Sober shamanic journeys using drumming instead of plant spirit medicine or psychedelics.

No Need to Trip: Sober Shamanic Journeys

Photo Credit: Kari Andreasen

Going on a Shamanic Journey

Flying out of your body and seeing things that aren’t in the room? Talking with spirit guides and flying on the back of a hawk? To the uninitiated, all this can sound pretty far out.

This and so much more happens on a shamanic journey. A shamanic journey is much like a waking dream. It is a soul flight into the spirit world. During a shamanic journey, a seeker has the opportunity to talk with and receive guidance from spirit guides. They can also experience healings. The seeker uses the soul’s senses to see, touch, and hear things in the spirit world. They are wide awake and aware and they have all of their faculties. The seeker is able to recount the experience when they return from the journey.

Many assume this kind of experience requires hallucinogenic substances (known as “plant spirit helpers” in shamanism). Examples of shamanic plant medicine include psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca. While there is a deep and sacred tradition of working with these plants for shamanic journeying and healing, that is not the only ancient or effective way to go on a shamanic journey.

Altered States Using Rhythmic Percussion

A shamanic journey is an altered state of consciousness. This altered state of consciousness can be induced purely via listening to rhythmic percussion such as drumming or rattling. No psychoactive substances are required. The percussion is repetitive and lacks a melody so that the seeker going on the journey doesn’t get caught up in a song and influenced by it.

Rhythmic percussion such as drumming has a number of benefits in assisting an altered state of consciousness. These are:

  • Facilitation of a deep meditative and relaxed state that is also an alert and aware state.
  • Provides a blank slate or canvas in which the journeyer’s experience occurs.
  • Serves as a connection or tether to this world, so that the person on the journey feels safe and anchored back to their body.
  • A means of conveyance. The drumming carries the journeyer’s mind into an altered state. Many traditions called their shamanic drum “the horse on which they ride on.”

Shamanic journeying using rhythmic percussion alone is an ancient practice that has been used by cultures all around the world for millennia. While it doesn’t work for everyone, it works for the vast majority of students that I’ve instructed in shamanic journeying. And it’s not just me! Many shamanic teachers around the world use this method for shamanic journeying and have great success teaching others how to journey this way.


beginning shamanic journey workshop

Why Choose Sobriety?

The use of any consciousness-altering herbal medicine is a very personal choice, and I have the utmost respect for the choices people make regarding their own bodies. I specialize in teaching sober shamanic journeying with the use of drumming, so that is why I am discussing the benefits of this method.

So, why would someone choose to do a shamanic journey using rhythmic percussion rather than psychedelic substances?

Health reasons are a big factor. If a person has a system sensitive to medications or any substance that goes in their body, psychoactive substances can be too strong or overwhelming. A person with an illness may be concerned about the plant medicine’s side-effects, contraindications, and negative interactions with current prescriptions or supplements.

A history or current involvement with substance use disorder is another reason. If someone struggles with addiction, any sort of intoxicant may be triggering. Typically, plant spirt medicines used for shamanic journeying are not addictive, but their mind-altering effects may influence cravings in unpredictable ways. Having an alternative, sober method of shamanic journeying eliminates these uncertainties.

Having a family member or members who suffer from substance use disorder, may also be a reason to consider sober shamanic journeying. When a person experiences abuse from a loved one as a result of their addiction, it can be challenging to be around other people who are under the influence of plant spirit medicine. Some people who have friends and family who are addicts choose sobriety for themselves because it brings a sense of safety and agency.

Weighing the Risks

Plant spirit medicine ceremonies are sacred, special ceremonies set apart from daily life. They require taking time off and traveling to a sanctuary or retreat center. Psychedelic or psychoactive substances should only be taken under supervision of trained professionals. There is a real risk of a negative reaction which may require medical attention.

All that said, plant spirit medicine ceremonies can sometimes offer profound healing and spiritual experiences. This doesn’t happen for everyone, but when it does it can be life changing. There is great risk in this method and potentially great reward. Although I have not done this type of ceremony myself, I have talked to a handful of people over the years about them. Some people have negative or neutral experiences. Others report amazing results. It does seem like a gamble as to how it will turn out.

For those how have a positive experience, I liken their stories to what Abraham Maslow calls a “peak experience”. He described peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” [1] There is a sense of euphoria and bliss.

These peak experiences can be accompanied by healing of lifetime trauma and wounds. These are rare experiences that are hard to repeat and may only happen once or maybe a few times in a person’s life.

There is one big downside to these peak experiences that I see consistently. When the person returns to daily life from the ceremony, there can be a considerable let down.

Accessible Shamanic Journeys

Sober shamanic journeys using rhythmic percussion are different. They are easy and accessible. You don’t have to leave the comfort of your home and they fill an hour or two timeframe. The technology is simple, requiring only headphones and a recording of drumming on a phone, devise or computer. This method is very low risk.

As I’ve already discussed, this accessibility and safety is helpful for people who prefer not to put psychoactive substance in their bodies, AND it is helpful for people who work with plant spirit medicine.

Plant spirit medicine ceremonies are rare occurrences set aside from daily life. Many people who report benefiting from plant spirit medicine ceremonies come home feeling a big let down. The euphoria and bliss of the experience are out of reach and they don’t know how to live that joy in their daily life.

This is where sober shamanic journeys can come in and help with integration. By following up a plant spirit medicine retreat with sober journeys at home, a seeker can find integration. They can build a stronger, consistent connection with their spirit guides. They can receive guidance on how to apply the wisdom and healing of their plant spirit medicine experience into their everyday life.

Bridging the Spiritual and Ordinary Life

Being able to journey at home allows a person to receive guidance on how to bring healing and wisdom into the ordinary, material world.

This is true for anyone whether they choose to stay sober or use plant spirit medicine.

It is very important to note that sober shamanic journeying can also bring peak experiences of euphoria, healing, and joy. Going on a shamanic journey using just drumming brings profound healing to lifetime trauma and wounds. I find that when this happens, seekers are more easily able to live and ground the joy of their healing experience in the every day.

This is another huge benefit to sober shamanic journeying. It is closer to our lived experience and helps facilitate the bridge between our spiritual and ordinary lives.




Have questions or comments? I’d love to hear your feedback! Please feel free to share below.


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How to use your imagination to go on a shamanic journey.

Use Your Imagination for Shamanic Journeys

When You Use Your Imagination

Society says imagination should be left behind in childhood. We dismiss experiences we can’t explain by saying, “It’s just your imagination”. So, to be taken seriously we talk about brainstorming, practicing creative visualization, visioning, and dreaming up.

According to the Oxford Dictionary imagination is:

  • the faculty or action of forming new ideas, images or concepts of objects not present to the senses (i.e. seeing something in your mind that doesn’t exist in front of you)
  • the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful 
  • the part of the mind that imagines things (what we call ‘my imagination’)

The word imagination comes from the Latin verb imaginari which means to ‘picture to oneself’. Other ways to explain it include using the mind’s eye, thinking in pictures, and feeling into something.

You don’t need to learn how to use your imagination nor can you stop imagining. We already do it all of the time. It is as automatic for us as breathing.

