Shamanic cultures lived with one foot in this world and one in the shamanic worlds – they understood the worlds run parallel. These days though, we are generally hugely disconnected from that knowledge and way of being.
When we learn to reconnect with the shamanic worlds, we experience this deep interconnectedness and that everything is alive and sentient and can be communicated with. Then, when we come back, that awareness can stay with us and we begin to experience this reality too in a more connected way.
So, let’s look at what our modern-day human disconnection is and why it happened:
Our hunter-gatherer, animist ancestors lived as an interconnected part of nature, not apart from it. They experienced nature as a dynamic, living entity. In contrast, in modern times, our experience is usually quite different:
- Domestication of nature: Even if we go out into nature, we’re often no longer truly in the wild. The world has very few genuinely wild places left; it has been domesticated and tamed in most places.
- Distractions in nature: When in nature, we often get distracted by our phones or other people, barely really noticing anything around us.
- Lost knowledge: We lack knowledge about the natural world. Even if we do notice something like moss or lichen, we might not know what it is, or its healing properties, unlike hunter-gatherers who had a deep understanding.
- Lack of recognition of sentience: We struggle to recognize the sentience of our environment. We mostly experience the world around us as “things”, only some of which we think of as even being alive. By contrast, our ancestors experienced the world around them as full of living, sentient beings. Or as the writer Graham Harvey says in his book Animism: Respecting the Living World, “A community of living persons, only some of whom are human”.
SENTIENCE IS NOT THE SAME AS SELF-AWARENESS
In an interesting experiment to try to measure sentience, scientists put a sticker on the forehead of various animals and then showed them a mirror. If you do this with humans, of course, they recognise themselves in the mirror, and that there is something on “their” forehead. The experiment showed that our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, do the same. Interestingly, some other animals, such as crows and ravens, can do this too. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, slugs and mice do not (nor do carrots!). The conclusion drawn was that animals who don’t recognise themselves in a mirror are not sentient. Actually though, the experiment is inherently biased. It doesn’t measure sentience, but human (or human-like) self-awareness.
Animists understand all beings are sentient. Some (most) are sentient though in a less self-centred way than humans. Instead, to varying degrees, they have a more collective sentience (arguably, an even greater sentience than our limited self-centred awareness).
As humans, our animist ancestors obviously had a high degree of self-sentience. However, they also retained a higher degree of collective-sentinece than most modern-day humans. They felt and recognised the sentience of all the other-than-human beings around them too, even the mountains and the waterfalls, and experienced themselves as a connected part of this larger whole.
WHY RECOGNIZING THE SENTIENCE OF ALL BEINGS MATTERS
As you read this, you may be thinking, “So what?” You might even believe that the way people experienced the world in the past was childish or primitive, and that we are superior now. And that we have gained scientific knowledge and are now capable of great technological feats. However, it’s worth considering what has happened since we became obsessed with this physical world and denied the existence of other realms.
Modern “civilisation” for all its benefits, has come with costs too. It has led to us becoming disconnected from the aliveness of the world around us. We now treat the rest of the world as “things”, denying their right to live and their own agency. Together with the idea of human supremacy, this has led to the Anthropocene extinction, where the extinction rates of animals and plants are 20 to 200 times higher than normal levels, due to human activity. If we continue on this path, we could wipe out the majority of all other species on the planet, including ourselves as a result. Despite our arrogance and sense of superiority, this is clearly far from intelligent.
Furthermore, in modern times, we live in a loneliness epidemic and a mental health crisis. In losing the connection with the other worlds, and our sense of connection with the whole and our healthy place in the world around us, we’ve lost so much. We’ve lost our way.
Before exploring how we can do this, we need to understand more about the nature of our disconnection.
THE NATURE OF OUR SEPARATENESS
OUR LEFT-BRAIN SEIZED CONTROL
Obviously, a certain amount of separation and some sense of self is essential to function in society and the world in general, so of course hunter-gatherers had a sense of self.
