The Exceptional Support of Healing Camp: An Interview with Eliot Cowan

After a lengthy traditional apprenticeship with a Huichol Marakame (shaman), lasting more than a decade, Eliot Cowan made this powerful form of healing available outside of the Huichol homelands. Although he travels and sees patients widely, the five-day healing sessions known as Healing Camps are only offered at Blue Deer Center in the Catskills of New York. Mace Fleeger, recently caught up with Eliot to explore some questions about the nature of shamanic healing and to learn more about what makes Healing Camp so special.

Mace: What would you say distinguishes Healing Camp from the healing you offer in various other settings?

Eliot: First of all there is the support of the place itself, the sacred land, and the river. They are great spirit beings designed to favor and support this kind of work. And that’s the main reason why the full-on Healing Camp is offered there, and there alone. But aside from that, there are other things as well. In addition to the daily healing sessions, there are programs offered by other people on the staff that are designed to nourish and support the whole healing process. And there is a ceremonial, or ritual, setting which provides a container that greatly amplifies the effect of the work. And beyond that, it’s a residential program and the whole way that life is lived in that temporary indigenous village is designed to nourish, support and empower the healing process. So a great deal can be accomplished in a relatively short time—five days. All those factors, the support of the land, the healing sessions, the other programs offered by the staff and the way life is conducted there, combine to have an exceptionally deep and long lasting effect.

Having been a participant at a Healing Camp years ago, I had the good fortune of receiving your healing and experiencing just what you described as very powerful support from the place, especially the river, but it was also a magical experience to have my time there supported by the team that you have around you. I really felt like they were a big part of holding that whole experience together and enriching it.

Absolutely. You know my principal support people, Justin Starting and Scott Sheerin, are also Marakames, and the programs they offer are really beautiful and deeply effective. And the other part of it is just their presence, and what that brings to the camp in ways, small and large.

Did I hear that the entire support staff, Justin, Scott, and Linda Felch, were at the very first Healing Camp? What was it, twenty years ago or something? You all have been doing this together for a long time?

Yeah. Well that’s true of Justin and Scott. Linda came aboard somewhat later. But yes, we’ve all been at it a long time, and you know, experience counts. And I know I can speak for all of us—it is very enjoyable and exhilarating and fun. We wouldn’t miss it.

Most people raised in our western culture have had very little exposure to shamanic healing.What is available in shamanic healing that may not be available in various forms of western medicine?

The shamanic view is a deeply spiritual view in which the questions of health, illness and healing are always seen as involving spiritual dynamics. The natural world is seen as having great awareness and wisdom and offers profound help in seeing what’s needed and also supplies it.

Conventional western medicine, and also many modalities seen as “alternative” but still based on a western approach, draw upon the capacities inherent in a western view of how the world works, which, you could say these days, is primarily mechanical in view. The human body is seen as a kind of mechanism and if something is missing an attempt is made to replace it. Or if something is not functioning right, an effort is made to repair it in a mechanical way. Even in the case of mental or emotional illness, the popular view these days is that it all relates to brain chemistry and can best be dealt with by putting certain chemicals into the brain in order to change its functioning.

Consider the way a health condition is assessed. The western approach might be producing x-rays or taking blood tests. But shamanic healing is based on an entirely different view of how the world works, what a human being’s relationship to the world is, what illness is all about and what kind of resources are available for healing. In shamanic healing, the healer may find himself or herself primarily informed through dreams, which give us access to capacities in human beings that normally we don’t have when we’re awake. Therefore, comparing a western modality to shamanic healing, the approach to bringing relief can come from very different directions.

You used the phrase, “what illness is all about.” In your perspective, what is illness all about?

There is a simple answer, which is to say that what we call illness is imbalance. And what we refer to as the symptoms of the illness are messengers that call attention to the imbalance and sometimes very forcefully create situations where the person realizes there’s something to be attended to.

Can you give an example?

Well, there are many ways it can show up. Here’s a very common one­—unfortunately, a kind of pandemic these days. Everybody is born with certain latent gifts. And those gifts are meant not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of those around them. The process of identifying, unfolding and offering those gifts—that’s a form of balance in itself. It’s a real sweet spot in life because those things that we were especially gifted to offer are also the things that we really love. They are nourishing to our spirit in a deep way. And living that way makes for a wonderful, full life—not necessarily an easy life, but a full life in which a deep spiritual and emotional health tends to express itself in physical wellbeing.

