Using Shamanism for Personal Empowerment


An Interview with Leslie Gray

By Larry Peters

Leslie Gray was completing a clinical fellowship at Harvard when two personal crises caused her to reexamine her life. The first was an intellectual questioning of the current academic perspective on the evolution of psychotherapy (which seemed to her more of a deevolution) and the other a physical injury sustained in a car crash that resisted state-of-the-art medical intervention but improved after Gray sought help from a Cherokee shaman. The Boston-born, Los Angeles-bred, and highly educated clinician from Oneida, Powattan, and Seminole lineage asked the Cherokee shaman if she might become his apprentice. The shaman declined and encouraged her instead to complete her education and thereby become a bridge and mediator between the Indian and Euro-American worlds. Dr. Gray completed her studies and thereafter devoted much time to working with Native American healers.

After years of studying their traditional methods, Gray experienced a vision that resolved a critical juncture in her life—a similarity to reports from shamans the world over. The vision directed her to take up shamanic practice. In one account of her calling, she reports journeying to the lower realm where she was devoured by a dragon-like snake, spit out onto a rock altar, and reassembled as a radiant being. On her return, she experienced a fever for two weeks, after which she changed her residence and lifestyle, knowing unequivocally that her life’s work was to integrate shamanism and western psychology into a holistic practice.

Dr. Gray teaches anthropology and psychology at The California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and lectures in the Native American studies department at the University of California at Berkeley. She also conducts workshops and provides individual shamanic counseling.

Dr. Gray does not call herself a shaman, not wishing to convey the impression that she is up in the hills passing out tribal secrets. In its usual context, shamanism takes place in a tribal setting within a shared belief system—a mutually acknowledged spirit world—conditions not present in contemporary urban America. However, like many traditional shamans, Dr. Gray has a pragmatic orientation. She chooses to call the service she provides “shamanic counseling,” combining shamanic techniques within a contemporary counseling environment.

Her counseling room provides stimulation for the senses. Pungent smoke from burning sage purifies and soothes. She sweeps it up and down and leaves it to smoulder in a bowl. Bright colors glint from turquoise and silver Native American jewelry, which is complemented by the bold fabrics of the room’s furnishings. The shaman’s drumming, so important for inducing altered states of consciousness, becomes uniquely personal when heard through stereo headphones that she provides. If set and setting help in creating positive experience, then Leslie Gray has exercised meticulous care and concern to provide clients with an affirmative opportunity.

As with shamans the world over, her techniques provide clients with a “methodology of empowerment” that enables them to solve their own personal crises and dilemmas. Dr. Gray helps them formulate their questions to the spirit, but the answers come from their own spirit guides.

She exudes warm, heartfelt sincerity as she explains that many who consult her suffer from what contemporary psychotherapists call depression and alienation, conditions she refers to as “dispirited,” “disempowered,” and “learned helplessness.” She says the afflictions of our time result from the loss of personal power, of relationship with spirit, and of connection with the Earth, all of which are interdependent.

Psychotherapy is different from shamanic counseling in that the former is primarily involved in reductive analysis and interpretation, which all too often comes from a system external to the person and which may prevent him or her from reaching independent conclusions. Shamanic counseling emphasizes personal empowerment and individual autonomy through the development of a relationship with one’s own guardian spirits.

PETERS: As a shamanic counselor, I’m sure you are aware of the increasing number of people interested in the subject. There is a proliferation of books of shamanism and also of people calling themselves shamans. What books in the field do you recommend?

GRAY: Well, first of all, let me say I think it’s almost more important to avoid books on shamanism than it is to read them. Most of the popular literature on shamanism seems to be throwing people way off. It’s creating biased expectations and, with altered states of consciousness, the “set” and “setting” are determinants of the experience you are going to have. So, on a practical level, when I’m teaching shamanism techniques to groups or individuals, I find that extracurricular reading puts some people at a disadvantage. They see the experience through a grid. Then they have to do some unlearning in order to come naked to the experience. Nevertheless, having said that, the two books I feel are safest at least are Michael Harner’s book, The Way of the Shaman, and Joan Halifax’s Shamanic Voices. In The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner has done an extraordinary thing. He has captured the experience of shamanism without demystifying it, without being reductionistic about its parts, and, at the same time, made it humanly accessible. The main reason I recommend Shamanic Voices is because of the sections of the book where the shamans speak for themselves. You can read how a Siberian shaman, an Australian aborigine shaman, or a Plains Indian shaman describes his or her own experience. By reading the shamans’ own words, you can discover how different practitioners learned to “see”; and you can recognize core elements in their narratives. At the same time, Halifax’s book makes you aware of the beauty of those aspects of shamanic experience that are culture specific.

PETERS: So, what is a shaman?

GRAY: A shaman is a person who enters into an altered state of consciousness at will to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge and power to help other persons.

PETERS: What are the core elements of shamanism?

GRAY: The shamanic journey involves entering into an altered or non-ordinary state of consciousness, often with the help of sonic driving (repetitive drumming, chanting, or rattling). I teach my clients universal shamanic techniques that enable them to have access to information that ordinarily would not be available to them. I show them how to contact rock spirits, plant spirits, guardian ancestor spirits, and/or “power animals.” Compared with their relationship with me, their relationship with their guardian spirit is the most important thing. Through that relationship, they can empower themselves and solve their own problems: find their vocation, work on personal relations, heal their dispiritedness or negativism.

PETERS: From a psychological perspective, would you say these are internal or external experiences?

GRAY: From a shamanic perspective, your question implies a basic assumption of a dichotomy between inner and outer that doesn’t make sense.

