Leslie Gray's Path to Power


An East West Interview with a Modern, Urban Techno-Shaman

By Mirka Knaster

The smell of burning sage wafted down the stairs as I looked around for apartment numbers in a small building on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. I gave up and decided to follow my nose. The strong aroma led me to the second-story flat of Leslie Gray, a Native American shamanic counselor who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She opened the door, and vibrant colors heightened the sensual impression already made by the sage. Dressed casually, Gray was a study in turquoise and red, right down to the double feather earrings set against her black hair. Native American jewelry circled her neck, wrists, and fingers.

Because the term “shamanic” is now widely used in connection with myriad activities and products, I had arranged to meet with Gray to explore its contemporary significance. Had it become just another buzz word for attracting clients, or was there something substantive behind the growing popularity of shamanism in the West? As someone who had read extensively in anthropological literature and had also lived in other cultures, I was skeptical. The primal spiritual tradition now called shamanism has been an integral part of tribal life around the world for perhaps 30,000 years. Through drumming, chanting, psychedelics, and other means, shamans enter an altered state of consciousness at will to journey to the upper and lower worlds of non-ordinary reality, where they obtain knowledge and power to help others.

Was a true shamanic renaissance occurring? Or was this the latest wave in lifting indigenous practices from their contexts and adding them to the already overflowing shelves of exotic imports in the human potential supermarket? Could these ancient, rural ways be successfully applied in a modern, urban society? What benefits did they offer? And who were all these self-proclaimed “shamans” hanging out their shingles? How could we know who among this new group were authentic, effective, and trustworthy?

Gray is in a unique position to answer these questions. Her feet are in two different worlds, and she seems to stand comfortably in both of them, serving as a bridge between the two. Although Gray’s background is an ethnic rainbow, she identifies most strongly with her Native American roots, Oneida, Powhatan, and Seminole. Yet she didn’t grow up in a traditional environment. Born in Boston and raised in Los Angeles through high school, Gray considers herself an urban Native American. She went to Reed College for a B.A. in English, then to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., for an M.A. and a Ph.D. in psychology. Today she teaches in the Native American Studies Department at the University of California in Berkeley and in the anthropology and psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Gray’s first introduction to shamanism was through a book, Henri F. Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious: The Origins of Dynamic Psychiatry. In it she read Franz Boas’s account of a legendary Kwakiutl shaman, Quesalid. “My entire life turned around,” she says, her large, blue-lined dark eyes growing bigger. “I realized in a blinding flash that what was called progress—moving from shamanism to mesmerism to hypnotism to Freud and contemporary psychiatry—was not evolution, but devolution. The way this shaman [Quesalid] operated was really where the power is. Understanding, interpretation, and analysis were far less powerful than shamanism.”

Gray’s interest in shamanism grew stronger through a personal encounter. She was on a fellowship in clinical psychology at Harvard University when her neck was injured in an automobile accident. After getting no relief from the eleven orthopedic specialists she consulted, on a friend’s recommendation Gray went to a Cherokee medicine man in the Smoky Mountains. She was so impressed with his healing work that she shifted her focus from academic research to learning as much as she could from Native Americans.

“It became very clear to me that orthodox psychology—I’m not talking about transpersonal psychology or the exciting new forms of guided imagery—was going nowhere. People were spending years and years sitting in a room where everything was taking place between here and there,” said Gray, pointing to her head and mine, “and not changing what they came for.”

Practicing shamanism, however, was not an easy next step for Gray. “You have to realize that when I started, about 1981, I didn’t know anybody doing it in an urban setting,” she remembers. “You couldn’t exactly open up the classified ads and see ‘shaman wanted.’” Besides, there were misconceptions about what she was doing. “People thought I was a witch doctor, practicing voodoo—their worst fantasy,” she says.

There were times when Gray thought the whole idea of shamanic work was crazy. Tribal ways might be fine in the country, but in the city she still had to earn a living. She knew that no matter how extraordinary and beautiful her elders’ shamanic practices were, she couldn’t carry them out to the letter. “It’s really too late for that,” she says. “We’ve got to find some new blend or adaptation. Shamans have always been pragmatic and have changed as circumstances change.”

Gray found that practicing shamanism was not easy. But neither was stopping. As in the ethnographic accounts of famous shamans, she would fall on hard luck—more accidents and injuries—every time she tried to drop the work. She stayed with it, and as she developed her own style, her reputation flourished. “Leslie showed courage in publicly first using the term ‘shamanic counseling’ to describe her practice,” says Dr. Michael Harner, anthropologist, president of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, and author of The Way of the Shaman. “She did an important thing in coming forward to combine her Native American background with psychology. And “she does it seamlessly,” says Dr. Ruth-Inge Heinze, of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Who Are the Shamans of the Twentieth Century? “I respect her work because she comes from the inside out; she’s not playing. She has found her specific personal expression.” Today Gray successfully combines academic teaching and public speaking with shamanic counseling and workshops.

