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I have recently started revisiting and exploring Shamanism, a topic I previously documented with Spirit of Place. I was asked how my interest in shamanism began.  Although I am not sure which events were the most influential, several episodes come to mind.  The first happened a few months after my dad’s death. I was seven years old. An aunt that was described as a spiritualist came to live with my mother sister and I.  I’ll never forget her bright blue penetrating eyes the night she asked me if I wanted to see my father.  I ran from the room and kept my distance from her for weeks afterward.  There were many nights that we heard her pounding on the walls and calling the spirits.  Although part of me was fascinated I was relieved when she finally moved out.

While in my 20’s, living in the Height Asbury district of San Francisco during the 60’s a friend asked if I wanted to visit a psychic with him.  Meanwhile, whether induced by drugs or other techniques everyone was experimenting with ways to access altered states of consciousness.  At the time I considered it to be somewhat of a recreational fad.  It wasn’t until 1994 in Dharamsala, India when I was invited to watch Thupten Ngodrup a young Tibetan monk go into trance that I witnessed an altered state of consciousness induced in the context of an age-old cultural ritual. Later while working on a world wide photographic survey of indigenous and tribal people I began meeting, just by chance, other individuals whose social function was to go into altered states to help heal disease or bring new information to their community—the people we refer to as ‘Shaman’.  Intrigued by their role, and at times fascinated by their abilities, I decided to narrow my focus and specifically look for these individuals in the various cultures I was visiting.

Thupten Ngodrup, the Nechung Oracle.

I found that almost every indigenous or tribal group I visited had these ‘Shaman’. What intrigued me the most was the majority had a similar story when I asked how they came into their unique role. Almost every one, from Thupten Ngodrup to the last Shaman I photographed and interviewed in Pakistan years later, had an episode in their teens or adolescence that would have been diagnosed as a psychotic episode or schizophrenia in my culture. Instead they were typically taken aside by an older shaman or grandparent and told they had a gift and taught how to manage their altered consciousness and become a valued member of their community.

It is this dramatic cultural difference in the framing of a fairly common human experience that has led me to revisit and continue to explore shamanism, non-ordinary states of consciousness and psychotic episodes.  In the coming weeks, I will share with you the stories from some of the shaman I have met in the past, starting with the monk who is the medium for the State Oracle of Tibet, Thupten Ngodrup.

My latest TED talk sets the stage for this continuing exploration.

22 Responses to “Shamanism: My Continuing Inquiry and TEDx Talk”

  1. Donna

    Wonderful talk Phil, Ive been photographing Shamans for many years also and your words rang true to the stories I have been told by them as well.
    Love your work, you continue to inspire me, have done for many years now.

    Reply
    • Wally Zeisig

      I was once saved by shamans. It was a month after a surgery for bowel resection. I experienced extreme abdominal pain, fever and rectal bleeding that I had previously before the surgery for a perforated bowel. Yet the Dr. thought that I have been fixed and couldn’t figure out why I’d have the same symptoms. They were stumped and did nothing. I feared I would bleed out. Between the fever, fear and the morphine, I was transported to a place high above the clouds where a huge bonfire was organized for my benefit. Hundreds and upon hundreds of shamans from all over the world, dressed in various costumes, twigs, and mud danced around this fire and chanted. My bleeding stopped. A year later, I had to have a scan for a different reason and it was discovered that my bowel had developed a huge abscess and made a hole ( fistula) but its progression had halted. I had no other symptoms and no more pain. Shamans do good work.

      Reply
  2. Audrey Stein

    Dear Phil,

    Your Tedx Talk was fascinating … educational and inspirational. You’re such an engaging teacher … sent it on to many friends and to Mark Kitchell, the director of a new documentary “A Fierce Green Fire”. You and Mark are kindred spirits … hope you can connect.

    Thanks for always broadening my world,
    Audrey

    Reply
  3. Barbara Savage

    Dear Phil,

    Loved your TED talk! It’s so important to educate the Western World about the wisdom of indigenous cultures. I still hold the dream that you will be photographing for a Tribal Trust project someday. Looking forward to it!

