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Inspirational Talks

A Shamanic Life

By February 13, 2024No Comments

I’m going to begin with a story I rarely tell, because at the beginning I did something stupid that I am still embarrassed about. But it was also one of the most magical experiences of my life, and the story needs to be told.

In 2019, I traveled to Washington State and out onto the Olympic Peninsula where I joined my Shamanic Reiki teacher, Llyn Roberts, and the group I’d been training with for the past four years for a retreat in the Hoh Rainforest. We traveled together out into Olympic National Forest and stopped midway at a quiet beach for a water ceremony. It was my first encounter with the Pacific Ocean and I was a bit dazzled. I needed to get my glasses out of the way during the ceremony and hooked them on my shirt collar. After the ceremony, I walked out into the water a bit and bent over to put my hands in the water and… my glasses fell into the ocean and were instantly swept away by the surf.

If I had planned better, it might have been a minor inconvenience, but I had recently switched from contacts to glasses and didn’t think about packing an extra pair. What’s worse, I’d just gotten those glasses a few weeks before, so it was an expensive “whoops.” We were in the middle of nowhere already anyway, far from an optometrist, so there was nothing I could do but spend the rest of the time with impaired vision.

So for the week, while the rest of the group was enjoying the beautiful vistas, I was examining lichens and spider webs and anything else I could look at close up. I managed on forest trails by following the others and tried to feel for roots before I tripped over them.

We slept out on what we called the gravel bar, the former bed of the Hoh River which had shifted its path north a decade before. When we woke we would pick our way through stands of small trees and shrubs that were growing on the land the river abandoned and down to the bank of the river for morning shamanic practices and occasionally a swim.

On the last morning, I woke up and, despite everything looking fuzzy, found my way to the river on my own. I could make out one of our group sitting a bit further down the bank and another, my friend Jeff, taking a swim. I did my morning honoring of the elements and a grounding practice. As I was finishing up, I watched Jeff leave the water and make his way back to camp. A minute or two later I headed back the way Jeff had gone.

In the mess of trees, I lost my sense of direction and had a moment of panic. Even with my poor eyesight, I could usually make out the top of a tall pine that marked our camping spot, but now I’d lost track of it. I looked this way and that, then out of the corner of my eye I saw Jeff walking towards camp. Okay, now I knew the way and arrived at our camp minutes later.

Only to find Jeff not in his bathing suit but sitting up in his sleeping bag, a bit dazed after being woken up by a huge, antlered elk who had just walked into camp and put his nose right to Jeff’s face. Wait! So who did I follow into camp?

The other person who had been sitting on the bank arrived just before I did, and his working eyes saw what really happened. The swimmer in the river that I thought was Jeff? That was the elk. It was the elk that I followed into the trees, and the elk I caught sight of when I thought I was lost. And the elk led me to my camp and went right to Jeff, who I had mistaken him for.

I often think back on that moment with wonder. What made the elk leave the river then? And why did he go towards our camp? I would have thought the smell of the previous night’s fire and humans would have sent him another way. And why did he wake Jeff up? This experience with the natural world, and others like it during that trip, although less dramatic, cured me of my sense of separateness from nature and nature beings once and for all. I think that was the moment I really got what shamanism is about.

The paths to becoming a shamanic practitioner are rarely straightforward and usually we try multiple approaches. Sometimes you journey in the spirit world, like we did with the drum, and sometimes you follow an elk who had shapeshifted into your friend Jeff to lead you home. There are many shamanic traditions and practices to explore. Some will resonate, some won’t. What they all have in common, though, is an invitation to meet the other-than-human world, and the mystery, to awaken power, potential, and awareness of the interconnectedness of everything.

Revealing my Passion

I’m going to share with you a bit about the indigenous shamanic traditions that inform and inspire me, and some of the practices I have found the most useful in my personal evolution. But first I’d like to touch on why it matters.

We live in a world dominated by separateness. We’ve separated science from the spiritual, thinking from feeling, and, most regrettably, the human from everything else that exists. As a result, we are wrecking the place. We’re looking at the looming planetary crises of nuclear war, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Science and technology will help, but not if they are insulated from other ways of knowing. Intuition, sensation, and direct experience of the living world and of the deeper mysteries put science into an ethical context and give it purpose. This is how we save the world – and ourselves.

