Today I’m interviewing a very special author… Paul Francis is a psychotherapist, shamanic practitioner, teacher, writer, and founder of the Three Ravens College of Therapeutic Shamanism, in North Wales.
Citing shamanic practices as fundamental to our re-connection both with ourselves, and with the living environment, I’m excited to explore how our world views can influence and shape the ways in which we relate with nature.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
With a background in philosophy and anthropology specialising in tribal cultures, Paul has worked in hospitals, taught sign language, studied complementary medicine and various spiritual traditions, and has been a practicing psychotherapist and supervisor for the last 30 years.
He is the author of a wonderful series of books on the subject of Therapeutic Shamanism, and runs courses in shamanic practice across the UK.
Written, recorded & produced by Nathalie Nahai © 2019.
NN: Hello, and welcome to The Hive podcast. Today, I am really excited to be interviewing a very special author, PF, a psychotherapist, shamanic practitioner, teacher, writer, and founder of The Three Ravens College of therapeutic shamanism in North Wales.
With a background in philosophy and anthropology, specialising in tribal cultures, Paul has worked in hospitals, he’s taught sign language, studied complimentary medicine and various spiritual traditions, and he’s been a practicing psychotherapist and supervisor for the last 30 years.
He’s the author of a fantastic series of books on the subject of therapeutic shamanism, and he also runs courses in shamanic practices. I first came across his work last year when I read The Shamanic Journey, a deeply moving and really practical book that explores the history, and practice, and importance of various shamanic traditions in today’s world.
And citing these kinds of shamanic practices as fundamental to our reconnection, both with ourselves and with the living environment. I really wanted to bring him onto the show to explore how our world views and relationship with nature can influence and shape the ways in which we perceive it.
So, Paul, thank you so much for joining me in conversation today.
PF: You’re very, very welcome. Thank you for asking me, really appreciate it.
NN: Pleasure is all mine. So before we dive in, I’d like to start by asking you about definitions, because these days the word shamanism is often used as a very broad, often catch-all term for a whole range of animist, pantheist, and mythic traditions. So I’d like to start by asking, what does the word shamanism, or shamanic practice even, mean to you?
PF: Well, that’s actually starting with probably one of the most controversial questions. There’s a lot of arguments within the shamanic community about this. So I’d have to preface what I’m about to say, by saying that this is just my opinions on it. It’s a bit like religion, or politics, or football. Everybody’s got their own opinion on things. The word originally comes from the Evenki people, who lived in the Mongolia/Siberia region. It was the term they used to describe their spiritual practice, and there are some practitioners who still want to restrict the term to Evenki or Evenki-like practices. But I tend to take a much broader view on it, and this is largely because the word shamanism entered the English language from what we know about 500 years ago, and its use has changed, radically over that time. It no longer just describes that particularly, culturally specific practice.
So there are five characteristics, for me, of shamanism, so I’ll give you the bullet point versions of them. So shamanism is a part of animism, and animism is the experience that everything is alive and conscious. And I say experience because this is not a belief system. It’s not like we think of religions, there’s no leap of faith involved in this. Before we discovered agriculture, starting around about 11000 BC, obviously all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, and from what we know from anthropology, all hunter-gatherer cultures were animist. And that means that the people in them experienced the world in quite a different way to us modern humans. They actually experienced the things around them being alive and conscious.
NN: As opposed to it just being a construct in the imagination, or a concept.
PF: Yeah, or things that we don’t even think of as being alive, like mountains and rivers and so on. So animism is part of shamanism, without animism there is no shamanism. The shaman would have been an animist in that case, but had extra abilities, if you like. The shaman not only knew that everything in this physical world is alive and conscious, all be it that consciousness might be very different to our kind of consciousness. The shaman also knew that there were worlds beyond this physical world, what we call the shamanic realms, and had the ability through what’s usually referred to as shamanic journeying, to leave their body, travel those worlds, interact with the beings there.
So in doing that, its important to understand that the shaman had a particular role in the culture as well. So they were animists, they had this ability to leave their body and travel these other realms, but none of that was done for personal gain. There is no shamanic cultures anywhere that I’ve ever found where there is versions of shamans who are hermits, or sort of live in the mountains on their own or things. Shamanism is a role within society. The role of the shaman was to be of service, so the shaman would be able to leave their body, travel to the other realms, and bring back the healing gifts and knowledge for the people. And that wasn’t just for the human people, either.
