What is the shamanic path and how does one go about exploring it? In my own journey in the last 10 years, I’ve found this to be not such a simple question to answer. And since it hasn’t been simple for me (and actually continues to be a question I ask myself), I thought it’s a good idea to share how I have gone about it so far and what I have found on the way with you.
Why share my story?
If you are new to the subject of shamanism, maybe the story of my journey gives you another perspective on spirituality you might wish to explore or relate to your own experience. If you have been curious and looking into shamanism before, maybe some of the practices, resources, places or concepts I’ve navigated through will bring another element in your own path. Last but not least, it is a big step for me to speak about this openly. Through speaking about it, I hope to give permission to myself, to you, to us, to explore and talk about spirituality more. Not as gurus or priests, but as mere humans on an authentic journey into the big questions of life. I feel many of us (myself included) begin with conditioning of seeing spirituality either through the lense of religion or as something closely related to it that is a private matter not to be spoken about. I believe it is time to break out of that understanding. The questions spirituality addresses – “who am I? what is reality? what’s the meaning and purpose of life?, what happens after death?” are absolutely vital for a healthy and fulfilling human life. Not in the sense of having to find their absolute answers, but in the sense of how important it is to take the journey of inquiry and discovery into what does it really mean to be human.
What has held me back from sharing my story?
Because I am approaching this from the perspective of liberating my expression around spirituality, I want to name a few resistances that have held me back from speaking about this earlier. I hope they encourage you to find your own way to explore and speak more about your own spiritual journey:
1. There is so much I’ve come to know! Where do I even begin?
It’s been 10 years since I’ve been on this path and everything I’ve seen and learned is so huge, I have felt overwhelmed thinking about fitting it into a nice little article or video. I am also not at a point in the journey where I feel it is time to put it all in a coherent tidy structure of a book or something. So I’ve dropped a piece here and there avoiding addressing the topic directly for lack of clarity. Where do I ever begin describing this vast Universe I’ve been exploring?!?! I’ve decided to change that by just starting somewhere and trusting that what I do have so far is going to be as valuable and life transforming for some of you as it has been for me. And creating some deeper shared experiences around what I know has worked and been very powerful in my own journey, such as the Journey into Shamanism I will be hosting online starting this May 26, at the Full Moon (and the preceding and following free online workshops you can find on the Zori Tomova facebook page).
2. There is so much I don’t know! Aaaaaaaaaaaa!
Shamanism is a generic term used to describe thousands of pre-religious indigenous cosmovisions and traditions from many corners of the world. Some of them are well preserved in living cultures and spiritual masters and others have faded into the remains we can find on textile, in songs and fairytales and within the roots of language. As my bubble of awareness has grown, so has my understanding of how vast this field is, how difficult it is to speak about it in its entirety and to claim to know anything. There are preserved shamanic lineages and living traditions that can help one go in more depth in the approach of one specific culture or another. I have big respect for the ones who are holding those traditions alive and passing down the knowledge. Coming from a Eastern European post-communist background, I haven’t really had easy access to them until the last few years and even then, it can be quite hard to find a true master to apprentice with.
I’ve come to understand that my own authentic journey of connecting to nature within and around and developing a direct channel to learn from its infinite wisdom is a valid source in itself, as it is where each shamanic tradition has emerged from in its origins. The times we live in require more and more of us to do just that – learn from the nature within and around us, in a direct way. There are few masters remaining, it is often hard to access our native indigenous knowledge and there is simply no time to waste. With the quick degradation of our natural environment, I believe it is vital that each and every one of us finds our way back to the sense and means of living in harmony with the more-than-human world. For me, the shamanic path has been a path into restoring my relationship with that world and it has transformed my life at its core. It is what gives me the courage to speak about it today, as I feel the urgency of spreading this message and the knowledge that I’ve accumulated around ways one can go about developing this direct channel to nature’s wisdom within and around.
3. There’s so much conditioning that gets in the way!
That applies both to my willingness to speak about this and to the way I have felt it might land with you. Abrahamic religions are famous for their active campaigns against their alternatives. It is a secret to no one that millions of women have been burned at stake for practicing ‘witchcraft’ and posing a danger to the establishment of religious and patriarchal doctrine. This conditioning lives within us to this day. You can check with yourself how the word ‘witch’ sits with you (or has sat before you looked more into it) and you will see this is not a thing of the past. The words shamanism or witchcraft for many are associated with woo-woo, voodoo, weird folks dressing and dancing in weird ways and engaging into magical thinking and practices that are unhelpful and even dangerous. It is true that there are liars and people who actively will look to deceive and create harm. But saying everyone is like that is throwing the baby with the bathwater. We need discernment. And in order to become better at discerning, we need to learn and talk about this.
