On a warm Sunday morning in early summer, I head over to the the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village to join the monthly gathering of the NYC Gay Men’s Shamanic Circle. I have gotten permission to attend, despite being straight, on the condition that I participate in the proceedings, photograph only the altar, and respect the privacy of the group members. I am told I’m the first outsider to take part in the circle. I feel like I’ve been accepted into a secret society.
I am curious to see what a gay shaman’s circle is like, and for that matter, what a shaman’s circle is like. As someone who has dabbled in mysticism and spiritual practices over the years, having attended Native American sweat lodges, meditated in noble silence for ten days, read Carlos Castaneda and tried out a few consciousness-expanding substances, I am no stranger to shamans, or medicine men, and their healing powers. But with a cliched image of the Native American shaman in traditional garb seared into my brain, I am amused that the first one I am meeting is a retired elementary school teacher, Ron Madson, one of the group’s “stewards” and master of ceremonies on that particular day, which happens to be a week after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.
When I arrive, Madson, wearing shorts, a floral print shirt, and colorful hand-beaded moccasins, is spraying the room with sage mist to cleanse it — no burning allowed on the premises — and, as he puts it, “to change the atmosphere from the mundane to the extraordinary.” There are a dozen chairs arranged in a circle around the altar. In the center stands a hawk totem, around which Madson is gradually laying sacred objects upon a cotton cloth emblazoned with stars, things you might expect in such a Native American ceremony — a candle, a stone, a seashell with water in it, rattles, molted egret feathers, sage, a buffalo bone, a serpent coiled around a stick — arranged according to the four cardinal points. Then he adds several packs of Crayola magic markers and crayons, staplers and a stack of paper.
“We have very few rules and most get broken,” says Madson, a spry sixty-nine-year-old, as he flits about the room, greeting the members who trickle in while he makes final preparations for the circle. Shortly before starting, one of the original members of the group, which was formed about fifteen years ago by a few enthusiasts as an invitation-only circle, sits me down for a pre-journey orientation. Bill Koch, a seventy-six-year-old poet and playwright, explains how a shamanic “journey” works.
“Journeying is a way to get in touch with the spirit world,” he tells me. “We usually know what the purpose of our journey is beforehand — there’s an intention. It’s always about healing in some form.” He compares it to meditation, as it includes relaxation, closed eyes, visualization, and an altered state. Ultimately, he says, it’s different for everyone. As Michael Harner sums up the practice in his book, “The Way of the Shaman,” “Shamanism is basically a strategy for personal learning and acting on that learning.”
It’s a discipline anyone can take part in, regardless of religious affiliation, and what this group offers to gay men is a community of like-minded spiritual seekers who themselves have a certain facility when it comes to shamanic practice. “In many traditional cultures, LGBT people are considered especially able shamans,” Madson explains, “because we manifest both the masculine and feminine, making us natural ‘go betweens’ with this world and others. In those worlds, we find allies and knowledge which help us heal ourselves, others, our community, and ultimately, the world.”
Toward that end, we commence with a dozen of us standing in a circle around the altar shaking rattles during a brief invocation ceremony, a Native American tradition to call in the energies of the cardinal directions, such as Father Sky, Mother Earth, great mystery, and gay erotic spirits, Madson later explains. Then we sit down and introduce ourselves and describe how we got there, with participants ranging from trained shamans to newbies, mostly white guys in their thirties to seventies who are there to improve themselves, including a psychotherapist who is a part-time rabbi and a Buddhist meditation instructor. Some open up a bit about personal issues, vocalizing their struggles as if among friends; others are more carefree, which reflects the blend of seriousness and lightheartedness that runs throughout. “I came here by way of the 3 train,” a man with a braided goatee says dryly.
Then it is time for the first journey of the day.
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“Our relationships have been recognized as part of the American experience,” Madson says. “This is a big win for those of us in relationships or who want them.”
“But many of us have experienced harm in our lives because of who and what we are,” he goes on, before spelling out the intention of the day’s journeying — to “dispel” that harm. With the clarity and tone you’d expect from a former school teacher, he instructs us to get two pieces of paper and something to write with. Then, for our first journey, we are told to “witness” the harm that has been done to us and to express it however it feels natural on the paper with a marker, crayon or pen in words and/or images. To signal the start, he and two other members each pick up a large frame drum and begin beating them with padded drumsticks in a steady brisk tempo. The drum is a vehicle for the shaman to bring about a trance state, by slowing down brain waves. As the drums pound in sync, resonating in my chest, I close my eyes, look inward, and find something that feels true. I record the names of the guilty — two people who added stress to my childhood, leaving some scars — and draw a cross-eyed frowny face.