When the first city-state cultures began to emerge though (what we call “civilisation”), the left hemisphere of our brains became dominant. This half of our brains is obsessed with the physical world and self. It suppressed the right hemisphere of our brain – the side that is more concerned with empathy and connection.
You may already be familiar with this through the work of the brilliant and renowned academic Ian McGilchrist, including his seminal work The Master and His Emissary. In a similar vein, Steve Taylor in his book Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Mind talks about our modern brains being seized by what he calls “egomania”.
The point is that, in modern “civilisation”, most people live and experience the world in a way that is separated, boxed-off, materialistic, mechanistic, deadened, and soul-less.
To understand more, let’s delve into what modern physics refers to as “collapsing the wave potential”.
COLLAPSING THE WAVE POTENTIAL
In the “double slit” experiment, physicists shot an electron at a sheet of metal with two slits in it. Famously, the experiment showed that, at a quantum level, the electron can exist in two different states. In one state, it’s a wave and can pass through both slits simultaneously.
But a weird thing happens when the electron is observed. It becomes a single physical thing, a single particle. Then, it can only pass through one slit at a time. This is known as “collapsing the wave potential” – the electron’s options, its potentials, are now boxed off and it has become a single, more physical thing.
Shamans have always understood that this is the nature of the physical middle-world. In the physical world, things are relatively more separate than they are in the shamanic realms. To become physical, things have to separate off to a degree, and become “this thing” as opposed to “that thing”. That’s part of the nature of the middle-world, and that’s fine.
OUR SENSE OF SEPARATION IS REFLECTED IN OUR LANGUAGE – “A RIVER” vs. “BEING A RIVER”
In her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, botanist, indigenous North American, and exceptional author, devotes a chapter to the subject of language. She was brought up not actually speaking her original indigenous tongue and during the process of learning it as an adult, she was amazed to find how it is characterized by interconnectedness and fluidity, in contrast to the boxed-off and deadened nature of American English. She provides an example to illustrate this point:
It wasn’t only that animist cultures used more interconnected language because they experienced the world in a more interconnected way. The language we use shapes our experience as well. It’s like a two-way process.
HOW WE CAN REGAIN OUR SENSE OF CONNECTION
Shamanism, the practical application of animism, provides a highly effective and learnable set of practices. Over time, these allow us to regain our lost sense of connection, and experience the world (and ourselves) as vibrantly alive again.
There are many ways to do this. A good starting point is to learn to look for places where we can experience more connection. These are the “betwixt-and-between places”; the cracks between separation that allow us to enter the more interconnected realms. There are many such places, and they play a central role in shamanic practice.
Example 1: AXIS MUNDI
The Axis Mundi – the starting point for shamanic journeys. Literally, it means “centre of the worlds,” with Axis meaning centre and Mundi meaning world; a place in nature where the physical reality and the unseen worlds meet.
The veils separating the worlds are thinner in these places, making it easier to enter the shamanic realms. That’s why in Therapeutic Shamanism, we begin our shamanic journeys at one of these places. Interestingly, you may have already noticed these places. They may have been calling to you, without you having realised what they are. Just think of a natural place you love and find intriguing, such as a favourite rock or tree, or a clearing in a forest, or a cave. These places exist all over the natural world.
Ideally, the Axis Mundi needs to be an actual, real physical place in this middle world rather than just a place in your imagination. Because if it isn’t, it’s not connecting this physical reality up, defeating the whole point of the Axis Mundi being a place where the worlds come together.
Also, it needs to be a place in nature, not human-made. Human-made places tend to be cluttered and murky, which can get in the way. For example, if you’re seeking a path to the Lower-World, it’s best to choose a natural opening, such as a gap under a tree’s roots, a cave, or a pool of water to dive into. These natural locations will enable you to access the Lower-World more easily than a human-made location such as a drain or sewer. Therefore, ideally, the Axis Mundi is a real and natural place.
