Bridge Between Two Realities


Leslie Gray

By Carolyn R. Shaffer

“I’m results-oriented,” the striking, articulate woman seated across from me declares. “I have no investment in my clients believing anything about what I do. All I’m concerned about is whether it works.”

A compact, energetic woman with a stylishly cut mane of black hair and penetrating, coal-black eyes, Dr. Leslie Gray is both a Native American shaman—of Oneida, Powattan and Seminole lineage—and a university instructor. When she’s not teaching anthropology and research methodology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco or lecturing in the Native American Studies Department at the University of California in Berkeley, Gray is often seeing private clients for individual shamanic work. She also conducts occasional workshops on shamanism and trains apprentices.

As we talk today in the pleasant, high-ceilinged room where she meets with clients, Gray looks like anything but a traditional native shaman. She’s sitting cross-legged on a red futon—a Japanese folding bed that doubles as a sofa— wearing what appears to be a black cotton jumpsuit. It’s really a matching set of shirt and pants, but the casually sophisticated look is the same. As she speaks, her feather earrings flash red against her rich, coppery skin and black hair. The effect is as surprising—and stunning—as the patch of red on a blackbird’s wings revealed suddenly when it takes flight. The earrings nod and swing as Gray speaks, agreeing with her every statement and punctuating her most important points 

The New Native Shamans

She is telling me that a dual career such as hers is not that unusual for native shamans today. More and more are combining an education, and a successful trade or profession in the dominant Western mode, with their shamanic practices. Gray speaks of a Native American man in the Sacramento area who functions as both medicine man and medical doctor, and of one of her own apprentices, a Mexican woman with Yaqui Indian roots, who has just completed her training as a registered nurse. Eventually, the nurse hopes to serve as an advocate for patients who want to work with folk-healers of their native cultures as well as with their Euro-American-trained medical doctors. Another colleague of Gray’s, an Ojibway healer who recently moved to California from Michigan, holds a full-time job as a computer technician in addition to practicing his shamanic work.

“These healers,” Gray explains in a deep, resonant voice that fills the small apartment, “represent a new generation of shamans.”Unlike their ancestors, they do not live and practice in single-culture tribal villages in jungle, desert or forest. Instead, these native spirit healers reside in communities—whether rural or urban—that are organized along Western lines. They are literate and educated in two or more cultures, and they apply their shamanic practices to the needs of people living in the dominant culture. Rather than rejecting or ignoring this industrialized manner of life,these shamans have learned its ways along with the old ones.

Bridging Cultures

Gray is not the only one who perceives this growing movement. I learn later through a telephone interview that anthropologist/shaman Michael Harner has noticed it also. “Leslie Gray, with her high level of education and her dual work as university instructor and shamanic counselor, may be unique today,” remarks the director of the Center for Shamanic Studies in Connecticut and the author of The Way of the Shaman, “but I think it will become more and more common for contemporary, indigenous shamans to practice in this way. Shamans are highly intelligent and curious about the world and are, by definition, masters of two realities. {See Note.) The more visible and successful they are in ordinary reality, the more useful they are as shamans.”

Gray calls herself a “bridge person”—one who links cultures, ancient and new. After speaking with Leslie and her colleagues, I would add the words “trailblazer” or “pioneer” to this description. Gray is at the forefront of a movement among native shamans to not only combine ancient and modern professions but also to make the spiritual technologies of their ancestors accessible to ordinary people living in late Twentieth Century industrialized culture. To this end, Gray practices what she calls”shamanic counseling.” It enables her to use a conventional counseling setting to introduce clients from a wide range of backgrounds to the core or universal technologies of shamanism.

Those who come to Gray do not have to travel hundreds of miles to a tribal community in jungle or forest, worry about making the right kinds of tobacco offerings, and camp under a tree for days waiting to learn whether the shaman will see them. Instead, they can call her on the telephone and make an appointment just as they would with any professional counselor.

This is important, Gray believes, if the powerful spirit-healing technologies of shamanism are to become available to more than a handful of true believers. Gray’s approach works for a wide variety of clients, some familiar with shamanism and others not. Most live and work in the city, but a few travel a hundred miles or more from rural areas to work with her. Some are Anglo, others are Hispanic or Chinese, or of mixed ethnic background. 

They seek out Gray because they are feeling ineffectual, confused and powerless. They may be unable to find work that satisfies them or to develop lasting relationships. Some are in spiritual crisis—they have undergone a powerful ecstatic experience or attended a week-long consciousness intensive and don’t know how to integrate this into their daily lives. Gray works with her clients shamanically to help them find their power—or whatever else she determines they need.

