Stepping Over The Edge: The Lightning Shaman


I never dreamed I could afford to take the Two Week Shamanic Intensive with Sandy Ingerman. I hadn’t had a vacation in a decade, I didn’t think I could take the time off work much less come up with the money. Then of course there was the written application – how do you convince someone to let you train in shamanism? “My dismemberment went well although I’m still not entirely sure exactly where my kidneys are.”

The Two Week Intensive is the recommended gateway for students who want to take the Three-Year Program in Advanced Initiations in Shamanism and Shamanic Healing. Developed and constantly honed by Michael Harner and the FSS faculty, the Two Week functions as a kind of immersion, pushing those new to journeying deeper into our experience of NOR. It is not only a time and financial commitment, its a commitment to allow your life to take a new turn. It is an opportunity to offer up everything you’ve achieved to date for transformation.

This wasn’t me – at least not the public me. I was raised to be hard nosed, rational and certainly non-religious/spiritual. My family was interested in politics, not ecstatic states of consciousness.  I know – a little late to be thinking about this stuff eh? But this required a kind of a public declaration for me. No more hiding away in decrepit hovels while animal spirits bounced me around like a beach ball. Time to take a stand. I had to, it wasn’t like taking a weekend workshop where you could just tell your friends, family and boss you were going camping. This was two weeks. Who knew if I could even speak intelligible sentences when I got back?

Ann and I had been hosting a drumming circle for about a year when she offered to lend me the money. What does it say about you when you borrow money from a retired school teacher and single Mom to attend a two week workshop on shamanism? The term “high roller” does not come to mind. If she hadn’t offered the loan with typically gentle persistence, I never would have thought myself worthy of taking the two week. She has a knack for helping people believe in themselves.

It took months to arrange but I finally worked enough weekends to detach from supporting various databases around the Bay Area while away at the Namaste Retreat Center in Oregon. Originally designed as a recovery center for victims of industrial accidents, it had found a second life as a mega-church and retreat center. It was about as warm and cozy as it sounds.

The real work had little to do with the accommodations though. There were seventy-five of us, gathering in an empty conference room on the first day. Our large circle pushed up against the poured concrete walls that reached several stories above us. Our facilitator was Sandy Ingerman, a student of Michael’s, she taught for the FSS for many years before ultimately developing her own work. She is considered by many to be a truly gifted shaman, one of the handful of Western SPs who are given the title Shaman without hesitation by those who experience her work directly. She is living proof of the power to heal Lightning Shaman can bring forth.

An informal survey I conducted of 34 experienced shamanic practitioners revealed that 48% had near death experiences. Illness and near death experiences can act as catalyzing moments for potential shaman in many cultures. These are openings the spirits reach through to transform us into healers. Those struck by lightning who go on to perform shamanic work are thought to be especially gifted. Sandy Ingerman is one of the few Westerners who has not only survived being struck by lightning (several times), but has also receive training to develop her shamanic abilities. She is truly a luminary in the world of Western SPs. Click here to visit her site.

I was initially most impressed by the gentle but firm way she held our large circle together. Teaching directly from her heart she was able to hold all questions and issues with a quiet, grounded wisdom. Like a skilled pilot she guided our shamanic ship with the most imperceptible adjustments of the rudder. The whole two weeks felt like a collective journey that just happened to us, with everything unfolding at just the right pace.

When seventy-five serious students put their best intention behind a powerful shamanic teacher like Sandy you know the roof with be raised. Perhaps this is the reason I got sick shortly after the initial opening of the circle. There are illnesses some of us think of as shamanic sicknesses. Though they may only weaken the body, they can function like dismemberments, to prepare the initiate for shamanic work. Imagine being kneaded like dough and worked over with a rolling pin for a few days. Pushing out toxins, the spirits are making every cell in your body ready to receive and transmit healing power. Of course to us it just feels like a really bad cold.

If we lived in a culture with long established shamanic practices, illnesses like this might be recognized for the transformative power they carry and ushered along. There are all kinds of ways our egos can represent illness at workshops like this: “I’m not worthy” to “the all powerful shaman to be is about to ascend to a new level of consciousness.” In the absence of greater wisdom I find it best to crawl deeper beneath my covers and order up chicken soup.

I missed a few sessions, and spent many slightly comatose – covered in blankets next to a pile of used Kleenex. I also earned the moniker “stinky” from my late wife. “Well you smelled,” she reminded me years later. We wouldn’t become romantically entangled for several years.

After a few days I was ready to join the group in an overview of many of the techniques the FSS teaches. I should note here that there is a lot that goes on in these workshops that I can’t talk about. Privacy considerations, initiatory journeys, rituals, and techniques I’m simply not authorized to talk about all fall under the heading – “share only with others who went through the same thing.” That probably contributes to a cultish feeling for Shamanic Workshoppers: “did you do that…you know the thing with all the pillows on the floor. Yeah, that was powerful!” This rule goes doubly true for the extended workshops the FSS teaches. Not only for all the reasons mentioned above, but also because these key trainings continue to evolve under Michael Harners direction. The workshops I talk about now have surely changed over the last ten years.

