Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Modern Day Shaman by Michele Walters

This essay reviews the shaman and shamanism in the context of the range of techniques and the theoretical concepts around the role of the shaman, as well as the role and outcome of altered states of consciousness and trance. These concepts will be explored through examination of traditional shamanism alongside a profile of Kerry Henwood, whom I believe to be a modern day shaman. Personal information and permission has been obtained from Kerry in order to explore her role as a modern day shaman. Kerry was born in Australia and currently resides in California and works as an internationally recognized healer, speaker and teacher. In her work as a shaman, Kerry draws particularly on the spiritual healing traditions of Peru, as well as the use of musical instruments and techniques from a variety of traditions around the world. Krippner (2000, p. 1.) explains that the word shaman is a derivative of the Siberian word ‘saman’ which translates as “one who is excited, moved, or raised” or alternatively the Tungus word “inner heat” or in Sanskrit “song”. Altered states of consciousness (ASC) and shamanic trance are described as an important part of shamanism which are often facilitated by the use of psychotropic substances, in particular plants with hallucinogenic properties such as the peyote and ayahuasca (Riboli, 2004 p.251). I would agree with Krippner who argues that each of these terms are relevant to the activities of the shaman, both past and present.
Ingerman (2004, p.7) explains that shamanism is the earliest spiritual practice known to humankind, dating back tens of thousands of years and according to Townsend (1997, p. 431) shamanism is not a “religion” but rather part of a range of religious beliefs and practices. Howitz (2000, p. 5) states that at the foundation of shamanism is the concept of animism, that is, recognizing that everything is alive, while Harner (1991, p. xiii) argues that an integral part of shamanism is a reverence for and spiritual communication with the other beings of the Earth and with the Planet. Townsend (1997, p. 431) states that Eliade, Harner and others who have studied shamanism, argue there are fundamental traits that must be present for shamanism to be identified, which is described by Krippner (2000, p. 1) as the shaman’s deliberate alteration of consciousness and heightening of their perception in order to contact Spirit in non-ordinary reality. Abram (1997, p. 179) argues that the traditional medicine-person or shaman functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds, to act not only as a healer for his or her community, but also to maintain harmony and balance between human society and the larger society of beings.
Winkelman (1997, p.393) reports that shamans are selected or trained by a variety of activities and procedures including having voluntary visions, receiving signs from spirits, experiencing serious illness or deliberately undertaking vision quests. To understand Kerry’s call to become a shaman it is necessary to provide a brief cultural background of her upbringing in white middle class Sydney, Australia. Kerry was born in 1956 and raised as a Roman Catholic by a father from Irish descent and a mother who Kerry states was part of a lineage of female healers. Kerry advises her mother’s mother worked as a healer in Pacific Island villages and remembers that as a child she always thought that the women in her family ‘were a little crazy’. Kerry recalls her mother and grandmother always having ‘lots of secrets’ and that their healing work was often hidden from her Roman Catholic father. Kerry says that she did not make a conscious choice to become a shaman but rather, at the age of 28 and suffering a psychological breakdown, was ‘called’ by spirit. Kerry recalls at the time it was very unusual for a white person to be accepted as a shaman who was only thought of as existing in an indigenous environment. Riboli (2004, p. 253) confirms that adoption of the shamanic role is often motivated by a psychological crisis or an initiatory period of illness often believed to be provoked by the afflictions of the spirit. He states that new initiates to shamanic trance are often called to the profession by the spirits or ancestors that send or provoke the altered state of consciousness involved in which the neophyte has almost no control over (Riboli, 2004, p. 253). He argues the manner in which this occurs may vary across cultures but that ASC are always present and that whether the neophyte is chosen by his or her group, inherits the profession from a shaman within the family, usually deceased, or is believed to have been chosen directly by the world of spirits, he or she will in any case have to undergo a fairly long period of apprenticeship during which he or she will be repeatedly tested by spirit (Riboli, 2004, p. 253).
Winkelman (2000, p.70) says that during this initial phase instruction will take place either in the course of dreams and visions or stimulated by the use of hallucinogenic substances or take place in the course of conditions that are perceived as states of confusion or illness. In many cases Winkelman (2000, p.70) describes the repeated altered states of consciousness or trance as being deeply profound and even violent. Kerry advises that she underwent her instruction in the jungles of Peru under a master shaman who sang the songs or icaros of Ayahuasca. Rittner (2007, p. 196) describes the Shipibo tribe of the Amazon and speaks of the old and experienced shamans knowing the effects of 2000 to 3000 different plants which they have often tried during their rigid and dangerous training and have incorporated into their energetic healing powers. Kerry advises that plant medicine serves as a way to ASC and that in order to mentor the journey it is necessary to be part of a lineage of the plant songs. She explains that the shaman is able to hear the repertoire of songs of the plants in an altered state of consciousness which allows for a certain rite of passage into other worlds which she believes are filled with consciousness leading to a deepened sensitivity of the world.
Horwitz (2000, p. 7) argues that these initiations and teachings are necessary to enable the spiritual discipline that is necessary for the shaman to make direct contact with the spirit power of the Universe, generally for the purpose of healing or restoring balance in some way. Kerry advises the initiation process is very intense with extreme fasting and deprivation resulting in deep psychological stress due to the constant facing of the death of mind and ego. Kerry recalls a particularly gruelling ritual that involved 10 days spent alone in a sweat lodge, with only a small amount of water and two sticks, one containing poison and one plant medicine. She was told she had to hear the song of the plant in order to know which plant was the correct one to take in order to live or die. Winkelman (2004, p. 64) explains that the shamanic crisis is a period of psychological destruction manifested in natural symbolic forms of self-reference and that the death and rebirth experiences reflect processes of self transformation that occur under conditions of overwhelming stress. He argues that this results in the fragmentation of the conscious ego from the consequences of psychological conflict.
Kerry says it is important for the shaman to understand what is involved with the death of the ego as they are often required, as healers, to take on the death of the ego for others resulting in an adjusted form, allowing a rekindling of energy that results in more vibrant health. Kerry believes these practices offer a place of least resistance enabling a shift in consciousness, which is necessary for healing and rebalance. There are many techniques a shaman may use during a healing session, from extraction, divination, spirit invocation, psycho pomp and soul retrieval and Kerry advises it is through an altered state of consciousness that the shaman travels to determine the cause of the problem and can initiate the healing process. Kerry also uses the base sound of the drum and the rattle in healing and teaching sessions in order to facilitate the shamanic state of consciousness. Kerry believes it is also very important to conduct each session in a very respectful way and bring strong intention to each healing ritual in order to meet Spirit half way. She explains common features of the shaman is their compassion, forgiveness and humility brought about by their experiences and understanding of the greater consciousness that as Horwitz describes “resides within the shaman at all times” (2000, p.1). Krippner (2000, p. 1) calls these types of ritual practices in the shamanic setting a type of stylized technology, whose symbols and metaphor, trigger healing, relieve suffering, and provide a link between the ordinary world and those realms traversed by the shaman. I believe that Kerry Henwood, a modern day shaman, aptly fits the description of the shaman as described by Krippner (2000, p. 1)of one who is excited, moved, or raised, who has an inner heat and who knows the songs of the Spirits.


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