raven's wing

‘War and the Soul’

Ed Tick in conversation with Christina Pratt

[Sacred Hoop: Issue 65 2009]

Christina: would you say that there is only one war, that all wars are our war?

Every generation calls their war 'the war'. This is a clue to healing from the wounding of war, World War Two was 'the war'. Korea, Viet Nam, now Iraq and Afghanistan, are all 'the war’. 'The war' is the same in its essential conditions in all times and all places.

But people are having an encounter with the underworld rather than history, if we keep it to history, we miss the larger spiritual journey that people are on, because war is inherently and ironically a sacred experience - war is a sacred arena.

The American general William Sherman once said, 'War is hell’, and he wasn't being metaphorical. War is a human recreation of the worst dimensions of hell - of the underworld - that we can possibly imagine. We recreate it in reality, so, anyone we send off to war or who survives war is literally a survivor of the journey into the underworld.

These ultimate matters must be responded to with ultimate concerns. Shamanism gives us these ultimate concerns and the tools for working with them. Shamanism accepts that we have a soul. That it is a living reality. That the soul can be damaged or lost or confused and needs to be recovered.

Shamanism accepts that there are invisible realms and spiritual realms that we can access. People having gone through war often access them spontaneously, sometimes in helpful ways, but often in painful and horrific ways. Nonetheless they know there is an invisible realm.

Shamanism teaches us how to connect with nature and with the souls of the dead. War is essentially the destruction of nature and the creation of death. Through shamanic practices we can directly approach and help heal that which we harmed.

My basic presentation is that war healing can be accomplished if we take it on as a spiritual journey that will have shamanic and initiatory ordeals and experiences along the way, including the experience of combat and its resolution.

Christina: Why do shamanic and mythic elements allow you to work with the veterans in ways that other processes don't?

Shamanism teaches us of the archetypes, that there are stories built into the universe. Most combatants aren't thinking that way, though some are.

Many people are still called to the warrior's archetypal path. For example I worked with a veteran who volunteered to go to Iraq – he wanted to go to war.

He thought that in being sent to Iraq he would be sent to a place like the Normandy beaches, "some place great and heroic and important in human history".

He said to me "I always wanted to be Hector defending the gates of Troy, but all they gave me was that dirty little Iraq war. I could not fulfil my call to warriorhood there". His trauma was not having gone to war, but having his ache to become a warrior in an ancient noble tradition betrayed.

Christina: It seems to me there is a deep betrayal here of the agreement between the people and the warriors; the ancient agreement that says 'if you go into battle for us and protect our way of life, you will gain initiation and transformation from that experience'. It's a bum deal if you risk your life again and again and still never complete your calling of spiritual warriorship.

Yes. The military uses that innate call to the archetypal 'warrior's path' in its recruiting to entice troops. On a deep level their adverts call to the spiritual warrior in everyone and lots of people still sign up for military service believing that they will be able to fulfil the spiritual warrior's path.

Yes. The military uses that innate call to the archetypal 'warrior's path' in its recruiting to entice troops. On a deep level their adverts call to the spiritual warrior in everyone and lots of people still sign up for military service believing that they will be able to fulfil the spiritual warrior's path.

Christina: And they are seeing these adverts right at the time when they are feeling the lack of being initiated culturally from childhood to adulthood. That need for initiation must piggy-back on the whole possibility of getting it through this warrior path.

Yes, I'd say that was accurate. We've almost no forms of 'meaningful' initiation left. People say "well, we've school graduation, getting a car, getting drunk, going into the military, or bar mitzvah, and communion ceremonies left", which is all true, but generally speaking, none of them work as significant initiations, because the entire community isn't involved in them. Most importantly, the spiritual element isn't involved in any of these events, to the extent that the initiate has breakthrough spiritual experiences in which they meet their protective spirits, or talk to their ancestors. And there aren't wise elder guides initiating them.

Christina: And I guess we can also debate whether or not the 'adults' in the community that young adults come back to, are grown-ups themselves.

That's right. In a culture of over-aged teenagers there aren't many elders around who are guiding or affirming the initiation, or helping people to take their place.

Now if we apply that directly to the war experience, we take young adults out of civilian life, we transform their characters, personalities, behaviours and values through boot camp and advanced training, then we send them off to a war zone. That's the first half of the initiation experience - death and dismemberment.

