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Sensa interview

shamanism

Hello!

People often ask me how I became a shamanic practitioner, about the origins of therapeutic shamanism, and how to learn shamanism. That’s why I wanted to share an interview I did for the Slovenian magazine Sensa. It contains a lot of answers to the above-mentioned questions.

I hope you enjoy it!

As a psychotherapist, how did you also become a shamanic practitioner?

People often ask me how I got into shamanism, and it is difficult to pin it down to a particular time or period. The author Daniel Quinn’s work has been very influential in my thinking. In one of his books, Providence, he says (I’m paraphrasing here) that when you are older, you can look back on your life and most clearly see the times your Soul was calling to you. That has been true for me. I can look back now and see shamanism was always calling to me. It was what my Soul wanted me to do and be. It took me a long time to realize that, though, and along the way, I wandered off the path and followed many diversions, but it has always been calling to me.

I had a lot of shamanic experiences in childhood, although at the time, I didn’t realise that is what they were. This included experiences that everything around me was not only alive but conscious and aware – the insects, the trees, every blade of grass and even the earth itself. Although these experiences were temporary, they profoundly affected me.

Also, one of the roles of the shaman in culture is to be the outsider and in doing so, see the things behind the stories that everybody else takes at face value. In fact, the word “shaman” means something like “one who knows and can see in the dark”. In other words, someone who can see things that other people can’t or aren’t willing to see. That was very much my childhood, my nature, and my role in the family.

At 18, I went to university to do religious studies. In the first year we had to sign up for two other subjects. Along with philosophy, I signed up to study anthropology. I have no idea why I did this (at the time, I didn’t even know what anthropology was!), but looking back, I can see my soul/shamanism calling to me because I spent three years studying animist and shamanic cultures. It was both life-changing and felt strangely like a homecoming too. 

When you are older, you can look back on your life and most clearly see the times your Soul was calling to you. I can look back now and see shamanism was always calling to me. It was what my Soul wanted me to do and be.

I started actively practicing shamanism in my 20s. I was training to be a psychotherapist alongside this. In the shamanic community, I had some great experiences but was also horrified by some of the unhealthy dynamics and abuse of power that I witnessed. Consequently, although interested, I kept shamanism a bit at arm’s length. 

Then, through a series of events, in my 30s I ended up with severe PTSD. I was in a very bad state, and nearly didn’t survive. I felt completely taken apart and reduced to nothing but dust and ash. In the long process of recovering, which involved a lot of psychotherapy, shamanism burst back into my life, but in a much deeper and more meaningful way than before. That is when I really began to “get” it and made the decision to commit to it fully.

Were there ways in which shamanic practices helped you where psychotherapy could not?

Then, one day, in digging back through thousands of years of time, I arrived back at hunter-gatherer times, when we were living in a much more nature-connected way, and before we had largely turned away from shamanism.

When I ended with severe PTSD, I remember I kept saying to my psychotherapist “How did this happen to me, given all the therapy I have already done?”. Her answer was the work I had done before had built a solid “house” to live in, but unknowingly there was a fault line underneath it. So, when trauma hit, the house collapsed. What I needed to do was dig up was dig up the foundations and build better ones (meaning, explore my childhood in an even deeper way). Although sceptical about going over that ground all over again (I’d already spent a lot of time exploring my childhood by that point), I gave her the benefit of the doubt and some interesting and useful stuff did come out of the work we did together. Outside of therapy though (as she had no interest in exploring this) I began to dig deeper. 

I began to look at this as an archaeological dig. Deeper than my personal history, and deeper still than my parent’s histories, I realised there was another layer, the ancestral burden. Ancestrally, I am from the border region between England and Scotland, an area with a dark history. My ancestors were known as “border reavers”, people who for hundreds of years robbed, plundered and killed so many people that they gave us the word “bereaved”, meaning to be heartbroken and grieving the death of a loved one. I began to see how this grief-soaked, bloody legacy had rippled down the generations of my family, up to the present day. So, I began to explore ways to begin healing this. This included shamanism, which has a deep understanding of ancestral burdens and how to heal them. 

