By Katy Butler
The links between Shamanism and psychotherapy.
FOR MORE THAN SIX years, Cynthia Flynn, a family therapist and clinical social worker in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, had felt uncharacteristically hopeless about writing the dissertation required to complete her M.B.A. She felt so little confidence in her own profession that she didn’t even try therapy. “I thought it would go in the familiar, circular direction,” she says. “Talking endlessly, analyzing things and having the therapist tell me that this was one of those things I just had to do.” In the fall of 1996, three months before her deadline, a fellow social worker suggested that Flynn go to see a shaman named Manuel Flores. She met him in the carpeted study of a house in Libertyville, Illinois, the home of a therapist who was sponsoring Flores’s visit to the Midwest. Flores was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He was a 33-year-old Mayan Indian, originally from Nicaragua, who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and made the bulk of his living designing and sewing suede and leather western-style jackets, vests and skirts. On the carpet in front of him was an altar a small patchwork quilt arrayed with stones, pine cones, crystals and shells. Flynn had no confidence that Flores could help her, but she wanted to appease her husband and her daughter by trying one last thing. When Flores asked her about her intentions in seeing him, she told him she was “just blocked.”
Flores did not ask her whether she’d ever felt like this before, nor did he plot her genogram. He talked very little. He suggested she make herself comfortable, and she lay down on the carpet in front of his altar. He lit copal, a clear yellow, Mayan incense made from tree sap that he called “the semen of the gods.” He opened a small bottle and anointed Flynn’s wrists, fingertips, nape of the neck, heart and forehead with eucalyptus oil. He closed his eyes, beat on a hand-held drum and prayed under his breath, repeating phrases over and over in a language she did not understand.
As he began to drum, Flynn went into a heavy trance, and so, she thinks, did Flores. When he opened his eyes, he told her that he had journeyed to the spirit world and contacted two of her guardian spirits a turtle and a badger. He talked at length about the badger, saying it was a very aggressive animal, and she needed that aggression. She needed to feel the badger within her.
She was quiet as she drove back to Wisconsin. It was a Thursday. She didn’t think much had happened beyond a nice, relaxing time. At Flores’s suggestion, she stopped at a shop in Milwaukee, bought a small, carved, white marble fetish of a badger and put it on her desk at home, a ritual simpler than those proposed by Murray Bowen, who advised clients to visit a mother’s grave, or by Milton Erickson, who suggested that one client grow African violets and another climb a mountain.
What then occurred is hard to explain within any Western psychological theory of healing and change. That Friday night, Flynn walked into her study and wrote the first line of her thesis, and then the entire first draft. Three months later, just before the final deadline, she got her M.B.A. “The thing just flowed out of me,” says Flynn, who has since referred more than 50 friends, relatives and clients to Flores, who has quit the sewing business and now comes to the Midwest regularly to work with clients. “Manuel did the work,” says Flynn. “And I got the benefit.”
LIKE A SLEEPER GROPING FOR A pillow in the middle of the night, many of us in the industrialized world seem to be reaching for something we cannot name, if nothing more than a sense of wholeness of time and place not yet splintered by e-mail and the cell phone. Books with the word ”soul” in the title spend months on best-seller lists, and so do descriptions of angels and the healing power of prayer. Borders bookstores display CDs of sacred music from around the world: the choral works of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen; the singing of the Sufi Nusrat Patch Ali Khan; the chanting of Tibet’s Gyuto monks. Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, first published in 1968, still sells briskly. A hunger for the sacred permeates much of Western culture now, along with a willingness to learn from what was once called the primitive and the superstitious. We are not sure what we are missing, but we know we are missing something.
The hunger shows itself among psychotherapists like Flynn, who have become the clients of shamans or have trained in “shamanic counseling” themselves. It manifests in Christian churches, where people meditatively walk a labyrinth or chant simple, Latin phrases for hours in a darkened chapel. It appears in the homemade rituals people spontaneously create in a de-sacralized world: in the acres of flowers left on the ground after Princess Diana’s televised funeral; in the ad hoc altar of stuffed animals, candles and photographs left by the roadside where a kidnap victim was found. I even divine it in trivialized and commodified forms: in a feathered Native American “spirit catcher” that hangs like a trinket from the rearview mirror of a passing car; in the ads for psychic hotlines in the back pages of women’s magazines.
