In this edition of “Tools” I intend to review the elements and aspects of shamanic healing that I have been exploring in the last two issues. In doing so, I hope to clarify and illuminate the wonders of this blueprint of healing in collaboration with what the Shamans refer to simply as “Spirit”.
It’s likely you have run across this joke, “What did the Zen Master say to the Hot Dog Vendor….. Make me one with everything.” My delving into research on Shamanism over the last four months has led me to understand that we don’t need to be “made” one with everything. We already are one with everything. Shamanic cosmology, arising from the life world of tribal hunter gatherers, reflected their felt experience that Spirit was present in everything. The rocks, the trees, the earth, the sky, human beings, animals, birds, creatures of the seas and the lakes were all infused with Spirit, a sacred energy that connected everything to everything else. Connectedness was the ground of their being. Spirit was everywhere and in everything. Tribal people experienced everything and every creature on the planet as sacred. Their awareness of this sacredness wrapped them in an energetic web of life that inspired, comforted, and bound them to one another and to the planet.
It is not surprising, then, that the most basic tenant of shamanism is that everything has a spiritual essence. The Shamans hold that the core of everything that exists is Spirit in its ultimate nature. Most importantly, the “law of mystical participation,” that a spiritual connection exists between everything and everyone in the universe, allows that Spirit can be encountered, experienced and engaged in ways that foster healing and healthy change. The Shamans believe that by working with Spirit we can heal what hurts, wounds, and disturbs us, thereby enhancing the quality of lives, our relationships, and our health. The question is, how can we gain access to Spirit, attune ourselves to it, and begin to utilize it in our lives? I believe that we can accomplish this by learning to walk the Shamans’ Path.
Scholars who have traced the history of shamanic healing argue over the date when shamanism emerged in tribal culture, somewhere between 5000 and 300,000 years ago. Anthropologists have found ritual objects dating back more than 5000 years, but some findings appear to be much older. What these scholars do agree on is that shamanic practices existed and still do exist in tribal cultures all over the planet and that these practices, from Siberia, to the Amazon rain forests, to the Arctic, bare remarkable similarities to each other. Tim Strachan, who considers himself an Urban Shaman and does “energy-body work” in Australia, suggests that “a Siberian shaman or initiate of 10,000 years ago was performing rituals which an Amazonian shaman of today would largely recognize. The similarities between these groups of (shamans) and their practices are much greater than their differences in all cases. This suggests an internal human “landscape” or “mental-scape” which is not random or pathological, but which is hard wired into the human identity. We all share a common spiritual heritage. A case could be made that shamanism is the blueprint of all spiritual paths.”
Tim goes on to say that there is a sense in which, “We are all shamans. The shaman’s way is a dramatic, public, mythic version of what happens to all of us. The essence of the spiritual path is this simple fact- sooner or later the life in us forces us to grow beyond the constrictions of our current world (our beliefs, our practices, and our sense of self). A crisis ensues. Our open ended human system is thrown into a fertile chaos. This creates the conditions for a letting go, a surrender of what we have been. We can learn the lesson of letting go gracefully of the old, or we can panic, become rigid, and get stuck where we are.” (Excerpted from Strachan, “Shamanism and Spirituality”, Copyright 2005)
The upshot of these ideas is that the Shaman’s vision and understanding of the nature of the Universe provides a life map for all of us that is as relevant to us today as it has been throughout human history. Anthropologist Edith Turner, who spent more than a year studying the shamanic practices of the Inupiat people of northern Alaska, suggests “that among tribal people, shamanism is neither a religion nor a science, but an activity in a world that is ordinary yet spiritual. It is a healing or helping technology- the technology of the sacred- (made up of) acts and experiences instead of a set of beliefs or customs. Spiritual connections between people are already in place and that is just how things are. (Excerpted from Photographs and Text by Edith Turner)
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2012
Shamanism speaks of the essence of life, to living in synchrony and attunement, not just with our own spiritual nature, but with the spiritual nature of every being thing we encounter in our lives on the planet. In order to access and engage this spiritual essence and energy, we must journey to the Other World, the world of Spirit. This journey is usually accompanied by the smoke of burning sage and the music of rattle and drum that induces a trance state in which we lose our ordinary sense of being conscious. In this altered state, we find an entrance to the Spirit world, perhaps a bridge, a cave, or a hollowed out tree. When we pass through this entrance, we may descend into the Lower World beneath the surface of the Earth or the Ocean; we may travel in the Middle World of forested wilderness; or we may make an ascent to the Upper World, high up on a mountain or in the clouds. We do this with the help of a Spirit Guide, often a power animal and/or an ancestor spirit, our Teacher who has special knowledge of healing and soul retrieval. This is a spontaneous and direct experience of “spiritual reality”, an experience that comes to us of its own accord. It is not something that we create with our imagination, but something that we receive as a gift.
