Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone, page 2
An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

My understanding is that there are two aspects to shamanic healing: a medicinal one and a spiritual one.

Shamans talk with plants and animals, with all of nature. This is not just a metaphor. They do it in an altered state of consciousness. Our own students rapidly discover that by talking with plants, they can discover how to prepare those plants for remedies. Shamans have been doing this since ancient times. They typically know a great deal about plants, but it's not essential. For example, Eskimo shamans don't have access to a lot of plants, so they work with other things. But in the Amazon shamans know the various plants and the songs that go with the plants, which they commonly learn from the plants themselves.

One former student of mine in the United States developed a practice of discovering and using healing plants based on his learning directly from the plants. He found that the pharmacopoeia he developed was very close to the ancient, classic Chinese pharmacopoeia knowledge of how to prepare and use these plants for different ailments. Another former student in Germany worked with minerals and found how they could be used in healing. It turned out that her discoveries were very close to what has been known in India from ancient times.

Which brings us to a very important issue: everything that's ever been known, everything that can be known, is available to the shaman in the Dreamtime. That's why shamans can be prophets; that's why they can also go back and look at the past. With discipline, training, and the help of the spirits, this total source of knowledge is accessible.

What happens when a sick person asks a shaman for a healing?

For example, a shaman might make a journey for diagnostic purposes, to get information about the person's problems from a spiritual point of view. It doesn't necessarily matter what the diagnosis is from an ordinary reality point of view. There's no simple one-to-one concordance between spiritual illness and ordinary reality illness. You can't say, "This equals that." So the shaman will often make a journey to find out what the spiritual causality is and, according to that causality, decide on the treatment.

From the shamanic point of view, people who are not powerful—spiritually "power-filled," that is—are prone to illness, accidents, and bad luck. This goes beyond our normal definition of illness. The shaman restores a person's linkage to his or her spiritual power. This spiritual power is something analogous to a spiritual immune defense system, but I wouldn't make a one-to one equivalence. It's an analog. The power makes one resistant to illness. If somebody is repeatedly ill, then it's clear that they need a power connection. A healthy person who is not sick might go on a vision quest to get this power connection, but one of the shaman's jobs is to help people who are in no condition to do that for themselves.

Today in our culture many consider it avant-garde if a person talks about the mind-body connection, but the fact that the brain is connected to the rest of the body is not the most exciting news. It's been known for hundreds and thousands of years. What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved. When somebody who is disinterested, who is not an immediate family member, out of generosity and compassion helps somebody else to relieve illness or pain and suffering—and it works even better when there are two or more shamans involved—this is when miracles occur. So the big news shamanism offers is not that the head is connected to the rest of the body, but that we are not alone.

What is soul retrieval?

Anyone who's had a trauma, from a shamanic point of view, may have had some loss of their soul. By soul we mean the spiritual essence essential throughout one's life as we describe life in our culture, which is from conception or birth to the time of death. The techniques for healing soul loss are soul-retrieval techniques, and one of the classic shamanic methods is to go searching for that lost portion of the soul and restore it.

Until about 8 years ago, most people in the Western world felt that soul retrieval was a superstitious practice that had no validity, but things have turned. I must say that a major reason is the work of my colleague, Sandra Ingerman, the author of Soul Retrieval and Coming Home. During her shamanic practice in Santa Fe, NM, years ago, women who had had significant childhood abuse would mention in the course of the sessions that they had removed themselves psychically from the situation at the time of abuse. Sandra immediately recognized, as a practicing shaman, that the person's soul to some degree had left the body (if it had left completely, the person would have been dead), and therefore the logical thing was to retrieve the lost portion of the soul and bring it back. So she then started doing soul retrieval for these people who had had significant childhood traumas, and the results were astounding. Today, this work is an important part of shamanic healing practice in the West.

Indeed, if you ask a group of people, "How many of you feel you've lost part of your soul?" it's typical that everybody raises their hand. At some deep level, there is a natural awareness of this problem. By the way, even a minor trauma can result in some degree of soul loss and can be treated.

Another major technique in shamanic healing work is extraction. Extraction involves removing a spiritual intrusion. Just as there can be infections in ordinary reality, so there can be spiritual intrusions. We don't mean that "evil" spirits have entered. It's more like termites in a wooden house. If you've got termites in your house, you wouldn't say those termites are evil, you'd say, "I'd just like to get them out of the house." In this same way the shaman works to remove things that interfere with the health of the body, such as spiritual intrusions, and extract them. This is not done through journeying. It's done through working here in the Middle World in an altered state of consciousness.

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