The Shaman of Creativity
An Interview with Hal Zina Bennett
"Look! Look over there!"
My black-haired, brown-eyed Mexican seat-mate nearly flew from her seat
"It's an angel riding a dragon across the sky!"
I looked. I peered. I squinted. I put my glasses on and took my glasses
off. Try as I might that dragon and rider eluded me. My six-year old sage,
Francesca, leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. Her gaze,
potent with innocence and uncluttered wisdom, was like a shaft of bright
sunlight penetrating my over-worked brain. She lay her soft brown hand on
mine and with patient reassurance counseled me, "Don't try so hard.
Sit back. Soften your eyes. Believe in them. Anything can happen now.
Following her guidance, I stopped trying to see. I peered out the
plane's window, now beading with tiny jewels of vapor, as we started our
descent into Albuquerque. My eyelids rested at half-mast, like those of a
wise old mare patiently waiting for the supper bucket. Then I saw it. It
came out of a cumulus cloud just as the captain announced the local
weather. Like a proud student who had mastered her lessons I excitedly
turned to my young mentor.
"I see a wiz..."
"Wizard!" she finished for me. Her little girl giggle became
ancient, echoing from a place of deep wisdom within her. "You see? I
said you could do it!"
Thus began my journey to New Mexico to study for seven days with Hal
Zina Bennett--author, mentor and--as I was about to discover--a shaman in
his own right. Meeting Francesca on my flight over heralded what was to
come. She gave me the first of many lessons I would learn that week on the
mysteries of creativity and the doorways to deep creative
Mesas, red rocks, timeless spaces, plus local license plates, all
declare New Mexico the "Land of Enchantment." The wide sky and
deep desert terrain couldn't be more fitting for Hal Zina Bennett's
Mystery School for Creative Writers. The transformational inner space this
week-long course creates could only occur amid the presence of a teacher
and a landscape that do not demand conformity. Hal, like the cry of the
desert coyote filling our minds at midnight, evokes in his students a
clear perception of previously unseen powers: the outrageous power of our
life experience, our personal masks and inner gifts, our essential wounds
and peak experiences, our spirit-given capacity to experience language as
a mirror of inner consciousness.
Hal is a master of many things, all of them in service of the Creative.
An author of more than twenty books, his writing career began in 197l with
the publication of The Well Body Book. Written with co-author Mike
Samuels, MD, it was a ground breaking holistic health book that I remember
passing around in our graduate school apartments at Syracuse University.
We were "alternative," and so was Hal's book. In fact, it was a
daring statement--perhaps the most outspoken and powerful voice of
alternative medicine and healing for that time.
Hal was no newcomer to alternative lifestyles. Earlier he wrote No More
Public Schools, a book that gave impetus to the home schooling movement.
Then came Lens of Perception, hinting at Hal's experiences with shamans
and telling readers how to use simple shape-shifting techniques for our
everyday lives. After that came Follow Your Bliss, with Susan J. Sparrow,
his life partner, on finding our life's work. Then, in 1993, Hal's book
Zuni Fetishes brought a grounded view of Native American spiritual
principles to modern readers. Even my CPA is among the book's devotees, having read a review in--of all places--"The Wall Street
Journal." Shortly after the review in the "Journal" a run
by investors created a bull market for Zuni animal fetishes, especially those with powers to attract prosperity. There are rumors that the book is
used in a reservation school to teach modern day Indian teenagers about a tradition that has
been lost to them.
Surprisingly, Hal says, that book is now in its tenth printing.
Hal's gifts to the world don't stop there. He has been a private writing
coach for many bestselling teachers and spiritual avatars, including Stan Grof, Shakti
Gawain, Jerry Jampolsky,
Gabrielle Roth...and others too numerous to mention.
Clearly a gifted author and high-profile mentor, Hal could be spending all
of his time with
superstars on the lecture circuit but he prefers the company of beginning
writers like myself. In
fact, he and his author-wife Susan J. Sparrow regularly leave their small
town Northern California
home to bring his mystery school approach to creativity to writers
throughout the U.S.. Together,
Hal and Susan teach how to access the deep creative consciousness and
facilitate writing as a path
of the spirit. Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artists' Way,
acknowledges that "Hal
practices writing as a spiritual path. He teaches with the compassion and
wisdom born of
experience and humility. Writers and those who wish to be, are well served
by his insight."
