Students Learn of Soul, Spirit and Shamanism

Sheila Chandrasekhara

Kennedy School of Government mid-career fellow LUCY H. NESBEDA beats a hand drum at the beginning of her talk on shamanism yesterday, hoping that the sound would stir the spirits.

Beating drums and shaking rattles to stir the spirits, a Kennedy School of Government (KSG) mid-career fellow explained the concept of shamanism and its relevance in the modern world at a talk that drew an audience of about 40 to KSG last night.

Lucy H. Nesbeda, who has studied shamanism for more than five years, said she offered the presentation in response to curiosity around Harvard about non-traditional spiritual practices.

“The hunger for this at Harvard continues to astound me,” said Nesbeda, who explained different aspects of shamanism.

According to Nesbeda, a shaman is a person who “intentionally shifts his or her consciousness to journey to the spirit world.”

The role of the shaman is to be in touch with two different forms of reality. She discussed differences between “ordinary” and “non-ordinary” reality, where “time is fluid and you can be in two places at once.”

Three worlds comprise this non-ordinary reality, she said.

The lower world is inhabited by spirits of nature and “power animals.” The upper world includes ancestor spirits, angels, saints, gods and goddesses. The middle world is inhabited by ghosts and souls that have become trapped.

“The middle world is a confused, muddled sort of place,” Nesbeda said.

The shaman’s role is to guide these trapped spirits to a better place.

People lose bits of their souls as they go through life, which can cause a myriad of problems, she said.

“You can spend from now until Doomsday in a therapist’s office, but if you’re not all there, you aren’t going to heal,” Nesbeda said.

Spirits can also become trapped in the wrong bodies.

“If you’re carrying around two or three people, it’s hard to get organized,” Nesbeda said.

In modern Western culture, such people may be diagnosed as schizophrenic, delusional or paranoid, she said.

Shamans often intervene with comatose or chronically ill people but must be cautious in such interventions, Nesbeda said.

“Never work on anyone without consent,” she said. “[Shamans] must be very clear about the nature of their work.”

Nesbeda said the effectiveness of shamanistic practices is often difficult to quantify.

“You’re dealing with the miraculous and the anecdotal,” she said.

Nesbeda will lead five workshops on shamanistic journeywork in upcoming weeks.

One member of the audience, Erik A. Beach ’02, said he was drawn to the presentation after a shamanistic experience of his own in Mexico.

“I’m very interested in learning more and following up on the ideas,” said Beach, who plans to attend a future workshop.