Unlike Gray during her own education, students in her classes get an experiential rather than written taste of shamanism through actual healing ceremonies conducted by herself or other Native Americans. During such rituals Gray again shows a keen ability to keep her feet in two different realities by maintaining a connection with ordinary consciousness while at the same time carrying out her shamanic role in an altered state.

I spent several hours with Gray in a tidy room lit by an early autumn sun. She talked about the variety of ways in which she works, the differences between traditional and contemporary shamanism, the value of shamanism in modern society, the controversy surrounding it, the use of crystals, and other aspects. Her strong presence filled the space. Articulate, frank, and confident, Gray asserts herself through personality and voice. Surrounding us were the accoutrements of her trade—eagle feathers, stones and bones, yarn for making medicine bundles, herbs, rattles, tobacco, corn, and four drums. Earphones and taped drumming are sometimes used to help preserve peace with the neighbors.

Once I’d gotten all my questions out of the way, Gray invited me to take a journey out of everyday reality—also known as the middle world—so that I could seek advice for a conflict I was experiencing. Gray herself does not dispense counsel, but rather shares what she calls a “methodology of empowerment” so that you are are able to find answers on your own. Help comes from contacting spirits in other dimensions—both the lower and the upper worlds.

With some preliminary discussion to clarify my problem and instructions for making only an exploratory trip the first time, I lay down on the rug and donned the earphones. The frequency of the drumming led my brain waves into more of a theta pattern so that I could begin to journey. I went through an opening at the base of a tree and crawled through a dirt tunnel into a cave, then into another tunnel, before coming out into a brown forest where I saw bears and a pond. I sought no answers and returned shortly. A fox appeared as I emerged from the tree.

On my next journey I was to ask for guidance. This time I climbed a tree to the upper world. I traveled through blue space both on my own and hanging from the talons of a large owl. I also consulted with a wise person on a throne in the clouds. The experience reminded me very much of visualization, guided imagery, and dreams I had had in the past. I came back to the middle world with my conflict unresolved—I had received an answer but wasn’t ready to accept it—but I had a sense of soil having been loosened so that something could sprout later. On another day I could again lie down, put on a tape of drumming, and journey beyond my ordinary reality. It is not left-brain analysis of my situation, says Gray, that will bring healing, but access to other realms of consciousness.


East West: Native Americans and other indigenous groups have practiced shamanism for centuries. Why the sudden popularity among white people today?

Leslie Gray: First of all, it’s not true that all of a sudden Anglos are interested in Indians. It’s happened time and time again. Indians have gotten used to their culture and spirituality becoming very popular, with certain Anglos championing Indian rights, and then the interest usually declines. The White Man’s Indian, by Robert F. Berkhofer, chronicles the periodic rise and fall of Indian popularity with Anglo people. I believe that today’s interest in Indians arose because the world view in which all things are connected is something that Native Americans have not lost touch with, in fact, have almost been the keepers of in an increasingly materialistic and destructive society. Now that some people are waking up to the disaster we seem to be careening towards and are looking for support for experiencing the interconnectedness of all things, who do they find has not only continued to profess this, but has it inextricably interwoven with their daily life? Native Americans. However, that keeper-of-the-earth role is what you can find in primal peoples wherever they have been colonized, such as the aborigines in Australia.

There is another factor. As certain kinds of spiritual realizations were coming home to Anglo-Americans, often triggered by hallucinogens in the ’60s, people began to try to find some kind of philosophical framework or way of life that explained these insights. Often they reached out to Oriental religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, or even to born-again Christianity. I think what’s happening now is that people have finally come around to looking right under their noses. They are acknowledging the powerful, ancient spiritual tradition of this land. To a certain degree, being a Native American watching Anglo Americans go to any lengths, even to some mountain in the Himalayas, in search of a great old spiritual tradition when there’s one right here, was comical. They’ve exhausted that and also feel the limitations that come from not practicing a spirituality indigenous to the very soil they’re living on.

EW: Most people in America have come from someplace else. They’re not connected to their roots.