Imagining More Than Just Pictures

Imagination is not just about seeing an image, but also hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, or sensing something that is not physically present before us. 

Picture an apple in your mind. Remember the taste of an exquisite piece of chocolate. Guess what it might be like to be in an ice water bath. Is it day or night on the other side of the planet? How do you know this? What did/does your grandmother’s voice sound like? Right now you are imagining. 

So many of our decisions are based on the power of imagination. We project our imaginations forward to determine what working in that new office would be like or how we might get along with a new acquaintance. Try not picturing things or not knowing them in your mind, not formulating ideas or not guessing what something might be like. All of it is imagining. Even people with aphantasia (the inability to visualize) have imaginations. They conceptualize things, experience knowings, hear inner voices, and have tactile sensations without external stimulus. 

Imagination is NOT Just in Your Head…

There is a myth that the imagination is “all in your head”, but our imaginations are not confined to the boundaries of our mind. Our imagination receives external input from the non-physical realms.

You use your imagination to pick up stimuli BEYOND the five senses. Just like ears enable the body’s sense of hearing, the imagination allows our soul’s senses to work. Our imaginations are more than complex devices that “make things up”. Just because something is in our imagination doesn’t mean it’s unreal. Imagination is the ability to receive images, feelings, and knowings that are absolutely real on the energetic and spiritual planes.

The “Clairs” or Soul Senses

Our soul’s senses are also known as the “clairs” or the “clairsenses”. These are clairsentience (clear-feeling), clairaudience (clear-hearing), clairvoyance (clear-seeing), and claircognizance (clear-knowing).

All the “clairs” operate via our imagination.

Imagination is the way that we experience empathy and feel what other people feel. We are able to sense someone’s love and concern through our ability to imagine.

Our soul uses the power of imagination to sense into the energetic and spirit realms.

Mystical experiences are possible via the imagination because they are outside the five senses. The spirit world contacts us via our imagination. Shamanic journeys happen via the soul sense of the imagination.



Do I Need a Good Imagination to go on a Shamanic Journey?

As a shamanic teacher, I meet many who think they need to have a good imagination to go on a shamanic journey. Much like a waking dream, shamanic journeys allows us to explore other worlds, meet and talk with spirit animals and guides, and gain valuable spiritual guidance. Shamanic journeys are the primary technique of shamanism.

We people say, “I don’t have a good imagination,” they are typically referring to their ability to be artistic. As if somehow the power of imagination only belongs to artists. This is a myth. Imagination is necessary for everyday life, for all we do, no matter what we do.

How to Get Better at Imagining

We all have an equal measure of imaginative capacity, but varying degrees of competency.  The more we can increase our competency, the easier shamanic journeys become. And it works the other way around too. Going on shamanic journeys helps us become better at imagining.

Four things impact our imaginative competency: 

  1. Practice: To get better at imagining, we need practice imagining on purpose. Without actively and consciously working with our imaginations the “muscle” of the imagination can weaken.
  2. Trust: The degree of trust we have in our ability to imagine makes a big difference. Depending on our upbringing, conditioning, and self-esteem we block or allow our imaginings. Someone with a good imagination is more likely to trust their gut and follow their intuition. 
  3. Mindfulness: Imaginative skill comes from focusing our minds and being resilient to distraction. A person with a good imagination is more likely to be experienced in mindfulness. Practices such as mindfulness meditation, self-reflection, therapy, and self-awareness make shamanic journeys much easier.
  4. Range: When we are good at imagining, we can use our imaginations for a wide variety of tasks including sensing into the spirit world. The world beyond the five senses is familiar territory, and we don’t rely physical stimulus to feed our imaginations. Our imaginations have great range.

One of the biggest reasons why I teach shamanic journeys is because it gives us the chance to build the soul sense of our imaginations. A shamanic journey is a leap of faith and tests our self-esteem. What if we find nothing? What if we come back with a ridiculous story that everyone laughs at? How can we know we’ll be good at it? It is these doubts that we face and overcome to harness the power of imagination.

Use Your Imagination on a Shamanic Journey

The key to use your imagination on a shamanic journey is to release your expectations of what this is supposed to look like. With the advent of surround sound, 3-D movie theaters with crystal clear CGI (computer-generated imagery) we’ve begun to think everything should look like a movie, including our imaginings. We want our shamanic journeys to be full immersion experiences. Even better than going to a movie, we think a shamanic journey should be like real life. 

Shamanic journeys, especially at first, can be jumpy and cloudy. We may feel a lot, see a couple images, and hear nothing. We might see a lot, but not feel a thing. Self-doubt and a distracted mind can derail the experience over and over again. Developing our soul senses and honing a focused mind takes practice. We have to exercise our power of imagination to strengthen it.

Just like any natural ability you have, it helps to use your imagination often in the spirit world to become good at it. After going on a number of shamanic journeys, the experience becomes more fluid and natural. More of the clairs (soul senses) are activated and we can touch, see, know, and hear more. Our trust in our imaginations grows and we are able to surrender more fully to the experience, which makes it that much more deep, fun, and rich.


Learn How to Go On A Shamanic Journey






Benefits of Shamanic Journeys

The Shamanic Journey is Fundamental

Shamans are known for their ability to enter an altered state of consciousness, called “shamanic journeying” to visit the spirit worlds. Professional shamanic healers understand the mechanisms for how energy moves, how illness operates, and how to enact healing. Shamanic practitioners who go on to become spiritual leaders serve as mediators between community members, the spirit realms, and the natural world.

A lot falls under the umbrella of the shaman. We can get caught up in all the different directions one can go in the study of shamanism. It is important to come back to the fundamentals from time to time and realize the root of the practice.

Shamanic journeying is that root. The attention and respect a practitioner gives to this method and concept is the foundation for all the dazzling and beautiful stories, healings, and teachings of shamanism.

Let us now travel to that root and explore the fundamentals of how the shaman’s experience of the cosmos informs their spiritual growth.

Our Ordinary Reality

We live in what shamanic practitioners call “ordinary reality”. From this vantage point we see a polarized universe. So much of what we experience and explain comes in terms of pairs of extremes: black and white, good and bad, higher and lower.

We understand space as a defined area that contains objects. We trust our five senses that tell us we can only inhabit one space at a time. Here in ordinary reality, we also see time as linear. Our past is behind us and our future is ahead. We cannot travel back in time, but we do fantasize about it.

We philosophize about the circular and parallel natures of time, but in ordinary reality we struggle to actually experience and truly embody these metaphysical concepts.

Suffice it to say, our ordinary world understanding says we are limited by time and space and we  can’t be in two places at once. This is the crux of why we struggle to deal with complexity in others and ourselves.

Shamanic Journeys into Non-Ordinary Reality

People practicing shamanism (both laypeople and professionals) break free from these limitations during shamanic journey trances. The other worlds they are visiting, also called “non-ordinary reality,” “invisible worlds”, and the “dreamtime”, are unbound by the physical laws of our senses.

