Restoring The Earth Healing The Mind
Leslie Gray is an ecopsychologist with unique qualifications- after completing her doctoral training in psychology she went on to study for ten years with native shamans, medicine people and folk healers. Building upon this rich background, Gray has created a form of shamanism specifically tailored to modern urban settings, a practice she calls shamanic counseling. In this interview, Gray speaks to the promising but challenging issues that surround the cross-fertilization of ecopsychology and shamanism.
SLOANE: What is ecopsychology?
GRAY: Ecopsychology is an emerging field that recognizes that you cannot have sanity without sane relationships with your environment. Currently in the U.S., groups of cutting-edge thinkers have been participating in dialogues aimed at the creation of a new profession combining sensitivity of the psychotherapist with the expertise of the environmentalist.
SLOANE: What do you mean by perennial shamanism?
GRAY: Shamanism is the oldest form of mind/body healing known to humankind. It involves the use of altered states of consciousness for the purpose of restoring well-being to those who are experiencing ill-health or helplessness. Shamanism is estimated by archeologists to be at least forty thousand years old. It's been practiced perennially -or continuously-by virtually all indigenous peoples up to today. Only in the West were its practices essentially eradicated, because of the so-called Enlightenment.
SLOANE: How does shamanism relate to ecopsychology?
GRAY: The worldview of shamanism is that health equals balanced relationships with all living things. When someone is ill, shamanism attempts to restore power to them by putting them back in harmony with life. This idea that all things are connected, while a very ancient concept, is also a concept for the future. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, as we teeter on the brink of global catastrophe, it is precisely a shamanistic worldview that is our greatest hope.
SLOANE: What traditional techniques do you use in shamanic counseling?
GRAY: I apply various techniques, when fitting. Not everything from shamanism is appropriate to contemporary situations. For instance, a lot of traditional shamanism really is done with your extended family -maybe even the whole family-involved, and that's neither practical nor efficacious in urban-industrial society. But there are certain things, especially the quintessential undertaking of a "journey" to consult with spirits, that are highly adaptable to nontraditional settings. Making allies with the things in the natural world around us; talking to the stone people; acquiring an animal as a guardian spirit; soul retrievals-these are just some of the core shamanic practices that can be done with an individual client in an office in an urban environment. Also, shamanic counseling tends to motivate people to get into nature more and away from an exclusively urban environment. City and suburban people get into ruts. Shamanic counseling inspires them to explore their environment. They even start seeing the connection between the city and the nature that's around them.
It wasn't until a life-changing vision turned me around that I first felt what could be described as a call to do shamanism. In this vision, I was sitting on a rock in a body of water. I looked down at the water and realized that there were roiling snakes everywhere. One huge dragon-like snake rose up and crunched my bones and chewed me up and spat me onto the rock in the shape of the four directions. As this happened, I felt myself rising. I looked around and saw vivid magenta and orange colors, like a sunset or sunrise. I realized that I was seeing a sky above and a sky below, and it was the Great Spirit. All of a sudden, inexplicably, I changed my mind and decided to come back down. When I did, I found myself sitting on the rock looking back out into the magenta and orange, only now I was dressed in buckskin and I had a snake necklace around my neck and a snake belt around my waist. I felt peaceful. I got up and walked back down the mountain in perfect balance, step by step by step. The minute I had that vision I knew that I was supposed to practice shamanism.
SLOANE: Is a shamanic journey a guided visualization?
GRAY: Absolutely not. A minimal framework is provided for the journeyer. Then the drum is in charge of transporting the journey to another realm, where the visionary experience occurs. The content of experience is neither described nor suggested by me. It comes entirely as an interaction of that person with spirit.
SLOANE: A lot of people will be looking to make equivalents between shamanic counseling and current practices.
GRAY: Well, they're not the same. One of the biggest things missing from mainstream psychology is spirit. For example, "guided imagery" is not about spirit. It's a psychological technique employing visualization, and it's essentially practiced upon a patient by a psychotherapist. Shamanic journeys are an interaction, a direct link, between the patient and spirit. So the real shamanic counselor is the power animal.
SLOANE: From the case histories, it appears shamanic and contemporary practices can effectively be merged.
GRAY: That is precisely what the new ecotherapy (applied ecopsychology) will be- that very merging. It may not involve incorporation of all the specific techniques of shamanism. It may be primarily the inclusion of the worldview of shamanism - that health is defined as a balanced relationship with your habitat, your ecosystem. This kind of relating empowers you as well as the ecosystem, so that both remain sustainable by generating aliveness in each other. There's an old Chuckchee shaman saying. "Everything that is, is alive." Indigenous peoples believe that you have to do your part to keep the earth alive, i.e., you must have reciprocal relations with the environment. You tend the natural world, and it in turn empowers you and gives you energy and health.
I would posit that the primary reason indigenous cultures have been able to have sustainable relationships with the Earth is that they do not turn the Earth into an 'it' from which they are separate. Also, unlike perennial shamanism - which in this regard fits hand in glove with the understanding of contemporary physics -ecopsychology might fail to acknowledge that we are inextricably intertwined with that which we study. In other words, mainstream psychology itself must change if it is to make a contribution to ecopsychology. It must free itself from its own outdated model.
SLOANE: What is your parting thought regarding the relation of our shamanic heritage and ecopsychology?
We've had more than forty thousand years of shamanic experimentation about
how to live healthily on this earth. There are many models of sustainable
indigenous societies. There are no models of sustainable industrial societies.
It would be tragic to waste this accumulated knowledge, and it would be
redundant for ecopsychology to generate models of a sustainable future
without learning from the way of life of the more than 300 million indigenous
people living in the world today.