Readers of The Sun may be relieved to learn that the “new age” is dead; Time magazine killed it with a cover story in December of last year, summing up the ill-defined social phenomenon as “an essentially harmless anthology of illusions.” (Faithful Time readers may recall that it also killed God with a cover story a while back.) Personally, I couldn’t be happier about the demise of the new age; I think it may give us a chance to begin experiencing anew some of the esoteric spiritual practices that have been returned to modern consciousness under the new age rubric. Part of the necessary discipline in gaining this direct experience is stripping away the misinterpretations, popularizations, and marketing glitz that the American way immediately showers upon a good thing.

That’s why I found the following discussion with Leslie Gray so refreshing and informative. Before we met, I knew very little about the ancient healing technique called shamanism; in fact, I regarded the whole subject as yet another problematic new age fad, a means by which white folks got to “play Indian,” as Gray would say.

Shamanism is a method by which virtually anyone can learn to “journey” to a world of non-ordinary reality and meet one’s “power animal” or “guardian spirit” — for the purpose of healing oneself or others and increasing personal power. As anthropologist Michael Harner says in his book, The Way of the Shaman, this age-old and culturally transcendent technique can provide “the opportunity to find that, completely without the use of drugs, you can alter your state of consciousness . . . and undertake personally the famed shamanic journey to acquire firsthand knowledge of a hidden universe. You can also discover how to benefit from your journeys in terms of healing and health, using ancient methods that both foreshadow and go beyond Western psychology, medicine, and spirituality.”

As a Native American with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Leslie Gray has made the journey from scientific methodology back to the healing ways of her indigenous ancestors, and calls herself a “bridge” between those perspectives. Besides teaching anthropology and research methodology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and lecturing in Native American Studies at UC-Berkeley, Gray provides a form of therapy she calls “shamanic counseling,” an adaptation of traditional shamanic practice for contemporary urban dwellers. Her careful discrimination and forceful, articulate self-expression gave me a clear insight into just what shamanic practice can do for one’s personal power.

— D. Patrick Miller


THE SUN: I’m interested in a definition of the shamanic experience for people who are very skeptical or have very little experience with altered states of consciousness.

GRAY: You mean skeptical that there are altered states of consciousness? Is there anyone who’s never fallen down and hit his or her head, who’s never gone to sleep, who never daydreams? Name me a little kid who didn’t do this [gets up and spins around the room] just to go into a different state. Kids play with altered states all the time. How can anyone be skeptical of the existence of altered states of consciousness?

THE SUN: Let me put it another way. Perhaps I should call it a lack of recognition of altered states. For instance, I used to have a difficult time with guided visualizations because I expected to fall into an unbroken trance state, a dream state, in which ego consciousness was entirely suspended. If it was anything less extraordinary than that, I tended to think, “Nothing is happening.”

GRAY: Too bad! Who knows what heights you might have reached? I think that’s a learned prejudice that gets in the way of paying attention to your own experience. Playfulness in consciousness is an inborn capacity; the culture teaches it out of you.

The fact is, you cannot be a great shaman without keeping a foot in both worlds. The shamans who completely go off, who can’t keep operating in this world while they’re in an altered state, are considered fools or incompetents, or neophytes. The shamans in the Amazon who take ayahuasca and other extremely powerful hallucinogens can actually do surgery under the influence. So you’re expected to be present and function in this world while at the same time calling upon non-ordinary experience and information in order to work.

This was one of the tragedies of hallucinogen use in the Sixties: people forgot that they were supposed to keep a foot in both worlds, and they just let themselves go — which would be “poor form” for a shaman, expected only of a beginner. Also, people took hallucinogens without a guide, and without a mission involving the survival of the tribe. These altered states, whether reached through hallucinogens, or fasting, or by doing the sun dance, have always been invoked by indigenous people so that “the people may live,” as the Indians put it. It’s always done to reinvent the mythology of the tribe, to bring alive the origin myths again for each generation. So they’re a congealing factor; they instrument harmony, closeness, and healing in the tribe. In the Sixties, people were doing these drugs for entertainment, or for a solitary spiritual experience, which they then could not share with their own culture or incorporate into their daily lives. No matter how profound the experience, it wasn’t something they could integrate with going into the financial district.

