Journeying to shamanism

July 8, 2014


374428961_d63c7658fa_zIt can be hard for me to turn off my “observer” and embrace the activity in which I’m involved. Because I really do like to watch and suss out and consider — sometimes I like that much more than participating. Not to mention the effort that must go into remembering things so I can write about them–much harder these days.

This  was part of my problem at the basic shamanism workshop I took the other weekend: I wanted to watch and I wanted to remember what I saw and what I experienced to write about it. But I also wanted to embrace the process.

There are also pesky ethics in shamanism.

For example, shamans can not do work for someone without their permission. In fact, even praying for someone without their approval is considered unethical.  The discipline has strong ethical boundaries. So I tossed and turned in the pre-dawn hours trying to figure out what I could say about my experience. Because some of it was really, really interesting but likely intrusive on the experience of others. And also, I didn’t want to open the activities to ridicule, as in a comment our teacher made about reactions he’s gotten: “white guy with a drum and rattle?” Because Michael Harner’s form of shamanism is respectful of and doesn’t want to infringe on indigenous people and their beliefs and processes.

It’s complicated.

animismSo, let me dive right in:

A big part of beginning shamanism has to do with finding our own power animal and to do that we must “journey,” usually to the upper world or the lower world, which are abundantly populated with compassionate, helping spirits. Like power animals. A power animal guides, helps and protects us and represents our connection to all life and power.

Journeying means altering our state of reality. Some indigenous cultures use “plant medicine” or “sacred medicine” to journey. One commonly used plant is ayahuasca, which is a hallucinatory vine that when consumed provides spiritual revelations.  I once saw a documentary about how this plant is a tool of enlightenment through its own spirit. I also remember that people vomit profusely after taking it.  I’m long past wanting to consume that kind of plant medicine and thankfully, my workshop relied on rhythmic drumming alone to help us journey to these other worlds.

shaman wkshop timDrumming and dance help us bring up our energy to invoke the spirits and the beat is usually slow at first and then speeds up.  We began each of our journeys with sound and movement to bring in the helping spirits that were just waiting to connect with us.  We danced –using the term loosely—and let the sound carry us. Some of the more experienced journeyers had their own drums or rattles and a few even let out keening chants or sounds like you might hear in Native American ceremonies. It seemed a welcoming atmosphere for spirits.

Here’s an example of shamanic drumming, although it wasn’t our beat.

After calling in the spirits, we were given our assignment for the journey. Or maybe it was before, I don’t remember. Our first task was to journey to the lower world and find our power animal.


Are you my power animal? Or are you Groucho Marx?

I slid down into the lower world through the roots of a cherry tree in the back yard of my childhood home.  We were told there’s a barrier journeyers must pass to really get down there and I’m not sure I passed it. I knew I was lower, but didn’t feel I was that far down. But I went with what I had.

So, did I find my power animal? I might have. Or I might have found the spirit of Groucho Marx masquerading as my power animal, because my power animal–Owl–was a master of one-liners. Our teacher told us that power animals could be jokesters, usually at our expense, and that was true in my case. Owl liked to give me a hard time and the image that came to mind was Groucho. Then M pointed out that Groucho kind of resembles an owl. I have no idea what to make of this–I can only report my experience. It’s equally likely that I made the whole thing up.

We also journeyed on behalf of a partner. Our task was to find a former spirit animal of our partner that wanted to return and to return the spirit animal to that person.

In another exercise, we were told to go into the upper world. I had some trouble journeying up–part of it was that I couldn’t get there the way our teacher asked us to. Later, I got there (or thought I did) my own way. But who knows where the hell I was. I might’ve been just lying on the floor in the room.

A common question even for some of the group who were experienced journeyers:  Did I make this up? Or was it real? Was it my imagination? Did I conjure it up?  I’m a pretty open person, but still, I felt like a stranger in this world, unable to determine if I was forcing myself to imagine things or if spirit was actually with me. What was real?

