What is therapy today? And how is it different from the age old practices of shamanic healing?
Have you considered finding a therapist but delayed out of wariness of what the whole thing is about? Does the word ‘therapy’ make you a little on guard? If so, there are lots of good reasons why. Movies and TV shows don’t help our notions of what therapy is. Visual media also taints our understanding of shamanic healing as well, over simplifying and emphasizing superstitious mystery in thrillers. But there are lots of useful tools to be found in working with a truly dedicated therapist or healer which ought not be overlooked because of the bad reputation our cultures negligent media causes.
When it comes to psychological injury, there are some troubles that need consistent long term support (therapy) and some troubles that need brief, intense, active witness (healings). These two different skill sets complement each other but are distinct. Psychological pain involve two types of trauma- shock trauma and developmental trauma.
Shock trauma is a single event that happened suddenly and with such aggression that you were forced to leave your body, to numb out in order to survive the event. This is when adrenalin takes over and your reptilian survival instincts propel you out of an immediate dangerous situation. Examples of shock trauma are: crashes, deaths, assault, or any sudden, overwhelming, unexpected pain.
Developmental trauma is an on going exposure to negative conditions due to the influence of someone harmful to you and your natural processes of gaining clarity and personal power. Negligent or domineering parents are the usual cause of developmental trauma. But it can also be caused by exposure to any person in your daily life who is causing you distress on a consistent basis. Developmental trauma is harder to identify than shock trauma. Shock trauma is distinctive. Who isn’t going to notice a car crash? Developmental trauma is like second hand smoke, the air you breath. It becomes ‘just the way life is.’ In reality, if you are not happy with your life, you are most likely suffering from long standing developmental trauma or a buried, forgotten shock trauma from early childhood.
A therapist is best suited to assisting developmental trauma. Their goal is to assist you in realizing who in your life has shut you down and be an advocate for taking action to change the dynamic between you and those people. This doctor is prepared to become a weekly part of your life and to listen to all that is in your heart to say about yourself and other people you dared never say before. There are some therapists who will be ‘on call’ whenever you might need them if you find that the pain has become too great to manage. Developmental trauma is challenging to heal because we often do not want to admit the truth about how someone close to us is actually making us feel. We protect the image and the role of that person rather than face the painful truth we feel deep down. As children, our safety depended on adults for survival. The adults around us at that time may not have actually kept us safe, and may have, in fact caused us harm. A child is unable to admit that. To survive, they adjust their psychology to the conditions in order to stay alive. As adults now ourselves, there is still a child part of us that believes our lives depend on continuing to interact with childhood care takers who did not care and were not helpful. A therapist assists us in separating from family members and friends who have become unhealthy to our life goals. They help us gather courage to separate and strike out on our own. This process takes time but is really the most important journey a soul could take.
A healer is a person whose only role is to assist you in locating a single, buried defensive action in your body that was not released at the time of a specific traumatic event. That event may or may not be remembered by you but the body (the nervous system) often feels like it is vulnerable and exposed. Everything hurts when there is unresolved shock trauma in the body. Tears come fast and often, you can be easily surprised, overwhelmed and shut down. Often it is tempting for someone suffering shock trauma to believe that it is the current situation causing the distress. This is similar to a runner with a sprained ankle thinking it is the race that is causing the pain. Injury to the nervous system is not visible. But the effects are. Shaking, depression, exhaustion, feeling that something just isn’t quite right. In your natural state you have boundless motivation to do what you are passionate about in life. If your passion has waned, do not think it is because you are insufficient in some way. If you caught a cold, you would not think yourself insufficient. You would rest, take care, and let yourself heal. Healing shock trauma is like pulling the thorn out of your foot so you can keep hiking. Healers are people who have studied the energies of pain. They do not listen to the verbal narrative of your childhood story with as much attention as a therapist. They are more concerned with the reality of the energetic effects those stories are having in the present moment and dealing with that pain as one might deal with a flat tire. To discuss the journey that led to the flat tire will not change the tire and get you on the road again. They will just look for the tear and find what works to mend it. A healer will probably not be someone you meet with once a week for months on end. You won’t need to. You will see them for brief periods of time and feel immediate profound relief from a long buried pain. You may feel awe towards the healer, but keep in mind, you both did the healing together. So direct some of that awe towards yourself for having done the hard work of being brave.