Cameron calls Hal's Write From the Heart, "one of a handful of real
It is at Gavilan Ranch and Retreat Center, site of Hal's yearly August
course in New
Mexico, that I had the privilege of coming to know him as teacher, coach
and mystic. The
learning environment he creates is an extension of himself. It is a
real-time experience in the
near-virtual world of creative consciousness, a world where Hal is very
much at home. In the
sights, sounds, stories, guidance, smells and mystical meditations he uses
to invoke the sacred, he
helped me to take my feet out of the muck of self-doubt and sent me on my
Journal entry, August 12, New Mexico:
The long, winding back country road to Gavilan leaves our car layered with
dust as we
pass cabins and adobes set amid tall red rock and even taller sea-green
pines. When I arrive at the
camp-house to register I am not offered a name tag but a soft, gray, suede
medicine bag upon
which Susan has neatly beaded my name in tiny turquoise stones. What a
delight! It is the first of
many signs that this is no ordinary seminar. No ordinary writer's school,
for that matter. I am
invited to decorate my medicine bag and wear it for the duration of the
workshop. In it I will
place artifacts that I will be given or which I will find during my stay.
Later I discover that it is a
metaphor for the inner treasure I have to offer the world. Inner treasure!
Dare I believe this is so?
Behind me I hear a kind voice ask, "Is everyone here?" I know
this voice. It is Hal's. I had
spoken to him several times on the phone months before. (Hal is
accessible. His success has not
resulted in his constructing a protective wall, as so happens with fame.)
Before I turn to meet him,
I wonder who I will find. Given all I know of him, I expect the huge,
angular form of a warrior.
When I turn, the face before me is round, soft, nearly childlike. Hal
stands just under six
feet. His salt and pepper hair is four times the length of mine, tied in a
ponytail. His translucent
blue eyes and gentle demeanor immediately give the impression of a
medicine man, not the distant
spooky sort, but a refined, integrated presence of both masculine and
feminine. Someone who has
known suffering, ecstasy and everything in between, and has reverently
bowed to it all.
Instantly, it is clear to me that this man will not expect me to surrender
my own wisdom in
order to benefit from his. I trust him. He is "whole-ly." He
does not teach to fulfill his deficits but
to share all that he is--his strengths and his human weaknesses. I will be
spiritually nurtured here,
respected for who I am and whatever truth I bring to this place.
In his book Write From the
Heart, Hal states that for him writing and
spiritual exercises. He is not just an author but a shaman and seeker who
uses the craft of writing
as a path to the divine. In his own words, "Creativity is a sacred
trust. And like all things sacred, it
needs to be nurtured, respected and heard in all its forms. It is through
the expression of the
creative spirit that humanity evolves and heals." Hal's call to
service includes the likes of me, and
thousands like me, seeking spirit and sourcing it through self-expression.
Hal's commitment to the
Creative obliges him to "nurture, respect, and encourage its
expression in all forms," from
untutored beginner to New Age star.
Journal entry, August 14:
In the round canvas and wood yurt that is our classroom, a desert breeze
creating fragrant swirls from the burning sage that blesses our writing
space. Beating drums
inaugurate the start of each session. We sit twenty-four in sacred circle.
We have come from as
near as Flagstaff, Arizona and as far as Montreal, Quebec. We gather
around a small table of
sweet smelling, desert incense, rhythm instruments such as gourds, rattles
and bells, and holy
artifacts that announce that we have left our everyday world behind to
explore the inner world of
Hal does not take center stage as teacher but as a fellow seeker.
"Stand in the power of
your own voice," he says. "Get to know the power even of that
which you would deny--your own
inner critics, your errors as well as your greatest gifts and most
wondrous experiences. Embrace
your personal truths and be responsible for expressing them. They are not
yours to hide but to
share, empowering yourselves and others in the process."
Hal's subtle but undeniable contact with the world of spirit soon takes us
spaces--not by technique or urging--but as effortlessly and silently as
the rising spirals of burning
sage. We have done our exercises, read our work, spent hours sourcing the
powers latent in our
personal stories. As though by slight-of-hand we are drawn into a mystical
world where the metal
plate of our mind and its negative self-musings shifts ever so slightly.