Shamanic Traditions

It’s because of a trip, a joint venture between the nonprofits Sacred Earth Network and Dream Change, which my teacher Llyn Roberts participated in, that we know about the Shor shamans, the people indigenous to the Shor Mountain region of Siberia in what is now Russia. They were persecuted by the Soviets, and still are today. Many were forced to give up their shamanic beliefs and practices or were just shot. There are only around 12,000 Shor people left and they have been rightfully secretive about their rituals and traditions. But, because some are willing to share their teachings, we have practices that we can use to connect with nature. And we have drums. The Shor shaman’s drum was their most important and most sacred tool. It was their connection to the other worlds, just as the drum opened one for you.

The energy practices of Tibetan Buddhism originate in an indigenous, pre-Buddhist culture that sees humans as one with the fabric of life – the Earth, stars, every living thing, all matter, and all energy. They see the necessity of keeping an internal balance between the cosmos and earth to stay centered and to feel whole and give us ways to maintain that balance.

The Shuar people of the Amazon also offer us practices and teachings. The Shuar are semi-nomadic indigenous tribes in what is now Ecuador and Peru who have avoided, for the most part, succumbing to colonization and missionaries. They were fierce warriors as well as healers. The Shuar have a deep intimacy with nature, especially with their teacher plants. They engage their subtle senses equally with the physical senses to be fully present to their relationship with nature.

The Shor, Tibetan, and Shuar teachings have been incorporated, with permission, into Shamanic Reiki, the energy healing modality I practice and teach. But the most prevalent cultural influence on Shamanic Reiki has come from the Maya of Central America. Since the Spanish conquest the Maya are mostly gone and those that remain are constantly under pressure to assimilate, but there are pockets of villages where their ways are still practiced. Shamanic Reiki Worldwide has a relationship with the people of one village in the highlands of Guatemala. Remember the whole Mayan prophecy that the world was ending in 2012? The Maya elders have taught us about their ancient calendar systems and how to interpret and work with the unique energies of each day. 2012 did not end the world, but marked a transition into a period known as the Fifth Sun when humans are supposed to balance their masculine and feminine energy and activate the full consciousness of the Earth and humanity. Coincidently, or not, 2012 is also the first year the readings of atmospheric carbon dioxide crossed the 400 part per million threshold. Seems we have some work to reach that balance.

While the Shor, Tibetan, Shuar, and Mayan practices I learned gave me a rich foundation in shamanism, I longed for indigenous wisdom that was tied to my own ancestry. I found that in the Druid Revival and Celtic shamanism. The ancient Druids didn’t write and the little we think we know about them comes from brief references in Celtic legends written hundreds of years after the Druids died out. The Druid Revival actually draws on Welsh lore from the 17- and 1800s. It does, though, provide an avenue for people of Celtic descent to reconsider their relationship with nature. What drew me to Druidry was an emphasis on local ecology and environmental concerns. Many of the practices are similar to what we did in Shamanic Reiki, but the language and spiritual context reflected my European roots. For me, becoming a druid is like finding the missing piece of the puzzle.

In my practices, I honor all of the indigenous wisdom I have received and can share, and I also honor my own ancestry.

Meaningful Practices

Shamanic journeys, like the one we took together, are a key practice, and the sacred place journey is one I practice and teach over and over. When you visit it enough, your sacred place becomes your home base in the other realms. All journeys can start and end there. With practice you easily shift your attention into your sacred place and from there go anywhere. Hank Wesselman, another of my shamanic teachers, called it your sacred garden. Hank said your sacred garden is symbolic of yourself. You can change your garden to have anything you wish there, and when you change something there you will also change an aspect of yourself.

Shamanic journeys can take you anywhere and can be directed by intention. Perhaps you want to meet a helping spirit to get answers to one of life’s questions or challenges. Perhaps you want to find a spirit huaca, the Shuar’s Quechuan word for sacred tools, to help with healing. Perhaps you want to shapeshift and experience life as a jaguar, a wolf, or a bear. Perhaps you would like to connect with an ancestor. These are all possible in the journey world.

Journeying is also one path to connect with nature. In your journey you can communicate with the spirit form any aspect of nature – rocks, trees, animals. But you don’t have to go to the spirit world to connect. Nature is right here, just waiting for you to notice it.

Whenever I speak with Llyn, she reminds me to meander. We all walk places, but usually we have a path or a destination in mind. Meandering is wandering without planning to get anywhere, just experiencing what’s around you without any expectations. You aren’t looking for anything, like birdwatchers, you are just being there. Because I’ve studied local ecology, I am aware of the fragile state of many Adirondack native plants, and I hesitate to meander off trail in sensitive areas lest I trample one. But this time of year, I love to meander in the woods in my snowshoes.