In shamanism, we talk about humans as just being one of the family of people, but we’re actually the… we’re the youngest and most naïve of all of the peoples, actually. We’re the naughty children, really. We also have the animal people, of which obviously we’re a part, the plant people, the standing people, who are the trees, part of the plant people, and the stone people, the oldest and wisest of the people. So the shaman was the intermediary between the humans and the other peoples, and the advocate of all the peoples. The person who held council of all the beings, basically, and helped the tribe live in right relationship with the other beings that we live with on the planet.
NN: So maintaining a balance within an ecosystem of which we form a part.
PF: Absolutely, yes. And it is no coincidence at all that everything that’s gone wrong, and the environmental disaster that we are now weighing, has been ever since we started killing off our shamans, or turned away from shamanism.
NN: And so let’s talk a little bit about that, because what I find really curious is that in recent years, a lot of people in Western cultures, more, let’s say kind of pro-science, pro-analytical thinking, secular cultures, a lot of people in these cultures have started talking about and exploring “shamanic practices”. Many of which, the ones that remain, are in far-flung places like Latin America, or places in parts of Australia, et cetera. What do you think it is that is calling people who have long lost our own native traditions, of which I think most cultures used to have them. What do you think is calling people back into that? Do you think it is this lack of right relationship with our environment?
PF: Absolutely. I mean, we are facing catastrophe.
PF: It’s… the scale of it is just hard to take in, it’s breathtaking. And of course we’re looking, well any sane person’s going to be looking for what on Earth have we done wrong? How on Earth did we end up here? And how on Earth can we put this right? And the answers are not going to be found in the things we’ve been doing for the last few thousand years, because they’re the things that led us here.
Daniel Quinn, the author of some… well, some books that changed my life, really, he talks about something called the Great Forgetting, and it’s basically the winners write history. So the culture we live in, which he calls the Taker culture, have written history, and they basically say that anything that existed before what we laughingly call civilization is just not really worth considering really. It was just primitive, brutish, and so on, when in fact the Bible even goes so far as to say the Earth is only 6000 years old, which interestingly is the start of what we call civilization, city-state cultures.
NN: Ah, that’s interesting.
PF: It is. We even call the time before the rise of the city-state cultures, we call it pre-history, as if history didn’t even start-
NN: That’s so true.
PF: Until 6000 BC. The reality is that we, homo sapiens, we’re roughly, stick it a round figure, something like 200000 years old as a species. And that means for the vast majority of human history, we were living as hunter-gatherers in a culture that was, by any sane model of cultures, was… It had fantastic mental health from what we know, it was environmentally sustainable, just all sorts of measures, basically. But the Great Forgetting is, none of that exists. What we’ve been doing, for the last 6000 years, just hasn’t worked. I mean, it’s led us to this.
So we’ve got to start looking to, as you said, these indigenous cultures that are left, and the knowledge that they’ve managed to hold on to. Because that’s going to save us.
NN: And so when we talk about these sorts of experiences, some people experience some of the things that in indigenous cultures they would recognize as shamanic experiences, or experiences that call to them to enter into relationship with the natural world, and be their advocates. For you, one of the things I found interesting in your book is that you talk about how these experiences still happen, but they can actually be quite difficult to recognize, because we just don’t have the structures of thought or concept to understand them in this specific way.
So what allowed you to understand that your early experiences were indeed these initiatory experiences, and how might other people recognize theirs, potentially, as being such?
PF: Well, at the time, I didn’t, because I had no template for it. Daniel Quinn also wrote another book called Providence, which I just recently read. It’s actually a sort of autobiography, and he talks about it’s only as you get nearer the end of your life that you can look back and see all the times that your soul was really calling to you.
NN: Oh, that’s interesting.
PF: And you can see also all the times where you went down blind alleys, or got led off the path and things, and all the years you might have wasted doing things. But if I look back, shamanism was calling to me right from my early childhood, but I had no idea what it was. So I went to university, for instance, and I actually signed up to do sociology, but you have to sign up for two other subjects the first year as well. So I signed up for religious studies, and opted for a course on what was then called studying primitive cultures. No idea why, how do you not think about it?
NN: But just this sense of wanting to explore it.
PF: Exactly, and just thing, after thing, after thing in my life like that. But it’s only with hindsight I can see it. So even at university, when we were studying what we called primitive cultures, we didn’t use the word shamanism then, but absolutely what we were studying were shamanic cultures. It wasn’t until probably my mid to late 20s that I started to sort of twig that there’s a bit of a thread here, bit of a theme.
