Healers, Patients, and the Fate of the World

There has been a lively discussion lately on the “Comments” section of this blog.  The discussion has centered on the need for contemporary shamans and healers of all ilks to understand, and respond to, the many social forces at play in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. This post builds on the prior post, and the comments that came in response.

Indigenous people are well aware of the growing social and environmental problems that confront humanity. Environmental collapse, economic distress, and addictions of all types disproportionally effect the world’s tribal people. Yet, increasingly, these plagues are undermining the health of all humans, and many other beings, and are growing in extent and severity. First Nations elders in the Amazon basin, and throughout the world, have called upon us to awaken to the growing threat.

In recent weeks, Indigenous representatives from 90 organizations in the Amazon region unanimously approved a new action plan that calls for an Amazon-wide “consolidation” for the survival of ancestral knowledge and the protection of forests, water, biodiversity and the climate.

“We warn the world that we have passed the limits of danger of polluting gases in the atmosphere and global warming, but that’s just one of the most serious effects of deeper causes. We are in dark times of profound global climate crisis and aggression that is part of the wider crisis of a civilization and a pattern of power, based on racism, patriarchy, individualism and unbridled consumerism, commodification and privatization of everything, and the reckless arrogance of “domination” of nature are forgetting that only a small part of it.”

Via Intercontinental Cry

Clearly the effects of these problems are not confined to Indigenous persons. People harmed by our collective way of life  show up daily in psychotherapy practices, medical clinics, and shamanic practices. Perhaps most injured are our young people.

Traditionally, Indigenous healers understand, and work with, individuals and families as part of an extended social matrix, a web that includes all living beings, ancestors, and spirits. Yet that enveloping web has been severely weakened by the very social and societal forces that create the conditions for the patient’s suffering.

Western treatment separates the mind from the rest of the system, and removes the individual from family, culture and country11. But within the Indigenous cultural framework, interventions targeted at an individual are possibly going to be more effective if peers, family, and community are involved and supportive. However, there can also be distrust of Indigenous services due to concerns about confidentiality and a lack of confidence in Indigenous workers. Some young people do not wish to identify as Indigenous, as they don’t feel a connection to their culture or don’t want to be regarded as different. Thus, Indigenous young people may present to non-Indigenous services for assistance. They may then become disenchanted with how any of the services relate to them. These young people are frequently caught up in a sense of hopelessness, and quickly become isolated because they don’t trust that their families or communities have the ability to help them and they don’t feel comfortable with any of the service options available to them.

Narelle Smith via Critical Companions

These treatment dilemmas also face many non-Natives. Western approaches to counseling and medical care place the problem squarely within the individual or family, generally ignoring the social and ecological context in which the problem actually resides. Even shamanic practitioners are tempted to focus on spiritual and cognitive change for the individual, at the expense of helping that individual understand the life of the problem within the social sphere. This approach isolates the patient while reducing real, societally driven, life problems to issues of personal competency. It also denies the immediacy and extent of very real and complex community and global issues.

By diverting the patient’s attention away from the social roots of many issues, we inadvertently undercut the patient’s sense of self. We also deny that which many patients know intuitively to be true. Ultimately, such denial does injury to self and spirit.

For Native Americans, there is perhaps no other single issue which epitomizes the complexity of life within these social structures than the blood quantum laws.  These Federal laws, which supposedly sought to clarify eligibility for tribal membership,  instead destabilize traditional values and fragment Native American cultural identity. They also threaten to erase Native America by narrowly defining Native Identity. This was the focus of a groundbreaking panel discussion at the National Museum of the American Indian last week. The panel, Will current blood quantum membership requirements make American Indians extinct?, was broadcast live on the Internet to thoroughly engaged audiences throughout North America and around the world. It is available for viewing.

In Indonesia, the government has adopted practices that threaten Indigenous cultures by refusing to acknowledge their religious beliefs and practices.

In Indonesia, bureaucrats cite a law that citizens must choose between the government’s six officially recognized religions: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Christian Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, reports Aubrey Belford for the International Herald Tribune.

