Last of a two-part interview
“I do real shamanic healing rituals. I don’t do the same ritual over and over, or rituals from other cultures or from the past. I dance, and I get others to dance with abandon from their souls, even if they’re paralyzed by self-criticism, haven’t moved their hips in public in their entire lives, or are sitting in a wheelchair. They will all leave understanding how, why, and when to use what they learn.” – Christina Pratt
As a young girl growing up in Oregon, Christina Pratt did not intend to be a shamanic healer. She wanted to be a dancer. So when it came time to do just that, she did what all aspiring dancers do: go to New York City. It was not fun. It was scary, and she didn’t have much money to make ends meet.
"I spent a lot of time wallowing in my suffering, which was somewhat real and probably somewhat imagined," she said in an interview with Edge Life during a recent visit to Minneapolis. "I kept asking the spirit world "Why?" I was very ignorant about talking to the spirit world at that point. I didn’t understand you don’t ask open-ended questions if you don’t want big answers.
"What I meant to ask was, "Why am I at this audition? Why am I in New York? Why do I feel this…. I spent a lot of time just asking "why, why, why" and crying a lot – really being in the despair of not knowing the answer to that question."
One night, she got the answer, whether she was ready for it or not.
"I understand now why women in indigenous cultures had enough sense not to ask that question until they were done bearing children, because it really screwed things up for me. I was 30, and that whole piece of being able to have this ordinary life was pretty much ruined by the fact that I got an answer to that question perhaps earlier than I might have liked."
What was the answer?
Christina Pratt: I didn’t really understand it when it happened, but it led me very quickly into shamanic practices and, in particular, the practice of soul retrieval. What really pulled me in was finding out about soul retrieval and actually recognizing at a deep level, "Oh, that’s why I came here!"
While I work with people all the time about "What is your calling? What is your soul’s purpose? How do you find that uniqueness and express it in the world?" I have to admit that for me, it was an altered state moment – but it was so clear that I never have questioned it. I went forward and learned the skills to be able to do the soul retrieval work. I needed to do it, and in doing it, I sensed, "Oh! This feels right!"
I certainly didn’t have a plan. I had the calling, but I didn’t have any culture that helped me understand what that calling meant, what that initiatory moment [it wasn’t a moment, it was many days] meant. I didn’t know how to explain it to myself, and so it took many years for me to put the pieces together.
In that time, I was learning about shamanism and learning to do soul retrieval work and then I eventually started doing it with other people. And what I was watching was how that changed me, how it really did make me a more essential person in the terms of expressing my essence, simplifying the way I made things complicated, and I liked the person who was doing the soul retrieval work better than the other versions of myself. I really wanted to become that person all the time instead of only when I was in that work. I had enough awareness when this was happening to be able to recognize, "That’s a better version of me. That’s truer, it’s more accurate. I need to try to be that person all the time."
It was a very long process, because I didn’t have human teachers. It was a lot of trial and error, trying to feel what fit, what worked.
That’s how I came to shamanism. It’s not something that I ever imagined or wanted. I was the quintessential reluctant healer for at least eight years. I was really dragging my feet. At one point, I finally was given this very funny image of a little boat tied up to the dock. I had one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat – and then this real simple message, "The boat’s sailing. Get on or off!"
And I’m like, "AGGGHHHH!" The boat started moving and I’m like doing the splits. And that was such a clear message. I thought, "Wow, that’s what’s happening. That’s why my life is not very easy right now. I need to either get on this dock and get off this damn boat or get on the boat and go."
At some point you jumped in the boat.
Yes, and that included taking a trip to Ecuador and having some experiences with shamans in Ecuador. That really helped me get on the boat and make the decision.
Understand what the journey on the boat was.
Actually, I still didn’t understand the journey of the boat, but they affirmed that I belonged on the boat. At that moment, I needed real shamans – not workshop people, not people like me – but real shamans in an indigenous culture recognizing that I belonged on the boat.
They confirmed your purpose.
Yes, without me asking them to do it.
The tricky thing about working with indigenous people is that they’ll pretty much tell us whatever we need to here, because they need our money to save their lives. It’s not that they are doing it without integrity, but we’ve screwed up their lives and they’re not above figuring out a way to get us to fix it.
So I went there absolutely anonymous, incognito, not telling any of the shamans we visited what I did for a living, nothing, and letting whatever happened happen. The culmination of that trip made me feel, "Yes, you do belong on the boat, so get on it."
