The Shaman of Creativity
An Interview with Hal Zina Bennett
"Look! Look over there!"
My black-haired, brown-eyed Mexican seat-mate nearly flew from her seat with excitement.
"It's an angel riding a dragon across the sky!"
I looked. I peered. I squinted. I put my glasses on and took my glasses off. Try as I might that dragon and rider eluded me. My six-year old sage, Francesca, leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. Her gaze, potent with innocence and uncluttered wisdom, was like a shaft of bright sunlight penetrating my over-worked brain. She lay her soft brown hand on mine and with patient reassurance counseled me, "Don't try so hard. Sit back. Soften your eyes. Believe in them. Anything can happen now. You'll see."
Following her guidance, I stopped trying to see. I peered out the plane's window, now beading with tiny jewels of vapor, as we started our descent into Albuquerque. My eyelids rested at half-mast, like those of a wise old mare patiently waiting for the supper bucket. Then I saw it. It came out of a cumulus cloud just as the captain announced the local weather. Like a proud student who had mastered her lessons I excitedly turned to my young mentor.
"I see a wiz..."
"Wizard!" she finished for me. Her little girl giggle became ancient, echoing from a place of deep wisdom within her. "You see? I said you could do it!"
Thus began my journey to New Mexico to study for seven days with Hal Zina Bennett--author, mentor and--as I was about to discover--a shaman in his own right. Meeting Francesca on my flight over heralded what was to come. She gave me the first of many lessons I would learn that week on the mysteries of creativity and the doorways to deep creative consciousness.
Mesas, red rocks, timeless spaces, plus local license plates, all declare New Mexico the "Land of Enchantment." The wide sky and deep desert terrain couldn't be more fitting for Hal Zina Bennett's Mystery School for Creative Writers. The transformational inner space this week-long course creates could only occur amid the presence of a teacher and a landscape that do not demand conformity. Hal, like the cry of the desert coyote filling our minds at midnight, evokes in his students a clear perception of previously unseen powers: the outrageous power of our life experience, our personal masks and inner gifts, our essential wounds and peak experiences, our spirit-given capacity to experience language as a mirror of inner consciousness.
Hal is a master of many things, all of them in service of the Creative. An author of more than twenty books, his writing career began in 197l with the publication of The Well Body Book. Written with co-author Mike Samuels, MD, it was a ground breaking holistic health book that I remember passing around in our graduate school apartments at Syracuse University. We were "alternative," and so was Hal's book. In fact, it was a daring statement--perhaps the most outspoken and powerful voice of alternative medicine and healing for that time.
Hal was no newcomer to alternative lifestyles. Earlier he wrote No More Public Schools, a book that gave impetus to the home schooling movement. Then came Lens of Perception, hinting at Hal's experiences with shamans and telling readers how to use simple shape-shifting techniques for our everyday lives. After that came Follow Your Bliss, with Susan J. Sparrow, his life partner, on finding our life's work. Then, in 1993, Hal's book Zuni Fetishes brought a grounded view of Native American spiritual principles to modern readers. Even my CPA is among the book's devotees, having read a review in--of all places--"The Wall Street Journal." Shortly after the review in the "Journal" a run by investors created a bull market for Zuni animal fetishes, especially those with powers to attract prosperity. There are rumors that the book is used in a reservation school to teach modern day Indian teenagers about a tradition that has been lost to them. Surprisingly, Hal says, that book is now in its tenth printing.
Hal's gifts to the world don't stop there. He has been a private writing coach for many bestselling teachers and spiritual avatars, including Stan Grof, Shakti Gawain, Jerry Jampolsky, Gabrielle Roth...and others too numerous to mention.
Clearly a gifted author and high-profile mentor, Hal could be spending all of his time with superstars on the lecture circuit but he prefers the company of beginning writers like myself. In fact, he and his author-wife Susan J. Sparrow regularly leave their small town Northern California home to bring his mystery school approach to creativity to writers throughout the U.S.. Together, Hal and Susan teach how to access the deep creative consciousness and facilitate writing as a path of the spirit. Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artists' Way, acknowledges that "Hal practices writing as a spiritual path. He teaches with the compassion and wisdom born of experience and humility. Writers and those who wish to be, are well served by his insight." Cameron calls Hal's Write From the Heart, "one of a handful of real writing books."
