Copyright © 2004-2023, Ellen Winner, Healing in Consciousness
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Take #14 Evil Spirits
As a shamanic healer I often see clients who complain of spirit interference in their lives. Some say the spirits are “around them” saying hurtful things about them, or causing them to think “bad thoughts” and feel unpleasant emotions and bodily sensations. The most difficult of these clients appear to suffer from full-blown possession by “evil” spirits who live in their bodies and constantly harass them with threats, orders, and physical attacks, interfering with their ability to think or act constructively in the world, to the point where they become incapable of earning a living or cultivating supportive relationships. They have sometimes been diagnosed with schizophrenia by psychiatrists who “don’t believe in” spirits and put them on medications to quell their symptoms.
These clients are difficult to work with both because medications dull their thoughts and emotions and because they often say their possessing spirits won’t let them reveal who they (the possessing spirits) are and what they want. But their suffering is intense, and I want to help.
It is well-known that in some shamanic cultures, where people believe in the reality of spirits, a person who complains of hearing voices and starts behaving in strange ways, such as forgetting who they are, shaking, talking in a different voice, saying that something is holding their body, speaking in tongues, or channeling a spirit’s speech and behavior, may be recognized as a person with a special ability to connect to the world of spirits, capable of being trained to be a healer for the community. An experienced shaman may then undertake to train the neophyte shaman how to manage their spirits by performing cultural rituals to appease them and ensure they remain well-disposed to the community as a whole, as well as individuals suffering illness or bad luck.
Western psychiatry recognizes the complaint of spirit possession and associated symptoms as a pathological condition not connected with a culturally accepted religious practice. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) manual for classifying mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, calls spirit possession a “possession trance disorder” and classifies it as “dissociative identity disorder.” Symptoms of this disorder include disruption in identity — one’s sense of self — accompanied by changes how you act, perceive and think about things, loss of memory about everyday events and your own experiences, including traumatic events. You don’t function well in your work life, social life, or other important areas, and the symptoms aren’t caused by drugs or connected to a culturally accepted religious practice.
Basically, both shamans and psychologists agree that if you suffer from spirit possession you don’t feel in charge of your life. You can’t do what needs to be done to survive and thrive. Your experience is that some other, nonphysical, entity, one that feels hostile, has the reins.
The classification of spirit possession as “dissociative identity disorders” enables conventional medical practitioners to treat people suffering from spirit possession without conceding that spirits might be real. It’s interesting, however, that shamans have a better track record for curing spirit possession than conventional psychologists and psychiatrists.
Dissociative identity disorder (spirit possession), has been linked to trauma, but studies in shamanic cultures have shown that traditional shamanic healers who did not work on treating trauma were more successful in treating patients’ symptoms than western medicine or Christian religious practices.
Shamans routinely merge with spirit helpers who provide information and power for healing, but they do this on a voluntary basis, not because a spirit overpowers their will. As in indigenous cultures, some people in Western cultures with symptoms of spirit possession can learn to control their spirit interactions and not permit unkind, harmful spirits to take them over. They may then become shamans, or if not, at least learn to function as contributing members of society.
The difference between someone diagnosed as schizophrenic and a shaman is that the shaman can control her interactions with spirits and the schizophrenic often can’t. Also a shaman can control her interactions with other people and the schizophrenic has an impaired ability to do this.
The difference between someone possessed by a spirit and someone diagnosed with schizophrenia is that the person possessed by a spirit may or may not be able to control his thoughts and actions. In other words, a person possessed by a spirit may find the relationship with the spirit to be good and life-affirming and be able to “act normal” when appropriate. The schizophrenic doesn’t have enough control to do this.
So the big question is, can schizophrenics learn to be in control of their interactions with spirits and other people? Or not? It’s enticing to believe they can. Perhaps a big factor in their behaviors that scare other people is rejection by others for being different, thinking differently, acting differently, and paying attention to different realms of reality. After all, a rejected, mistreated child will act out by becoming even more of the “bad kid” everyone seems to expect him to be, feeling that an identity as a “bad kid” is better than no identity at all. The child needs to find kindness in others and want more of it to see that an identity as a good, or at least acceptable, child is available to him.
