Sharing healing space: The shaman and the therapist in the USA

© 2011 E.J. Fridman Neumann

2011 – № 2 (2)

FridmanKey words: psychotherapy, healing, shamanism, cultural specifics, therapeutic experience

Abstract: In the article the author analyzes her experience of the interview with a shaman, Deborah Freeman, who is practicing in the USA. The author examines the shaman’s biography and the specificity of her practice. Special attention is paid to her experience of the work with negative energies.

In the USA, as well as in Russia, new developments in the practice of shamanism have emerged. Although developments in the USA have not arisen in response to major political and even social changes that have occurred as in the former Soviet Union, still the emergence of shamanism as a legitimate healing practice bespeaks a change in attitude that may well enhance our abilities to provide greater efficacy with use of this alternative healing modality.

I have a private practice in psychotherapy, dealing with adults with mental health disorders: depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, psychoses, paranoia. They hear voices, usually telling them frightening things; they have delusions that they are speaking to the Virgin Mary, that parts of their body are missing; they have hallucinations – their previous tormentors are lurking in the corners, strange figures are hanging around, people long dead have reappeared and are there for some ambiguous purpose, whether for good or for evil is not clear. In the psychiatric profession we have a general point of view about these matters, labeling them as manifestations of underlying illness and hence requiring treatment with drugs and psychotherapy. They are not considered normative nor bear any connection to spiritual concerns. But, as will be discussed, it’s all in how we interpret these matters.

My office space and the adjoining room are shared by several psychotherapists. Recently, a shaman, Deborah Freeman, has begun to share our office space, practicing healing arts. I already had a sense of her presence. When I first visited this office, deciding whether it would be an appropriate place for me to set up my practice, I was told that each room in this suite had been blessed by a shaman and, as witness to that, little sachets were hung on the door knobs of each room. In fact, I added very little in the way of material objects to the office, only a dream catcher, made in a Native American tradition of hoops bound with leather and attached feathers and beads, so there was a conjoint feeling of closeness to spirits which permeated the room.

I was able to arrange an extensive interview with Deborah, which brought forth, spontaneously, some very striking differences in how we think about phenomena, how we interpret images, feelings and energy vibrations, depending on our internal core understandings of what these phenomena mean. Deborah feels things awaken. She says “blood calls to blood. It’s who has the gift or the ability to use that gift. The magic itself is creating the shaman – we need the emotional healing”. When she does something, she knows that is what she should do and feels it is the right time to do it.

Deborah was born in 1956. She said her grandmother from Poland was extremely religious and had “sight”. Deborah would say, “there’s a man here” or “some woman,” sensing things around her. Her grandmother would get upset and angry, would not accept that thought and felt it was the devil speaking. Having dreams as a child, Deborah knew this was different from other children but she didn’t know “where to go with it.” Her grandmother could find lost objects holding a pendulum over different places. He auntie, a friend of her maternal grandmother, grew herbs and used them for illness, which may have encouraged her to use herbs and plants in her own practice as an adult. As a child, she never felt alone, there was always “someone” there who played with her and her older brother. On her mother’s side, a grandfather carried his mother’s name – Romaniac – which makes her believe that she has gypsy heritage from her maternal line. Her father came from French Canadian and Native American background; he worked high up on buildings which would suggest that he may have been part Mohawk – an ethnic group famous for working on the construction of the skyscrapers in Manhattan, N.Y.

She does her work intuitively, feeling connection to people, using Tarot and Medium readings. She also uses tuning tines (C and A) that relax the person by sending vibrations through the ear – it harmonizes, pushing the negativity out. People come to her and will tell her their life’s history; they can reconcile themselves with their past and find validation. She uses her shamanism for mentally healing on an emotional level.

