A shamanic revival is under way in the UK, as practitioners and mainstream psychiatrists embrace cleansing rituals and spirit animals
Kaz Ghalmi, also known as ‘Rains Many Arrows,’ sparks up cigarette lighter and holds the flame to a sprig of dried mugwort, an English herb known for the sweet aroma produced when it burns. As the leaves begin to curl and glow, he blows on the embers, then wafts the fragrant smoke over his face and arms, as if washing in the open air. The ritual complete, Ghalmi passes the smouldering bundle, held in a clam-like shell, to the next of about 20 people standing in a circle in a secluded field in south Oxfordshire.
When everyone has taken their turn ‘smudging’, as the smoke-bath is called, designated ‘Fire Keepers’ pile split logs high and light a sacred fire. In the heart of the flames sit dozens of granite stones, known as the ‘Grandfathers’. When the rocks can’t get any hotter, the participants change into loose-fitting clothes, then take turns to crawl through the narrow entrance of the ‘lodge’ – a low, igloo-like structure capped by a white tarpaulin.
It feels like entering a Stone Age burrow: there is a damp-earth smell and the ground feels slippery underhand. It is too dark to see very much, and far too cramped to stand. Women arrange themselves shoulder-to-shoulder on one side, while men pack in equally tightly on the other, the whole group forming a circle around a central, shallow pit. In the half-light, faces acquire a primordial cast, as if everyone has somehow stepped outside time.
Silhouetted near the doorway, Ghalmi calls out to the Fire Keepers, who use a garden fork to bring in the first of the Grandfathers. About the size of half-bricks, the stones have turned so rippling red hot that they appear translucent: it is as if you could see right through the grainy surface and into their lava-like interior.
As the rocks pile higher, people mutter “thank you, Grandfathers” under their breath. At Ghalmi’s command, a heavy drape is furled over the door, snuffing out any trace of daylight. Somebody splashes water over the glowing stones, which hiss ferociously, and the furnace heat becomes almost unbearable. In the stifling, womb-like darkness, an animal hide drum begins to beat, and a ragged but full-throated song erupts in the language of the Blackfoot.
Though the atmosphere is friendly, the proceedings are conducted with heartfelt respect, supervised by Ghalmi and other lodge leaders who have spent years immersed in the Blackfoot tradition, faithfully followed here at Wind Spirit since the start of the millennium.
The heat of the Grandfathers brings different emotions to the surface for each individual, but the singing and drumming leaves no doubt that this is a team effort: nobody was facing their demons alone. Eventually, silence falls, and there is an achingly long pause, before Ghalmi shouts: “Dooooor!” The drape is lifted, daylight pours in, and the temperature eases just a touch. Staggering outside, drenched in sweat, several participants crumple into the grass and lie still, their attire steaming.
Admittedly, this is not a standard Saturday afternoon in the country, but the people who attend the Wind Spirit gatherings at Braziers Park, a residential community about 10 miles outside Reading, are in search of something beyond the banal. Each month, Wind Spirit holds a Native American ‘sweat lodge’ ceremony – a purification ritual handed down by Morris Crow, or Last Tail Feathers, an elder from the Blood Tribe First Nations Reserve in Alberta, Canada.
“Every time you go into the sweat lodge you have a chance to be reborn,” says Andrea Bugari, a corporate coach and one of about 20 people who underwent the ordeal in early November. “I can say: ‘this is the first day of my life.’ I can be whatever I want when I come out.”
In looking to indigenous wisdom for answers to our modern ills, Bugari and the hundreds of others who have sweated at Wind Spirit form a vanguard in a much wider trend. Across Britain, growing numbers of people are quietly reaching back into the archaic past, seeking to swap soul-sapping consumer culture for an encounter with a more elemental, enchanted way of living at weekend workshops, festivals and retreats.
For some, this quest leads to a contemporary version of shamanism – a universal form of spirituality dating back to Paleolithic times. The core role of the shaman is to lift the veil of ordinary reality and make an ecstatic journey into invisible worlds inhabited by celestial ‘spirit guides,’ helpful ‘power animals’ and more sinister beings. In these imaginal realms, tribal shamans would seek hidden knowledge, scry into the future, or cure disease by retrieving lost parts of a person’s soul, which can splinter off through illness, heartbreak or a brush with violent death. Today, shamanic practitioners in the West work with the same cosmology, changing their state of consciousness with the pulse of a rattle or drum.
