SHAMANISM ALIVE AND WELL IN URBAN AMERICA

By Barbara Clearbridge

My quest was to discover if there are shamans in the Seattle area. I wanted to learn what a shaman actually is, how a person knows if they have that talent. Where would one go to train, and what is that training like? What happens during a shamanic healing, and how does one know if the shaman was any good? I interviewed six shamans, and discovered that the subject is full of controversy and strong politics.

The word "shaman" originally comes from the Manchu-Tungus language spoken by the Ulchi tribe of Siberia. "Shaman" has now grown to mean a practitioner of all kinds of shamanic healing, whether from the near or far east, Native American culture, Africa, Europe, or even techno-America. Anthropologists consider shamanism to be the oldest form of healing on earth.

What is a shaman? Answers vary from: "a person who works with spirit" to: a white, male member of a tribal culture who performs a specific healing function. In between, there is some agreement, such as that shamans are so-called by their communities or clients, not by themselves. Jan Van Ysslestyne, an astrologer and teacher of shamanic practices, runs AMBA ("tiger"), a school for the Ulchi shamanic practices. She speaks of the tremendous humility of the Russian shamans: "They say, ‘Oh no, we're not shamans. We're just little people.’" The people I interviewed called themselves "shamanic practitioners." In this way they can communicate about the type of healing practices they use without calling themselves shamans.

Though not a religion to most practitioners today, Van Ysslestyne explains that anthropologists think shamanism was originally a hunters' religion, with healing as only a secondary practice. In the Siberian tradition, some shamans performed healing, some did divination, some were skilled in protecting the souls of children, some conducted the souls of the deceased into the underworld, and some did several of these functions. Today, shamans are bridges between our everyday reality and the spiritual reality that exists all around us. Shamans go into this other reality and from there facilitate healing.

The qualities of a shaman include rigorous integrity, a caring, loving heart, little ego (no avatar or guru desires or positions), being in close connection with nature and the earth, gifted in the ability for fluid shifts of consciousness, courageous, prayerful, patient, and excellent at listening. Some say shamans must be over 40 to have enough wisdom for the work, but others say they can be very young. Some people become shamans through bloodlines -- the spirit reincarnates into the next shaman, or the role is passed down through families. Non-tribal people speak of being propelled to the shamanic path by their subconscious self, drawn like a magnet although they resisted. Some say they were "called by the spirits;" others felt forced to the path by illnesses or wounds.

Cha-Das-Ska-Dum Which-Ta-Lum, a Native American of the Lummi tribe and Lummi Cultural Resource Specialist, was taught by his grandmother. He describes shamanic healing: "It's love. If you have love then you have everything, because love consists of the land, the water, the air, and everything beneath the surface.... If you sit beneath an old-growth tree and fast, then you can hear it when it starts speaking. We have a vision and we go to whatever element we choose. If it should happen to be a tree we go there, we fast, we open our third ear which is the heart, we listen, we hear. They will tell you what plant will heal the ill -- you, or whoever you are fasting for. The vision tells you where to go. Then you go to that plant and you fast and meditate and the plant will tell you what part you want -- berries, leaves, root, and how much to take according to your size, and what time of year to gather it, and how much you can take without harming the plant."

The idea of a journey to another reality is fundamental to shamanism. Usually this other world is described as having three parts: the Upper, Middle, and Lower worlds. (These have no relation to Christian ideas of heaven, hell and purgatory.) The shaman goes into an altered state, journeys, sees what to do or hears a message directing him where to go next. He usually meets "allies" in the spiritual world: power animals, human forms, or deities.

Some shamanic traditions use monotonous drumbeats to help shamans move into the altered state. Which-Ta-Lum says the drumming equals "the heartbeat when you were inside your mother -- her drumbeat, her heart, the familiar song you heard at her breast." Other shamans use medicinal plants, and some simply use their intent, such as by sitting and fasting.

Van Ysslestyne says Ulchi shamanic practitioners are very pure in their philosophy and methods. Because the former communist government prohibited religions, missionaries never came to Siberia. So shamanic practices were never tainted or watered down by Christianity. There are three parts to an Ulchi shamanic healing. The session is done in the dark, after sunset, during a waxing moon (between the new moon and the full moon). Not much illumination is used. Everyone in the house can be present -- the more people witnessing, the more powerful the healing. The shaman begins by singing to call his spirits to gather around to begin a journey. The second part is the actual journey, "the flight into the other world with your spirits. The spirits assist you to go." Drumming accompanies the journey. The drumming is very irregular; the sound and rhythm emphasize what is happening during the journey. If the shaman is moving quickly, the beat is quick. If he meets a tiger, the sound changes to the sound of the tiger. If he meets a snake, it changes to the sound of the snake. If lightning comes, the beat changes again; it's constantly in flux. The shaman sings the entire journey. The client visualizes he is traveling with the shaman. Van Ysslestyne continues: "The songs are just amazing, they're not like anything you've ever read; the poetry is amazing. ’I'm flying to the stars, I'm sitting in the clouds, oh look, the great dragon god is coming towards me...' You are transported, it's almost a state of ecstacy for the patient." The journey can last 2 - 8 hours.

