Pivotal protocols: The spirit dimension in indigenous and western psychologies

Describes the perspective of many indigenous people of a permeable boundary between the seen physical world and that of unseen spirits, and the centrality of this perspective to indigenous mental health and well-being. The author describes and makes a case for concurrent treatment protocols for American Indians where “trust is rebuilt between practitioner groups with two epistemologies, American Indian healers and Western psychologists [and] best practices may occur side-by-side”.

By Suzan McVicker, MA

Suzan McVicker, MA, LPC
Madison, Wisconsin

Variants of these conditions [spirit possession states] have been described in nearly every traditional society on every continent. ("Dissociative Trance Disorder" listed in Appendix B, Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study, DSM-IV-TR, pp. 783-785).

It [spirit possession states] shifts the question from "How is it that other peoples believe the self [person] to be permeable by forces from without?" to "How is it that Western models have repeatedly denied such permeability? "(Boddy 1994, p. 427).

The best of both worlds side-by-side

As the American Indian "patient" explores the meaning of well-being in the 21st Century, providers involved are offered a parallel opportunity. Indigenous peoples are currently telling researchers how they envision attaining well-being. Accustomed for centuries to traveling back and forth between cultures, American Indians increasingly see concurrent dual treatment protocols as a means to find relief from the accumulating sufferings resulting from the devastations in history and acculturation. As trust is rebuilt between practitioner groups with two epistemologies, American Indian healers and Western psychologists, best practices may occur side-by-side. Culturally-derived tandem approaches may heighten understandings of well-being in each worldview better than highly collaborative climates. When one culture fosters consciousness of its own identity's strengths and limitations, a compassionate embrace of a different culture becomes possible.

Well-being in most Indigenous communities includes the overlapping relationship between humans and forces in the spirit world. Generally, this blending of dimensions respects a permeable boundary which organizes the seen, physical human world on one side and the unseen spirits on the other. In many Indigenous cultures it is also a normal interface for a spirit force to manifest itself in a human body. Here, in the mingling point of the unseen with the seen, is an elegant coherence between long-held Indigenous cosmology and new Western sciences. The logical mind is capable of grasping some of the mysteries embedded in contemporary explorations of non-linear time; cause and effect relationships based on universal connectedness of all existence; and the power of consciousness to impact non-local physical reality (Braden 2008, Emoto 2004, Parry 2006).

How, then, does this mingling of dimensions inform culturally-derived approaches for American Indians who want concurrent healing modalities from their own traditions and Western psychology? Prior to the current era for Western psychology, one of the biggest gaps a Western trained psychologist had to leap was into the American Indian everyday experience which seamlessly includes a spirit dimension. Notions of isolating, measuring, and manipulating discreet parts of reality believed to be separate, inert, and non-impacting on other areas of reality hampered the jump. Today, providers working side-by-side using different protocols with no expectation to dominate or convert may enjoy a natural outgrowth of research investigations and sharing of best practices which emerge in the interest of their patients. Consciously sharing the whole universe in mysterious movement with all living beings in an interactive, fluidly interconnected relationship is quickly becoming common ground for informing best practices in both Indigenous and Western psychologies. Patients who live in Indian Country and the U.S., citizens of nations within a nation, might feel supported by providers who authentically consider reality to be both manifest and unmanifest.

A center from which to view the whole

The root metaphor of the circle contains valuable perspectives for viewing, naming, and exploring effective practices for restoring well-being after generations of trauma transmission. Each part of the circumference of a circle is a point of information connected with the center, a central viewpoint. The available intelligence in this intersection of central location carries the potential for an equal influence with the perspective from each unique part. Useful for organization of the whole in a visible, physical community or circle, this metaphorical center also serves as a pivotal point for turning inward to understand psychological and spiritual unseen reality. Passed down from many empowering Indigenous sacred languages are terms which describe the human center: This profound, universal essence is translated as sacred space, heart, zero point, self, no-self, the void, source, within direction, and more. Deeply held across American Indian cultures is the belief that all living beings possess a center essence which is in connection with the center essence of each human.

