I wrote a rough draft for a chapter in my next book this morning. It is a bit rough, and needs more work, but I thought I would share it with the readers here. The start might seem a little random, because this is taken from the middle of a book about plant medicines and shamanic healing. Think of it in that context, and it should make sense.
This particular chapter has to do with the underlying mechanics of how shamanic healing works from a western perspective.
“The cure of the part should not be attempted without treatment of the whole. No attempt should be made to cure the body without the Soul… the great error of our day is that physicians separate the heart from the mind and the mind from the body.” ~ Socrates
Why work with these plants? There are many reasons to work with these plants, but healing seems to play a central role. Especially in shamanic style practices, many people work with the plant spirits to help the sick. The physically sick, the mentally sick, the emotionally sick, AND the spiritually sick.
In the practice of curanderismo, and in most shamanic style practices, illness is seen as usually having a spiritual cause. For example, chronic pain, cancer, weight gain, baldness, diabetes – these are usually thought of as physical problems, but in a shamanic perspective this might not be the case. The shaman or healer might instead point to a lack of connection with spirit guides, or point to intrusive energy in the client, or repressed emotions and memories. The intrusive energy would be a spiritual cause, which is then manifested as physical symptoms like chronic pain, cancer, or anything else.
In my experience, pain and dysfunction often arise, or at least are made worse by people resisting themselves. Your body can regulate itself much better when relaxed – chi moves more freely, muscles don’t cramp, cells receive nutrients and expel waste more efficiently, and nerves and organs work more effectively (for a scientific example, compare function of the parasympathetic nervous system to the sympathetic nervous system – the first excelling in healthy cell functioning, while the second excels at fight or flight and survival situations. If you stay in fight or flight mode too long, your body becomes rigid and unhealthy leading to illness caused by “stress”). If you have something within yourself that you do not want to acknowledge (repressed emotion or memory, health dysfunction, mental confusion or need to make decisions ect), your body can create a response to any repression that occurs. Ignoring problems allows them to grow.
For example, you may have a lot of anger you refuse to let go of. You might hold this anger in your stomach, which could lead to abdominal clenching. That clenching can then lead to fascial and muscular restrictions which become more and more habitual. Those restrictions may lead to mis-positioned organs, restricted chi, upset stomach and digestion, ulcers and so on. Or instead of anger, maybe repressing something builds stress which leads you to clench your jaw, which becomes a TMJ disorder, and leads to headaches and neck pain. Maybe this pain even disrupts healthy body and cell functioning enough through inflammation and oxygen depletion that cells reproduce incorrectly and cause other issues like cancer.
Or maybe resisting the self just impairs immune and energetic functioning enough that when some negative energy or a “bad wind” comes by, you aren’t prepared to maintain healthy boundaries and relationship to this energy, and the energy becomes an intrusion which could cause harm. This intrusion could lead to the same issues as above, and often looks for areas where this type of dysfunction is already occurring to take advantage of.
This takes on a deeper level too, because the body is incredibly inter-related. As your body builds resistance to itself, your brain develops and shifts to fit it’s most common uses. There is a phenomena called Hebbian Learning which states that “neural nets which fire together wire together, and those that do not fire together, do not wire together.” Basically, this means that neural pathways which are used often build stronger connections which make them easier to use in the future, and neural nets which do not get used often start to breakdown and disappear. Because of this, our brains often find it easier to use the stronger neural pathways and keep us in a habitual frame of mind. Obviously, this can be an effective or detrimental function, depending on whether or not that habit is healthy for you! The largest implication of this phenomena is that your brain can restructure itself and change the way you experience life. This has huge implications.
The area that this Hebbian Learning process might have the most noticeable effect on our health is within the limbic region of the brain. The limbic brain is where we store memories, process emotions, have dreams and sexual desire, and is also related to our sense of self in the past. Through the autonomic nervous system, the limbic brain is also connected directly to our tears, laughter, digestion, vomiting, diarrhea, ect (all the different types of purges - sounds like an Ayahuasca ceremony!). The limbic region is also open-looped, which means that it is regulated by your relationships to other people, and this region can become damaged from critical emotional experiences or difficulty coping with stress. Limbic revision is the therapeutic alteration of personality residing in the human limbic region of the brain – resulting in greater emotional health, stress coping abilities, and better choice making in relationships. Limbic revision is basically a fancy way of saying emotional healing – with added insight to the mechanic of how this healing takes place. Usually, with things like psychotherapy, this process may take many years, but anecdotally speaking, this process is much, much faster with plant medicines and shamanic practices.
Limbic Revisioning is also connected to epigenetics, so this process works on multiple levels. Epigenetics are the coding of your genes, not the actual genes themselves, and this is highly susceptible to internal revision. Environmental toxicity, nutritional stress and psychosocial stress can effect genetic expression by altering epigenetic physiology, leading to numerous different diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, mental health problems, and auto-immune diseases. When doctors research childhood traumas, neglected children, and similar cases, they find that most of the damage seems to be stored in the epigenetics.
But the shaman doesn’t see this limbic revisioning and epigenetics, or necessarily even know about the limbic brain. From the shamans perspective, they see what they describe as dark energy or spirits, and they fix this by “cleaning” the client (I believe this “cleaning” involves limbic revisioning). If these energies aren’t cleaned, then the client often gets sick or has other emotional problems. So we come into another idea of allostatic burden and load: our energy system or stress response system is burdened overtime by accumulated stress. This accumulated “dark energy” or stress can modify our limbic system or epigenetics, and our system sometimes becomes over-burdened, resulting in illness. This is largely documented in science as a potential cause of many health issues, and has long been held as a source of illness within natural medicine and shamanic healing circles. Short-term stress responses like releasing adrenaline and cortisol, or putting of problems to be dealt with later, which are helpful in small doses, can become harmful when they are used too frequently – creating allostatic burden. This burden can have long lasting effects on the functioning of the autonomic nervous system as well as the immune system – creating physical disease from emotional causes.
So in light of comparing the shamans perspective with the western medical perspective, it seems like shamanic ceremonies work through a process of “cleaning” allostatic burdened and pathologically imprinted epigenetics from our emotional centers (limbic brain). By the way – these centers just happen to be hard-wired into our tears, yawns, and vomit, which is why crying can be so healing, and why plant medicines sometimes cause an emotional/physical purge (rapid limbic revision).
This healing is largely based on the idea that your brain can restructure itself and change the way you experience life. This restructuring is a more western and medical based understanding of how shamans heal clients by cleaning “negative energies”.
So, if we can return to our more shamanic way of thinking about energy and balance, we find three main keys to achieving lasting healing, all of which involve changing our emotional and mental thinking patterns. First, the client must find faith that a cure is possible, and they must participate in their own healing process (through ceremony and/or real life action). The client must also find faith that their mind, spirit and other resources are powerful, and can be used as effective assets for dealing effectively with life’s problems. Lastly, the client must gain awareness of the forces around them, as well as their relationship to those forces so that continuing good health is assured. These lessons must be taken to heart for true healing to occur.