Now if we apply that directly to the war experience, we take young adults out of civilian life, we transform their characters, personalities, behaviours and values through boot camp and advanced training, then we send them off to a war zone. That's the first half of the initiation experience - death and dismemberment.

One way to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is as an incomplete, interrupted initiation, and it is up to us as facilitators and civilian helpers to help veterans complete their initiatory experience.

Christina: As I understand the current situation, these troops are being called to repeat that incomplete cycle over and over and over.

Right - back to hell again, and again, and again, without ever really having returned from it in the first place.

Christina: So, by not treating war as an event in a sacred arena, we are making an already confusing and soul-damaging situation worse. And then there is the confusing relationship between the living, surviving warrior, and the spirits of the dead: those they killed, dead comrades, and their own ancestors. There's a sacred bond between the living and the dead, but also a particular bond - which no one tells the soldier about - between the living and those they kill. How does a young man, or woman, deal with these spirits of the dead visiting every night, when he or she isn't even whole themselves?

Soul is the centre of our experience. Our disorders and wounds radiate out from the soul to body, mind, and heart.

Shamanism is the oldest healing tradition on the planet, and the core of shamanism is recovering and restoring the soul. If the soul doesn't get what it needs, then it doesn't matter how much extra stuff we may do which is good and helpful and well-meaning, it's just not going to take.

I've worked with many veterans who were very responsible with their healing. They saw many different therapists, used many different techniques, went back to college, and made big life changes. However, until they did their soul work successfully, the rest of the healing didn't coalesce. They still felt disordered, angry and agitated. In one veteran's words, "My heart was still dark until I got my soul back."

Christina: As a shamanic practitioner I would be happy to travel to groups of veterans and perform the soul retrievals that they needed. However, I would want those warriors in a circle for each other, I wouldn't want to do this healing willy-nilly. I would want the warrior receiving shamanic healing to be held in a circle of his or her peers, so that the warrior had community to support the integration of that healing, and all the other stages of that healing journey. That's how I imagine doing it.

That actually replicates the warrior societies of traditional cultures.

This is what warriors need in order to be held well in this healing.

Christina: It breaks my heart that these people have already suffered; and that they suffer further in the 'care' they get when they return. So soul loss is at the root of the PTSD that these warriors come home with, and soul retrieval is the thing that shamans do really well. One of the beauties of having the shaman step in, like in the old days, and do the retrieval work for people, is that the shaman will go revisit the trauma and bring the soul back, instead of forcing the person who has already been traumatised to revisit it again. With veterans I've worked with, this seems to be an issue - they can't go back, not because they aren't courageous enough, but because they know from experience that they will be lost in that darkness.

Well, I've experienced it working both ways effectively. Sometimes people do need to experience the empowerment and also the catharsis that can come from revisiting the trauma. If the person is strong enough and ready to do it, then, as they bring their soul back, they bring back a load of old pain, grief, fear, and nightmares that can finally be released.

During a 'dream incubation' healing in Greece, a ceremony in which people are actively encouraged to dream, one veteran accessed an endless, non-stop series of combat nightmares. With the wrong facilitation he would have been awakened from his dream to 'stop his suffering,' and maybe even given medications to suppress his nightmares.

But, as it turns out, because we were doing shamanic practices and there was enough of a community of support around him to see him through his twelve hours of hell, this was the last night in his life of having combat nightmares. By going through it a second time, with healing and support, his soul was able to vomit out that remaining combat poison and he finished in that one night. Now he sleeps like a baby.

Christina: So, it's important that the process is being held, and that it's not just the veteran and their healer, but a whole community that is holding. And what they are doing is not just the recovery of the soul, but the whole process of integration, of cleansing, of release. Each part of the process is all framed in a sacred, mythic context and not a pathological context.

Yes, absolutely. We must return blessing and honour to the wound and consider it a sacred wound. All traditional cultures honoured their warriors' wounds, even their warhorses' wounds; but in the West we tell them to hide it and get back to being a pretend civilian.

That can't work. Traditionally warriors go to the edge of the village to surround the community in times of danger, and then it's the proper reciprocal relationship, when the warriors come home again, to bring them into the heart of the village and surround them and protect them during their healing.

