The Shamanic Journey

Excerpts from Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, by Tom Cowan. Edited by Gerry Starnes.

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A shaman is an explorer of doorways – doorways from ordinary reality into nonordinary reality, portals leading from the physical world into the spirit world. In Celtic spirituality these are considered “thin places” where the two worlds are in closer contact with each other, where the spirit world flows into the physical world, where spirits and mortals can pass with relative ease. Also known as “power spots,” these places are found all over the world, some secret and personal, others world-famous, such as Stonehenge in England, the Black Hills in South Dakota, the Skellig Islands off the Irish coast, the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. In the history of the human spirit ordinary people, whether ancient or modern, are lured to places where they perceive a greater power, energy, or spiritual force. And when we have felt the transformative and invigorating presence of the invisible powers, we long to experience them again and again, to be back in those realms where eternity meets the temporal world, where we know that there is more to the universe than we can perceive with our physical senses.

What makes a shaman different from other mystics and visionaries is the intentional journey – or soul flight – into the spirit world. In other words, unlike the common perception that mortals must wait for spirits of nature or the dead to make contact – an occurrence that happens more frequently than most people realize – the shaman initiates contact by going directly into the spirits’ world. Rather than waiting for the spirits to visit us, the shaman becomes the visitor into their invisible realms. Because they know the entry points, shamans can cross the borders of ordinary and nonordinary reality at will, enter the spirits’ reality, and develop the skills, understanding, and competence for functioning in that dreamlike world.

Entries into the Otherworld are of two types: portals that “open into the earth” for lower-world journeys and portals that “lead to the other side of the sky” for upper-world journeys. Experiences of entering these portals, finding animal guides and learning the geography of nonordinary reality are at the heart of core shamanic practices.

If you are not a visualizer, you may wonder if you can journey. You can. Many excellent shamanic practitioners claim they very seldom, if at all “see” things on their journeys. But they sense them; they intuitively “know” what is there, where they are, what they are doing. Some report that they see colors or atmospheric shapes and textures, but nothing distinct, and yet they too “know” that within these sensations they are with their power animals and spirit teachers. So although we tend to use the words see, visualize, and image for the sake of convenience, keep in mind that in terms of your own experience, the sensations may be nonvisual.

Some people hear their journeys rather than see them. They hear the voices of spirits, or the “hear” the gist of what their spirits tell them, almost like instantaneous thought transmission.

As you reflect upon the experience of your journey, you will probably be aware that your made yourself do this. You may even have the sensation that you made it up. This is all right because “making the journey begin” means making yourself see or sense things that lead from ordinary reality into nonordinary reality. You are making it happen. There is a difference between making it happen and making it up. You will come to understand this distinction better as you practice.

This is an important phenomenon to consider: the shamanic journey is a combination of intentional and nonintentional experiences and sensations. You can make things happen without making everything up. The shamanic journey is different in this way from a guided meditation or what are called “pathworkings,” in which you are instructed what to see and do.

The most common question people ask when they are learning to journey is whether the are “just making it up” or “is it really happening?” as if there must be a contradiction between the two. There need be no contradiction. Because you are in control of the journey, you can make things happen; your intention determines much that occurs in the journey. But because you have entered another reality, the spirit world, you are not totally in control and cannot determine everything that occurs. The spirits are autonomous; the nonordinary places and events of the shamanic journey exist in a dimension where we are only visitors, not rulers.

So be prepared for your first journey or your thousandth journey to “feel” less spontaneous than you wish. On the other hand, your first or thousandth journey may be the most spontaneous you will ever have. The point here is simply that because we are walking in two worlds at once, we can never predict which world – that is, which state of consciousness – will dominate. But fortunately the spirits can work with us in any state of consciousness, so they can give us the relevant information or instruction regardless of how we feel about the authenticity of any given journey.

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