    Barbara

    Reply
  4. Jim Quigley

    Phil-marvelous pictures and storytelling!!
    I am a recently retired Family Physician, AND, finally have found the time to embark on a long overdue interest–I’m now a Photography student in North County San Diego. Your photographic skills and ideas were presented to the class by our instructor as a demonstration of photojournalism and portrait photography. You life’s path and your obvious compassion struck an immediate cord with me. I will be discussing your work in a brief 10 minute classroom power point presentation in the next few weeks. There are so many photos and so many stories– just amazing insight which reflects well on your family and the training we receive as Doctors!! Tell me if you like–what one story stands out the most? Is there just one or two photos that are seared into your memory that reflect best –your goals in photography and photojournalism?.
    Thanks for the inspiration. I’m curious if you still make trips into remote areas? I have years of medical experience and would be honored to accompany such a group . Still doing care trips? Thanks Jim

    Reply
    • Phil Borges

      Hi Jim,

      Thank you for your message. The story of Abay and how she ended FGC in her village is one that will always be top of mind. Yes, I am still making remote trips as projects arise, but not recently for CARE. Currently, my work has been more locally based.

      Best of luck with your new photography venture!

      Phil

      Reply
  5. Heather Price

    Thank you for taking this journey of enquiry Phil. I am enjoying exploring and sharing your insights and revelations enormously. Each one of us has the opportunity to make our difference. Not everyone follows, especially when it requires delving into the unknown. I have been walking the shamanic path as long as I remember, at least since I was a small child who experienced trauma that caused me to escape to other worlds, opening me up to the presence of a reality not experienced by most people who walk in this world. Like most children, I lost the ability to ‘see’ as I grew older, until once again finding myself in traumatic circumstances after which I turned to meditation and a deep connection with nature and Spirit, and my inner ‘sight’ began to return. I was met by guides and teachers in my inner world and they took me on a rich journey of shamanic consciousness and awareness. I once attended a Jungian lecture where it was said that many, if not most, shamans have experienced severe trauma as a child. I am not sure if your studies have revealed this, though going through severe a psychotic episode is extremely traumatic. I have worked as a counsellor/creative therapist and a contemporary-urban shamanic healer/trainer since 1998 and find the majority of my clients, when guided well, are easily able to open up to altered states of consciousness where they can be in communion with ancestral spirits, animal spirits, and guides in inner worlds without having had experienced psychotic episodes or taking mind altering substances. They may come to me to deal with a present crisis and trauma, or they come because they are ready to embrace transformation and change by expanding their consciousness. Perhaps when more people learn how to expand their awareness and learn to connect with and travel in unseen and previously unknown worlds there will be a meeting of hearts and minds with those who have walked there in shame amongst our communities for so long, and we can then all enjoy a more tolerant existence. Blessings and gratitude for all you are doing to assist this awakening. Kindly, Heather

    Reply
    • Phil Borges

      Hi Heather,

      My sincere thanks for sharing your story and insight. I am discovering that trauma plays an important role in most spiritual transformations and plan to delve into that more soon. I’m glad to hear that you are following the blog and look forward to further communication.

      Reply
  6. Anton

    Thank you for the wonderful speech. My deepest respect goes to you for your hard work on this project. I just discovered it a few days ago, and this is the second video that I saw, but it is already clear to me that what you are doing is of great importance and significance. I will keep going through the rest of the materials, and I’m looking forward to all additions to this site.

    Reply
  7. Ricardo Rocha

    Just stopped by to say thanks for your amazing work. I will share it as much as I can. Best regards, Ricardo.

    Reply
  8. Misty

    Phil, in addition to these psychotic breaks (aka spiritual emergencies), is it also true that shamanic initiations can present as physical illnesses/disease? I have been researching Shamanism, and I have stumbled across many of these types of physical descriptions as well. Have you personally met with any Shamans with physical experiences? I woke up one morning 2 years ago paralyzed on my left side. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with MS, but I have been experiencing a great deal of psychic & paranormal phenomena for many years. Most recently, I’ve been noticing many sychronicities occurring in my life. I guess I just don’t know what to make of it.

    Reply
    • Phil Borges

      Hi Misty,

      Yes, I have heard of physical responses. A navaho man by the name of Morgan Yazzie had what he called a stroke where he seized up and could not move. He called a medicine man to help him and was told that his symptoms were a calling to become a medicine man himself. He was mentored in his process to become one. He is now a well respected medicine man in the Navaho nation. His story will appear in our film, CRAZYWISE.

      So yes, I have heard of physical responses, but not being a medical professional or shaman myself, I cannot say if that is indeed what you are experiencing. Best wishes along your journey!

      Reply
  9. Kelly

    Hi Phil,

    I have always been a very spiritual and nature minded person, very hard working and ambitious. I worked very hard right into a so-called schizophrenic experience at the age of 28, stressing until I broke out into a liberated manic state. Every now and then I doubt myself and get terrifying depressive feelings, and I’ve been hospitalized nine times.

