Crash Course in Urban Shamanism

by Will Hall

Spiritual practice is not for everyone, but sometimes survivors of psychosis have a calling to discover the truth in the world’s mystical traditions. This essay summarizes some of the lessons I’ve learned exploring altered states.

Shamans are the magician spirit healers in tribal, indigenous societies around the world. Anthropologists use the word “shamanism,” borrowed from the Tungus speaking people of Siberia, to mean the commonalities between different traditions: shamans find their calling through a life-threatening initiatory illness or mental crisis like psychosis; go into visioning and trance to connect to other realities; shapeshift out of their regular self to identify with animals, spirits, and even dis- ease; and return to the ordinary world to share skills of healing and creativity. Living at the edge of society and defying conventional norms, conduct, and even gender, shamans are respected as powerful community links to the divine.

Can we learn from these traditions without romanticizing them? Can we remember that people are people everywhere, that war, oppression, and exploitation are also found among tribal societies? While also valuing the tremendous wisdom of people living close to the earth, including insights into the spiritual gifts sometimes wrapped up in what gets called “psychosis?” Traditional societies create rites of passage; how can people in modern societies explore and develop these gifts as part of recovery?

Traditional shamanism means being part of a living indigenous society, apprenticing in it and learning its ways. To take this approach, you need to be accepted by teachers who are part of that culture. If you’re an outsider, don’t be racist: never use a culture’s spirituality without guidance and accountability, and always support cultural survival and land struggles against colonialism and industrial expansion. Traditional peoples need real respect and practical activism, not more plastic, new age medicine men.

“Urban shamanism” is a broader approach, respecting indigenous societies while rediscovering the roots of tribal mind for modern people. Urban shamans reinvent spirit healing and find ancient patterns in new forms. All of us have ancestral links to shamanic cultures if we go back far enough because all societies have origins in tribes and all societies practiced magic. There are no rules and no end to learning and creativity, as we reawaken our indigenous minds and recreate spirit healing in new ways.

Does the altered state that got labeled psychosis mean you are having an initiatory illness into becoming a wounded healer? Are there gifts to untangle from the trauma in madness? Many societies have elders to identify when crisis is an initiation, and to mentor people into using their gifts wisely. Urban shamans may need to recreate that mentorship, or find it within ourselves. Without the guidance of traditional shamanic cultures, the answers will be up to each of us.

Here are some signposts to exploring urban shamanism:

Join with wilderness. Everything you need to know is found in the wild- ness of nature. Get out of the corporate monoculture of our cities. Wander forests, deserts, beaches, and mountains every chance you get. Go off trails, climb trees, sit silently on the earth, sleep under the stars, find music in rushing water, watch animals, thrash in the ocean, follow footprints, listen to birds, stare at clouds, study plants. Seek out pockets of wildness in the hidden edges of the city. Learn the natural history and ecology of your home.

Tracking and awareness. Listen to and question everything in your outer and inner landscape. Ground yourself firmly in the sight, sound, smell, and touch of your present surroundings as if you were tracking animals in the wild. Slow down, then slow down even more, until the virtual world fades and the real world comes into view. Cultivate your skills with meditation and sensory awareness practices. Remember to observe the observer: our inner emotions and sensations are an important territory to explore, and offer vital clues not just to your mind, but also to the world around you. Stillness and sensitivity will guide your attention to what you need to follow. Always come back to the here and now, it’s the most magical place of all.

Experimental attitude. Go on your direct experience of what works. Don’t take anything you were told or read just on faith, use trial and error and healthy skepticism. If you wonder if you are just making things up in your imagination, find out: treat it as if it were real and study the results, like a scientist doing an experiment. You may discover that reality isn’t passive, but is collaborative, creative, and participatory.

