By Selena Whittle, PhD, MS, LPC
In Asia, a Buryat shaman ties a silk string to an arrow lying near the patient, extending the string out to a birch tree. The string is the pathway for the return of the client’s soul. While other people of the community watch, the shaman calls to the soul for return, and if need be, will go in search for it through a shamanic journey. The Chukchee shaman enters into a shamanic journey to ask advice of the spirits in the face of a client’s illness. The Abakan Tartar shaman may take a shamanic journey in order to seek remedies for the client’s illness. The Tremyugan shaman enters into the trance state through drumming and guitar music, seeks the soul of the client in the underworld and returns with the soul in his right hand, which he then puts into the body of the client through the right ear.
As Eliade (1992) so vividly illustrates in each of the above cases, the shaman is the agent of healing in many traditional approaches to shamanic healing. The shaman is the one who takes the shamanic journey (a deep trance state which acts as a gateway, allowing access to non-ordinary reality). The shaman is the one who goes in search of remedies or advice on behalf of the client. The shaman is the one who seeks out and retrieves the lost soul of the client.
Until most recently, this exclusive role of the shaman as the agent of healing has remained unchanged even in more modern westernized approaches to shamanic healing. For example, in a popular modernized version of the shamanic healing intervention of soul retrieval (restoring lost soul energy, often lost as a result of trauma), Harner (1981) and his student Ingerman (1991) still maintain that the shaman is the rightful agent of healing. In this version of soul retrieval, the shaman lies next to the client in a particular way, enters the trance state usually through drumming, then journeys to find the lost soul part. The shaman then brings the soul part back and blows it into the chest and crown of the head. At this point, the shaman will share parts of the shamanic journey experiences with the client. In cases where the journey revealed some type of abuse, the shaman may not disclose this information to the client as it might involve some emotional risk. Throughout the soul retrieval process, the client lays quietly while the shaman is at work. According to Ingerman, (1991, p. 69), “The client’s work starts once he or she walks out my door and begins to integrate the soul parts back into everyday life…” She goes on to write, “When parts of a soul split off…it is the job of the shaman to restore wholeness,” and “Only a shaman is able to navigate skillfully among the beauties and the dangers found there [in the spirit world]” (p. 27). Even in this more modern version of soul retrieval, there is a clearly stated distinction between the roles of shaman and client. The shaman is the agent of healing.
But it does not have to be this way.
Shamanic Healing that Empowers the Client to Become the Healer
During and after his shamanic apprenticeship with an indigenous Maya teacher in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1980’s, Ross Bishop (2013) began to shape the shamanic healing interventions (with the approval and encouragement of his teacher) in such a way that the client becomes the primary agent of healing. This innovation was practically unprecedented at the time of its inception in the 1980’s and is still rare among some modern practitioners as evidenced above. The exception are modern practitioners who apprenticed with Bishop (myself included), who apprenticed with one of his students, or are currently enrolled at The Institute of Shamanic Healing where this method of shamanic healing is taught.
In order to clearly understand the difference between this method and other shamanic healing methods, both traditional and modern, let’s look at a description of soul retrieval in Bishop’s method. (This brief description should not be considered a comprehensive examination of the method, the steps in soul retrieval, or the interaction with forces of transformation in a session; rather, it serves only to underscore the empowerment of the client as the primary agent of healing).
In Bishop’s soul retrieval method, once the client has described the current life situation, the shaman and the client begin a shared journey experience. Certainly, the shaman facilitates discernment within the shamanic journey and guides the client towards right action, but the client is the one who actively takes the steps needed for healing. Thus, the soul retrieval session begins with the shaman guiding the client into a shamanic trance state and leading the client into a shamanic journey, entering in such a way that honors the traditional teachings of the method. As this shared journey progresses, the client finds the soul part with the shaman’s assistance and begins to build a relationship with this inner part. Oftentimes, this encounter between the client and the inner part is emotionally stirring as the client clearly sees the effect of the wounding and feels the feelings that are so present with this inner part. Compassion and love flow towards the soul part from the client. With continuing guidance from the shaman, the soul part takes the client and practitioner back to the causal event or events that contributed to the wounding and the individualized work of healing begins. When this part of the healing is complete, the soul part returns, already with the client. Oftentimes at this point, the client and the inner part will consider the current life situation from the new perspective that was gained as a result of the healing. In this way, the new perspective is reinforced within the present life circumstances, easing the emotions tied to those circumstances. The shaman then guides the client out of the journey.
Notice that in this method, the client locates the soul part; the client sees and begins the relationship; the client is sending love and compassion to the lost part; the client goes back to the causal events and completes the healing work; the client returns with the lost soul part, all while the shaman is facilitating and supporting the process. As a caveat, this description of Bishop’s innovation is admittedly simplistic. The spirit realm is fantastically complex and healing journeys can take unexpected twists and turns that are unaccounted here, yet the description underscores how the client is empowered to become the primary agent of his or her own healing. The effect on the client as the agent of healing and as an active participant is immediate and oftentimes remarkable to the client. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of conducting shamanic healing in this way.
Benefits for the Client as the Primary Agent of Healing
Bishop’s method of facilitating shamanic healing as described above has many benefits for the client. Perhaps the most evident among them is empowerment. Not only is the client aware of all the events in the healing process, the client is the one to take active steps towards his or her own healing. The client experiences the steps directly, becoming aware of how the healing process works. The client feels the emotions of the inner soul part and feels the impact of beginning a relationship. Oftentimes the client will feel the shift of energy that comes with the healing transformation as the causal event for the wound is revealed and then healed. In each step, the client experiences the intimacy of the shamanic journey, even as he/she is empowered to take the steps towards healing. The empowerment itself contributes to the client’s healing.
