We’re standing in a circle around a small fire. As a group, we turn to the south, lifting our rattles and shaking them at the sky, where a half moon bites the darkening blue.
Deborah Wray, gray hair pulled back from her face, prowling around the fire in hiking shoes, takes a mouthful of liquid from a bottle, then spits it out, making fine spray and a startling noise. Then she calls out: “To the winds of the south!” We’re still holding up our rattles; our arms are a circular forest.
Deborah Wray (Photo by John Robinson)
In her clear and practiced voice, Wray calls upon the serpent spirit, naming its attributes: moving belly to belly with the earth, shedding its skin. Like the serpent, she says, we must let go of our old stories. We must be reborn. Then she says, “Ho!” and gives her rattle a quick shake and the rest of us answer: “Ho!” Then we turn to the west.
Altogether, we are four men and nine women—mostly students of Wray’s, who have just finished the first day of a weekend course on shamanism. Some are locals; some have come here to Batesville from as far away as Japan and Saskatchewan. In this fire ceremony, each of us is supposed to “come into relationship with the fire,” as she puts it. We’ll each lay a small stick in the flames, and invite the fire’s energy into our bellies, hearts, and heads. We’re opening the sacred space in which the ceremony must take place.
We rattle in each of the four directions. Then we kneel and address the ground. Then we stand and address the sky.
As we’re looking up, a jet crawls overhead, its contrail dividing the blue expanse.
Into the present
Shamanism is ancient, but that name for it is relatively new.
From a panoply of belief systems around the world, mostly held in indigenous societies, Western observers have culled the single word shaman to describe a person who can mediate between this world and the spirit world. Shaman, as a term, was coined by the scholar Mircea Eliade in 1951; he’d borrowed it from the Tungus people in Siberia. Adopted by other scholars, it came to stand for “what we might call in English a medicine man,” explained Rachel Mann, a local shaman and professor.
In the ’60s, along with so many other alternative ways of understanding the world and the self, shamanism grew into Western consciousness. Two books—the autobiography of a Lakota holy man called Black Elk Speaks, which was written by a white anthropologist, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan—helped awaken Americans and other first-world seekers to the ideas and practices of native groups from around the globe. “This began a genre of writing by mostly white men who traveled and met healers and became their students,” said Mann.
It’s a culture clash that doesn’t always break neatly. Westerners, with scientific worldviews and institutionalized religion, may be scornful toward the earth-based practices of native shamans, or—just as often—enchanted by them. A contemporary American version of shamanism emerged in the ’70s, and some Native Americans saw it as yet another form of cultural assault by the white world—a misappropriation of sacred spiritual practices.
“I do think whites can be very disrespectful,” said Mann, herself a white practitioner of native healing techniques. “When we take weekend workshops, we think we’re qualified. It takes years to practice [shamanism] responsibly.”
Mann received training through the second largest school of shamanism, Alberto Villoldo’s Healing the Light Body School, an education she likens to earning a master’s degree in counseling. “It’s a big commitment and it costs lots of money,” she said. To her, shamanism must be practiced with knowledge, humility, and respect. “I’m very frank that what I’m doing is a synthesis,” she said. Her practice incorporates Buddhist traditions, Western psychology, and the Peruvian techniques she learned from Villoldo (who also trained Deborah Wray).
Mann says there’s nothing inappropriate about combining indigenous shamanism with other belief systems. “There’s a stereotype that these practices are ancient and have never changed. In reality they’ve traded, exchanged, shared knowledge, and adapted.”
Certainly, shamanism is adapting now. Like everyone else, shamans have websites, answer e-mail, and buy plane tickets. But the modern world also infiltrates the practices themselves: At the fire ceremony, I watched Wray anoint the fire with a bottle of Harris Teeter’s house-brand olive oil.
No one asked me to decide whether shamanism is “true,” and anyway I’m not qualified, but it’s unavoidable to try. The best I could do was to come up with some theories.
Shamanism is a religion that’s not called a religion.
