Shamans, silence and solitude in New York City


Though similarly unassuming, Ken's shaman wasn't quite as warm as the Oracle from "The Matrix,"--no cookies. Photo: The Matrix

Though similarly unassuming, Ken’s shaman wasn’t quite as charismatic as The Oracle from The Matrix–no cookies. Photo: The Matrix

To reach the shaman, first I had to get real low.

I descended underground, hopped a downtown 6, made my way above ground, and navigated to a high rise in Yorkville. There, up 19 floors, through a putrid-yellow corridor in murky mauve lighting, at an apartment whose front door first concealed the muffled conversation of a couple and a yelping dog, then, swinging open, I met my shaman, a middle-aged woman dressed in a fur-collared coat, her arms crossed with impatience. I was late. And she was not happy. Like an echo of The Oracle in The Matrix, she was not quite what I was expecting.

Earlier in the week when I had the notion that I might seek spiritual guidance—I felt lost and confused, something about my career path and personal life colliding, whatever—I received an email from my editor asking if I’d like to write about a shaman. After falling down an internet K-hole of shamanism, I called a friend in California—vegetarian, hitchhiker, proponent of ayahuasca—who linked me to YouTube videos with the end goal of eternal enlightenment.

“I know as you go through this you will be the skeptic, as you should. But if you watch from your third eye you will see that all of this is within you. All of it,” he wrote. “No conspiracy, no bullshit, just truth.”

Neoshamanism, which has been adopted from more ancient forms of spiritual guidance, is particular to each shaman–they can be closer to a practitioner of alternative medicine or to a religious leader, depending on the individual. There is no rating system to certify one shaman over another, or formal schools of shamanism. A shaman is defined though, by certain parameters: one needs to approach communicating with the spirit world in a willful manner and, it is often said in corners of the internet where believers gather, for the benefit of others. If you’re curious, look through this list and watch this, this, this and this for some context.

As the videos buffered, I investigated his suggestion for a shaman. She was in Manhattan, not far from where I once lived. Her most expensive and extensive offering, a soul psychic reading and spiritual healing, said to include aromatherapy oils, angelic tuners for my third eye and subconscious disconnect, aura tuners to clear my chakras, weighted tuners and hypnosis.

Her other services were over Skype, not in-person sessions like this. With one click of a yellow PayPal button, I was on my way.

Total cost for 90 minutes: $140

Meh. I wasn’t about to question the gods.

We scheduled an appointment for the following afternoon. She had dental surgery scheduled for early that morning. She may or may not be able to make our 3pm appointment on time, she said, but added that she’d keep me abreast of her plans. When the next day came I was still waiting to hear back from her. I figured that if I was late it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

* * *

Seeking shamanic guidance is not entirely out of character for me–I’m not a total stranger to the spiritual or an unconventional approach to life. During a fleeting period of self-actualization, I spent a lot of time in the forest.

Pines and saplings sprouted all around. Tiny islets floated against the horizon, somewhere distant but always within reach if I decided to brave the water and swim. Tributaries ran through the gullies nearby. The sun set. I sat naked with this California friend. We watched as our girlfriend, sitting nearby, pushed the tip of her headphones cable into the earth. She put her finger to her lips. Hush. She was listening.

We were 20- and 30-somethings, free floating through the South, unfettered, untethered. We were not train-hoppers stranded on roadsides with cardboard signs. We lived in apartments. We had day jobs. But we spent considerable amounts of time and energy seeking some greater reassurance about life, hours spent breathlessly considering the sky.

From there, my friends and I floated toward whatever destinies. They would head West, and I behind them. They settled in California and Washington, I headed to Alaska. I would open my eleventh-floor apartment window and peer out onto the snow-dimpled mountains of Douglas Island, in Juneau, the Doug firs and pine and wild berry bushes teasing the horizon. But from up on high, with a well-paying job and security, I felt disconnected. I knew I needed to come back down.

In the streets below I found my footing, among the people of Alaska, and we talked about spirituality with a different vocabulary. We said we were blessed, looked skyward often, toward no certain horizon, drinking whatever to get us higher or lower depending on the time of day. We lived in god’s country, where everything was quiet and content if only we cared to listen.