A big question: What is reality? Shamanism involves both ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is what we live in day to day, while non-ordinary reality is the spirit world.  In shamanism, they’re both reality.  That’s a huge leap for Westerners, even though we seem to have no problem with concepts like virgin birth and resurrection.

shamanism-0In a workshop like this we might be asked to move like our power animal or even dance like them.  It’s important to set aside judgment or self-consciousness as workshop participants might act like bears, panthers, owls or even kangaroos.  I didn’t have any trouble setting aside judgment or moving like an animal, although I really just wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch. To take it all in.

We’d been asked to bring a rough-edged rock about the size of a grapefruit and I was surprised when we did an exercise that involved looking at the rock to divine answers to questions for ourselves and others. As we were given instructions my usual performance anxiety kicked it.  I gave my rock a sidelong look, thinking, “Oh, I can’t possibly see anything in this rock.”   As is my habit, I felt the fear and let it go.  When the exercise began, I was immediately able to see signs, symbols and divine answers from the rock. Although I felt unsteady about my ability to journey, I had no such insecurities about my divination. It felt right and right on. Comfortable.

Healing power

Most often journeying is for healing, rather than enlightenment (or so we were told) and the healing can be powerful. In shamanism, power is responsible for health and when your soul and body lose power illness can result. That’s why so many people “get” illnesses after a power-sucking life experience, they posit.

The shamanic view on some mentally ill people is that they are not so much sick as they are “acutely sensitive.” Shamans are able to help these individuals live with those sensitivities. This intrigues me and is far too complex to cover in a blog post, but it has implications for not only mental illness but conditions such as autism. Some progressive health centers integrate traditional and shamanic treatment There’s power in this work, I’m convinced.  If I were sick I would absolutely work with a shamanic healer. Absolutely.  I have the utmost respect for what can result.

Now that I’ve completed Michael Harner’s workshop in basic shamanism, I can take advanced study. But I’m not sure I will. I’m going to sit with it a while. While I’m interested in shamanism and believe there’s something to it, it felt like I was wearing a shoe that was the wrong size. Shamanism doesn’t seem to have the same resonance as the work I do with mediumship and more traditional afterlife studies. Maybe it’s because shamanistic tenets are far less part of our culture than other kinds of alternative work. Or maybe I felt that I was forcing my journeys–that they were stories I was telling myself to comply with the instructions.  When I contrast that with the time that my father “appeared” to me spontaneously, without my even trying–it doesn’t compare. I didn’t need Owl to do that. I didn’t need any intermediary. He just appeared.

Then again:

When my workshop partner was asked to find and return to me a former power animal of mine, I was expecting something like a tiger or an eagle. She found a kangaroo. A kangaroo?

So when we were asked to dance like our power animal I was a little taken aback. Given my back injury, hopping was out of the question. I did find another way to move like my power animal, all the while thinking: A kangaroo? Seriously?

As I was putting this post together I did a search for a photo of an owl power animal. I found the image I used above. But the fourth or fifth image in the results was this surprising image that wasn’t an owl at all:


Thanks for dancing with me the other day, ‘Roo.

Yep. A kangaraoo.

When I tried to do the same search later and replicate the result, the only images that came up were owls. The kangaroo wasn’t there.

So maybe there’s something to this, after all.

I’m open.

I’d love to know what you think.

42 comments on “Journeying to shamanism
  1. I am facinated by the mental health and autism possibilities. ..
    The kangaroo, I really thought that stuff only happened to me. It wasn’t a coincidence. ..

  2. Fascinating. I like the way you explained your response to the exercise – that it felt like a shoe that was the wrong size. That’s a good explanation of how one feels when they’re trying to embrace something that might not be the exact right thing for them. I too have had that same experience, more often in relationships (both romantic, and non) where I wanted something to feel right, but for whatever reason, it just wasn’t my path. It will be interesting to see where this takes you. And, I can totally get the owl – you’re very wise.

  3. kim tackett says:

    Thanks for this, and also for the link…I kept it on as I read your piece (and am still listening to it). I believe that we all use what works for us, and gives us comfort and power. Always thought-provoking stuff, Carol!

