The Shaman’s Journey— an Introduction
Imagine being able to descend into the deep recesses of your mind, where all your dreams and symbolism come from. Imagine being able to use the hidden powers of your own mind to find the meaning you have been seeking in your life. Imagine developing the inner tools you need to solve any obstacle you face as well as being able to help others on their own path. This is what it means to become a shaman.
All of us are shaped by the experiences we have in life— for example, a gym coach might have different abilities and outlook than a medical professional. A shaman is defined by their mode of existence which, in turn, is influenced by the craft they have developed. To be a shaman means, at the core, to have the ability and the access to travel through the spirit worlds that are interconnected with our material reality.
The shamanic journey around the world
Shamanism is a practice common to many different cultures around the world. The word shaman itself comes from a language spoken by an ethnic group living in Eastern Siberia. The same type of practitioner has different names and, possibly, diverse functions in other groups. For example, the name for this practitioner in many Native American cultures can be translated as “Elder” or “Medicine woman/man.” Each of these cultural shamanic practices has its own set of rituals and symbols.
Core shamanism was developed in the ’80s with the concept of stripping down the culturally-specific binds of the practice to reach a “pure” center. Because the shamanic practice is an ability that’s innate to mankind, core shamanism is available to many of us living in the Western world.
The underlying common element is the altering of our state of consciousness. Journeying (faring, riding, setting forth) is like going through our threshold: from the material, everyday world of our normal consciousness into the spirit worlds. This is achieved through different techniques.
Some techniques for shamanic journeying
Many believe that the shamanic journey is a talent that you are either born with or not. This is not true! Just like anyone can learn to ride a bicycle or draw a face, we all have the potential to learn shamanic journeying. It does, however, take some work: you need to be able to calm your mind and relax your body and do not doubt yourself but go with your intuition. The techniques to get into the shamanically altered state of consciousness can also be learned.
- A strong and regular meditation practice is the base for any sort of shamanic journey. You must learn to quieten your mind at will. If you are already familiar with practices that work to integrate mind and body (such as yogic poses and breathing, or zen meditation), you have the first step covered!
- Some shamanic practitioners resort to other methods such as sensory deprivation— reducing the input your mind gets from the physical world. In some ancient traditions, this is called “going beneath the cloak.”
- Drumming is possibly the most powerful tool to set forth on a shamanic journey. The tools used can be any sort of drum (slit drums, Nepalese dhyāngro, Inuit frame drum) and also other percussion instruments such as rattles or gongs.
The hypnotic, repetitive beat of your drum causes the brain to sink into a frequency (called theta waves) that is rich in creative imagery. The instrument can be played by the shaman themselves, or by someone else. As you are starting out, it might be easier to have someone else play it or— thank you, technology!— use a recorded drumming track or CD.In your first journeys, you can start by using a track of 20 to 30 minutes, tops. Synchronize your breathing to the sound and let yourself be hypnotized— maybe even think of the drumbeat as the heartbeat of the Universe.
It is important, even as you use your own drum or a track, that you integrate the previous techniques into your toolkit. Meditation is super important to be able to fix your mind on your journey and sensory deprivation (such as covering your eyes) can also be of great help!
Shamanic journeying experiences
This might vary depending on cultural context and your particular belief system, the moment of your life, whether you are alone or in a group. If you feel drawn to a particular tradition instead of pure core shamanism, you can begin to study it as you go along. Honing your technique, though, will help you on whatever path you choose to walk.
Remember: journeying is a gradient! On one side of the scale, there are anecdotes of very intense trance experiences. For example, a woman told of her experience being transported to the Norse Underworld and speaking with deities. She was out cold for hours.
On the other hand, some people only ever experience mild trance states— but theirs is still a completely valid journey. You don’t need to follow a specific pattern: just believe that what you are living is real. Hone your craft with regular practice and learn to avoid doubting yourself! Your experience can fall anywhere in between these extremes and vary over your lifetime: it is very personal.
You might find journeying difficult at the beginning— or even after years of constant practice! This is quite all right: our minds are not always up to this strenuous task and respecting that is part of our sacred life path.
What you can expect on your first journeys
After you have read and researched enough, you have your own drumming track, drumming circle, or even your own instrument. Ideally, you will have practiced meditation beforehand and, perhaps, even established a regular practice!
First of all: before every journey, you need to get clear on why you are doing it. Maybe it is to get power or knowledge, to meet a power animal or guide, or to connect with a Higher Power. Be aware of your intention but be okay with not getting it. Though our conscious mind might not know it, what we need is not always what we think we need. Your Higher Self or your guides might have an experience in store for you that was not the one you were looking for.
Your first journey is a vulnerable place. If you can be at a drumming circle or, at least, have someone with you that knows what is going on can be helpful. Most authors and experienced shamans recommend that the first time you practice journeying, you get your traveling feet under yourself.
You can do this by choosing to travel to a place you can call your “sanctuary”. This is the spot you choose to start all your future journeys from. It can be somewhere significant in the reality you know, but this isn’t necessary!
As you relax and calm your mind, let a shining, cleansing mist envelop you. Breathe deeply. When the mist starts to clear up, you will see your safe place: explore it with your senses and feelings. In this stage, you don’t need to analyze what you find, only to experience it without judgment (a concept you might be familiar with from your meditation practice).
To return to your body, let the mist surround and cleanse you again. You can choose to slide, walk, or run back to your body. When you come back, be gentle! Take a few minutes to stretch and get used to your body again.
Meeting your power animal
Most of the cultures that have shamanic practices also have power animal figures. These animals are spirits whose existence is intertwined with yours. They might have been keeping you company even before you developed an interest in shamanic journeying. Your power animal or guide (they can be human too) will guide and protect you in your spirit travels. They will often have words of wisdom to offer you as well!
