Shamanism in practice: reflecting on journeying.

You need to believe in things that aren’t true, how else will they become?” terry Prachet 


Noticing how formal I was in my previous post on shamanism made me realise that I may have come across rather apathetic to a process that has had a deep and profound change in my life. So here I want to write more about shamanism in practice: how I practice it in my everyday life. This will be the first of a number of writings. This particular writing will focus primarily on Classical Journeying as  I was taught, in Core Shamanic practice. This form of journeying is non entheogenic based journeying. This means that it does not involve using hallucinogenic substances to shift ones state of consciousness into an altered state, but rather focuses on shifting ones consciousness at will, assisted by the use of repetitive sound as the key starting point for entering an altered state.


Now, firstly I will say that journeying, and learning to journey is a discipline, which requires dedicated daily practice, like any art form. ( in a sense we are always learning to journey) Sure, there are some people who are naturally gifted at it, but in my experience, it is a 90% discipline, 10% innate thing. The more you practice, the better you get. If you stop practicing you begin to loose it, just like an athlete who stops exercising.


Note – you cannot learn journeying from a book, I would not advice someone to try. Find a shamanic practitioner to initiate you into classical journeying. I do no doubt believe however that there are very experienced journeyers out there who have never been trained or taught.


Family shamanism


As far as my little research goes, it seems that many people in indigenous cultures had access to basic shamanic techniques, for bringing healing and guidance to their families and close ones, even though they were not shamans in the grand sense of the word. The small problems they could sort out themselves, but serious illness, say, needed the shaman. Indeed, everyone can explore non ordinary reality to some degree, but some are just better at it than others. Some have the ability to go places where others can’t go.

In Core Shamanic Practice we view the word shaman more as a verb – “to shamanize” than as a literal noun. In this sense it is more like putting ones self in the role of “one who shamanizes”. This leads to the question “what do we mean by shamanize?”

Fundamentally this involves the journey of the soul to states of non ordinary reality to gain information: to voluntarily move, at will, into an altered state on the behalf of the community.

This typically means going on a shamanic journey.



It is seen from Core Shamanic practice that everyone has at least one spiritual ally/guide in life. This is seen as a birthright. From the start of core shamanic practice, all the work begins with forming a partnership with an ally. It is the spirits who do the work, moved by the request of the shaman – it is a partnership. In a sense, the shaman makes him/herself the hollow bone, through which the spirits can interact with the physical world. Therefore, we begin by making this partnership and building upon it.

From core shamanic teaching, we begin to search for our spiritual allies in the upper and lower worlds; the worlds which are purely spiritual in nature. Upper and lower worlds exist outside of time and space as we know it. They are realms of pure love. Through moving our consciousness into a more lucid state, we are able to journey into the upper and lower realms, realms of “non-ordinary” time and space, and in this place meet enlightened beings; that is, beings of pure love. The forms with which the spirits in these realms present themselves are the forms that will hold meaning and metaphor for us in our life at this stage. Put in another way, they engage a particular part of our subconscious which allows us to build a sense of connection and relationship with them. The forms that our most familiar to us and contain the richest well of metaphor and meaning are the human form, the animal form and the plant form. Most commonly allies take the form of a human or animal, but that guides are not restricted to this. One could experience a guide as a ball of white light, or a strong presence, feeling, element (eg fire), geometric shape or landscape.


Beginning journeying: experiencing from the heart

The only “rule” to journeying, is to be authentic to your own experience. This means that we take an almost scientific approach to our experience. We want to be really experiencing the journey, not just making it up as we go along. Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean its really happening, it just means its happening in our imagination. I like to think of micheal faraday who said “nothing is too wonderful to be true”. We start with the possibility that anything is possible. We know that imagination is the starting place, we engage the imagination with our will and, like getting a snowball rolling, we follow it around and around, as it gathers momentum and weight. Do we just imagine all our dreams? On one level, yes, but from another perspective, our soul is journeying the worlds, which are not limited to just our imagination. As Yung might put it, we explore the collective unconscious, the place which we all share with every living being.


Shamanism is heart centred practice. That is, it all comes from a place of feeling, rather than thinking. In order to deepen our heart awareness, our perception of “deep feeling”, we need to, as much as possible, become fully present.

So, before journeying anywhere, I usually begin with some practice to centre myself, and become present.

I close my eyes: I move into darkness, so as to still the thinking mind. Closing the eyes is a gesture to the spirits that one is willing to look into the heart, and see from a place of heart. Seeing from a place of heart,  we open to the vast subconscious mind; we remember that we have as much of a universe inside of us, as exists outside of us. In one sense, we already are, that that we are seeking.

