Making the Unconscious Visible: BDSM and Shamanic Ritual

A shaman explains his integrative approach to BDSM and sexual healing.

Posted Jun 06, 2018

This is the second installment of interviews with speakers from the 3rd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 27, 2018, at the Jerry Orbach Theater in Manhattan. 

James Lawer, used with permission
Source: James Lawer, used with permission

James Lawer presented on "The Effective Use of BDSM in Male Psychological Development," in which he detailed his integration of shamanic rituals and BDSM practices in helping individuals overcome life-long sexual hangups. James has extensively studied and was initiated into tribal traditions in North, Central and South America as well as the indigenous (Druid) traditions of Great Britain. After years of fulltime hospice work with HIV/AIDS patients, he has devoted himself to teaching participatory earth-centered spiritualities. James is a Certified Instructor with the Cuyamungue Institue, in which he teaches and facilitates organic ecstatic trance states. He is an Advisory Board member for the Center for Optimal Living Psychedelic Integration Program, and a founder and teacher of the Druid College, teaching direct experiences of nature in New York City and in Maine. Note: Mr. Lawer is not a licensed psychotherapist and does not provide psychotherapy. He has been trained in an official capacity by other shamans to provide shamanic services.

Q: You have quite an interesting background, with training in theater, spiritual counseling, and hospice work. How did you come to shamanism, what is it, and what have you found so powerful about this approach?

A: I came to shamanism quite slowly, though in looking back over my life there were signs that the shift started early.  My first experience in altered consciousness was when I was six years old.  I had an out of body experience in which I left my body and flew out over San Diego harbor, then looked back and saw my body standing on the far hill.  Immediately I realized that consciousness was pliable and that “personhood” can be a fluid term.  I saw for myself that seeing things from different perspectives certainly contained more possibilities than what I was being taught.  Knowing alternate realities gave me access to bandwidths of wisdom that might be helpful. 

For myself as a kid, that access was intriguing, and I wanted to explore it.  With increasing experiences of the uncanny, I began examining how the narratives we live in shape and can determine what we understand to be “reality.”  Later on, the question—What in the world do I do with these experiences and this awareness?—then turned towards a focus on how I might be an agent in helping others shift their own awareness, when they were unhappy with their life narrative (to which they felt obligated by external structures and forces), and when they actively wanted to shift.  With that question, my personal journey became a matter of service to the wellbeing of others.  And in particular, shamanism invoked powers of nature, blood ancestors, spirits of place (“mud ancestors”), healing, imagination, and fundamental questions about the nature of relationship that ultimately lead into personal and communal ethics

I came to term my shamanic endeavors as “Relational Ontology” embodied as participatory spirituality rooted in place and expressed through ritual and ceremony.  In every person I have worked with the most immediate sign of distress was their separation from direct contact with nature (insofar as that is possible given that we obviously see “other”).  Shamanism has a needful place for the uncanny and ecstatic wisdom as normal, useful and necessary.  The rigors of becoming a shaman, especially with the tough teachers I had and with my 15 years of working with dying and death, became a foundation for comprehending how pervasive an openness to change can make transformation a zone of healing and rebirth.  

Free image, labeled for reuse, PxHere
Source: Free image, labeled for reuse, PxHere

Q: In your journey as a shaman, what are some of the key guiding philosophies or insights that you have experienced that have informed your practice?

I am attempting here to summarize what is going on in the background of my work:

1.  There is no essential difference between physical, emotional and spiritual, except as a matter of speaking.  If attention is given to one, all aspects of a person are simultaneously affected.  People are nature; therefore, working with anyone influences their relationship with the earth.

2.  When we drop the observer/observed bias, we can enter into an ongoing dialogue with nature.  It is still a startling realization for many that we are being observed by nature.  Sacred is the ongoing dialogue between all aspects of vast creation, the visible and the invisible.

3.  Light and dark are to be held in balance.

4.  Silence is the prior condition for listening, seeing and participating in healing.

5.  We live in a world in which change is constant everywhere in the multiverse.  One way I hold that thought is by believing that personal narratives can be in constant flux, and that ritual can bring people into contact with That Which is Larger than they are and that this contact can give meaning to ever-emerging possibilities.

6. “Spirituality” is best understood as getting into the mud of life. 

7.  Relations with spirits are always negotiable.  I do not submit to my deities, I form relationships.  Some spirits are difficult, but on the whole, the spiritual realms can be helpful—nonetheless, I am careful what I call in. 

8.  Death (symbolic and literal) is the cradle of life.

9.  The next moment is dark because it does not have the past in it.  Therefore, we can always live at the edge of possibility.  This is more potent, more unnerving, more challenging, more spacious and more rewarding than the lure of rigid continuity.  Too much security is a trap.

