In the past few years you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about shamanism, and perhaps have even explored this unique and ancient spiritual discipline to some degree. The word itself (pronounced SHAH-maan) comes from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia, and has become such an integral part of the vocabulary of many of us exploring new age spirituality that the meaning and intent of shamanism and shamanic practice may be diluted and misunderstood.
Often shamanism is associated with Native American practices, and although there are Native American shamans, they aren’t exclusive to this culture. The practice of shamanism is found in most indigenous and ancient cultures throughout the world, from Australia to South America to Siberia. The term is also confused with other titles, such as “medicine man”, “witch”, “sorcerer”, and others. Although these types of people have their own special gifts, not every one of them is a shaman.
The unique talent of the shaman, often developed through several grueling initiatory experiences, is their ability to induce what Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman, calls the “shamanic state of consciousness” through some combination of drumming, rattling, singing, or dancing. In this “trance” state, they then intentionally transport their soul into non-ordinary reality to receive information and guidance from the spirit world. They would “journey” this way typically to either the Lower World or Upper World realms of non-ordinary reality to meet their spirit guides, and there receive information for problem-solving and healing. Returning to ordinary reality they would then apply these teachings to whatever the current need for the individual and the community, typically in the form of a specific ceremony to be enacted.
The Shaman’s Primary Role
The main purpose of shamanism, which is often overlooked, is to help maintain balance and harmony in our relationship with the Creator and Creation. As I noted in Sacred Ceremony:
Although shamans were always healers, their primary role was much grander. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abraham states that the shaman:
. . . acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and “journeys”, he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it—not just materially but with prayers, propitiations, and praise.
Within this larger role of mediator, the shaman would offer healing for someone who was ailing in the community, or perhaps the community itself. Other purposes would be to find food, to beseech the spirits for rain, or to administer a ceremony of transition or celebration. They were in charge of facilitating any and all ceremonies, whatever the purpose.
The Shamanic Journey
In most indigenous and ancient cultures, the shaman used the shamanic journey as an integral part of their function in service to the tribe, village, or community. Although relatively few people are destined to be a true shaman, nearly anyone can learn how to do a shamanic journey and for some, to become a shamanic practitioner. It’s important to realize that this is not merely the latest new age or spiritual fad, and although there’s a great deal of enjoyment and often a great deal of fun from doing this work, it does require serious intent.
A relatively simple way to induce the shamanic state of consciousness required is through repetitive rhythm by either drumming or rattling, usually at the rate of about 4-7 beats or shakes per second. It’s been found that cross-culturally shamans will drum or rattle at this rate to induce the trance state required to journey across the veil. Try clapping your hands softly together at this rate and you’ll get a sense of the rhythm.
One of the more fascinating things about this is that when it is compared to the measurable electrical activity of the human brain, we find some correlation. Again, from my book, Sacred Ceremony:
Researchers have found that after about 12 minutes of steady drumming, particularly at the rate of 4-7 beats per second, an amazing thing happens. Our brain waves begin to synchronize with the drumbeat! Typically, in an awakened state, our brain waves register what is called a beta rhythm, which is an oscillation of 14-20 cycles per second. This is the normal waking state, when you’re alert. The next slower cycle is called the alpha rhythm, which is 8-13 cycles per second. This is a mild trance state, what you experience when you first awaken from a deep sleep, or that drowsy feeling just before bedtime. Next is the theta rhythm, 4-7 cycles per second, experienced during sleep as well as during moderate to deeper trance states.
Drumming at the rate of 4-7 beats per second will tend to slow down the brain waves to a theta rhythm, a corresponding 4-7 cycles per second, thus putting the participants into an altered state of consciousness that is characteristic of many meditative and shamanic disciplines!
So by using this repetitive and rather boring rhythm pattern for about 12 minutes, we naturally coordinate our brain wave patterns to the beat of the drum.
So what happens from here? Let’s say we’re doing a Lower World (LW) journey. In this state you look around for a natural opening into the earth, such as a hole in a tree, at the bottom of the ocean, or a deep chasm in the earth. Whatever you find as an entrance to the LW, remember it for whenever you do another journey. Much like Alice going down the rabbit hole (which would also serve as an entry), you find yourself going down a tunnel. You look for the “light at the end of the tunnel”, and once you arrive you’ll typically find yourself in some natural area, such as a forest or a beach.
Once there, it all depends on what your mission is as to what happens next. No matter what it is, you’ll find your spirit guides and helpers there to assist you with the mission.
Similar in some ways to the LW, a journey to the Celestial Realms or Upper World (UW) means first finding an entry. For the UW, however, you’re looking for something that takes you up. This could be a tree to climb, a rainbow, or a tall mountain. Often going to the UW means penetrating a thin membrane that leads you to the realms of the UW. As in the LW, you are seeking your spirit guides and helpers. Typically in the LW, these guides and helpers are animal spirits, whereas in the UW, they are of human form.
It’s usually best when you’re first starting out to have someone else do the drumming or rattling. That way you can fully concentrate on the mission. It’s also best to journey to the Lower World for your first time., and if you already have some spiritual guides, call them in to go with you. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the portal to the LW. Once you do, and you find yourself in a natural setting simply explore that area and see who shows up, particularly what animal spirits appear. Spend only a few minutes there. Let the drummer know that you want them to call you back after about ten minutes. They can do so by changing the beat dramatically, such as stopping the drumming for a few moments, then for a few moments more drumming rapidly. It’s also a good idea to write down your experience in your journal.
This gives you some idea of what a shamanic journey is like. If this intrigues you, check out Michael Harner’s now classic book, The Way of the Shaman, or be on the lookout for workshops in your area that teach the shamanic journey.