On June 27, 2018 The Urban Shaman sat down with Lisa Wheeler, LPC in her therapy space in Austin, Texas to talk about shamanism, transpersonal therapy, and Lisa's own traumatic experience working with a shamanic practitioner early on in her own initiation process.
Hi- this is Aimee Shaw of The Urban Shaman. I have Lisa Wheeler here with me today and I am excited to offer her the space to talk about her practice and what led her into it. Lisa, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am an LPC (a licensed professional counselor), and I see people age 12 and over. My niche or specialty is helping people who have been through a spiritual crisis similar to what I have been through. So that’s how I connect what I went through to how I help, helping people in that way. And I’ve had a couple of people- one comes to mind in particular who is a client now, who’s situation is so similar to what I went through. It’s very bizarre how similar her story is to mine. She was about my age, had two young kids, married, and there’s just so many similarities. I actually got this client through a referral from one of the more positive practitioners that I had experience with when I went through my crisis.
Now when you say practitioner, do you mean shamanic practitioner?
I don’t know if he calls himself that, but he’s like a medium- he works in that kind of way with people- he does readings and all that kind of stuff.
Okay. So he’s not an LPC? He’s a spiritual practitioner?
Yes, he’s a spiritual practitioner.
How do you normally get your clientele, since your practice is sort of a niche?
Well, I’m on a couple of lists that a lot of times if people are having spiritual emergency type of situations they will find these lists. It’s Stanislav Grof’s foundation for people who are having experiences like these. The belief behind, and caretaking of these people is not the medical model. That’s really not helpful for most people. I’m also on a website that lists me. I think the term there is, or what I call myself is a transpersonal therapist, but most people do not have any idea what that means. I’ve even had people think that it means that I work with people who are transgendered! But it just means that I work holistically with people and if they’re having any, well I work with imagery, you know- mind’s eye work.
Do you consider yourself that then- a transpersonal therapist?
Yes, for sure. But I don’t really advertise so much that way, because I also have more typical clients who deal with codependency, grief, relationship problems. I do all of that too. So there are just a separate number of people who are looking for that kind of work.
How does that fit into your understanding of shamanic practice or what shamanism is?
Well for me that lens, the way shamans kind of view the world, is how my brain naturally works, and so with my traumatic history and the way that traumatic memory works, and that way of working with trauma, to me it is the most comfortable and most natural. And I think for people in those experiences it helps them. It’s both grounding and it also helps them not feel crazy. So definitely I relate to a lot of the imagery, which can be very animated. But a lot of times I have a hard time explaining these things because they’re very experiential and so a lot of it is the felt-sense type of work. I have a hard time explaining felt-sense type of things. It’s the experience of feeling something that somebody else is feeling- it’s that whole intuitive knowing or intuitive feeling.
Do you feel like having that skill makes you a better therapist?
I feel like it helps me get into their world better because definitely no matter who I’m working with, when they walk in I notice what I am feeling like, because usually that indicates what they’re feeling like. And so for me shame is a very distinctive feeling that I can pick up pretty quickly. I know what it feels like myself and then if somebody walks in and they start talking I will suddenly have this body, this really really hot feeling in my body. And that’s an indicator of shame for me, as an example. I don’t always say, ‘oh hey, you’re feeling shame.’ I don’t say things like that, but it gives me an idea of the work. I mean shame is one of the deepest, hardest things to help people out of. And then sometimes I will see images, just different nuances I will pick up. In those cases I will tell people that, ‘I just wanted to tell you that I’m seeing this’, and so I’ll maybe say things like that, but it’s always the layers. I don’t really say, ‘I think it mean this.’ I try to stay away from projecting. Now if I do project, because sometimes that is helpful, I will say I am projecting. I will own it that way. But there are times, especially in dream work, that it’s really appropriate and helpful, and you can say, ‘In my version of this, of the dream that you told me….’ and you own it and that can actually be very helpful to open up things for them.
And I know that you’ve done some of that as well- some additional training in dream work.
Yes, yes. And I really enjoy the shamanic trainings too. That’s the thing- I do normal psychotherapy trainings, but I also do shamanic trainings. It’s not so much that I use what I learned in the shamanic trainings in my sessions per se. It’s more like it opens my mind up to different ways, different avenues within myself, and that translates into the therapy room. So I don’t necessarily take what I’ve learned in the shamanic trainings and say, ‘Hey we’re going to do this thing that I learned in shamanic training.’ It’s just not how I, I know some people may do that, but it’s not how it translates into my work. For me it’s more like it opens up my mind to think in different ways and that helps me come up with creative stuff for my clients.
So I’m wondering, you know enough about shamanism, or the Michael Harner Core Shamanism way to know what that is. Where do you see that in terms of being an LPC? Are these things different or can they fit together?
