The Shaman of Instagram

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Shaman Durek was singing in an ancient language into his computer screen. His voice was deep and soothing.

“Breathe,” he said slowly, cupping his hands in front of his chest. He was wearing a Japanese kimono, detailed with Guatemalan embroidery. “Expand,” he commanded.

Behind the shaman was what looked to be a temple, soft orange light streaming from its stone arches. In reality, it was a green screen; he was in the studio of his Los Angeles home, where he has been isolating. This was a digital healing, for which some 900 people had paid $10 to tune in from their homes.

The shaman, whose legal name is Durek Verrett, snapped his fingers.

“Spirits!” his voice boomed. “Go inside of their hearts, remove the first layer. Dig out the poison!”

Almost immediately, the chat function of this Zoom video lit up.

“Chills,” wrote Michelle.

“Crying,” said Stephanie.

“Prickles at my heart,” added Kari.

Others described coughing, tingling, laughing and yawning. (The throat, Mr. Verrett said, is a pathway through which the body can expel negative energy.)

Had I not seen this ritual play out in person, I can assure you I would have been skeptical. But in pre-Covid times, the shaman worked out of a meditation space in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood (home to the Miracle Mile shopping district), where those in search of wisdom and healing could pay up to $1,000 for a private session, surrounded by Moroccan-style cushions and T-shirts for sale that said “MEDITATION.”

Mr. Verrett’s clients have included Selma Blair, Nina Dobrev and Jimmy Chamberlain, the ex-drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins, who came to him a decade ago on a referral from Billy Corgan, he said. (“He and I are best friends to this day,” said Mr. Verrett, who is 45.) He once came home to find the actor Chris Pine sitting in his studio, back when Mr. Verrett worked out of a converted garage. “I guess they heard that I was a shaman at the end of the street,” he said.

Other friends include Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he calls “my family”; Rosario Dawson, whom he met at a workshop in the Hamptons; and Dave Asprey, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose “clean” brand of coffee, Bulletproof, is the only kind Mr. Verrett will touch. His girlfriend is Princess Martha Louise of Norway, with whom he co-hosted a tour of healing workshops, called “The Princess and the Shaman,” in Europe before the pandemic.

ImageMr. Verrett with Princess Martha Louise of Norway.
Credit…Carlos Diaz/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the shaman also treats all sorts of non-famous people too, many of them women, who find him through some combination of his Instagram account, his podcast, his online shaman school where one can learn to “optimize” their spiritual powers and his book, “Spirit Hacking,” which came out late last year.

One of these clients was a music agent in Los Angeles, who allowed me to observe her session a few months back but requested that her name not be used because of the personal nature of the session. As instructed, she had abstained from meat, alcohol and smoking for 24 hours before. Her intention was, as she put it, to “level up” before her 40th birthday. (“Leveling up” is a what Mr. Verrett describes as “going to another level in your evolution.”)

I followed her into the dimly lit room, where she lay on a mat, closed her eyes and, over the course of the next hour, went through cycles of sobbing, gagging, shaking and laughing — the shaman at one point beckoning me to pass the tissues so he could wipe her nose as she heaved into a trash can. He said she was releasing deep pain from inside her; she said she’d never experienced anything like it.

“At one point he asked me to stand up. He said ‘We’re going to ground you.’ And I felt this pull from the ground anchor me to the floor — like a magnet,” she said later. “I was just like ‘What?! Will this last?! This is crazy.’”

To be clear, there are no drugs or herbs involved in these sessions. Rather, Mr. Verrett engages in what he calls “spirit shamanism,” an ancient practice in which a shaman, with a subject’s permission, purports to receive messages from spirits while working through the frequencies, energy, even the “colors” supposedly emanated by a person’s body, with the goal of alleviating negativity or pain.

At any given moment, Mr. Verrett might burst into song, speak in tongues, or shout commands to “turn up” a person’s “magnetic energy” or “release dopamine.” He is not trying to “solve” anyone’s problems, he said, but to be a “vessel” through which trusted ancient advisers can speak. The idea is to help release his clients of the negative energy that could be preventing them from, you know, love, money, happiness — that sort of thing.

“The joke that I always tell people is that I’m a messenger and I’m a janitor,” Mr. Verrett said in pre-pandemic times, sipping a golden milk latte (turmeric and oat milk; no espresso) at the Soho House in Hollywood. “I come to clean up your crap and I come to deliver the message.”

This is not always metaphorical. “I had a woman once who had a colostomy bag and it exploded on me,” he recalled. “Another guy I was working on projectile vomited in my mouth.” If you’re a shaman — and Mr. Verrett claims to be the latest in six generations of shamans in his family — this is the reality, he said. “You’re not affected by those things.”

Shamanism has been practiced for centuries, in various forms and by various cultures, from the Indigenous people of the Amazon to the native Inuits of the Canadian Arctic. “Shamans were the healers, and the problem solvers or the diviners of their tribes,” said Susan Mokelke, the president of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, an educational nonprofit based in Mill Valley, Calif.

