What to call myself
Shamanism and Therapy
I don't call myself a shaman. My work is drawn from my many years of studies in Celtic shamanic healing (my ethnic ancestry), from my current studies with teachers grounded in Huichol and Shipibo practices, a from a variety of other teachers I have been blessed to encounter over the years. My work is also drawn from wide reading on shamanism, from my academic studies in theology at the seminary, and mostly from my relationship with Spirit, which has worked me hard for 30 years and, as the poet says, has "blessed and ruined" me by making me this person.
It took me 15 years of shamanic study with teachers and intensive work with the spirits before I stepped into the role of healer. It took me another 12 years before I formally started taking individual clients in 2011. I had studied in many ways with a variety of teachers and had been trained in healing techniques, but I employed them sparingly as I focused my efforts on building an authentic relationship with Spirit as best as I could. Spirit does the work.
When I did step overtly into the role of shamanic healer and leader, I did it slowly and carefully, as a leader of group drumming and shamanic-inspired ceremonies. Those twelve years of working on many skills were a beautiful, powerful, perplexing training ground. The ceremonies I did - and do - are not "traditional" or drawn from with any tribe or culture. Spirit does the work.
For many months in 2011, I went through an intense initiatory experience which culminated in me being told it was time to do healing work with individual clients. (Read more about that...) I tried to resist, because working in this way is daunting and full of responsibility that I did not want to accept. But ultimately I agreed to move forward, and my work with people has become one of the most humbling, rewarding and powerful experiences in my life. Also, as soon as I agreed to do it, I started having a steady stream of people contacting me.
I will always carry with me this fundamental definition of a shaman given to me by the radiant Martín Prechtel: "A shaman is someone whose shamanizing works." What I take from this is that it doesn't matter how the person dresses, what they say, what names they drop, how eloquently they boast of themselves or how humble they are. It doesn't matter where they have traveled, what kind of "certificate" they have, how beautifully their drum is painted, or how cosmically booming their voice is. What matters is that their work is effective.
This is not to say we should distrust the costumes and props, the charisma and eloquence. Shamans should be powerful personalities. In ceremony, they must have the capacity to change the consciousness of everyone in the room, and must be able to hold a great deal of energy. Those visible tools, skills, and training help. But what matters ultimately is that their work is effective. Spirit does the work.
Because I grew up a blue collar kid, the son of a truck-driver/mechanic - a strapping man with a smile that melted waitresses' hearts from coast to coast, a manly man who everyone called "Buck" (the male deer, a primary helping spirit across cultures), a man who died saying "I never had so much as a pot to piss in and still don't": and because I grew up the son of the sales girl at the K-Mart jewelry counter, whose name was Faye (the Gaelic word for "the faery realm"), I resonate deeply with this grounded, unadorned definition. A shaman is someone whose work works.
A plumber has to stop the leak, get the clog out, get new water flowing or he ain't a plumber. He can call himself whatever he wants to - a shamanic aquatic priestess or a fecal life coach or an ascended pee-pee master. If he gets the job done, it doesn't matter what he calls himself. And if he does not get the job done it doesn't matter what he calls himself. I've been told that indigenous cultures, a person doesn't refer to themselves as a shaman - only others can call you that. True or not, I like it.
In modern urban shamanism, the standard is to call oneself a "shamanic practitioner." This is a way to offer deference to indigenous shamans. I like that too, but I'm not fond of the word practitioner, which sounds upper class to my blue collar mind that still uses the smell of oil and the feel of Lava soap as the barometer of whether someone has done a good day's work. Lawyers and doctors practice. Guys who ride a jackhammer and women who pour coffee don't practice, they just work. So If I have to use a phrase, I gravitate toward "worker," or sometimes, if pressed, "shamanic worker" or if really pressed, "healer."
For me, shamanic work is blue collar work. It's focused on solving the problem. While there there is theology, trust, faith and mystery involved in shamanic healing work, and while I can absolutely hold my own in historical-theological-philosophical conversation, I don't see shamanic healing as abstract.
There are two basic elements to shamanic healing. One is the technical work- the ritual or ceremony, the work with the spirits. If you hire a plumber he or she brings the right tools, sees what needs to be done, and gets to work.
The other is your attitude, or openness - what the Celts call the power of your yearning. We are creatures whose bodies are partly visible (our meat, water and bones) but largely energetic and non-visible - our energy body, the emotional body, the mental body. Western medicine treats the meat, and as Ross Heaven says in a wonderful article, this a primitive approach based on simple ideas of causality. Shamanism also gives attention to the attitude, motivation and psychology of the patient, and to the spirit of the plants and other tools used in the healing.
After my father's triple bypass, he stopped smoking, stopped eating bacon and went for walks every day. When the plumber cleared my pipes he told me to stop re-potting house plants in the sink and washing the dirt down the drain. When you see a therapist, you may open a new understanding of what has been driving you, but then you do your best to leave old patterns behind. Shamanic healing asks the same of you: be ready to change. Be ready to act as if your life is different, and patterns have shifted. Be ready to live with trust.
