Shamans, Joy, and Healing

“Joy! Joy! Joy!” sang the old Inuit shaman. This brief, poignant song has come to symbolize shamanism for many. In joy, the opposites are, in Jung’s terms, reconciled, and life becomes transcendent.

We humans seem hard-wired to seek pleasure and transcendence. We may go to great lengths, utilizing pathways such as drugs, alcohol, and sex to create these illusive experiences. Trauma often encourages a desperate search for such moments of transcendence.

Joy lives in the moment and the body. While ecstasy may overtake us in the midst of a journey far from the physical, joy is grounded in the physicality of lived experience.While  ecstasy is famously transitory, the experience of joy has a remarkable ability to abide in us. While ecstasy can be induced, joy resists pursuit, seemingly waiting for us to settle into our bodies and the moment. Drumming, being in nature, and the presence of children all have the power to evoke joy, as do emotional and sexual intimacy, and the arts. At their most effective, shamanic healing sessions, and psychotherapy, elicit joy, and in doing so, point towards healing.

Joy does not reside in the shaman, although the shaman may bring us to joy if we are able to follow. He or she will encourage us to return repeatedly to joy, to drink from that great cup until delight overflows and cascades through every cell. When joy subsides, the trials and suffering of life remain, yet are transformed, perhaps taking on new, unexpected meanings.

Writing this, I am reminded of another much quoted Arctic shaman’s song:

And I think over again
My small adventures
When with a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And thought I was in danger.
My fears,
those small ones
That I thought so big
For all vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see in huts and journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

–Song from the Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo), The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924

as quoted in Field Notes


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