This blog has been written as a complementary post to a professional article I am writing about the use of shamanic techniques to assist recovery and resilience to Post traumatic stress disorder.
I consider the soul work that I do for myself and others, to be what is classified as modern shamanism. This means that I do work that is useful to the modern pace of life and demands of modern living, and that I do not live in a remote area. My programs are designed to be used and incorporated in classroom and online settings as well as in-person. I find the energy of a city too overwhelming to live in, and rural Guatemala life without access to basic amenities, too isolating- so I choose to live in a beautiful natural place at the interface of city and rural life; a small village 4.8 miles (7.7 km) from our city center. Close enough to walk when I need to, with semi-reliable bus service, but without the overstimulation of the constant blaring noise and variable energy of large Latin cities. Also- and this is crucial to my own core values- in a setting of great natural beauty, where I have space to spread out with my art and research and gardens, have animals, listen to birds in the morning and evening, and be inspired by the incredible power of an active volcano, high-altitude tropical thunderstorms, and the humility inspired by frequent earthquakes.
Misunderstandings about modern shamanism:
There is a train of thought that the thousands of years of collected wisdom that shamans work with, tap into, rely upon, and contribute to; are no longer relevant in the information and technology age. We believe that nothing could be further from the truth. Our modern lifestyle has created an epidemic of disconnectedness, ennui, and loss of sense of community. Our technology has helped us in some ways make the world a much smaller place, and our scientific advances have been the most marvelous of the entire story of human history. Every day there is a finding about the mind or the earth or the universe or human history that breaks paradigms of thought wide open. One article that captured my attention recently, was about the team of scientists that pinpointed a layer of fossilized debris to within HOURS of the Chixulcub meteorite strike 65 million years ago. The ways available to us now to learn about the world we live in should have the impact of creating a daily sense of wonder in every living human… but it often feels like we use technology to only widen division between people, and spread disinformation, or otherwise abuse the tools we have at our disposal.
There is also a thought that only persons of pure native descent, can have and/or fulfill a calling to be a shaman. The truth is that, when you start looking into the history of shamanic callings, you find that many traditional societies have better systems in place for recognizing, responding to, rewarding, and appreciating people with a higher spiritual calling; but that the calling itself has always existed across all cultures, races, and ethnicities. We suspect that many of the world’s most visionary creative thinkers (writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, etc.) probably also had a spirit calling that guided their efforts in the “real” world. Many people who are experiencing a genuine spiritual breakdown/ breakthrough are diagnosed or co-diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed, or as otherwise having a mental or emotional disorder in modern medical practice. To be fair, I suspect the opposite is also true- many so-called spiritual gurus and leaders should probably be classified as being mentally or emotionally disordered- especially those who us their calling to a narcissistic, self-serving, destructive, or harmful end. A true spirit calling of any kind is always directed towards improving life for the planet and all of its inhabitants. This calling may be attended to by persons from all walks of life, regardless of genetics or family bloodlines. Nobody else [that I know of] in my family has this calling, but I have known and attended to mine since I was at least 7 years old. I actually denied following it for a long time because of the mistaken thought that I would never be accepted for the reason that I am a Caucasian woman. It was not until I was in my late 20s/ early 30s that I started to embrace fully what my calling meant- and it happened because I could no longer deny my calling and had to research it through various medias and through in-person teachers and guides.
The final misconception about shamans is that their calling is either a product of the devil or other demonic influence (common in some ultra-conservative religious circles) or that shamans are just basically drug addicts who use spirit as a means to “justify” their drug use. While many of us do believe that are very negative and evil presences in the world, shamans are by and large no more likely to tap into misuse of energy to prey upon others, than are religious leaders of any other spiritual persuasion. There are saints walking among people who identify as completely secular or atheist or agnostic, and the religious community is frankly full of assholes. One’s defined spiritual path, or lack of it, has nothing to do with how they use their calling. On the contrary to this first misconception, those who follow a true shamanic calling often feel a much higher responsibility to the greater good than the average person, religious or otherwise- which in practice would preclude any tendency to fall into the trap of using a spiritual power for nefarious purposes, of the type usually associated with the concepts of either human evil (in the traditional form) or malignant narcissism/dark triad (in a more modern version).