The shaman traveling in non-ordinary is working outside of time and space. Everything happens at once and in many places. Paradox is a common and accepted experience. There is no need to choose sides or hold a given perspective. In fact, the need to have an opinion hinders, rather than helps, the shamanic journey process. This reality is known to be “non-polarized”, “non-dual”, or “unified”.

It is challenging to release expectations, past experience, and what we know, especially when our viewpoint seems irreconcilable with another. It can be hard to embrace an opposing viewpoint, but shamanic journeys have a miraculous way of opening our minds and hearts to other options. Non-ordinary reality brings paradox and complexity at its finest as well as a fantastic opportunity for learning.

Finding Universal Truths

Through the experience of the dreamtime and shamanic journeying, we learn that all is truth on some level, in some place, at some time, and that all individual and personal truths can exist at once. We also have the opportunity to experience universal truths that unite us all.

This helps us move further towards the state of non-attachment that Buddha taught about. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, you have likely encountered the benefits of releasing triggers. Allowing someone to have their truth without it being an affront to our own personal truth is a path many of us are on.

A Vessel of Spiritual Growth

I often discuss the field of shamanism as a container for anyone’s cultural or spiritual beliefs. I work with students of many faiths, some who believe in God and others who do not. In addition to a space where people can come to connect with the spirit world and their own inner guidance, shamanism is also a facilitator. It facilitates immense spiritual growth.

We so often think of spiritual growth as an upward trajectory. In today’s spiritual community, many state their path as one of going higher. We do things for the highest good and prize higher frequencies, but true spiritual evolution occurs in all directions and dimensions, both inward and outward.

In the shamanic landscape, we have an opportunity to experience, first hand, this multi-dimensional reality and grow in many directions at once. 

Answers, healing, and end goals can become the focus, even the obsession. However, the phrase “enjoy the journey” has never been so apt. It is important to not skip over the great wisdom and experience that the basic, fundamental technique of shamanism, shamanic journeying, can bring.


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Do Shamanism Beliefs and Other Religious Beliefs Mix?

Shamanism as a Container

Unlike organized religions that tell you exactly what to believe, precisely when to worship, and literally how to talk to God, the practice of shamanism does not fill our worlds with things to do and think.

I like to use the metaphor of a container, be it a bowl, vase, or basket, that holds our beliefs. Shamanism is that bowl. It is our hands cupped and open, ready to receive whatever we choose to fill them with. This reality is refreshing for many people who are looking to break free from the confines of an organized religion that no longer fits what they believe, but who do not want to leave everything behind.

Shamanism is a worldview, meaning a way of seeing the structure of the cosmos. Shamanism beliefs tell us how the world is ordered and connected. We learn early on in shamanic studies that the cosmos is made up of three worlds: lower, middle and upper. These three worlds are connected by a central axis, also known as the axis mundi, world axis or cosmic axis.

This belief in the basic structure of the universe leaves a lot to the imagination, and that is where other religious beliefs come in to fill the container.

This motif of the three worlds and connecting axis mundi is common throughout all shamanic cultures. Of course, each tradition elaborates on the theme adding levels to each world and/or preferring one axis over another. What fills these three worlds also varies widely depending on the local religious beliefs. In polytheistic groups that believe in many gods, there are gods and goddesses that move throughout the worlds, some laying claim to one world or another. In monotheistic traditions, one God is infused throughout and influences all of the worlds.

Shamanism Beliefs & Christianity

Most people know that shamanism and Christianity have historically been at odds. Although not the only establishment hunt witches, the Catholic church was famous for naming shamans as witches and sorcerers. As a result, many shaman were burned at the stake for their beliefs and practices. If you feel these two paths are incompatible, history is on your side.This rift between the traditions is only recently healing in the hearts and minds of individuals who follow the teachings of Christ and benefit from shamanic practices.

The age-old trouble between Christian churches and shamanic practitioners assuredly has a number of roots that fill many volumes, but we can view it simply as the clash between the need for centralized power and the desire to place power in the hands of the community.

In traditional shamanic cultures, belief was much less centralized and the shaman had a good deal of authority and influence over the spiritual lives of community members. People trusted their shamans and knew them well, this pulled them away from organized churches which was an obvious threat to the church. But, this is just politics after all. Let’s get back to beliefs.

The toughest conflict in beliefs to reconcile between Christianity and shamanism is in regards to what lies beneath us. Shamans travel to lower world by going down through the earth, and they have beautiful, healing experiences. Christians believe that hell is below us and would never dare to imagine venturing below the earth’s crust. Anyone who is a Christian practicing shamanic techniques has to forfeit their belief that hell is the only thing below us.

What shamanism and Christianity do have in common is a shared belief that there is both good and evil. Exorcism and depossession are practiced both within Christian faith and shamanic tradition.

The belief in a single God and the belief that Christ is our savior do not come into conflict with shaman beliefs. In fact, they blend quite nicely into shamanic tradition. I know a number of Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, etc. that incorporate shamanism into their involvement with an organized Christian theology. I myself follow the teachings of Catholic mystics and find these teachings support a lot of what I experience in my shamanic practice.

Shamanism & Buddhism

As I mentioned in a previous article, shamanism and Buddhism have a lot in common. The belief that all of life is interconnected is paramount for both systems. They are both forms of eco-spirituality and neither depend solely on the existence of a God or gods.

Buddhists focus on the workings of the mind and how to release thoughts and attachments. Shamanists believe that thoughts are energy and that thoughts have a profound effect on our world. Shamans are taught how to watch the movement of energy. In shamanism, the study of attachments is common and shamanic practitioners learn how to break attachments.

Buddhists are interested in dissolving the ego. Shamans endeavor to become a “hollow bone” or “hollow reed” to be a clear channel for healing energy. Ego gets in the way of the healing. Thus, shamans are also interested in dissolution of the ego. As you can see, there are many ways that these two belief systems compliment each other quite nicely.

Shamanism & Atheism

Like Atheism, shamanism does not require belief in any particular deity or deities. However, it does require the belief of spirits and a spirit world. The belief that we have souls and the acceptance of the movement of energy in the hidden realms are essential and basic components of shamanic practice. This may or may not be an issue for some atheists depending on how strictly they’ve diverged from traditional religious convictions.

Shamans work to understand mystical laws so that they can understand the processes of illness and healing. Shamans also study the movement of harmful and compassionate acts in relation to illness and advise others on ethical behavior. Similarly, atheists often find some form of ethical code to follow and are interested in the cause and effect workings of the universe. In this way, the two perspectives inform one another.

Shamanism & Paganism

Paganism is a natural fit for shamanism and many of the beliefs in these traditions are the same. Paganism arose from hunter-gatherer cultures at the same time and in cooperation with shamanism. Paganism can easily be viewed as the lay-person religion in communities that had the shamans as religious leaders. This does not mean that all shamans are pagans and vice versa. The two can be practiced independently and do not rely on each other to exist.

Shamanism Beliefs & Other Religions

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive comparison of shamanic beliefs and other religious beliefs, but, suffice it to say that shamanism can be studied and practiced in collaboration with many additional faiths including Hinduism, Judaism and Sufism. Please share your experiences below of how you’ve combined your religious beliefs with your shamanic practice.


About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the world of shamanism easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.

is shamanism a religion

Is Shamanism a Religion?

