hen author and shaman David Kowalewski isn’t helping souls on the other side, look for him outdoors. Retired after a 30-year career as a university professor, he’s perfecting his skills in tracking. He tracks wolves and edible and medicinal wild plants.
Makes sense as he also tracks souls stuck between worlds, helping them move toward the light. That’s his calling as a shaman and psychopomp. The way he sees it, “dead men do tell tales.” And it’s the psychopomp’s task to draw those stories out of troubled souls to help them heal and move on toward peace.
Spirit Guides talked with Kowalewski about his journey into shamanism and psychopomp work, why souls get stuck in what he calls “the in-between world,” and how he deals with skeptics.
What exactly is a psychopomp?
When people die, the way it’s been handed down in wisdom traditions, they just go to the other side and move on to another realm. But there are souls who just don’t make it there and they get stuck. I call it in the in-between world, between ordinary physical reality and the realm of peace that is described by near death experiences. There’s all kinds of reasons why they get stuck. They are often confused or angry or want to get back into their body but can’t. They have all kinds of problems or want to know where someone they love is at who died with them, and they can’t find them. There are all kinds of reasons they don’t pass over.
A psychopomp is a shamanic practitioner who is able to access that realm and contact these deceased souls and help them work out their psycho-spiritual dilemmas, with the help of his or her helping spirits. The psychopomp helps to move these souls to the other side to a realm of peace and then is able to come back into physical reality and fix dinner. That would be a working definition of a psychopomp.
What launched your interest in becoming a psychopomp?
I had a near death experience when I was a kid. I guess in my own mind, being in a bodiless realm wasn’t that big a deal. Of course, kids kind of take everything naturally, you know. I figured heck, maybe all kinds of people had near death experiences so I didn’t think much of it. And nobody wanted to talk to me about it because they, uh, you know, it was just kids’ imagination, right?
I was 10 or 11 years old when I had this experience. I guess you could call that the beginning of my career, but I was into baseball then. I was going to be a major-league player and did not know what a psychopomp was.
Then, about 20 or 25 years ago, I started having paranormal experiences. I started seeing ghosts and being touched physically by them and hearing their voices. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I was losing it. I was popping out lightbulbs just by touching them. Something was going on, I had to find out. I came across this notion of a shaman. I had no clue what a shaman was. And so I took my introductory workshop and I was hooked. I knew right then that this is me. I found out later that near death experiences are a really common initiation for shamans since time immemorial. I had no idea even that shamans could be psychopomps. Reading about it, I came across mentions that this was one of the services a shaman could provide to his or her people.
I still had my ordinary career duties and everything. Then I took one training with Michael Harner, who pretty much brought back shamanism all by himself. During class, one of the students asked him to recommend a book on psychopomp work by shamans. It was the first time I ever saw him stumped. He couldn’t. When I looked around I realized there wasn’t any book that laid it all out for people who were interested in the work. So I started really getting into doing the shamanic journey and going to the other side and connecting with these souls.
Since you call a psychopomp a shaman with certain abilities, how would you define a shaman?
A shaman is a human being who is called by the spirits to render all kinds of unusual services for his or her people. Usually that’s boiled down to healing and diminution but there are all kinds of other services too. In hunter-gatherer days, the shaman would call the animals for the hunt. If they were having a drought and they needed water, he or she would do a rain dance and ask the weather spirits to bring rain.
A shaman is able to talk to the plant spirit. That’s one reason I’m interested in wild medicinal plants. I can talk to the plant spirits and find out what disease it’s good for, how to prepare it, when to pick it, and how to administer it.
A psychopomp just falls into another category of service but it’s not talked about much because there’s no physical truth that the shaman actually did this, other than if a ghost was causing all kinds of havoc and the psychopomp moved this disturbed ghost on, then the havoc would probably stop. I figured, ave, you know a niche when you see it, so get to work.
If someone is interested in becoming a psychopomp, what kind of personal qualities help?
I firmly believe that shamanism is a calling. So if you feel called to it, you’re being called by the spirits and they know a helluva lot more than we do. I would say that you’re on the right track.
If you’ve had a near death experience that makes it much, much easier. People come back from near death experiences with psychic or paranormal powers. Telepathy is pretty important and of course being able to heal, some kind of healing ability, especially a kind of psycho-spiritual healing ability.
Compassion is really important because when you encounter a deceased soul, they are a little suspicious and they’re wondering what you’re doing there. But they do respond to compassion. Another key quality is curiosity because you have to get the story of why they’re stuck. You just can’t go up to a deceased soul and say, okay, let’s go, you know. They’re not ready to go, otherwise they would have gone. You have to be willing and really interested in how this person got into this state and to ask questions.
You have to be able to listen. The best thing to do is just tell yourself to shut up and listen and ask questions and it doesn’t take that long once you show compassion and interest. A lot of them are distressed so they are looking, even reaching out for help.
The real quality you need is humility. For a university professor, that’s really tough. I already knew everything. Being able to rely on your helping spirits is critical. You have to get out of your logical mind and into your soul. And if you can’t do that, you’re going to try to control everything because that’s what the logical mind likes to do.
What do you tell people who express skepticism about the existence of an afterlife?
There are two kinds of skeptics. There are the dogmatic ones, and you can usually pick them out really quickly because they really are trying to score points rather than learn the truth. They’re pretty aggressive and trying to bolster their own ego. In a very deep sense they’re trying to avoid their own spirituality. Unless you can break through that logical mind barrier and the insistence that there’s nothing beyond the physical, and I’m gonna prove it to you, then we’re wasting our time. I don’t talk to those skeptics anymore.
