In our shamanic healing practice, we meet many people who express that they have never felt “at home” in their lives. These folks report that somehow they feel at odds or out of sync with the world around them. I believe that the interesting thing is these people are not unique in their struggles. In my experience, many people in North America are disconnected from each other, from the larger group of our human family and from the natural world. These estrangements are a source of individual discontent, sadness, depression, and a larger social malaise which, at its worst, is expressed as rage, violence or nihilistic criminal behavior and at the least fosters suspicion of other cultures and other individuals. In addition, disconnection from the natural environment causes people and entire nations to disregard the needs of “other” species. It is my belief that unresolved dislocation/displacement traumas may underlay our destructive behaviors. Shamanic journeying and shamanic spirituality offer perspectives and practices which may hold keys to resolving this issue by healing the individuals and through them, the larger culture.
Who are we North Americans? We have our roots in many different places, Scandinavia, the Middle East, West Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Islands to name just a very few. In spite of our varied origins, each and every one of us shares an important trait. Whether our ancestors came here by free choice, because of famine, to find new lands, at the hand of brutal slavers, as refugees from war, or as literal outcasts from their homelands—everyone of us is either a dislocated person ourselves or the descendent of a dislocated person! Even the original settlers of this continent were moved to reservations by subsequent migrations of people. Perhaps the root of our inner and cultural angst is that we are individually and collectively longing for Home. The home we ultimately long for isn’t Norway, Somalia, Ireland, India, or Peru, rather, I would argue that the longing we feel is directly connected to a more ancient longing for reconnection to the living Earth and all her creatures. This longing has its earliest roots approximately 12,000 years ago, when small human groups began to domesticate plant and animal species.
As I initially proposed in my book, Modern Shamanic Living, our larger human disconnection from a shamanic way of understanding the world began when we made the move from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to one that was more agriculturally based. While the common view is that this transition produced the beginnings of a flowering of human civilization, the subsequent breakdown of relationships with the environment and within the human community tells another, darker tale. In fact in a 1987 article in Discover Magazine, physiologist Jarad Diamond argues “Agriculture is the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”1 Studies by paleopathologists have shown clear evidence that ancient hunter/gatherers’ skeletons indicate they tended to be much stronger and more robust, showing fewer signs of degenerative disease processes than later agricultural societies. When populations begin to rely on planted crops, it is often high-carbohydrate plants like grains, potatoes, other starchy tubers. This reliance on a simpler diet is not as nutritionally sound as the diet of a typical hunter-gatherer.
A more insidious fallout from the transition to agriculture is the rise of social divisions. In a traditional hunter/gatherer group, all members work to supply the needs of the whole. At the rise of agriculture, there was now the possibility that one group could own or dominate the wealth that was food. It is possible to see that while gathering, a person could—as many a merry berry picker does today—graze on the consumables that one is collecting, assuring that you, as well as those you were helping to support, would not starve. However, in an agricultural society it is possible to hoard or ration food based on personal preference or prejudice, thereby creating a society of “haves and have nots.” In addition, there is the struggle to own and protect a particularly fertile plot of arable land.
Barry S. Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University in Vancouver has been involved for twenty-five years in studying how human perceptions of the overall nature of reality are really based on how we were “educated.” That is, the training our mind receives affects how we understand the world and ourselves. This is particularly true of the early education we receive about the world as infants. In Hewlett’s work with both a foraging (hunter/gatherer) people, the Aka, and their farming neighbors, the Ngandu; he has postulated that the foragers have a different cultural mind set about trust and sharing. This powerful fundamental difference is apparently transmitted from one generation to another through their child rearing techniques. Through Aka behaviors of sharing the care and feeding of infants within the group, children are taught that the world is an inherently safe, loving and nurturing place. In addition they, by their lifestyle of reliance on the gifts of Nature project the same understanding of the inherently compassionate and trustworthy nature of the world at large.2 On the other hand, a Ngandu child is frequently set down so that its mother may do the hard work of farming a single crop—the harvest of which could determine the ultimate survival of the entire Ngandu group. The existence of these people is threatened by largely uncontrollable and unpredictable situations that threaten their crops—variable rainfall, hail, amount of sunshine, and insect or plant disease damage.
It has long been understood by developmental psychologists that an individual’s attachment/relationship style is directly impacted by how the child is parented, particularly in terms of the degree of attentiveness and concern provided by the parents when the child is in infancy. Hewlett’s work suggests that there is a cultural effect produced in a similar fashion. In other words, human beings were “taught,” beginning with our shift to agriculture, that the world is inherently and threateningly unpredictable, that we—and “our land” are separate from other people. The good news in all of this is that if these erroneous perceptions were “taught” to us by our cultural experiences, we can be reeducated to heal them. This is beneficial as many of our psychological, emotional and physical illnesses may stem from these ancient emotional “injuries.”
Although volumes have been written on financial, employment, relational or environmental stressors, it is my belief that this change in our relationship with the world around us is the source of a profound underlying stress damaging our bodies and ultimately the planet as a whole. This is the stress of dislocation/disconnection.
When we are under chronic stress, the physiological changes our body experiences when we are in the Fight/Flight or Freeze emotional state can also become chronic. We can develop cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and even stroke. Our endocrine system, immune response and even the physical healing of wounds are all negatively affected by stress.3 Emotionally, we can suffer chronic anxiety and depression which each have their own physiological components as well.