The Siberian Shor shared a practice of connecting to the Earth. A Shor shaman will wander until a place calls to them. When they find a place, they get down on their hands and knees and put their forehead down on the Earth. Then they just open to the energy of the place. They might stay a long time, just sensing and experiencing the Earth. Sometimes messages come through, sometimes it is just sensation. You just stay open to whatever comes. And for those who can’t get down on the ground, you can put your hands and your head against a tree or a big rock. I do this practice with trees all the time.

In Shamanic Reiki, there are several journey- and energy-based techniques that are used for healing ourselves and others. Practices like meandering and connecting with a place ground you and help you to work with natural energies in sessions. Nature is a powerful ally in a healing practice.

Spiritual Insights

Nature can also be an ally in other situations, like when you are lost among the trees and need an elk to guide you back to camp. I could have written that off as coincidence, but I chose to see the sacredness of my encounter with the elk. When I became aware of the sacredness of other-than-human beings, whether they’re the birds in my feeders, the squirrels, who are also in my feeders, a snake sunning in my garden, or a turtle I am helping, my spirituality shifted. During seminary I grappled with my sense of the nature of God. Now I consider the nature of life.

During my morning meditation, while the squirrels are running past, I wonder what dynamic force keeps life “life-ing,” for lack of a better word. I wonder who God is to the squirrels.

In the song Furr by the folk-rock band Blitzen Trapper, the songwriter tells the story of shapeshifting into a wolf and joining the pack. Part of the lyrics are “…I lost the taste for judging right from wrong. For my flesh had turned to fur… and my thoughts, they surely were turned to instinct and obedience to God.” The internet claims it’s a story about growing up but, as someone who has shapeshifted into a wolf in a journey, I hear a more shamanic message that stirs up my questioning. What would it be like to live without judging? And how often are concepts of right and wrong created outside oneself, by systems and societies that benefit from humans being separated from nature? What if obedience to God wasn’t following religious rules but responding to instinct, to intuition, to inner knowing?

A Call to Serve

For me, a shamanic life is one of deep inquiry which includes both spirituality and science. And that inquiry returns my attention to the state of the world. As Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme point out in their essay, The Next Transition, “As science is revealing to us the particular intricacy of the web of life, we realize we are unraveling it…” The personal spirituality I have cultivated through years of shamanic practices demands that once I realize the nature and extent of the destruction, I have a responsibility to do something about it. If I have access to power, I should use it to bring back balance.

My particular call to service came from animal helping spirits who showed me how vulnerable their physical manifestations were. Wildlife was suffering every day because of us humans. Habitat loss, poisons and pollutants, more and more roads dissecting their territories – it’s a wonder the wild beings are hanging on at all.

I got into wildlife rehabilitation to help a bit, especially with the turtles who are so often hit by cars on their way to their nesting areas. More than half the world’s turtle species are threatened with extinction, including some right around here, so every turtle I can help feels like a push back against impending doom. And I use my Shamanic Reiki skills in a holistic approach to care. I journey with them, talk to them, transmute some of their suffering, in addition to the science-y stuff like medications to manage pain and prevent infection.

It’s hard to have a more direct experience of wildlife than holding an orphaned baby squirrel against your chest until they are warm and relaxed. And it’s hard to come away from those moments of empathy and not want to make life better for all the squirrels, and all the other beings. I’ve become more conscious of how the land around my house supports wildlife and I’ve made changes so it will be real habitat with natural food, a water source, and shelter.

I’ve also looked beyond what I can do with my own hands to finding ways to help influence systems change with regards to climate change and biodiversity loss. This year I am participating with Citizens Climate Lobby’s wildlife action team and the earth-based spirituality action team, which brings it all together for me.

Harmonious Living

In his book, The Sacred Universe, Thomas Berry writes, “We need to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with the natural world, from a spirituality of the divine as revealed in the written scriptures to a spirituality of the divine revealed in the visible world about us, from a spirituality concerned with justice only for humans to a spirituality of justice for the devastated Earth community, from the spirituality of the prophet to the spirituality of the shaman.” With the wisdom shared by indigenous shamanic peoples and gained through shamanic practices, we can re-entangle ourselves in the web of life we’ve spent millennia trying to climb out of. When humanity wraps science with sensation, intuition, and the spirituality of the shaman, we will save the world.