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Uniting Shamanic Healing and Western Medicine

The following article is excerpted from Shamanic Healing: Traditional Medicine for the Modern World by Itzhak Beery, recently published by Inner Traditions.


Uniting Shamanic Healing and Western Medicine

“I have consulted internists, dermatologists, urologists, psychiatrists, and a neurologist regarding the unexplained sensations and associated pains, but no specialist in any of these fields has found any pathology. I believe that I require soul retrieval and an entity extraction.”

So read the e-mail I received, one of many sent by people from all walks of life and professions who have tried conventional medicine without success. Why is it that Western medicine doesn’t have the answers and proper treatments for these people? How is it happening that they are “miraculously” healed by practitioners who are trained to use ancient shamanic healing tools? Something must be fatally wrong in the approach we take to health care in our society. The man who wrote me that e-mail received his answers and was healed in a session. How?

Another client wrote, “I don’t know why I came to see you in the first place. Maybe I was desperate. I tried lawyers, counselors, and the ‘normal’ ways. But nothing happened. After each of our sessions something strange happened. After the first one I found pennies everywhere even in places I could not imagine. After the second session I found dimes everywhere, and after the third I found feathers everywhere. Isn’t it strange? I think there is magic in what you do. Or maybe my awareness became wider and larger? Yes, I feel so different.”

Yes, you could say there is “magic” in traditional shamanic healing. But it only seems like magic in Western society, with its emphasis on rational thinking, scientific proofs, and materialistic consumerism, as we learn to dismiss the metaphysical energy world.


Hit-and-Run Medicine

I coined this phrase to describe allopathic medicine because of its sickbased model, profit-minded assembly line, speed-dating-like, impersonal human interactions, and the use of medicine by trial-and-error methods. I sincerely do not fault the individual doctors and their staffs as they are under so much pressure from the corporations and their shareholders.

Today, those pressures are rapidly growing with the new capability of digital diagnostic methods and robotic surgery, which may make the work that many of these doctors do obsolete.

Fifty-nine percent of all Americans (188 million people) are taking prescription drugs daily, as recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while 15 percent of all Americans take five drugs or more each day. That is astonishing. Isn’t it? Costs and premiums are rising, quality of services are declining. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that 10 percent of Americans are depressed and 18 percent suffer from anxiety. We must and can do better.

The following and surprising story illustrates this point perfectly. One afternoon as I walked into my optometrist’s office, a man I did not recognize came out to greet me. I was confused. When I finally recognized his sparkling blue eyes under his fashionable glasses, he had to help close my gaping jaws. “What happened to you? You lost half your weight?” I finally asked him as I caught my breath. He laughed out loud.

“My health was so bad that my doctor wanted to send me for an emergency kidney transplant. I called my brother, who is an alternative doctor. He persuaded me to try a pricy health clinic program in Arizona. I had nothing to lose so I went. On my first day there my assigned doctor asked me to bring all of my medications. I handed him a bag full of thirty-six different prescription medications that I was taking every day. He smiled and threw the bag into the garbage. ‘You will not need them anymore,’ he said. I was shocked and frightened. ‘I’m going to die here,’ I thought to myself. ‘You see that pole in the middle of this yard? Circle it seven times,’ he said. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I protested. ‘I am 350 pounds. I can hardly walk. I can’t breathe,’ I begged him. ‘Try it,’ he said. So I did. “In just a few weeks my high blood pressure became normal. My diabetes was under control and my kidneys were functioning again; I am pain free and walking three to four miles a day. All without even one pill.” He smiled broadly.

Did your doctor ask you how you are feeling? Where you are from, your emotional state, your lifestyle, your social and cultural beliefs, or what you eat? It’s not his fault. He did not have the time. He was not trained in medical school to show interest in you. You are just a piece of meat with no soul or spirit attached. There are others to attend to, others to bill. Sound familiar?

Scientific? Not really. Allopathic medicine is based on trial-and error research. Mostly we know how the body works but not really why. Like my brain scientist friend who asked, “Can you repeat your shamanic journeys three times with the same accurate results?” “No,” I replied, “because each person is different.” Allopathic medicine may cure or merely mask the symptoms in the afflicted organ while creating unwanted toxic side effects in other organs, which often means that still more medications are needed to treat the side effects, as was so nicely demonstrated by my optometrist’s story.