Is Shamanism a Religion?

Shamanism is experiencing a great resurgence. As everyone figures out how to pronounce shaman and shamanism (the first “a” is soft, like an “ah”), there are alternative terms adding to the confusion. “Shamanistic” and “shamanist” being primary contributors.

Given that people are still getting accustomed to the words, it is no surprise that few know how to categorize shamanism. The question of “is shamanism a religion?” is a worthy inquiry. 

Religion is typically seen as an organization of people that follow the teachings of a set spiritual tradition. Shamanism looks a lot like a religion because it is about spirituality. There are also strong shamanic traditions. But, is there enough organization to make it a religion?

Shamanism is involved with worship of the Divine, but the practices vary widely. It doesn’t have a written moral code like we see in religion, but shamanism does have a set of common beliefs. We’re used to seeing a head of a religion – the Pope being a primary example – so who is the leader of the shamans? There are local but not global figures. 

Religion is defined in the dictionary in these three ways:

  1. “The the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods
  2. A particular system of faith and worship
  3. A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”

Absence of a Shared Shaman God

Shamans do believe in a higher power or powers that orchestrate life on this planet and the movement of the heavens. So, strictly speaking, shamanism fits the definition of “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.”

However, there is no unifying story about the nature of this power that ties all shamans together. Without the glue of a specific mythology, shamanic practitioners around the world don’t unite in a cohesive way like other religions.

There is worship of superhuman powers, but no agreement about what or who that power is. Consensus is missing. Whether or not consensus needs to be present to make shamanism a religion is up for debate.

Shamanism is different than traditional religions because there is no set God or pantheon of deities that every shaman believes in. Some shamans work with a single God, like in Christianity. Others relate to a collection of goddesses and gods, like in Hinduism and Paganism.

Western shamanic practitioners that have lost trust in Christianity leave the definitive God or gods altogether and simply speak of life force or “the universe”.

In addition, there is no collection of written works to refer to in shamanism. Shamans don’t have a Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Quran, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Upanishads, Dhammapada, or Vedas to refer to.

This is a reflection of the locality of shamanism and how much it varies from place to place. As an earth-based practice, it adapts to the environment and people where it takes root. A shaman may adopt teachings from a spiritual text and incorporate those into their shamanic practice. This is a personal choice, not a collective one.

Shamanism Beliefs

Shamanism is a worldwide collection of people that have certain shared beliefs and world views. Here are the basics that unite shamans around the world going back as far as we know:

  • There is a physical reality AND a spiritual reality. Both exist at the same time.
  • The cosmos is made up of three worlds (lower, middle and upper) and connected by a central axis (such as a mountain or tree)
  • Spirit guides in human, animal, and other forms are real
  • We have the ability to travel to the spiritual realms via an altered state of consciousness known as the journey trance
  • Everything has a soul or is at least imbued with spiritual energy
  • All of life is interconnected and sacred
  • There is a higher power or powers that help coordinate the movement of the cosmos
  • There are cosmic laws that govern illness, healing, life, and death

As you can see, shared shamanic beliefs are about the big picture.

Variation in Shamanic Beliefs

The smaller, specific details vary widely. Shamanism is found on every continent around the world, and variations in the details depend on the country, culture, and individual. For example, some cultures believe that the three worlds have multiple worlds within them while others adhere to a simpler three world model.

There are many ways different shamanic cultures travel to the spirit world. Celtic shamans travel through a mist while Greek shamans use caves. Himalayan and Peruvian shamans travel via mountains and Norse shamans use rivers and oceans.

So when considering a “particular system of faith and worship” it is a matter of degree with shamanism. 

There is immense variation in shamanic practice. Because of this, we could easily make the case that shamanism doesn’t fit into the basket of “religion”. There is just not enough agreement on the details of both belief and ritual that bind the world-wide shamanic community together tightly enough.

There is no PARTICULAR system. In this way, it seems that shamanism fails to meet the definition of a religion.

Shamanism Religion for Lay People?

Traditionally, people who practiced shamanism held an esteemed and unique role in their communities as the tribe healer. The members of the community practiced a religion such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Paganism. They went to their shaman for guidance and healing. 

I’d argue that more people today than ever before are accessing the wisdom and healing of shamanism directly via their own journey trances. This makes shamanism less of an elitist practice than it used to be. It’s now a spirituality available to anyone.

There is a collective identity in practicing shamanism. Many believe, including me, that laypeople can practice shamanism without needing to have a career as a shamanic practitioner. This opens the door to the possibility of shamanism as a religion because it has a wider application and following.

However, without centralized leadership and gathering places, shamanism still looks different than we expect religion to be. The leaders and communities are more localized than other organized world religions.

Pursuit of Supreme Importance

Then there is the last definition of religion: “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance“. Shamanism most definitely carries that supreme importance for me. When I ask myself “Is shamanism a religion?” in this light, I can easily say it is for me.

I appreciate participating in a spiritual practice that doesn’t require I believe a set way. The freedom to mix and incorporate different spiritual and religious stories and teachings is what draws me to shamanism.

Shamanism provides a container, a conduit, for our relationship with the Divine. Rather than tell us about the nature of a higher power, shamanism allows us to experience The One directly. Rather than require I read a book or speak to a priest to learn about the Divine, I can engage in direct revelation. For me, this is of supreme importance.

Re-Evaluating Religion Itself

You can make the case for a shamanism religion or not.

You have the opportunity to choose.

As we re-evaluate our relationship to “religion” and what that word means, we can decide for ourselves if we want to fit shamanism into that mold or not.

For people who have been betrayed, disappointed, or wounded by organized religion, shamanism offers an alternative spiritual path. For them, embracing shamanism as a spiritual practice and leaving the term “religion” altogether brings safety and freedom.

For others, calling shamanism a religion and reclaiming the word “religion” in a revolutionary way is what is healing. Whether or not we call it a religion, I can say for certain that shamanism is a worldview, a healing modality, and a spiritual practice. 

Is shamanism a religion? I’d love to hear what you think! Post your thoughts in the comments below!


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The Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey (Part 3)

Crossing the Return Threshold

So far we have seen that a person embarking on a shamanic journey follows the path of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. In this last stage, the parallels remain. You may have noticed that we moved from a basic shamanic journey in Part 1 of this series on The Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey where any traveler or adventurer begins with the call, finding assistance from guides, and experiencing the road of trials, to a shamanic journey undertaken by an initiate in Part 2 of this series who is on a healing journey to recover a soul part. The boon discussed in Part 2 was the gift brought back by the soul part and even the soul part itself. We explored the types of gifts in the context of the accomplishments of the hero. The soul part obtained by the journeyer may be their own or may be that of a client they are working for. Here in Part 3, the soul part, the gift, and the healing must be brought back into ordinary reality. The trip back is not always easy and there are a number of avenues for return.

