I could write about my two trips to the former Soviet Union, the first during the time it was being speculated by the old Sovietologists that Andropov had died because he was no longer showing up in Politburo photo shoots, and the second the summer of the coup when a drunk Yeltsin danced on a tank in front of the White House in Moscow. These are among a number of outer trips in my life. But for me, the outer journeys are just juicy manifestations of a bigger and far more important inner journey that led me to becoming a reluctant shaman.
Just declaring in a public forum that I am a shaman takes the breath out of me. To say that my life is a trip may actually be an understatement. I mean, I think it’s a truly crazy trip when you realize you suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia and simultaneously you suddenly find yourself meeting spirits who come to help you, or you are wandering in the Underworld where you meet and retrieve lost parts of yourself, and you encounter the traumas of your ancestors and even the world as a whole. In the process, I have met some interesting and amazing men and women, in this more ordinary realm of life, some of them whom I call the “new shamans” of the West.
Yep. There it is. This is my trip, my story. The Soviet Union was just a road sign in the early years pointing me in the direction of how illness and the academic study of violence became a journey into the most wild, seemingly improbable path of shamanism. After all, in the West, we hold most dear the idea that everything can be explained through the rational approach of science. And if we are followers of the more tamed versions of Christianity and even Judaism, we certainly don’t believe that there are spirits other than God, the Prophets, Jesus, and maybe the Holy Spirit. Oh, yes, and let me not forget the Virgin Mary. And even then, we might be told that if we actually personally meet such spiritual luminaries without an intermediary such as a church official, we might actually be a victim of the Devil.
What is a shaman, you might ask? Throughout human history, shamans have been the healers, medicine people, and ritual leaders in indigenous communities. Shamanism has been called by many scholars and writers the “oldest religion on earth.” Long before the spread of the Judeo-Christian religions, human beings practiced similar ways of worshipping, healing and seeing.
Now shamanism is a new spiritual and therapeutic movement in the West re-seeded by intrepid anthropologists and psychologists such as Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner, Brad Keeney, and Alberto Villoldo, among others. In the 70s and 80s they went to the jungles, wildernesses and deserts of the world to do academic fieldwork. Instead, they returned to the West and wrote about their experiences of mind-altering hallucinations, wild visions, waking dreams, strange coincidences leading them to meeting old shamans, and healing miracles that caused them to relinquish “scientific objectivity” to become apprentices to native shamans. Some, like Harner and Villoldo, established schools in the U.S.
I am somewhat like them, albeit a second generation version. In 2007, I too left my tenured position as a professor and administrator at the University of Virginia to answer the “call of the spirits” to become a shamanic healer. Like many shamans through time, one day in 2006, the chips were down. A medical crisis followed that night by a visitation from my dead cat—yep, you heard me, my dead cat—made it very clear to me that if I didn’t finally do this, I was going to get sicker and maybe even die prematurely. It was one of those proverbial “shit or get off the pot” moments.
I had tried out many conventional and alternative therapeutic modalities to cure the fibro and symptoms of PTSD. I had not slept in almost 9 years. No matter what I did, although I got better on many levels, the physical illness and a clinging sense of dread would not leave me. It was stepping fully onto the shamanic path that finally did the trick. Or maybe I should say the “new” shamanism. I’m never quite sure. What these men have brought from these ancient cultures to the West is a hybrid form that must take into account centuries of suppression and destruction of indigenous cultures and religions into our society with its bias towards science.
This trip into shamanism began in a most innocent way when I was a child. My mother would now be 77 years old. She was decidedly not a hippie. But she was a maverick for her time and ever since I can remember, was interested in Asian religion and philosophy. So, I grew up with the ideas of Buddhism bandied about in casual conversation. It did not take long for me to adopt the idea that I, like my mother whom I adored, was a Buddhist. I was eleven years old.
By the time I was in my early 30s, it began to occur to me that I should perhaps meet a Buddhist teacher in the flesh just to see what I could learn. This was after fibromyalgia had set in and, in frustration with the lack of relief from pain conventional western medicine could afford me, I found a flyer for a woman who did a form of bodywork she called “somato-emotional release.” In desperation, I decided to try it.
