Martin Duffy in Conversation with Tim Hannan
I am fascinated by the influence of shamanism on psychotherapy and the interface between them. I have worked for 20 years as a community psychiatric nurse and trained in transpersonal and humanistic psychotherapy and I principally see myself as a psychotherapist. The shamanic work I do is very much rooted in my psychotherapeutic training.
What I’ve become more interested in, in recent times, is the whole area of psychoneuro-immunology. This refers to the use of the imaginal realm to influence physical healing. We find that the immune system responds to visualisation and guided imagery and this is the area where I see the connection between shamanism, physical health and psychotherapy.
Shamanism, in fact, forms the core of all we do today in terms of medicine and psychology, because if you look at what the traditional shamans did and still do, they used art therapy, psychodrama, dance, gestalt, visualisation and music to promote healing.
If you look at the practices of any shaman and you analyse it from a psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic point of view you will find that much of what we think we have invented in the twentieth century has always traditionally been done by the shaman. Psychotherapy has limited itself to the emotional and psychological realm, but I think we need to move into what James Hillman and Thomas Moore term soul-work, re-souling the world in community, bringing people together to tell their story.
Hillman’s criticism of therapy is that it concentrates too much on two people talking together in a room without looking at the environment and the world and how that is impacting on a person. I don’t believe however that this is true of all humanistic or transpersonal approaches. When you think shamanically you may journey to retrieve the soul of a piece of land, to heal its soul. The whole world has a soul, everything in it has a soul. A building can lose its soul or a piece of land can be so ploughed up and overused that a shaman will be called upon to re-soul it.
Essentially, what characterises the shaman is that the shaman goes on a journey into non-ordinary reality what we might call the imaginal realm. You could look at it from the imaginal point of view in terms of Jung’s active imagination or guided imagery. But, I believe that it’s not just about working with the imagination, it’s journeying through the imaginal realms into non-ordinary reality.
I believe through my own experience, that non-ordinary reality is an actual place. Non-ordinary reality exists at the imaginal level in the imaginal realm. When someone asked Jung about “it being only the imagination”, Jung answered, “but the imagination is everything”, which I agree with.
Where we go in the imaginal realms, from a shamanic point of view is that we go to an actual other reality. If we read Carlos Castaneda’s work we see this very clearly. What the shamans discovered thousands of years ago is what the quantum physicists have now discovered. Three-dimensional reality of time and space is not the only way of seeing reality; it is not the only perspective. We are locked into an ego-state, which sees everything as solid, the universe is real, it’s here, and it’s tangible. But when we move out of that three-dimensional view we move into another reality.
Due to the age of rationalism and the Cartesian world view, what has happened is that all we recognise is the three-dimensional world view of time and space. We have lost contact with the imaginal realms, with the enchantment and magic of everyday life. If we look around what we see is soul loss at a personal and social level because we no longer trust our imagination. It’s seen as something that is suspect. It has led to “psychophobia” as I call it, fear of our own psyche and fear of going into those realms.
We all have the ability to work shamanically but many of us have been educated out of it, culturally, socially and in our educational system. The whole area of church religions and scientism has done great damage to the western human imagination and psyche. Not only has it not given us permission to access these realms, but it has actually warned us against going there.
The shaman works in the non-ordinary realm and always works in contact with what the shamans would call their power animals and spirit guides. If we look at Jung’s way of working there is no doubt that he worked shamanically in this way. He talks of Philemon and Ka, his spirit teachers and guides. He talks of going into the forest and meeting his guru in Active Imagination. This is all very shamanic.
The power animal and the spirit helper are spirit beings that live in a parallel reality to ours and I think Jung believed that. He didn’t state it openly because of the time he lived in.
In the shamanic cosmology there are three realms, the lower realm which you turn to in order to connect with your power animal and this is the place the shaman goes to when they want to work with power. If someone comes to me and they are having a lot of bad luck, losing things, etc. I will work with the lower world, which is related to the power loss.
I believe that when I work shamanically, I am working in non-ordinary reality which parallels this three-dimensional reality and also informs its. So, if you make changes in the non-ordinary state, it will have effects in ordinary reality.
The next realm we meet is the middle world, which from the shamanic point of view is this reality here, past, future or present. The kind of work done here would be things like clearing negative energy from where somebody has died in difficult circumstances. In this age of rationalism, little credence is given to the presence of spirits. Entities or spirits can get trapped in time and space and the shaman’s work is to help the spirit cross over. Another kind of work here would be divination.
Someone might say to the shaman, “I’ve lost my cow” so the shaman would journey out over the next valley and see it in such and such a place and the man would go and find it there.
