"Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death. They are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodies can be left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. They are not only spiritual leaders, but also judges and politicians, the repositories of knowledge of the culture's history, both sacred and secular. They are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography; the ways of plants, animals and elements are known to them. Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy."
-- Joan Halifax, Ph.D. (1979, pp. 3-4)
“The culture I come from needs little excuse for a fiesta. We know the value of celebration and communal acknowledgement for events that are important in the lives of our people.” The speaker chose his words carefully as English was his second language. His cadence, his Spanish accent, and his bearing as a man who carries wisdom and power combined to weave an aura of importance about the moment. “Humans are symbolic creatures and we all are enriched when our family and friends acknowledge our individual rites of passage in a ceremonial way."
Everyone in our group of 18 shamanic apprentices listened with rapt attention. “Today we are going to ceremonially re-enact your birth - your birth as an individual and as a community committed to work with unseen forces and energies. And through the mediation of the spirit world you all will one day become shamans and healers. You will bring meaning to your own lives and to those you minister by facilitating balance where there is disharmony and ceremony where purpose and awareness is forgotten.”
That day, nearly ten years ago, was an auspicious one. It was Easter and the first day of Passover. The night sky would reveal a full moon. Each of us was to be ritually buried under the sands of Mother Earth with only a small opening through which we could breathe. This was to be our initiation. We were both anticipatory and scared, but mundane concerns also occupied our minds as the sand fleas had their way with us. As the sun set and the moon brightened the evening we were alone in our solitary graves, fighting our inner demons…claustrophobia, fears of losing control and even dying were among the candidates…until each of us individually learned to submit to our situation and yield to an inner serenity that all of us carry within us, but is so often masked behind the drama of our lives. Following our eventual “resurrection” we were instructed to dive into the cleansing waters of the Atlantic. Death and rebirth; the shaman had accepted us as his students and our world would not be the same.
The term “shaman” is used to describe individuals who are able to bridge the physical and spiritual realms through their ability to enter into, and induce, profound states of trance. Shamanism is less of a specific methodology than it is a cosmovision which holds as a central tenet that the spirit world is interacting with, and upon, the physical world all the time. Our thoughts, actions, and health are influenced by unseen spirits, with or without our awareness. The shaman possesses the ability and the obligation to serve as an intermediary between the physical world and the worlds beyond. An individual's entry into this service seems to follow one of three different paths: an in-born or genetic pre-disposition, a “calling by spirits” who won't take 'no' for an answer, and a protracted period of training and apprenticeship. My path has been the latter.
A frequently-used metaphor in shamanic traditions is that of dismemberment. It is a term that refers to the breaking down of structures upon which we rely leaving behind raw reality and possibility. In AA terms, this is “hitting bottom” - something much more profound than a mere crisis or trauma. It is an encounter with balancing on the razor's edge that separates breakdown from breakthrough. Dismemberment isn't necessarily “bad”, though it feels awful and is accompanied by desperation and a sense of a life-or-death struggle. My “hitting bottom” began with the death of a spiritual mentor and ensuing questions regarding my “faith”, followed in short order by the break-up of my marriage and a change of my career and job. My “breakthrough” came in the form of a trance experience; a shift of perception that changed absolutely everything.
I sat in an isolated area above Santa Barbara, California, in the Los Padres National Forest. The date was October 10, 1992. I came to this place on a mini vision quest, hoping to more deeply connect to the spirit of nature, to my own spirit. I undertook this journey because I felt I was losing my soul. After 10 years in the military and three additional years of graduate school it seemed that I was always busying myself with work and preoccupations; I rarely took time to notice that I was surrounded by a world of magnificent beauty. My mind began to empty itself of itself as I replaced thought with an energetic connectedness to the mountains and trees that surrounded me, to the soil upon which I sat, and to the birds whose songs pierced through the stillness of isolation. In time my heart felt as if it were beating rhythm with Mother Earth. Words can't do justice to the experience for I entered into a non-linear reality where my thoughts seemed to meld with the memories contained within the very land upon which I sat. And visions came…visions of the peoples who once proudly walked along those mountain pathways, through the unending forests and brush. It is was as if I was living amongst those Indigenous Peoples whose name came to me, the Chumash…and yet I also stood apart, observing and recording in my mind everything.