Then there are the other skeptics, the honest skeptics. I love these people. They keep me honest and sharp. If they have any questions and I see they’re really sincere, then I ask them questions. I say, “You’ve read all the literature about it, right?” And they haven’t, 99 percent of the time. I just recommend some books that might help them. One I’d like to recommend to everybody is Bill and Judy Guggenheim’s book, Hello from Heaven. They did a masterful job on all the different ways that people who have passed over come back and visit us.
I make them do the homework first and prove that they’re serious. Otherwise I’m just flappin’ my lips and I have better things to do. It may sound a little hard but if they’re really serious they’ll do the background work. With the Internet, there’s no excuse. It’s right at your fingertips.
Why don’t souls who are stuck get help from their spirit guides to move on?
That question is really interesting. I never quite thought of it that way. Almost all of the souls I encounter are traumatized, so calling their helping spirits is probably the last thing on their mind.
I call it postmortem PTSD. They’re in shock. What the shaman does is try to provide psychotherapy for the dead. You have to get them out of that shock before you can talk to them about anything metaphysical. At least that’s the way I look at it. Maybe other psychopomps do it differently.
A good number of souls who are stuck are atheists or agnostics so they’ve blocked out any kind of spiritual realm by definition. I guess a helping spirit could break down the door but, in my experience, that’s not the way they work.
Think about it. People just don’t use their helping spirits in daily life, right? I was raised at a Catholic school and the nuns taught me about guardian angels but it resonated zero with me. Who would want to talk with a 20-year-old guy with blond hair and white robes and wings, you know? I was into baseball, for God’s sake. I appreciate the fact that they alerted me to helping spirits but it meant nothing to me, unfortunately. My teachers have said that if you don’t call in your helping spirits, they’ll leave. I thought this was kind of harsh at the time, but now I realize these spirits have busy agendas. They have work to do. They’re perfectly willing to help but you gotta call on them for help. This is a two-way street.
What do you get out of being a psychopomp?
I’ve really come to the conclusion that I am being taught in this work. It’s not just me being Dave, the hero rescuing souls from distress. It’s a learning journey. My being able to help them with my helping spirits is teaching me something. I finally wrote a book and got it out there and got some kind of recognition that other people are being taught, too.
You’ve got to look at it holistically and not just from the point of view of one soul. It’s what’s going on with all these spirits and how are they interacting. I just wrote an article on the shamanic renaissance and I mentioned that the global crises are also prompting the spirits to make it easier for us. I have heard this from a number of shamans.
Why did you decide to write Death Walkers and then Destiny Retrieval?
As I started getting into wilderness studies and primitive skills and hunter-gatherer lifeways, I realized quickly that we almost lost all these skills. Like making fire by rubbing two sticks together or learning that yarrow can stop bleeding and save people’s lives. I made it my mission in life in the broad sense to try to save these ancient hunter-gatherer skills.
During my university teaching, I tried to pass it onto as many of my students as I could, and basically the bottom analysis is to save people’s lives. If you just look around at modern civilization you see that people are helpless at providing for just their basic needs. And since we live in a materialistic society, or a materialistic world, the first skills to go are the spiritual ones, the psycho-spiritual ones.
So when I started having all these experiences, especially the shamanic ones, I said we have to preserve this knowledge. Maybe we’re not doing it the way they did 30,000 years ago but, you know, spirits are spirits and souls are souls. Maybe we can learn something that they didn’t know and push the craft forward.
Writing Death Walkers, I was also really disturbed at how this society denies death. Instead of just being a part of life, it’s been shunted off to the undertakers and the cemetery keepers. But it’s really one of the two most important moments in life. We make a big deal of a birth but death is put out of the popular awareness except for obituary columns and funerals. Death is a big deal and one thing I tried to do is to get people to really look at death so that they could appreciate life more. One thing I have learned is that the best way to live is, as the old saying goes, that you may die in the next instant. And when you live life like that, then it gets pretty intense, and to me that’s what life is all about.
With Destiny Retrieval, you wanted to take this several steps further?
After my near death experience, I realized that since you can go at a moment’s notice, you really have to live life intensely. But when I looked around, I saw most people are just slogging their way through. I didn’t know what to do or where any answers were. But I knew somehow that they were lacking some kind of sense of destiny, a real deep sense of purpose on this planet. Then I started to realize, especially with the shamanic work, that we really do have a destiny, even though we don’t know what exactly it is. But that makes life mysterious and really damn interesting.
I figured if we could recover this sense of destiny, it would give people a sense of purpose. From what I see, there are a lot of people wandering around with what I call purpose deficit disorder. They’re just wandering. Their life has no meaning. Destiny gives us purpose and purpose gives us meaning, and when you live a meaningful life, it doesn’t get any better than that. I figured destiny was a key but it’s not a logical key, it’s a trans-logical key or a metaphysical key. And then I started looking around and saw all these cultures had this sense of destiny and they’re all saying pretty much the same thing.
I started connecting this with suicidality. When people don’t have a purpose and their life is meaningless, why not check out? And so I’ve been paying attention to the news that suicide is becoming really a serious problem. People are doing really, really dangerous drugs these days that make marijuana look like a piece of hard candy or something. It’s really getting serious.
On a grander scale, the whole human species is headed towards some kind of suicidal disaster. How can people handle that if they don’t even see any purpose in living? We may as well just run the planet over a cliff. I see this as a really deep global, eco-political, metaphysical issue. I figured I would try to do my little part to wake people up, so that’s why I wrote Destiny Retrieval.
Any final thoughts?
There is a happy note. One thing I’ve always noticed about shamans: they’re always laughing. They always have a good joke up their sleeve. Maybe a cosmic joke that we don’t get yet, but it is funny.