These scattered signs may be the shadow of the way many middle-class Americans now spend their days: linked via computer to a virtual, disembodied world. When we shut down the monitors and get into our cars, we find ourselves in an outer world saturated with messages from the marketplace. Billboards line the superhighway to the shopping mall that has replaced the village center; a clothing-company logo is stitched into the child’s sweater that a grandmother once would have knit; and even the local supermarket broadcasts commercials on an in-store radio station. Is it any wonder that many of us yearn for forms of healing and living that might reengage our bodies, encourage us to create even the small, quiet, commercial-free space of an altar or reconnect us with the natural world? “Everybody’s looking for meaning,” says family therapist Mary Jo Barrett of the Center for Contextual Change in Skokie, Illinois, who has seen a shaman herself, prayed with some clients and suggested that others read books on meditation. “And traditional therapy has to take part in that search.”
In the 1960s, Time magazine asked whether God was dead. Perhaps she was just having a near-death experience and has come back as the healing intelligence embedded in our neurons and endocrine systems. Since 1990, psychoneuroimmunological research has suggested that writing about a trauma can boost immune function; attending a cancer support group can prolong life; acupuncture works; and being prayed for is correlated with a shorter stay in a cardiac unit. All suggest that a continuum of unseen things emotions, community, faith, chi energy, even spirits may affect the material world of molecules and cells.
Neither the medical lab nor the DSM-IV has a category for the qualities we lump together and call the “soul” or the “spirit,” and yet we sense them, especially in their absence. Managed care may increasingly speak in the vulgate of treatment plans and cognitive behaviorism, but many urbanized people are voting with their feet, drawn toward a more poetic language not of depression and anxiety, but of soul loss, soul retrieval and spirit possession.
This seeking beyond the boundaries reflects a ragbag of inchoate dissatisfactions with conventional psychotherapy: that there’s too much talk in the talking-cure, that it’s too slow, too dry; that its ambitions have shrunk; that it can’t bring itself to consider the need for what Czech president Vaclav Havel recently called, “a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this earth.” Yet clients often have no place, other than therapy offices, to find answers to such questions. “When I do follow-up, former clients say that a large component of the change that happened in therapy was finding new meaning,” says Barrett. “They say things like, I realized there was good in the world,’ or ‘I got hope’ or ‘I realized I wasn’t all evil.’ These are existential, spiritual shifts.”
This hunger is emerging at a time when the boundaries that once sequestered physical from emotional healing and kept the sacred from the scientific are blurring. Ideas are globalizing as much as economies, and what was once on the margins is moving to the center. Bill Moyers’s television programs introduced hundreds of thousands to the unseen energy called chi at the heart of the Chinese system of medicine. Polls show that a majority of Americans have tried some form of alternative healing.
Even prayer and laying-on-of-hands are knocking at the hospital door. Healing Words, a book on prayer written by a doctor not a minister, hit The New York Times best-seller list in 1993. “Prayer works,” says its author Larry Dossey, citing 56 controlled trials that now suggest that some human beings, without touching anything, can significantly raise dopamine levels or suppress tumors in mice, quicken or retard the growth of bacteria, fungi and yeast in petri dishes, decrease anxiety levels in cardiac patients and speed the healing of headaches and skin wounds.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking of the prayer experiments was a controlled, double-blind, randomized study by cardiologist Randolph C. Byrd at San Francisco General Hospital, published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988. There, 192 people in a cardiac unit were prayed for daily by “born-again” Christians who knew only their first names and diagnoses. The patients, who did not know that they were being prayed for, did better than a matched control group and suffered significantly less congestive heart failure, pneumonia or cardiac arrest. They also required significantly fewer intubations, ventilations, diuretics and antibiotics.
This cannot be explained within a Newtonian model of physical healing, which assumes that bodies and substances have to make physical contact to affect one another, and that physical organs are as solid, separate and discrete from one another as the parts of a car. It resonates, instead, with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of modern physics: that the presence of an observer somehow changes the nature of the thing observed. It pushes the envelope of Western medicine to the point of tearing.
As the envelope tears and old assumptions about the nature of healing scatter to the ground of a globalized, postmodern culture, therapists, too, are exploring what lies beyond their earlier training. Therapists in places as staid as Washington, D.C., and the Midwest have become fascinated in the past five years by a blend of indigenous shamanism and Western psychology. It is a way of emotional healing not based on verbal, willful efforts to change behavior or thought, but an appeal for guidance and healing from spirits contacted in trance. In its most domesticated form, it can be seen as nothing more than a type of guided imagery, a way of contacting a client’s and a therapist’s inner knowing. But at its outer edges, its assumptions are akin to the logic of prayer.
