The shamanic complex
(the practice of the practice)
The fundamental belief in shamanism the world over is that we, as spiritual beings, are interconnected with all other life that is imbued with spirit. Animals and plants have spirit. They are alive. Wind, sun, rain and computers also have spirit. They too are alive in the shamanic sense. Spirit is also the essence of a thing. It is what makes a bear a bear or a toaster oven toast. Spirits are cross culturally subjectively described as those, "transpersonal forces that we experience as moving in us or through us, but are not entirely moved by us." (Hoppal, 1987) They have their own agendas. Included in this shamanic cosmovision is the understanding that a spirit also has a consciousness similar to our own. Shamans have the knowledge of how to enter into communication with these spirits, and serve their community by doing so.
The shamanic perspective holds an integrated view of the universe, one that crosses the boundaries of ordinary and non-ordinary reality, the physical and the spiritual. One of the consequences of an integrated view of the universe is that action in one realm has an effect in another. Sickness is viewed as an imbalance in both the individual and the cosmos. The shaman mediates between the worlds in order to re-establish balance. Treatment therefore creates a healing in both realms. The shaman's role is integral to the community and embedded in the culture.
Well-being in the shamanic sense is not limited to physical and mental health as we have become accustomed to thinking. It also includes success in business, warfare, prosperity, employment, children, love and friendship. These require flow and balance both within and between the worlds. This requires attention, intention and exchange.
A shamanic procedure may look something like the following. First there is a problem. A man is physically ill. A woman is unable to get a job. The community is starving because the fishermen have been unable to go out to the ocean because of rough seas. The crops are withering in the fields due to drought. All these need the attention of the shaman who knows that the spirits are the cause of these problems.
The shaman enters non-ordinary reality to negotiate with the spirits and set things right. She may see that a soul has been abducted or an intrusion has entered a body. She may discover that the community is impure or has not been honouring the ancestors. The shaman calls on her spirit helpers to negotiate with the hostile spirits. She does a soul journey across the spiritual realms to extract harmful elements and cleanse the impurities of the community. Her job is to defeat the hostile spirits. She takes action and struggles with the opposing forces. This may take the form of physical battle or clever debate. She may even beg, plead, and cry, humbling herself before the spirits. Ultimately, the harmful spirit agrees to a settlement or is removed altogether.
Each time the shaman journeys, she dies and is reborn again, at least most of the time. (This is good news for the shaman.) She returns with vital knowledge, integrating it and herself back into the community. The community or individual is healed. This may or may not include curing in the allopathic sense.
Shamanic healing is in no way a substitute for allopathic medicine. They co-exist together, working harmoniously on behalf of the patient. If you break your leg, you should immediately run (as it were), to see an orthopaedic surgeon. Once the cast is in place you may want to hobble over to the local shaman who will endeavour to discover what was spiritually happening to you at the time of the accident. Why were your spirit guardians not protecting you? Is there someone or something that may need to be appeased in order for you to heal?
Shamanic healing concerns itself with the spiritual aspects of individual and community illness and disease. It is not a substitute for modern health care, acupuncture or homeopathic medicine. They are interconnecting circles whose centre holds the intention for the well being of the individual and community.
(Those pesky intrusions)
Illness from the shamanic perspective has a limited number of causes. An individual may lose their spirit guardian or power animal, one or more of their souls may be lost or stolen, or there may be a foreign object in the body. In the case of soul loss, the shaman undergoes a journey to the realm of the spirits to fight for the soul and bring it back. Intrusions require a different technique, one that is widely used in shamanic communities throughout the world including North and South America, Australia and Siberia.
There are a few ways intrusions can enter a body. They may be placed there by spirits, or 'shot in' by sorcerers. Sometimes without knowing it we harm others with our outbursts of anger or powerful negative thoughts. According to Harner (1980), "Power intrusions, like communicable diseases, seem to occur most frequently in urban areas where human populations are the most dense." Illness due to an intrusion is manifested by symptoms such as localized pain, discomfort and/or fever. Both the ordinary and non-ordinary aspects of the intrusion need to be treated. For example, in addition to shamanic treatment, antibiotics may be required to fight the infection.
From the point of view of the onlookers, extraction is one of the most glamorous and theatrical aspects of a shaman's practice. From the shaman's perspective this work is dangerous and physically demanding.
