What is a shamanic journey?
One of the most important tools of shamanism is called a journey. Journeying is an invaluable tool for accessing the deep inner wisdom of our ancestors and the Spirit that lives in all things. It allows one to access intuitive and instinctual information that is often blocked by ego and the entrenched and unexamined beliefs and assumptions of our prevailing culture. By tapping into the larger field of Non-Ordinary Reality, the practitioner can find new ways to understand any situation, resolve seemingly unresolvable inner and external conflicts, and access information that the linear, belief bound mind could never resolve.
Shamanic journeying has been a common practice in indigenous cultures throughout history. A shamanic practitioner’s ability to retrieve vital information is achieved by going into an altered state of consciousness, beyond time and space, to travel into other realms of reality. It is a process that can empower us to find wholeness, balance and harmony in our work and personal lives. This process of direct revelation allows us to retrieve helpful information and guidance from what shamans call helping spirits.
There are many different ways to journey. It takes practice, but everyone has the capacity to enter this state of awareness and use these techniques. Shamans enter other realms, generally referred to as the Lower, Middle, and Upper worlds to access information. Typically, practitioners use some sort of percussion instrument like a drum or rattle to move from our normal beta state of consciousness, into an alpha or relaxed state and then into a theta state. This theta state is what allows practitioners to enter the invisible realms where we can connect with our spirit guides and power animals. With practice, focus and intention you can learn to access these states without using percussion instruments. They are used to assist us in entering these meditative states of consciousness. In these states, which Carlos Castaneda called Non-Ordinary Reality, we can bypass the limited worldview of our contemporary culture and our restrictive belief systems.
Download Audio Track for the Shamanic Journey
In these invisible realms of Non-Ordinary Reality there are a variety of helping spirits that can assist the practitioner with healing, problem solving, and removing blocks to creativity, clarity and productivity. The most common forms that we can work with and receive guidance from in this altered state are power animals and spirit guides and teachers. Shamanic cultures believe that we are born with one or more power animals that are our protectors and guardians. Spirit guides can take the form of ancestors, gods and goddesses, religious figures or even super heroes.
There are many ways that practitioners can receive information from spirit guides and power animals. You might hear a voice communicating with you (clairaudient), or you might see a scene or image (clairvoyant), or you might experience a feeling (clairsentient). The important thing is to open up all of your senses and relax and take exactly what comes to you. It could be a smell or a felt sense or just a knowing. The biggest deterrent to shamanic journeying is effort. You can only reach these states by relaxing, letting go of preconceived notions and releasing the need to do something.
The Lower World is often seen as earthy, with dense colors, and usually appears as a quiet place in nature looking almost pre-human. It is filled with forests, deserts, jungles, mountains, rivers and grasslands. Every practitioner will have his or her own unique view of the different realms. Power animals are the primary guides in this world, but different spirit guides may also appear. The shamanic Lower World is absolutely not associated with anything dark, ‘bad’ or evil. That idea belongs to a completely different cosmology, often a Christian religious belief system or spiritual landscape.
There are many ways to access the Lower World. You might imagine a place in nature where there is a lake or body of water and dive in, go down the roots of a tree, into a tunnel, volcano, cave or some crevice in the earth. Once you find a way in, you transition down a tunnel or path that takes you to the Lower World. When you enter this world, coming out into the light, it might appear much like this one, except more earthy and elemental.
When people go to the Upper World they often experience it as more ethereal, airy and bright with a range of colors from light pastels to dark cloud-like forms. The landscapes in the Upper World can be vague and cloudlike, with crystal castles, opaque scenery and whimsical environments. People have varied experiences like a feeling of standing on clouds or floating on air. Seasoned shamans experience numerous levels or strata in both Upper and Lower World journeys.
There are many ways to enter into the Upper World. You might climb a tree, a rope or a rainbow, fly on a magic carpet or get a ride with a giant bird or flying creature. You can also ask your power animal to take you there. Some people use the wind or a tornado to simply lift them up. It is useful to start from a place in nature that you know and love and travel upwards from there. The process has at its heart the feeling of rising upward through the cosmos into a transition stage that might appear as a fog or a cloud layer that acts as a portal to the Upper Worlds.
