PTSD & Shamanism: The Call from the Spirits
PTSD’s soul wound is often precipitated by an ecstatic experience. The experience is one that can take us beyond ourselves. It can be a joyful or a grievous experience. It can be one which is Good or Evil (capitalized on purpose!). The ecstatic experience is anything but mundane or meaningless.
This ecstatic experience, a single experience, or a set of cumulative experiences, forms the basis of the call to be a shaman. It is the invitation, or perhaps summons would be a better word,
– to the experience of pain, grief, suffering on the natural and supernatural levels,
– to survive and interpret it beyond the mundane natural level,
– and then, later, take on the same package for others in the community.
As mentioned in previous posts there are three parts to the initiation or formation of a shaman.
1. The Call of Ecstatic Experience (Candidacy to the Vocation. Can be read as a voluntary or involuntary event)
The first part is the call to be a shaman. Traditionally known as the Call from the Spirits, it may be voluntary response to the call or it may be an involuntary response.
When Trauma Comes Calling
A voluntary response would be under the direction of the established mature shaman, not as a solo, unaffiliated project or weekend. If one is too eager to go receive the call, they may experience some thing, but it has more to do with themselves, the Greek Ego, than with a preparation to be one who helps to heal and mediate a community. There is such a thing as a “Vision Quest” which entails going out and finding your experience or vision. That is a different animal than the phenomenon being discussed here.
The PTSD inducing ecstatic experience is not something that one typically signs up for so as to go and get a bucketful of personal trauma. Typically the PTSD producing experience is an involuntary call. Why not? Because most of us do not volunteer to be shot, assaulted, raped, or abused by clergy, or otherwise dehumanized.
The ecstatic experience, the trauma event, occurs in the mundane here and now. To an outside observer it may appear to have no appreciable meaning.
If sex or violence is involved as part of the trauma, the average American observer will want to focus on that and not on what it means. I have often been asked about the violence I have committed or observed, I have never been asked about its necessity or morality.
This is one of the reasons why many trauma survivors clam up, maintain a silence, about their experience. Their trauma is meaningful, even sacred, and to have someone want simply to be a voyeur is insulting and wounding. We often choose to never let on about the trauma which ravaged us. Why throw our pearls before swine? If someone watches and enjoys so-called reality-based television shows, then they probably are not worthy to hear about your trauma, they lack the ability to see you as more than an object for their titillation.
Avoiding voyeurism is one of the easy ways we can respect the lives of those who survived trauma. We ought not to ask for the highlight reel of someone’s trauma to sate our curiosity.
Can Traumatic Events be Sacred Events?
I mentioned that the traumatic experience can be sacred. Why is that? The traumatic experience is an otherworldy experience, an experience that changes our existence. Thus it has the potential of being a sacred, holy experience. This experience and its transformation can be understood as an ecstatic experience. It takes place in real, mundane time, but its meaning and affects take place both on the mundane and the spiritual, supernatural level. This is why PTSD is both a physical wound which changes how our brains function and process information, but also why PTSD is a soul wound that affects our core being and each of our relationships.
In Greek we have the terms “ekstasis”: Ecstasy and “existemi”: ecstatic. Some of the ancient uses of these terms are found in Hippocrates, Philo, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jospehus, the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek; this formed the original “Old Testament” for the Early Church), the Greek Magical Papyrus, and the Christian New Testament.
Ecstasy: The term ekstasis has the following range of meaning:
1. distraction, confusion, terror, literally, being beside oneself (often with a sense of amazement).
2. trance, ecstasy, a state of being brought about by God, in which consciousness is wholly or partially suspended.
Ecstatic: The term existemi contains the following range of meanings:
1. change, displace, then drive out of one’s senses, confuse, amaze, astound.
2. become separated from something, lose something (in the ancient literature this is always in the sense of losing spiritual and mental balance);
2a. lose one’s mind, be out of one’s senses This is the sense used in Mark 3:21 when Jesus is accused of being out of his mind;
2b. be amazed, be astonished, of the feeling of astonishment mingled with fear, caused by events which are miraculous, extraordinary, or difficult to understand. (Above Greek definitions are from BAGD, 2nd ed.)
The sense of existemi as seen in definition 2a is often found as part of the crowd reaction to Gospel miracle stories. They know something has happened that is more than merely mundane, but rather has a supernatural aspect. They are astonished, afraid, amazed, and are trying to make sense of what they have seen and experienced. In the work of Mircea Eliade this leads to the kratophanic response where we embrace or reject the divine.
People who experience trauma often tell about seeing it as an out of body experience. They can see themselves walking around the corner, the mugger approaching from behind, as if it were in a movie. They can talk about while walking on a patrol being so hyper-alert as if they were outside themselves. They may describe how in the intensity of so much noise, screaming, and explosive concussion, that somehow things seemed eerily silent. At times individuals report that they saw themselves being assaulted or that they themselves are committing the violence, as if they were there and present, but just outside themselves, as if they were their own nearby twin. The same descriptions can also be applied to some people taken to the emergency room after an accident.
Visible Body and Invisible Soul:
Note the twin metaphor paragraph above. It is as if our very selves are bifurcated in this ecstatic experience into a physical mundane self (my body) and into a spiritual supernatural self (my soul). That is, it’s as if there were two parts of us – the visible body and invisible soul -involved in the traumatic action:
– Body: The physical earthly twin who is engaged in trauma as the recipient, perpetrator, and/or observer. All meaning is limited to the exact moment of time and space in which it occurs and not beyond that particular moment. Damage incurred is limited to the physical aspects, i.e., bleeding, dismemberment, shock, etc.
– Soul: The spiritual supernatural twin absorbing the universal meaning and thus, universal damage, of the trauma. The meaning transcends the moment in time and space in which it occurred. The meaning continues forever.
Thus, if a soldier is wounded in a firefight or injured in a vehicle roll over, or a woman is raped in New York or beaten by her boyfriend they have body and a soul reactions with (hopefully) appropriate follow up care for each.
– Body: We deal with immediate visible physical trauma through first aid, med-evac dust offs, ambulances and emergency rooms. Repeated surgeries and physical therapy, although continuing well past the moment of wounding or injury, remain oriented on the physical.
– Soul: Our consciousness, our spiritual self, our invisible soul, appears to be removed from the mundane physical action. Our physical self is observed by our spiritual self. Yet it is wounded as much as our body, perhaps more. The soul, your soul, requires care and nourishing, both immediate and on-going, just as does the body. Soul care and nourishment is usually forgotten, neglected, and/or denied. Thus, someone should be ”better” after their physical care, but continues to decline.
For PTSD Soul Wounds: There is more to the body than just the body.
In our next post we will discuss more about the soul watching the body experience its own trauma and how the traumatic experience can make one feel more alive than at any other time.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z