Shamanism, Death, and Spirituality

I just watched a really fascinating TEDx Talk this afternoon called Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening? by Phil Borges that I wanted to link to.

What was so fascinating was that Phil Borges totally gets what shamanism is, and how one comes to be considered a shaman. At one point in his speech, he talks about how, in order to be trained as a shaman you have to basically go through a break in your mental capacities. As in, a mental breakdown, a falling apart-ness that forces you to step back and view life and the world in which you live in a completely new way. And when that happens, you can go down one of several paths, depending on where you live in the world. In tribal and indigenous cultures, you are supported, you are seen as having a gift bestowed upon you that now needs training. A shaman mentor will come to your aid, and you will now learn how to be shaman in addition to your other life duties, Phil’s example being a 60-year old goat herder.

I mentioned in a previous post the unexpected turning point in my life last summer when Zach was about to launch in Patagonia, and my brother was hit by a car and declared brain dead. I found myself all alone in Maine, with no family support, with two kids under the age of five, a farm and an off-grid homestead. My friends came to my aid and did what friends do best, they checked in on me, made sure I was eating and feeding the kids, let their kids play with my kids, and then went on their way.

In our culture, death is a hard subject to deal with. We avoid it like a modern plague. Lifts, wraps, creams, injections, photo touch ups, you name it, we have a cure for that dreaded dis-ease called aging. But what happens when life ends abruptly? When you don’t even have a chance to put off aging? When we lose someone in the prime of their life?

It is an unexpected emptiness, like going for that extra step at the end of the staircase, only to find its not there, shocking, painful, and unbearable. I felt like the center of my heart and soul suddenly fell out of my body and rolled away. I had no idea how to find this piece of me that was now missing. I had signs I interpreted were from my brother: that he was okay, that he was not hurting, that he was in a better place.

This little Hummingbir flew into my house the day my brother’s fatal accident, let me pick it up and carry it back outside. It flew up into a tree right next to the door and chirped at me for about 5 minutes before flying off. I’m certain it was a gift from my brother.


He wanted to do and see and be so much in this life, that one life could not possibly contain him. It was a miracle that the only part of his body that suffered damage was his head, leaving his organs healthy enough to be donated. He is now living on through several people, and his spirit can be everywhere all at once.

But, and this is the kicker, I didn’t believe any of this peaceful, heartwarming crap in the immediate aftermath of his departure from this life. The night before he died, I had this amazing, rare phone call with him. He never called, he was always so busy, and he saved most of his phone calls for our mom. But this particular evening he called me, and we didn’t talk for long. I think the entire conversation lasted less than 10 minutes long. I told him a little bit about Zach’s adventure without giving away too many details, and the last thing he said to me was “I love you, I hope you get everything you’ve ever wanted in life, because you deserve it.” And I told him I loved him too, and we hung up, and that was the last time I ever talked to him. It was such an amazing gift in retrospect, because I got to tell him how much I cared for him in the hours before he died. You never know when that phone call will be the last one.

In the weeks following my brother’s death, I spiraled on the edge of madness, dipped my toe into the pool of insanity. I can barely remember anything of the immediately after that horrid phone call, so fierce and deep was my pain. I suffered without having any idea how to end my suffering. And then a miracle came into my life.

My Shamanic mentor found me, and she told me I had just experienced the death of my own ego in the form of the death of my brother. Everything I thought I was, everything I thought I would ever be, my perceptions of love and death and reality were completely altered in a split second. I can never go back. My life is now measured in Before Ryan Died and After Ryan Died. And Scarlet came to me like a salve for my wounded soul. She showed me how to let go of the anger and grief, even if just for a breath of a moment. She came to me and taught me how to handle these deaths, both of my own ego and that of my brother’s life.

It was incredibly hard, and painful and shocking. He is missing from my life, missing out on his nieces growing up, missing out on celebrating his birthday this week. My mom and sisters and I have ALL had our first birthdays since Ryan died. And this week is Ryan’s birthday. Maybe that’s why this is all coming up. I’m only now starting to feel like I can take all that raw emotion and turn it into a story that I can read, and maybe a story that other people want to read as well.

If it hadn’t been for my shamanic Mentor, Scarlet Kinney, I would not have followed through on my spiritual awakening. I would have suffered much longer than I did. I think “Psychosis and Spiritual Awakenings” can be the two halves of the same experience. How we treat them differs drastically. I could have been drugged up in my grief, but instead I found a spiritual path to walk, that gave my life new meaning and gave me the ability to see the world in a new way.

***Have you experienced Ego Death? Do you have comments you would like to make on the sudden death of a loved one, or on death, spirituality or shamanism in general? All abusive comments will be deleted, this is a place to speak and be heard, not a place for debates on religion or spirituality. The only true religion is the one that guides you to live a moral, kind, honest life, be it any one of the 1,000’s of religions that exist today.***

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