In his book, Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection and the Meanings of Illness, author and sociology professor, David Karp states, “To understand depression, you have to look not only at the chemistry of the person, but at the chemistry of his or her culture.” He also states, “We live in an age and a culture where the medical version of reality is tremendously powerful. I am not trying to attack psychiatry or medicine, but defining depression in purely biological terms deflects attention away from the role of society. The fact is, this is a society which is disconnecting people, at work and at home, and I don’t see how we can ignore this in examining depression.”4 In addition, people suffering depression and anxiety may also have accompanying physical pains such as headache, stomach pain, dizziness, chest pain, back and joint pain and difficulty breathing5.
How we perceive our situation and surroundings produces our ideas about reality. Our perceptions are created from a synthesis of information received from our senses which is processed by the brain to create meaning from the sensory stimuli. This processing compares the current sensation to those that have already been experienced. It is this synthesis of sensory input shaded by previous experience, family enculturation and larger social group definitions that produces our experience of reality. It is quite remarkable that even though the process by which we create our perceptions of reality are highly subjective and personal, we tend to culturally define reality as an absolute. Einstein once said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” We think of reality as something dependable and concrete and yet it is a fabrication of our mind based on input which is fundamentally limited by senses that are only capable of picking up information from a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum.6 Our senses are not nearly as keen as many of the other species with whom we share the planet. There are animals, birds and even insects who can see infrared light or hear into the ultra or subsonic range.
In spite of our apparent physical limitations, there are ways to stretch one’s senses into the ranges that ordinarily go unseen or unheard. For many centuries, shamans have been defined by their ability to travel beyond ordinary reality of the five senses into the spiritual realms and back again. This ability to move beyond the limits of time/space—done to access healing, guidance, insight and assistance from the spirits for the Earth and her people—earned shamans the reputation as “Those Who Walk Between the Worlds.” As a result of the broadening of experience attained while traversing the realms beyond ordinary perception, a practitioner is altered not only during the shamanic journey but afterwards. One begins to see, hear and experience ordinary reality in a different way.
In an interview done in 2005, anthropologist and founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, Dr. Michael Harner stated that after even a few journeys people who were not initially ecologically focused begin to have new views about the inter-connectedness of all species. It is his belief that once a person begins to see her or himself as a part of the larger cosmos, it stimulates a more compassionate and ethical orientation toward the rest of creation.7 In essence, Harner is suggesting going on shamanic journeys produces experiences of the self and world that are more in alignment with the native sense of indigenous peoples.
No matter what continent they may have arose upon, when we go back far enough, ALL of our ancestors were once indigenous people. As such, they held and believed in the same profound wisdom that tribal people still hold—that is that every plant, bird, animal and insect is an member of our larger family of Life. It is ironic that the cutting edge of science—the Human Genome Project—has proven what each of our ancestors already knew. That is, that the entire ecosystem—every living being—is a part of who we are. I believe the greatest challenge we face, and indeed the responsibility we carry is to relearn, remember and renew our connections to the larger ecosystem—All That Is. Future generations depend on us stepping back into context with the beings around us and regaining the ancient paradigm of being wise and loving stewards of our Earth. Simply put, for our own health and the health of the larger world, we need to be reunited with the rest of our family.
Shamanic spirituality offers ways to reenter into relationship with the “other” beings with whom we share our world. We can communicate with the spirits of the trees, the rivers and ants in a way that both our ancient ancestors did and we, ourselves once did as children. Through the shaman’s journey, our perceptions of reality shift—expanding our awareness of the larger world and our place within it. We become changed and deep healing of centuries-old, injurious perceptions can occur. Once the lines of communication and relationships are reestablished with other beings—we prodigal sons and daughters of the Earth—have opportunities to heal our disconnection/dislocation traumas and regain our place as compassionate and loving stewards of our Home.
- page 64-66 Diamond, Jared "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" Discover (May 1987).
- Bruce Bower, "Raising Trust," Science News, Vol. 158, pages 8 & 9.
- Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser; Timothy J. Loving; Jeffrey R. Stowell; William B. Malarkey; Stanley Lemeshow; Stephanie L. Dickinson; Ronald Glaser "Hostile Marital Interactions, Proinflammatory Cytokine Production, and Wound Healing," Archive General Psychiatry, December 2005; 62: 1377 – 1384.
- Oxford University Press, 1995.
- A study by Kroenke and Price in the November 1993 Archives of Internal Medicine (Vol 153 No 21).
- Listed here from the lowest frequency to the highest, the electromagnetic spectrum includes the following: Radio Waves (AM Radio Waves, Short Wave Radio, Television/FM Waves,) Microwaves ( which includes Radar, Millimeter Waves & Telemetry) Infrared, Visible Light, Ultraviolet, X-rays, and Gamma Rays. hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/ems1.html#c1.
- Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob, eds. 2005. Albany: State University of New York Press. (For more about this column’s topic, please see Evelyn’s article, "Shamanic Spirituality In A Place Called Home," in the Spring 2009 issue of The Journal of Shamanic Practice. The author will be teaching the shamanic journey practice in Maine on the weekend of July 11 & 12th. For more information, please go to: www.spiritpassages.org.)
© 2009 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether though face-to-face contact with individual patients, groups and conference participants, or through the printed word in books, columns and articles—Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives.
She is the author of Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path (1999), columnist and writer of numerous articles and features. Her writing and artwork have appeared in regional, national and international publications—both in print and online—and she is the executive editor of Spirit Living, an eco-spiritual e-magazine.
In joint practice with C. Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages since 1991, she offers workshops in advanced experiential shamanism across the USA and Canada. In addition, as founding members of True North, an integrated medical center in Falmouth, Maine, she and Allie collaborate with physicians, nurses, a psychiatrist, naturopath and other complementary health practitioners. Evelyn may be contacted through her website: www.spiritpassages.com.