Shamanism is in many ways the new black, the new yoga, the current buzz-word. And, as you would expect, this leads to many misuses of the word, and much misunderstanding of the concepts involved. We hear of people doing “Shamanic poetry workshops”, going for a “Shamanic walking meditation” etc. The word “Shamanism” has become the catch-all for any process that involves intuition and/or a deep connection with nature.
So what is Shamanism, and what does a Shaman actually do? Mircea Eliade, one of the early and great writers on this subject, tells us that a Shaman is a person whose soul, through the use of ecstatic trance, can leave their body at will and travel in the Underworld. This is a very useful but narrow definition of Shamanism as practiced for thousands of years by indigenous cultures across the globe. We can broaden it to say that a Shaman is a person whose soul leaves their body and journeys in other realities for the purposes of finding out answers to important questions and often for the purpose of obtaining healing for themselves or their clients. We can go further, and include the process of being connected with multiple realities at the same time: thus we may have a Shaman who is not actually in what we would recognise as a trance, as they are conscious and communicating with others in this everyday reality, but who are also communicating with another reality and so in fact are acting as a kind of bridge between realities in that they can bring into this world information and healing from another.
There are many misconceptions about Shamans:
1. That they are “witch doctors”. There may be some aspects of traditional herbal and other healing practices associated with and adjuvant to the work of many Shamans, but that is not the primary definition of Shamanism.
2. That they are quasi-priests who lead rituals involving the consumption of psychedelic plants; or sweatlodges; or breath-work; or re-birthing, or any one of many different ways of entering altered states of consciousness … and tell the participants what to expect and then interpret their experiences. The truth of the matter is that anyone and everyone who participates in these events is a Shaman if they go on a Shamanic journey: that is, if they experience their soul leaving the consensual everyday reality and travelling to another reality. The person who facilitates these events is just that: the facilitator.
3. That a Shaman is a person we go to when we want healing or guidance, and that they will then journey on our behalf to consult Spirit Guides, Power Animals and the like. This can and does happen, but it is also very feasible and common for individuals to journey on their own behalf.
4. That Shamanism involves strict ritual and/or discipline. Once again, this can happen, and often creates the best mindset and setting for Shamanic work. However there are many Shamans for whom the process becomes much more spontaneous, so they can journey while doing other things: driving their cars, walking, sitting quietly etc. This process is often called “day-dreaming” in a derogatory manner, but some day-dreaming has all the elements of Shamanic practice: leaving this reality to experience another, coming back with answers to questions or suggested protocols to facilitate healing etc.
5. That Shamanism is only compatible with ancient, traditional or indigenous cultural paradigms. While we can learn much from these older cultures, Shamanic practice fits in perfectly with a contemporary, largely secular world. I know a person who journeys regularly and often meets spirit helpers who dress in the attire of the contemporary corporate world, offering advice on career, creativity etc.
6. That Shamanism is a religion. It is not. It is a process of bypassing many of the trappings, hierarchies and rituals of most patriarchal religions and going straight to the source.
This last point is the crux of the matter: Shamanism is a process by which we may receive Direct Revelation. This is the direct, personal communication with the Divine, without the intervention of priests, dogmas, scriptures or even structures. So Shamanism is in fact compatible with many traditional religions, although it can eventually replace belief in a structured religion, as the structure and rituals of formal religion become obsolete after the revelations and direct divine communication that occur with Shamanic practice.
So where do Shamans go when they journey? The works of anthropologists who have patiently studied the Shamans of Siberia, the Amazon basin, and many other cultures talk often about a universe structure consisting of several levels. The work of Michael Harner is particularly useful, and I heartily recommend his book “The Way of the Shaman”. In many cases there is a three-layered system: and Underworld, and Upperworld, and a Middleworld. These three worlds each have their own characteristics and can be visited for specific purposes. A Shaman will travel to the Underworld (not to be confused with the patriarchal religious concept of Hell or a place of damnation or punishment) to find and enlist the help of Power Animals, archetypal beasts who will give information and assist with healing. They will travel to the Upperworld (once again, not to be confused with Heaven), to meet Spirit Guides, who tend to be more humanoid in form. They, too, will give answers, assistance and healing. And the Shaman will travel in the Middleworld (which corresponds in structure to “normal” reality) in order to visit distant places, observe people and events and bring back information about them. This can be extended to actually influencing events in our consensual reality… such as weather patterns etc.
