To understand what shamanic journey is and where we journey to, we first need to look at shamanic consciousness and the shamanic realms.
Shamanism experiences the world as alive and conscious (albeit conscious in a way that may be quite different to human consciousness). It recognises that, not just humans, but all things have a soul – a life-force and consciousness.
ORDINARY REALITY AND SHAMANIC REALITY
If everything is alive and conscious, this raises the possibility that
everything can be communicated with. To see how this might be done,
we need to explore more about what this consciousness is, and how
things come into being.
Shamanism tells us that there is another, deeper reality behind this day-to-day, physical one. These days, modern physics agrees. In his book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, David Bohm, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, talks about the difference between everyday physical reality, which he calls the ‘explicate’ and a deeper level of reality that he calls the ‘implicate’.
Putting it another way, the physical matter in everyday reality is organised and held together from the patterns (or blueprints) in the deeper reality. Shamans have long understood and described the difference between these two worlds.
This ability to be aware of both levels of reality is central to shamanic practice. In fact, shamanism is sometimes described as having ‘one foot in this world and one in the other’. Or, sometimes, as ‘walking between the worlds’.
Having one foot in this world and one in the other is very important. Shamans recognise that having both feet stuck permanently in either reality is a form of madness. And most people in the modern world have both feet firmly in this surface, ordinary reality, and have forgotten that shamanic reality even exists (hence the insanity of much of human modern-day culture).
So too though, having both feet in shamanic reality all the time is not shamanism, but would be psychosis! Rather, to live shamanically is to be aware of both realities, and to be able to move between them at will.
I read a story about a young Westerner who had gone to stay with a tribe somewhere, to find a shamanic teacher. He could not find what he was looking for, someone who seemed, to his Western eyes, to be ‘the real deal’.
One day he said to the villagers that he was going to set off and just walk across the desert, and not stop until his teacher appeared. The villagers warned him that he was risking his life, but that it was his choice. So, he set off, with the villagers not knowing if they would ever see him again.
A few days later, he came back to the village very excited, saying he had found his shamanic teacher. The villagers were curious and asked him who the teacher was. The Westerner said ‘Oh, he’s amazing. He talks to trees’. The villagers said: ‘Oh, him. Actually, he’s not a shaman. He’s just mad because he doesn’t know when to stop talking to trees. Talking to trees is all he does’.
SHAMANIC JOURNEY – ENTERING THE SHAMANIC REALITY
Whilst shamanic people live with the sense of both ordinary reality and shamanic reality being side-by-side, there are times when they choose to deliberately and temporarily immerse themselves more fully in shamanic reality; to enter one of the shamanic realms and go on a shamanic journey.
A SHAMANIC STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
This involves entering an altered state of consciousness. It is a particular kind of altered state, known as ‘Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC)’. It is characterised by high levels of theta brainwaves. High theta brainwave levels are also characteristic of other deep meditative states too, and also are present when we are immersed in being artistic or creative.
The shamanic trance state itself can be very light or very deep. It can be as light as a daydream, something that we can easily snap out of. Or it can be very deep indeed, where the shaman loses all connection with ordinary reality. Or it can be somewhere in between.
VENTURING INTO SHAMANIC REALITY
There are many ways of venturing into this trance state to enter shamanic realms, including dancing, or other repetitive rhythmic movements, singing and chanting, fasting, and the use of hallucinogenic plants. Most common though is the use of the shamanic drum and rattle.
For shamanic journeying, the drum is used in a very particular way. It is usually played at somewhere between 200 to 240 beats a minute – so around about 4 beats per second or slightly slower. This rhythm has a particular effect on the human brain. Research has shown that as little as ten minutes of shamanic drumming can produce the same level of theta brainwaves as two hours of transcendental meditation!
As well as the effect on the brain of playing the drum at that particular speed, shamanic drums are also deliberately tuned in a way that produces a lot of overtones and undertones. The human brain has trouble processing these, and so starts to fill things in and ‘make things up’. When listening to a shamanic drum then, after a while it is common to start hearing not just the drum, but chanting, pan-pipes, whistling, singing, bird-calls, other drummers, and all sorts of other sounds.
In addition to this, overtones and undertones tend to produce synaesthesia, which is where the senses become crossed over. So, the drum sounds start to be perceived as colours and visual images, sensations, smells, and even tastes. This further aids the shamanic journey, in making it a rich multisensory experience. In this way, the shamanic drums are a beautifully crafted piece of technology, perfected over thousands of years, and used worldwide to enter a rich meditative state.
SHAMANIC REALITY AND THE THREE SHAMANIC REALMS
It is common to experience shamanic reality as being divided into three distinct shamanic realms when journeying. These are known as the Upper-World, the middle-world, and the Lower-World.
The three shamanic realms are quite different to each other. Each realm has distinct qualities and different ‘inhabitants’. Each realm needs a different set of skills from the journeyer and a different awareness and approach. So, learning to journey involves learning to recognise the feel of each realm, and knowing what signs to look for to know which realm you are in at any given point in a journey. This is of crucial importance when it comes to good shamanic practice. To journey well, it is vitally important to know what realm you are in at any given time, so that you can act accordingly.
