Journeys with a Shaman

By Adam Rindfleisch, MD


Idaho, by Adam Rindfleisch

If they don’t take time to explore, people passing through my old stomping grounds in southeastern Idaho might not fully grasp the beauty of the Lost River Valley. The Rocky Mountains rise straight up from the high sagebrush desert and the lava flows.  There are countless places to explore.  In fact, mountains are so numerous and so remote that many of them didn’t even have names.

Some places leave more room for possibility than others.  Maybe it was the “untamed” nature of those surroundings, or maybe it was simply that our very rural community was often short of health care providers (or money to pay them), but people were willing to explore different therapeutic options the same way they would explore the pine forests or the two-track “roads” out in the desert.  In a county the size of Rhode Island with a mere 2,000 (population declining) people, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) unusual for people to experiment with different healing approaches.  We would take various supplements, pay a visit to the local chiropractor, seek out some energy medicine, or try out any number of other therapies.  The motto was always, “Whatever works.”

So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, of course.

Based on an upbringing in such a place, perhaps it is no surprise that I would enter—and exit—medical school with the intention to practice Integrative Medicine.  Now, 20 years later, I still find myself using “Whatever works” as my slogan.  Spending two years doing an Integrative Medicine fellowship after my residency was like being able to attend Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books; life was full of surprises and unexpected experiences, and my classmates and I were given license to push the envelope in terms of what is possible in health and healing.  I enjoy talking with my patients about supplements, acupuncture, mind-body disciplines, nutrition, or any number of other approaches, right along with exploring potential medications and surgical options.

Whatever works, right?

In 2004, I started taking shamanism classes, taught by a crazy (like a fox) Mexican MD/PhD who is now one of my dearest friends.  His teacher had described the subject matter to him as a mix of techniques that came from traditional Tibetan, Egyptian, Hermetic and indigenous Mexican teachings.

Whoa!  You don’t get much more eclectic than that.

Flash forward to about 10 years later.  People ask me how I draw “that stuff” into my work with my patients.  There really isn’t any simple way to describe it, but some of my students and patients find the following highlights helpful for me to share.

There are many ways to get information about health and healing.  Sometimes, you need to access the non-language parts of the brain.  Or is it about accessing the deepest part of oneself?  Explain it as you will.  Often, during a session, I help people make their way into a relaxed, trance-like state, using music (drums can have a powerful effect), imagery, and/or breathing exercises.

Then, we see what sort of imagery comes up for them.  Some people have visual impressions, some hear sounds, and others experience through their sense of touch or their emotions.  We work together with whatever arises.  That can mean having dialogs with whomever or whatever they encounter, and it can involve traveling to all sorts of amazing places.  The fascinating thing is that people often describe these experiences as more vivid, or real-seeming, than dreams.  Writers on shamanic journeying describe it as paying a visit to “non-ordinary reality”.

Sometimes I wait for imagery or other forms of information to crop up for me, and then we work with that imagery.  In other words, I try to use my intuition to guide things along.  Sometimes, we take turns describing what is catching our attention.  It becomes particularly interesting when both of us start to experience the same imagery.

Healing Hand by Adam Rindfleisch

Healing Hand by Adam Rindfleisch

Every session is different.  It depends on the person seeking healing and what his or her needs are.  A big part of the work is simply creating the space for allowing healing to happen.  I often describe my role as being like that of a catalyst in a chemical reaction.  A catalyst makes the reaction happen faster by its presence, but it doesn’t otherwise change what occurs.  If I somehow am able to help speed the process along for people, that is great.  However, they are the ones doing the work and making it possible for things to unfold.  You never know what might happen.  Sometimes people dialog with relatives and friends who have died.  Sometimes they see power animals, or guides, or wisdom figures.  Sometimes, elaborate events play out, scenes that would be worthy of the movies, set in a faraway place or a different timeframe.

When all is said and done, the best way to understand this type of healing approach is to try it.  Sure, get a strong introduction to shamanism and shamanic journeying by reading books by Sandra Ingerman or Michael Harner or Roger Walsh.  Then, find someone you trust to guide you.  Provided you both agree it is safe to do so, take a journey.

It is normal to have questions:  Did this really happen, or is it all in my imagination?  Are there really “spirits” I am encountering?  My other motto, besides “Whatever works”, is this:  “Discern for yourself.”  Each of us has to determine for ourselves what we make of such experiences.

One of the reasons I value the work of International Integrators so highly is that there is an emphasis on helping people explore, helping them to discern for themselves.  It is a gift to be able to work among people with similar passions, who are willing to approach health from many different angles.  The person seeking healing is, of course, ultimately in charge of his or her health, but it can be immensely helpful to surround oneself with a caring team of open-minded supporters.

Adam grew up in rural Idaho, where doctors are scarce and seeking out non-biomedical approaches is commonplace. He practices family medicine in Wisconsin, and one the most enjoyable aspects of his practice is taking care of health professionals from an array of traditions. Adam’s involvement in co-founding International Integrators reflects his deep interest in enfolding a holistic approach into his care of patients. Adam will be sharing a Shamanic Journeying workshop at International Integrator’s Living Whole Retreat in March 2015.