No doubt acceptance and love can be critical factors in the life of someone suffering from schizophrenia. But it’s obviously not enough, as many loving families at their wits’ end with a schizophrenic sibling or parent can attest.
Much scientific literature shows the presence of abnormalities in how schizophrenics process internal and external sensory input, and specifically how they recognize these sensory inputs as their own or not. They don’t choose the faulty wiring that confuses them, but they do suffer from it. It’s a big deal to us humans to have a sense of who we are, which we get in large part from the way we experience our bodies and how well we control them. If we can’t trust our sensations to tell us the difference between ourselves and the outside world, how can we know how to act? And how can we trust that any action we take will bring a predictable result?
Schizophrenics have a natural human need to have an “identity.” It must be devastating not to even know how much of what you experience is your body and how far the force of your will can carry. No wonder they come up with strange ideas of cause and effect, always looking for something to make sense of their experiences. And no wonder they cling so tightly to the explanations they come up with.
If only they could understand the irrelevance of having an “identity” — could know that in the greater Consciousness identities come and go, but Consciousness is what they really are, and Consciousness is eternal. Perhaps a sense of the truth of this is what makes them so resistant to accepting the stiflingly narrow consensual reality the rest of society wants them to acknowledge and instead look for a broader view in other dimensions.
To bridge the divide between scientific and shamanic ways of understanding human functioning, I want to explain how I see it. There’s more to reality than the physical, material world. Energy is also real. We don’t have any trouble acknowledging the reality of energy we can measure and use, like fire, electricity, gravity, magnetism, ionic attraction, and the “microwave” field that underlies it all.
But when it comes to energies we can’t (yet) measure and use, like those that power our thoughts and the “chi” that moves through our bodies, these haven’t yet entered the realm of consensual reality. But I’m sure they will as more and more people become able to sense them, and invent machines to measure them.
The Universe is full of beings with both physical and energy aspects. Humans are one example. Some beings exist only in the form of energies. We call them spirits. Anthropologist, educator and author Michael Harner (1929-2018) who founded The Foundation for Shamanic Studies and brought the practice of shamanism back to the West, defines “spirit” as “an animate essence that has intelligence and different degrees of power, that is seen most easily in complete darkness and much less frequently in bright light, and in an altered state of consciousness better than an ordinary state,” remarking, “In fact there is some question whether you can see it in an ordinary state of consciousness at all.” He also notes that “shamanic practitioners routinely see, touch, smell and hear spirits” and “find them as real as the fellow humans they interact with in OR [ordinary reality].” In other words, spirits can affect all our senses. They don’t have physical bodies like we do, but, like us, they do have energy bodies.
Many people can sense energies, as well as beings that are made up entirely of energy. This is a capacity you can develop if you want to.
Physical beings and spirits exist together in the same gigantic universal ecosystem that works by circulating its physical substances and energies. We take our energy from other beings. Physical beings get energy by preying on each others’ substances, including their bodies, their eggs and their waste products. To some extent, humans and other animals may also, like plants, take in energy directly from the sun, stars and other heavenly bodies, as well as from the energetic emanations of other beings. We don’t do it because we’re “evil.” We do it because we find ourselves existing in a form adapted to taking our nourishment in those ways.
Spirits also need to participate in the universal circulation of energy, and they get it by taking in energies from physical organisms, other spirits, and probably natural sources as well, such as wind, water, air and earth. It’s natural for all of us to take in whatever we need to maintain our existence from our surroundings. That’s why I don’t call any spirits “evil.”
It’s true that some spirits may have harmful intentions toward humans — and toward some of my clients in particular. But it’s a mistake to call them “evil” without specifying who or what they’re “evil” for. Every being in the Universe needs energy to maintain itself, and most are just doing the best they can to make a living.
If we find ourselves in the position of “prey” for another being, of course, we resist. But we don’t need to take it personally. We can have compassion for the predator because we recognize it’s only acting in accordance with its nature.
