Self Cover

A Happier You Naturally
A New Prescription for Happiness

by Deb Abramson

Could a Chanting shaman or a ray of light help lift your mood? A mind-bending report on the latest drug-free blues fighter.

Shamanic Healing
The chanting cure

"Pray for a dream to help with the healing," shaman Susan Grimaldi tells me when I call for an appointment. But when I arrive, the only recent dream I can think of involves discovering a cocoon filled with maggots in my pubic hair. I decide not to mention it.

As we sit in Grimaldi's office, the walls adorned with masks and feathers and a collection of drums, I give her my story in a nutshell: I feel nervous for no apparent reason. I assume the worst of myself. Sometimes - too often - I fight the impulse to rear-end rude drivers on the road. Every few months, I go through a weeklong stretch during which I cry all day, then, when night comes, feel terrified of falling asleep. I also give her a quick sketch of my childhood: the pressure of my parents' wishes weighing on me; a sense, early on, of profound loss. As I talk, Grimaldi listens, lightly tapping a small drum now and again as though she can't wait to get started. She has the weathered hands of an old woman, the slouching posture of an awkward adolescent, the wide-open face of a small girl. I can't guess her age within 15 years. But I sense a wisdom about her, a stillness and focus despite her restless fingers. She is definitely odd, but my gut tells me I can trust her.

"OK," she says when I finish. "Now I'll pray for the healing." She closes her eyes, beats her drum-louder and steadier now and starts a free-form kind of chanting that sounds, as best I can gather, like a lilting mumble. I wait with my hands folded and my legs crossed, trying to appear as though this is something I do every day.

A few minutes later, she stops. "OK," she says again. "I've seen the healing. I'm ready."

Shamanism, whose history can be traced back thousands of years and has been linked to South American and Native American cultures, among other centers on the belief that physical or emotional trauma can steal pieces of the soul, leaving a person vulnerable to illness. The shaman's role is to help regain the patient's whole self by entering an altered state and retrieving those lost pieces wherever they are. "The practitioner is a bridge between the spiritual and human condition:" Grimaldi says matter-of-factly. "I look beyond this realm."

As for my case, she explains, "I'll need to find the bits that got snipped away because they were outside the ring of your parents' expectations." When she says this, I flash to the kitchen table in my childhood home, where perfect circles lay on a cookie sheet, ready for baking, the ragged scraps of dough left behind. Given how little I have told her about my past, I am amazed at how much she understands.

And so we begin. Fully clothed, I lie on a table piled high with brightly colored blankets. To the taped drumming and chanting of a Tuvan shaman (Tuva, I learn, is a republic near Mongolia), Grimaldi begins to literally pluck the depression out of me, presumably to make space for my wayward soul; I feel her fingers tugging gently at my chest. After several minutes, I notice I'm hungry. Is it all the room she has created inside of me or is it lunchtime?

Next, she goes out into the universe - without leaving my side, of course - to find my soul's missing pieces. Her journey lasts a few drumbeats (apparently, she travels at the speed of light), and then she is blowing the discarded soul bits back into my body through my chest and the top of my head. Finally, her fingers lightly massaging my torso and scalp, she weaves everything back together. At that moment, a strange thing happens. I am lying flat, but I feel as if my entire body is contracting on the table, my knees bending toward my chest. And then the feeling disappears. "Well," Grimaldi says, when I tell her about it, "that's probably because you aren't used to having the whole of you inside your body. At first, it feels a little cramped."

Afterward, she informs me that because my soul has been successfully rewoven into my body, I shouldn't be surprised if my inner child announces herself, since she is home at last. Over the next few days, I wait for the urge to play jacks or jump into a mud puddle, but I don't experience the emotional about-face I'd hoped for. I seem to be the same old me. Still. I think my visit helps in more subtle ways.

Though I went to Grimaldi to escape talk therapy, her words are what stay with me. Weeks later, I remember her description of a whole self, along with her sky-blue eyes, her attentiveness to my concerns, her willingness to travel to the ends of the earth in search of scraps of ether that are a part of me. In moments of doubt, I summon up her faith, both in the process and in me, and feel comforted. When I think about it, that makes sense. As crankish as shamanism sounds, well-known psychiatrist Jerome Frank, M.D., believes it isn't that far off from traditional psychotherapy: In both cases, there's a defined space in which the helping happens, a shared sense of the problem and how it might be fixed. Perhaps most important, there is a deep bond with someone who aims to help.

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