Walking into our local health food store, I am slightly dismayed to see the display of chocolate with the label of “shaman" with a claim that it benefits some indigenous people somewhere. Cultural appropriation aside, in a time where the earth is experiencing a healing crisis, where more people are learning Reiki in thirty hours instead of thirty years, I ponder what it is to walk the path of a modern day shaman.
"The principle function of the shaman in Central and North Asia is magical healing. Several conceptions of the cause of illness are found in the area, but that of 'rape of the soul' is by far the most widespread. Disease is attributable to the soul's having strayed away or been stolen, and treatment is in principle reduced to finding it, capturing it, and obliging it to resume its’ place in the patient's body. Only the Shaman... sees the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it in ecstasy and return it to the body." (1)
I find this an interesting contrast to modern day healing as one of the techniques I employ as a certified hypnotherapist is the "shamanic journey". After inducing trance, my role is to facilitate the clients’ journey, where they meet a spirit plant, spirit animal and spirit guide with messages and assistance for their current situation. The main difference here is that rather than me doing the journeying for the client, the client is doing the work themselves, in particular in contacting their own inner resources. "Shamanism offers a means of support and comfort for these dark emotions through contact with our spirit guides and power animals... Supportive, wise and loving energy around us... Our guides and animals actually become bored when we do not call upon them and drift away looking for something to do... Our guides can provide a sense of comfort and remind us that we are connected to energies much larger than we are." (2)
I decided to do a shamanic journey specific to this time in my life in becoming a holistic healer. I am entering a different phase of life, now in my late forties, noticing the ways in which my energy longs for simplicity. I have been reconnecting with my spirituality in particular, creating time and sacred space for myself. As my daughter grows to womanhood and is looking at colleges, I find myself looking at this time of moving from being the mother to being the crone, the wise one, the elder. Astrologically speaking, I am entering my Chiron return - Chiron, the wounded healer, who changed his wounds into his greatest gift. As Sandra Ingerman writes in Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, "In the shamanic tradition of the 'wounded healer,' I began not by learning theory or observing others, but by coming to terms with my personal distress." (3)
I had recently done a past life regression where I experienced being a midwife in China a few thousand years ago. Then, in looking through my journals, I discovered a dream I had in my twenties that included meeting a warrior and carving the words, "I Am Initiate" into my arm. Almost a decade later, once I was in a trance state and I remember I looked down at my body which half was skeleton, half flesh, and I hearing Ani diFranco sing, “You have your whole life to do something, and that’s not very long.” Similar to the what Kenneth Johnson describes as a distinct pattern of shamanic initiation, where the “shaman undergoes a visionary experience, sometimes brought on by illness in which he or she suffers death and dismemberment, only to be resurrected and reborn” (4) . I found these potent and significant passages in my spiritual growth, and was now ready to explore more.
The hypnotherapist had me get comfortable on the couch, close my eyes and do a basic relaxation to induce trance. I found myself in the backyard with the cats, sitting at a table made from the stump of the old plum tree. A part of me - the part that felt tired, needed rest and repair, curled up on my mom's old blue jean quilt and went to sleep. The cats went over to stand guard of my physical body while another part, my dream body, journeyed.
I began to walk on a path, leaving the garden, first going upstairs to my altar area filled with the smell of colored pencils, down the stairs again, out the front door, up to Henry Cowell woods, down to backyard again, walking around the house to the front yard, where I met my spirit plant.
A tall, slender birch tree greeted me. I ran my hands on the trunk, seeing and feeling how the bark was shed as the tree grew bigger and stronger. The shedding bark so clearly told of the need to let go of the past in a natural and organic way, whether donating clothes and unused possessions to goodwill to releasing old outgrown friendships. The roots reminded me it was okay to be anchored here, in my home in Santa Cruz, there is no need to move, I can stay rooted, grounded. I perceived that the roots were as large as the branches, so important to draw up nourishment from the core of the earth, creating stability through the winds of change. The trunk was tall, supple, slender and flexible, again shedding what it had outgrown, but this time growing up towards the light rather than down into the earth. I traveled into the green leaves, which sparkled and shimmered in the light. Here I felt reminded to stay light and sparkly, a contrast to the Chinese Elm in my yard, which had cracked in the winter after being too top heavy. Metaphorically this resonated in my being as a message to stay light in my head as well as my heart, not to be too heavy in my thinking.
