In her quest for greater connection, Jini Reddy spends time at three shamanic retreats.
Lately synchronicity has been ruling my life. From where I’m now standing it feels as though the minute you are drawn onto the shamanic path, magic begins to unfold. For me, curiosity, a yearning for healing and for connection with the living energy in nature have led me here.
I see shamanism as an ancient system of healing for both people and the land that diverse cultures around the world still practice. Within shamanism, everything in the universe is believed to be made up of living energy. The root cause of our physical symptoms, illnesses and emotional difficulties are energetic in nature. The innately gifted shaman has the ability to see, sense and shift energy, and in so doing can heal the imbalances we see in our lives. But there are many ways to experience shamanism, many traditions and many, many teachings.
You may find yourself on a shamanic retreat; you may find yourself soaking up the knowledge of a wise teacher; or you may find yourself, alone, deep in nature, on a vision quest. Here are accounts of three different experiences that have deepened my own learning. Hopefully one or other may inspire you or spark your interest.
What do you do if you’re a woman, seeking a nurturing approach to shamanism where your unique gifts and the challenges you face in a predominantly patriarchal society will be understood? Enter Shamanka, one of the rare schools of shamanism that explores the tradition from a feminine perspective.
Eliana Harvey, a shamanic practitioner possessed of a vast body of knowledge, has been running courses at the school in Dorset for the past 30 years. ‘We aim to help women to catalyse their own wisdom and journey with a more feminine, nurturing, and empowering approach,’ she tells me when I arrive for a bespoke version of an introductory weekend course.
The female shaman traditionally honours the earth as her mother, and experiences nature as the manifestation of the divine. This is particularly pertinent in today’s world, where we find ourselves beset by environmental degradation, the plundering of the earth’s resources, and the killing of our wildlife, stemming from economic greed, corruption, and a mentality of separation.
‘We have banished the Goddess and by cutting off our umbilical cord to Her, we have abandoned the earth as mother, nurturer, giver of life,’ says Eliana. A female shaman then subtly seeks to redress the balance. She is a seer, a healer, woman of vision, compassion, a ceremonial leader, counsellor and wisdom keeper.
Becoming a shamanic practitioner means working on our own healing, daily. ‘To be effective as a shamanic healer, our energy needs to flow through us unimpeded, so we need to discover what personal blockages we might be carrying. It is imperative that we undertake the process of cleansing ourselves of personal “toxins” and rebuilding our energy body integrity before we can clear other people, places, the land and so on,’ writes Eliana in the course booklet she hands me. She goes on to explain that we can do this is in a variety of ways – by connecting to the earth, through visualisation and breathing techniques, crystals, candles, sunlight, and bathing in lakes, rivers, waterfalls or oceans for purification.
She introduces us to some of the tools that she uses: the drum and rattle for diagnosis and journeying (the latter also for calling spirit) and sage and eagle feathers for a cleansing or smudging ceremony. This is a soothing ritual and we each get to have a go. There is, I realise, a big difference between being on the receiving end and being the one doing it for another person. This is how real learning and a deeper connection to a tradition is embedded, through practice. Once the herbs are smoking and smouldering I fan them with a feather.
‘Allow yourself to be intuitively drawn to the areas that need special attention. This will develop your inner sense of the places in particular need of cleansing. Avoid analysing this too much,’ says Eliana. This equally applies to hands-on healing, which we get a chance to practice later in the day.
Before this, we devote time to familiarising ourselves with the Medicine Wheel, which Eliana has laid out in the centre of her beautiful Star Temple (built on the principles of sacred geometry and crossed by leylines), where the workshop is held. It is she says, a tool for self-awareness and healing, and acts as a focus for reflection and deepening. It is intended to represent the circle of life and our journey through it. Eliana’s Wheel is covered in crystals of varying sizes and other symbolic items including animal statues, which embody qualities linked to the elements and the cardinal points of north, south, east and west.