For six hours I remained in that state, my mood swelling in witness to the triumphs of the Chumash people and the sacred communion they shared with the land and waters. And, eventually, I was crushed with sadness as I saw and felt the Spanish arrive in their large ships bringing with them the seeds of destruction for this proud culture. I wept while the Spanish missions were built through the forced servitude of the Chumash at a time when so many of their number died through disease and broken spirit. And, with that, my visions began to recede, yielding to my ordinary reality but with a difference. I walked away from that experience with the firm belief that absolutely everything is recorded within us. Within some essential part of my soul I was both Chumash and Spanish, the spirit of the mountains and the streams… My spirit recognized that it was a thread woven into some infinitely intricate fabric that linked all the energies of creation, both animate and inanimate.
As a footnote to the above, I went to the library later that week to research whether what I had “seen” was true. I learned that there was indeed a peoples who called themselves the Chumash. Their homeland covered a 7,000 square mile area along the Central California coastline; Santa Barbara, which they called Syuhtun was about the mid-point of their range. More interesting to me, however, was the date when the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed his flagship into the Santa Barbara harbor where he had first contact with the indigenous inhabitants. It was exactly 450 years to the day of my vision - October 10th, 1542. I sat in shock as the feelings of my experience again flooded my awareness. I knew that I could not simply return to the life I had led to that point; I must learn more. So began my study of native traditions and, later, shamanism.
Shamans, extracting from Joan Halifax's definition, “are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy who function as healers, seers, and visionaries within their communities.” They are people who transit at will between the worlds of matter and spirit and whose capacity to do so arose, in part, through an “initiatory experience”; at some stage the apprentice shaman directly confronted his or her own physical mortality and did not blink. This encounter may have been literal, perhaps involving a life-threatening illness or accident, or figurative, as might occur through a near-death experience or vision obtained through ascetic practices or ingestion of “medicine plants” such as ayahuasca or San Pedro.
It is the collapse of boundaries between ordinary and non-ordinary reality that makes a seer; it is a commitment to serve others through using vision to transform the world around them that make the seer a shaman. Put another way, shamanism is a form of mysticism that actively encourages transformation on the part of individuals and communities. To be a shaman is both a process and a role played; it is not a permanent attainment. Just as a surgeon is not always doctoring, a shaman is not always shamaning. While possessing the ability to access the spirit world consciously and at will, much of life does not demand functioning in such an altered state; there are meals to prepare, houses to clean, times to laugh and cry. In my experience, shamans are very ordinary people most of the time.
My apprenticeship into Andean shamanism is still in its nascent stages even after ten years. I have sat in many smoky rooms witnessing or assisting in hundreds of shamanic healings in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the United States. I have been instructed in exercises designed to deepen my perception of subtle energies, participated in ceremonies to invoke the spirits, and sat around the fire and chatted with remarkable men and women who function as shamans within their communities. And what I have learned is this. There is no one way to be a shaman. Whereas the techniques are taught by humans and the traditions and methods differ according to culture, climate, locale, and personal temperament; the essence of the shamanic path is a deep and reverent connection to the natural and spiritual worlds. The true teachings of the art are not passed from human to human, but from spirit to human. Some shamans will facilitate healing and trance induction with the aid of a drum, but others are equally effective employing a rattle, a chant, a ceremony, or a plant preparation. They may move energy with feathers or stones, incantations or blowing fire. There is no authorized method, no single “right” way.
In short, shamans tend to rely upon methods that, in our highly educated and industrial society, don't seem to make much sense. The shamans' gifts - the source of their inspiration and healing power - derive from a realm that is invisible to the physical eye and scientific instrumentation. They operate in a world of living energy wherein the “miraculous” becomes possible not because the rules of nature are violated, but because they are applied more subtlety and closer to their Source. One shaman described the process as follows… “If you wish to redirect the flow of a river you have two alternatives. At the point where the stream begins to flow you can lightly place your hand in the water and angle it in the desired direction. Alternatively, you can travel downstream where the waters now flow as a powerful river. Here you must employ bulldozers to dig deep and wide channels to re-direct the flow. Both methods are effective. One is much easier.”
During the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud utilized a variety of techniques such as dream interpretation, free association, and analysis of 'slips of the tongue' to reveal the workings of an unconscious, yet very influential, part of our nature. He discovered that much of what motivates and moves us as adults originates during our early childhood years and lies outside and beyond our conscious recall or awareness - a finding that was both novel and controversial for his time. As well, shamans and past life / spiritual regressionists also trace the origins of significant challenges and gifts within our physical, emotional, psychological, communal, and spiritual worlds to unconscious processes. Early childhood conditioning is certainly recognized as playing a part, but these “technicians of the sacred” delve deeper…into past physical incarnations which have left indelible impressions upon our soul memory (which the Hindus call sanskaras) or to contracts made by our disincarnate soul prior to entry into the physical body.
