Shamanism and Ecopsychology


Interview with Leslie Gray

By Cathleen Hodgson and Jill Heine

In preparing this edition of American Spirit, the topic of Shamanism came to mind. I located phone numbers for a few of the practicing Shamans in the local area. This is how I got in touch with Leslie. After talking to her for a few minutes and arranging a time for an interview, it occurred to me that I had participated in a drum journey with her almost ten years ago in a home in the Berkeley Hills. This was in the beginning of my “search for truth.” Wow! So much had happened since then! I remember the journey being a very profound experience, so this made the interview even more meaningful for me. That’s one of the great things about working on this paper. I’ve gotten to meet many people, teachers, authors, etc., that have touched my life in some way and discussing their own lives and realizations with them has been quite a joy.

We did the interview in her San Francisco home on a Sunday morning. Leslie, a Native American Shaman, also holds a Ph.D. in psychology. Her current project is a section in an upcoming book on the subject of ecopsychology. Needless to say, there were many topics explored and we’ve done our best to give a summary of all the things we discussed.

AS: What exactly is Ecopsychology?

Gray: Ecopsychology is an emerging field which recognizes the fact that we cannot have sanity without sane relationships with the environment. At the dawn of the 21st century, this may seem so obvious to us as to be embarrassing. Nevertheless, the field of psychology has largely ignored the most critical issues of our time (and, indeed, the most critical issue humanity has ever faced)—whether life itself on this planet will be sustainable. Regardless of theoretical orientation—psychoanalytic, behavioral or transpersonal—the focus of psychology has remained on human beings and their relations with one another. Ecopsychology is a movement away from speciesism and toward a view of human beings as part of the circle of life. This view turns out to be simultaneously humbling and empowering.

AS: What is the goal of Ecopsychology: How do you work with people in your framework?

Gray: The first immediate goal is to bring together the two fields of ecology and psychology. In particular, it is to bring together what ecological scientists and eco-activists have learned about sustainability with what psychologists know about changing human behavior. Unfortunately, well-intentioned ecologists often don’t know a lot about changing human behavior. For example, they still rely on fear and guilt tactics to get their messages across.

Another goal, insofar as therapeutic treatment is concerned, is to begin working with a model of mental health that includes the natural world. If visitors from another planet were to read the book contemporary mental health practitioners based their treatment plans on—”The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV”—they might conclude we human beings could have a healthy psyche if we were raised entirely in a broom closet—as long as there was a mother and a father inside also. The only reference to nature in the “DSM IV” they would find would be “seasonal affective disorder” or “bestiality.” New writings and research in ecopsychology seek to raise consciousness about this kind of anthropomorphism.

AS: How does a practitioner go about working from an ecopsychology framework?

Gray: The first step in some cases may be for the therapists themselves to get back in touch with nature and perhaps to acknowledge the grief they may be feeling about the destruction of the planet. (This is a process similar to overcoming denial of feelings about nuclear holocaust.) Only after such a process could therapists begin to listen to patients’ concerns in a new way.

I am aware that some therapists are beginning to feel their work is irrelevant. They are encountering analysis-weary patients who are looking instead for a feeling that their actions make a difference in the world. They want their feelings of powerlessness to create positive changes in the world responded to directly rather than reduced to mere reflections of their “inner conflict.” An ecopsychological perspective could supplement and enhance the work of practitioners who feel frustrated in their attempts to address changes in client expectations.

AS: How do you work with patients to help them get back in touch with nature?

Gray: In my practice, which I call “Shamanic Counseling,” I incorporate techniques from earth-based spirituality into the Western modality. These techniques are ancient ways our ancestors had for creating and maintaining in people the experience of being embedded in nature rather than alienated from it.

The roots of my work are primarily in the cross-cultural practices of 40,000 year old shamanism. Shamanism is a set of psycho-spiritual techniques for creating well-being and for problem-solving. The world view of shamanism at some time or another has existed in the indigenous thinking of the inhabitants of every place on Earth and persists among indigenous people today. It is crystallized in an old Chuckchee shaman saying “Everything that is, is alive.”

The treatments are right there existing among the indigenous people today. Therefore, Shamanism offers a spiritual technology. And since Shamanism is not a belief system, one can have whatever belief system one cares to have and use the techniques of Shamanism to re-spiritualize daily life.

AS: What is it that you love about Shamanism?

Gray: That it’s fun. It involves making allies of rocks, plants, animals and spirit. It involves using drumming, rattling and chanting to create altered states of consciousness in order to explore “other worlds.” It involves making or finding power objects and using them for spiritual healing.

I also appreciate that shamanism is the traditional American psychology, and has been effectively employed on this continent for millennia. Euro-American therapists have a great deal to gain by aligning themselves with the native heritage of this land.

AS: What do you believe the American Spirit is?

Gray: The spiritual tradition of this land is one of respect for life, harmony with nature’s cycles, gratitude, balance and, above all, reciprocity. Don’t take anything without giving something back. This translates into a decision-making process that takes into consideration “seven generations before and seven generations to come.” This modus operandi seems to be directly relevant to the question of how to behave in a manner that results in a sustainable future. “Rugged individualism” does not.

I like the name American Spirit because when someone comes to me for counseling, I ask that they bring tobacco. If after the first session they decide they want to work with me and are sincere in their belief that they can benefit from my counseling, they offer the tobacco to me as a gift and a token of their sincerity. If they ask me what kind, I always ask for American Spirit Tobacco. So the name has significance for me.

AS: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Gray: I think it is so important that we all remember that every single culture in the world originated in Shamanism. It is a universal technique for restoring health and coping with the experience of helplessness. And it is available to all of us and it is in all of our roots. You see, Shamanism is about a direct link with spirit, instead of having to depend upon hierarchal state religions, and this makes it a more natural approach to health. In the same way, it is important not to conceive of the emerging field of Ecopsychology as simply the convergence of academic psychology and ecological science because both have left out spirituality.

Leslie Gray can be contacted via e-mail.

“Ecopsychology” is available through Sierra Club Books.