The Dalai Lama and Western Shamanism

Sacred Connections, East and West: A review of two books.


Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Doubleday Religion, New York, 2010, 189 pages.


The Sacred Council of Your Wild Heart: Nature's Hope in Earth's Crisis by William Taegel, 2nd Tier Publishing, Wimberly, TX, 2010, 174 pages.


Reading the words written by the Dalai Lama in his latest book stimulates in me the same desire that I feel when I read Jung’ s autobiography Memories, Dreams, and Reflections; I find myself wishing that I might have known the author as a friend and mentor with whom I could discuss all manner of things.  Reading William Taegel’s words in his latest book remind me of how fortunate I am to have such a relationship with him. Each of these authors embodies for me a certain combination of wisdom and compassion that I find extremely valuable.  Neither pulls any punches when referring to the various crises––such as terrorism, war, poverty severe and extensive enough to cause a child to die of starvation every 5 seconds, and environmental degradation that is the result of human activity and that threatens to extinguish our species. In these books each author offers a vision of how such crises might be addressed.  The Dalai Lama focuses on the potential for the various faith traditions, whether theistic or non-theistic, to join together to save us. William Taegel focuses on what he believes to be the origin of all faith traditions: the capacity for humans to deeply and directly experience themselves as part of the Primordial Mind, also known as Mother Nature and a variety of other names.


Each of these authors tells a version of the story about how the Buddha was perceived to be different after attaining enlightenment. The Dalai Lama tells a more elaborate version, but both end with the same punchline: when the Buddha is pressed to explain how he has changed he says simply “I am awake.” Each of these authors exhorts us to pursue such awakening, and I would suggest that depth psychotherapy can contribute to this process. William Taegel has in fact been practicing psychotherapy for 40 years and, if it were feasible, I would not hesitate to refer someone I love to meet with the Dalai Lama to discuss the things that torment them, in spite of his lacking the credentials that would make him eligible to join The American Academy of Psychotherapists.


 In Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, the Dalai Lama recounts how he has made it a practice to visit and worship with the practitioners of a great variety of faith traditions.  This strikes me as a series of great adventures, and one which he has undertaken with courage and enthusiasm.  I would love to be able to tag along with him -- part of my fantasy of hanging out and absorbing his wisdom.  From these adventures he concludes that the core principle of all faith traditions is compassion, and he makes a compelling and articulate case for this conclusion.


The Dalai Lama also makes a good case for the proposition that all faith traditions can and should keep their unique ways of understanding life, while cultivating respect (mere tolerance in not enough) for those with different beliefs. If we keep the underlying focus on compassion, and if we do not allow our faith traditions to be perverted into a rationale for violence then, he suggests, there is reason to hope that we may avert the various disasters toward which the world seems to be heading. 


When I apply the ideas from Kinship of Faiths to my daily work as a psychotherapist, I find that, on a good day, each encounter I have with a person in my office can be experienced as an adventure, a respectful attempt to experience different beliefs or cultures as the Dalai Lama has done.  The concept of intersubjectivity, which informs my psychotherapy practice, does not seem so different from the concept of compassion.  Similarly, the Dalai lama’s pain and frustration about the state of the world may perhaps be mirrored by the feelings I have when working with a couple consisting of a woman-hating man and a man-hating woman.


William Taegel grew up in rural West Texas and has a life-long connection with the natural world. With a doctorate in theology, he also knows something about the concepts of faith traditions, especially the monotheistic ones. Ten years after he began practicing psychotherapy he undertook his first formal vision quest, with the support of a spiritual community. He began to explore how he might integrate into psychotherapy the experiences and learnings such a vision quest offers. He coined the terms ecotherapy and ecodrama in his writings as he worked on this integration. The Sacred Council of Your Wild Heart: Nature's Hope in Earth's Crisis is his latest effort in this integration. The book focuses on the importance of having a spiritual community to support a person in occasional questing after visions in the wilderness.  Taegel sees a need for integrating these visions with an ongoing quest for connection with the multitude of selves that resides in each of us. Taegel uses the term Sacred Council to refer to the combination of the inner council of selves and the outer council of ancestral and non-human spirits. I would love to observe a conversation between Carl Jung and William Taegel comparing Taegel’s inner council of selves and Sacred Council with Jung's archetypes and collective unconscious.


While most practicing psychotherapists are unlikely to expand what they do far enough to include the kind of shamanism Taegel practices in wilderness, we certainly can support it with the work we do with clients who choose to undertake such journeys outside our offices.  Similarly we need not become ordained clergy or meditation masters in order to support the explorations of faith described and encouraged by the Dalai Lama.  It is probably enough to open ourselves as deeply as we can to the longings that motivate such journeys and explorations and see where such longings might take us.  Not only do we court great adventure in so doing, but we also may put ourselves in a position to make a small but meaningful contribution to the survival of our species.


John Rhead

Columbia, MD




Accepted for publication by Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, 6-2-12