The shaman is tied into the web of everything, he believes everything is alive – the trees, the grass, inanimate objects all have spirit – and the physicists will now agree that everything is a dancing mass of molecules. When you tune into that you realise that it is all a web of creation. If you alter your consciousness you drop down into that level. If, for example, a crow flies by, the shaman can tune into what the crow says. The shaman can dialogue with the animals because he dialogues with the spirit of the animals. She doesn’t speak English to the crow but she’s tuned in to consciousness. At a consciousness level she can talk to the animal, at the three dimensional reality, she can’t.
Animals are much more attuned to nature. Humans used to be but through industrialisation and urban living, they have lost touch with that, and I think that’s why more and more people are becoming attracted to shamanism. It is the ability to tune into nature and also this instinctual knowledge we humans have that there is such a thing as a spiritual realm.
The third realm is the upper world, where the shaman journeys to encounter the mentor, the guru, the spirit teacher. It is a place of knowledge and wisdom, the collective unconscious in Jung’s terminology. The place of the Akashic records, the total knowledge of humanity. The shaman journeys into that dimension whenever they want to gain wisdom and knowledge for the community or for healing the earth.
A very important function of the shaman is as a mediator between the spirit world and the human world and much of the teachings that come through from the collective unconscious is mediated through the shaman.
There are different cultural ways of accessing the non-ordinary reality. Drumming is a very widespread method of journeying and what you tend to find is that shamanic drumming operates at a rate of 4 to 7 cycles per minute. If you monitor this on an EEG the rhythmic drumming actually brings the brain’s frequency down to the theta range and this theta level is associated with deep trance and meditation. When people listen to shamanic drumming for any length of time, control tests indicate that 74% of any sample group will have shamanic visions just by listening to the drumming. Rattling is another method often used to divine illness and to clear energy blockages. Sacred plants, such as psilocybin, mushroom and ayahuasca are used in South American rituals to access non-ordinary reality in a sacred way. The ritual use of sacred plants never leads to drug addiction.
The sound and the sacred plants bring the person down into the theta states so they can open up to the imaginal realm.
Another part of the shaman’s work was working with death and dying. In our culture we have a taboo against looking at death and grieving openly but a wonderful and fascinating part of the work of the shaman is to act as psychopomp in escorting the dying person’s soul as it is leaving their body into the next realm and taking them where they need to go.
I would believe in the reality of the soul and the spirit and just as you can be confused in crossing three-dimensional reality of time and space, so you can be confused in crossing the imaginal realm of the beyond. Because if you die suddenly or afraid, or if you haven’t made peace with someone you may be confused.
Some of the work I have been asked to do is with people who haven’t passed over successfully and are trapped. I believe in the reality of that trapped soul. I am working at the imaginal level with the person’s soul and spirit. This may not be popular thinking in a rational society but I know from the reality of what happens that it is important work.
A series of tapes prepared by the Monroe Institute in the U.S. called “Going Home” can be useful in working with the dying, to bring them across and show them the other side before they die. It gradually teaches them how to leave their body, how to have out-of-body experiences, how to travel across to meet people who have crossed over. The helper also crosses over and returns, they do it together. A beautiful feature of the series is that you can then set up a rendezvous so that after the person dies you can go and meet them in non-ordinary reality.
In my work with my psychotherapy clients, I would sometimes introduce shamanic techniques. If they had come to a block, I might do a diagnostic journey to see what was going on, then negotiate a soul retrieval or a power animal retrieval or an extraction. There are particular situations where I have used it, perhaps after a road traffic accident or the loss of a relationship. I sometimes do a journey and find that a part of the soul has gone on with a dead relative into the other realm. Part of the work can be taking the dead relative’s spirit off to where it needs to go.
Another shamanic task is the extraction of intrusions into the person’s psyche, for example a negative projection that has become lodged in a person’s belief system as a physical symptom or depression. So the work would be to journey and extract that and send it back to where it belongs.
So the shamans work includes power retrieval, soul retrieval, extraction and ceremonial and ritual work with individuals, couples, families, community groups or working with the sacred sites or power places, places where power is gathered naturally in the earth.
When I do shamanic work with people they don’t have to journey, I do it for them. But when people come for shamanic counselling they do the journeying. It usually starts with an issue the person has in their lives. We spend the first part of the session clarifying what the issue is and getting them to make an intention for the journey. Then I describe what the journeying entails – “you go into a tunnel” perhaps. I then do a little exercise with them, to have them close their eyes, to imagine their home, to visualise their favourite armchair, teaching them that they can imagine things, despite their protestations to the contrary. I find that most people can have relatively easy access to the imaginal realm. People who have most difficulty are those with a left-brain focus. Having said that, I find that people who come to journey often experience what it is they need to experience.
