The Eyes of a Shaman

Features Issue 90 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Lawrence Ford

His name is Larry Ford, a shaman who trained in Nepal. In recent years, the rich and famous have sought his help through the Self Centre at Caneel Bay on St John Island (US Virgin Islands). In 2006, the Washington Post described him as a former Wall Street financial professional who, when he’s not in a trance, meditating, or helping someone through a spiritual crisis, is the CEO of a private investment and financial services firm: “Part medicine man, part masseur, Ford places a rose quartz on a client’s heart, burns sage, sprays lemon-grass essence on a clear crystal and places it on a client’s head. The rituals are meant to heal energy imbalances...” Today, Ford continues his healing practice near Hartford, Connecticut, and he is writing a book, Into Power, that chronicles his spiritual journey.

Here is Ford’s story, in his own words.

The “call to adventure” of the hero, like that of the Shaman, requires separation from home, family, and the familiar cultural world. The journey includes tests, obstacles, battles, and often near death experiences. The hero returns with a gift of power that enables him to be a teacher, Shaman, or sage. The hero archetype displays a threefold pattern: isolation, initiation, and worldly return. (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1968)

“I think I’m going to Katmandu”..., I hum softly.

The verse of the old Bob Seger tune circles around in my head, over and over again, chasing familiarity. I have exchanged my laptop bag for an old worn backpack I found stuffed in the corner of my closet. It feels awkward to be putting my wallet and tickets in the front zipper pocket of the backpack instead of the designated pocket of the laptop bag, a routine that has served me well for many miles, hotels and business meetings.

I am sitting in coach ready to take off to the other side of the world, the other side of reality; on the tarmac in Connecticut on my way to Kathmandu. My mind gropes for a logical reason that leads me to this seat en route to train for a month with indigenous shamans, leaving my children and monetary responsibilities behind.

Many of my fellow travelers are on their cell phones. A wave of insignificance sweeps my mind, adding to my already uncertain state. “Excuse me sir, are you heading home or just starting your business trip?” She is a bright-looking women in a dark suit sitting next to me and her question stumps me. Now why would she think I am a businessman? I must still be carrying a reality about me saying “businessman”. I wonder if I would be asked the same question on my return.

And why aren’t I on a business trip? A business trip is safe, understood, and productive. I sit up straight as I sober up to my truth. I am going because of a belief—a belief that messages and signs come to me in ways that I may not always understand, and when I trust these ‘knowings’ and follow the signs the path is not always easy, but it is always correct. This particular path manifests from years of training and signs that are leading me to a man named Dr Larry Peters, who is leading this pilgrimage. I am told this land, on the other side of the world, has a different designation of power than the externally money-focused muscle of my American tribe. This will be a happy, welcome change. I pull the airplane magazine from the seat pocket and move my finger along the flight route. It takes me a while to find Nepal.

A common takeoff sends my mind back to a month before leaving for this trip. I was gazing over the emerald sea, the breeze keeping the mosquitoes from disrupting my quiet moment. I was not dreaming because I was not sleeping. I was not. Could it really have been a visit from a shaman or was I letting this whole adventure thing go to my head? It was an experience beyond any I had ever known before… that was clear. He showed himself to me in my head. He sat in the corner, old and calm with deep love. Like a movie, the scene panned into a close up of his eyes. My body felt full of life and vibrancy. I had read some books that spoke of wild shaman tales, of journeying, shape shifting, and manifesting into animals. But this was not a book. Things like this happen to other people. The seat belt light dings, my belly swirls with the alarming thought that the shamanic visitation may have been real. What then?

Twelve meals and 36 hours later, the huge pink and purple plane lowers itself over a strange land with rolling green hills and box-like cement homes stacked atop one another. Bright prayer flags hang across the rooftops and huge white-tipped mountains lace the cloud-scattered horizon. I say a small prayer as we taxi towards the simple brick airport building overgrown with bush. I am hustled by a swarm of young porters hungry for fresh American currency, and am reminded of the need to trust myself and my own worldly instincts on this trip.