“The doctoring in modern psychology assumes that the mind is localized or confined to the individual brain and body, that neuroses or positive mental states don’t wander outside your brain to influence others,” says Dossey. “But there’s a compelling body of evidence that the mind is not entirely local, that it can affect other individuals and interact with other minds at a distance. The key factor in this sort of healing appears to be not religious affiliation but empathy, caring, concern and love which are qualities any decent shaman has in abundance.”
Last spring, not long after I first heard of Byrd’s experiment with prayer, I took a weekend workshop in shamanic journeying, talked to therapists who had integrated shamanic techniques into their practices and visited some shamans, including Manuel Flores. My motives were not purely journalistic, nor was my seeking purely for the sacred. I am 49 and childless, with chronic back trouble. Since I was divorced six years ago, I’ve lived the way humans were never meant to live: alone. There’s more repetition than ritual in my life, more ritual than community and more loneliness than all of these put together. Sometimes I wake before dawn with my heart pounding, feeling what remains of my life spilling through my fingers like sand, wondering whether this is all there is.
A year ago, I fell in love with a man and felt, as though a metal plate had slid off the top of a cistern of sweet, forgotten water. I hoped romantic love would be the antidote for all the vacuums in my life, the missing connections, the nights alone. But now we spend only weekends together. I have my prayer group, my meditation group, my walks and “troubles talks” with women friends; Frank has his Australian shepherds, his poker game, his boys’ night out, his football. Twice a month, my life assumes a patchwork version of the shape that, long ago, I hoped it would take every day. Frank’s 8-year-old daughter comes down from her mother’s house, and in the morning she turns our bed into an ecstatic, mammalian pigpile: licking dogs, skin contact, Beatles music, a man, a woman, a laughing child. On Sundays, I go home, and for the rest of the week, I wake up, cook, eat, work and lie down at night alone. That was the context of my life last spring when I explored shamanism.
SHAMANISM AS IT IS NOW broadly used to describe a wide range of indigenous, spirit-based healing traditions around the world is a white man’s word. It first appeared in European ethnographic literature in the 1800s as the word saman, used by the reindeer-breeding Evenki peoples of northeastern Siberia to refer specifically to their healers. Striking a drum to generate altered states of consciousness, these spiritual healers and their near-cousins in Mongolia and the arctic circle would journey to nonordinary realities or as we would put it, enter trance to contact spirits who would diagnose illnesses, explain what had caused them and give advice on how to set things right. They were doctors, therapists, mystics and priests rolled into one, and sometimes weather-makers and hunting-prophets as well. For millennia, such healers played a role in almost every indigenous culture, including ancient Europe often ambivalent figures who dabbled in black magic as well as white, dancing at the crossroads of healing, the shadow, the sacred and the nonhuman natural world. Then came the alphabet, the crucifix, the muumuu, the tin can, penicillin, ridicule and self-hatred. European priests called them witch doctors; psychiatrists called them schizophrenics or victims of “arctic hysteria”; Western doctors called them charlatans. In Central America, the conquistadors burned Mayan sacred texts, while the friars of the Catholic Church did their best to eradicate the indigenous religions. American Indian children were sent away from their reservations to boarding schools where their hair was cut. their medicine bundles taken away and their native languages forbidden. During Stalin’s anti-religious purges, shamans were imprisoned and executed. Those who remained worked secretly, sometimes conducting their drumming rituals on frying pans. Among some indigenous peoples, enforced cultural amnesia now runs so deep that they turn to anthropological texts to revive shamanic traditions.
Now the hierarchy is turned on its head. In the past decade, Europeans and Americans, without much use for rainmaking, laying or good hunting, have extracted from the lush tangles of indigenous shamanism a therapeutics compatible with psychotherapy. In the process, they raise important questions for conventional therapists: about the importance of trance and altered states in healing; about “speaking” to nonverbal and noncognitive parts of the brain; about describing a client’s pain in metaphors that address the depth of that pain; and about a generalized hunger for the sacred.
The West’s rehabilitation of shaman-ism’s reputation began in 1964, when the religious theorist Mircea Eliade called shamans “technicians of the sacred.” In 1968, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda provided a road map for the altered states of consciousness that college students had encountered on LSD. Don Juan who may have been a composite, if not pure fiction was less a shaman than a brujo or sorcerer, preoccupied with power rather than healing. But he introduced Americans to the notion that native people could be revered as teachers rather than studied as anthropological subjects.
