This morning I went for a walk in the forest with my twelve year-old son. He said: “The sound made by the fabric of your coat bothers me... your arms rubbing
against your body as you walk... can’t you walk in a different way?”
“You mean, walking with my arms extended like a scarecrow?!” I replied.
“Yes, your coat doesn’t make that awful noise then... much better!”
As a painter I have been fascinated by synaesthesia for years: for instance by people who can 'taste colour' or 'hear architecture as music.' It is a condition where the human senses are wired up differently. For me, by moving into a mildly altered state of awareness, this is a mode of perception I can access, but I can also switch it off again - meaning that I do not have synaesthesia.
However, I can claim to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In my family of origin this was misunderstood: I was the difficult one, the highly-strung child who was perceived as making a drama out of everyday events. My mother took to keeping a bottle of Valerian drops at hand, because I so easily got into states of not sleeping, not eating or not coping with any kind of sensory overload, especially noise, crowds and excessive stress.
Today, four decades later, I am an international teacher of sacred art and shamanism. I fly all over the world teaching courses where shamanism meets art.
So, what can shamanism offer people who identify as HSP?
Many useful tools!
A good spiritual tool-kit can teach us how to dial up or dial down our own settings – effectively regulating how close, spiritually and emotionally, others can get to us. We can learn to allow others to get physically close, as some situations necessitate, without crowding our sovereign psycho-emotional space. We can use meditation aids, such as putting a blue egg or orb of light around ourselves. We can also choose our level of emotional expression or engagement, and therefore our vulnerability in groups.
As the young people in my Time Travellers group - shamanic program for teenagers - have discovered, we can play with things like invisibility cloaks, sending telepathic messages and determinedly seeing the Divine Spark in people, no matter how they behave; meaning we may still feel annoyed but we do not necessarily proceed to feeling triggered or overwhelmed.
We can also learn how to use a good dose of old-fashioned humour to diffuse situations before they get to us, and laugh them off. This requires a long journey of mapping our own strengths and weaknesses... but it is not impossible.
Then we can request that a personal spirit ally come forward to help us with this particular issue. This could be a specialist power animal, or perhaps angel or ancestor that guards our personal space and whispers in our ear when we are about to over-react. That way self-monitoring becomes built-in; meaning we have less moments of suddenly exploding with rage or not coping and feeling like a child again, and that in turn means that others feel safer around us. The anger or regression is often around not being able to set appropriate limits and boundaries early on, and then losing it when others seem to trespass on our souls.
We can also learn how to work on tricky situations before we even get there, by using meditation and positive manifestation techniques to set up the right circumstances and highest outcome. Strong intentions will often bring very positive outcomes, defying previous experiences.
When teaching shamanism we encourage students to pay closer attention to all their senses, as our senses unfailingly offer us vital information. Doing this can literally make the difference between life and death. The need to be polite and please people can override dire warnings arising in our gut.
For me the great paradox lies in having all my senses in gear, receiving even the information that the dominant world disregards, allowing me to stay safe in an unpredictable and fast-changing world yet not to drop into blaming my surroundings and / or other people for what I am feeling on a given day. They all offer me mirrors but no one forces me to feel anything or to react in any way – other than what I choose to feel and how I choose to react. When that process becomes conscious (a lifelong project!), HSP people can become fabulously gifted shamanic practitioners who can work true miracles through offering spirit-led healing work.
For me there is a big difference between empathy and compassion: using my own mind or body to understand what others feel and experience is fine, as long as I know how to clear myself soon after. However, true compassion, for me, is a 'higher octave' of this: feeling a Divinely-guided love for (even VERY difficult) people without getting trapped in playing out an expected role in their personal stories - 'trauma dramas' unfailingly create repeats of key life stories, and this is always a request for healing and a different outcome, not a repeat of the same old pattern! For me compassion includes the quality of tough love, acting in service to a person’s soul and larger cosmic journey - not their everyday waking personality and identity, or indeed high sensitivity. For me empathy is about meeting and feeling people exactly where they are, but compassion is about meeting and seeing them as the people they are Divinely capable of being. My own helping spirits have never refused to guide me on this and, over the years, I have made some colourful paintings inspired by my Team!
Not surprisingly, a lot of my own students will tell me upfront that they are HSP. Their two main questions to me unfailingly are: “Can you make life easier for me - by reducing overload and stress where possible?” and: “Can you teach me ways of handling sensory overload better?” The answers to those questions are: sometimes... and yes! Depending on where and what I am teaching, and the size of the group.
So… is the highly sensitive teacher always soft and kind and flexible with her high sensitive students? Not all the time, but she tries! For instance I can reduce pressure on people, allowing them to move at their own pace or to find a secluded space to work. For example, one of my art students loves working in our greenhouse outside, rather than in the main house in close proximity to other students. While teaching sacred art I am willing to be flexible and always stretch everyone’s comprehension of what sacred art is. Your own life is the greatest piece of art you will ever make! However, when I am teaching a professional certificated course such as my two year Shamanic Practitioner Training program, a different set of priorities applies because I am going to be sending people out into the world stating that they are ready to work with the souls and suffering of others. They will claim: “I trained with Imelda Almqvist”. This means meeting my many criteria, and me keeping a very close eye indeed on personal process and how far people have come on their own healing journey. On those courses I say to the HSP participants: feel free to opt for solitude on your breaks, but I cannot endlessly authorize time out of class, or slow down because someone gets triggered or emotional, because then the whole group is going to lose out on crucial teaching time. In an ideal world I’d teach a course where every module lasted twice as long, or for HSP participants to move more slowly, but in reality my own life, as a working mother of three teenagers with a very busy schedule, does not allow this.
Shamanic training is all about pushing people out of the comfort zone and stretching what they perceive themselves to be capable of, even for HSPs with emotional challenges.
In my professional experience, extreme sensitivity is real, but projection is also a very real phenomenon. By this I mean that we project onto others what we do not wish to own in ourselves. We all do it, me very much included, but I offer my shamanism students a toolkit for becoming aware of this. Doing 'shadow work' in our every waking moment soon shows that the people around you hold up mirrors of who you are and that you must learn to 'own' - accept, not run from - even the most unflattering reflections. The moment you can do this, the internal pressure eases immensely... it was you all along, not them.
I have had HSP students in class practically shout at me: “You remind me of my mother, I can’t stand it!!” This usually means that they cannot handle authority or bear to be told where they need to do better. The 'inner critical mother' is triggered and the students only want tender loving care and praise from me. My response is that in choosing to train with me, you choose me as your teacher for a certain period and for good reason - meaning that you must accept both positive and negative feedback, from me and / or the larger group and in the spirit intended, allowing you to learn and move beyond current limitations. My job is to turn you into an accomplished and trustworthy practitioner who can separate his or her own stuff from the issues of clients. It is not my job to be your corrective mother figure who compensates for whatever painful things occurred in your childhood by being ever-loving and generous with praise. It is your job - not mine - to do your own shadow work and healing work on that. I believe that on the level of soul we choose both our parents and teachers...
This journey to discernment is a tightrope across a jungle – but there are amazing views to be had walking this tightrope... and the stars are never far off!
Imelda Almqvist is a shamanic painter, teacher, practitioner and author who divides her time between London, UK and Södermanland, Sweden. Imelda has also pioneered a shamanic
program for young people called The Time Travellers offering safe sacred group space for children and teenagers to develop a viable spiritual toolkit. Shamanic healing is all about restoring harmony
in the body, mind and the human energy field.