The Apprentice Shaman
One of the remarkable things about working with contemporary shamanism is its flexibility. Healing, Soul Retrieval, Extraction, Ceremony and Shamanic Counselling, are just some of the many techniques that an experienced shamanic practitioner will have at her command.
Perhaps the main differences between contemporary shamanism and traditional shamanisms is that traditional shamans usually functioned - and function - within a social context which recognised and approved their work. In the West of course, this is almost never the case and women and men practising whatever form of contemporary shamanism they choose will be operating in a cultural and social vacuum.
Counselling As We Know It?
Anthropologist Michael Harner, who devised Core Shamanism (see sidebar) in the 1970s, was keenly aware of the contextual differences between traditional shamans and those wishing to re-engage with shamanism from a non-traditional, contemporary perspective. In the century of psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry, it was unsurprising perhaps that Harner Method Shamanic Counseling should choose to focus primarily on the individual, on personal healing and the one-to-one situation familiar in the therapeutic process. So, what is the distinction between shamanic counselling and psychological counselling? Harner's US-based Centre for Shamanic Studies puts it clearly and simply - ‘Since this is a spiritual rather than a psychological system, it is not necessary for a shamanic counselor to be a professional psychotherapist or other type of counselor.’ In other words the shamanic counsellor is not offering any psychological insight into the client’s situation but rather is a facilitator of the client’s own spiritual and emotional experiences. What I have come to realise over the years that I have been working with shamanic counselling is that shamanism is, by its nature, transpersonal and psychological, in as much and as it transcends the boundaries of ego and uses the psyche itself to permit a broader range of experience, experience that has the specific function of restoring balance.
I learnt Shamanic Counselling with Jonathan Horwitz of the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies. It was not an easy process. Part of the training involved being both client and counsellor and making that switch required great focus and a glimmer of insight into how much compassion the work would demand. Initially I intended to use my training simply to deepen and extend my own practice, but the difference between how I understood journeying before the training and after it was so marked that I decided this was a skill I should offer my own clients so that they could expand their awareness of the journey experience.
Put simply, Shamanic Counselling is a means of teaching clients to:
make journeys to the Lower and Upper world's for themselves
understand the importance of ‘intention’ when deciding on the nature and purpose of each journey and to create a coherent and focused question or request for help
make a recording of each journey which is also transcribed by the counsellor
to listen, with the emotions rather than the intellect, to the recorded journey with the counsellor in order to extract the teachings and/or the answers to the stated question or request for help
This last, listening with the emotions, is perhaps the most difficult thing for the shamanic counsellor and her client to learn. Used as we are to judging, observing and rationalising, viewing experience through the eye of feeling, rather than the mind, does not come easily to most people. In his book Shaman's, Healers, and Medicine Men (p.218), ethnologist and psychologist Holger Kalweit writes about the relationship between emotion and consciousness. He describes how moving from 'normal’ consciousness to an altered state of consciousness can be viewed as an intensification of emotion, how by intensifying emotion the ego sense of self diminishes and ‘the separation between self and the environment can temporarily disappear’ in an identification phenomenon described by Grof (1986) and Maslow (1973) in which the individual ceases to exist and becomes ‘merged’ with everything from individual cells to the evolutionary process itself. At the ‘highest level’ - the ‘nirvana’ described by meditation training and esoteric philosophy? - Kalweit describes an 'unconditional consciousness, free from all concepts and human concerns.' Nirvana is not, however, of interest to shamans, whose main concerns are human ones: the restoration of harmony within and without the human mind and body in the context of its environment and the relationships between these things.
‘The goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotions that we all know. Shamanism is thus not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but the simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world. If we want to understand shamans, we really have only to penetrate into our own emotions.’ H. Kalweit, (p219)
Learning to journey with a clear and stated purpose, the results of which are explored and integrated into the client's life, is the goal of shamanic counselling. The process itself, let alone its results, gives access to previously unimagined worlds and states. On the surface these worlds and states have little to do with the traditional shamans of the Amazon or Siberia, yet after ten years I remain astonished by the universal nature of shamanism, though given that human consciousness is universal and unchanged in tens of millenia, perhaps I should be less than astonished!
Since the so-called Enlightenment, the Western mind has sheared off in new directions, which whilst wondrous in many ways, have effectively robbed us, as a society and as individuals, of our sense of belonging and association. And perhaps that is all spirituality is after all, just a cell-deep sense of not being alone. Although I may never know how an Amazonian or a Mongolian shaman sees his world, a world now vanished for most of us, the emotional experience of shamanic counselling, both as a practitioner and a client, has allowed me to step closer to that world and engage with it, for the benefit of myself and others, whilst maintaining a firm foothold in post-modern London.
Submit Your Own Article