Before I sink into the big sleep. I want to hear the scream of the butterfly. Jim Morrison
Recently, at a party, someone asked me about the Shamanism training I’m doing in Bali. As I fumbled my way through a rambling answer, it made me think, I really need an ‘elevator pitch’ to answer these questions.
The truth is, shamanism isn’t really something I can explain succinctly as a concept, rather it is something I practice, something that is unfolding to me. It is highly experiential. It’s outside of the comfort zone of the modern western mindset. So far outside of that zone, it’s like it grew wings, and flew to Neptune. To explain it, I have to ask you to set aside everything you think you know.
That said, I think its worth exploring. What do I mean by shamanism? What is my practice? Do I even want to call it shamanism. If not, then what?
And how do I convey all that to people without sounding like a complete looney?
“Oh yes, I commune with spirits, and I don’t mean a martini”
Enter the eminently eloquent Frank MacEowen, to save me from my tangled tongue (and unintentional alliteration) to describe it to y’all.
Shamanism – the practice of entering into a non-ordinary state of consciousness and leaving ordinary reality to acquire knowledge, guidance, or healing energy. Shamanic spirituality is one way of listening deeply to ancient powers in the land and within the human soul. Frank MacEowen
Okay. Got it? Not really? Alright, I’ll explain it some more. But to be perfectly honest, I can describe it until I’m blue in the face, which would be entertaining yes, but you really have to experience it to understand. Here goes…
Essentially, shamanism describes the oldest living paths of spirituality and healing, dating back tens of thousands of years, found in cultures all around the world from ancient times up to the present day, and yet many people don’t know what it is or are confused about the practice.
Part of this confusion stems from the term ‘shamanism’ itself, which is used describe a group of diverse traditional cultural and spiritual practices, even though they are not all one and the same. However, the remaining practices that continue in the world today do share many common approaches to healing and living in commune with the natural and spirit worlds. Hence the use of a common word to describe them.
Anthropologist Mircea Eliade in his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, wrote that shamanism underlays all the other spiritual traditions in the world, and that the most distinctive universal feature of shamanism—but not the only one—was the journey to other worlds in an altered state of consciousness.
It all sounds rather fanciful to the Western mind. Journeying to commune with spirits? Why, just hand me that crystal ball and hit the smoke machine… Woo-woo!
Michael Harner makes the important distinction that shamans do not ‘believe’ in the world of the spirit, they actively engage there.
In shamanic cultures, where shamans interact with spirits to get results such as healing, it’s no surprise that people believe there are spirits. But the shamans don’t believe in spirits. Shamans talk with them, interact with them. They no more “believe” there are spirits than they “believe” they have a house to live in, or have a family. This is a very important issue because shamanism is not a system of faith. Michael Harner
While shamanic practices vary across cultures, there are many ‘core’ practices that are universal or near-universal and these constitute ‘core shamanism’.
Shamanism is a spirituality rooted in the idea that all matter has consciousness and that accessing this ‘spirit that lives in all things’ keeps the natural world, including us humans, in balance, healed, and whole. A shamanic practitioner seeks to be in relationship with the spirit in all things – a path to sustainable harmony not only with all humans, but with each and every plant, animal, and spiritual entity that is a part of our world.
The anthropologist Michael Harner, who established Core Shamanism, writes that “the word ‘shaman’ in the original (Siberian) Tungus language refers to a person who makes journeys to non-ordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness.”
Michael Harner says that using such a term helps people to understand the type of healing being undertaken, and avoids the often negative connotations of other culture specific terms like “witch doctor”. Although the term is originally from Siberia, there is evidence that the shamanic practices existed on all inhabited continents. So it’s essentially an umbrella term for similar traditions found the world over.
Shamans are often called “see-ers” (seers), or “people who know” in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It’s based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don’t get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, “How do you know if somebody’s a shaman?” I say, “It’s simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?” Michael Harner
A shaman is a man or woman who uses the ability to see “with the strong eye” or “with the heart” – according to different cultural interpretations – to travel into hidden realms. The shaman interacts directly with helping spirits to address the spiritual aspect of illness and perform soul retrievals, retrieve lost power, as well as remove spiritual blockages. The shaman also divines information for the community. Shamans perform a multitude of roles in their communities, acting as healers, doctors, priests, psychotherapists, mystics, and storytellers.
Shamanism teaches us that everything that exists is alive and has a spirit. Shamans speak of a web of life that connects all of life and the ‘spirit that lives in all things’. Everything on earth is interconnected and it is the shaman’s role in the community to keep harmony and balance between humankind and the forces of nature.