    I know it’s been a problem of my own desire to confront the things in my world facing me. Throughout it all I’ve focused on understanding my situation without complete belief in anything I couldn’t prove scientifically, and thus I think I’ve maintained a very social, open mind regarding the things I experience.

    I have trouble relating to anyone regarding my experience because I’m caught between those who’ve heard ‘voices’ and are involved in recovery, often without medicinal suppression, thankfully. But I’m looking for more networking regarding shamanism and spirituality as a method of recovery. You seem like you’re very invested in the healing process as it pertains to the simple spiritual experience and those who seek to understand the mental illness part of it with a sensible and ambitious mind.

    My only problem that I’m finding difficult to deal with is dependency on disability funding. I workout and write daily, I have a supportive boyfriend, and a daughter of ten who I visit at my parent’s home since I lost custody due to hospitalization and can’t afford my own place due to child support. While seeking a job causes me too much mental strife (I think they should create a phobia for bureaucracy), all the effort of overcoming my fear and struggling to maintain a job despite my recovery wouldn’t be worth it since I wouldn’t earn more than I make now. And right now, I get to work on myself and I think that’s where I need to be. I’m working on a fiction to relay the feelings of schizophrenia to the public. I would love to know more about your resources and I would love to talk if you’re interested. Thank you for your efforts! Kelly

    Reply
    • Phil Borges

      Hi Kelly,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s great to hear that after all you have been through, you are listening to what you need for your mental health and have the support to continue along your process. It is a challenge to access resources. Please visit http://crazywisefilm.com/#resources to find a list of resources that I’m aware of, specially note the spiritual emergence networks and shamanism directory.

      Reply
  10. Dave Kaiser

    I’ve become friends with a young gentleman that was labeled mentally damaged and put on meds. I told him he had a gift and for months he kept telling me of his hallucinations and the voices he hears. Yesterday he shared your Ted talk and it confirmed his problems are a gift. I wish to train him to obtain a trance state. If you have any interest my quest please reply or call me. I know for a fact this kid is going to open a floodgate of data that will provide answers to many things. Thanks.

    Reply
  11. Angelica Brenes

    Hi, I am so relieved and truly interested in this article. I experienced what doctors say was “a psychotic break”. But to me, it was so much more. The flooding of information that just seemed so raw, so real… it was like a wave of emotions and thoughts and ideas and revelations that I couldn’t have made up on my own. As if my whole soul was to be emptied out to make room for what was to be put in. I felt so broken, I ripped myself my inner self to shreds. Every lie, every truth exposed. I experienced on two different occasions, “tremors/jolting” while sleeping and was awoken to the left side of my body jolting… then going back to sleep like it was just a bad dream.. waking up to my arm and leg muscles being so sore.. only for it to happen again the next night on the other side… I don’t know if it correlates, but it happened. This happened early 2012, and I couldn’t listen to ANY music. EVERY song had a double meaning, and it was TERRIFYING to understand it. Letters, words… it felt as if they were much more than just letters and words. Of course I also felt as if I was being watched by some sort of divine being.. no need for words, I was catatonic and in my own mind. I would see people walking devilish/ ghoulish, I would stare closely until “they felt me seeing their true form” and they would start walking up straight. I felt as if I could change most anyone’s negativity or autos just by a simple humble and “enlightened” stare/look. I can’t explain it, and I probably sound so weird… but it happened. And I’ve always wanted to know why, or how.. or what it was. Thank you for this article, even if it isn’t what happened to me. I feel like I’m not crazy.

    Reply
    • Phil Borges

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s great to hear that you found comfort in this story. You may be interested to know that there are websites where you can share your experiences and listen to others who are having similar experiences. Please visit https://crazywisefilm.com/#resources and scroll down toward the bottom of the page to the section titled “Share Your Story” to find a few of those sites.

      Reply
  12. jim

    The young man in your psychosis talk has his third eye open and didnt know how to deal with it.every human has it look up the pineal gland

    Reply
  13. Jeremy Ragan

    I havent read much but watched your TED Talk.
    Something that may be of interest and add to your research might be looking into the School of Metaphysics based out of Windyville Missouri. It could be an Avenue for those unclear as to what’s occurring within them and offers the structure and mentor to develop oneself. Ive been a student for almost 2 yrs and am now teaching that of which i have learned and applied (to a degree) that of which I have learned. Please email me if your interested in any further information or testimony. Calling would

    Reply

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