Integrating Shamanic Methods into Psychotherapy

Evidence of shamanism dates back to prehistory, perhaps as early as 40,000 years ago, and the practices continue to this day. As a psychologist in private practice in Western society, I have had the opportunity to introduce and integrate shamanic methods with psychotherapy. My guiding principle is to help my clients, and over the course of many years, I have become pragmatic, using many varied methods and approaches. Depression, dream work, resolving therapeutic impasses, physical healing with spiritual and psychological components, empowerment, the removal of curses, soul retrieval, strengthening of the self and the releasing of shame are just some of the situations in which shamanic techniques can be used.

 

Shamanism and psychotherapy are a natural fit in industrialized society.

How and when does a Western therapist decide to use shamanic methods?
What are the indications and contra-indications for their use?
How does the psychotherapist introduce and use these techniques?
How do these methods influence the client and the therapy relationship?

 

Shamanic methods uniquely access non-ordinary reality, and draw uponspiritual dimensions for help. Non-ordinary reality (NOR), a shamanic term defined by Harner and anthropologist Ingerman and others, is outside everyday life, and is divided into separate worlds; the Upper World, which helping spirits inhabit and the Lower World where power animals are encountered.The Middle World in this shamanic cosmology is ordinary reality, and is experienced with the five senses.

 

A shamanic journey is the method most often used to enter a state of consciousness that allows access to non-ordinary reality. By drumming or rattling, the therapist and client can enter an altered state of consciousness and communicate with spirits in the Upper World or power animals in the Lower World, in addition to working with spirits in the Middle World. Beings encountered in non-ordinary reality are experienced as real.

 

I use shamanic journeying with clients in psychotherapy to enter non-ordinary reality. A journey allows the therapist and client to bridge ordinary and non-ordinary reality and Introduction of shamanic methods: Why and When.

 

Experiential methods have been part of treatment ever since the beginning of modern psychotherapy when Wilhelm Reich introduced body-based techniques. Along with increased awareness and understanding of trauma in the last 20 years, there has been a flowering of experiential mind-body-energy techniques to treat people who have experienced trauma. Hypnotherapy, eye movement and reprocessing desensitization (EMDR), TAT somatic experiencing, past life regression therapy, and guided imagery are some of the approaches used today within psychotherapeutic contexts.

 

I have also journeyed alone to access my helping spirits when I need consultation to help me understand what is going on either in the therapeutic relationship with someone in my practice or in the dynamics of a client.

 

Using just the name or names of a person, members of a peer consultation group in which I participate journey to understand a case, with good results. People suffering from depression, a sense of emptiness, or of "not being all there," particularly benefit from shamanic practices. The soul retrieval method brings back lost parts of the soul in ways that no other experiential method can do. Many clients who have a history of sexual, physical or emotional trauma benefit from this technique. It is a way to reinvigorate, re-integrate without re-traumatizing a wounded person.

 

Introducing shamanic methods into a psychotherapy treatment is a different process than what occurs in tribal societies or in a freestanding shamanic practice. In indigenous societies, or a freestanding shamanic practice, both client and practitioner share the same worldview, or openness to the same worldview, and there is little need for extensive explanation and education. Within a psychotherapy practice, some clients may be uncomfortable with any alternative to mainstream psychology, and may not be open to a shamanic approach. In addition, they may not want to tap into the spiritual dimension in their therapy. Therapeutic judgment determines when and how much to push the boundaries of a client's comfort level. It goes without saying that a therapist should not force a client to try anything they do not want to do.

 

If a client is open to trying a shamanic method, explanation is essential. Using such techniques requires expanding the worldview of the client to include concepts such as soul, energy, non-ordinary reality and journeying into Upper, Lower, and Middle Worlds. I find that most people intuitively and quickly grasp the shamanic worldview, and are interested in getting relief from their suffering. A brief discussion and perhaps some reading is usually a sufficient first step.

 

Just as building an alliance with the helping spirits is an important part of shamanic work, building an alliance with your client is crucial in psychotherapy. Unless the use of shamanic methods is well established with a client, as in the case of Ellen, it is contraindicated if there is not a positive therapeutic alliance. In tribal societies, the shaman has a respected position, and any person requesting their services knows them or knows of their reputation, and views them in a positive light. A healing alliance is already established from the outset. When I have had clients see me just for shamanic work, alliance building is still important, and I must connect quickly with them in a caring, confidence-inspiring way. If I cannot do this, shamanic work will be unsuccessful, and should be delayed until a better connection can be forged.

 

Typically, I share the imagery from my journey with the client, as they share their experience during the journey with me. I am careful to share the imagery in ways that can be heard by my client. Often the process of sharing brings great healing benefit.

 

Shamanism and psychotherapy complement each other. As shamanic techniques access help, wisdom, and guidance from the spiritual dimension of non-ordinary reality, they extend the range and scope of therapeutic interventions available to the healing process. Mainstream psychotherapy, with its focus on the psychological dimensions and rooted in contemporary culture, offers approaches that are valuable on their own, and facilitates the effectiveness of shamanic methods by providing an anchor and context for their use. In addition, therapists who use shamanic practices can increase their impact through follow up within the therapy relationship. Through the application of shamanic practices, therapists act as bridges, dancing between healing approaches, connecting two worlds, the non-ordinary spiritual realms and ordinary reality. Therapists also act as explorers, bringing new methods and insights to the psychotherapy process, further expanding the frontiers of healing.

 

*References Cited *
1. Harner, M. The way of the shaman. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.
2. Ingerman, S. Soul retrieval: mending the fragmented self. San Francisco:
Harper, 1991.
3. Reich, W. Character analysis, third edition. New York: Farrar, Straus,
and Giroux, 1980.
4. Shapiro F. EMDR: The breakthrough therapy for overcoming anxiety, stress
and trauma. New York: Basic Books; 1997.
 5. Schwartz, RC. Internal family systems. New York: Guilford Press; 1995.
 6. Ingerman, S. Soul retrieval: Mending the fragmented self. San
Francisco: Harper; 1991.
 7. Ledbetter, CW. The charkas. Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing
Press, 1927.

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