Shafts of enlightenment
and inspiration spread over us. Self-doubt is exorcised in this space and
in its place come poems,
songs, stories, essays, flowing forth in eloquent form and style from
everyone in the room.
Brilliant in their authenticity, captivating in their truth--we have been
visited by the spirit of
Creativity herself. She has used our hearts, our minds, our souls to sing
After one such session of magic and release, Hal takes his personal
drum in hand and
steals away from the group, apparently unnoticed by everyone but me. Hal
follows a path up a
nearby cliff, a path he appears to knows well, as he sure-footedly climbs
the steep red rock.
Moments before at the circle I had boldly declared my "right to
write." Hal sat across from
me, his eyes fixing on my worth, talent and infinite spirit. I was
affirming my decision to write a
book on women following their call, volunteering to have this statement
witnessed by Hal, Susan
and my fellow students. Something old, something filled with self-doubt
died within me as I
spoke. Something new was being born in its place. I finally said yes to a
soul call but most of
all--to my self. Tears streaming down my face, I thanked
Hal for creating the space for me to honor my own voice. He smiled, his
eyes brimming full with
quiet joy and deep satisfaction.
Soon after the session ended, Hal left quietly with his drum. Though he
never said so, I am
certain he ascended to his sacred place close to the sky, not to soak up
glory--but to pray his
How does a quiet boy from Detroit become a writer, mentor and guide for
following conversation reveals some of the thoughts, dreams and personal
history that have
shaped Hal Zina Bennett. Having literally died several times during his
lifetime, while still being
alive, his journey is clearly that of a spiritual warrior, his effect that
of the shaman, inviting those
around him to see, touch and feel the invisible world of Creation, through
the visible world of
words and imagery.
Carolyn: You are a writer, a teacher, and a coach of other writers.
You've helped many leading
authors and teachers in the spiritual and personal growth movement get
published. Several of your
own books have been very successful. You could be focusing entirely on
your own writing or
consulting with these "famous" writers. Instead, you are helping
people like myself and others find
their voice. Why are you doing this?
Hal: Maybe this will come as a surprise but I am not that interested in
writing per se. What
interests me more is the creative process itself, and how it is related to
I believe that we all have the urge to create. It is a natural impulse
within each one of us,
part of the original demiurge of creation. If that impulse is ignored it
can lead to much craziness,
just as when our sexual or other instincts are ignored. The process of
bringing that demiurge of
creation into expression has always fascinated me. To me, creating a great
masterpiece is not
terribly important. While I love to go to museums or read great
literature, the masterpieces
themselves are not "it" for me. What is more important to me is
something that is much more
obvious in the oral tradition, in oral storytelling, for example--where
the things we create
immediately affect a group of listeners, and their responses affect the
storyteller. That interactive
quality of storyteller and listener is a microcosm of how human
Carolyn: I've experienced that in your workshops, of course. It is almost as
if you hold a space for the
God or Goddess within us to express as a creative act. Spiritual
consciousness expressing through
us. To the extent we don't allow it to move through us, that same urge to
creatively implodes and leaves us feeling, as you said, "crazy"
Hal: Yes. I think that if we deny the creative in ourselves, we can end
up with a peculiar kind of
longing. When it is not expressed or not given away as a contribution to a
larger purpose, it can
lead to addictive or destructive behavior. There's a theory in the
recovery movement, you know,
that many people who are substance abusers are actually seeking God, or
seeking a transcendent
experience. They have found that to some extent they can achieve this by
drowning out the
negative feelings of fear and self-judgment that they run in their
minds--and these fears and
judgments, of course, are creative expressions. It's just that they are
presently being expressed
destructively. There is a fine line between creation and destruction. If
we are not really attuned to
the creative side it can easily become expressed in destructive
Carolyn: Would it be accurate to say that in your role as teacher and coach
what lights you up is seeing
this creative force freed, activated and owned by someone?
Hal: Yes, seeing it freed excites me very much. Let me tell you a story.
When my son Nathan was
five years old I was teaching him to ride his first two-wheeler. For
several days I followed at his
side, holding on to the back of the seat to help him get a sense of
balance and control. Then one
day, he suddenly pulled away from me and went riding off on his own. It
was so exciting to me
that it literally brought tears to my eyes. I actually dropped to my knees
in the middle of the street
and wept with joy--ecstasy really! Such moments have always excited
me--when somebody finds
their own voice or comes into their own power. I swear I see God in those
moments. And I
believe that this is universal, that there is something tremendously
important and exciting about
witnessing others--particularly those who are close to us--finding their
own power, their own
voice. And, of course, it is at least as powerful when we experience our
own creative power.