The Magic Flight

As Joseph Campbell describes, not all heroes come by their reward honestly. Many, as in Jack and the Beanstalk and Jason and the Golden Fleece, steal their prize from the Gods and have the challenge of getting out alive without getting caught. The famous anthropologist Mircea Eliade describes a number of stories from traditional shamanic cultures where the journeyer has to steal-back lost soul parts from the land of the dead. Needless to say, the dead relatives of the soul part’s owner were remorse to let the soul parts go. If the journeyer was unable to slip in and out unannounced with the soul part a battle would ensue and oftentimes a long pursuit. Here is a more light-hearted account of a magical flight as retold in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It starts when the hero Gwion Bach accidentally comes to own three drops of the elixir of inspiration that the Goddess Caridwen had concocted. Gwion decides to take off with the boon:

And she went forth after him, running. And he saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and turned him. And he ran towards a river, and became a fish. And she in the form of an otter chased him under the water, until he was fain to turn himself into a bird of the air. She, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky…” (page 172).

These days, I rarely, if ever, encounter a situation where I have to steal a soul part back although I see the framework for this type of soul retrieval. It is an outside-in perspective that reflects the worldview of the person doing and/or receiving the healing. People who are not in a spiritual or self-reflective process experience wounding and soul loss as something brought on them from the outside, be it from a malicious person or evil spirit. I work with my clients from an inside-out perspective. From this vantage, we see the inner work they are doing as a way to free the soul parts. The soul parts are more bound up by old stories and beliefs than anything, and when the client begins to even question these stories the soul part is freed and able, with some help, to come back. During the journey I work to dispel any pursuing influences and shift the energy around the soul part to release anything that may prevent the soul part’s return. This makes my return across the threshold as the journeyer a magic flight without pursuit. The return seems effortless without all the trials we encountered on the way to non-ordinary reality.

Rescue from Without

Sometimes the journeyer gets stuck after finding the boon and cannot either figure out the way back or the method of returning. This is a point where everything can shift and the spirit guides that were there are now gone. The journeyer may completely forget how they got to where they are, let alone decipher what the return route might look like. This is the time to call out and see who is going to come and help with the return trip. The spirit animal or guide that arrives to help the journeyer out of the pickle may be the same guide that offered support through the road of trials at the start or may be a new, unfamiliar guide that will help with the next phase of the person’s life.

When Joseph Campbell speaks of the rescue from without he tells stories of how the ordinary world comes to get the hero. This may be someone in human form on earth waking up the Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle. For the shamanic journeyer the simplest form of rescue from without is the call-back beat of the drum. During the journey the journeyer has listened to a repetitive, monotonous drumming meant to place them in an altered state of consciousness. Then the drumming pauses and takes on an entirely different, chaotic rhythm. This wakes up the ego-mind that says, “oh yes! Let’s go home now! I’m not sure how much time has passed but it may have been to much.” In this way, both the drum and our ordinary world selves rescue us from without.

Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the threshold and coming from the mystical into the mundane can be an incredibly strenuous process. In the healing world, we like to call this “integration”. This is the time when the boon, healing, gifts, and talents must be brought from the ethereal forms of the cosmos to the dense form of our earth-based bodies. Joseph Campbell describes this crisis so eloquently I can’t help but read these passages over and over again:

This brings us to the final crisis of the round, to which the whole miraculous excursion has been but a prelude – that, namely, of the paradoxical, supremely difficult threshold-crossing of the hero’s return from the mystic realm into the land of common day. Whether rescued from without, driven from within, or gently carried along by the guiding divinities, he has yet to re-enter with his boon the long-forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete. He has yet to confront society with his ego-shattering, life-redeeming elixir, and take the return blow of reasonable queries, hard resentment, and good people at a loss to comprehend” (page 186).

How teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand times, throughout the millennia of mankind’s prudent folly? That is the hero’s ultimate difficult task. How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?” (page 188).

The journeyer/hero is different coming back than they were when they left. They have changed, but the world hasn’t. This can cause a good deal of heartache if the journeyer is not prepared for the isolation that may occur when friends and loved ones cannot understand the enormity of the experience and he no longer feels understood. This is why I always encourage students and clients to be gentle with themselves as they settle into their new selves. The journey is a heartbeat in comparison to the time it may take to integrate what all transpired. Other times it flows like water through a reed. It is never easy to predict how the integration process may transpire, but it is worth having a head’s up that it may be tricky. Allowing some space around yourself after the work is important. Think of how many times you see in movies or read in stories that the hero seems distant after coming back from such a journey. He may go for long walks in the garden or sit for hours watching the woods. Our souls crave the isolation that frightens our egos. Allowing the intelligence of the soul to dictate the process is the best bet.

Master of Two Worlds

The master of two worlds is the fully integrated hero that is able to share his magical gift with the world. The integrated journeyer is no different. In fact it is often said the the shaman is the one who walks with a foot in both worlds. If the gift coming back is about the ability to express one’s passion openly, the journeyer will take the opportunity to share what he loves with others. This is the point where the hero feels compelled to make this world that stayed the same, better. The theme of service comes in to play here and the hero’s relationship to service will deepen considerably. Joseph Campbell shares that Buddha hesitated to return from nirvana once he attained it, but it was his compassion for all living beings that brought him back to the divine play or the lila as it’s called in Hinduism. Ram Dass discusses this choice extensively when teaching about siddhas in his book Be Love Now. Although we probably haven’t entered enlightenment or sainthood, we too are called to move out of the reverie that comes from receiving the gifts of the Gods and enter back into the suffering of the ordinary world. It gives the amazing light that is the gift and our opportunity to glimpse the infinite, purpose.

Freedom to Live

The fantastic news is that with the transformation that comes through this process also comes freedom from attachment. This allows the hero the chance to live life more fully with less suffering and more love. In meeting the heavens, the hero now has access to more grace than he can imagine. With this grace comes an outstanding capacity to sit in awe of the world. I’ve seen this on the faces of those who undertake life-changing shamanic journeys. They glow. There is an experience beyond words that they well over with. Easing another’s suffering becomes effortless when one rests in such bliss. This is not to say that life will always be easy or painless after the full round of the hero’s journey takes place or that another round isn’t already underway, but this is to say that moments of awe will overtake days, months, and years of trial.

Joseph Campbell cautions us here that “Man in the world of action loses his centering in the principle of eternity if he is anxious for the outcome of his deeds, but resting them and their fruits on the knees of the Living God he is released by them, as by a sacrifice, from the bondages of the sea of death. ‘Do without attachment the work you have to do… Surrendering all action to me.

Simply put the hero turns himself over, is liberated and states, “Let Thy will be my will.”

* All quotes come from The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

“Journey Circle” from Gracious Wild

In this excerpt from my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, I share the story of the first time I ever taught a group to go on a shamanic journey. This was an incredibly frightening thing because the women I was teaching were of such high intellect and integrity. I was humbled by the fact that I could have anything of value to teach them and that they, these gorgeous, empowered women, would trust me with this piece of their process. For all of us, opening up to talk about matters of the soul was a rare and vulnerable experience. To this day, I have the same experience with every group that I teach. I am awestruck by everyone’s brilliance. I couldn’t be any more fortunate and it is amazing to think back ten years and see the amazing gift this seed planted on the evening of this story grew into. 

