Shamanism and Healing
by Kathleen Dunbar
One of the tools of my healing palette is the practice of shamanism. The word "shaman" has its origins in northern Asia, but it has come into common parlance to refer to a healer who can access nonordinary states and work with energy, symbols and archetypes in the service of healing clients. I often simply call myself a "Medicine Auntie." I offer "shamanic" work for my interested clients as a way to support and facilitate transformation, and we weave the learnings back into our "regular" psychotherapy work. Often a single shamanic session can greatly quicken transformation as well as provide a lasting resource and reference point. I also offer shamanic sessions as an occasional adjunct and support modality for clients working with other therapists. You can learn more in-depth about what I offer on my website at kathleendunbar.net
Shamanism and Healing Trauma
Shamanic practice is one of the oldest treatments for trauma. Trauma is said to be "soul loss" and refers to when a vital, essential part of ourselves must be split off and put on the shelf in order for us to survive. Example, a girl must put away her strength and her voice in order for her to not get hurt by her father, then she grows up still believing in and enacting this strategy when she no longer has to. At the time it was the wisest choice, in order for her to survive. But later on it becomes limiting. We talk about this in various orientations of modern psychotherapy as clients living more from their defenses and limiting beliefs than from their true selves. Developmental trauma arises when the developmental needs of a child aren't met which allow him or her to feel safe and have a sense of belonging, be able to ask for and receive support, be able to be autonomous and be able to be loved and seen. Shock trauma from abuse, neglect, death, illness, and accidents are also major factors in "soul loss."
The good news is that if parts get split off, they remain untarnishable in their wonderful qualities, and it is the therapist's and the shaman's job to help their clients come home to their essential nature, albeit with some different technology. A shaman can help clients clean out unwanted binds to energies or people, to break the "bargains" they made in order to survive, and to be reunited with their essential, unique soul qualities (strength, artistry, confidence, delight, freedom, etc).
What Do Shamans Do?
A shaman helps clients make shifts at both a "mythic" or archetypal level (letting go of limiting stories and telling new and nourishing stories), and at an energetic level (unbinding and helping energy flow through not only the body, but the entire energy system, freeing the soul to pursue its truest course).
In the modern world people are used to wanting a quick fix. Shamanic work does not cure with a single wave of the magical eagle feather, but can offer a felt-sense and experientially visioned shift in the client that can greatly facilitate healing, provide unexpected resources, help build a foundation of self, and support the expression of a client's unique gifts. A shamanic healing can help a client who wants to find their path put their foot forward and walk it in a tangible way.
Shamanic healing techniques are very human, ancient practices that ask us to be ready to change our lives completely in order for us to be who we are authentically. In stepping onto the path of the True Self clients may be asked by Spirit and their Higher Selves to make significant changes—to sit with what is most scary or uncomfortable, leave a relationship or job, or take a risk to do what they've always longed to do so that they can be filled with joy and creativity.
When a client is ready, they may find someone like a shaman, a medicine auntie or uncle, to help them facilitate their transformation. A shaman doesn't change anything in a client, a shaman helps the client embody whatever aspect of their true nature the client is ready for at a given session. The shaman has specific energetic and symbolic "technologies" to clear out what is no longer needful and to invite in what is full of life. The shaman is like a midwife at the birth of that which is new for the client. Being human, we may be ready for a change, but we often have blinders on to aspects of who we truly are—the split-off parts. What clients most long for and which is at hand is helped greatly by a sacred witness who is also facilitator.
A metaphor that is commonly used is that the shaman "becomes the hollow bone through which Spirit flows." This means that shamans have a practice of setting ego aside and entering into a right brain mode, a nonordinary wise-heart state, that enables them to "see" or "sense" or "feel" metaphorically the limiting story that the client has been living by, the bargain the client made in order to survive, bonds to unhelpful energies or people that need to be shed, and what the client is longing for and reunite them with that essence—the soul parts that are ready to return.
People may have initial good experiences with folks who offer energy work, but if the practitioner doesn't also offer a new map for the client to follow, the effects of a helpful energy session often don't last. This is because traditionally the experience of energy healing was an experience of village life, and was held with stories, symbols, new names, and work to be done by the client—a new map to be guided by and acted upon. To step into one's true self involves a different way of being that must be practiced. The energy shift is accomplished by the shaman and client together, but there must be the vital next step: The shaman and client must also make a new map, a beautiful new story, and the client must then be willing to continue to integrate and strengthen their healing with the help of the new map—a new soul part, a gift from the spirits, power animals, spirit helpers.