So the characteristic, I would say, because not all spiritual experiences are shamanic, the characteristic of a shamanic experience is this experience. It’s not a belief, or a leap of faith, it’s an experience that the things around you are conscious. Not in the same way that humans are, and that’s one of our great narcissisms as a species, is to only recognize consciousness if it’s like ours.
PF: But plants are conscious, mountains have a consciousness. It’s just very different for us. For me, it’s a characteristic of shamanic experience that… it’s this waking up to the fact that the world around you is live, and also that there are realms beyond this one.
NN: I think it’s fascinating, because I think a lot of people listening to this may find it really difficult to get their heads around this idea of other beings being conscious, or other beings having their own inner lives, I think. Because we’re so used to thinking of the world as this warehouse of resources that we use up at our, I suppose at our beck and call, I think. And there’s kind of this sense of dominion, which actually is indeed put in the Bible and in other places. This idea of dominion and hierarchy, that we somehow think that we’re better than, as opposed to a part of, this wider web of life.
PF: Yeah. All terrible stories that we tell ourselves.
NN: Yeah, really quite damaging stories. And so I wonder what are some of the ways in which your practice, especially in the early days, maybe, shaped or changed your perception of our relationship with the world, and moving away from the sense of resource, and we’re humans, and we’re the only ones with an access to soul, or whatever it might be, to this more enriched version of what life is?
PF: Gosh, that’s a big question. Going back to the things being conscious but different to us, we think of science as being very rational of things, but actually it operates in what the philosopher Kuhn called paradigms, that scientists are raised in these paradigms and don’t tend to think outside them. So we think that consciousness is like something that we possess, and so there’s a test scientists do on whether… to find out whether animals are conscious. So they might put a sticker on an animal’s forehead, and show it a mirror. And if the animal can recognize itself in the mirror, and then take the sticker off, that’s a conscious animal. So chimpanzees will do it, and ravens will do it, and so on. Slugs tend not to.
So we think they’re not conscious, all we’ve measured is self consciousness, okay. To understand how other things are conscious, you have to think beyond self awareness, and think in terms of collective awareness. So an individual blade of grass has no consciousness, but for shamans a plant like grass is a planet-wide being. It has a huge consciousness. An interesting… what’s the guy’s name that wrote Sapiens?
NN: Oh, Yuval Noah Harari.
PF: Fantastic book. Oh, and even he, he’s not seemed to me very spiritual or sort of mystical, even he ponders in his book Sapiens about grass being conscious, just because of the way it’s manipulated us, in a way. If you look what it’s got us to do, it’s quite astonishing.
NN: In terms of cultivation of things like wheat, and… yes.
PF: Yeah. So who’s manipulated who, here? So there’s a Star Trek episode-
NN: Oh, I love Star Trek.
PF: Where the Enterprise is boarded… well, things start going wrong for the Enterprise, and they eventually realize that the Enterprise has been boarded by these aliens who move at an incredibly fast speed, so fast that they’re undetectable. So to those aliens, the Enterprise, and the crew and things, they’re just lumps of inanimate matter.
NN: Oh, that’s so interesting.
PF: So recently, there’s some scientists that have really started some amazing research about how intelligent plants are, and the stuff that has come out is just quite extraordinary. And one of the scientists says that the reason we’ve not realized it before is just because we haven’t slowed down enough.
NN: Huh. That’s so fascinating.
PF: If you really want to understand what it’s like to a plant, you’ve got to A, stop thinking in terms of individuality, you’ve got to think in terms of the species, it’s the species that’s conscious. And B, you’ve got to think on a completely different time scale. Now, take that even further. Think about understanding the consciousness of stone. Just think about how much you have to slow down to do that.
So, I’m a psychotherapist, as well, and so what if I’m working with a client, and I’m not really resonating with them, I just don’t get them, or I just don’t understand them. If I become conscious of that, what I would do as a psychotherapist is try to really get inside them. So really put myself in what would it have been like to have been raised in the way they were raised? To face their choices, to have walked in their shoes, and so on?