10.  A sense of our place in the scheme of things is grounded in service, not in autonomous personal experiences.

11.  Shamanism is a life commitment, not something one tries out.  It demands everything from me.  Once going down this path, there is no turning back. 

12.  Anything I do, including ritual, is only a moment in time:  healing, as an ever-constant weaving into the wholeness of things, is an ongoing process; therefore, what I do is only one of many facets in a person’s life.  I consider myself a part of a team of influences at that particular time.  I can never know the full extent of the impact of a shamanic event; so, I make no claims about my importance.

13.  The entire fabric of my work must begin with opening to the spirits; so, one of the most important questions is, “Who is greater than I?”

Shaman Spiritual Spirit, labeled for reuse, Pixabay
Source: Shaman Spiritual Spirit, labeled for reuse, Pixabay

Q: A lot of the clients who come to you are heterosexual-identified men who are looking to overcome homophobia or become more integrated with same-sex attractions. Why do you think that is?

A: One belief I have gained over decades is that our hearts have a borderless capacity to love.  Our powers of love for others are not, in essence, no matter what the culture says otherwise, gender-defined.  Love is not gender-limited in its power to connect and form bonds, to heal wounds, to release inner wisdom, and to unite self-love with a man’s birthright as a sacred being, and to realize that other men are also sacred.  Love is a non-qualified energy that can dissolve barriers, including between formerly restricted or constricted definitions of male-male encounters and imagined possibilities. 

For the heterosexually-identified men with whom I have worked, they all believed that the cultures of their birth inhibited and damaged their freedom to explore attractions to other men.  They came into adulthood with tremendous fears about penetration as de-masculinizing power—not that anal penetration is what they sought, but that taboos about male-male penetration underlay their generalized fear of male-male intimacy.  They had been made into hidden men and wanted increasing fields of spaciousness.  They wanted to step out of their own closets. 

Therefore, they came to me and came specifically because I am a gay-identified man, to help them unlock their erotic nature from this pervasive fear.  What I find deeply interesting is that they also experienced their homophobia as having equally limited their freedom to love women.  Their inability freely to love other men, insofar as they had desires to explore that, had constricted their deep love of women, including their partners.  Our work, however, had nothing to do with making them bisexual, omnisexual, polysexual, or even homosexual. Each man is always a complex, male human being with potentials and potencies he wants to express up to his freely chosen boundaries.  What all of them wanted with me was not to change their gender orientation, but to free up the restricted erotic energy that is available because of being human.  In our work, overbearing societal and internalized limitations regarding erotic encounters began to dissolve, opening their potential to choices with which they could live with integrity.

Another issue is gender equality.  The term “gender equality” has been almost exclusively held within the realm of female-male relations in its racial, employment and conjugal filiation.  With increasing exposure to gay culture and to the “bromance," there is another “gender equality” that has to do with love between men.  That is, can I not love another man as equally as I love a woman?  This perplexing quandary has brought heterosexually-identified men to me in order to explore how they want to answer that question.

Q: Take us through some initial thoughts on how you structure your sessions. I understand they are highly structured, with preliminary agreements on intentionality and debriefing after each session.

A: I begin with an extensive intake of about an hour and a half in length.  During the intake, I want to find out what their presenting issues are, what their history is with those issues (memories, disturbing or pleasant events, socialization issues), age and status of current relationships.  From their words, I then provide feedback on what I have heard and correct my impressions as needed.  Then, I ask them to say what their goals are for working with me.  I follow that with discussing options I can offer.  They choose what appeals to them.  We discuss how many sessions they want with me to hopefully accomplish their goals.

Included in those preliminary agreements are thorough discussions on what their intentions are for physical, emotional or spiritual needs with me.   Those agreements can be renegotiated at any stage of the process.  Because I am present to facilitate their personal work, each session is its own continuing intake which is furthered in the debriefing.  Debriefing is a time of integration before going forward.

I then take some days to structure a sequence of sessions.  I write out each of these sessions in detail with special attention to how each element relates to all of the others so that the whole set hopefully and strategically leads clients to their goals.  When I have finished writing in detail, I then reread my own work from the beginning to make sure the set of sessions seems to be a cohesive whole.  In other words, each client has a unique set of experiential sessions.   Because of its uniqueness, it cannot be replicated entirely for any other man.  I may borrow parts if they seem to have a place for the goal plan of another, but even then I amend as necessary.

I then present this to the client for approval, after which we make a starting date. “Intake” is not a one-time-only thing.  As important emotional factors emerge in one session, I may alter the details of the next session.  In other words, the sessions are not fixed in stone from the first writing.

Street Art London Shoreditch, labeled for reuse, Pixabay
Source: Street Art London Shoreditch, labeled for reuse, Pixabay

Q: Many of your shamanic sessions involve BDSM. What is the connection between the two and how do you incorporate and integrate both of these elements?

