Monday, January 12, 2009

Making the Shamanic Journey: Basic Instructions

What follows is a paper I wrote to help a colleague during her first attempts to utilize the Core Shamanic trance-journey.

Part I
Radically Short Introduction to Shamanism

Now, I'm going to attempt to type something that can't be worded with any sense of justice or completion. The task you will attempt to undertake- that of the classical "Underworld Journey" or "Lower-worldly Consciousness Regression/Alteration"- is something that goes back to the roots of humanity, and it would take months to really explain and analyze in satisfactory detail.

If you have not read "The Way of the Shaman" by Michael Harner, please do; it is the work (still in print) that presented the “Underworld Journey” to the west in a rather academic fashion, while still keeping an eye to the practical use of this ancient and foundational pattern of spiritual experience. It is easy to get through

The entire edifice of tribal shamanism- from any culture, worldwide, and from any time- rests on the shamans, either male or female, being able to alter their state of consciousness at will. To alter their state from an "OSC" (Ordinary State of Consciousness) to a "SSC" (Shamanic State of Consciousness" gives them a new way of experiencing reality.

Like Harner, I use the term “Shaman”, even though my use is a modern one. Each primal grouping of people on this planet had their own culturally specific term for their “consciousness alteration specialists”, but the Siberian word “Shaman”- which, ironically, may itself have roots in an ancient Indo-European language- has become a commonly used word to refer to the general and primordial act of altering consciousness at will for the purposes of accessing extraordinary powers or knowledge, and on behalf of a client in need of guidance or healing, or on behalf of a group of people. Some Shamans act on their own for personal reasons.

Shamans can alter their state of consciousness at will, and become able to experience the world in a new way. In this new way, this "non-ordinary state of consciousness", their experience of reality can be framed in extraordinary ways. This is the classic "trance" state in which extra-sensory reality can be reached; the "strong eye" or the inner eye can be opened.

These spiritual specialists- these psychonauts, as it were- are specialists in accessing reaches of the mind that most people don't get to consciously experience very often. As I said before, they access these reaches of experience so that they can "bring back" or access divinatory information, information regarding how to heal people of various mental and physical illness, and for other reasons of power-acquisition.

The "Underworld" is a description of the "world" or "way of experiencing" that shamans universally access for the purposes of healing power and divination, though other "worlds" exist within the cosmologies of primal peoples, and can be accessed in the same methods that you and I will discuss.

When we say "underworld", we are talking about both a spiritual/cosmological "location", but also a descriptor of something that can be framed as a "deeper" state of consciousness, perhaps cognate to the subconscious mind, but you must realize that this sort of comparison and this sort of terminology is definitely a western way of rationalizing or framing the "Underworld" experience. I'm not saying that this is "wrong" per se, but from the fresh perspectives of primal peoples, the Underworld is its own place, and not just some "state of mind"- though I can say with certainty from my own philosophical research that "worlds" and "states of mind" aren't so different after all.

Of course, we are not dealing with any religious notion of "hell" in the pejorative or evil sense, though elements of mainstream Christian culture have always thought so and preached as much when they encountered shamans among native peoples accessing this deeper world. In reality, the Underworld is the interior of the Land itself, the sacred depths from which all things grow, and the source of life- and the source of wisdom and healing. The "deeper world" or the "world inside the world" is the "layer" of reality that underlies our common perceptions, and when we "go inward" and experience it, we see things closer to their roots.

Seeing things in this way puts us closer to the "time" in the spiritual "past" (as it is normally perceived) in which animals and other creatures (like trees, rocks, rivers, winds, etc) were not simply "beasts out there" or "lumps of stone" or "senseless trees", but instead were "non-human persons", capable of communicating with mankind and with each other. Such a strange idea is captured in most "shamanic" mythologies worldwide, and even hints of it arise in the book of Genesis, wherein Eve and a well-known serpent had no trouble conversing with one another, in that ancient setting of primordial creation.