And when you do that, what happens is empathy. So shamanism has a very similar thing, we call it shape shifting. So on the shamanic journey, you can go and say you want to understand what it’s like to be an oak tree. You can… first off, you’ve got to really slow down. And then you’ve got to stop thinking in terms of animal, you’ve got to stop thinking in terms of, there’s places to go, things to do. You’ve got to hunt food and things, because trees don’t have any of that. There’s nowhere to go, there’s no agenda. Now, just think what that would be like.
NN: Sounds quite peaceful, actually.
PF: Yeah, and then the time scale that they live, and if you do that, you can start to get into what it’s like to be a tree. And clearly, this is a sentient being, it’s just sentient in different ways.
NN: I think also what’s really fascinating, one of the threads I’d like to pull on is this idea that the way that we conceive of intelligence, and awareness, and aliveness, is very individualistic and self oriented, certainly in more individualistic cultures. And all the research that’s coming out around, for instance the book that was written called The Hidden Life of Trees, entire forests communicate with one another, and there’s this sense of us being so limited, sadly, in our scope of what our experience might be like that we project that onto others and therefore limit the possibility of what exists beyond us.
PF: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
NN: So what are some of the ways in which people who are not necessarily familiar with shamanic practice can start to reframe their experience of the natural living world? So they can enter a different kind of relationship with it?
PF: Well, I mean that book you mentioned is fantastic reading to me, it’s just eye opening. I mean, I don’t know, because… I see us waking up to this stuff all over the place, but the only bit I really can contribute to is the shamanic aspect of it.
PF: So my small contribution, as it is, is to do the thing that I could do, which is to teach people how to do shamanic journeys. And then in shamanic journeys, you just literally experience this stuff, and the fascinating thing is, I mean, I’ve taught hundreds and hundreds of beginner’s days now, and although the shaman was somebody who had sort of extra abilities, everybody in a tribe once would have been an animist. They would have experienced the world just being alive.
When I teach an intro day, I start off saying, “By lunch time you will have been able to do a shamanic journey, and you will have met and become an animal, and experienced what it is like.” And people think that’s ridiculous. By lunchtime, 99.99% of people have done it.
NN: And do you think people… are people very surprised at their capacity for this seemingly quite extraordinary experience?
PF: Yeah, absolutely, it’s mind blowing. People are just aghast at what they’ve done. But to be honest, I mean I’ve been doing this decades, and it still yeah, in terms of the scale of human history. How we are in the modern world is not normal. It’s just the last 6000 years have been a total aberration, but this isn’t normal. It is normal for us to experience things around us as being alive and conscious.
NN: What have been some of the most powerful experiences that you’ve facilitated for people who have been quite unfamiliar with this practice, and then they’ve come in and they’ve had something quite ground shifting happen in these situations?
PF: Well, interesting. I mean I have seen all sorts of astonishing things happen.
NN: I can imagine.
PF: But honestly, I mean I could tell stories about weird things, but it kind of gives the wrong impression of it, I think. Because I think the thing that’s really astonishing about it are the small things, and the way they eventually build up to profoundly change you. So for instance, people when they start off in shamanic work are always worried about, “Am I making this up?”
PF: And when you start journeying, you are making a lot of it up. But there will be something that happens in a journey, you’ll come across a particular plant, or stone, or something. Sometimes it’s a plant you don’t even know consciously, you have to Google pictures of it and try and identify it. Then when you read up on what the healing properties of that thing is, your jaw drops open. I mean it just… it is astonishing. And this happens, not every journey, but every other journey or one journey in three, and things, it’s stuff you just didn’t consciously have any way of knowing is absolutely spot on. And that makes you start to realize that there is something real about this, this is really… there’s something behind all this.
NN: So there’s something that comes into consciousness, which they didn’t have access to, something they couldn’t have known.
PF: Yeah. And the reason we think this is impossible is because we think in terms of separation. Take consciousness, for instance. So, let’s talk about scientific paradigms. So, in science, the normal paradigm, what Kuhn calls normal science, the dominant science of any given era, the normal science says that consciousness is a product of complex brains. It’s about our complex brains, and brain activity. There is literally no scientific evidence for this anywhere, like literally none, and this is based on materialistic thinking, and about separation. And what Derrick Jensen, the brilliant Derrick Jensen calls, “The myth of human supremacy.”
A much older idea is animism, or its various forms… panpsychism, which goes right back to Plato, or new term, Steve Taylor, the author who’s come up with panspiritism… is what if consciousness is actually what the universe is made of? That what we are is simply receptors of consciousness.
NN: Kind of like the way that a radio would be picking up signal that was already existing.
