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What is Shamanic Journeying?

In his classic work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, eminent religious scholar Mircea Eliade defined shamanism as a technique of ecstasy.1 Shamanism is based on the principle that the spiritual world may be contacted through the inner senses in ecstatic trance. It is a great emotional adventure open to whoever wishes to transcend their normal, ordinary definition of reality. The shaman is able to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge and power and to help others.

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."2

The shaman traverses the inner planes in order to create and change experience and to help others do the same. It is an inward spiritual journey of rapture in which the shaman interacts with the inner world, thereby influencing the outer world. In the shaman's world, all human experience is self-generated. Experience is shaped from within since the three realms or resonant fields that define our experience of reality exist within each of us.

The Spirit Journey

The spirit journey is a time-honored shamanic method of inner consultation. It 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. Be prepared, however, for whatever insights you may receive, whether you like them or not.

The spirit journey is not always what people expect, and sometimes there is uncertainty as to what one should experience in altered states. The ecstatic trance is an individual journey into nonordinary reality; therefore, experiences vary from person to person and from journey to journey. Once you enter a trance state, the rhythm or sound of the drum tends to change. The drumbeat may appear to speed up or slow down, while the sound may grow louder, softer, or disappear. You may experience a change in body temperature, feel energy flowing through your body, or find yourself twitching, swaying, or rocking. It is not uncommon to hear sounds or voices. You may even smell specific aromas. You may see colorful patterns, symbolic images, or dreamlike visions. Some people may find that they have a highly developed inner vision while others may rely more on instinct, intuition, or intent.

Prevalent among the descriptions given of shamanic journeys is that of a tunnel or tube to which the shaman is transported. The tunnel sometimes appears ribbed and may bend or spiral around. This tunnel-like imagery is associated with the central axis that unites the three inner planes of consciousness. The shaman is conveyed up or down the tunnel to an exit that opens out upon mystical worlds. In these worlds, the shaman experiences sensations and communications that go beyond the usual senses. Conversing with plants, animals, and the guiding forces of nature becomes possible. The shaman accesses knowledge, power, and healing. Upon finishing the explorations, he or she returns via the tunnel to ordinary reality. It is interesting to note that such tunnel imagery is prevalent among descriptions given of the near-death experience.

During the spirit journey, one's awareness transcends ordinary reality. In journeys to the Lower World, one may experience the sensation of falling, sliding, or spiraling downward into or under the Earth. In Upper World journeys, one may experience the sensation of rising, floating, flying, or spiraling upward through the air or sky. Journeys to the Lower World involve the movement of awareness to a level beneath ordinary reality and Celestial journeys involve movement to a level above ordinary reality. Lower levels are denser, lower in frequency, and more involved with the physical body, the earthly plane, and material reality. Higher levels are higher in frequency, less dense, and subtler.

Understanding Your Journey

It would be advisable to record your journey in a journal as soon as you have returned to ordinary reality. Journeys, like dreams, tend to fade quickly from conscious awareness. Keeping a journal provides a record of your spiritual growth and allows you to reflect upon and better interpret journeys. In some cases, your journey experiences will be clear and easy to understand. At other times, your journey may be dreamlike and full of symbolism. Interpret such journeys as you would any dream. Look for possible associations related to each symbol or image. Don't overanalyze the journey, for its meaning will become clear at the appropriate time.

Not every journey you undertake will necessarily be coherent, vivid, or powerful. Still, no matter how esoteric or random the experience may seem, it augments your shamanic skill and knowledge. Seemingly insignificant events in a journey or vision may manifest in a powerful way in your ordinary state of awareness. Be on the lookout for synchronicities, for they confirm that your shamanic work is producing effects beyond the bounds of probability or coincidence.

Like developing any skill, journeying takes practice. Nothing may happen on your first journeys. You may only experience darkness. When this happens, simply try again at a different time. Step-by-step instructions for making shamanic journeys are explained in my book The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming.

Journey Drumming Recordings

A recent development in shamanic journeywork is the use of compact disc recordings of shamanic drumming. When used with a high quality stereo with optimal bass response, a sympathetic resonance between the drums and the body-consciousness is provided. The effects are similar to those of having a real drum in the room. The healing vibrations of a recording may lack the intensity of the actual drum, yet it allows complete freedom to journey without the necessity of placing part of the conscious mind on the physical aspects of playing a drum. It takes time and practice to relax and allow the intuitive mind to flow, while at the same time maintaining an even rhythmic pattern. Portable compact disc players with headphones allow you to alter your consciousness anywhere and anytime without disturbing others or when using a drum may be impractical. However, one should avoid listening to such recordings while driving a vehicle or operating heavy machinery. There are times when entering altered states is inappropriate, so use discretion.

I recently recorded two CDs to support the listener in making shamanic journeys: Shamanic Journey Drumming and Thunder Beings Journey Drumming. The harmonic overtones and undertones on these digital recordings were produced by a 22-inch single-headed, elk hide; cedar frame drum pulsed at a tempo of three to four-beats-per-second. When pulsed at around four-beats-per-second, rhythmic drumming induces a theta wave cycle in the brain. Theta activity reflects the dreamlike state between wakefulness and sleep. Theta rhythms are associated with meditation, prayer, spiritual awareness, and the deepest states of shamanic consciousness. Theta increases creativity, enhances learning, reduces stress, and awakens intuition. Researchers have found that if a drum beat frequency of around four-beats-per-second is sustained for at least fifteen minutes, most people can journey successfully even on their first attempt. Shamanic drumming continues to offer today what it has offered for thousands of years: namely, a simple and effective technique of ecstasy.


1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
2. Kira Van Deusen, "Shamanism and Music in Tuva and Khakassia," Shaman's Drum, No. 47, Winter 1997, p. 26.

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