The third part is the return. Still in the altered state, the shaman saves himself from what he has encountered, through a ritual of protection. Then he returns to a normal state of consciousness. Then there is a huge feast, after which everyone rests.

In Ulchi practices, the healing is always done by a single shaman, with an assistant present. If the shaman goes too far "down the road," or meets hostile spirits and fears being killed or lost, the assistant helps to pull the shaman back out into our usual reality.

Sheila Balinger is an astrologer who studied shamanic practices with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Training. After emphasizing that her work is generally indicative of the Foundation's teachings, but is her own adaptation, she describes a session that is quite different from the Siberian tradition.

She begins by explaining to the client what will happen, and by answering questions. There is a ceremony and prayer to formally invoke healing spirits. The client states why she has come, and talks of what has happened in her life since she made the appointment (often conditions begin to change then). Then there is drumming. Balinger prefers live drumming, but since she practices in an office building, she uses drumming tapes to keep the sound down. The drumbeat is a particular monotonous rhythm to help her go into an altered state of consciousness. Balinger turns off most of the lights, and covers her eyes so she is in darkness. She and her client lie on the floor side by side.

Then she performs soul retrieval and sometimes extraction (more about these below) with the help of her power animals. They first guide her and give her information. Then she becomes the power animal and uses its abilities to do the healing work. The energies she meets are often "too powerful for human form" and she needs the power animals' abilities. Clients can often identify which power animal she is -- they feel her paw or claw. Balinger says she shapeshifts in the spirit realm; she still looks like Sheila in the physical realm, but is perceived and feels like the animal. When the healing is complete, the power animal separates from her. Because there is no time and space in the spirit level, the healing takes only 2 - 3 hours. After the journey Balinger makes an audiotape of the whole story of her journey, to give her client.

Balinger has a regular group of allies she works with, which includes several power animals. Again the Ulchi tradition is different. Van Ysslestyne says the Siberian shamans can have many power animals, even as many as 50. She speaks of "dozens of spirits" to guide you. The more spirits, the more powerful a shaman you are. Van Ysslestyne says the shamans turn into the animal in front of your eyes. It is not a hallucination, they actually shapeshift on the physical and spiritual plane. The shaman keeps his own spirit; he becomes a bear, he is not possessed by the bear.

A central part of much shamanic healing is called soul retrieval. The purpose is to reintegrate aspects of a person that have been "lost" due to trauma or abuse, and thus restore vitality. Which-Ta-Lum explains that after a person has lost soul, "if it is not retrieved for you, you can become very ill." He defines soul as "integrity." "If people fool with your integrity you lose a piece of your foundation. You might wander around aimlessly not achieving the things your expertise is capable of." He adds that the journey is usually to a person's childhood; most problems start in the home.

Paula Klempay, a career counselor who studied at the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies Training, says, "A piece of the soul can break off." She defines soul as "pure essence, life force, the ineffable."

In soul retrieval, the shaman journeys to the time and place where soul was lost, finds where it went, and brings it back. Balinger speaks of blowing the lost soul parts back into the client's heart and crown chakras (energy centers in the body). Her breath transfers the soul essence from the spirit realm to the realm of the body. For Balinger, soul retrieval is done only once for any person, and it's not a quick fix. She counsels clients to continue the deep healing work afterwards with at least one other healing modality to continue the integration, such as a psychotherapist, energy worker, or herbalist.

Van Ysslestyne's description of Ulchi soul retrieval is quite different. It may have to be done two or three times to be complete. Usually three eight- to ten-hour sessions are done over 90 days, one each month. Because the Siberian shamans are here for only one month, they complete the soul retrieval through "distant" sessions. During the three months, the patient lives his usual life, but the shaman thinks about the patient 24 hours a day, every day. (They can only take on a new client every few months.) They talk to their spirits all day long asking questions about how the patient is. The Ulchi word for soul retrieval is "yiyee," which means "sing" or "shaman's song."