The Underworld journey is a "return" in the mind, a transformation of the mind, into a condition in which extraordinary experiences are possible, and vast amounts of personal insight can be acquired. Healing- of the mental kind, as well as the physical kind, is possible. I cannot explain, of course, how it comes about- but I can say that I have experienced enormously powerful effects on both fronts, for myself and for others.

The shaman of any primal grouping, worldwide, does not act alone- spiritual powers help them in their consciousness-alteration work. The concept of "helping spirits" is universal, captured in terms like "nagual" or "totem" or "familiar" or spirit-helper. The extraordinary journey and effort to acquire such helpers, and then the career spent interacting with them, is the career of the shaman in nearly all societies. These helpers are companions and helpers to the shaman; the shaman must (normally) do services for them, repay them in some way, for their help. A relationship has to be maintained with these spiritual powers, and in so doing, the shaman maintains the powers that are their living link to the altered states of consciousness that they need to access.

For the main purpose or function of these helping spirits is to help facilitate transition into extraordinary states of consciousness on the part of the shaman. These helpers appear normally as animals of various kinds, but can appear as humans or humanoid beings.

There are many theories, some tied to the mythologies of primal peoples, explaining who and what these helping spirits are; sometimes (oftentimes) they are tied to the ancestral chain of relationship that the shaman descends from; since primal people believe that human beings and animals are all from the same family, it only makes sense that many helping spirits or ancestral spirits can appear in animal shape. We are all related, and each human bloodline (shamanically speaking) is more or less related to various animals that are alive out in the world right now.

Other times, they (helping spirits) are simply spirits that are attracted to humans who wish to deal with them in such a manner that some mutual benefit can occur. Sometimes, helping spirits can be the spirits of ancestors or family members, or deceased members of the tribe/clan/extended family group, some being who would have an understandable reason for wanting to help. Whatever the case, discovering, forging, and maintaining relationships with these beings is a crucial thing to the success of shamanic operations.

As you can see, the worldview that these shamanic operations arise from has within it an implied notion of an "afterlife" for all once-living beings. Of course, westerners categorize "life" as something that only happens between conception and physical death, but to many primal peoples, life is an ongoing and perpetual process, though it undergoes (in common with all powers) many changes and transformations, some of which manifest outwardly (like the growth of a child into adulthood) and some manifest inwardly (like the process of emotionally maturing or having spiritual experiences).

Death, in this model, is an outward expression of a deeper transformation of life into a new condition, and often enough, dead people and animals are believed to descend into the Underworld, where they join the spirits of other deceased people and beings. Our European ancestors believed many variations on the very same thing, as you no doubt already know- crossing the river below (such as the classical Styx or some sort of barrier) and entering the Underworld was a common pre-Christian model of transition after death. It was a common model all over the world, even in places in Native America.

Thus, the "Underworld journey" or the transition into a "deeper state" of consciousness can possibly facilitate contact with those who have gone before. Shamans worldwide are expected to be able to access the dead, to gain the wisdom and guidance of ancestors that lived long ago, and who (in common belief) are thought to have a lot of crucial wisdom for human beings who are currently alive.

No one alive truly knows what happens when we die, though it appears that consciousness continues, and whatever our "consciousness principle" might be, it continues to experience things in its own terms in whatever state it inhabits.

This entire issue is one of perception. No one really knows what "we" truly are, or what spirits truly are. Who knows why some things appear one way and others appear in others? I hate to venture too deep of a guess at the "purpose" of our perpetual spiritual existence, except to say that finding a way to live in lasting harmony with ourselves and the whole of which we are an inseparable part would appear to be life's true sacred purpose.

I can also say with some certainty that the collection of all individual powers that exist- whether human or otherwise- seem to form an organic whole that is divine in its own right, though it is a far cry from the standard notion of "God" found in most western religions. It is more of a "Mystery"- and thus it is called in most primal religions: Great Mystery, Sacred Mystery, or Great Power.