I think they totally fit together. I took a class with Jeremy Taylor, who unfortunately passed away a year or two ago, but I took one of his dream courses and he is probably one of the people I was most influenced by. I really resonated a lot with what he talked about and said and he was a minister, but he was really into working with dreams. I’m not sure how he would classify himself exactly, but anyway I took a class that he was teaching on dreams and that was when I first heard somebody connect it- “Well all therapists are shamans” [he said]. It’s like the same thing. It’s the same type of work. It’s just different levels. So that really hit me and I think it really is kind of the same. I don’t use the word 'shaman' because there can be a lot of stigma around it, or sometimes it can frighten people. I don’t want to ever- I know my own experience with the shamanic practitioner was actually really frightening. So I want to be careful about that word. I mean it actually kind of has a charge for me personally, to be honest. So I’m careful about it, but it also does really explain what happens between a therapist and a client usually, in regular therapy. So I look at it like I definitely connect the two- they go together.
Well, you know there’s a lot of criticism out there from people who will say that that’s not the case. They say a shaman is a shaman, and that people in the West don’t understand and we all think we’re shamans. But in actuality I think what you’re talking about is psychopomp work, which is one aspect of shamanic work. It’s really being able to guide people or souls, and you’re bringing to it maybe what we would call 'shamanistic skills' to be able to really lean into somebody and press in on their spot, where they really need the healing, because you can intuitively sense it. Versus people that may be- because I don’t necessarily think that all LPCs are shamanistic.
No. Well they don’t really practice that way. It definitely is more of a trauma-based view. It really helps when somebody is working with a lot of trauma and I know not all therapists work with trauma, so that’s true. Another connection I’ve recently made is that it’s all communication- everything. I mean, shamans typically communicate with the invisible world, kind of bridge the gap there, being in two worlds at the same time. That comes down to communication, and you’re doing communication work, trying to understand and accept somebody and help them understand themselves, which again is like the same thing. Shamans are people who practice that way, but are maybe just a little more finely tuned into the nuances that are around. And what you said about the psychopomp work, I do agree because I do think that’s a lot of what we do, even if you don’t know that you do it.
I’m of the opinion that pretty much all projection is almost like black magic. That’s what shame is- it’s like somebody has actually done black magic on you. So you have to remove that.
It’s not like a spirit’s inside of you per se. I mean you can look at it like that, but it’s an energy that you’ve taken in that’s not even really you sometimes. Or maybe it is but it’s kind of permeated into your core. So yes, there’s not a therapist out there who doesn’t work with projection.
It’s just the same thing we struggle with. We’re talking about the same thing, but just using a different language.
Yes exactly. Because projection is energy that is gone into you, that you’ve absorbed. Or an idea.
Right! Shamanistically we would call that a curse.
Good stuff. So, do you want to talk at all about the mental health system, like where it’s at? Do you feel like it’s transitioning at all, or are there changes?
I probably could be more aware of the mental health system in general.
Maybe 'mental health culture' is a better way to say it?
Oh. I think that is definitely becoming more like, just from being on the boards that I read and the Facebook groups, there’s definitely a lot more comfort around, and it’s becoming more mainstream that practitioners, even regular practitioners, are using shamanic methods and things like that to heal trauma. It’s becoming more normalized, so I would say that’s really positive. But as far as, I mean I don’t even have a DSM in here. I don’t really believe that that is helpful at all. So I guess I’m just not one of those typical LPC’s. I don’t really bring out the big book. I don’t really look at symptoms like that to try to figure out what is going on. But that’s still there because a lot of practitioners are still really into diagnosing. I don’t know that I see that changing.
Well insurance companies require a code.
Right. And I don’t take insurance, so that’s one of the things that I don’t even want to dip my toe in. So, I’d rather just, if someone needs a price break, give it to them. Because to me it just takes away some of the sacredness of the work that is done. It’s just kind of a- I have a hard time with that personally because I don’t want to have to classify someone a certain way.
Or hand over treatment notes or that kind of thing.
Well yes, because you’re dealing with such personal things with somebody. It just feels almost insulting to them in a way. I don’t know, I just take that sort of stuff seriously and personally I guess. I just think that it’s not caring. It doesn’t really align with caring for someone. But as far as mental health changing, I think from where I stand I see a lot more typical therapists leaning towards holistic types of trainings and work. They’re definitely becoming closer together I think. It’s not as disconnected or taboo as it used to be.
So how is it being a therapist, because you went the traditional route, which obviously you have to, to be a therapist, to get your education and get your hours in and do all things that are required to become a licensed professional counselor- what was that process like in terms of who you are as a person and your practice?