Five days before the meeting with my friends, to my complete shock and horror I came home to a full-blown construction site. My house sat on blocks with a three-foot trench dug around all sides. Parts of the foundation had already been jack-hammered away. There was a huge mound of dirt circling our home and the yard was littered with tools, supplies, trailers, and wood. I had left that morning to a quiet neighborhood, my house fully intact, with no warning that this was coming. The owners of the house we were renting had decided that three quarters of the house’s foundation should be torn out and replaced. I had no phone for twenty-four hours and no rest for days. The workers would come at 7 a.m., turn on their stereo, and start slamming away at the foundation underneath our bed where we slept. The noise upset our dog so much that I had to take him to work. Everything was thrown on its head.

Clearly, to create a sincere environment to house my new soul family, I needed to tear down my outdated foundation. All the beliefs I held true and dear in the world needed to go. I couldn’t guide a group into other worlds if I was fearfully holding on to this one. This message was coming through so plainly that it was manifesting everywhere I turned—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

My soul sister was also showing me how to release my roots. Graccia had moulted (shed) two of her old tail feathers in the center of her tail. By the time the three women I’d invited made it to my doorstep, I was down to bedrock. I had no idea what to expect and with no ground to stand on I placed my fate entirely in Spirit’s hands.

Like the beaver felling the tree, we began construction on the dam that would serve as the base of our new lodge. We gathered in my living room around a small candle on the wool sun deity blanket I’d spread out. My old yellow lab plopped down in the middle of the group,lavishing in lengthy belly rubs and occasional hugs.His fur collected in handfuls on the dark wool blanket.Everyone remarked on how soft his coat was and settled into comfortable conversation. We talked about the simplicities of the day and each woman, not knowing the other, settled into fresh relationships. Among the four of us we covered over twenty years, but in this room we regarded each other on level ground. My black cat Gretchen joined us, sauntering in from the bedroom on her long legs. She stretched out on the sofa overlooking the circle.

I began the evening by inviting each woman to talk about a place of honoring, meditation, or contemplation she may already have set up in her home. Quickly we learned that each one of us had, even if by happenstance, assembled an altar—a sacred space—in our homes. It was good to give voice to these places and to honor them in the circle. These spaces were quiet manifestations of our inner knowing, physical representations of life outside the mundane. Each woman spoke lovingly of these places and the support they’d received while being there.

I had a new set of animal cards that I unwrapped as we talked. I’m typically very superstitious with these decks of cards. The first card I see by mistake or on purpose is always the one I go with. While unwrapping the deck I carelessly turned it over and caught a glimpse of the bottom card. It was horse. This was perfect. I had journeyed the night before for instruction on how to advise my friends. One piece of guidance was to suggest each woman call in a horse to accompany her on her journey.

I pulled the card from the deck, and before I could lay it in the center of the circle, one friend, then the next, asked to see the picture on the card. As the card passed hands around the circle, we each shared about our relationship with horses. The room was split right down the middle between those who loved and those who wrote off horses. It was refreshing to hear the varied perspectives because in the mosaic of stories sat each woman in her truth. One friend asked me to give instructions on how to go on a shamanic journey. I hesitantly entered into lecture. These were my colleagues and mentors, and I found it hard to take a position of authority in the group. I quickly realized that I had information to offer that they couldn’t find many other places, and my friends valued it as much as I did.

I started by explaining the basic shamanic perspective of the cosmos. “There are generally believed to be three worlds,” I described, “lower world, middle world, and upper world. Lower world is generally of the earth and tangibles. Middle world is where we currently sit but free of time and space. Upper world is commonly of the ethers and subtleties.” We talked about power animals and helping spirits. I gave them a series of phrases to clarify the idea of helping spirits—“ancestors, angels, spirit guides, and archetypes.”

Each woman shared that she was already in a relationship with a power animal or helping spirit. None of them had visited a shaman or done a traditional shamanic journey. My friends had found their own ways to connect with Spirit. These women had vivid imaginations, which I explained was the key to the shamanic journey. They had already been journeying in their daytime and nighttime dreams, and it was my job to teach

them how to visit these spirits and places intentionally. I gave them the ground rules for safety, explained how to travel to these other worlds, and instructed them to ask their guides for help. “I will drum for about ten to fifteen minutes,” I told them, “and then I will give the callback beat, which sounds like this.” I played seven beats in three sets followed by a fast rumble beat, and ended with seven more beats in three sets. They all lay down, one around my yellow lab, another on the yellow lab’s bed, and another in between. I dimmed the lights and began playing my drum.

I was immediately enraptured by the sounds that rose out of each beat. The drum filled the room with twenty tones and moved the floor beneath us. Looking back, I jokingly feel fortunate that the vibrations didn’t send the house off the blocks. In all honesty, I did not play that drum. She played me for the twelve or so minutes my arm could keep up. All the hesitancy, fear, and anxiety I felt over holding a group of such high caliber was completely overwhelmed by the music of the beats. Whenever I’d start to get self-conscious, my drum would pull me right out or in, depending on where I needed to be.

Before befriending horses, people could only travel so far. Through the beat of my drum, our allegorical horse, my friends and I traveled into other worlds. We had experiences that spoke of light, letting go, finding balance, and moving forward. The metaphors in their journeys wove a natural web through the circle. Two saw a yellow light in the northwest. Another pair had the experience of being hollow and full, being split between left and right, being heavy and weightless. Three of us never made it onto our horse’s backs. We were all bewildered to one degree or another over our journey experiences, but  the compassion we extended into the circle held us all in a good way. It was no coincidence that on my journey that night I followed a spirit red-tailed hawk into another world. The magic Graccia brought into my life was apparently at work again.

The Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey (Part 2)

In Part 1 of The Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey we explore the trials the hero goes through to reach the ultimate boon.

The Ultimate Boon

When we embark on a shamanic journey we have so many expectations for what is to come. There is a climax to this story we are certain. We will come back with a new power, a supernatural gift, a better life. The promise of riches from this journey are so compelling that we can become obsessive, even mad, in our quest. Our motivation to attain this goal is what helps us overcome the most nasty and devastating of obstacles. We are willing to give up what keeps us safe, long-held belief systems, and ego barriers. We are willing to face our deepest fears. Where does this expectation of a boon come from? Myth of course.

This is the stage of the hero’s journey where after much trial and striving that he reaches the ultimate boon. In many stories it is often a literal boon such as Jack’s golden egg, Jason’s golden fleece, and Prometheus’s recaptured flame. We are used to seeing the hero depicted in movies and books coming home with a great treasure, a mystical diamond, a magic staff or sword. In mythology this object is what literally makes the hero’s life better. This direct thinking can present a problem with the shamanic journeyer causing her to expect to be able to return with some THING that will improve her life. We know it sounds ridiculous at the time, but this is a difficult expectation to shake.

We are so oriented to stuff and things, and the shamanic landscape can look deceivingly like our own. When we ask what gift the power animal or soul part is bringing back, they can show us an object (a flower, a wand, a crystal, a stone). I can’t tell you how many years the magical child in me secretly fantasized about finally being able to bring one of these objects back. It is an obvious leap to make even though we know the laws of physics are against us.