People wonder if they’re limited to one specific Axis Mundi. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to switch it up and experiment, as different Axis Mundies tend to bring different flavours to the journey.
Example 2: TRANSITIONS AND RITES OF PASSAGE
All indigenous cultures understood that kids are born with a strong sense of individuality. They also understood that becoming a healthy adult means transcending that childhood self-centeredness. They also understood that the process is not automatic – there needs to be a deliberately managed transition – a rite of passage – to shock us out of childhood and help us grow up. Animist cultures understood the importance, power and necessity of managing these transitions well.
In modern times, this knowledge has become largely lost. Some pockets of it can be found though, although in a diminished way. For example, in humanist psychotherapy, people like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and others, talk about a “fully functioning person”, or an “actualized person”. In these descriptions, we can see a lot of the qualities that our animist ancestors would have recognised as more truly adult, with a crucial difference though. In animist cultures, to become fully adult, meant being deeply connected to the other-than-human as well as the human world. Without that, in hunter-gatherer terms, you are at best a healthy adolescent.
Consequently, in the modern era, most “grown-up” people are effectively still children or functioning adolescents at best. The sad truth is we live in a culture that is mostly made up of children in adult bodies. True Adults are very rare these days (and true Elders even more so).
And it wasn’t just adulthood. Animist cultures had powerful ceremonies for any transitions: for pregnancy, for births, for becoming an elder, for marriage, for divorce, for death, for all sorts of things. Central to the cultures was managing these transition periods because they recognised the power of them, the need for them. The anthropologist Van Gennep coined the term “rites of passage” for them, and identified three phases in them and how they were managed. They are another example of the betwixt-and-between places that our animist and shamanic cultures so understood and recognised.
In the first phase, you were separated from what was familiar. Different cultures would use different methods, but your normality, the things you had up to now taken for granted, would be deliberately disrupted. For example, you might have been told to wear your clothes back to front or inside out, to stand up when everybody else sat down and sit down when everybody else stood up, or to walk backwards, or to shout when everyone else was being quiet. Or the whole community would just ignore you as if you no longer existed, as if you were a ghost nobody could see. This phase might also involve things like prolonged periods of fasting, sleep deprivation, prolonged physical exertion such as dancing, running or jumping. All designed to shock you out of the ordinary and into an altered state of consciousness, and into the unknown. In a sense, they were un-collapsing the wave potential – making the initiate less fixed and more open and pliable again. More connected to the other worlds again.
The second phase, transition, is the most mysterious one. It is sometimes called the “liminal” phase. In it, everything is full of potential, flux, and interconnectedness. It is a place full of potentials, where almost anything can happen. That’s why this was very carefully managed in these cultures. In it, you were essentially taken apart and reformed, like a pupa in a chrysalis.
In the third phase, reincorporation, you were welcomed back into the society, but transformed and with a new role and place. This would involve ceremonies, but also being given lots of new teaching and knowledge so that you could fully take your place in your new role.
Example 3: BETWIXT AND BETWEEN PLACES IN PSYCHOTHERAPY
Any psychotherapy that works at depth is not just about techniques, practices, knowledge or information. It is also a deeply relational practice because, most of the time, what takes people into therapy are human relational wounds.
Initially, people usually come to therapy with a lot of content and stories (“he did this, and then I said that” sort of stuff). Whilst important, if we just stick with the surface content, though, the underlying issues will remain unacknowledged and unresolved. One way to go deeper is to notice the gaps or inconsistencies between what is being said and how it’s being said. This gap, this betwixt-and-between place, can act like a mini Axis Mundi – leading us deeper and towards lasting change and insights and, at least potentially, towards finding our soul and truer self.
And whilst shamanism and psychotherapy are different, if psychotherapy does go beneath the surface and into the depths of these betwixt-and-between places, then (for anyone who is open-minded) there can be a lot of interesting degrees of overlap between shamanism and psychotherapy that can be explored.
