I’m sitting by myself in a darkened room. My mind is flashing back through memories of caves, waterfalls, rivers and holes. I am looking for a place that feels ‘right’. I settle on a hole in a cave in Romania I visited a couple of months back, where I remember kneeling to watch water going down in an abyss of absolute darkness. I put on my headphones, turn on the youtube track and visualise myself standing in front of the hole, preparing to jump inside. I repeat to myself that “I want to explore the Lower world”, to see the hidden reality that lies beyond that hole.
And that’s how my first shamanic journey begins. But why am I doing this in the first place?
In the Western world, shamanism is often associated with illegal substances, weird dances and rituals and strangely dressed people who give fake hopes to those have failed to find cure in modern medicine. However, as more young people give up traditional religion, they feel the need to explore alternative approaches to spirituality in order to gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the big scheme of things. Shamanism is one of those approaches, greatly supported by the spread of psychedelic & sacred medicine ceremonies and the work of anthropologist authors like Carlos Castaneda, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and Michael Harner.
I also started with this mostly out of curiosity. A 20-minutes drum-assisted drug-free shamanic journey sounded easy, so why not? By the end of my first trip I knew this was something I wanted to keep in my life. Over time, the practice has allowed me to resolve a multitude of personal challenges which I found hard to address on a rational level.
Whereas meditation enables you to develop the faculty to observe your conscious thoughts and experience being and oneness with the universe (moving up to spirit/observer consciousness), shamanic trips allow you to enter yet another amazing mind state where you can directly face your subconscious and work with it (moving down to the layer of soul/personal myth and meaning). It’s a world full of wonder, power and wisdom and my purpose with this article is to share with you a simple way to get started and experience this for yourself.
What is shamanism about?
According to shamanic beliefs, our physical ordinary reality is not the only one — there is another ‘non-ordinary’ reality where our soul dwells. Any healing or problem resolution that ignores one of the two realities is incomplete and thus prone to failure or recurrence. Just as your body needs healing when you are sick, so does your soul; just as a problem you’ve encountered needs you to take action in the ordinary world, so there is a need for action to be taken in non-ordinary reality.
For thousands of years, shamans have journeyed into non-ordinary reality, seeking to help their kinsmen souls in times of sickness and trouble. They use special rituals to go up towards the Upper world, or down towards the Lower world (might sound like heaven and hell, but in shamanism both directions are good). There they meet spiritual entities in human and animal forms that advise them how to address each problem. The specific things shamans encounter in their journeys are unique for each individual and each trip. Over time the shaman builds a mental ‘map’ of the alternate reality he/she is entering that allows him/her to better interpret and use the knowledge acquired in it to help others. According to Michael Harner’s research, the most widespread element in their rituals is a steady drum beat at approx. 4 beats/second, which helps access brainwave frequencies corresponding to a trance state (in fact, psychedelic substances are used more rarely than you might think). The journeying method I’ve followed is described in his book ‘Cave and Cosmos’.
So what happened when I jumped in that cave hole?
“I slide down the hole and find myself in deep dark water. It’s cold. I start swimming and soon I can see a swarm of pretty jelly fish glowing bright in the darkness. I swim with them for a while until a dolphin joins me. I am happy to have him next to me, it’s comforting. We keep swimming together sometimes in water, sometimes through the rocky earth, until we reach the deep ocean where there is light from the open sky above us. Once there, I realize that our bodies are merging — I go in through his mouth, then out through his tail, then in again, in a repetitive cycle. The process happens faster and faster until we are a spinning disc. We spin together through the ocean at an amazing speed, jumping out in the air, like a flat stone thrown over a lake’s surface. We finally fly off, aiming for the moon. We arrive on its surface and go into one of its holes, drilling down towards the moon’s core. We see it as a point, shining and growing as we approach it. It grows bigger and bigger until we realize that it’s actually the sun, which has consumed the moon from the inside and now we are on the sun’s surface. There are tiny fiery creatures there that go about doing their business. We see small mushrooms and start sucking out some kind of green worms from them and eating them. I feel I can enter inside one of the worm holes. I start going in slowly, somehow swaying to and fro. Eventually I am in and I instantly pop out on a huge plane of red sand and rocks — a barren and vast landscape under a dark sky. I ask the dolphin to show me around and he swims through the air forward as I run behind him.