In the beginning was the mirror…
Growing up in post-communist Bulgaria, I walked into a church only a few times and felt weird, given that no one in my family was religious. I tried praying to God for a few weeks when I was 16, but I thought it didn’t work and abandoned the idea shortly after. I had zero spiritual and religious education, aside from participating in family traditions around major holidays. Then one evening, when I was around 18 years old, I sat on my bed spacing out and looking at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t drunk any alcohol or taken any substance. Suddenly my eyes became deep and black, my face became larger and more square and my hair became blonde and short. I found myself looking at the face of a man I’d never seen before in my own mirror! I had no frame of reference about what was going on! I got scared, shook my head, he disappeared. But I got curious, rested my eyes again like that and saw him again. He was clearly there in that moment. I couldn’t tell if he was an angel or devil, what was his business here, but clearly he was there looking at me from my own reflection. I never forgot that night. In the following years, every now and then I’d have some strange experiences of weird things at the corner of my eye, of wind swirling in the trees in abnormal ways, of visions of warewolves and flying through the earth in sacred spots I visited.
Carlos Castaneda: starting to understand
I didn’t speak about any of this with almost anyone. Until one night I told a friend of mine and her partner, an Egyptologist, about this. He immediately said – “You should go read Carlos Castaneda, he might give you some ideas on the way you can look at these experiences”. He told me that Castaneda was an anthropologist, a student at UCLA, who as part of his PhD research found himself studying and apprenticing with a shaman from Mexican Yaki origin known as Don Juan. He took notes of the experience and published a series of books about it, becoming a shaman himself in the later stages of his life. The book he recommended me to begin with was ‘Journey to Ixtlan’. I got the book, started reading, feeling excited and curious, but not having any clue about the level to which it would affect my life trajectory. It was the book that opened up the questions of spirituality for me, giving me the frame of reference I was missing when looking at that man in the mirror years before that. No, I wasn’t crazy. I was just getting glimpses of what lies beyond consensus reality, into the shamanic world of the non-ordinary way of seeing. It was that book that showed me a way to understand that reality. A little missile of incredible wisdom that made its way to me in a faraway post-communist land that kept its traditions but had forgotten its indigenous beginnings.
Michael Harner: from understanding to practice
I kept reading Castaneda’s books until about 5 years ago, thanks to the recommendation of the same person, I found my way to another author – Michael Harner. Once again, an anthropologist turned shaman, he was the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies that lives on and keeps spreading his teachings after his death. While Castaneda went and studied and documented the Yaki culture in incredible depth, Harner studied shamanism as a generalist. He visited different tribes and collected stories from travellers who had interacted with shamans from all corners of the world – Siberia, Africa, Australia, North and South America, Asia, Europe. He was looking at the patterns – what are the similarities, the things that repeat when it comes to the role of the shaman in those indigenous communities. He ended up publishing some books on the topic, one of which, Cave and Cosmos, was the one that came my way first.
In his work, Harner spoke about the role of the shaman in generic terms:
- as the healer people would go to with their physical, psychological and relational troubles, knowing his way around plant medicines and practices that could help cure the body and the soul;
- as the bridge between the human and non-human worlds, the one who knew how to bring a message or make a request on behalf of humans to the spirits/gods and vice versa;
- as the storyteller and wisdom keeper, the one who kept the myth and fairytales of the ancestors alive and made sure future generations knew how the Universe began and what was their role to play in it.
Most simply put:
The shaman is the person of knowledge, the wise one, the one who knows.