I start to dig deeper still. Really, when you wake up to it, it’s clear that over the last few thousand years of what we call “civilisation”, there has been a lot of very dark times. Consequently, most of us unknowingly still carry these collective traumas. And so, through shamanism I began to explore this too and how to heal it. Then, one day, in digging back through thousands of years of time, I arrived back at hunter-gatherer times, when we were living in a much more nature-connected way, and before we had largely turned away from shamanism. It is very hard to describe, but once I put my roots deeply into this and started building myself up again from that place, everything changed and I began to truly heal.

You claim that to really heal an individual you also need to heal a society and that shamanism holds the keys to this.

To put this in a context, I love psychotherapy and shamanism. They overlap in some areas, but each offers different things and neither is a substitute for the other. Each also has its limitations. A limitation of psychotherapy can be that it remains largely in the human bubble, cut off from nature (eco-therapies are trying to address this, but as yet they are not that common). This is not surprising, as these days we mostly live cut off from the natural world. It’s not just about urbanisation. Even if you go out in so-called nature, most of it is tamed and domesticated. Since the 1970s we have killed 70% of wild animals. Plus, due to human activity, extinction rates are running at between 20 to 200 times what is normal. We are devastating the world around us and living in a completely wrong relationship with it. From an animist perspective, this shows a deep, spiritual sickness.

It is not just our other-than-human kin who are suffering either. Our disconnection from nature is making us ill too. There is a growing body of research showing this, and how re-connecting with nature can heal us. It is not just our relationship with nature that is wrong either. Our relationship with other humans is equally as messed up. We live in a culture where anxiety levels are rising at a catastrophic rate – the rate it is rising in children it terrifying. Same with depression and loneliness – all are increasing. And our response? Largely, to medicate people. Or, if people do find their way to therapy, then usually they are treated as if their problem is only a personal issue, and not also a symptom of a much deeper social malaise.

For example, say somebody tells their therapist that, when waking to the session, they felt disturbed by all the concrete, noise, pollution, lack of trees etc. The therapist then frames this as some kind of a metaphor for how they are feeling about their work or home life, or how their childhood was. But what we are doing to the world around us really is terrible, and deep down, unconsciously even, we know that. Maybe the therapist does acknowledge that deep ecological grief, but they aren’t equipped to deal with it (it’s rarely, if ever, part of therapy training), so eventually they shift the conversation back onto more familiar ground.

It is not just our other-than-human kin who are suffering. Our disconnection from nature is making us ill too.

What then do we do about society?

Of course, there are many ideas about how to fix society! From an animist perspective though, these often don’t address (or even recognise) the fundamental issues. They are emergency treatments that, whilst necessary, don’t address the true disease. To understand the deeper sickness, we first need to look at how shamanic and animist cultures lived.

For most of human history, probably for around 95% of it, we lived in animist/shamanic hunter-gatherers societies. Some of those cultures survived until recently, and through anthropology, we know a lot about them. Although they were not perfect, we know their mental health was generally far better than ours. They were more equal societies, more egalitarian. Happier too. Anthropologists regularly describe how the people in them laughed a lot and were at ease with themselves and with each other. They also lived in ecologically sustainable ways, in a healthy relationship with the world around them. To be clear, I am in no way putting them on a pedestal or idolising them. The truth is though that by any sane measures of a culture’s health − mental, emotional, spiritual or ecological − they were heathier cultures than ours. Looking at them shines a light on our culture and can help us to see where we have gone wrong. If we are humble enough to learn from them, we might find a way to heal. 

Looking at hunter-gatherer cultures shines a light on our culture and can help us to see where we have gone wrong. If we are humble enough to learn from them, we might find a way to heal.

But we see ourselves as a modern, advanced society and look at them as 'primitive'.

The American General Omar Bradley once said “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.” 

