Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions, Part 2: The Science

In my blog entitled “Dreaming Violence into Peace, Part 1″, I shared that I had recently had a series of violent dreams which seemed to presage the beheading of the American journalist, James Foley in August, 2014.  That series is a call to all of us to understand how deeply we are impacted by violence and to dream together a new vision of peace–even if our immediate lives lack direct conflict.  This blog is also relevant to Dreaming Violence into Peace, but extends the topic to be useful in particular to clinical and medical practitioners working who wish to understand the impact of transgenerational legacies of trauma from the perspective of shamanic energy medicine.  In the first blog of this series, Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions, Part 1: Keeping an Open Mind, I provide some basic definitions and introductions to shamanic energy medicine and energy healing, in general.  In this blog, Part 2, I discuss contemporary scientific perspectives on transgenerational transmission of trauma, behavior, environment, and epigenetics. 

Perspectives on Trauma, Ancestry and Healing: Contemporary Shamanism Versus Western Belief and Practice

In western shamanic energy medicine, symptoms of trauma within an individual are recognized to interconnect with and arise out of ancestral legacies of experience.  By “ancestral”, I mean the histories of our parents and grandparents, on back into the distant past through the branching maze of our bloodlines.  Hence, from a shamanic perspective, we can be influenced by ancestors many dozens–even hundreds of generations prior to us.

In addition, in contemporary shamanism, we consider our “ancestors” to encompass those whom are members of our “nation”, “tribe” or cultural/ethnic group even though they are not linked to us through blood.  This means that if we are of European descent, our personal history reaches back to the collective history of that continent on down to the particular tribe or nation our ancestors were borne into.  If our grandparents were from Ireland, England and Spain, then we have ancestral lineages to each of those regions of the world.  Or if we are descendants of people brought as slaves to the American continent, then our ancestors would be both those held in bondage, as well as those who came from Africa.

Through the exponentially branching out of these ancestral lineages, we are ultimately connected to all of humanity and thus to every dimension of the collective human experience. When we think about the collective life experience of each of these individuals, the amount of information, knowledge, mistakes, successes, weaknesses, strengths, and so on is staggering.  While evolutionary theory speaks to how certain characteristics and qualities are weeded out of and/or privileged from on generation to the next, there still remains the fact that our very make-up–perhaps even down to our DNA–contains a vast and complex imprint or inventory, some of which is overtly expressed and visible in our looks, personality and life choices and some of which may merely be latent.  This fact is recognized and actively engaged in shamanic energy medicine.

Western shamanism also conceptualizes ancestral experience as multidimensional not only within family legacies and bloodlines, but also as lifetimes lived by a single soul.  One way to approach this subject, if we are not inclined to the more religio-spiritual view of reincarnation is to reach to Carl Jung. He talked about the layers of the individual subconscious as expanding outward from the personal (one’s own in-this-life experiences) to the familial/ancestral to community to the entire human collective–the “collective unconscious”.  In the concentric circles of these dimensions of personal consciousness, we encounter multiple dimensions of human experience revealed in imagination, dreams, meditation, vision quests, ceremony, or energy medicine.  A core principle of Jungian psychoanalysis is that our subconscious contains all the suppressed, forgotten, yet to be revealed, and lost memories and dimensions of ourselves and of all humanity. When we encounter these experiences in the practice of shamanic energy medicine, whether we describe them as “past lives” or “collective memory”, we follow the thread of connection to the personality, problems and symptoms of a client. The experiential domain often described and explained through reincarnation connects us to many roles and identities on an archetypal level.  We can use knowledge of them to make meaning out of our experience and events in the world around us.  Alberto Villoldo calls it the mythic dimension of human experience–the part of us connected into the heroic story of our lives, just as portrayed in Homer’s The Oddysey or J. R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Western science and Christianity long ago relinquished this multidimensional understanding of human experience.  A human life was reduced to a single body in a fixed, linear space-time continuum.  Within these two worldviews, when the body dies, either the soul returns to heaven or hell (Christian) or all life as it is known in a single body is extinquished (science).  The condition of a person’s consciousness within both of these frameworks is solely dependent on their individual actions in a single lifetime.

