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Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma: Keeping an Open Mind

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

One day, I was cleaning my house and listening to a radio program on the problem of post-partum depression in women.  The researcher being interviewed had done a study of a large group of women who had experienced depression and more mental and emotional imbalances following the birth of their child. These were women who otherwise had been happy to become mothers, loved their babies, and prior to their pregnancy and birth, had never had any serious problems of a psychological nature. One of the women told the researcher that a few months after the birth of her beloved daughter child, she suddenly started to have compulsive and horrible images of killing her daughter.  They would appear unexpectedly, such as one time when she was standing looking from bleachers down into a skating rink.  She suddenly had an image of throwing her daughter onto the ice and killing her.  Eventually, she told a social worker who referred her to therapy. She also was prescribed anti-depressants.  The researcher commented that she would need monitoring and support from drugs.

I stopped vacuuming and said aloud to the room: “She needs a shamanic energy medicine session!”  It would be very likely that these disturbing images and feelings could be removed without long-term talk and drug therapy. Hearing her story made me resolve to find a way to  make shamanic energy medicine and ceremony relevant to contemporary medicine, psychology, and recovery from trauma. I want to reach out to readers who are themselves practitioners in alternative and mainstream medical and therapeutic practice and who are interested in new and alternative ways to address various physical, emotional and spiritual illnesses and imbalances.  I believe there is a role for this contemporary therapeutic movement particularly in the treatment of trauma.  

This is not only based on my own experience in recovering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but also from working for 15 years with clients in individual and group settings. As an academic and educator, I also specialize in understanding violence in all its forms and its impact and resolution in cultural settings. Therefore, in this series, I will discuss both ends of the spectrum of the trauma because of my belief that they are inextricably linked:

  1. The use of shamanic energy medicine in the treatment of such conditions as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

  2. Understanding and addressing the impact and resolution of traumatic events across generations, known as transgenerational transmission of trauma.

Within these two frameworks, we can look at how trauma affects us within a single life-span or even reaching back generations. We can also then look at cultural phenomena, such as a society or world which tacitly condones or at least ignores rape, for instance, as a downstream effect of unresolved traumas spanning generations–going as far back as even hundreds of years.  I invite you to dive and with an open mind and a fair bit of curiosity. Some of this will challenge conventional notions of the nature of reality and even an individual’s medical, religious and spiritual understandings, beliefs and values.

The word shamanism itself was coined by a literary writer and scholar named Mircea Eliade in a groundbreaking book first published in 1964 called Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.  He took the word “sharman” from the Tungus people of Siberia and used it to mean an individual within a society who travels out of the body to heavenly otherworlds on behalf of the healing of another person. The word then took off and was used by researchers and writers across the fields of anthropology, religious and literary studies to mean any individual who holds a role as healer or spiritual leader within a tribe or group.  The word was also used in western academic ethnography to describe any indigenous group.  Hence, you may hear used in both New Age and academic circles the term “shamanic cultures”. I avoid such perjorative meanings and keep my focus straightforward and simple:  “shamanism” to me means the contemporary spiritual and therapeutic movements in the West which have adapted and integrated many different methods, tools, practices, and worldviews from earth-centered medicinal and healing traditions.  

This would include practices from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Rim and the Americas. These ways of knowing and tools are indigenous to the human family, as a whole–a natural outgrowth of our collective understanding from trial and error, as well as inspiration and visionary guidance, about how to treat and remedy illness and imbalance of all kinds.  I myself am not indigenous, nor to my knowledge do I have any Native American ancestry.  I am a Euro-American woman who ended up following a highly unusual and cutting edge path for my own healing and the healing of others.

It is important to say to my readers that there are controversies surrounding the practice of western shamanism which inhibit its acceptance in mainstream settings.  Many indigenous people resoundingly dislike the word “shamanism”.  This is a result of this history in which very individual and unique indigenous cultures were painted with one, broad stroke by westerners.  Many indigenous people rightly assert it is yet another way their cultural traditions have been and continue to be misrepresented, stolen, and destroyed.

