QUESTION: I have two things: I have been practicing shamanism (the kind that uses a drum, not the kind that uses entheogens) for 20 years. It as well as witchcraft has been my fundamental instrument of healing and looking into my shadow. In shamanism, I learned that powerful forms of healing, such as soul retrieval and compassionate depossession, truly do change things at a deep level, and permanently. Someone can be in years of therapy and not get any traction until they are able to "come home" through soul retrieval. After depossession, some habits and behaviors truly do go away because they never belonged to the host person in the first place. It is not a quick fix, in that if one does not change their habits they are at risk of having soul loss again or allowing another being to enter their body. For me, it was after years of unraveling through these healings and journeying to my power animal/spirit guides for advice on my personal issues that I finally felt clear enough to get to the underlying patterns that are just mine and not connected to other beings. Towards the end of your powerful and very helpful book, Shadows on the Path, I was wondering what you would say if your spiritual experience had been in shamanism, rather than the more Eastern meditation modalities. Have you had exposure to such things?

I also wonder if in your sessions with clients you deal with the assault on our personal psyches and self-image that comes from the mass media and overculture? It seems that no matter how much we clear, there will always be these harmful messages coming at us on a daily basis. I would love to see you write another book based on the last few paragraphs of this one. People would love to hear your rich insight applied to how we can make a difference.

ANSWER: I have nothing but praise for the practice of shamanism, as you describe. My own healing journey included decades spending time in the Lakota tradition, which included inner voyaging via chants and drumming as well as sweat lodges. That was followed by many years in the Peruvian use of entheogenic plants, such as ayahuasca. I have partaken as well as trained in soul retrieval and depossession. I do love the practice of compassionate depossession as opposed to “let’s get this damn evil thing out of you”, which is how my teachers used to roll. (Important to remember here too as you probably know: there are no victims. We do invite in these entities on an unconscious level, as frightening and life-disturbing as they can be.)

The one common denominator in ALL of these practices is humans. We are all deeply flawed precious beings with huge blind spots. On top of that, on an unconscious level, we are firmly attached to our pain and suffering. If one can remember these two ever-present truths, no matter what the modality, there is a buffer of safety. Yes, you are correct in asserting that some can have decades of therapy with no shift. But the same can be true of any path, including shamanism. I regularly treat people who have spent many, many years in shamanic circles with no change whatsoever in their internal landscape. I have come across many unconscious teachers in that realm that could have used some basic psychotherapeutic tools to better manage their craft. I, myself, suffered at the hands of that unhealed unconscious behavior.

Spiritual tourism goes hand in hand with spiritual bypass. The last several years, the collective use of plant medicine on a regular basis is the latest vogue. I do not see any true lasting or deep changes in the people that I come across, except for a momentary MENTAL shift, which immediately goes by the way side as soon as the experience is over. And is again replaced by the underlying neurosis.

I always assert that with anything in life, intent is more important than action. We can carry the same exact action with two different intents, and we will certainly have two different results. But we are an action-oriented culture and, as such, intent does not figure heavily in our actions. To make matters more complicated, most of our intents are run by our deep unconscious. So we might be thinking we are doing something for one reason, while the unconscious will have totally different motives. In my experience, the unconscious motive for most of us is to keep things as they are. No matter how much we run around or act otherwise, we are deeply attached to the way things are.

We have to find the part of us that says NO to life. Whatever the tool to do that, I say amen to it. I have seen people use psychotherapy, shamanism, love of a person, animal, or nature, or deep brutal loss to find that NO. Then there is the grappling with the NO and sitting in its terror and pain. And then, slowly working with and saying YES. That is an arduous long ass process. It is best to not have aversions or preferences to any of these paths and tools, as we do not know what is good for us. All we need to do on a daily basis is to take an honest inventory of how off we feel. And that takes much attention on our part.

It is true what you say about culture. Culture is never our friend. Its job is to keep us asleep. But culture is not some outside thing: it is a mirror of the part of us that wants to stay asleep. The part that is, in fact, fully committed to it. The only way out of that hypnosis is to tether our consciousness to our core. That is the function of all these paths, to reconnect us to that inner compass that is ever-present. It takes courage to connect to that part of ourselves because everything and everyone around us will be threatened by that connection. Why? Because they will feel how disconnected their own lives are just by being around someone who is connected. At some point in our path, all techniques have to be surrendered. Our beating heart will be the path and the destination. Its song will heal us and all those around us. The patterns that bring pain fall away on their own accord. The biggest gift at this juncture is the biggest thing of all: full acceptance of ourselves and those around us, with all of our and their faults. So simple and yet so, so difficult. 

We are that we seek. Such simple words and yet so much work to remember that ever-present truth.