My friend Ariel told me of an unexpected conversation he had with a high-ranking official in the Ecuadorian government, who is an indigenous Quechua. He told me about his elderly mother who constantly complained about having pains throughout her body. Her shoulders hurt. Her back and legs hurt. She was tired and couldn’t walk well, eat, or sleep. He pulled some strings and arranged for her to visit a well known doctor in a prestigious hospital. The doctor spent five minutes with her, gave her a prescription, and sent her away. He did not take any interest in her. He did not care who she was. He didn’t ask where she was from or how many children she has.

Disappointed, she went back to her local shaman in her little town. The shaman greeted her warmly and showed her into his healing room, which was decorated with pictures of saints and candles. Familiar smells of oils and palo santo filled the air. He called her by her name. He hugged her. He asked her about all the aches and pain and emotional troubles she was having. He asked her about her husband, her children, and grandchildren and asked their names. He listened deeply about her life. She felt loved. She felt she could put her trust in him. The shaman massaged her and performed a healing cleansing ceremony. When she left after two hours, she felt well, hopeful, and pain free. Her heart was happy.”

Is allopathic medicine safer than shamanic healing? Let’s check the statistics. A 2010 Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services study concluded that mistakes and infections in hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year. A recent study of hospital patients in general in the Journal of Patient Safety put the numbers much higher: between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year. Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.

Curious to know why some doctors decided to start practicing shamanic healing, I asked Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Ph.D., from the Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital in Bangor and associate professor, family medicine, University of New England

College of Osteopathic Medicine. Here is what he said:

“Having been a practicing physician in the conventional medical system for forty years now, I can celebrate the successes of conventional medicine, which are largely in the area of trauma. However, our obsession with pharmaceuticals is not as successful as I was led to believe in medical school pharmacology class, especially I have also observed that much that we do, does not work, especially for the common miseries of life.

Of course, benzodiazepines reduce anxiety, but then the person becomes addicted and tolerant, and the drugs increase their risk for dementia, which is also problematic. The other medications are only a bit better than placebo in most randomized, controlled trials. In my conventional work, I see a succession of people requesting “the right” medicine for their anxiety. Most of them have good reason to worry. They are disadvantaged economically, out of work, in and out of relationship crises, and generally existentially insecure. In their shoes, I would worry, too.

A traditional, indigenous healer would probably be much more effective for most of these people. Prayer and ceremony would probably help their anxiety more than fluoxetine and all the other drugs we give them. This is what today’s world needs as an antidote to the greed of Homo economicus: the wisdom of the indigenous world for collaboration, cooperation, mutual support, and respect for all of life. This is what the world’s traditional, indigenous healers are providing people that conventional medicine is not.”

In a personal correspondence, Fred Grover Jr., M.D., F.A.A.F.P.,

A.B.I.H.M., A.B.A.A.R.M., assistant clinical professor, family medicine,

University of Colorado Denver, had even harsher things to say:

“I turned to shamanic healing because my traditional allopathic medicine training in family medicine seemed insufficient in treating the deeper causes of disease and mental illness. Allopathic medicine is a sick-based medicine model. It fails to address the root cause or functional basis of disease. It is treating the smoke, and not the fire.

The insurers are interested in providing the least amount of care for their patients to optimize profits back to the CEO and shareholders.

Health savings accounts (HSA) offer some hope to cover shamanic healing, but the insurance groups are lobbying to cut HSAs down so that we are forced into the more traditional plans that make them money.

My passion is prevention and wellness, and I couldn’t do it with Prozac and Lipitor. I have been blessed with being able to travel the world and explore ancient cultures, see shamans at work, and work with energy medicine healers from many disciplines. This has shifted me energetically and spiritually, which has opened the door to treatment beyond the realms of modern medicine. Being willing to boldly explore shamanistic therapies and trusting in the universe has given me insights that may never be revealed to other physicians. Of course I use a comprehensive history and exam, but adding in intuition has given me a higher degree of accuracy in diagnosis and treatment.

I do hope many will hear their words, and we can move to a more holistic health system.”


