Ask any passer-by on any street to spell it out shamanism and the result might be blank stares. Everybody is surprised to find out that shamanism isn’t a religion nevertheless the oldest spiritual and problem-solving technology on the planet. More surprising may be the discovery that it is the precursor to most major world religions, such as Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions, which has become practised on every inhabited continent on this planet for around 40,000 a few years possibly very much longer. Historically, shamanism was obviously a significant survival tool of prehistoric humans. Our hunter-gatherer forbears decorated the stone walls of caves and cliffs all over the world with carved and painted images drawn from shamanic experience. We will no longer are now living in caves or even in tiny communities whose members are all known to us. Most of us live far longer, healthier lives than our ancient ancestors, but our minds, that a part of us effective at fearing the dark and getting the help of things unseen, hasn’t changed in almost 25 % of a million years. What made the uncertain lives of prehistoric people less difficult works today because, even though world may have changed, fundamentally we’ve not.

Ask what a shaman is and also the question may evoke a number of words about Native American ‘medicine men’ and the word ‘witchdoctor’. In reality, that of a shaman is and does is just explained. Inside the Siberian Tungus language which produced the term, ‘shaman’ means ‘the one that sees’ and describes somebody capable of making a ‘journey’ to alternate realities when it’s in an altered state of consciousness to get to know and work with spirit helpers. What the shaman ‘sees’, what she realises, during this experience of meeting spirits is always that there is no separation between something that is: no separation between me writing and you reading these words, between a dog and cat, between life and death, between this apparently material reality and the non-material realities in the spirit worlds. This concept of ‘oneness’ is common currency in contemporary culture and increasingly given credence by certain quantum physicists working with sub atomic theory, regarded course this is a predominantly physical, as opposed to a spiritual, oneness that such scientists are attempting to describe. However, where many people could only consider the notion of ‘oneness’, shaman’s actually live it over the example of the shamanic ‘journey’ and direct, personal interaction with spirit.

Referred to as a ‘breakthrough in plane’, in physiological terms right onto your pathway begins as the shaman redirects the principal cognitive process from your left cerebral hemisphere with the brain to the correct, from the corpus collosum – which is, from your structuring, organising hemisphere, towards the visualising, sensing one. From the overwhelming most of traditions worldwide this ‘breakthrough’ will be assisted by the use of percussive sound, like drumming, rattling or clapping. Although hallucinogens, like ayahuasca, are widely advertised in the West as a method to assist alter consciousness, the truth is no more than 10% of traditional shamans use plants in this way. Metaphysically, your journey begins once the shaman’s consciousness shifts from your present and enters worlds visible and then her. These worlds, which vary with each and every culture and tradition around the world, are described as ‘alternate reality’, ‘the realm of the spirits’, or ‘non-ordinary reality’. Some traditions call shamans ‘the walker between your worlds’ because they are the bridge between ‘here’ and ‘there’.

Although often considered primitive or seen as an ‘religion’ of less developed peoples and cultures, San Pedro cactus is both subtle and paradoxical. The ‘worlds’ of shamanic journeys are utterly real – they exist and could be felt, smelt and experienced as clearly since this ‘ordinary’ reality. Simultaneously they’re qualitative spaces, states of being that reflect and offer the cause of the shaman’s journey – to ask about for help, healing or information from the spirits. Contemporary research inside the cognitive sciences points too a person’s brain is hardwired to view the ‘unseen’ along with the mystical; even the Lower, Middle and Upper Worlds from the shaman – translated into Hell, Earth and Heaven in later tripartite cosmologies – are seemingly an important part of human perception.

Unsurprisingly, one of the questions most often asked by students being introduced to shamanism is, “What are spirits?”. Perhaps because Western society has mostly avoided thinking of spirituality for several generations we lack a specific, objective idea of things like spirits. Nowadays it’s actually a one-size-fits-all word encompassing entities, energies, ghosts, angels, ancestors, the undead, elves, fairies; the list is seemingly endless. Personally, We have two understandings in the thought of spirit even though the 2 coincide, they may not be the same and yet they help me. The main Shamanic, or Western, tradition which underpins my very own practice and teaching, describes spirits in everything exists. I am a spirit currently inhabiting a physical body as a way to use a human experience. The spirits I meet on my small ‘journeys’ are dis-embodied and for that reason offer an existential overview unavailable to me, but we have been critically the same: particles of infinite universal energy, fragments from the Great Spirit. Most of us originate from this energy, exist inside and come back to it. It really is living this perspective that enables a shaman to see having less separation between issues that ordinary-reality considers very separate indeed, like life and death or wellness disease.

My second idea of spirit is much more psychological and archetypal and was very simply explained by CG Jung in their autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. Describing his personal experience of spirit helpers Jung wrote, “Philemon… brought where you can me the key insight that we now have things inside the psyche i tend not to produce, but which produce themselves and still have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself.” This is a beautifully lucid explanation of how it might feel to interact with spirit during a shamanic journey. More prosaically, I describe the process of journeying to my students as having one’s imagination harnessed and directed by something external.
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