Learning From the Ancients: The Nurse Becomes a Shaman

A massage therapist friend gave me a book titled, "So You Want to Be A Shaman." I never really paid much attention to the book, perhaps because my friend told me about spirit guides that appeared whenever she was working with a client. My mind just couldn't quite wrap itself around her stories; however, the book never seemed to leave me alone.


I barely caught a glimpse of a blue and white polka dot dress as the medics entered the only available room in the Emergency Department. It was the usual busy evening and thankfully, she didn't seem to be in too bad of a shape.

Walking quickly into the room, I glanced down at the bed to see an elderly black, well- dressed female clutching her purse to her chest. When I asked her what was wrong, she listed multiple somatic complaints and added that her pastor had, "tossed the bones and put a spell on me."

In that instant, I "heard" what I should do. I told her that I could help her by putting a barrier around her that would protect her from the evil spell. The blood pressure cuff had already been placed on her left arm and I pumped it up until I saw her winch, then quickly dropped the pressure. I did the same to all extremities, told her she was now safe and left as a physician entered the room.

That was 30 plus years ago and the first inkling of what my path was to be, although I had no idea what I had just done. Years later, it became clearer when a massage therapist friend gave me a book titled, "So You Want to Be A Shaman." I never really paid much attention to the book, perhaps because my friend told me about spirit guides that appeared whenever she was working with a client. My mind just couldn't quite wrap itself around her stories; however, the book never seemed to leave me alone.

I gradually began to realize that something was missing in my nursing practice and in health care in general. Earning a masters degree in psychiatric nursing did little to ease my dissatisfaction and I entered a school of Oriental Medicine.

It turned out that Chinese medicine was a very complex and theoretical form of medicine even though it viewed the body not as a machine, but as a garden to be cultivated. At the same time, however, I was taking a form of Asian body therapy known as Zen Shiatsu. I fell in love with this modality and have had great results, with many clients coming to me after failing to get results from other types of treatment.

There is no mistaking the power of human touch. I strolled onto a unit late one night find two nurses sitting at the nurses' station. Hearing moaning coming from a room, I asked what was happening. The nurses told me that an elderly Japanese lady had injured her shoulder and that she had already received the maximum pain medication.

Entering the darkened room, our eyes met and we smiled at each other. The language barrier was no problem as I gently cupped her shoulder between my hands and focused only on my hands touching her. After a few minutes, she smiled and nodded her head and I left her room. A few minutes more and she was snoring.

Another event was to make me question a rigid scientific viewpoint. I received a phone call from my brother telling me that my dad had suffered a cardiac arrest in his physicians' office. Since I was 6 hours away, I phone the physician to learn that my dad had been telling jokes with the physician when he took my dads' pulse to find out that it was 30 beats per minute. "I started running around trying to get an external pacemaker setup when your dad arrested," he told me. "We got him back and across the street to the hospital where he arrested again. Once again we revived him and he's on his way to a medical center by helicopter."

After a week in CCU, my dad went home with a pacemaker. I happened to remark that he was lucky he had a doctor's appointment that day or he would not have survived. He informed me that he had no intention of visiting his doctor that day but was on the way to the grocery store when 3 guys got into his pickup truck and forced him to go to the doctor's office. "Well, who were they?" I asked. "I don't know," he told me, "I couldn't make out their faces." He was correct; he didn't have an appointment that day.

A few more years went by and while in a bookstore one day I noticed Shaman, Healer, Sage by the medical anthropologist and psychologist Alberto Villoldo. I couldn't resist any longer, took the plunge and enrolled in Alberto's school at the Four Winds Society.

At Alberto's school, there are quite a few physicians as well as psychologists and nurses. They are all searching for what Western medicine is lacking...a soul. One physician who also held a Ph.D. in cellular biology told me that he was frustrated with the lack of progress in his patients. Well, we saw some dramatic progress during our training! One psychologist told me that "talk therapy will be so boring now!"

Before I left for the West session (part of our core training in shamanism is the four directions) in Utah, a client who is psychic told me that she could see me part way up a mountain in a hut on stilts and that I would get a "message from the west." I was thinking that I would receive the message in Utah since Utah was in the west. It wasn't until the next day that I remembered that I would be attending the "West" session.

Well, it seems my condo (hut) was partway up the side of the mountain and the pilings under me in the parking garage certainly looked like stilts.

I thought I had received a message after a pretty intense session near the end of class. However, after class was over the next day at noon, I went shopping in downtown Park City, Utah. I walk into this shop and the lady behind the counter said she was expecting me. Turns out she is a shaman from Peru!

