Health Series: Accessing the body’s wisdom

By Todd Mangum

Relaxed awareness creates a presence in the body

Shamanism, our most ancient spiritual tradition, has been practiced by all indigenous populations on the planet. If we go back far enough, everyone comes from an indigenous culture. Indigenous wisdom is the knowledge of how to live sustainably on this planet, as we did for tens of thousands of years, without destroying the web of life. Indigenous wisdom is everyone’s birthright. It is the owner’s manual for a human existence, uncorrupted by medical, religious, governmental and educational institutions and authorities. It is the wisdom the Earth constantly emits, available to all its inhabitants. It is the wisdom of our bodies.

Shamans know how to listen deeply to this wisdom and use it to help transform the lives of those around them. A shaman remembers what magic really is and awakens us to the living universe where everything is sacred. Shamans know how to identify the Qi, or vital life force, in its most potent forms and use it to heal and enliven themselves and others.

Shamans were the first practitioners of health and wellness, providing a bridge between the seen and unseen worlds. A shaman may descend from a lineage 10,000 years old or arise spontaneously as a solitary but sane voice in a culture devoid of respect for the natural world.

Although shamans are specially gifted, what they do is available to everyone. For most of us, this ability must be nurtured and developed. The basic equipment needed is the body, the breath and the Earth.

For help in developing these skills, I suggest The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner; it is a wonderful distillation of many shamanic traditions from around the planet. With a drum and a blindfold, you can begin your adventures into non-ordinary reality.

The Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel is an extraordinary discourse on the author’s life and initiation as a shaman with the with the Tzutujil Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala. His epic story captures the beauty, complexity and depth of Mayan culture as well as the grace with which they endure life’s hardships and grief. In the introduction, Robert Bly says: “The Mayans call shamans ‘spirit-lawyers,’ that is, men or women who go to the spirits to try to argue them into giving a benefit of some sort to human beings. Mayan tradition does not teach that the Gods want people to be sinless or perfect, but they believe that the Gods love beauty, eloquence, fine clothes, great music, fine poems, bravery, high animal spirits and gratitude. These human qualities taste like honey to the Gods, and the Gods are like bears who have to come into the village whenever they smell that honey…If we can be quiet, this book will be a bucket that drops toward the water of our indigenous soul. All the words that Martin writes here amount to a meditation on this soul as a natural force.”

Prechtel’s message is that deep within all of us, the heart of our indigenous soul still beats. His writing is exquisite, like a verdant jungle in full kaleidoscopic bloom. His work provides a portal through which we can commune with the divine.

Meditation and breathing

Meditation provides another portal for inner exploration and spiritual connection. The many various techniques have a similar goal: to still the mind and silence mental chatter while remaining exceptionally alert and aware. Aware of what? Aware that we are far more than the incessant babble in our heads. Aware that beyond our constant critique of both ourselves and others that forever throws us from one drama to the next lies a place of stillness pregnant with possibilities for true ecstasy. With practice, this state of relaxed awareness can permeate daily life.

To begin, find a quiet place inside your home or tranquil setting outside. Get comfortable, sitting either on the floor or ground or in a chair. Ask not to be disturbed. Minimize all possible distractions (yes, that means turn off your cell phone).

If you can, set aside a room or a corner where only meditation, prayer or shamanic journeys take place. You will find this facilities your entry into heightened awareness. The space can hold an altar, an inspirational text or a meaningful object. Music can be another enhancement, but should be tranquil and not have words unless it is a guided meditation. Rituals such as lighting a candle or ringing a bell also help. Your body and mind will soon begin to trigger a meditative or shamanic state just by entering the space and carrying our a few preparations.

After preparations are complete, sit down. Relax, but keep your spine as upright as possible. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing. Feel your lungs expand and contract. Attend to the sound of your breath. Allow your belly to relax; yes, let it hang out a little. Experiment. Breathe through your nose with your mouth open. Try long, slow breaths, up to 10 seconds in and 10 seconds out, through your nose. Try releasing deep sighs. Try taking quick, short breaths through your mouth. Pay attention to how each way of breathing makes you feel.

Continue to meditate as long as you are able, and then continue a few minutes more. This last little push, past what you think you can do, will begin to develop discipline and concentration. If your mind wanders to other subjects, as all minds do, gently remind it, each time you catch it, to return to your breath. Build up to 20 to 30 minute sessions.

Nature is everywhere

Meditation and shamanic journeying exercise the soul work; nature provides the fodder to feed and strengthen the soul for this work. Connection to nature can happen anywhere because nature is everywhere. If you have the good fortune, as we do here, to have easy access to the mountains and the desert, then certainly take advantage of it. If weekly schedules and daily routines keep you city-bound, a walk in the park, enjoying the sunshine or planting and caring for a garden are all ways to connect. Even those who cannot get out at all can fill a space with natural objects and greenery.

Using these ideas and techniques, you will establish a firm foundation on which to build a solid program for vitality and health, and for longevity and rejuvenation.

Todd Mangum, M.D., is a physician in family practice at the Web of Life Wellness Center in Salt Lake City.


This article was originally published on June 30, 2010.