It is true that we are technologically more advanced than our hunter-gather ancestors. But ethically, morally, spiritually or ecologically more advanced? Absolutely not! There is nothing superior (or, even sane) about the way we are destroying the environment that we ourselves depend upon. Nor is there anything morally or ethically advanced about wiping out hundreds of thousands of species in the process. Nor anything clever about creating a society where we create such mental health problems that up to 20% of people need medication to simply cope. 

The problem is the “winners” write history. It has suited our dominant culture to portray hunter-gathers as savages, a fiction used to justify taking their lands and wiping them out. The 200,000 years these cultures thrived (95% of human history!) is dismissed as “prehistory”, as if it doesn’t matter. We are told these people were “primitive” and lived nasty and brutish lives. Thankfully, an ever-growing number of people are seeing this as the lie that it is. This includes historians like Jared Diamond, Yuval Harrari, James C. Scott and more, and anthropologists who now use terms like “fiercely egalitarian” and the “original affluent society” to describe these original cultures. These were not primitive cultures, nor primitive people.

Chakras and totem pole

Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.
- Omar Bradley

How did these animistic cultures live and see the world around them?

Animists didn't just believe that things around them are alive and conscious - they experienced this. They were a part of the ecology rather than apart from it.

Hunter-gatherers were animists. Animism is our original spirituality. Central to it is the experience that everything around us is alive and conscious. Animists didn’t just believe that things around them are alive and conscious – they experienced this. They also didn’t see humans as superior. Rather, animism has been described as a spiritual round table with no hierarchy. Animists saw and experienced themselves as part of the ecology rather than apart from it. They felt other animals, plants, and even the mountains, rivers, and the land itself, to be kin − brother, sisters and cousins to them. 

This feeling of being part of a whole is intrinsic to animism. That, as a human, you are a leaf on a twig on a branch, a part of the Tree of Life. As such, your job is to be a healthy leaf and contribute to the tree, rather than to declare your superiority or independence. Because the truth is, our health is dependent on being in a healthy relationship, a healthy ecology, with the other beings we share this planet with. That is a fundamental difference between animist cultures and the way most of us live today. These days, most people don’t see things like things like mountains, rivers and the land as being alive at all. Most people see plants as alive but not conscious (thankfully this too is starting to change, with a lot of recent scientific research showing we have completely underestimated just how conscious plants really are). We see ourselves as superior to animals. And so, we tell ourselves that we can use and exploit the world around us however we like. 

In fact, this arrogance is making us profoundly ill. In shamanism, being cut off from nature is known as “Power Loss”. By “power” here, shamans don’t mean power-over, but life-force, vitality and health. From a shamanic perspective, as a result of our disconnection from nature we are living in a pandemic of Power-Loss. This is the fundamental and primary cause of our sickness. 

Shamans were (and are) animists who were particularly good at experiencing the connection with our other-than human kin, to the extent that they could communicate with them. In doing so, a major part of their role was to help the tribe to keep living in respectful relationship with the world around them. In turning away from shamanism, we lost this healthy guidance and wisdom. We need it back!

But we can't go back to how they were living then, so what is the solution?

It’s true, we can’t all go back to hunger gathering. Unless there is some catastrophic virus that wipe out 99.99 % of human beings, it is just not realistic. However, that is not the point. In indigenous cultures, there are core animist principles and practices that are common to all these cultures. These are sometimes referred to as the “original blueprints” or “original instructions”. They are ancient archetypical patterns of health. Templates to live by. Now, animists tend to be highly practical and interested in what works rather than dogma. So, what these cultures always did was take the core principles and practices and then adapt and apply them to the times and the environment they were living in. And that is what we can do now too − reclaim and remember these original blueprints, then find ways to apply them to the times we live in now. 

Can anybody learn this? Can anybody practice shamanism, or do you need to be born into it or have a “special calling”?

