Shamanism Q&A: Interview with Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.
Posted to Soul Lab Media on July 16, 2009
By Jennifer Robenalt

I recently read Waiting for Autumn, a novel by Daily Om co-founder Scott Blum based on his own spiritual journey which included a number of shamanic healing practices. I interviewed him for Soul Lab Radio and I was intrigued by his description of soul retrieval and other mystical modalities–bringing the ancient into modern day. So much so that I looked up a shamanic practitioner here in Austin. Turns out I’ve known Gerry for several months and never quite knew exactly what he practiced. Until now. While originally thought I might share what would happen to me in a couple of sessions, I quickly relaized that it’s a very individual process and must be experienced to be understood. But at least I had a frame of reference to ask a few questions for this installment of Well-being Q&A.

Gerry began his career journey in 1977 when, after earning a M.Ed. in School Psychology, he became a counselor working primarily with young adult male schizophrenics and young people at serious risk for self-injury and elopement. Under the direction and on-going training of psychiatrists and psychologists, he witnessed the effects of both the standard medical model of treatment, as well as the new models of holistic medicine then emerging. Something within him began to question the concept of healing.

The thirty years since then have been something of a quest, as he has explored ways to manifest his conviction that there was, in fact, a mode of healing that could address the needs of Western society on a level that was accessible to everyone. Trusting his intuition to guide him, he found himself following a serpentine route that lead him through many teachings and traditions. Along the way he began to sense that however different they might seem, they shared a common organic connection or grounding.
Read more of Gerry’s bio here

SL: What is contemporary shamanism, and how did you become involved in it?

Shamanic practice dates back thousands of years and is found everywhere on the planet. Virtually every primary level culture known has one or more individuals to whom they look for spiritual guidance and healing, though they are called by many names. The term “shaman” has it’s origins in the Turkic language. It was picked up by anthropologists who were studying the practices and needed a common term of reference, but no one really know what the word itself means.

Contemporary shamanism refers to the recognition of the power and effectiveness of these ancient practices, plus the need to reframe them into a social and spiritual context that is more relevant to our lives today. Most of us do not live as close to nature and the land as humans used to, or as primary level cultures do today. We have become “industrialized,” and now live quite separated from these roots.

For many of us, our belief systems no longer fully support an indigenous world view. We have been socialized quite differently. Often our connection to the spirit realm is tentative, since we have been told from an early age that “spirit beings” are not real, but “only our imagination.” That belief itself lies at the heart of shamanic practice, and having the direct experience of Spirit denigrated, or even vilified, negates — or attempts to — the power and efficacy of shamanic practice.

Now, this is a personal belief. In my view, no one raised in our culture is a shaman, and that includes me. I am a shamanic practitioner. I strive to bring these ancient practices into our current times, being as true as I can to their roots. However, I recognize that I am lacking the lifelong apprenticeship of shamanic training. Being called a shaman is actually rather painful, though I have stopped arguing with people who do. It’s not worth the energy.

Traditionally, shamans are chosen at an early age and taught daily the healing practices and rituals by elder shamans, who were themselves so trained by an elder shaman in a chain that goes far back into prehistory. The apprentice process is crucial because it is “hands on” training under the skilled eye of the teacher.

This is not to say that training programs are of little or no value. Clearly this is not the case. I know many very effective practitioners. I simply believe that the term should be reserved for those who have walked the lifelong walk, and have the extensive knowledge and power to show for it.

For me, having truly, deeply rooted shamans among us is another thread that we lost as we became “civilized,” and we have had to recover what we can and adapt it to our various global cultures.

My own history in healing began about 30 years ago within traditional medical and psychological practices in a controlled residential treatment program. Working under the supervision of both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, I saw first-hand that both of these therapeutic strategies, even combined, left a lot to be desired. Most of the patients I worked with really never got better; and those that did manage to leave the program to live in a less structured half-way environment eventually either returned or simply vanished over time.

