Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology


An interview with Dr. Leslie Gray

Leslie Gray is an ecopsychologist with unique qualifications- after completing her doctoral training in psychology she went on to study for ten years with native shamans, medicine people and folk healers. Building upon this rich background, Gray has created a form of shamanism specifically tailored to modern urban settings, a practice she calls shamanic counseling. In this interview, conducted by journalist, Pamela Sloane, Gray describes her shamanic worldview that guides her work and presents two fascinating case histories that illustrate several of the unusual techniques she employs. She also speaks to the promising but challenging issues that surround the cross-fertilization of ecopsychology and shamanism: Can ecopsychology legitimately trace its roots to shamanism? What alternatives to to “talking cures” does shamanism offer ecopsychology? And finally, how can nonnative ecopsychologists approach native peoples to learn abut shamanism without abusing this ancient wisdom tradition-or the people who have kept it alive and vibrant for thousands of years?

SLOANE: What is ecopsychology?

GRAY: Ecopsychology is an emerging field that recognizes that you cannot have sanity without sane relationships with your environment. Currently in the U.S., groups of cutting-edge thinkers have been participating in dialogues aimed at the creation of a new profession combining sensitivity of the psychotherapist with the expertise of the environmentalist.

SLOANE: Is there a practice that accompanies ecopsychology or is it a body of thought?

GRAY: Right now, it’s mainly a body of thought, but fortunately, those who are forging this new field will not have to reinvent the wheel. We have only to look at the cross-cultural practices of perennial shamanism to find effective models of applied ecopsychology.

SLOANE: What do you mean by perennial shamanism?

GRAY: Shamanism is the oldest form of mind/body healing known to humankind. It involves the use of altered states of consciousness for the purpose of restoring well-being to those who are experiencing ill-health or helplessness. Shamanism is estimated by archeologists to be at least forty thousand years old. It’s been practiced perennially -or continuously-by virtually all indigenous peoples up to today. Only in the West were its practices essentially eradicated, because of the so-called Enlightenment.

SLOANE: How does shamanism relate to ecopsychology?

GRAY: The worldview of shamanism is that health equals balanced relationships with all living things. When someone is ill, shamanism attempts to restore power to them by putting them back in harmony with life. This idea that all things are connected, while a very ancient concept, is also a concept for the future. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, as we teeter on the brink of global catastrophe, it is precisely a shamanistic worldview that is our greatest hope.

SLOANE: So ecopsychology has its roots in shamanism?

GRAY: Definitely.

SLOANE: And this means that shamanistic techniques can be brought from traditional practice to contemporary application?

GRAY: Yes, exactly so. These practices have been used continuously, and are still in use today, by indigenous peoples all over the world. Shamanism provides a great inheritance for ecopsychology in terms of practical application. Emerging ecotherapies can look to shamanism for techniques to use clinically with individuals and with groups.

SLOANE: How does shamanistic healing contrast with Western psychotherapy?

GRAY: Western psychotherapy relies on analysis, interpretation and understanding. As opposed to the “talking cure”, shamanism seeks to change human behavior through techniques of personal empowerment.

SLOANE: You describe your work as “shamanic counseling”, a term you are credited with originating. What is shamanic counseling?

GRAY: After I got my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I spent ten years studying with native shamans, medicine people and folk healers. I then created “shamanic counseling”, which was my attempt to blend the best of my education in Euro-American psychology with what I had learned from my elders. In large measure it has amounted to using an urban clinical setting to encase the techniques of shamanism. In other words, I meet with people in an office, we meet by appointment, and I don’t get paid in chickens. Most of the focus of the work is on the use of sonic driving-drumming, rattling and chanting-to enable the client to solve problems with more than their ordinary thinking 

SLOANE: What traditional techniques do you use in shamanic counseling. 

GRAY: I apply various techniques, when fitting. Not everything from shamanism is appropriate to contemporary situations. For instance, a lot of traditional shamanism really is done with your extended family -maybe even the whole family-involved, and that’s neither practical nor efficacious in urban-industrial society. But there are certain things, especially the quintessential undertaking of a “journey” to consult with spirits, that are highly adaptable to nontraditional settings. Making allies with the things in the natural world around us; talking to the stone people; acquiring an animal as a guardian spirit; soul retrievals-these are just some of the core shamanic practices that can be done with an individual client in an office in an urban environment. Also, shamanic counseling tends to motivate people to get into nature more and away from an exclusively urban environment. City and suburban people get into ruts. It isn’t that they don’t have access to wilderness areas; right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, it’s easy to get to some spectacular beaches, some nature preserves, and some huge urban parks. Yet people get into a kind of urban rut, where they dont ever get out of the urban out of the city. Shamanic counseling inspires them to explore their environment. They even start seeing the connection between the city and the nature that’s around them.