I absolutely loved school! I have to say I was really, because I actually was thinking about becoming a priest, going the seminary route to be a counselor, or more just like a regular licensed professional counselor. I ended up doing obviously what I did, but part of me was wondering if it was going to be a spiritual type of experience and really meet that need for me as a spiritual being, to go that route. But I definitely felt like I needed to. But I also think I thought that possibly, if I went the other way and I shared about what I went through, my impression was that I wouldn’t be as accepted. I would not be very understood. So for some reason I felt like if I shared with people who were of a typical program, I’m not sure why I felt that, but I remember sort of trying to tease out which direction to go, and that was one of the things. So I just thought, well, I’ll go with the LPC route and I was really pleasantly surprised.
I love psychology anyway, so I just ate it all up, and I was surprised that definitely I was spiritually touched and moved through all of that.
I mean, learning about family systems is just so incredible and it’s so relevant, and learning about Freud and Jung and that whole psychoanalysis and how all that started- I’m really pleased with all that I learned and I felt like it was very relevant and I did meet people who I could share with and I didn’t feel judged at all. But one thing I did not learn about, at all, whatsoever, was anything like what I went through. That was not even touched on in my training- at all. So, all of that I have learned had nothing to do with what I learned at St. Edwards. There definitely was connections, but how to handle somebody in a crisis situation like that, you don’t get any training. You don’t learn about schizophrenia, you don’t learn about psychosis, you don’t learn about any of those types of “disorders” in school. That was all me going through it. I just used my own experiences.
But you had a class in psychopathology, right? Did you have a class in psychopathology, or no? (Nodding yes). So you do learn about it in terms of filtering through the DSM, all the symptoms, how to diagnose, and all of that? (Nodding yes). So you’re saying how to actually work with those people when they present to you?
Right. And even the psychopathology class was extremely limited. I remember writing papers and thinking, ‘this is ridiculous- I don’t even know what I am doing.’ It was just uncomfortable to me, to be honest. I remember just thinking that I don’t really believe in it so much.
So what are your beliefs about these people who come and actually have two, or sometimes even three diagnoses, like Axis I/II/II kind of thing, and they’re all lit up across the board? What would you say is your orientation around those people?
Well, it’s more that I wouldn’t think of them in that DSM way. It’s more like how I experience them when they are here, or just out in the world too. Because a lot of people have really pronounced- I don’t want to say “toxic”, but that is kind of the word I use to describe almost vampiric, where they, and I guess the way I can describe it is where they almost suck in everything else and what’s around them. They’re like a vacuum and they are draining. They don’t mean to. I mean, maybe in some cases they do. But it’s more like, if I am in the presence of someone like that then that just tells me a lot, because I can feel it. So I just use myself as a radar, and not so much like, ‘well I think that that’s an Axis II person.' And it’s funny because I don’t have hardly anyone like that. I encounter those people more just in living and among family members. Those are not the typical people who show up, at least for me.
You know what though- there’s a theme, and often times as therapists we don’t get to pick who we work with- it just sort of happens, and there’s a reason why certain people show up.
I am definitely getting a lot of, there’s a term for it, ‘narcissistic victim syndrome’, and it’s people who have had narcissistic personality parents. That even goes into extents like ‘gaslighting’ and really heavy emotional abuse. And so that’s definitely a theme that I am seeing, so I help the people that are on the other side of that, because they come in with a lot of really difficult issues to untangle with that. I would definitely say that’s something I am seeing a lot- people that have had that kind of childhood.
Interesting. Thank you, Lisa. Do you have any other thing you want to offer- maybe some other burning thing you want people to know?
Yes! I just always like to say this when we’re talking about subjects like this: if you see somebody or you know somebody who is in a crisis like what I described happening to myself (in the video below), I can offer you insight into what to do and what not to do. So, here’s what, because few people know this really- well first of all, you’re not going to get them to change. You’re not going to get them to “calm down” so much. It’s just they’re in a very heightened state, and there’s likely not much you can say or do to get them to come down from it. They’ll come down when they’re ready. Definitely the not helpful thing to do is to not believe them, to deny their experience, like, “what’s wrong with you? You’re hallucinating. You’re seeing things.” Taking that kind of arrogant viewpoint that because you don’t understand it that it’s wrong. That’s really damaging and will serve to completely isolate that person. That person will not feel validated, will not feel understood, loved, cared for. They are so afraid, and they don’t know what’s going on, so the thing that you can do for somebody in that state is to say something like, “I believe you.” And you can even say something like, “I don’t know what the hell you’re going through, but I believe you’re going through something really scary, and I am here to help you.” Those people more likely just need to be grounded. They need help with grounding, because they’re way up in the aethers. So it’s more like talking calmly, just trying to meet them where they are because they’re way up there. I mean, you can join them up there in believing them, but just also be that grounding presence- reminding them to eat, reminding them to sleep, trying to get them outside to walk or swim. You know, doing those kinds of body things that will help them get back into their body. That’s really what’s in order.
