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Into the Mystic

Some people are turning to the world of spirits and ritual for cures to their ills. And these days, they don't even have to leave the city to find a shaman to help.

May 27, 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 Southern California.

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, Vienna, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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 West Los Angeles anthropologist and psychotherapist, a Newport Beach chiropractor, a San Clemente author 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 is 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 Aborigines of Australia. 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 archetypal form," he says. "An urban shaman takes the archetypal to a contemporary utilization."

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

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

"A shaman is someone who makes others aware," Nieblas says. "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."

Larry Peters, an anthropologist and psychotherapist who practices in West Los Angeles, is a research fellow of Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Norwalk, Conn. Peters was a shamanic initiate in Nepal.

Peters figures that he devotes 40 hours a month to shamanic work but says he doesn't feel comfortable going into further detail. He maintains there are "hundreds" of bona-fide shamans living and working in Southern California.

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

"It's more open now," he says. "But even a few years ago, I think they would be frightened to even bring this up. Especially the herbalists, who would be fearful of being hunted down by the law for practicing medicine without a license. I tell them to stand your ground . . . this is cultural."

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Shaman-author Harner prescribes drug-free methods, but many tribes around the world use psychotropic herbs in their shamanic pursuits. According to Nieblas, the son of a Mexican immigrant and a member of the Juan~eno band of mission Indians, the Juan~enos used marijuana in pre-mission days, and many still do.

"Of course you won't find many that will admit it," he says. "People talk about Indians using tobacco in their rituals. Why would any Indian use something deadly to their health for sacred ceremonies?"

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