SLOANE: Your training is strongly in the Western tradition, and we can all appreciate the work required to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. What caused you to break from that rigorous formal schooling and devote your practice to shamanic counseling?

GRAY: Ironically, the break, as you call it, started at the beginning of my training in Euro-American psychology. My very first semester I read a book called “The Discovery of the Unconscious: The Origins of Dynamic Psychiatry, by Henri F. Ellenberger, which purported to trace psychiatry from shamanism to mesmerism to hypnotism to Freud. As I was reading Ellenberger, it struck me that we had gone in the wrong direction, that what was being depicted as “progress” was deevolution rather than evolution. That’s when my interest in shamanism began. In that same first semester, in my research methodology class, when they asked what people wanted to do, I said I wanted to give Rorschachs to to Eskimo shamans. It was immediately made clear to me that this was not an appropriate project for a graduate student in clinical psychology. So I submerged it; I went underground. I really began going to two schools at the same time. I studied everything about shamanism I could get my hands on.. I spent a lot of time in the anthropology library; I rented anthropological films on shamans; I talked to everyone who could tell me about shamans. While all this was going on, I was doing my program in clinical psychology. In my last couple of years of graduate school I ventured out to meet some shamans for the first time and learn from them directly. So, I was really living a double life throughout my Eurocentric training. Ultimately, what occurred was not a break but a synthesis. What changed was my bringing these two approaches together in a way that worked for me, indeed, in a way that embodied my personal experience. In all honesty, I did not start out with the intent to practice shamanism myself; I simply was fascinated by it. After I had spent a good deal of time with several Native American shamans, I came to admire them. It seemed to me that their primal therapeutics were more powerful and effective than what I was learning in graduate school. But it still hadn’t occurred to me to practice these methods myself.

But it wasn’t until a life-changing vision turned me around that I first felt what could be described as a call to do shamanism. In this vision, I was sitting on a rock in a body of water. I looked down at the water and realized that there were roiling snakes everywhere. One huge dragon-like snake rose up and crunched my bones and chewed me up and spat me onto the rock in the shape of the four directions. As this happened, I felt myself rising. I looked around and saw vivid magenta and orange colors, like a sunset or sunrise. I realized that I was seeing a sky above and a sky below, and it was the Great Spirit. All of a sudden, inexplicably, I changed my mind and decided to come back down. When I did, I found myself sitting on the rock looking back out into the magenta and orange, only now I was dressed in buckskin and I had a snake necklace around my neck and a snake belt around my waist. I felt peaceful. I got up and walked back down the mountain in perfect balance, step by step by step. The minute I had that vision I knew that I was supposed to practice shamanism.

SLOANE: What influence did your own heritage as a Native American have on your development of shamanic counseling?

GRAY: My heritage is one of the reasons that I so instantaneously saw the power of the shamans described in The Discovery of the Unconscious. I think many people of nonnative background may have looked upon Ellenberger’s reports of shamanic healings as “primitive”. Also, many readers of the book may have carried with them the stereotype of Indians as a “vanishing race”. That perspective can blind one to the contemporary relevance of Native American psychology, and also blind one to opportunities to encounter Indian shamans.

SLOANE: Can you give us a case history from your shamanic healing practice?

GRAY: Sure. I’ll change the name of the client and any revealing details for the sake of privacy. “Roy” came to me for “vocational counseling plus”, as he called it. He had recently quit a well-paying job because it was not fulfilling. Over the past ten years he had developed a pattern in which he would work in business or government for a year or two, get fed up with the superficiality, quit, then enroll in an alternative educational institution to study eastern religion, new psychotherapies, or bodywork-studies that he regarded as having “relevance and depth”. However, after only six months or a year he would decide that school was not hard-nosed or practical enough, and he would leave and return to business. Consequently, after ten years he had neither earned a degree nor stayed with a job long enough to achieve “success.”

