While ritual, magicko-spiritual power, and interdimensional journeying are obvious and very significant elements of the shamanic path, woundedness is one of its most vital and least recognized aspects. The shamanic path is one of brutal self-honesty, intense personal healing, and deep self-knowledge. It also includes a responsibility to be of service to one''s self and to the community.
The shaman passes through personal wounds, usually beginning with the shamanic initiation, and emerges as a fully transformed being. The new shaman is thereby capable of handling the dangers and responsibilities inherent in the shamanic vocation. This healing and transformation continues for a lifetime. Through this process, the shaman becomes the Wounded Healer.
It is commonly understood that the shamanic initiation often includes the wounding and healing of the shaman by helping spirits. Among traditional shamans, the experience of dismemberment or decapitation is common. This process strips away the original identity of the shaman, removing any association with the body and the current personality.
In facing the spirits of disease and wounding, the new shaman gains complete knowledge of them. Often during these journeys, the spirits will teach the new shaman through the process of reintegration, providing an intimate knowledge of both wounding and healing. In passing through this test of one''s complete being, the Wounded becomes Healer.
Many indigenous cultures recreate this aspect of the shaman though their initiation ceremonies, during which the neophyte shaman is ritually killed or wounded. Like all ritual, this serves to ground Otherworldly and profound psychological experience into physical reality. This is also a physical representation of the shamanic initiation by the spirits. These ceremonies may assist members of the community in perceiving the new shaman as a different being than the individual they once knew. The shamanic initiation in the Otherworlds is frequently a psycho-spiritual crisis that manifests as a death-rebirth scenario.
This violent and frightening type of initiation is fairly common, particularly among traditional people. However, it is vital that shamans remain continually open to spirit guidance and work to clear personal issues that may interfere with the work. An initiation alone does not make one a healer or a shaman.
This is an apt description of the shamanic experience. One cannot truly walk this path for any period of time without facing up to one''s own wounds. When we consciously open to Otherworldly communication, our spirit guides will not permit us to continue deluding ourselves and avoid personal shadow aspects. Furthermore, our own subconscious selves will project these shadow aspects into our everyday lives and our shamanic journeys.
None of us are completely beyond our personal issues or beliefs. These always have the potential to affect one''s judgment and one''s ability to heal. This is particularly true if the ego is permitted to get out of control. The need to be right and powerful and knowledgeable can be very effective in putting up blinders and impeding the free flow of energy.
It is also true that our own personal beliefs act as a filter through which we perceive reality. Unless we are aware of these beliefs and how they affect us, the clarity with which we interpret shamanic experience and communications from spirit guides can be compromised. It is a good idea to explore your own personal symbolism and belief systems when developing your shamanic abilities. Self-knowledge is the key to power and protection.
It is especially important to examine those beliefs that appear to be absolute truths.1 To us, these are not simple beliefs. They are Reality; this is just how the world is/I am. They are easily justified through a variety of means and they are not something we feel is changeable. They are also often not something we feel comfortable exploring.
Absolute truths are dangerous because of our absolute conviction that they are Truth. This doesn''t need to be as intense as the existence of a higher power or the presence of gravity. It can be as simple as "The world is a violent place," or "Some people can''t be trusted."
We blindly cling to these beliefs. We won''t investigate them or where they came from because we don''t want to risk losing the security of our reality constructs, even if these constructs make for an often uncomfortable reality. We tell ourselves it is silly to work on these, because they are not just beliefs. In this way, we prevent ourselves from taking the leap to true self-knowledge and freedom. Nothing should be off-limits to our questioning. Resistance within the Self should always be perceived as something to investigate, not avoid.
Often, and particularly early in the path, the frightening images and experiences we encounter during dreaming or in more conscious journeys are our own projections. They are shadow aspects that we have denied. They are searching for a way to be acknowledged, cleared, and integrated. These are opportunities for growth. Unfortunately, we frequently react to these aspects with fear and loathing, slamming yet another door on our inner selves.
The individual that has been wounded and healed is most capable of healing--and of understanding the wounds of others. This is especially true when the wounded individual is directly and consciously involved in his or her own healing process. In our own search for wellness and balance, we gain the methods and abilities to heal, and to empower others to create their own healing. This is vital to any path involving service and community.