Here’s how Sue Wolf Star, another local shaman and the proprietor of the Wolfsongs School of Shamanism, puts it: “Shamanism is the oldest spiritual philosophy on the earth. It comes from a time when we lived in harmony with each other and everything else…the earth, the sky, animals, trees, plants.” She doesn’t mean a time that one can pinpoint in a history book—rather, an existence outside time and the physical earth, when “we knew we were not separated. [With the] Great Separation, we began to separate from the Creator. All recorded history has to do with time after the Great Separation—anything we can recall. Shamanism is the memory of how to live in the old way.”
Sue Wolf Star (Photo by John Robinson)
So here we have a creation myth, a Creator, and a Fall. Whether you call it the “kingdom of God” or “harmony,” the promise of a return to the original state of being is much the same. Yet there is a markedly different flavor.
“[Shamanism] is an earth-based spirituality,” said Mann. “The more mainstream religions, Christianity and Judaism…[are] very institutionalized and may be more focused on practicing particular rituals, as opposed to helping people delve deeply into their spiritual lives…People are not as satisfied with, you go to a church, you go through the motions.”
For Beverly Martin, a student of Star’s, the two can coexist. Martin grew up in Lovingston, in the Methodist Church, then became Presbyterian after marrying. “Religion was a large part of my life,” she said. Years after becoming interested in shamanism, she still considers herself a Christian. “I don’t see it as a conflict,” she said. “I see them as two separate things.”
That may be because, in her view, “Shamanism is not a religion.” Rather, she said, “It’s a way of walking on the earth…It’s being connected to everything that is, all that surrounds us. That’s something you definitely don’t get in church.”
Another of Star’s students, Loring Myles, agreed with the distinction, saying that the spiritual core of organized religion has been compromised by its institutionalization. “Shamanism doesn’t even say God; it’s just spirit or energy. It’s very open ended and the belief is that this lives within each one of us. It’s not conditional. Whereas I feel like religion is conditional”—i.e., it rewards or punishes based on specific behaviors.
It may not be fear or piety that propels shamanic practices, but believers certainly do perform rituals—fire ceremonies, full moon ceremonies—and they meditate in ways analogous to prayer. Still, said Mann, “There’s very little dogma. It’s all about the relationship with the self, relationship with a Creator, reading the natural world as a text.”
Example: Years ago, said Mann, she was having a hard time in her life, often stressed and angry. One day, “I was driving down the highway. This hawk came into the windshield.” She shook her hands sharply, bracelets rattling, to show how its wings hit the glass. “It was like a Zen master whacking me with a stick. My mind was churning, and he woke me up. I had this feeling of love pour into me.” In the shamanic view, this event was not an accident. “There’s a belief among shamanic cultures that the earth is alive and has consciousness and we can, if we go into certain states of mind, connect with that consciousness and hear guidance.”
Perhaps it’s merely a question of familiarity. Is extracting an ancestor’s spirit with a crystal really any stranger, or more random, than calling wine the blood of Christ?
The side of American culture that’s solidly rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions may find shamanism odd, if not threatening. Yet there’s a certain openness in America, too—a freewheeling, mash-up spirituality. And let’s not forget that shamanism existed on this continent well before Europeans arrived bearing Bibles.
“The tools and ceremonies they used disappeared from everyday culture,” said Martin. “That’s why they seem strange. But that’s all they are, tools and ceremonies. Any belief system has those.”
In Charlottesville, at the moment, shamanism appears to be largely a women’s world. Those seeking shamanic healing will most likely end up with one of three practitioners: Deborah Wray, Rachel Mann or Sue Wolf Star. All three are white women in their 50s, with just one child among them. Wray and Mann received training from a large, established shamanic school; Star’s education was different (more on that later). All three are also teachers. While Mann is a UVA professor, Star and Wray teach shamanism independently. The majority of their clients and students are women, too.
It’s striking how different these healers are from the image you’re likely to hold of someone in their profession. Mann, with her cowboy boots and beaded jewelry, might sport the look, but her manner is utterly unlike the flaky, New Age stereotype of “spirituality.” During our conversation for this story, she rarely smiled; she was serious, focused, professorially spelling terms for me at a fast clip. Her affect draws more on her academic background (she holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literature) than on her more recent entry into the world of shamanism.
Sue Wolf Star is more like the lady next door, whom you might spot hauling her garbage out to the curb or feeding cats on the back porch: friendly, slightly distracted, with sandy hair and glasses.