Carolyn: In signing up for creative workshops, we may initially sign up
because we want to learn how to
write or paint or whatever it is. Our product-oriented mind feels
safe. We are here to "work on
our writing." Yet in creating something like a poem, short story or
article there is a point when we
leave the product-oriented world. We are taken into a place where the
creative and spiritual
merge. It's a very transformational space. In your workshops, I had the
experience of entering the
domain of spirit through the process of writing --it was subtle. People
walk out the door
wondering what hit them!
Hal: I think that is exactly right. We feel secure in the creation of
artifacts. But it's not the artifacts
themselves that are the point. I happen to be somebody who has developed
the craft of writing. It
could just as well be shining shoes. We choose a vehicle; and we create
our artifacts--the medium
is almost arbitrary, except it must be something you love. Yes, we develop
the medium, the craft,
but where we go within this creative process--to the inner world and to
the world beyond the
boundaries of our bodies and senses--is where we find the real magic. In
the shamanic traditions
that's known as "shape- shifting." We discover new perspectives
about ourselves there and in the
process we nurture the growth of the human spirit.
Carolyn: What is the biggest challenge we face when we take on this creative
process called writing? Is
there something common that most people have to stumble through in the
beginning? Or is it
different for every person?
Hal: As I see it, the struggle is pretty universal in learning to do
anything well, particularly if it has
to do with self-expression. The self-esteem factor is incredibly powerful
and its roots probably go
back to being humbled before God. There are myths throughout every
civilization of the person
who challenges God on his or her own ground--like Eve eating from the Tree
of Life even though
God told her not to. We have to go through that mythical passage,
challenging the voices of
parents or society who tell us that we should not do this or that. We have
to claim our right to
express the small portion of the Creative Demiurge that has been given
There is also the influence of our early conditioning, of course,
growing up with the little voice
inside that says, "How dare you think you can do this!" The
sabotaging voice that says "Yeah
right. You are going to write a book! Who do you think you
Last but not least, there is our educational system which forgets to
tell you the core purpose of
language, which is to share our life experience with others, to the extent
that language can do this.
In school, when you have something to say you have to prove it in terms of
authorities or experts,
and you're supposed to be objective in all of these things. You get good
grades for keeping your
own voice silent. However, in growing as a writer, it is absolutely
essential that you honor your
own voice. It is absolutely essential that you draw from your own life
experiences. That is not to
say that you do not pay attention to others, but if you fail to risk the
slings and arrows of
self-expression, then you simply don't have a voice. That voice--your
voice--is absolutely critical
to the creative and the spiritual process. It is absolutely critical to
making a contribution to the
evolution of human consciousness because each of us brings something
unique and new to the
pool of awareness. Self-esteem is a big issue in all of this. As T.S.
Eliot said, "Do I dare, and do I
Carolyn: Hal, how have you risen to the occasion of the self-esteem factor,
of dealing with the
sabotaging effects of your own dark voice?
Hal: It is a daily battle! (Lots of laughter ). It really is. Every time
I start a new book it's always the
same. There is this early struggle, this negative presumption in the
beginning, and you know that
getting past it is going to be difficult. Sometimes I get past it by
mentally grabbing myself by the
collar and shaking myself, "You dummy! Wakeup!" But it is
You have to learn how to deal with your own inner critic. Most of us
deal with the inner critic by
pushing it away. The only way we can really deal with it, however, is by
embracing it. C.G. Jung
pointed out that when we do that, when we embrace these inner critic
fellows, it may be painful
for a while but ultimately they then become our allies. I believe this is
true. But for me and most
creative people, it is still a daily battle.
Carolyn: Is it an illusion for me to think that someday I'll sit down and
start to write with nothing but
self-trust overflowing instead of the usual: "Who do you think you
Hal: Yes, it is an illusion. You must deal with your inner critic. You
must take it on. It's part of the
craft of writing, painting, doing anything you care very much about. Every
time I teach a
workshop I go through the same thing. Two days of hell, getting really
down on myself. The
critic asks: "How can you possibly be this presumptuous to
teach?" Now I have been through it a
few million times so I know at least that it is a matter of limited
perception, not a matter of seeing
the truth. That keeps me going. The point is that our battles with our
inner critics, with
self-esteem and self-trust, are part of the craft, just as important as
learning how to craft a
sentence or create a character.
