Stepping Over The Edge: Feet On The Path

shamanism Stepping over the edge

The dreams, visions and waking shamanic experiences started several years before I found my way to a Shamanic Practitioner (SP). Rolling Thunder was the first Shaman I’d ever met, but an SP named Amy was the first person to make shamanic healing available to me. I was struggling to make sense of all the experiences I was having with animal spirits. I read as much as I could about indigenous healers and Animal Spirits but nothing really clicked. Turns out I just had to walk into the right bookstore and look at the message board.

Her card had an abstract drawing of a Mountain Lion on it and said “Shamanic Counselor”. It seemed to say “here is a friend and a doorway.” I walked away from it and back to it at least five times before I finally asked the clerk for a pen and paper. After all I was visiting my family in Salt Lake City, which at that time it was not a hot spot for alternative spirituality or Shamanic healing. Could this really be legit?

My family always welcomed me home with open arms and contentious minds. A feisty liberal Irish American family rooted in the heartland of the LDS mecca, we had a habit of finding more time to light wildfires than join hands and sing campfire songs. Growing up as a young male ballet dancer, and a member of a family known for raising hell, painted a noticeable target on my back. At eighteen I’d escaped to the anonymity of California, forever reticent to return to Salt Lake for more than a week at a time. Real healing is often so close to us, and rarely where we expect to find it.

I called Amy and made an appointment to see her. In her waiting room I filled out a short intake form while she finished up with the client before me. What do you expect when you visit your first SP? It was a warm office, she had a welcoming face and bright eyes. We sat on the floor and talked about my life. This was the first time I heard terms like “soul loss” and “Power Animal retrieval” yet I felt completely at home. I knew I had arrived at a place where I could deepen my understanding of what I was going through.

Her first step was to journey on my behalf. Laying down and covering her eyes she turned on a music CD that played a repetitive drum beat. After fifteen or twenty minutes she sat up and made some notes. “You’re going to need a Power Animal Retrieval and probably a few Soul Retrievals.” Amy was a practitioner of Core Shamanism, a series of techniques developed by anthropologist and Shamanic pioneer Michael Harner. After years of studying shamanism and training with living indigenous practitioners, Michael distilled many of the common threads he found in his studies into practices that could be taught to Westerners.

Over many years of teaching, Michael and the teachers of Foundation For Shamanic Studies (FSS) have discovered that activities academics traditionally consider unique functions of distant cultures can in fact contain some universal human techniques of spiritual communion and miraculous transformation. In short the shamanic journey is so common across cultures and through history it must be considered integral to the human experience. While the practice of journeying can be eradicated through the efforts of governments and others seeking power, the shamanic journey is just something people do. The idea that shamanic practices are not available to all people including modern people is a tragedy of history and a convention of our own society.

One of the healing practices of Core Shamanism is the Power Animal retrieval. Many cultures believe we are accompanied throughout our lives by guardian spirits. If we don’t properly manage our connection we can damage our life-affirming relationship with them. It is the Shamans job to journey to the spirit world and reestablish these important connections for the clients. Amy’s teachers recommended that she help me reconnect with at least one of my guardian spirits. We arranged to meet again in two weeks.

On my way home from the appointment I stopped at a Safeway to do some shopping and felt pulled to the children’s toy aisle. I wasn’t a model maker but I picked out a little red model car kit. Not the consummate craftsman it took me almost an entire week to put it together. I labored over it with a strange intensity, insisting that every piece find its rightful place. When I arrived at my appointment I asked Amy if I could put it on her altar. “Sure. Now I’m going to put on a drumming tape and lay down next to you. I’m going to do a Power Animal retrieval for you. When I’m done I’ll ask you to journey.”

I lay down beside her for ten or fifteen minutes. Nothing happened. Suddenly she sat up, blew into my chest and then the top of my head. I felt something warm spread across my chest. “Now Tim I want you to close your eyes and journey. Have the intention of meeting the Power Animal I retrieved for you.” She didn’t tell me what she had brought back for me. As soon as my eyes closed and the drumming began I felt a rush of energy from the model car. Something flew into my nose and filled my body – I began to shake. My body felt like a thousand volts of energy were flowing through me and lifting me off the floor. A red Fox flashed before my eyes. For the rest of the drumming I tried to relax, feeling a new brightness settle into me. When she stopped drumming Amy told me she had indeed retrieved a Fox spirit for me.