The un-air-conditioned bus looks like those you see in National Geographic magazine. It is bouncing over bumpy roads and is filled with small brown people in bright clothes jammed closely together, sweating—windows mysteriously closed. I wonder what Ama will be like? My lead shaman and guide, Larry Peters, turns to me and says, “Don’t even think about being tired”, as he reads my weary traveled face. “Ama Bombo (Mother Shaman) gets up at 4:30am every morning and sees 30 to 50 patients each day. She is tireless… We must begin your preparation for the initiation, there is much to do.”

As I wait in line, I duck to catch a sneak preview of the towering statue called a stupa that lies inside a mysterious, small-arched opening. The stupa is a sacred structure that embodies the essential elements and goals of shamanic, as well as Tibetan Buddhist, practice. The entrance sits five steps away from the bustling road. I enter and am filled with a foreign emotion. It looks like a huge outdoor temple. My body rushes into tingles as I look toward the sky and up the 13 steps to heaven, to the top where Buddha’s ’all knowing’ eyes peer out in all four directions. I have heard of people who have ‘religious experiences’ when they visit sacred places and wonder if I am having one. My conditioned mind attributes the experience to the stature and beauty of the stupa, to built up expectations. Inside I know better.

Haunting tinny sounds of prayer wheels spin endlessly; I paw at them with my right hand and circumnavigate the stupa, clockwise. I am one of thousands. An old monk in torn Converse high-tops passes as he mumbles, chants and fondles his prayer beads. Three times around the stupa is said to bring enlightenment. I am lost. How many times around am I? The smell of incense is ubiquitous and is a welcome relief. I break my trance and peer over my left shoulder to see three-story multicolored shops everywhere, filled with spiritual wear and towering to the sky, blocking the view of the mountains. They act as a fortress isolating this sacred circular space from the stench and poverty that lie outside the sacred gates in the Valley of Boudhanath.

“It takes you people 40 years for your initiation and then when you begin to experience it working you, you run away and call it a “mid-life crisis”... Very funny, very sad,” Shaman Ram says as he leads me up the steps into Ama Bombo’s house. Ram’s head barely reaches the ribs of my six-foot frame, but I sense that his power is lofty. We enter Ama’s home and walk over the assortment of soiled shoes that lie strewn outside the small dim room where she sits on the old, worn, cushioned arm-chair that serves as her throne, chanting. She peers at me out of the corner of her eye; it feels as if we know each other, as if she can see right into my soul.

Ram turns to me and whispers, “We do not separate our spiritual life from our everyday life. Our shaman work often takes place right in the middle of our homes, just as our temples are often right in the middle of our streets.”

For the next several days, I sit on a damp cement floor, from 7am until dusk, in the corner of the 10x12 foot room, and I watch sick babies, old women, monks, and teenage kids waiting, then going forward to be healed. Her energy is inexhaustible, like an athlete who loses himself in the game; Ama is giving and teaching from the “well” without any thought to herself. At times she is wrathful, grabbing hair and kicking away evil spirits. I wait for three whole days before I go forward to receive a healing. “I am blessed with good health” I say, “I am here to ask for power; to fully open and become all that I am here to become in this lifetime”. She tells me my god is Kali, the deity she embodies, and gives me some special beads and a mantra. “You have the gift”, Kali says. Ama’s hand is upon my head as she shakes, and she sends tremors throughout my body... something is happening.

The most important day for all shamans is Janai Purnima, the full moon of the lunar month of Saun (July/August). Janai refers to the sacred yellow threads worn by high caste adult Hindu males that are changed on this holy day; purnima means ‘day of the full moon’. Janai Purnima marks the period when the deities return to rejuvenate their power (sakti). Dangers and traps are often set by other shamans on this day to make sure one is worthy of such power. “You must be impeccable,” says Ama Bombo with a deep look of concern in her eyes.