Contemporary shamanism was revived in the West by spiritual seekers of the 1960s, and has evolved since. In recent years, it has gained popularity in America, along with other healing practices glamorized by the Goop set — which seem to have saturated our therapy sessions as well as our Instagram feeds.

Credit…Courtesy of Durek Verrett

“Just as yoga and meditation have become mainstream as a means to reduce stress, so have shamans,” said Dr. Vivian Diller, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York, who said that a growing number of her clients use shamans to supplement (or in some cases, replace) more traditional talk therapy like the kind she provides.

About half of Americans have tried some form of alternative medicine such as acupuncture or energy healing, according to a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center. Sixty percent said they hold at least one “new age” belief, like astrology, psychics or crystals.

Even a decade ago, said Mr. Verrett’s girlfriend, Princess Martha Louise, the response to her cofounding a spirituality center in Norway — where she is fourth in line to the throne — “was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s mad,” she said. “But now, it’s much more open. And I think a lot of that has to do with yoga, to be honest.”

Today, luxury hotels have shamanic masseuses. You can find shamanic playlists on Spotify. There are financial shamans who advise on business, fashion shamans who scrub bad energy from your wardrobe, even shamanic hair stylists.

“Shamans are like surgeons, there are all different kinds, and everybody has their specialties,” said Colleen McCann, a former fashion stylist turned shaman who runs a wellness studio in Los Angeles. (The shamanic hair stylist at her studio, she said, performs a “ritual combing practice” and sound bowl ritual while a hair mask sets. “What she always says is, ‘Your hair has memory,’” Ms. McCann said.)

Nevertheless, there are a lot of misconceptions about shamanism, said Ms. Mokelke — from the idea that practitioners eschew traditional medicine (shamanism is just one part of “a holistic approach to healing,” she said) to the idea that it’s “all rainbows and that kind of stuff.”

When practiced seriously, Ms. Mokelke said, shamanism is a rigorous discipline, involving years of study. There is no official licensing or certification process to becoming a shaman, in part because shamanic powers were passed down through lineage, she said; it is not a replacement for medical treatment, though it might be a complement.

“When we train people, we say, look, if somebody is seriously ill, you go to a doctor, or you go to a therapist, but you don’t neglect the spiritual aspect of the illness,” Ms. Mokelke said. “Shamanism focuses on the spiritual.”

Still, there is an element of destiny to it as well, Mr. Verrett suggests.

“You don’t become a shaman because you went to Peru, bought a poncho, sang some sacred songs and learned how to make a booming batch of ayahuasca,” he writes in his book. “You become a shaman because the spirits choose you to be a shaman.”

Born Derek Verrett (he changed the spelling of his first name to “Durek” in 2013 “because I felt like I was a new person,” he said), Mr. Verrett grew up in a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood in Foster City, Calif., in a strict Seventh Day Adventist home.

His father, who had trained as a shaman but ran a construction business, was Afro-Creole and from New Orleans; and his mother, a psychic medium, is West Indian-Norwegian and from New York. She returned there after they divorced, and his father wavered between encouraging his son’s shamanic gifts and telling him to “be normal,” Mr. Verrett said.

In his book, Mr. Verrett writes that his father, who died in 2017, was physically abusive, taught him that homosexuality was wrong (Mr. Verrett has dated women and men) and that “the only way to get ahead in life was with a white woman on your arm.”

“I used to hate being Black,” Mr. Verrett writes in his book. As a child, he would buy skin bleach from the drugstore, trying to scrub the pigment from his face. “I bleached my hair, too — to the point where it fell out, which is why I still don’t have hair to this day,” he writes.

He grew up around extended family, including his paternal grandparents, who had a farm nearby, and an aunt, the famed mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, whom he said encouraged him to explore his spirituality.

His older sister, Angelina Verrett-Byrne, a health kinesiologist in upstate New York, said her brother was always “different,” even when they were children. She recalled opening her window one day to observe him doing “tree offerings.” “The crazy thing was, the birds were coming to the tree,” she said, laughing.

Credit…Ntb Scanpix/Reuters

Later, as teenagers, she said, she has a memory of him asking her and her friends to “be quiet” so as not to disturb the mushroom he was cultivating. “He’d be like, ‘I have a Manchurian mushroom growing, and I don’t want any of the negative energies you’re bringing in the house to upset the mushroom.’ My friends and I were like, ‘What?!’”

“I would tell people, ‘I can’t really explain it but that’s just the way he is,” she said. “He has this calling, and he just knows.”

Mr. Verrett dropped out of high school and spent his early adulthood trying to determine if he wanted to be a shaman, a dancer or a model.

He taught Pilates for a while and took some acting jobs. He struggled with substance abuse, and was briefly married to a woman. He later ran a healing business with an ex-boyfriend.

