Shamanism explores an area that contemporary Western science knows little about - The Mind.
Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness. It is the most basic way of experiencing and being our true nature as humans. It is the root and foundation of all that we are. It is a way of being and knowing that we are an intricate part of the great mystery of consciousness. This ranges from practicing ancient indigenous shamanic practices to yogic methods involving kundalini awakening, through to the Jungian psychology (which drew heavily from ancient cultures. Jung, for example, characterised schizophrenia and psychosis as a natural healing process).
Shamanism teaches us through each breath we take that we are beings with no beginning and no end; our spirits and bodies are ever-changing expressions of a vast entity, and that there is endless creativity and choices in what the so-called physical can be and in how we experience ourselves and and our place in it. Shamanism teaches that everything else is just like this too; that everything is conscious, and able to relate, communicate, and create while shape-shifting endlessly from one adventure to another, both inside and outside of time and space.
There is no denying that shamans see things differently than most other people. If you’ve ever looked into this, then you understand why. Recently I was reading articles about a West African shaman named Dr. Malidoma Patrice Some. His views on mental illness see through the apparent symptoms of something that so many have to live with. In his culture of the Dagara people, schizophrenics are not viewed pathologically, but as mediums bringing messages to their community from the spirit world. It’s a shamanic belief that many of the ‘mental illnesses’ people face are a part of the intricate birth of a healer and sometimes beings and other energies will attach themselves to these healers whilst they are birthing and this causes great turmoil which can manifest as many diverse symptoms. Without balancing the human relationship between the living and the dead, pretty much ensures that chaos will follow.
Dr. Some was shocked to see the way the western world treats what we call mental health issues. This was the first time he was brought face to face with what was practiced in the US and Europe on a person showing the very same symptoms he had seen in his own village. What struck Dr. Somé was that the attention given to these symptoms was based on pathology, which is the notion that the condition is abnormal and is something that needs to stop. This was completely opposite to the way his culture views the same situation. He was stunned looking around at the patients, some in were dressed in straitjackets, spaced out on medication, others were in deep distress. He felt an incredible sense of loss for these people. He saw this for what it was: western medicine and our culture was subconsciously drowning out the voices of the healers who are attempting to be born. He was devastated for the loss of these people and their purpose, for these were the ones being aligned with their power from the other worlds and in this situation this gift was being completely wasted.
In short, a shaman sees the potential in every person no matter how hopeless the case seems. You would be at a loss to explain this to many of the people who work in this field because hardly any consider the potential for psychic phenomena. Dr. Some saw ‘beings’ within this facility, spirits and aura that most cannot see. He understood that when these entities are removed, along with their negative energy, the person experiencing them can go completely back to a state in which society would deem ‘normal.’ Dr. Some wanted to work with some of these people to help them.
One was a young man named Franklin Russel. This gentleman’s parents didn’t know what else they could do so this was pretty much their last hope. They all went together. Franklin had been hospitalised for years suffering from severe visions, hallucinations, suicidal voices and was suffering from severe depression at only 18 years old. On top of this; he had gained another 100 pounds from prescribed medications and had developed adult diabetes.
Dr. Some took Franklin, with permission, back to his own village and began to treat him through rituals using water, shells, crystals, connecting with the ancestors and chanting. Franklins father explained he wasn’t the type or had ever expected to be conducting or taking part in spiritual water rituals or calling in the ancestors on his sons behalf - but he did.
After being in Dr. Some’s village for a modest 8 months Franklins weight gain completely disappeared, as did his diabetes. Franklin was quickly filled with inspiration, activity and enthusiasm. He went to a technical school and finished a course in mechanical engineering. He took various classes in boxing, gymnastics, arts and therapies. Through his healing he would continue to talk to Dr Some on the telephone frequently. He spent his time participating in shamanic rituals and learning his true nature as a divine healer. He went away for two weeks on his own to learn about building boats. He also possesses an uncanny ability to tap into the thoughts, patterns, hearts and minds of others! Franklins father said that he and his wife still work with these rituals today because not only has it changed their sons life for the better, but theirs too.
These ritualistic approaches to mental illness can really change their lives. Shamans see mental illness as the ‘sign of a healer coming into being’ and they are being born into a spiritual process that can be difficult to navigate through for obvious reasons. In an age where more stereotypes and stigma are more attached to mental illness than ever it’s time to look at the pharmaceutical industry which dominates attitudes and western medicine. I feel attention should be paid to the many studies which are showing the low number of cases featuring schizophrenia in developing countries have good outcomes after two years - compared to that of any wealthy countries where western medicine is being practiced.
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Art: Original Ayahuasca Art, painting by Jorge Ramirez