The empowerment of others is an important point. Shamanic cultures recognize that those in need of healing are an integral and powerful part of the healing team. These individuals must believe and accept the healing in order for the shaman to be most effective. One of many reasons our mechanistic Western medicine is not fully effective, and often does not last when it is effective, is its failure to involve the individual in creating his or her own health.
Health is a different experience than healing. Healing is often defined as curing, fixing, making sound or whole. On the other hand, health is the condition or experience of being whole. Health can also be defined as a sound functional condition. In mainstream Western medicine, health is generally regarded as one''s functional condition. Therefore, healing is the remedy for a poor or nonfunctional condition. We get people to the point where they are able to perform in society again. Any greater benefits are incidental, as long as the individual is functioning according to our culture''s current standards.
In shamanic societies, a healing is far more than merely restoring physical and mental functioning. A healing involves both shaman and the individual in need. It often includes members of the family or community in a dynamic process of physical, mental, and spiritual cleansing, release, and reintegration. It is understood that health cannot be obtained unless the full being of the person in need is in balance.
Shamans are often called upon because they have passed through the imbalanced and wounded Self and have emerged as balanced, highly functional beings. The shaman knows the roads to healing well after walking them many times in the search for total, integrated health.
In a sense, we are all called to be shamans. We all know how it feels to be wounded; to be sad, hurt, abandoned, angry, confused, and a multitude of other emotions that we would rather not experience. Only through an acceptance and integration of our shadows can we clear our Stuff. Only then can we truly be free. When we allow ourselves the freedom to experience our wounds, we begin the healing process. Yes, this can be painful and difficult, but we are far stronger than we think and we are not alone.
Throughout this book, I examine the various forms of woundedness and their effects on our selves and our communities. Throughout all of this exploration, one thing becomes very clear: we are not alone--and we need not rely on personal power to help us pass through the trials of transformation. The shamanic path brings us experiential evidence of the abundance of supporters, guardians, and guides we have available to us. Shamans possess a heightened awareness of our allies in alternate realities and our interconnections with all of life.
We all have spirit guides, guardian angels, and animal allies. These beings walk with us and assist us in a multitude of ways. This is not the sole realm of the shaman. The shaman is Shaman because of an unavoidable calling that results in tremendous abilities to work with these beings, both in our world and in theirs. However, we all may learn to work with these energies for the benefit of our own spiritual evolution and the continued evolution of our species.
Whether you perceive these energies as archetypal energies, aspects of our own subconscious, or living interdimensional beings is irrelevant. It is your willingness and ability to work with these energies, listen to what they have to teach you, and integrate them into your own Self that is important. As long as it contributes to your personal evolution and the benefit of your society, how you choose to perceive these beings is up to you. To be honest, our limited perception of these energies while we reside in this reality is not fully accurate no matter what we believe them to be.
We experience a representation of the totality of the spirit guide''s being. Our perception is certainly increased and expanded through shamanic states of awareness. However, all direct experience must be filtered through consciousness for us to remain aware of it in this reality. What we bring back to consciousness with us is a symbol: something that has passed through the filters of our personal and cultural beliefs and is now accessible to our rational minds.
Through this process we are able to store this experience in our memories and we can then communicate it to others. Our spirit guides rarely exist simply as those mythological beings or animals of this planet that we recognize them as. They manifest to us in ways that are easiest for our conscious minds to handle at any given time. This is why dreams and shamanic journeys are so full of rich symbolism. This is not to say that these beings do not exist independently as specific forms, regardless of our interpretation.
However, this symbolism can be highly personal. Its purpose is to bypass the rational mind in order to speak directly to our spirits. The energy that I experience as Bear has had a huge variety of lessons for me throughout my life. The faces of Bear have changed according to the situation and where I am on my path. But while I best interpret this energy as Bear, it may be very different than the energy that Sue interprets as Bear. It may also be very similar to what Frank interprets as Merlin. In this way, personal symbolism serves to assist us in translating our guides into forms that we can understand and access in this reality.