I think you bring up a really good point about that because that is the prevalent way of dealing with people like that in our culture. Whereas in shamanistic/animistic cultures if somebody presented like that, immediately the shaman says, ‘hey, come here’, and puts them under his wing. Nine times out of ten those people end up being the shaman, and so they get mentored. There’s a role for them in their culture, whereas here we don’t have a role. We just have a label and we sort of push those people out into the margins of our culture.
I know. And it’s really sad. It’s definitely that thing where the saints aren’t recognized in your own town type of mentality. I think it makes sense in that way too. It’s like they’re viewed as the crazy people. I still even wear that burden from time-to-time, where I can kind of get into that mode where I am remembering how I was. I will sink back into that even now.
But you, in your life, you’ve really been able to transmute that in a powerful way to be of service to people, just based on your experiences and what you went through. But some people, if they don’t have that leg-up, or they don’t have that inner strength, or they don’t have the support system, and for some reason they’re not able to really transmute that, and they can really spiral down more and more and more.
Right. And I did- I had a really amazing therapist. I didn’t meet her until after I had blown up so-to-speak, and it was several months later that somebody just gave me her name, and so a lot of what I’ve learned is just what she’s taught me. How to be present with someone like myself who was so hurt and shattered- I think that’s the best way to describe it. She caught me when I was just totally shattered. I had zero self-esteem, and she was able to really speak into me in a very deep way early on, as to what was going on with me. It’s funny- she doesn’t call herself a shaman either, but I found out recently that she’s been to a jungle and lived with a shaman. So you would never know it, but she definitely has that same kind of idea and similar training in how to meet people where they are when they are extremely traumatized, like I was. She doesn’t advertise that though.
Well that’s the interesting thing about shamanism. I think there’s a stereotype about it. People see these jungle people with these jaguar teeth necklaces and big feather headdresses, and they think that’s what that should be. I’m not personally convinced that here in America our shamans are going to look like that, because it has to really fit into our culture and be acceptable to people. You know, the person has to be an integral part of the community- all that stuff. So you’re not going to go running around out there in the woods, banging your drum, and expect that people are not going to be afraid of that and want to come and see you.
Right. Right. Because it doesn’t fit!
And so the question is, what does shamanism look like in the modern, American culture that we live in?
Yes. So true. And I don’t even know what I would say. I have my companion spirit animal, who I’ve known since I was five years old. And I kind of take on that personality, with being quick and quiet and under the radar. So that fits with who I am and how I work. But I just don’t work directly in the ways I’ve been taught in the shamanic trainings.
Alright. Thank you so much for your time today Lisa. All good stuff!
In the second segment of the recorded interview Lisa talks about her initiation and the life-altering trauma she experienced when she sought the help of a shamanic practitioner.
- Lisa makes the comparison between what shamans do and what psychotherapists do, and that is namely psychopomp (or guiding souls). Yet this is one facet of the shamanic archetype. It's an essential facet for the embodied/practicing shaman. But is this facet alone enough for one to be a shaman?
- Lisa doesn't call herself a shaman, and she isn't aspiring to be one. Yet her experiences, her spiritual emergency (or abrupt initiation), and her innate skills seem to set her up for the shamanic path. Do we need to make a distinction between the 'soul shape' of the individual and the actual external practice in defining what a shaman is?
- What might a contemporary shaman look like? What might the practice look like? What do you expect from a modern shaman?
- Some people in the larger shamanic community guard the term 'shaman' fiercely, and they see shamanism as a narrowly defined role with distinct evidences of practice. However, in Westernized cultures the label seems to be broadening in scope. Do you think we would benefit from creating a whole new term to describe the shamanic impulse and practices, which allows for a broader and more inclusive understanding?
- Lisa briefly discusses trainings she has done outside of the scope of the traditional Western psychotherapy model. Specifically she talked about dream work and shamanic workshops she's taken, and how these adjunct modalities "opened her mind" to new ways of working with her clients. This leans into the question of whether shamans are born or made (Nature versus nurture). Do you think shamanistic individuals are attracted to professions and trainings that are in line with the trajectory they are already on, or do you think these aspects are responsible for shaping the person into an applied path?
- In the video segment Lisa talks about what she believes was sorcery (or "black magic", which she defines as projection) she experienced when she went to see a shamanic practitioner. Does her experience align with your understanding of what sorcery is?
- Does Lisa's experience with being the victim of sorcery inform your practice in any way? How so?
- Lisa equates sorcery with shame, suggesting that sorcery triggers shame within the individual. What other things might be triggered through an encounter with sorcery?
The Urban Shaman is honored to collaborate with other organizations who are working on the frontier of spiritual emergency, bringing a much-needed spiritual lens to the mental health culture. We are currently planning to or are actively building ongoing collaboration with the following organizations: