A Shamanic Journey - Getting There and Back
The Tree of Life
Is It Real?
One of the most frequently asked questions about all this “Traveling” about in “other realms” in altered states of consciousness (loosely referred to as Shamanic Journeying) is also the most useless: “Is it real?” Imagine that you live and work in Cincinnati, and you take a month’s vacation to Tibet. While there you see all sorts of marvelous things that you never imagined existed, as well as some relatively familiar things that you might have seen “back home”. Now imagine that upon returning from your incredible journey all your friends want to know is not how wonderful it was, not how strange and unusual the people and the scenery were, but “was it Ohio?”
While it’s obvious that this question is absurd, most people don’t realize that the question of “is it real" is equally so. What you are asking is - in effect - does it conform to my ordinary experience, which obviously it does not. But you are also asking, is it an experience of valid, irreducible phenomena whose effects have a real and lasting impact on your life - and the answer to that is a resounding “yes!”
The experience of the Underworld is real, if for no other reason than that it has a very real effect on every person who has an authentic experience within its realms.
Is it a place? Not in the way we think of “place”. Rather it is in between places, and beyond the Inner World you know. If you begin to think of different states of consciousness as “places”, you begin to get the picture. If you’ve ever done a creative visualization, or been hypnotized in order to look into your own mind, this is the doorway to the Underworld. Keep on going from there and that’s where you will end up...but don’t start just yet. It’s better to have a very clear idea of what you’re in for.
In terms of a Shamanic map, the Underworld is one of the three realms that make up the whole of the multiverse. These three are the Upper World, usually associated with celestial vistas and the realms beyond the merely human; the Middle World, which is sort of a mirror image of our own earth; and, the Lower World or Underworld, which is associated with everything from spirits of the departed ancestors to chthonic creatures of the Deep.
In a very real way, you are your own doorway into the Underworld. It is your state of consciousness which allows you access to the Deep; your own mind, body and spirit which create the shamanic body that moves into that other world.
Okay. It’s not really as easy as it sounds. And that’s good, because it is a lot more dangerous than it sounds. While the basic theory is quite simple, it takes a lot of work to be able to master the necessary focus to effectively move yourself from one state of consciousness to another at will, while remaining completely aware. Most people lose awareness as they move into shamanic state, and end up going to sleep. Probably just as well. The reason they do this is that their consciousness is unstable in these other places. It’s like being a disembodied ghost. So what do you do? Why, you build yourself a body.
To create your Shamanic form or body, you begin with your intention. Your intention is to create a spiritual double that will journey into the Underworld, while your physical body remains in its accustomed locale. It is easiest to have it look as much as possible like your physical body, simply because that’s what you are used to identifying with, and you will want to be able to identify with this body even under stressful circumstances. You create the foundation of this body through the use of your imagination; clearly visualizing what it will look like; then you feed the body on energy drawn from whatever source you find appropriate, and then sent through your own nervous system. If you don’t know how to raise energy and move it through your own body, then you’ve no business messing about in the Underworld, so I won’t go into greater detail here.
Granted, there are some people who seem to have a ready-made Shamanic double already formed. This may be due to the rigors of their life, or perhaps to work done in some previous existence. Still, I recommend creating your Traveling Form from scratch, if only to know it better.
Once you have developed your Shamanic Body, you will want to be able to move into and out of it at will. You can practice this by entering Stillness; imagining your double as an image in a mirror, your heart centers connected by a strand of light. Then allow yourself to move along the strand to enter the double. Feel yourself as completely IN that other body as possible. Turn your attention back into the “mirror” and see your physical body there. Now move back through the mirror again. Once you have become adept at the transfer, spend some time getting used to feeling sensations through this new form. These senses may be indistinct at first, and it is doubtful that you will lose all sensation of your physical body, but with practice you should be able to get a clear sense of what your double is experiencing. Now get up and move around in the body. Practice moving, stretching, dancing, running, even flying. When you feel completely comfortable in your Shamanic Body, then you are ready to move on.
As I mentioned earlier, your first step on the path to the Underworld is through your own self and something called Stillness. Enter Stillness first. Move into Shamanic Form, then continue in Stillness IN that other body. Find the portal that lies at the epicenter of your Shamanic Body, and move through that door. You will find yourself in the same inner world that you visit in creative visualizations. Move through this place, seeking the boundary between what is you, and what lies beyond. You will recognize it when you find it. Then, go ahead. Jump!
Things to Consider
Allow me to interject (right here in the midst of everything) that the techniques and practices that I am suggesting are NOT the only ones used for this type of work, and might very well not even be the most suitable or the most effective for every Shamanic Traveler. However, you will find that all effective measures respond to the Underworld Experience as a coherent phenomenon. It is your responsibility to explore the options and thus discover what works for you.