Whilst it is true there are some cultures who say you can only be a shaman if you are born into it, in other cultures, it is not about lineage but being chosen in some specific way (by some sign that would be specific to that culture). There are other cultures that are much more laid back about this too. So, whilst some people can get very dogmatic about this, the truth is that there is no consensus across shamanic cultures as to who can practice shamanism.

The important thing to remember is that for 95% of human history, we were animists. Everybody experienced the world around them as being full of conscious beings. Everybody! A shaman is an animist who can enter a trance state, an altered state of consciousness, and experience this more fully. Now, anthropology shows us that the ability to enter these kinds of trance states is universal. It doesn’t just happen in one culture, or even in just a few cultures. So, whilst we may argue as to the precise definition of shamanism (and some people do love to do that!), personally I’m not interested in dogma but in whether something works. 

The truth is that pretty much everyone can practice shamanism. How do I know this? Because over the years I have taught shamanism to literally thousands of people. Like most skills, whilst some people are going to better at it than others, most people find they can do it. The fact is this is everybody’s birth right. It is hard-wired into us. It is what we are meant to be as human beings. It is natural to us. In fact, what is not natural is not doing it! Which is why many indigenous cultures look at us and say we have gone mad. They don’t just mean this as a figure of speech. They mean we are insane because of what we are doing and because we are not being what we are meant to be. 

How did you become a shamanic teacher?

In my mid-30s, when I finally fully committed to shamanism, it felt very personal and private, something that was just between me and Spirit really. For many years, there was hardly anybody that I talked about it. For some of that time, I had a very small group of people I did share it with. We used to meet once a week to share our experiences and learn from each other. Mostly though, for a good 10 years or more, for me it was a solitary path. In shamanism, this is sometimes known as “the path of direct revelation” – learning directly from Spirit with no physical human teacher.

I never thought I would become a shamanic teacher or author. It wasn’t until my mid-forties that my Spirit teachers began to say I needed to go public and share what I’d learned. However, even though I’d been teaching other things since my early 20s, I really didn’t want to teach shamanism. It just felt too personal, and so I resisted for years. But my shamanic guides kept on and on, and eventually, I gave in.

Interest in shamanism has grown hugely over the last decade or so. When I started teaching though, hardly anyone had heard of it, so I really didn’t think that many people would be interested, to be honest. But to my huge surprise, when I started teaching it, people soaked it up, like fish being put back into water. And here we are now.

To my huge surprise, when I started teaching it, people soaked it up, like fish being put back into water.

You are the founder of Therapeutic Shamanism, which draws on both psychotherapy and shamanism. How exactly does that work?
soul retrieval

Some of the traditional ways of practicing shamanism just don’t work that well anymore, because they were designed for different times. Psychotherapy plays a crucial role in helping shamanism adapt to the challenges of the modern world.

When we turned our back on animism and shamanism, it really changed us. It fundamentally altered how we think and how we experience the world around us. A consequence of this is that some of the traditional ways of practicing shamanism just don’t work that well anymore (because they were designed for different times). Let me give an example. 

A very important part of shamanic work is what is known as soul retrieval. Basically, parts of us can leave our body. There is nothing strange about this, we do it all the time. We do it at night when we sleep. When we daydream. When we get caught up in thinking about past events, and so on.

Crucially though, those parts should come back again. If they don’t, if parts of us get lost or remain stuck in the past, this is known as “soul loss”.

Soul loss can occur through a number of ways. It can happen when we suffer loss or bereavement. It can happen through other traumas too when part of us leaves because it just can’t cope. In things like PTSD, when we find ourselves replaying past events, from a shamanic point of view this is often because part of us is still there, stuck in those places and times. There can be many causes. 

Soul loss is a big deal in shamanic work, as shamans really understand how it can make us ill. Dealing with it is known as “soul retrieval”. Essentially, it involves the shaman being able to leave their own body, find someone’s lost soul part and then return it to them (and do whatever other healing is necessary for this to happen).

