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Shamanism: Healing for a New Age

This 19th century Russian embroidered cloth, with its geometrical images of a tree reaching up out of fertile fields to the sky suggests that prior to the adoption of Christianity in the 9th century, an earth-based religion may have existed in Russia with all of its attendant rituals, healing and curative practices, and beliefs. With the fall of the former Soviet Union and the end of practices of killing or threatening death to anyone maintaining the old ways, shamanic healers with knowledge of ancient healing practices began to reemerge into the light of day.

Today, shamanism in its ancient and new forms is taking hold once again all over the world. Shamanism in the West is a new alternative, therapeutic and spiritual movement that emerged out of First Contact 400 years ago between whites, or non-Natives, and the indigenous or Native peoples in the Americas. I myself am a student and practitioner of the new shamanism in the U.S. and Europe.  However, because I am an academic anthropologist and folklorist, I would not have openly admitted to my decade-long interest in shamanism until very recently.

Like any cutting edge spiritual, medical or therapeutic model, Western shamanism is still not fully accepted in mainstream settings. This bias reflects the age-old prejudices of Westerners against non-Western cultures, particularly those of Africa, Asia, and North and South America. In our fascination with the western scientific method, we long assumed and still do that anything taking place in a so-called “primitive” culture has little or no value. Or that anything not provable by the scientific method is suspect. It is merely “superstition” or even “devil-worship”, among other fear-based labels and stereotypes.

Nevertheless, the curative, healing and ritual practices of shamanism go back eons to humanity’s first ancestors on Earth and still exist in pockets as they have for centuries around the world, including in Europe. They have survived despite attempts over centuries to destroy, assimilate or debunk them. Yet their power and efficacy have helped them persist through fire, brimstone, and prejudice. As anthropologist, Edith Turner writes in her book, Among the Healers:

“The longing for healing is central at the depth of human consciousness–at the depth of its human pole; and the work of the healer takes effect just where that deep consciousness of healer joins with the sufferer and latches onto the powers or conscious spirits that dwell around and through them both. Looked at rightly, healing, like the miraculous loss of self in sex, or the act of feeding the hungry, or the giving or one’s life for another, is a supremely good physical act on behalf of one human being.”

The new shamanism, which is an amalgamation of Western psychology and psychotherapeutic methods with more ancient forms and practices, is the result of academic anthropologists and psychologists such as Michael Harner and Alberto Villoldo, among others, going into the jungles, deserts, mountains, and plains far from Western influences and coming back with tools for mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical growth, healing, and even cures. They have shed their Western biases and learned to respect the people whom they expected to merely objectify as research subjects.

The word “shaman” itself was coined in the 1950s by Romanian literary writer, Mircea Eliade, in his book Ancient Techniques of Ecstasy. His work detailed the cross-cultural phenomenon of eccentric individuals entering trance states to journey to an angelic upperworld for help and guidance. He borrowed the word used by the Siberian Tungus to describe their healers and medicine people—“saman”.

There are many practices around the world that could be put under this rubric, both ancient and contemporary. However, not all practitioners choose to use this word for many reasons. Among many Native North Americans, “shamanism”–the word and the practice–smacks of an ongoing “genocide of the mind” in which whites generalize, co-opt and steal from them their religious and spiritual practices in the wake of their ongoing oppression, denigration and suppression. There are merits to their concerns which I go into in a forthcoming article in the magazine Spirituality & Health.

For now, I have decided to use this simple word with its complex history, “shamanism”, to describe a set of beliefs and practices that involve healing body, mind and spirit of either the individual or the group. The use of art, active imagination, dreaming, connecting with nature, ritual, and putting the hands on or around the body of the affected person are all part of what I do. Invoking ancestors and spirits and traveling to other realms of consciousness and reality are also included, much as we might find ourselves in an altered state of awareness when we get quiet in meditation and “see”, “hear” or sense things beyond the ordinary.