Find pathways to visionary states. Food, media, driving cars, work, computers, and drugs all hypnotize us into ordinary reality. Take back control of your consciousness and start accessing visionary states on your own terms. Check out new tools: follow your intuition to find ideas, methods, and practices you are drawn to. Dancing, drumming, drawing, writ- ing, puppetry, music, sex, silence, fasting, meditation, ritual… all are possible ways to pass from this reality to the next and back. Open your intuitive side, welcome the unknown, focus on body sensations and emotions, and learn about altered states and imagination. Walk new routes through your city, open up to unexpected music, poetry, and art, follow hunches and look for signs. Be curious about unexpected interests and odd sources of power, especially what comes into your life seemingly on its own, or that fascinated you in childhood. Try out new identities but be ready to drop them when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Your body is the only tool you truly need.

Listen to your dreams. Don’t just interpret intellectually, actualize your dreams by keeping a journal, drawing images, dialoging with characters, acting out different parts, and looking for clues in waking life. What is the dreamer telling you? Notice uncanny coincidences, track dream-like synchronicities and explore underground pathways between unrelated events. The more you pay attention to dreams the more dreams you’ll have, and you’ll discover that waking life is itself a dream.

Hunt lost energy. Addictions, spacing out, numbing your body, dull friends, toxic food, consumerist media, bad sex… there is a long struggle ahead of you to reclaim all the energy you lose, and put it instead towards awareness and healing. Treat the things you are ashamed of as invitations to find hidden sources of strength. As you clear your own stagnation, follow what inspires you and respond to the alive energy of moments, ideas, plants, places, and people.

Break the habit of who you are. Surprise yourself.

Explore your calling. Study your crisis and collapsed self. Listen to the voices, look at the visions, and feel the crazy energies of your madness, with a fresh eye towards what wisdom or learning might be behind it all. Imagine that there is something essential for you to discover in the painful parts you might wish would go away. Notice what remains unfinished and unresolved, and sense how your energy is drained when you don’t listen to the missing parts of yourself. Do this when you are strong, ground- ed, and have solid support from your community.

Learn from your ancestors. Find out as much as you can about your family and roots. Be on the lookout for eccentric, artistic, mad, activist, indigenous, and nonconformist relatives who may also be on a visionary path. Pay attention to the struggles for survival that your ancestors went through, and honor any unmet hopes and dreams still felt by the living.

Beware ego tripping. Your true needs are in a mysterious flux; learn techniques to put the goal-directed ordinary self in its proper place. Can you practice seeing through the stories you tell about what is missing in your life? Don’t pray or wish for specific things like a new apartment or marriage, only general things like a home or love. Let the details be a constant surprise as you focus on the magic and beauty of the larger pattern.

And above all: Watch out for getting overwhelmed. Come back to strong grounding practices, clear awareness, and a healthy life first before exploring the unknown. Pace yourself. Be clear about your purpose as a healer, and don’t let any power or uncanny phenomena you encounter distract you from your integrity and ethics. Forge firm bonds of trust and honesty with beloved friends. Get your feet on the earth before you take off for the heavens.

About Will Hall 3 Articles
WILL HALL, MA, DIPL.PW is a counselor, teacher, writer, and community development worker. Active during the University of California anti-apartheid movement, he went on to work for the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence and the Earth Island Institute. In his 20s he was forcibly committed to San Francisco’s public mental health system, and, while in the locked unit at Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder schizophrenia and put on disability. He became a leading psychiatric survivor organizer, including host of Madness Radio, co-founder of Freedom Center and Portland Hearing Voices, and a co-coordinator of The Icarus Project, and he is author of the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs, translated into 15 languages. For his work Will has received the Judi Chamberlin Advocacy award, the Portland Oregon Open Minds award, and the Stavros Center for Independent Living Disability Advocacy award. He has appeared in the media internationally, including Newsweek and the New York Times, and is in the documentary films Healing Voices, CrazyWise, and Coming Off Psych Drugs. A longtime meditator and yoga practitioner, Will is a PhD candidate in the School of Mental Health and Neuroscience at Maastricht University, The Netherlands, and he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more info and to contact Will, go to “When I was growing up, I wanted to be a magician. Then I wanted to be a biologist, then I wanted to be a psychologist, then I wanted to be a community organizer, then I wanted to be a philosopher. Now I’m sort of all of them.” — Will Hall interviewed in the Portland Mercury newspaper
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