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Friday, February 15, 2013

Shamanism and Psychotherapy: Reclaiming Self After Trauma


Shamanism involves practices explored by earliest humans that, through trial and error, and acknowledging and utilizing subtler realms of our being along with characteristics evident in Nature, have evolved and attained lasting presence well into modern times.  Of such shamanic practices, Tantra is the oldest and most developed shamanic practice extant today. 

This article derives from the ideas discussed in Sandra Ingerman’s book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self. Ingerman discusses the techniques shamans use to retrieve parts of a person which seem to have left them in consequence to a traumatic situation.  These situations can range from anything which some would consider insignificant like the loss of a toy as a child to sexual and physical abuse.



    “For shamans the world over, illness has always been seen as a spiritual predicament.” They say that because of some crisis, the essence or vital part of our life-source separates from our consciousness in order to survive the experience and the full impact of the pain.  We see this clearly happening in cases of abuse.  This does not differ from some of the views therapists take about a particular situation.  John Bradshaw in particular says that “in incest parts of the vital self will split off to lessen the impact because the pain and humiliation are unbearable.  

    Shamans and psychotherapists both deal with the reintegration of these split-off parts.  What makes the shaman different from the therapist is that the shaman does not put the loss in the realm of the unconscious or blocked out memories.  The shaman sees the other parts living or existing in another separate reality.  He is a messenger, a communicator, and retriever between those parts and the main body of consciousness.  When a part of the soul is lost, a vital essence of one’s being is gone.  One may feel depressed, lonely, bored or anxiety-ridden and not know why.  This lost part is what some people tend to look for in relationships, addictions, or even religious organizations.  There is false idea that these things are going to make them feel more alive.  


    Ingerman says “anybody whose spirit is completely at home in their body will find a deep feeling of peace and comfort in themselves and all other relationships will come from that security.  Joseph Campbell said:  “People say that what we are seeking is the meaning for life… I think that what we’re seeking is the experience of being alive.”  

    While most therapists are there for their clients to help catalyze the inner process, a shaman actually takes the journey for the client.  Both ways appear to be valid but a shaman may  be called for by those people who cannot access their memories or by some who feel that they couldn’t deal with them if they did.  

    Another difference between a therapist and a shaman is that a shaman enters a non-ordinary reality in order to connect with the lost parts of the client.  In this state normal logic is suspended and a shaman must depend on his or her inner visions and feelings.  A shaman does this with the beat of the drum.  It is said that the shaman rides the beat of the drum to the underworld.  In more practical terms, it has been documented that a steady beat can shift a person’s brain waves into alpha state.  

    The shaman, on his journey, somehow accesses the unconsciousness of the client and tunes into particular situations that have occurred in their life that have caused a split.  When a particular part of the client can be seen or visualized, the shaman talks to that part and coaxes it back to ordinary reality and then blows this part back into the client.  Most people feel a greater sense of well-being after this process.  

    “It is not technology that will save the world, it is intuition.” 6  The explanation, at least in my understanding, of why this works is that human beings have the power of imagination.  This imagination according to Jungian analysis is not necessarily a private affair isolated to a particular individual.  It is rather like a bucket that is dipped into the over-flowing river of thought potentialities.  By tuning into this flow we can connect with the collective unconscious of mankind that manifests in individuals as particular thought- forms.  These thought-forms are real things.  

    Essentially soul loss is that part of the psyche that remains fixed in time within ourselves.  Some trauma or crisis has not allowed continuous integration of self in the flux of ongoing emotional perceptions.  Some piece has therefore remained outside of time stuck in a moment of personal history.  Who can say if these parts do actually then take form and exist in some independent world that only a shaman or individual on an inner journey can reach and help integrate?  

    On this journey when a part of the soul is discovered existing in a separate world, it must be honored as a piece of the person that did what it could to survive.  When this is acknowledged, this part must be assured that it is safe to return and give up its hiding.  Sometimes feelings that have been repressed must be expressed, like hate, anger, grief, etc. in order for integration to occur.  

    Some of the key factors in doing this journeying work is that the shaman must have a “strong inner intention” that will lead them directly to the experience they will need on behalf of their client. “Trust” is another key.  The mind creates doubt but the spirit overrides them because it is connected to something greater than the mind.  The shaman must trust that the visions coming to him are true and he must go into them and act on them.  A shaman’s power comes from the willingness to intervene on a client’s behalf.   Ingerman says that “after the journey I pull these pieces of the person to my heart; then kneel next to the client and blow the soul parts into the body and shake a rattle around them and seal them up.”  According to Ingerman, remarkable changes take place in the individual.  

    While reading this book I sensed in myself where parts of my soul have been left behind.  I did a little journeying on my own back to some moments of my life and saw particular pieces that had remained behind because of some unfinished business or emotions that I was afraid to express.  

    At the age of 18, I saw how after high school graduation I didn’t know what to do or where to go.  A part of myself wished I had never left high school.  I felt as if there was a part that was there on Long Island trying to keep an old pattern going.  By talking to this part and saying it is okay to release the past and grow up, I felt that I had reintegrated something; however, I found this brought up an earlier experience.  

    At age 8, I felt I was ripped away from everything I ever knew and cared about.  What happened was simply my family moved from the city to the suburbs.  The only world I had ever known was replaced by something totally unfamiliar with people I didn’t know or care to know.  I missed my old friends.  I, at that point, sent a part of my mind back to the old neighborhood to keep on living there and to imagine what like would be like if I had never moved.  A part of me still wonders what things would have been like had I stayed in the city.  I know that full integration has not occurred because of this wondering.  

    Soul integration is complete when one feels at peace with the past.  When there is no longer any pent up emotion about a particular situation and when one can get on with being in the here and now.  

    The most remarkable journeying I did was to a time when I was ten months old and my mother took me to the barber.  I saw that this was extremely young for a child’s first haircut, but I also saw how my mother wanted a well-groomed clean looking child.  This reminds me of Robert Bly’s comment of how a child comes into the world with all the wildness and power of the universe and all the parents can say is “be a nice boy.”   

    In my vision this child was strapped to the chair while a vital and precious part was removed.  I felt the anger and frustration of that being, and I let him know that it was right to express such rage.  

    The next morning I woke up with an aching jaw and needed to express more anger to finally get in touch with resentment I felt towards my mother for neglecting the feelings of my child-self.  I assured this child that I will never again neglect or ignore his feelings.  When this was acknowledged a greater sense of peace came over me.  

*  *  *   *   *  *  

    How do we prevent soul loss especially when we are faced with situations that are painful and sometimes mean growth and change?  One way that most cultures, excluding Western societies, know is through the use of ritual and ceremony.  This allows a period of time to exist as a bridge from the old to the new.  A time and space is created that allows us contemplate where we have been and look forward to where we are going.  Respecting the process of the individual ensures that the ceremonies are more effective.  Helping someone let go when they are ready, instead of insisting upon change is key to a healthier society.  

    Mourning is also a way to connect with loss of innocence.  It is a way to let all emotions of a particular trauma be felt and experienced.  In this act of mourning, we do not leave a piece of our self behind to remain in “what-if” territory of the mind, but through an intensity of emotion, become a more feeling, deeper, whole person who knows the value of himself.  

    Perhaps only a poet could have insight to express how to hold onto oneself in moments of crises and turmoil and present the lost of our soul.  

Rainer Maria Rilke says:
        “The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be in our destiny . . .that which we call destiny goes forth from within people not from without into them.  Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in         them, have they not recognized what has gone forth out of them.” 


This article originally appeared at New Realities

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