I knew there had to be something better. I studied all kinds of healing practices, focusing primarily on spiritual and energy techniques for many years. Through all of that, I never really had any overarching “structure” within which to organize and understand how they fit together.

Then sometime in the mid-1990s, I encountered something called “shamanism.” As I learned more about it, I realized that it was a broad enough world view for everything to fit into. The more I learn, the more I understand that shamanic practice has the potential for real, deep healing.

SL: What are some little known facts or even misconceptions about who shamans are and what they do?

To answer this, we need to look at shamans from two perspectives: traditional and contemporary. In indigenous primary level cultures, shamans are the essential link between the tribe and the spirit world, with all that implies. In their role, they keep the tribe and it’s members in balance, which is the definition of healthy. In addition to healing and according to the power they hold, they may perform spiritual and cultural rituals such as marriages, selection of key leaders, negotiations between tribes, and so on.

In pursuit of this, they also are the keepers of vast knowledge about everything from the seasons and weather, to the properties of the plants in their locale, to what we would refer to as the psychology of belief, interpersonal psychology, and group dynamics. If anything needs attention, from interfamily conflicts, to weather, to individual healing, it is the shaman the tribe turns to.

In our EuroAmerican culture, things are quite different. Not only have we separated ourselves from indigenous lifestyle and views, we range in a global context and traverse multicultural landscapes. I cannot speak for all shamanic practitioners, but it seems to me that we have two major functions: to heal and to teach. Healing is still about restoring and maintaining balance of body, mind, and spirit, of course, yet teaching others how to heal themselves is also important.

My healing work is also directed to helping the person understand how they can themselves take part in an ongoing process of connection with their own inner wisdom, their Spirit. And all of the teaching work I do — including journey circles, classes, workshops, and apprenticeship — is about how to establish and maintain a personal and ongoing relationship with Spirit, which is, of course, healing.

We do perform a variety of social rituals as well as spiritual, and some practitioners I know have worked as guides or consultants with community and governmental organizations. Yet, these are not key functions and practitioners do not have the authority seen in traditional tribal societies.

SL: Who seeks the services of a shaman and why?

I don’t know if there are any limits as to who might seek assistance from a shamanic practitioner. I’ve worked with people of a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Some already are familiar with shamanic practices, some because of their cultural backgrounds, while many are new to them.

I work with a colleague who specializes in severe trauma. We have worked together with veterans to treat war trauma, combining shamanic and traditional treatment approaches. Now, we are expanding that program to work with sexual trauma, as well.

People often seek assistance when they feel something is “missing” from their lives, even though they don’t know what it might be. Some are simply unhappy with how their lives are going, feeling unfulfilled or lost. Some also have medical or physical problems, which shamans think of as physical manifestations of spiritual imbalance.

So far, I see that just about anyone with an open mind, curiosity, and serious willingness to try alternative options can benefit from shamanic healing work. You may notice that I don’t include “belief” in that list. Interestingly, it appears that you don’t have to believe in the practices for them to work. They just do. That’s why they are still practiced after many thousands of years.

Shamanic practice is very practical. The techniques either work or they don’t. If they work, they are continued and improved; if not, they are dropped. If the shaman is effective, he or she continues to serve the community; if not, the community finds another one who is.

SL: You work with several different healing and teaching modalities as part of your work. What are they and can you describe what happens in a session?

What happens in a session with me depends on what shows up during the opening discussion. Sometimes people come with an assumption about what they want, but Spirit may have something else in mind for them. Somewhere along the way it becomes clear what is needed in the moment, and that’s where we go.

I use three core practices in a session: energy healing, soul retrieval, and curse healing (or extraction). However, the key of shamanic work is not the technique. The practitioner must be able to let go of self-importance and become a “hollow bone” for Spirit to work through. It is Spirit that does the work, not the practitioner.

Shamanic practices address all the realms: body, mind/emotions, soul, and spirit. They can be envisioned as four “bodies”, one nested inside the other, with the body being the most dense vibration and connection with Spirit being the highest vibration and most subtle.