Not many minutes after she put her hands on my clothed body, I was willy nilly catapulted into experiencing the death of a holy warrior in the Middle Ages on a blood-soaked field of battle. I even got his name—Jean—and I knew he was French. When I had scheduled the session, I had not expected on any level to be thrown into anything other than something like a nice massage. Yet as this man’s agony in death unfolded in my body and mind, the power and even the reality of what I was sensing could not be denied. The very specificity of the detail and the emotional intensity of the experience were compelling. At the same time, as the healer paced with me through the unfolding story and encouraged me to tell the soul of this man that he was forgiven for the many sins of murder in his life, in my own body, the pain abated. It seemed that through my own personal suffering and my search for relief from it, I had stumbled upon a slice of some form of ancestral memory well beyond my own experience. And that there was some connection between healing that legacy and healing my own body. My view of life and of myself would never be the same.
This single visionary experience of violence opened up a Pandora’s box. For days after meeting “Jean”, the warrior, I felt his presence and continued to “see” details of his life. I noticed how different his male body felt—big, powerful, very upward in its energy—and my own small, female body—very grounded, earthy and downward oriented. For many years after that day in the mid-90s, anytime I entered into an engagement with the pain in my body and mind, I found myself in a visionary world of war, hand-to-hand battle, torture, and illness. I swam in the bloody stream of humanity’s collectively violent history. The concept that when we commit violence against others—even when they live in places far away—we are committing the same violence against ourselves became deeply visceral and personal.
I now believe that all human acts, both peaceful and violent, reside in our DNA. Do I have scientific proof of this? No. Does this change my mind? Absolutely not. Direct experience of something like this has a way of loosening up the grip of a deterministic view of “scientific objectivity” into a more expansive, inclusive reality. It does not eliminate a necessary process of observation, discrimination, and analysis, but neither does it discount out of hand what the body and mind has felt as intensely real.
But I have slightly digressed from the original plotline of the story. That first experience on the healer’s table did not lead immediately to these insights about the nature of humanity’s collective memory of ancestral violence. That was only the beginning of what became a compelling drive to understand more deeply how to contextualize and understand this strange gift given by fibromyalgia. You must remember that I was a university professor with degrees in anthropology and folklore, among others. I was a social scientist and although I had always leaned towards more alternative views of reality and dimensions of experience, I was not prepared to be so out on a limb about them.
This same healer whose touch opened up these strange dimensions of experience was a student of the Ven. Dhyani Ywahoo. The Ven. Dhyani is the holder of the Ywahoo Lineage and Chief of the Green Mountain Ani Yunwiwa, a branch of the Cherokee. As it says on her web site for the spiritual society founded by her, the Sunray Meditation Society, her task is “to carry the ancestral traditions began in early childhood, under the direction of her grandparents and elders.” She is also a recognized teacher in the Drikung kagyu and Nyingma pa lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.
I decided to go “sit” with Dhyani (as we Buddhists say, evoking the cushion upon which we spend hours in contemplation) to see what I could learn from a living master about Buddhism. This did not take me to the Himalayas, nor even into the Native American reservations of the U.S. It took me to her home in Vermont where she resides on a piece of land called, in the Cherokee way, the Peace Village.
The Ven. Dhyani is a lovely, warm and gracious woman in her middle years. Her voice sounds like the burbling of water across rocks in a forest stream. She is treated by her followers as one might imagine students of Hinduism treating their guru. Stories abound among her long-time students of strange occurrences happening in the early years when she had only started teaching, such as people involuntarily falling down to the ground due to the intensity of the energy she emanated when she would walk by them. By the time I met her in the mid-90s, if she had such an effect on people, it was not apparent. I myself never had any particularly unusual experiences in her presence, even when I had an individual interview with her and we sat in silence for several minutes staring into one another’s eyes.
What did happen to my surprise was that it was not the Tibetan Buddhist practices that caught my heart, but the Cherokee. Dhyani teaches a set of basic practices for the beginner that included praying to the seven directions in the Native way: North, South, East, West, Earth, Sky, and this world. Each direction is protected and represented by a guardian: the North, White Buffalo Calf Woman; the South, the grandmothers and grandfathers who were once warriors and who now carry the seeds of peace; the West, the great dancing bear; the East, the Eagle. The Earth is recognized as a living being with consciousness and the Sky is where resides Great Spirit, the Great Mystery.
