Shamanism represents a universal conceptual framework found among indigenous tribal humans. It includes the belief that the natural world has two aspects: ordinary everyday awareness, formed by our habitual behaviors, patterns of belief, social norms, and cultural conditioning, and a second non-ordinary awareness accessed through altered states, or ecstatic trance, induced by shamanic practices such as repetitive drumming. The act of entering an ecstatic trance state is called the soul flight or shamanic journey, and it allows the journeyer to view life and life's problems from a detached, spiritual perspective, not easily achieved in a state of ordinary consciousness.
Basically, shamanic journeying is a way of communicating with your inner or spirit self and retrieving information. Your inner self is in constant communication with all aspects of your environment, seen and unseen. You need only journey within to find answers to your questions. You should have a question or objective in mind from the start. Shamanic journeying may be undertaken for purposes of divination, for personal healing, to meet one's power animal or spirit guide, or for any number of other reasons. After the journey, you must then interpret the meaning of your trance experience.
The drum, sometimes called the shaman’s horse, provides a simple and effective way to induce ecstatic trance states. When a drum is played at an even tempo of three to four beats per second for at least fifteen minutes, most novices report that they can journey successfully even on their first attempt. Transported by the driving beat of the drum; the shamanic traveler journeys to the inner planes of consciousness.
According to shamanic cosmology, there are three inner planes of consciousness: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds. Humans did not invent these inner realms; they discovered them. Far from being a human contrivance, these archetypal worlds are inherent in the collective unconscious, the common psychological inheritance of humanity. They are woven into the matrix of the psyche. They are a part of our psyche, a part of us whether we choose to become aware of it or not.
The three realms are linked together by a vertical axis that is commonly referred to as the "World Tree." The roots of the World Tree touch the Lower World. Its trunk is the Middle World and its branches hold up the Upper World. This central axis exists within each of us. Through the sound of the drum, which is invariably made of wood from the World Tree, the shaman is transported to the axis within and conveyed from plane to plane. As Tuvan musicologist Valentina Suzukei explains, "There is a bridge on these sound waves so you can go from one world to another. In the sound world, a tunnel opens through which we can pass-or the shaman's spirits come to us. When you stop playing the drum, the bridge disappears."1
To enter a trance state and support your journey, you will need a drum or a shamanic drumming recording. Shamanic drumming is drumming for the purpose of shamanic journeying. A good shamanic drumming recording should be pulsed at around three to four beats per second. You may also rattle, chant, or sing to induce trance. There is no right or wrong way to journey. Be innovative and try different ways of journeying. Many people need to move, dance, or sing their journeys. My first journeys were supported by listening to a shamanic drumming recording, but now I have stronger journeys when I drum for myself.
For your first journeys, I recommend traveling to the Lower World using the technique taught by Michael Harner. Founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, Harner is widely acknowledged as the world's foremost authority on experiential and practical shamanism. In his book, The Way of the Shaman, Harner suggests that you visualize an opening into the earth that you remember from sometime in your life. The entrance could be an animal burrow, hollow tree stump, cave and so on. When the journey begins, you'll go down the hole and a tunnel will appear. The tunnel often appears ribbed and may bend or spiral around. This tunnel-like imagery is related to the central axis that links the three inner planes of consciousness. Enter the tunnel and you will emerge into the Lower World -- the realm of power animals, spirit guides and ancestral spirits. It is a beautiful, Earth-like dimension, where we can find lost power, retrieve lost souls and connect with animal and plant spirits. Step-by-step instructions for making shamanic journeys are explained in my book The Shamanic Drum.
Imagination is our portal to the spirit world. Internal imagery enables us to perceive and connect with the inner realms. If a shaman wants to retrieve information or a lost guardian spirit, "imagining what to look for" is the first step in achieving any result. According to C. Michael Smith, author of Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue, "The shaman's journey employs the imagination, and the use of myth as inner map gives the shaman a way of imagining non-ordinary reality, so that he or she may move about intentionally in it."2 By consciously interacting with the inner imagery, the shaman is able to communicate with spirit guides and power animals.
Communication in non-ordinary reality is characteristically archetypal, nonverbal and nonlinear in nature. The images we see during a shamanic journey have a universal, archetypical quality. Imagery from these experiences is a combination of our imagination and information conveyed to us by the spirits. Our imagination gives the journey a "container;" which helps us to understand the messages we receive. It provides us with a way to understand and articulate the experience for ourselves and to others. Now that you know the basics, try a shamanic journey.
1. Kira Van Deusen, "Shamanism and Music in Tuva and Khakassia," Shaman's Drum, No. 47, Winter 1997, p. 24.
2. C. Michael Smith, Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) p 16.
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