When the Master Shaman sends the apprentice shaman into the wilderness to be tested by the spirits, the Master Shaman covers the apprentice’s “Spiritual Back.” The phrase, “I’ve got your back” applies both to our spiritual development as well as to our physical protection. For the modern American, however, the traumatic encounter in the wilderness with the spirit world is an involuntarily experience. We do not usually volunteer for clergy abuse, rape, or military trauma. Yet, the outcomes of these involuntary traumas can be similar to the voluntary suffering observed in traditional shamanism.
The formation of a shaman is a three part process. The first stage deals with the Call from the Spirits. The formation process can kill the person who is called to this vocation. In the case of PTSD it isa not a voluntary call.
Authentic Meaning Comes from Body and Soul Experience
As mentioned in previous posts, our PTSD inducing ecstatic experiences occur on the mundane and the supernatural levels. We experience reality at two levels, our bodies and our souls. Depending upon our personal levels of awareness, we know that our experiences of intense joy or sorrow occur on these two levels. Indeed, we derive meaning when our body and our soul are decisively engaged together in any particular reality, whether that reality is one of terror or one of delight.
One of the results of ecstatic experience is increased awareness. It is one of the reasons we try to recapture the feeling of aliveness we experienced in the traumatic moment. It is also one of the reasons PTSD sufferers endeavor to deaden their senses so as not to be so aware of the realness of reality. At times, discerning meaning can feel like too much to bear. Regardless, if we choose to embrace meaning or deny meaning, it is the product of our supernatural and natural sides.
Who Has Your “Spiritual Back” Covered?
While the apprentice shaman engages the spirits in the wilderness only after adequate training and guidance from a mature shaman, we do not usually enter our trauma experiences with that intense teaching background and support.
For example, Jesus does not go straight into the wilderness. He first receives instruction and baptism, that is, doctrinal teaching combined with ritual. He was prepared Body and Soul for his testing and confrontation with Satan in the Wilderness. Who prepared Jesus for his sojourn in the wilderness? Joseph and Mary of Nazareth, and his cousin, John the Baptist prepared him.
His preparation enabled him to withstand the testing he encountered in the wilderness. And, I suspect, that while he was in the wilderness, Jesus had continued prayer support from those who cared about him. Your prayers for those who are in trauma and recovering from trauma help their souls to heal. When you pray for the well-being of others, you are helping to cover their “spiritual back.”
In traditional shamanic societies the apprentice shaman is prepared in terms of teaching and ritual before going into the wilderness to engage, and be engaged by, the spirits. The senior shaman, the teacher, does not sit back and have a cold one while the apprentice is away. The senior shaman continues ritual and prayer in support of the apprentice shaman.
Modern PTSD sufferers typically receive little or none of this support. Their call comes in isolation. No one has their “spiritual back.”
Suffering in Isolation and Surviving the Encounter wih the Spirits
Modern traumatic experiences become the equivalent of the traditional Call of the Spirits. Our traumatic experiences may kill us in the process of having them. Trauma inducing ecstatic experiences are lethal. They are not designed to be survived. Yet, somehow, many of us do survive.
The victims and survivors of clergy rape, military trauma, cancer and its therapies, chronic illnesses, and the government’s response to Katrina received no training and ritual to prepare for their journeys into the isolation of wilderness. There was no systematic support for what we would call, in religious anthropological terms, The Call of the Spirits.
When we walked certain streets, jungles, hospital corridors – we were alone, regardless of the number of people around us in simple physical terms. Is this an absolute truth? No. Yet, most of us walked into trauma unprepared.
In American society immediate trauma, bleeding wounds or injuries, usually receives physical treatments in the emergency room, the police station, or a medevac. This society is pretty good at triage. After the triage, American society rations follow-up healthcare based on the ability to pay, with some very limited exceptions.
But rarely in the triage, or in the follow-up care, is the soul dimension of the traumatic experience appreciated and tended. Not only has the physical body been tested and challenged, but so has the soul. The post-traumatic event survivor is no longer the same person they used to be. The body may be literally transformed because of the lost a limb or an eye. But, even more fundamentally they have changed on the level of their identity; on the level of their soul.
The ecstatic experience of the trauma has challenged their soul on the level of the spirit. The trauma itself may have killed them, just as some traditional shamans never survive the wilderness experience. If they are spiritually aware, the survivor may grow into something similar to a shaman. If not, they may still die as a result of the soul wound of PTSD.
Unlike the traditional shaman, we are usually spiritually unsupported in our trauma experiences. For most of us the following is true:
While we endured traumatic shocks there was no community behind us in prayer and ritual covering our “spiritual back” as we engaged the challenges to our soul.
We are soul-wounded and of course get the lovely parting gifts of PTSD and the PTSD-Identity.
Without continual intensive spiritual support, it is an open question if the soul wound of PTSD will kill us.
From the Call of the Spirirts to Sickness and Withdrawal
In future PTSD Spirituality Blog installments on Shamanism we will begin to examine the second stage of shamanic initiation. The second stage of shamanic formation is:
Stage 2: Sickness or Withdrawal from Previous Activities.
In my own analysis, this second stage overlaps with both the first and the third stages, but deserves its own individual focus.