Another major process of shamanic healing is called "extraction." It is removal of energy which is disruptive or intrusive to the person's natural energy flow. These blockages can be inherited patterns of energy, or come from other causes. A person requiring extraction might feel he is being haunted on the energy level, or that something is blocking his vitality. Rattles (in Native American tradition only) or other tools are often used to extract energy. People can feel immediate relief.

A third shamanic practice is "psychopomp," or the conducting of souls into another world after death. Klempay says this can mean simply accompanying the person as an act of love, something like hospice. More often it is because the soul is "stuck" -- due to an abrupt death or other unusual occurrence, the person is caught between worlds. Klempay says the client is helped "to go to the light," and that it is the same light people see in near-death experiences.

There is much controversy about shamanic training. Does one need a teacher? Must it be a traditional apprenticeship over many years? Must it be in a rural setting, so one can actually experience power animals? What about the weekend workshops and other short trainings offered by the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies Training? Is any group teaching effective? There is a lot of disagreement.

Loren Cruden, a Native-American-style shamanic practitioner and author of Coyote's Council Fire: Contemporary Shamans on Race, Gender, and Community, says one can find a teacher by prayer, by internal commitment, and by making an empty space in one's life into which a teacher can come. She thinks classes and workshops are a great help in opening perspective, and to deepen and catalyze learning, and that there is value in sharing experiences with other students. But the knowledge gained is "next to meaningless if it is not being put into daily practices and integrated with direct spiritual experience. You can't learn to be a shaman from taking classes. Talents develop organically and intuitively from inside out." Proper training is a lifelong study.

Van Ysslestyne, who along with her Ulchi teachers has taught advanced classes at the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies Training, sees some aspects of group training as good, and some as very dangerous. When group members are journeying in a trance state, some may not be ready to come back when the teacher decides to end the session. They can be jerked back into their body before they are ready, and suffer soul loss.

The Foundation's training is culled from many traditions, and is not specific to any one culture. Faculty call it "Core Shamanism." In an effort to formalize training to satisfy the conventional medical community, the Foundation gives a certification after many hours of training. But Klempay says, "Having credentials doesn't mean someone is a qualified healer." Balinger calls her version of the Foundation's training "Neo-shamanism," to differentiate it from traditional, tribal practices. She says a teacher isn't necessary; you can train yourself. How do you know if your self-training is adequate? If your work is effective, if it serves your client, then you have succeeded.

Some shamans have not made a conscious choice to learn. Which-Ta-Lum talks about who in the tribe receives shamanic lessons: "Which child does the grandparent give teaching to? They know the one who will carry on the culture. As you grow, the culture is drawn to you and you to it, like a magnet. In the process you start loving that teaching." For non-tribal people, Which-Ta-Lum is enthusiastic about classes, mentioning that shamanic practices are being taught around the world, even in some colleges.

Marguerite Which-Ta-Lum, also trained in Native American shamanic practices, says "You can learn anything from the spirit." Just "be still in whatever place you can be still in, and turn inward. Fasting helps to keep you connected; it gets rid of distractions. If you're seeking to be taught, the spirit can teach you." She says if you have no teacher, fast and pray and keep your intention absolute: "I won't move until I hear an answer from you." Something will become clear.

Klempay says if you don't have a teacher, first get the kind of drumming tape specifically designed for journeying. Then read a book like The Way of the Shaman for instructions, and then experiment. She says you leave and enter different realities by clear intentions, and that this is easy for some people. She adds that if you can find a teacher, they can help you to learn ethical guidelines about how to impart information to clients so that it isn't brutal. In group training you can get confirmation that "That's how it works, I'm not crazy." She says modern shamanism is anarchistic -- you journey to get your answers; there is no external authority.

Conversely, some shamans believe you can only train by apprenticing with native peoples from tribal cultures.

Most of the shamans I spoke with mentioned a time of feeling crazy. Van Ysslestyne explains it in rather an alarming way. She says there are two primary models of shamanism. In one, you apprentice with an experienced shaman. In the other, which is her teachers' model, only the spirits can teach you to be a shaman. You apprentice with the spirits. It's a completely individual path. The only commonalities in the Siberian training are various taboos and rules about how to view life, about living in balance with nature. "The spirits teach you how to heal, how to drum, what ritual clothing to make, how to sing, who your power animals are; they teach you everything. They tell you when you're ready. They drive you crazy, they drive you mad, they force you to do this stuff even if you don't want to, and you give in." In both models, as you learn, you experience emotionally and psychologically disturbing periods, due to what Van Ysslestyne calls "spirit initiations." You go through "a death/rebirth state; you're half human, half spirit -- you're no longer a pure human any more." She says that people don't seek this, it's forced on them by the spirits. The resulting psychotic break is essential to be able to do shamanic work.