While western psychotherapeutic talk therapies encourage the client to reach back to childhood to understand patterns in the present, the search often goes no further than the living family members at that time.  In this context, a client may remember stories told by family members about events experienced by long-dead ancestors that are considered to have affected the present generation in the areas of beliefs, values and even traumas. These are then integrated into the client’s developing self-awareness and understanding.  Narrative therapies do generally acknowledge how powerfully family stories frame and affect a person’s life experience.

Yet it is not uncommon for a client to have no memory of family history–to the point that there is not even a geneaology going back before the grandparents’ or great grandparents’ generations.  This is particularly true when there has been a history of immigration, slavery, discrimination, or genocide going as far back as 500 or more years.  Under these conditions, memory and ancestral identity are often rejected by choice or lost due to external forces or both.  A good example of the latter can be found in the history of the census in Virginia. The head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Walter Plecker set out during his 34-year tenure to eliminate all Native American identities.  As a result, many people may have Indian ancestry, but not know about it. One Native American grandmother, Mary Duty, told me in 2010 towards the end of her long life that she remembered her father telling her as a child that they must hide their Indian heritage.

But the practice of western psychology tends to go no farther than working with the client to change actions, behaviors and attitudes based on the awareness gained from storytellling.   Unfortunately, awareness is  not always sufficient and a client can find him/herself daunted by ongoing challenges despite even years of talk or cognitive-behavioral therapies (which themselves do not all hold equally to the idea that mining the past is useful).  Clients may report that there is something which feels embedded in their very bodies or “stuck” in their minds which intensely resists change.  Positive affirmations–common in New Age approaches to healing–also don’t penetrate their negative thoughts, feelings and patterns.  Clients may continue to have difficulties in relationships and work–even when they change jobs or divorce and remarry.  They may continue to struggle with chronic anxiety, depression and other symptoms.  It has already been said that there are limits to talk therapy.

We can dig up the reasons for our emotional challenges from out of the bone field of our childhood traumas and even our parents’ and granparents’ neuroses and woundings.  Within this 2 to 3-generational framework allowed in western psychology, we can find some answers for what ails us and even inspiration to change.  But such awareness is only one step.  Sometimes this doesn’t take us back far enough or deep enough.  This is where understanding transgenerational trauma can be powerfully enlightening and, in the context of energy medicine, deeply transformational for the individual. These perspectives and practices can even be used to free whole families, communities–even nations–from patterns of violence and trauma. Before discussing the findings of epigentics and western science on this topic, let me provide a brief overview of how we access ancestral memory in shamanic energy medicine.

Shamanic Energy Medicine and the Luminous Body

A shamanic energy perspective engages not only the mind and the story of the client, but the physical body, emotions and energy body.  All of us have an egg-shaped Luminous Body (LB), narrow on the top around the head and wide on the bottom beneath the feet, which penetrates into the center of and expands out about 2-4 feet around the physical body. In shamanic practice, we recognize that the LB carries all the imprints of an individual’s life experiences, as well as those of his/her ancestors.  We can also see in the LB the incipient beginnings of physical disease and emotional/mental imbalances.

By connecting into the LB of a client, a shamanic energy practitioner can reach back into an ancestral lineage so far back into historical time that it is not possible to count the generations.  This is done through a variety of methods which assist the practitioner in connecting into the deep psyche or consciousness of the client and to then see, feel, hear, sense, and/or know something of that person’s past, the past of his/her family and so on.  It takes training and practice to decipher what is received and to then know the proper antidote to apply.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am not going into the methods used for accessing and then removing or transforming the patterns from the LB.  Here I am simply laying the groundwork for a discussion of the emerging science of epigentics and transgenerational trauma.  Once these ancient imprints are uncovered and removed, the client will often feel great relief and see dramatic changes in her life.  Depending on the depth and intensity of the symptoms, it may take many energy sessions for the client to see relief.