The problem is that our modern-day culture has created a whole other layer of complications. These days, the commonest cause of soul loss is because we send parts of ourselves away. We do this to try and fit in to our deeply dysfunctional culture. We have to domesticate ourselves, so that we fit in with dysfunctional families, with regimented school systems, to be able to hold down unfulfilling jobs in toxic work environments, and so on.

When people come across the concept of soul loss, many people instinctively understand it. At some level, we know parts of us are missing, and so more and more people are seeking out soul retrieval these days. 

I am retired from offering one-to-one shamanic work, but when I was doing it a lot of people came wanting soul retrieval. What I found though (and over the years I have talked to many shamanic practitioners who have found the same thing), the traditional methods often didn’t seem to work as well as they should. Sometimes they worked fine, which was great, but often the effects were only partial or short lived, and so I spent several years exploring this and what to do about it.

The problem stems from the fact that we are made up of different parts of self. This means that parts of us may want our lost soul pieces back. There are other parts of us though that may be deeply worried about those pieces returning, because they are the parts that sent the soul pieces away in the first place. Say in childhood we sent away the ability to be vulnerable, because it wasn’t safe to be vulnerable. Or we sent away the parts of us that can be spontaneous (or happy, or assertive, etc.) in order “fit in”. In doing so, we develop our persona, our way of being, that we take with us into adult life and then we build our life around this. Now, faced with the prospect of the banished parts returning, our persona is worried. It worries about how this will affect our relationship with our partner, or our family, our boss at work, and so on. Unless this is addressed, although soul retrieval might work, the chances are it won’t last. 

This is where psychotherapy comes in and has a huge amount it can offer. Any psychotherapy that works at depth recognises that we have different parts of self, and it is skilled at negotiating between them. As such, I found that if I spent even just a little bit of time addressing these issues before doing a soul retrieval, it made an enormous difference. That is just one example of how shamanism and psychotherapy can help each other. 

Faced with the prospect of the banished parts returning, our persona is worried. It worries about how this will affect our relationship with our partner, or our family, our boss at work, and so on. Unless this is addressed, although soul retrieval might work, the chances are it won’t last.

Hence Therapeutic Shamanism?

Yes. Partly, the idea was to create a space where people can explore what shamanism and psychotherapy can learn from each other. Now, there are some people in shamanic community who throw hands up in horror if you mention psychotherapy. Conversely, there are psychotherapists who dismiss shamanism as some kind of archaic version of psychotherapy. Both of these are wrong in my experience. For anyone who is open minded, the truth is that shamanism and psychotherapy have a lot they can both offer and learn from each other.

A lot of people identify shamanism with psychedelic drugs, especially ayahuasca. Are they really necessary?

Categorically not. There are many ways to enter the trance state used in shamanic healing (often called the “shamanic journey”). There are a few shamanic cultures that make extensive use of plant or other hallucinogens. However, it is only one way of working, and world-wide it is not that common. Much more common is the use of the shamanic drum or rattle. Other means include other instruments (such as digeridoo or click-sticks), fasting, dancing, singing, repetitive movements such as jumping or swaying, and so on. All are means to an end − the point is the shamanic journey, not to get hung up on the tools used to get there. So no, it is complete mistake to identify shamanism with drug use.

There are people who say that you can only learn shamanism from indigenous cultures. Can you address this?

We owe an enormous gratitude to the indigenous cultures that have kept shamanism and animism alive into the modern era. In doing so, if we are going to get through the catastrophic mess we have made, they have kept alive the knowledge we will need, and I bow to them in gratitude for that. In addition, there are also practices that belong to specific indigenous cultures, and so we absolutely need to be sensitive to issues around colonialism and cultural appropriation when learning and practicing those. Culturally specific practices aside though, shamanism itself does not belong to any one culture. It is universal. It belongs to humanity. It is our birth right. It is, in fact, our sanity.

shamanic community

Published in: Sensa, December 22/ January 23, nr. 73
Interviewer: Irena Pan

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