Native peoples are not the only ones who object, however.  Western conquistadors and immigrants came to the Americas, Asia and Africa with a belief in their own superiority and their Manifest Destiny to conquer indigenous peoples and to take over their ancestral homelands. The Roman Catholic Church and later, Protestant denominations of all kinds, participated in this destruction and continue to this day to  participate in the denigration and destruction of indigenous cultures.  As a result of this history of religious intolerance and racism, many contemporary Christians think “shamanism” means the practice of sorcery and attribute it to “the work of the devil”.  After  450 years of  genocide, they still seek to “convert” indigenous people and represent their cultural practices and beliefs as “primitive”, bad and even evil. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are also guilty of the same.

The belief in the primitiveness of indigenous cultures is not only held by adherents of the 5 “major” world religions.  Perhaps more insidiously, in mainstream medicine and science, it is assumed that indigenous medicine and its offshoots are substandard to western systems of thought and practice and thus irrelevant, at best or laughable, at worst. The result is that all over the world, governments and corporations are supported in invading, stealing, disregarding, and destroying indigenous peoples and their lands.  And practitioners such as myself are seen as “flaky” and strange–even deluded. It is fairly easy to respond to such prejudices and ignorance.

I say to academics and physicians: “Why would you think that a woman as highly educated as myself would get sucked in by something ‘superstitious’, ‘evil’ or even substandard?”  I bring all my academic training to the topic and practice of contemporary shamanism. I have asked hard questions of the material, myself and my teachers.  I follow in the footsteps of many other western academics like Alberto Villoldo, Bradford Keeney, Oscar Miro-Quesada, Bonnie Glass-Coffin, and others who have found themselves stunned and impressed by not only the spiritual worldview of indigenous people, but by the effectiveness of their medicines in whatever form.  They were the first generation who learned from indigenous teachers and came back to the West to teach what they had learned in a variety of forms and venues–some more “authentic” than others–and all adapted in some way to a western sensibility and understanding of psychology. Now it is up to the second generation who have been their students to take the next step and bring these powerful and effective medicines into western medical and therapeutic practice.

Every culture has its own relationship to the land and environment and non-physical realities (I will discuss this term later) which shape the kinds of illnesses encountered and treatments developed. As a result, there are many important differences between cultural practices and beliefs, in addition to similarities. This is no less true of the these therapeutic and healing traditions in the westernized world by both westerners and indigenous peoples. Contact with the West has changed indigenous medicine in both negative and positive ways. For someone like myself–a second generation recipient of shamanic practices adapted from the indigenous peoples of North and South America–the truth about origins is mostly lost or at least hotly debated and unable to be definitively verified. Alberto Villoldo, founder of The Four Winds Society Healing the Light Body School,  borrowed and adapted practices from a variety of cultures across Central and South America, in particular Brazil and Peru.  In my practice of shamanic energy medicine, western understandings from psychology and the sciences are part of my tool basket.  I also carry influences and have concrete practices and understandings from the indigenous teachers of my teachers. And many of these are western and westernized. From an indigenous point of view, there might be much lost in translation on a cultural level of which I am unaware.  Yet I am not treating indigenous people.  My clients are generally part of mainstream, American society–mostly middle class, usually brought up as Christians or sometimes Jewish even if they are not longer practicing their ancestral faiths.  Therefore, what matters to me is the effectiveness of the medicine I offer   Beyond that, I simply try to be respectful towards and grateful to all of my teachers in-the-body and to those who have come to me through books and “non-ordinary” sources (more on what that means later).  They include Native Americans, Buddhists in both Asia and the West, esoteric Christianity, and the western disciplines of depth and clinical psychology, anthropology, folklore, and the hard sciences.  I myself and my clients and students have all benefited tremendously. The wisdom and knowledge of all these knowledge streams have literally saved my life. It is no wonder.  Human beings have been studying human behavior and laying hands on one another probably since they walked the earth with the goal of soothing, sustaining, curing, and changing.  It is natural and, at the same time, mysterious.  A wonderful book to read if you want to understand the similarities and differences across cultures–both indigenous and western–is anthropologist, Edith Turner‘s Among the Healers: Stories of Spiritual and Ritual Healing from around the World.  She shows very clearly the ubiquity of hands-on energy healing practices around the world, from Reiki practitioners in the United States to the ceremonies of the Ndembu of Africa and the energetic healings of the  Inupiat of Alaska.  Like me, she does not write about plant medicine–although that is an area where there has already been a tremendous contribution by indigenous peoples to the health and well being of the world, as shown splendidly the work of author and naturopath, Rosita Arvigo and ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, President of the Amazon Conservation Team.  While they focus on plant medicines, my interests lie in the use of energy medicine. I place shamanic energy medicine alongside emerging methods in western medicine and psychology dealing with the human energy system and the mind-body connection.  The Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology embraces an integrative mind-body approach to treatment of psychological imbalances. Their website reads:  “Energy psychology theory suggests that psychological problems are a reflection of disturbed bio-energetic patterns within the mind-body system—a system that involves complex communication between a person’s neurobiology and their cognitive-behavioral-emotional patterns.”  Certainly, shamanic energy medicine could fit into this definition. There are other forms of energy medicine coming into the mainstream. Acupuncture is now sometimes prescribed by doctors and covered by health insurance.  The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) which involves a client learning how to tap certain acupressure points to address physical and emotional symptoms is being used in Veterans Administration hospitals and by psychologists.  Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a technique involving the use of cognitive behavioral, experiential and body-oriented therapies, has been subject to at least 2 dozen research studies on the treatment of PTSD. Reiki, described by the International Center for Reiki Training as a “Japanese method for stress reduction” which involves a “laying on of hands”, is being used to treat various conditions, including Alzheimer’s, recovery from stroke and others. Even though indigenous medicine and shamanism have remained on the sidelines in the mainstream medical establishment, in recent years, there has simultaneously been an explosion of interest in it.  