THE SUN: So how do you convey the purpose of this work to people who come to see you, people who do not have a tribe or even much sense of community?

GRAY: First of all, my work is not shamanism in the traditional sense. I’m being very specific by using the term shamanic counseling — I thought long and hard about why to use those words. I also deliberately did not trademark it, because I wanted it to spread like wildfire. But I am not doing shamanism, and I am not doing psychotherapy.

Shamanism is the use of altered states of consciousness, at will, for the purpose of healing or for gaining power or knowledge. In its usual context, it relies upon a tribal setting, a shared system of beliefs, and an acknowledgement of a spirit world on the part of both the shaman and the patient. These are not the conditions present in contemporary urban America. Nevertheless, it turns out that the technology of shamanism — the use of altered states for gaining information that empowers people’s lives — is something essentially human, natural powers that we all have. As with any power or talent, some people have more than others. Anyone can be taught the basic methodology to help themselves or a friend or family member, but very, very few people will become master shamans, as was the case in tribal culture.

And not only were very few people master shamans, but who would want to be? It was considered an outrageously difficult job; often the shaman had to be torn to bits and pieces in spirit dreams and undergo tremendous solitude and suffering in the process of getting visions. This is not a position that people were actively seeking. This is what I find so ironic about what’s going on with shamanism now; people left and right are calling themselves shamans, tacking “shaman” on the front of whatever they do: shamanic mask-making, shamanic rolfing, shamanic this and that. Igjugarjik, the great Eskimo shaman, had to sit for thirty days in an ice hut, with no food, very little clothing, and only tepid water to drink, for his shamanic initiation; he came very close to death and it took him a year to recover. This is what he had to do to have his visions.

Traditionally, people became shamans through such an initiation, or a serious illness, or a profound life crisis. They were often deviant from the social norm — orphans or widows for whom the tribe has no place. It’s an ingenious method for a tribe to reincorporate these people, by making them the healers. But they usually had profoundly difficult lives. Nowadays, the word “shaman” just seems to denote someone who has some kind of mystical notions — the trendy mystic for the Eighties.

THE SUN: How much traditional shamanism do you incorporate in shamanic counseling?

GRAY: I use what I call “core shamanism” — techniques that are not culture-bound. For example, sonic driving — drumming, rattling, chanting — enables people to reach an altered state of consciousness wherein they can have access to information that ordinarily wouldn’t be available to them. This technique is the same world-wide, from the aborigines to the Siberians to pre-nineteenth century northern Europeans; every culture has some roots in shamanism. It’s not something that requires a particular ethnicity to experience.

Unlike psychotherapists, I do not depend on interpretation and analysis. What a person presents as a concern is exactly what I work with. If somebody comes to me because of a problem with compulsive eating, I don’t say, “Well, you’re hungry for love.” I don’t interpret his or her experience, or delve into the past, or look for determinants in childhood. My work is educational and spiritual; I teach shamanic techniques which enable clients to have access to parts of their consciousness that they ordinarily can’t reach, and that’s what does the healing. I show them how to journey, and how to find a power animal or guardian spirit so that they can develop a relationship with these entities to empower themselves. Then they can do whatever they want to do: lose weight, work on a stuck relationship, heal their dispiritedness or negativity.

Neither do I give advice; I set things up so that clients get advice directly from their guardian spirits. I help them ask good questions, because it’s very important in a shamanic journey to ask a clear and simple question, especially for beginners. It’s very easy to get hazy, and have your mind wander, and that’s where training makes a difference. I don’t solve people’s dilemmas for them; you might say I help them strengthen their dilemma muscle. This way they don’t have to keep coming to me for a fix. Because as soon as you get rid of one dilemma, you can be sure another is on its way. That’s guaranteed.