It is at Gavilan Ranch and Retreat Center, site of Hal's yearly August course in New Mexico, that I had the privilege of coming to know him as teacher, coach and mystic. The learning environment he creates is an extension of himself. It is a real-time experience in the near-virtual world of creative consciousness, a world where Hal is very much at home. In the sights, sounds, stories, guidance, smells and mystical meditations he uses to invoke the sacred, he helped me to take my feet out of the muck of self-doubt and sent me on my way...to write.
*Journal entry, August 12, New Mexico:*
The long, winding back country road to Gavilan leaves our car layered with dust as we pass cabins and adobes set amid tall red rock and even taller sea-green pines. When I arrive at the camp-house to register I am not offered a name tag but a soft, gray, suede medicine bag upon which Susan has neatly beaded my name in tiny turquoise stones. What a delight! It is the first of many signs that this is no ordinary seminar. No ordinary writer's school, for that matter. I am invited to decorate my medicine bag and wear it for the duration of the workshop. In it I will place artifacts that I will be given or which I will find during my stay. Later I discover that it is a metaphor for the inner treasure I have to offer the world. Inner treasure! Dare I believe this is so?
Behind me I hear a kind voice ask, "Is everyone here?" I know this voice. It is Hal's. I had spoken to him several times on the phone months before. (Hal is accessible. His success has not resulted in his constructing a protective wall, as so happens with fame.) Before I turn to meet him, I wonder who I will find. Given all I know of him, I expect the huge, angular form of a warrior.
When I turn, the face before me is round, soft, nearly childlike. Hal stands just under six feet. His salt and pepper hair is four times the length of mine, tied in a ponytail. His translucent blue eyes and gentle demeanor immediately give the impression of a medicine man, not the distant spooky sort, but a refined, integrated presence of both masculine and feminine. Someone who has known suffering, ecstasy and everything in between, and has reverently bowed to it all.
Instantly, it is clear to me that this man will not expect me to surrender my own wisdom in order to benefit from his. I trust him. He is "whole-ly." He does not teach to fulfill his deficits but to share all that he is--his strengths and his human weaknesses. I will be spiritually nurtured here, respected for who I am and whatever truth I bring to this place.
In his book Write From the Heart <HZBooks/write_from_the_heart.htm>, Hal states that for him writing and teaching are spiritual exercises. He is not just an author but a shaman and seeker who uses the craft of writing as a path to the divine. In his own words, "Creativity is a sacred trust. And like all things sacred, it needs to be nurtured, respected and heard in all its forms. It is through the expression of the creative spirit that humanity evolves and heals." Hal's call to service includes the likes of me, and thousands like me, seeking spirit and sourcing it through self-expression. Hal's commitment to the Creative obliges him to "nurture, respect, and encourage its expression in all forms," from untutored beginner to New Age star.
*Journal entry, August 14:*
In the round canvas and wood yurt that is our classroom, a desert breeze blows through, creating fragrant swirls from the burning sage that blesses our writing space. Beating drums inaugurate the start of each session. We sit twenty-four in sacred circle. We have come from as near as Flagstaff, Arizona and as far as Montreal, Quebec. We gather around a small table of sweet smelling, desert incense, rhythm instruments such as gourds, rattles and bells, and holy artifacts that announce that we have left our everyday world behind to explore the inner world of creativity.
Hal does not take center stage as teacher but as a fellow seeker. "Stand in the power of your own voice," he says. "Get to know the power even of that which you would deny--your own inner critics, your errors as well as your greatest gifts and most wondrous experiences. Embrace your personal truths and be responsible for expressing them. They are not yours to hide but to share, empowering yourselves and others in the process."
