Shamanism and the Wounded West
by Karen Jaenke
Shamanism, humanity’s oldest healing system, is today undergoing global resurgence. The origins of shamanism can be traced back to our ancestors some 60,000 to 200,000 years ago—who left evidence of their familiarity with two aspects of the shamanic cosmo-vision: the mastery of fire and the symbolic transcendence of death. Amid our current global crisis, there seems to be a need to investigate shamans, and this need reflects an emergent quest for something. Within these pages, that quest speaks to the unmet spiritual hunger of the West.
Shamans participate in a millenary tradition that involves the cultivation of relationships with “the invisible world”. The shaman’s power derives from spiritual or supernatural dimensions and entails mastery of hidden forces or energies, both positive and negative. Embracing a shamanic fate brings a life of ordeals and hardships, requires extensive training, and demands intimate acquaintance with pain, discipline, death and solitude, which become the shaman’s true masters. The shaman engages the dynamics of life-death-rebirth, in which death is regarded not as a final end but a passage to a different state of consciousness or reality. The command of certain psychic and physical techniques endows shamans with the special ability to exit ordinary reality, enter extraordinary reality, and return bearing gifts from sacred dimensions. A special aspect of the shaman’s training enables entry into the interiority of other beings, including plants, animals and stones; via this metamorphosis, wisdom is gathered from more- than-human forms of embodiment.
Karen Ann Jaenke, M.Div, Ph.D. is Chair of the Consciousness and Transformative Studies program and former Director of the Ecotherapy Certificate program at John F. Kennedy University. From 2001-2008, she served as Dissertation Director and Core Faculty at the Institute of Imaginal Studies. Currently an Executive Editor of ReVision: Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, she has edited journals on the topics of Imaginal Psychology, Shamanism, and Earth Dreaming, as well as numerous articles. In 2000, she founded Dreamhut Consulting (www.dreamhut.org) to offer consulting services for dissertation and thesis writing, dreamwork, hypnotherapy and mentoring. Her creative vision synthesizes dreamwork, indigenous ways of knowing, the subtle body, and Gaian awareness.
The shaman masters the art of transmutation—the ability to unite and connect, in order to transform. The shamanic task is always to transform something—an individual, community, or eco-niche that has become imbalanced and whose vitality is threatened. The shaman is a guardian of the traditions and the psycho-physical balance of the community, with an ability to restore balance through profound knowledge of the laws of the universe. The shaman heals by becoming a master of imagination and the energetic world, capable of generating a harmonious reorganization of the energetic structure of living beings and systems.
Each of the above perspectives on the shaman is explored in this issue. Additionally, Shamanism and the Wounded West contextualizes shamanism within a larger framework—the wounded West and our global contemporary crisis. Possibilities for addressing the alienation and anguish of our modern human condition are illuminated through shamanic modes of perception and healing, rooted in a holistic, interconnected and meaning-rich vision of the cosmos.
According to Ana Maria Llamazares, author of the lead article “Wounded West: The Healing Potential of Shamanism in the Contemporary World”, our greatest wound—the spiritual void of the West—can only be filled by genuine spirituality that reawakens our bonds “with Nature, with the vital, with one’s own subjective and innermost self.” “The deepest craving of the contemporary human soul,” she maintains, “is to recover our lost spiritual connection to the cosmos, to heal the wounds of fragmentation, and to overcome the intellectual habit of turning opposites into antagonists.” Llamazares first examines the epistemological and spiritual roots of the contemporary global crisis, identifying the various fragmentations that led the West “to lose its connection with Nature, with all that is vital, with human subjectivity…, and with all the subtle, sensitive and intangible dimensions of existence.” Alienation is a natural consequence of the epistemological split between observer and observed, “a breach [that produced] a spiritual and emotional detachment from all living things.” The loss of the feeling of belonging to an all-embracing Whole engenders an illusion of separateness and erodes the meaning of existence. Recovering consciousness of our natural participation in the web of life only becomes possible by transcending the material dimension and accessing subtle levels of reality and perception—which is the worldview of the shaman. This symbolic, multifaceted and magical quality of life, obscured by the cultural lenses of the West, permeates the entire shamanic world.
