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

Updated: Jun 10

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.  Professor Colm McDonald, Professor of Psychiatry at National University of Ireland, Galway has found that individuals “inherit genes that cause structural brain ‘deviations’.” In another study done by researchers in Edinburgh of mental illness within families, it was found that a particular chromosome might be implicated in the predisposition to schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, recurrent major depression, and adolescent conduct and emotional disorders. Alcoholism is another area in which research has shown that there is a high correlation with genetic predisposition within families.  Western research on the inheritability of alcoholism or bi-polar disease have also definitively determined that environment is an equal player alongside genes.

Looking across generations, scientific research is increasingly pointing to the transmission of symptoms of PTSD from mother to child.  Early research has found that “those who have been traumatized around the time of conception can pass on a DNA code to their offspring that results in a higher vulnerability to stress in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes. Furthermore, this gene expression—a chemical coating upon the chromosomes—is strong enough to be passed on to a third generation, which means grandchildren have ‘a kind of biological memory‘ of what their grandparents experienced.”

Researchers, Seyyed Taha Yahyavi, Mehran Zarghami, Urvashi Marwah state in an article published in 2014 in Revista Brasiliera de Psiquiatria, “A review on the evidence of transgenerational transmission of posttraumatic stress disorder vulnerability”: “Epigenetics refers to a transgenerationally transmissible functional change in the genome that can be altered by environmental events and does not involve an alteration of DNA structure. Epigenetic changes can completely silence a gene or, depending on their directionality, otherwise diminish or augment gene expression.” They go on to say that “There is paradoxical evidence that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis changes in PTSD patients may also be evident in their offspring. This effect and biological vulnerability to PTSD may be transmitted across generations through maternal epigenetic programming during pregnancy.”

Behavioral epigenetics is pointing to the idea that “Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.”

This means that environment not only impacts our psychology–attitudes towards self, others and life, as a whole–but can also alter our DNA.  A study published in BMC Public Health in 2014 shows that women and men who were sexually abused as children are more likely to “engage in risky behaviors later in life, such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and disordered eating habits.  Russell notes that a “breach of trust [by an adult] can leave the child with an impaired ability to judge the trustworthiness of others.” She goes on: “The invasion of a young girl’s body reinforces her sense of powerlessness; she may lose faith in her own efficacy and ultimately lack the assertiveness required to reject unwanted sexual advances.  Incest make also make the child feel isolated and guilty, as she senses the stigma attached to the incident.  If her self-esteem is damaged, as an adolescent or adult she may not take good care of herself.” She then may be susceptible to being sexually assaulted later in life and, as it turns out, to predispose her children to the same pattern.

In 2004, Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf of McGill University, published a paper in Nature Neuroscience showing that upbringing of baby rats by mother rats with poor parenting habits changed the DNA of baby rats transferred to their care to develop markers resulting in less resilience–even if they had been born to mother rats with good parenting habits.  “With no changes to their genetic code, the baby rats nonetheless gained genetic attachments due solely to their upbringing — epigenetic additions of methyl groups sticking like umbrellas out the elevator doors of their histones, gumming up the works and altering the function of the brain.”

The cumulative understanding of all this credible research is that traumatic events or long-term, sustained exposure to multiple forms of abuse and oppression (child and spousal abuse, discrimination, kidnapping, threats and oppression by authoritarian governments, etc.) does have a physiological impact and, in the long run, these effects can be passed on genetically and behaviorally.  Pierre Fossion and his colleagues, in an article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2015 have identified a high level of depressive and anxiety disorders among Holocaust survivors which then impacts their parenting and, hence, the next generation. Yael Danieli, a psychologist, published the results of a study in 1982 in the Series in Clinical & Community Psychology: Stress & Anxiety of 50 survivors of the Holocaust and 200 children to determine the impact of the “conspiracy of silence” and the effects of the roles taken on by the survivors of the “victimized Jew” or the “fighter” on the family.  She determined that the long-term impact was a result of being unable to mourn due to the refusal by survivors to speak of what happened.

Such insights give interesting and concrete responses to charges that a discussion of transgenerational trauma within specific groups, such as Native Americans, ignores the ongoing impact of ongoing, structural violence and discrimination. If environment and the behavior of parents can change the DNA of even adopted children, then it is also true that when trauma is unresolved, it can result in less than optimal mental health among survivors, their offspring, and even their community.  Hence, both past traumas and present environment equally contribute.  This means that for individuals and groups who have been the target of mass traumas, ongoing structural violence and discrimination only compounds the problems.

All of this research is in preliminary stages but it is powerfully suggestive.  If a change in genetic makeup can be seen in one generation, then it is certainly possible to infer that the genetic makeup of members of a particular family tree could have been altered by traumas experienced by far distant ancestors.  It remains to be seen what will be revealed as the tools of western science become more sophisticated in their ability to plumb the mysteries of the gene code.  While there is currently no empirical proof of reincarnation that is considered credible in the mainstream scientific community, nevertheless, contemporary shamanism has not been all wrong–indeed, science may in fact be suggesting strongly without meaning to do so that the intuitive and non-ordinary methods used by practitioners may, in fact, be able to reveal things not yet perceivable by western science.

This will be the topic of the next blog in 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 the next installment to be released this fall!

To read other blogs in this series, go to:

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