As energy beings, spirits are not physical. They don’t have teeth or claws to tear us apart. They can’t clobber us with bats, or put stones in our way to trip over. They can only influence us through our energies.
Thoughtforms are energy beings. They are patterned flows of energy, and they have varying degrees of desire and ability to perpetuate and even reproduce themselves. Think of the tune you can’t get out of your head. It makes you run its pattern over and over. Other people get similarly infected and it becomes a cultural “meme” like a viral cat video or a high five greeting. And think of how contagious emotions (which are energies) can be. They can be kind and loving or mean and angry, but when we’re around them we can catch them. They multiply themselves in crowds from rock concerts and lynch mobs. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle describes a particularly contagious energy pattern he calls the “pain body,” that can attack us and feed off our energies by making us want to pay attention to it.
What we call spirits are also energy beings. They have varying degrees of self-awareness and will. Often they don’t really understand where they are. A little energy intrusion in our body — say the spirit of a centipede that died — can interfere with the natural circulation of energies in our body, but all it knows is that it found a nice warm place to hang out in someone’s knee. It can cause pain in the knee, but not because it’s “evil.” Shamans have myriad ways to extract these little energies from our bodies.
Many spirits who hang around people and influence them, as well as spirits who actively inhabit peoples’ bodies, are spirits of humans who have passed on. They, too, generally have very little self-awareness and limited capacity to think and form intentions. They simply move toward what attracts them. For example the spirit of an alcoholic or drug addict is likely to be drawn to the body of a person who drinks or takes drugs, where it can intensify the person’s desire for these substances.
These spirits of dead humans generally don’t have “evil” intentions toward anyone and respond well when told that they’re hurting their “host.” Given a taste of love energies that are more immediate and attractive than the pale (and vicarious) enjoyment they get from their host’s drunkenness, they can usually be conducted to a better place where love and acceptance are available.
However, some spirits do have the self-awareness and mental capacity to know they’re hurting their host, and go about it deliberately, even gleefully. These spirits, for example, djinns and demons, usually say they get their power and marching orders from a more powerful source such as Satan or the Devil.
“Power” is defined in core shamanism as energy with intelligence. A spirit needs more power than its intended victim can muster at a given time and place to be able to prey on the victim’s energies. When we have all of our soul — our vital energy — available, and especially if we also have good relations with spirit allies, we usually have enough power to resist spirit attack.
But we are only human. We can be taken unawares at times, when we’re unable to rely on our own natural power or even the powers of our helping spirits to overcome a determined and powerful possessing spirit.
The good news, though, is that we do have direct access to a power greater than any possessing spirit can draw on. We have access to the power of Source, which is the highest light and the highest love.
It makes sense to me that if there are spirits (disembodied energies), there has to be a spirit that is the Greatest Spirit, the spirit with the most power and energy of all. We naturally see order in the Universe and expect everything to have a source. Some spirits must be better than others at controlling what happens, and there must be one that’s the best. Logically, a spirit with the greatest power of all, the highest energies of light and love, must exist. Many people know how to tune into that power and love and describe experiences of deep peace and being held in a loving nurturing Universe. Through prayer it’s possible to have these experiences and sense light flowing into the body.
Source has the highest rate of vibration, so high that it can harmonize with all other energies. That is, the vibration rate of all lower energies will divide evenly into the vibration rate of Source. All energies lower than Source, even if their vibration rate is unable to harmonize with any energy other than Source (that is, unable to be divided evenly by the other energy’s lower vibration rate or to divide evenly into the other energy’s higher vibration rate), can harmonize with Source.
If you don’t believe in the existence of such a Source and don’t want to experience its power, you have that right. But I’ve observed that most people who believe in the reality of possessing spirits do believe in the existence of a more powerful Source, maybe only because they have such a strong need for it.