PF: Yeah. Exactly. So the idea then, that you could go into an altered state of consciousness where you’re receptive, and then retrieve information about a plant or an animal you knew nothing about makes perfect sense. There’s no problem.
NN: And actually it’s interesting when you think about it in fairly modern terms, so a lot of Carl Jung’s work about the collective unconscious, and the stories that people write about, especially people who are poets, or artists, or musicians, who talk about shared stories that pop up at different parts of the world at the same time, like these ideas exist somehow, and are just waiting to be embodied in some form.
NN: You do hear these stories of such extraordinary things happen… or maybe they’re not extraordinary, maybe that’s just our misconception.
PF: Well they’re only extraordinary if we think in terms of separation. If we think in terms of collective consciousness, then that makes perfect sense. It’s like Rupert Sheldrake, Hundred Monkeys? Once a certain number of monkeys, or whatever it is, learn something, then it just starts popping up all over the world, basically. So Sheldrake did some experiments where they had two identical mazes that rats could run, and so rats in New York learnt the maze, and so when they released the rats in London, those rats learnt the maze quicker, because the rats in New York had already learnt it.
NN: I mean that’s a fascinating idea, that that’s… yeah, that that’s even possible is a fascinating idea.
PF: But it is. It makes perfect sense if you stop thinking in terms of separation.
NN: So how much do you think this paradigm shift is necessary for us to change the way that we’re relating with the world now? So changing the way that we consume, changing the way that our political and economic structures are set up? So this idea that actually, there isn’t such a separateness between us, and our natural world, and all our more than human kin.
PF: Without it, we’re doomed. I mean we’re literally, it is… there’s a book I’ve just ordered off Amazon, I can’t remember the guy’s name, but it’s basically the research is it’s far, far, worse than most people realize. It’s like, we’re not going to survive this. It’s essential. And I often hear people say, as well, in shamanism, or that… well, all sorts of people say, “Actually, that might be a blessing. If we die out, life will continue. We actually maybe some just horrible virus or…
That may be true in the sense of the human race, but the problem for me is that we are going to take down something like 90% of the other plant and animal species on the planet with us. I mean, be it what’s called the Anthropocene Extinction. It’s… the figures are, there may be one a week, every day, basically, so it matters not just to us, it matters. And so we have to start changing our paradigm, the way we think about things. We’ve got to tell ourselves different stories. The stories we’ve been telling ourselves for the last few thousand years are just terrible.
NN: And so how do you think we begin to take back these stories? Because you mentioned earlier about how history is written by the winners, which we all know, especially if we belong to any non-majority group. So what are some of the stories that we can start to tell, and how we might we be able to start to live by those stories, and to spread them and share them?
PF: Well, I think the first starting point is to recognize the bad stories, because we are soaked in them. We take them so for granted, we just think these are true, and they’re not. So things like the myth of human supremacy, I mean that has been a devastatingly bad story, not just to us but to every other thing on the planet. And it’s just, no hunter-gatherers believed that human beings were superior. Stories about hierarchies are normal, hunter-gatherers were not hierarchical. Stories that inequality is acceptable. Hunter-gatherer tribes had no inequality at all.
So there’s a whole pile of stories. The idea that up is good, down is bad, so spirit is good, Earth is bad. That often then gets translated into, men are good, women are bad, and so on. So stories that lead to patriarchy. There’s a whole pile of stories we’ve got to get rid of, and then yes, we need to put better stories in their place. So Daniel Quinn talks about the Great Forgetting, but he says, so what we need is the Great Remembering, and that’s to remember that we were not always like this. We’re not… this is, we’ve gone temporarily mad, we’re ill, but this is not who we are as a species, because we’ve got hundreds of thousands of years of peaceful human existence on the planet.
We do need healthy stories, we’re not going to find them by looking back at the last few thousand years. All hunter-gatherer cultures have some version of that sort of golden era, where their ancestors were wiser, and had more powers, and lived in better harmony with nature and so on. And we need stories like that again. We need a template. So sometimes people say that I have a rosy view of hunter-gatherer… I don’t, at all. I mean I’ve studied different tribes, there were things about that life that were hard, but we need to think about the difference between logos and mythos.