From a shamanic perspective, all illnesses and disharmonies begin in the energetic realms and become more dense if not addressed, eventually to manifest in the physical body. So we work “from the outside in.” My work primarily addresses the more subtle, energetic realms to the level of mind/emotion. In cases that have a physical component, I work with physicians or other body workers and herbalists because I don’t personally know all I need to about those disciplines.

Energy healing techniques vary greatly, but essentially they have to do with finding holes and misalignments in the person’s energy field. Holes are gaps in the energy field or energy body, through which a person “leaks” energy or by which others can gain access, usually by way of curses and hooks. Sealing and healing these holes is therefore an important part of self-protection and empowerment.

Often I work with what is known as the chakras, clearing stuck and dense energies to get the energy body flowing properly again. Our way of life tends to clog things up substantially. When the chakras slow down, so to speak, and sometimes stop functioning altogether, the person can experience sometimes severe physical manifestations.

Soul Retrieval is a core shamanic practice. Shamans consider soul loss to be a significant reason for just about any illness in any of the four realms. Beliefs about soul loss vary by culture, of course. From what I have seen, any time that we encounter power and lose, we lose a piece of our soul. This is from early childhood — even birth — through adulthood, so you can see that by the time we reach what we consider “mid life,” we have lost a lot of our original wholeness.

Curse healing, or curse extraction as it is sometimes called, refers to the shamanic notion that other people can directly affect our energy field, or spirit in their terms. We curse each other all the time. Fortunately, we in our contemporary EuroAmerican culture are not very good at it. Every time you have a negative thought about someone, you toss a “dart” at them. Most do not attach. However, if your target has a hole in their energy field that matches that curse, it can go right in.

Again, curses can originate early in life. Every time your parent told you that you were stupid, unlovable, or couldn’t do something, it went into your developing energy field and became a curse. Curses from these early days are generally hidden because they may have become a central part of the personality.

Curse healing locates and removes curses, hooks, and lines. The remaining holes and energetic damage are then repaired. Sometimes the curse comes with a story of how it was put in or what it was, sometimes not.

Finally, shamanic work is not confined in time and space, and so we find that some soul parts can be lost and curses implanted from previous lives. But that is a bigger discussion.

SL: What are spirit animals, and does everyone have one? What do our spirit animals do?

Spirit is always communicating with us, though we usually have so much going on in our minds that we can’t hear. Spirit also doesn’t necessarily speak in our native language, most usually sending messages in the form of symbols. Humans have had a long-standing relationship with animals, both as helpers and as part of the food chain. So, to me, it is natural that Spirit would speak to us using spirit animals (or power animals) as the medium.

Now, spirit animals are not just symbolic representations or psychological archetypes. From a shamanic perspective, spirit animals are as real as we are. They may appear to us in a variety of guises, but all-in-all, they are Spirit emerging into the non-ordinary landscape, and sometimes into our everyday experiences, as well.

Generally speaking, there are four “categories” of spirit animals: totems, journey guides, messengers, and shadow animals. I can only touch lightly on them here.

Everyone has a totem animal that, in my view, most closely matches their “vibration.” I have come to know Falcon as mine, and that was a fairly long journey of acceptance. One aspect of the totem is that it is by that particular vibration the person is known in the spirit realms. Another aspect is that by aligning oneself with the totem, one can enhance or better tune personal gifts or traits that might otherwise be undeveloped in one’s personality.

Journey guides are animals that join us when we do shamanic journeys or meditations. We tell the journey guide what we are seeking and let them lead us into an experience in non-ordinary reality that will give us answers, or more likely direction and perspective.

Messenger animals are those that bring a particular message that we need to know or be aware of. They appear in a myriad of forms that are symbolic. When you encounter a messenger animal either in a journey or in ordinary life, their characteristics and what they are doing are important clues to their message.

One afternoon not too long ago, I was in my back yard walking to the shed. A grackle was perched on a tree limb just a few feet in front and above me, making a terrific racket so loudly that I had to look up. Just beside him was a really large limb that had broken from the tree and was suspended in a net of other limbs, but ready to fall directly on my path. As soon as I noticed this, the grackle quieted. I thanked him for his warning and pulled the limb safely down. He then flew away.

