Shamanism And The Care Of The Deep Self

August 2017

Here in the West, self-care is a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet we are becoming a more distracted, anxious, and uncertain people. Surrounded by courses, guidelines, gurus, fitness centers, accessories, and bookshelves of do-it-yourself volumes, we look to others for what’s best for us as individuals. In the middle of our debt-driven society, materialism and acquisition and vanity seem to be what is paving our individual paths in our attempt to feel better. 

Clearly, what we currently embrace as self-care in our society is missing the mark.

I believe the fundamental issue for us as individuals and as a society is that we are living and responding to a framework of our world that is much too small. And the self-care that comes out of that framework paradoxically puts more pressure on us to view ourselves as limited rather than whole.  We need a more expansive view to help us quell the desperate longing, the “not enough” of our present world view and the limits of our more egoic self-care.

Shamans tell us that we’re dreaming the wrong dream in the West, the dream in which we are trapped inside the belief that the only real thing is what we can perceive directly with our physical senses. They know that tending to our spiritual nature — our Deep Self — is essential to our well-being, and while psychological and physical self-care are important, of themselves, they are incomplete.

Tending our Deep Self is about coming alive to the Mystery of who we are and what we are about without apology, rather than fitting into someone else’s idea of who we should be.

The access to the realm of the Deep Self requires making a shift in perspective that allows us to step inside this deeper, vaster Self that is feral, fertile, and waiting.  Psychologists have termed this larger reality “transpersonal,” i.e. transcendence beyond physical and psychological. It is a timeless space encompassing intuition, inspiration, dreams, gratitude, and deep union with the e’lan vital of all things, including nature and the elements. It creates a feeling of awe and a sense of belonging to something much larger than our everyday world.

In it, an individual’s health is seen in relationship to both ordinary three-dimensional reality, as well as to the existential Mystery and the aliveness of all things. Through its language of symbol, story, gesture and song, it brings us meaning and purpose, and helps us make sense of our lives.

The Deep Self gives us purchase to hold steady through life’s challenges and the inevitable death of our physical bodies. In deep relatedness, we can re-create ourselves anew and, with others, change and be changed in the process.

Care of the Deep Self is not a goal, but a process; not the number of reps to tone abdominal muscles, or an every-changing list of the best diets around, but a filter through which we look at our whole life.  Health here is seen as both belonging to an individual and contributing to the collective health of the whole through inherent relationship.

Viewing the transpersonal from a shamanic perspective, shamanism is a spiritual methodology that allows us access to this realm in a more direct and intentional way rather than through happenstance. It posits that everything is alive and has a ‘spirit’ that can be accessed through a shift in our awareness and consciousness. 

Shamanism is actually the most ancient form of the transpersonal domain.  Reaching back more than 20,000 years, it is the primordial soup out of which all the major world religions have come. That it has been practiced unbroken through millenia and throughout the world speaks to its potency. The cross-cultural core of the methodology is that of the shamanic ‘journey,’ a ritual in which one is transported into an altered state of consciousness to connect with the transpersonal or “non-ordinary reality” world of spirit (in which everything is alive and has meaning), in order to bring through guidance and healing into our ordinary, three-dimensional reality.

Ancient peoples shared our existential anxiety and uncertainty, and understood the necessity of relationships and community in order to survive and thrive. They had a living connection to trees, animals, weather, and the elements. Without science and technology, they tried to make sense of their world, singing up the sun in the morning and down in the evening with their gratitude. They saw the stars as the campfires of their Ancestors, protecting them and waiting for their arrival when Death released them from this earthly walk. They understood that being in right relationship to the All-That-Is was essential to their health and healing.  They knew they were never alone and that death was only a stage through which their soul passed.

I have practiced shamanism for over 25 years, both personally and in my medical practice, and have found it the best way to navigate between ordinary and non-ordinary realities. As a pragmatist, my interest was in its methodology, which allowed me to get out of my busy thinking mind to access the transpersonal realm with its healing treasures well beyond what I could have personally “figured out.”  I found the process quite adaptable to Western settings, and I have not found it necessary to wear or use all the traditional accoutrements of indigenous shamanic practice to do so. Over time, I’ve learned to look through a shamanic lens on life, on myself, and on my relationships, and it has been transformative.

