Many thanks to guest blogger, Sally Ibbotsen, for this fascinating piece which compares and contrasts the similarities and possibilities of Graded Motor Imagery used to treat Complex Regional Pain Syndrome with the shaman's journey and the embodiment of Spirit.
I have just returned from Western Canada having spent time at a congress hosted by a community of Shamanic Practitioners. There were people from many different Western forms of shamanism with numerous ceremonies and rituals, some of which included the process of embodying spirit helpers. Shamans, both indigenous and Western, experience embodiment which can take place when we ask a spirit teacher or power animal to merge with us while we are in an altered state so that we can reap the benefits of their particular qualities. For example, merging with a Wolf on a journey might offer us speed and strength. Perhaps more importantly it offers a way of seeing things differently – from a Wolf’s perspective in this case – allowing an objective, ‘Wolf’s eye, view on the question or intention of the shamanic journey being made. Sometimes embodiment takes place because spirit wants it in order to teach us something, even though we may not have asked for and may not even wish that temporary loss of personal identity.
Having been immersed in shamanic song, journeying, ritual and language in Canada for 7 days I travelled across the continent from Vancouver to Toronto by train, marvelling along the way at the wonders of wild nature then returned to the UK and my NHS job in physical rehabilitation. On my first day back I attended a seminar held by Tim Beames, a specialist in a condition known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). This condition can be brought on by any injury, small or large and the cause is sometimes unknown. It leaves people debilitated by pain and, frustratingly for the patients, has only recently been recognised as an actual condition.
CRPS usually involves a particular body part. The patient will feel great pain or discomfort in that part such as a hand or arm and often feels nauseous when even thinking about it. Over time, the patient will usually undergo a process that Tim Beames describes as disembodiment – at best the patient will be disgusted by the body part, often physically turning away from the limb so as not to catch sight of it - at worst there are thoughts of amputation and/or suicide to escape the pain and intense disgust. Disembodiment in this sense is a rejection of a body part. Perhaps most significantly, once disembodying has taken place the immune system no longer serves the rejected part/limb; neural pathways fade and eventually the pictorial imprint of that body part, which is normally held in the brain, fades. The limb often becomes smaller (although it can be oedemic), hair growth becomes abnormal, the colour and texture of skin changes and these are the signs that often distinguish CRPS from other complex pain states. Current treatment involves a process known as Graded Motor Imagery (GMI) which is Tim Beames’ specialism – it is often very long term and gradual – sometimes taking years and often requiring constant work throughout the person’s lifetime – it does appear to offer respite to the degree of returning the patient to a more acceptable level of existence.
GMI is a reversal of the road the patient has taken and so involves a re-embodiment of the affected part. Embodying can be a frightening journey for patients – it involves reversing a pattern of behaviour that may have long been in place and which patients may believe, at least to some degree, to be helpful to them. GMI consists of laterality training (distinguishing left from right both in self and others and this is almost always challenging for these patients) and, at a later stage, the use of mirrors to create an illusion of a healthy limb to replace the affected one (for example, for the upper limb, sitting with a small rectangular mirror horizontally to the chest will result in the illusion that the unaffected arm is healthy again). The work with mirrors tricks the brain and stimulates neurons in the part of the brain that relate to the affected limb. Sometimes even this is too much and here is where it gets very interesting! There is now evidence that if one replaces a limb with a rubber replica and faces a mirror – so creating the illusion that the rubber limb is one’s own – and then stimulates the hand of the limb by, say, gently stroking, then eventually the stroking will be experienced as if it were on real skin. Also, if acupuncture needles are placed in the rubber ‘hand’ a patient will experience no more or less healing than as if it was a real limb – so open is the brain and the parallels between mirror ‘seeing’ and shamanic ‘seeing’ began to emerge.
What struck me as I listened to Tim Beames was the similarity with shamanic journeying where we embody, say, a spirit teacher or power animal to learn or relearn something – to add a skill or uncover knowledge or to be taken to somewhere for healing or assistance, as in the example of the Wolf above where the lesson of embodiment may be to ‘fit in with the pack’ or even be more fierce in a specific situation. This is also known as shapeshifting. Often, embodying a spirit helper takes us down paths we have not trodden before or perhaps have avoided for years. Just as in GMI treatment, when we journey our body doesn’t change – we are still sitting in a chair or lying on the floor - but the effect on our brain, our emotions and even subsequent actions, is the same as if we had physically gone down that route. We come back changed – a pathway has opened up and we have the opportunity to incorporate a new more holistic perspective. At the end of our journey we disembody from our spirit helper, or it from us, because we no longer require that pathway to remain permanently open during our ordinary reality existence. Without this separation it would be difficult to be grounded in our everyday lives.
Just as in placebos, illusion, along with ceremony and ritual are powerful tools which shamans knew about long before modern day medicine. Shamans, ancient and modern, know that here may be the illusion and there, the world of spirit, may be the true reality of existence. As with GMI treatment, it is what we choose to accept as ‘real’ that allows healing to take place. Given the ancient power of the shamanic journey to change our hearts and minds I wonder how journeying might be used in the future to help people suffering CRPS. Perhaps seeing their painful, ‘disgusting’ hand or arm through the loving compassion of a spirit helper would be just what is needed to help them heal.