A Personal Look at Core Shamanism
By Timothy Flynn

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Harner Shamanic Counseling

After my first class I knew I wanted to make a bigger commitment than just a weekend workshop - I wanted to go all in. The only extended workshop available in my area was one being taught by FSS co-founder, Sandra Harner. A clinical psychologist and world renowned textile artist, Sandra has research and management credentials too numerous to mention here. What is extraordinary about spending time in her company is the combination of her keen, well-educated intellect and her overwhelmingly gentle heart. It was such a privilege to study Harner Shamanic Counseling with her.

I know what you're thinking, “Shamanic counseling, is that like couples therapy for you and your power animal?" No, it’s not. In shamanism, the "counselors" are the spirits. Shamanic counseling is really the art of teaching a person how to journey, while at the same time, getting out of the way. A shaman is not a guru. One does not access the transcendent aspects of the universe through a shaman. The client learns to connect with the spirits directly, without the need of assistance from anyone else.

We met at Westerbeke, a family ranch in the rolling Sonoma Hills, which has evolved into a retreat center over many years. Nestled amongst acres of gracefully twisted and entangled oaks, its handmade adobe brick buildings are rustic and welcoming. Though it was summer, I often visited the river stone fireplace big enough to walk into. Westerbeke is a place rooted in home and hearth.

Training in shamanic counseling involves journeying and witnessing others journey for many hours. Of course the instruction is much more detailed, but you learn to teach others to journey in a way that is impartial and supportive of the work of the spirits. For five days you transcribe others’ journeys and your journeys are transcribed. Instruction and review is given at each break. This workshop is the best blend of clinical technique and shamanic vision I've ever experienced.

There are two experiences shamanic workshoppers have in common, sore butts and full bellies. Though some techniques require us to dance or lay down, we spend a LOT of time sitting. If you follow the path of the shaman bring extra pillows to sit on. You might also want to up that exercise regime. Shamanic work actually burns a lot of calories (no I do not have a study to support that), but residential workshops often include abundant food. Workshop leaders must have learned at some point the importance of LOTS of good food. By day three of an extended workshop you begin to feel like a cow. "Mooooooh" sounds rise up from the food line as you wait to stuff your face on what is often some of the best food you'll eat that year. It not unusual to be deeply altered, swaying back and forth from the last mind blowing experience, clutching tightly to your most recent practitioner. Good food can be a welcomed enticement to return to earth.

It was at this first workshop that I met two of my dearest friends and colleagues. I knew Ann would be a close friend when the first sentence out of her mouth was a compliment. "Are you a dancer? I could tell by the way you move." A single mom and retired school teacher, Ann had been involved in spiritual pursuits for many years. "I heard you lived in Oakland, I live in the area, what do you think about starting a drumming circle?"

Shamanic drumming circles are a way for students and practitioners to gather and support each other in their development. We meet regularly, usually open and close with a ritual, practice techniques and offer healing to each other and people recommended to us. The FSS encourages students to start their own circles and offers a listing of some on their website. This was another element of structure without constrictive rules that I needed. Validating yourself for your own shamanic experiences gets a little difficult to sustain day after day. We all need a tribe. For people just beginning a regular practice of Core Shamanism it is an invaluable means of support. Ann and I began a monthly drumming circle that through her guidance has grown and continues to this day.

I knew Lora was a gifted practitioner when she worked with me, transcribing a journey I took with Bat. I've loved bats since I was a child. I remember my first report in grade school was on their amazing ability to see the world in ways no other creatures can. One of my most powerful initiatory dreams was one in which I was being forced through a cave like a birth canal. When I reached the back of the cave, a bat hanging upside down died and turned to ash in the blink of an eye. The energy released from its disintegration blew me out of my dream and into waking consciousness. This was death as transformation, a great shamanic lesson conveyed to me viscerally. Never again could I look at death as an ending or a way to escape being. This was my first medicine to empower me to cross the terrain between the living and the dead.

Lora transcribed my journey while I spoke it aloud as part of our training. My journey took on a whole new level of physicality. Unexpectedly I merged with the energy of Bat as I followed it into the lower world. My ears became incredibly sensitive, not only amplifying sounds but absorbing the feelings of everyone in the room through my ears.  

Discussing my journey with Lora, I was deeply touched by the reverence with which she held my experience. It was clear she wanted to push the chairs to the edge of the room and really spend the time necessary to honor what had transpired for me. To this day she witnesses each gift from the spirits with the same gratitude for all of her students and fellow practitioners.

Some of the friends we meet on this path become more than peers, as Ann and Lora became for me. The experiences we share create bonds so deep they transcend even the words we use to describe family - sister, brother, daughter, mother. These are the people we look to when we know it is our time to die. These are the people to whom we know we can entrust our souls.   

Of course, these relationships are peppered liberally with the same humor that reduces Michael to a hysterical puddle every now and then. As sometimes happens, we were pressed in the final moments of the workshop to finish our scheduled work. The last journey was being taken by half of the class as the final seconds ticked away. Lora has an exceptional ability to journey deep and for long periods at a time. Where a half hour journey might tire some of us out, I have no doubt Lora could journey for many hours without tiring. So it was that as the rest of us joined hands in circle to end our five day retreat, we circled around Lora, lying on the floor blind folded, speaking her journey loudly to the room. "Oh, and now my Power Animal is telling me that the workshop is over," she announced, "and everyone is standing in circle ready to leave." I managed to stifle my giggles as she quickly returned to the room, looking up to see all of our smiling faces. That day she was truly held in circle.  

Shortly after returning to the Bay Area, Ann and I held our first drumming circle in my loft in the warehouse district of Oakland. I don't remember what we did that day - I think there were only four of us then. I know I was changed by the beat that day, as I've been changed by all the other circles I've sat in over the years. Sitting in circle and drumming with other shamanic practitioners always feels so good. When you drum in circle to work with the spirits, you are sitting alongside the first human beings. You return to the heart and soul of our beloved Mother Earth and say: “I love you.”

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