The Shamanic Flight of the Soul: Visiting Other Worlds
It is somewhat presumptuous to disdain or condemn as fake that which does not appear likely.
–Michel de Montaigne
Shamanic journeying, or the flight of the soul, is one of the central shamanic techniques, traditionally used by shamans to communicate with the spiritual world; a world believed by shamans to be full of knowledge, guidance and power. The shamanic journey is filled with mystery, and despite its ancient history, is little understood in Western culture. Shamans are highly respected members of their tribes and their commanding, communicating, and interceding with the spirits that visit them in their journeys is for the benefit of the community at large. Nowadays, shamanic journeying has become more widely known thanks to pioneering work by anthropologist Michael Harner. It is now used in psychotherapy, taught in workshops and other settings, and so it has become possible for a layman like me to explore this magical world.
To facilitate a shamanic journey monotonous trance-inducing drumming, or the playing of other instruments like the didgeridoo or rattle, in combination with a dark environment, is used as a form of sensory deprivation. (By some considered to be more effective as a method of reaching an altered state of consciousness than the widely used Ganzfeld technique in parapsychology.) This trance is used to enter an apparently parallel and co-existing environment filled with separate entities, which influence the everyday world of the senses.
The Ganzfeld technique is used to test individuals for extrasensory perception (ESP).
Does there really exist such an other world? For the shaman, without doubt, there does. According to them, beyond the Middle World where normal life is lived, there are two other worlds: the heavenly realms of the Upper World, where spirit teachers reside and where higher education and healing are received, and the Lower World, populated with power animals, who give guidance and knowledge on life and the self. The shamans truly are explorers and partners with the Other realms, they do not doubt the existence of spirits or any of the information they receive.
Should we take the shaman’s claims seriously? The verdict of the sceptics is a definite no: every word received is a mistaken projection, and the soul-flight is dismissed as flagrant self-deception at best and psychosis at worst.
There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.
I myself, have always leaned towards the camp of the sceptic, and have never taken the shamanistic world view too seriously. Although I have read and heard stories from people experiencing discarnate entities by the use of the strong psychedelic Ayahuasca (see the documentary Other Worlds or David Luke’s article Discarnate Entities and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): Psychopharmacology, Phenomenology, and Ontology), I have never had such an experience myself that I would consider to be real, and doubted them to be more than mental projections. My own experiences that I would consider to be spiritual always fell within the mystical traditions of the East, where the non-dual experience of reality is central. The most profound transformations came about by the use of psychoactive substances or sleep deprivation, but have never entailed communication with ‘spirits’.
When I heard that an experiential group work session of my study would entail shamanic journeying (which was completely new to me at the time), I was afraid that nothing would happen to me, unless we would take a kind of drug, and that the days would be filled with annoyance over my inability to experience such matters, and aversion towards those who could and would share their stories enthusiastically. Considering the fact that I have always been an avid supporter of philosophies that state that the world is yours to create and that your own ideas and beliefs shape reality, my stance was self-defeating, and I knew it.
The scientist who would explore the topic of consciousness … must be willing to risk being transformed in the process of exploration.
Abraham Maslow calls this type of self-limiting beliefs the “Jonah Complex”: the fear of success and the unwillingness to believe in your own capacities. Looking back, I would diagnose myself with a severe case of it. Soon enough though, this initial scepticism about my own abilities would be shattered.
A group of students including myself partook in the shamanic journeying event under the guidance of Deena O’Brien, counsellor and shamanic practitioner. She started with a short lecture on the world view of the shamans where we learned about the different worlds and the Tree of Life [Axis Mundi] which connects those three realms (see Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer by Joan Halifax)
We were told to imagine this Tree of Life, which can also be symbolized as a ladder or a cave, as a gateway to the Upper and Lower worlds. First, Deena called in the spirits of the four directions by using a rattle, and later the monotonous drumming would start in separate sessions of 20 minutes. I was convinced that some sensory deprivation and a bit of hypnotic suggestion by “calling in the spirits” would not do much for me. But I decided to partake and I was open to whatever was going to happen.
The Shaman is a self-reliant explorer of the endless mansions of a magnificent hidden universe.