We also experience techniques of journeying, ie entering into a level of consciousness that helps us to work with intuitive and spiritual guidance, led by the powerful, hypnotic, brainwave-altering drumming and Eliana’s guided visualisations.
I also experience a gentle shamanic healing treatment with Maya Chandler, a practitioner who Eliana raves about. It lasts 90 minutes or so, and though it feels subtle, I have noticed a significant lightening of my spirits since. This is healing in action and I’d go back for more.
On the Sunday, Eliana takes us to the village of Cerne Abbas where we make offerings to the Giant, the ancient chalk figure on a hillside, long revered as a fertility symbol, and at St. Augustine’s holy well. According to local lore the waters are healing and people cast wishes here. I do too – for my path to become clearer and my learning to deepen.
Call of the Magician
Towards the end of June last year, I spent a week at Schumacher College, a centre for transformative living in Devon, on a course that has impacted on the trajectory of my life. Entitled Call of the Magician it explored ways in which we can foster and sustain a more profound relationship with nature. The magician of the title refers to the world’s seers: those who are able to sense the subtle realms and who harbour within them a deep wisdom and understanding of how to mediate between the human and non-human living world.
The course was led by Colin Campbell, an African shaman from Botswana. The son of a renowned anthropologist father and healer mother, as a child he learned from the San people. At the age of eleven, Colin was called to being trained and initiated as a traditional doctor and healer. His gentle, modest demeanour belie his enormous gifts for healing, divination and teaching. His equally talented partner, UK born earth educator Lucy Hinton, co-facilitated.
It is here, whilst listening to Colin speak, that I become conscious of my deep desire to connect with and discern the living energy in nature. But such a quest can’t be all ‘me, me, me.’ As he tells us: ‘We don’t go into nature necessarily to get relaxation or to get rejuvenation or to get healed. We also go into nature because it needs us to go into it, because nature gets something from us going into it. Because we bring something to it,’
Prayer, ritual, creating a shrine, making offers to the elements, solo time spent immersed in the wild, dance, music and the sharing of our stories are all vital to entering into a reciprocal relationship with nature and all that that encompasses. In indigenous cultures, explained Colin, this means ‘the greater self, the spirit, the creator, the ancestors and the unseen world.’
During the week we visit the shrine we’ve created to make requests and to offer our gratitude to nature. ‘Yearning and gratitude are two primary forces that run through us, according to the traditional cultures of Southern Africa,’ says our tutor. ‘The degree to which our lives become a response to those two qualities determines how our authenticity is honed. This is something we strive for.’
On our solo quest, a time to allow nature to interact with us in whatever way it chooses, I end by an uprooted tree. The words of my tutor echo in my ear: ‘ assume that everything happens for a reason, that nothing is random.’ .
I imagine the force that must be required to uproot a tree that has stood for years, calm and rooted to the spot, and I think of trauma the tree must have endured. To me its grief is palpable and I want to bear witness to it. At the same time, I recognize that I’ve been dealing with my own feelings of uprootedness.
In the traditional southern African way, explains Colin, this capacity to read the signs nature provides us at the symbolic level and make human sense of it all is a form of divination. To live this way means to experience both the storms and rainbows of our lives in the most sacred of ways.
One afternoon, all thirteen of us cram under a tarpaulin and sit chanting, around fire-heated rocks topped with herbs doused in water. The steam and heat, Colin tells us, is a way of administering plant based medicines to cleanse, strengthen us physically and psychologically and to help us connect spiritually to both each other and to our ancestors.
Manari Ushigua Kaji, the leader of the Sapara nation in the Ecuadorian rainforest, a people on the brink of extinction thanks to the impact of oil drilling, is a guest on the course. He explains that his people see themselves as deeply connected to all plants, animals, birds, insects and the earth. He joins us one evening and he and Colin share the creation myths of their respective cultures. Both tell us magical tales that hold us captivated.
Thanks to experiences like these, there are more and more of us who are hearing and drawing from the wisdom of custodians, elders and knowledge bearers. .
