In a world of Medicare, HMOs, and health insurance, people frequently feel like a number, a piece of datum being processed through the system before being spat out, supposedly well. In traditional cultures, healing involves more than just the body, it also includes the mind and spirit; in other words, the whole human being. In studying theses traditions, certain cross-cultural themes and patterns emerge.
Shamanism and shamanic healing are probably the oldest spiritual traditions on Earth. The simplest definition of shamanism is “techniques of ecstacy." Ecstacy is the shamanic term used to describe traveling outside of one’s body. Thus, shamans are people who know how to do this at will. This is important for the shaman, not only in his role as a psychopomp, but in healing as well. For it is believed in almost all cultures which practice shamanism that disease, malady, and illness are caused not just by pathogenic organisms, but also by malicious spirits, “evil magic” or sorcery, or the patient’s own wayward soul.
In Central Asia, Teleut shamans will call to the soul of a sick child with these words: “Come back to your country! Come back to your father, to your mother!” In the culture of the Buryat people, the shaman names the soul and the relatives of the sick person. He asks the soul to realise the grief the family is experiencing; if calling the soul does not work, then the shaman will undertake an ecstatic journey to retrieve it.
Shamans in Native American cultures may also attribute an illness to “soul loss” if the person is unconscious. The Inupiat people of Arctic Alaska once shared similar beliefs and also practice shamanic healing, but this tradition was almost destroyed by Western influences and the introduction of Christianity. Curiously, modern Inupiat have blended their traditional customs, including healing, with the Christian faith. Inupiat healers use their hands to feel the pain or disease in a sick person’s body and then draw it out into themselves. The healer only allows the disease to enter up to her elbows, where she then blocks it off and cleans her hands and arms, washing away the bad things she has drawn out. The process is really like a conversation, with the hands saying, “Hello, do you hurt?” and the sick person’s body responding with “Yes, feel this.” The healer’s hands are “Jesus’s hands” and healers say, “They are God’s hands, not mine.” When an Inupiat woman in the village of Ivakuk became violently ill, lying on her bed groaning and vomiting, the healer was called. She felt the sick woman’s stomach and worked on it with her hands, kneading and massaging. Suddenly the patient’s body went limp and “looked empty.” The healer then laid her hands on the stomach and then put her head on her hands. Later, an observer was told, “Her spirit went out of her body three times. ...the healer brought it back and pulled it down into her stomach." This belief, that the soul may leave the body during illness, mirrors the beliefs of the Teleut and Buryat.
A belief similar to this is also found in modern witchcraft, or Wicca. But rather than just the soul entire vacating the body, it is felt that parts of the soul can leave as well. Wiccan healers help people into a “visionary trance state” where they can then discover what part of their soul has been lost and how it can be restored. This “soul loss” can be responsible for more than just obvious physical illness; depression, loss of control, and other emotional problems can be also be caused by missing pieces of the soul. Wiccans also believe in a kind of energy, formed of “pure love,” which they can direct and control. This love-energy, or eros, is a very important aspect of Wiccan healing. A healer must “be in tune” with that energy, and then she can focus the power to do healing work. Wiccans believe this eros is “catching,” that if a person is full of this energy, they will cause others near them to feel it and those people will spread it to more people, und so weiter.
The recurring cross-cultural theme of these three groups is the loss of the soul or spirit as the cause of illness. The fact that this belief is found in three separate, unconnected groups is evidence of a common “human experience,” an experience of a spiritual, non-physical realm. Indeed, one should note that even outside the subject of healing, belief in a soul or spirit is a recurring theme in religions and spiritualism. Unquantifiable and unmeasurable, it is a question that, ultimately, can only be answered at death.