It is at once the ground from which all beings arise and which forever sustains them, and (somehow) the force that unfolds intelligibly through them and through all interactions, appearing to have some sort of will or intentionality. It is the cosmos of interactions that can be experienced in an extraordinary manner as more than just material and measurable process, but also as spirit. The universe as experienced by shamans is not a threatening or meaningless place, but a place of never ending life and goodness. Dangers certainly exist in this universe, but they too, have a sacred purpose.

All communications or interactions between you and me, or between me and my helping spirit, or between any and all beings is a sacred transaction of power. All events are "religious" in this sense; all events have a sacred aspect about them and learning to see them this way is the key to "living and perceiving in a sacred manner" that primal peoples all speak of and put so much value on.

Part II
Altering the Consciousness and Journeying into the Lower World

In the matters of which I am about to write, I can only speak for myself and from my perspective of what you are about to undertake: the Shamanic Journey. The shamanic journey is intensely personal and subjective, though categories like "subjective" and "objective" cease to apply outside of our western expectations and other epistemological limitations. My instructions here are based largely on the techniques taught by Michael Harner and his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, but they contain some of my own notes and modifications that I have discovered really help facilitate the transition from one state of consciousness to another.

Shamans worldwide have used sound as their chief “practical and technical” method of achieving altered states of consciousness. The sound of rhythmic drumming is a common means for altering the consciousness and allowing for access into hidden reaches of mind. I normally drum for myself or have an assistant do it; I also have several recorded tracks of various simple drum rhythms that I use from time to time. I will provide you with samples of them for your use, and I urge you to purchase your own at your first convenience.

When you deal with peoples who don't believe in an absolute division between "person" and "world", then accessing the deep places of the mind is the same, in a direct way, as accessing deep places in the world. This is why trance is more than just a personal experience; it is an experience of the whole world in a new manner.

The mind and this world cannot be separated; without the world, there would be no mind, and (when you think about it) vice versa. This idea of "mind" is very different from the western materialistic notion of it; this idea teaches that what we call "mind" is a more fundamental strand in the web of creation than we imagine. "Mind" in this sense also doesn't really refer to the individual personalities or memories of people, but to the capacity for experience that humans all share, and which, as the theory goes, is shared by all life and even all things that seem "inanimate" to our ordinary state of perception.

You desire to seek guidance and insight through extraordinary states of consciousness. This is great; this is the cornerstone of the entire human spiritual quest and spiritual experience. You have always had all you needed to gain this guidance; what I will tell you here (and what I have told you here) is only a quick "pointing at the moon"- you will very easily use these words to fall into a surprisingly familiar "way of being" that will give you more conscious access to aspects of yourself and this world that you will likely be quite amazed at.

What you must do first is discover an entrance into the Lower World. It may sound strange, but again, when you realize how connected we "humans" and "this world" are, you can begin to see how a hole in the earth, or a cave, or a well, or a dark passage under a tree-root system can simultaneously act as a "door" that gives access to deeper places of consciousness. Traditionally, these sorts of phenomenon (caves, holes in the ground, etc) were seen as entrances to the Underworld, and were held in high sacred regard in many ancient cultures worldwide.

So you'll need to find a place that fits the description I just gave: I personally have a tree in the forest near my house that has a very deep "natural entrance" under its roots, going down to darkness. A body of water will work too- so long as it is not man-made. All bodies of water are seen to give entrance to the world below.

It works best if you can physically visit the place, in this world, and stare at it, committing every detail of the place to memory. However, if you only have a picture, you can use that image too, as long as you know where in relation to your current location that place is, and can create inside yourself a "feel" for where it is. If you know of a nice natural lake or river, or a natural cave or fissure, or any impressive entrance into the ground (tree root holes are my favorite) then please go to it, make a trip of it, and memorize how that entrance looks.

If all you have are pictures, then memorize every detail from the picture, and get an idea of where that place is in comparison to where you are. You have to make it as "real a place" as you can in your head.