After deconstructing the modern Western scientistic paradigm, Llamazaeres constructs the essential elements common to trans-cultural shamanism: the Journey, the Trance, the Transformation and the Power. Then she turns to the Greek myths of Dionysus and Chiron, as exemplars of the initiatory pattern of shamanic fate, reminding us of shamanic roots in our own Western tradition. Dionysus embodies natural, instinctive energy within a socially accepted framework. Chiron teaches “about the conditions of healing based on learning to bear one’s own pain, [and] informs us about the deepest roots of suffering: the break of loving ties between both natures, the divine and the human.” Chiron, with his hybrid body, human top and animal bottom, offers an image of the integration of opposites, pointing to the reconciliation of all the Western schisms—between spirit and matter, subject and object, mind and matter, reason and emotion, masculine and feminine, and the human species and Nature.
A second, complementary article, “Reality, Invisible World and Shamanism: An Outlook from the Indigenous Worldview”, elucidates key elements of a shamanic worldview, organized around the concept of the “invisible world”. Carlos Martinez Sarasola distils the complex shamanic worldview into its essence. A handful of central ideas constitute the cosmic and spiritual consciousness of the indigenous world: totality, energy, communion, sacredness, a communal sense of life, and balance. Totality refers to a viewpoint that holds individual members of the cosmos in constant interrelationship as part of a whole, a whole infused with meaning, where integration is the rule. Energy is the main force that regulates the rhythm of the cosmos, generating vitality while possessing a creation-destruction dynamic. Communion reflects the deep link between the human person, nature and the cosmos, a special connection which intensely integrates relationships such as cosmos-home-body. Sacredness refers to a way of being in the world, an attitude full of feeling that links humans to the sacred and the different levels of reality in a profound manner. Community sense of life connotes that human life acquires meaning when collectively developed. Balance entails maintaining alignment with the universe through a constant search for harmony and through preserving the delicate interrelationship of each part of the whole.
These two opening articles, which paint trans-cultural shamanism in broad brush strokes, are followed by two personal accounts of engagement with Amazonian shamanism. Rainforest shamans are experts on the healing properties of the jungle’s rich plant medicines, which are summoned and transmitted to the patient during healing rituals. Sacred plants bring about the possibility of provoking a state of extended consciousness in which perception is globally modified and supernatural dimensions or entities are contacted. According to Robert Tindall, “Amazonian shamanism is mainly associated with the visionary effects of the psychoactive vine ayahuasca, yet the practice of the Peruvian tradition of vegetalismo includes other factors such as diet (communing with the innate intelligence of healing plants) and purging (drawing disease out of the body), allowing healers to successfully treat serious disease.” Amazonian medicine thus entails a complex synergy of plant medications, special diets verging on fasting undertaken in solitude, the shaman’s icaros or sacred songs, and the ecology of the healing locale itself. Amazonian medicines are not easily removed from their matrix—the jungle and the shaman’s intimate communication with the plant. Healing arises from re-embedding the patient in a living cosmology, a hierarchy of being that supports and gives meaning to the process of living and dying. This fulfills “one of the deepest needs of [the soul]: to live in a reciprocal universe, a benevolent order in which, when we call out, we are resoundingly heard” (Tindall, 2007).
Robert Tindall’s article “Assessing a Quest to Heal HIV with Vegetalista Shamanism,” follows the personal healing quest of a North American man with HIV. Tindall highlights the distinction between curing, the cessation of symptoms, and healing, from Old English hælan “to make whole, sound and well.” Even when Western medicine brings a cure, there may be a deeper existential crisis of the soul and of meaning that Western medicine cannot touch. Accordingly, the healing quest can entail a soul-searching journey into the hidden psycho-somatic origins of disease. During a healing quest, whether or not a cure is found, the valence of the disease shifts as “the entire self… is engaged in unraveling a disease’s enigma.” Disease may be regarded as carrying an urgent life message to the patient, the body as a unique laboratory wherein a cure may be found, and the medicine as an ally to be won in a battle of the soul.
