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Shamanic Frequencies

Among those who maintain that the ancient practice has answers to disease are a Laguna Beach psychotherapist, a San Clemente author and an anthropologist in Orange.

May 16, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps they're disenchanted with HMOs. Perhaps those homeopathic herbs had them breaking out in hives. Whatever the reason, a small but noticeable number of cure-seekers are looking for healing in the world of spirits and ancient rituals.

As far as they're concerned, a medicine man is just what the doctor ordered. And they no longer need to head off to the African bush, or the Amazon basin, or the Siberian steppes to find relief: Urban shamans have hung out their shingles in Orange County.

After being virtually wiped out among indigenous peoples around the globe, shamanism is making a comeback--in the concrete-and-glass bastions of Western civilization. Among the cities where it has a toehold are New York and Vienna, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Locally, advocates of the ancient system of mind-body healing are emerging from varied walks of life. Among those who believe that the basis of disease and its cures lie in another realm--a realm that can be accessed through specific rituals--are a Laguna Beach psychotherapist, a San Clemente author, an anthropologist in Orange and even a long-running mayoral candidate.

While physicians look at cultures under a microscope and to the future for answers, these people look at the cultures of native peoples or into the distant past.

Michael Harner, author of "The Way of the Shaman" (Harper & Row)--a bible, as it were, of the movement--describes the shamanic renaissance that occurred between the first printing of his book in 1980 and the second 10 years later as "startling."

"These new practitioners are not 'playing Indian,' " Harner writes in the current edition's preface. "If they get shamanic results . . . they are indeed the real thing. The shamanic work is the same . . . only the cultures are different."

So what's a shaman?

It depends on whom you ask. The New Age-friendly shaman has all but replaced such terms as "wizard," "witch doctor" and "sorcerer." The beneficent image is that of the baboon Rafiki, Pride Rock's resident mentor and spiritual guide in "The Lion King."

The contemporary shaman--like his or her tribal models--typically uses monotonous drumming to enter an altered state of consciousness to acquire knowledge, or power, or to accomplish specific healing.

Similar practices can be observed among tribal peoples from the Inuits and Lapps of the North to the !Kung Bushmen of Africa, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Lakota Sioux of the American plains and, closer to home, California Indians. Anthropologists say the healers in those cultures typically appear to be in a state of trance or ecstasy and often purport to draw upon the power of animal spirits.

And the healers in modern settings? Those who believe say they are drawing on the same power as the ancients did; those who don't see it as just the latest manifestation of Western civilization's yearning for the exotic.

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Joseph Pascal is a licensed psychotherapist and family counselor who practices shamanic counseling in Laguna Beach. Pascal's offices are adjacent to his art gallery and workshop center, A Shaman's Journey.

"All illness is emotionally based, seen energetically as a blocking in an archetypical form," he says. "An urban shaman takes the archetypical to a contemporary utilization."

Farther south, Joy Parker of San Clemente, co-author of "Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path" (Morrow, 1994), believes that a marriage of shamanism and psychotherapy is a snug fit. "Shamans were the first psychologists," she said. "There's a great deal of similarity. But we live in a mechanized world now, where instead of talking about emotional pain, a psychiatrist will give a person drugs. Not all psychologists have a deep connection to spirit."

At least one political candidate in the county feels shamanism and city government could be just as snug.

Juan Pablo Serrano Nieblas, who is listed on his voter registration as a shaman, is undertaking his 21st campaign--"at least," Nieblas said--for mayor of Orange.

"A shaman is someone who makes others aware," Nieblas said. "That includes politically. In the old days, he was advisor to the chief. He had a few things to say about the way things were run."

Also in Orange, Larry Peters, a psychotherapist, anthropologist and research fellow of Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Norwalk, Conn., lectures at the California Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology and Psychoanalysis. He was a shamanic initiate in Nepal.

Peters figures that at his practice in West Los Angeles, he devotes 40 hours a month to shamanic work but said he did not feel comfortable going into further detail. He maintains there are "hundreds" of bona-fide shamans living and working in Southern California.

Nieblas wasn't surprised that Peters was hesitant to talk.

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