Up until recently, however, there has not been hard empirical evidence of the transmission of trauma and other emotional imbalances across generations.  Indeed, about 8 years ago, I pitched an article on the transgenerational transmission of trauma to a major commercial publication on spirituality and health. The reply I received from the editor was “I am not convinced this is true.”  Yet even many decades before then, there was interesting suggestive research on this issue.

As far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s,  psychologists coined the “survivor’s-child complex” based on extensive studies of the children of Holocaust survivors. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD and Lemyra M. DeBruyn, PhD summarize the research on survivor’s and survivor’s-child complex in their article, “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief”:  “Both the survivor syndrome and the survivor’s child complex involve (a) anxiety and impulsivity, (b) intrusive Holocaust imagery including nightmares, (c) depression, (d) withdrawal and isolation, (e) build, (f) elevated mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases as well as suicide and other forms of violent death, (g) a perceived obligation to share in ancestral pain as well as identification with the deceased ancestors, (h) compensatory fantasies, and (i) unresolved grief.”  They shared a story about a 15-year-old Pueblo Indian girl who had attempted to commit suicide: “G. stated that she did not want to kill herself but that she felt an overwhelming sadness that she could not comprehend or share with her parents who were boarding school survivors.”

In the 80s, psychotherapist, Ancelin Schutzenberger did a longitudinal study of a number of multigenerational family units and discovered what she calls the “ancestor syndrome”.  She found that from one generation to the next, traumatic events re-occured and even more strangely, did so on or around the anniversary date of a parent or grandparent’s similar experience.  This means that in our own lives, if we experience trauma and it remains unresolved, it may be amplified well beyond the present due to the fact that we are carrying within our psyches and bodies the unresolved traumas of our ancestors.

Any therapeutic practitioner–whether a clinician or alternative healer–who works with clients knows that it is highly likely there will be a reverberation in the client’s attitudes, symptoms and actions which corresponds to experiences in preceding generations. But sometimes a client is unaware of family history.  Therefore, their imbalance may remain a mystery and give the client a feeling of personal failure.  Therefore, a transgenerational perspective is extremely important in contextualizing personal experience.  It is particularly critical in cases where an individual comes from a cultural group which has been systematically targeted by violence, such as Native Americans.  Psychologist Eduardo Duran, author of several books on  “Native American postcolonial psychology,” notes that treatment protocols by western clinicians among Native Americans pathologizes the individual and ignores the significant historical and cultural context of genocide and ongoing oppression and discrimination which significantly contributes to problems with alcohol, domestic violence, and various psychological disorders. A legacy of violence which remains unaddressed reverberates in myriad ways in people’s lives–sometimes overtly in cycles of poverty and ongoing acts of violence, such as we know happens in families with a history of incest–and most often in less obvious ways, such as anxiety, phobias, and patterns of imbalances in a person’s life.

This is true for all of us, no matter our ancestry or ethnicity: if we remain in the old psychotherapeutic paradigm which says all our neuroses and problems are a direct result of bad parenting in our childhood or other traumas in our personal past, we will never move past being a victim.  A larger perspective opens up a window to empowerment.  I will talk more about this dimension of practice and transformation with clients.  But before that, let me spin this idea held in shamanic energy medicine of how an individual’s ancestry and experience can impact us through the emerging field of epigenetics.

Epigenetics and Ancestral Trauma: Laying the Groundwork in Science

In mainstream, western medical practice, we know that our physiology, potential for health and temperament are strongly determined by the gene pool of our family. If our parents have brown eyes, we will likely have brown eyes.  We may be short or tall, dark- or light-skinned, depending on our family genotype.  In matters of disease, we will have proclivities similar to our ancestors.  If our parents and grandparents were long-lived and healthy into old age, unless some other factor, such as environment, enters into the equation during our lifespan, there is a strong possibility we will have a similar experience.   On the other hand, we might also inherit the potential for developing breast cancer, diabetes or heart disease from our parents and grandparents.

The same is now known to be true of mental illness and other psychological imbalances. More refined brain imaging techniques have revealed that there is an increase in genetic liability for the development of schizophrenia within families.