Whilst both the Upper-World and Lower-World being places of love and healing, the middle-world is not always a safe place, and so not the best place to start when learning how to journey shamanically.
WE CLOTHE OUR EXPERIENCE IN IMAGES and symbols WE UNDERSTAND
Before I explain what each shamanic realm looks like, it is important to say that shamanic reality is as strange as quantum reality (in some ways, it is quantum reality). Our human brains simply are not equipped to be able to perceive it, understand it, and process it as it really is. So, to make any kind of sense of what we are perceiving, we have to ‘clothe’ what we see in images or metaphors that we can make sense of. Inevitably then, the images that we use to describe shamanic reality will vary, from culture to culture (and from individual to individual).
Because of this, our journeys are ‘mythos’ and not ‘logos’ They are not to be taken as a literal, surface truth, but as something representing a deeper kind of truth.
The Upper-World has an ethereal quality to it, which can make it feel vague and insubstantial when you first journey there, until you get used to it. It can feel a bit floaty, a bit wispy, and spacious to the point of appearing almost empty sometimes.
There is an amazing quality to the light. Colours, smells and sounds are beautiful. There is a palpable sense of majesty and awe. There is usually very little nature, and what nature there is tends to be formal gardens of some kind, although there are often mountains too. Otherwise, mostly it is filled with beautiful awe-inspiring buildings such as temples, cathedrals, monasteries, and even fairy-tale castles. Animals are rare, and tend to be mythological ones (Dragon, Pegasus, Griffin etc.). Any people encountered are the kind we might expect – ‘spiritual teachers’, in either human or human-like form.
It is a place where we can go to get a bigger perspective on things; to ‘rise above’ petty concerns and problems; to get help with transcending our own ego concerns and limitations. Or we can get help and healing in order to be able to align ourselves more with the Upper-World; in a sense, help with coming more from our own ‘higher self ’.
In journeying, the Lower-World appears as pure, unspoilt nature; nature as it was before humans messed with it. There are humans in the lower-world, although they are generally few and far between. All the humans in the Lower-World are living as we used to live, as hunters and gatherers. They live respectfully alongside the other-than-human Peoples (the other Animals, the Plant People, and the Stone People), as part of the web of life. They live a pre-agricultural, shamanic lifestyle, as our human ancestors did for around 200,000 years, before we started farming.
As well as healing any specific wounds or dis-ease we may have as individuals, just being in the Lower-World can be healing in a deep and profound way. It heals the deep sense of loneliness, isolation, and separation that, as modern humans, we nearly all carry − a wound caused by our separation; by our loss of the experience of interconnection. The Lower-World heals this wound, by connecting us back to the web of life.
The middle-world is, of course, where we live and spend most of our time. It is here, this day-to-day reality. Shamanically, there are two aspects to the middle-world. One is the physical world, and the other is energetic. Shamans work with both, and understand the connections between them. This is why shamans can ‘see’ things in this reality that others may not be aware of (hence, one meaning sometimes given to the word ‘shaman’ is ‘one who can see the things that others can not see’).
Both the Upper-World and Lower-World are places of love and healing. Nothing ‘bad’ happens in those shamanic realms. In the physical middle-world though, we can experience pain and disease.
Waking up to the reality of the energetic middle-world can be sobering, disquieting, and sometimes shocking and frightening. For this reason, amongst others, it is not the best place to start one’s shamanic journeying. Which is why, on our courses, we start with helping people get a solid grounding in the other realms first (particularly, developing strong roots in the Lower-World), before moving on to middle-world work.
NONETHELESS, SHAMANIC JOURNEYS TO THE MIDDLE-WORLD ARE CRUCIAL!
Shamanism is sometimes described as a process of ‘waking up’ and facing things as they really are.
As I said, middle-world shamanic journeying can be disturbing at times and in places. In reality though, we are already in the middle-world of course. We are just not seeing it clearly. It is not being aware of what is going on around us (and so, not knowing what to do about it), that is the dangerous state to be in. So, when we are ready, waking up to the reality of what is going on around us is all for the good.
In doing middle-world work though, we need to have our wits about us and not take things at face value. We need to take seriously issues about things like protection and good energy hygiene, and be aware of issues around ethical behaviour too. Plus (very importantly), we need to know our limitations and when we are out of our depth.
FIRST STEPS FIRST!
So yes, doing shamanic middle-world work is indeed important, but only once we are properly ready for it, and able to do it safely. To get to that point requires a firm and solid connection with the Lower and Upper-Worlds first, and that is only acquired by repeatedly journeying in the Lower and Upper shamanic realms.
Ready to start your shamanic journey? Then join our First Steps course. It will equip you with everything you need to start with shamanic journeying, including:
- What is shamanism?
- The history of shamanism and
- How to do a shamanic journey (a step-by-step process)
- How to do retrieval journey and find your own
- Why we nearly lost shamanism, why we need it back and how psychotherapy fits in the process
- The basics of how to do shamanic healing for other people