This morning, after a night of light snow, the sun came out and the temperature warmed to above freezing for the first time in several weeks. In response, birds began to sing in large numbers, people took off their coats, and the ice on our parking lot’s asphalt melted. Now, late in the evening, the world is once again firmly embedded in cold.
Today was one of those days when the topic of shamanism edged its way into the therapy office, providing an alternative frame for the large questions and tasks passed to us by the Ancestors. It was a day for wondering what thoughts and challenges are uniquely one’s own, and which are assigned to us, unanswered questions winding their way through generations before falling into our small hands.
My training as a therapist informed me that conflicts and puzzles belonged firmly within the domain of the individual, or at least the family. Certainly, there were multigenerational challenges, especially addictive substances and abuse. Yet most of our work as clinicians was understood to be focused on the individual, very much in keeping with the European view of the solitary person, a lens most highly developed in North America.
This view of puzzles, questions, and challenges was turned upside down by my shamanic teachers. Although an individual might bring me a problem to be addressed, I was encouraged to always consider the possibility that the person whose burden the problem had become might have “inherited” it from some ancestor, distant or close. Perhaps the problem had passed through several generations, embedding itself in the lives of many, and disguising itself as some apparently inherent fault in each person who carried it. From this view, the problem appears to act with something approaching intent.
Problems that embed themselves within an individual’s psyche are notoriously difficult to address in psychotherapy. One of the great gifts of Narrative Therapy was the understanding that finding ways to externalize problems often allows individuals, and families, to finally develop leverage for limiting the problems’ influence in their lives. Externalizing is a process wherein a client explores the history, intentions, and behaviors of a problem, and in doing so disidentifies with it. It is as though the problem was slowly, or suddenly, outed as the alien intruder it truly is.
The shamanic view is similar (medicine people influenced the development of Narrative Therapy) and may incorporate externalizing discussions as part of “treatment”. The task is to begin to understand something of the origin and history of the problem, the needs of the Ancestor/s who first wrestled unsuccessfully with it, and the possibilities for putting the problem to rest. A few of the many issues that may present as personal, yet be multigenerational, are self-doubt or blame, trauma, substance abuse, poverty, depression, unresolved loss, or anger. Clearly experiences of war, subjugation, and genocide often have very long trajectories indeed.
Sometimes the needs of those early Ancestors can be address through ceremony and gratitude, reducing the hold of the problem on those living in the present. Then the client’s task is to revision themselves and their Ancestors without the distortions imposed by the problem, and to take nurturance from the courage and resilience inherent in their lives and the lives of their extended family members. This is hard work, yet offers the real possibility of healing for those who came before, and hope for those to follow. It is a task that extends well beyond the individual, and in so doing, makes each of us larger than we might have imagined we might be.