Mann sees a handful of clients per week, fewer than Wray, who’s been practicing eight years and has about 15-20 clients weekly. All three of these women have had their own experiences being healed—or at least changed—by shamans. They charge $110-150 per session for their services. There’s no governing body or licensure for shamans, though the school Mann and Wray attended does issue a certificate to its graduates.
Shamanic healing uses objects both natural—condor feathers, crystals, stones—and human-made, from drums to Tarot cards to a small plastic troll that Mann keeps in her mesa (medicine bundle). When shamans describe their processes, you’re likely to hear terms like “power animal,” “underworld,” and “soul part,” which Wray describes as “a quantum of your energy. Say you’re a small child and abused, part of you breaks off and goes away. It leaves you with less energy for your life…A shaman will go and find that. We ask permission, bring it back, and blow it in through the crown of the head.”
Clients may come for one or many sessions; they may also be students of shamanism; they range widely in age. They must be open to having some rather intense experiences.
Once, Wray and her husband were at a sacred site in Peru and were in some emotional distress. “[A shaman] came up and said ‘Excuse me, I need to suck something out of you,’” remembered Wray. “He put his mouth right here”—her shoulder—“and sucked something out, and I felt such relief. Then he went behind a boulder and threw up.”
Shamanism is therapy by another name.
Central to the fire ceremony led by Deborah Wray is a notion of personal transformation. Each of us holds a small stick, into which we’re told to blow aspects of ourselves that we want to let go of, or cultivate. The language isn’t that different than what you’d find in a self-help book, or certain yoga classes or church groups.
Do traditional shamans really talk about “personal growth”? Do their acolytes tell them, as Wray’s students jovially do upon leaving her yard, “I love you”? And do the shamans, like Wray, answer back “I love you too”?
Wray is untroubled by the way indigenous beliefs take on this new, American face. “It’s all working, so I trust it,” she said.
Put another way, she’s practical about it. Which is exactly the word Star uses for shamanic healing—“practical.” While some of her clients are spiritual seekers, she said, many just genuinely need help. “They’re having major conflicts in their life,” she said. “They’re looking for psychology with spirituality mixed in. I help people in divorce or changing jobs.”
Beverly Martin, Star’s student, told me how shamanic studies taught her to “open up to the energy and let it flow and let it be.” The example she gave was a Florida trip she and a friend took, on which they had no definite agenda—ordinarily, an unsettling situation for Martin. A self-help book might call this a “control issue,” and what Martin managed to do “letting go.” Whatever the term, she had a great time.
Rachel Mann (Photo by John Robinson)
Mann takes it further: “I feel shamanism has incredibly effective tools for treating what in Western psychology we call PTSD.” She speaks from personal experience, having undergone treatment for fibromyalgia linked to emotional trauma. Conventional medicine didn’t help. “It was the alternative practices that have gotten to the root of my symptoms,” she said.
How does it work? “You’re working at every dimension of human experience—the body, the mind and emotions, the soul, what Jung would call the archetypal, the spirit or energetic dimension. Try quitting smoking or eating sugar [without addressing all these dimensions]—it can be very hard. When you work at the mythic level, it can be so much easier….I consider this a very direct method for change.”
It’s not as though Western science, these days, is totally unaware of the mind-body connection. Mann’s been invited to give talks about shamanism at the UVA nursing school and Old Dominion University’s counseling program. And those rattles we shook during the fire ceremony? Wray said they “help make a perceptual shift. When you rattle a certain number of times per second, it’s scientifically been shown it shifts the brain waves into a more altered state.”
Maybe it’s therapy; maybe it’s medicine. (As in, medical.) Then again, maybe it’s a lot more mysterious than that.
Once, during a workshop, Wray’s teacher Alberto Villoldo “put one of his stones on my chakra and unwound it, and let his stone take whatever I needed to let go. I shook and rattled and rolled; my teeth chattered.” This experience was followed by two events: finding a carved wooden cat in her bag that she’d never seen before, and a dream about being attacked by a cat. “Meanwhile, my husband at home was dreaming about jaguar cubs in our house. Alberto said ‘You’re being claimed by an archetype.’” For Wray, this experience sealed her commitment to a shamanic life. “I knew from then on.”
