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Birds, Shamans and the Natural Systems Thinking Process
I started on a journey a while ago...I was invited to go and I am
grateful I accepted the invitation. I had indulged myself for a couple
of days at an Ayurvedic spa. I went for a relaxing treatment called
Shirodara where warm oil is drizzled over the third eye. That night as
I was sleeping I had a dream that a large bird flew so close to my face
that my eye lashes fluttered and it actually woke me up. The next day
the doctor asked me if I had any interesting dreams and I told him
about the bird. He gave me a book titled Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. I
looked up this bird and it was a Bald Eagle. I read about this bird and
animal totems and felt drawn to respect this knowledge.
I was supposed to stay longer at the spa but my stay was cut short when
they had to cancel early. I looked online for somewhere else to spend
the remainder of the week and found a place that offered sea kayaking
and yoga; so, off I went. When I arrived there, the program was great
and I soon discovered that they also taught a Shamanism program from
this location. As I asked questions about the program it was as though
an invisible thread was pulling me in. I didn't realise it at the time
but it was a webstring connection. I did the
basic introductory weekend and then signed up for the two year program.
I have just begun my second year in the program.
Not all of those who choose to study Shamanism will become shamans.
Shamans never advertise the work that they do. They are respected based
on the results of their work. In a closely knit village or community,
people just know who to go to for healing. I was trying to use my
new-found skills to determine what type of work I am meant to do. I was
sitting at the computer looking at programs and courses when
fortunately, the website for Project NatureConnect found me. In
learning about NSTP I have found that it is interwoven with Shamanism
A member of my interact group wrote about grasses in South Africa so
descriptively that I could imagine myself seeing them as though I were
"If you reached out and touched the
grasses, they would feel smooth and cool like slender, glass chimes;
just light, light. Lying down in the grass, you would hear
the song the wind sings there and if you looked through slitted eyes,
you would see rainbows everywhere. There are grasses that
creep along the earth, there are grasses so tall they could hide an
elephant and there are grasses of every other height in
between. Now, the palette: Purple, chocolate brown, reds,
pinks, ochre, vanilla, strawberry blond, tan and creamy white; black
and blue too. And the wind plays, softly, gently.
You would feel it stroking your face and pushing at your
hair. At regular intervals, it hurries away and shows off a
bit by impressive displays of ruffling grasses; then it lies down and
you think it has gone but rises up behind you, touching you and making
the grasses dance and sing for you again (D. Elsmere)..."
shaman these grasses might at first be observed visually and then their
rhythmic movement might be used as a tool to move beyond and into the
other world. In many of the writings of my interact group, I was not
only able to see what was being described so vividly, but to use these
images to invoke the other 53 senses that are described by Dr.
Michael J. Cohen in his book Reconnecting
Shamanism has been practiced for tens of thousands of years all over
the world. Although Shamanism is considered a spiritual practice,
shamans are known typically as healers as they address the spiritual
aspects of illness. In tribal communities they serve as healers,
doctors, psychotherapists and priests. Hunters would consult the shaman
to identify food sources. They use their connection to the spirit
world, sometimes referred to as the other world, to divine information.
According to Ingerman (2004, pp. 8-9), “Shamanism teaches us that
everything that exists is alive and has a spirit, and that we are
joined with the earth and all of life via our interconnectedness...As
we are part of nature, we have a deep need to reconnect with nature's
cycles and rhythms.”
Shamans connect to this other world by entering a trance-like state to
journey to helping spirits. To do this they often use a rhythmic sound
such as drumming or rattling. In some cultures potions are made using
plants such as Ayahuasca. At other times a visual item is used such as
staring at a mandala which then becomes a tunnel to assist in accessing
the spirit world. This process is called journeying. Once in this state
the helping spirits will provide answers to questions to assist the
shaman in healing.
When the shaman walks a path in nature they are never alone. Since to
them everything has a spirit that means all of the elements, animals,
plants, rocks, sun, moon etc. are alive and waiting to have
communication. They are very respectful of all things for this reason.
On a walk during one assignment I stopped for a rest and I lay down on
a huge quartz rock:
I climbed up onto the rock. I was feeling quite tired not having slept
well all week. I put my backpack down and used it as a pillow. I then
covered myself with a tarp that I had with me. The rain started to
really come down on top of me. I felt a vibration from the quartz rock
beneath me wha, wha, wha ,wha (R.Welch).
I could understand the lesson for me using NSTP and I could feel the
connection to the earth. Even though the rock was hard, when engaging
my other senses, its hardness fell away. This moving beyond the
superficial is a constant state for the Shaman. This was also well
described by another group member from North America:
I remember having felt a sense of well
being and a sense of complete trustfulness. I felt that
everything flowed together yet there was a stillness that could be
sensed underneath the surface (B. Warner).