I always encourage those I do soul retrievals for and those I teach to journey to watch out for the pitfall of taking this object literally. It is a slippery desire. The gift is in the simplicity of the metaphor. The way we bring this gift into our ordinary, everyday life is to assimilate the deep meaning of the simple truth that is coming through. It is easy to understand the object literally and it takes a heroic transcendence to understand it symbolically. It takes time, sometimes years, to understand the vast resources of this seemingly simple gift. This is why this is actually one of, if not the, most powerful and mystifying boons to receive.

Other boons are not objects, but climaxes and accomplishments. Joseph Campbell tells of sacred marriage with the goddess and gives numerous examples of the male hero coming to and marrying the divine feminine. In today’s world, what this looks like is the intellect marrying the heart. This is the coming together of action and receptivity. This is the sacred marriage. At this time in the shamanic journeyer’s progress they meet their anima or animus and are joined with them in the journey. This is the beginning of the end to the split between reason and feeling. The two come together in the journeyer. The coming forth of the “other” side allows the person to become fully integrated. The polarization between right and wrong that causes so much suffering in us is absolved in this moment, and no longer does disharmony rule the consciousness like it once did.

Now the journeyer has access to congruence. The form of congruence depends on the journeyer. It could be a new found decisiveness, a new found ability to hear one’s intuition, or a indescribable sense of peace. This is a coming to peace with one’s life and the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth that is inherent in the goddess. Often we would place the divine feminine as the heart in this exchange, but Mr. Campbell explains her as wisdom which is beyond intellect. “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known… The hero is the one who comes to know” (p. 97). The shamanic journeyer comes to know what is needed at any given moment as she gains full access to her intuition. Without any preference for life, death, or rebirth – holding all as potential – true knowing can come through.

At the climax, the hero can finally come into confrontation with his father. Joseph Campbell calls this “atonement with the father” and artfully translates it into “AT-ONE-MENT” (p. 107). At ground level, this can be a confrontation with a male figure in one’s life that seems to always sit in judgement of our actions. At the spiritual level, this is the belief in a wrathful, vengeful, or just God that sits in the sky delivering judgment. Zeus is a perfect example of this projection, but regardless of the name of the male God, this is an imprint in our consciousness.  Atonement is about coming into oneness with divine will, letting go of all the judgements and justifications we use for holding on to our ego. What this looks like in the shamanic journey is coming face to face with our righteous selves and the reasons we use to justify our arrogance and vengeance. The final trial is a transmutation, a purging, of our ego.

The mystagogue (father or father-substitute) is to entrust the symbols of office only to a son who has been effectually purged of all inappropriate infantile cathexes – for whom the just, impersonal exercise of the powers will not be rendered impossible by the unconscious (or perhaps even conscious and rationalized) notice of self-aggrandizement, personal preference, or resentment. Ideally, the invested one has been divested of his mere humanity and is representative of an impersonal cosmic force. He is the twice born: he has become himself the father. And he is competent… to enact himself the role of the … sun door, through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of “good” and “evil” to an experience of the majesty of cosmic law” (p. 115).

The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned.” (p. 125).

In the shamanic journey this can look like a battle with a great force of darkness. It can be struggling against a black tsunami or facing off with a fire breathing dragon. It can be encountering a frighteningly giant snake, spider, shark, or squid. Always the opponent feels malicious, all-powerful, and wrathful only to find that we are able to come to peace with them. We do so by releasing the need of our ego to triumph and replacing it with the call of our soul to atone.

The final boon that Joseph Campbell outlines and that the shamanic journeyer may encounter is apotheosis which is defined simply as “the elevation of someone to divine status”. This is where we experience the cosmic law that “what is in one is in the whole.” This boon is of the more rare kind in my experience, and something we are lead to. This is not a boon any traveler can make happen no matter what obstacles they overcome. This is God coming to the hero. Absolute dissolution into the sacred is hard to come by and is only accomplished in unplanned encounters that are fleeting. These are the possessions by the divine as explained by St. Theresa of Avila and other great mystics.

In a journey, apotheosis is proceeded by a dismemberment experience. Apotheosis for the shamanic journeyer is when one’s consciousness completely dissolves into white light, when one is completely taken over by a divine being, and when one all of a sudden takes in the world and all of its suffering at once. We inherently open our lives up to the possibility of this life changing experience by following the hero’s journey in our own mythology. Oftentimes God hears us and comes. Ultimately, our small, personal mythology is a reflection of the large, collective story of what it is to be human. What is in one is in the whole.

Read PART 3 of the Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey

The Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey (Part I)

Delving deep for the last few months into Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, I am astounded by the overwhelming wealth of information Mr. Campbell amassed in his studies. He did this all before the age of the internet. I picture him pouring over ancient texts, seeking myths across continents, sifting through shelves of books, and placing more than one inter-library loan. How he accessed the myths he did and was able to cite every work is beyond comprehension to me. Again, in studying one of the great philosophers I am reminded of the gifts of patience, hard work, and perseverance.

The reason for this exploration is more than purely personal, although as a fellow storyteller I love Mr. Campbell’s work for the sake of his work alone. Upon learning of the hero’s journey and the power of myth a couple of years ago, I immediately began to see connections between the philosophy of Mr. Campbell’s teachings and the shamanic work I conduct with clients. He shares towards the end of the epic volume  that in contemporary society “no meaning is in the group – none in the world: all is in the individual” (pg. 334). With ancient mythologies now classified as lies we can no longer use societal myth to connect with meaning on a grand scale. Thus the need for personal myth. Enter the shamanic journey.

Over and over again I see motifs of ancient myth arise in the soul retrievals I perform for clients. All the vast majority of this has happened prior to my reading of this text and integration of the philosophy, so I know for certain that the correlation resides in the collective unconscious. Motifs that are common include the call to adventure, supernatural aid, road of trials, crossing thresholds, sacred marriage, cosmic egg, and the belly of the whale. By entering into this work we are entering into the cosmogenic cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth.

We enter in thinking our goal is to be empowerment and find self-actualization because we live in a culture where the Self is paramount. We want to be the victors in our own lives, to win the boon of peace, abundance, happiness, or love, and bring the treasure home into our everyday. We enter into this cycle without realizing that the first stage of this process requires dissolution. We must let go of what we thought we knew and be cast out from the familiar by embarking on a mysterious journey onto the night-sea of the unconscious. This is the stage where dismemberment, crucifixion, and abduction occur in myth. Whether the dissolution happens willingly or not depends on the circumstances. The same is true in myth. In myths the hero can start out in search of the elixir of life (the fountain of youth), on a quest to rescue a kidnapped loved one or stolen prized possession, involuntarily swept out of her life, or in search of an escape from the boredom of the everyday. Many people come to me for healing thinking that means they will be put back together again, but what they don’t often realize is that I’m taking them apart from what they are attached to. Some people’s lives have been torn asunder already and they are acutely aware of the devastating loss that is occurring. Others come to me fed up, stuck, and ready to cast off the chains. They are begging for the dissolution to come and want a kick-start.

Regardless of the personal motivation or circumstances, the healing comes in pulling up the anchors in the past and following the prompting of the deep well of courage we all possess within. We are acting as our own heroes in this process and heroes are brave souls.

