A tangent is something that touches. Stephen’s comment on the previous blogpost touched the theme integrating body, mind, and soul with spirit. Stephen referred to shamanism, a topic worth pursuing. For all its errors, shamanism sometimes has intuitions that are worth re-theorizing, in other words, worth transplanting into a more philosophically and religiously satisfying garden.
I was inspired to start the re-theorizing by Ed Tick, a poet and psychologist who visited Kent State University and gave a presentation on his work with veterans. He had been specializing in helping Vietnam veterans whose post-traumatic stress was not taken care of by standard psychology or psychiatry. He would lead groups of soldiers and their loved ones back to Vietnam, to revisit the battlefields where they fought, to weep, to meet villagers who greeted them with open arms, especially one “Tiger,” who had fought against these soldiers but had only warm brotherly feelings toward them. The magnitude of the healing was phenomenal. Along the way they would also pause at Buddhist sites and express devotion.
Tick explored Native American healing methods and found them powerfully effective with his clients. War and the Soul is the great book that expresses his experiences; there was another booklet that I was fortunate to acquire which has since become unavailable. Here are my notes on that booklet, followed by two paragraphs of reflection.
Ed Tick, “Wild Beasts and Wandering Souls: Shamanism and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” (Salt Lake City, Utah: Elik Press, 2007), p. 12, gives the following.
According to shamanism:
• The soul is a living experiential reality; there are invisible or spiritual dimensions of existence that are as real as the visible, and we can access these dimensions; our souls are connected in significant ways to nature, other human and non-human beings and the dead;
• All creatures and natural things and processes—animals, plants, stones, clothing, colors, the weather—have spirits with which we can communicate; these spirits are the sources of shamanic power;
• The themes and patterns of stories are built into the universe;
• Our souls replicate these stories and have destinies and tasks to fulfill;
• the soul or some of its traits can become damaged, wounded, skewed, or even lost;
• healing of both physical and psychological disorders must fundamentally and ultimately occur in the soul;
• cultures foster the expression through story, role, ritual and practice the eternal stories, roles, tasks, and influence of spirits, and the connection of the human community with these spirits.
Shamanistic teachings of “relationship and communication with the invisible” (14) overlap with monotheistic teachings and also with thoughts of countless individuals who have rejected their culture’s traditional monotheism. Those of us who question the meaningfulness of the belief context of shamanistic practices—“possession by animal or otherworldly spirits” (16)—would do well to re-theorize them and to deepen their own practices to attain a comparable depth and power.
Shawn Nelson reports years of failed therapy, overdosing and over-reliance on medication to control symptoms, crippling depression and alienation. Finally “my first experience where I truly felt the present of the great originating Mystery, our Creator, was during my very first sweat lodge. Only during and after that lodge did I rediscover that I now had a reason to live. I could feel a small pulse inside me, even if I really did not know its exact purpose. I declared my intention to forge a new path, to journey towards resolution of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and turn the ‘steering-wheel- of my life over to Great Spirit, or God.”
Understanding and utilizing the shamanic path can reconnect the traumatized soul with nature, spirit, and divinity, reveal, interpret and affirm formative combat experiences that are otherwise inexplicable and remain hidden, and offer a time-honored road-map for the soul’s return from war. Nelson continues:
I found myself participating in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies consistently. I had moved beyond religion and churches into a direct relationship with our Creator, Great Spirit, True Source. I had explored the realm of shamanism, looking into the teachings of several indigenous shamans from different cultures where there was no difference or separation in any aspect of one’s life. The ceremonies, rituals and the medicines they used, which came from plants that occurred naturally in nature, were all a way of life where everything was connected and made up a harmonious ‘whole life’ that was balanced. This made sense to me. I understood it somehow. (20-21)
Shawn Nelson summarizes his warrior identity:
My ultimate purpose is to serve humanity as an instrument for our Creator. The duty inherently contained within this is staying connected to the will of our Creator, ensuring that my ego or other self-serving interests do not interfere. My personal experience has led me to believe that PTSD, the disorder of soul and spirit, can ultimately be resolved. Though initially the journey to resolution should begin and be oriented in conventional medicine and psychotherapy, I also believe that we will all find that the journey will, at the end, be oriented in the realm of nature and the shaman. (26)
Reid Mackey, a helicopter crew chief in Viet Nam combat, adopted Native American spirituality long before engaging in psychotherapy in order to restore his connection to nature and spirit as well as some organization and integrity to his war-shattered condition. Mackey reports:
After Nam, in my first psych. Class, Prof. Steven Larsen introduced me to Black Elk Speaks. My rotor blades pulled me along a fight path that felt right, good, and whole. Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Four Directions gave me direction, focus and meaning beyond physics and into the Soul. I found me in me and me in the cosmos. As the Native Americans say, We are all relations.
Mackey does not say life is easy on the shamanic path, or that his PTSD never threatens. Rather, shamanism gives him firmament when he feels the old darkness of war erupting:
Oh Great Mystery, help me here! I have walked through the valley of the Shadow. But the shadow was me. Can you believe it? The shadow is of its Creator. We are all shadows, aren’t we? (20)
Considering Ed Tick’s summary of shamanist beliefs, the only one that strikes me as a candidate for re-theorizing is the idea of individual spirits in everything animate and inanimate. But the omnipresence of the one God, the giver of life, should enable monotheists to find meaning in these experiences. The only other thing needed is the recognition of the fact that in almost any kind of religious experience, the will plays a major role how we prepare by orienting ourselves to a particular type of experience and how we interpret our experience.
The number one thought that I take home from this foray is that shamanism cultivates the connection of spirit-soul-mind-body-nature in powerful ways. Many of us who think we have a better concept of Deity and reality lag behind in realizing that connection in our lives. A moment for prayer, a prayer that embraces us all, in the fullest awareness of cosmic truth that we can presently access.