Through NSTP we are also never alone as we are connected through
webstrings to everything. One of the people in our group was blessed to
have a white dove who needed some medical attention land on his balcony
in Brazil. Shamans do not believe in coincidences so the fact that this
kind person is a devoted animal lover and a traditional naturopath was
a genuine webstring connection. Over the time that they were together
they taught each other:
As I pulled back the drape from her
cage, I was elated and inspired to see she was still alive and visibly
more steady on her feet than the night before. She is still not 100%
and it's been several days now. I administer her medication four or
five times a day, along with probiotics and she seems to be eating
well. I sense it may take awhile and that her life is very much in the
balance with no guarantee of outcome. I cannot dismiss the reality of
death and its presence so close causes me to value life and those who
populate my world all the more... Today, I didn't have to go far to let
the earth teach. When I went out to uncover my dove´s cage she was
listless and after asking her permission to touch her, I felt her body
was colder than usual. She had taken a turn for the worse and my
heart-felt she was nearing her end here. I asked her what she was going
to teach me today and despite her seeming disinterest got her to take
water mixed with antibiotic from a syringe. She seemed to respond and
from her behaviour I knew she was acknowledging my presence even though
very weak...It was windy and I decided to take her inside cupped in
both hands in an effort to warm her up as quickly as possible. I sat
down with her gently held with one hand beneath her and the other on
top of her. She became completely tranquil and in complete peace I knew
she was leaving this world. I held her and watched the glow of her eyes
become dim and knew she had gone...In that moment and the moments
before she left, I realized that my life and all life is valuable
NSTP emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. This is also at
the root of Shamanism:
The intricate web of connections of
all life- whether predator or prey- is reflected most strongly through
trophism or the feeding process. Solar energy is transformed by plants
into food which then goes through the food chain. Plants manufacture
food from the soil and the sun. Grasshoppers eat the plants. Frogs eat
the grasshoppers and so on (Andrews, 2004, p 37)
I felt that the land welcomed me. The
living sense of a well tended pasture, the forest meeting the pasture
and stretching up and over a mountain, conserved and held quietly by
the Quaker Meeting for fifty years or more. The soothing
sense of pond, stream and wetland enfolded in pasture and forest drew
me into gratitude and a hope for balanced living (L.Whitcomb).
When entering into nature with the awareness brought about by NSTP
there is a change in the way we experience these connections. NSTP
gives birth to awareness that either wasn't previously experienced or a
deepening of an existing awareness. This awareness is second nature in
The African healer Malidoma Some speaks of a time during his initiation
where the elders asked him to sit, not move and look at a tree. He sat
for hours for a day and a half staring at the tree and nothing
happened. He was so frustrated and didn't know what was expected of
him. He started to sob and then looked up and the tree had become a
green lady. He then went on a journey that carried deep meaning for
him. When the journey was over he didn't want to say goodbye to the
lady but she left. The elders watched as he returned to ordinary
reality and was hugging the tree. Today he often speaks of connections
not only to nature but to our ancestors and our responsibility to our
youth in order to encourage a sense of belonging with all things that
in turn will bring positive change to the planet.
Shamanism practices a peaceful harmony with all things, considering
relationship with nature as an extension of community. NSTP is the
education that can catalyze the change, enabling people to set aside
misgivings they might otherwise have about being in nature:
Nature has been rendered evil. Pan,
the Greek's horned god of the forest, was transformed into the devil of
Christian mythology. Most Western cultures have feared wild nature and
have thought of it as unruly, a realm whose laws clash with society's
(Plotkin, 2003, p 28).
When walking on a beach one
week I was intrigued by the behaviour of some seagulls. There were
literally hundreds of them as this beach was right on a migratory path.
I spent hours walking back and forth observing these birds that were
all facing the direction of the sun. Some would fly out over the water
and then return to the beach. It was early in the orientation course
and the idea of webstrings was relatively new:
I stopped thinking about why these
birds might be behaving in this way, when they might eat, does high/low
tide have anything to do with it etc. Instead, I stood with my feet in
the water and I turned to face the sun as well... There is nothing more
authentic than being in nature for me, away from all human derived
sound and contact. I don't have to “be” anything other than who I am in
that moment of time. I can receive in every cell of my being. I am only
then fully recharged (R. Welch).
sense the connection from sun, to water, to me as though the webstrings
were visible, tangible threads. I realised the energy from the sun made
me feel warm and as though I were filled with light. I wondered
afterwards if these birds were getting the energy they would need to
make the long journey south. I also realised the power from this
natural place as I felt as though I had experienced a very sacred
moment that I would never forget.
Shamans use nature's knowing to assist people in their healing,
something they have been doing for centuries. NSTP is a way that people
can reconnect and be educated about the value of those connections for
the self, the community, and the earth. My journey has confirmed the
value of exploring webstrings uniting the sacred wisdom of birds, the
spiritual vision of the shaman and the sensory awareness learnt in
NSTP. I was invited on a journey awhile ago...I am more grateful than
ever, I accepted the invitation!
Andrews, T. (2004). Animal-Speak: The spiritual & magical
powers of creatures great & small (1 ed.). St. Paul, MN:
Devall, B., & Sessions, G. (1985). Deep ecology. Salt Lake
City, UT: Peregrine Smith Books.
Harner, M. (1980). The way of the shaman (1 ed.). San Francisco, CA:
Harper & Row.
Ingerman, S. (2004). Shamanic journeying: A beginners guide.
Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the mysteries of nature
and psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Some, M. P. (1998). The healing wisdom of Africa. New York, NY:
You may read or distribute a press release about this webpage
information: contact Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D.
Read the Ecopsychology Journal interview with Dr. Cohen: <http://www.ecopsych.com/ecopsychologyjournal.html>
of the 1994 Distinguished
World Citizen Award, Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen,
a Program Director of the Institute of Global Education, where he
coordinates its Integrated Ecology Department and Project
NatureConnect. He also serves on the faculty of Portland State
University and Akamai University. Dr. Cohen has founded sensory
environmental education outdoor programs independently and for the
National Audubon Society and Lesley University (AEI), conceived the
1985 National Audubon Conference "Is the Earth a Living Organism," and
is an award winning author of "The Web of Life Imperative,"
"Reconnecting With Nature," and "Educating
Healing With Nature." A video about his lifework may be
Pacific Time Zone
you to visit www.ecopsych.com
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You may obtain a
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