Hal's subtle but undeniable contact with the world of spirit soon takes us to mystical spaces--not by technique or urging--but as effortlessly and silently as the rising spirals of burning sage. We have done our exercises, read our work, spent hours sourcing the powers latent in our personal stories. As though by slight-of-hand we are drawn into a mystical world where the metal plate of our mind and its negative self-musings shifts ever so slightly. Shafts of enlightenment and inspiration spread over us. Self-doubt is exorcised in this space and in its place come poems, songs, stories, essays, flowing forth in eloquent form and style from everyone in the room. Brilliant in their authenticity, captivating in their truth--we have been visited by the spirit of Creativity herself. She has used our hearts, our minds, our souls to sing her lyrics.
After one such session of magic and release, Hal takes his personal drum in hand and steals away from the group, apparently unnoticed by everyone but me. Hal follows a path up a nearby cliff, a path he appears to knows well, as he sure-footedly climbs the steep red rock.
Moments before at the circle I had boldly declared my "right to write." Hal sat across from me, his eyes fixing on my worth, talent and infinite spirit. I was affirming my decision to write a book on women following their call, volunteering to have this statement witnessed by Hal, Susan and my fellow students. Something old, something filled with self-doubt died within me as I spoke. Something new was being born in its place. I finally said yes to a soul call but most of all--to my self. Tears streaming down my face, I thanked Hal for creating the space for me to honor my own voice. He smiled, his eyes brimming full with quiet joy and deep satisfaction.
Soon after the session ended, Hal left quietly with his drum. Though he never said so, I am certain he ascended to his sacred place close to the sky, not to soak up glory--but to pray his drum--giving thanks.
How does a quiet boy from Detroit become a writer, mentor and guide for thousands? The following conversation reveals some of the thoughts, dreams and personal history that have shaped Hal Zina Bennett. Having literally died several times during his lifetime, while still being alive, his journey is clearly that of a spiritual warrior, his effect that of the shaman, inviting those around him to see, touch and feel the invisible world of Creation, through the visible world of words and imagery.
*Carolyn:* You are a writer, a teacher, and a coach of other writers. You've helped many leading authors and teachers in the spiritual and personal growth movement get published. Several of your own books have been very successful. You could be focusing entirely on your own writing or consulting with these "famous" writers. Instead, you are helping people like myself and others find their voice. Why are you doing this?
*Hal:* Maybe this will come as a surprise but I am not that interested in writing per se. What interests me more is the creative process itself, and how it is related to spiritual development. I believe that we all have the urge to create. It is a natural impulse within each one of us, part of the original demiurge of creation. If that impulse is ignored it can lead to much craziness, just as when our sexual or other instincts are ignored. The process of bringing that demiurge of creation into expression has always fascinated me. To me, creating a great masterpiece is not terribly important. While I love to go to museums or read great literature, the masterpieces themselves are not "it" for me. What is more important to me is something that is much more obvious in the oral tradition, in oral storytelling, for example--where the things we create immediately affect a group of listeners, and their responses affect the storyteller. That interactive quality of storyteller and listener is a microcosm of how human consciousness evolves.
*Carolyn:* I've experienced that in your workshops, of course. It is almost as if you hold a space for the God or Goddess within us to express as a creative act. Spiritual consciousness expressing through us. To the extent we don't allow it to move through us, that same urge to express ourselves creatively implodes and leaves us feeling, as you said, "crazy" somehow.
*Hal:* Yes. I think that if we deny the creative in ourselves, we can end up with a peculiar kind of longing. When it is not expressed or not given away as a contribution to a larger purpose, it can lead to addictive or destructive behavior. There's a theory in the recovery movement, you know, that many people who are substance abusers are actually seeking God, or seeking a transcendent experience. They have found that to some extent they can achieve this by drowning out the negative feelings of fear and self-judgment that they run in their minds--and these fears and judgments, of course, are creative expressions. It's just that they are presently being expressed destructively. There is a fine line between creation and destruction. If we are not really attuned to the creative side it can easily become expressed in destructive acts.
*Carolyn:* Would it be accurate to say that in your role as teacher and coach what lights you up is seeing this creative force freed, activated and owned by someone?