Here is a very simple and fun practice: Every morning as you leave your home for the first time, take just a minute or two and pay attention to the first living thing (animal, insect, or even plant) that catches your attention. Take that as your messenger spirit for the day and let it give you guidance or perspective on your experiences that day. You may be surprised how remarkably this can unfold with practice.

The shadow animal is a darker aspect of work with spirit animals. In shamanic journeys, you may encounter a frightening creature that you might also be afraid of in everyday life. By working with the shadow animal, you will discover that it holds a secret for you that is so powerful that you need to prove worthy of its being revealed. Shadow animal journeys are really fascinating expressions of the quest for wholeness and power.

Again, from a shamanic perspective, these are not theoretical psychological constructs but real denizens of the spirit realms. It is important to be respectful and appreciative in order to develop a good, solid relationship with them.

SL: You essentially help people reconnect to the spiritiual in everyday life. How do people’s lives change as a result of your work?

I believe that if we can infuse our everyday life and experience with spirit, we will naturally become more whole and more connected with that huge context that we call Nature. If we can stop compartmentalizing family from work, from spiritual practice, from parenting, from play, and so on, we will become stronger and feel more fulfilled moment by moment.

When we cut ourselves off from Source, by whatever name you call it, we become weak in body, mind, and soul. We become disconnected from what gives us joy and strength. Engaging daily or as often as we can with the shamanic world view can break the chain that keeps us tied down and that ultimately may lead to our destruction. And I am referring to both our personal destruction and that of our civilization.

I have seen people go from literally having nothing to being fairly successful by holding hands with Spirit as best they could from day to day, learning to clear themselves and fly. I have also seen fairly powerful healers really grow when they added shamanic healing practices to their work. I have seen people heal quickly when soul parts are returned or curses removed, though sometimes it can take a while. People seem to gain clarity where there was cloudiness, guidance when they are adrift.

You can say this is true about any conscientiously applied spiritual practice, and that would be accurate. Shamanism is one form of spiritual practice, and there are others! From what I have seen, all spiritual practices are pointed at the same ultimate result: to recognize our connection to that which is greater than we are.

We are free to choose what works best for us. I can only say for myself that I have not found anything that offers the expansive perspective that so easily incorporates all of my life experiences and learnings.

I see more people being curious about alternative spiritual and healing practices like shamanism. I think this is because they really do work and they are accessible to everyone, no matter what background, creed, or religious belief.

SL: Can you name 4 or 5 books that have greatly influenced you, and that you would like to recommend to our readers?

Here are some resources that I believe can provide really good foundation for shamanic work.

Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice in Everyday Life by Tom Cowan

Shaman, Healer, Sage; The Four Insights; and Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villaldo

Shamanic Journeying by Sandra Ingermann includes a drumming CD

Animal-Speak and Animal-Wise by Ted Andrews

There are many more on the Resources page.

Index of Articles

What is a Shaman?
Excerpt from interview with Martin Prechtel published by Sun Magazine.

Eight Characteristics of Shamanism
Edited by Gerry Starnes

Shamanism Q&A
Interview by Jennifer Robenalt, Soul Lab Media.

Ecstatic Body Postures
Figurines, carvings, and artwork from around the world suggest archetypal ways to produce and enhance ecstatic experience.

Urban Shamanism
How can people live a shamanic experience within the urban environment?

The Bandana: Toward the Within
The use of the bandanna in TranceDance

The Shamanic Journey
The shamanic (drumming) journey has been used for thousands of years for guidance and healing. Excerpt of material by Tom Cowan.

Power Animals & Helping Spirits
What are power animals and how does one work with them?

Spiritual Eldership
The role of Elders in an shamanic cultures can be applied to help save our own.

Copyright © 2005-2016 by Gerry Starnes • All rights reserved.
3004 S. First Street, Austin TX 78704