Harner created the frame of the so-called ‘core shamanism’ on the premise that the shaman was not just a person with a certain ‘profession’ or role to play in indigenous society. He suggested that the shaman is an aspect of the human psyche that any of us could develop, just as we can develop our organisation or public speaking skills. He offered a practice for that – the shamanic drum journey. Using a steady beat of about 4 beats/second, one could venture into non-ordinary reality, the trance state of the shaman, or what science calls the theta brainwave frequency. In it, Harner claimed, we enter into half-awake, half-dreaming state, decreasing the function of the ordinary rational mind and venturing into the inner wilderness of the subconscious. In that state, we can access capacities of the psyche that can be difficult for the rational mind to understand at first, yet can be very powerful, tapping into:
- our intuition, clarity & wisdom;
- our capacity to heal our bodies and psyches (and further down the road – to support the healing of others)
- creative ways to recalibrate our bodies and minds around challenges we are faced with
- a reframe of core fears and our relationship with the unknown
- vision, imagination, storytelling and the source of creative inspiration
- our soul’s calling and the unique role we’ve come to play in the web of life.
“Let’s give it a shot, why not?”
Reading about all this I decided to try it out. I put on a drum track on youtube and followed the steps suggested by Harner, setting an intention to explore my inner wilderness. I was in for one of the biggest surprises of my life. In just 20 minutes, I went through the most incredible trip I’d ever had, from the comfort of my sofa, with zero guidance from anyone. It freaked me out as I met the man from the mirror again and got to look into his black infinite gaze again. I hid away from him in his mouth and popped on a daisy in a large field and eventually ended up as a pink T-shirt being washed in my washing machine, feeling joyful and clean. I got so overwhelmed from the whole trip and scared from the return of that mirror man (that I later developed a strong relationship with as my spirit guide), that I didn’t go back to the practice for a few weeks. Eventually I gathered up the courage and went again and have kept at it to this day. It is one of the most powerful spiritual practices to gain clarity, realign my energy, help heal myself and others and overcome any challenge I am faced with.
Sharing and holding space for drum journeying
As I went around telling people about my journeys, I kept hearing things like “This is incredible! You should write a book or make a movie out of it!” and “How do I do this? I want to try it too!”. So I wrote an article for them to be able to try the practice themselves and started hosting circles with friends where we’d explore it together. In time, my skill and capacity for working within this reality strengthened. I started getting a sense of my own subconscious, the art of reading its messages (coming in as dream images) and supporting others in developing their skills in that too. It was how I eventually started offering shamanic guidance, supporting groups and individuals in working with drumbeat, intention and dream visions in addressing the challenges they would bring. I’ve worked online and offline with hundreds of people for that in the last 5 years and it continues to be one of the things I love doing, from the bottom of my heart.
What’s the point of all this?
To say shamanic practice has changed my life would be an understatement. It was thanks to the drum journey messages and the way they anchored me into deeper layers of myself that I gathered up the courage to leave my IT job and my regular reality. I ventured out into the world, looking for a purpose that would speak to my heart and represent my truest expression. I discovered that in Bali, Indonesia by facing some important questions about my mortality and understanding the importance of doing what makes me feel alive. I found it in creating spaces for connection with self, other and nature that bring the most beautiful sides of our humanness. Through exploring that I ended up founding my purpose alignment coaching business and the Connection Playground community 3 years ago.
I took the drum journeys with me everywhere I went, coming back to them at New and Full Moon and every time I needed help from that wiser part of myself. Most of the time, I hosted circles and shared that with others. My practice deepened and became more elaborate, becoming an actual ritual with its own sacred timing, altar and special steps to cleanse, call in protection and support and work together with others to create a sacred space.
The call to immerse myself in a preserved shamanic culture
About 1.5 years ago, my shamanic path took another big leap, as I felt the call to go to Peru. Through a friends’ website, SpiritMap, I found out about the Sacred Valley of the Incan Empire, where some of the old traditions were kept and there was a strong spiritual community. I knew I had to go. It was there that I finally felt ready to go into working with sacred plants. Until then I always declined invitations for that – I felt my path was a path of purity, that it was easy for me to see without the plant support, that there was no need for that.
Yet in a Deep Transformation coaching training programme I passed that summer, I understood I’d ventured very far away from shared reality in my quest of understanding myself and my purpose. I felt the call to explore interbeing and the meaning of ‘we’, to return back to a sense of belonging. In that spirit, suddenly work with sacred plant medicine felt like a step towards that interbeing – an act of trust, of sharing my body and consciousness with another being that was here to support me. I took the leap and sat with Ayahuasca and soon after – with rapeh, San Pedro, mushrooms and bufo. Over the next 9 months, I developed a deeper relationship with mushrooms, rapeh and Ayahuasca and grew in incredible leaps in each sitting with their sacred spirits. It was that growth that enabled me to heal my intimate relationship, put the foundations of the Connection Playground online community and commit even deeper to my business and my service to the sacredness of life within and around me.