In Peter Levin’s work, he explains how animals overcome the trauma of being literally hunted down and nearly eaten alive without enduring life long agony the way humans do over the brief encounter with violence. Why are animals able to return to a state of peace so soon after such a horrific event? Levine noticed that animals in the wild, immediately after escaping death, all did the same thing. They shook from head to hoof with their whole body. Again and again, he watched as a survivor would let their bodies be consumed by a physical shaking which lasted a matter of seconds. They the return to the tranquil, yet cautious state of peace that are the inherent conditions of the animal kingdom. When we survive a shock trauma, humans often fail to locate and release that single ‘shake’ or that one gesture of defense which would restore our sense of personal power and well being. Because of the complexity of our brains, we are able to envision more terror, as well as relive past terror again and again until we locate that one ‘shake’ our nervous system needs to restore us to the tranquil, yet cautious state that is our natural condition.
It is unnatural to suffer for months, much less years. If you have been unhappy for more than a few days, there is nothing more important for you to do than to locate the cause.
The first question to ask is- Is this due to a shock or a long standing condition in my life I am avoiding?
The second question to ask is- Can I journal my way back to peace? Do I need physical exercise and private time to heal this, or is this too overwhelming? Do I need to seek outside guidance?
Our culture values the ‘go-it-alone’ cowboy type who does not need a village to feel whole and well. So we will often try our best to cure our own pain on our own, which is quite noble and even advised in Buddhist teachings as well. The trouble is, we often don’t actually know how to access ourselves as precisely as we may need and our notions of self care are to just numb out frustrations we can’t seem to get rid of. This keeps us the lone-wolf, independent sort which our society values so highly, but that wolf has a thorn in it’s paw, and may need a mouse to help take a closer look at the situation and get that injury out.
If you have identified your distress as developmental the first thing to understand that it will take time to release. Though it will certainly not take as long as it took you to acquire that childhood pain you are feeling, any long standing unwellness will need more time to unravel, be witnessed, and accepted. It may take months, even years. But rest assured, it won’t take decades. It may feel at times you aren’t really getting anywhere. But the very desire to clear out confusion in your life is the most powerful medicine you can find. Desire and belief that things can improve are the only way you will achieve improvement. So even when things get confounding, you can simplify with the simple knowing that- What I want is health, wellness, peace and grace.
If you have identified your distress as shock related due to a specific event, you will want to find someone who understands how the nervous system works and who has studied Peter Levin’s life work. Shock trauma is very real, and very easily remedied. The only trouble is that it may have happened so long ago, you have no recollection of the event. Amnesia is an autonomic survival strategy used by the limbic system, the primitive brain, to prevent distress from causing death. To physically survive something that is emotionally deadly, our brains disassociate from our bodies until we are at a safe enough distance from the danger. When shock trauma happens to children, it often takes years before they will be able to revisit the overwhelming event, years in which their body’s grow larger and more capable of enduring the distress that was too much for a child to bear.
The charge and power of that shocking event is still sitting in the library that is your body. Every cell is holding that buried need to release the ‘shake’ from long ago. That ‘shake’ could be ANY physical gesture that restores peace. It is often a gesture of self empowerment, a kick, a scream, a punch… but there is no end to what gesture or action may be needed. To discover that healing action you need, you will want to carefully go back into the event and experience what happened from your current larger, stronger, safer body. Now that you are fully grown, it is safe for you to travel back into the feelings of childhood. As an adult, you have access to time, space, and safety in ways you did not have as a child. Healing shock trauma always involves a shamanic journey back to the specific times of the event.
If the trauma occurred in childhood, you often recall things with an astounding clarity; the details of the wall paper, the exact tone of someone’s voice… but most important to focus on is – recalling how you felt at that time because those feelings are exactly what are still dictating how you experience your adult life. The terror, the heart break, the fury… go into this recall with your WHOLE body and mind. Shake, kick, scream, cry, do whatever comes to your body to do. Let it happen.
Our culture sadly called this, ‘freaking out.’ We do not honor the natural processes and the inherent self-healing wisdom within our bodies and let ourselves do whatever we need to do.
A therapist who has studied trauma will (theoretically) understand, accept, and encourage what society calls ‘freaking out.” Many healers of shamanic traditions do not even consider such behavior as a problem. To the shamanic healer it is just the way of nature.
Therapists who have not integrated physical action into their tool set, who only sit and talk on an intellectual level, will only perpetuate the distress cycle without ever locating and releasing the core action needed in the body to restore peace. Sitting and talking can, in fact, perpetuate a trauma state.