In New York there is no such thing as peace or quiet. Central Park, Prospect Park are humble escapes, but they are shared mirages of tranquility in which I can never find privacy or connection. Unlike Alaska where it is pure and untamed, nature is a terminus in New York City, a destination on the edge of our frantic lives.

* * *

Punctuality is something I hold dear. But I was running late and sent the shaman a brief message before I boarded the downtown train.

When finally I arrived to her door and saw her standing there, I surveyed the Upper East Side apartment, expecting the same sort of rugs and tapestries so common to my existential experiences in the woodlands and elsewhere with my California and West Coast friends. All I saw were half-burned candles, dog food trays and empty Seamless bags. Nothing, even the view facing north toward East Harlem, struck me as spiritual.

The shaman browbeat me for fifteen minutes. She wanted me to understand that she needed time to speak with the spirits. Only then could she see her clients. A client that runs late ruins her schedule. She asked me if I understood her. Yes, I said. She sat me down at her table and pointed to some purple and white stones. For the next hour and twenty minutes, she made gestures at who I was, my spirit. She said I was perhaps worried about my future career, school, love. I wanted direction, she said—generic things I felt she could have applied to anyone.

If a shaman is there to bolster your connection with your soul and the spirits guarding it, then they should guide you to enlightenment. A shaman should not wrangle you into a preconceived category of debt-leaden student, overworked businessperson, unenlightened disbeliever. You are unique. Your shaman should reflect and cultivate that.

She asked if I had questions. People like you, she said, usually have questions.

I did not. I was sitting, observing, feeling an out-of-body experience akin to rage and discomfort. I was thunderstruck and shell shocked. But I couldn’t tell you why.

She hugged me before I left, asked that I schedule my next appointment for the following day. Of course, I said, and hugged her again. Unlike the Oracle in The Matrix, she didn’t even offer me a cookie.

I did not go back to her, and I wouldn’t go back to any other shaman in New York. It seems to me that just as Central Park is a representation of what we already think about nature, rather than a pure expression of the natural world, these city shamans aim to offer us what we already know about ourselves, but are too busy or too worried to express.

Later that night, I returned home. It’s quiet in Queens and I listened for the nothing. Too much time spent seeking stillness had left me exhausted. I opened up my laptop and revisited what my friend in California had written me before I went to visit that shaman. I noticed something I must have skimmed past the first time.

“I hope you keep searching,” he wrote. “The truth is not out there but within yourself. The above links are just a reminder about who you are.”

I’d never been one for spiritual interventions, and if someone seeks to suss out what ails their soul, I’ve always believed the best remedy is time apart. Time in the woods. Time alone. Time away from the city. Metro-North, straight north. No looking back. Only time with no noise or distractions, just the wind carrying the highs and lows between silence and solitude.

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3 Responses

  1. Janira -

    There are amazing gifted shamans out there, I know because I’ve worked with them. My current shaman is a woman who has told me things about my past, in such detail that it was as if she grew up with me in the 3 bedroom apartment in the Bronx. She also told me ways to work through the traumas and the pain and get more of what I wanted. I think that in order to have any type of spiritual practice work for you you have to be open and then you have to trust your gut when choosing a practitioner to work with. Like in any profession there are people that are con artists in it just for the money. But there are also amazing people doing the work.

    • Jaime Johnson -

      Who do you go to? I’d rather see someone who has a good reference (i.e. you) than take chances on picking a con artist out on my own. Please do share, I have notifications for replies turned on.

  2. Bill -

    Graham Hancock in the banned TED video discloses that his fearful underworld religious experience with the Ayahuasca god led him to an act of repentance. Good. It motivated him to stop being abusive toward his partner. This is the salvific goal of religious experience as scientifically evidenced (see book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister and Tierney).

    In Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Schizophrenia-Joseph Polimeni states that shamans spend a significant amount of time cursing other tribes in war preparation.

    Anyone claiming to politically represent invisible spirits/powers, whether drug-induced or not, makes a bold claim. Individuals that submit their wills to shamans, priests, politicians, etc. should be careful about the end-game possibilities (see book: True Believer – Eric Hoffer).

    I’m curious why TED banned a video they originally sponsored, unless they later thought Hancock perhaps a little too activist in his war-on-consciousness (everyone should be free to take drugs) position?


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