Once we are on our journey in the Spirit world, a myriad of healing experiences becomes possible. With the help of our Power Animal and/or our Teacher we may retrieve a lost part of our soul that left us for the other world at a time of trauma, ongoing abuse, or distress. We may seek the guidance and wisdom of our spirit guides in order to solve a problem or shed light on a painful situation. We may encounter the Gift of Dismemberment in which our old non-spiritual body is spiritually destroyed or devoured and then brought together again in a new body. This can be seen as the destruction of our limiting and confining ego and the restoration of our true self or essence. We may experience spiritual extraction that removes harmful negative energy from our body, mind, and spirit. We may even receive a vision of future events or the whereabouts of lost things or persons. We can gain knowledge of our connection to animals, birds, fish, and insects and receive help from their spirit. We can contact our ancestors and receive their spiritual help. All of these experiences are potentially invigorating, restorative of our sense of our strength, health and well-being. It is important for me to emphasize here, that these are experiences you can experience directly, whether you believe in such phenomena or not!
So now you may begin to understand that when I learned of Amara Emerson and her shamanic healing work, I immediately sought her out. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to interview her for my blog, or if I wanted her to guide me on another shamanic healing experience. After talking with Amara at some length, I decided to ask her to guide me on a “journey of divination” to seek the wisdom and counsel of my Power Animal and my Teacher. In this journey, I would travel to the spirit world with some problem or issue that persisted in my psyche, a matter in search of resolution or direction. I had such an issue in mind. Something was causing me distress. I was uncertain of the origins and dimensions of the problem. This seemed like the perfect situation for seeking counsel in the Spirit World. I had not journeyed for almost twenty years, so I was very excited when Amara agreed to be my guide.
I wish I could report that what I experienced two weeks later was an amazing spiritual experience of profound revelations and powerful healing, of the kind that I had experienced with my mentor, Dick Olney. Instead, I found myself traveling in a strange landscape, dark, eerie and impenetrable. Amara had me lie down on a yoga mat, and as soon as I closed my eyes, she began to brush the air above my body with burning sage, and then, I believe, with feathers. Soon she began to twist a rattle in a slow monotonous rhythm. This is when the experience of the landscape began. I sensed I was in the underworld, moving with difficulty through underbrush, brambles, twisted roots that went on and on. There was very little light to be seen and I began to feel that I was entering a dark night of the soul experience. I felt anxious and uncertain, more and more so as this sense of things seemed to go on interminably. Finally, the grinding rattle sounds abated and were followed by a more resonant drumming. I sensed there was a path and I could feel my way with my feet, but the brownish, tangled way was much the same.
At some point, I noticed movement on one side of me; then a shape, an animal, moving along beside me at a distance. I eventually recognized a wolf, and I immediately thought, “The lone wolf!” This saddened me. I recognized the distress from my everyday life had taken shape. In spite of being in a relationship and having caring friends and wonderful clients in my life, I was feeling very much alone. This was my simple truth. I felt the familiar tug of grief that had echoed throughout my life from age 11 on. “I worked this through,” I said to myself, but there was no denying my experience in that moment. I sensed feelings of despair rising to the surface.