When you are ready for your first journey, and when you have your "entrance" well memorized, you will take yourself to a room where you will not be disturbed for 15-30 minutes, by anything at all. No phones, no knocks, nothing. Any disturbance during these operations can be quite devastating on many levels.

Lie down comfortably and put on your MP3 player headphones, with the track ready to go- I suggest you "practice" a few times with the 15 minute track, before moving up to the 30 minute track, which is a pretty long journey. The "virtual time" that you experience on these journeys can be remarkably different from the “actual time” that your track is limited to- just like in a dream, what is 30 minutes in so-called "actuality" can seem like hours in the deep state, or it can seem like only a minute or two. There is no predicting it.

Lie comfortably and cover your eyes with a dark cloth. Always cover your eyes, no matter when you work. Also, do not ever undertake one of these journeys if you are tired- for you will fall right to sleep. I find that I get the best results when I work a few hours after I've woken up, right in the middle of the day! But I have had amazing results at night, too, so long as I wasn't too tired when I "went down".

Once you are relaxed, comfortable, eyes covered, and your track starts, you will hear the drums. The first thing to do is focus on the drumbeat and let it just "wash over you and through you" and relax into it. The sound is deep, repetitive, and simple. Just "go with it"- let it rumble along through your head and being. Let it relax you; it seems odd that a beat as rapid as that one can relax you, but you will discover that it has a strange effect. Think of it like a stream- literally a stream of power- and let your mind and body sort of melt into the stream of power that you are experiencing as drumbeats. When you feel like you are sort of "moving" with it, then you go to the next step.

Visualize your "entrance". See your hole in the earth, body of water, root-tunnel under a tree, cave, or whatever you picked. Let yourself really "see" it with your inner eye. "See" it as though you were walking up to it- and if needs be, you can "shrink" yourself to be small enough to walk right into it (as in the case of most tree-root holes). Really let yourself "see" as much detail as you can, but focus most on the darkness of the entrance, and always, always, always KNOW that the darkness beyond- the darkness that hides so much- hides a deep shaft that leads straight down into the earth, and into a world below.

You have to see the darkness of the entrance as concealing a shaft that falls straight "down", a tunnel that may go a ways "in" before slanting downward and slicing deep down into the earth, to the strange and mysterious world below.

Then, go in. Walk a ways in, visualizing the dark tunnel however you think it would look, and then, when you feel the "tunnel" starting to slant downward, (they often slant steeply) plunge into it. Go down. Maybe you'll be falling down, maybe flying, maybe running, whatever it takes- the most important things for this stage are as follows:

1. Some people find it hard to visualize the descent; it is FAR MORE IMPORTANT TO FEEL the sensation of "sinking" or "going down" of "falling way down" than it is to SEE it. You have to really feel that you are sinking deep, deep down, going far below the earth. You have to feel like your body is "up above you" somewhere, and "you" are going down into a deep, dark place. A sense of “separation” from the “ordinary world far above” and “where you are at this moment, deep below” needs to arise in you.

2. Do not try too hard, in any part of this. Do not ever in your journeys try too hard. Too much effort to "visualize" and "move" will block the state of consciousness that you are trying to summon. Of course, you do have to try somewhat- there is a perfect "middle ground" you have to reach to make this work, which is somewhere between trying too hard and not trying enough. You will know this "sweet spot" of the mind when you hit it.

Some people have trouble with visualizations- you do not have to "see" everything clearly. You simply have to know what you are "doing" in your inner experience, and "feel" the falling, sinking, or descending feeling as you make the descent.

At some point, you'll find yourself in the transitional stage- going down, down, down in your tunnel, feeling the descent, and hearing the nonstop thunder of the rhythmic drums. At this point, simply let it all go on- keep going down, down, down. If your motion seems to be interrupted, then let the drum "carry" you- let the beats "force you forward and down" with every "thump thump thump"- the drum is truly the "horse" of the shaman.

Now, we reach the part where I can say little more. But I will try.

