Five years ago I was smack in the middle of a very rough time. My love life and close friendships were in turmoil after two big traumas had removed dearly loved people from my life. I had experienced anger and terrible fights with people I loved. I was sad, depressed, and generally miserable. On the positive side, I had recently gotten a new job in teaching and administration that excited me. I put all my energy and time into my new students. The job saved me emotionally, but it was challenging in very big ways. I needed to grow fast to meet these new demands, but I didn’t have my usual energy and cheery disposition to push me forward.
One day, as I was preparing for a university class, I ran across a concept I recognized from my childhood. I was reading about an illness called
susto , experienced by people living in many Latin American countries and some Hispanic/Latino communities in the United States. Susto
is often called aculture bound syndrome, or a folk illness. That means that it is specific to a particular culture or group of cultures, and it includes both psychiatric symptoms andsomatic symptoms,emotional symptoms that express themselves through physical pain. A person with susto feels depressed, sad, and listless. She or he has low levels of energy and physical symptoms that often include diminishing appetite, rapid weight loss, diarrhea, and fever. The word susto means “fright,” in Spanish, and it happens when a person has a shocking traumatic experience. Hispanics who are familiar with susto say that the experience of shock leads to soul loss
---a little bit of their soul, or vital essence, actually leaves their body because they are in such great distress. My mother, who is from Latin America, sometimes referred to susto when I was a child, so I recognized the term and remembered a little bit about it. As I read, I realized that I had all the symptoms of susto.
“I had no idea that this is what’s been happening,” I thought. “What do I do now?” I didn’t feel skeptical of susto because of my childhood exposure to it, and because as a medical anthropologist, I knew that culture bound syndromes are real to the people who experience them. They should be treated with respect even if a medical professional doesn’t fully understand them. Usually, a person with susto goes to a curandera, or a wise folk healer, who cures the person through a combination of religious ritual, use of herbs and organic materials, and magic. I remembered this from my own childhood, but I didn’t know any curanderas in New Jersey. What could I do?
Fortunately, I am a Wiccan priestess, and I was about to leave for a conference that brings together spiritual and religious leaders and practitioners of many different traditions. I knew that Caroline Kenner, a shamanic healer I respected, would be there. I decided to ask her if she could help me.
I found Caroline during a social event. As I explained what was happening, she looked me over carefully, exclaimed in shock, and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Sabrina, your aura looks like it has had big chunks bitten out of it! You are in bad shape. We have to talk right now!”
Caroline pulled me out of the party and sat me down on a window ledge in the hall. She then began to scold mefor poor spiritual hygiene. “You still need to understand many things about the spiritual world,” she said. “Wiccan training doesn’t tell you about the dangers of anger from others, ill will, and even malicious intent. They often think it can’t hurt you. But just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you. Right now, you are experiencing the bad effects of anger and ill will from people around you. They probably don’t know or understand what they are doing. I want you to understand that this is serious.I don’t have time to do a full healing session with you right now, so I want you to go home and surround yourself with protection immediately. I’ll explain how to do this, and I’ll see you when my schedule clears in about three weeks to do a serious healing.”
Initially, I had trouble believing what Caroline was telling me---very few Wiccan traditions teach their students about malice, ill will, or their effects in any detail, and many avoid the subject entirely. But I felt terrible, and I wanted to heal and feel better. I listened to Caroline’s instructions very carefully, and realized that I had all the experience and training to do what she asked of me. When I got home, I followed her instructions. Immediately, I felt better! In the middle of the process, I felt my clenched internal organs relax in one smooth release of tension. The pain left me, and the relief flooded over me. I felt light and happy for the first time in months, and I could breathe again.
Three weeks later, Caroline and I were able to meet over Skype, and she spent 3 hours healing me and counseling me about how to handle situations like mine if they happened again. A few months later I signed up to take a six month series of classes with Caroline. She told me we would study the magical use of crystals and minerals. But during the first class, I realized we were actually doing much more. Yes, we were learning about crystals and minerals. But we were also spending several hours in a healing ceremony, receiving healing from two to four shamanic practitioners each time.
Every month I traveled to Caroline and spent the day learning how to use crystals through hands-on experience. I watched, listened, and took careful notes. I made sure to arrive early and help set up her altar, handling each stone carefully and asking about what it could do. When the altar was ready, the class and I received healing from her and her most advanced students. I attended every session. By the end of six months, I had learned a great deal, but even more importantly, I had healed tremendously. I had not expected this. I thought I would just learn about crystals and minerals, but Caroline knew that we needed more than lectures. After the class was over, she invited me to join the first year of her shamanic training course. This would involve driving 3.5 hours to class and 4+ hours back one weekend a month for an entire year. It was a huge commitment for someone with a family and a demanding job.