A: Both BDSM and shamanism are negotiated and regulated experiences that involve trance or trance-like states in order to enter altered states of consciousness.  These altered states are purposeful and intended to induce some form of healing. 

BDSM is a mutually agreed upon set of behaviors eliciting extraordinary levels of trust to work.  Activities may involve actions that produce pain, use bondage, call on utter surrender and vulnerability, some forms of guided meditation, energetic linking of participants via breathing together, and a very deep presence of care for the well-being of everyone involved.  One of the stated purposes may be for the dom to guide the sub into deeper aspects of his (since I work only with males) personality which he is otherwise unable to access, or that this is a preferred way to go deeply internal.  Pain, for example, when skillfully applied, can cut through resistance to exploring psychological shadow material, bring the shadow into awareness, give it voice, and with the care of the dom lead to greater integration of his whole being. 

I understand that pain has the power to help a man to bypass his resistance and normal perceptions, and to enter an altered consciousness for inner work.  For example, when recovering images of himself that are buried deep inside, I stand behind him and guide him in a visual meditation that takes him down 10 steps into the earth (which symbolizes himself).  I place my arms around his body and put fingers on both of his nipples.  I talk into his ear, sometimes whispering, guiding him through a sunny meadow.  We come to a shadowy forest and enter.  We walk along a narrow path into the darkening trees.  Over there we see an opening into the earth.  We leave the path; I take him there.  I tell him I am going to walk down those steps with him.  He is not going alone.  

And each step down, I am going to tighten the pressure on his nipples.  At the bottom of the steps, and when the pain is most intense, he will stumble around in the dark until he finds three things he will bring back up with him.  Once found, we come back up the steps together, each step lightening the pressure and the pain.  The integration of his recoveries begins when I draw each of the three on his body with colored markers according to where he feels the item is located (for examples from my work, grey bones all around his neck, or a bronze ceremonial cup filled with water on his chest, or a green snake up his right arm).  Standing in front of a full-length mirror, we begin working with the unearthed narrative.  What has been buried within his body is now visible on his body.  It is no longer subconscious.

In this way, as one example, pain becomes access to pleasure in living.  This increased access does have the power to change his life.  More frequent experiences of BDSM can induce long-lasting and deepening awareness of his value and his integrity.  He can become a much happier guy.

The same elements are visible in shamanic work, especially acts that can be difficult to bear but whose outcomes are for healing, including a greater sense of purpose and place in the world.  For the shaman, one of the actions is to bond the unseen with the visible, so that the unseen spirits can have effective and beneficial relations with the people.  Whether or not one calls the spirits literal forces outside the body, or calls them subconscious matter arising solely from within each person, the truth is that the shaman is making conscious that which has not formerly been recognized.  Healing then arises from the integration of the internal with the external, including integrating the person back into the supposedly-externalized-otherness of nature and of the spiritual realms. 

Participants ought to be able to trust the shaman so that they can become vulnerable and know that the possibly difficult experiences they endure are guided sessions for their wellbeing.  Not all shamanic sessions are endurance feats for the participants.  Some of them are rather pleasant experiences of healing wounds, such as by laying on of hands.  Sometimes it is the shaman who is taking the physically and emotionally taxing journey.  In either case, at least one person is necessarily entering a trance state to glean from an alternate reality, or from altered states of consciousness, some purposeful energies to heal, to make the wounded whole.  This can only happen when a person becomes utterly vulnerable, becomes a “hollow bone,” so that the spirits can enter and thereby the shaman serves the community.

In summary, I understand that aligning BDSM with shamanism is service for the health of the individual who can then better align himself with the health of the communities of which he is a part.  Both BDSM and shamanism have been known to induce greater and healthier self-love which leads to more explicit care for the world via the gifts with which he is endowed as a sacred being.  This is often an ongoing discovery process of which I am only one part.  This is how I see the connections.

Q: You actually take some of your clients through a death and rebirth ritual. What is this about and what are you intending to accomplish?

A: Death is the cradle of life.  What I am attempting is to provide is an experience of releasing the societal crippling that brought them to me.  I hope that they will experience themselves as capable of choosing to live as a fully alive human being.  I understand death as a vibrant symbol as well as a necessary act of shedding the “old bones” and being reborn with humility and eagerness to know themselves as sacred and very much alive.  In my view, even physical death is an act of shedding old bones in order to enter continuing rebirth. 

It is a component part of this ritual that each man is taken apart, limb by limb, and then rewoven back into creation before being re-membered and reborn.  The ritual is, even with its limitations, an expression of new creation, a new beginning.  In other words, “the creation” is not what happened in the past, but that towards which he is seeking.  In every instance I have performed this ritual, he emerges more loving of himself.