Humanity has known about this wound we call PTSD since ancient times. We've records of it from ancient Egypt, Greece and the oral traditions of indigenous peoples all over the globe. The wounding of war is so overwhelming, so complex and holistic to all aspects of our being, body, mind, heart and spirit, that we need spiritual and holistic means for responding.

Christina: This is the thing everyone needs to understand. Everyone in health care is trying their best and they still aren't succeeding. This seems to be the essence of what you are sharing. We must be willing to move into other realms if we are going to truly and effectively address this problem.

Correct. The world healing traditions teach that spiritual healing is at the base, or root, of all healing. It is not an add-on, an extra or ancillary to the 'real healing' that comes from the medical or mental health professionals; rather, spiritual healing has to be at the centre. In the West we tend to treat the mind and the body with physical, psychological, and pharmaceutical strategies, but we tend to ignore the heart. And especially regarding war and veterans, we ignore the overwhelming intensity, pain and rage that war survivors carry back. We don't engage the heart deeply and fully enough in our therapies and we certainly don't engage the soul and spirit.

I began leading healing and reconciliation trips to Viet Nam back in 2000. I do this annually, and my next journey is in November 2009.

The Vietnamese people, being primarily Buddhist and Confucian with very deep shamanic roots, including ancestor worship and animism that are older than either religion, are profoundly loving, welcoming, forgiving, and accepting of all Americans. They throw their arms open and welcome our veterans back as long lost brothers and sisters. They make extraordinary efforts to help us to heal.

The Vietnamese traditions, as well as other shamanic traditions around the world, teach the following four things:

  • 'We are responsible for the souls who have crossed over’.
  • 'The living and the dead have an ongoing relationship'.
  • 'We the living need to help the dead to move on after death'.
  • 'If we don't help the dead, they can get stuck in the land of the living and we develop troubling symptoms'.

Some of the most troubling symptoms of PTSD, which we attribute to psychological or neurological malfunctioning, can be understood as spiritual and shamanic wounds, and they are treated as such in Viet Nam and other indigenous cultures.

This wounding can be resolved through shamanic practices. For example, tens of thousands of 'missing in action' (MIA) remains have been located in Viet Nam by their shamans. There is an organisation in Hanoi, the ‘UIA'. I've worked with them and been honoured to participate in their shamanic rituals. It's an organisation of indigenous shamans who have advanced skills in speaking with the spirits of the dead.

They work closely with the families of MIAS, using shamanic trance states to contact the co hor (wandering souls) of the deceased. After first resisting, the Vietnamese government joined in and loaned them forensics experts to verify their finds. To date they have found and verified the remains of 10,000 Vietnamese MIAs.

Some PTSD symptoms in soldiers demonstrate shamanic disturbance, like persistent nightmares and disturbing daytime visions of the dead; veterans who have travelled to Viet Nam and participated in some of these Buddhist and shamanic rituals have achieved healing from their PTSD.

Christina: So you're saying that some soldiers see the dead, the spirits of the people that they have killed?

I guess that situation could be pathologised psychologically, or we could look at it shamanically instead and say there is a profound relationship between the living and the dead, and so "of course you are seeing the dead".

If we take the latter view, there is a need to attend to it in a sacred, shamanic way, because otherwise there will be a danger that the soldier will be stuck seeing the dead forever. And the fact that a soldier is struggling with the spirits of the dead has nothing to do with that soldier's faith, or lack of it; we're talking about a relationship more ancient than any religion ever invented.

This is the core relationship between the souls of the living and the spirits of the dead. It doesn't mean this soldier wasn't a good Christian, or good whatever, it just means this is what happens when we engage in war. We have to accept that, and join together to help in ways that are truly effective.

Exactly. Let me share this story as an example. I am presently working with a Native American veteran who tells this story of his first kill in Viet Nam. He was a young man in a fire fight, when he and an enemy soldier faced-off, yards from each other. That enemy looked him in the eyes and instead of shooting, raised his gun to the sky.

Then the Gl shot the Vietnamese man dead. Immediately he was stricken with grief. He walked up to the body of the dead enemy in despair. His sergeant came over, congratulated him and asked what he was looking so bad about?

The Native American Gl said, "I was raised to be a hunter and warrior in my tribe's tradition. I was taught that I'm responsible for the spirit of a person or animal that I kill. I'm supposed to sit with the body and tell the spirit why I had to take its life. And I'm sitting here in despair because I cannot tell this soldier why I had to kill him. It was wrong and I feel horrible."

