“When you think about the American industrialized world,” says Jeff Schmitt, teacher and chairperson of the Asheville branch of The Heart of the Healer Alliance, an international nonprofit dedicated to spreading shamanic wisdom, “this is a freak show.”
Coming from this calm, friendly and professorial man, the statement doesn’t sound like any sort of heated accusation — it’s just a simple stating of fact. But it’s one that he hopes to change. Schmitt says we are living in a culture that has turned its back on its connection with the earth and ancient wisdom. As a result, “we consume and we consume, and we buy into this dark side of supply-chain economics … If only I had the next highest job in the company, a bigger house, a new sports car, then everything would be OK. And it’s that cycle that we’re in — that attempt to fill this void that in so many ways leads to destruction.”
Schmitt, a self-proclaimed “recovering innovation junkie” and former department head at Wake University School of Medicine, left his 32-year career as a scientist in February in order to dedicate his full attention to developing The Heart of the Healer Alliance organization in Asheville. It was a career move that he believes will allow him to be a more positive and effective force of social change.
“What we’re trying to do is bring people back to what is really in our DNA and in our spirit,” says Schmitt. “That, being the direct experience of the sacred dimension of being, the sacred web of life, the living earth and cosmos.”
The Heart of the Healer Alliance advocates for a return to ancient, indigenous wisdom — largely through a cross-cultural blend of shamanic ritual. Peruvian shamanic teacher Oscar Miro-Quesada Solevo founded the international nonprofit more than a dozen years ago as a system of teachings called the Pachakuti Mesa tradition. He has been teaching that system in the West for more than 30 years. Through his workshops, Solevo has gained a worldwide following of tens of thousands of people and has trained 30 teachers across the U.S. and Europe. Locally, the organization employs five full-time staff as well as some part-timers. The organizers are currently looking for a physical space for the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations, as well as a venue for workshops and classes.
Schmitt says that the teachings offered through The Heart of the Healer Alliance don’t advocate any particular religious approach or worldview. In fact, he says the shamanic practice itself is agnostic, and is especially adept at “bridge building” among different religious, spiritual and wellness traditions — an approach that has been embraced by the Asheville community, he says. The Heart of the Healer Alliance includes clergy members, rabbis, reiki practitioners and Wiccan priests, to name a few.
For those who tend to dismiss shamanic ritual as too far-out or unscientific, Schmitt likes to remind them that “healing and wellness practices in indigenous cultures have to be effective. When you’re living in an extreme environment — our lineage comes from places like small villages at 14,000 feet in the Andes and from the jungles of Peru — you don’t have the luxury of messing around. When you get sick, or you get off mentally, you have to fix it and move on in order to survive. So one of the things that I think we forget in our technology-oriented culture is that a lot of these old ways and traditions are extremely swift and effective, or they wouldn’t have persisted.”
A large part of that healing is focused on the re-ritualization or re-enchantment of our culture through shamanic ritual and ceremony. “We are so intoxicated with the fruits and the power of Western science that the earth has become this dead resource to exploit, and that’s leading towards destruction,” says Schmitt. He claims that the de-ritualization and the loss of these ancient healing techniques is what has led to much of our individual and societal woes. “The tragedy of our time is that most people consider ritual and ceremony some either bizarre or charming artifact of primitive culture. But that neglects to embrace what ritual and ceremony do for us cognitively.”
While the focus in the organization is on healing the individual, Schmitt says that individual healing is inextricable from the healing of our collective culture. In this way, The Heart of the Healer Alliance’s mission is also very closely linked with what he calls “sacred activism.”
Schmitt says that when the intention behind environmental and social activism comes from a deep connection with the earth, the effects will be greater and more lasting than activism that stems from a political or theoretical perspective. “All well-intended efforts towards environmental preservation,” says Schmitt, “addressing issues like climate change, pollution — all these efforts, no matter how well designed and well intended, will ultimately fall short of their potential if people’s hearts and lives don’t change, if we don’t shift the way we relate to the earth and to each other.”
To demonstrate his point, Schmitt offers an example: saving the polar bears in the arctic. “Imagine, though, what effect there would be if the people you were rallying towards that cause had the opportunity to sense and feel what the life of the polar bear is like, what is the essential living web of this distant arctic land?” says Schmitt. “Our value proposition in terms of activism is bringing back to the sense of experience of that wholeness. Imagine if the people that you rallied around you to save polar bears have an understanding from a visceral level — spirit, versus it just being theoretical.”
This shift in perspective and intention is one that Schmitt believes is necessary if we want to enact real change in ourselves and in our culture. “It’s what we refer to as the sacred web of humanity that goes beyond politics, that goes beyond religious dogma that goes beyond the things that tend to divide us culturally,” says Schmitt.
“It has to be that way if we stand a chance to move forward in a positive way.”
Learn more about the Heart of the Healer Alliance at heartofthehealer.org.