Balinger also speaks of psychotic breaks. She says that most group work is through short-term classes, so it doesn't lead to psychotic breaks. But if a group is long-term and ongoing, people will have psychotic breaks, which she also calls "spiritual emergencies." Fellow class members can offer support. She says apprenticeship is partly so you have a guide to help you come back to this reality. Balinger did not have a spiritual emergency herself. She feels this might be because she came to shamanism with 10 years' experience of working in altered states. But Balinger did have a series of difficult health problems which she calls "an initiation."

About other dangers, Van Ysslestyne says, "The shamans say, ’Never go to the end of the shaman's road.' If you go all the way down your road when you journey, when you come back you probably have only a few months to live. Some have died on their travels."

Klempay doesn't think a person can get into trouble learning on their own, but adds that it might depend on the person. She doesn't know of any times a person didn't come back. She says, "Spirit doesn't draw you in order to mess with you." But she adds that a teacher can make you FEEL safe during your journey. She believes there is no true evil in the shamanic reality; there is only ignorance and perhaps an intention to hurt. Klempay says clients are in no danger -- shamanic practices cannot hurt you, although practitioners can be abusive if they are ego-centered.

Marguerite Which-Ta-Lum has never heard of any dangers. "Always ask as you begin to be led that it be for your highest good, then there is nothing to fear. If you have a wrong intention in your heart the universe will, in some way, like a scorpion's tail, come back and sting you. That's why love is the basis of any true shamanistic practice. Then only good can come of it, if it comes from a heart of love."

One of the biggest controversies is whether shamanic healing can be practiced in urban settings by people without a tribal culture. Cruden sums up the current situation quite well. "Shamanic practices are certainly flourishing in terms of revived interest...but there's a concurrent dilution, modification, and confusion about them as well." In "The Changing Spirit of North American Shamanism" (Shaman's Drum, Spring, 1993), she says: "Many traditionalists feel that non-Native use of Native shamanic forms is, like selling medicine for money, inappropriate. Others are concerned that Native spirituality is being misappropriated and exploited by non-Natives. Obviously, Native spirituality cannot become a spoil of conquest, as non-Natives cannot in clear conscience presume claim to it. Neither can Natives own what is indigenous to the land itself, a Spirit that requires no particular skin color to access and align with." She goes on, "My own training with an Ottawa-Potowatomie medicine man...is no credential to many Natives. My gender and skin color are seen as definitive barriers by both Native and non-Native peoples....

"Recently, I have been left with the feeling that shamanism is branching as well as changing: one road leads back to traditional communities that are culturally distinct, indigenously Native; one road goes to the city where it is seen as a technique, therapy, or path of personal power; and one road meanders across the natural Earth where it becomes simply native. All these paths may have their gifts to offer, their evolving parts to play."

In agreement with one of her branches, Cha-Das-Ska-Dum, when I asked if he thought practice of shamanism should be restricted to Native Americans, said, "Where were you born?" "In the U.S." "You are Native American."

Cruden gives a warning. "I find that as shamanism becomes more homogenized, it also loses a great deal of its cultural function and its relationship to physical ecologies..." In her article, she says, "When I hear of urban shamans, I must admit that I am reminded of urban cowboys, all sexy, specialized garb and paraphernalia. Their talk of Bear, Wolf, and the power of the Moon seems incongruous with city habitat and lifestyle. Admitted bias aside, there seems to be something ungrounded in a shamanism that has no immediate physical correlation. Shamanism arose in and was intimately informed by the context of nature: the world of plants, animals, stars, rock formations, streams, balances of light and dark, heat and cold, rain and drought." Cruden speaks of the inappropriate severing of technique from cultural, environmental, and sacred contexts. Of her own isolated, telephone-less lifestyle she says, "I find incredible nourishment and resource in solitude and in the wilderness.... So much of what I offer comes from the way I live -- is part of the gift people receive through...me. It is part of the medicine needed by people in these times, a reconnection with elemental, sacred, beautiful life."

Cha-Das-Ska-Dum says that every race and nationality has shamans, and that the world cannot function without each race's culture. He doesn't believe actual contact with nature is needed. "In Indian country we walk with one foot in each world. We try to draw the best from both places."