*Hal:* Yes, seeing it freed excites me very much. Let me tell you a story. When my son Nathan was five years old I was teaching him to ride his first two-wheeler. For several days I followed at his side, holding on to the back of the seat to help him get a sense of balance and control. Then one day, he suddenly pulled away from me and went riding off on his own. It was so exciting to me that it literally brought tears to my eyes. I actually dropped to my knees in the middle of the street and wept with joy--ecstasy really! Such moments have always excited me--when somebody finds their own voice or comes into their own power. I swear I see God in those moments. And I believe that this is universal, that there is something tremendously important and exciting about witnessing others--particularly those who are close to us--finding their own power, their own voice. And, of course, it is at least as powerful when we experience our own creative power.
*Carolyn:* In signing up for creative workshops, we may initially sign up because we want to learn how to write or paint or whatever it is. Our product-oriented mind feels safe. We are here to "work on our writing." Yet in creating something like a poem, short story or article there is a point when we leave the product-oriented world. We are taken into a place where the creative and spiritual merge. It's a very transformational space. In your workshops, I had the experience of entering the domain of spirit through the process of writing --it was subtle. People walk out the door wondering what hit them!
*Hal:* I think that is exactly right. We feel secure in the creation of artifacts. But it's not the artifacts themselves that are the point. I happen to be somebody who has developed the craft of writing. It could just as well be shining shoes. We choose a vehicle; and we create our artifacts--the medium is almost arbitrary, except it must be something you love. Yes, we develop the medium, the craft, but where we go within this creative process--to the inner world and to the world beyond the boundaries of our bodies and senses--is where we find the real magic. In the shamanic traditions that's known as "shape- shifting." We discover new perspectives about ourselves there and in the process we nurture the growth of the human spirit.
*Carolyn:* What is the biggest challenge we face when we take on this creative process called writing? Is there something common that most people have to stumble through in the beginning? Or is it different for every person?
*Hal:* As I see it, the struggle is pretty universal in learning to do anything well, particularly if it has to do with self-expression. The self-esteem factor is incredibly powerful and its roots probably go back to being humbled before God. There are myths throughout every civilization of the person who challenges God on his or her own ground--like Eve eating from the Tree of Life even though God told her not to. We have to go through that mythical passage, challenging the voices of parents or society who tell us that we should not do this or that. We have to claim our right to express the small portion of the Creative Demiurge that has been given us.
There is also the influence of our early conditioning, of course, growing up with the little voice inside that says, "How dare you think you can do this!" The sabotaging voice that says "Yeah right. You are going to write a book! Who do you think you are?"
Last but not least, there is our educational system which forgets to tell you the core purpose of language, which is to share our life experience with others, to the extent that language can do this. In school, when you have something to say you have to prove it in terms of authorities or experts, and you're supposed to be objective in all of these things. You get good grades for keeping your own voice silent. However, in growing as a writer, it is absolutely essential that you honor your own voice. It is absolutely essential that you draw from your own life experiences. That is not to say that you do not pay attention to others, but if you fail to risk the slings and arrows of self-expression, then you simply don't have a voice. That voice--your voice--is absolutely critical to the creative and the spiritual process. It is absolutely critical to making a contribution to the evolution of human consciousness because each of us brings something unique and new to the pool of awareness. Self-esteem is a big issue in all of this. As T.S. Eliot said, "Do I dare, and do I dare?"
*Carolyn:* Hal, how have you risen to the occasion of the self-esteem factor, of dealing with the sabotaging effects of your own dark voice?
*Hal:* It is a daily battle! (Lots of laughter ). It really is. Every time I start a new book it's always the same. There is this early struggle, this negative presumption in the beginning, and you know that getting past it is going to be difficult. Sometimes I get past it by mentally grabbing myself by the collar and shaking myself, "You dummy! Wakeup!" But it is tough.
You have to learn how to deal with your own inner critic. Most of us deal with the inner critic by pushing it away. The only way we can really deal with it, however, is by embracing it. C.G. Jung pointed out that when we do that, when we embrace these inner critic fellows, it may be painful for a while but ultimately they then become our allies. I believe this is true. But for me and most creative people, it is still a daily battle.
*Carolyn:* Is it an illusion for me to think that someday I'll sit down and start to write with nothing but self-trust overflowing instead of the usual: "Who do you think you are?"