The problem with the boat, with this particular journey, is that you really don’t know where it’s going. The nice thing about having human teachers is they can at least let you know when the rapids are coming up. But I really don’t have human teachers in what I teach. That’s what makes it authentic non-traditional shamanism. That’s how I would bill myself now: authentic in that this is really coming from a direct relationship with Spirit, totally through shamanic techniques, but there’s no cultural tradition behind it.
Many steps along the way have been about really needing to make sure that what I was doing was right and also making sure that this thing that I’m teaching really works for people other than me. I feel confident about that after 15 years down the road.
What I offer is good. It addresses us as contemporary people in a real interface with these indigenous practices – not directly from the indigenous people, but the skills that don’t belong to any one culture, but belong to humanity as a whole.
Our current American culture would require a different form of teacher, I would think.
Exactly. You can have – and I’ve done it myself – great experiences running off to these other countries where shamanism is still sort of intact and experiencing these amazing shamans. They are amazing in what they can do, but it doesn’t directly interface when you come home. What people keep ignoring is that shamanism is based on the spirits of the land, as well as the other spirits there.
For example, if you go to Peru and you learn to work with particular mountains there in Peru and then you come home, the spirits of your land are saying like, "What are we, chopped liver?"
There’s a reason the practices of the indigenous people in America were different from people who lived in the mountains. Mountain shamanism around the world is much more similar than that of their valley neighbors, and valley shamans are similar around the world. Shamanism is so much drawn from the energy of the land and the spirits of the land – and the need to be in relationship with the land.
What I’m trying to do in my teaching of the Cycle of Transformation is make sure that the interface plugs in completely. Remember the sound of dial-up connections when machines try to talk to each other? That handshake has to happen or you don’t get any e-mail. It’s the same with shamanism. What I’m really trying to do is make sure that handshake happens between ancient practices, which belong to humans, and our contemporary life.
Where do we trash the contemporary life and where do we demand that the ancient techniques fit with our contemporary life? Where is that line? That’s a big question, but it has to be answered. We can’t just take old practices and try to stick them in with bubblegum and a paperclip into our new life. It just doesn’t work. It’s critical that we form a strong relationship between both ancient and contemporary. That’s always been true about shamanism. That’s why it has never died. Conquering cultures have tried very hard to wipe it out and yet it persists, because you can always go to Spirit and ask, "Okay, we used to do this this way 300 years ago, but how do I get that same thing accomplished, that same function to happen, today in this culture?" Some things look very similar still. Some things look very different. The key is understanding what’s going on in the shamanism well enough to not get caught up in the exotic language and costumes and the whole drama of another culture, and see the functions that are happening.
You have your results.
Yes. In Nepal, I was with this amazing woman in Katmandu. If I could be a quarter as strong as she is by the time I die, I would live a great life. She has amazing shamanic gifts. We went to some healing practices that were essentially extractions, removing an energy in someone that didn’t belong there and putting it where it belongs. These healings usually went on for a good two or more hours. If you didn’t know it was going on, you’d just be impressed by watching the whole thing.
But here’s what actually was happening. The first hour and a half was spent calling in the spirits. The actual mechanism of getting the energy out of the person and back where it belongs happened in 10 to 20 minutes. It was really quick actually. If you fell asleep, you’d miss it. And then the next hour and a half was spent thanking all the spirits that came in to help, thanking them appropriately, and saying good-bye.
You spend three hours for that little 15 minutes of actual activity, yet you need to summon those spirits to have the strength to make the healing happen so quickly. And you have to be in good relationship with the spirits. You have to be respectful and send them away well.
But for the bystander, if you didn’t know that, you’d be caught up in this event, thinking it takes three hours to make the extraction happen.
How do shamanic teachers in the West today compare with those of indigenous cultures or of the past? In some respects, you’re teaching the same thing and bringing people to the same place.
Yes, it’s actually a good question and a little bit of a complicated answer. What I’m doing here in teaching the cycle of classes is to teach people skills, not to train people to be shamans. I’m trying to train people to be spiritual grownups and, in particular, to do what they’ve come here to do. That’s my big thing. You have a unique reason for being here. Everybody does. What is it? Start doing it. And, do it now while you can enjoy the benefits of that life and not figure it out three minutes before you cross over. I mean, it’s great to know then, but it’s a little too late to have any fun with it (laughing).
But there’s something bigger than shamanism going on right now, and that involves the feeling we all have that the information is coming out of the temples and coming out of the churches. A lot of the sacred information is becoming more and more available. As with all things that are truly powerful, that’s good and bad. It cuts both ways.
So one of the things about today and the way shamanism is experienced here today is that it’s available to anybody who can pay their money to go to the workshop. But keep in mind that at a certain level, shamanism [it’s not really even an "ism" but a way of life] requires a contemporary person to really get it. It requires a true paradigm shift -and you’re not going to get that in a workshop, right? Yet, at the same time you can learn skills and techniques in a workshop.