Which leads to…
Shamanism is totally out there.
When talking to shamans, it’s helpful to accept certain ideas at face value: past lives, ancestral wounds to the psyche, luminous energy fields. And channeling.
“I was just always a seeker,” Sue Wolf Star told me. “For me psychology wasn’t deep enough.” After earning a psych degree from UVA, she studied hypnotherapy and learned to lead others into trance states. She witnessed channelers, then herself began to channel a being called Merlyn. “He came from a group of energetic beings who surrounded the earth like a radio frequency.” Through Star, Merlyn dispensed advice to people with work, family, or spiritual problems.
Then things got weird. Star met an 18-year-old white man named Christopher who, since he was 12, had been channeling the spirit of a Cherokee healer who lived 400 years ago. This spirit, named Black Bear, became Star’s shamanic mentor, and she studied with him (with Christopher as intermediary) for five years.
She knows how this sounds. “I sometimes think about leaving this part of my story out,” she said. “But it’s so much a part of my story that my teacher for five years was a disembodied being. He was an enlightened, empowered being who could see everything about you, could see if you were lying, and still loved you.”
Christopher had no life experience with Cherokee people, she said, but when channeling Black Bear he spoke Cherokee (though Black Bear did learn English over time). “Christopher would look up and say ‘It is good to be here,’ in this deep gravelly voice,” said Star.
Here’s another fact that I, for one, find amazing: Deborah Wray does 75 percent of her healing work over the phone.
“Their energetic body is right there on the table,” she explained. “It’s actually easier [than an in-person session].” She says that the notion of long-distance healing isn’t strange at all. “If you think about someone with enough energy, it affects them. Everybody can think about experiences when they thought about someone and the phone rang [and that person was calling].”
All the talk about spirits and energy was getting abstract, so I visited Rachel Mann to see how a shamanic healing session actually looks and sounds. She welcomed me to her prayer flag-bedecked house in Batesville and ushered me into her office, which reflected her identity: part scholar (groaning bookshelves, computer desk) and part healer (lit candles, sacred stones, a leather Native American jacket displayed on the wall).
Sipping a glass of water, I sat on the couch and answered Mann’s questions—getting-to-know-you stuff, about my interests and where I grew up and so forth. Then she asked me to stand in the middle of the room so she could “track my energy.”
Still seated, she began shaking a rattle, breathing audibly while peering in my direction. After a couple of minutes, she finished and I sat back down while she explained what she’d seen. A person’s energy exists on four levels, ascending from physical to spiritual, each level linked to an animal: serpent, jaguar, hummingbird and condor. Apparently my energies, while not seriously out of whack, were somewhat “dampened” or fatigued. (My condor’s wings were partly folded.)
Mann asked me what I thought of her findings. I couldn’t argue with anything she’d said, though the skeptic in me noted that no mother of a toddler (as I am) needs a shaman to tell her she’s fatigued.
Still, as we talked—and Mann drew me out like any good therapist would—I found myself partially letting go. We were discussing a particular goal of mine. “How does that feel, physically?” she asked. “My throat feels tight,” I said, “like I might cry.”
Next, Mann asked me to choose a stone from her mesa—a bundle of sacred objects wrapped in a Peruvian blanket. In these situations, I always overthink, my rational mind shouting over my intuition: “No, not that one! That one’s right in the middle; it’s too obvious! Keep looking…you’re taking too long!” Eventually I admitted to Mann, “Rachel, this is hard for me.” She said, “Close your eyes, then open them and take the first one you see.” There it was: a chunk of white quartz that she said came from the local mountains.
After blowing my intention for the session into the stone, I lay on Mann’s massage table, knees propped on a pillow. She pulled out a small metal pendulum and suspended it over each of my seven chakras (the body’s energy centers, running up the spine to the crown of the head). Bad news: Only two of my chakras were functioning well, meaning they caused the pendulum to circle in the right direction. Yikes.