Connie Grauds, author of “The Spirit Doctors of Nature,” writes with her feet firmly planted in two worlds. She is a pharmacist working in conventional Western medicine for nearly thirty years, and a shaman who apprenticed in the world of “nonrational” healing. Travelling to the Amazon in search of her own healing, she became a shaman’s apprentice to find the magic missing from her own healing tradition. “There I was cooked in a cauldron of shamanic medicine rituals, disciplinas and unusual life-experiences, and blown apart by the magnitude and mystery of spirit.” She discovered the encounter with Amazonian shamanism can entail walking “to the edges of madness” and wrestling with one’s inner demons. “There is nothing like the jungle’s intense heat, pesky mosquitoes and non-stop tickling sweat to wear you down. The jungle is the medicine: to merely show up the jungle guarantees a confrontation.”
Grauds’ vivid prose elicits the sheer, primal intensity of the jungle life force; the vibratory frequencies arising from the mass of surrounding vegetation; the cacophony of primal sounds that compose the music of the rainforest; the ceremony, in which outer jungle discomforts give way to internal phenomena of another order—dizziness, purging, visions and altered states; the Medicine in which pieces of one’s life rearrange themselves; the shaman in his element, in deep communion with the spirits and full of ecstatic power, simultaneously surrendered and very much in control.
The next three articles in this double issue explore contemporary healing practices that suggest hybridizations of shamanism. Writing as a Shoshone and bicultural woman, Francesca Boring’s article “Walking in the Shaman’s Shoes” highlights striking parallels between shamanism and the contemporary healing approach of Family & Natural Systems Constellations. Family Constellation, a therapeutic method popular in Europe and elsewhere, draws upon a worldview and epistemology resonant with ancient shamanism. “Those who look to shamanism may really be searching for what already exists within their own family ancestry and field: the echo of a universal indigenous spiritual tradition.” The shaman’s gift of ‘knowing’ entails an ability to see ancestral influences and invoke conversations that put wandering souls to rest. Similarly, in Family Constellation, facilitators and individuals unravel barriers to experience life’s vitality resulting from historical or trans-generational trauma. Family Constellations is based upon accessing a ‘knowing field’, a psychic reservoir of stories, accumulative traumas, and secrets of our ancestors. The therapeutic discipline of Family Constellation involves waiting, listening, and allowing an organic healing movement that comes from a field beyond the cognitive mind, known as a movement of the soul. Participants often have a stunning ability to “know” things about the family system that reveal the core of an individual’s symptoms, including trauma from prior generations, a process that reflects the presence of a family soul. Boring demonstrates that “the soul can again journey to understand the interconnectedness and knowing that we have distanced ourselves from to win the mantle of being modern.”
Denita Benyshek, a visionary artist, asks the question: Do shamans and artists embark on comparable journeys, following analogous paths of descent, ascent and time-travel, thereby arriving at like destinations? This question leads to identification of the similarities between artists and shamans and to the contemporary category of artist-shaman.
Benyshek borrows Heinze’s definition of a shaman to chart her inquiry: a shaman “forms community service in response to psychological, social, or spiritual needs, mediates between different states of consciousness, and creates connection to community in a meaningful and understood form.”
Drawing upon her own intense experiences of the creative journey, Benyshek sees the travel of artists through levels of consciousness as the equivalent of shamanic flights to other worlds. She finds further parallels between the shamanic initiation that entails the deconstruction or dismemberment of identity, followed by reconstruction and rebirth. With Martha Graham, she recognized that to create, the artist must be destroyed. Both artist and shamans routinely draw illumination and power by entering liminal reality where boundaries are blurred, classification schemes upset, and ambiguity reigns.