Carolyn: Writing in the 21st century--do you think it is going to look
Hal: Sure, it always does, age to age, century to century. The style of
writing--how we present
ourselves on paper--always reflects the dominant themes of the culture. If
you trace different
styles of writing throughout history you see they change with every key
theme of the period.
One of my own teachers is a spirit guide who comes from a shamanic
culture over a thousand
years old. What has come through to me has to do with what my guide calls
the third, fourth and
fifth worlds. It goes something like this: evolution is moving us towards
a paradigm which will
focus on a certain type of co-operation, similar to the example of me
empowering my son to ride
a bicycle. It is based on the fact that our ultimate power and security,
for everyone in the world,
depends on our fostering the greatest personal power in each person--not
power over other
people--but fostering mutually beneficial power. That will be a big theme,
a fifth world theme,
right beside the old themes of the third and fourth world which have to do
with power over others
through either physical domination or mental manipulation. Technology, for
example, is power
through mental manipulation, while shooting and killing in Bosnia or
Indonesia or elsewhere, is
power over others through physical domination. I think these will be the
three big themes in the
21st century: mutually beneficial power, mental manipulation, and physical
domination. They will
demand that we take a much closer look at what "power" really
Carolyn: It sounds like the third, fourth and fifth world themes happening
all at once will provide a
powerful collision, forcing us all to put some effort into sorting things
sort out for ourselves.
Hal: The third and fourth world paradigms have really been the focus of
the 20th century, and is
even exaggerated in the 21st, with the fifth world paradigm nevertheless
slowly emerging. What
we see now, with the spiritual movement and the personal growth movement,
is greater numbers
of people, a greater mass of people--the Cultural Creatives--involved in
this fifth world paradigm
of mutually beneficial power. We are developing a critical mass in that
Carolyn: So how do you see this shaping the world of writing and writers?
Hal: I see these themes being picked up in literature. I am also seeing
that what's dominant right
now is how-to literature, rather then literature with a capital
"L". In other words, we have writing
in which people are trying to help each other through different crises.
Another thing we are
seeing--actually a continuation of the latter part of this century--is the
writer revealing themselves
more to the reader than ever before. At the same time, as readers, our
trust of the writer is based
on how much they are willing to reveal of themselves, how close they are
to themselves. This has a lot to do with this fifth world theme of mutual benefit versus power over
Carolyn: It starts to make credentials irrelevant! The reader demanding:
"Let me know who you are, not
how many degrees you have. Let me know you through your writing, rather
then the alphabet you
have after your name. Then, I'll believe you."
Hal: Exactly, exactly.
Carolyn: I'd like to ask about the logo you use in your writing--"Man in
the Maze." Why that image?
What does it mean for you?
Hal: It is a traditional Hopi petroglyph. About 25 years ago I began to
be aware of the circle, how it
manifests in the organic world: in trees, the age-rings, in the shape of
sound, a lot of different
things. And I also began to see the circle in labyrinths. Then I ran
across the Hopi symbol of the
man in the maze and it absolutely struck me, resonated with me. I began to
study it. The part that
really strikes me is that if you look at the symbol there's always a
little shape of clarity, like a slice
out of the pie, where the human figure stands. What that signifies is that
we all come into life with
a gift, with a light. We don't come in empty-handed. We come in with
something to give. So we
are not empty-handed in walking the labyrinth either. It is all part of
finding our path and also
bringing something in to contribute, to give.
Carolyn: So that symbol of the Man in the Maze struck you as something to
stand for, and live by?
Hal: Yes. It's really very important in terms of my whole attitude
towards creativity. A big part of
the gift that we come in with is our creative longing, our creative
capacity and how our personal
expression of this gift is part of the evolutionary process of
You know, so many of us spend a huge amount of time and energy
psychologizing, peeling the
onion, so to speak, preparing ourselves for living our lives, for changing
so that we are more
open, more loving, more this or that. But within the teaching of the
labyrinth we learn that we do
not have to change to love, to create, to be happy, or to know Spirit. We
come into life with these
capacities. We don't need to be "fixed" to love, create or be
happy. We only need the courage to
choose it, to risk it. Too often, the desire to change alienates us from
ourselves and from our gift.
