Most of what I know about shamanism I learned from Dr. Michael Harner, an internationally renowned anthropologist and author – and a practicing shaman, himself. I’d read his book, The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. I was just embarking on a career as a psychotherapist, working in rural Alabama, when I learned that Dr. Harner would be presenting a one-day shamanic training workshop in Birmingham. I signed up right away, and that one day has had a profound influence on my philosophy.
I tend to trust science when it’s done right, and tend to be skeptical when it comes to unproven supernatural or psychic explanations for things. But, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I’m ultimately an agnostic about most things. I tend to think in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties. But I’ve experienced some things that I consider real, that exist outside of the scientific paradigm. Shamanic “journeying” is one of them. Dr. Harner was the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He died earlier this year.
What initially drew me to explore shamanic practice was Harner’s contention that there was a core shamanism that existed in every known pre-literate, “primitive” culture. The similarities between shamanic practices, whether in the Americas, Siberia, Africa, Australia, etc. suggested that they existed and endured because they were effective as a means of healing. The shaman’s lore shouldn’t be dismissed as primitive, superstitious nonsense.
Think about the stereotypes of the “witchdoctor” or “medicine man” in popular culture. They paint their faces and bodies, they beat drums and dance to the drumbeat, they shake rattles, they sing or chant. Sometimes they eat or smoke sacred substances. There’s some truth behind these clichés. In many so-called primitive cultures, shamans have acquired detailed knowledge of natural substances that induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Shamans also know methods of inducing ASCs without using drugs. ASCs, or visionary mental states, are an integral component of shamanic practice.
Michael Harner taught me and a few other apprentice shamans to achieve what he called the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), without having to ingest consciousness altering substances. He taught us that certain drumming resonances and rhythms can induce a “visionary” altered state of consciousness that enables you to journey in the eternal realm of Dreamtime, and encounter spirit allies. In most cultures that I’m aware of, these allies take the form of animals; in others, they manifest as ancestors.
Dreamtime has been regarded as an alternate reality in many ancient, pre-literate cultures for millennia, all over the world. The methods for entering Dreamtime seem to me to be universal. Certain kinds of shamanic wisdom are obtained by ingesting sacred substances such as peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca; but none of my experiences of shamanic journeying involved taking any drugs. On one level, I took a workshop taught by an anthropologist. On another level, a shaman taught me how to alter my consciousness and journey to, and in, a realm outside of ordinary consciousness. Just as there is no way to adequately describe how “psychedelic” consciousness is different from ordinary states of consciousness to a person who has never taken a hallucinogen, you have to experience the SSC to understand what it’s like.
Harner primarily used drumming to induce the SSC in workshop participants, and had an experienced drummer as an assistant. He first had us dance to a slow drumbeat, eyes half-closed in a dimly lit room, instructing us to lie down on our backs and cover our eyes when we started to feel “heavy.” When the drumbeat became faster, he told us to remember and visualize someplace in our experience that symbolized entry into the “lower world” of our unconscious – a cave mouth or a hole in the ground – and to enter it. He had encouraged us to explore this other reality we would emerge into after passing through a tunnel. He had coached us on interacting with certain spirit animals we might encounter, binding them to us when we felt a connection, and bringing them back with us when we returned to ordinary consciousness. Animals that looked hostile or bared their teeth should be avoided.
Shamanic journeying is a vivid visual experience of walking, running or flying in a colorful world containing forests, meadows, streams, lakes, chasms and mountains. It’s different from dreams, meditation, guided fantasy or hypnotic trance. This world is inhabited by spirit animals, or allies as they are known in some traditions. The first task we were given in the workshop was to seek out our totem animal spirits – a bird, a fox, a bear, whatever -and, if possible (if it agreed to come), bring it back with us after the drummer changed rhythms, signaling that it was time to return to the waking world.
After returning from our first journeys in Dreamtime, we talked about our experiences. All of us apprentice shamans had achieved the SSC, and reported similar experiences of encountering spirit animals in a vivid, colorful world. Some of us had brought back spirit allies we’d encountered. By the end of the workshop we’d made another journey, this time to the “upper world.” I bought a high-fidelity cassette tape of shamanic drumming, so I could continue to journey in the upper and lower worlds on my own. I’ve never claimed to have shamanic healing powers. All I know, through my personal experiences using an ancient technique to enter the SSC and explore Dreamtime, is that there are good reasons for shamanism’s universality in the ancient world, and for its endurance over time.
I’ll write more about shamanism in my next post.