We talk for a short time and she does some energy work on me and tells me things not only about me but also about my son and wife. She gives me a meteorite from Machu Picchu, which now lives in my mesa (sacred altar and healing stones). She also taught me a healing exercise and cleared up a lot of "trash" I was hanging onto.

One of the most important things I have learned in shamanism is the importance of ritual in our lives. As an example, we can look at what happened to the American Indians in the Southwest United States. Prior to 1930, there was almost no diabetes. By 1970 they had some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world.

For thousands of years, the Indians were very healthy and physically active and grew foods such as corn, beans, and squash. They hunted wild game and fished the rivers.

Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Gila and Salt Rivers were dammed and no tribe downstream could hunt and farm. Their healthy diets were replaced by government commodity foods such as refined sugar, bleached flour, white bread, canned meat, peanut butter, and vegetable shortening. Their health problems skyrocketed.

Their medicine men, looking with a cultural and spiritual eye, saw the problem as being related to damming the rivers. There used to be many rituals and ceremonies based on the river. There were harvest ceremonies, ceremonies for seasonal changes, planting ceremonies, and ceremonies for changing the weather. Now that the river was gone, much of the culture was gone, resulting in loss or identity, self-esteem, depression, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

Our current world is in turmoil and people feel lost. Michael Winkelman, Ph.D. says that shamanism is becoming popular in modern society because, "Rather than a delusion or superstition, shamanism involves a range of practices that are empirically effective in healing body, mind, and spirit." Is there any better way to address our disconnection with nature than to look at the ancient ways and peoples who knew what living in harmony meant? I wonder what kinds of rituals we need in nursing.

I know I'm now on the right path. Today my wife gave me a small wooden carved owl which she picked up in Hong Kong. She debated about getting it and kept returning to the stand it was on. Unknown to her, several days ago, a shaman told me that the Owl was one of my power animals.

In the darkness of the night

Around the sacred fire

You will find your soul.

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20,964 Posts

Specializes in Specializes in L/D, newborn, GYN, LTC, Dialysis. Has 26 years experience.

This is ONE cool article!!! I am a big believer in healing and altering energy pathways to find your peace and wellness. This really resonated with me. You must be an amazing healer, zen.


23 Posts

This is a highly exellent article.An extra special gift was given to you.As someone responded,this is really inspiring,i hope to see you again for your sharing.Goodluck.

la bellota, BSN, RN

2 Articles; 99 Posts

I like this article quite well. I think the best thing about nursing is the art of it.

Elvish, BSN, DNP, RN, NP

17 Articles; 5,259 Posts

Specializes in Community, OB, Nursery.

How awesome. So much that we have yet to tap into.


1 Post

Thanks. Very interesting article that I believe to be insightful. We definately need to explore this area more as nurses as I belive we spend so much more time than most healthcare professionals with our patients and have a great impact on their wellness.

leslie :-D

11,191 Posts

we talk about holistic nsg, yet for most, it is just lip service.

i tremendously appreciate any modality that addresses the human soul.

that is where wellness and healing, truly begin.

thanks, zen.



1 Post

This is really nice. It's interesting what can happen when we tap into the beauty and extraordinary things that occur in life!


8 Posts


I really enjoy reading your posts, as I am applying to schools to be a PMHNP as well and appreciate your perspective in these forums. I especially appreciated this article because of the power of human touch! Before I became a nurse, I was a massage therapist and studied many modalities. Shiatsu was one of my favorites, and I still use some of this today. I also read a lot about how diet can affect health status (anything from diabetes to mental health), and agree with your perspective on this! We need to take care of the whole person. I think you must be a great healer!


19 Posts

I appreciate this post coming from the opposite perspective of studying shamanism for years because of the webinar company I worked for and a gifted session years ago (I was skeptical and experience won me over). I now hope to become a PMHNP.

Specializes in LTC, TCU, Drug Rehab, Med/Surg, ICU Stepdown. Has 8 years experience.


I was looking at NP schools in up state NY and some ran across your profile and then this article. I have been a nurse for four years. I started out in a nursing home and worked wth a lot of hospice patients. One of the biggest things that has shocked me in nursing is that there is not ritual when someone dies. I feel that bearing witness to the spirit/soul leaving the body is special a sacred and should be honored in some fashion. I feel the same about life entering world with babies. I wish there was degree on the history of nursing with an international perspective. I would love to explore how nurses balance some of things you mentioned in the article with daily practice. When did the separation between physical health separate spiritual health occur. I enjoyed reading your article. I think you may have sparked a research question for grad school. I may need to rethink NP school. :)