Audience in Shamanism and Narrative Therapy

Spring BudsRecently I sat down with a student and found myself engaged in a conversation about Audience. Audience was a central topic of conversation in Hong Kong and our artist workshops in Chennai as well. Audience is central to the work of both shamanism and Narrative Therapy.

The student has been reading Number Our Days by the late Barbara Myerhoff. Barbara was an anthropologist who spent the last decade of her life working with elderly Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in L.A.. There is a magnificent film that bears the same title as her book. Largely absent from the book is Barbara’s years long struggle with breast cancer. She began her life among those elderly Jews taking increasing care of those she is working with. At the end of her life they cared for her.  A wonderful sense of reciprocity arises from the book and later film. I highly recommend both.

Barbara Myerhoff was also the first Westerner to become a Huichol shaman. Her book about that, Peyote Hunt, is a classic of the literature. I believe Barbara first began to deeply consider the importance of Audience while learning to be a shaman. After all, the shaman addresses many audiences: individuals seeking healing or knowledge, the community, the Ancestors, the spirits, and the Creator. Yet, it was during her work with the Holocaust survivors that the idea of Audience became central to her work and thought.

Barbara’s writing had a profound influence on me when I discovered her in graduate school. I first began to comprehend the complexity of the teachings I was receiving from my teachers through her words. Each time I re-read her books I am surprised to find new depths opening before me. Her work was also profoundly important to Michael White, who insisted his own Narrative Therapy based understanding of the centrality of Audience was grounded in her thought.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover shamans and Narrative therapists sharing a central concern with Audience. After all, we each look to others for an understanding of ourselves. Our lives may be seen as a series of performances during which, if we are lucky and supported, we uncover new layers of Self. Always we find Self in relation to others, whether persons, spirit,s or simply the Creator. This knowing is central to shamanism and healing. Ceremony, ritual, and simple conversation can all engage Audience in the service of healing.

Today being Easter, I am reminded of the Easter story. Easter is a significant time for many Native people of the Americas. Easter TreeThere are a great many stories of Jesus visiting our diverse cultures before and after the Crucifixion, his visits ushering in periods of peace. Who killed who is not important. All that matters is Jesus and the Audience of friends and angels that witness his suffering, transformation, and rebirth in spirit form.

The Huichol have, as have many Native people,  incorporated the Easter story into the liturgy of their life and ceremonial journeys. Peyote is a sacrament, like the communion wafer, a piece of the Creator’s body, and thus holy. The long journey to the homeland where peyote grows, the ceremonial gathering and consumption of the plant, and the journey home provide the pilgrim an opportunity to heal, and an audience for that healing. Everyone knows this journey repeats the travels of those in the Dream Time, the historical ancestors, and the Creator. It is holy and good.

Ceremony is good, in part, because it offers an audience for our lives. In North American culture, we are often hesitant to invite others into our healing rituals and ceremonies. As a result, we sometimes find our ceremonies and rituals lacking. Even psychotherapy, at its best, is nothing more than a ceremony of witness. Michael and Barbara, were they still with us, would, I believe, invite us to enlist larger Audiences to witness our lives, struggles, and Selves. They would insist a caring, engaged Audience, a community of concerned others, like all that is sacred, is necessary, holy, and good.

4 thoughts on “Audience in Shamanism and Narrative Therapy

  1. Thoughts that come to mind: Life is a great narrative. Everyone is the audience. Perhaps we could live life like it is a play, on stage. A play must be rehearsed so that its choreography of words and movement convey the intended message to its audience. As for this audience, it is a mixed representation of all cultures. So if life were lived like a play, we might ponder more before speaking, we might seek to surprise, but not to harm, and we would accept all audiences equally.

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