Intellectual knowledge becomes a bludgeon if it is not partnered with an emotional (physical) experience of what is being talked about. There need to be frequent interruptions to long, intellectual accounts of ones ‘story’ so that the body can also tell its story. The body’s story is nonverbal. It is pure action. Hand gestures, leg kicks, scowls, glares, pacing, curling up into a ball… the body’s vocabulary is endless.
We need to feel what we think and what we feel needs to be translated into the cognitive verbal process of our intellect. Both activities are needed to heal. We are two types of experiences simultaneously. We are mental and emotional. Verbal, nonverbal. We are a particle and a wave- at once.
Talk therapists can be helpful for developmental trauma but if you find that you are leaving sessions with continued frustration, that is because your body has something it wants to say that is not allowed in the office.
Healers can be helpful for shock trauma but they can cause a great sense of loneliness and feelings of abandonment if you are suffering from developmental trauma and need of a more consistent companion to talk to.
Talk therapy could very well lead to the realization of a buried shock trauma and a healing can lead to a need for a deeper connection with a trained professional that a healer is not able to provide. Whichever door you chose first to enter the house of your healing, you will always arrive at a time to change your approach to healing. Either you will be restored to your natural, empowered self, or you will have a bit more work to do in a different modality. Don’t grow impatient and say things like, “I’ve worked on this pain already. It should be gone by now!” Would you say such things if you had a thorn in your foot? No, you would dig and dig, until you knew without a doubt, the thorn was gone.
In Native cultures- Medicine is not a thing, it is a Way. Something is good medicine until it isn’t… and then it is time to follow the Medicine Way to what you need next.
No matter WHAT you have suffered- you can heal it. You are an inherently healing system. If it did not kill you, you have already survived the worst of it and you can recover. Recovery is automatic and inevitable once we are able to remove the mental and social blocks preventing our natural flow of release and discovery. Your journey will be unlike anyone else journey. But it will have the same core ingredient- a belief and a knowing that you can and will and are healing.
If you decide to seek help from a therapist- keep in mind that psychology is a vast, overwhelming field of study. If something doesn’t work for you, that is not the approach for you. Move on until you find something that gains traction for feeling relief. Psychologists are also often attracted to their field because they are, themselves seeking answers to their own troubles. There are a lot of unhelpful people working in the therapy profession (just as their are working as healers), many of whom have destructive motives of control and authority. Do not assume that because they received diplomas to call themselves doctors, they are good people. Just like people, some may want to assert control and authority over you, some may want to perpetuate a codependent relationship, while you feed the meter. Still others may have been hypnotized to assist pharmaceutical companies and press drugs onto patience in an attempt to ‘fix’ them. 99% of the time you are able to heal pain without drugs. You are your own pharmacy.
If you decide to seek a shaman healer, know that field is also vast, and comprised of people with varying motivations. But even if someone falls short of your expectations or what you need, recognize that the experience HAS changed you and moved you deeper into clarity about what you need. Do not get sidetracked from healing core wounds by making the people around you part of the reasons for your pain. Release them and move on, least you start needing therapy for your therapy! Or healing from your healing!
There are good people out there doing good work. Evaluate each doctor/healer you meet from their behavior, not their title. And know that there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors to the healing arts, creating illusions of authority where you are your only authority. Seeking assistance will always ultimately teach you how to locate your own authority. Do not assume that because someone charges $200 to talk to them that they know more about you than you do. A good therapist/healer will be a source of space and reflection. They will help you navigate embarrassing, painful feelings even when those feelings involve them. They will not take what you say and do in a session personally and they will not add to the stress of your life.
Professional neutrality is the skill our friends can not give us. This ability to remain neutral and compassionate is the skill we pay $200 for. A therapist is not a friend, in the same way the doctor who puts a cast on your arm is not a friend. They are doctors, trying as best they can to assist in recovery of personal power. If it has been a year and you’ve not felt glimpses of personal power, it may be time to find a new medicine way.
I wish you courage and grace on your healing path.
Resources for finding a therapist:
Peter Levin’s books and website: www.traumahealing.org
Resources for finding a healer are more difficult beyond local recommendations because healers do not have a systematized field of study the way psychology does. But healers are out there and they are just as learned and trained as an ‘official’ doctor. If you are in the LA area and would like a recommendation for healers send me a message.
Books to aid the healing process:
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Growing Beyond Survival by Elizabeth Vermilyea
Self Therapy by Jay Earley
Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride
Healing The Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw