Is Writing Poetry Akin to Taking a Shamanic Journey? Interview with Ruth L. Schwartz, Ph.D.
“After having personally practiced shamanism, shamanic healing, and shamanic journeying for more than half a century, I can say that there is nothing I have encountered in reports of the spiritual experiences of saints, prophets, psychedelic drug experimenters, near death survivors, avatars and other mystics that is not commonly experienced when following classic journey methods using a drum.”
—Michael Harner, The Foundation for Shamnic Studies
t’s called “core shamanism,” an approach synthesized by anthropologist Michael Harner, based on the understanding that although there are many surface differences among the various types of shamanism practiced around the world, still there is a common essence throughout all shamanic work.
Ruth L. Schwartz:
Yet with the spread of technology, these practices are rapidly disappearing, says Schwartz, a gifted Oakland, California poet who holds a Ph.D. from the University for Integrative Learning and counsels clients as to how to access their own inner shaman.
“Our mainstream culture has gotten so far away from this way of knowing,” Schwartz told me as I interviewed her over Skype this week. Concerned about the disappearance of this revered spiritual practice, Harner has made it part of his life’s work to help restore shamanism to regions where such knowledge has all but disappeared. “He found that by giving someone a little bit of scaffolding, people can get into these shamanic aspects of deep healing very quickly and easily.”
Schwartz herself “stumbled” upon the path to shamanism quite unintentionally while studying hypnotherapy as a student in transpersonal psychology. “It was a completely new path to me. I never imagined it would be a door that was going to open for me. But when I started doing it, it was an incredible guide.” says Schwartz.
What does our shamanic guide look like?
“When I was four years old, I had a mystical experience where I was visited by a non-physical being who came here and told me what I was supposed to do with my life. I knew this did not exist in the reality that people in my life were talking about or acknowledging, so I didn’t tell anyone about it. I never knew how to investigate it further. But it always stayed with me.”
For each person, the guide will be different, says Schwartz. “Some guides take a human form, others an animal form, and still others take the form of an aspect of nature, like a tree.”
How is this guide accessed?
I help them tune in, and give them permission. We all have perceptual filters, so things come through in different ways for different people. Often people are surprised by the form their own guide takes. It’s not uncommon for someone to ask me when we meet back again, ‘Is this right?’ ‘Is this too weird?’ But I have found in all these years I have practiced this that there is this incredible order that each of these guides takes even as they are completely unknown to the person initially.”
There is no one technique she applies to help her clients initiate the journey, but rather, “several different practices I lead people through, depending on what they are drawn to. What I do is give them basic information on how to access the upper or lower world, but how they get there is something we decide together.”
That said, the most common technique is for Schwartz to lead her clients through guided visualization. With other clients, she gives suggestions first, then drums.
What happens in a shamanic journey? What is learned? What is revealed?
“Usually I suggest that people have a question, intention or healing request for each journey. In a verbal process, I will be asking questions and making suggestions all the way through, helping a client follow the guidance that comes. Very often, People will have flashes of insight or experience profound healing in just a few minutes’ time.”
How does writing poetry connect with shamanic journeying?
“In my own experience there are lots of different ways to tap into the deeper well of knowing. I myself started out with poetry. Audrey Lorde said she wrote to find out what she didn’t know she knew. I would write poems to find out what my poems knew. So I wrote to connect with this deeper, wiser place. Some people do that with art. Certainly most of the great artists did. Others do not, because they’re not looking for that. I think it’s something that’s always available to us but depends upon what level you want to tap into.”
Are we talking then about simply being more present?
“No, while that may be a good prerequisite, what we’re talking about here is going beyond the conscious mind. Many practices teach us how to be present and more embodied, but what we are talking about here is taking that next step.”
“What I find is that when I’m working with people, we usually go through the door of a symptom. They might be dealing with sadness or anger and perhaps they don’t know its source ~ or sometimes they do know its source, or believe they do, but haven’t known how to resolve it. Once someone is connected to their guides, we can go int to the origin of the issue and shift its encoding at the root. It’s amazing, the transformation that can occur.”
Does Schwartz believe in past lives or the theory that we all possess memories of our own prenatal existence?