Self-help Shamanism

“When I journey for clients,” she tells me, “it is usually to demonstrate to them how to do it for themselves. My goal is always to teach them to journey, never to hook them into coming back to me for a fix. I don’t encourage dependency”

While not everyone can become a master shaman, Gray believes that anyone can learn to journey for him- or herself and a small circle of friends or family.This is called personal or family shamanism. The shamanic journey involves entering an altered or non-ordinary state of consciousness, usually with the help of sonic driving; repetitive, monotonous drumming, rattling or changing are common methods of creating what Gray calls”trance-portation.”

“You can almost define the work of shamans,” says Gray, “as the business of ‘traveling’, [either] to the upper world to bring back down power, information or healing, or to the lower world to bring back up personal empowerment for living in the middle world.”

Most shamans, she explains, view the universe as composed of these three realms. The upper world tends to be the land of the ancestors, the middle world that of ordinary consciousness, and the lower world the place of power animals,although this varies in certain cultures. “The aborigines,” she says,”have in a sense collapsed the upper and lower worlds into one alternate realm called The Dreamtime. It’s a realm they consider to be ‘reality’. They tend to give the perspective of non-ordinary reality priority over the perspective of ordinary reality.”

The Shamanic Journey

The journey begins with the “traveler” finding an opening to another realm of consciousness. While in some cultures people literally dig a hole in the floor to provide this entrance, in others they regard the opening as a phenomenon within the shaman’s consciousness.

“The nature of this opening is highly individual [for each shaman or traveler],” explains Gray. “I invite people to think of an opening into the earth from ordinary reality, to enter that opening, go down a tunnel and come out the other side; and from there, to explore the lower world. As people become more proficient at doing this, they begin to encounter allies in that lower world and to use information gained from communing with these allies to help themselves or others in this middle world.”

Traveling to the upper world is similar.” The only difference,”comments Gray, “is that you choose an opening that will take you up rather than down, such as a whirlwind, a hollow tree trunk, or a fireplace and chimney. Whatever comes to you as your personal opening is what you use.”

One thing Gray refuses to do is to tell people what they can expect to find in their travels. “Part of what is empowering to them,” she says,”is developing their own maps. For me to develop a map for them would be the very opposite of personal empowerment and would make them dependent on my worldview—not just of this world, but of all the worlds.” At the core of the process of acquiring power in shamanism, states Gray, “is the ability to find things out for yourself, to know what they [the upper and lower worlds] are like.”

A Journey with Purpose

She also makes the point that shamans always journey with a mission.”The art of shamanism is mastering the ability to bring back important information to heal yourself or others.” It is not, as she puts it,”just journeying to see pretty pictures.” A person might do this in the beginning as a way of mastering the technique, but after that, he or she should visit the other worlds with a mission or purpose.

There is nothing to fear on a shamanic journey if it is done properly, Gray assures us. A shamanic journey has two advantageous features—the beings in the other worlds won’t tell the traveler more than she or he can handle at a given time, and a guardian spirit generally accompanies the journeyer as a protector. “I think you have more to fear crossing the street in a major city,” comments Gray, “than you do going on a shamanic journey with a power animal.”

At the end of a journey, the traveler returns by the same route she or he used to enter the other world. As a signal to return, the drumming, chanting or other form of sonic driving changes rhythm.

Often her clients make significant progress after only a few sessions. Gray recounts how one young woman snapped out of an overwhelming sense of powerlessness after her second visit. The woman had felt intimidated by the challenges of a new job and her co-workers’ response to her. After a dramatic encounter with her power animal in both ordinary and non-ordinary reality following her second visit with Gray, both the woman’s attitude and her behavior changed noticeably for the better. (See sidebar article,”Susan Meets Her Power Animal.”)

“I haven’t conducted an official survey,” comments Gray, “but I estimate that my shamanic work is about 90 percent effective.” Having participated in two of her shamanic workshops, I have no trouble believing her. At the end of the most recent workshop, one participant confided to me that the breakthrough she made on her shamanic journey that day was “more dramatic than anything I have experienced in 20 years of psychotherapy.” The woman later confirmed that it led to positive, observable behavioral changes within a matter of days.