The road to and through the shadow side is equally symbolic and these symbols are just as personal. We may be presented with dramas and images that have no apparent origin in this reality, yet they are valid and accurate in our particular situations. They are like the binary code that a computer reads. We see no zeros or ones in the graphics and words that show up on our computer screens, but this is how the computer stores them. From these symbols and their specific combinations, my computer knows that I am writing these words and not playing a computer game. When I access this file tomorrow, I will read this chapter and not see my son''s computer game.
Our brains function as living holographic computers and play a significant role in the body/mind/spirit connection. It is in the brain that interdimensional communication and experience is translated into the symbols of language and the images of this reality. The brain is the major storage facility for memory and personal symbolism, and functions as a type of stabilizing guidepost for the shamanic traveler.
When we experience contact with alternate realities, this experience is funneled through the brain where it is compared to everything else in our memory banks. In general, any experience or image that does not resemble anything previously experienced is discarded. This is one reason why many of us fail to remember our dreams: they do not easily translate into any known symbols.
Those experiences that bear a similarity to something in our memories are interpreted according to what we already understand. For example, the spirit woman of light that met me during a shamanic journey and informed me that I was pregnant was not a real human woman and it is doubtful that she chooses to take that form all the time. Yet this was the type of energy I recognized in this being. It was also the best form for me to receive her message in at that time.
It is interesting to note that this particular part of that journey was not immediately accessible to my conscious mind. Although I easily recalled every other part of the journey, there was a blank spot at one level of the Upperworld. I knew something significant had happened, but my rational mind needed more time to process this experience. Several hours later, I spontaneously remembered everything. It was as though my brain had completed its translation and it was released to my consciousness in one huge flood of memory. It came through so fast that I had difficulty writing it down quickly enough.
Shadow aspects and wounds are stored throughout the body, often in the form of symbols. They are like computer viruses that are hidden within a loop of larger, active files. These viruses are not readily apparent to us. We may have to really search for them, yet they still have the power to dramatically impact our reality. If left unchecked and uncleared, they can wreak havoc on our systems.
Shadow aspects work in similar ways. Our day-to-day habits and patterns are the larger, active files. These are the visible elements of our realities. We look for most of our cause and effect here in the obvious. While there usually is a direct relationship between our physical actions and the consequences, this is not always the case. Even more often, the reasons for our physical actions and emotional responses are frequently not clear.
It is difficult to heal an unseen wound or cure an illness when we don''t know what is causing the symptoms. Healing one''s psycho-spiritual wounds is made more difficult because we, as ego-identities, are afraid to give up control of the consciousness. The ego fears dissolution and has taken on the responsibility of preventing pain and vulnerability, as well as preventing access to the deeper regions of the Self.
The ego does not want to let go of the power in this incarnation and so it mistakenly fears its own death in confronting our shadows. What the ego is unable to see is that big picture. While it is true that reintegration of shadow aspects can be painful and the ego will not be the same once this is accomplished, the ego does not die off. It evolves with the rest of one''s being and becomes a more expanded part of the Self. No longer does the ego continually need to reassert itself in the face of potential threats. Suddenly, we are secure in our own existence and in our interconnections with all of life. We find that differences of opinion are nothing more than varying perspectives of beings that currently occupy different places on the path of evolution. We are comfortable in accepting and even learning from those differences.
This is the best healing that the shamanic path can bring to us as individuals and as a society. The only real differences between us are our perspectives and our beliefs. Therefore war, violence, and religious conversion are truly irrelevant wastes of time. Reality is subjective and is based on our beliefs. Through the direct experience of spirit guides, alternate realities, and the lands of the dead, we gain a significantly expanded perspective. The issues of this reality become far less personal when we realize that our "person" is far more than this personality.
In other words, your point of view is your point of view and it has no bearing on my spiritual path. I am here in this body at this time to take care of my own stuff and to work on my own spiritual development. Only I can walk my path and I cannot walk yours for you. I cannot possibly know what experiences and beliefs are necessary for your soul at this time. Beyond all our beliefs, we are One; interconnected and more divine than we realize. Therefore, judgment is pointless. The only honest and wise choice is to accept each being and each experience as a potential teacher and learn what we can.
