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Alumna finds balance in law, shamanism

Ellen Winner, a DU alumna and shaman, helps clients connect to the spirit world. Photo courtesy of Ellen Winner.

Most patent attorneys don’t include shamanism in their list of hobbies, but for Ellen Winner, the combination is a natural fit.

Winner’s interest started in 1984 when she read The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, who’s credited with introducing shamanism to the Western world. She attended Harner’s two-week shamanic training seminar through his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, took many classes and traveled to Katmandu, Nepal, twice for apprenticeships with indigenous shamans.

Shamanism has been practiced around the world for more than 30,000 years and is effective regardless of the client’s beliefs, Winner says. Shamans believe spirits reside outside of our own personal minds and usually beyond what humans can experience with ordinary senses. In the shamanic model, several spirit worlds exist. Upper and lower worlds contain compassionate human, animal and nature spirits. Two middle worlds also exist: the world of everyday reality and a spirit world containing both helpful and harmful spirits. The trick is to find and work with compassionate spirits of power, she says.

Shamans also believe that everything that exists is alive and intelligent and has a spirit.

Winner (JD ’81) uses shamanism to help people gain self-confidence, empowerment, joy and compassion. When performing shamanic work, she navigates the three worlds and communicates with spirits to bring information and healing to her clients.

Winner, who lives Boulder, Colo., says shamanism often results in emotional healing and helps with fears of death and dying. Shamans also help clients find lost objects, gain insight into challenging situations, clear negative energy, and, she claims, help with pain, trauma and disease.

Winner and other shamans operate in an altered state of consciousness, which helps them access the spiritual realms that people otherwise experience only in dreams and near-death experiences. Some shamans in native cultures use psychedelic drugs to alter their consciousness.

Core Shamanism — the form that’s practiced in Western cultures — uses a drumbeat instead.

“A drumbeat yields a more controllable experience,” Winner says. “In Core Shamanism it’s a steady monotonous beat like four–eight beats per second. That’ll put your brain in the Theta brainwave state, which is the one next to sleep, and it makes you less critical and more open to what you’re experiencing.”

Winner sets her client’s intention, then listens to a drumbeat as she enters the spiritual realms to find a helpful spirit. She asks questions, then brings back information or power to heal her clients. The process takes about an hour. Winner also teaches clients how to practice their own spiritual journeys to contact spirit helpers for answers, guidance or healing.

Core Shamanism includes a strong ethical component, Winner says, so shamans aren’t allowed to perform work on clients without permission since it interferes with free will.

Shamanism’s validity can’t be documented scientifically, but practitioners and those who’ve received shamanic work attest to its effectiveness and report miraculous cures, Winner says. Some shamans were born sensitive. Others had their consciousness opened by illness or trauma, but anyone can develop these abilities, Winner says. She says she was born sensitive and could see spirits when she was young.

For a while, Winner hid her unconventional practice from co-workers and clients in her law practice.

“I was in a firm and I thought that my coworkers wouldn’t feel that it reflected well on them to have somebody that was doing shamanism who’s ‘weird,’ but the last few years I was with the firm I didn’t hide it,” she says.

Winner left the firm last year to open her own law practice out of her home, where she also conducts shamanic work, provides one-on-one training and hosts a weekly drumming group. She will teach courses at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies starting in October.

Her favorite part of practicing shamanism is helping other people.

“I really like when I’m teaching somebody how to journey for the first time and they find an animal spirit and they get incredible information,” she says. “They’re so excited — it’s like the spirit was waiting for them for years, waiting to be able to communicate, so that’s kind of a neat thing. I like it when I do healings and people say they feel better.”

She has experienced personal benefits from the practice, as well.

“They say shamanism is not a path to enlightenment — but if you hang out with these compassionate spirits, you’re getting teachings from them and you do that long enough, you start to really be on the path to enlightenment,” she says. “It’s interesting stuff. It’s given me a worldview that’s more hopeful, like miracles are really possible. It’s nice to have that outlook.”

And to the naysayers who doubt the legitamacy of shamanism, Winner answers nonchalantly, “I say just try it; see if it works.”

For more information, visit Winner’s website at

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