Then, all of a sudden I see Him. I know who he is. I’ve seen this man many years ago while watching my face in the mirror. He knows I know. I have a strong sense of his presence in the ordinary reality room I am in, like a shadow silhouette that passes in front of me as I keep my eyes closed. I am afraid. I ask him what he is doing there. He says he is always around. I ask if he is my teacher or something. He says no. I keep looking around to make sure the dolphin is nearby. I am scared. I ask Him who he is and he says he can’t tell me yet. I look into his eyes and they are deep and dark like a universe in themselves, the same bottomless black eyes that scared and enticed me from the mirror years ago. I tell him I am afraid of his eyes. I ask him if he loves me. He says “Yes, that’s why I am here and always have been”.
As he opens his mouth to speak again, I jump inside it. I find myself in a bright string of light that travels through the darkness of the universe. I am the whole string and I am also inside its tip, wrapping myself around things I encounter in space. In ordinary reality, I physically feel like I am falling, my heart is pounding hard and I can feel my hands moving in a strange way. I breathe deeply. I am still scared. All of a sudden, I pop up on a field full of daisies, I literally erupt from one of them, right on top of its yellow center. I stay there, catching my breath. I am a tiny creature on a daisy. At some point, I sense something is changing. It’s no longer a warm summer day, it’s winter now, with snow all around me. The other daisies are gone, but mine is still there, pretty and perfect like nothing happened. I see the seasons changing fast around me— faster and faster until it’s an unrecognizable swirl of colors. The sky above becomes a rainbow whirlpool. I know I can jump up inside it, but I hesitate — I am not sure I will remember the way back.
Finally I decide to jump and travel through the swirl until I find myself in our washing machine. The machine is washing clothes and I am one of them! I am a pink T-shirt, rolling around with the rest. There is foam all around and we are happy, having fun, getting clean together. I feel I will be new and fresh once this is finished, it’s really nice. I hear the drum signaling me to return. So I go back very quickly through the rainbow whirlpool, down the yellow center of the daisy, through the long string of light, out of His mouth, out of the worm hole, move away from the center of the moon back into the water, through the swarm of jellyfish back up to cave. Whew!”
As a beginner, I had chosen to have my first trip’s purpose to be to explore the ‘Lower world’. I couldn’t have asked for a better intro! For a person that almost never dreams and never took any psychedelics, experiencing all this in such a vivid way while completely awake, without taking any stimulants was nothing short of a shock to me. I found an entire world inside me full of unexpected turns which spoke in images, feelings and sounds, and had within 20 minutes managed to scare me out of my wits and then leave me feeling light, clean and happy like a pink T-shirt.
Most importantly, I felt the power this world holds. The experiences I went through were deeply moving and engaging — I felt they went all the way down to the core of my driving force. Remembering about the dolphin in daily situations filled me with a sense of joy, inner power, presence and motivation like nothing else I ever experienced before. In a similar way, my memories of ‘Him’ would usually come with a bolt of fear and anxiety. Sometimes I could almost feel his presence at home and would get spooked out of my wits. However, I knew this was definitely a thing I wanted to explore more, that I wanted to face that fear and deal with it. Finally, I gathered the courage and took another trip and starting reshaping my relationship with Him and my inner wilderness. I have entered that reality on a regular basis since, seeking help for specific challenges and finding invaluable advice, power and help there.
How can you try this yourself?
Upon sharing my experiences and lessons learnt, quite a few friends have asked me this. I’ve found that I’ve been lucky to have my first experience so vivid and not everyone gets such an easy start. I believe it’s just like any other craft — anyone can learn it and there’s an element of initial predisposition, as well as an element of motivation and practice. For some it’s easy and they can immediately start benefitting from it, for others it takes some time. If you want to give this a shot, here are the steps you can follow:
Before a shamanic trip, skip alcohol, ideally also carbohydrates, meat and dairy for a day and have a couple of hours pass between your last meal and the trip. Choose a place where you can stay undisturbed and comfortable for half an hour. You will need a device and headphones with which you can listen to this track. You can sit still or lie down (some people fall asleep if they are too comfortable, so you might wanna ditch the pillow).
2. Choose your challenge
For each trip you take you need a clear intention. In the long run, you can do it for healing or getting advise for yourself and others. However, for your first trip it’s usually good to start with the goal of simply exploring the non-ordinary reality to get a grip of how the whole thing works (the less expectations you have, the better).