This universe structure is very useful. It gives us a basic geography to navigate, and fits in well with notions of a spirit or god world which is external to us, as preached by most of the world’s religions for the past 5000 or so years. It can, however, cause scepticism in those who have no belief in a spirit or god world, and therefore discourage them from deciding to explore Shamanic consciousness.
It is my belief, and this is shared by many others, that this universe structure is, like familiar christian concepts of heaven, hell and a god who sits on high, an imposition on us by those in positions of power and leadership: people who themselves believe in the words of a few others (often called prophets) who have experienced a form of Direct Revelation, and then decided to fix that experience in time by setting down their experiences in stories that become regarded as absolute undeniable truth. This is where the great religious texts of the world have their origins. Many of these texts say the messages were delivered by angels and the like, who have passed on information dealing with the existence and characteristics of gods, with moral codes and with priestly structures. These angels bear striking resemblance to the Spirit Guides that Shamanic practitioners encounter on their Journeys. And of course the very act of setting in concrete one person’s experience of the divine brings into play factors such as human ego, hunger for power and domination and the creation of institutions which set strict rules about behaviour and conformity, and which then seek to restrict access to alternative realities to a privileged few.
These structures, scriptures and dogmas often sit uneasily with those in modern society who require hard evidence in order to believe in something. They don’t see God sitting in the clouds and so they cannot bring themselves to believe in him.
What can make the whole process of Shamanic journeying, and spirituality in general, much more palatable and plausible is this: we can shift this whole universe structure with its gods, Power Animals, Spirit Guides, Upper-, Middle- and Under-worlds from an external concept to an internal one. Terence McKenna reminds us that one of the great things about being a human is that we get a universe inside of us. So rather than looking outside, we turn inward. In fact, if we follow one of the most basic concepts of buddhism, “With our thoughts we create the world”, we can see exactly how this works. This idea does not just mean that if we think positive thoughts things will turn out well for us, it means literally that the entire universe that we experience is of our own creation. I refer you to my CD “Live Love Evolve”, which explores this concept in some depth.
If we take this approach and apply it directly to Shamanic practice it all becomes much easier to understand in a post-modern world. When we enter an altered state of consciousness, through whatever means we choose, we are in fact accessing different and normally-concealed parts of our own self. The act of listening to the drum, of consuming plant medicine, of sensory deprivation in vipassana and similar processes, are all helping us to delve deeper into our own inner worlds than we normally allow ourselves to do, thus giving us access to wisdom, insight, memories and healing from within the vast universe of our mind that we are not normally privy to. This is not to say that the world or worlds we experience with our normal senses do not exist: if we can perceive something then it does exist. But everything is the product of our thoughts, and so everything can be changed by an act of will. Those of us who are spiritually asleep are content living in the conventional 4-dimensional world (3 physical dimensions plus time), and it doesn’t matter who or what actually creates the structures and concepts we experience. But those who are waking are realising that there is so much more to be experienced if we just choose to experience it. These are the people for whom Shamanic practice will bring great benefits.
This is not to say that the older points-of-view regarding spiritual practices are obsolete. They give substance to abstract concepts and make the process of inward journeying easier to understand. So, it is possible to meet an archetypal being such as Shiva during a Shamanic journey, and in doing so come very quickly to an understanding of the message being received by looking at the role of Shiva in yogic spirituality as the destroyer of things that are no longer needed. Or one could experience a visit from an alien culture who might take one on a journey in space to see some distant planet, or who might perform some kind of surgery to remove something unwanted or correct imbalance. A christian who journeys may receive messages from Jesus, while a neo-celt may speak with Cernunos. A consumer of plant medicine may hear the voice of the plant itself. It all depends on the paradigm or frame of reference of the individual. These archetypal experiences are a kind of Shamanic shorthand, making the process of gaining insight more efficient. The fact that they may be experienced in Shamanic journeying does not mean that they exist in everyday consensual reality, unless of course we want them too.