In 1980, American anthropologist Michael Harner, who had trained in the 1950s and 1960s with Jivaro and Conibo Indian shamans in South America, deflated much of Don Juan’s mystique. He emphasized the healing side of shamanism and suggested that practically anybody even an urbanized white American could learn “core shamanism,” a do-it-yourself, postmodern synthesis that combined Siberian drumming, “journeying” to upper and lower worlds in trance, and Plains Indians techniques of contacting “power animals” there and, literally, blowing their essence and power into the body of patients. Since the early ’80s, more than 70,000 Americans, including many therapists, have taken weekend workshops in shamanic techniques from Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies, based in Mill Valley, California. Two-thirds of those in the advanced programs are therapists and other healing professionals.
Harner de-emphasized indigenous shamanism’s more disturbing and confusing elements black magic, the use of hallucinogens, attempts to divine the future and added American ingredients. In many indigenous cultures, shamans are an elite. Harner applied shamanic techniques democratically, teaching people to “journey” on their own behalf, as well as to do the work for friends as inspired amateurs. He theorized that regular, monotonous drumming at a rate of three to seven beats per second could reliably send the brain into a trance state in which the urban shaman could vividly “see” himself journey deep into the earth or high into the sky, where he would meet animals and other helping spirits who would, if asked, give advice and guidance.
The technique has much in common with the guided imagery that some therapists have used with clients since the 1960s. “Journeying is a way to contact an inner knowing, to get information not otherwise available,” says Steve Barrilleaux, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Last spring, I took a beginning workshop with Harner, held in a waterfront conference room in San Diego. The 60 participants, most of them women over 40, included therapists, a restaurant manager, a tax consultant recovering from cancer, a Navy mechanic and a pharmacist for the University of San Diego. All weekend, Harner emphasized that the shaman is traditionally a part-timer, with a real life and another profession. “I wouldn’t go home after the weekend and hang out a shingle saying ‘Shaman Par Excellence,'” he said. “That way leads to nothing but disaster.”
On the afternoon of the second day, I found myself under a blanket on the carpeted floor with a silk scarf tied over my eyes. On the edge of the room, someone pounded a drum, a plain, steady, monotonous sound. I had been instructed to “journey” to the lower world, find a “power animal” for my partner, a clinical psychologist named Masa Goetz, and blow it back into her.
I am not a visually imaginative person, and for much of the weekend, I’d felt like a bit of a failure as people recounted vivid journeys in which they’d met guardian spirits in the form of Moses, a giant dragonfly, a crocodile and even Dumbo the Flying-Elephant. It had ail seemed harmless enough, but I didn’t appear to be much good at it. Nevertheless, I followed Harner’s instructions and imagined approaching the “lower world” via the mouth of a stalactite-hung cave in Crete that Frank and I visited last year.
What I saw was discontinuous, like a film pasted together from jump cuts and outtakes. I wondered idly if Masa was Japanese and remembered a photo of dancing Japanese cranes from an old National Geographic. Then I clawed like a mole through the sandy earth and fell like Alice down a tunnel hairy with the roots of trees. Desperately I dove down, like a swimmer who fights rising to the surface, searching for Masa’s animal.
The head of a white bird flashed across my inner vision. Then a crow. A white crane appeared in a meadow, pumping its long, black beak and angular black legs up and down, as strong and jerky as an oil well on the California coast. As instructed, I visualized gathering the bird into my hands and cupping it over my heart, feeling it dissolve into a warm, snowy featheriness in my chest. I bent over Masa, cupped my hands over her breastbone and “blew” this cloudlike warmth into her heart. Energy and heat rushed through my back, heart, arms and face. The vitality I hoped was blowing into Masa was blowing through me as well. This is where I need to be, I thought: in a stream of honest giving and receiving.
And yet I couldn’t help wondering: were we just working with archetypes from Carl Jung’s collective unconscious? A healing aspect of our own minds? Were we so desperate for change, so lost to an ordinary sense of community and connection, that we would mine any indigenous tradition to confirm our sense of self-importance?