3. Choose your starting point
Think of an actual location that you’ve visited and can remember well. If you want to ascend to the Upper World, you can choose the top of a tree, a hill, a mountain top, a roof or a place that has smoke going up. For the Lower World, you will need a cave, a hole in the ground, a river, a waterfall, even your kitchen sink if you want. It’s advised to keep just one entrance for the Upper and one for the Lower world for your next trips, so that you build a map of what’s where in your non-ordinary reality and get in and out of the space more easily.
4. Start the trip
Start with a calm and quiet mind. Turn on the drums track, close your eyes and repeat your intention several times (eg. I want to explore the Lower World). Visualize and feel yourself being at the entrance you picked (eg. the hole in the ground). Once you do, imagine your next step (eg. go in the hole and see what happens next). Allow yourself to explore the spaces that your mind generates. Some people get intense emotions and bodily sensations during the trip. That’s completely natural and it’s actually great news because it means your subconscious is processing things that you need to process and showing you where to pay more attention. If you feel stuck or chaotic or dropping in and out of consciousness, stay with the feelings. Trust that this is part of your journey and staying with, bringing awareness and reframing those patterns/blockages is actually the biggest benefit you can have from this space at this point.
At the end of the track, you will hear the drums change their pattern. When you do, start going back quickly — go through the last hole or gateway you passed, then through the one before, etc. up to the place where it all started (it’s OK if you skip a step or two). Shamans believe this is very important, allowing your soul the space to return back to ordinary reality.
6. Take notes
Write down your experience in as much detail as you can remember. Every journey is a piece of a puzzle. It helps you build your shamanic knowledge so that you can interpret your next trips better and see how different relationships to different symbols evolve in time. You can choose to share those notes and experiences with others or not, it’s up to you.
A shaman’s ultimate purpose is to heal and help others. Whether you want to do this or just to use it as part of your own personal development, your first step should be to learn to help yourself and accumulate knowledge of the non-ordinary reality. You can do this by taking more trips — to explore the Upper/Lower world more, to meet your power animal or mentor, to figure out how to deal with a health issue, a specific challenge or desire you have in your personal or professional life, etc. It’s awesome to have someone experienced to guide you through a shaman’s way of looking at the world and different techniques, but it is not a ‘must’. Books like Carlos Castaneda’s ‘Journey to Ixtlan’ and Michael Harner’s ‘Cave and Cosmos’ and ‘The Way of the Shaman’ would be a great start if you want to move further in this.
“Humans can see only a minuscule part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum in its entirety is about 10 trillion times larger than that of visible light. Might the mental spectrum be equally vast?” Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari.
And also, might it be that due to our focus on rationality, we’ve been ignoring parts of the mental spectrum that hold big advantages to our wellbeing? I believe the mind states induced by meditation, shamanic journeying, lucid dreaming, different breathwork techniques etc. are clear evidence of such blindspots that are just beginning to be addressed in Western culture.
Shamanism is just one of the many ways of expanding our minds and getting closer to using their full potential in all its beauty and mystery. And honestly, I don’t feel it’s any better or worse than any of the others — it’s just one of the many roads you can explore and learn from. I hope you enjoy it:
Have a nice journey!
***Originally published on Medium, 16 November 2017
UPDATE February 2023: Since the beginning of my journey with this practice, over the last 6 years, I have become more and more aware of the value of creating a ritual safe space around it and the fascinating wider context of the shamanic path. I have found the practice to work even more powerfully when we:
- align it with nature’s cycles (eg. Full Moons and New Moons, Equinoxes and Solstices etc.)
- take care of the energetics of our environment when preparing for this work (eg. cleansing the space with palo santo, creating an alter with spirit objects, calling in the meaning and energy each of them carries)
- call in protection and support from higher forces we feel connected with and our guiding spirits
- have a space where we can share and get supported in interpreting and integrating the symbolic mysterious pieces of meaning we receive, which is an art in itself that takes time to master
- for those who don’t feel safe in venturing in this space on their own or have troubles connecting with their vision, journey together with someone who has experience in this practice.
I have loved creating spaces for hundreds of individuals and groups to experience and learn how to do this in a supportive shared environment. You can find out more about drum journeying with me over here, and also contact me for shamanic guidance in the wider context of Body, Intuition, Earth and Nature-based approaches to spiritual growth, incl. plant medicine work & integration.