Spirits, Shamans, and the Unsettling of Ecopsychology

DSC_0155I’ve been thinking about the links between Ecopsychology and Shamanism. It makes sense to me that Ecopsychology would be drawn to the wisdom of Indigenous people. After all, we Indigenous tend to see ourselves in the context of both human society and the natural world. The attraction of shamanism is that it attempts to maintain the balance between human and non-human communities.

My experience with Ecopsychology is extensive, if troubled, as I have been active in the discipline pretty much since its founding back in the 1980s. (I have pulled well back over the last several years.) It seems to me that Ecopsychology mirrors the rest of dominant culture in that it idealizes Native people while also being a bit embarrassed by us. We are lauded as pure examples of positive relationships to place, our histories of warfare and role in the extinction of species largely ignored. We are invited to speak about maintaining a spiritual relationship to the land, while being encouraged not to mention our ongoing relationships to the spirits and Ancestors who form the underpinnings of our understanding of place. That spirit stuff is just a bit too primitive I guess.

Yet the spirits are fundamental to shamanic cultures and practices. At the same time, as I have noted in former blog posts, attention to them is not unique to shamanism. Nor is a concern with maintaining a balance between the human, natural, and spirit realms. It is disingenuous for academics and others from the dominant culture to insist on applying the rubric of shamanism to any culture that addresses the three realms, especially when cultures adamantly reject the label.

My teachers were from cultures that largely identify as practicing some form of shamanism. I was taught that the role of the shaman is to keep the human, non-human, and spirit realms in harmony, and to do so for the benefit of the human community. The shaman may also seek healing for individual members of the human community. (This is the primary responsibility of many urban shamans.) Much of this work is accomplished through direct discussions with the spirits, often involving a trance journey to the spirit realms.

It is the trance journey that seems to me to give substance to shamanism as a category. Other ritual specialists may conduct divination and seek to understand the needs of the spirits and Ancestors. They may also perform rituals to acknowledge, calm, or seek the aid of the spirits. While shamans may perform priestly functions, they are, in most shamanic cultures, primarily specialists in trance journeys to the spirits.

(We could also discuss the complex world of trance possessions, in which practitioners of various persuasions allow other entities to speak or act through them. Suffice to say that some trance mediums perceive themselves to be shamans and others don’t. Or more aptly, we might note that sometimes some shamans might perform the function of a trance medium.)

What might Ecopsychology do with all this? I suspect it remains immensely uncomfortable. It has long been the domain of men of European extraction,who, following Jung, continue to be deeply ambivalent about Indigenous people and our worldviews. (Women are active in Ecopsychology, although they are largely marginalized and relegated to the related field of Eco-Feminism.) Indigenous voices are unlikely to be included in discussions, except when quoted; even then our words are usually taken out of context and sanitized.

As I was thinking about Ecopsychology’s relationship to Indigenous people, I remembered two events that took place at a conference back in the early 1980s, yet seem pertinent today. It was my task at the beginning of the conference to thank the presenters, many of whom were prominent founders of the field, for their participation in, and contributions to, the conference. As one of the initiators of the conference I was to give perspective as to why we had decided to hold it. I decided to tell a vision that had visited me some years earlier: a great wall of ice had covered the planet, save for a small part of Amazonia. In the vision I was told that protecting the Amazon was key to the planet recovering. I understood the vision to be both literal (the world was threatened) and metaphorical (our collective icy hearts are the problem). My gesture of sharing was met with visible discomfort and dismissal; not a single person spoke to me about my comments or concerns.

The second incident took place at the end of the conference, providing a perfect bookend. At the post-conference press conference I spoke of the coming genocide against the natural world. My colleagues immediately spoke to how that was a vast over-generalization and alarmist. Now we know that in the following thirty-five years 40% of the Earth’s species have been destroyed by human kinds’ insatiable hungers.

I understand that Ecopsychology seeks to justify its relevance to, and position in, the larger field of psychology, and that psychology dreams of being a science. Yet it is these very dreams that render Ecopsychology’s fascination with Indigenous people problematic. Science is defined by the culture in which it is practiced. Indigenous sciences tend to view the world as profoundly complex, and extend causality to the spirit worlds. Western science denies the existence of the spirit world, or argues there is no way to explore or validate it.

To borrow partial cosmologies from indigenous people, using only those aspects which are easily digested by the dominant culture, does both cultures a disservice. Indigenous cosmologies stripped of the spirit world, and an awake, aware Earth, are reduced to pale reflections of themselves. Perhaps that is the unconscious desire of the dominant culture. I do not know. I only know that for many of us Indigenous people, the spirits are close, and the world is vibrantly alive with intent.

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10 thoughts on “Spirits, Shamans, and the Unsettling of Ecopsychology

    • Hi Gretchen, One does not need to be Indigenous to know the presence of the spirits.Of course, if one speaks of one’s experience, one may well be marginalized, at least in the dominant culture. It is even worse if one speaks about the interconnection of things. Sigh. But, of course, you know all this well.

  1. I love reading your posts, Michael. They always give me a plate-full to think about (without the calories). I understand your experience of being marginalized. Although my degree is in clinical psychology, I have frequently felt on the margins, because of my choices and beliefs. This has mostly involved the role of science in how we define people, problems, and what constitutes helping. I remember when the helping “sciences” became more aware of diversity. It was a brand new revelation that we should include natural supports (including shamans) when going onto reservations. Do you think it is even possible for professionals of one culture to understand another culture well enough to be able to help?

    • Thanks, Pat. People from different cultures aid one another all the time. Of course, we make errors but I believe the will and determination to help very often trumps them. I believe problems build when one culture attempts to impose worldviews or solutions on another. That is almost never helpful. As you have noted, working together, carefully listening to one another, can open many doors.

      • I am happy to hear you say this. I used to believe it when I was working as a therapist – and I think I was successful working across cultures because a part of the therapy was for the hurting person to teach me about what their culture’s worldview. I do believe that the healing power resides within the person and it is my job to use professional techniques that make the person feel safe enough to find the solution to their pain. Thanks again for stimulating my thinking about the work I used to be very passionate about – and I guess still am even though I’m not practicing.

      • Pat, so many of my teachers said the same thing, “The healer’s job is to create the conditions for healing. The healing comes from the person and the Creator.” Sounds as though the healer’s path is still yours, maybe just framed a bit differently now.

  2. Much of what you speak is a heavy awareness I also carry. I feel your pain and that of the Nature Spirits who have come to me. I’ve come to an impasse on how to help. I’m at a loss as I grieve the fate of the planet.

    • Carol, my teachers sued to remind me that our human species is just a transient experience on the planet. We are creating much suffering. Still many of us remember and feel gratitude to Mother Earth. We are only able to do what we can. The planet will survive us, although those of us who love the diversity she has grown will loose much. Thank you for your courageous sharing.

  3. The hyper-rational dominant culture will invariably ridicule and invalidate spirituality as it is a domain that it is unable to understand, address, or intuit. This is a profound loss to the human species. But not total, nor permanent.

    We are called not just to connect with the more-than-human world (per ecopsychology). But also to reverence and humility. This call may now be faint, but is yet unbroken. May it continue always. Deep bow.

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