So, logos are things that are factually true, mythos are things that are stories that we need. So if we look at logos, hunter-gatherer tribes were not saintly, it wasn’t some angelic existence. It was hard, and tough and things, but there’s no hunter-gatherer tribe ever destroyed the environments it lived in. Ever. Where city-state cultures do all the time. They had excellent mental health, as far as we know. They had no word for depression in many cultures. They had no social inequality to speak of, women and men were treated with equal respect and so on.
So the fact is, just in terms of actual facts, that culture is healthier than any culture that’s existed since.
NN: And yet we’re so bought into these ways of living now, this idea of civilization being superior, the idea of these structures being superior, when actually there’s huge suffering all over the world. And in, you know, it was completely unstable, unsustainable… yeah.
PF: So go back to mythos, we also need to do as our ancestors do, we need a template. We need a myth of how we should live. For me, looking back at hunter-gatherer culture is both logos, it was actually realistically far better, more sustainable as you say, culture than ours. But also it’s a good myth to have, because it gives us templates, then, stories that we can base a healthier, saner culture on.
So stories about how power should be used properly. Stories about what good leaders actually would look like.
NN: And what might those things look like in our modern culture, do you think?
PF: Well we think leaders should be psychopaths, narcissists, I mean that’s the last people we should be giving that power to. Leadership should be about eldership, and the ability to facilitate, and act for the greater good. We have just all sorts of stories, like we need to stop saying up is good and down is bad. We need to stop denigrating the Earth. Stories about service to the Earth, rather than plundering it.
NN: So some really fundamental, really fundamental realignments-
NN: Of understanding. I’d like to ask another question, it kind of may seem like a bit of a tangential question, but relating to this, and relating to the early idea around people seeking this kind of stuff out, which I also, I mean I’ve been interested in this since my early, my very early twenties. In our search for these sorts of new ways, or I should say really old ways of looking at things, and connecting with things, I personally have experienced, and I know many of my friends have experienced, workshops, and practices, and processes designed to create these sorts of environments, where we can enjoy and learn from shamanic journeying, and other forms of more traditional practices.
And yet, one of the things that I keep hearing about again and again… and that you also mention in your book, which was in some ways quite reassuring to me, just because it means I’m not the odd one out… is that there are so many breaches of ethical conduct, and in extreme cases, abuse in these arenas. Where people are potentially quite vulnerable, seeking for a new way to live, and these are deep things. So this seeming lack of ethic and abuse of power in some of these arenas, how and why do you think these spring up? Do you think that this kind of work also attracts such behaviors? You mentioned earlier stuff like the leaders, psychopathic and narcissistic traits, and I’ve also encountered people like this in these arenas. Or do you think it’s maybe a lack of regulatory structure that creates an environment in which this sort of conduct can flourish unchecked?
PF: It’s categorically not the latter. It’s, put it in a bigger context, I don’t think shamanism is any worse than a lot of other things in this case. I mean, look at religions, for goodness’ sake. You know, the lack of ethics. Look at new age stuff, look at gurus, look at… you know.
PF: The problem is, we live in a culture that has a completely messed up relationship with power. We live in a culture of power over and powerlessness. Hunter-gatherer culture was based on power from within. Nobody had power over anybody else in that sense, so we live in a human culture where people have power over other people. We have power, then, over animals, and plants, and so on. This is one of the stories that we have to change, is the stories we tell ourselves about power.
So I don’t… yeah, it’s not to do with shamanism, it’s just everywhere, people abuse power. In terms of regulatory structure, that’s just buying into the same model again. Regulatory structure is just another power over model.
NN: That’s so interesting, I haven’t thought of it in that sense, but yes.
PF: And I mean, I’m a psychotherapist as well, so I’ve witnessed the birth of things like the BACP, and things that are regulatory bodies in this country. Because people thought, you know, there’s no regulation, therapists can do whatever they want. It’s terrible. And absolutely nothing good that I can see has come out of the last, whatever it is, 40 years of regulation. Therapists aren’t any more ethical, because you can’t impose stuff like that on people. In fact, complaints on therapists have gone up, and up, and up, and up, and up.
Now, if regulation made therapists more ethical, why is that? All it’s done is create a punitive structure. The regulatory bodies, most of them, are just protection rackets, and just impose this top down model that just doesn’t work. It’s just more of the same thing.
NN: So if people did want to find practitioners that were operating from this desire to empower people who are coming to them, this idea of empowering from within their clients, what are some of the things that you think may be useful to look out for? To go, “Okay, well maybe these are some of the qualities that we may seek.” Because we’re having to change a model, it can be quite challenging at times.