Shamanism vs. Psychotherapy

Gray is not bragging when she speaks of her effectiveness. To her, it’s merely evidence of the power of the shamanic technologies she uses and which she trains her clients to use. It’s also a result, she thinks, of the readiness of the people who come to her to make changes in their lives. For some, she’s a last resort. They’ve tried dozens of other approaches without success. They may know nothing of shamanism, but they’re willing to give it a try and are desperate for something that works. Others come already convinced of the efficacy of shamanism and expect quick results. A surprising number confide in Gray that they have been drawn to her through a dream. Not many counselors can claim such highly motivated clients.

One point Gray makes repeatedly as we converse about her work is that she’s a shamanic counselor, not a psychotherapist. Because she holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and works with clients in a professional setting resembling that of psychotherapy, people often assume she’s a therapist. She’s not, Gray makes clear with a shake of her red feather earrings, although that doesn’t mean she rejects either psychotherapy or Western psychology.

Gray simply feels called to practice shamanism, and she does not consider shamanism a form of psychotherapy or a replacement for it. The same goes for Western medicine. “In shamanism,” she explains, “you make a direct link with spirit, and that spirit helps you heal yourself. The shaman’s purpose is to empower others through this spirit-contact. He or she operates from a model of wholeness in which body, mind and emotions working together comprise spirit.”

Although psychotherapy and medicine differ qualitatively from shamanism, she says, all three can complement one another. Certain physicians and psychotherapists refer clients to Gray when they perceive that the blocks their clients are experiencing are spiritual in nature. One medical doctor sent to Gray a young man who had successfully undergone chemotherapy treatment for cancer but remained demoralized and lethargic. A psychotherapist did likewise with a client who was making no progress because she believed she had been cursed.

In her characteristically concise, clear fashion, Gray explains the difference between orthodox psychotherapy and shamanism. Psychotherapy, she says, defines itself as lying outside the realm of spirit and operates from a model of illness. It seeks to understand and treat mental and emotional disorders. It is a mental discipline in which understanding—interpretation and analysis—is important, empowerment is secondary, and spirit is unacknowledged. For shamanism, it’s the other way around. Spirit and empowerment are crucial, while understanding is peripheral. Gray’s way of describing her clients reveals the difference. She refers to them as dispirited rather than depressed, for example.

Even transpersonal psychology, which acknowledges the spiritual as part of human experience, does not, in Gray’s view, compare with shamanism.”Transpersonal psychologists may use shamanistic techniques in their practice just as they may also use the techniques of Vipassana Buddhist meditation,” she explains. “But this does not mean that transpersonal psychology, shamanism and Vipassana medication are the same thing. None of them depends on the others for its identity. They operate in different realms.”

The Reality of Power Animals

For a shaman, the guardian spirit or power animal a person meets on a shamanic journey is just as real in non-ordinary reality as a rock or a bear or a human being is in ordinary reality. These entities are not mere figments of the imagination, projections of the unconscious, or useful symbols for personality integration, as psychotherapy might describe them.

The way Gray treated a client who came to her with a nightmare illustrates the difference between shamanism and psychotherapy. The client, who had been working with Gray for a couple of months, was under considerable stress. She had recently divorced and moved to the area, had not yet found work and was living with a new lover. The night after a session in which Gray had restored her guardian spirit, the woman dreamed that a red spider attached itself to her vagina. At her next session with Gray, she asked what this meant. Rather than launch into dream interpretation as a psychotherapist might have done, Gray explained to her that analysis is only one way of working with dreams. The shamanic way would be to remove the spider rather than interpret its meaning.The client agreed to let Gray conduct a classic shamanic ceremony for removing harmful power intrusions.

As Gray prepared to enter non-ordinary reality, a spider crawled across the pillow on which she was sitting. She picked it up, held it in her open palm and showed it to the client. The client turned pale and shrieked. The spider in Gray’s palm was the same red color and had the same markings as the one in her nightmare. Gray took the ordinary spider outside, released it, and returned to the task of removing the non-ordinary spider.

After the session, the woman improved dramatically. She began to interview for jobs and actively pursue new friendships. She also reported feeling more energy. She no longer described herself as depressed. Gray does not claim to know what the nightmare meant or why removing both the ordinary and the non-ordinary spider appeared to have such a beneficial effect. Analyzing the problem and its resolution is not of great importance to her. What she does know is that the techniques worked, and that’s enough for her.

In the red spider case, Gray directly intervened to empower a person she considered dispirited. Such intervention is not always necessary. Often people can heal themselves using shamanic techniques even if they have no previous experience with shamanism.

