MINNEAPOLIS — I’ve interviewed psychiatrists before in my past incarnation as a medical reporter on a daily newspaper. They’re focused on diagnosis, on treating specific mental conditions with drugs and talk therapy, on sharing success stories of patients who heretofore have slipped through the cracks.
Rarely do they sit down to talk about the soul.
I am in a small, windowless office on the downstairs level of Wellness Center Etc., one of the Twin Cities’ most established holistic centers, visiting with Dr. Darell Shaffer. An image of Jesus Christ is on his wall, alongside a cosmic color print by a master transcendental artist, Alex Grey. I know before we even speak that his motive for opening a side practice here, despite having a full day job outside of the metro area, involves more than making an extra buck.
Grounding in science
Dr. Shaffer, a native of Northern California, was exposed early on in life to the cataclysmic social revolution known as the Summer of Love. Growing up near Berkeley with middle-class Southern Baptist parents, he saw signs of the New Age — and he was afraid. It was far from anything that he knew at the time and he ran the other way, and didn’t look back.
He enrolled in medical school on the East Coast, far from consciousness experimentation taking place in his own backyard. While intrigued by what was happening, young Darryl sought refuge and grounding in the proven field of medical science. He was afraid of losing control and being swept away by the crowd.
“Instead, I got lost in medicine for a while,” he said. Learning to practice psychiatry took him 15 years. He worked in New Jersey in an adolescent unit, in an Alzheimer’s unit, in a community mental health center and finally in private practice.
“It was, for me, about learning a craft — the psychoanalytic model,” he said. “But sadly, I did not see a lot of healing taking place. There was an addictive component to the practice. People kept coming back to their therapy sessions to feel better.”
Pressured to succeed
In the 1980s, a growing stream of social workers and psychologists began to flood the mental health system to the point that some psychiatrists, like Dr. Shaffer, began to turn elsewhere to ensure a stable and successful livelihood. He retrained himself in psychopharmacology so he could help more people in less time than it took to analyze their problems with talk. Drugs were the answer.
In 1990, he returned to his home state of California and began a high-volume pharmacological practice. He spent at most 15 minutes with each patient and saw 24 people each day. It was financially lucrative. It was what doctors did.
Dr. Shaffer, however, began to recognize that healing with drugs was not the answer he was looking for, but rather, the solution that drug companies were promoting.
“The pharmacological model of psychiatry is propagated by drug companies,” he said. “The idea is that all people suffer problems due to biological illness. But as time went on, I realized there was a whole lot more to people that I wasn’t getting to see. I was not helping people to find true peace of mind. There was a spiritual component that was going unfulfilled.”
His wife, a psychotherapist, was able to help a high percentage of her patients to have enduring change in their lives. It wasn’t happening for him — and it wasn’t happening for his patients.
Perhaps it was his desire to find true healing for his patients, or perhaps it was his destiny. Whatever the reason, Dr. Shaffer found himself relocated to Minnesota, working full-time at a health care center, all the while questioning his next step. He discovered it one day while driving into the Twin Cities.
He was dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder. The subject was: “What is reality?” The reductionistic approach of the scientific method, which he was raised to believe, tells us that there is nothing in the universe that can surprise us. From the depths of his soul, he heard himself say, “That’s ridiculous.” He knew of discoveries in quantum physics that open
up possibilities for surprise, for mystical experiences that can never be explained by traditional science.
Still dictating his thoughts, Dr. Shaffer found himself driving in an altered state. He missed his appointment and found himself at a bookstore. He wandered around and out of the corner of his eye he saw a tape by Carolyn Myss, Ph.D., entitled, Why People don’t Heal and How they Can. He was speechless.
“Here was someone with insights that were more profound than any of the psychology professors who taught me,” Dr. Shaffer said. “I was angry that no one taught me this material.”
That was the beginning of the end of his pharmacological practice of psychiatry and the end of the world as he knew it.
Now on a quest to understand energy medicine, he applied himself with as much desire that propelled him through medical school. Dr. Shaffer went to the people who were paving the holistic path. He began intuitive training with Myss, and he began reviewing the history of alternative medicine with Norman Shealy, M.D., a Harvard-trained neuroscientist and founder of the American Holistic Medical Association.
“This was like coming home for me,” Dr. Shaffer said. “I decided I needed to become a new kind of doctor.”
He began to view modern medicine as part healing and part business. People get helped a little and they become dependent on medicine a lot. Through his own introspection, Dr. Shaffer realized that the missing key to healing is the spiritual component.
“I looked at myself and asked, ‘What is the root of human suffering?’ Everything led me to Spirit…. The purpose of being alive is to be connected with something that is non-physical. Physical health is a lens through which that connection passes.”
Connecting with soul
Dr. Shaffer is unplugging from his day job and he is re-inventing himself as a holistic psychiatrist. He said he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t scary, but the future for him lies in helping patients connect with their souls.
“We live in a culture that has made it difficult for people to keep track of their souls,” he said. “We are constantly trained to look outside of ourselves for things that make us whole. But the point of life is to give and receive love. The instrument through which we give love is our soul.”
His task, he said, will be to learn how to help people reclaim their souls. He will be using all aspects of his psychiatric training — and new technological instruments that allow people to more clearly understand the bodies of energy that make up their human selves — to help people redirect their attention inward.
“People need to be able to feel before they can feel love — and ultimately heal,” he said. “I’m going to let Spirit guide me as I find ways to help people heal.”