I came to the healing practices adapted from indigenous cultures through the path of trauma. I suffered for many years with symptoms of PTSD as a result of childhood abuse. While years of western psychotherapy certainly helped in the development of greater self-awareness and thus gave me the motivation to work on changing old emotional patterns, it was only when I started to explore body-oriented and energy therapies that I began to see truly enduring and deep shifts in my symptoms both short and long-term. I like to explain that I am an academic anthropologist who only reluctantly let go of a tenured position at a major research university to study shamanism full-time. Both my reluctance and the fact that I eventually did take the risk of becoming a practitioner in a non-conventional modality speaks volumes to my faith in the work, particularly in its capacity to heal trauma. The power of energy and body-oriented modalities is creeping gradually into mainstream acceptance. Mostly notably, trauma expert and founder of the Trauma Center, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. has become a powerful proponent of the effectiveness of such therapies for the treatment of PTSD.
Since 9/11 and the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general public has been exposed once again to information about the effects of trauma on the body and mind. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV defines a traumatic stressor as follows: “involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity, or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to another person; or learning about an unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate” (309.81, DSM-IV, 1994, 424-429).
A traumatic stressor does not have to be as severe as war or a terrorist attack, however. For instance, a person could experience falling off a bicycle as a child as terribly traumatic and could then have symptoms for the rest of his or her life. It is the perception of the event that matters, not its actual content. Symptoms can include insomnia, repeated dreams and visual, auditory, sensory, or emotional flashbacks of the event or of equally frightening scenarios, hypervigilance, an exaggerated startle reflex, chronic pain, depression, and addiction, among others.
A common example used to explain how this works is as follows: if a child was sexually molested by a man wearing a green shirt, later in life, seeing a man in a green shirt could trigger symptoms such as excessive sweating, hyperventilating, feelings of unexplained panic, or even a cycle of depression. The triggering event can be quite benign and even outside of conscious awareness. While it is not uncommon to experience mild to severe symptoms immediately following a traumatic event, if symptoms persist for longer than a 6 months, then they are considered by western medicine to be a diagnosable and chronic condition called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The Native American psychologist, Eduardo Duran, calls such imprints within individuals, families and cultures, “soul wounds”. Soul wounds are not just emotional, but also spiritual. Unresolved trauma leaves a wide rift in the fabric of our beliefs and trust in the innate goodness of life, our physical and emotional safety, our sense of meaning, purpose, and connection to a higher power. These wounds, or gaps in our sense of self, can then be passed down generation after generation if they are not healed.
If we wish to come into balance and to stop the cycles of pain within ourselves and others, we must work at all four levels of human experience: the body, mind/emotion, spirit, and energy. The healing practices of many indigenous cultures both past and present reflect the rich human legacy for deep sources of repair available to us. Trauma may be an inevitable fact of human experience on Earth, but chronic, unresolved soul wounds need not be.
So it is that even today, indigenous cultures in the rainforests, deserts, forests, high mountains and plateaus around the world carry valuable knowledge about how to treat imbalances and disease in the body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Ritual, art, music, dance, meditation, and connection with nature and animals have been used in lively and evolving combinations to help people heal and grow. The materials of the natural world, including plants, stones, animals, and waters are used for both medicinal and energetic healing. Rattling, drumming, and shaking the body are enlisted in service of individual and collective transformation.
Many cultures, including the peoples of the Himalayas, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Celts of Scotland and Ireland, and Native North, Central and South America have retained an understanding that the body is a more dense manifestation and mirror of a spiritual and energetic matrix. My teacher, Alberto Villoldo, calls this matrix the Luminous (or Light) Body (LB). It has been called in other cultures the aura, light body, and energy body, among others. The energies of earth, sometimes called chi or ‘num among the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, or kundalini in Hindu traditions, can be drawn upon in service of healing. Each language has its own words.
With training and skill, a healer can pull qi up from Mother Earth in order to see and feel more deeply into the LB with both her hands and her consciousness. In the Q’ero tradition in which I am trained, stones and sacred objects from the healer’s mesa, or medicine bundle, are placed on the affected areas of the body. The stones are especially infused with power to pull out and hold heavy, negative energies. Methods such as placing the hands on certain areas of the physical or LB, lightly shaking or moving the body, rattling, singing, and drumming can be used to make apparent to the subtle senses of the healer any distortions, occlusions, and tears in the LB.
These imprints can be a result of traumas or imbalances in our current lifetime and can even reach very far back into our personal and ancestral pasts. Among the Q’ero people of Peru, from whom my methods have been adapted by Villoldo, ancestors may be traced through family bloodlines or they may be the lifetimes we have lived before and even after the present one. These familial and past life soul wounds may actually be held in our very DNA, giving us a predisposition towards the development of various physical diseases, mental imbalances, addictions, habits and patterns, and spiritual wounds. They often play themselves out in families one generation after another.
Calling out these negative imprints through rattling, whistling, chanting, drumming, using feather fans, and ringing bells, the healer can then remove and/or transform old imprints of past traumas and intrusive energies in the LB. This might include traveling to the client’s “underworld”—or unconscious. In the worldview of the Q’ero, the unconscious is not just metaphorical; it is an actual place containing imprints of our personal and ancestral woundings and lost parts of self. The underworld also contains our latent gifts and powers. By traveling to the client’s underworld in service of healing, these wounds can be extracted, lost soul parts can be returned, and gifts can be provided to help us come into balance and wholeness. Or the healer might travel to the “upperworld” or heavenly realms where there are spiritual gifts and messages from the ancestors and God, or the Higher Self.
The rattle and stones are therefore two powerful tools in the healer’s compendium in the unceasing search for a cure from the symptoms of trauma among human beings. Every human culture has developed its own medicinal and healing systems in response to it. Since the rise of Western science and religion, however, the curative modalities of pre-Christian, pre-Enlightenment cultures have been trivialized, ignored, suppressed, and/or systematically wiped out. Nevertheless, I consider shamanism to be one of the most powerful healing modalities on Earth. When combined with other new and emerging practices such as reiki and cranial sacral work, their effects are amplified exponentially. Read on for information about how my colleague, Jim Conboy and I are combining these healing modalities to effect powerful and lasting changes in people’s lives.