That certainly is easier said than done. It is also a simple thing to recognize what others need to learn; much simpler than realizing what our own lessons are. It is much more comfortable to let the issues slide and deal with them another time or in another lifetime. That is what reincarnation is for, isn''t it? Why do those on the shamanic path put themselves through so much in one lifetime?
There are as many reasons for this as there are those walking a shamanic path. However, in most instances it is an inevitable side effect of the shamanic Calling. On some level we have decided, along with our guides, that we will not be permitted to ride it out this time around. Our guides may need to assume the role of "bad guy," forcing us to see and experience difficult things for our own spiritual growth. This begins with the shamanic initiation and continues throughout the life of the shaman.
At one point, I was resting easy. I was delighting in the wonderful new creations we had accomplished and, frankly, was getting lazy. Life was good and I wanted to enjoy that for as long as possible. I was happy and I wanted to avoid facing those remaining shadow aspects that I knew were still present. That is a wonderful place to be, but it cannot last forever. To try to halt everything at one happy place is not only fruitless, but it denies the trust we have in Spirit and attempts to dishonor ourselves by pausing evolution.
My guides were not about to let me get away with that. They made it painfully clear that I needed to get off my butt and start doing some serious shamanic work. During a journey to scope out one specific shadow aspect, I was pulled into the constellation Great Bear. Bear pulled me in and held me in her heart, then sat me down for a talk.
I asked how to clear this aspect that I perceived as negative. Bear said, "You don''t," and smacked me once on each cheek. With tears of pain, I touched each cheek to find blood and skin ripped by open claws. Bear placed a necklace of bear fur and claws around my neck and told me, among other things, to ". . . stop judging it and use it. . . . You have opened the way; you must work with it!"
When the journey ended, I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my face shredded and bloody. I knew with absolute certainty that another journey lay ahead of me in this reality and that it was time to get back on the path.
This is not to say that the shamanic initiation and our interactions with spirit guidance are only about facing difficulties and mortality. It can be a lot of fun, but it is most definitely always enlightening. The shamanic initiation manifests in many forms. The classical death, dismemberment, and ingestion scenario is not necessarily the most common. Sometimes we do need to be kicked in the teeth for us to wake up and take notice. However, there are those for whom this is unnecessary and would be counterproductive.
Many people experience varying degrees of merging with spirit guidance, or shapeshifting. This is a gentler method of initiation, but is no less powerful. Shapeshifting can take years of work to accomplish consciously. When part of an initiatory experience, it is a good indication that the shaman-to-be is open and accepting of the Calling, as well as relatively clear of limiting beliefs. This does not necessarily mean the individual does not have significant work ahead of him or her, but things may go a bit more smoothly without a huge burden of blocks.
This decision to "take it all on" is also a side effect of shamanic practice. One cannot walk the roads of the Otherworlds and be called as Healer without the impact of these blocks and conditions becoming crystal clear. We know from direct experience that healing and passing into the next world is made much easier when one''s personal wounds are handled early on. As I describe in Shamanic Guide to Death and Dying, these experiences and beliefs are re-experienced at the moment of death.2 These uncleared issues are also part of the after-life review with spirit guides, and they will be repeated in another incarnation until they are properly handled.
A good friend once reminded me of the interesting cliché, "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." People often say this in the midst of a crisis or tragedy. Rarely does it seem to hold much healing or truth for them. It often comes across as a platitude, something we tell people to try to make them feel better about the fact that the world has just come crashing down on their heads. "Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . whatever . . ." We don''t believe it is true and we don''t really want to hear it from other people.
Like many of our societal clichés, this one contains a good deal of truth and bears further exploration. When we are able to face up to life''s challenges and traumas and move through them without losing ourselves in the process, we necessarily become stronger beings. No longer can we hide and say, "I can''t . . ." We know that we can.
These situations change us. Ideally, we grow through these challenges as we meet them and pass through them. Often, it is the ability to trust and experience one''s own vulnerability that defines one''s strength. Certainly, these experiences allow us more understanding into specific situations.
Unfortunately, many of us do not emerge whole. Although we may have tackled the challenge and we may have done what needed to be done, a great many of us suffer varying degrees of wounding in the process. Often, these wounds remain with us for years because we wall them off while they are still raw and allow them no light or air or anything they may need to heal.