Thousands of small faces lace the walls of the loosely tangled buildings and echo the cheers of “Se se se, se Bombo se”… (‘Dance dance dance, dance shaman dance’). I am dancing the Shaman dance through villages, around temples and down narrow alleyways on the way to Kumbheshwar, to the holy waters where I hope to gain power. I am on my pilgrimage, my initiation, Janai Purnima. My shaman dress billows around my ankles while the bulky bells hang from my shoulders, ringing out my path. My drum is held just the right way. I pound in rhythm, all day, blisters appear on my hand, and occasionally I glance towards a seasoned shaman who is checking my form. Peacock feathers stand tall upon my head connecting the rainbow bridge to the gods. My sweat soaked dress becomes heavy, as do my thoughts. And it is still only morning. I vacillate between shame and pride, drudgery and bliss, exhaustion and power. It is clearly not accepted, or understood, to be a shaman or healer in the eyes of most Americans; the contrast is stunning. I turn the corner of a smoky temple and pause to catch my breath. I bow to a holy man. He looks at me, incensed, and gestures for me to stand up—he rises, folds his hands in prayer and bows. This is clearly the day of the shaman.

Worldly Return
The stench begins to enter my consciousness, I have no idea of the time, and it is dark. I do not carry a watch and the small cement room that makes my home offers no support on that matter. A surge of feelings violate my sleepy, wobbly state. I feel as though someone is turning a fire hose on me, blasting me with every possible weak thought and insecurity I have ever felt, or even thought about feeling. I had begged for power, like all good Shamans.

I thought I was supposed to be enlightened, empowered.

I want to go home! I am tired of dirt, of poverty. All of this spiritual growth and shamanic stuff is crazy. Back to work I will go and I will reserve the spiritual side of my life for a few hours a week on Sundays. Nice and easy with only small, careful doses of introspection. Mow the lawn and consume myself with making money and earning status; at least it is safe and understood. Holding oneself up at all costs, being strong and productive, enduring... These are the honors of my American tribe. But I feel weak and held down. Nothing makes sense. I hurt from the inside-out like I have never hurt before.

My rational mind comes dashing in to save the day... There must be a connection between these odd feelings and the initiation. I beg for power and get weakness? Surely I can reason this one out. Just as soon as the wrestling match between my intellect and my raw feelings begins, it becomes evident that my rational mind is no match for the overwhelming sensation of fear and powerlessness that are now defining my reality. I lay my head back down against the stiff bag I have called pillow for many nights and surrender in defeat. I am separated from home, family, and my familiar cultural world. I am isolated and have nowhere to go but inward.

The eggs are cold and the tea is warm. I sit erect in my breakfast chair wondering how I will function. Ama Bombo (Mother Shaman) peers across the breakfast table and touches me with her gaze, smiling, like a proud parent. Off to the festival of the cows—a day of releasing. The gods have welcomed me with weather that fits my psyche. It pours all day as Tibetan stick dancers click and shout their way down muddy streets. Beneath my pain, I have a deep knowing that everything is just as it should be and that this festival that follows Janai Purnima does so by some grand order. I fight myself to sleep after a long heavy day.

I become aware of the familiar stench as the sun flashes its relentless eye on my face. I am back. I break into a silly grin as I sit up in bed. I could run for miles, write a book, heal the world. I have broken through the frail shield of limiting thought and everyday assumptions of what I am. I have been shown the eyes of the shaman. Beyond the realm of ordinary awareness and from the light of illusion I break the agreement that has defined my reality.

I am a Shaman.

My new power begins a dance with my old definition of self, and suddenly my breath quickens. I will be returning home in three days. I will abruptly resume my worldly responsibilities. I settle down from my euphoria with a humbling smile… There is more to learn, more growth ahead. g

Lawrence Ford may be contacted at