I want to say, "Shamanism is not magic" to make sure you understand that you will be actively involved in your healing. But I have seen many magical things happen in my client's lives and in my own life, so I can't in truth deny that there is magic in this work. Your shamanic healing can be magical, in the best, archaic sense of that word: "Summoning a mysterious sense of enchantment which alters reality."
This is my wish for you, and it's why I do this work.
I like therapy. The times I’ve sought therapy have been very helpful to me. I recommend therapy or counseling. 85% of the clients I see have had some or a lot of therapy.
Shamanism is not therapy, and I do my best to remind clients that I’m not a trained therapist. But in our culture, we all know at least a little of the language and concepts of psychology. I believe that that psychology is America’s actual mainstream religion (and that money is our actual holy scripture and shopping malls are our actual churches, but I digress....). The mixing of shamanism with western therapy is natural, and some people are trained in both. I'm not. My training is shamanism, formal academic theology (a "masters" degree!), theatre, myth and creativity, but not psychology.
The great archetypal psychologist James Hillman said, "Of all psychology’s sins, the most mortal is its neglect of beauty." The “father of modern psychology”, William James, was grounded in the philosophy of pragmatism: the function of thought is to solve problems leading to practical actions. These two ideas point to my view of the difference between shamanism and therapy.
Psychology began inside the western medical model that espouses a mechanical universe, including mechanical human bodies. Psychology is grounded in a basic goal to help the patient (the sick person) return to functioning smoothly in society. In other words, you are sick because you have fallen out of being able to function in society. The medicine (therapy) makes you well, and able to function once again in society. The trouble is, what if you are returning to a sick society? Is that really the goal of being alive? Is it your goal to live happily in “the system of rip-off economics [that] promotes its communal senselessness by substituting "more" for "beyond.”?
Shamanism’s goal is, of course to transform suffering, to bring peace to the body, mind and spirit, to help improve your relationship to yourself, your life story and to other beings. But the core goal in shamanic healing is not necessarily to return you to society to function smoothly. Its goal is to return you to functioning as a member of a sacred world. Shamanism’s goal is to restore beauty. Shamanism’s goal is to help you become a “walking blessing” who feels blessed and who blesses others. In a society that has forgotten that beauty is a fundamental nourishment to our species, that actively disdains beauty as a waste of time and resources, or as dangerous to the power structure, becoming someone who "walks in beauty" is not an act of functioning smoothly in society.
Therapy is grounded in reason - rational analysis separates, tosses away the useless, then labels and fixes the problem. Therapy is also boundaried by the human mind and human experience. Our problems are contained inside our mind and inside the timeline of our life. “Childhood has been declared the source of our disaffected behavior…every therapy session searches memory for traces of unhappiness...bad mothers, absent fathers and envious siblings are the demons and ogres in psychology’s fairy tale.”
Shamanism’s geography is more expansive in its reach, and it is founded on the irrational, the mythopoetic and mysterious – the realms that reason says do not truly exist. Shamanism says that our current issues may come from outside of the human mind and from well beyond the confines of our biological, linear life span. Where psychology acknowledges and addresses family patterns, shamanism says it can heal and nourish the ancestors, and that will affect our daily life here and now. Psychology can acknowledge the impact of our DNA and our parenting, but shamanism says there is a spiritual DNA embedded in us that no machines can detect, and we are actively parented by the Unseen. Shamanism acknowledges that our symptoms may be a form of communication to us from the gods.
Shamanism throws its arms open to metaphor: the strange, the wondrous, the frightening, the ridiculous, the poetic, the emotional, and the mythic. In shamanic healing, “beauty is itself a cure for psychological malaise.” Beauty is a holy power, the breath of God, it is the energy found at the Source, the life-force animating the quantum flux. Shamanic healing gathers this energy, condenses it, and directs it toward the issue at hand.
Shamanic work does indeed heal - in ways unexplainable by the rational mind. A million more words written here won't help you grasp intellectually why shamanic healing actually works. Check your heart and belly right now to feel if anything said here sounds right to you. If you want more words, a decent place to start is with this collection of articles by Stanley Krippner, PhD..
 There are nearly uncountable books and articles that delve into the blend between shamanism, western medicine and therapy. For a good starting resource I recommend Cecile Carson, Editor, Spirited Medicine, Otter Bay Books, 2013. It’s put out under the auspices of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners, Buy it here:
 James Hillman, The Soul’s Code, New York: Warner Books; 1996, 35
For more on this see James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy--And the World's Getting Worse, HarperOne; 1993). Buy it here.
 Hillman, The Soul’s Code, 82
 I’m indebted to José Luis Stevens for this phrase. See his book Awaken the Inner Shaman, Boulder, CO: Sounds True; 2014. Buy it here. http://www.amazon.com/Awaken-Inner-Shaman-Guide-Power/dp/1622030931/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412265304&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=awakwn+the+inner+shaman
 James Hillman, A Blue Fire, New York: Harper and Row; 1989, 234
 Hillman, The Soul’s Code, 38. This is a quote from Aristotle.