When I saw him he complained of feeling “stuck” or “paralyzed”. He felt their was nothing for him either in business or in school. I asked him if he would be willing to try a traditional method of “rock-seeing” in order to resolve his dilemma. He agreed, and I instructed him to go out into nature and let a rock find him. I told him to remember exactly where the rock was located, because he would return it to that spot and thank it for its help after we had used it. When he brought the rock to our next session, we asked it if Roy should enroll in school or if he should return to the business world. I told Roy to pose his question to each of the four sides of the rock. He was to gaze at each side and see as many images as he could on its surface. He was then to ask himself what the rock could be telling him with the particular images about the answer to the question. In the end, we pooled all the images from all four sides of the rock to get the answer to the question. As a result of the rock divination, Roy decided to become a property manager by day and to go to school at night, and he no longer felt pulled in irreconcilable directions.

SLOANE: In terms of contemporary Western psychology, would you say Roy was projecting aspects of his inner life onto the rock and then allowing himself to “see” what he was actually projecting?

GRAY: That’s one theory. There are many theories, and one can entertain them all simultaneously. An indigenous person might see this rock divination as one of the stone people coming as an ally to a person seeking help. The language of the rock is its ability to show the seeker images; that’s how rocks talk to you. Rocks don't use ordinary human speech, but if we can pay attention to their language, they can actually help us solve problems by giving us gifts of information. The imagery Roy got out of his interaction with the rock fused apparently disparate things. For example, he saw fiery water, solid air, soundless thunder. These gifts of information shifted his capacity to problem-solve into a unified realm where he overcame what he was experiencing as a paradox, that is, the tugging in opposite directions, one toward business and the other toward healing. The key point here is that we native people experience such healing images as a gift from the rock, and we express gratitude. What Western psychology has done with the so-called projective principle is to diagnose and categorize people- not to directly heal people. I personally prefer to talk about the stone people caring about human beings and being willing to sacrifice their energy to help us live here on earth, and I am grateful that they are willing to do that.

SLOANE: Do you have another example?

GRAY: Okay. “Andrew” was a young man who had recently become an aide in the psychiatric unit of a large hospital. He was feeling overwhelmed, less by his work, he said, than by his relationships with other staff. In several months he had made no friends on staff. He felt his lack of training was glaring in their eyes, and he feared that some wanted to expose him as incompetent. He described the problem, nonetheless, as primarily due to his own lack of self-confidence. He complained that his exaggerated deference to superiors, his stammering, excuse-making manner, as well as his interpersonal withdrawal from others, were the main contributors, yet he felt helpless to stop these behaviors.

I informed him that the shamanic diagnosis of his situation would be one of power loss and that the remedy was tyhe restoration of a guardian spirit, in the form of a power animal that I would retrieve from the other world and blow into him. The next time I saw Andrew, he had performed a simple purification procedure of fanning himself with sage smoke and fasting lightly for twenty-four hours. When he arrived at my office, I put us both into an altered state of consciousness via a tape of drumming. I came back from my “journey” and blew the spirit of a mountain lion into Andrew. He in turn reported that on his journey he had felt like a cat, and he was surprised at the coincidence. I then instructed him to go out into nature and dance his animal.

Two weeks later I saw him, and he reported a remarkable change at work. People seemed to be acting friendly toward him, and he had joined a staff support group. Most important, he no longer felt afraid of his co-workers and was confident enough to express his thoughts and feelings to them. After our last meeting, he had gone to a local nature preserve to dance his newly acquired mountain lion spirit. He had just begun to dance; shaking his rattle, he had leapt upon a rock. At the moment he landed he found himself staring into the yellow eyes of a mountain lion that inhabited the preserve. He was astonished and froze on the spot. The lion locked eyes with him for several minutes. Andrew said he knew at once that this was a profound affirmation from his guardian, and following that experience he felt a surge of well-being that positively affected every area of his life, especially his work.

SLOANE: Would you compare Andrew’s experience with “creative visualization” technique used by contemporary psychotherapists?

GRAY: Andrew did not “create” a mountain lion guardian. I journeyed for him to another realm and looked for a power animal that would be willing to come back and be of assistance to him in the form of a guardian or ally or helper. I altered my state of consciousness, and I brought that willing spirit animal back for him. It is often said of shamanism that “the doctor takes the medicine to cure the patient.”

SLOANE: Is a shamanic journey a guided visualization?

GRAY: Absolutely not. A minimal framework is provided for the journeyer. Then the drum is in charge of transporting the journey to another realm, where the visionary experience occurs. The content of experience is neither described nor suggested by me. It comes entirely as an interaction of that person with spirit.