Though we have lacked a cultural framework for shamanism in the West, there are actually shamanic remnants in our culture: when babies are born, their first gifts are often a rattle and a stuffed (“helping spirit”) animal.  Young children have an inherent transpersonal view of life, creating themselves anew each day and throughout the day, singing, dancing, having “imaginary” playmates, recognizing the presence of magic everywhere. And we also have enduring fairy tales for them that give voice and color and reassurance to the fact that we are never alone.

And so the care of the Deep Self is about coming Home to our inherent Nature, beginning to explore and remember what we knew as children.

Shifting to a shamanic state of awareness does not necessarily require formal training in the shamanic journey method, and the suggestions below are simply guidelines. There is no right or wrong way to use them, and the shift can take a myriad of forms, each reinforcing the other:

1. holding a strong intention and focus for our life

Perhaps of most importance is our intent to hold both rational and soulful perspectives on life and death, which can cut through much of the distractions of our world and allow us more capacity to tolerate the uncertainty of life.  By focusing on wholeness and making a place for it within our relationships, we enable people (including ourselves) to remember who they are.

2. letting go

There are many aspects of life over which we have no control.  Our job is to accept our limits, discern what is our part in life to do, do it, and then let go of the outcome. We create stress and suffering if we judge ourselves based on how things turn out.  Letting go helps align us with the unknown and makes more things possible.

3. taking time in Nature

We often take our recreation out of doors. Not only is it a respite from all the indoor routines of our life, but also in connecting with Nature, we re-create ourselves again as part of all of life. Taking time to be with trees and animals, sun and rain, in silence and with a quiet mind, opens us up to intuition and impulse from our Deep Self in a manner that is deeply refreshing.

4.  reflecting at the end of the day 

Rachel Remen, MD, brings a profound orientation to the transpersonal in her life and work.  She suggests the following three reflections at the end of the day: “What surprised me?” then “What moved me?” and, lastly, “What inspired me?”

As we do these reflections more and more, we begin to discover that we are able to notice these experiences more often in the moment they are happening, giving us a much larger way to experience our day to day life. 

5. minding our speech and thoughts


Pausing to notice which world view we are holding before speaking aloud or while having conversations in our mind, gives us choice over which world view we will bring to the moment. This builds our capacity to be centered and present to both ourselves and others. 

6. gratitude

Gratitude for what comes our way deepens our relationship to the All-That-Is. Some of our most soulful experiences are our most difficult; mistakes can take us down another path that transforms us, but one which we may never have chosen with our “ordinary” mind. Gratitude also allows us to embrace the value of not-knowing what might be best in a given situation.

7. self absolution

Shame is the great soul-shrinker in our society. Stronger than fear, it keeps us from believing in our inherent wholeness and capacity to be loved and valued. In the transpersonal framework, the fat body and the broken marriage are the soul’s work, not failures. We have no control over what others think of us and how they judge us. Shamans see ‘mistakes’ and ‘misfortune’ as important messages in navigating the soul’s path, rather than any lessening of our inherent importance or capacity to be loved. The compassionate, helping spirits of shamanism come to us in our dreams and whisper in our ear on those dark nights of the soul, telling us over and over again our place in the world and their love for us.

As healers and clinicians, it is vital for us to tend the garden of our Deep Self and to become an un-anxious presence that can hold a larger model of the world for ourselves and for those we care for.  The caduceus that symbolizes our present medical care system needs our help to release the snake and to soften and unfurl its stiff wings, allowing us to ascend and face the Mystery of our lives together.

“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”     — M. Oliver


Carson, C., Spirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare, Otter Bay Books: Baltimore, MD, 2013.

Harner, M. Way of the Shaman, Harper Collins: San Francisco, CA, 1990.

Ingerman, S. and Wesselman, H. Awakening to the Spirit World, Sounds True: Boulder, CO, 2010.

Remen, R., My Grandfather’s Blessings, Riverhead Books: NY, 2000.