On one end of this spectrum, shamanic extraction is not very different from a good spirit cleansing. On the other end of this spectrum, extraction approaches de-possession. I wrote about de-possession in an earlier post: http://musingsofaspiritualtraveler.com/2012/01/14/reflections-de-possession-from-a-variety-of-viewpoints/ (In that post I did not write about de-possession from negative experience, psychological intrusions, or internalized threat – all of which are good candidates for ritual de-possession.) This post is intended to have relevance to both shamanic practitioners and to any spiritual practice that involves trance or the use of creative/spiritual imagination.
I’d like to begin with an observation. It occurs to me that in ancient times scapegoating as a ritual practice was like extraction. The practice involved transferring sins to a ritual animal – such as a goat – that would carry away the sins into the desert. The practice appears to be a cross between extraction and sacrifice (actually sacrificing an animal could also be a literal means of atonement). The modern psychological mechanism of scapegoating is a similar projection of unwanted physic elements such as fear or anger. The unconscious projection is an attempt at self-extraction that only masks or sublimates the intrusion and does not heal the source of the projection. The angry or prejudicial person still owns the intruding wound. Engaging in active imagination or ritual allows the opportunity to involve the unconscious, allows the opportunity to navigate the connection of our body with the imaginal world.
It seems evident that people can become infected with intrusions. Intrusions can pass virally like a social contagion, can originate through personal engagement, or arrive by mysterious means. Intrusions can leave mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical problems. We’ve all experienced intrusions at some point in our life, and sometimes deal with them successfully through skillful (but apparently unremarkable) means. For example, we may successfully ventilate or reject intruding thoughts, or isolate and cleanse ourselves from an intruding complex. Sometimes intrusions find a home, can even become integrated into the worldview of an individual, resulting in various types of symptoms or illness.
When I was being trained in shamanism in the 1980s, Michael Harner did not put limits or attempt to define optimal or appropriate circumstances for when an extraction was the most efficacious cure. I experienced both remarkable success and apparent failure (in terms of observable results). My successes never proceeded strictly according to the methodology as taught by a workshop. While performing extractions I often worked in imaginal realms while lying more or less motionless in the trance state. I occasionally used an “extraction wand.” I was sometimes surprised by the novelties of method suggested by spirits, as I often am in the midst of trance experience. Perhaps if I had performed a good deal more of them, a pattern would have developed that was unique to my helping spirits. Or, perhaps each case would have continued to be different.
Having said all that, I must confess I can be a bit skeptical of extraction as either a first-impulse treatment or as an isolated cure. We live in a time of modern medicine, and I believe that mature practitioners should see extraction as a complementary approach to healing that could include both modern medicine (when appropriate) and lifestyle choices. Indigenous cultures used all methods available to them – herbs, bonesetters, treatments, and shamanic healing. We would be wise to do the same (although one of the potential drawbacks of modern medicine, that may be approachable through Spirit-based practice, is the institutional lack of emotional/spiritual attention to the patient and an inability to work with some medical conditions).
From my review of anthropological literature, extraction does not appear to be a universal method of healing. I found it in scattered locations, but particularly in the Amazon Basin. I have to wonder if sucking (the Amazonian method of extraction) began as a method to actually suck out physical poisons, or the eggs/larvae of insects (both of which are prevalent in rain forests). I had conversations with an individual who worked with several Amazonian shamans who employed the sucking method of extraction without obvious success in cases of observable illness. In any case, the driving out of “evil” spirits and/or the laying on of hands (or sacred objects) appears to be a universal shamanic practice.
Over the years a number of my shamanic peers, as well as myself, have come to prefer a variety of Power enhancing techniques over extraction – in a sense, driving out the bad by introducing more of the Good. The Good comes in many forms: a power animal, spirits in a variety of forms, spirit or soul-retrieval, cleansing through an inappropriate element, the use of “charged objects,” transmutation, the presence of grace, and various forms of spirit prayer and protection. Our feeling was that Power and intrusions couldn’t co-exist. In today’s shamanic environment, it seems many practitioners use extraction as a spirit cure to removing blockages – intending to increase vitality.
So now might be a good time to communicate that, despite a preference to avoid extractions, my spirit helpers have performed extractions on me a good number of times. I have requested general assistance in the trance state, and to my surprise a spirit helper was removing barbs or other foreign objects. Another common theme dealt with anger or related negativity. In many cases, the negativity did not originate with me (one can usually cleanse personal negativity). It may have been directed at me specifically or by circumstance, and stuck. Without warning, Power would grab “something” from my body and transport it to water or light. I could feel the negative emotion depart with the helping spirit.
And “laying on of hands” appears to be an interesting cross over. Is the practice an infusion of healing energy or a removal of blockages (or both)? Blockages can be seen by the shamanic eye as either dams in the flow of energy, or as some intruding force that may even be perceived in a symbolic or impish form. In any case, restoring balance to the flow of energy is generally (but not always) considered a process that requires follow-up effort on the part of the client. Restoring balance is always beneficial, but not necessarily a stand-alone cure.
I believe that all spiritual healers should be willing to track the outcomes of their efforts. Both remarkable success and apparent failure can be humbling. Every treatment modality has limitations. There may be a temptation to encourage a client to adopt unbending faith that a treatment will succeed. While belief can sometimes tip the balance, an unsuccessful cure puts lack of faith, and implied blame, back on the client. If curing disease were so simple as an extraction or prayer, 90% of the indigenous population would not have died from European diseases when Europeans invaded the North American continent.
I think if there’s a lesson, it’s that the Divine speaks to the healer in a language that the healer can understand. We need methods, but ultimately it is the skill and connection of the healer to Power (or whatever you want to call it) that counts. We’re back to connection.
Next up: Boundaries and Protection