go into your etheric body, Tom.” Just as I was about to tell him that I didn’t think that I did, I felt myself pop through the ceiling and suddenly I was walking on clouds, somewhere far above the earth. As I walked further, I began to see a tall figure off in the distance. As I got closer to where he was standing, I could see that he was dressed in buckskins and was wearing one of the most spectacular headdresses I had ever seen. I ask him if he was my teacher and he nodded in recognition. I told him I was seeking a lost part of my soul, and almost immediately a fifteen year old boy appeared. When I asked, he consented to returning with me to my world, but only if I was willing to do a number of things that he required of me. I agreed to do whatever he asked of me, even though he had not said what that was. I felt a strong bond developing inside me, first with my teacher, the Native American Chieftain, and then with this fifteen year old boy. I heard Jesus’ words, “ My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” I knew that those words had special meaning to me. I had felt forsaken by God for years due to my childhood losses. That sense of being forsaken now started to leave me, and with my 15 year old soul in tow, I began soaring through the sky like the eagle I had become. I returned to my world with new energy and a strong sense of connection to my younger self and to my spirit.

In reviewing this experience, what is striking to me is the vitality I felt then and can recapture to some extent now. I am alive and real, as Dick would have us say after a piece of work like this. I felt a renewed connection to music, poetry, movement, dance, and creativity. I started writing more frequently and found outlets for dancing and exercising that I had been disconnected from. I felt more connected to my masculinity in ways that were new to me, not through feeling dominant or invincible, but simply through my vitality and passion for the people and the creative pursuits that I loved. What follows is a poem I wrote a few months later, as I continued to work with fulfilling the blessings and requirements of the returning part of my soul. Writing about the shamanic path continues to help me connect to my essence. I hope it is useful to all of you as well. Thank you for following my writing here in Newtopia Magazine!

Dream Poem for the Animus

(Dedicated to my Mentor Richard C. Olney)

The fathers drum, their sons reverberate.

The fathers dance, their sons attempt to trace their father’s steps

How soon they’ll meet on age’s common ground

So Father play your drums-help me imitate the beat

My tiny feet would fill your dancing shoes-

The old man taps his tambourine in prayer

He calls his sons and grandsons to his lair

With wisdom born of pain, “Visit me here”

His longing writes its lessons on his skin

Taut skin of drums will soothe the furrowed brow of age

Returning youthful vigor to the sage

Oh Grandfather, you fill our hearts to bursting with your tears

The Drums of Time command our fears to dance heart’s counterpoint-

So Sons and Sons of Sons Reach Out

To Drums and sounds of Drums Give Shout

Give up your rage and so engage your love of all that is

As Circle forms and Spiral Dance begins-

Old men dance first, their halting steps quicken into light

And children laugh and mime as limping steps take flight

Grandfather,  like an elk, eats the ground with graceful strides

Takes pride in Manhood’s Grace-

So Fathers slip your shoulders underneath

Grandfathers grip your muscled sons, your weakness like a wreath

From which great sighs of love are heard

As each old man’s swept upward like a bird

And Grandsons’ joy filled eyes this carrying see

Such is my dancing dream for all of us with manhood blessed

Bridging generations with a dancing step, assuaging grief with a caress     (t.goforth, 1992)

                                                                        5 Richard C. Olney in his black shirt with Gary Flynn

My thanks to Kristine Fisher for her photograph of the Kickapoo River scene.

Article written by Thomas Goforth

Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.



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