The First and Last Breath

There is nothing more telling about the gap between allopathic medicine and shamanic healing than the way they approach the beginning and ending of life. In our intimidating and impersonal hospitals, the pregnant woman is considered sick. She lies in a sterile room and is provided with painkillers to avoid experiencing the pain of birth.

According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 32.2 percent of all women choose to do a costly cesarean section under anesthesia.

Rarely are family members allowed to be present to support her. Once the baby is out, he is taken away, separated from his mother, and fed with sugar water.

Indigenous societies celebrate the newborn’s arrival with welcoming ceremonies. On one of my trips to Brazil’s Rio Negro, I learned about one of those welcoming ceremonies. As our riverboat landed inthe small port of a tiny town on the river, I spotted a small store selling the native arts and craft of the Waimiri-Atroari. One of the items that caught my eyes was a beautiful brown and white woven hammock made of swita, a special strong river grass. I opened it up, and to my surprise there was a big hole in the middle of it. I asked the young, native attendant why the hammock was made this way.

“Oh, this is a birthing hammock,” she giggled as she saw my confused face. “When the woman is ready to give birth, her family hangs this hammock between two trees and digs a deep hole in the earth below. The woman sits in the hammock, positioning her vulva over the hammock opening. When the baby comes out, before they clean him up, he is lowered into the hole to be greeted by Mother Earth first. He is then given to his human mother to be breastfed. Then her nutrient-rich placenta is buried in the pit, connecting the two mothers and enriching the earth.” During all of this, a group of women celebrate the arrival of the new member of the community. What a remarkable difference.

There is also a big difference in how indigenous people deal with death versus modern Western society. In the Uru-e-wau-wau Amazonian tribe tradition according to Ipupiara, my mentor, after a person has passed on, the body is burned on an open fire pit as the family and community watch and pray for a smooth transition into the spirit world. After the body is reduced to ashes, the bones are crushed into a fine powder and put in a big bowl. They mix it with water until it becomes like a soup, and in a ceremonial manner each of the family members in turn ingests a small amount of it. In this way the ancestor becomes an integral part of each of them and continues to live in and through them forever. Imagine, every one of them carries all their ancestors memories for eternity in an unbroken chain. Once the ceremony is complete, it is forbidden to grieve and mention the deceased’s name. Of course Western ways are very different.


Western Medicine versus Shamanic Healing

Should we use the gifts of the relatively new technologies of Western medicine? The answer is a resounding yes. There could be great benefits by integrating both technologies and using them in tandem.

According to the National Institutes of Health research, almost 40 percent of adult Americans (about 120 million) are regularly using complementary alternative medicine today. They are looking for other options. Searching for healing methods that better support their lifestyles and belief systems to heal not just the body but the mind and the spirit as well.

A few years ago, by complete chance, I discovered, by standing in front of an ionizing machine (an alternative healing method) that I had three large cancerous tumors sitting on top of my thyroid. This explained why my voice had become hoarse and why I had two Adam’s apples in my neck. I was shocked and desperate. Why me? Why now? What had I done to deserve this? I battled with myself perpetually: Should I resort to shamanic methods and ask my teachers to heal me, or should I go the allopathic route? I strongly believed that I had to walk the walk and be an example to my clients. But my shamanic teachers unequivocally recommended that I immediately undergo surgery and have the tumors removed. And so I did, and I am grateful for my competent surgeon and his latest technology. But it was the shamanic healing ceremony I received prior to the surgery that gave me the emotional peace of mind to go through the procedure and helped me recover faster. Ironically, the cancer I had was caused by external radiation treatment I went through many years ago to cure small acne on my nose.

If a doctor or healer takes into consideration a patient’s emotional state and cultural and spiritual beliefs, the patient will most likely experience less stress and resistance and will be more ready to accept treatment, thus increasing the chances for a more complete recovery. I have shared this belief with many medical doctors and psychologists who themselves have come to me for treatments and have recommended shamanic healing to their clients.

Today, with new awareness, many doctors and medical facilities are offering what we call alternative modalities on their premises, such as reiki, reflexology, acupuncture, and more, or recommend it to their clients.

Thus the new term integrative medicine has emerged, which takes into account the whole client, his or her lifestyle, belief system, mind, body, and spirit.