Transgenerational spirit or soul wounding is increasingly understood to cascade the poison of its impacts down the descending familial, kinship, and community line into measurable maladies like addictions, anxiety, depression, and violence. Genuine interactive familiarity with the impacts of the unseen dimensions on the visible, measurable world leads to fruitful dialogue about best practices for the treatment of historical trauma. The center-to-center connections inherent in all forms of the natural world and all manifestations of the inner world have been described by Indigenous and Western scholars in terms which link all domains with the Center of the Cosmos in a universal dimension. Confronted with such a worldview of time-free enmeshment of all dimensions, Western psychology is drawn to new perspectives. If inner forces are interactive with external life and the Heart of the universal Cosmos simultaneously, the possibilities for understanding spirit or soul wounding in a context of historical trauma open further. Spirit possession, described in the DSM-IV-TR as a ubiquitous tenet of Indigenous cultures, is less a leap and more a natural step into understanding American Indian well-being.

The circle metaphor can be helpful again for deepening the concept that nothing is outside of core human essence. Spirit possession is a state of consciousness which is altered by the replacement of a customary sense of personal identity by another identity. This new identity is attributed to the influence of a spirit, power, deity, or other person who overpowers the self of the host person. 
Many cultures make room for alliances between human beings and spirit beings which are consensual and positivewithin permeable boundaries.

Close The invasive spirit at times takes over in order to get something which a human can obtain: alcohol, revenge, or the familiarity of returning to an earthbound environment, for example. Based on a permeable construct of self (heart, center, source, essence, or within direction), spirit depossession is the practice of conducting the overpowering spirit safely back to its place of origin. This departure liberates the patient. Unlike the specters of forceful banishment raised by the term "exorcism", spirit depossession accomplished with skill and compassion does not induce increased trauma, but rather, results in the reclamation of separate boundaries for both the conscious human host and the possessing spirit. Both, in a real external and internal sense, are patients. Reestablishment of separate boundaries for each restores personal identities and holistic balance for the host and the formerly possessing spirit. Depossession, then, may be conceptualized as one form of unburdening, clearing, or transmuting the overpowering spirit.

By understanding human core essence through the root metaphor of the center, Indigenous and Western psychologies may find a continuum of approaches for effective tandem work. When the overlaps of the human world and forces of the spirit are considered to be normal occurrences, American Indians may enter into psychotherapy feeling more assured of being understood, respected, and knowledgeably treated. For example, in a routine case of unwanted spirit possession, it is important to authentically grasp the context of a cosmos without borders. If presenting indicators are mistaken for a serious psychiatric disorder, the patient could suffer intensely with incorrect treatment while proper care for spirit depossession would not be considered.

The center sets the field for pivotal protocols

Qualities of the center, heart, or self set the field for psychotherapeutic protocols which are finding effectiveness in treating historical trauma and its transgenerational impacts. As researchers link brain states with well-being, patterns appear which affirm ancient knowing: Inner states of compassion, calm, and clear, settled ability to witness all which exists in the mind and deep in the within direction have a healing effect, in turn, on body, mind, spirit, and energy. Across traditional Indigenous cultures is agreement that healing arises from the inside. Wisdom and teachings to access centered states are once again emerging to be shared after the recent centuries when American Indian healing practices were actually prohibited by U.S. law.

In particular, the teachable skills that open the doors to a centered state are described in the vocabulary of psychotherapy protocols. Therapeutic trance states, mindfulness meditation, and schools teaching awareness for inner dialogue have brought terms such as "going inside" and "inner parts" into common parlance. Jung, the seminal scholar and practitioner whose body of work influenced the models of both Schwartz (1995, 2001) and Duran & Duran (1995), embraced the spirit dimension in psychology. Schwartz' Internal Family Systems (IFS) model trains practitioners in holding an energy field of centeredness with a specific language for exploring the within direction. In case studies describing his "hybrid" Post-Colonial Psychology which fuses Indigenous and Western bases, Duran & Duran use language to directly address the spirits that upset the harmony and balance of well-being. "Direct access", a term to describe vocalizing a spirit's communication through the voice of the patient, has since ancient times been a way of communicating across the porous boundary between humans and spirits.