It’s a tricky situation right now. In the past, when shamans were teaching skills, they were teaching to a culture that was already a shamanic culture, they were already in a shamanic paradigm.
They were walking that path.
Yes. There was no paradigm shift necessary. Everybody was living it. That’s a big difference with our culture. Today, we’re not living in it, so a huge belief system adjustment is required.
In past cultures, because of the challenges of life and the clarity of the expectations, people were spiritual grownups and they had a working relationship with spirit and used some techniques to talk to Spirit to cultivate a certain kind of life. The shaman was a specialist. If there was a problem going on in the family, something too complex for the family members to sort out through their own relationship with Spirit, this outside person or shaman would be asked to help.
Unfortunately today, that in-between level that requires people to be able to take care of themselves, manage their own energy and communicate with Spirit as adults is not happening. In our culture, shamans get called in to try to do things for people that, frankly, you can’t do for anyone else. They are supposed to be doing it for themselves.
As a teacher, I see that there’s a lot of groundwork that has to happen in our culture. And as a teacher, it is challenging because everyone who comes in to class is in a different place. Everyone who comes in believes a different cosmology about how the world works. I look back at the shamans in the old days and I think, "Well, they had it easy because at least they knew everybody who stepped into the ritual believed the same thing about how the world works." I can’t make that assumption about any two people, and I can’t even assume any of them agree with me.
The biggest problem is that people are not necessarily cultivating their inner self to manage the responsibility of having more personal power. As a teacher, that is one thing I will not tolerate. I actually will tell people if I don’t feel they’ve sort of gathered the personal work necessary to step into the next level of training. I just don’t want to be party to continuing in what I feel like is a cultural tendency toward information overload – more, more, more, more is better, more power, more this, more that. People don’t feel they need to do the personal work to earn any merit. I can’t be part of that.
You talked about the difference between taking classes to learn some of the skills and actually being on the path. One can lead to the other if you’re doing the skills and you become so committed to them you can slip into that way of being.
Certainly. And one of the reasons to take different classes and experience different skills and different teachers is to try to find the thing that you have passion for. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. But teachers who think what they’re teaching is all you’re going to need are delusional. There’s no one system these days, because life is too complicated right now. We’ve made too big a mess of things energetically for one system to fix everything.
And as Westerners, we tend to not take the full practice on. Yoga is a path of transformation, but not if you’re just going to class twice a week. Does that mean you shouldn’t go to class twice a week? No, you should. But, to think you’re going to get the transformational oomph you need out of life by just taking yoga class twice a week is ridiculous. Understand enough about yoga to know that of all the branches of yoga, in America we only have two – and frankly, we leave out the developmental pieces, about how to cultivate the internal energy. That didn’t even cross the sea from the East, because we just want the power and we’re not willing to do the work. That is our cultural legacy and that is the core of the paradigm we’re talking about that has got to shift.
Shamanism, in general, in America is as guilty as anything else about being brought into our culture in a way that allows people to just continue what I consider an addictive process – more this, more that, more high experiences, more workshop high, more this, more that, without addressing, "How do I actually engage in living a significant life, in cultivating my energy and not repeating the same patterns, in living in such a way that I might inspire others to do the same, to clean up their life versus telling people that they should clean up their life, or that they should follow my way of believing and God will take care of it for you?"
The whole idea that God’s going to take care of us, any of this for us, is silly. This is our mess. It’s like waiting for mom and dad to come clean up your room for you. We have to clean it up ourselves. That’s the burden of free will. We made this mess with our free will. There isn’t any spirit from any perspective that’s going to swoop in here and fix it for us. We have to clean it up ourselves. Thus the reason that my little soap box is this "whole being spiritual adults" thing.
Learning these tools allows us to ask, "Oh, look at this mess!" It allows us to see it clearly and to understand, "What am I responsible for? What am I not responsible for? What can I clean up and how do I do it?" – and not waiting for anyone to pat you on the back for it, because they’re probably not going to. They might even get kind of cranky with you.
Well, it puts you in a position where you know yourself and you can see clearly.
Right, and to understand how to take steps. And I really believe that one of our highest desires could be to simply live in a way that inspires others to live better, inspires them to be more true to themselves, just by being around you, you know?
That’s what I really talk about with my students who are in the more intensive training. They’re not just there learning skills, but they’ve stepped more onto the path. We just want to try to live in a way that just looks so juicy and wonderful and loving and passionate and effective to other people that they want some of that, too, and they want to know how to do that, too. They want to know, "How did you get that thing that you have? I want some of that, too." And that we’re able to understand what we’ve done well enough to articulate an answer to them, to give them a step they can take, and then hopefully more and more steps. That’s what I would love to see, a life that is more inspiring.