So I tell my clients who complain of spirit possession that if they choose, they can have direct access to the power of Source. In contrast, harmful possessing spirits might also be able to draw on that power like everything else in the Universe, but have chosen not to. Direct connection to Source means you will always have access to more power than a possessing spirit that gets its power indirectly.
When a client says they don’t feel like themself, don’t feel there, that some other being is influencing them and they can’t cope with life and relationships, my first thought is that they may have lost a portion of their soul — their vital energy essence. It’s well known in shamanic cultures that portions of a person’s soul may leave their body because it can’t bear the pain of traumatic events. Soul retrieval — returning missing soul portions — is a common procedure to bring back the person’s sense of knowing who they are and being in charge of their life.
In Western shamanism, specifically in core shamanism, pioneered by Anthropologist Michael Harner and his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, we find that when a person is in possession of his soul and preferably also has good relations with compassionate spirit allies such as power animals and upper world spirit teachers, he is protected from disease, accidents, and interference by unfriendly spirits, as though by a “spiritual immune system.”
When called to work with clients suffering from spirit interference, my helping spirits often recommend soul retrieval, along with other methods for empowering them with spirit power. Strengthening a person’s soul to help them recover their own power is a good way to help them take control of their life and dispense with interfering spirits by themselves, which in my opinion is better for them than having me take over and do it for them.
But if, after soul retrieval, a client still has trouble coping and feels the presence of harmful spirit influences, they may need shamanic depossession — not to be confused with religious exorcism, such as that practiced by Catholic priests. We call it “compassionate depossession.” In some ways it resembles traditional Brazilian “White Table” spiritist ceremonies. In these “white table" ceremonies, healers sit with the possessed person around a table dressed with a white cloth and pray. A leader engages the possessing spirit in conversation, either directly or through another healer who channels the spirit’s words, to gently persuade it to leave. There are no rude commands or threats.
Western-style shamanic “compassionate depossession” is usually done in the physical presence only of the shaman and client, with the possessing spirit speaking through the client. The shaman, in accordance with the possessing spirit’s spiritual or religious orientation, if that can be determined, persuades the spirit it would be better off elsewhere pursuing it’s own soul’s destiny than stuck in a dead-end situation with the client. Then, with the help of compassionate spirits, the shaman conducts the spirit to that better place.
Even if they consent to depossession some clients resist the process by refusing to speak for the possessing spirit or saying that the spirit refuses to speak. They fear it and feel it will punish them for any attempt to put an end to its hold over them.
To help defuse such fears I sometimes explain how I understand the nature of “evil spirits” and their place in the Universe.
All power in the Universe comes from Source, even the power that animates Satan and the Devil, but they take it indirectly. The minions and servants of these arch-enemies of humanity — djinns and demons and the like — also take Power indirectly, from lesser beings they prey upon. They all refuse to take their power directly from Source. They are full of pride and don’t want to feel that any being has more power than they do.
Some clients don’t feel worthy of connecting with Source, so I explain that Source simply loves and never rejects any being. This can be reinforced when working with the possessing nonhuman spirit, explaining to it that it doesn’t have to be trapped in servitude to any Overlord, and that it is being presented with a choice, here and now, to refuse to serve this Lord and stop letting it use their energies. The possessing spirit can receive its energy and power directly from Source like any free being. It has every right to act for its own benefit. As a living soul in the Universe it has its own destiny to pursue, and right now it has a chance to move toward it, because right now a way has opened. In any event, I tell the spirit that this client is no longer going to be available for it to prey on. Then I bring all the light and love I can from my helping spirits and from Source into the situation to give the possessing spirit a taste of what it feels like.
The possessing spirit is usually motivated by its own egotistical desire to be more powerful than other beings, so it doesn’t like hearing that it is a mere servant, being preyed upon by its master, and when it feels what it might be like to be recognized as an independent actor — eligible to be cherished, appreciated and loved by Source — it usually agrees to leave the client and go toward Source.
Meanwhile the client may absorb the message that if the “evil” possessing spirit can be freed to experience the love of Source, how much more worthy they must be to receive this love.