We do need to know ourselves--that is the maze. But our obsession with
change may actually
hide the gift from view.
Carolyn: I am remembering you at your New Mexico workshop and the place you
created there for the
discovery of "gift" without putting a specific label on what
"gift" means. There were people who
sang, others who wrote. There were poets, and storytellers. I saw you make
room for each person
to come into a knowing of their personal gift. The exercises encouraged an
inner receptivity to see
it, own it, be it, express it.
It sounds like your logo reflects what you said at the beginning of
this interview, about what lights
you up--a person freeing The Creative inside themselves.
Hal: Yes, manifesting that creative urge. I don't care how you do it! You
know, one of my great
heroes is an autistic woman, Temple Grandin, who has learned to become
quite articulate. She
designs cattle-ramps for slaughter yards. She is an amazing woman. Here is
somebody who is
extremely limited in her capacity to function in the world that you and I
know, yet she made an
incredible contribution. She has a great sympathy for animals and is able
to identify with them.
She's the world's expert on creating stock-yard cattle ramps and chutes
that don't freak out the
animals on their way to being executed. It is an irony and a contradiction
but it really is an
Carolyn: So, as you see it, everybody has a gift, no matter who they are or
their personal limitation.
What do you perceive is your gift?
Hal: I think my greatest gift probably is the ability to perceive what
some call the invisible
reality--the world that is beyond our physical senses. That seems to be
something that was given
to me early on. It's a tremendous help when we need to get our egos out of
the way. Not that
mine is always out of the way! Not by a long shot. But when the chips are
down or when I feel it
is really important to do that, I can.
Carolyn: In all the world, what matters most to you?
Hal: The broad answer to that has to do with my connection to what I call
the invisible world or
invisible reality. I don't like words to define these things but I guess
we are limited to them. Love,
the realization of our oneness, using our ability to see what's beyond,
realizing we are all of one
spirit--the study and understanding of these things is more important to
me then anything else.
Carolyn: I remember you saying in Write From The Heart that when you write,
language puts you in
touch with that dimension of oneness, of spirit. Is there anything else
you do that puts you in
touch with that dimension?
Hal: A lot of things. But first, about language. There is a funny
contradiction to language because it
both puts us in touch with that dimension, and takes us out of it.
Language, particularly the
written word, is fraught with problems. But yes, it can be a doorway to
that other reality and I use
it like that. There are also meditation processes that I do, as well as
talking to spirit guides,
walking in nature, simply looking out at the trees.
For many years now my spiritual practice has been based on the ancient
Earth-based traditions of
animal spirits and the medicine wheel, where we learn from observing
nature and from listening to
what the animals have to teach us. And almost every night I go out and
look at the stars and the
sky. The stars and the sky have a way of reflecting the limitlessness of
the universe. When we
look we can realize how trapped we are by our own finiteness, and that the
universe is infinite. It
reflects our essential foolishness as humans. I don't think we can exactly
perceive beyond our own
foolishness but we can catch glimpses of it. At least I catch glimpses by
looking at the stars at
night. All of these things are profoundly important to me.
Carolyn: So these little things, like simply going out at night on your porch
to look up at the sky, are
essential rituals for you.
Hal: I think it is these little things that matter in life.
Carolyn: It sounds like you have learned to cultivate a companionship with
that larger reality, to enter
into relationship with it.
Hal: Yes. I am awed by it...I am humbled by it...I am inspired by it. All
Carolyn: Are you an initiated shaman?
Hal: I dislike being called a shaman. Some people label me that in part
because of the way my early
education went. My spiritual path began with a coma at the age of sixteen
during which I had a
near-death experience. I had contracted tuloremia, or rabbit fever, and
fell into the coma for
several days. During that time I felt myself separate from my body and
became aware of a very
different world, an "invisible reality." I came away from that
illness blind, unable to walk, and
totally shattered in terms of my dreams and what I thought I understood
about the world. I
regained my sight in time, and my ability to walk, of course, but the
process took several weeks.
If you cast that experience in the framework of the shamanic traditions, I
guess you would say it
was an initiation. It initiated me into a spiritual quest that has spanned
four and a half decades. It
actually led me to work with shamans--now more than 30 years ago--though I
did not know any
of those terms at the time and if you had used the word "shaman"
I wouldn't have known what
you were saying. It was just survival at the time. I was going through a
dark period of my life.