She used to have shape-shifting dreams of animals. She dreams of the wolf, a black leopard, a red-tailed hawk when she travels. The red-tailed hawk appears with white feathers with a red spot, taking his presence in her dreams. She has always had a horse in her dreams, a major totem animal for her. She did a past-life regression: It was 1300 A.D. and she was a gypsy in England, raising horses. She sees a black and white horse, bells, family, pulling a wagon – selling horses to a rich family. A gentleman who wanted a horse came to her; she was reading cards for a woman and told her the cards said “give the girl to an older man, he’ll cherish her”. The older man took the horses and arrested her for reading cards – she was hung and burnt at the stake. She did another past-life regression where she was a mason, on the path to becoming a knight-templar.

Tools for healing have come to her. She got a pale wood teaching staff from Arizona. As she progresses in her knowledge, she says, she will add more decorations. A turning point in her development came when she was working as a medium. A man came to her in the form of a black bear and helped her move forward in life. He came to her at first as a mentor, they would walk a ways, then he would stay behind and she would walk further. She recounts that a ceremonial knife came to her when she went into a shop, looking for a flint-knapped knife and she found a white jaw-bone with teeth of a black bear, and a blade, made by a native American shaman in California. She had such a strong connection with the knife when she found it that she felt herself going off on a journey. She uses this knife for meditation. Since sometimes she feels like she moves to another level, she can keep herself grounded in her connection to the earth by holding on to the knife.

When she does medium work, she goes deep into another level, crosses over. She describes this as follows: “call me, call my name after fifteen minutes if I don’t come back” (out of the trance state). She is getting messages in this altered state of consciousness. She has a spirit guide, a female Native American. This is White Wolf woman, a shape-changer, who was a shaman. She came to her in 2001, to protect her when she was working in a negative space. She uses various herbs for a sachet: sage, eucalyptus, bay leaf, sandelwood, frankincense, pine needles. What she uses depends on the person’s belief system – the power comes from the people for whom it is intended. She reads Tarot: people want validation of their own life and to be opened up to see what other possibilities are out there. As for health issues, she says, if something can be fixed, it comes forward. She has a gift for seeing fertility – children, or a baby in the future. A woman came to her who had had an issue with her husband years before and it had to be resolved. When the woman arrived, Deborah felt the lost spirit so all she had to do was make the connection; the man had died in a car crash, he had been trying to reach her and he wanted to say good-bye. He wants her to be happy, he’s sorry he’s not there. It was a stupid motorcycle accident – hit by a car, he spun on ice. His spirit was restless and wandered around after death.

In order to work effectively, she needs to know ahead of time who is coming so that she can connect to her spirit animals through dreamwork or mediumship. Her dream journey begins when she goes into an alternate state; when alone she can jump into an animal. When she is together with an other person, she can be in human or animal form; for example, if a person who consults her has the gift of sight, she will go with them to give them clarity and then she will go in animal form as a cat or dog. Going on a dream journey on her own, she will go as a wolf or two wolves together with her spirit guide. She may go as a black leopard, depending on where she is – a jungle or a desert. She stays in the forest where she feels comfortable or, in another shape-shifting form, she can inhabit the water as an orca-killer whale. Artifacts that are reflective of her shape- shifting forms include a necklace made of wolf teeth from Tibet, wolf statues, a statue with a wolf head on one side and a person’s face on the other side, a collection of horses, and a pressed glass plate depicting two Orcas. These spiritual animals all come to her when they are ready to come. This last winter, she got a Cherokee cedar drum which she uses herself for ceremonies, and to raise positive energy.