Films like Path of the Sun by filmmaker Steven Gershberg and Peru: Hell and Back produced by National Geographic are examples of its increasing visibility.  In the CBS drama series, A Gifted Man, the protagonist, a brilliant and self-centered doctor played by Patrick Wilson, goes to a “shaman” for guidance.  The practitioner in question are identifiable as methods taught in Villoldo’s school. A Sundance nominated documentary, The Horse Boy, chronicles the journey of a mother and father to find a man purported to be one of the most powerful shamans in Siberia in hopes that he can cure their son of autism. Books falling under the rubric of shamanism and Native American spirituality or written by or about Native American teachers and teachings continue to be released yearly. Many of them have become spiritual classics in multiple reprints, such as Black Elk Speaks and anthropologist and new shaman, Michael Harner‘s The Way of the Shaman. He has recently released a new book, entitled Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality.  His student and now well-known teacher of shamanism, Sandra Ingerman, has also recently come out with her 10th book, Walking in Light: The Everyday Empowerment of a Shamanic Life. There have also been a handful of research studies and applications of shamanic techniques in western medicine and psychotherapy over the past decade:

  1. In 2012, psychotherapist, Marcia Rich published an article entitled “Integrating Shamanic Methodology into the Spirituality of Addictions Recovery Work” in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

  2. Psychologists Jacquelene F. Moghaddam and Sandra L. Momper of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan undertook a 2008 research study “of substance users treatment of Native Americans” in which traditional and Western healing healing practices were used.  Results were published in the journal, Substance Use & Misuse.

  3. In 2007, Singapore, researchers undertook a study on the application of a shamanic treatment of TMJ, the results of which were published in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

  4. The journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a study in which 111 subjects, both male and female, in which the the potential of group drumming music therapy was tested for its effectiveness in increasing dehydroepiandrosterone-to-cortisol ratios, increased natural killer cell activity, and increased lymphokine-activated killer cells activity with alteration in plasma interleukin 2 or interferon-gamma.

  5. More recently, at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, David M. Steinhorn, MD and his colleagues, are undertaking a study of shamanic journeying to alleviate suffering in palliative care of dying children.