And then, at age 27, he died. Yep, that’s how he puts it.

“I flatlined, I went to the other side, I got all the information on the other side, I came back,” Mr. Verrett said, nonchalantly.

This took four minutes and 25 seconds, according to his book. The medical reason, he explained, was hypertension and high blood pressure, and he had to be rushed to the hospital, where he said his organs shut down and the doctors wanted to take him off life support. “I was told to plan for his funeral,” Ms. Verrett-Byrne said.

But he did make it, after spending more than a month in a coma. Ms. Verrett-Byrne gave him a kidney, and he had to relearn to use his legs, he said.

Of course, dying is par for the course when you’re a shaman. Many consider it a rite of passage.

“The death solidified my path, who I am,” Mr. Verrett said. “It was a second chance. And I knew that if I came back, I was going to be focused on being there for the people.”

For the past year, Mr. Verrett has spent most of his time in Los Angeles, where he rents a home that he shares with two adult nieces who work for him, and, before quarantine, spent time in Europe and Hawaii with the princess.

He is a vegetarian (“I will not eat death,” he said), believes alcohol is “spirit poison” and won’t drink carbonated liquids, though permits himself some caffeine. He eats a lot of soups and salads, often at Cafe Gratitude, the trendy vegan chain, but has been cooking more since quarantine began.

And like any good modern shaman, Mr. Verrett is business-savvy: with both a LLC and a personal stylist, who keeps him outfitted in intricate robes and jewelry over his jeans and sneakers. He has embraced technology, from the “Healing Temple” sessions he now conducts on Zoom to his Instagram account, where he promotes his work, captures snapshots of himself and his famous friends and conducts live healing sessions. (He also answers queries from his followers there, many of whom have come to him for guidance during the pandemic. “I’m like a crisis hotline,” he said.)

He has also, quite effectively, blended the language of his work with the pop vernacular of the moment: Finding your best self is “hacking”; ascertaining wisdom from spirits is “downloading”; followers are his “tribe,” or what he cheekily calls his “litty committee” (because they’re lit).

He claims to be anti-guru — in his book, he refers to the ego as “the great paperweight” and encourages people to “be your own damn guru” — but he is a master of, as he might put it, “optimizing” his personal brand (noting, for example, in his website biography, that he is “the first spirit shaman to be featured in People magazine”).

Which has earned him no shortage of critics. They include the Norwegian publisher who pulled his book over a section about children with cancer; the Scandinavian tabloids, who mock his relationship with the princess; the YouTube parody, in Norwegian, that depicts him telling an old woman he can “remove evil spirits from your vagina” for $1,000. (What he actually said about the vagina, Mr. Verrett said, is that women are “absorbers” — meaning of negative energy after a trauma.)

There are some who call him “plastic,” or find his use of social media distasteful, or are merely “triggered,” as he put it, by who he is.

Credit…Djeneba Aduayom for The New York Times

“A lot of people don’t like me in the wellness world,” he said.

“I’m a Black man. I’m loud. I say what I feel. And I’m not into the hierarchy of, because I went to, like, ashram in India and then sat on the top of the mountains with some kind of monk, I am allowed to think I’m better than everyone and I have all the wisdom.

“Because I don’t have all the wisdom, but I’m learning every day.”

Anyway, what he might lack in yet-unaccumulated wisdom, Mr. Verrett makes up for in simple charisma.

“I think his appeal is that he is both very human, and other worldly,” said Gwyneth Paltrow through a spokesperson. “He hugs and receives hugs with the openness of a child; he has that purity of heart. He’s disarming with big laughs but can uncannily tell you everything about yourself just by touching the bones in your arm.”

Back on the Zoom session, Mr. Verrett was smiling ear to ear, his hands clasped over his heart.

He was preaching the gospel of “unconditional love” — he believes it is “one of the key steps to transformation” — and asked viewers to comment in the chat box when “your heart starts expanding.”

He paused, and began singing in English.

“It’s about that love.”

“It’s all about that love, that love, that love.”

It seemed the session was closing, as he thanked everyone for being there.

But actually, it wasn’t.

“Isn’t life wonderful?” he said, growing excited.

“Isn’t it so wonderful that we can all come here in this temple?”

“You know, every time you come into this temple, you are helping someone who is still not ready to step into their wokeness,” he said.

“Every time we gather together in this temple,” he said, his voice rising, “this temple is beaming light across” — now he was shrieking — “the world!”

“Don’t you see what you are doing by being here?” he continued. “Oh yes!” he said, clapping his hands.

“We are making history! We are creating a new paradigm!”

“We are creating light storms around the planet!”

He’d lost me. But the chat box seemed to feel differently.

“Let’s heal the world!!!” proclaimed Stephanie.

“True paradigm shift,” said Teja.

“Thank you so so much,” wrote Elena, “from my expanded healed heart.”

With research by Sharon Attia and Sheelagh McNeill.

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