So, I then get them to lie down on a mattress and listen to the drumming on a set of headphones while simultaneously describing what they are experiencing, for example, “I am now going down to the lower world”. They are describing the whole journey so that really focuses their intention. I find that people, who usually have a lot of difficulty visualising are helped by describing it in this way.
Then at the end we have a tape recording of the actual journey so that they can go back over it and make notes on it. The journey usually lasts for about half an hour so when they have returned we sit down again and we tease through what has happened, seeing if it makes sense in light of what we had discussed earlier.
So basically, shamanic counselling consists of describing the journeying to the client, getting the person to journey and then having a counselling session around what has emerged. I find it is a very powerful method, promoting huge changes and insights. It is fascinating to see what happens with people who have been working on issues in therapy for months and months and then something happens on the journey that breaks through it and changes it. The same happens in power animal or soul retrieval work it really enhances the therapeutic process. I am not saying it should replace it. Good grounded psychotherapy is very important and very relevant, and I do a lot of that work, but teaching someone to journey brings it onto another level. I would see my shamanic work as an adjunct to my psychotherapeutic practice.
A participant in one of the shamanic workshops had a series of encounters with a fox in addition to a series of synchronistic meetings with foxes in his daily life. Recently, in one of our sessions his fox began to bite his ear and began to tell him about painful issues in his life, which he didn’t want to hear about – relationship issues, his marriage. This man is coming to midlife now. The calling of the other is getting stronger. He left the session in a very different place, having really listened to what his power animal was telling him, something he was reluctant to do in ordinary reality.
When I journey for someone, what happens is that I experience myself, for example, journeying down and coming into the lower world realm, going down a tunnel and opening into the imaginal realm of non-ordinary reality. You can move about in a shamanic state of consciousness. From the shamanic point of view we have several different souls, one of which is used for journeying. The shaman believes that the soul travels out of our body through the imaginal realms.
While journeying recently, I entered the lower world and saw a stag racing along a forest path. I came down close to the stag and could feel his heartbeat, the feet pounding the ground. I could smell him. I could feel the power of him. I could feel the vibrancy in everything around me. Then I was seeing through the stag’s eyes, breathing the air, sweating, really in that space. You are there. You are not imagining anything. As an eagle or a raven, when I turn and bank the whole thing changes, just as it would if I were flying.
Sometimes when I am out in nature I might see a bird and I am spontaneously up there with it. I can see myself and my dog from where the bird is. It changes your whole perspective. You are actually projecting part of your soul out of your body and you can see yourself from that perspective. This is the classic out of body experience where people who are blind can see, where people who are on the operating table and pronounced dead know afterwards every word of the conversation in that room and can describe everything that happened.
And yet when I describe my journeys here I know that this is not just how I see it because I’m very much involved in hearing other people’s journeys during the shamanic counselling sessions. It is a very real physiological as well as imaginal happening and we know that what happens on the imaginal level influences us physically. People coming to the shaman have their own expectations and belief systems and their expectation of being healed sets off their own healing response. So, both the client’s imagination and the shaman’s imagination are pivotal.
One of my plans for the next year is to set up a closed group for people who want to journey together over a two year period, using a mixture of breathwork and shamanism. Also to set up a group for young men since our society doesn’t have a container for their natural instinct for the ecstatic. There are no elders anymore. Our psychiatrists and psychologists are inaccessible by and large so we need more people to hold the container.
We are dealing with very strong impulses that are archetypal, instinctual and they are being preyed upon by the consumer society and they get lost and destroyed. It is little wonder that so many people are turning to drugs. We have lost the sacred, we have lost the sense of magic and enchantment. Our churches no longer hold it . We have lost our sense of direction and myth.
So more and more people are instinctively drawn to work with shamanism. People who are working as therapists or healers are not calling it shamanism and they don’t have to call it shamanism, but that is what is informing their work. People coming to me for shamanic counselling or workshop often say “Thank God, I’ve found a place for what I have always felt but never wanted to talk to my colleagues about”.
I feel strongly about it because of the results I see it getting, but also because of its post-modern application to psychoneuro-immunology and behavioural medicine. It really is time for people to open up to the transpersonal and include it in their work. The thing is for each person to try it. If it works then use it, but at least try it and see what you think.
Martin Duffy, MIAHIP, MIACT, is a director of Dunderry Park Transpersonal Centre and a graduate of the Scandinavian Centre of Shamanic Studies. He is an accredited counsellor and psychotherapist with a Jungian/transpersonal orientation. He trained in Holotropic Breathwork with Dr. Stan Grof and is a founder member of the Transpersonal Group. Martin can be contacted at Dunderry Park and will be holding regular shamanic workshops beginning in early 1999.