There are Western practices that have much in common with shamanism, including psychodrama and art therapy, among others. However, in the West, because we rejected the idea that there is any reality other than this linear physical plane in which we live that is governed by certain physical laws and properties, we do not generally ascribe the transformations that emerge from working with the body, ritual and art as anything other than a psycho-biological process. The words of writer and explorer, Jon Turk, whose debilitating pain from a pelvis broken in a skiing accident and mended with metal plates, screws, and bolts and who experienced a complete alleviation of his symptoms and pain under the hands of a Siberian, Koryak healer, Moolynaut expresses this skepticism in the face of the overwhelming evidence of his cure:

“So, I was torn between two worlds. On one hand [sic], the Western, left-brain side of me demanded a scientific explanation. But when I studied pain and healing, I learned that the brain communicates with the body in ways that scientists and dotor’s don’t fully understand. The brain can register pain when there is no detectable trauma, or alternately, it can act as if everything were hunky-dory when actual trauma exists. So, maybe Moolynaut had healed me, or maybe I wasn’t really hurt in the first place. Maybe she hadn’t healed me at all, but I had willed myself to be whole again. Throughout the confusion, one other possibility plagued me: When I was standing there on one leg, reaching for that spot of light, maybe, just maybe, my outstretched arm had reached a power beyond my upbringing, across the years I had spent as a Ph.D. research chemist, toward something I can’t define.”

Like Turk, I am trained in a the methodology of the science of anthropology in which there still exists an overwhelming bias that we must ignore the testimony of our informants that they are seeing things that we don’t see, experiencing things we don’t, or that in doing so, they are curing diseases of the mind, body and emotions. Or if we do give any credibility to such claims, we can argue that the simple belief in such things paired with a certain ritual or action, triggers a neurochemical process that changes the body and hence the lived experience. Yet as Turk notes, this somehow begs the question in an attempt to get around what may be our own ignorance. In the eyes of many indigenous peoples, when Whites came with their reliance on machines, tools, and their lack of respect for nature and the insistence that Western religious beliefs were the only way of seeing, we looked like unsophisticated children, just as we thought of them as infants. This split still lurks today. Perception is all.

I am like many scientists and anthropologists in that I have finally had to give in to the admitting the power of these practices. I have struggled with chronic pain, depression and sometimes debilitating anxiety for almost 20 years. While Western talk therapy helped in many ways, fundamentally simply understanding the patterns did not lead to the dramatic changes I was seeking. What ultimately led to transformations were healing practices that could be loosely put under the rubric of shamanism. As with Turk, the proof is in the dramatic improvement in my life. Indeed, like many shamans around the world who describe being subjected to a variety of illnesses until they relented and answered the call of the spirits to embrace their gifts and role as a healer, it was finally embracing the calling of this particular healing path that has led to the greatest change in my life.

Part of this call is to “come out of the closet” and to offer a perspective to those who only have experience with mainstream, Western ways of seeing.  I hope to create bridges between them and our indigenous ancestors and the indigenous people on earth who are coming forward in greater and greater numbers to offer their wisdom and gifts to the world. We desperately need these gifts, just as they have and can continue to benefit from the miracles of modern medicine and technology, such as antibiotics.

For my part, as a scholar whose research is in the hauntings of transgenerational trauma in repetitive cycles of violence in individuals, families, communities, and nations, I am particularly invested in how shamanic healing can help us unhook from these patterns so that we can step into more empowered and peaceful ways. To that end, if the New Age is about a shift in consciousness from one of greed, scarcity, and fear to one of abundance, generosity, and love, as some say, then shamanism, both the “new” and the “old” offers us a unique perspective and dramatically effective tools to help us enact this change in ourselves and the world around us. Paired with the best knowledge and science of the West, great things can be accomplished.  I can think of no better reason to remain open-minded to other realities offered to us in our incredibly diverse and creative world than this: peace. Peace on Earth. May it be so.

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