Most of the time, this is the only way we can get through these experiences. We are protecting the Self in the only way possible at the time. This is beneficial in that it allows the identity to move forward; it sacrifices certain aspects to preserve the individual.
Sometimes we are able to face these wounds again. Through therapy or spontaneous memories, we can re-experience the wound and its cause. Yet, if we are not prepared to release the pain and accept the experience, no healing will occur. In fact, hypnosis or soul retrievals that are performed before the individual is ready for reintegration can be even more traumatic and cause further wounding. Furthermore, if the belief or cause of the repression has not been cleared, a long-term healing will not be possible.
We must do more than just relive these painful experiences. We need to prepare for this process by doing a considerable amount of personal shamanic work. Certainly this does not need to be done within a shamanic framework, but this is my path and my main means of describing the process. We work with our spirit guides to help clear out the easy stuff. We use journeying, dreaming, storytelling, and more to get on to the path of self-knowledge. This preliminary work must be done before we can hope to effect long-term healing for anyone.
I have seen and read about shamanic healings and soul retrievals that initially seemed to be beneficial. The clients experienced an emotional release and left feeling very hopeful. Unfortunately, many of these people experienced a recurrence of the same situations or found that within a few months of the session nothing had changed. These people often end up feeling betrayed or let down. Some decide that they or their problems just can''t be fixed and sink deeper into destructive patterns.
This is one reason for the importance I place in this book on preparing for healing--both for the individual in need and the healer. First and foremost, we must choose to do no harm to ourselves or to others. All the best intentions will be pointless if we push ahead in an attempt to help another person or gain healing for ourselves and create more wounding.
Before choosing to offer any form of healing, healers must work to heal themselves. They must have cleared a significant amount of their own shadows in order to recognize and understand the necessary healing methods. We go into healing for two reasons: because we have a spiritual mandate to do so, and to be of service to those in need.
Healing from within one''s ego is rarely fully effective and can be detrimental to all concerned. When individuals in need come to us for assistance, it is our responsibility to do what it takes to heal them or to refuse to take on the case. To heal takes the ability to be open to spirit guidance; to step beyond our identities and allow universal Medicine to flow through us.
By this, I do not mean to say that only those that have fully healed and worked through all the big stuff should act as healers. I would never discourage anyone from following their hearts in this. My main point is to highlight the fact that this is an ongoing process. Healers work on healing themselves for their entire lives. My other main goal is to point out that we each need to be mindful of possible alternate interpretations for what we see, and watch for our own projections in those that come to us for healing.
The power to heal comes not from within this body or the identity of this particular incarnation, but from the Great Spirit, the God and Goddess, or from whatever name you choose to give the divine Source of All Life. To rely on one''s own personal power only depletes our own energy, leaves us open to imbalances, and detracts from the full flow of healing energy that should be received by the person in need. Effective healing makes full use of the spirit guides of all involved.This is vital to the healing process. When we deal with someone else''s wounds in an empathetic way, whether psychically or shamanically, we allow our energy fields to be open to them. Ceasing or postponing personal work and communication with spirit guides increases the possibility that we will hold some of that wounding. While we work with grounding energy, we may not clear everything, particularly when a person in need is mirroring something within us that we have not yet dealt with--one of our own shadows. Our guides will know instantly and can alert us to the need for additional work on ourselves if we allow them to and ask for their help.When we become caught up in the ego and this personality, we permit ourselves to move back into wounding. We also block effective communication from spirit guides. Our perception in all realities becomes limited and we may find ourselves stuck in beliefs and transitory desires once again. At this point, we have strayed off the path of the shaman. Our shadows gain control and we find conflict and pain where we once found opportunity and growth. Where once we recognized the reasons for certain situations, we now only rail at the injustice of life. The path of the Wounded Healer is not easy. It is a lifelong process that has its ups and downs and may cycle back around just to ensure that an issue is fully clear. In spite of the difficulty of this path, the benefits of walking it are beyond compare. They carry over into the next world, and the next life if we have one. More than that, it is always an adventure.