*Hal:* Yes, it is an illusion. You must deal with your inner critic. You must take it on. It's part of the craft of writing, painting, doing anything you care very much about. Every time I teach a workshop I go through the same thing. Two days of hell, getting really down on myself. The critic asks: "How can you possibly be this presumptuous to teach?" Now I have been through it a few million times so I know at least that it is a matter of limited perception, not a matter of seeing the truth. That keeps me going. The point is that our battles with our inner critics, with self-esteem and self-trust, are part of the craft, just as important as learning how to craft a sentence or create a character.
*Carolyn:* Writing in the 21st century--do you think it is going to look different?
*Hal:* Sure, it always does, age to age, century to century. The style of writing--how we present ourselves on paper--always reflects the dominant themes of the culture. If you trace different styles of writing throughout history you see they change with every key theme of the period.
One of my own teachers is a spirit guide who comes from a shamanic culture over a thousand years old. What has come through to me has to do with what my guide calls the third, fourth and fifth worlds. It goes something like this: evolution is moving us towards a paradigm which will focus on a certain type of co-operation, similar to the example of me empowering my son to ride a bicycle. It is based on the fact that our ultimate power and security, for everyone in the world, depends on our fostering the greatest personal power in each person--not power over other people--but fostering mutually beneficial power. That will be a big theme, a fifth world theme, right beside the old themes of the third and fourth world which have to do with power over others through either physical domination or mental manipulation. Technology, for example, is power through mental manipulation, while shooting and killing in Bosnia or Indonesia or elsewhere, is power over others through physical domination. I think these will be the three big themes in the 21st century: mutually beneficial power, mental manipulation, and physical domination. They will demand that we take a much closer look at what "power" really means.
*Carolyn:* It sounds like the third, fourth and fifth world themes happening all at once will provide a powerful collision, forcing us all to put some effort into sorting things sort out for ourselves.
*Hal:* The third and fourth world paradigms have really been the focus of the 20th century, and is even exaggerated in the 21st, with the fifth world paradigm nevertheless slowly emerging. What we see now, with the spiritual movement and the personal growth movement, is greater numbers of people, a greater mass of people--the Cultural Creatives--involved in this fifth world paradigm of mutually beneficial power. We are developing a critical mass in that area.
*Carolyn:* So how do you see this shaping the world of writing and writers?
*Hal:* I see these themes being picked up in literature. I am also seeing that what's dominant right now is how-to literature, rather then literature with a capital "L". In other words, we have writing in which people are trying to help each other through different crises. Another thing we are seeing--actually a continuation of the latter part of this century--is the writer revealing themselves more to the reader than ever before. At the same time, as readers, our trust of the writer is based on how much they are willing to reveal of themselves, how close they are to themselves. This has a lot to do with this fifth world theme of mutual benefit versus power over others.
*Carolyn:* It starts to make credentials irrelevant! The reader demanding: "Let me know who you are, not how many degrees you have. Let me know you through your writing, rather then the alphabet you have after your name. Then, I'll believe you."
*Hal:* Exactly, exactly.
*Carolyn:* I'd like to ask about the logo you use in your writing--"Man in the Maze." Why that image? What does it mean for you?
*Hal:* It is a traditional Hopi petroglyph. About 25 years ago I began to be aware of the circle, how it manifests in the organic world: in trees, the age-rings, in the shape of sound, a lot of different things. And I also began to see the circle in labyrinths. Then I ran across the Hopi symbol of the man in the maze and it absolutely struck me, resonated with me. I began to study it. The part that really strikes me is that if you look at the symbol there's always a little shape of clarity, like a slice out of the pie, where the human figure stands. What that signifies is that we all come into life with a gift, with a light. We don't come in empty-handed. We come in with something to give. So we are not empty-handed in walking the labyrinth either. It is all part of finding our path and also bringing something in to contribute, to give.
*Carolyn:* So that symbol of the Man in the Maze struck you as something to stand for, and live by?
*Hal:* Yes. It's really very important in terms of my whole attitude towards creativity. A big part of the gift that we come in with is our creative longing, our creative capacity and how our personal expression of this gift is part of the evolutionary process of spirit.
