As a coach with a background in shamanism, clients often come to me seeking change. Change can be rapid and lasting. The secret, if there is one, is to treat the person as a whole.
I came to shamanism for help with managing depression and anxiety when traditional treatments weren’t working for me. I had struggled with these since childhood. I haven’t abandoned traditional approaches but instead, have blended them into a holistic approach that works for me.
There are many models which map to the whole of human experience. Some of them more useful than others. One commonality I’ve noticed is the tendency to represent man and his place in the world in three parts.
Take the Trinity, for example. You have the father, the son, the Holy Spirit. In shamanism, we work with the upper world, the lower world, and the middle world. And in psychology, you have the mind, consciousness, and thought. There seems to be something about dividing things into three that resonates with human beings.
Like all models, it’s important not to confuse the map for the territory. These models are useful abstractions and symbols of reality in certain contexts.
So what is a good model for making lasting change?
I like to focus on body, mind, and spirit.
It’s a good representation of the part of the person that we have handles on. We can effect change in all three – sometimes simultaneously.
As human beings, these components are tightly integrated. When we look at something like depression, for example, there may be physical, mental, and spiritual causes. Successful healing may have to address all three. In fact, I would argue that successful, long-term healing must address all three.
With depression, you can find some physical causes. There may be issues with neurotransmitters like serotonin. This can be exacerbated in certain people by the over release of cortisol. There are certain physical brain structures we see in people with major depressive disorder. And there certainly may be other physical issues that we have yet to discover that contribute to depression.
However, treating depression at simply the physical level often has poor results. Using antidepressants, for example, may provide some emotional relief for some people but true healing requires additional interventions. These things can be blunt instruments.
On the mental level, making a change in someone who has major depression, often means therapy. Different types of talk therapy have been shown to be quite effective. Some again, are sort of blunt instruments. I am not particularly fond of cognitive behavioral therapy, though it is quite popular with therapists and insurance companies these days. It serves to correct distorted thinking often see as depression. However, the data on long-term results is spotty and imprecise.
On a spiritual level, from a shamanic perspective, mental illness is often a result of what we call soul loss. Soul loss is the shamanic construct to explain what happens to a person who experiences trauma. The idea is that we sort of lose pieces of our self during traumatic experiences. This is often found in people who are experiencing depression or anxiety and other mental and physical dysfunction.
There are blunt instruments in the spiritual world. For example, trips to ingest ayahuasca are very popular at the moment. These plant medicines shift consciousness radically and quickly. They can cause instantaneous spiritual experience. But unlike traditional shamanic journeying, those undertaking the trip are not in control. Results are unpredictable.
All tools have their uses. Often, people want the quick fix—or the popular fix. Where most people fail is when they rely on a blunt instrument at one or two levels and don’t calibrate when things aren’t working.
Change can be rapid. It can be long-term. It can be extremely effective. But what has to happen is that all three levels of human experience need to be addressed in an integrated way, with precision. Calibration needs to happen often, and what’s not working pruned away.
What has worked for me in managing my mental health is an integrated approach. I see a naturopathic doctor regularly who helps me with my hormonal balance, neurotransmitters, diet, and exercise. She takes a real mind-body approach. I’m taking care of the body to support the mind, and the mind to support the body. And rather than mask my symptoms, I am working towards real and lasting physical balance.
I have sought out therapy and coaching. I have found therapists who have taken an integrated approach. I’m fond of inner-child and Internal Family systems work – it jives with my shamanic practice. It’s important for me to work with therapists and coaches who can take feedback and adjust when things are not working.
Making lasting, positive change in your life
Using the model of body, mind, and spirit, you would seek a way to integrate all three in your change. And what you’ll find, often, is that you will create effects that ripple out throughout your entire life. For example, my shamanic practice is important to my mental health but it also makes me a better dad, coach, and friend.
Let’s say you want to get into better physical shape. Clearly, you want to tackle the physical part of with diet and exercise. However, without the proper mindset and emotional state it may be difficult to stick to any kind of health program. And though the change you want to make seems entirely physical, there are also aspects of mind and spirit.
You’ll be more effective if you address things like habits and belief systems. Dig deeper into your goal. The deeper you go, the more spiritual the reasons behind our goals tend to be. You might discover a greater vision or a way that your goal will help you become more connected.
A huge part of my journey has been my shamanic practice, meditation, and martial arts. Here, I integrate body mind and spirit.
When you work in an integrated way, the separation between body, mind, and spirit becomes blurrier. But you are firing on all cylinders. You are using all of your resources to make lasting change.
None of this is meant to be prescriptive. If you happen to have depression or anxiety, you have to find what works for you. You should work with professionals in medicine and mental health. This article is merely meant to serve as an example of how consideration of all the parts is a key to making the kinds of changes you want.
Photo credit: Flickr/MoyanBrenn