Timothy Cope has been a shamanic practitioner for nearly a quarter-century. During the past year, he started exploring the ancient practice of firewalking and its spiritual aspects. He spoke recently with Lavender about this primal healing exercise.
Will you first give our readers a brief definition of shamanism?
Shamanism is a system wherein individuals alter their consciousnesses, so that they open their perceptions to the [usually] nonmaterial and nonordinary aspects of reality. In short, shamanism is a system wherein people send their own spirits on journeys into the spirit world. The mission can be on behalf of an individual, a community, a region, or even the entire planet.
What work might you as a shamanic practitioner do for a client? Why would they come to you?
A person might be looking for information about the future. Providing this information is known as “divination.” Although it is the prevalent reason for seeking shamanic assistance throughout most of the world, divination, as a shamanic practice, is relatively uncommon here in our society.
People might also be looking to the spirits for instruction or guidance, i.e., “How do I handle that awkward situation at work?” or “Please teach us a ritual to bring rain.” Often, in our culture, people are seeking healing in some way. Addressing the spiritual aspects of the malady or problem can often mitigate it.
If I came to you complaining about feelings of loss or abandonment, or if I were physically suffering and seeking healing from, say, tuberculosis, what would you tell me?
First, I would journey in trance to my spirit teachers and helpers. I would ask them to minister to your situation, and then, I would ask them if there was any way I could assist in being helpful. The spirits might recommend a specific healing modality. For TB, since you chose that as your example, they might recommend removing the spiritual components of the disease from your body. For feelings of loss and abandonment, they might recommend a soul retrieval.
A big part of my healing practice involves soul retrieval. In the shamanic view, when a person is subjected to undue stress or trauma, sometimes, a piece of her or his soul can break off, and go wandering in the spirit world. This loss could impair the person’s functioning.
The closest analog to this in contemporary psychological parlance is “dissociation.” It means the person is often on “automatic pilot.” However, a shamanic practitioner may be able to journey into the spirit world, find the missing part, bring it back to the client, and thereby restore the person’s soul to wholeness.
Many people might find your work exotic, if not downright “woo-woo.” How do you respond to skepticism?
I think skepticism is understandable and healthy. I consider myself to be a fairly skeptical guy. We live in a culture that rarely acknowledges the existence of an intangible reality. Incredible claims about healing and spirituality are being made all the time. For that reason, I try pretty hard to be clear about what the techniques I use can and can’t do, and how people might or might not respond to them.
It seems the practice of shamanism has spread from specific tribal cultures into our larger, globally based culture. Would you talk about shamanism here in the States?
That’s a tall order. There are probably as many different schools of shamanism as there are denominations of Protestants. People in our digital age have more access to its tenets and its practitioners. People know now that it exists, and they have the means to find out about it if they’re curious. This was not the case even 30 years ago.
Also, I think many individuals have a strong desire to connect with the Divine, but find that more mainstream spiritual paths, for whatever reasons, are not helpful. Shamanism, which emphasizes a direct and personal interaction with Spirit, provides an alternative option through which people can pursue that connection.
Tell us something about your own journey along on the shamanic path.
I began exploring shamanism over 25 years ago. I happened across Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman in a local bookstore, and felt moved to read it. I knew nothing about shamanism previously. I don’t think I even knew what the word meant, but I was blown out of the water by the book, and I intensely wanted to know more.
A few months later, I had the good fortune to begin working directly with Michael Harner. Gradually over time, it became clear to me that shamanism was my primary spiritual path. It was through my journey on that path that I eventually came to firewalking.
Firewalking? Bare feet? Flames?
Hot glowing coals.
Do people get burned?
In the vast majority of cases, no, they don’t.
Is that something that shamans traditionally have done?
I’m sure many shamans have, but it’s not a requirement. [Laughs] It certainly wasn’t a part of my original game plan. And many people with no particular shamanic connection—or strong spiritual connection of any kind, for that matter—also walk on fire.
Is it more widespread in a given population? Can you give us some history?
Firewalking is practiced all over the world on every continent. Well, maybe not in Antarctica. But, everywhere else. Some native peoples, in both North and South America, firewalk. In the South Pacific, the Kahunas may walk over molten lava. The ancient Celts and Vikings firewalked. In certain African tribes, people will sometimes crawl over the coals on their bellies. Some, like in Macedonia, is probably done in a Christian context.
The earliest extant written references to firewalking are Sanskrit texts that are about 4,000 years old, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the practice is a lot older than that.
How did your shamanic work lead you to firewalking?
In 2006, one of my colleagues who had been a firewalker for many years invited me to attend a weeklong initiation that was being held in California. My first response was, “Absolutely not!” But the idea kept pulling at me, and I ended up going.
What did you hope to gain from the experience?
You ask these hard questions! My thoughts around it beforehand were fairly inchoate. Some vague idea of facing my fear, I suppose.
Weren’t you terrified?
Not at first. I didn’t know enough about it to be really frightened. Then, I got on the plane to fly to California, and this voice inside me started screaming, “Are you insane?”
But you went ahead and did it.
I did it.
And what did you draw from the experience?
I found it tremendously empowering and transforming. I found that, as a rule, most people do. We are programmed by our everyday experience to believe that firewalking is impossible. Discovering through direct experience that it is not impossible generates a shift in how you perceive your limitations—how you experience existence.
It is not uncommon for people who have moved across the coals to respond to subsequent challenges in their day-to-day lives with, “I can do that—after all, I’ve walked on fire.
Has your firewalking broadened or deepened your shamanic practice?
The shamanic worldview holds that the essence of the Divine is inherent in all things. Personally, firewalking gives me one more way to draw near to that essence. One of my intentions for my shamanic practice is to help people live happier, more effective lives. So, leading firewalks for others is one more tool I can use to fulfill my intention.
Will you be leading firewalks locally?
I hope things to be in place by mid-to-late summer for the first one. I’ll keep you posted as things develop.
For further information about Timothy Cope’s shamanic work, or upcoming firewalks and workshops, visit www.rattledrum.com.