The Healing Ways of Shamanism
by Jez Hughes
We live in a time that has seen an unprecedented rise in diagnoses of mental illness; current estimates show that a quarter of the UK population will suffer some kind of mental illness in their lifetime. At the same time, we live in an age of great uncertainty and upheaval – social, political and ecological. These things are probably not unrelated. No more has this been shown than through the recent pandemic and subsequent lockdown’s and the effect that this has had on people’s mental health, leading some experts to claim we are now facing a mental health epidemic. What is certain, is uncertainty is everywhere.
For those who pursue a spiritual path, this might seem to be par for the course, as embracing a sense of the unknown is central to many traditions. However, there is a difference between learning an exotic philosophy that tells you there is nothing but impermanence, or even meditating on such a concept in a cosy, well heated room, to witnessing the widespread breakdown of society in front of your eyes. Even if it is a society that you have felt increasingly detached from through your spiritual learning. Home is home, and human beings are social animals, a need to feel secure in whatever society we exist in, is a central component of an individual’s mental and emotional health.
So what happens when that society becomes increasingly unstable, and disconnected from nature? I would argue exactly what we are seeing, which is a rise in mental and emotional instability, especially among young people, who are traditionally more open or sensitive to the environment in which they find themselves. For example three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialised societies is doubling. At this pace, over 50 percent of our younger generation, aged 18–29, will succumb to it by middle age. These are indeed shocking statistics, yet it is not just young people being affected and depression is only one way in which people’s mental health is being challenged.
Shamanism, can offer much help in this regard as what is driving a lot of the above problems is an overriding sense of disconnect- people are disconnected from each other, from a sense of community, from experiences of the sacred in everyday life and from a meaningful relationship with the environment that surrounds them. This last part is largely due to the fact that we are taught, from a very young age, that nature is just dead matter- it has no spirit or aliveness to it.
Shamanism teaches us the opposite, that nature is teeming with spirit, it is animated, and that spirit has a need to communicate to us as humans, as much as we equally need to communicate with it. For when we are disconnected from nature, it is easy to feel a kind of existential loneliness in the world that no amount of distraction through relationships, work or entertainment will ever be able to assuage. Or, like an alien, who finds themselves in a world they don’t understand and cannot relate to. Spiritual paths that don’t address this disconnect from nature can even, at times, exacerbate this disconnect, as we spend too much locked in internal worlds through practises that aren’t connected to the natural environment.
Shamanic ceremony is always built around the local environment, and much of its focus and intention is to celebrate, praise and give thanks for the abundance that nature has supplied, so that we humans may thrive. An abundance that may otherwise go unrecognised. The water that sustains life and helps us to feel connected through our emotions to ourselves, each other and everything; the fire the heats us, and who’s energy much of our civilisation borrows from; the earth that contains and provides the homes where we reside; and the wind, that sacred breath of life that not only means we can experience life in each and every breath, but that we can also communicate it through our voices. We can even sing- sing our praise of life and send forth our heartfelt prayers of gratitude for existence. Thus, ceremony reawakens within us that sense of connection with nature and, through this, ourselves. The separation anxiety that haunts the modern soul is then diminished.
Many studies are backing up this simple truth, that nature reconnection is extremely beneficial to our mental and physical selves. For example, nature exposure has been found to reduce stress hormone markers, such as cortisol levels and improve the functioning of the immune system, which plays a vital part not just in physical health but also mental, as it regulates inflammation which is now seen as the potential cause of many mental illnesses.
There are other ways to reconnect as well. How many of you know the species of all the trees and plants that surround you where you live? How many times do you give an offering to these sacred beings? A coin, some flowers, a small piece of food, to acknowledge their existence and give thanks for their lives. These small acts can have profound effects on our relationship with our local environments, it can also help lift us out of our predominantly human centric preoccupations and into something beyond our individual lives, something that is always beneficial to mental health. For it teaches us reciprocity, a principal the universe is based upon. Trees are the best counsellors I know. Yet, they also need feeding and this is where the offerings come in. Sometimes our offerings can be words, prayers, songs or even tears. This is about relationships, and like all relationships, it is important we bring all of ourselves to it.
If we can heal our relationship to nature, I believe that this will go a long way to healing our relationship with ourselves. This includes the fragile mental health that can afflict anyone, especially those most sensitive to the world and who usually are called by a spiritual path. Shamanism can offer us much guidance and instruction for this- heal the human soul, and we heal the world.
About the author: Jez Hughes is a shamanic healer and teacher. Founder of the training centre Second Sight Healing, he is a regular teacher at the College of Psychic Studies in London, a popular speaker across the UK, and has featured on a panel of experts for mental health charity MIND. He has been profiled on BBC radio and across the national press. Jez has a close relationship with the indigenous Wixarika (Huichol) tribe from Mexico and is the main cultural liaison for their work in the UK. He is the author of The Heart of Life: Shamanic Initiation & Healing in the Modern World.