By Adam Rindfleisch, MD
Last month, I described a few of the many aspects of shamanism. People always want to know what to expect during a journeying experience. Truly, each one is unique.
That said, hearing about others’ experiences can be helpful, and I sometimes am asked to give an example. I would like to share with you a journey that took place several years ago, with a delightful woman we’ll call Pam for the purposes of this account. Pam’s journey proved to be a very powerful and moving experience for both of us, and I can still remember it vividly.
I like Pamela. She has a ready smile and the bearing of someone who truly cares about others. We are meeting in person for the first time, though I know her because we have shared some mutual patients in the past. Pam has come to see me to discuss how her work has been affecting her health. She is a hospice nurse and values her work very much, but she is thinking about leaving her nursing work to take an administrative position. “It is just so hard to watch them die, over and over again,” she confides. Losing patients, she says, has drained her over the years.
Pam closes her eyes and lies back on a therapy table as we talk. She does some breathing exercises. I guide her through a brief body scan. I encourage her to simply be receptive, to notice any impressions, feelings, or images that arise.
With time, she sees something. Pam describes a face. A man’s face. His striking eyes are caring, but haunted. There is a sense that he has been ill for a while.
“Do you know him?” I ask.
She pauses, but not for long, before she replies. “Oh, yes. He is a patient of mine who died while he was looking right into my eyes. I won’t – can’t – ever forget him.”
I ask her to tell me more. “Well,” she says, “He had no family to be with him when he went, so I stayed with him through his last hours. It was really powerful. I sort of – watching him go – saw the light leave his eyes.” She is trying not to let her voice break.
I suggest that Pamela engage in a brief dialog with the man we are both seeing. He thanks her for being there for him, tells her that he helped her a great deal. She nods.
After she acknowledges what he has communicated, he simply fades back from our awareness. Dozens of other people seem to enter the room. Men and women, a variety of ages. They approach the exam table and line up on either side of Pamela in two parallel lines.
“Who are they?” I ask, suspecting I know the answer.
I do. They are all people she has helped in her work, people whom she helped to die. They move by in a procession, like the line at a wedding reception, each of them stopping momentarily to greet Pam or thank her or express their appreciation for her in some way or another. Some touch her on the shoulder. Others simply smile.
Pamela begins to cry. My eyes are tearing up too.
They pass by, all the people Pam helped through the dying process. Are they really here with us somehow? Does it matter, so long as this experience is meaningful to Pamela?
Each one of them stops beside her. Each – and there are dozens – takes a moment to acknowledge Pamela in some way, with a smile, a nod, a barely-palpable touch, or a few words before fading away.
And then they have all gone, faded into the distance. There is silence. After a wordless few minutes, Pamela wipes her eyes with a tissue and tells me she feels peaceful. She is a bit stunned; she needs time to ponder what has just happened.
Will she change jobs? The answer is not clear just yet, but she does know, without a doubt, that her work has mattered. This, in itself, is truly important. As she says good-bye, she promises to let me know when she makes a decision…
In medical school, my classmates and I were taught that the central question to ask when working with patients is “What is wrong with you?” Many clinicians focus on gathering data about what is broken, and then the goal becomes to repair it. Some people refer to this as the “find it, fix it model.” If you are trying to heal an infection or figure out what caused a rash, the “find it, fix it” approach works pretty well.
However, after nearly 20 years as a doc, I think the more fundamental question to ask people – the question that really gets to the root of what they need to be healthy – is simply this:
Who Are You?
At its core, shamanism offers ways to help people answer that question for themselves.
Some scholars suggest that the word “shaman” originally meant “one who sees in the dark.” Accurate or not, that rings true for me. Shamans help people to see what they might not otherwise. A shaman is, in some ways, a tour guide who accompanies people as they travel into the unknown, into the deeper parts of themselves. The goal is to travel safely to wherever one must in order to learn, grow, and heal.
What are some of the key elements of shamanic journeys? Shamanism has arisen in some form in most human cultures throughout history, and while those cultures might be quite unique, certain elements seem to be common among shamanic practices from many traditions, including the following:
- The natural world plays a fundamental role
- There is often reference to communicating with “the spirits.” This might mean anything from meeting power animals to encountering wisdom figures, guides, or aspects of one’s higher self.
- The places and beings visited are said to exist in “non-ordinary reality.”
- A shaman’s job is to help find the way and to assist a person with restoring balance in life.
As I say to people who want to learn more, the best way to do so is to give it a try. The path is there for the exploring…
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 the International Integrators Living Whole retreat in March 2015.