I stop: I bring myself to a standstill; I breathe. I bring my attention to my body. I listen. I listen to the feelings, the sensations, each impulse that moves through my being, and simply observe and accept it as it is. I make a temporary break from my ordinary life, of plans, projects, and purposes, and bring all of my self to the knife edge between past and future; the now, from which all is and can only be experienced.

I drop: I drop down from my thinking mind and into the heart, the heart of feelings. I feel myself in my centre. From this place, I am able to see with the eyes of the heart. Within this centre, I can feel the fire within, the same fire that seeded its self from the centre of the fire that seeded the universe. I move from a reductionist thinking of right and wrong, of true and false and cross over into the unknown, into the unlabelled feeling before it became form. I drop into a place where imagination and knowledge blur into one, where the duality of the world merges and reality knows its self. This is a place of rich darkness from which the stars can been seen clearly in all their brightness.


Axis Mundi: the world tree


As recognised by many anthropologists, all cultures would have a place in the middle world, a sacred place which has a connection to the spiritual realms, through which shamans can access the upper and lower worlds to begin journeying. These places were seen of as a places where the veils between the worlds were naturally thin, where the spirits gather and the sacred could be felt permeating the area.  Perhaps the most abundant axis mundi theme cross culturally is the world tree, a mythical tree connecting the above and the below. Shamans would journey up and down the tree in non-ordinary reality, often mirroring the journey in ordinary reality through literally climbing the tree. The Anthropologist Eliade has written extensively about the Axis Mundi theme in his book Shamanism – Archaic techniques of ecstasy. I would encourage you to read this if you are keen to research more on this key theme to shamanism.

For the purposes of our own personal journeying, in Core shamanic practice, we find our personal axis mundi by thinking of a place where we feel at peace. From the still point, the presence we create through becoming centred in our heart, we reflect in our minds on a place in our life where we felt a particular sense of peacefulness, or sense of the sacred, or simply a place which we felt safe, deeply rooted, at home, where we feel our personal sense of belongingness. It has to be a place which we can visualise clearly in our mind, simply by closing our eyes. It is helpful if we can picture our selves in this place, and picture the details of the place; the objects around, the sense of space, the light in the space, the weather, the views, the animals; in essence, the livingness of the place. It could be indoors or outdoors, a bedroom or a cellar, a tree or a mountain. There are no rules as to where you feel your own personal connection to be, but it has to be where you feel it is “right”. Some people find it simply walking up road they are particularly familiar with, others might find it in their bathroom. The classic axis mundi themes are sacred trees, caves, holes in the ground, towers, mountains, cracks or fissures in the rocks, natural springs, holy wells, sheltered sacred groves, etc. Since we live in a modern age culture, it may be that we tend to have more of a connection to themes along the line of – stairs to the attic, dark cellars, top of the school roof, hidden alleyways, bathroom mirrors, secret corners of the playground… there are no rules as to where we might find or feel the sacred. One thing to always bear in mind when choosing an axis mundi, is “have I ever dreamed of being in this place?”.

My own personal places have involved primarily trees that I have a deep connection with, and natural springs. They are both places which I can visualise very clearly in my mind, and places which I have felt a deep connection to the spirits and my ancestors while being there in ordinary reality. They are places I go to alone, to be by myself. They are places I go to to get clarity on things, places I go to to feel at peace, to still my mind, to ask questions, to request healing, and to make prayers. I have taken offerings to these places, to deepen my relationship with them, so that I can feel them in me, especially when I feel quite lost and in need of help.

(You may notice that I mentioned places as opposed to place. I have found that a number of places have been axis mundi for me, and often when I have gone through a life shift, or moved house. One thing I have found in my experience is that it is important for me to be able to keep revisiting the axis mundi from time to time, to keep the relationship alive. I like to have a place which I can walk to from where I live, preferably not too far away, so that I can visit it everyday easily if I choose. Sometimes however, especially if we are traveling, it is hard to keep the relationship strong, and in these circumstances, I tend to stick to which ever one is most prominent or active in my imagination. I have also found that, depending on the question I am journeying with – more about questions later on – I am told by my guides which axis mundi to use. Sometimes I will get told to use completely new places I have not tried before, often when doing particular healing work, or journeying on unusual questions. Its an intuitive approach, which depends on our sense of self, and ability to feel deeply.)


From ordinary to non ordinary, and back again – the journey. 