Shamanism is a system of direct revelation. One of the major ceremonies a shaman performs is called a shamanic journey. In a ‘journey’ a shaman enters into an altered state of consciousness and travels into the hidden realms that many describe as non-ordinary reality – like a parallel universe to ours.
The Otherworld is the interiority of place, just as the human soul is the interiority of an individual. This is not to say it is “inside”, but rather that it is hidden and invisible, and its depths cannot be penetrated by ordinary means. Jason Kirkey
The Australian aborigines call non-ordinary reality the Dreamtime. In the Celtic traditions it is referred to as the Otherworld. In these hidden realities there are helping, compassionate spirits who offer their guidance and also their healing help. There are also some not-so-helpul ones and the skilled shaman knows how to avoid those ones, with the assistance of their personal power animals or spirit allies, who act as guides in non-ordinary reality.
Tori McElroy writes that this specialised, sacred role of the shaman exists in many cultures, and the accounts of shamanic trance-journeys are remarkably similar around the world. The ecstatic trance seems “to open the human mind to archetypal experiences transcending cultural boundaries.” The spiritual realms are almost always experienced in three layers: the middle world, equivalent to the physical plane of the earth, the upper world, equating to the heavens above, and a third that lies below the earth, or the lower world.
Certain psychologies might tend to identify the Otherworld with our psyche; the inner realm of the human mind and soul, and that the going-ons there are reflective of our own processes. Other people might lean towards the more spiritual or mystical understanding of the Otherworld as an actual place, a spirit-world, inhabited by very real beings. What is actually important is that no matter how we understand the Otherworld, in all the stories in which it plays a part, those who experience it are transformed. Jason Kirkey
Each culture interprets these realms a little differently, but there are such strong similarities of experience it suggests that the pattern of imagery arises from the journey process itself, rather than from cultural expectations.
There is even evidence that the shamanic journey may have been part of the development of all religions, and although the practice has all but vanished in many cultures, remnants of it exist in myths and traditions. This is where core shamanism can assist in the reconstruction of these practices, for example in Celtic shamanism and druidry.
There are a variety of ceremonies that shamans perform. Like priests, they lead ceremonies to welcome children into the world, perform marriages, and help people transition at the time of death. They lead ceremonies to mourn the death of loved ones. There are important initiation ceremonies performed to mark certain transitions in a person’s life such as from moving from childhood into adulthood.
Typically shamans use some form of percussion, especially drumming or rattling, to go into an altered state that frees the soul of the shaman to journey into the invisible worlds. Many traditions also believe that music, drumming, singing, rattling, helps to attract the helping spirits.
Because it is not an organized religion as such, but rather a spiritual practice, shamanism cuts across all faiths and creeds, reaching deep levels of ancestral memory. As a primal belief system, which precedes established religion, it has its own symbolism and cosmology, inhabited by beings, gods, and totems, who display similar characteristics although they appear in various forms, depending upon their places of origin. John Matthews
Indigenous Australian shamans use the didgeridoo and click sticks. Some traditions use bells. The Sami people of Lapland and Norway also use monotonous chanting called “joiking”. My mother heard a recording of women chanting and told me it reminded her of the way the women sung, usually as they performed group tasks, in Ireland where she grew up.
So why bother journeying? Shamans journey to assist their community and its members, whether to transition through stages in life, or out of the living realm, or to heal illness. Shamans look at the spiritual aspect of illness. An illness might manifest on an emotional or physical level but the shaman is looking for spiritual imbalance or disharmony, which can cause the illness and prevent its healing.
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed. Led Zeppelin
Sandra Ingerman, my teacher and experienced shamanic practitioner, has found that most shamanic cultures around the world believe that illness is due to the loss of the soul. It is believed that whenever we suffer an emotional or physical trauma a piece of our soul flees the body in order to protect itself and preserve the integrity of the overall soul. The soul is our essence, life force, the part of our vitality that keeps us alive and thriving.
In modern Western psychology, this is understood as dissociation and post-traumatic stress disorder. In either case, a fragment of the psyche (meaning “soul”) breaks off to preserve the integrity of the whole.
The helping spirits who inhabit parallel worlds to the human world have a perspective that often cannot be seen by a practitioner in ordinary states. Therefore shamans work in partnership with the helping spirits in performing healing work, including soul retrieval, where these lost soul parts are coaxed back ‘home’. In many hospitals in the United States, Native American shamanic healers work alongside Western doctors to heal patients.