Once you open up the directions, then you sing the Cherokee heart chant, a hauntingly beautiful song starting with the tone “Aaaahhhh” with the mouth wide open. Once this is sung, you do a tai-chi like dance to the seven directions where each movement of the body has meaning: the arms reach backwards to the ancestors and the past that we carry forward, they move forward to release what is no longer needed, and so on. Then there is a meditation using a specific visualization and chant for each energy center, sometimes called a “chakra” in other traditions that moves up to finish at the crown of the head.
These practices and the teachings given by the Ven. Dhyani feel ancient and profound. It is not difficult to believe her when she tells you that they were passed down for 17 generations through her family until the time came for them to once again be revealed, or “unbundled”, as she says, for the betterment of our world in these difficult times. Like many indigenous teachers around the world, the Ven. Dhyani says we are at a critical turning point in the evolution of human consciousness where we will either destroy ourselves or make a critical shift into a time of greater peace and harmony on Earth. The practices are meant to help “many people and nations again to see the clear light of right relationship.”
So it was that I, a white, middle-class girl of Western European and Christian background with Buddhist leanings entered the new spiritual movement emerging from the teachings of indigenous peoples around the world. The irony was not lost on me. As an anthropologist, I knew all too well what was said in academic circles about people like me who had “gone native.” I also knew that this amalgam of Buddhism and Native American spirituality put me squarely in the center of the “New Age”. The fact that Dhyani carries what she calls the “crystal teachings” which involve learning about the powers and uses of crystals fit what I was learning from her into all the negative stereotypes of flighty women wearing flowing robes, long dangly earrings and talking about “spirits” and “past lives” and the like. Therefore, upon meeting Dhyani and falling in love with what she had to offer, I was not happy to find myself in a slice of reality that placed me in that company despite my mostly hidden beliefs in common. Yes, I had believed since childhood that I had lived other lives—many, many others. And not as kings and queens and people of note, but as ordinary and common as I was. I believed it was very possible that the warrior, Jean, whose death I had seen, was one of my past lives.
Nevertheless, I was hooked in heart and mind by the Cherokee teachings and practices and I knew that I would never be the same. I also knew it offered me some way to understand my visionary experience. When I came home from my first weekend retreat with her, I tearfully told my then husband that I had to follow this path, no matter where it led. I was scared because deep down I knew that it might mean giving up the trappings of the life that I had until then striven so hard to create: getting an MA and PhD, establishing a career in Academia, and marrying a quasi-atheistic, somewhat agnostic man who did not believe in life after death, nor in past lives.
That was almost 20 years ago as I write this. I now know what the source of that uneasy feeling was as I stepped on the path opened up to me by the generosity and grace of the Ven. Dhyani. By early in the new century about 10 years after meeting her, I did finally leave my marriage and then gradually let go of my life as I had known it until then, culminating in the decision in 2007 to leave my comfortable, well-paid, tenured job at the University of Virginia to leap into the uncertainty of following the calling to shamanism, to becoming a healer, and to the creative life of writing and art. With the vagaries of the poor economy and the challenges of starting fresh at the age of 47, I then was forced to declare bankruptcy in January of this year. The process of peeling away the comfortable and known continues apace as I write this. I still am not sure I will be able to keep my house.
I did not remain under the Ven. Dhyani’s direct tutelage for the decade that led up to these dramatic changes in my life. After a few years studying with her, conflicts in the community—so common among alternative spiritual groups—led me to leave in the late 90s. I did not blame Dhyani in any way and indeed, not long after I left, she appeared to me in a dream and said that I could come to her at any time in the future if I had need or questions. I did not take her up on her offer at the time, but wandered in what felt like a kind of spiritual exile for a decade, longing for the depth and richness of the indigenous tradition that I had tasted with Dhyani, but unwilling to go back due to my then deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness.
