It 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.
So, 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.
Drumming 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.
In 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.
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 modalities. 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.
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’d love to know what you think.