The Middle World represents the spiritual dimensions of our physical world. In this world we can communicate with the spirits that live in all things, which exist in present reality. It is a place to go and get advice and understanding about what is happening in our personal, relational and work lives. In this realm practitioners can connect with the spirits of nature for advice, find lost objects, send healing prayers and energy, or clear the energy in a specific location. You can also connect with someone in another location without using a telephone or computer to offer support or receive guidance. The Middle World is a place to connect with the deeper cycles and phases of the natural world in order to get a better sense of how they impact our physical, emotional and mental functioning in the constantly changing seasons of time. This allows us to make changes in our lives and communities that are consistent and aligned with nature rather than working in opposition to the web of life.
Traveling in the Middle World, you are in present time, invisibly moving through the physical world of forms, objects and nature. You can pass through the veil of Ordinary Reality to diagnose a situation or assess what is the best way to proceed. You can communicate with trees, rivers and the stars and obtain guidance, travel to distant lands to observe what is happening in another location, or bring healing to someone who has gone through a trauma. Middle World journeying is not a substitute to spending real time in nature. We have an innate need to visit natural places to restore our sense of balance, harmony, and to remember our interconnectedness with the web of life. It is here that we find peace, solitude, and clarity while receiving healing from the elements and nature beings. It is our connection with nature that is the ultimate source of our personal power.
When we journey we have complete control of where we go, who and what we communicate with and when we want to come back. While it is amazing how similar many people’s journeys are there is no set form or rules for traveling in Non-Ordinary Reality. What is important is to have a clear intention of what you want to know and be open to what you receive and experience. One of the most challenging issues for people when they first start to journey is to trust the process and get out of the way.
Power Animals and Teachers
The two primary types of helping spirits that we encounter on a shamanic journey are power animals or guardian spirits, and teachers in human form. Once you meet your guardians and teachers it is important to take time to get to know them. In this way you can receive their gifts and find out why they are in your life. You will likely have primary teachers and power animals that stay with you as you deepen your relationship over time and others who will come and go based on need at the time of their appearance. Over time you will build trust and begin to rely on their guidance, inspiration and healing powers.
Shamans believe that we are all born with at least one power animal whose purpose is to guide and protect us whether we are aware of them or not. When we have a power animal it is not a singular personality, although it may have its own peculiar look and attributes. Our power animal represents the entire species of that animal, not just a single entity. It is also possible that you might receive a mythological creature such as a unicorn or dragon or an extinct animal. The gifts of that species are the gifts that they bring to you. One species is not more powerful than another. They each have important lessons to teach us. It is important that you learn the qualities you are receiving from your power animal and not rely on books or other people’s interpretations. This is a system of direct revelation and what your power animal has to tell you is personal and unique to your life situation.
In addition to power animals, shamanic practitioners rely on teachers in human form. These often take the form of historical and religious figures, ancestral spirits, and gods and goddesses. What is important is to stay open to what figures emerge and not to censor or change what you get with your rational mind.
Helping spirits communicate through metaphor and symbols. Everything that happens in a journey can have meaning and significance. Pay attention to details. Open all the senses to receive the answers to your questions. One experience can have multiple meanings and interpretations.
Our helping spirits come to us to serve us in times of need. They are there to answer questions, heal illness, guide our journey and support the expression of our most essential and authentic selves. It is important to learn to trust them and accept their guidance. You must learn to treat them with respect, to thank them for their service and ask them what they need from you. By honoring them we build a powerful relationship built on trust, gratitude and mutual respect.
Preparing to Journey
A shamanic journey is always intentional, deliberate and focused. To journey, one needs clarity, presence, and a sense of purpose. It is important to clear our mind through meditation, movement or singing before embarking on a journey. Your power comes from your helping spirits, not from your ego, knowledge or cleverness. A shaman becomes what they call a “hollow bone,” an instrument through which the power of the universe can flow.
A journey begins with a clear sense of purpose and intention. We first formulate a question we would like to ask our power animal or spirit guide. Make your question simple and concise. The best questions are singular and begin with where, what, how and who. Answers to multiple questions can be confusing. You are trying to get as much information as possible from your spirit guide, so avoid yes/no types of dualistic questions.
As you begin to drum or listen to drumming, you concentrate on and repeat the question several times as you enter into Non-Ordinary Reality. Let go of the monkey mind and concerns of the day and focus on the drumming and intention of the journey. Find a time of day to journey when your mind isn’t cluttered with work and details. You might want to do a journey to ask your spirit helper the best and most productive way to prepare for a journey.