PF: I mean really, I get asked a lot to recommend other practitioners, and I can only recommend the ones that I know personally, and I’ve worked with. So I know the people on my practitioner register, I know they work ethically. I’m absolutely sure there are other ethical practitioners out there, but really the only way you’re going to know that is through word of mouth.
NN: Yeah. And relationship.
PF: Yeah. Pieces of paper just don’t mean a thing.
NN: So, okay, so when it comes to modern day initiation, I’ve heard some fascinating, quite difficult stories of people who’ve experienced some kind of awakening through traumatic or life threatening events. Why do you think this happens in this way?
PF: There’s another great question. It comes back to one of the, when I was right at the beginning, when I was going through what actually shamanism means. The one I didn’t get to talk about was one of the roles of the shaman is to be the person who’s outside of society. So societies obviously function by a whole series of social mores, norms, laws, customs stories, myths, and so on that they tell themselves. So shamans say things are as they are because of the stories that thing is telling itself. So our culture tells us these stories, and we buy into them.
What tribes always knew is that most people in a tribe have to believe the stories, because otherwise the tribe just wouldn’t work. But there has to be somebody outside of it, somebody who knows these are just stories. Somebody who, when the stories are going wrong, and no longer working, can change them. So the shaman was somebody who was almost deprogrammed, in a way. So part of the… in a shamanic culture, for instance, as part of your shamanic training you might have to wear your clothes inside out, or back to front for a while. You might have to ride your horse backwards. You’d stand when other people were sitting, and sit when they stood, and so on. All sorts of other things that would shock you out of normal behavior.
NN: That would de-condition you, in a sense.
PF: Yeah. Exactly, yeah. So if you’re really going to get shamanism, it’s not something you can just graft onto current thinking. You have to be outside of it to some extent. And that’s why most people when they really get shamanism, it’s because they’ve been deconstructed in some way by a near death experience, by a breakdown, by something that shatters them. I mean that’s absolutely how I ended up coming to it, was through… well, two and a half near death experiences, and a total and utter breakdown in my mid-life that just shattered any idea of who I was.
NN: And from that shattering and opening, then a growth that’s new and different?
PF: Yeah. Yeah, based on different stories, healthier stories, based on a healthier relationship with the other peoples, and so on.
PF: That’s why, I mean a lot of indigenous people say who on earth would want to be a shaman, because it’s… the process of getting there is…
PF: Difficult, often. Not all of my students have had to walk as traumatic a path as that, but it certainly is common.
NN: I do wonder this, yeah. Like, to what extent is this something which is necessary in everyone’s path of shamanic practice? Because there’s other kinds of more chronic traumas that happen over longer time, maybe, with certain different kinds of punctuating life events as opposed to something quite as extraordinary as near death experience.
PF: Yeah. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, I mean I can be a bit of a drama queen, so I guess that was my path. And also, I didn’t have a teacher, as well. I mean I’m very careful with my students, I know that they’ve got jobs to do, and mortgages to pay, and things, as well, so the way I try to teach it is a set of incremental, step by step practices. And what I do know about this stuff is it actually does work. It absolutely changes you, more than any… I mean I’ve been all sorts of things in my life, I’ve practiced Buddhism, I was into Franciscan Christianity, all sorts of things.
This stuff changes you. It’s like applied psychology. It really changes you, and it doesn’t have to be dramatic, it can be step by step, but it really does change you.
NN: And what would you say, if I can ask probably an impossible question, what would you say has been the most enriching change that you’ve experienced through your shamanic practice?
PF: Hmm. Well, at first I was going to say just actually knowing that everything around me is alive, and conscious. I mean that was pretty profound. But actually I’m going to be more selfish than that, I’m going to say it’s finding what my soul really is. If you… one of the practices my guides taught me, which I’m going to teach my students, is if you imagine, what if this craziness of what we call civilization had never happened? What if we were still living as hunter-gatherers?
Hunter-gatherer cultures needed people to work as a team, to feel happy, and part of the community, and so on. What if you had been brought up in a hunter-gatherer tribe here, and a tribe that wanted you to blossom into whatever it is you were really meant to be, for your unique qualities to really grow and thrive so that they could find their place and use in the tribe, okay? What if you didn’t feel superior to nature? What if you lived in a community of the more than human people, in that interconnected way? If you think about who you would have been, what’s that person like? What would she or he be like as an adult, and then make them real. Really, really get to know them. Visualize them as clearly as you possibly can.
