This summer I lost my friend, teacher and mentor, Shannon Kelly. Many who knew him called him Shannon the Shaman. But Shannon was many things. He identified as a “Bubba”, a regular guy who grew up in the South hunting, drinking and loving the outdoors. As a single father to three children, he was deeply committed to parenting as best he could. For me, he was one of the best therapists and supervisors I had the pleasure to work with (he was the first therapist in Portland I met who knew what reaction formation was, and he was an accomplished Ericksonian therapist). Prior to his “coming out” as shaman, he worked 25 years as a mental health professional.
Our first session together was bodywork, held up in the tiny little room down the hall from his kids’ bedrooms (to make ends meet he always worked in his house those first years). Bodywork from a therapist? Actually, he had dropped the mantle of therapist long before, but not the knowledge, as his work expanded into broader and deeper realms. He had fully embraced the knowledge of himself as shaman after calling a Northwest Native American tribe. The woman who had answered the phone had not picked up a phone in ten years. She was the medicine woman and he asked to meet with her. Fresh from the Southwest, guided to work in the Northwest and pursue shamanism by a vision of red-tailed hawks, Shannon asked her who the best teacher for him might be. As the story goes, she laughed and laughed and then told him to look in the mirror.
As I was lying on the table, feeling his large hands elongate into even larger hairy bear claws (yes, he validated chuckling, bear medicine was his main access) I had a very strange sensation.
Shannon, I’m feeling weird. I feel all this sadness leaving my body, but somehow it doesn’t feel connected to me.
That’s because it’s not yours.
Lesson #1: Many of the emotions we carry around with us aren’t even ours.
Wow. That first session was a mind blower. I had been told before that I tend to carry other people’s “stuff” around with me, but until I could actually feel it leaving I really didn’t understand the power and detriment of it. At that point I had been in human services for over 20 years, not to mention my own family’s “stuff” so there was a lot to let go of. I felt immediately lighter after that and subsequent sessions, and the feelings of release persisted. Once we feel what is not ours and let go of it, it becomes easier to stay clear and to know and work with what is really our stuff and what isn’t.
During that first bodywork session I started feeling light and fluttery like I would just float away off the table. This was a familiar feeling, but because Shannon’s energy was so powerful, it became even more pronounced. I had started to feel a familiar dizziness when Shannon placed large river rocks under my hands and feet. The feelings immediately subsided and I felt a really wonderful sense of being calmly present throughout the rest of my session. I loved the sensation of solid rock underneath me and began to breathe more deeply as I relaxed.
Lesson #2: Get and stay grounded
My gymnastics teacher in middle school used to call me Pixie Fairy because I ran on my toes, and no matter what she said, she just couldn’t get me to muster a proper run to the vault. Maybe it’s a result of some of my earlier trauma, maybe it’s my celtic fairy blood, maybe it’s all the air signs in my astrological chart, but for whatever reason being grounded was always tremendously challenging for me, when I even knew what that meant! As I have said in my book, The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, being ungrounded is necessary at times for visionaries, high creative and healers, but we cannot live there. If we are not grounded we are not in touch with our bodies, our emotions and our earthly selves. As long as we are living on Earth, we need a grounded, functioning ego. We need to fully inhabit our body and all of our senses. When we don’t, anxiety fills up the void.
Shannon was very insistent on this point and wasn’t afraid to use tools like big honkin’ river rocks to get me there.
I had been taught by earlier therapists and supervisors to talk about anything and everything that came into my head. This technique came directly from Freud, who discovered the say anything approach of free association was a “royal road” to unconsciously repressed material in the psyche that caused neurosis and mood disorders. So, of course, I wanted to excitedly process all my experiences and thoughts. Shannon listened patiently for a while, and then in a booming mountain man voice said, GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD.
Lesson #3: Your thoughts aren’t as important as you think they are, and they may not even be your thoughts.
Shannon explained. We cannot solve our feelings at the level of our thoughts, and our thoughts distract us and get in the way of getting grounded and releasing. This can result in headaches, malaise, exhaustion and anxiety. If this pattern persists, it can lead to profound depression.
It turns out that he was exactly right from a neuroscience perspective. The cortex, the thinking part of the brain that is all wrinkly and sits on top, has only a few pathways that work themselves down deeper into the emotional brain, the mammalian part called the limbic brain. The limbic brain, on the other hand, has a bazillion ways to communicate its urgent messages to the cortex. This arrangement helps the organism to survive in the environment. For example, if you see a rattlesnake moving towards you on the path do you debate what kind it is, or just jump out of the way with your heart beating hard? I rest my case. (There may be those genetic anomalies that would debate the snake, but they may not survive to have offspring.)
This is why we cannot talk nor affirm ourselves out of our feelings. You can try and try to think of reasons to be happy when you are sad, but does it really work? If it works at all, it only works for a brief period of time. Until the fundamental conflict that is affecting the limbic brain is resolved or released, there will be no peace in our thoughts. The limbic brain is hardwired to the senses and body. Even our sense of smell, our olfactory bulb, is actually part of the limbic brain!
Unless thoughts and words are grounded in the reality of the body and awareness through all the senses, we are just spinning out meaningless stories that can distract us from the work at hand. Actually, I realized later, I was trained to look for overthinking as a therapist. In psychodynamic therapy this phenomenon is called “intellectualizing” and it is classified as an ego defense that affects those who like to experience the world through thoughts and the intellect.
But the important thing I gradually came to understand was that, just as many of the feelings in my body weren’t actually mine, neither were the thoughts.
~ to be continued