This doesn’t mean that if we connect with Source we are automatically assured of never being hurt and never dying. We will be hurt, and we will die as bodies, but only as separate personalities, and possibly as separate souls. The point is that what we think of as our “selves” and often conflate with our physical body, our ego, or our mind and thoughts, is not truly a separate entity. It is a misapprehension about who we really are. Our consciousness is inseparable from that of the greater Consciousness of the Universe and dying only means we have a chance to realize and be happy about this. Consciousness goes on after death, but we no longer have to protect and worry about it.
Nevertheless, old habits of thought and feeling die hard, and depossessions aren’t always successful. The client may need more work to be able to let go of the possessing spirit. Some clients, especially schizophrenics, tend to have fixed ideas they can’t let go of. They are so hungry for certainty about what’s real that they grab on to any thought that comes into their head, and take it as truth. If they experience a hallucination, they try to explain it to themselves and latch on to the first “meaning” that a presents itself to their thinking. They don’t understand that some thoughts that enter our heads might not be true — or even our own.
Our thoughts are not physical reality. Physical reality is what’s out there giving rise to sensory impressions that result in thoughts that tell us what we’re sensing. But our thoughts can also be imaginings thrown up by our minds, misrepresentations of what’s really present and happening “out there.” And the physical reality that’s really present out there can harm us if we don’t pay attention to it. We need to know the difference, not jump to the first possible interpretation our mind gives us about what’s real. If we live only in our thoughts and think we don’t have to pay attention to making sure what’s real, we’re in trouble. Because their grasp on consensual physical reality is compromised, schizophrenics may be confused about whether their sensations arise from physical reality or from thoughtforms.
It is well known that believing we are our thoughts, taking credit for the good ones and feeling ashamed of the bad, is detrimental to our health. Theologian, scientist, philosopher and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) taught that many thoughts flow in from “hell” as evil thoughts, or from “heaven” as good thoughts. According to contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, our thoughts can come from outside as thoughtforms (energy bodies) in the collective consciousness. There’s no need to feel proud or ashamed because a “good” or “bad” thought crossed our mind. We can’t really control that. But we can control whether or not we dwell on the thought and decide that “it’s me.” We can decide where to put our attention. Thoughts that trigger emotions are most apt to feel like our own, because we feel the energy of the emotions in our bodies.
Schizophrenics may be more receptive than their psychiatrists of the idea that not all thoughts they think are their own. In the psychiatric literature the idea that thoughts are being put into one’s mind is considered a symptom of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, though, while some schizophrenics may correctly think that “bad thoughts” are being put into their minds, they still feel responsible for having them.
If they can be convinced not to automatically believe and take responsibility for every thought that enters their head, this will go along way toward alleviating their suffering. They have a choice about whether to give attention to, and dwell on, every bad thought suggested by a possessing spirit. They aren’t a bad person just because the thought came into their mind. They are a free agent who can choose not to pay attention to the thought — usually by deliberately thinking about something else, such as their immediate physical surroundings, nature, their bodies, a good deed they might do for someone, or prayers for the healing grace of Source.
Shamans have the advantage over conventional Western psychiatrists in being able to call on their helping spirits to directly affect the unhealthy thought forms that plague their clients, changing or moving them on.
It may also be helpful to encourage the client to become aware of the flow of energy inside their own body, for example by taking up qi gong or another activity that teaches how to pay attention to how “chi,” our life force energy, flows in the body. Learning to sense and control the energy flow in one’s body can provide control over unwanted energies stimulated by a possessing spirit.
It may be that the amazing scientific explorers of our culture will some day come up with a cure for schizophrenia, a treatment for spirit possession, but meanwhile we have to do what we can. It can be frustrating and even frightening when someone insists that their “crazy” (nonconsensual) experience of reality is the truth and acts violently to the point where they have to be restrained. But with compassion and empathy, over time, being open and accepting and finding value in the insights they can bring as a result of having a porous boundary between self and other (because, as every true mystic knows, that boundary really is more a construct of our collective ordinary minds than a reality), we can surely reduce their suffering.
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