Shamanism And Illness
All healing practitioners, whether mainstream or integrative (alternative) look at illness and healing through their own unique sets of rules, teachings and understandings. When looking at the same person, a physician may see a metabolic imbalance, an energy worker may find a series of malfunctioning Chakras or blocked meridians, a spiritualist may discover a disconnection from The Universal Light. And each one may be completely right.
Shamanic practitioners generally understand the onset and evolution of illness to be spiritual in nature. And so, according to Shamanism, spiritual practice and spiritual support can be valuable tools to help with physical, emotional and spiritual illness.
According to the teachings of Shamanism, illness has three essential causes: Power Loss; Spiritual Intrusion; Soul Loss. Each of these conditions has a fairly specific set of Shamanic remedies. And although these remedies may be slightly different, culture by culture and tribe by tribe, they are still universal enough to be explored and understood by us in contemporary society.
Power Loss is best understood as becoming disconnected from our Power Animal (or Totem Animal, Guardian Angel or Spirit Helper). In Shamanic understanding, whenever a baby is born, it receives at least one principal guardian spirit to watch over and guide him or her. But over the course of time, if a person refuses to work with the intuitive/spiritual guidance the spirit provides, the Power Animal may simply go elsewhere to look for a human who will honor the connection. That can leave the original person unprotected, open to what emerges as chronic illness or apparent chronic misfortune.
The Shamanic intervention for such conditions is a Power Retrieval: a ceremony wherein the person is connected or reconnected with one or more spirit helpers. The person may also be given specific advice on how to honor and deepen the ties that link him or her to the wise, loving helpers who have accepted responsibility for his or her care.
From a Shamanic perspective, Spiritual Intrusion is a situation all physical beings deal with from time to time. It can take the form of a localized pain, illness or condition. Our world is as full of psychic debris and pollution as it is of smog and sludge. Spiritual intrusions can be thought of as negative spiritual energy that becomes lodged in our system. It probably got in when we were burned out and spiritually depleted; it can become more likely when we’re inebriated or drugged, particularly in negative surroundings. It’s important to know that spiritual intrusions can be self-generated: keep thinking about how much you hate your butt, and you’re launching a negative energy attack on yourself that makes the situation harder (and harder and harder) to undo. Spiritual intrusion can also be caused by negative energy − thought forms − being sent at us by someone who’s angry with us or otherwise means us ill. Spirit possession is also seen as a kind of spiritual intrusion.
This situation calls for what’s called Shamanic Extraction. In this work, the intrusion is very carefully removed and neutralized. Again, the person is often given specific spiritual or ceremonial work to do as a follow-up to the extraction and to help maintain positive spiritual energy and psychic shielding.
Soul Loss (or Soul Hiding or Soul Theft) is the condition of losing a part of the soul − our bright, powerful spiritual essence – because of physical, emotional or spiritual trauma. Someone experiencing significant soul loss often feels very disconnected from the self. Incidents of soul loss can leave a person saying, “You know, I’ve just never been the same since....” Some South American Shamanic teachings focus on the idea that, when a person experiences trauma, a part of the soul doesn’t fly away to other spiritual realms. It shrinks, and hides, and must receive encouragement and light to come to life again. And there is also the aspect of “stealing” a part of one’s soul. In our culture, we talk about giving our beloved a piece of our heart; from a Shamanic perspective, we’re actually giving or trading pieces of our soul. If the relationship ends there may then need to be some giving and taking to return each partner to a state of balance within the self. And, in some relationships, like a parent with a young child, we may see the parent taking a piece of the child’s soul through domination in order to maintain control over the rebellious little being confronting him or her.
These conditions call for Soul Retrieval, a ceremony in which a key part or parts of a person’s bright essence are returned into his or her immediate being. Additional Shamanic practice or personal prayerwork may be recommended to help with the reintegration of the soul part(s) which have returned.
My favorite sources for information on Shamanic healing are the books Soul Retrieval and Welcome Home by Sandra Ingerman. They provide beautiful and detailed examples of how Shamanic practice is undertaken to benefit the self and others. Just as important, these books illustrate the importance of competence, respectfulness and humility in Shamanic practice. None of us would be moved to say yes to a friend who said, “Hey, I’ve just sharpened my Swiss Army knife and I’ve watched ER reruns all week. Why don’t I take out your gall bladder and see if that helps your indigestion?” We should approach any Spiritual Healing modality, including Shamanic practice with the same level of self-interest.
As one of my most highly esteemed Shamanic teachers once said, AShamanic practice is a miracle, but it’s not a miracle cure.” He always advised that Shamanic work be undertaken in concert with appropriate medical and psychological interventions. The Shamanic perspective on illness shouldn’t be used as a substitute for competent, ordinary-reality-based health care.
But if extended physiological and intellectual interventions seem to be falling short, even modern medicine has begun to validate the power of spiritual connectedness and practice within the healing process. Shamanism can help anyone of any faith, or no faith at all, become more deeply and beautifully spiritually connected. And it can help foster a path to healing.
©2002, 2008 Stephen Neal Szpatura
Mountain Lake Moonrise picture courtesy of Free Nature Pictures.