REGAINING OUR SENSE OF INTERCONNECTION
Because of the state we are in these days, regaining our sense of interconnectedness needs to be at the heart of any modern-day shamanic and animist practices. This is where understanding the significance, potency, and potential of the liminal spaces that exist in between things can come in.
OVERCOMING HUMAN CONSTRUCTS OF SEPARATION
Shamanic practices provide access points to shamanic realms where one can experience the vast interconnectedness beneath physical reality. However, individuals may still bring a sense of self and separation to this experience. They may think, “Now I am experiencing being a tree” when in reality, they are still doing so from an individual and human perspective. To overcome this means going deeper and learning to experience without identifying solely as an individual self. Over time, this perception shift loosens one’s attachment to separation and self-identity. The more one experiences this interconnectedness in the shamanic realms, and lack of self, the less one holds onto the sense of one’s separateness even upon returning to this reality.
Consider your human body for a moment. You have more gut bacteria than human cells; without them, you would not survive. Who are you then? Your “human” cells or your gut bacteria? Moreover, the mitochondria in each cell of your body reproduce separately from your “human” DNA. They are different organisms, which our single-celled ancient pre-human ancestors developed a symbiotic relationship with. Who are you, then? The human DNA or the mitochondria? In reality, you are not an individual but an ecosystem, an ecology of beings. Indeed, the more one begins to delve deeper into the concept of self, the more it vanishes.
Most people think of forests as primarily being groups of trees. The reality though is a forest is a complex ecology, an interdependence of beings. For example, trees need fungi to break down the leaves they shed, in order to reabsorb the nutrients, provide soil for the roots to grow in, And without the mycelial fungal network between the roots, a forest is weak as the trees us it to communicate and cooperate with each other; sending messages to warn other trees when they are under attack, to pass on nutrients to help a tree that is sick, or even to help their offspring grow into adulthood (all explored beautifully in the research scientist Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, for example). When looked at this way, the “individual” trees, fungi, and other organisms in a forest are parts of a larger whole, like cells in a larger living organism. In this sense, the indigenous “Being a Forest” is a much more accurate description than “A Forest”.
In this culture, we have the mistaken idea that a healthy adult is an independent being. Instead, our animist ancestors understood that a healthy adult is an interdependent being: someone who gets how much they are actually part of a community, a twig on a branch of a much bigger tree. For a twig to declare its “independence” would be both nonsensical and suicidal, and ultimately, damaging to the tree too. Yet this is precisely what we have been doing – acting as if we are separate from nature (even “above” it) and thinking we are clever and grown up for doing so.
It’s really not going well. Not for us, nor for the wider-than-human community that we are actually a part of. It’s time for us to grow up and fix this.
SHAMANIC JOURNEYING TO BETWIXT-AND-BETWEEN PLACES
Through shamanic journeying, one can actually experience this interconnectedness instead of merely understanding it on an intellectual level.
Exploring betwixt-and-between places in shamanic journeys takes us to the mysterious power of the borderlands and their inhabitants, and the significance of moving between the Worlds and how this can transform us in turn. Our course Betwixt-and-Between: the Cracks Between the Worlds, includes things like:
- An exploration of the Shoreline as a place between Land and Sea, and its gifts of healing and teaching.
- The descent into Fire and the Under-World beneath the surface.
- Moving from being Earth-bound to the Air and the Sky.
- The shamanic healing medicine and teaching of some of the Animals that live in these betwixt-and-between places, including Birds and Insects, and creatures of the Shorelines.
- And from psychotherapy, Eugine Gendlin’s easy-to-learn Focusing technique, as another way to move between the surface of things in our everyday life, and explore the rich and meaningful liminal world that lies underneath.
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN
THE CRACKS BETWEEN THE WORLDS
Dates: 2023 – March 4, 11, 18, 25, April 1, 15
Saturday, 4 pm start (UK time), 3.5 – 4 hours each
This course can help you overcome the experience that shamanic work is something separate from your everyday reality and help you integrate your shamanic practice as an inseparable part of your daily life.