I’ve just returned from an extraordinary experience outside of Madison, VA. I got to spend two weeks participating in Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies annual Two Week Shamanic Healing Intensive. If that sounds like a mouthful, then know that actually being there was more like a soul-full of both personal and spiritual revelations that have helped to transform me yet again, and pushed me outside the limits of the box of “who I imagine I am.”
The Foundation for Shamanic Studies teaches “cross cultural shamanism,” which means we learned ancient spiritual healing techniques common to most indigenous societies rather than to a specific culture. Believe it or not these techniques are very similar no matter where on earth they may have originated.
“Extraction healing,” for instance, or removal of unwanted energies like illness, stress, entities, curses, or pain might look different from culture to culture, but the method has more similarities than differences. Where one culture might literally work with the shaman, or medicine healer, sucking something from the body and spitting it into a bowl, we learned to use our hands and to dispose of what we remove by “throwing” it into a body of water.
The point of much of this work is to rebuild your “spiritual power” in this reality, called Middle World, with the help of compassionate helping spirits and power animals from Lower or Upper Worlds. These are different “levels” of reality akin to what I might better explain as another dimension where things are just as real as they are here. One of the more exciting exercises for me was where we were sent to find a partner in either Lower or Upper World and to describe what we saw.
It was set up like a game of hide and seek, and we had to place ourselves in this other reality and wait to be found. Our partner had to wait approximately 30 seconds and then take off after us, tracking until they found us. This is done in a trance state initiated by the sonic drive of drumming. The drumming creates altered states of consciousness. That I could actually see my partner come and find me, and then go and search and actually find my partner, was validating on a very deep level that not only does “this stuff,” (shamanic spiritual work) work, but that it is as real as anything else I have experienced.
The point of this essay is not to reveal all that we learned, for that would not be possible using only words. Suffice to say that over the time of the twelve days we were together we became a community. We were sequestered in a beautiful wooded area of Virginia with walking trails, a river, wildlife galore, and time enough each day to commune with Nature, each other, and the power of what we were learning. The modern world still intruded, but it did not disturb. We could hear traffic, and trains, the lowing of nearby cows, and every once in a while, gunshots as deer season began.
Learning these techniques involves both giving and receiving healing energy. It requires trust of a stranger, who in the beginning the only thing you have in common with is a similar interest in non-ordinary reality. In a video conference we had with Michael Harner, Ph.D., an anthropologist who has made shamanism and preservation of these ancient healing techniques his life’s work, Dr. Harner told us that his intention is to have us learn this work in an effort to help heal and save the Earth.
According to Dr. Harner, we have ignored our responsibility for each other and our environment for too long. His admonition to us is that it might be too late, but our obligation is to try to help. Even if it’s just working with friends and family, or as part of a community drumming and healing circle, we should do something. Change happens one person at a time, after all.
Part of the work of the traditional shaman was not only to take care of the tribe, but the total environment, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The whole community participated in this as part of everyday life, and a spiritual overview of the nature of reality was a given. It was not religion as I have ever experienced it, but a deeper and more intimate connection with both seen and unseen worlds where help and guidance are available for the asking.
An interesting culture we learned about sent their very young children out into the wild by themselves, unguided, unprotected, in an effort to find spiritual help that was then believed to stay with and guide the person for the rest of their lives. As you might imagine, not everyone came back. I think this is an extraordinary act of trust. I surely would not have sent my precious children on such a journey.
Our retreat did not only open my mind and teach me about the techniques I signed up for. I lived very intimately with more than thirty other people for almost two weeks. We spanned a gamut of ages from 20 – 70. Some of us had experience with this work, some did not. We were all at different places in our lives. We were all looking for some kind of inner change as a result of participating.
I learned I still suffer from a lot of self judgment. “I am too old,” “No one will like me,” “I am not outgoing enough,” and a hundred other things ran through my mind. None of these judgments proved true, but it was interesting to listen to the inner dialogue. It made me very grateful for the life I do lead, living where I live. I am a thousand times more connected with the natural world than I once was. I have found inner peace and quiet on a very deep level even when the world around me is fairly chaotic.
My trip home was an awakening of sorts, too. Due to equipment problems my connecting flight to catch a plane back to Denver landed five minutes before the Denver flight was due to take off. I asked the flight attendant if he thought I’d be able to make it. “Not if that plane is on time,” he said.
We had landed at Gate E48. I needed to get to Gate B10. Even though Charlotte, NC is not a huge airport, that was a heck of a distance to negotiate in five minutes. So I meandered along for a minute or two. First one, and then another person sprinted by me. So I thought I’d sprint too. Maybe that plane would be a little late, too.
It was late enough at night so the moving sidewalks, which might have saved me not only a couple of minutes but some wear and tear, too, were all turned off. I had plenty of time to mentally thank my friend, Pam, for making me do my cardio so I could run so far without having a heart attack.
I got to Gate B10 and there were people there. I was thrilled. I had the good sense to ask someone, “Is this the plane to Denver?” instead of standing there waiting to board with everyone else.
“No,” she said. “That plane’s been moved to B14.”
I raced on to B14. Not a soul was there, but I could see someone still sitting at the desk. “Is the plane gone, yet?” I asked.
“Nope,” the bored looking woman said calmly. She scanned my boarding pass. I trotted down the empty rampway to the plane door, and on to my seat. It was 8:35pm when I sat down. The plane had been scheduled to take off at 8:20.
“Thank you, helping spirits,” I said.
“Thank you, friends from the intensive who sat with me in the first airport and helped the hours pass swiftly as I waited for my delayed puddle-jumper propeller plane to finally arrive.”
“Thank you, USAirways for being delayed for whatever reason so I could make it home tonight.”
Ordinary reality can sometimes be a real pain to negotiate. It’s so much simpler if you can just be grateful. No matter what.
I’m so lucky.
I had the best two weeks.