October 19, 2018
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Rural shamans say spiritual practice is their birthright

The yurt at the heart of the Thirteenth Moon Center in Montville is just a short walk away from the old wooden farmhouse where Susan Bakaley Marshall and Chris Marshall have lived since moving here decades ago.

On a raw February afternoon, the round wooden building looks like it grew naturally out of the winter landscape of snowy fields, a frozen trickle of a stream and the dark green wall of conifers behind. But, to fully understand the yurt, you need to know that had its origins in a different place: a vision that Susan Bakaley Marshall had while in a shamanic trance more than 20 years ago. Prior to experiencing the vision, she had been wanting to create a healing space for her work as an art therapist and counselor. While in her trance, she believed she had found it.

“A circular space was an actual place I went to in my journey,” she said.

After her vision, she happened to walk into someone else’s yurt and was overcome by the feeling she had been there before.

“I got deja vu,” she said.

So she and her husband, Chris Marshall, now a professor emeritus of anthropology at Unity College, got to work building a yurt of their own.

They know that not everyone would spend the time, money and effort turning a vision into reality, but for the Marshalls, it made sense. The couple long has had an interest in shamanism, which they describe as a way to gain knowledge and healing that is universal to all humans. Shamanism, a practice that involves reaching an altered state of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world, is something that has been practiced by people all over the world.

It’s also done in Montville. The couple brought Susan’s vision of a healing place to life in a yurt they completed in 1995 with the help of a big group of volunteers who worked under the watchful eye of Bill Coperthwaite, a Mainer who was a lifelong advocate of the unusual building style.

Now, inside the round inner room, full of cozy pillows and conveniently placed drums and rattles, they hold healing sessions with clients, teach classes in shamanic practice and host a monthly journey and drumming circle during the full moon. Skeptics might scoff at what happens in the yurt. The Marshalls understand that, calling themselves skeptics, too. But the power and possibility they and their clients find in shamanic practices shouldn’t be disregarded, they say.

“The beauty of shamanism is that people are reconnecting with their ancestry and their own roots,” Susan Bakaley Marshall said.

Shamanistic beginnings

Chris Marshall and Susan Bakaley Marshall are back-to-the-landers from the Philadelphia area who came to Maine in 1978. Susan dreamed of living in Maine, and when the couple came to visit, they stayed. They didn’t realize they were part of a movement until they got here and started meeting other young people who had emigrated from the cities and suburbs of the northeast. They were able to buy an old farmhouse and some land in Montville, and when Chris Marshall got a job teaching anthropology at Unity College in the nearby town of Unity, they knew the roots they were putting down would be deep ones.

“That made it possible to stay,” Chris Marshall said.

He had first learned about shamanism as an anthropology student, and later he and his wife both studied the work of Michael Harner, an anthropology professor who founded the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, California. Harner, who died on Saturday, Feb. 3, was considered to be the person who brought shamanic practice to contemporary life in the west.

As done all over the world, shamanism is complex, with details that differ from culture to culture. Some generally held beliefs are that shamans are messengers between the human and spirit world, and can treat illnesses by mending the soul. In some cultures, shaman practitioners move into trances with the help of psychoactive substances such as peyote or cannabis. Others use diverse types of music, dietary restrictions, fasting, sweat lodges, vision quests or dancing to get into the trance.

But Harner moved away from such specifics in his work as the originator of “core shamanism,” which Chris Marshall and Susan Bakaley Marshall practice. Core shamanism is based upon universal and common features of shamanism, and is intended for Westerners to apply shamanism and shamanic healing to their daily lives. It is separate from any individual culture’s religious meanings and symbols.

“It seems to work for lots of kinds of people,” Chris Marshall said.

“We’re not teaching you a religion or teaching you a belief system,” Susan Bakaley Marshall said. “We’re teaching you techniques.”

Core shamanism is not immune to criticism. The Marshalls are familiar with the argument that they are appropriating other cultures, particularly Native American cultures, by teaching shamanism. But they don’t agree. Shamanism has been practiced all over the world, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t also be practiced in Maine, they maintain. Susan Bakaley Marshall, who is Jewish, said that there is a long tradition of shamanism in her religion.

“I can say that this is my heritage,” Susan Bakaley Marshall said. “We really are working towards understanding that we come from one source. We’re about diversity and connecting.”

They also are comfortable charging clients for their time and expertise, as do most shamanic practitioners around the country and even the world. They have a sliding scale, and aim to be affordable, but use their profession to help support themselves.

“You don’t pay for enlightenment,” Chris Marshall said. “You pay for our time.”

Healing work

In general, shamanic healing starts with a diagnosis and then incorporates a journey, albeit one which happens within the confines of the yurt. The couple first create a “safe sacred space,” and then use a drum or rattle to alter consciousness and connect with spirit helpers who offer guidance, they said. They don’t use drugs to help their clients move into their trance.

“We have a candle lit. We call on our spirit helpers. We drum and rattle,” Susan Bakaley Marshall said.

Shamanism asks its adherents to open their minds to possibility, they said, adding that the experience of their lives as back to the landers has helped with that. When the couple moved to Maine and began to garden and to work closely on their land, they found that the idea that the land, weather and trees have spirits was not so much of a stretch anymore.

“Shamanism says, let’s suppose, at least, that things have spirits to them. Let’s try to contact them. Let’s try to be in touch with spirits of the land, spirits of the weather, spirits of trees,” Chris Marshall said. “In Maine, you can see how the people shaped the land and how the land shaped the people.”

Particularly in that context, shamanism resonated for them.

“It’s universal,” he said. “It’s our birthright.”

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