In fact, clients who are emotionally or physically distressed often feel a sense of powerlessness and look to their therapist or healer to help in becoming empowered (Harrison, 2013; Krycka, 2000). Of six core principles (Harrison, 2013) for counseling psychology, two of them are about power, thus suggesting that the healer orient the healing towards empowering the client. In counseling psychology, empowering the client is often an assumed, rather than a stated goal (Brown, 2004; Greeneberg, 2002; Larsen & Stege, 2010; Orange, & Brodwin, 2005), yet clearly, empowerment is an integral part of the process. Bishop’s innovation to empower the client in shamanic healing stands in good company with more westernized versions of emotional healing.
Furthermore, this empowerment is not limited to the session itself; rather, the client continues to be empowered long after the session is over in other ways. As a result of being the primary agent of healing, the client learns how to do shamanic journeying and can continue to maintain a healthy relationship with this inner soul part, reinforce any new perspectives gleaned from the healing transformation, and practice new behaviors with the soul part. Knowing how to do shamanic journeying, the client can journey to directly interact with the inner part after the session and into the future, solidifying this new relationship. While this interaction is occurring, the new perspectives can be reinforced. With these new perspectives more solidified, new behaviors can be practiced with a close monitoring of the effects on the soul part, adjusting the pace and rhythm of integration according to need. In this way, the empowerment of the client extends beyond the session.
In addition to the empowerment of the client, the pace of the healing is directly determined by the client and the inner part as it happens in the moment. If there is some sort of violent abuse (sexual or otherwise) that either the client or the inner part is not ready to confront, then the event may not be reviewed in that session. In such a case, another event or series of events which contributed to the wounding less directly may be revealed and healed, allowing a more gradual overall healing to occur. Alternately, the client (with the shaman’s guidance) may work with the inner part’s fear around confronting the causal situation, eventually allowing the situation to be revealed. The particulars of working with such fear in a session are varied according to the client, but the point here is that the pace of healing centers on the needs of the client and the inner part. This flexibility comes from the alteration in the healing method.
That the client is the primary agent of healing allows the client to practice equanimity – the ability to maintain strength, poise, centeredness, and presence in the face of external challenges. In order to clarify this point, it is necessary to consider what happens before a session. Clients seek healing because they are in emotional pain. The events of life have activated an emotional wound and caused pain to erupt in the person. Emotions are swirling. Thoughts are reverberating. Moods can be intense and even debilitating. The client is being blown around in the whirlwind of the activated wound. Any equanimity or emotional composure is gone.
During the shamanic healing journey in which the client is an active participant however, the client is continually practicing equanimity. During the shamanic journey, as the primary agent of healing, the client holds the “healer’s position” and as such, must maintain a strength and composure so that he/she may be effective in healing the soul part. With the shaman facilitating, the client is encouraged to feel what the inner one feels without becoming overwhelmed with the feelings or overidentifying with the inner part. It is as if the client is walking on the edge of a fence, neither becoming overwhelmed by or distancing from the inner one, which maintains the “healer’s position” of equanimity and occurs throughout the journey. It is an inner practice that occurs naturally as a result of this version of shamanic healing, but nevertheless serves the client well within and outside of the journey.
Considering the benefits of Bishop’s method, the potency of empowering the client to become the primary agent of healing is illuminated. The client experiences the healing directly, actively participates in the steps of the healing, and in so doing learns how the healing process works. The client learns the basics of shamanic journeying and can maintain a healthy relationship with the inner soul part, reinforce any new perspectives gleaned from the healing transformation, and practice new behaviors. As the primary agent of healing, the client along with the soul part determines the pace of healing and gains an ongoing practice of equanimity. Bishop’s method provides an innovative and potent way to do shamanic healing.
Shamanic Healing that Empowers You to Become the Healer
Bringing all this information down to a more personal level…If you were to seek shamanic healing from a shaman who is trained in Bishop’s method, you would be actively involved in your healing session. In a soul retrieval session, for example, you would enter into a peaceful and relaxed state of being, guided inward in a shamanic journey that would lead you to a beautiful and peaceful sacred place, a sanctuary of your heart. There you would meet and begin a relationship with a part of you that has been lost. Imagine meeting a part of yourself who has been hurting for a long time. Even the sight of this part fills you with compassion and maybe tears, for the wounds of this inner one are reflected in the appearance of this soul part and your heart melts. Imagine opening your heart to this soul part, then seeing and feeling the healing effect of your love, a beautiful and perhaps even jolting impact. Imagine holding this inner one in love while you both confront what has happened in the past that caused this wounding, then helping this inner one heal from whatever held sway in the past. Imagine feeling the relief and sense of peace from this healing, the empowerment from this inner one’s release of the past and any influence it has had on your present. Imagine bringing the inner part back with you to take a rightful place with you in the present and how that might impact your life. Imagine being empowered to do your own healing and how it would feel to know how to continue to maintain both the relationship with your inner part and the healing that you have accomplished. In this method of shamanic healing, you are the one who is at the forefront of your own healing with the shaman providing all the support that you need. Rightfully so.
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