She had mentioned that she had been working in a space that had negative energies. It was a store and sewing workshop, called The Fabric Place, in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was at this point in her narrative of her awakening consciousness of becoming a shaman with healing powers that I suddenly grasped an intersection between her work as a healer and mine, albeit with differing interpretations. She became aware that this place was a Native American burial ground and that the Native Americans’ camping site had been across the street from Fabric Place. She had a sense that there were Native Americans there, fighting with Europeans who massacred them and took their land. She did a séance to ask why it was so negative – everyone who worked in the workshop was arguing – and she was told “go home” by the guardian of the spirits, a medicine man and spiritual healer. This guardian’s job was to keep the spirits from moving forwards with their life – they couldn’t evolve, they did not reincarnate. Some had moved on, some hadn’t. No one would go into the storage area on the other side of the store. People had been touched, had seen something. At first when she came to the store to work, doing sewing and checking the work of home stitchers, she felt positive but then she began to notice a lot of negative forces. The sewing machine was moved out, other things were moved, and people complained. She saw shadows and heard voices. She saw a shadow figure and other people reported that they saw a man with a flannel shirt walk across the room and go into a wall. He was the person who had raised and lowered the train gate at the train station across the street years before.

She ordered thread and would go into a trance, writing but not awake. The spirits were there and they were calling to her that they wanted to be let out. They were angry they were there and that the sewing machine had been moved and they weren’t protected anymore. She felt she was compelled to do a spell, to push back this bad energy. She did a candle spell. She put sachet bags of herbs in each corner to protect the perimeter of an area where they were having trouble with sewing machines breaking. “Please don’t come into our space while we’re here. This is our space; please respect that.” The candle flame leapt up while she said this prayer and the negative energy was removed.

For many years in Framingham I had a patient in treatment, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who believed that her father was a full-blooded Indian from Prince Edward Island whom her mother had an affair with while her husband was overseas during the Korean conflict. Family history also suggests that her paternal grandfather came over from Scotland and married Jennie, a woman of mixed African and Native American background. This was probably not true, given her green eyes and red hair, and a Scotch-Irish background, but it serves as backdrop to a firmly held belief that she had that there was “a little black Indian” a Native American man who used to sit on her roof, outside her attic bedroom window and look at her and wink at her. She claimed that other people had seen him also. She told me how one time she saw him there, then the next time she saw his brains coming out of his mouth and ears – he’d been shot. She went downstairs; it was 2 a.m., her parents were up and laughing, saying “how old is David? He must be 102”. She called the 911 emergency and when the police came they could not find the body. But she has maintained her belief that this person was there, squinting and winking at her, telling her he was her father, “you’re Mulatto”. She’d see him and then he would be gone. She denied this was a hallucination but said “don’t tell Dr. Uhl or he’ll put me in the funny farm”. I reassured her I wouldn’t. (1/9/06).

This Native American appeared in another narrative she told me about how when she was a teenager, she and a friend would go to a cemetery where there was a ghost or a spirit of a native American – a black man who said he was her father and who would disappear when they got near. (3/10/06). She often saw this “little black Indian’ on the street. She said he was always around and others saw him too. Even though she knew he was an Indian spirit, a ghost, she believed in what he said. (4/2/07, 5/16/08). At another time she told me that her father, who was “criminally insane,” took a gun and shot the Indian who was on their roof. She described how this little man slid down from the roof, looked in her window, mouthed “I love you, Teresa” and then his brains splattered her window, a yellow mess. (2/5/07).

She believes the CIA and the Mafia are telling her she will die; she hears voices coming out of the radio and the TV speaking to her by name and telling her negative, scary things but she says: “Only crazy people hear voices. I am not crazy. These are real voices coming out of the TV.” As a young girl she had dreams and visions all the time, mostly visions of Jesus and Mary. She tells how she and her friends used to go to Blueberry Hill in Natick, a town adjacent to Framingham, and race around in nature there. The hill was peopled by lost Indian spirits. She says she and the others used to see them running around, appearing in the wilderness. She says other people in Natick were afraid of going there because of that, but she and the kids weren’t. Now the hill is totally developed with houses and the lost Indian spirits have no place to go. (8/18/08).