You know, so many of us spend a huge amount of time and energy psychologizing, peeling the onion, so to speak, preparing ourselves for living our lives, for changing so that we are more open, more loving, more this or that. But within the teaching of the labyrinth we learn that we do not have to change to love, to create, to be happy, or to know Spirit. We come into life with these capacities. We don't need to be "fixed" to love, create or be happy. We only need the courage to choose it, to risk it. Too often, the desire to change alienates us from ourselves and from our gift. We do need to know ourselves--that is the maze. But our obsession with change may actually hide the gift from view.
*Carolyn:* I am remembering you at your New Mexico workshop and the place you created there for the discovery of "gift" without putting a specific label on what "gift" means. There were people who sang, others who wrote. There were poets, and storytellers. I saw you make room for each person to come into a knowing of their personal gift. The exercises encouraged an inner receptivity to see it, own it, be it, express it.
It sounds like your logo reflects what you said at the beginning of this interview, about what lights you up--a person freeing The Creative inside themselves.
*Hal:* Yes, manifesting that creative urge. I don't care how you do it! You know, one of my great heroes is an autistic woman, Temple Grandin, who has learned to become quite articulate. She designs cattle-ramps for slaughter yards. She is an amazing woman. Here is somebody who is extremely limited in her capacity to function in the world that you and I know, yet she made an incredible contribution. She has a great sympathy for animals and is able to identify with them. She's the world's expert on creating stock-yard cattle ramps and chutes that don't freak out the animals on their way to being executed. It is an irony and a contradiction but it really is an important thing.
*Carolyn:* So, as you see it, everybody has a gift, no matter who they are or their personal limitation. What do you perceive is your gift?
*Hal:* I think my greatest gift probably is the ability to perceive what some call the invisible reality--the world that is beyond our physical senses. That seems to be something that was given to me early on. It's a tremendous help when we need to get our egos out of the way. Not that mine is always out of the way! Not by a long shot. But when the chips are down or when I feel it is really important to do that, I can.
*Carolyn:* In all the world, what matters most to you?
*Hal:* The broad answer to that has to do with my connection to what I call the invisible world or invisible reality. I don't like words to define these things but I guess we are limited to them. Love, the realization of our oneness, using our ability to see what's beyond, realizing we are all of one spirit--the study and understanding of these things is more important to me then anything else.
*Carolyn:* I remember you saying in Write From The Heart that when you write, language puts you in touch with that dimension of oneness, of spirit. Is there anything else you do that puts you in touch with that dimension?
*Hal:* A lot of things. But first, about language. There is a funny contradiction to language because it both puts us in touch with that dimension, and takes us out of it. Language, particularly the written word, is fraught with problems. But yes, it can be a doorway to that other reality and I use it like that. There are also meditation processes that I do, as well as talking to spirit guides, walking in nature, simply looking out at the trees.
For many years now my spiritual practice has been based on the ancient Earth-based traditions of animal spirits and the medicine wheel, where we learn from observing nature and from listening to what the animals have to teach us. And almost every night I go out and look at the stars and the sky. The stars and the sky have a way of reflecting the limitlessness of the universe. When we look we can realize how trapped we are by our own finiteness, and that the universe is infinite. It reflects our essential foolishness as humans. I don't think we can exactly perceive beyond our own foolishness but we can catch glimpses of it. At least I catch glimpses by looking at the stars at night. All of these things are profoundly important to me.
*Carolyn:* So these little things, like simply going out at night on your porch to look up at the sky, are essential rituals for you.
*Hal:* I think it is these little things that matter in life.
*Carolyn:* It sounds like you have learned to cultivate a companionship with that larger reality, to enter into relationship with it.
*Hal:* Yes. I am awed by it...I am humbled by it...I am inspired by it. All those things.
*Carolyn:* Are you an initiated shaman?
