Many indigenous cultures have a concept of a “shaman’s illness,” which is simultaneously a traumatic ego-death and initiation in the form of a spiritual crisis. Modern people experiencing shaman’s illness may have multiple traumatic (often near-death) experiences, which can be physical, mental, and/or psychological, as well as spiritual. Such experiences create opportunities for a person to see the world in a new way. A shaman’s illness brings intense experiences that destroys life as a person knows it and shatters previous identities and ways of being that the person was attached to. The gifts of such a brutal illness are an awakening of a huge amount of energy that can be redirected from being destructive or dissociated into being healing and empowering. As a person heals and allows a new identity to be created, the person rises like a phoenix from ashes of a fire and is reborn into carrying a wound as a medicine for others (Pendleton, 2014).
I have witnessed many people experiencing a shaman’s illness. When people reject or resist it, they usually end up dissociating the destructive energy and becoming very challenging externalising personalities (like narcissists or sociopaths), or internalising the destructive energy and creating diseases such as quickly metastasising cancers. I have witnessed multiple people do both of these things. When people accept the calling of the illness, there are different speeds of doing so, which impacts the way the illness plays out in a person’s life. I have seen some people slowly accept that they are experiencing shaman’s illness over many years and bit by bit change their paths so that over time more aspects of their lives are working. Some (including myself) dive directly into the fire and allow our lives to become incredibly chaotic as our identities are re-forged and often become overwhelmed at the amount of emotion that needs to be processed and the whirlwind pace of life changes that occur. (Image from here.)
Seeing the world in ways that are outside one’s mainstream culture and being sensitive to feelings and experiences that others are blocking or numb to is a big responsibility and often triggers feelings of rejection, social/cultural alienation, doubt, confusion, fear, shame, deep grief, and anger. Learning to pace oneself is part of the journey, but if you are resisting the illness, your life will keep getting harder. What I see often is that the illness brings up such intense feelings of loss of control that people find it hard to “let go and let God” and are unwilling to allow their lives to flow into mess and chaos required for healing. I have received messages a few times that I will be kicked off the planet if I did not take make certain choices, and I have seen others similarly forced to face primal survival fears. The following are keys I’ve found to accepting a shaman’s illness:
- Faith in a guiding force/God/divine intelligence/Higher Power bigger than us;
- Trust that whatever comes into our lives is meant to help us;
- Willingness to experience death;
- Following signs, synchronicities, and symbols in dreams and everyday life; and
- Finding tools to ground intense energies and forms to express dark emotions.
It is helpful, but not necessary, to seek support from someone who has been through similar things. Such people can give you compassion and empathy, guiding wisdom, and tools to process wounds and express energy. But it’s vitally important not to delude yourself that any human is a fully healed Jedi-master, all-knowing figure. If someone says they are, then RUN AWAY FROM THEM, because that person is dangerous and delusional and is on a path of becoming a cult leader or something else you don’t want to be involved with. It is important to think of illness and healing as processes, not finite endpoints. When someone says they have “healed” a wound as intense as sexual abuse or parental abandonment, I am suspicious; and when someone plays power games, disrespects, or in any way puts me down, then I know that person is ill and cannot support my healing anymore. I have no tolerance for these behaviours, even when people are unaware. I either change my boundary and create space or make someone aware of their transgression, and if they then don’t own it and work through it, I’m done with the relationship. (Image below from here.)
I do this because I have learned through my own shaman’s illness that setting fierce boundaries shows that I value my life and my energy, and that I do not need to prove my worth by battling (e.g. convincing, power playing, manipulating, etc.) anybody. Most people who justify harmful and dangerous behaviours are carrying unprocessed primal survival fears. I rarely feel afraid of dying, though. In some ways it would be easier than being here and going through all the trauma my body is still carrying. Working with my shaman’s illness so that I become a medicine person instead of sick or dissociated is a journey of experiencing alchemy, of metaphorically turning dirt into gold as my darkest experiences become fertiliser for the growth of beautiful flowers in myself, others, and the environment. Mircea Eliade says a shaman is a “healed madman,” and Rumi says, “In their seeking, wisdom and madness are one and the same.” If you’re reading this, maybe like me, you can relate to these.