Over the next couple of weeks, I walked more in the hills near my house and tried to continue journeying using headphones and a drumming tape. But I had trouble imagining my way down into the underworld, and truth be told, I hadn’t found enough there to make me want to try that hard. But when a friend called me a few days later in tears, I found my response to this type of situation had changed. I hung up the phone, drove over, sat down on the couch behind her and put my hands flat on her back. Talk, I sensed, would do no good. My hands grew hot. I listened to her body, feeling her ribs breathe and shift, following as she moved and swayed and bent. Her neck fell forward. I felt the cold sadness in her back and a warm spring of energy moving as it had moved through me when I had blown the crane into Masa at the workshop. Perhaps the work with Masa had given me confidence in my own. ability to heal and help, rather than talk, in a way that I had never been encouraged to feel as a Westerner or as a therapy customer.
In the 1990s, Harner’s urban shamanism cross-fertilized in earnest with psychotherapy, when masters-level counselor Sandra Ingerman, a frequent co-trainer with Harner, wrote a book titled Soul Retrieval about her journeying to trance worlds to bring back parts of a client’s soul that had been split off during childhood trauma. Her work blended perfectly with the “inner child” metaphors popular in the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement, and Ingerman offered “soul retrieval” to women who’d been sexually abused as children. The notion that someone would bring back part of their souls was a powerful antidote to childhood abandonment and violation. And the diagnosis “soul loss” gave language to a depth of pain hardly touched by terms like Borderline Personality Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ingerman did not simply witness pain, as a good psychotherapist might; in an imaginal realm, she made a strenuous effort on behalf of a wounded woman. It was a corrective experience of having an ally, a poetic depiction of hope. And Ingerman maintained that what happened went far beyond metaphor: she had faith in a nonordinary reality inhabited by beneficent spiritual forces, especially animal and natural powers. This blend of shamanism and counseling began to spread in a therapy climate ripe for it, and some therapists, like psychologist Jeannette Gagan, author of Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet, now integrate shamanic journeying into their therapy practices.
GAGAN SAYS THAT SHAMANIC techniques, judiciously used, can speed up therapy, shortcut discursive talk and transfer authority to the client. Last year, for instance, she worked with a former client who was depressed, exhausted and psychologically enmeshed with her husband’s elderly and partly disabled father, who had recently moved in. Dorothy a novelist in her forties, married to a lawyer was nervously trying too hard to decode the old man’s hints for help, and sometimes found herself bursting into tears about his limitations, as though she was doing his crying for him.
Conventional psychotherapy, Gagan says, would probably have taken months. “We would have spent a lot of time with her describing what was going on and venting about it and then with me sitting there offering suggestions,” she says. “Instead, she activated her own healing mechanisms via an altered state.” After Gagan put on a drumming tape and guided her into a trance journey, Dorothy found a modest little animal who taught her how to deal with her father-in-law by interacting with its fellows in its burrow, displaying a natural give and take and an appropriate balance of power. On another journey, Albert Einstein gave her advice on dealing with her father-in-law.
After three, self-paced shamanic journeys and one “soul retrieval,” Gagan says the woman’s energy returned. The messages from trance be they from spirits or simply a wise part of herself taught her to discriminate between what she needed to confront the old man on and what she could just let go. She found herself joking with him rather than taking everything seriously, and had almost magically disentangled her emotions from his.
Ritual and symbolic action may look like mere superstition, but they engage the whole body in an activity directed toward healing and may affect the brain in ways we don’t yet understand. Laurean Carter, for example, a mother of three children, went to see a Native American shaman while attending a California community college on welfare. She went, she said, because “I hated myself and hated life energy” because of sexual abuse she had suffered as a child. The shaman, whom she described as “not the brightest light bulb in other ways, but certainly good at what he does,” helped her feel reconnected to the world by having her imagine, while in trance, becoming a bird, a toadstool, water and air. But he also sent her home with a task: to get the “ugly” off her body by adding lavender to her bathwater, and to purify herself daily by “smudging” with the smoke of burning sage. The ritual gave her a gradual way to wipe away her feelings of contamination, and, says Carter, her ability to act in the world with energy and discipline markedly improved.