So, just as we can journey to our axis mundi, the “centre of our world” in ordinary waking reality, so we can journey there in non ordinary reality, in our minds. This is where we begin; using our will to take us firstly to our axis mundi, and then to explore upper or lower worlds from there. Just to recap on shamanic cosmology (see my last post – reflections on shamanism), there are three worlds – Upper, middle and lower. The upper and lower worlds exist in a purely spiritual reality, they have no physical counterpart, and so they are realms of pure “love”. So,  in this respect, they are very safe places to go. They are the realms where our soul goes when we die, provided we die a peaceful death. Often people ask the question, “What if I meet bad spirits?”. From a shamanic perspective, there are no such thing as “bad” spirits. There are however suffering spirits within the middle world reality, and a lot of cursing and negative emotion within the human world, both intentional and non intentional. The human world exists in middle world reality, where we are already living, so the only place where we able to encounter these are where we already are. The intension with journeying is to move into a purely “enlightened” realm, free of pain and suffering, to explore, receive healing, gain guidance and to return with what we have learnt or received.

It has been found from most shamanic practitioners experience that lower world journeying is easier than upper world journeying, so we begin by exploring the lower world first. I do believe however, that some people will have natural connections to upper and lower worlds, and for some it may be that they find upper world journeying easier. All journeying begins by setting an intention. The first intension is simply to go to our axis mundi, and to explore from there. If we are going on a divination journey we will go with a question, and so our intention is to explore, and to meet with a guide to whom we can ask our question. And so, each journey leads to the next and we begin to map out the worlds.


Typically (a word I come back to a lot), I see myself traveling to my axis mundi, by various means, stating my core intension out loud, or in my head. “My intention is to journey to the lower world and begin to explore….” or something similar. I use my imagination to spark the journey – like a snowball, it takes a while to build momentum, but once it has got going, it seems to run on its own accord. The drumming or rattling, (sonic driving) the repetitive sound is an essential tool which I use to help the journeying. Many interesting studies have been done into how repetitive drumming or rattling effects the brain wave states, assisting in us shifting our awareness into the shamanic state of consciousness.

From the point where we set our intension, everything we experience is a part of the journey. Every feeling, every thought, every itch and sensation in our body. Its all a metaphor for the question and the journey we make.

The metaphor that I like to use regarding the art of journeying, is the one of walking a knife edge; we are poised on the point between trying too hard, and not trying enough. If we try to force journeying (trying too hard) we over control the imagination, and are not giving our soul the space to explore its own path, but if we don’t give any intension, (not trying enough) the imagination is not engaged, and our soul simply sits waiting in our own body.


Why might one want to practice a shamanic journey?

Journeying is an experiential discipline, meaning, it is real if we experience it to be real. Experience is the foundation of all knowledge, without experience we know nothing. It is widely understood in the study of psychology the importance of visualisation for helping people to make new neural pathways in their minds. Even if people know that they are just “imagining” it, their bodily responses behave as if it were really happening. This is one of the key roots of most psychological therapies.  I will write more about this later on, but for now, I will point out that the word Psyche has at its root a greek meaning which means both Soul and Mind. In my own personal experience this practice has given me deep insight into life, has brought me healing and guidance, and it is always new and a discovery.

I have never had a journey that didn’t bring me some help in some way or another. However, I would say that in regards to divination journeys, that is ones which you do to seek answers to questions, it is important to spend time of finding the “best” question to ask. Firstly, it is important to ask the questions of the heart, rather than the head; that is, ask your self “what is the most pressing question in my life right now?” or “what do I really need to know right now?'”. When we have found this question, we can always ask ourselves “What lies behind this question?”. An example of this might be – “how do I make more money?” – we have decided with our rational mind that we really need some cash to make our life more easy, but when we ask what lies behind this question, we find a deeper question coming from the heart – “how do I find a work that will satisfy me and help me to meet my needs?”.

Life is defined by the questions we ask. To question is to seek, and to seek is the first step of finding. It is key that we learn to ask the questions that come from our heart, because these will be the ones that the spirits will respond to with the richest metaphors, which will nourish us and give us the guidance that we seek.

Can journeying become addictive?


The only important thing to remember is to not use journeying as a way to escape from our need to engage with our appointments in everyday life. We have a life to live in the embodied world as well, as human beings. We need to live a life of suffering, to experience the joys and pains of being in a physical body. This is important. If we use journeying as a way to escape or avoid facing the trials of living a human life, then we have taken it too far. We would be better off practicing massage, or yoga, or some even just going for a walk. We have a physical life to live.

Shamanism is fundamentally experiential. It embodies the philosophy of the phenomenologists. I will wrote more about this later on. I will leave you with a quote from Merleau-Ponty –  “We must return to the Lebenswelt, the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.”





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