More insights poured into me: Always look for the three layers in healing: root, trunk and leaves, each has a medicine of its’ own. I had a memory from first grade come up, my first crush, a seven year old boy named Birch who had blonde hair, blue eyes ,a freckled nose, and always wore tennis bands. Two baskets made by my Swedish grandmother, both woven out of birch bark, now holding beads and crystals on my altar. A vision, first of my back bone, then my whole nervous system, my spinal cord being like the trunk of the tree, noticing all my nerves branching outwards, from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. Birch whispered that it is good right now that I am doing chiropractic and cranialsacral therapy as they will help to reset my nervous system. I had been thinking about quitting coffee completely lately, having reduced my consumption considerably, and this seemed like a way to shed this habit easily and effortlessly, simply by calling upon Birch.
After thanking Birch for its gifts, I continued on my path. I meandered past the bottle brush tree, taking a moment to sit on the bench on the porch. Instantly there was a hummingbird in my face, darting around, twittering furiously, finally landing on my outstretched hand and gently resting. I could feel its’ hearts warmth on my finger as I observed its’ iridescent green feathers, so sparkly, bright, shiny, and playful. I wanted to stroke the ruby red throat, and in its’ beady black eyes glowed the message: trust your voice, keep speaking your truth. Better yet, sing your truth. Hummingbird showed me that it is territorial, and interesting message to fight for what is mine, to fight for my current relationship, to know it is worth the effort and what it is to to feel fierce and proud, not in an ego way but as an assertion of life force and my right to be. I saw Hummingbird visiting flowers, in particular hibiscus blooms, a gentle reminder to try new things, to sip the nectar of life and enjoy the sweetness, to really savor each moment rather than busily humming along to the next, allowing me to stay in the moment, be present with myself. Hummingbird also has a reputation for nervous energy, and I can use my own nervous energy to propel myself forward, backward even sideways at times, and how to balance that with periods of rest. Here I saw my heart's nest, in my own heart beat the fluttering of wings.
I thanked Hummingbird for his presence today and continued on my path. From the front porch I walked down and around the house, returning to the back yard. I observed my sleeping body still being guarded by the cats, and continued to the garden table in the corner. Here I met my spirit guide who was wearing a long white dress painted with pink flowers, quite sparkly, her long hair down to to her waist, very feminine, with a filmy veil that revealed a crescent moon tattooed between her eyebrows. She kept vibrating between being in her mid twenties to mid sixties. She said she was my True Self come to guide me.
True Self showed me the sacred tools of the four elements sitting on the garden table: an athame, a wand, a crystal ball, and a conch shell with a hole in the top. She reminded me to sing songs, say prayers, remember chants, pay attention to dreams, notice all that is spilling out of me. I was filled with a feeling of reconnection, much like my recent visit to sacred grounds in Hawaii, feeling back in touch with the earth and the ancestors. The messages seemed to tumble as a litany, touchstones to return to after having wandered: breathe, drink water, accept the current form, nothing to do differently except to do it with intention, keep simplifying, rather than getting caught up in the next step, focus on your current step.
Suddenly the "real world" crashed in: there were loud ambulance and fire truck noises outside the office. I asked my True Self: Is there a fire in my soul? Am I responding out of habit? Addiction? I check in with physical body, the crisis has passed, there is no trauma. As it is noisy outside I am quiet inside, at peace. I started to send energy to the situation but my True Self said no, it is being taken cared of, stay here, be present with your process. More messages tumbled forth: take more cat naps, enjoy the garden rather than work in it, twenty minutes of hypnosis is the same as two hours sleep. More cat cues - stretch when waking up, rest when tired. True Self kissed my forehead, put a jeweled bindi on my third eye. True Self reached into her robes and gave me a pouch filled with extra sands of time, whispering the simple blessing: You have all the time you need.
I felt deeply peaceful, full of gratitude and appreciation, showered with blessings, on my path, clear, calm, compassionate and curious. After coming out of trance, I left the office to go write down my experience at my favorite local cafe. I then discovered that the sirens I heard earlier were emergency vehicles were responding to Shannon Collins, a local business owner, who was stabbed repeatedly and killed just a few feet from my first house in Santa Cruz. I have thought about this repeatedly, that a death was occurring during my journey, and I comfort myself in the belief that so were many births happening too.
In both ancient shamanic practices and modern, “the shamanic ‘miracles’... stimulate and feed the imagination, demolish barriers between dream and present reality, open windows upon worlds inhabited by gods, the dead, and the spirits”(5). Rather than taking on the role of the magician, priest or heirophant, my role as a modern shaman is to empower my clients “for if that which you seek you find not within, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am all that is attained at the end of desire.”(6)
1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p.5
2. Ann M. Drake, Psy. D, Healing of the Soul: Shamanism and Psyche, (Ithaca, NY: Busca, 2003) p. 169.
3. Sandra Ingerman, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991) p.15
4. Kenneth Johnson, Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1996) p.36
5. Eliade, p. 505
6. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1979) p. 76