At that point, I noticed that the wolf was now in the lead and that we were gradually moving upward toward the top of a hill. The closer we came to the top the more light there was to see my surroundings; tall oaks, white pines, and shrubbery that I thought I recognized. At the crest, I discovered what the wolf had led me to, a huge Full Moon, bigger than any full moon I had ever seen. “I am a child of the Moon, I affirmed.” Born in the last degree of Cancer on the 22nd of July, I am a lover of the full moon. It has always been a source of energy and inspiration. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, while tears dropped from my eyes. Here was the Great Mother, who like my own mother, appeared and disappeared, at times incredibly loving and nurturing, at other times disappearing in worry, self-involvement, and unmentioned losses of her own; when present, glorious and inspiring, when absent, mysterious and distressing.
These journeys continue to influence me long after the initial event concludes. My writing this is revealing insights that I was not conscious of at the time. When the drumming stopped, I slowly returned to waking consciousness. Amara brushed the air above me with sage and feathers, and I returned to the room, the yoga mat, and Amara’s gentle, unobtrusive presence. There are tears in my eyes as I write this and recognize the beauty and truth of this particular journey. I feel deep gratitude to Amara for her presence, her wisdom, and her knowledge of Spirit. She had reminded me when we began the journey, that she simply provided a safe space for the experience and left the rest up to Spirit. I struggled with the difference in her approach to Dick Olney’s more structured approach. I now recognize that Amara invited me to learn to trust the wisdom and guidance of Spirit by letting it guide me, and in doing so, gave me the opportunity to learn directly Spirit’s power and grace.
If you, dear reader, decide that such an experience would be beneficial and healing for you, do find someone with knowledge and experience in these practices to assist, educate, and guide you. Take my permission to receive help from those who have gone down this path before you and claim nothing more than having preceded you in receiving help and guidance in finding the path. This is a great gift to us “two leggeds.” Tim Strachan is so right. This blueprint is hard wired into us; A gift of the Great Spirit, a Pearl of Great Price.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2011
Here is the poem that I wrote to mark my Journey of Divination:
Where am I now?
Moving slowly through this thick, dark place
Is this the underworld, crowded with obstacles and tangled vines?
Lost in somber browns and faded blacks-
I seek the light and some direction-
Though there is none to be found
I feel the path beneath my feet.
I’m joined by the rhythmic turning of a rattle
Metallic notes grind along
Echoing my tentative steps, the uncertainty
The thorny brambles that go on forever-
Ever-present underbrush of struggle and dismay
Marking every twist and dip in the path
As I listen for any sound other than my own.
Just as the drumming begins
I sense a presence to my right
A grey wolf trots along, keeping his distance
The resonance of the drum invites my companion
My totem animal joins me at last-
Comforting and frightening me by his presence,
For I fear this symbol of my quest
The wolf picks up his pace
Leading me up a slowly rising grade
Drum beats soaring in tempo and timbre
My heart slows, gaining strength and ease.
At the crest of the hill my eyes grow wide
For there before me is the glorious moon
Rising majestically over the Great Lake
Greetings Great Mother, I come again
Longing for your wise counsel
The tender touch of your gentle light
Glistening like jewels on the water-
Now I remember that I am not alone
My heart fills with love and spirit-
I howl with grey wolf, our hearts opening to the night.
(Tom Goforth, Copyright 2013)
I offer my thanks and appreciation to Tim Strachan, Edith Turner, and Stephan Neal Szpatura, whose articles on the history and practices of shamanism were very informative and helpful in writing this blog.
Tim Strachan’s background includes a degree in Mathematics and Science, para-medical training, and much training and experience in alternative therapies and Energy Psychology. He has a natural therapy practice, and trains people to become proficient in dealing with their issues on the physical/mental/emotional levels and beyond.
Edith Turner is a lecturer at the department of anthropology at the University of Virginia and specializes in ritual, religion, healing and aspects of consciousness including shamanism. She is the author of several articles and a book, “The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a Northern Alaska People. Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Stephen Neal Szpatura is the author of the Shamanspath Blog. A version of his blog entitled “What is Shamanism” copyright 2006, 2008 appeared in Balanced Living Magazine.
To view more of Toby Landesman’s amazing photographs go to her web site: www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com
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.