A Transformational Experience

Such was the case with Barbara, the woman who underwent the dramatic breakthrough at the most recent Leslie Gray workshop I attended. Barbara had never before journeyed in shamanic fashion and was not seriously interested in pursuing shamanism. She attended the event, titled “Speaking with Spirit Tongue,” to work on her fear of being seen in public. She was scheduled to give a presentation in a class the following week and found herself panicked by the prospect. Since childhood, she had been inordinately afraid of speaking in groups or otherwise being noticed.

In her journey, Barbara traveled back to adolescence and relived a scene with her father that she explained later had been repeated many times in her childhood. Whenever she dressed up for a party or a dance, her mother insisted that she go show her father how she looked. Inevitably, her father would find something to criticize. His response left her feeling exposed and unattractive. In this journey, Barbara called on an ally to help her: the dog that had been her pet and confidante during those childhood years. Both the dog ally and Barbara the adult comforted and reassured Barbara the young girl.

When she described her journey to others in the workshop, Barbara found herself filled with rage. Until that moment, she had not realized that her anxiety about being seen and the narrowness this brought to her life could be traced to those humiliating sessions with her father. Gray suggested she try saying “No.” The word burst from Barbara’s mouth as if it had been waiting 30 years for release. She shouted “No! No! No!” for at least a minute.

What impressed Barbara most about the shamanic journey was the immediacy of the experience: “It was not just a memory but a real going back.”

“It seems that at the workshop,” Barbara reported later, “my extreme fear of being visible and having people look at me just fell away. It was a transformational experience. As a direct result, I not only got through the challenge of the class presentation, but I became aware that I have lots of capacities that I haven’t tapped.”

When she later gave her class presentation, she felt utterly calm. She even enjoyed the process and threw in some humor. Some of her classmates told Barbara afterwards that she’d make a good teacher.

Credentials in Both Worlds

Leslie Gray never intended to become a shaman. She had her cap set for a career in clinical psychology, the field in which she received her doctorate. If it weren’t for a book on psychiatry and an automobile accident, she would most likely be conducting research in that field today.

The first crack through which the ancient ways slipped into her life was Henry F. Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious: The Origins of Dynamic Psychiatry.

“The book purported to trace contemporary psychiatry from shamanism to mesmerism to hypnotism to Freud,” says Gray, “but, as I read it, the thought hit me like a bolt of lightning that perhaps this wasn’t evolution but devolution.” The volume opened with a description of the work of a Kwakiutl shaman. “What this person was doing was so powerful,” she remarks, “that as I read on in the book, I sensed that we (in Western culture) were getting further away from what might, in fact, be the most effective techniques.”

Gray read everything she could get her hands on about shamanism. She even began to write and teach about the subject, but her quest remained an intellectual exercise until she injured her neck in a serious automobile accident. By this time Gray had been awarded a fellowship in clinical psychology by Harvard University and was engaged in research there.

“Here I was living in Boston, the mecca of Western medicine in the United States, and after going to 11 different orthopedic specialists, I couldn’t find one who could help me.” On the recommendation of a Native American friend, Gray visited a Cherokee medicine man living in the Smoky Mountains. Not only did she obtain considerable relief from pain, but she also found herself face to face with an extremely powerful practitioner of shamanism. Impressed by the results of his healing work, she began to spend time with him and other shamans to learn firsthand about their ancient art. Her interest in academic work began to wane as her fascination with shamanism grew.

When Gray asked the Cherokee shaman to take her on as a full-time apprentice, he turned her down. She was crushed by this at the time. “He told me to finish my doctorate. He said that I was not meant to be a shaman like him, that I was supposed to be a bridge between the two cultures. It took me years to appreciate his decision. I realize now that I would have been trying to be someone I wasn’t.”

Gray is literate; the Cherokee medicine man is not. She realized that she couldn’t undo her literate mind to see and respond to reality the way he does.She also knew that his lack of literacy would prevent many Euro-American-educated people from learning from him. Most non-Native Americans would only notice his inability to read and write. They would not see his brilliance or sense his powerful presence as Gray did. For shamanism to reach urban, industrialized America, Gray finally realized, it had to come through people like her, shamans with credentials in both worlds 

This insight and the implications it held for her life did not strike Gray at once. For a number of years she studied shamanism and worked with native practitioners without any thought of practicing as a shaman herself. Not until she received a powerful vision in 1982 did Gray realize that she herself was called to be a spirit healer.