Every person here has a piece of the puzzle – even the little crack babies, rich people, poor people, every color, every whatever. They all have a soul’s purpose, and if they’re not supported in living it, then humanity is lessened by that. The value of community, from a shamanic perspective, is to support every individual in expressing their uniqueness and their soul’s purpose in a way that it is a gift to the community – and the community grows rich from it.
We don’t live that way in our culture. Our culture could be different if we were spiritual adults and we knew how to do that and understood that responsibility. Yes, it’s work, but what is the consequence of not doing it?
When I was twentysomething, I was just trying to do what I’d been taught by this culture to do. I didn’t have bad teachers. I had a good childhood. I had a good life, relatively speaking. But I was the logical conclusion of this culture’s belief system and I was already having stress-related illnesses. I was unhappy. My soul hated my day.
What began the change was reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and going to sleep with a question from wherever I was in the book reading – and waking up to ask myself, "What would you do today if you knew you were dying tomorrow?" Nothing. Nothing would I have done that day if I knew I was dying the next day. And I was so far from anything I would be doing if I knew I was going to die tomorrow that I just wept and knew that I had to make a change. It was hard because my soul was dying.
This current life that I live is hard in the ordinary way that there’s lots of hard things to do, and all that damn personal work that I had to do on my own was hard, but my soul is so happy!
You’re not dying inside.
I’m not dying inside. So consequently, is this life harder than that other life? Not at all, because of that critical difference. And that’s something I think some people can’t even imagine: What it would feel like to not be dying inside?
Or perhaps they have convinced themselves that shopping is the equivalent of being alive – and it’s just not. For me, I know that while I may not have wealth in a lot of areas in my life, I have a wealth of spirit in my life and a wealth of soul and a wealth of purpose.
I spoke at my 20-year college reunion. I went to a woman’s college, and among the graduates are some pretty high-powered women. They’ve all done everything they imagined doing and more, fabulously, and almost every one of them were absolutely riveted to my talk, not because I’m so special, but because they were all at that same place: "I’m coming up on 40, I’ve done everything I’ve imagined to do, and I am no closer to meaning and purpose in my life than I was when I was 20."
And they’re unhappy inside.
They’re unhappy inside. Although some of them have really fabulous and potentially soulful purpose jobs, it’s about how they’re doing it and how they’re living their life. Perhaps certain things could be changed and then they would be really well aligned. What I learned is that my own contemporaries and my own colleagues are struggling with that same question: "I have a good life, but there’s got to be more to life than this."
And there is. It’s not necessarily easy to get, but once you start getting it, then it builds momentum. Certain things do get easier. To attend to one’s self on the possibility that the ego is overriding and you’re fooling yourself and you’re delusional and in denial and such, we must remain vigilant. And it gets easier and easier to do that, and then we invest less and less in that. Nonetheless, we can’t ever act as if that’s done.
How do people that are studying under you maintain the ability to stay there and not flip-flop into the culturalization, because I can see how that can happen, pretty easily actually, if you take your focus off of it.
Yes, and there is certainly attrition. There are always more people in the first workshop than those who move on to the fourth one. It’s a four-year process. I have to give the Minneapolis group credit. They’re very coherent and they’ve stayed on focus. They’ve really supported each other to be able to stay together. So the answer to your question is actually building the local community so that people are meeting once a month and helping each other as they waver, because everybody wavers somewhere.
It’s important to know that community is here. It can offer the little pieces of wisdom that come out of that group whose members are all struggling the same struggle. That helps people stay focused.
I’ve been doing this training for 15 years, so for the first 10 years we really didn’t have enough people to call it a community. They were spread out all over the United States and Canada. Now we’re finally at a place where the groups are more local and they really can support each other. We have groups with cohesion in Baltimore and the D.C. area, New York, here in Minneapolis, Washington state and a bit in Oregon.
While I am now based in Portland, Ore., I travel quite a bit. Most of my teaching is elsewhere. And a lot of it will be in Minnesota. With the work we are doing on the initiation of girls, there’ll be much more frequent visits here and there’s always some sort of teaching, some class, you know, work with the girls and some healing sessions available every time I come.
Christina Pratt – shamanic healer, teacher and author – opened the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing in 1990. She has been serving clients and communities of students nationwide and in Canada since then. For more information on Christina Pratt and the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing, visit www.shamansense.org, call toll-free 1 (800) 927-2527, extension 02586, or e-mail [email protected]