Hence, shamans and spiritual regressionists (i.e., those who engage in Life-Between-Lives Regression Therapy) share fundamental similarities of worldview. It is accepted as fact by shaman and spiritual regressionist alike that all persons are significantly influenced by processes and spiritual influences beyond our capacity to fully perceive while in the human body. Further, shamans and spiritual regressionists share in the belief that through their intervention the spirit world can be accessed and perhaps nudged in a way that promotes transformation and healing within their clients. Practitioners of spiritual regression (and, to a lesser extent, past life regressionists) essentially function as shamans within cultures where both science and language prevail over an acceptance of mystery and the power of nature. Our tools may be very different than those of the traditional shaman, but our work with the energetic, spiritual or unconscious elements of our clients' “being” trickle down to what the shaman terms “ordinary reality”. Lives change in significant and lasting ways as a result of work accomplished during a single trance session wherein awareness of one's spiritual or essential nature is retrieved and sanskaras are resolved and/or “contracts of the soul” are made conscious.
A life-between-lives (spiritual) regression session is an initiatory event for our clients, most of whom hail from a society that places very little emphasis upon marking significant rites of passage with ceremony or ritual. Our regression clients typically find their way to our offices following many previous attempts at finding balance or some sense of spiritual connectedness. Many have been in and out of therapy and, either singly or in combination, also delved into alternative healing modalities, explored various spiritual paths, meditated, and/or experimented with drugs. We can often hear it in their voices when they phone to schedule an appointment; hope intermingled with excitement and trepidation: “Will this session bring relief, understanding, a feeling of connectedness? Or will it be another dead end or simply one brief peak experience followed by a return to long stretches of ordinariness.”
I treat each regression appointment with the reverence befitting a significant, ceremonial event for one whom I will come to know very intimately in the span of but three hours or so. My roles as hypnotherapist, psychologist and shaman merge in an encounter that will, if the spirits smile upon us, permit my client to awaken through a shamanic initiation: mastering death in trance, transcending darkness to find rebirth in the light, re-connecting with spiritual allies and guides, remembering the eternal home from which we came and yet have never left, though our human perceptions would have us believe otherwise. And through the process it is not uncommon that a “healing” takes place, sometimes physically but more commonly psychospiritually.
Magee (2002, p. 4) writes that “one defining characteristic of a shaman is the capacity for, and ability to induce, profound transcendent experiences. These transcendent experiences, often called ecstatic trances or altered states of consciousness, create a bridge between the physical and spiritual realms.” This, I contend, is the essence of what we do as spiritual regressionists. Instead of journeying into the interior realms on behalf of our clients (as would be the traditional approach used by indigenous shamans) we instead teach those who seek our services to enter into trance themselves as we actively support and guide their entry into the world of spirit to source their own healing and transformation. Throughout this process we question and interpret, steer and suggest, and sometimes intervene to “heal”. But it can be arguably stated that our most important function once the client has entered trance is simply to “hold space” (using shamanic parlance). Knowing the pathway to spirit and having passed along it many times ourselves, our presence helps eliminate distraction and promotes focus. But the best of us don't merely “hold space”; we actively create “sacred or ceremonial space”…laying the foundation for our client to transit between states of consciousness, from the physical/emotional/psychological to the spiritual. This, in my view, is the work of a “modern day shaman”. Our methods contrast with traditional techniques employed by our indigenous counterparts, but our commitment to facilitate transformation, healing and balance is the same. Our emphasis upon ushering those we serve into conscious awareness of their own spiritual essence is the same. Our calling…is the same.
Halifax, J. (1979). Shamanic voices: A survey of visionary narratives. Toronto: Arkana.
Magee, M. (2002). Peruvian shamanism: The pachakuti mesa. Chelmsford, MA: Middle Field Publications.
Arthur E. Roffey, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, certified hypnotherapist and practitioner of Life-Between-Lives Regression Therapy, Vice-President of the Society for Spiritual Regression, and founding Director of Innervision, P.C. in West Bloomfield, MI. Dr. Roffey has intensively apprenticed in the shamanic traditions of Peru since 1995 and, through Innervision, leads 2 - 3 expeditions per year to South America, taking groups to train with shamans in the jungles, Andes, and coastal deserts. Innervision also actively sponsor shamans to teach and conduct ceremonial and healing work in the United States. Dr. Roffey has held Assistant Professorships at major U.S. Universities and clinical positions within state psychiatric facilities, community mental health agencies, university counseling centers, and outpatient medical centers.