PETERS: Well, is it an altered state of consciousness or another reality?

GRAY: I don’t like to use terms that connote something inaccessible or hard to reach. The technology of shamanism, the use of altered states of consciousness for gaining information to empower people’s lives, is fundamentally human. It is a natural capacity we all have. Everyone can be taught the basic methodology. We all have at least one and usually more spirits with whom we can be in relationship. The “altered state” is the means to reach these spirits. One of the essential aspects of shamanism is developing a connection with an ally or guardian spirit who protects and serves. For Native American Indians, these guardians take the form of animals. Power animals accompany us on journeys, protecting us or helping us to heal others.

PETERS: Do you think there are analogies with guided imagery?

GRAY: No! It’s not guided and it’s not imagery. It’s not guided because no guide “talks you through” the experience. And it’s not just visualization because there are meetings or encounters with spirits.

PETERS: Are there analogies to shamanism in transpersonal psychology.

GRAY: There may be some analogies, but the two approaches are certainly not identical. Transpersonal psychologists may use shamanic techniques, just as they use Vipassana meditation techniques. This does not mean that transpersonal psychology, Vipassana meditation, and shamanism are the same thing. They operate in different spheres that sometimes overlap.

PETERS: Are there any comparisons between finding a shaman guru and one in other spiritual traditions?

GRAY: In shamanism, you don’t need a minister, priest, rabbi, or guru telling you what to do. Shamanism is the best method of experiencing spirituality away from dogma, social hierarchy, or binding religious structure. The advantage of shamanism over the so-called higher religions is that one has a direct personal connection with spirit. You don’t need an intermediary. Shamans have “teachers,” but the situation is not one of obedient, loyal disciples receiving precepts from a guru. It’s the spirits that do the teaching. For example, it was spirits who taught Igjugarjuk, the great Caribou Eskimo shaman. He sat alone in an ice hut for thirty days without food and nearly died during his shamanic initiation. “Solitude” and “suffering,” he said, were his great teachers. They alone gave him “knowledge about things that are hidden.”

Certainly some shamans will say you can learn from exposure to an older and wiser person, one who has lived and done the work longer. But they would also tell you that the best teacher is a tree. Just go to a tree. I’ve read accounts of Amazonian initiants who take the drug ayahuasca and allow a tree to teach them. It’s hard to imagine a patriarch of a “higher religion” who would send you out and say, “Nothing I can teach you here in this seminary can approach what you could learn if you spent time in deep communion with the Earth.” The hierarchical religions seek to transcend nature rather than revere it.

I do know of a shaman who was asked if he “meditated.” He responded that there was a tradition in his tribe of sitting under a tree for one whole day and night, just sitting there until one got answers to questions. But his isn’t a rote or repetitive practice to achieve a presumed “state of nirvana.” He does it to get solutions to life dilemmas.

I think it would be strange indeed if shamanism became popularized in the same way that far Eastern religions have been popularized here. Unfortunately I see many sincere Americans taking a basically Anglo-Puritanical orientation toward life while using the terminology of Hinduism or Buddhism. So they end up essentially living as Puritans lived, with colorless decoration, sparse eating, self-denial, judgmentalism, asceticism, et cetera. This seems strange indeed if you’ve ever read some of the crazed Zen masters like Joshu. Joshu would have a great belly laugh watching people struggling to be pure, clean, and holy.

In this country, I think, all too often those who seek alternative spirituality are unconscious of the basically Calvinist ethic that permeates their world view. This then leads them to focus on the rigorous and most stringent practices of, rather than the earthiness and sensuality of, Eastern forms of spirituality. Shamanism is so completely a down-to-earth spirituality that I suspect it will be nearly impossible to use it as a cloak for Anglo-European dualism. But, of course, anything is possible.

I’m not attacking Zen or yoga in any way. But sometimes meanings are lost, and I hope nothing like that ever happens with shamanism. You see, shamanism is colorful, it is earthy, it is sacred, it is fun. That is why it has been called a form of ecstasy 

It is the place where the imminent and the transcendent meet. That’s the best explanation of what shamanism is about in terms of Western Christian semantics. Even that, though, is not really accurate because it assumes a split in the first place.

I once attended a symposium on symbolism and was asked to give examples of symbolism in the Native American tradition. I explained that the eagle is not just a “symbol” of the Great Spirit. The eagle is the Great Spirit. It’s not as if the earth is holy, the earth is holy. It is not some “special dirt” but this dirt, right here under our feet, that is holy. The “holy land” is not way off somewhere in the Middle East or Jerusalem or Bethlehem, but right here where we stand.

A few religiously oriented students who have taken my cross-cultural shamanism class have been dissatisfied with the lack of “lofty” pronouncements. They’ve wanted me to talk about something more grand or more abstract, something higher than personal experience. Of course, I cannot do that because the model of something being better or higher than your personal experience is not a shamanic model. I think they may be mistaking the simple for the simplistic. I’m talking about another whole type of relationship with the world we live in—one based upon identity and nonduality, nothing out of the ordinary. We need a return to horse sense.

PETERS: Uniting the transcendent and the world?

GRAY: Well, the transcendent never left in the first place. However, in the West, the “awareness” of this unity has been lost. And this lost awareness has led the plant to near ruin. As Western society developed technologically, it first divided, then jettisoned, two important things: a connection with earth and a connection with spirit. These two have remained inextricably intertwined in shamanic cultures, such as American Indians or Australian aborigines. Ironically, indigenous people have become keepers of knowledge, which all mankind must relearn, and relearn quickly, or perish from the Earth.