During that time, my symptoms of PTSD, including fibromyalgia, mounted in intensity—a common pattern among the small percentage of people who suffer from this syndrome. This disease process escalated in my life the imperative to heal from growing up with a mother who had been and continued until her death in 2001 to be emotionally, physically and sexually abusive. Therefore, my spiritual practice after leaving Sunray, if you will, was rooted in seeking to free my body from the ravages of over 30 years of being bombarded by assaults on my wellbeing in this life, much less by others, such as that warrior, Jean. Yet, the two experiences—a personal legacy of abuse and dipping in to the bloody stream of humanity—continued to go hand-in-hand. As I worked on healing my own pain-filled body and mind, I seemed to be working on healing the world.
Eventually, over 15 years after my last trip to Moscow in 1991, and led by dreams and visions into the worldview of the new shamanism, I came to understand the nature of this “gift” of entering the archetypal legacy of our collective history. Western psychology tells us that survivors of abuse and violence will often sublimate the source of their imbalance into a passionate engagement with changing the very thing on a larger scale that hints at the original trauma. Then there are the words “projective identification” which means the manner in which a therapist will empathically connect with his or her client and actually feel the emotions and physical sensations experienced by the client. Or there is the explanation of “active imagination” in which a person follows an internal image as it spins out intuitively into what may have a semblance of a story.
However, in the West, we usually reduce even these phenomena into something that is only of the mind—a psychological result of neurobiological processes in the brain. In contrast, in many indigenous traditions and even in the mystical branches of Christianity, Judaism, and the Muslim faith, it is understood that there exist other dimensions of reality that are as real as the ordinary world in which we operate. They tell us that we can, through a variety of means whether used consciously or unconsciously, actually travel into these other dimensions. There we can come into contact with our past, present and future, with ancestors and demons, angels and gods—all of whom are as real as the flesh of our incarnate bodies and who, when invoked, will help us in our personal and global transformation. This is a trip of a different sort than tooling around the globe like the author, adventurer and explorer Jon Turk, a friend of mine, who has taken multiple expeditions around the world in kayak, dog sled and bike. However, the fruits of the journey are no less valuable and no less perilous.
Just as the Lakota medicine man Black Elk was visited by spirits and Christian mystic Teresa de Avila was called upon by Christ, so through mental and physical illness I journeyed into other realms to heal the hauntings of my ancestral past—both the past of my own family of origin and the larger, human past. It was no accident at the age of 15 that I became fascinated with Russia’s violent history that then led to 15 years of the academic study of the former Soviet Union. In shamanic cultures, it often happens that the gift appears in the very young and is recognized and harnessed in age-old training methods by the elders.
However, I was borne into the late 20th century in the secular age that has largely rejected the veracity of what is often perjoratively called “the psychic”. Therefore, the challenge on my life’s trip was to believe my own experiences and then to learn how to harness their power in service of healing through a wild and juicy journey into the new spiritual marketplace of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. What a journey it has been! I still fall very short!
There are parts of this story I do not have the space to tell here. I am now a student in Alberto Villolodo’s Healing the Light Body School of the Four Winds Society. There he and his senior faculty teach a distilled, adapted version of the shamanism he learned from the Q’ero of the Peruvian Andes, something I choose to call the “new shamanism” derived from a spirituality that is more ancient. Over the past eight years as I was warming up to the idea of becoming a modern-day shaman, I also sought out and met other interesting and extraordinary men like Alberto who have walked similar paths and who have brought the distilled knowledge of indigenous peoples back to the U.S.: Brad Keeney and his “shaking medicine” from the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Martin Prechtel from the Maya of Guatemala. There are stories about all of them to be told that also tell us a great deal about our collective past and our future.
These days, I think it is an exciting time to be alive, especially since I no longer suffer from insomnia and the symptoms of PTSD, and as the pain in my body becomes less and less severe. Like many shamans of old, once I plunged fully into the waters of this strange calling, my illness began to abate. I now wear my leather cowgirl hat and boots to try to fit the part in some way in the externals. I thank the spirits and this wonderful life I have led upon entering the wilderness of the mind and body to journey to other rich dimensions of experience that provide us with our collective human capacity to heal.
Rachel E. Mann has a private shamanic healing practice in Charlottesville, VA. She also makes a living doing consulting and training for institutions of higher education and non-profits working to end violence through her business, MettaKnowledge for Peace. (http://www.mettaknowledge.com). She also teaches about shamanism and peace and violence studies part-time for the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program at the University of Virginia. She can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.