SLOANE: A lot of people will be looking to make equivalents between shamanic counseling and current practices.

GRAY: Well, they’re not the same. One of the biggest things missing from mainstream psychology is spirit. For example, “guided imagery” is not about spirit. It’s a psychological technique employing visualization, and it’s essentially practiced upon a patient by a psychotherapist. Shamanic journeys are an interaction, a direct link, between the patient and spirit. So the real shamqanic counselor is the power animal.

SLOANE: Is there a central theme in the case histories you just gave us?

GRAY: I’d say that synchronicity is s consistent theme. In shamanism, synchronous experience is considered a sign of health and the lack of synchronicity a sign of deterioration. Notice that it is after “meaningful coincidences” -Roy’s resolved paradoxical images and Andrew’s encounter with the mountain lion- that these clients began to feel congruent. In shamanism, when you feel congruent with you life, you’ve been restored to personal power. This stands in contrast to conventional Eurocentric psychotherapy in which, when you understand your life, you are cured of a mental disorder.

SLOANE: From the case histories, it appears shamanic and contemporary practices can effectively be merged.

GRAY: That is precisely what the new ecotherapy (applied ecopsychology) will be- that very merging. It may not involve incorporation of all the specific techniques of shamanism. It may be primarily the inclusion of the worldview of shamanism – that health is defined as a balanced relationship with your habitat, your ecosystem. This kind of relating empowers you as well as the ecosystem, so that both remain sustainable by generating aliveness in each other. There’s an old Chuckchee shaman saying. “Everything that is, is alive.” Indigenous peoples belive that you have to do your part to keep the earth alive, i.e., you must have reciprocal relations with the environment. You tend the natural world, and it in turn empowers you alnd gives you energy and health.

SLOANE: How can nonindigenous ecopsychologists approach indigenous peoples in order to learn more about their healing connection with the earth?

GRAY: Well, I think a little humility is in order. There is a tendency for people in the overculture to presume a lack of sophistication among those who don’t rely heavily on industrial methods. So if ecopsychologists honor the fact that they have a great deal to learn from primal people, they will be getting off to a good start. First show respect, and then really listen. I don’t recommend running around Indian reservations looking for enlightenment. Pitch in first and ask how you can serve their needs as they define them.

SLOANE: As ecopsychology emerges, in what ways can practitioners give back to indigenous peoples for their significant contributions to our working knowledge of healing?

GRAY: Those who would seek to learn might first roll up their sleeves and ask how they can help. There is so much work that needs to be done. Native communities are plagued by high rates of teenage suicide, infant mortality, and unemployment, by environmental assault by business and government, and on and on. When business wants to dump toxic waste on reservations, or when the government decides to use the air-space over reservations for fighter pilot practice, ecopsychologists should support the struggles for native survival and native sovereignty. The truth is that we are all in this together, that none of us will survive unless the industrialized, militarized societies control their appetities and begin to identify with all the people on this Earth.

SLOANE: What pitfalls do you see in the development of ecopsychology?

GRAY: I think there is a danger that ecopsychology might lapse into trying merely to combine environmentalism with academic psychology. If that happens it will recreate the very problems it is trying to solve. It will end up, for example, with a tacit Newtonian dualism between that which is alive and that which is not, between living beings and “its”. I would posit that the primary reason indigenous cultures have been able to have sustainable relationships with the Earth is that they do not turn the Earth into an it from which they are separate. Also, unlike perennial shamanism – which in this regard fits hand in glove with the understanding of contemporary physics -ecopsychology might fail to acknowledge that we are inextricably intertwined with that which we study. In other words, mainstream psychology itself must change if it is to make a contribution to ecopsychology. It must free itself from its own outdated model.

SLOANE: What is your parting thought regarding the relation of our shamanic heritage and ecopsychology?

GRAY: We’ve had more than forty thousand years of shamanic experimentation about how to live healthily on this earth. There are many models of sustainable indigenous societies. There are no models of sustainable industrial societies. It would be tragic to waste this accumulated knowledge, and it would be redundant for ecopsychology to generate models of a sustainable future without learning from the way of life of the more than 300 million indigenous people living in the world today.

Ecopsychology: Restoring The Earth Healing The Mind

Edited by Theodore Rozak,
Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner
pp. 172-182
Sierra Club Books 1995