Now Mann asked me to breathe, close my eyes, and go into a “light beta or trance state.” (Rational mind: “I don’t know how!”) As I struggled to calm my thoughts, Mann began her work—moving around the table through a long sequence of actions. These included laying stones on my chakras, shaking her rattle, spitting spirit water into the air over my body, chanting, and praying. Sometimes she’d give a quick, thin whistle. Sometimes she’d put her hands under my skull or on my feet, or press firmly on my chakras.
I tried to let myself be overtaken by the experience: smelling the perfume of the spirit water, feeling a feather sweep past my skin. But it didn’t really click until Mann told me she was “going to the underworld.” (Rational mind: “What th’?”) She started rattling, near my head, and didn’t stop for a long time. I was exhilarated by the constant, percussive noise. My rational mind quieted down a bit. Eventually the rhythm of her rattling changed, then stopped.
Mann blew energy into my affected chakras, swept her hands over my body and pressed her torso against my feet. Then she said I could sit up.
We talked. Mann explained what she’d seen in the underworld: me as a child, holding a jar of fireflies. At first, I’d said these were fairies. Then I changed my tune, saying: “Magic isn’t real!”
In Mann’s interpretation, this indicated a possible childhood experience in which my capacity for imagination had been discouraged. But I wondered: Had she actually heard my rational mind as I lay on the table, fighting to be present? Did she intuit the fact that, as a person and a reporter, I was feeling wary about her “magic”?
Mann had also seen a group of deer, which she said had to do with strong family energy. It would be more normal, she said, to see a single animal, but in my case the whole family had shown up: doe, fawn, and buck.
“Interesting,” I said. “I almost never see bucks, but I saw a buck crossing the road this morning.”
She smiled. “Stuff like that happens all the time.”
I thanked her, went home, and proceeded to experience a month of unusually intense dreams.
Shamanism is in the eye of the beholder.
The thing seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether any of this looks silly from the outside. A dozen or so people shaking rattles around a fire in Batesville, in 2011, may or may not amount to much outside that circle, but it is certainly meaningful to those inside.
In some ways, it’s a very delicious idea—namely, that the universe is not random. “That there’s a plan for [your] life,” is how Sue Wolf Star puts it. As uncomfortable as I may be with that phrasing, I find myself noting synchronicities in the weeks that surround my research for this story.
Example: After the fire ceremony, the students remain in the circle and talk a while. One—a woman from Maine wearing a puffy white Patagonia jacket—says that she was recently talking with a well-known physician and women’s health advocate, whom I’ll call Dr. N. Apparently Dr. N is “really into shamanism,” regularly participates in fire ceremonies, and believes they have real health benefits.
I chuckle softly to myself. I own one of Dr. N’s books—a book having nothing to do with shamanism. And a few days earlier, after it had sat untouched on my shelf for over a year, I’d taken it down to reread.
There could be a thousand explanations for that coincidence. But what begins to matter isn’t whether such correspondences could be verified by science. It just feels good to notice them—even if my rational mind doesn’t buy it.
When I interviewed Wray, I found her both the most exuberant and the most matter-of-fact of the three shamans I met. With her ready smile and large eyes, she is utterly self-assured.
I was startled by something she said as she explained a basic principle of shamanic healing: “It’s the shaman’s job to get to the original wound. It may not be in this lifetime, or it may be ancestral. [I] track it to its origins, engage and heal it there…The client’s thinking ‘I’ve got cancer,’ but what’s underlying that is a deep sadness related to expectations about life, or finding meaningful work in life.”
Wait, I asked–can a shaman cure a serious illness like cancer? “It varies,” she said. “If people are open and available, it can turn on a dime. If they’re suspicious and have beliefs about whether I can do a thing for them, I have to go very slowly. Our beliefs are very self-fulfilling.” And, she adds: “If you break your leg, go to a doctor. Later, go to a shaman and find out what the bigger theme is”—why you broke that leg in the first place.
Belief isn’t something that can be verified or judged. Every week, regardless of “proof,” thousands of people read their horoscopes in this paper. Wray doesn’t advertise, but her practice is full. Clearly, for a number of people, shamanic healing does something—even if they don’t know exactly what.
Wray: “My clients don’t have to know how I work. They just know that it works.”
Sue Wolf Star: “There’s more than one way to the top of the mountain.”