We covered the basics: divination (using a variety of techniques), tracking (following another shamanic practitioner on their journey), soul retrieval, power animal retrieval, power object creation, extraction (of harmful energies/entities) and group ritual. There were quite a few other topics we covered during this workshop, one thing was for certain – we journeyed, journeyed, journeyed. In the morning, late morning, early afternoon, evening and late into the night. Day after day after day without break for two weeks. We journeyed.

The FSS workshops use a steady drum beat to alter practitioners consciousness. Once you feel altered enough you journey into the spirit world, usually starting at someplace in nature you’ve been to before. The beat used has been shown scientifically to produce almost instantly brain wave patterns similar to those of experienced practitioners of meditation deep in an altered state. Being in this state for so long changes your relationship to reality, both OR and NOR!

If the journeying doesn’t soften you up the people you work with and the results of your healing work will. Working with total strangers and engaging in healing practices binds you in deeply intimate ways. Stories of death and loss are exchanged in almost every practice. Ecstatic healings, physical emotional and spiritual become almost commonplace.

I was honored to be used in a demonstration one afternoon. While Sandy performed an extraction on me the remaining seventy-four participants chanted in support of her work. While I lay there Sandy removed toxins from me, reducing pain and inflammation I was experiencing. The energy of that chant shook me to my core. It was the first visceral tribe-like experience I’d ever had. I understood in that moment how powerful a tight community might be in a tribe members life. The voice of the tribe could literally heal.

After the first week of living in this kind of environment you start to understand why Michael Harner is so prone to hysterical laughter. Working so continuously with the compassionate helping spirits injects everything with a lightness that really pushes you to a place beyond common daily reason. You come to realize what many sages throughout time have understood, the joke is always on you. My sickness passed I started to really enjoy receiving healing, watching the spirits kick around my silliest, most resistant personality traits. You start to get to a place where you want to order up a big bowl of popcorn and really enjoy the next dismemberment you’re about to go through.

One of my favorite experiences was one of the last – the creation of a group ritual. Imagine throwing seventy five people together to create a ritual. Journeying to the helping spirits was of course involved. Groups were formed and leaders were chosen through a form of divination that looked suspiciously like spin the bottle. Replace the bottle with a drum stick, ask the spirits who will be secretary of the group and spin the drumstick! There were three roles to be filled, in her group my late wife was chosen by the spirits to fill all three!

Each of the groups were responsible for one phase of the ritual. Our job was the fire ritual at the closing. Part of this involved creating two effigies for burning. Ann and I were tasked with making the effigies, collecting dried straw to make two wicker people of sorts. We worked on the straw bodies with the same intensity I brought to my red model sports car fetish. An extra skill was intuitively brought to bear, almost as if another awareness woke up when tasked with the responsibility of creating a ritual object for this group. Part of the shamanic skills we humans likely carry with us, this part knew how to weave materials in such a way as to make them not only symbolically powerful and technically practical, but also imbued with a transformative power that would activate when the right moment arrived.

The day of the ritual, like many days of this workshop, was raining lightly. I can still remember our fire tender, standing on the hill in her ankle length dress, stirring a growing fire in the rain like a giant open cauldron. When the time came to burn our effigies, people inserted small pieces of paper with intentions written on them. As the long golden bodies were tossed onto the fire they released an eerie milky smoke before finally bursting into flames. It was truly an alchemical moment of transformation including earth, air, fire and water. I watched Sandy as she walked away from the fire, nodding quietly to no one and everyone that the effigies had done their work.

When the moment came to leave it was impossible to imagine life without the community that had formed. I was so altered, so connected through our work that I couldn’t even remember where my home was. I’d stepped so far into the work of shamanism, scarcely a week would pass without connecting with another shamanic practitioner in some way. Whether it was a drumming circle, healing practice or another workshop, this indelible two week process wove me forever into the fabric of the shamanic rebirth taking place in our culture today. I can still feel the beats we drummed in that workshop over ten years ago.

Seminal experiences like this are important to the growth of shamanism in our culture in a variety of ways. When shamanic practitioners are able to witness each other in their work it generates not only the room for critique and validation, but a presence we carry with us that takes on a life of its own in our world. These collective reference points are pools of energy everyone can draw on for the rest of our lives. Each healing, each training, each ritual moves us beyond the tentative stages of early practice and into our developing shamanic culture. It also served for me as a doorway to the deep initiations and teaching of the FSS Three Year Program.

– back to introduction

– previous chapter: Joining The Circle
– next chapter: The Way A Snake Sheds Its Skin

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