“Shamanism has always been the way that people have found to live in balance with themselves, their community and their environment,” says Ya’Acov Darling Khan, a veteran shamanic practitioner whose School of Movement Medicine works with rhythm and dance. “We’re helping people to shift their attention from their self-judging, self-critical, or judging-of-others state of mind into a more curious, childlike fascination with what’s going on.”
In common with eastern spiritual practices drawn from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, shamanism entered Western popular culture during the 1960s, when millions of young people became fascinated with esoteric teachings, the occult and psychedelics. The appeal of the shamanic path lies at least in part in its promise of spiritual democracy: unlike in the pyramidal structures of organised religions, there is no rule book, and the emphasis is on trusting your own unseen ‘guides’. But while yoga and meditation have since migrated firmly into the mainstream, shamanism has – at least until relatively recently – remained confined to the fringes, perhaps because it poses a more explicit challenge to our habitual mindset.
When you go into ceremony, you’re stepping out of what we consider to be ordinary life: there’s a distinction that we have now moved into something different
“For me it’s really simple: in shamanism you are given the proposal that spirits exist,” says Simon Buxton, a cultural anthropologist who founded The Sacred Trust shamanic training centre in Dorset in 1995. “A human being isn’t capable of manifesting miracles – but they are in partnership with transcended, enlightened, wise, compassionate, loving spirits. And that’s the leap that needs to be made – or let’s say to be explored as a proposal. That’s the reason why it’s taken rather longer to find its place.”
Certainly, it could be argued that Britain needs all the help it can get in facing up to its modern malaise. Prescriptions of anti-depressants have doubled in the past decade, while many people who receive the kind of short-term psychotherapy offered by the NHS don’t seem to get much better. Even for those who manage to avoid bouts of diagnosable depression or anxiety, the baseline psychic cost of living in a smartphone-
addicted, ecologically-destructive and increasingly unequal society can spur a yearning for a more profound relationship with the cosmos.
It was the late Terence McKenna, ethnobotanist, psychedelic explorer and raconteur extraordinaire, who coined the term ‘archaic revival’ for his vision of a shamanic revolution that would not only save mankind from destroying the planet, but overthrow the capitalist ‘dominator culture,’ reawaken the pagan Goddess and mark the endpoint of history. While few of today’s practitioners subscribe to such an ambitious agenda, they are nevertheless aware that even mentioning ‘spirit guides’ or ‘soul retrievals’ can frequently produce bafflement, and sometimes hostility. Indeed, the more hard-nosed sceptics might suspect some less scrupulous ‘neo-shamans’ of exploiting vulnerable, fantasy-prone followers susceptible to magical thinking.
There are also concerns that a clumsy embrace of practices from North and South America, Equatorial Africa, Australia and elsewhere could veer into a form of ‘cultural appropriation’, adding insult to the genocidal injuries committed by European settlers only a few generations ago. Views differ widely, too, on the merits of experimenting with psychoactive plant medicines, notably ayahuasca, which is associated with shamanism in the Amazon basin but widely illegal in the West.
Nevertheless, there are signs in Britain that the shamanic-counterculture is gradually starting to project its influence beyond society’s margins. Some shamanic practitioners are using their skills to help corporate executives tune into their intuition and trust their instincts, while a small but growing number of psychotherapists are also harnessing shamanic-style techniques.
In Scotland, for example, a number of highly qualified NHS psychiatrists have embraced a new approach to trauma called the Comprehensive Resource Model, developed by US psychologist Lisa Schwarz, who draws on Native American and other indigenous healing traditions. One of the beneficiaries was a former soldier who has worked with an invisible ‘power animal’ in the form of a jaguar to safely confront his traumatic memories, both from tours overseas and from being physically abused as a child. His psychiatrist has a ‘power animal’ too: a honey badger that helps him persevere in difficult meetings, just as the real animal doggedly excavates hives in defiance of angry bees.
Intriguing as such allies might sound, such subjective experiences are by their nature hard to verify. Yet participating in an authentically sacred setting – such as Wind Spirit – does open a window into the transformational power that such ceremonies can evoke. Places where people can safely share their vulnerabilities and feel heard without fear of judgment are hard to find in modern-day Britain. But Wind Spirit and a number of other spaces clearly create a kind of ‘status-anxiety free zone’ where strangers felt comfortable opening up about their personal struggles, often for the first time.