How to meet your power animal, then? After finding your sanctuary, dedicate a journey to traveling to the lower spirit world and meet your power animal. Set your intention and get started.
You can imagine yourself descending into the earth through a tree root, a cave, or a simple hole in the ground. When you go down, stop when you reach the gate to the lower world. There might be a creature waiting there: ask them if they are your power animal. If they are, great! Otherwise, ask for your power animal to come forward. Don’t be frustrated if you are unsuccessful the first time around.
After meeting your power animal, you can talk and work with them on your following journeys and in your daily life. Ask them if they would like any offerings or if they have any wisdom for you. Always follow through with any promises or changes you said you would carry out. They are just as another person, and you must cultivate the relationship!
Some tips to have a successful journey
- Cleanse and protect your space and body. You can do this with traditionally cleansing plants such as ethically harvested sage or by taking a bath with drops of rosewater.
- Both you and your drum have needs. To be able to journey successfully, you need to— hopefully— be in your best condition but, most importantly, that you are at peace with yourself. Eat well, exercise, be mindful of your habits. Treat your drum as you would a friend or child: develop a connection with it, embrace it. Don’t think about “beating it” but about “playing with it”. Thoughts matter!
- Cover your eyes with your non-dominant arm or a piece of cloth. This can help your senses focus more easily.
- Cover your body (the same principle applies). You can use a blanket or a special cloak.
- Keep a journal and writing tools by your side. When you come out of your journey, you might have new information or wisdom to remember. It’s better to jot it down while it’s still fresh!
- Make a ritual out of it to separate it more from your daily life. It doesn’t have to be something from books or “exotic” culture. Just develop your own ritual practices to get into the journeying mindset (lighting a candle, singing, drumming, etc.).
- If you can avoid it, do not use substances to alter your mental state. Plant teachers are often abused by newcomers to the practice. Leave them to experienced shamans in appropriate cultural contexts!
- Let go of the physical world and your worldly ambitions. Embarking on the path of a shaman means learning about other worlds. Because of this, we learn that our material lives are— though valuable— small in the cosmic perspective. Journeying is not to be taken lightly: there might be beings who do not wish you well. You need to be responsible and learn to protect yourself.
Resources about shamanic journeying
When you are starting on your shamanic path, you are generally doubtful of whether you are doing it right. While it is important to trust your intuition and inner knowledge, everyone can use a little wisdom from experienced teachers. What to do if your local or online community does not include someone who can help and mentor you?
If this is your situation, you are probably thinking that you need as many additional learning resources as you can get your hands on! Here is a list of basic books that will prove helpful in developing your shamanic journey practice.
Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner’s Guide— by Sandra Ingerman
The title of this book is in itself promising. What is better for a beginner than a book titled “A beginner’s guide”? In Shamanic Journeying, Sandra Ingerman explains the basics of journeying at length. A licensed therapist and experienced shaman, she knows her stuff!
By reading this book, you will learn the essential, core principles of the practice and explore some of the many different purposes it can serve. Simple and solid, it is a good resource to keep on hand when you are taking your first steps in shamanic journeying.
The Shamanic Journey: A Practical Guide to Therapeutic Shamanism— by Paul Francis
If you are wondering how your shamanism practice fits in with the rest of your life in modern society, fear not! In The shamanic journey, philosopher and anthropologist Paul Francis explores how shamanic journeying helps us retrieve meaning for our lives.
The first of a long and useful series, this book teaches historical information about shamanic cultures, as well as important techniques to further your own practice. These include how to nurture the relationship with your power animal, how to understand journey symbolism, and how to use your quests to provide healing for yourself and others.
A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools: How to Make and Use Drums, Masks, Rattles, and Other Sacred Implements— by Evelyn Rysdyk
When you are already confident enough in your basic subject knowledge of shamanism and unless your interest is merely academic, you probably want to set out on a shamanic journey yourself. In order to do this, as you have learned, you can use different percussion instruments already explored and perfected by shamans throughout the world.
In A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools, Rysdyk explores the use of these instruments for your shamanic practice. This practical, illustrated book offers solid guidance on how to create or buy your drum, rattle, or other instruments. It also empowers you to charge and use it well!
Shamanic Journey Solo and Double Drumming— by Michael Harner and David Corbin
Drumming is an essential journeying technique for shamans from many different cultures. If you do not have an empowered drum yet, or if you simply prefer to relax and be guided by someone else’s drumming, this is an ideal resource for you.
In Shamanic Journey, well-known shamanism expert Michael Harner helps you alter your consciousness by the drumming of one or two round frame drums. This is a no-fuss classic that you should definitely consider owning.
Shamanic Journeys to Empower Your Life— by Jon Rasmussen
In Shamanic Journeys to Empower Your Life, the experienced shaman Jon Rasmussen helps you in your soulful drumming journey. Because it is not just instrumental but includes spoken meditations to guide you deeper into your mythic consciousness.
The spotlight is, here, put on healing and nurturing your inner life. Rasmussen will help you journey to change your inner mythologies that no longer serve. Thanks to its beautiful guidance, it is perfect for beginners.
Have a safe journey!
With these simple tips and resources, you can start to dip your toes into the mysterious, deep pool that is shamanic journeying. Though shamanism is often seen as something belonging to the past, it is alive and accessible today. All of us, in our shared humanity, have at our core an ability and affinity for weaving stories and participate in shamanic journeying. This trait can bring us together and help us— as a community— to retrieve meaning and healing for our lives. The journey is rich and fertile— and you can start the shift of consciousness today!