At its further reaches, the clients of shamans report changes that western psychology can’t explain. Shamanic counseling can involve, in a single session, a combination of old-fashioned therapeutic advice, magic, ritual and the just plain weird. It seems to acknowledge that desperate situations can call for desperate measures. A married woman with a history of severe childhood sexual abuse, for example, went to see Manuel Flores in the Midwest. She had no sexual desire, felt guilty about it and wanted to please her husband. Flores began with a traditional ritual cleansing that few therapists in their right minds would attempt: he filled his mouth with tequila, had the woman .take off her shirt and sprayed her face and body until her hair was soaking. Later, after drumming and inducing trance, Flores told the woman that her sexuality was intimately related to her spirituality, said that she should experiment with masturbation and prescribed herbs and a ritual bath. He told her not to have sex for 10 days, to light a candle on the new moon and to initiate sex with her husband at a time when she really wanted to, and not before.
“This woman usually wakes up in the night in absolute terror,” the woman’s therapist told me. “Instead, she woke up at 2:00 in the morning wanting to make love and she went after her husband, much to his delight.”
“I haven’t had anybody I’ve sent to Manuel who hasn’t shifted in one way or another,” continues the therapist. “You can’t control and explain this and, therefore, many people will want to call this invalid. But the behavioral change I see in clients change that I had not been able to facilitate through psychotherapy speaks for itself.”
Flores lies at the outer reaches of the American comfort zone with alternative healing. Any therapist with a passing interest in guided imagery can comfortably integrate Harner’s work. A daring psychotherapist might even blow part of your soul into your heart or suggest you visit your mother’s grave. But neither one is likely to make you an amulet, tell you to visualize letting negative feeling drain into it, suggest you build an altar or give you a red candle shaped like a penis or vulva to light on the full moon.
LAST JUNE, I FLEW TO ALBUQUERQUE and met Manuel Flores in his wood-frame house on the outskirts of town. Short and roundly built, with sad, dark eyes, he was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a Chicago Bulls cap. He could have been one of the patient Latin American men who stand quietly in the mornings on streets not far from my home, waiting for day work. His house was arrayed with a syncretic, postmodern collection of icons from the world’s collective unconscious: crucifixes; an Egyptian god; Saint Francis; a ceramic, Mexican, tree of life and a similar tree of death dangling white skeletons; the stone head of Xochipilli, the Aztec god whose name means “Lord of the Flowers.” In the back of the house was a small, dark room. Near the foot of a narrow bed was his altar the folded American quilt arrayed with shells, a fifth of tequila, three rocks and a corn-grinding stone. “When I am upset, I come here to my altar and breathe,” he told me. “For me, this is the center of the universe.” On the wall above hung a bird’s wing, photographs of bears and three paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe in her blue, sky-cloth mantle spangled with stars. There were shelves of books, including Lakota Belief and Ritual, Myths and Folklore of Ireland, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Maya Cosmos, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Current Psychotherapies and The Singer Sewing Book. This was no isolated shaman from the rainforest, but a literate, postmodern man.
Manuel asked me what my intention was for the journey he would undertake on my behalf. I was vague. If I’d been able to put it into words, I might have talked about dissolving my loneliness. If I had been more truthful still, I would have said I was afraid of putting down my reporter’s notebook and sitting down on the floor of that dark room at the back of his house, with its images of the Shadow, its plastic cups and its tequila bottle. I wanted to keep taking notes, to put him into an intellectual box, to evaluate him. Was he really a shaman? What if he was just a folk healer, a self-appointed witch doctor, even a charlatan who’d found an easy way to make a living in America? And what, in a calling where the only accountability is to invisible spirits, makes a real healer anyway?
Flores, too, was defensive, his hands folded across his chest, asking me if he could see a copy of the story before publication. (I said no.) When I told him I intended to write about what happened during the shamanic journey, he was taken aback. Some things, he clearly thought, are not to be spoken of, much less published. As we sat there looking at each other, we were recapitulating centuries of yearning, fear and suspicion.
It was early June, a clear windy afternoon. I closed my notebook and followed Manuel Flores to his dark back room. He told me he would begin with a purification, so that I could have more clarity. He burned copal incense, lit a cigar of organic tobacco and gently invited me smoke it with him. He half filled two blue plastic cups with tequila, which we downed in a single swallow.
He took more tequila into his mouth and sprayed it all over me with the force of what felt like a finely nozzled hose. He took the bottle and poured more tequila over my head until it ran into the corners of my eyes and stung. I felt blank. Under his breath, he called the spirits, chanting “mama moon, mama moon, mama moon,” and “Xochipilli, Xochipilli, Xochipilli” and the names of other gods in a language, Mayan or Aztec, that I didn’t understand. He took up a big, elkhide drum painted with the image of a bear, and drummed. After some time, he opened his eyes and told me he had seen my Soul as a young girl, holding a big skillet for frying tortillas. And then my Mind had come forward, crazy and tired, not having showered in 10 clays or brushed her hair, overcome with stress, especially in the lower back.