In the journeys during the weekend the objectives were exploring the spiritual worlds, meeting our power animals and spirit teachers, and we tried to get answers to personal questions. The first journey to the Lower World was a most unexpected and thoroughly remarkable experience for me. Here’s a summary:
You can probably imagine that it must be quite interesting to meet a caterpillar that slowly turns into a butterfly that shows you around in a world full of mythical creatures. Every question I asked was answered by filling the heart with bliss. In shamanic journeying the information will come through a sense of “knowingness,” a kind of sixth sense that is beyond seeing or any of the other single senses. The experience was not as vivid as in the image; it did not change ordinary imagination that much, but the feeling tone and feeling quality was significantly altered. All my sceptical worries of the morning were completely dissolved. I had lightened up considerably.
After the drumming stopped I opened my eyes and two questions arose immediately: What was the ontological status of this world I experienced? Or in normal language: what was the nature of this experience? And secondly, does it matter?
In the case of the first question it was of no use to ask my caterpillar-turned-butterfly itself (if you want to know what animal signifies what you can visit Power Animal Meanings by clicking here), which I did, the only thing it could say was “just relax; it does not matter”. Other students who have asked their power animals about their ontological status received answers like “I am a part of you”, “I am a part of God”, or “I am Argon from the seventh plane”, so asking the animals themselves is not particularly helpful.
In his book The Spirit of Shamanism: A Psychological View Roger Walsh does have a theory on the nature of the experience: he states that a cognitive schema involving ones expectations and an “evolving cosmological framework” exist prior to the shamanic journey. Roger Walsh maintains that I would not have travelled to the Lower World if the facilitator did not explain this concept to me before. Walsh bases this constructivist view on the phenomenological differences between shamanic states that are consistent with their specific cultural milieu.
Since transpersonal psychologists acknowledge the possibility of realms of the mind that transcend our everyday egoic awareness, they might interpret the experience not as separate entities (or subpersonalities as other psychologists might do), but as transcendent aspects of the psyche “above and beyond” the ego (e.g., as aspects of the ‘wider self’ of William James; the ‘Higher Self’ of Roberto Assagioli; the ‘highest self’ of Abraham Maslow; the Self of Carl Jung, or the inner witness in Yoga and Eastern traditions). As said, shamans themselves tend to be realists regarding the journey. This means that for them, the soul flight is real, objective and independent of the shaman’s mind-body state. In my experience there was definitely such a realist core, something that did not come forth out of my expectations or beliefs about the experience.
Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. Our fires are dampened, our drafts are checked; we are making use of only a small part of our mental and physical resources.
How could I possibly make all this mystical creatures up? I did definitely not expect a caterpillar-turned-butterfly to be my power animal, if I expected to see anything at all in the first place. And how can you possibly explain the agreements in symbolic content of the persons who played hide and seek with their power animals in later journeys? I think we have to make up our own minds about the nature of the process and the sources of information.
Here, we arrive at the second question: does it matter? Does it matter what the nature of our experience was? I would answer, though slightly hesitantly, with “no”. I do not care too much about the explanations or rationalizations of the experience. As the pioneering Western psychologist William James states, the person who undergoes such a spiritual experienceneeds no articulate reasons, but forms a justification in itself. What matters, is that for me, it was really meaningful. The ontological status of the inner world is not the issue here, the healing and letting go of old beliefs and fears is.
A single decisive spiritual experience may undo a whole edifice of reasoning and conclusions erected by the logical intelligence.
Especially the symbolic explanations of my power animal about my scepticism, and where the nagging feeling came from, were truly meaningful. The butterfly showed me by feelings in my body, and his own movement, that scepticism comes forth out of thinking about things that are far away and irrelevant to the here and now. When the animal flew far away I felt cold and alone, and when it landed in my heart I had extremely pleasant subtle sensations all over my body. The animal showed me to stay with my own heart, my own gut feelings, and not escape from them by denying my own experience.
To conclude, the journeying taught me that I underestimated myself and my own (?) creativity and inner wisdom, resources that are hidden beneath the surface of every human being. I escaped from my capacities, but the shamanic journey grounded me firmly in new possibilities, and showed me not to run from emotions but to dance with them. Shamans were the pioneers to explore and apply these resources and I am truly grateful that we received the opportunity to get a glimpse of their magical world.
It is possible to go on a shamanic journey in your own room. To do that put on headphones and follow the instructions of the video below (imagine going into a cave or other entrance while the drumming starts and try to meet your power animal by asking what comes up if it is your animal, if it is it will traditionally make a gesture of three turns which signifies “yes, I am your power animal”). Better yet is to find your own professional facilitator and organise a journey under the guidance of someone who knows what’s up. And make sure to check out Michael Harner’s website http://www.shamanism.org/ or for UK see www.shamanism.co.uk.