There are two major schools of shamanism in the western world: the Foundation of Shamanic Studies and the Four Winds Society Healing the Light Body School.  An administrator of the former told me that as of 2011, they had trained approximately 40,000 students in shamanic healing.  In 2007-09, my classes in the Four Winds had up to 15o students in each.  In addition to these high profile schools, there are myriad smaller programs taught by individuals like myself.  Currently, there is no formal accreditation agency to vet shamanic training programs and schools, nor any board overseeing healing practitioners.  This means the student and spiritual seeker must use his or her own discretion to determine the quality and integrity of a program, school, teacher, and practitioners. I know this litany of information can make me seem somewhat overly academic (even though I am a shamanic healer, I remain an academic through and through).  Yet this list of books, films, research studies, and schools focusing on shamanism is only a tiny portion of what is available.  The hundreds, if not thousands of sources available on contemporary, western shamanism and indigenous medicines might indicate that it is poised to enter the mainstream with a vengeance in the next decade, much as yoga did in the late 90s and early 2000s.  I include this material to convince the skeptical to keep reading and, even more importantly, to keep an open mind. So why am I so sold on the practice of western shamanism in the treatment of both physical and mental imbalances and disease? Because I have seen personally how it can dramatically change one’s life.  In my own life, shamanic energy medicine and ceremony have been central in my own recovery from PTSD and depression. I also know it dramatically impacts others, as the film, The Horse Boy, shows. At the end of the documentary, the old shaman of the Reindeer People, tells the child’s parents after a night of ceremony that they will see within a day an alleviation of his inability to consciously control his bladder and bowels.  We see in the next scene the boy squat to take a “conscious poop”, as his mother triumphantly calls it.  We see other dramatic physical and psychological recoveries and improvements in another film entitled The Sacred Science.  This documentary depicts the journey of 8 people into the Amazon where they were treated for a variety of conditions, from cancer to depression, with indigenous plant and energy medicines, including the ingestion of ayahuasca.  Out of the 8, five experienced significant improvements.  In a postscript, we learn that the American therapist of the young woman who had gone on the trip to be cured of depression, noted after her client’s return that she had covered as much ground in 3 months as she would have in years of psychotherapy. If this is not enough to convince readers to keep on reading, I will end this introductory blog with some comments from adult students in a class on shamanism I taught several years ago in an adult degree completion program at the University of Virginia.  The class, entitled “Shamanism in a New Age” provides an in-depth look at the history, literature, and practice of shamanism in the West.  I do this to underscore not only the fact that all of us need to be reeducated, not only about indigenous spirituality and medicine, but also about the practice of shamanism in the west: “I was surprised and ashamed at how many of the stereotypes that I had grown up with, and had bought into. These were thoroughly shattered in this class.  Shamans are not sorcerers or witchdoctors that dance around just for show, as they always seem to be portrayed in old Westerns, they are the healers of their people, and the hearts of their communities.  Despite feeling that I am an open-minded person, I had been sucked into the propaganda perpetuated by generations of the Europeans who had come before us.  Our ancestors committed atrocities all across the globe, in the name of bringing culture and progress to inferior and uneducated people.  At least that is how they saw what they were doing.  I know those are strong words, but that’s how I feel at the end of this class.” “The entire process of [the demonstration healing in class I participated in] is one that I will NEVER forget. With every day that has passed since, I feel a slight change. I cannot explain exactly what the change is, but if I had to pick one word, it would be light. My heart feels lighter, as if the ball and chain that has been attached to my chest was taken off. For years, I have felt like I have lived in an opaque luminous bubble. Everything had a dark light to it, regardless of what aspect it had to do with my life.  The teachings brought by the tears, the laughs, and the conversations, light and heated, will stay with me always. I walked in as one person on that Tuesday, but left that last Friday as a better person.” And a comment from a client after her first session with me. Although she directs her thanks to me, I feel it speaks more to the power of the work: ” Thank you so much, I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I haven’t felt this free and light in 5 months. I never could have broken free without you, many heartfelt thanks.” Go to the Next Installment: Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions, Part 2: The Science of Transgenerational Trauma Or read the previous blogs in this series: Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions: Introduction Stay tuned for the following blog which continues the series: Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions, Part 3: The Methods and Tools of Shamanic Energy Medicine to Transform Transgenerational Legacies of Trauma (stay tuned for this edition in Fall, 2015)

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