Inevitably when journeying, shamans become extremely connected to the spirit in nature, the the land spirits, and to the local plants and trees, and receive information about their potential healing properties. This is a more sensible explanation of plant medicine than simple trial and error. The plants themselves have wisdom and a willingness to share this with us humans.
To live life from this sort of truth would require us to acknowledge the needed reciprocity between this world and the Otherworld, inner and outer, humans and nature. However, this sort of recognition of the interconnectedness of all things is exactly what is needed to heal the perceptive split between these realities. To do this we need to cultivate the ears of sacred listening that can hear the profound music of the Otherworld and bring our fragmented soul back into the wholeness of the soul of life. Jason Kirkby
Music is a doorway into the realm of the soul. Jason Kirkey
My dad is to blame for my passion for music, he ignited an insatiable fire when he gave me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band for my 8th birthday. Now I wonder if I should blame my love for the esoteric on him for the same reason.
There is a song on that album called ‘Within You Without You‘. It was George Harrison at the height of his immersion into the Maharishi’s following. In 1967, The Beatles — along with actress Mia Farrow and musicians Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love — made a pilgrimage to Rishikesh, India, the headquarters for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the bearded, long-haired guru who gave the West a somewhat toned-down form of Hinduism called Transcendental Meditation.
I knew none of this. I just listened to the song, the lyrics. It blew my little eight year old mind.
Can’t you see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you. George Harrison
This album also marked the Beatles descent into psychedelia, both in the form of psychotropic drug use and the ensuing art and lyrical shift that emerges as a result of opening that particular ‘door of perception.’ For a young child, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was not a great imaginative leap, akin to the journey down the chocolate river in the Roald Dahl classic. And yet that imagery left an indelible imprint on my mind.
From there I leap-frogged into what I see now was a shamanic love of music. Music took me on a spiritual journey.
Eight miles high and when you touch down
You’ll find that it’s stranger than known
Signs in the street that say where you’re going
Are somewhere just being their own. The Byrds
I loved the psychedelic sixties. I emulated its art and fashion. Its mindset. I loved the sit-ins, the peace rallies, the flowers, the unbridled hope for peace and love, man.
And the music. Oh my. How I loved the music.
Holed up in my room, draped in batik fabrics, incense burning, posters of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison adorning my walls. I listened non-stop to The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Cream…
Led Zepplin and Deep Purple sang songs of Mordor and Taliesin, steeped on the Druid-shamanic tradition of Britain.
The Byrds sang the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which describes the natural cycle of life and death, the ebb and flow of the seasons and of life itself.
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven.
Jim Morrison channeled his Native American spirit in those epic songs that really took me places – “ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake, the snake is long, seven miles…” More recently, these lyrics came to me in a journey and guided me along to that very lake.
The Doors were perhaps the most unashamed to embrace the shamanic roots of their lyrical inspiration. Being named for the Aldous Huxley book The Doors of Perception, Jim Morrison was no stranger to journeying, and his songs can take you there.
The Doors of Perception is a short book by Aldous Huxley, first published in 1954, detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. The book takes the form of Huxley’s recollection of a mescaline trip that took place over the course of an afternoon, and takes its title from a phrase in William Blake’s 1793 poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Of course I found this book on dad’s extensive bookshelves, along with a beauty of a book by Colin Wilson called The Outsider which introduced me to many authors of his ilk, and of course the entire Beat generation of writers. Whilst providing a context for my own sense of outsider-ness.
There’s a whole other post in the connection between plant medicine and shamanism, but suffice to say the sixties were a hotbed of opening the ‘doors of perception.’ But like my own experience with psychedelics in my twenties, without sufficient intent and reverence for the plant spirits, it is easy to get lost there.
Did I love this music because it sang of my spirit’s yearnings? Or did the music shape me? Probably both.
I was a star-gazer, a collector of special stones, shells, and leaves, an animal lover. A nature child, happier up a tree or in the ocean than anywhere contrived by humans. Listening again to The Doors perform The End, I hear the undulation of the journey process.
Music is your only friend. Dance on fire as it intends. Jim Morrison
The surrender to the rhythm and vibration. Shamans dance to shake off the anchor of the ego that binds them to this reality. I danced to these songs by candlelight and incense smoke and lost myself to the lyrics of nature love, rocks, stones, flowers, talking to trees and animals.
Do you believe in rock ‘n roll? Can music save your mortal soul? Don McLean
The songs and art, inspired as it was by Indian art, found a seeking soul and guided her home. It was a rocky road at times. My teenage years were a journey through hell. Depression and addiction marked my soul journey through the initiation of the shadow. I sought chemical escape, but without a guide or a clear intention, I merely lost myself. I emerged bruised, broken, and emptied out to be a hollow bone.