Often my early education with shamans was on the dark side, with black
magic. I learned that
side of the powers but they also taught me about the light side. A more
recent teacher has said
that one cannot stand in the light until he has learned to walk in the
In addition to that "initiation," if you wish to call it
that, I came into the world under rather
peculiar circumstances. My parents were not supposed to be able to have
children after the birth
of my brother who is a little over a year older then I am. But my mother
became pregnant again
and did not know she was pregnant with me for a long time. Then she had
great difficulty in labor
and so they put her under. While she was under she dreamed that my father
had come and told her
that she had had a girl. So when they brought me to her afterwards and she
saw that I was a boy,
she rejected me and sent me back to the nursery. I was abandoned in the
nursery for 3 days. I
went through this whole thing that we know about abandoned children--a
kind of withering away.
My mother went through a kind of postpartum depression and psychosis.
As a result, I never
bonded with her and to this day have difficulty with that experience, of
feeling a closeness or trust
that others seem to have in their relationships. Close relationships have
always been difficult for
me. I've had to learn to be close to people. I always have been an
outsider and tend to be
magnetized to situations where that is reinforced by the behavior of
people around me.
If I understand my own history, what saved me when I was little was
that my parents hired a
nursemaid who, in a sense, adopted me. She was a Creole woman and her
strange way of
speaking was the first language I learned. People could not understand me
until I was six or
seven. She was the only one who understood me, so I bonded with her until
my parents fired her,
when I was about six. After that, I really felt abandoned and alone,
though I was with my birth
parents and my brother.
I have written about this in most of my books, showing how it is often
these early experiences of
traveling through life, as Robert Frost said, on "the road less
taken," that actually nourishes the
creative and spiritual aspects of life.
Carolyn: I am deeply moved to hear about your beginnings. You have done a lot
of healing work on
yourself and have had to go to some pretty dark spaces.
Hal: I am not sure to this day that we "heal." Maybe it is more
that we learn to carry our wounds
gracefully. I think from early on the inner dark spaces never particularly
frightened me. It always
amazes me when I find people who are afraid to go into those places.
Carolyn: If you don't mind my saying so, I think that is one of your gifts,
whether you consciously use it
or not--that you are unafraid of the dark places. It seems to be part of
your essence. I think the
atmosphere in the writer's course is a space in which people are unafraid
to touch some of their
darkness and their woundedness and find the power there. That is because
you are not afraid to
go there. You respect that place and know it holds creativity, power. Just
like a shaman.
Hal: There's that word again--shaman. As much as I dislike being labeled
that way, I do think it is
important for us to re-awaken the word "shaman" in our
vocabulary and the role in our culture. It
is not a role that is identified with any particular culture. There are
shamans of every culture. It is
not an ethnocentric term. Whether I am one or not I don't know. I guess
that has to be in the eyes
of the beholder--or not.
The important thing about the shaman is this: a shaman is somebody who
has died enough in one
way or another to see the limits in human perception, and being able to
see the limits is ultimately
able to work with them. The whole shape-shifting thing is really
transformation of the wound
from a place of victimization to a place of new possibilities. And that's
all it is. In our modern
culture, we don't recognize this role as important. Instead, we have a
culture of domination, in
which the disease model defines the roles. The healer is better than the
patient. And that's wrong.
You never get healed that way.
A shaman see the possibilities, the birth into your true self waiting
to happen. He/she stands for
that new possibility, envisions its reality and thus helps call it into
Carolyn: I just quaked inside when you said that! How old are you and when
were you born?
Carolyn: You are 63 years old? There is no way I think of you as 63.
Hal: There is no way that I think of me as 63! (laughter)
Carolyn: You were born outside Detroit.
Carolyn: If I were to poetically refer to you as the "shaman from
Detroit" is that ok?
Hal: (Long silence, consenting smile, then a reluctant nod of the
* Carolyn Dell'uomo, the author of this interview,
lives in Syracuse, New York and teaches workshops in the U.S. and Europe.
Contact her through Halbooks@HalZinaBennett.com. This article is the sole
property of Carolyn Dell'uomo and cannot be reproduced without the
author's expressed, written permission.