LG: One of the things that frequently happens in my work with people and is very much a surprise to them because they come to me often out of an admiration for Native American things, is that where they begin to journey to the upper world and get in contact with ancestor spirits, lo and behold, they found themselves with Celtic ones. They experience something quite personal and very much from their own roots, not what they’ve read in a popular book. Whether someone comes with an Irish, French, German, American Indian, or African background doesn’t matter. Every single culture has its origin in shamanism. It’s an extremely recent phenomenon that industrial, technological, materialist culture has been the norm. Even today only 10 percent of the health care in the entire world is practiced by Western-style M.D.’s. The other 90 percent is practiced by folk healers.

EW: Along with the renewed interest in shamanism, a controversy about it seems to have surfaced. What exactly is the problem?

LG: There are some people—oddly enough they seem to be mainly Anglo—who feel that there are orthodox ways that shamanism should be practiced. They have appointed themselves monitors to see that things get done “right.” Also, there is the general problem of real abuse, as in any other field of endeavor. There are always people who are going to take a weekend workshop, profess to be an expert in something, allow themselves to be put up on a pedestal, and charge huge amounts of money. This happens all the time. Take some of the East Indian gurus. I don’t know of any Native Americans or even Anglos using Native American practices, that have yet done anything on the financial scale of what we have seen with some of those gurus. As long as there are people willing to put others on pedestals, there will be those who will capitalize on it. How you legislate against that, I have no idea 

EW: Then how is someone to decide who is genuine?

LG: The same way the people who are on a spiritual path have made that decision from time immemorial. It’s almost as if there has to be some part of you that already knows what you’re looking for. If it weren’t that way, then whatever you found at the end of your seeking would not be your own personal empowerment, but someone else’s. You have to be able to recognize the person who will leave you with your own autonomy. What you should watch out for is whether or not you’re being manipulated or made dependent. If you don’t already have it in you to see that, then that is the lesson you have to learn. It’s tragic, but what’s the alternative—controlling everything and saying what people can or can’t study? Unfortunately, we’re free to do folly, to make big mistakes.

EW: How do other native Americans feel about the phenomenon of Anglos publicly claiming that they’re shamans?

LG: There’s a wide range of feeling in the Indian community. Some people feel that this is horrendous and invasive. Others just ignore it and laugh. They’ve seen it before. It will come and go. It’s white people playing Indian again. Some feel that it’s so important to reorient humanity toward respect for life now, that at least workshops provide exposure for people who otherwise would have contempt for the earth. Who knows. Maybe for the first time it will occur to some individuals to pay respect to the earth just from reading certain current popular books on Indians and shamanism.

There’s also a difference in the scholastic accuracy of these books. Both Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews write about non-ordinary reality. Both regard conveying information about the use and abuse of power as their literary priority. Castaneda, no matter how mystical or profound a particular point he is making, tends to employ ethnographic referents that are culturally verifiable. With Andrews, it’s as though everything Indian were a big tossed salad. Academically, I can’t use her books in my Native American Studies classes. But, as inspiring reading for individuals struggling to overcome learned helplessness, I suspect her books can spark a genuine quest for empowerment. A third example would be the writings of Michael Harner. His books I can use in classes as well as with clients seeking shamanic counseling because they convey extraordinary experiences of shamanic power while being meticulous about sources.

EW: You call yourself a shamanic counselor rather than a shaman. Obviously, you’ve carefully chosen a particular term to use.

LG: Very carefully, because I want the term to express what I actually do, which is practice modern, urban, techno-shamanism in a contemporary, counseling setting. I’m not up in the hills passing on secret rituals that belong to certain tribes, and I don’t want to imply that. I do not call myself a shaman, nor would I ever. In fact, I would like to suggest that hearing someone call themselves a shaman is one of the first ways to be sure they’re not 

EW: What do you mean by modern, urban, techno-shamanism?

LG: I was partly saying that in jest and also was quite serious. The modern, urban part is obvious. I say techno-shamanism because I use things like tapes of drumming, which involve electronics. Shamans have always been, above all, pragmatic. I think that if the things that I use had been available to people hundreds of years ago, they would have used them. Shamans use what works.

EW: Would you define the core of shamanism?

LG: There are many aspects of shamanism, but if you look at it cross-culturally, certain striking features are extremely similar, if not identical. One thing in particular stands out and it has to do with the very definition of what a shaman is: a person who enters an altered state of consciousness at will for the purpose of healing, gaining power, or acquiring knowledge. That is what distinguishes the shaman. A medicine person may have a great deal of practical knowledge of bone setting or the use of herbs, but that’s not shamanism. Very often in a tribe the two roles overlap, which contributes to the confusion of what a shaman is. The term is used generically as a consequence of anthropologists having looked at the Turco-Tungusians [Ural-Altaic peoples of Siberia] and adapted the word they used for a distinct type of person who played a specific role, that of taking a spirit journey to an upper or lower world in order to do healing. In Tungusian culture, they could see this function very clearly because the role tended not to overlap others. Then, whenever anthropologists saw it in other tribes around the world, they used the term “shaman” and that’s how we came to be using it now. [According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "shaman" first appeared in print in 1698, "shamanism" in 1780.]