Working with Plant Medicine
It is hard, even impossible, to put into words what I’ve been shown through these experiences – I’ve done my best in some of the videos and articles in my vlog over the last 1.5 years. What I’d say has been the biggest value of that is the learning and growing of my capacity to co-create with nature. That goes two ways:
- Inner alignment – co-creating with the nature within me, seeing how to let it guide me through life from a place where mind, heart, body and spirit act in union for my wellbeing.
- Outer alignment – understanding deeper the role I’ve had to play in the big orchestra of life, the way I can create what is needed while working with nature (within myself, within human beings, within the more-than-human world) rather than against her, giving back to her while benefitting from her support. A part of this has been a growing sense of devotion to serving the sacredness of life, the wellbeing of all, at this pivotal point in time we as humanity find ourselves in. It is a big reason why I’ve felt the urgency to share this story, as half-baked as it feels, as a step to support the Great Turning Joanna Macy speaks about: the return of humanity back to its roots and its harmonious way of being with the non-human brothers and sisters we share our Earth with.
From Plant Medicine to ritual
From my experience with Sacred Plants, the Connection Playground and the indigenous cultures of Peru, Bulgaria and Guatemala (where I am currently based) I’ve also been called to look into ritual more deeply and go beyond the original drum journey practice that brought me here. I’ve come to understand we deeply need and miss proper rituals. Especially in moments of big transition and change (which each of us experiences more and more these days), rituals help us align body, mind, heart and spirit, so that we can move forward with ease and grace and not drag old patterns and energies that are not serving us anymore.
When I say rituals, I don’t mean a mechanic execution of certain steps to get us something. I mean an embodied lived experience of reaching for and exercising our free will, the capacity to choose our path and who we get to call ‘self’.
The Incans know how important rituals are – I will never forget the sacred plant ceremonies and songs and the despacho (offering) with which I gained permission from the mountains to be in the Sacred Valley and do my work. The Mayans know that too – I will never forget the taste of cacao and my heart opening, my relationship with lake Atitlan teaching me vital lessons days after day, the fire ceremonies and the nawales (sacred energies/spirits) we’d call, make offerings and give thanks to for hours on end. The Bulgarians know that too – I will never forget the ritual we did with my friends, kneading bread and weaving our intentions and commitments in the ceremony of ‘Narichane’. Each sitting with sacred plants has been a ritual for me and each has given me another perspective and another energetic pattern I can apply in my work with myself and others, along with the practices and tools I’ve found and co-created on my way.
From ritual to shared ritual and a deep dive into shamanism
It is in that spirit, of knowing the absolute deep human need for ritual, of the importance of stepping deeper into my service to the sacredness of life and the power that comes with the development of the one who knows within, that I have been called to start creating spaces where we can grow together in consciousness, wisdom and embodiment of the inner shaman. On 26 May, at Full Moon, I am launching a closed intimate group to do some deep work with the inner shaman together over 8 weeks, in community, so that he/she can grow and support the unfolding of human consciousness within our psyches and creations. Within that container, we will explore some of the most powerful perspectives and practices I’ve found on this journey in sacred community setting. We will also head out in nature and through guided meditation, develop that direct channel of learning from her, so we can align to her infinite wisdom and support in our lives and creations. If you feel this offering and timing is right for you, I’d love to share the journey into shamanism with you. You might also be interested in joining our free intimate gatherings (if there are spots left) on shamanic drum journeying and authentic relating over here.
If you find yourself reading this when its time has passed, or prefer 1:1 work, you can always reach out to me for shamanic guidance. I will look at what you need and work with you only if we are a good fit. There are things that are beyond my knowledge and capacity at this moment and it is vital for me to keep my integrity in doing this work. That includes reminding you that I am not a shaman, I am not a guru – everything that you are looking for is within you. I can simply help you to learn how to work with it, to develop that direct channel towards the wisdom nested in the nature within and around you.
I will close off with one of my favourite quotes from Carlos Castaneda, which for me contains some of the spirit of what drew me to this wondrous path. I hope to meet you along it sooner or later!
“One must assume responsibility for being in a weird world. For most, the world is weird because they alternate between being bored with it and being at odds with it. For me, the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable.”