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Practitioner Self Care

Shamanic Practitioner Self Care:
The Shoemaker's Children


I received an email from a practitioner that got me thinking about how we care for, or forget to care, for ourselves.

She said,
“I have been thinking a lot... and here is my worry. Like so many others, I can think of some major traumatic events in my life that could have resulted in soul loss. I don't feel as though my soul is fragmented, I actually feel quite whole, especially since studying and living shamanism. But, what if a practitioner has soul loss, how can they heal others with soul loss?”

This is actually a very, very good question, and it is one that should occur to every practitioner: in this business of shamanic healing, what about ourselves?
For instance, where might be our own power be lost? Where might we have not incorporated and regained our full, true, powerful self? What about our own soul? Are all parts of our True Self as a present as a practitioner? Since soul loss is often an automatic and sudden response, easily brought about by sharp alarm such as in fright or facing a tragedy, and since life eventually brings a harsh experience to all of us, isn’t it reasonable that we too might have some soul parts that need to be retrieved? Might we not also need power that needs to be regained in order to be whole again?

Of course. All of the above, and perhaps more.

All of this is normal and human. As a practitioner in shamanic healing, serving others, where our responsibility rests is to make sure we are taking care of ourselves along the way. Unfortunately, there is that old adage about the shoemaker whose kids went around without shoes. When we are deeply involved in caregiving as a profession, we typically focus our attention on the well-being of others, not ourselves. This is normal, and even ‘more normal’ for a person whose professional career involves serving others. This is why this is such a very good question.

It is a good reminder to not forget our own work. This is also why the human service professions often have anything from strong recommendations to actual requirements that students as well as licensed practitioners work on themselves. Psychologists, for instance, are routinely submitted to their own therapy or analysis as part of their professional training.

I believe this is the same as how we should approach shamanic training. The first level of training in Shamanism 101 is very much about our own work. Actually, it can’t be helped! New students invariably discover that their early work is ‘all about them’. Goodness knows, our own stuff is the very first to pop up during our early journeys of discovery and as we learn shamanic states of consciousness.

It should only alongside or preferably after an initial period of self-study (which brings up and helps reduce our own ‘stuff’) that relatively new students in human services should be allowed to turn their focus outward to clients and begin to step into the role of practitioners. We are, after all, working on becoming the shamanic ‘hollow bone’ which is without ego and self-interest when it comes to working with others. It is my opinion that when training as a shamanic practitioner, we tackle our own stuff first.

Now, I happen to know that the person who wrote the question we began with, is an advanced practitioner. For her, the pendulum of the her focus has begun to swing back again to remembering about her own balance and wholeness. She began with the expected self-focus that is so much a part of a new practitioner’s experience, and then became all enthused about the ‘other focus’ of treating others as she began working with clients. Now, after working with clients for a while, it has become even clearer to her about how practitioners should never lose track of tending to themselves. It seems to work this way: at first, we are all excited about the self-discovery and re-empowerment that comes up in our early shamanic work, then we get all excited about starting to tend more specifically to others. After a while, the initial excitement of tending to others begins to wear down to a more grounded passion. It is then that it normally occurs to us that we should not forget our own, practitioner self-care. 

When talking about this aspect of practitioner life, I like to recount a story that brings this need home. A huge room full of human service professionals from all areas of care had gathered for an educational conference. After lunch, the conference speaker asked everyone to jot down on a napkin or spare piece of paper a list of the ten things that they recommended their clients or patients do for their self-care and wellbeing. When everyone finished their lists, the speaker simply asked the attendees to circle the self-care items on their list that they had done for themselves during the last month. The room became remarkably quiet, interspersed with a few twitters of uncomfortable insight, as a whole room full of bright, capable and experienced providers who cared for other people, realized that they were not tending to themselves the same way.

This applies equally to shamanic practitioners. However, there is one other matter that factors into all of this, and that is that just because one is a practitioner of any kind of human services, this does not mean that we have to reach some kind of ‘perfection’, or even that such a thing is possible. This doesn’t mean we can toss ourselves around with disregard to ethics, our ability, our compassion or abuse power. What I mean to say is that for a shamanic practitioner, being whole, powerful and capable is always a verb, not a noun. One does not become ‘capable’, but rather, one ‘capables’, minute by minute, hour by hour, adjusting and developing along the way as needed. We aim at doing the best we can, cutting ourselves some slack when necessary and tightening our reins at others.

So, even when a good practitioner has a missing soul-part, this by no means necessarily affects his or her ability as a practitioner when serving others. Certainly, it might, but there is no direct relationship between the two. Using our adage about the shoemaker, his children may run around the house in broken-down footwear full of holes, yet the shoemaker is still turning out wonderful, glorious, fantastic shoes! Nevertheless, a shamanic practitioner must maintain a committment to self-work and personal growth, the restoration of their wholeness (such as in this case, the recovery of a soul-part), and the maintenance of a strong body and mind. These are not just ideals, but the normal preparation that the rigors of shamanic practice demand.

Try to achieve a balance. Too much of anything can lead to burnout, along with destructive and unnecessary self-criticism. A felt need for superior achievement beyond one’s reasonable capabilities can do this. Achieve, yes. I am always encouraging practitioners to live into their capability. But living into one's capability is an ongoing way of life. Living into capability is the action of a verb that actively works on being capable. It is not an end result, a thing, a noun. It is a gentle, self-coaxing of oneself into a full and fulfilling life as a practitioner.

And, as a person.