A Call to Practice

Her vision, a classic shamanic initiation journey, came during a visit to a shaman after months of feeling dispirited over how she was meant to work in the world. In the course of a journey to the lower world, Gray found herself devoured by a dragon-like snake, spit out onto a rock altar and reassembled as a radiant being. When she returned from the journey, she came down with a fever that lasted two weeks. After that, her life changed for the better on every level. She moved into a sunnier apartment, made new friends, and knew without a doubt that she was supposed to practice shamanism.

How she was to do this was another question. Gray could not simply follow in the footsteps of her teachers. She had to find her own way in a rapidly changing world.

Merging Old Ways and New Ways

Leslie Gray is not so much interested in duplicating precisely the practices of tribal shamanism as she is concerned with making the universal technologies of this ancient art available to ordinary people living in an industrial culture. To accomplish this she has adapted certain external forms of traditional shamanic practice to fit contemporary urban life. Her second-floor apartment reflects this blend of cultures. On one wall, her Siberian-style shaman’s drum hangs beside a full-length portrait of a Native American woman. Against the opposite wall, a portable stereo, a cassette recorder and a couple of headsets rest atop a small black steamer trunk.

When Gray conducts a shamanic journey outdoors, or in a hall in a non-residential neighborhood, she beats her drum to take participants into non-ordinary reality. When she works with clients in her apartment, she asks them to don a headset connected to her stereo and lets a shamanic drumming cassette take them to spirit realms. This keeps the landlord happy and avoids sending the neighbors into trance—or to the telephone to complain to the police.

Gray tells of one or two clients who work in the corporate world and use this technology to journey on the job. When they have difficult business decisions to make, they close the door to the office, pull out a personal stereo and headset, insert a shamanic drumming tape, lie down and travel to the lower or the upper world to consult their guardian spirits 

“Where we live, who are ancestors were, whether we wear feathers or whether we smudge with sage or cedar—these are just the trappings,”Gray states emphatically. “They have no bearing on whether shamanic methods work or not.”

“In many ways,” she adds, “shamanism is uniquely suited to contemporary life. It’s a powerful way of dealing with learned helplessness—and in modern life, such learned helplessness is epidemic.”

Historically, shamanism developed as a response to emergency or life-threatening situations. Ancient tribal peoples could not fall back on machines or pills to meet their crises. They had to rely on their innate psychic powers. By learning how to contact spirit directly, they were able to regain their power or to heal themselves.

Antidote to a Hectic Lifestyle

“City life,” Gray points out, “is an ongoing emergency situation. Everything is supposed to be done yesterday and everyone is in a hurry. We live under incredible pressure.

“If nothing else, shamanic practices help us to slow down—to pay attention. They enable us to screen out the bombardment of stimuli so we can hear our inner voices. Shamanism helps us guide our lives based on what spirit says to us rather than on what external sources such as radio, television, magazines, and books tell us.” As such, it functions as an effective antidote to a society that is addicted to external solutions.

For shamanism or any powerful medicine to work, it must be made available to people in forms they can ingest. Finding such forms is the challenge Gray and other shamans face as they practice their ancient art in cultures far removed from the tribal. Just as their predecessors had to use all the tools and ingenuity at their command to meet the life-threatening situations of an earlier decade or age, so also do today’s native shamans confronting modern emergencies. Gray’s motto seems to be “Do what works.” Spirit does not discriminate between high-rise office buildings and underground kivas, or between prayers offered with tobacco and those simply spoken from the heart.It’s the connecting with spirit that counts.

Leslie Gray practices universal or core shamanism in a conventional urban counseling setting, and it works. Other native shamans may find different approaches effective for their communities. The forms or trappings of either may vary as spirit leads the way. 


For a detailed discussion of “ordinary” and”non-ordinary” realities, see Michael Harner, The Way of The Shaman (Harper and Row, 1980), on what he calls the Ordinary State of Consciousness (OSC) and the Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC). 

Carolyn R. Shaffer is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, California. Her articles on spirituality and consciousness have appeared in New Age Journal, California Living, Plexus, and other periodicals. She also contributed to Charlene Spretnak’s The Politics of Women’s Spirituality and co-authored City Safaris: A Sierra Club Explorer’s Guide to Urban Adventures for Grownups and Kids. Shaffer wishes to thank Dio Urmilla Neff for her assistance with this article. 

Dr. Leslie Gray practices shamanic counseling in San Francisco, is a professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, and a professor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley.

The names of Dr. Gray’s clients have been changed by the author to insure their privacy.

[This article first appeared in Shaman's Drum, Fall 1987.]