  4. Suzie Cheel says:

    Love the Kangaroo, a wonderful power animal bounding to freedom. Thanks for this very informative post on sharmanism, I need to explore this further as recently in a soul reading the term was used for me. Yes so many journeys are to healing

  5. So many things here to comment on. First, I couldn’t imagine having to get permission to pray for others as I’m continually praying for this and that, for family and friends. I love your openness to new experiences, your seeking out wisdom and inner (and outer) knowledge. And I love, love, love the kangaroo! 😀

    • Now that time has passed I can say so much about the kangaroo and the maternal part of me. So who knows, maybe this was a more resonant experience than I’m willing to admit.

  6. Sheryl says:

    So interesting! I took part in a shaman experience while visiting Mexico. It was surprisingly moving and emotional for me.

  7. I love reading these posts — the whole subject is fascinating to me. The kangaroo picture is totally not a coincidence, and I think it’s awesome when those kind of things happen.

    • Yes,I was looking at the page the second time, thinking, “WTF did it go?” and then I tried again and it was still missing. LOL Oh, ‘Roo, you got me! Or maybe Owl was behind it.

  8. Cathy Graham says:

    How fascinating to read about your experience at the shamanism workshop. Never heard about the power animal before. How cool! I lived up in Canada’s Arctic for a while and they still have shamans up there.

  9. Laura says:

    What a powerful experience. Just this morning, I remarked: “If I get a dire diagnosis I’m just gonna go find a Shaman in SE Asia or Mexico and try for healing. I would rather prosper a healer.”

    And I work in the medical profession.
    Namaste Carol, thanks for sharing your profound experience.

  10. Becky Blades says:

    Since a recent trip to Australia, I’ve come to think of Kangaroos as very powerful. They don’t so much hop as stand powerfully still.

  11. I think there is so much we don’t know, yet as long as we remain open we can learn.

  12. Really interesting! I’ve dabbled into many other forms of “worship” or connection with the spirit world and my “higher self”, initially through a psychic and a healer, but now I more often use my own skills and meditation techniques that I’ve developed. All of it fascinates me, and my spirit guides tend to be jokesters, too.

  13. who who?? LOL. Seriously, I am interested, and considering a trip to Houston to see John Edwards. I don’t know yet.

    • I’ve seen John Edward half a dozen times in groups of varying sizes. DM me if you want to ask any questions. go with as small a group as you can reasonably afford.

  14. Ellen Dolgen says:

    I think whatever helps us find the calm within…is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  15. Thanks for sharing Great read. Makes one think……

  16. Ruth Curran says:

    You know I love your journey, your experience, your careful unfolding of the story that lead you, and all of us, to this point. But only you can, in the midst of a deeply personal and challenging journey, make me laugh out loud…. Are you my power animal or Groucho Marx…. Now that is a line worth repeating over and over and over!!! Love this and your perspective Carol!

  17. I’m open too. I think that anyone who is not does themselves a disservice. I believe that there is so much more that we’re capable of that we just don’t dare tap into. But I’m not sure why. Truth is we can be open and possibly experience more or we can be closed and not allow ourselves whatever else may be out there for us to tap in to.

  18. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I love reading about your experiences. I admire your willingness to be open-minded to new ideas.

  19. Lana says:

    I’m so glad you shared this with us – very fascinating stuff. I’m especially interested in the use of shamans to work with mental illness and autism. Thanks so much for sharing Carol.

  20. I’m glad that you enjoyed yourself. Can’t wait to hear more about it.

  21. Aunt June says:

    The mental illness as an acute sensitivity is definitely intriguing. And the idea of harnessing the mind along with the power of western medicine are very useful in the area of holistic medicine. You cannot treat one without the other. It is certainly true for mental health, why not other illnesses?

    Glad your experience was so positive!

  22. I learned a lot, and kept reading because of how you shared your open-minded observations of how you felt about this experience. And there really is a resemblance between Groucho and an owl!

  23. Lisa Froman says:

    Loved this post! I totally get it….all of it. Probably all I will share to honor my own experience. But I get your questions, response, interest…and respect for shaminism, whether you pursue the route or not.

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