Both Indigenous and Western psychologies are vast, complex systems which provide treatments to maintain well-being. The language, skills, and worldview inherent for practitioners who support spirit depossession in their work naturally cultivate strong abilities to communicate with those who are different. Beginning treatment protocols by setting the energy field with an invitation for centering, for example, is an implicit understanding of sacred space. Welcoming Indigenous language is an empowering support for transcending theoretical conflicts. Differentiating the human patient from the spirit force; tracking the spirit's progress as it makes its way "home"; continuing care after re-establishing harmonious boundaries; supporting cognitive and behavioral pattern change once the spirit influence is cleared: Practitioners carrying these skills increase their capacity to serve American Indian populations who are at risk from the exponentially multiplying wounds of historical trauma.


Alegria, M. & McGuire, T. (2003). Rethinking a universal framework in the psychiatric symptom-disorder relationship. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44 (Sept.) 257-274.

American Psychiatric Association, (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Braden, G. (2008). The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits. Carlsbad: Hay House.

Boddy, J. (1994). Spirit possession revisited: beyond instrumentality. Annual Review of Anthropology (24) 407-434.

Buchwald, D., Beals, J., & Manson, S.M. (2000). Use of traditional health practices among Native Americans in a primary care setting. Medical Care, 38 (12) 1191-1199.

Corbett, S. (2009, September 16). The holy grail of the unconscious. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.

Christiansen, M. (n.d.). Diagnostic criteria in clinical settings: DSM-IV and cultural competence. American Indian and Alaska Mental Health Research: The Journal of the National Center.

Duran, E. & Duran, B. (1995). Native American Postcolonial Psychology. Albany State University of New York Press.

Duran, E. (2006). Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling with American Indians and Other Native Peoples. New York: Teachers College Press of Columbia University.

Emoto, M. (2004). The Hidden Messages in Water. Hillsboro: Beyond Words Publishing.

Garrett. J. T. (2001). Meditations with the Cherokee: Prayers, Songs, and Stories of Healing and Harmony. Rochester: Bear & Company.

Goodman, L. (2010). Between two worlds: Malidoma Soma on rites of passage. The Sun, 415/July 2010, 4-11.

James, J. (2009). The sacred feminine in Cherokee culture: healing and identity. L. J. Lefler (Ed.), Under the Rattlesnake: Cherokee Health and Resiliency. (pp. 102-124).

McCabe, G. H. (2007). The healing path: A culture and community-derived indigenous therapy model. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44 (2) 148-160.

Parry, G. A. (2006). Native wisdom in a quantum world. Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, (9) Dec/Feb 2006.

Petri, H. (2003). Dances of Ecstacy. Luna Pictures Production.

Rabasca, L. (2000). Listening instead of preaching. Monitor on Psychology, 31 (3).

Reifel, N. (2001). American Indian views of public-health nursing, 1930-1950, In C.E. Trafzer & D. Weiner (Eds.), Medicine Ways: Disease, Health, and Survival among Native Americans (pp. 95-107).

Rhoades, E. R. & Rhoades, D.A. (2000). Traditional Indian and modern western medicine. In E. R. Rhoades (Ed.), American Indian Health: Innovations in Health Care, Promotion, and Policy (pp. 401-417). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sams, J. (1998). Dancing the Dream: The Seven Sacred Paths of Human Transformation. New York: Harper Collins.

Schwartz, R. (2004). The larger self. Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2004.

Schwartz, R .C. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Schwartz, R. C. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park: Trailheads Publications.

Weithaus, U. (2008). Foundations of First Peoples' Sovereignty: History, Education & Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Suzan McVicker, MA, LPCSuzan A. M. McVicker, MA, LPC is in private practice as a psychotherapist in Madison, Wisconsin. She recently completed the new Culturally-Based Native Health Program offered by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Western Carolina University; is earning a PhD in Human and Organizational Development at Fielding Graduate University; and continues to learn experientially with Indigenous healers. She is a Cherokee descendant.