I want to make the point that traditionally, shamanism has been a matter of degree. Very often in a tribe many people see visions or have shamanic experiences, but that doesn’t mean they’re professionals practicing shamanism. In other words, the desire in many people right now to have a life vision and to be told by spirit some sort of guiding principle by which to live their lives, is shamanic. It doesn’t mean that the person is a practicing shaman, nor necessarily wants to be.

It’s a great poverty in Euro-American culture that there is no shamanic way or institutionalized rite of passage in which you seek to know your life’s work, your true purpose. We march from one thing to another. Most people end up doing what they’re doing by a process of elimination rather than starting at an early age to open themselves to what might be a calling. Shamanism allows for a way to do that 

EW: You were trained as a clinical psychologist. How is what you do now different from that?

LG: All of a sudden I had this image of the way I work—covered in beads, shaking a rattle, the room full of sage and cedar smoke, then I’m bending over someone, sucking out a spider spirit and vomiting it into a bowl of water. The difference? I can barely see the similarity! Actually, the similarity is with the original meaning of psychotherapy: soul healing.

EW: Generally, in psychotherapy there’s a lot of talking.

LG: Yes, and there’s very little in shamanism.

EW: Do you see any validity to sitting with someone, hour after hour, and talking?

LG: Yes, if what you are looking for is understanding, interpretation, or analysis. What are a person’s goals? It’s a highly individual thing.

EW: Are the people who seek your services already exposed to a great variety of alternative systems, perhaps with beliefs about psychic phenomena?

LG: I have lots of clients who haven’t done anything like that. There’s no preparation or mindset required for this work, no previous experience with so-called spiritual things. The things I do are quintessentially human. To that extent, they’re accessible to anyone. Most of what I do is not culture-bound. I use traditional herbs such as sage and cedar just because I’m Native American, but they’re not essential to the work.

EW: Do people come to you mostly because of emotional difficulties as opposed to physical ailments?

LG: Most people come to me with questions about empowerment. Something is brought home to them—that they’re giving away their power. Somehow they got a psychic snapshot of themselves doing that and they don’t want to any more. However, they don’t want to spend years tracing back how they did it in the family when they were very small. They just want to stop doing it. Shamanic work results more in people taking action rather than mulling over the past.

For example, someone came to me who was passed over for a promotion, though he deserved one. He had never been in any form of psychotherapy. He didn’t want to analyze his personality. What he wanted was to be empowered to fight this at work. He wanted to get clarity on the situation, which is something we did in journeys and divination. Then he wanted to act with self-confidence and integrity, which is something we did via several power restoration techniques. There’s more of a spiritual choreography going on than a mental dissection of the nature of your character and the dynamics of your circumstances.

EW: Do the problems people come with run the gamut?

LG: Absolutely. However, I do not work with people who’d be classified by Western medicine as psychotic. That’s a difference between me and tribal shamans, because they don’t make the distinction between neurotic and psychotic. In shamanism, there are people who are suffering and people who are not. All forms of suffering and “disease” are diagnosed as powerlessness. The remedy in all cases, no matter what the particular ritual or shamanic act, is to regain power for the patient by restoring a vital soul, retrieving a guardian spirit, or instructing in ceremonial practices that return power.

EW: What are the limitations, if any, of this kind of counseling? Whom can you not help?

LG: I think that the shamanic journey is more difficult for that small percentage of the population that can’t visualize. I have worked with a few people where we just used voices, which also has a historical precedent in shamanism. It is much harder to have a vision—to “see” what you need to be doing—if you have no ability to visualize. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that we are not discussing ordinary seeing or “fantasizing.”

EW: Isn’t your work also more difficult in a city when you’re trying to help people reconnect to the earth?

LG: More difficult and all the more needed. The people who live here are also the ones who are making the decisions that can destroy the environment, so they’ve got to be reminded. That’s why I have them acquire plants as helpers. For many of them going to Golden Gate Park may be the closest they’ve gotten to earth, grass, and trees in a long time. Look at that [she points toward the financial district of San Francisco]—it’s a canyon of cement down there. People can spend years and not come in as much contact with nature as when I send them out on walks for three or four hours. I instruct them to wait until they feel a particular plant beckon to them, then study it—how it comes out of the ground, how the roots arise, whether or not it has flowers, how transparent the leaves are—pick it, and leave something like a trade bead or a pinch of tobacco in the place where they took the plant, apologizing to the earth and explaining that it’s going to be used for healing purposes. I also have them work with the plant in journeys to find out its spirit helper nature.

