It’s not uncommon for people to confuse the techniques of shamanic journeying with shamanism. In fact, everyone can benefit from shamanic journeying, but not everyone is a shaman. A brief history and discussion can help dispel some misunderstanding and offer insight into the benefits of shamanic journeying.
How is journeying different than shamanism?
Shamanic journeying is an increasingly common practice in Westernized cultures. In most modern expressions this occurs in a community setting where individuals gather, one or more people drum for a set period of time while the rest of the people gathered enjoy the benefit of the sonic-driving in facilitating their altered consciousness. From the outside shamanic journeying closely resembles group meditation. But anyone can beat a drum and anyone can experience shamanic journeying. This doesn’t fundamentally make the people drumming or the ones journeying shamans. A shaman is a distinct role in the community wherein the shaman, usually through some type of state of altered consciousness, makes intended connection with known and trusted Spirit allies, and/or ancestral Spirits, and/or local land Spirits for the purpose of gathering information, appeasing or negotiating with the Spirits to reduce malady and disharmony, or doing direct healing work with individual clients or other Spirits (psychopomp). It takes decades of training, initiations, and guidance/teaching for one to evolve from being a shamanic initiate into an actual practicing shaman. This generally does not happen from community shamanic journey circles alone. While shamanic journeying is essential to shamanic practice and is enormously beneficial whether one goes into practice or not, if one is compelled to be in shamanic practice it will require a relationship with a teacher or mentor in the corporeal. This doesn’t negate shamanic journeying- it just focuses and enhances it.
What is shamanic journeying?
Another term for shamanic journeying is “soul flight.” It is simply an event in which a person’s consciousness has shifted from ordinary, local, material reality into an immaterial non-ordinary reality. It is most similar to a dream state, or more specifically, lucid dreaming, but it is also distinctly different in intention. “Shamanic journeying” is a term mostly adopted by Core Shamanism, which is a relatively new and modernized presentation of shamanism implemented by Michael Harner and his work through his Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
But shamanic journeying, or soul flight, is nothing new. It has been occurring among shamanic individuals and within animistic cultures for centuries. Long before modern medicine and sciences, communities depended on their shamans to gather the necessary information for the health and vitality of the individuals in the community and for the community as a whole. This information came directly from the shamanic journey. Each culture has it’s own methods of achieving the required shamanic consciousness. In some cultures hallucinogenic plant medicines are used. In some it is sleep and/or sensory deprivation. In some it is specific mind-altering ceremony or ritual. In some it’s sonic-driving, ecstatic dancing, and/or other repetitive sensory experiences.
Because of the influence of Core Shamanism, in Westernized cultures the term “shamanic journeying” nearly exclusively indicates an intentional active meditative practice facilitated by drumming.
Differences between shamanic journeying, active imagination, and meditation:
We can’t discuss shamanic journeying without also discussing in specific terms what that state of consciousness is and what is actually occurring when the soul ‘takes flight.’ Many have offered that shamanic journeying is unlike Eastern meditative practices and that a measurable difference is in the brain wave present during each respective activity. Meditation tends to lead to slower and more sleep-like brain waves whereas shamanic journeying is a quicker and more dream-like brain wave.
Direct experience has proven that shamanic journeying is a much more active experience and rather than attempting to get to a state of ‘quiet mind’ or what some call ‘bliss’, the goal of journeying is to activate as many clairsenses, or non-biological senses as is possible. So the shamanic journey is intended to solicit a direct immaterial experience of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, feeling, or understanding/knowing. Like a dream state, shamanic journeying is intended as an interactive and vivid experience. It is common to hear the shamanic journey state referred to as “sacred imagination.”
Again, shamanic journeying is available to just about every human being. In part this is because we do have the capacity to have wildly creative and vivid imaginations. While this may just be semantics to some, from a shamanic point of view it’s crucial to make a clear distinction between active imagination (as a therapeutic tool) and shamanic cosmology and experience.
Active imagination is a term coined by psychoanalyst and protégé of Freud, Carl Jung. As the shamanic renaissance is well under way, equally Jungian psychology is enjoying a resurgence. The two do make good bedfellows, and especially in Westernized cultures Jungianism offers a decent frame of understanding that’s a bit more socially acceptable and neutral than what underlies shamanism (which is animism, or the belief that all things, animate and inanimate, have Spirit). To the Jungian, active imagination is the bridge or intersection between consciousness and unconsciousness. Jung saw the unconscious as both personal and as a collective. The collective unconscious is a vast stream of symbols and information that we can tap into and which often compels us in ways we are not conscious of. This collective unconscious is universal and transcends linguistic language and cultural understanding. In many ways Jung’s collective unconscious is very much like the Spirit world (collectively). In fact, Jung’s entire The Red Book, which was published long after his death, reveals the depth of his own experiences with the distinct beings that he flushed out in his theories to be mere archetypes and symbols of the collective unconscious, all streaming from his own innate imagination.
But consider dream shaman Robert Moss’ insights here:
Disbelieving and fearing for his sanity, Jung yells at her that she and the Elijah figure are only “symbols.” Elijah reproves him, saying, “We are just as real as your fellow men. You solve nothing by calling us symbols.” Jung’s Elijah also instructs him that “your thoughts are just as much outside your self as trees or animals are outside the body.”