THE SUN: Is a prior spiritual orientation necessary to benefit from shamanic experience?

GRAY: I did not enter shamanism from a spiritual perspective. I got into this by looking for therapies that worked, and not being able to find any. If you look at the literature, the results on the comparative effectiveness of different psychotherapies show that there isn’t any difference. This fact greatly dismayed me, even though I had colleagues who just kept right on working. I found that there were certain individuals who were very talented and could do extraordinary things for their clients, but that didn’t give me a dependable methodology.

Near the end of my clinical fellowship in psychology at Harvard, I severely injured my neck. After seeing eleven different orthopedic specialists, I couldn’t find a cure in Western medicine. I ended up being healed by a Cherokee shaman. When I met this shaman, so many doors opened up to me — this was a person with presence, with power, with a profound awareness. He knew how to use altered states to heal people, and it was obvious to me that he was doing so much better what I was supposed to be trained to do. I looked around me and thought, “What am I doing?” So I was ready to quit, and I asked the shaman if I could study with him, because I could see which work I wanted to do.

I’m really a radical empiricist. I didn’t believe in spirit and I wasn’t religious when I met the shaman, but I would definitely say I’m spiritual now. And after spending years and thousands of dollars on my training, I wanted to go with the shaman instead, doing what worked. But he told me that I shouldn’t do it, and that in order to be myself I would have to be a bridge — I couldn’t abandon all my training and simply go back to the old ways.

So I studied — “pestered” is a better word for what I did to these people — as much as I could, following shamans around. It hadn’t even occurred to me to practice shamanism — I was just plain fascinated with shamans. This started in 1971, when I did a paper on the origins of Western European psychotherapy in primal shamanism. When I came to California in 1980, people didn’t even know the word. So you can imagine how weird it is for me to see what’s happening now with shamanism.

THE SUN: Is the growing popularity of the subject amusing or worrisome? Where do you think it’s going?

GRAY: It’s both amusing and worrisome — and I think it’s going the way of everything else in California. It’ll be faddish for a while, and those who are really serious about it and work to maintain its integrity will last. The others will fall away and follow the next fad. What we’ve seen happen is that something starts out here and spreads, over a period of about ten years, to the East Coast. Meanwhile, California is on the vanguard of the next thing it can devour, as it perpetually looks outside of itself for salvation. What I do like about California is its tolerance for innovation, which makes growth and change possible. But along with the innovators, you also get the total crackpots.

The only time I’m really bothered is when I see people who I know don’t know what they’re talking about, or I read some description of shamanism that’s totally off the mark.

THE SUN: How would you relate the resurgence of shamanism to the growth of transpersonal psychology?

GRAY: About three years ago, the Brain/Mind Bulletin [published by Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy] devoted an issue to the future of psychology. It predicted that the future of psychotherapy would be “guided imagery combined with altered states of consciousness.” I almost fell down laughing. Shamans have been doing this for 40,000 years. So in a lot of ways, transpersonal psychotherapy is just reinventing the wheel. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that; it just makes me realize that I’m kind of conservative. I figure if people have been doing something for 40,000 years, maybe they’ve learned something useful. For instance, before I take on all the ideas being passed around about crystals, perhaps I should study how the native people have used them the last 10,000 years, right here underneath our feet in California.

THE SUN: The problem is that the salesperson tells you what the crystal will do if you buy it. In a sense, we’re robbed of direct, original experience because of our expectations about what’s supposed to happen. How do we get around that?

GRAY: This is something that comes up often in my work with the predominant culture, the non-indigenous people. They first experience a great disappointment, and then a thrilling liberation. The disappointment is: they’re not going to play Indian. I’m not going to make anyone an Arapaho medicine man or a Cheyenne shaman priest. That’s the bad news. The good news is that shamanism is something within your own power and ancestry. If you revere the great indigenous shamans and want to be like them, then you will go back to your own ancestors, not their ancestors. Many of my clients begin to get in touch with their Celtic or Druidic origins.