Following that line of thought, shamans by definition would be abusing their powers if they used their “spirituality” to justify purely recreational illicit drug use, as well. While many traditional practices do recognize the ability of natural mind altering substances to induce, amplify, or otherwise enhance a shamanic power state, a) not all do b) many shamans enter their spiritual states using only the power of guided meditation, drumming, or other mind-body exercises and c) even those that do use substances do not always rely upon them. Furthermore, many of these substances (ayahuasca, for example) have such powerful and debilitating side effects during use that it is laughable to suggest that users ingest them for “pleasure.” Finally, it is worth noting that we are now learning that many of the substances traditionally used by shamans to induce a deep meditative and altered state, are also highly therapeutic in their ability to control anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other symptoms that many shamans are especially vulnerable to. It is reasonable to suggest that shamanic inducing disorders evolved simultaneously with treatments that amplified the usefulness of shamanic states while easing the debilitating symptoms associated with having a unique a deeply spiritual calling.
Misunderstandings about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
I have been formally diagnosed by a psychologist with having clinical PTSD, and it was her belief that I certainly have the [not yet formally recognized] variation known in clinical circles as complex PTSD, or cPTSD. There are still many people who believe, even with the scientific knowledge we have, that there is no such thing as PTSD (the same people also often believe that other illnesses such as major depression are also just a lack of willpower). Those who do recognize, often also only believe that it can happen to people who were in combat (the origin of modern PTSD is what was called shell shock during World War I). However, we now know that people who have experienced war as a non-combatant; people who have faced intra-familial trauma; people who have faced racially or ethnically or identity-motivated violence or other form of discrimination; people who have faced narcissistic abuse, bad divorces, and emotional abuse in relationships; people who have survived natural disasters; people who witness the destruction of the natural world; people who have witnessed or survived life-threatening accidents or acts of violence or terrorism; and [especially] victims of sexual trauma and violence; are up to FOUR TIMES MORE vulnerable to the physiochemical brain changes that drive the formation of PTSD and its symptoms. I have [thankfully] never been in combat. However, I have 7 of the 8 other experiences listed above. My disorder is more than just legitimate; it was honestly acquired and does often interfere with my ability to function, despite the best coping skills I have developed.
In my case, the link of my shamanic calling to my PTSD has been threefold:
First, because the form of PTSD that I have is the complex, layered kind; traditional therapies for the disorder have been limited in their usefulness. I spent a few years in therapy, with some of the best in the field, in modern practices, medications, art therapy, etc. However, it was when I learned to complement my trauma therapy with spirit-based shamanic techniques that my recovery started to blossom.
Second, because in all of the available training and literature, one of the most important distinctions made between practitioners of shamanic arts (this definition can be stretched to include some yoga practitioners, most people trained in reiki, acupuncturists, and other types of alternative therapies) and a person with a shamanic calling is that almost always the person with the shamanic calling faces one or more life-altering and/or life-threatening illnesses or situations that awaken them to their calling. PTSD is a common illness encountered in the literature; so are cancers, auto-immune disorders, advanced digestive disorders, severe suicidal depression, and cardiovascular diseases. In my case, I had a combination PTSD-depression-parasite infection-endocrine malfunction.
Third, and probably most importantly, what I have learned about overcoming depression and PTSD through therapy augmented by shamanic practices; I use to help others in their own lives. More on this below.
How modern shamanism works
At its heart, shamanism is the practice of caring for another human being’s spiritual needs for security, growth, connection, and self-realization. While the traditional concept of shamanism followed a model that may be seen as similar to life in a cloister or spiritual community in previous centuries; many modern shamans bring their skills to classrooms, board rooms, inner city youth, prisons, bars, trains, hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, detention centers, and other places where our marginalized populations can be found. While many service programs focus on meeting physiological and physical/ financial security needs (the base needs of Maslow’s pyramid of human requirements), modern shamans work on transitioning a person towards fulfilling the higher needs for connection, beauty, spiritual peace, recognition, appreciation, life vision and calling, self-realization, and helping others achieve their goals.
We do this by combining modern advances in psychology, advanced understanding of brain chemistry and function, inner guidance, connection to earth and universal energies, active listening, safe space practices, integral therapies, and other active guidance techniques that support and enrich a person’s understanding of their own needs for fulfilment- while reducing barriers to achieve those needs. Modern shamans often work as a combination life coach, scientist, clergy person, ecologist, artist, talk therapist, and personal trainer and nutritionist in the lives of the persons they work with. Far from being obsolete in the age of technology and information, they actually use all available tools to enhance their knowledge and work more efficiently and effectively with their subjects.