After five minutes, we are ready for the second journey. For this, we are to witness the harm that we have done to others or ourselves. Once again, the drums kick in, and I note down a victim on the second piece of paper. Next, we take the two pieces of paper, roll them up and fold them together into a “doll,” a stick figure-ish looking form that represents all the harm we are going to get rid of. Everyone walks up to the altar to put a staple in their dolls.
Then Madson asks if anyone has something to share. In addition to the internal pathways he’s guiding us through, he encourages us to report back to the group to help clarify things by stating them out loud. One man volunteers that his two pieces of paper — representing someone who harmed him and someone he’d harmed — are identical. “That was scary,” he says. Another recalls the first time he’d been called a “homo,” and visualizes being trapped in a net thrown around him. (I too have memories of being called “homo,” as well as “faggot” and “queer,” which isn’t so surprising since bigots are not known for their rigorous fact-checking.)
Then, before destroying the dolls, there’s some more journeying ahead. The next one involves taking a series of actual physical steps that correspond to elements of the prior journeying. First, we take one step backward into the natural unharmed self as a child, followed by another step back into the self that was harmed. Right when I step into it, I feel a warm energy pulsating inside me that sparked some kind of chemical reaction as suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I observe myself transform into a rapidly growing tree as if in a time-lapse video. As I’m rising higher and higher, I look down from about 50 feet above and see the two little people who’d harmed me standing there below, getting smaller as I continue to grow. Um, O.K.
Then we take a third step back and a fourth, arriving at an ancestor who we are to ask for a gift that can help heal the harm dredged up by all the journeying. Then a few steps forward, winding up at last at the unharmed, innocent self that will receive the gift, which can be applied retroactively so it heals all the harm before it ever came to be. This is possible, Madson says, because “in the spirit world, time and space mean nothing.”
Finally, we set out to destroy our dolls. Since burning them is out of the question, Madson offers a sensible substitute — shredding them. With an Amazon shredder set up by the altar, he demonstrates. “I like to start with an arm,” he says as his doll gets pulled in. “But be careful with the shredder, it jams easily.”
One by one, as the drums pound, each man goes up to the shredder by the altar and ceremoniously delivers his doll to its doom. I and a few others have trouble getting our dolls into the shredder. Several guys are smiling at the struggle with the dolls who put up a fight.
Then we do a closing ritual to release the energies called in at the beginning, and the candle is blown out. Finally, we stand in a circle, hold hands and everyone says one word to sum up the moment, a Seneca women’s tradition. Mine is “expression,” the healing gift I’d received from an ancestor earlier.
Afterwards, eight of us head over to Village Natural on Greenwich Avenue for lunch.
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Madson, sitting on my right, tells me he’s been legally married since 2008 or 2009. He can’t remember exactly, he says, because for gay men the important anniversary is typically when they meet, not when they marry. He and his husband have been together for 45 years.
I tell him I can relate to everything we did, as it seemed to be universal human stuff. He nods, saying ninety-five percent of what they do is indeed universal. Though as far as why there’s a need for a gay men’s circle, he has an answer: “Our purpose is to provide a safe space for gay men to have a spiritual experience deprived to us by organized religion.” Madson does concede that nowadays many religions have become more open toward LGBT people, albeit with some glaring exceptions, but that doesn’t necessarily make up for traumas of the past. “Many of our members want nothing to do with religions that have rejected them in the past or have caused their families to oppress and/or reject them,” he says.
Later, after finishing my Macro Platter, I share my vision of growing like a tree. One member offers that it could have reflected how I felt at that moment, or that I really had overcome that harm. As with dreams, there’s lots of room for interpretation. Then Jeremiah Oliver, a thirty-three-year-old French teacher and pianist who is seated on my left, chimes in, saying: “The spirit world can be comedic and cartoonish.”
On shamanic journeying’s benefits, he says, “I find it very healing. There’s a release of deep things that have plagued my life.” Unlike physical wounds, he explains, that you can observe and deal with in a hands-on way, deep emotional wounds are not so visible. “You experience them,” he continues, “but you can’t always get a good look at exactly what’s going on. Shamanic journey work has given me the tools to look at them critically in a way that makes sense to my conscious mind.”
He started out at a circle of mostly women, which wasn’t a good fit for him, with its focus on female empowerment. He also confesses he has always had a hard time finding his own niche in the popular gay community, where drinking, which isn’t his thing, abounds.
“But being in this group full of gay men,” he says, “I feel I can really have the opportunity to step into my power and own it and say, ‘this is where I have a place to be empowered.’”
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Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist in New York. He contributes to The New York Times and his work has also appeared in Fast Company, Wired, Slate, Salon, and New York magazine.