People come to me originally because they’re suffering, but what happens is that once they start to get better, shamanism carries with it other things—a respect for what’s here, for the earth and animals. Once you’ve gotten a certain animal as your personal guardian and it is giving you advice, connecting you with its qualities and medicine ways, it’s hard to go back to seeing animals as lowly beasts.

EW: You work with this tape deck, all these bones and feathers, a rattle and drum. Is there a particular purpose to each item?

LG: Yes. If I’m retrieving a power animal, there are certain things I do with rattles. But, fundamentally, what I do is get people set up with the technology of journeying that they can use anywhere. I use a tape recorder and a tape of drumming with earphones, all of which are portable. You can even use a Walkman. With it, you can be at work and have a decision you need to make, shut the door to your office, lie down on the floor or sit in a chair, close your eyes, turn on the tape to trigger an altered state, and get the answer to a problem.

EW: Very practical. The kind of thing people need every day.

LG: Absolutely. This is a problem-solving tool, and it always has been, by the way. Shamanism has never been a rote practice. It was always used in response to crisis. At a period of low technology, people maximized their consciousness alteration for mind-body healing and for problem solving.

EW: Of what value is shamanism to contemporary society?

LG: Tremendous value. First of all, I mentioned before that shamanism evolved as a response to crisis. Contemporary urban life in particular has become an ongoing emergency. Everything happens so fast and you must make decisions instantaneously. Shamanism is a very quick way of using consciousness, which is not bound by time or space, so you can have immediate access to deeper wisdom and include it in your decision-making process. Much about contemporary life tends to rob people of their autonomy. Once you begin to make the decisions in your life based on what spirit says and refuse to turn to any other source—what your family, the government, Leslie Gray, or a book says—there’s an unshakable quality that begins to play itself out in your life. I don’t think it’s so important that we make right decisions all the time, since we are always going to make some mistakes. I think it’s more important that we are our own resource in making them. Shamanism nurtures or strengthens our reliance on a source of integrity in problem-solving.

Also, I don’t care if you’re Indian, white, black, yellow or what religion you are, we all have to remember our connectedness to the earth. If we don’t do that quickly, it’s going to fall on our heads. Shamanism is earth-rooted, so essentially human, it doesn’t try to get beyond itself. It’s not abstracted. So I think shamanism is very relevant for the predicament we’ve gotten ourselves into as a species and as individuals, because most of our personal problems have very much to do with alienation; we have forgotten where we come from and we’ve gotten out in front of ourselves.

EW: What do you mean by that?

LG: I once heard a shaman say, “Don’t ever get out in front of your medicine.” It means stay with your feet on the earth no matter how powerfully your spirit has learned to soar.

EW: Do you have an overall vision of your work and where you’re going with it?

LG: One of the things about my kind of work is that I can see myself doing it as a very old person. It’s also work that can only get better as you get white hair and wrinkles. With most things in modern America, you become obsolete as you lose your youth, looks, or physical strength. None of that applies to this work. It can only be enhanced by age and experience.



“Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth, and Empowerment” compiled & edited by Gary Doore, Shambhala, 1988.

“The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing” by Michael Harner, Bantam, 1980.

“Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine” by Jeanne Achterberg, Shambhala, 1985.

“The Realms of Healing” by Stanley Krippner and Alberto Villoldo, 3rd ed., Celestial Arts, 1986.

Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives, compiled & edited by Joan Halifax, Dutton, 1979.

Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Within You, by José and Lena Stevens, Avon, 1988.

Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism, edited by Timothy White, Cross-Cultural Shamanism Network, P. O. Box 2636, Berkeley, CA 94702. Published quarterly. For subscriptions, $15 yearly, P. O. Box 16507, North Hollywood, CA 91615.


Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Dr. Michael Harner, president, Box 670, Belden Station, Norwalk, CT 06852; (203) 454-2825. Workshops, newsletter, other information on shamanism worldwide.

Ruth-Inge Heinze has been organizing and monitoring the International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternate Modes of Healing each year on Labor Day weekend at the St. Sabina Center, San Rafael, CA. For information on the next conference, and also the proceedings of the previous conferences (available in book form), contact Dr. Heinze at 2321 Russell, #3A, Berkeley, CA 94705; (415) 849-3791.

For information on counseling and workshops with Leslie Gray, e-mail your query to her.

Mirka Knaster is a contributing editor for East West. This article first appeared in the June 1989 issue of that publication.