I don’t know what I’ll do if one more person comes to me and says, “I’m sure I was an Indian in my past life.” There weren’t that many Indians! It’s a bizarre notion anyway, a Hindu philosophy glommed onto a new age guided-imagery technique, all for the sake of reassuring you that you’re connected with the ancestors of this land, which in fact you are not. It’s a kind of placebo, I guess — it makes people feel temporarily connected. But why not feel connected to your real ancestors, who deserve your respect, and who had as much shamanic power as any Native American shaman?

There seems to be a desperate need for many Anglos now to have some connection with Indians, or the indigenous people of wherever they are. And it’s not very mysterious why. There is a strong feeling of rootlessness. So you took over the whole country, you got all the land and everything, but guess what: you, your children, and your children’s children have a feeling of absolute rootlessness and alienation. There’s a desperate spiritual struggle to feel connected as the land is being destroyed, the animals are being destroyed, and we’re on the point of the possible annihilation of the human race. People are looking around and saying, “How did this happen?” They’re grabbing for anything they can hold on to.

Since Indians were the people who understood that all things are connected, and who treated the Earth as a relative, the Anglo begins to think, “Maybe I’m OK if I was one of them in my past life.” Unfortunately, they forget that all peoples held the Indians’ attitude before industrial and technological times. As Western European society progressed toward modern technology, it threw out two things: connection with the Earth and connection with spirit. And those are the essential features of shamanism.

THE SUN: Recently, I read an interview with a scientist from the Bay Area Skeptics. His crusade was to wean people away from “ancient superstitions.” I remember thinking that was fine in itself, except I was curious to know what fell into his category of “ancient superstition.”

GRAY: Probably anything that cannot be shown at the .01 level with an experimental control. Actually, Western science has only very recently used experimental group versus control group as a method of “proving” something. Prior to that, there was a method that might be called relative validity — in other words, given four treatments for a particular illness, or four methods for solving a particular problem, you test them all to see which one gets results. Science has used this approach far longer than that of controlling a study with presumed objectivity; that is, presuming there’s no effect on a group from the fact that you’re testing them, then comparing them with another group that’s been waiting for thirty minutes in a room with white walls, to be tested in an artificial laboratory analogue for real-life experience.

Shamanism, on the other hand, has been based on empiricism since its very beginning. All of its history has been the result of trial and error, finding out what works; it’s results-oriented. In a tribe you can’t go to school for four years and then hang out a shingle and expect people to call you a shaman — you have to start healing people. And you have to heal them for a long time. And then maybe when you have white hair, and you’ve healed people for a very long time, they just might call you “shaman.”

People actually call me on the phone and in the middle of conversation say casually, “Oh yes, I’m a shaman.” I know extraordinary healers, people seventy-five and eighty years old with a lifetime of experience, who wouldn’t dare call themselves shamans.

THE SUN: How then does one distinguish a real shaman from those falsely advertising themselves?

GRAY: If people call themselves shamans, that’s a sign to me that they’re not. I have never called myself a shaman; I’m meticulous about it. It’s up to others to call you a shaman; and it’s the consequence of getting results over time. Even if you do have certain visions and gain certain powers, it is not up to you to call yourself a shaman.

THE SUN: That brings to mind the works of Carlos Castaneda, which are probably the best-known expositions of shamanism in this country.

GRAY: (Laughs softly.) Castaneda teaches like a trickster. He’s alluring, but he’s not the real meal, and you’ll waste your time trying to figure out if it really happened the way he said. Plus he had so many confused expectations; if don Juan said, “Men are like eggs,” Castaneda would go out and buy a dozen. You have to remember that these books, as well as those by Lynn Andrews [Jaguar Woman, Star Woman, Crystal Woman], are written from the viewpoint of disciples, not shamans. As such, they give you the experiences, mistakes, and mystifications of the disciple — not the experience of the shaman, and certainly not what your experience of shamanism might be. You can read all of Castaneda’s books and not know how to do anything; that’s why I tell people to read Harner’s Way of the Shaman [Bantam New Age paperback], because when they finish it they know how to do something, at least how to start. And if you want the real experiences of shamans themselves, I recommend Shamanic Voices [“A Survey of Visionary Narratives,” collected by Joan Halifax, Ph.D., E.P. Dutton paperback]. There’s also an excellent essay on Castaneda in Hans Peter Duerr’s Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization [Chapter 10].