*Hal:* I dislike being called a shaman. Some people label me that in part because of the way my early education went. My spiritual path began with a coma at the age of sixteen during which I had a near-death experience. I had contracted tuloremia, or rabbit fever, and fell into the coma for several days. During that time I felt myself separate from my body and became aware of a very different world, an "invisible reality." I came away from that illness blind, unable to walk, and totally shattered in terms of my dreams and what I thought I understood about the world. I regained my sight in time, and my ability to walk, of course, but the process took several weeks. If you cast that experience in the framework of the shamanic traditions, I guess you would say it was an initiation. It initiated me into a spiritual quest that has spanned four and a half decades. It actually led me to work with shamans--now more than 30 years ago--though I did not know any of those terms at the time and if you had used the word "shaman" I wouldn't have known what you were saying. It was just survival at the time. I was going through a dark period of my life.
Often my early education with shamans was on the dark side, with black magic. I learned that side of the powers but they also taught me about the light side. A more recent teacher has said that one cannot stand in the light until he has learned to walk in the dark.
In addition to that "initiation," if you wish to call it that, I came into the world under rather peculiar circumstances. My parents were not supposed to be able to have children after the birth of my brother who is a little over a year older then I am. But my mother became pregnant again and did not know she was pregnant with me for a long time. Then she had great difficulty in labor and so they put her under. While she was under she dreamed that my father had come and told her that she had had a girl. So when they brought me to her afterwards and she saw that I was a boy, she rejected me and sent me back to the nursery. I was abandoned in the nursery for 3 days. I went through this whole thing that we know about abandoned children--a kind of withering away.
My mother went through a kind of postpartum depression and psychosis. As a result, I never bonded with her and to this day have difficulty with that experience, of feeling a closeness or trust that others seem to have in their relationships. Close relationships have always been difficult for me. I've had to learn to be close to people. I always have been an outsider and tend to be magnetized to situations where that is reinforced by the behavior of people around me.
If I understand my own history, what saved me when I was little was that my parents hired a nursemaid who, in a sense, adopted me. She was a Creole woman and her strange way of speaking was the first language I learned. People could not understand me until I was six or seven. She was the only one who understood me, so I bonded with her until my parents fired her, when I was about six. After that, I really felt abandoned and alone, though I was with my birth parents and my brother.
I have written about this in most of my books, showing how it is often these early experiences of traveling through life, as Robert Frost said, on "the road less taken," that actually nourishes the creative and spiritual aspects of life.
*Carolyn:* I am deeply moved to hear about your beginnings. You have done a lot of healing work on yourself and have had to go to some pretty dark spaces.
*Hal:* I am not sure to this day that we "heal." Maybe it is more that we learn to carry our wounds gracefully. I think from early on the inner dark spaces never particularly frightened me. It always amazes me when I find people who are afraid to go into those places.
*Carolyn:* If you don't mind my saying so, I think that is one of your gifts, whether you consciously use it or not--that you are unafraid of the dark places. It seems to be part of your essence. I think the atmosphere in the writer's course is a space in which people are unafraid to touch some of their darkness and their woundedness and find the power there. That is because you are not afraid to go there. You respect that place and know it holds creativity, power. Just like a shaman.
*Hal:* There's that word again--shaman. As much as I dislike being labeled that way, I do think it is important for us to re-awaken the word "shaman" in our vocabulary and the role in our culture. It is not a role that is identified with any particular culture. There are shamans of every culture. It is not an ethnocentric term. Whether I am one or not I don't know. I guess that has to be in the eyes of the beholder--or not.
The important thing about the shaman is this: a shaman is somebody who has died enough in one way or another to see the limits in human perception, and being able to see the limits is ultimately able to work with them. The whole shape-shifting thing is really transformation of the wound from a place of victimization to a place of new possibilities. And that's all it is. In our modern culture, we don't recognize this role as important. Instead, we have a culture of domination, in which the disease model defines the roles. The healer is better than the patient. And that's wrong. You never get healed that way.
A shaman see the possibilities, the birth into your true self waiting to happen. He/she stands for that new possibility, envisions its reality and thus helps call it into being.
* Carolyn Dell'uomo, the author of this interview, lives in Syracuse, New York and teaches workshops in the U.S. and Europe. Contact her through Halbooks@HalZinaBennett.com. This article is the sole property of Carolyn Dell'uomo and cannot be reproduced without the author's expressed, written permission.
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