So many of us these days, don’t really get the help we need to discover what those gifts are or what our life is meant to be about. At the same time, we may be in a situation where earning a living seems to be difficult. There’s unemployment. There’s the risk of getting fired. There are many work situations where coworkers are not really in balance with their own gifts and therefore aren’t treating each other well.

Many many people these days are deeply unsatisfied with the work they’re doing and find that they have to live a life that is out of balance with human nature. That can and does create illness—for instance, something like an ulcer. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a real physical illness. I think almost anybody could agree that an illness of that sort is an expression of stress in your life. In other words, there is a cause of the symptom that is not purely mechanical and it has to do with a person’s life being out of balance. Too much stress.

I’m curious about what you referred to as the resources available in shamanic healing?

Well, the simplest thing to say is the resources are the natural world. Innately, I feel everybody has an innate natural way of seeing the world with wonder, perceiving a certain aliveness and sacredness in all aspects of the natural world. I think we can recover a memory of this if we somehow transport ourselves to being very young children, when the smallest leaf on a tree, or water dripping off an icicle, or sunlight itself, or twinkling stars, or almost anything, was a matter of great wonder and delight and a kind of delicious mystery, and something we felt connected to. All young children perceive the world that way.

In shamanic healing, the healer comes to recognize and experience that the world is alive and sacred and full of divine power and capacity. Different healers make different formal friendships with different aspects of the natural world that have special things to offer. For example, the Huichol people—that’s the people that I did my apprenticeship with and it’s their medicine that I practice, primarily—they make pilgrimage to sacred places where special capacities are available. As far as I can tell, all of the indigenous peoples do similar things. So, they may make formal ritual visits to a sacred mountain, or a cave, or a spring, or a forest, or a desert, where these healing resources are found in abundance. So, the natural world becomes both a great teacher and a great source of medicine. Animals also can also play a part in it and plants as well.

Here’s a fun question. I’ve noticed that you don’t talk much during healing sessions. Or, at least in my experience, you tend to refrain from offering much context for what is happening or what you’re seeing. Could you say more about that? [Laughter.]

Well, the short answer is no. [Laughter.] Just kidding.

That’s mostly deliberate on my part. If I see that there’s something to be said and it’s going to be helpful, then I say it. And in fact, there are times that a whole healing session consists of nothing but talk. But what I’m always interested in is redirecting people to their experience, rather than to their thinking process, because, you know, experience is where life is. Experience is where healing happens. Experience is where you touch on life. So, very often when a person wants to have information and talk about what’s happening, it actually has a way of taking them away from their experience and leads them to a kind of a mental cyberspace. So, that’s why I tend not to say too much. Very often I will talk in the way of giving people prescriptions or things to work on—homework assignments, you might say. That’s an important part of it.

Do you have any favorite stories from past Healing Camps?

You mean like case histories or something like that?

Yeah.

Since you mentioned it, there is something that just popped up for me. Several years ago, a middle-aged woman came to camp and she brought her mother with her. The daughter was very distressed because her mother had some form of terminal cancer and was given a prognosis that she had maybe three or four months left to live, and was hoping that she could find some miraculous help. They were in the camp for five days. At the end of the camp they left, and as is often the case, I didn’t hear from them again for a number of years. The daughter happened to visit Blue Deer Center earlier this year and she told me the following story.

After the camp was over, her mother went in for surgery to remove the large aggressive tumor that was somewhere in her abdomen. And so she got into the operating room, and they opened her up, and the surgeon was really pissed off. There was no tumor there. And the surgeon actually called the referring physician to ask him what the hell was going on, because there was no tumor. She was sown back up. And she lived for another four years. Anyway, that’s one that sticks in my memory because it’s fairly recent. How did that happen exactly? Well, it defies understanding, but there it is.

I’ll offer you a question and you tell me what you think of the question. This kind of healing, I know from experience, can be very challenging. Do you think it’s better that people not know that before showing up? [Laughter]

I think it’s a legitimate question. This sort of healing draws upon mysterious and wonderful resources related to the sacred natural world, as I said before. But that doesn’t mean the person coming for healing can be passive and just expect to be “done to” without participating. People really need to participate and invest their energy and willingness. In any healing process, the healer, together with his or her resources, has a lot to offer, but there are certain things that only the patient can do for themselves. Sometimes that means making changes in the way that they live. Sometimes it means confronting and dealing with difficult emotional aspects of their life that they haven’t dealt with before, or have been denying.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

Find out about our Summer Healing Camp here.