It was not long after our early human ancestors developed the capacity for language that music began to develop as well. There is something about music that connects us more deeply to each other and the world than language could ever articulate. Jason Kirkey
You may think it’s a stretch of the imagination that the psychedelic music of the sixties led me to shamanism, but to a person of a shamanic culture this would not seem strange. Music, both as sound and a storytelling device plays a major role in shamanic cultures, especially in the oral transmission of stories in the European culture.
The presence of the spiritual in music is something recognized by all ancient cultures. Celtic mythological sources are full of references to music in relation to the spiritual and the Otherworld. Music serves as an archetype in the sense that it is a recurring mythopoetic theme or “image” pointing to a collective experience of the human soul. In Celtic mythology this theme is music as a doorway or threshold to the Otherworld, and the transformation towards wholeness that comes with such an encounter. Jason Kirkey
The first grade of druidry is the bardic grade, where the initiate learns to recite stories, poems, and songs as a way to convey knowledge and evoke a blurring of the boundaries between this world and the other. The Australian aboriginals have their song lines, where they literally sing the land. And the Irish had their place name stories called the Dinnsheanchas.
Ireland has a great store of traditional music and there is a great diversity of style and nuance. Each region has a distinctive tradition. One can hear the contours of the landscape shape the tonality and spirit of the music. The memory of the people is echoed in the music. John O’Donohue
So while it’s a stretch , it’s not a completely unfounded one.
In shamanism an important journeying tool, used to connect with one’s spirit allies, is a power song. My power song came after keening an Ani De Franco song repeatedly while the ocean’s waves crashed over me. I was utterly heartbroken at the time, and the complete annihilation of ego brought on by this devastation opened me up to the elements in a visceral way.
This experience could be seen as sacrilegious to some – a spiritual awakening via popular music, indeed! – or as a demonstration that music still carries at its essence the transformative power to shift us into another world.
Music plays the central role in Celtic soul-restoration, forming the most subtle net to help the soul parts reassemble. Caitlin Matthews
The music, the foray into mind-altering chemicals, was all part of my initiation into spirituality.
My dad, who has been such a powerful influence in my life, is in and out of hospital now. He has such strong will, but I know that won’t keep him going forever. In shamanism, there is a great many practices that address all of life’s transitions, inducing death. So this morning I listened to the most recent lesson from the Shamanic Journeying course I am doing online with Sandra Ingerman.
Words cannot express my gratitude that I will have these skills to assist dad. How beautiful that I have already done a power animal retrieval for him, I told him what his animal was and he grinned from ear to ear – he bears an uncanny resemblance to said animal. He doesn’t have a clue about this stuff, and yet at some level his spirit knew and was gladdened.
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind? Led Zeppelin
Now I can tell him that when his the comes there’ll be a loving spirit there to guide him across the boundary between worlds. It will be someone who has passed over that he loves and trusts. How beautiful is that? And I don’t say it from blind faith or wishful thinking. I say it because I have met these spirits myself. And because for tens of thousands of years, spirit has been helping us make these transitions, if we only knew how to connect with them.
Death as a rite of passage, a conscious transition, in comfort and peace. With loving guidance.
In the Celtic traditions, spirals symbolise so many aspects of life, and the circle is a metaphor in almost all shamanic cultures. Nature moves in cycles, seasons, days, shamanic cultures have always revered these cycles, for survival yes, but also the wisdom of recycling life, not becoming fixed or attached to anything, “to everything turn, turn, turn…”
As I share my Dad’s last years on this plane, I have reflected much on all he has shown me. He has always been a man who embraced all the abundance of life. Wracked with disability and health issues from birth, his irrepressible spirit saw him make a dream life for himself, travel, education, family and a heart-led career. He became editor of his own journal, the only option for a frustrated writer in the pre-blog world!
Now, it is my turn, all that he has shown me has contributed to who I am today. My responsibility is to be courageous, to not hold back on the burgeoning worlds I am experiencing. To be brave and open and trust that I can can use these otherworldly guides to navigate this transition.
So in answer to my own question, I guess I’m okay to call this shamanism. It seems a little arbitrary to name it anything, given that it has been a part of me long before I knew it to even name it. I have always bucked against organised religion, and naming this feels a step in that direction. However naming it also opens me up to a wonderful community of fellow practitioners. The important thing though, it not what I call it, but the very tangible results it produces in my life, and the lives of others.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you. Gaelic Blessing
Cead Mile Beannachta! (One hundred thousand blessings)