Marguerite agrees. She says we have a tremendous propensity to want specialness, but the world of the spirit is not a world of exclusiveness, it is inclusive. She says the only thing you need to be clear about is your intention: what it is that you want. She says you can get all caught up in trappings and ceremony, but if you truly work with the spirit you can be standing on a busy sidewalk and practice shamanism; you can remove something from somebody while horns are blaring and the world is going on around you. Marguerite asserts that the fighting and arguing over who owns shamanism is the same as always comes to people who suddenly discover something and want to claim it as THEIR territory, want people to pay them -- and only them -- for doing it. "But shamanism belongs to all of us, it's inherent in human beings. You can't stop that."

It was fascinating for her to come from a white culture to learn shamanism and then to work with Cha-Das-Ska-Dum. They found "we had no separation, though we came from completely different backgrounds. That taught us the universality of the spirit world and shamanistic living."

Balinger says that the shamanic style taught at the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies Training is controversial, as is its name, Core Shamanism. She recognizes that because shamanism is "faddish" right now, there is a danger to the essential core of the tradition. For her, the question is, "How do we respectfully adapt these very ancient ways for our culture that so desperately needs it?" Balinger is amazed at how rich and vibrant shamanic healing is for clients in the city. For her students, she prescribes wilderness experiences, to provide the restoration of deep connection with the earth. She recommends practitioners frequently return to the primal source.

Van Ysslestyne talks about the Ulchi shamans: "It's my favorite thing to observe them in an urban setting. They don't lose their connection; they'll have a 35 minute discussion with the bushes in my back yard. Urban settings are normal, natural to them as well as village settings."

Klempay says shamanic practices are not dependent on living in nature, and one does not need to be where animals are to access their power. She likes being a bridge between the urban culture and shamanic culture. Her shamanic work nourishes her life in the urban world, which she loves just as much. Klempay finds it a very rich combination. She knows a lawyer, a labor negotiator, a dentist, and many others who feel their professional lives profoundly enriched by the study of shamanism. Klempay sees shamanic practices as evolving, and as a way of bringing healing into the disciplines we already practice. She says shamanism is getting so widely popular that one Midwest hospital pays for shamanic treatment.

Weaving shamanic practices into an urban culture brings in the question of payment. Some shamanic practitioners say that traditionally there was no payment for healing -- that the role was recognized as crucial to the community, and the needs of the shaman were met so he was free to help people. Others say that each shaman had his regular daily work, and shamanic healing was always a side job. Other say that in all cultures there was always a payment made to the shaman. Van Ysslestyne speaks of payment being a piece of pottery or cloth, an animal, or a bag with a few coins. For the Ulchi, payment is both a gift and a means for the shaman to break his ties with the client; it creates a necessary separation.

Some of the shamanic practitioners I spoke with charge specific fees. Other have sliding fees, or work by donation.

Shamanic healing has aspects in common with other types of healing, especially herbalism, energy work, spiritual healing, and certain types of psychotherapy. Only one of the practitioners I spoke with claimed shamanism is unique or special. Yet all spoke of the wonderful gifts shamanism can offer, wherever we live. These include right relationship with the earth, deep ties with the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds, amazing journeys into other realities, drinking from the spring of humankind's ancient healing abilities, keeping alive our awareness of the sacred aspects of life, learning the power of song and drum, and deep healing for practitioner and client alike.

To find a practitioner or teacher, try this newspaper, or ask around; word of mouth is the primary way people find shamans. Cruden says that the best healers she knows are the most reclusive, with a few exceptions. Other ways include bookstores, magazines such as "Shaman's Drum," and other metaphysical newspapers and magazines. The practitioners who participated in interviews for this article are:

Sheila Balinger: 206/781-4487, P. O. Box 6, Greenbank, WA 98253 (on Whidbey Island). Sheila is accepting students, but not new clients.

Loren Cruden: (no telephone) P. O. Box 218, Orient, WA 99160 (near Spokane).

Paula Klempay: 206/285-2647, P. O. Box 9532, Seattle, 98109.

Jan Van Ysslestyne and AMBA School for Shamanic Healing: At Mandala Books, 206/527-2979, 918 NE 64th, Seattle, 98115. Jan teaches but does not do shamanic healing at this time; she can refer you to others or make arrangements for you to interview for a healing from the Ulchi shamans. Their next Seattle visit will be in June. AMBA offers monthly lectures, a film library, and other ongoing training.

Cha-Das-Ska-Dum and Marguerite Which-Ta-Lum: 360/758-2418

The Foundation for Shamanistic Studies Training: 415/380-8282, P. O. Box 1939, Mill Valley, CA 94942.

© Barbara Clearbridge 1995

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