“I’ve often described this as the safest place I know,” said Jonathan Paul Martin, a project manager at a software company, who has been sweating at Wind Spirit for years. “Sometimes in the sharing circle people will just say ‘I’m really having a hard time’ and we don’t need to know why.”
The idea is to set a clear intention before you go in: perhaps to dissolve some old psychological or physical pain; call in some kind of blessing; seek creative inspiration or offer prayers for a loved one. Each of the four or five rounds of sweating typically held at each ceremony lasts about half an hour – though it can seem like a great deal longer.
Every time you go into the sweat lodge you have a chance to be reborn. I can say: ‘this is the first day of my life. I can be whatever I want when I come out’
Before the sweat, strict protocol is followed. Offerings of tobacco are placed on an outdoor altar, where fresh red roses protrude through the eye sockets of a sun-bleached buffalo skull, and an imposing carving of an eagle stands guard. After the ‘smudging’, participants are invited to say a little about why they they’ve come, and do their best to join in with the Blackfoot songs led by Ghalmi and other experienced hands. Visitors to the lodge are not required to share a belief in spirits and no mind-altering substances are used. Lodge leaders describe their tradition as ‘earth-based medicine’, as opposed to shamanism in its strictest sense.
Unfolding over several hours, these kinds of sacraments seem to switch off the inner chatter generated by the everyday, analytical part of the mind and allow a more creative, intuitive state to shine through. For some, this can lead to remarkable breakthroughs.
“When you go into ceremony, you’re stepping out of what we consider to be ordinary life: there’s a distinction that we have now moved into something different,” says Ghalmi, who is 45, and works as a behavioural change facilitator at Sofea, an Oxfordshire charity that provides training for young people. “We can access the subconscious through it – which is the part that needs to heal.”
Ghalmi is certainly persuaded that sweat lodges can harness powerful forces. Growing up in Oxford, he spent most of his teens and twenties battling alcohol and drug addictions. He says the turning point occurred at his first ceremony about 16 years ago, held by a visiting Native American healer. After he emerged from the lodge, the elder took a hard look at him and said: “You’re full of holes.” He sent Ghalmi back inside.
That night, Ghalmi dreamt he was standing alone under a flawless sky. Two dots appeared, rapidly morphing into an eagle and a hawk. The birds swooped and began tearing at his skin with talons and beaks, rapidly picking his skeleton clean. When he awoke, he felt as if the raptors had devoured a lifetime of emotional pain.
“I didn’t fully understand what had happened, but I knew there’d been a massive shift. I just had a sense inside me that I wasn’t going to use drugs again,” Ghalmi said. “I’ll keep it simple: I had a spiritual awakening which allowed me to leave my old self behind.”
Such death-and-rebirth motifs are common in shamanism, and it was perhaps no coincidence that Ghalmi subsequently discovered Wind Spirit, where he has spent years learning Blackfoot traditions, and painstakingly progressing into a leadership role.
Though shamanism naturally lends itself to rural settings, some young Londoners are also drawn to experiment. In a studio in Hackney Wick one recent Tuesday evening, about a dozen men and women, including a city economist, a chef and a ‘vibrational therapist’, gather for a weekly course run by Miguel da Silva, a shamanic practitioner who has trained in Peru. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, a medallion with a silhouette of a bear and a waistcoat patterned with Day of the Dead-style skulls.
Da Silva explains the practice of ‘smudging’ – using smoke from dried sage, frankincense or sacred bark to clear away any ‘negative energy’ you might have picked up in the bus, office or Tube. He demonstrates a range of birds’ wings and feather fans – all ethically sourced – used to waft the smoke, advising his students to flick any ‘energies’ upwards so spirits could absorb and transform them. Later, participants divide into small groups and perform spontaneous, interpretive dances to express the elements of air, water, earth and fire. Da Silva speaks about how the spirit of the snake had much to teach humans about shedding old emotional patterns, just as a serpent sheds its skin.
“What we do is pass on the wisdom of the ancestors and help people to change through that knowledge,” Da Silva says. “Everything we do is geared towards people stepping into their power.”
Whether or not the ‘archaic revival’ quietly taking place across Britain will reshape the broader culture, the sense of community fostered by these pioneers is genuine. At Wind Spirit, an afternoon in the company of the Grandfathers can trigger a cathartic release of emotions you might never have known you were carrying. The reward is an inner glow that persists long after the stones have cooled. Jamesy, a soft-spoken regular at the lodge, sums up the benefits that keep drawing him back: “A bit of clarity – and good, wholesome friendship.”