He has been tortured by that memory ever since.

That is the shamanic relationship that warriors have affirmed since time before time, that when we take a life, we are responsible for the soul. And, in fact, the soul of that life taken can become our ally.

In warrior tradition, warriors were not only responsible for the souls of those they killed, but could join with the powers of the fallen warrior as well. This is the concept behind the shamanic work with the fallen that the Vietnamese are doing now.

Nightmares and visions of the dead are shamanic messages. They are also common PTSD symptoms and they speak to the 'wandering souls' of the dead. 'Wandering souls' according to Vietnamese tradition, are people who were killed violently and whose bodies were lost and not given proper ritual at death.

Because of these circumstances at death they are stuck here between the worlds of the dead and the living and they can't cross over.

In Viet Nam, ma gio or 'windy tombs' are created in traditional rituals to give the wandering souls a home. These are empty tombs that are treated as if they had a body inside. All of the proper rituals for death are given at the tomb, as if the people were burying the body. We use this healing practice for some of our veterans.

I'd like to share the story of a man called Bob, a Viet Nam veteran. Bob was very troubled with nightmares and waking visions of the dead that he saw all the time, both people he had killed and people he lost from his unit.

He travelled to Viet Nam with me twice. We used all of these practices and others to bring peace, including philanthropic work, to give back to the living, and offerings to the dead.

After many healing rituals and ceremonies he remained especially troubled by nightmares of a 14-year old Viet Cong boy, who was the first enemy soldier he had killed.

We went to a place called Nui Ba Den (Black Lady Mountain), a sacred mountain that saw terrible fighting during the war, and asked the Buddhist monks at the temple there to perform their special ceremony for the 'wandering souls' in honour of the boy Bob had killed. They were happy to help us and performed this ceremony with us.

During the ceremony Bob had a beatific vision of the boy coming to him, not ravaged and bloody from combat, but healed, glowing with inner celestial light, and open-armed. The boy embraced Bob and Bob felt the boy entering his heart and becoming one with him. Bob felt the boy say, "From now on and forever more I am your spiritual ally, helper and friend. I am at peace. I want you to be at peace too. Know that we walk together serving peace and healing for the rest of your days". That was the end of Bob's nightmares forever. That was six years ago. Now Bob has reconciled with his wife, reconciled with his alienated children, finished his college degrees, is holding a steady job, works as a volunteer with other veterans, and is an upstanding member of his community. His PTSD is completely healed.

“In warrior tradition, warriors were not only responsible for the souls of those they killed, but could join with the powers of the fallen warrior as well. This is the concept behind the shamanic work with the fallen that the Vietnamese are doing now.”

Christina: This is the possibility that we are talking about. In fact if we engage in these shamanic practices it is a probability. So my question to the practices, beliefs, organisations, and practitioners who stand in the way of creating these opportunities for veterans is, "Why?" Why would anyone stand in the way of being able to create this opportunity that is so graceful, so effective, and so honouring of the living and the dead? This brings peace. And not only peace; the person you mentioned, Bob, is a productive member of society again. He's not on the dole and he's not on medication. This benefits everyone, not only in the heart, but in the practicality of life, the intelligence of life, in all realms this benefits us. What do we need to do to begin to apply these practices here and now?

We have to affirm certain spiritual principles that shamanism teaches:

  • 'There is a visible world and an invisible world’.
  • 'People have souls that have life that extends beyond us in ways we can't ordinarily see and fully understand’.
  • 'We are responsible for the creation, preservation, and the destruction that we do’.
  • 'When we do destroy we become profoundly responsible for the life(s) we have taken'.
  • 'We can become traumatised and disordered to the extent that we do not fulfil our responsibilities to our soul or the souls of the dead'.

Shamanism teaches us how to travel in the invisible world, how to honour the ancestors, and how to do time-honoured rituals today. We can bring this understanding into our therapy work, where we can honour the spiritual intimacy that is created by war and violence. We can then transform the negative intimacy that alienates from life, to a positive intimacy where we take responsibility for what we have done.

Christina: No one living is untouched by those who have gone to war. We need to find a way to support the people returning, to help them to heal, to help the earth to heal from the effects of being the site of these battles. We need to deal compassionately and effectively with the spirits of the dead. All of these things are our job as the living. It's our job to support these souls, both the living and the dead.