“I don’t want to be a shaman,” I told Caroline. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The first year you learn shamanic techniques for personal use. You don’t have to go any further than that. And by the way, I am not a shaman. A shaman is a traditional healer trained within a specific culture. I am a shamanic healer,
a person who has learned core shamanic techniques from around the world through a Western teacher. I do not claim to be a shaman. My healing approach is firmly grounded in Wiccan spirituality.” As an anthropologist, I appreciated this. I didn’t want to be involved with anything that ripped off traditional cultures or claimed to use the exact, specific rituals of any cultural group.
I thought about this carefully and talked with my family. My husband asked me why I was doing this, and all I could say was that it felt very important. “OK,” he said, a little skeptically. “I support you. I know this matters a great deal to you”. I could understand his feelings. Adding another layer of responsibilities to my life seemed crazy! But I felt very compelled to do this---I knew I had to study with Caroline.
For the next year, I traveled to Caroline’s classes, often staying with her or another friend the night before. For a few classes, I was able to Skype in, and we all journeyed together, the rest of the class with her physically, and me in my meditation room, rattling and drumming together as we learned to contact our spirits and apply what we learned. I did my best to juggle my academic work with my shamanic training. At school, I taught university students, coaching them as they learned to write and become social scientists, and on the weekends, I learned to practice shamanic healing techniques.
After I graduated from my first year of shamanic training I needed to decide whether I would continue to the second year of work. By this time, my university program was exploding with new students, and its success meant that the job’s demands had gotten even more intense. I was really tired! But I couldn’t stand the thought of quitting. I knew I had to keep going, and I knew I couldn’t do the coming year’s work without a lot of help and creativity.
First, I talked to Caroline. “Look,” I said. “I want to go on studying with you. This feels really important, and I have to do it. But I cannot do the second set of classes in one year. I need to absorb them more slowly, and I need to manage my energy and time carefully. I can see that this is a very intense learning experience. Can I split the second year into two years, and do half of my classes in the first year and half in the second? I want you to know that I will do exactly what I say I’ll do, and l’ll pay for everything up front. I promise that I will work hard, stay on top of everything, and do my very best. Can we do this?”
To my joy and surprise, Caroline said yes. She told me that it was very wise to learn this path more slowly. Going slowly would give me time to integrate everything I was learning, and I would become a stronger, better practitioner. “It’s like soul retrieval,” she said. “It works better to bring a little bit of soul essence back during a healing than it does to bombard a person with too much at once. People can only absorb so much at one time. You are wise to recognize that you can only take in a limited amount at any given time.”
[Soul retrieval is a shamanic technique that allows the healer to bring back lost soul essence to someone who has lost it by experiencing shock or trauma. This condition is described by many traditional cultures around the world, though it is treated and understood in somewhat different ways. You already know a little about how it is described in Hispanic and Latino cultures, where it is called susto.]
For the next two years, I continued to study with Caroline. I was very glad that I split my second year studies in half, because during this final year, Caroline decided that it was time to move forward with her life. She prepared to close her school and move away, and began adding new classes to her schedule so she could transmit more of her knowledge to her students. She hoped that some day, a few of them would teach shamanic healing. Because I had divided my studies into two years, I was able to take many of these extra classes, and by the final six months of my training, I was traveling to Caroline for two (or occasionally three) weekends a months. It was very intense, and it was totally worthwhile. Last December I graduated from The Gryphon’s Grove School of Shamanism and began my apprentice year of shamanic practice. This year I will gain experience by offering my skills to those who would like to work with me, but I will not charge for my shamanic work alone. I will bundle my shamanic skills with Tarot Coaching and with Isabella’s Reiki healing, with the permission of her clients, when my time allows me to do so.
I will solidify my skills, become more practiced, more confident, and more able to do my work, and I will launch my new shamanic healing offerings in 2019. I will also focus on teaching my favorite classes with Isabella in 2018, establishing our group of Reiki, Tarot, and magically trained students. You can see the current list here:
Isabella and I are very excited about this, and we look forward to working with each of you.
I encourage you to read about Caroline Kenner and her approach to shamanic healing here, at http://www.mythkenner.com
If you are interested in learning more about The Gryphon’s Grove School of Shamanism where I was trained, you can read more about it at
In my next post, I’ll talk more about shamanism and how I am learning to practice it. I’ll also explain what I’ll be doing with Isabella as part of my shamanic work, and how I use shamanism during my Tarot Coaching sessions.
In Peace and Healing,