Treating Depression and Other Ills Using Shamanic Healing Practices
This article first appeared in the book, Shamanic Transformations: True Stories of the Moment of Awakening, edited by Itzhak Beery, (c) 2015 Inner Traditions/Destiny Books. It then appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Parabola magazine, topic Wellness, pp. 70-75. We have lightly revised and updated it for posting here.
Clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses there is, affecting more than 19 million Americans each year, nearly 10% of the US adult population. This includes major depressive disorder, as well as manic depression and dysthymia, which is a milder, longer-lasting form of depression.* Antidepressant drugs such as Prozac, Luvox, Paxil, Effexor, and Zoloft have become household names, and obtaining them has become very easy.
* For more on depression, visit the National Institute of Mental Health at www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one in eight Americans in a recent survey (13.2%) reported taking antidepressant medication in the previous 30 days. Among women aged 60 and older, usage was nearly double, at almost a quarter of this group (24.3%). The survey* covered the period up to 2018, before the recent pandemic, which has recently caused a further increase in depression, both in the US and worldwide.
* For the survey mentioned above, visit https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db377.htm
Given such staggering statistics, as well as the side effects caused by these drugs and the tremendous amount of money that is spent by American consumers attempting to mitigate their mental health issues, it can be beneficial to look at alternative methods of treatment. These other methods may offer other avenues to health without being as chemically invasive, addictive, and/or financially costly. One such approach to treating depression is through the use of shamanic healing practices.
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is often described as having developed during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Age, beginning about 12,000 years ago, and the Bronze Age, which extended from roughly 3300 to 1200 years BC. However, because shamans appear in indigenous cultures worldwide, the origins of shamanism may have occurred much earlier.
The word “shaman” derives from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman, literally meaning, “He who knows.” Shamans can be found in all indigenous cultures of the world, from Russia and the Balkans, to India and the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as the Americas.
While shamanism is not exactly the same in different indigenous cultures, there are many commonalities that shamans all over the world have in common – which, taken together with shared ritualistic practices, makes some generalizations possible. For example, shamanism may serve to describe all religious systems in which the central figure or the spiritual leader is believed to have direct exchange, through an ecstatic state, with the transcendent world. This permits the shaman to act as healer, diviner, or psychopomp – a guide who assists individuals in making their transition to the afterlife.
Shamans use ecstatic states for the purpose of helping to bring health and wholeness to affected individuals and communities. Once shamans enter these states, they are in control of their journeys to other realms, and are conscious of what transpires. They are also able to invoke spirits and inner allies that will be protectors and givers of power.
The belief system of the shamans and the rituals they use to perform the healings vary somewhat from culture to culture. For example, in her book entitled Shamanism*, Shirley Nicholson explains that Native American shamans hold the belief system that the universe has three levels—sky, earth, and underworld—which are connected by a central axis.
* Shamanism (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1987) is described and sold on Amazon (URL https://www.amazon.com/Shamanism-Quest-Book-Shirley-Nicholson/dp/0835606171) and elsewhere.
These shamans use various techniques to journey from one of these regions to another and access the information they need to help the individual they are treating. Muslim Indian shamans, on the other hand, believe that there are three classes of living beings “higher” than men: farishta (angels), shaitan (satanic beings), and jinn (spirits as a group). They believe that it is the interference of the shaitan and the jinn that can cause chaos and disorder in a person’s life, creating an overall state of imbalance.*
* For more on this, see Sudhir Kakar’s Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982).
My Personal Involvement in Shamanism
My own interest, or rather, my initiation into shamanism, began at an early age. I was born and raised in Iran, in the indigenous Jewish group that dates back to pre-Christian times, but which largely fled around the time of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return in 1979. Our group and the Iranian Muslim community strongly influenced one another, including the crossing over of Sufism, usually seen as a Muslim tradition, into Judaism*.
* See Of Genizahs, Sufi Jewish Saints, and Forgotten Corners of History, Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington. Reference as of 5/23/2021. URL https://jewishstudies.washington.edu/global-judaism/sarmad-kashani-sufi-jewish/
I was preceded by shamans in the two previous generations of my family, that I know of, leaving me as the inheritor of the tradition in a new, third generation. As such, I recognized early on that herbalists, soothsayers, religious healers, and shamans have a place in society. Tracing any disease or illness of the mind or body back to the evil eye, and/or immediate family or generational curses, was seen as being just as valid as seeking the help of a medical doctor who had been trained in the West. “Folk remedies” for such ailments involved enlisting various attending healers to murmur prayers and generate potions, and to enact healing rituals, and ceremonies, including animal sacrifices.
We left Iran as refugees in 1979, when I was 9 years old, and my education continued in London, England and then Los Angeles, California, where I graduated from UCLA and two schools of psychology in the Bay Area, finally obtaining my PhD in Transpersonal Psychology from Saybrook University in 2010.
Having been raised and educated in the West for the majority of my life, it was not until my mid-twenties that my own interest in shamanism resurfaced. It was then that I began uncovering memories of my paternal grandmother secretly engaging in such esoteric practices. Gradually, over the years, I began incorporating my ancestral teachings with my doctoral background in psychology to work with individuals who were seeking some deeper level of help, beyond what the Western tradition of psychology can offer. I work as a healer, and I have consulted and partnered with psychologists, psychiatrists, acupuncturists, medical doctors, and others.
Over time, I have witnessed enough transformative results with my clients to know that this powerful path to healing is also valuable in a Western context, and that it remains relatively open and uncharted, here and elsewhere. In this article, I hope to create an avenue whereby other practitioners and seekers interested in what I call urban shamanism might explore this alternative means of promoting mental, emotional, spiritual, and psychological health, and the paths to well-being that it offers.
Urban Shamanism and Depression
Modern-day, or urban, shamans are everyday healers who continue to practice the essence of traditional shamanism in today’s modern society. We use the term “urban” to highlight the differences between the world in which shamanism developed, where people maintained much more contact with the natural world and its rhythms, with today’s largely human-built and artificial environment, including our smartphones and the online world. (Which, oddly, has much in common with the spiritual world; I hope to tackle this in a later article.)
In a sense, any individual working in the healing arts is, to some degree, a modern-day shaman. These practitioners use a core belief system – such as cognitive/behavioral therapy, traditional psychoanalysis, Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT), or many other approaches – as well as a structure and techniques that serve as a ritual. The weekly visit to the therapist’s office, sitting or laying on a couch, talking about life events or dreams, and so forth. All of this done in order to promote mental and emotional health, which of course has a large impact on, and interdependency with, physical health as well.
A more traditional shaman, however, works within, and with the support of, an existing cultural context of long standing. The shaman might induce and then access an altered state of consciousness, encountering some aspect of the client there, or perceiving the client from within this altered state. The shaman would use this encounter and means of gathering information to guide and accelerate the healing process. An urban shaman uses these traditional techniques alongside modern practices, such as those described above.
Respect for, and even use of, shamanic practices does not require committing to a particular set of spiritual or religious beliefs. As with traditional religions, the spirit world can be understood as the collective unconscious, as described by Jung, or some other description of humanity’s shared experiences or perceptions. Spirits can be mapped to tendencies, influences, personas that appear in dreams, or other widely accepted constructs. And the insights derived by shamans may be seen as the result of deep contemplation and extended integration of a very wide range of experiences, knowledge, and information by the shaman, rather than divination.
Less shamanic is the current practice of quickly and indiscriminately prescribing powerful, mood altering medications to a large percentage of the adult population, with little support from the practitioner or the culture, and little to no use of the other healing arts described above. Yet this is now standard practice, in the US, and many other places, for depression.
Some practitioners are aware of shamanic practices, have studied them, and are using altered states to promote healing. Sandra Ingerman, author, healer, and educator, is an urban shaman who utilizes altered states to promote healing. She uses a technique called “soul retrieval” as a way to bring back an afflicted individual’s lost vitality and essence.
In Soul Retrieval:Mending the Fragmented Self*, Ingerman explains that, “Soul loss is a result of such traumas as incest, abuse, loss of a loved one, surgery, accident, illness, miscarriage, abortion, combat stress or addiction.” She goes on to further explain that, “Individuals who suffer from soul loss often carry with them a painful sense of incompleteness and disconnection . . . may spend years in therapy or self-help groups trying to uncover traumas and to become whole.”* Soul Retrieval (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1987) is described and sold on Amazon (URL https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Retrieval-Mending-Fragmented-Self/dp/0061227862) and elsewhere.
Does It Actually Work?
Jeanne Achterberg, author and professor of psychology at Saybrook University in Oakland, California, has done experiments to see if shamanic healing rituals are, in fact, beneficial. Her experiments show that any healing ritual has a significant impact on a person’s physical and psychological well-being. She also demonstrates that incorporating ritual of any kind by healing practitioners is a way of encouraging hope in patients and reducing their depression and anxiety.
Achterberg explains that it is the activity of the ritual—particularly if it prescribes a series of behaviors that has the critical psychological effect of pacing people through difficult times—that makes the difference. These rituals provide a road map for the unseen, unknown, and uncharted territory. In “Ritual: The Foundation for Transpersonal Medicine,”* Archterberg notes that these rituals can be but are not limited to acts such as, “chants, songs, or prayers to quiet a troubled mind, making space for mental and spiritual clarity.”
*For Archterberg’s complete article see Revision, 14, no. 3: (1992), 158–65.
Another study, by Marlene Dobkin de Rios, a renowned medical anthropologist and psychotherapist, revealed that using shamanic healing practices with U.S. Latino immigrants suffering from psychological and emotional disorders was far more beneficial and productive than using straight insight or talk therapy. She believes that this is because most indigenous people are apt to feel more comfortable with shamanic rituals, as opposed to the traditional Western model of healing.*
*For the complete article, “What We Can Learn from Shamnic Healing: Brief Psychotherapy with Latino Immigrant Clients,” see the American Journal of Public Health at http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.92.10.1576.
My Client Linda and Her Story
Linda (not her real name) was referred to me by a former client of mine. Her initial reason for seeking therapy was because she suffered from chronic depression. She mentioned that she had been receiving psychological counseling for a number of years – and, although her symptoms seemed to have improved significantly, her depression still lingered.
Linda felt there were unresolved issues in her life that never seemed to get fully resolved. Not only had she been seeing a therapist for some time, but she had also gotten involved with occult practices. Although these practices had helped her initially, lately she felt it was compounding her depression. She had heard about my work from her friend and was curious to know whether or not I could help her.
The next time Linda and I met, I checked in with my guides and was instructed to perform a shamanic healing. The session began with the same ritual I always practice at the beginning of every healing session. I had her lie down on my medicine table (similar to a massage table), face up, as I stood beside her at the table’s head. I then held my hands in a prayer position and allowed myself to enter into a quiet place within myself where I could invoke the presence of the spirit world to help guide me through the therapeutic process.
As I entered an altered state, I consciously began to surrender and let go of my will so that I would become an open channel for Linda. Once I was able to let go of my thoughts and ideas of what the session needed to look like or what I was expecting might take place, I knew the session was ready to begin.
What happens next is different with every individual. With some, I may not need to talk but instead perform the healing in silence. With others, I may have a continuing dialogue. In Linda’s case, I felt I needed to tell her what I was experiencing. While in an altered state, I began to see scenes rapidly flash by in front me. Each scene depicted a man with a young girl, an adolescent girl, or a woman.
Although each scene was different and took place in a different time period, the theme was always the same. Each one clearly depicted a man abusing, exploiting, or otherwise taking advantage of the child or the woman.
As I described each scene, something began to shift in Linda. First she began to quietly sob, and then gradually her sobs turned into cries. She began to resonate with the images and said she had always suspected that her father had abused her as a child, but she could not clearly remember, nor confirm it. Despite her numerous attempts to have her father acknowledge the abuse, he continued to deny that he had done so. This left her paralyzed emotionally and unable to move on with her life.
As I continued to share the scenes with her, eventually something even more interesting began to happen. Linda began to see the same images I was describing. Pretty soon I would start describing a scene and she would finish telling me the rest of it. Each time she finished describing a scene, her body would relax more. It would appear that viewing the images helped her let go of the pain she had been holding onto for so long. We continued going back and forth for the next hour or so, until there were no more images visible to either of us. Then I knew the session was over.
It’s not clear from this kind of session if the images I accessed, and that Linda was then able to access as well, were literally true, for instance in a legally actionable sense. There may have been physical abuse, emotional abuse, or a combination. The important point is that they represented experiences which had not been acknowledged or discussed openly. These experiences were hurting Linda deeply, and they needed to be made available to her consciously, where she could address them.
Linda and I continued to work together for the next several months, processing the events of the channeling session. The images had opened up a doorway for her, enabling her to do the inner work necessary for her to gradually understand and let go of her deep hatred and resentment she felt toward her father.
As she continued to do this inner work, her sense of self became stronger. Her depression began to gradually lift and each time I saw her she looked healthier and happier. She also became more confident in her own intuitive abilities and began relying on her intuition more frequently in her daily life. She no longer felt she needed an external source of affirmation for her spiritual beliefs and practices.
Later, she used her gift to work with abandoned and abused animals. She was able to communicate with them and help them release their trauma. Many of the animals were then adopted into loving homes.
There is much more to say, but I will conclude this essay here. It is clear to me that there are many, potentially beneficial alternatives to medication as a first resort for the treatment of depression and other conditions, and that shamanic practices are among these alternatives.
In the shamanic work that I do, I am often reminded of this wonderful Chinese proverb that describes the essence of shamanic healing, as it relates to the innate restorative power of the human mind and body:
When the winter is severe
the pine trees in this ancient land
stay green throughout the year.
Is it because the Earth is warm and friendly?
No, it is because the pine tree has within itself a life-restoring power.
Ellie Zarrabian, Ph.D., obtained her doctorate in Transpersonal Psychology from Saybrook University in San Francisco in 2010, her master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology from John K. Kennedy University and her bachelor’s degree in Psychobiology from UCLA. A third-generation shamanic healer from the Sufi/Jewish tradition of Iran, she is the founder and spiritual director of Centerpeace Foundation (www.centeronpeace.com) and the Centerpeace Project (www.centerpeaceproject.com) in Los Angeles.
In 1992 she became a certified Massage Therapist and worked for a number of years treating trauma in the body. After receiving her master’s degree in 1997, she became a drug and alcohol counselor and worked with individuals struggling with addiction. Then from 2001 to 2010 she took a teaching post at Santa Monica College, Department of Behavioral Studies, teaching psychology and spirituality to young adults. She is currently working as an advisor and psychospiritual healer to clients across California, the US, and worldwide.