I know of other shamans who will recommend their clients to see a doctor or have a surgery done. I do hope that soon shamanic healing will be offered in the hospitals as one of their treatment options and will someday be covered by health insurance.

For instance, Ipupiara, a Brazilian shaman, was asked to perform his tradition of shamanic healing ceremonies in a Washington, D.C., cancer hospital. He reported enthusiastically that the bodies of the people he worked on responded better to chemotherapy and recovered faster than those who did not receive his treatment. “Calming and balancing the physical and emotional bodies creates less opposition for the medicine, which allows it to work better,” he told me.

I myself have had the privilege of holding healing ceremonies for my clients in hospitals where they were receiving treatment or even in hospice care, always in agreement with the care staff. Sometimes the family was present to witness the ceremony. I could see the positive results immediately.

When I performed a cleansing ceremony for my dying friend Joyce while she lay in her hospital bed, she later felt so relaxed that she did not need the morphine she was using until the next morning. Her mood changed, and the anger and fear she was consumed by were replaced by genuine acceptance of her final journey. It was a gift for her and her anxious family.

Just a few hours before another client’s major liver transplant surgery in a prestigious hospital in Manhattan, as the head of the ICU department watched the door, I performed a cleansing ceremony for her. This young woman was obviously anxious and in deep panic, as there was a good chance her body would reject the new organ and the surgery would fail. I needed her help, so I suggested we simultaneously connect to our spirit guides during the ceremony. I asked her to connect to her power animal and ask it to bring her to meet the power of Imbabura Mountain, a volcanic mountain in Ecuador, and embody his strength and grounding into her weakening body. At the same time, in the spirit world, I quickly connected to an indigenous island woman whom I had discovered a few days earlier in a separate vision requested by my client’s mother, and the details of which were confirmed by my client. Standing at the entrance of a small house by a small hotel, protected by the early evening darkness and the surrounding trees, this indigenous woman had cursed my client, who had just arrived in Bali with a friend. That curse, spirit said, had brought this horrible liver failure on her quite immediately.

I pleaded with the long-dark-haired, angry, short woman to release this young girl who laid here in the hospital bed from her horrible curse. She did not relent easily, but I begged her, telling her that my client was the only child of loving parents—just like her own daughter—and that she meant the whole world to them. The girl could not be blamed for the woman’s marital and economic troubles, caused, as she believed, by Western visitors to the island.

After a while, I could see her anger cracking and transforming into compassion. She apologized for her misdirected anger. I commended her on her great magical power and asked her to use it for my client’s benefit by sending good healing energy to her before the upcoming operation. I watched that woman making her prayers, moving her hands up and down and forward, far away in Bali, and then she disappeared.

At the end of the ceremony I blew my ocarina close to my client’s resting head and she opened her eyes and smiled. “I feel calm and ready for the operation. I’m going to take the mountain with me,” she said. I shared with her my exchange vision with that native woman she knew. “Thank you. I needed that,” she smiled. The operation was a success.

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, shamanic healing or shamanism is not a spiritual practice in itself. It is a very result-oriented system that uses many tools to induce positive changes in a person’s life. One of the tools used is working directly with spirits. And believe me, if a shaman sees that one tool he uses won’t do the job, he will exchange it in favor of one that does. A shaman’s reputation solely depends on the actual results of his healing work.

Maybe the difference between these two systems can be described in this way: like a gardener, Western medicine attempts to clear the weeds from the garden by spraying chemicals or nipping the leaves and stems above the surface. The shamanic healer, by contrast, searches for the emotional and spiritual roots of the illness and pulls them out from the ground.

Poor health, disease, dysfunction, and depression are signs that the client is out of alignment. That explains the experience of many clients of mine who report, after shamanic ceremonial healing sessions, unexpected positive results, such as better, more restful sleep, clearer thinking, feeling more grounded, and improved digestion. They also report being able to stop smoking, find they no longer get migraine headaches, and so much more.




Join Itzhak at The Alchemist’s Kitchen on July 23 where he will read from his book Shamanic Healing and discuss the importance of shamanic practices in resolving our twenty-first-century emotional and physical problems and its potential impact on the future of humanity. Lean more here.

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