First the shaman must locate the harmful, intrusive powers within the patient. He may use an entheogenic substance like 'ayahuasca' to see into the patient. Alternatively, in a shamanic state of consciousness, she may pass her hand or a feather over the patient's body attempting to discover any special sensation of heat, energy or vibration coming from a localized point in the body. Once that place is located, the intrusion can be removed.
Among the Jivaro and Conibo peoples of the Amazon, the healing shaman must see the intruding non-ordinary entity within the patient's body clearly enough to determine whether he possesses the appropriate spirit helper to extract it by sucking. (Harner, 1980) The shaman rallies forth her spirit helpers to assist in performing the extraction. She sucks on the area of the body that has previously been identified as housing the foreign object causing the illness. In sucking she 'traps' the intrusion in her mouth and spits the object out. The shaman must take great care not to swallow the object or she may suffer the same illness as the patient. However in Peru for example, the shaman deliberately swallows the object in order to develop immunity to the illness and become more powerful. Rather like an immunization. The intrusion may take any number of forms including that of an insect, a piece of rope, feathers or hair.
In treating illness, shamanic extraction is not a substitute for allopathic medicine and should be used as an adjunct to a western orthodox approach. Shamans everywhere are concerned with the spiritual aspects of illness and disease.
Soul loss and retrieval
(Atta boy fido)
A patient arrives at a shaman's door. She is ill. The shaman prepares herself in the customary way of her people and travels to non-ordinary reality to consult with her helping spirits. Her goal is to discover the cause of the illness and set things right. The shaman does not classify the illness as either emotional or physical as we do in our culture. The shaman recognizes that the two are not separate.
Shamans believe that the soul can leave the body. Even the most sceptical individuals in our culture believe this happens to everyone at death. When we dream, our souls wander about and return to our bodies without causing death. The soul that wanders may be thought of as the person's consciousness, and the soul that stays behind the one that keeps the body functioning. If the first soul does not return, the person will eventually die.
It some parts of the world it is considered dangerous to awaken someone quickly as they may not be able to return to their body safely. (The prevalence of alarm clocks in our culture is cause for concern.) The Eskimo believe they have three souls, the Sioux four souls and the Yagua five souls (Vitebsky, 1995) Each time a shaman journeys her soul leaves her body and enters the realm of the spirits. Soul can be defined as, "the principle of life; an entity distinct from the body; the spiritual in contrast to the physical." (Webster's, 1981) It is our vital essence.
Illness may be caused by a lack of power and the shaman, through her helping spirits, has ways to address that loss. Another cause of illness might be soul loss. This can occur for a number of reasons. When a person suffers an emotional or physical trauma, a piece of that 'entity' may separate from the body. The psychological term for this is 'dissociation'. Spirits or enemy shamans may kidnap souls. There is also a belief that people may inadvertently steal souls out of anger or a desire to stay connected with a person. Souls may wander off on their own accord, or even be lured away.
There are times in each of our lives when we may have difficulty moving forward, breaking dysfunctional patterns of behaviour and finding healthy, meaningful work and relationships. According to Ingerman (1991), soul loss today is often a result of such traumas as incest, abuse, loss of a loved one, surgery, accident, illness, miscarriage, combat stress or addiction. Her basic premise is that whenever we experience trauma, a part of our vital essence separates from us in order to survive the experience by escaping the full impact of the pain. I suggest that these traumas are not only the cause of soul loss, but also the result of soul loss. Accidents may occur to us, for example when we are not completely present. When your soul or soul parts are absent for whatever reason, you may be vulnerable to illness.
Whatever has happened, it is the shaman's job to locate the soul, reintegrate it into the patient's body and restore well being. She accomplishes this through her practice of the soul journey, entering an altered state of consciousness and travelling in the realm of non-ordinary reality, the world of the spirits.
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Harner, Michael, 1980; The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing; San Francisco: Harper and Row
Hoppal, Mihaly, 1987; in Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality, shirley Nicholoson, compiler; Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House
Ingerman, Sandra, 1991; Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self; New York: Harper Collins
Vitebsky, Piers, 1995; The Shaman; New York: Little Brown and Company
Websters Standard Dictionary, 1981
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