Shamanic Tending

Recently some of us in the shamanic community have been talking about “shamanic tending” rather than shamanic healing.  The term seems more appropriate for certain situations where the normal patterns and rhythms of life have been severely disrupted either through natural processes, like hurricanes and tornadoes, or suffering caused by human activities, such as war or industrial damage.  We say “tending” rather than “healing” because the natural healing processes of the earth are operating regardless of what shamans may or may not do.  We use it to avoid the hubris of thinking that Earth needs our healing to survive. We also use it because the usual ethical limitations we honor in personal, client-type healing may not apply in the midst of chaos and disruption on a large scale.

We’ve been speaking about this kind of effort as “shamanism without borders” to call attention to the fact that these places often lie outside our local realms of interest, that is, they are not places where we live, and they don’t involve the people we know.  They may occur on the other side of the country or the planet. The phrase “shamanism without borders” also invites us to visit those places physically if we can to get to know them in a more intimate fashion before deciding what kind of shamanic work would benefit the places themselves and the many beings that live there.   In other words, we move outside both our regional borders and even the mental borders we impose on ourselves that can restrict the shamanic help we could be providing.

The River Current article posted on June 16 of this year, titled “Santa Cruz,” describes how some of us applied shamanism without borders in Santa Cruz, California, at this year’s SSP conference.  The article was about how the team I was on offered shamanic tending to the downtown area that had suffered earthquakes, flooding, and human violence.  I’d like to elaborate a bit, however, on what shamanic tending might imply on a broader scale. (For a more complete report of the SSP’s work in Santa Cruz County, see Journal of Shamanic Practice, issue six, which will be out in a week or so.)

The late anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff called attention to the fact that the shaman’s worldview originally was not focused on the notion that health or healing was something the shaman could hand over to another person like some kind of precious gift.   Early shamans most likely did not entertain the contemporary idea that “health” should be a static end-state or that trying to achieve that static state was even possible.  Many people practicing the healing arts today do hold this notion.  Rather, the shaman saw him or herself standing in a conflux of power that is always in a state of opposition.  The shaman’s role is to hold a balance between opposing forces.  As Meyerhoff put it, the balance “is not a static condition achieved by resolving opposition. It is not a compromise. Rather it is a state of acute tension.”  In painful situations, like after a hurricane or a genocidal war, many people rush to ease pain, rebuild the town, replant the fields, provide medical assistance, punish the evil-doers, reestablish some kind of order if only temporarily.   What does the shaman do in such crises?

If Meyerhoff is right, we are here to stand between the forces causing suffering and those trying to alleviate it.  We may not be able to resolve them. Nor is our working position always on the side of those hoping to alleviate suffering even though our heartfelt hopes are for them to succeed.  She described the situation as when “two unqualified forces encounter each other, meeting headlong, and are not reconciled but held teetering on the verge of chaos.”  This flies in the face of our modern longing to have “health and wellbeing” a constant condition in our lives.  Certainly when we work individually with clients, we hope that healing efforts will bring about a state of wellbeing and equilibrium, and that a client will not remain “teetering on the verge of chaos.”  (And yet there are some chronic and lingering illnesses that might be described this way, in which case they may need tending, rather than healing.)   So how do we imagine ourselves in the face of the upheavals caused by nature’s powerful forces or the destructive violence of human beings?

One answer involves this stand between the opposing powers.  Meyerhoff explains how the shaman’s view is not the commonplace view.

(Most people) seek good without evil, pleasure without pain, God without the devil, and love without hate.  The shaman reminds us of the impossibility of such a condition for he stands at the juncture of opposing forces, and his dialectical task is continually to move between these opposites.

When I think of tending anything, I think of being present while something I do not have complete control over has its way.  Tending is supporting, nudging, observing, running errands perhaps, being ready for whatever might come next.  I don’t see my efforts of tending as always being powerful enough to determine the outcome.  In fact, some outcomes are beyond my or anyone’s powers.  Tending is sitting with someone dying, listening to a friend talk about the end of a love, pulling unwanted weeds from the garden, watching a niece make important decisions about her life, raking leaves off the front steps before they have all fallen off the trees.  Tending assumes there will be more work to do or more presence to provide.

A shamanic approach to a catastrophic situation is to recognize our ability to move between opposites, without a desire to cancel them out or to obliterate the more troublesome one or even to find a synthesis of them.  It might even mean in the cases of natural disasters to withhold judgment that what has happened is bad or evil or of the devil.  It comes down to accepting the way things are and placing ourselves in that constant dance of impermanence, watching as the powers of the universe unfold.

But our watching is not passive.  Shamans have the ability to embody the powers of the universe, to participate in the small and great movements of the seasons, to shed light on the micro and macro events of our planet, to accompany others in their walk through life.  We strive for a balance that is always teetering, always requiring that we accept the uncertainty of what will happen next.  But having journeyed through other regions of the world and having listened to the many and varied voices that the world contains, especially those that do not speak a human language, we should feel more at home in these doubts and uncertainties. We can rely on what our journeys through the worlds have shown and said to us. Then, alone or with a team of practitioners, we can provide that place of connection where opposing, powerful, and equally sovereign forces collide.  We give it a place of understanding, even acceptance.

Tending may not be as satisfying as healing.  It may not receive the expressions of gratitude that come after a successful healing session with a client. It may provide no immediate gratification.  It may not even have an end-point.  It may and probably will go on and on.  The forces of the world we live in are dialectical; we live in alternating currents; conditions are never completely satisfying.  We need to learn how to live with change in an ambiguous world of contradictions and tensions.  Shamans have never been able to stop this process, nor have they aspired to do so.  Many indigenous shamans have talked about the suffering of being a shaman.  Perhaps they were thinking about those great and awe-inspiring powers of the universe that they are privileged to tend.