How everyone finds their own niche, and what mine is.
Just as with their close cousins, life coaches, modern shamanic practitioners do not try to be a one size fits all presence in their clients’ lives. We find and optimize the use of, our greatest talents as shamans; and then apply those talents to the places where our interests are most strongly aligned. This includes years and decades of learning about such things as multiple intelligences, systems theory, kinesthesiology, brain imaging, cognitive behavior therapy, neurolinguistic programming, narcissistic abuse recovery, shamanic theory and terminology, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and more. In my own case, after over 15 years spent analyzing my own personal skill set, I arrived at the following profile that defines my niche as a modern shaman. First, my particular skill set in order of importance/ power, and what it calls upon me do in the world:
Niche 1: My six greatest skills:
Naturalistic intelligence: My strongest skill, and the one I recognized earliest in life, is a connection to the natural world so strong that my physical body and emotional health state reflect the health of the natural world around me. I am aware of even the most subtle changes and influences. This side of me called me first to work in human and animal health, and later to devote my life to adapting entire socio-economic and ecologic systems to climate change pressure.
Intuition: It was recognized from a very early age as well that my intuitive ability; the ability to receive and interpret subtle physiologic signs in myself, other people, and other living beings- is far higher than the average person’s. This ability leads me to work with animal training, practice adaptation, situational awareness, trauma healing, empowerment, business and marketing, and other areas.
Analytical thinking: Even though I have been called a heretic and shunned by the near entirety of the New Age community, I am an observational scientist and researcher at heart and by formal training. My calling is to bridge the gap between science and spirit, heart and soul, body and mind, society and ecology. Etc.
Linguistic intelligence: In multiple intelligences, closely behind my tested naturalistic intelligence, is my ability with languages- both verbal and nonverbal. I have trained myself to be multi-lingual (two formal languages, scientific and mathematical languages, ecological languages, spiritual terminology, and body language of plants and animals). I use this ability to communicate, and teach others to improve their active listening, to communicate more effectively with their loved ones and to empower their voice and presence.
Artistic intelligence: I greatly enjoy a wide variety of visual artistic pursuits, and combine them with my shamanic and outreach work.
Connecting to guides: In pure shamanic terms, my greatest strength is an ability to connect with the higher plane, where it is believed that divine messages come from. I often receive personal messages for other people, and also use this connection to help people listen to what spirit is trying to tell them about their own lives and needs.
Niche 2: How I apply them to help others:
1. Finding your life calling: as implied by the title, one of the most rewarding things that I do on a regular basis is help others find what spirit is calling them to do with their lives- and make a plan to implement it.
2. Inner voice work for personal transformation: Many people know they need to make a change in their personal or professional lives, but do not know how or where to begin. I help people examine their barriers and challenges, understand where their needs are directing them, and listen to what their heart says about their most important and influential circumstances and relationships.
3. Navigating the lostness of life transformation: Related to above, the process of entering and going through a major life change- from starting a new job, to divorcing, to planning a small business, to losing 50 lbs, to facing major illness or injury- is often a lonely and alienating time. I help people define their needs for support through these times- spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical- and think of ways to build that support into their daily lives as part of learning to break cycles of restrictive lack of self-love.
4. Complementary trauma and depression work: Much of what is mentioned in this blog, is related to use of shamanic practices to help people complement their therapy, like I did; in recovering from major life traumas to build a life where they, not the trauma chemicals, are in control of their day.
5. Helping people in the developing world, to build adaptive capacity: My single greatest personal life calling has been to help people in the developing world to build their capacity to rise above the challenges associated with meeting only basic physiological and security needs, to design sustainable, earth-centered, empowered livelihoods with identity recovery, self-actualization, contribution to a higher calling, and recognition and appreciation for their presence and efforts. Traditional development programs have focused on keeping people dependent and sustaining systems that contribute to poverty cycles; what I try to teach people to do is be co-creators of the future they and their children actually want to live in.
Stay tuned for the professional article that dives into 9 specific techniques I used in my own personal journey to growth and recovery from PTSD, that helped me become more of who I wanted to be.
Thanks for reading- as always, your constructive likes, shares, feedback, and comments are all welcome and appreciated.