We know that nature abhors a vacuum—if we remove something, generally the same damn thing will come back to fill up the void unless we put something different in its place. You'll follow the same neural path that you're used to, unless you've established a new neural network and develop practices that support the new way of being. Once we have made a shift, as one of my mentors says, the old beliefs still come back and knock on the door when we are at a low point saying, "Hey, we used to party!" So it is very important for humans to have a symbolic and an energetic experience of their truth to return to if they fall off the wagon and go party with the old crew, and eventually to help them to not open the door to that old crew again at all. Sometimes we believe debilitating things about ourselves. Sometimes we are unable to own wonderful qualities in ourselves and can only let other people carry them. The crew at the door is ready to sabotage us in many ways, so it is important to have our new crew to help us—soul part, power animal, gifts, helpers.
Jung said, "Mankind heals through symbols." The healing "symbols" of the soul parts, animals, helpers, and soul gifts are not intellectual or theoretical ideas, but embodied, felt sense, lived-in experiences from which healing flows: A client gets to know and care for and feel the buoyancy of the soul part of her happy child; another client feels the gift of a golden crown to help him know his power and dignity; another at long last feels the playfulness of a dolphin or the strength of a horse. With the help of these lived-in experiences the client can formally, out loud, with the help of the shaman, ceremonially break the old contract and be witnessed as they write a beautiful new statement about who they truly are, and then practice with the shaman in the session the felt sense tools that they then take away and continue to practice, refer to, and foster.
The Bones of a Shamanic Session.
Before beginning energy and archetypal work, I help clients formally acknowledge their old, limiting "maps" and speak about their longing for their truth. In a way somewhat different from therapy, we briefly talk about the following, not analyzing, not even exploring, but naming, and in this naming process the old energetic patterns get activated so that we can clear them:
- What brings you here? Why have you hired me and what do you want?
- In what ways does this problem benefit you—what is the "perk?" Clients generally know what this means, though it may surprise them at first. For example, having to bear the burden of a difficult issue can let the client off the hook from having to take the risk of doing something fulfilling, or being with people who are nourishing. So the "perk" is staying with the devil they know, rather than doing what is wholesome but scarily "new."
- In what ways does this problem limit you? This is usually easy for the client to identify!
- How would your life be different if ____ was no longer an issue/problem? What would your life look like? What is the longing for?
- What do you need to do to make the change? Clients often don't know this at the beginning of a session, but it is important to name it aloud, because they will by the session's end with the help of the returned soul part, gift, animal, and helper.
After the old pattern is activated and the longing is named, a shaman has many options, which may take up one session, or several sessions:
- Clear the client's energy field—as in tilling the hard ground of a garden to help ready it to receive new plants.
- Extract old energies, or "entities," that the client has taken on long ago in order to survive. Help the client reunite with a once-lost vital energy—a soul retrieval.
- Find a power animal for a client—an animal which freely has certain "powers" or abilities which lie dormant in the client, and the client's continued interaction with this animal will awaken the client's abilities.
- Discover a special gift which will help a client.
- Help make a new and beautiful "contract"—wholesome supporting core beliefs.
- Help a client step onto their path of destiny—a destiny retrieval—in effect helping them to move from one strand of the multiverse to another.
- Help a client learn to become grounded in the present.
A Word About the Visionary or Psychic Abilities of Highly Traumatized Clients
When people have very difficult childhoods, they may dwell more than most people in the realm of fantasy, art, or the mind, in which they find safe haven in an otherwise impossible and dangerous life. Early on they get their "ten thousand hours of training" in being supersensitive to energy, psychic phenomenon, etc. Often these clients have a very developed sense of knowing things with their "sixth" sense in an accurate way. However, they are generally not grounded in the moment, in their bodies, in their current lives. One way a shaman helps is to teach a client very practical ways of being grounded in the here and now, in their body, in their present experience. This is a very important feature of working shamanically. Think of the old master having the novice sweep the temple steps, or the medicine auntie instructing her mentee in tortilla making. As the client learns to become grounded, they continue to have their psychic gifts as gifts, not solely as a refuge or escape. They have much more choice. Their groundedness helps them form a structure for confidence, strength and peace.
Poem by Kathleen
This shamanic sensibility has always been with me. Here is a very shamanic poem I wrote when I was 25 years old! Enjoy!
often his voice rises
stirring with the leaves
a moon shaped corner
keeps his shadows
while he hunts
invisible and solitary
through the long trough
of the valley
the howling one
and swift feet to the hunt
and from whose muzzle
a lonesome mourning pours as he turns
and throws his trail into darkness
at the yellow rock
in the moonlight
where the valley tumbles
down the high mountain
at that sheer drop
they foot the rock
the one after the other
their circling song is offered up
and the breakfasting shadows
one song upon another
played and layered
two broken players
of the last hunt
and the brokenthroated song
© Kathleen Dunbar 1984