“My work helps clients bring healing into their inner landscapes, wherever the ‘door’ of their symptoms takes us ~ whether that place appears to be a pre-natal place, or a past life, or something from earlier in this lifetime.”
Most people carry a lot of skepticism, she says, “so I try to hold it very loosely. Maybe this is a literal past life or it could be a symbolic experience; what matters to me is that it’s getting us where we need to go.”
Are creative people better at accessing their intuitive side than non-artists?
“I really don’t know the answer to that but I do know that while artistically-inclined people do have these abilities, so do non-artistic people. I think that we all have more ability than we realize. It’s about what we allow ourselves to open to.”
Schwartz uses as example what happened when she first started dating her now life partner, a neuroscientist also trained as a seminarian. At first, the other woman was skeptical when Schwartz told her about her channeling abilities. “So I did it in front of her. And she said, ‘Wow. That was not just you in the room right now.’ And she discovered that she actually also had a guide. She just had never thought of it that way.”
What constitutes a channeling experience? What does it look like when our guide pays a visit?
“There are some things I have experienced that cannot be rationalized, and I think the vast majority of people have had such an experience.” For some it may be the experience of having been visited by someone who has died. Or they’ve had a sudden intuition going down a street that they’d better turn back. And later they learn that a crime or tragedy occurred not long afterwards. “This experience that someone intervened on their behalf.”
The easiest way to connect with our shamanic guide?
“If I could name one practice I would suggest people could try it would be to get themselves in a centered place and simply say, ‘I’m going to try to contact my higher wisdom. I’m going to sit here and maybe write a question at the top of the page and ask my higher wisdom to come through.”
So how can we know which voice is our voice of wisdom, as opposed to our parent’s controlling voice or a voice of fear? How do we discern which inner voice to trust?
That’s a great question. Yes, we all have multiple voices inside ourselves. We might have one voice that’s intent on keeping us safe above all else. And still another that prods us to take a risk at all costs ~ even in destructive or abusive directions. So it’s a question of holding an intention to contact that inner voice that has only your highest good as its sole intent. Our intention determines so much.”
Advice for a parent on how to help their child keep this connection with their intuitive self alive?
“I would suggest that parents help their child take seriously their relationship with their own guide, using the child’s power of imagination to help them open up to that side of themself.”
Offers Schwartz: “There are all kinds of visualizations parents can use with their kids. They can invite their children to imagine that they have a special animal friend, for instance, and that they can go to this animal any time for help.”
Especially for kids who are what Schwartz terms as “porous,” ~ children who are sensitive to the needs of others and feel they need to rescue those around them, even the adults in their lives ~ the counselor says it’s vital that such kids have access to a “deeper level” of support that a spirit guide can offer them.
The good news? Kids these days are much more able to give language to their feelings.
And now back to poetry: Is the counselor still able to make time for her first love?
“Poetry for me was for such a long time the only way I knew how to contact that deeper wisdom, or at least the most reliable way. And yes, I published a new book of poetry last year, Miraculum: Poems. I’m also writing more essays, and hope to soon finish my novel. But I like all forms. The possibilities that poetry offers, that a novel or essay doesn’t, and also vice-versa.”
Music for Guitar and Stone
In music I can love the small failures,
the ones which show how difficult it is:
the young guitarist’s fingers slipping,
for an instant, from their climb of chords.
He sits alone on the stage, bright light,
one leg wedged up on a step, his raised knee
round and tender, and the notes like birds
from a vanishing flock, each one more exquisite and lonely;
the fingers part of the hand, yet separate from the hand,
each living muscle married to the whole.
In life the failures feel like they’ll kill me,
or you will, or we’ll kill each other;
it’s so hard to feel the music
moving through us, the larger patterns
of river and mountain, where damage is not separate
from creation, transformation;
where every mistake we make can wash
smooth and clean as stones in water,
then land on shore, then be thrown in again.
I want to sleep, like a stone, for a thousand years.
I want to wake with creatures traced smooth on my skin.
I want to forget I loved you and failed you
as you failed and loved me too, in the lengthy, painful
evolution of our kind; I want to sleep
for a thousand years, then wake up in some other world
where failure is part of the music, and seen
to make it more beautiful; where the fingers
forgive each other; where we can sit naked again
at the window, watch the notes fly by like birds
who have finally found their way home.
~Ruth L. Schwartz
Ghalib was a 19th-century Urdu poet. These versions were developed from the prose translations provided by Aijaz Ahmad in Ghazals of Ghalib (Columbia University Press, 1971). Numbering corresponds to the numbers used in that volume.
Everything sings, in each moment, a song — and is,
in the very next moment, unsung.
It’s no use being a mirror which sees both sides;
both sides are wrong.
What you claim to know will fail you; so will
what you venerate. Drink up. Refill your cup.
Deliberately love kicks up dust
to irritate the eye between two worlds.
Each song loves and hates itself.
If there’s a mirror which tells the difference, don’t look.
Forget what you know; don’t bother to believe.
Not-knowing is the only cup which can hold the world.
Where love has been and gone, the world grows honest.
Each thing sings: I am essential. I do not exist.
All you think you know is wrong. So is all you worship.
No matter how much you drink, there’s more in the cup.
Praise the futility of song. Accept that the shine in the mirror
is wrong. You are not important.
What’s a mirror, anyway? Who looks back from that bright glass?
It’s love again, come to save us, or drive us mad.
The more you know, the less you see;
faith can’t be drunk, though it fills your cup.
Love’s like a dust which settles on all things
and clings like skin. Even the sky bows down to it.
~ Excerpt from Green Fuse, by Ruth L. Schwartz
Bodies at Work
We are watching three enormous elephants
lie down willingly on their massive sides.
Elephants who roll like dogs,
rise on their heels like begging dogs,
squatting on their redwood legs,
holding out majestic paws —
watching them rise with astonishing grace
onto the forests of their feet,
watching as the middle elephant,
led by a trainer in sequin bikini,
begins to sway its hide to a flamenco beat.
The great sad proudness of the body,
mute absurdity, the proven grace of it.
Also the silent gravity of touch.
Also the second elephant, hooking the sinewy tip of its trunk
into the slender rising ribbon of the first one’s
tail, the third
into the ribbon of the second’s tail.
Meanwhile women in bright silks,
skirts the colors of crepe-paper roses,
yellow violet, pumpkin violet,
flip and bend, flashing their skirts high —
(the teenaged girl behind us hisses, they oughtta
be ashamed of theyselves –)
now the skirts are gone,
carried from the ring like wilted blossoms;
now ropes have lowered themselves from the sky;
begin to climb.
Ashamed? Of what?
Doesn’t every one of us
dream of living in those bodies?
— in the necessary sweat beneath their arms,
in the coiled hungers of their cunts?
There in the bodies at work becoming
more than themselves,
while also remaining, like the elephants,
Loops through the air, forward and backward flight.
~ Ruth L. Schwartz
This music is the country you lost
when you were born,
the cafe which never closes, the sex which
comes so close your pores are
weeping with longing, and never touches you,
the nights you don’t sleep, the hands in their ceaseless
moving like birds, the conversations interrupted
only by dancing, the dancers weeping with their bodies
painted like eyes,
here where black coffee and red wine are the only
waters, where crusty bread and creamy cheese
flecked with oregano and pooling tears of olive oil
are the only foods.
It’s the music you strain to hear through all the needy
the music which will only stop
when you abandon everything to follow it
–because this music lies to you, but it’s a gorgeous lie,
full of such craving and entreaty, the chance for nothing
to be ordinary, ever
It’s like Conrad’s heart of darkness, says the guitarist
later, when you introduce yourself
and learn he has a day job, he’s a psychologist,
this isn’t Seville, just College Avenue in Oakland,
the passions so much larger than our bodies
are lodged in our bodies, there is nothing we can do
to be rid of them, not the passions, not the bodies,
because whatever you make of your life
the soul keeps turning the other way,
like a child leaning backwards
over a railing toward the water, hanging by its feet,
so this music which is motion itself, you want it
to hold still,
its frenzy fixed so you can look
through its violet scarlet tangerine lens —
and glimpse your life there, floating in the colors
~ Ruth L. Schwartz
To learn more about Ruth L. Schwartz, please visit Evolutionary Support: Powerful tools for healing, creativity, spiritual growth & joy and her website here.