The Vision Quest
Most people come to the Pyrenees in summer time to hike, but I chose it as the setting for a vision quest. I can’t think of a more raw, direct way to plunge headlong into nature. It’s a rite of passage common to many indigenous cultures: you immerse yourself in the elements, fast – it’s a way of sharpening the senses – and return filled with insight, clarity and peace.
It’s not about heroics. The whole point of a venture like this is to dispel any notion of nature being a vehicle for your own gratification. Rather, you’re there to give yourself to the earth, to surrender to its rhythms. To be humbled and quietened. To listen, to observe, to feel.
A Basque-American shaman, Manex Ibar, who has trained with assorted Native American and other medicine men, (as well as John P. Milton, a shaman and the first environmentalist on White House Staff) has organized the retreat.
I spend the first few days camping in the field behind Manex’s rustic, chic farmhouse beyond the sleepy village of Arcangues, along with the other participants, preparing for my time in the wild. We are a group of five, and we start the day with Qi Gong exercises to help to encourage a freer flow of energy with in us. We learn about the 12 guiding principles of liberation, set out by John P. Milton. (Too many to mention here, but definitely worth exploring.)
We also study a complex system called Human Design, a tool for insight and decision making which Manex is passionate about sharing. On the eve of the five-day solo, we receive a powerful one-to-one healing and then enter into the Sweat Lodge on his land, for a purification ceremony. .
The next day, I set off from the foothills of the mountains, a two hour drive from my guide’s house. Manex carries my water, and we hike up to my spot, through a magical, mossy forest. He tells me, quite matter-of-factly that the Yeti lives here, a belief that many mountain folk in the Basque country share. Sightings are considered a blessing. A minute after we reach my mountain eyrie, Manex waves good-bye with a casual ‘see you down the mountain in five days’.
Within minutes of setting up camp, wild horses come galloping through the ferns to check me out: a magical moment. The sun sets and I crawl into my tent. It’s my first night alone. Only I’m not, after all. I’m about to drift off when a silence so deep you could cut it with a knife descends. Then there’s a strange whispering, close to my ear just beyond the canvas, unheralded by footsteps or the crackling of the branches. The voice conveys intelligence and conscious intent. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Is it a Yeti? Nature spirit? I’ve no idea, but I know I will puzzle over this for the rest of my life.
In daylight, I breathe easy. It’s baking hot, so I strip off . I nibble on my two emergency apples (and six nuts) to keep hunger pangs at bay. I’m getting through my water, so head down the hill to drink deeply from a waterfall.
Three vultures – a sign of purification, Manex later tells me – circle above my tent. They soar and dip, their vast wingspans a thing of grace. One day I feel irrationally angry. So I beat a stick, hard, on the earth, and find myself snarling, like a wolf. It hasn’t taken long to ‘rewild’ myself. Everything slows down: I nap, I watch the sun arc slowly across the sky. With little to distract me, I realise just how rich my life is.
On the fifth day, when I make it back down the mountain, I burst into tears that are part relief, part gratitude. The group re-unite around an ancient megalith stone circle for a plant spirit medicine ceremony with San Pedro, a healing cactus that is said to awaken consciousness and amplify connection to the natural world.
A vile-tasting green powder appears in my hands, and I cough and splutter it down. We walk with it coursing through our veins all day up and down the mountains, in the sunshine. The group is in high spirits. I, on the other hand cry for six hours straight. Manex tells me this is a good sign, that my heart is opening. That night, back at the farmhouse, after a hot shower and a good meal, a switch flips, and I feel more alive than I ever have. What has changed?
I’m emboldened by the awareness that I am not alone; that my allies in nature see me, as I see them and that the sacred and the mysterious are present in my life.
Find out more:
Shamanka: www.shamanka.com Tel: 01963 23468
Colin Campbell www.colincampbell.info Colin and Lucy Hinton will be co-running a three-week intensive at Schumacher College www.schumachercollege.org.uk this spring called Drawing on Indigenous Wisdom
Vision Quest: www.bio-energetica.org Tel: +33.(0) 188.8.131.52.68