…..The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist. Even in this village, a frontier where land clearing and mining is fast erasing ancient forest, people have long seen their faith under threat from officialdom.

via Beliefnet

Indigenous people are not alone in dealing with threats to social structure and environment. Increasing economic insecurity, racism, and environmental decline affect large, and growing, numbers of  North Americans. Yet, our professions continue to doctor as though these problems are isolated to a few neurotic individuals, or can be addressed by individual spiritual change. Sometimes we seem more focused on Millennial hope than addressing suffering.

As psychotherapists, shamans, and healers, how may we best serve those who come to us? How may we, in this new era, fulfill our role as intermediaries between Pachamama and the human community, human individuals and the spirits, and families and the larger matrix of living beings? How may we best respond to the growing darkness and suffering; to the promise of renewal following the darkness?

I welcome your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Healers, Patients, and the Fate of the World

  1. Hi Michael

    I have not heard of the quantum blood laws before. It does make sense for those authorities who wish to deny heritage and the significance of culture on an individual.

    In Australia, if someone wishes to be formally acknowledged as Indigenous the decision is controlled by the Land Councils which is made up of a number of Elders. The Land Council not only considers heritage but the amount of culture the individual has received. Then the individual is given a piece of paper to say s/he is Aboriginal. This is problematic as no other race in this land has to have a piece of paper to claim their heritage. Also there is not a lot of trust in some Land Councils because they can be swayed by financial or political considerations. But many Aboriginal people comply, otherwise they will not be considered for government funded programmes and Aboriginal specific employment.

    At every level, what I have observed is low expectations for Aboriginal people. Excuses are provided for problems due to race. It perpetuates the paternalistic view that Aboriginal need to be looked after and can never achieve self determination. It’s a huge problem – entrenched, endemic. Reconciliation is a long way from being achieved whilst Aboriginal people continue to be viewed as separate and special for all the wrong reasons.

    As always your post poses some interesting questions to ponder.

    1. Thanks, Narelle,

      I am still surprised by the ways state and federal governments invent to undermine Indigenous peoples. There are so many strategies to isolate and divide! There are far fewer effective strategies to support the people. So we find ourselves encouraging and upholding those, Native and non, who seek our aid. We touch joy, laugh, and challenge the social structure that creates so much suffering.

      I mentioned your writing in a meeting today. It is a good to see your thoughts.

      1. Regarding the environment, a farmer named Peter Andrews has written a book titled “Back From The Brink”. Peter grew up around Aboriginal people in Broken Hill, and learnt how to read the land. He has applied some unusual farming techniques to restore the land back to health.

        Another book you may enjoy is “My People’s Dreaming” by Max Dulumunmun Harrison. Very few Aboriginal people write about their spirituality, so this is as beautiful as it is rare.

        What you have written above is the essence, I believe – “So we find ourselves encouraging and upholding those, Native and non, who seek our aid. We touch joy, laugh, and challenge the social structure that creates so much suffering.” – Treating every person as an individual with their own unique story. Beautiful words.

      2. Narelle,
        Thanks fort the suggestions and encouragement. It looks as though I might be able to find a copy of Back from the Brink. Unfortunately, My People’s Dreaming does not seem to be available at all in the U.S..

  2. Hi, thanks for bringing this conversation to the net.

    Everybody is invited to the party, it’s just that few woked-up at midnight, others did it at 3, some at 4. The first ones spoke quietly to respect the dreams of sleepers, but as more and more are awake, the noise increases in such a way that at the end we will all be dancing in the same party.

    Few minutes before dawn, the night darkest moment takes place. Just keep shining and the light in our hearts will help others to awake.

    Proctocols associated with different traditions have been the language that each culture developed to achieve the same contact with the inner essence, with Pacha Mama and God.

    From natives we most learn and recover those memories (that are also part of our operating system) to be able to re-plug into our true essence.

    Healers are just but a support to help those memories to flourish. We are like small fires warming-up our sisters and helping them to light so they can do the same. From candle to candle, from small fire to small fire we will end with the largest fire ever seen, the one from Love.

    A big hug

  3. I asked the librarian at the college to see whether she might borrow it from another library for me. Apparently it is very difficult to get, so she ordered it! I should have it in a few weeks. I am looking forward to it!


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