Which brings me to one of the commonly asked questions about Shamanic journeying: “How do I know that this is real and that I’m not just making it all up?” The answer depends on your point of view: if we believe in an external universe, we can offer advice to trust the messages received as they are part of a thousands-of-years-old tradition of Shamanic journeying that has proven reliable for countless people; or if we believe in the internal, auto-creation concept we can say “Of course you’re making this up, just as you are creating everything in your universe. Just trust your higher self to provide you with the answers you need at this time.” Both are valid points of view.
All I can say in closing is that, after more than 40 years of searching for a spiritual practice that was completely consistent with my experience of this world, and being constantly disappointed, envious of those for whom faith in some form of the divine or other seemed easy, and therefore remaining unwillingly stuck in the dullness of a non-spiritual universe, I have found that Shamanic practice has given me what I sought. I feel that at last I know the answers to the existential questions which have plagued mankind for so long, and that has given me a great sense of peace, and delight to be living at this time, on this planet and in this community. I feel totally at ease with the concept of death, with right and wrong and with my place in the world. This doesn’t mean that I don’t suffer from the same stresses, worries and difficulties as everybody else. I just have a perspective on these things which shows me that they are my own creation, and therefore my own responsibility to change. And I am slowly but surely peeling back the layers of illusion and conditioning that have attached themselves to me, getting steadily closer to the true jewel of Love that I know sits glowing in the centre.
Instructions for using this CD:
NEVER LISTEN TO THIS CD WHILE DRIVING OR OPERATING MACHINERY. THE SOUNDS ON THIS CD ARE DESIGNED TO FACILITATE ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
I recommend that you attend one of my “Drumming Between Worlds” workshops, or read the books of Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman and/or Alberto Villoldo before you try this CD.
This CD contains 2 tracks, one for short, introductory and exploratory journeys, the other for more extended work. I suggest you start with the short track.
The journeying process:
• You need a quiet, undisturbed space for the duration of the track: a darkened room with a yoga mat and pillow, a single candle, an eye mask if you like.
• Turn off all noisy machines and phones.
• Think about your intention for the journey before you start the CD. Decide if you are going to the Underworld, the Upperworld or the Middleworld, and carefully frame the questions you want answered.
• The sounds on this CD work through any stereo system, but the best results will be had if you use good quality comfortable headphones.
• Once you start the CD, listen carefully and follow the instructions regarding the creation of sacred space. This process helps you to get into the correct frame of mind for your journey.
• Once sacred space is created, lie or sit comfortably and begin your journey:
• If you are going to the Underworld, think of yourself going into the ground at some place you know or can imagine: a cave, the roots of a favourite tree, a lake or river, even the basement of a building.
• If your journey is to the Upperworld, think of a tree to climb, a ladder that goes into the clouds, a high mountain, or even a lift in a tall building.
• If you wish to explore the Middleworld, feel yourself getting up and walking out your door, and then maybe leaping into the air and flying or running to your destination.
• Keep your intention for the journey in mind and take note of everything you see, as it will be significant. You will most likely encounter creatures: animals, spirits, monsters, etc. Some of these will just be distractions, but some will have serious messages and assistance for you. Greet them all politely and ask them why they are there, and then ask your questions if it feels right.
• After a while you will hear the whistle that signifies that your journey must end soon. Take your leave gently and then retrace your steps back to your entry point for this world, and then come back into your room and into your body. Take your time. When you are completely back in your body, open your eyes, start gently moving and sit up.
• You may choose to write or draw your experiences for later consideration.
When you’re back fully in this reality, you may find that you process your experiences for some days or even weeks. This is normal. So don’t feel frustrated if answers don’t come immediately. A dream or even a waking experience may shed light on your journey. Be patient.
And, don’t forget, you can always journey again and ask for more clarity.
Have fun! Journey well!
released October 12, 2010
All instruments, voices, recording, editing, mixing and mastering by Andy Copeman
Andy Copeman is a visionary musician, sound healer, sound and video artist, shamanic practitioner and recording engineer and
producer. Instruments include voice, guitars, keyboards, programming, cittern, bass, percussion, tin whistle, kora, ba wu, fiddle, didgeridoo, singing bowls etc. With his beloved Laurel Hefferon he runs Awakening Centre in Maleny in South-east Queensland....more