THE SUN: Do you work with many people coming out of other spiritual practices? Do you see clients experienced in meditation, for instance?

GRAY: I see lots of them, particularly since the dissolution of the Zen Center here in San Francisco [after the departure of Richard Baker Roshi amid charges of sexual misconduct and other controversies]. I’ve seen people who were involved with the Zen Center for years, and suddenly they’re out on their own in the world, sometimes not knowing where to turn. A lot of them turned toward shamanism, which can be very good for them, but very difficult, because shamanism is earthy. In that way, it’s more similar to Celtic and Druidic paganism and Earth worship than to meditative practice.

Experienced meditators come to this with both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that they have had a discipline, oftentimes much more of a discipline than will be required for their experience of shamanism. They have a sense of responsibility for figuring out what goes on in their consciousness, and they expect to work for results. That’s a head start compared to many people. Their disadvantage is that their feet aren’t on the ground; they’re highly abstracted, idealistic in a Platonic sense as opposed to a substantive sense. In other words, the concept of “chair” has become more real to them than what they’re sitting on. But shamanism is very earthy, personal, and engaged with things.

THE SUN: What are the advantages of your clinical psychology training in relating to clients?

GRAY: One advantage is that it helps me weed out people who I think would benefit more from traditional psychotherapy. Shamanism is appropriate for people who can use education in the tools of consciousness and a spiritual framework for applying those tools, but it requires both willingness and ability to take responsibility for the process. Some people may be willing but not able; then they may work with me in conjunction with a psychotherapist. For other people, understanding why they are the way they are is the most important thing in their lives. I don’t devalue understanding, but shamanism is much more involved with doing than understanding.

For shamanic counseling — and I don’t mean traditional shamanism in this context — a certain degree of personality integration is required. For shamanism in a tribal setting, a patient might well be what we describe as psychotic, but the tribe is structured to reincorporate this person. In contemporary society, without this kind of support system, the sacrifice of personality and ego consciousness required to work with people in extremis would be very draining for a shaman. I know an Ojibway shaman who sees people here in the Bay Area and does the same thing he did on the reservation: fasting for three days, undergoing tremendous deprivations, and not taking any money for his service, so that he lives in poverty. I’ve watched him since he arrived and he’s going to have to change or he’ll burn out. So I have adapted shamanism into a counseling practice suited to a contemporary urban environment.

THE SUN: So what will happen to shamanism in our society? A return to tribal settings doesn’t seem likely.

GRAY: Well, the advantage of shamanism over many religious practices is that you are considered to have a direct, personal connection with spirit all the time. You do not need a priest, rabbi, or guru to tell you what to do; everything happens between you and your guardian spirit. That is the core tradition of shamanism, as distinguished from other spiritual practices: a unique relationship between you and spirit without a church or mediator. So the experience is always accessible in any social environment, and some people are thus initiated as shamans without any training at all.

THE SUN: It’s my perception that most people don’t take on the rigors of a genuine spiritual path — as opposed to following a religious custom — until they’re forced to do so, by virtue of a crisis or revelation. Perhaps we’re seeing an upsurge of interest in core spiritual practices because there’s a society-wide crisis of transformation going on.

GRAY: Exactly. And I think that’s really why something as arcane and obscure as shamanism was only seven or eight years ago is having such a resurgence now — because it is the consummate method of experiencing individual spirituality free of dogma, social hierarchy, or structured experience.

Thanks to editor Timothy White of Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism (Box 2636, Berkeley, CA 94702) for use of his photo. Leslie Gray can be reached at (415) 388-0560.

— D. Patrick Miller

The photograph mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.