In a time of transition, when prophecies of a new humanity are playing out, it is said that the simple act of living a conscious life can support the transformation of all humanity.
The call to consciousness comes through a vast range of traditions and techniques, but one, a visionary and mystical path, emerging from the mists of pre-history, speaks to the longing for a more authentic life among modern, urban seekers. This is Shamanism.
What am I doing here, an ordinary, Western, city-raised woman, lying on a narrow ledge in the Blue Mountains beside a collection of stones, feathers, candles and bowls of water that I have arranged in a circle?
I am undertaking a ceremony of transformation through one of the most ancient initiatory rituals known to humans - a Vision Quest. The circle of objects is my Medicine Wheel, an energetic portal through which I hope to travel in altered consciousness, to call in and balance the energies of other worlds.
I am invoking the power of the circle and of all the circles, spirals and curves of nature to help me enter "shamanic space", the place from which my soul expands towards ecstasy. Two currawongs and a goanna watch as I call to Spirit to give me a vision of the mystery that I both long for and fear.
A traditional tribal shaman is a master of transformation who enters altered consciousness or trance states to explore and interact with the worlds of souls, nature and Spirit. He or she seeks wisdom, healing and empowerment for all. Although the word "shaman" comes from Siberia, similar practices are found among original peoples in North and South America, many parts of Asia, Tibet, Australia, Africa and Northern and Southern Europe. The shaman is a master of ecstatic states that give direct connection to these worlds.
Traditionally, these shamans were chosen by "the spirits" for the difficult and demanding task of service to their communities. Sometimes they endured a serious illness followed by a remarkable healing. By their results, shamans gained the recognition of their people. Tribal peoples have always had ambivalent relationships with the shaman who is essential to their wellbeing but also feared for his or her powers.
So, what is the relevance of this ancient, esoteric practice to the modern world?
I believe that the underlying emptiness in the materialistic Western worldview has unleashed a growing hunger for reconnection with our deepest selves. At some level we all long to be held in the natural cycles and rhythms of our mother, Earth. Shamanism, released from its cultural and tribal contexts, which vary across continents, teaches that everything is connected. For sophisticated, urban dwellers to relate to this, we've needed to make sense of it within our own cultural and educational frameworks.
This includes the teachings of scientific disciplines such as quantum physics. Its description of a field of energy connecting all things echoes the fundamental shamanic principle of a web of life. Psychology helps us understand the three shamanic worlds (lower, middle and upper) in the light of major levels of consciousness. We can relate to the idea of "spirit guides" through the concept of archetypes as developed by CG Jung. Ecology teaches practical and spiritual ways of caring for Earth and deep ecology helps us to understand that everything is alive and has soul. Cosmology is a window into the mind-boggling extent of our connections to the universe.
While these materialistic supports can help, shamanism is much more deeply rooted in the human body and psyche than such an intellectual approach suggests. It arises from an ancient, soulful, ecstatic, joyful approach to being fully alive and in "right relationship" with our world and does not need the findings of science for validation.
Shamanic practices have survived because they work. Many people find them strangely familiar. Perhaps this is not surprising. As well as being encoded in our genetic history, some of the most recognisable stories and images from major religions have a shamanic sensibility. For instance, Buddha touched the earth and called upon it to witness his enlightenment, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and the vivid and exuberant depictions of spirits and demons in Tibet grew from the blend of the Bon shamanic tradition with Buddhism. All of these speak of deep and ancient roots in the mysteries of Earth and Cosmos.
Urbanites who are drawn to this today do not learn the tribal shamanism of old. Instead, they study a neo-shamanism that is still embedded in the sacredness of life, nature and the universe. Now we learn to be, not shamans, but shamanic practitioners, healers or therapists.
While we are not chosen in the traditional ways, I'm sure our decision to enrol in courses such as a Certificate in Shamanic Practices is still guided by Spirit. The training of today continues to be rigorous and transformative, based on surrender, initiation and scrupulous purifying honesty. The capacity to balance the energies of the dark, cavernous underworld, the spirit version of our material Earth and the high vibrational world of the sky, happens paradoxically when practitioners both surrender to, and gain mastery over, the powers generated through these worlds.
One important, traditional technique that is still taught is the famous Shamanic Journey. In altered consciousness, the soul travels on waves of sound produced by drumming, clapping, singing or rattling. It is an effective way to directly access personal and spiritual guidance. People who are drawn to a deeper exploration of shamanism can learn to use this and other techniques to help their communities and the planet in the time-honoured fashion.
Shamanic techniques meet three fundamental human needs - for guidance (known in shamanism as divination), healing and empowerment.Practitioners seek guidance for their clients by journeying into the spirit world and contacting guides for advice and direction.They may seek healing for clients through soul retrieval. This is a shamanic method of repairing the disconnection that can happen after trauma or suffering. Soul retrieval offers a way of bringing a person back to wholeness.They work to empower their clients through a journey to find and install a "power" animal. This animal then has an ongoing role in the person's life and a deep, loving and reciprocal relationship develops.
Many people today have persistent difficulties with the concept of power, often because they have had negative experiences of someone else's power over them.
In a transcript of a radio interview, Michael Harner, the Western world's foremost exponent of Shamanism, explains it in a helpful way, "...the person who's doing this work is drawing upon an experience of power far beyond himself or herself...this power comes from harmony...some people might say God, some people might say love. But this power has tremendous strength, and so when you draw upon it, particularly for good purposes, then this energy is there."
A shamanic way of working involves the following:Create a sacred or shamanic space using ritualSet a strong intentionSurrender through the heart to Spirit and then let go
Shamanic healers work through the energy or light body, the organising principle or blueprint of the physical body. Michael Harner, on P120 of The Shaman's Way describes using his free hand to detect variations in the client's energy field. This is very similar to the assessment phase of energy healing, therapeutic touch, theta healing and other subtle healing systems.
The next level is mysterious. Fully engaged in the space of trance or altered consciousness, he or she is free to explore, travel, call for help and seek support or healing for the client. This is facilitated by:A medicine wheel. A circle of power that links to the six directions of the natural world and is a bridge to the core of being.Singing, rattling, clapping or drumming. The different frequencies stimulate or harmonise energetic and brain circuits.Calling in power animals and spirit helpers as vital links to personal strength and natural wisdom, andPower objects, often carried in a "medicine bundle", including quartz crystals, feathers, bones, wood and other significant pieces.
Such resources provide ceremonial, intentional and creative alignment, but the outcome is left to Spirit. Shamanic practitioners must cultivate a high level of skill so that, although they are not in control of outcomes, they have deep enough familiarity with the spirit world and its powers, to keep themselves and their clients safe.
A skilled practitioner engages the following four levels of reality with ascending levels of power"Physical - the level of body, matter Mental - the level of mind, thinking and emotions Soul - the level of archetypes, myths, fairy tales - "...archetypal energies can be seen manifested in multiple, interconnected patterns of physical form and structure, symbolic meaning and psycho spiritual significance." - Jeremy Taylor Spirit - the level of fundamental, essential energy
A shaman cultivates the ability to function in all levels, move between them appropriately, enter and work in other realities and effectively re-emerge into ordinary consciousness when the work is complete.
And what of my vision quest? My notes say:
"All day I have been releasing my pain and fear into Mother Earth. She takes it in and gives me back a sense of ease and sweetness. The mystery is right here before me. It's made up of release, joy, intricacy, attention, energy, power. I've been in the mystery all day."