“The Mind spits on your Soul,” he told me. “This is the part of you that is all the time speaking up, it doesn’t allow you to have experiences spontaneously. And then the Soul gave your Mind tortillas, and even though it was a young girl, it gave the breast to your Mind. You don’t need to believe this, but you will receive a clarity you didn’t know you would receive.”
Then, Flores said, he saw a shadowy, dark lake full of ghosts, which were my thoughts about the past, and the Soul clove in, and the ghosts became water lilies and the clouds became a lake. The image brought tears to my eyes. He suggested I lie on the narrow bed, did some massage and left me to recover. I surfaced feeling free and wild, but maybe it was just the tequila.
Bit by bit that afternoon, as we warmed slowly to each other, Manuel told me more about his history enough to assuage my most cynical fear, that he had no more faith in spirits than I do. His life had been shaped by the industrialized world’s ambivalence toward indigenous healing, its swings from suspicion and exploitation to fascination. He had been raised in Managua, Nicaragua. His mother, Paulina, a Mayan Indian from rural Honduras, was a nurse and a curandera, a folk healer like her father before her in a tradition that synthesizes indigenous Mayan shamanism and Spanish Catholicism. Neighbors came to see her when they were sick, but behind her back they called her a witch, a bruja.
At the age of 5, Manuel could hear birds talking and joking with him. By the age of 12, he had begun to diagnose sickness in a traditional Mayan way, throwing shells or branches and seeing pictures in the patterns of the fallen objects. He made paths out of rose petals, and the spirits would walk up the path he had made and talk to him. As a teenager, he began the postmodern equivalent of the traditional shaman’s spiritual wandering: he searched restlessly for a religious home among Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and other missionary groups. When he told them that spirits came to him during prayer carrying flowers, the pastors told him his visions were the work of the devil.
His subsequent privations were physical and geographic, as well as spiritual. In 1985, he left a Nicaragua economically devastated by the American embargo and the Contra war. He arrived in Albuquerque with his mother six years later, after living illegally as a sugarcane cutter, a tailor, an accountant, a bartender arid a laborer in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. He and his mother survived their first winter in Albuquerque in an unheated shack, huddling in bed together, wrapped in old coats.
His initiation from curandero and native healer to postmodern shaman was catalyzed by the white shamanic renaissance. In Albuquerque’s Old Town, he met an artist and former Catholic lay brother named Robert Lenz and took part one night in a drumming circle with Lenz and other men. When the drumming stopped, the other men had to gently shake Manuel to bring him back into the room. He had seen himself fly into the depths of the earth through the crater of Momotombo, a volcano that rises out of Lake Xolotlan near Managua. There, a guardian spirit a powerful North American wild animal whom Manuel does not want to publicly name had cut out its own tongue and drenched Manuel in the blood. “It was a way of telling me that all the questions and journeys of pain and sicknesses of my past would become my deepest teaching and be a source of healing,” Flores told me, speaking uneasily of something that is traditionally held private. “That animal has taught me to be a healer of North Americans.”
At sunset, he and I went to a small volcanic caldera on a rise beyond Albuquerque. Peaks rimmed the huge plate of dry landscape: the Jemez mountains, the Sandias, Cerro del Ladron or Thief’s Peak to the south thousands of miles from the rainforest Flores came from. I told him that I, too, was not born in this country, and we talked with the shared loneliness of immigrants. We smoked tobacco again, and he encouraged me to really puff, to take in the tobacco, to put some effort into it. I was afraid I would faint or be sick, but on the other side I found a peace, clarity and, finally, a sense of ease with Manuel. I’d gone through a door of fear, and so, perhaps, had he. As the sun went down, the noises changed. We heard the cries of insects and the hoot of an owl or a dove, a bird neither one of us could identify because this was not our home.
The next morning, I opened my notebook again. “Boundaries are something good for psychotherapy, but shamanism is not psychotherapy,” he told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked, my hair still smelling of tequila.
He opened his eyes. “Look at you.” he said. “You take off your shirt. I spray tequila on you. That’s weird.