For the sake of brevity, there are many things that I am not addressing here, but which are important to consider. For example: Effective preparation for your journey; various tools that you will need; and, a more detailed discussion of the liminal states of consciousness that allow you access to the Underworld. It is not my intention to offer a guide for beginners in a brief article, but to address some of the essential elements of the Shaman’s journey, in a way that speaks to those who are ready to take the leap.If you think you are such a person, ask yourself these questions. Do I know myself well enough to trust my responses in any given situation? How would I react in a life or death situation? Can I count on myself to act reliably under stress? Am I intuitive enough to be able to judge my surroundings clearly? Am I experienced enough with functioning in altered states of consciousness that I can do so effectively and reliably? If you cannot answer each of these questions with an honest yes, then you are probably not ready to go Underworld diving. If you are...
Finding Your Way Around
What will the Underworld look like? Well that depends entirely on you. Unlike the more dense realms of earthly existence, the Underworld tends to be even more reflective of the viewer’s own nature. In other words: What you see is who you are. So, needless to say, it’s a very good idea to know just exactly who you are.
Upon entering the Underworld, you may find yourself in a gigantic room, or on an open desert plain; in a primordial forest, or in a dank cellar. Go with it. Everything you’re seeing is coming from your own experience of what is actually there, interpreted through your beliefs, values and past experience. It’s not that there is not an authentic “otherness” present, but our sense of self paints the scenery (so to speak) in the colors that it knows.
Appearances aside, there are some common sites you will probably run into. There will most likely be something, perhaps a river, which you will need to cross. There will be portals, maybe even a whole series of gates, each with a distinct guardian. There will be whole areas that appear to be sealed off. Best let them remain so for the time being.
The key to all of this is to pay attention, both to what’s happening around you and to your own intuitive sense of what it means. If you are crossing a river and you feel that it’s a good idea not to let the water get onto your skin Ð pay attention to it. The rules are somewhat different for everyone.
Underworld navigation is like flying by the seat of your pants. It is being able to FEEL where you are coming from and where you are headed. There is no way to accurately describe the sensation. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. If not...well, it’s a little like being able to sense the energy moving through another person’s body. If you can feel it, you know what it’s doing. If you can’t feel it, you have no way to tell.
Though your own perceptions of the Underworld are unique, they do tend to be persistent, so mapping is a very good idea. Pay attention to shortcuts especially. They can save a lot of energy moving from one place to another.
Getting Back Again
One of the easiest ways to return from the Underworld is to have an “umbilical cord” connecting you all the way back up through your center and into your ordinary state of awareness. Remember to create this connecting link before going on any journeys, and you will have a sure-fire method for coming back in a hurry. If not, well, you can get lost down there. Getting lost in the Underworld is a very bad idea. So make sure you know how you intend to get back before you start your journey.
It is best to keep your first journeys as short as possible, with clearly defined goals. At the beginning it will be enough to make the trip down, turn around and come back. Once you are confident of your ability to go and return safely, you can start to explore the Underworld landscape - your own unique experience of it. When you are able to find your way around in that landscape with relative ease, you can begin working with it for healing, transformation and growth - but that’s another article.
Although you can find ways to heal yourself through this type of journey, you can be damaged as well. Don’t make changes “down there” until you have a clear perception of what it is that you are changing. You are the one who will have to live with the outcome.
Know yourself very well before attempting this work. Know your strengths, and especially know your weaknesses. Know when to be quiet and listen. Know when to duck. Know when to run.
There are monsters in the Deep. In modern terms, they are reflections of those parts of yourself you do not yet know; shadows of your unrealized self. They are the children of your pain, your fear and your rage. And they will try to destroy you in order to survive. To calm them, to gentle them, to come to know them - that is a large part of this work.
But the monsters are there (and they are real) and they can bite. So pay attention, and be careful.
For More Information
If shamanic journeying is of interest to you, then you might enjoy my book on shamanism, "Dance of Stones - a Shamanic Road Trip".
This moving and transformative road trip traces the growing friendship of a modern shaman and his companion as they explore the seductive world of synchronicity and spirits. Set aside the backdrop of ancient European sacred monuments, the self revealing narrative invites the reader to join in the spontaneous adventures of a modern shaman.
The book is spiced with practical exercises at the end of each chapter.
Or, you might read another of my hubs, which looks at the damage to our selves and our society, wreaked by our egos when we choose to separate and dis-integrate ourselves. It's called The Invisible Wound. You'll find a link there to my book.