In both of these narratives, the same spirits appear, in almost identical locales, busily creating movement, letting their dissatisfactions be known, and making the invisible visible, at least to some people. One point to note is how culture-bound our concepts of spirits are. In the USA, the original occupation of the land by the Europeans and the loss of place – and often whole ethnicities themselves – especially in New England where the earliest Euro habitations were established, has led to many layers of mythologizing and even now, rebuilding and re-identification of those very particular local tribes who inhabited the land prior. This is truly an American phenomenon and part of our underlying history. It is not surprising that Teresa engaged with this Native American spirit as did Deborah employ ritual to appease them. But that is where the shamanistic practice differs from the psychiatric. Deborah recognizes that these dissatisfied spirits are real and have made that known to her and hence the only way to manage the situation is to do a specific ritual informing them that a certain space is now reserved for Euro-Americans and they need to respect that. Psychiatric practice however does not suggest this type of approach. Instead we struggle with basically doing nothing about what we understand as paranoid hallucinations, the only positive here being that these Indians or the particular small Indian perched on the roof, are good spirits, comforting, and hence spirits neither Teresa nor I would desire to eliminate from her thoughts.

This difference in interpretation of a spirit-induced phenomenon and how to respond to it in a healing way, can be briefly illustrated by a situation that occurred while I was traveling, on horseback, in Hövsgül province, Mongolia in 1999. On the return to Tsagan Nuur, we stopped at a farmstead belonging to Bodka, the sister of Baira, a well-known shaman who practiced shamanism both in Tsagan Nuur and in Ulan Baatar. The sisters came from a family with strong shamans; their mother and Baira’s father’s mother were both very famous shamans, known for their great powers. When we arrived at Bodka’s home, we met one of her sons, a young man about 20 years old who had had an extraordinary experience the year before. He saw a little white cloud (also described as a little white ball) jumping next to his horse when he was out herding the animals. It said to him “Take me! Take me!” and he got scared. Subsequent to this, he refused to talk, rubbed his face, said “no, no” (in response to an inner voice?) smiled inappropriately, could not sleep or if he slept he began to talk in his sleep. This strange behavior continued for a whole year until the time of our arrival. My understanding, coming from a background steeped in psychiatric interpretations, given the age of onset and the type of symptoms, was that this was a schizophrenic break with reality. (And so it would have been understood in any psychiatric setting in the USA.

However, we were traveling with a healer, Tsetsge, who offered to spend the night on the farm and do a healing of this young man. She told us afterwards that it was a depression of the nervous system due to fear and trauma. She said she called his soul back. She said that in Mongolia, lamas do this very well. When people are in a period of high emotion or deep depression they lose their ties with their soul. The soul flies away and people lose their energy. The spirit said to him “Take! Take!” Tsetsge read mantras and she talked to him and talked with him. He decided that he would become a shaman. This was the meaning of the spirit’s saying “take” – that he should take on the mantle of shamanhood. The family decided that they would begin to look for a teacher for him who would make shaman clothes for him. They would also find an appropriate date for his initiation as shaman and then they will do the ritual of initiation. Then he only needs to agree to take on shamanhood and will be shamanizing by himself. In 2000 I was in Tsagaan Nuur again and asked Bodka about her family. She told me that her oldest son had gotten a mouth-harp last summer and had become a Zaarin. The son with the problem last year, she said, so far no success. He cannot find someone to make a mouth-harp for him; it has to be a shaman from the clan of blacksmiths. In a subsequent visit to Mongolia I learned that the young man had indeed been initiated as a shaman and had begun doing some healing, thereby losing all his symptoms. The interpretation of the original symptoms, therefore, was that they were indicating incipient shamanhood.

I tell myself that I can learn from shamans and from the concepts of shamanism. That the alternative ways of looking at phenomena can lead us to more nuanced interpretations of phenomena and hence more effective and diverse ways of healing, using ritual and other modalities that may bring comfort and well-being through an inclusion of the world of spirits.

The dates refer to notes from specific therapy sessions with Teresa.

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