If your chosen entrance is indeed an Underworld portal- and not all are- then you will, at some indeterminate “time” after you start going "down", arrive at a tunnel exit. Your tunnel will literally end and you'll find yourself in another "world". It looks different to everyone. It may be some forest, or plains, desert or sea-shore, or city streets. It can be day or night. You never can tell. It may be easy to see, or very unclear and distorted.

At this point, you must realize that you are still under the influence of the drum beats. You still have some power to "co-create" this vision, so as you walk through the inner landscape, or float, or fly, or just move through it in some strange, indeterminate way, you may doubt yourself and think "I'm making this up". That's fine. Keep going, and keep seeing things, and as you go, just accept what you see. Don't try to avoid "making things up", and don't try to "make things up". Just go and accept what you see, wherever you might think it came from.

A point will come when you will run across something- or some place- or someone- that you will realize you most certainly didn’t "make up". This is when the trance deepens closer to a pure vision. It may seem to "get out of your control". That's fine; you want this to happen; you want the vision to become a strange sort of lucid dream, generating images and experiences itself- for those images and experiences are the upwelling of the deeper reality, of the mystery. You must keep your wits about you. Don't let yourself forget what you are doing; don't surrender to sleep or unconsciousness, and yet, don't try too hard to stay "awake", or get too energetic, because you'll wake yourself up. The "middle way" of effort is very, very important.

At this point, your body should be lying still and relaxed, and even though you might still have a sense for the room you are in, and still maybe feel the headphones in your ears, you can also be "experiencing" this otherworld landscape in trance. This is normal. Sometimes you'll lose touch with your body totally, like a great numbness has overtaken you. Other times, maybe not so much. There are many levels to these trances, and until you get really used to this weird "between state", you'll have lots of variety to the experience.

I can't say much more except that it is possible in your experiences that you will meet some animal (it can be any sort of animal) who will never act threatening to you. You may meet it after you emerge from the tunnel into the Lower world. It will help you greatly to make this contact and talk to this being or beings, to get their help and guidance. Ask them questions. Follow them through the interior/Lower-worldly landscape. The answers you get can come in words from these animals, or in things you see or are shown in the deeper landscape. You may see people; there is no telling, really. The best way to acquire true “helping spirits” is to need their help, and journey specifically with the intention of meeting those helping spirits that have a destined relationship with you.

There are two levels of vision- you may find yourself lucidly interacting as I describe above, or you may slip into a deeper, half-conscious state, in which you experience all manner of dream-like images, with less notion of "where you are" and much less notion of "control" for the experience. Either way, try your best to remember what you saw in the Lower World, when you return.

The recorded drum-tracks have a natural end-time and a "call back" drum. Your drum-beat (which you will discover does change you and sustain you in these innerworldly visions) will suddenly end- changing your mind-state suddenly, and then "call you back" with some swift strikes, before starting up again, though this time far more rapidly. The rapid "ending cadence" is meant to drive you "back up" the tunnel, and back into ordinary consciousness. Visualize yourself "running or flying" back up the tunnel and back to yourself. If you can, run or fly back to the tunnel entrance before shooting up it. Then the track will be over.

Remember that we live in a world of communication- even communication between the surface places and the deep places of ourselves, and between the world that is seen and the world that is unseen. The shamanic journey is an ancient thing, and part of the oldest religious tradition imaginable.

People like you have taken it, or found others to do it on their behalf, since the dawn of history, for the same purposes you want it for now- guidance for the direction and purpose of your life, and possibly insight into ways you can heal yourself of any of the things that may be tormenting you. The sacred powers in the unseen world seem to be willing to help us if we are willing to suspend what we think we know about things, and venture into strange states.

They seem to be willing to help, out of a sense of kinship, perhaps, or out of a sense of feeling pity for us confused beings trying to make sense of things. Maybe we'll help others one day, just as we are helped. Who can say? But don't ever think that your time and effort on these journeys is wasted. It may take several attempts, but you will discover that your skill at achieving this altered state grows with time. Success at this is worth any effort you put into it.

Good Journeys!

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