Unwittingly I had built a fetish from a Safeway model car to hold the spirit a week before the retrieval was actually performed. I’ve never heard of this happening in any other Power Animal retrieval. Fetishes are places that provide homes for spirits. Its common to find North American Indian fetishes small enough to fit in a pouch. If one pays the proper attention to the fetish one can draw on its power by placing its nose against one’s own and inhaling. My model car was adequate enough housing for a short time for the Fox spirit, it seems that the Fox knew where to go once it was called out from its home.

More than just a profound spiritual healing, this experience confirmed that I was on the right path. Joseph Campbell’s advice was still holding me in good stead. Meeting Amy, receiving her healing and building the model car fetish were all expressions of how deeply resonant this path was for me. That one session revealed the intersection of the physical and spiritual that Shamanism would hold for me. Shamanism was now and forever as real and accessible as a red model sports car you could buy at Safeway.

This discovery was an enormous relief to me. The years leading up to these sessions were not only spiritually ecstatic, they were incredibly stressful. I graduated from college and was supposed to be learning how to provide for myself. Most of the time I seemed to be steaming full speed away from a career much less a steady paycheck that could put a roof over my head and food in my mouth. There were times I went days without eating, not being able to afford food. Orange peel can taste pretty good after three days of just water.

Amy showed me that allowing yourself to be open to the presence of Animal Spirits could be sustainable. The journey work she performed was gentle on her body and mind. She had an office and kept regular hours. She led a sane life. She had a happy life. Lets face it, she had a life and I didn’t. I wanted what she had.

This was only the beginning of my work with Amy. Over the next three years I returned to her office to receive many Soul Retrievals. Though I lived in different cities during this time I was able to visit her when the time was right. In the intervening months I worked to integrate the energy she returned.
Soul retrievals are difficult to explain to those who haven’t received them. Those of us who think of the soul as real, tend to think of it as being beyond this world and unshakable. Indeed some SPs I’ve spoken to about this believe there are aspects of our spirits that are beyond this world. Why then might part of our “spirit” leave us?

Have you ever felt “spaced out” after a traumatic experience? Have you ever known someone who was “never the same” after some event? From a shamanic perspective these are all instances in which some aspect of our consciousness left our lives as a result of crisis. Soul pieces may leave intentionally, to avoid experiencing something painful. Other pieces may leave because of disorientation associated with trauma. Amy had a great example:

“I did a soul retrieval for a person who had been in a traffic accident. When I journeyed for her my Power Animal guided me to a street corner a few blocks away from my office. I later learned her traffic accident had occurred there.” After the accident a part of the woman’s spirit was too disoriented to rejoin her.
The practice of Soul Retrieval typically happens in cultures where Shamanism is an accepted means of healing. This translates into soul retrievals that are usually performed days after the soul piece has left the client. In our culture its much more common for soul retrievals to happen years or even decades after the original trauma. This means working with parts of ourselves that have been disconnected from the greater part of our life here. Many of them have been having their own experiences during the time of separation.

Can you remember a physically or emotionally traumatic experience that happened five ten or twenty years ago? Most of us can. Non-physical trauma can also result in soul loss. Verbal assaults on children can be especially effective at causing parts of their spirits to hide and at times even wander away. During one of my soul retrievals Amy located a soul piece that had left while I was still in my Mothers womb. Amy was guided to a deep pit in Non-Ordinary Reality where a small Giraffe was gently cradling a tiny part of my spirit. I was deeply moved by the journey, it was as if I could remember the feeling of being cradled year after year by this generous and gentle mothering spirit.

When I first began seeing Amy, techniques to support clients in re-integrating soul pieces had not yet been developed by practitioners of Core Shamanism. Shamanic tribal communities already know how to support their members in recovering from soul loss. Sandy Ingerman, the author of “Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self” eventually pioneered work in this area. Rituals and follow up journeys to meet with the returned soul piece have consequently become standard practice for many SPs.

Integrating soul pieces from decades past can deeply challenging work. Our soul pieces return with their own unique medicine. Mixing new but intuitively familiar energy in with your psyche can be chaotic. This is part of the reason SPs always work with compassionate helping Spirits to identify which soul pieces can be returned. It takes the broad wisdom of beings who live beyond time to know what we can and cannot re-introduce into our lives at this time.
Apparently the Spirits felt that I could handle intensity that came with the pieces that were returned. Though I was struggling to support myself I continued to experience Non-Ordinary Reality (NOR – the place the Spirits are most easily accessed by Shamans), in visceral and unexpected ways. Years of toxic energy came to the fore of my life, as if the new energy raised it to the surface like an oil slick. “Mending the fragmented self” turned out to included experiencing waves of excruciating pain and darkness in my case. Over the next few years I would learn about another face of shamanism, that of the Wounded Healer.
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