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Of Birds, Shamans and the Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP)

- Ruth Welch

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 through awareness.

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 there:

"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)..."

To the 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 With Nature.

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 (M.Glasgow).

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 indigenous cultures.

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).

I could 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: Llewellyn Publications.
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: Tarcher/Putnam.

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Read the Ecopsychology Journal interview with Dr. Cohen:

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Program Founder and Director:

Recipient of the 1994 Distinguished World Citizen Award, Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D., is 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 Counseling and Healing With Nature." A video about his lifework may be viewed at

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