Find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down or sit where you are comfortable but won’t fall asleep. Be sure to turn off your phones and shut down any electronic devices that might interfere with your journey. Some people prefer to use a blindfold or darken the room. Begin by taking some deep breaths and releasing any tension or chatter on the out breath. Open your heart, relax the mind and bring your focus to breathing, imagining it going right into the center of your heart. Shamans “see with their hearts.” If you lose your concentration during your journey, simply come back to this heart breath and repeat your intention. Visualize your starting place in nature, which will launch your journey to the Upper, Lower or Middle World and leave your everyday world behind.
It is important to clearly define when you are entering into and leaving Non-Ordinary Reality. Your journey needs to be focused and deliberate, a sacred time to work with your spirit guides. If you find that a noise or intrusion interrupts you or brings you out of the journey, simply refocus on the drumming and heart breathing, allowing yourself to return to where you were in the journey. To signal a time to come back from the journey it is common to use a return beat, which commonly consists of 4 sets of 7 short beats followed by rapid drumming and another set of 4 sets of seven beats. Be sure to thank your spirit guides and say goodbye before beginning to journey back the same way you entered your journey.
Treat your journey time as if you were entering a church or sacred sanctuary, because you are! People have been traveling to these other worlds for tens of thousands of years. You are stepping into what biochemist and philosopher Rupert Sheldrake calls a field of morphic resonance, a collective memory that is inherent in nature and natural systems. We are accessing the wisdom of the ages.
After quietly reflecting on your journey you might want to take notes about key points and pertinent information.
Your First Journey: Lower World to Meet a Power Animal
I suggest you make your first journey to the Lower World to connect with and establish a relationship with a power animal. Put on the journeying soundtrack you can download here.
Take time to center and ground yourself through meditation, dance or singing. When you are ready turn on your drumming and imagine yourself in a beautiful place in nature. It is good to choose a place you love and know well. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Look around with your mind’s eye and find a place to enter the earth. Use the suggestions we spoke of earlier in this chapter. You could also see yourself going down in an elevator. Go through this transitions tunnel and you will see yourself moving towards a light.
Step out into the light of the Lower World and notice your surroundings. You are in a place of beauty. Look around and notice the trees, sky, plants and any animals that are in your vicinity. When you see an animal ask it, “Are you my power animal?” If it says “No”, move on. If the animal says “Yes,” start by building a relationship with him or her. Open all your senses to its responses. You may get a symbol, be taken to see something. You could get a direct answer, image or feeling. Stay open! Find out what teachings, powers, wisdom or skills the power animal has brought you today.
Stay in the journey until you hear the return drum beat. Then ask your power animal if there is anything else it would like to convey to you. Be sure to thank him for his service and go back to your place in nature the same way you came to the Lower World. When doing any journey follow your instinct and intuition. You do not have to conform to the model I am presenting here, although this is a very common way of visiting the Lower World.
Pitfalls to Success
One of the most common pitfalls in doing a shamanic journey is trying to make it happen. You cannot force the outcome. That comes from the ego and the need to be in control. Surrender is an essential component in this work. Relax the mind, focus on the breath and see what emerges from your heart mind. Pay attention to all the details and open all your senses to the experience.
Another pitfall is dealing with our monkey minds. We are constantly being bombarded with input and stimulation in our culture. It is useful to have a meditation or mindfulness practice to enhance your ability to focus and concentrate. The more deeply you can let go, the more fully you will be able to enter into these hidden realms. Use your breath to help you come back to presence when you find yourself wandering off. Take yourself right back into the journey experience as soon as you notice you have lost focus or concentration. It is good to take time to get in a relaxed state before beginning a journey.
It is important when doing this work to not add anything to what you receive. If you get a red car with a flat tire, don’t make it a Ferrari. Take what you get! Every image, sense, feeling, impression and experience needs to be taken in as it comes to you. Don’t be impatient. Just wait until an image, symbol or felt sense comes to you. If you can’t remember something, just take what you do remember because that is what is important. You can always go back to the scene in another journey and gather more information.
It is important to be very clear about your intention and how you formulate your questions to your spirit guides. Make them simple, concise and open-ended so you get the greatest possible amount of information from your guide. If you begin to get lost during your journey, simply restate your intention over and over as you notice your breath. Most of all enjoy yourself as you deepen your proficiency to access this Non-Ordinary Reality. And please, don’t take yourself too seriously. There is a direct correlation between learning and play!