So when you’re going about your life, ask him or her, what would you do here? What would your advice be here? How should I approach this best? And gradually, bit by bit, over time, if you make this a living practice, you start to become that person, okay. And that’s your soul. That’s who you were meant to be, and that is… well, it’s just an astonishing gift to find, really. To live a life with authenticity, I guess. That’s what, on a personal level, I would say, is the most precious gift of shamanism.
NN: That sounds very poetic and very beautiful, and deeply moving. So with that in mind, and also we’re coming to time, I’m kind of lost in our lovely conversation, I have three questions that I’d like to close by asking you.
NN: The first of which, in a brief… well, if one can be brief with these things, in a brief summation, what do you think is your biggest concern for the future?
PF: The Anthropocene Extinction. Without a doubt.
NN: That we continue, and it just… yeah, and it just happens.
PF: There are… the estimates are something between 30 to 300 species going extinct every single day, because of human activity. Like one a day would be a tragedy, one a year wouldn’t be right. 30 to 300 a day. It’s just beyond horrific, and that is my greatest fear, is that we are murdering the world around us.
NN: What vision are you working towards achieving?
PF: Well all I can do is do my little bit, really. Derrick Jensen says, he’s often asked, “Why don’t you teach?” And he says, “It’s because I’m a massive introvert, teaching is like the worst thing I can imagine. What I can do is write,” or the people I know who are writing novels about this stuff, or the people campaigning, and raising money. You have to find what it is you can do, so for me, well it was teaching. But I’ve realized I can get these ideas out to a lot more people by writing.
For me, most shamanic books are just a beginner’s book, over and over again, basically. Or occasionally you get some more specialist bits. But what there isn’t, as far as I’m aware of, is a comprehensive body of knowledge, like it would have been taught as an apprentice shaman in a tribe. So what I’m trying to do is, before I die, leave behind a comprehensive body of shamanic teaching. It’ll be at least a dozen books just to cover the basics.
PF: But is shamanism applied to modern day life, because we… What our ancestors all did with shamanism was take it and apply it to the environment and times they lived in, and we have to do the same. We have to make it relevant, that’s my contribution to this, basically. And to make it really accessible as I can. So that’s my vision.
NN: Which I think you’ve achieved beautifully.
PF: Thank you.
NN: In your first two books, they’re the only two that I’ve worked on, but yeah.
PF: I have been genuinely blown away by how they’ve been received, so that’s really great.
NN: Encouragement on your path.
PF: It is.
NN: So for people listening today, who may or may not be familiar with shamanic practice, what single action would you suggest that we can take as individuals to build a more resilient future?
PF: Well, Derrick Jensen said, “Find the things you love, and fight for them.” I would add to that, find who you are first, do that practice about how would you have been if you’d been brought up in a hunter-gatherer tribe. Who’s that person? And from that place, find what you can contribute, and then find the things you love, and fight for them. Be their champion. Be their advocate. Whatever it is, whether it’s… for you it might be your garden, and making it insect friendly, and getting to know the plants, and giving them homes and things. Or it might be something on the bigger, social scale, but whatever it is, find what you can do to help. That’s got to be personal to whatever your gifts are, really.
NN: Wonderful. So if people want to find out more, they can visit your website, therapeutic-shamanism.co.uk. You’ve got two books currently out, The Shamanic Journey, which is just a practical guide to therapeutic shamanism, and Rewilding Yourself, both of which I will link to in the show notes. Where else do you think it would be useful to point people towards, if they want to find out more about you and your work?
PF: Well on the website I’m starting to include a page with links to other places, basically, so follow interesting videos, and articles, and things. You can also sign up for newsletter, and the third book I’m working on at the moment, I’m hoping to get it out in the summer, and then the fourth book hopefully by the end of the year. Basically I’m trying, I don’t know whether it’s possible, to get two a year out, because I’m aware of how many need to be done, really.
So you can sign up for the newsletter, you can find out about courses on the website. Once I’ve got the third or fourth book out, then the plan is to start doing some online support, as well. So people can sign up for online tutorials, and seminars and things. So go to the website, and sign up for the newsletter.
NN: All right, sounds good. Well, just suffice it to say, thank you very much for talking with me today, and for sharing your stories and your insights, I really appreciate it.
PF: Thank you very much. It’s been great actually, it’s been a blast.