By attempting to heal splits, unite opposites, and re-member society, shamans and artists provide community service.
Benyshek justifiably concludes “The shaman-artist is recognized by the following actions: mediation between different states of consciousness, connection to higher powers, communication through understood forms, and service to community.”
An article by Stanley Krippner and Michael Bova, et al. chronicles a field trip to Calabria, Italy to observe the region’s traditional spiritual healing practices. Prior to Italy’s introduction of free public medicine in the 1970s, folk medicine was the treatment of choice for the poor and those in rural areas. Although Western biomedicine is now the cornerstone of Italian healthcare, the “Calabrese maintain their cultural affinity for folk medicine, prayer, and the enactment of religious rituals for health and betterment.” Calabrian traditional medicine fits within the category of complementary and alternative medicine, for which the world’s population spends 60 billion dollars a year.
Due to both internal and external isolation, Calabria has proved more resistant to industrialization, allowing folk healing traditions to survive over the millennia. “Popular medicine in Calabria can be miraculous, medical, or magical.” Calabrian popular medicine is a mixture of folk healing, sorcery, witchcraft, magical spells, and divine intervention, intended to bestow protection and survival amidst life’s precarious enterprise. “Magical medicine is a collection of rituals, spells, elixirs, and potions that resemble cookbook recipes, [yet] their purported effectiveness results from an established and sequential methodology that activates their latent properties.”
Akin to other shamanic worldviews, the Calabrian universe is an interconnected whole; tweaking one part of the fabric is likely to bring about changes in another part. Calabrians live in a cosmos inhabited by a variety of local spirits as well as by angels, demons, and saints, both benevolent and dangerous. An omnipresent “vital force” permeates the universe, conceived as a substance that can be lost or gained. While losses lead to weakness, illness, or death, gains can be catalyzed via certain external sources that transmit reinvigorating effects. This naturally-occurring vital force resides in medicinal plants and foods, and can be accessed through magical rituals or restored in miraculous healings.
Carl Hild, through 40 years of observation, reports on Inupiaq traditional healing practices that include a reliance upon of “other ways of knowing, spirit support, body manipulation, behavioral restrictions, and the extraction of bodily materials.” Traditional healing is offered in a holistic manner, rather than the silos of care found in allopathic medicine.
Inupiaq healing practices emerge from a pervasive perception of oneness, known as Inua. Difficult for the fragmented Western mind to fathom, the concept of Inua transcends the notions of chi, spirit, or energy that permeate everything. “It is a well-grounded sense of oneness that goes beyond the concept of just being part of a whole.” In other words, the perception of oneness is primary and fundamental, transcending a perception of separate things linked by a common element such as energy. Two types of Inupiaq healers, the anatguk and the ilisiilaq, enter a receptive and active state of non-local consciousness, enhanced at special places, thereby retrieving knowledge not regularly available through the five senses. Relying upon more than the empirical knowledge obtained by the senses, a more fluid and shape-shifting perception of the universe emerges.
Within shamanism, the true cause of illness is identified as a loss of balance, a recurrent theme found in these pages. The therapeutics of the shaman is energetic in nature, with a constant effort to restore balance. Balance is achieved through establishing a dynamic flow of energies—physical, mental and spiritual—in dialogue with forces or spirits that inhabit diverse dimensions or realities. Shamans understand that, in an interconnected universe, metaphysical patterns, depicted through symbolism, intersect and translate across different dimensions of existence. Physical, psychic and spiritual dimensions differ only in their density or intensity; thus it is completely feasible to operate—by way of structural correspondence—on the physical realm from the psychic realm and vice versa. Shamanism’s presence provides living evidence that it is possible to live in more or less continuous contact with the non-ordinary and energetic dimensions of existence. Shamanic spirituality bestows authentic healing through reconnecting us with the experience of the sacred, restoring our trust in a meaningful order, and bringing assurance of belonging to a more comprehensive web of life.