“There are no boundaries in shamanism, there can’t be, because the shaman has to expose himself completely to the person so that he can take in all that negative energy and pass it through to the spirits. I’m not a therapist. Therapists try to move a trauma with the person talking a lot, but I think trauma is an evil spirit. When I go deep in a spiritual journey, I pass through the person’s mind, behind their consciousness, getting to a point where there is an image of them that is their soul. Then I take evil spirits out of their soul.”
Flores was tired. He told me that being interviewed by me was more draining than seeing seven or eight clients in a row. “Sometimes people don’t respect the work,” he said with vehemence just before I left. “They treat me like a sock they can throw away. People don’t understand. I come from another culture. It’s hard sometimes.” His work, he told me, came from the spirits and was spontaneous. “There’s no bible of shamanism,” he says. “There’s just healing.”
But what is healing, be it shamanic or therapeutic? Is it the provision of hope that comes from knowing that someone has taken your pain seriously? Is it the creation of an altered state that permits healing? Is it merely a nice experience, one more for the memory bank? Is it a ritual, a symbolic first step on a stairway of positive action? Is it the dangerous work of taking dark spirits out of someone’s soul?
I wish I could say that I came away feeling deeply healed, at peace, no longer lonely. But I came home to much the same life. I washed the tequila out of my hair. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what had taken place. I felt a little more at home in the world, but still waking deep in the night with my heart in pain. I had a little insight: my loneliness isn’t only a product of splintered communities. For years I’ve been comfortable with rigid rules, the rules I violated by drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco in front of Manuel’s dark altar. Rules have kept me safe from real and imagined dangers, but they have also kept me from the unknown territory of the heart, inside or outside. The Mind that appeared to Manuel as a woman with uncombed hair is the Mind dominated by the fears of the past, that tries to keep away blankness, darkness, formlessness, the unexpected. And this level of worry and control almost guarantees feeling alone. And what will heal this fear?
In the week after my meeting with Manuel Flores, I read anthropological texts about Mayan shamanism and talked to therapists and clients who’ve worked with him, as though biting on a coin to see if it’s the genuine article. What I heard reassured me. But I still found myself wondering whether Manuel was anything other than an intuitively gifted healer and hoping that there really is a world of the spirits kindly bent to heal us.
IN AMERICA, THE GAP BETWEEN seeking and shopping is jumped in a nanosecond. Traditional shamanism was part of a web of relationships in a world where almost all activities hunting, healing, eating, making love, dying took place outside the marketplace and thus, almost by default, close to the world of the sacred. In our more profane and secular world, there is a danger that people will use its rituals and novelty merely to make up for something missing in the rest of their lives. In the tiny margin of space and time of the 50-minute hour, many of us try to generate a symbolic realm of the sacred that eludes us elsewhere. For the good therapist, or the good shaman, the challenge lies in getting the client to carry the work outside the room, along with the amulet, the altar, the homework or the prayer.
Part of the shaman’s magic lies in his ambivalent existence on the boundaries of the normal, his willingness to try anything, no matter how strange, his freedom from 200 years of earnest, Western, psychological history. On the other hand, the shaman’s reliance on the world of the spirits is a double-edged sword: in our mobile society, anyone can and many do hang out shingles as shamans, and a phony can travel far and wide. Deriving one’s authority from the spirits may provide access to the intuitive; on the other hand, there is black magic as well as white, and no accountability.
Neither shamanism nor prayer nor ritual nor any other use of trance is a permanent shortcut to the solace of a coherent individual and community life. But it may be a beginning. At the very least, it holds a mirror up to conventional psychotherapy. It pleads for a more sophisticated understanding of trance states, for contacting a client’s inner knowing and enlarging the therapy hour so that it includes the question of our mission on this earth. If nothing else, the shaman’s use of amulets, incense and ritual candles might suggest ways to anchor a client’s changes by awakening poetic, aural and kinesthetic parts of the sensorium, not only those that respond to talk, talk, talk. Those parts of ourselves long to be spoken to, and the intensity of this longing may help to show us where we need to go, as well as illuminate and delineate the vacuums we feel in our own daily lives.
The danger, of course, is that shamanic journeying can become the equivalent of exercising on a stairstepper when a mountain beckons beyond the gym’s plate-glass window; or buying an exotic Thai-California-French meal at a postmodern fusion restaurant rather than feeding deeper hungers and thirsts. Many of us are searching for spiritual nourishment, and, hopefully, our first mouthsful, wherever we find them, can lead us to gradually reembody the sacred and enlarge the sanctuary of our daily lives.
©1998 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.