We can see the fundamental problem with Jungianism is that it is solipsistic in nature. That is, coming from rational materialism it is wholly psychological in it’s understanding of human experience, and thus it reduces bona fide shamanic experiences to simple projections from one’s own psyche. Within this view we are nothing more than self-contained imaginations, and shamanic experiences are not “real”, but just extensions of our psyches. Experiences become untrustworthy and information gathered through them is suspect.
Some contend that Jung was himself a modern shaman in hiding, and that he had extensive shamanic experiences in an altered consciousness. These will suggest that in order to remain an influential and respected member among his colleagues (whom included Wilhelm Reich, the champion of orgone and bioenergetics), Jung watered-down his experiences and turned the ‘Spirit realm’ into ‘collective unconscious’, his Spirit guides into ‘archetypes’, and their specific Spirit languages into ‘symbols.’ However, Michael Harner, the impetus behind the modern Western shamanic renaissance, offered us this:
“Those who wish to reconcile shamanism with another discipline—for example, psychology—should try to resist the immediate temptation, as in Casablanca, to ‘round up the usual suspects,’ the standard reductionist tools.” (Cave and Cosmos)
While Harner’s warnings against reductionism encourage strong shamanic practices, necessitating a shift away from materialism and into animism, it’s also important to hold both active imagination and the Spirit world in balance, because both do exist. How one chooses to understanding shamanic journeying is a personal choice. Not everyone is comfortable with animism. But without animism shamanic journeying becomes a watered-down and one-sided experience with self.
The biggest concern people have when they begin shamanic journeying is that they are ‘making it all up’ from their imagination. It is hard to believe that what we experience in shamanic consciousness is ‘real.’ Part of this is enculturization. We learn from the time we begin dreaming that dreams aren’t ‘real’, and yet our animistic ancestors understand the dream realm to be more real than our waking material world. So the shift from rational materialism to animism is not an easy one and it’s wrought with skepticism, self-doubt, and disbelief. But equally, a healthy dose of humility and introspection is crucial to developing the discernment between those moments of imagination projected from the psyche and a true direct experience with the Spirit realms. Not all experiences in shamanic journeying should be taken as interactions with Spirits, and any information, insight, or direction gleaned in the shamanic journey should be viewed cautiously, especially at the beginning stages of the practice. It usually takes quite a number of years of shamanic journeying to develop the discernment.
Yet it’s also disingenuous to refer to all the experiences of shamanic journeying as sacred imagination. I’ve often seen this term used as a way to simplify and avoid any discussion about shamanic cosmology, or to discourage fears people may have about encountering Spirits. In my understanding this feels dangerous because we’re going to have the experiences we’re going to have whatever we call them, and when we dismiss them all as imaginative it invites an internalization of the experience that may actually open us up to things that aren’t personal at all, or it may lead us to accept the experiences as signs of internal pathology, when in fact they may be teachings and healings for our benefit.
A really good example of this is dismemberment. Every shamanic initiate will or has experienced dismemberment at the compulsion of one or more Spirit guides. If seen as a projection of imagination one can immediately be concerned about one’s psychological state, as dismemberments can be very gruesome for some people. When we view this from a reductionist point of view this can be jarring and we will be compelled to over-analyze it as some type of internal Shadow impulse, a psychological shift, or death/shedding of ego. While it can be all of that, when we view it from a shamanic lens it’s simply an initiatory rite of passage and is an essential universal type of healing that all shamanic individuals must experience.
While both views can be true at the same time, one will contain all responsibility as projection from the unconscious (or the Shadow aspects of self), while the other will submit it unto the Spirits as evidence of their work in and through the shamanic initiate. These are very different orientations. And while Westernized shamanism requires an adeptness in psychological theory and rigorous self-analysis, cross-culturally this is not required. Shamans in communal and animistic cultures are not necessarily self-aware and do not necessarily grapple with their sense of self or their inner psyche.
So in sum, it’s important to acknowledge the shamanic journey as a much more active brain wave state than most meditative practices, and also that while active imagination may be at play, the entire foundation of shamanism is animism- the belief that everything has Spirit, that a Spirit world exists as an ever-present mirror to the material world we experience, and that we can interact with those Spirits through shamanic consciousness. The extent of the benefits received from shamanic journeying will at least in part be dependent on how you view the experiences within the journeys.
The benefits of shamanic journeying:
The benefits of shamanic journeying are plenty, and again, anyone can practice and partake of these benefits. These aren’t promises or guarantees, but potentials which will vary for each individual. For efficiency and ease it’s best to offer these in a bullet list.
- Increased insight and clarity into personal situations
- Expanded problem-solving
- Increased intuition and psychic connection
- Greater feelings of connection to self and others
- Decreased anxiety, stress, fear
- Decreased sadness, apathy, or hopelessness
- Feelings of wholeness
- Feelings of joy
- Strengthening sense of purpose
- Increased creativity
- A deeper sense of empowerment
- Development of personal gifts, talents, and abilities
- Validation and a sense of support
- Healing of the physical, emotional, and psychological
These benefits are potentials for all people who begin a dedicated practice of shamanic journeying for self and are available whether journeying in isolation or in community. But engaging in shamanic journeying within a community has additional benefits that come when we engage in any activity within a community. Shamanic journeying is powerful in both experiences, but I always encourage people to take the opportunity to participate in shamanic journeying in community, if possible. The support and encouragement of others is profoundly important and to experience the live and present drumming is a real privilege that we cannot take for granted. The shamans say that when one person heals we all heal, and so to gather in a community in support of healing for all is valuable.
May your life be full of benevolent Spirits and your journeys be amazing adventures into an expanding wholeness and connection!