The Shamanic Therapist: A Trained Psychospiritual Guide
Many therapists today are training or have been trained in shamanic practice. Often the shamanic therapist can help the client to either find meaning within the framework of his or her specific religion, or at least reframe beliefs to integrate the new truth that the existential crisis brings to the fore. With the non-religious but spiritual person, the therapist might help and encourage the client to construct the new normal around some kind of metaphysical belief. Because shamanism is not a religious practice, there is no conflict between a person’s religion (or lack thereof) and the practice of shamanic technique and methods.
Broad goals for longer-term existentialist or psychospiritual therapy might include “exploring and reclaiming a sense of purpose in life; exploring one’s experience of divinity and what it means personally; living in the mystery of life in a world that values fact and reason; finding peace amid external pressure to perform; and experiencing life more fully” (Cashwell & Young, 2011, p. 173). Shamanic counseling can help the client do all these things and more through healing practices specific to shamanism: ritual/ceremony, soul retrieval, reconnection with nature, and the shamanic journey.
The use of rituals in healing work can help clients “express and experience their private spiritual journey in the counseling process” (Cashwell & Young, 2011, p. 209).
Rituals may be as simple as planting a tree on a grave or as formal as a church ceremony. In contrast to religious rituals, personal spiritual rituals are “unique to the identity and needs of the client.” The symbolism of the personal ritual is extremely powerful in that “it is a representation of the client’s deep needs or experience” (Cashwell & Young, 2011, p. 212). The symbolic aspect of ritual may be the only way for the client to release feelings that are so deep that they can’t be put into words. Alan Basham cautions that “if you choose to explore ritual with a client, be mindful that symbols and the deep issues they represent are to be considered sacred and powerful in their capacity to alter the client’s personal myth” (Cashwell & Young, 2011, p. 221).
Psychologist and shamanic practitioner Karl Schlotterbeck (personal communication, 2014) sometimes suggests certain rituals and ceremonies for his bereaved clients, such as the simple act of creating a “spirit house” for the deceased loved one from a stone and moss and twigs; a Mongolian practice that essentially provides the loved one’s spirit its own place to dwell and a place the living can visit with the spirit of the deceased. These small rituals and ceremonies can help the client make meaning from an otherwise painful experience, providing closure and healing. Similarly, a fire ceremony can take a representation of that which no longer serves us and symbolically transform it into something more useful. The human psyche needs ceremony and ritual as a container and a bridge between the worlds (or the conscious and the unconscious). The best kinds of ceremonies take us out into nature.
Reconnecting with Nature
I believe Llamazares says it best when remarking on the human condition: “By losing the connection with our environment and a feeling of belonging to a Whole that embraces us, we have fallen into the illusion of believing we are alone in the world, and as a natural consequence, life has lost its value, and we seem to have forgotten what the meaning of our existence is” (2015). The shaman lives in harmony with nature and sees everything as alive and imbued with spirit. The Western world could use a little of that worldview at this point in time.
Indeed, there is a complex connection between nature and humans, especially in regard to spirituality. Overall, “nature positively influences people to experience awe; wonderment; feelings of connectedness to nature and others; a Higher Power; heightened external awareness of surroundings; and a tendency to express positive feelings of self, love, peace, and increases in emotional well-being” (Reese & Myers, 2011, p.402).
Experiences in nature also help to foster feelings of interconnectedness with other beings. Community gardens and other outdoor community spaces have been shown to decrease feelings of isolation (Reese & Myers, 2011, p. 403). It seems that three inter-related components contribute to wellness in ecotherapy: “exposure to natural environments (access to nature) contributes to the development of one’s sense of self (environmental identity) and to both spiritual well-being and community connectedness (transcendence)” (Reese & Myers, 2011, p. 403).
Green therapy, such as gardening or walking in the park, can have a dramatic effect on mood. Research conducted by MIND, a mental health charity in the UK, examined the benefits of “green” exercise for people with mental health issues. They compared a walk in the park with a walk at a shopping mall. “Nearly three-quarters of the subjects reported decreased levels of depression after the green walk, while 22 percent said their depression increased after walking through the shopping mall” (Allen, 2007, p. 5). MIND sees ecotherapy as a valid option for treatment of depression, especially when “access to treatments other than antidepressants is extremely limited” (Allen, 2007, p. 5).
Integrating the respect for and relationship with nature that is inherent in shamanism can help to ameliorate the symptoms of depression, grief, and PTSD as the client begins to understand that they aren’t really alone in the world. This can help the client feel supported by the natural world. Sometimes the moments that ultimately restore resilience and faith are moments of creativity in the embrace of the natural world.
Next time: Soul Loss, Soul Retrieval, and the Shamanic Journey.
Allen, D. (2007). A walk in the park. Mental Health Practice, 2007, 10 (9); 5.
Cashwell, C., & J. Young, 2011. Integrating spirituality and religion into counseling: a guide to competent practice (2nd edition). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association
Llamazares, A. M. (2015). The wounded west: The healing potential of shamanism in the contemporary world. ReVision, 32 (283), 7-23.
Reese, R.F. & Myers, J. E. (2011). EcoWellness: The missing factor in holistic wellness models. Journal of Counseling & Development 2012, 90: 400-406.