Next come the tests, the road of trials, to point out the inner gifts we have fallen asleep to and to link us further to our omnipresent support systems. Here is where supernatural aid is primary and where people learn to rely on power animals, nature’s messages, and helping spirits. It is much easier to understand the divine when it has form. Old myths used to give the divine form via the characters that played the community stage. Without the old myths to rely on, we have to repopulate the personal stage with closer archetypes. I spend a lot of time working with clients on how to relate to, conceptualize, and communicate with their guides because without this supernatural safety net the road of trials cannot be won. In everyday life, the road of trials looks like the co-worker who takes the credit for what you do, the dead car engine when you’re in a hurry, the inability to find work, complications with selling a house, uncertainty in your marriage, a debilitating illness with no diagnosis or no cure, and much, much more. Internally, the road of trials looks like the utter lack of conviction in your communication, the unending need for control, the nights-long fear of failure, the absolute incapacity to reach out, the ceaseless pursuit of perfection, the undying need to be right, the crippling self-imposed isolation, and much, much more. In the hero’s journey, these are “the rocks that crush the traveler, the reeds that cut him to pieces, the cane cactuses that tear him to pieces, and the boiling sands that overwhelm him” (pg. 58).

It is as if we know on a deep, deep level that this road is coming and before embarking or early on in our healing process we can refuse the call to move forward in fear we won’t make our way. This is why an early and strong connection with power animals and helping spirits can be so pivotal in the voice of the soul winning over that of the ego.

In showing how supernatural helpers make all the difference against unimaginable odds, Joseph Campbell gives the example of Psyche’s mission to rescue her lover, Cupid, from his overbearing mother, Venus. “When Psyche pleaded with Venus, the goddess grasped her violently by the hair and dashed her head upon the ground, then took a great quantity of wheat, barley, millet, poppy seed, peas, lentils, and beans, mingled these all together in a heap and commanded the girl to sort them before night. Psyche was aided by an army of ants. Venus told her, next, to gather the golden wool of certain dangerous wild sheep, sharp of horn and poisonous of bite, that inhabited an inaccessible valley in a dangerous wood. But a green reed instructed her how to gather from the reeds round about the golden locks shed by the sheep in their passage” (pg. 81). And so on the story goes. So many times I come back from shamanic journeys and clients are overwhelmed with how difficult the process was. This trial is necessary and needed for the next stage. We are hungry for the myth of the hero so that we may again connect with our inner hero, the divine act of creation incarnate within ourselves.

This exploration only takes us 1/3 of the way about the round of the hero’s journey.

Read PART 2 of the Shamanic Journey & Hero’s Journey

Medicine Wheel by Season

How to: Prayers for the Directions

In an earlier post on “Calling the Directions & The Medicine Wheel” I shared a definition of medicine wheels, how to move about the wheel, and associations with the directions on the wheel. In this post, I share with you methods for composing a prayer to call in the directions.

The Nature of Prayer

Prayers are peculiar things that can take on any nature. Just because we call something a “prayer” does not make it sacred. The ego can compose self-involved pleas to a Higher Power. Many people choose not to pray because they’ve become frustrated with petition and gratitude prayers. Others grow weary of prescribed prayers (such as the Hail Mary or Lord’s Prayer) that can lose their spark over time.

So, how do we say sacred prayers that foster connection? How do we avoid the dry wishlist and rote repetition? Practice composing our own organic prayers helps. Petition and gratitude prayers are often fueled by fears. In tracking how our unconscious fears creep into our prayers, we can tailor our prayers to admit and release our fears consciously. Lastly, it helps to have a practice of cultivating your connection with your intuition and your soul. The stronger this connection, the more able you will be to create authentic, spontaneous prayers.

If you feel like you are entirely new to tracking your fears and cultivating soul connection that’s okay. Continue on the path of learning and, in the meantime, rely on the written prayers of so many who’ve gone down this path before.

Composing Your Own Prayers

Do not be anxious. There is no need for you to compose beautifully worded prayers. Use whatever words suit your needs and desires…. But don’t spend all your time summoning up the presence of God…. Simply set out your needs and acknowledge that you have no right to be always aware of God’s presence. There is a time for this, and a time for that. Observe them. Otherwise your soul will grow weary.” – Saint Theresa of Avila

Below are elements of calling in the directions that you may choose to include in your prayers for the directions. How you word your prayer for each of these elements will vary with your relationship to them. Notice that words aren’t the only elements here. Actions are just as, if not more, critical to your prayer. The cardinal direction you choose to start at is your choice. I recommend going clockwise on the wheel and finishing with all the cardinal directions before going to earth, sky, and center.

Step 1: Aligning

To align and show your intent for working with a direction you can very simply face the given direction. For the earth you have the option of kneeling and placing your palms on the ground. For the sky you may choose to raise your arms up to the heavens. In this portion of the prayers for the directions you state the name of the direction. It may be as simple as “Spirit of the East”. Some use “watchtower” or “guardian” instead of spirit. You may also choose a more complex name that you have adopted such as “Goddess” for the earth or “Our Heavenly Father” for the sky.

Step 2: Opening

You may choose to demonstrate your openness to greet and welcome in the power of the direction by standing with your arms open and palms facing outward. In a more private prayer you may choose to bow or kneel. You can simply say “I welcome you to our circle”. In my prayers, I typically follow that with the phrase “with open heart, arms, and mind.”

Step 3: Invitation

Here is where you can take the opportunity to name the graces or gifts of that direction that you are inviting into your life. “Please bring your graces of new beginnings and fresh starts” would be a perfect prayer to include for the East. Not to be confused with petition, this portion of the prayer helps us name and embrace what we are inviting in. You may say “I embrace/allow/invite your gifts”.

Step 4: Gratitude

Although we don’t want to fall into petition and gratitude prayer, gratitude is a valuable component to consider. To avoid saying “thank you for blah, blah, blah” instead say “thank you for your presence”. One way to field test your gratitude prayer is to see if it’s attached to a certain outcome. If you say “thank you for your fresh start” that is an outcome, but “thank you for the guidance and healing you offer” is less results oriented.

Step 5: Closing

Once you’ve completed your ceremony, it is customary to thank the spirits again and release them. Ultimately the space we use for ceremony is left off to serve another purpose and it is up to us to release the space to its new purpose. Often the ending sounds something like “Spirits we release you. Thank you. Your service today and always is greatly appreciated.”

Other Practices to Keep in Mind

When saying prayers for the directions many people like to include an instrument that goes beyond the power of words into the power of sound alone. Shaking a rattle or beating a drum while praying is common as is whistling or playing a flute. Some sing their prayers.

Speaking out loud helps us practice with the weight of words. Creating prayers like these helps us understand how powerful the words from our minds and mouths are. Mindfulness with speech is an important spiritual practice. When we decide to summon divine support let us do so with reverence and attention. And, it is worth listening to Saint Theresa of Avila when she advises we “use whatever words suit your needs and desires”. Take these prayers seriously, but not too seriously that you get tongue-tied. Be willing to put yourself out there in your beautiful imperfection.