Several years ago, I altered the structure of my shamanic work, such that I placed less emphasis on isolated sessions, and more on sustained support.
The origins of our holy day icons are significant, though it’s easy to get ensnared in what symbols you “should” honor, what they’re “supposed to mean,” who gets to claim them, and understanding what they really mean to you. For that reason, in this exploration of seasonal totems I offer the entire Internet for you to peruse and learn about the symbols that have the most meaning to you at this time of year. My hope is that through sharing the seasonal totems that mean the most to me, that others are encouraged to cull out the holiday symbols that move them, connect with their power and bring them more deeply into personal holiday celebrations.
Totems, for most shamanists, are largely revered as soul animal kindred, though those who know me recall that I work extensively with plant and elemental spirits. Bear in mind as I explore the possibilities of holiday power allies that when I refer to totems I include animals, plants, minerals and elements. Generally speaking, totems are complex symbols that move us in some way. For me, the power of totems extends through several layers. I greet them as archetypes — collective traits found through the particular species, as spirits of nature, as an energetic manifestation specifically visiting me, which some refer to as “Unverified Personal Gnosis” (UPG), and as creatures of the wild, drawing from study of the totem’s behavior, habitat and anatomy.
Popular holiday totems today are mostly of Western European origin and influence, such as mistletoe, fir tree, reindeer, the Yule log, doves, geese, holly, ivy. More recent imports are the Mexican poinsettia and Middle Eastern persimmons and pomegranates. Most of my holidays totems happen to be among the fairly well-known; however, my reasons for including them may be a bit lesser common. Also, a couple of them aren’t typical at all.
Reindeer. The mythology that they can fly is attractive, though I work with their energy this time of year for their stamina. Reindeer are known to be resourceful in extremely cold, almost unbearable conditions, and they work well in large groups. I call reindeer in to help me get through the social anxiety that can come with holiday gatherings, to remind me that I can survive anything, well.
Yule Tree. I regard the Yule Tree as the altar hosting the entire season, and as my indoor connection to the frigid, wild outdoors when I least want to weather it. If there is one totem that I can’t do without, it’s the Yule Tree, which is usually some variation of a fir. From its branches hang decades of holiday memories and virtually every other symbol of the season, making it the center of sacred space in my home. At its base I leave gifts for those I love most in my life; thus, I imbue the tree with gratitude that I am able to give them gifts, and I feel an excitement for sharing that is greater than any other time of the year. To the tree itself, I’m grateful for its evergreen inspiration to persevere through all things, for being a symbol of beginning and ending, both at once.
Yule Log. The symbol of fire is potent this time of year, largely because I’m always cold, and because I want to be reminded of light, of inspiration, of a reliable rotation of seasons. Somewhere in my honoring of the season is a lighted fire reminding me that the sun is returning. It is also where I burn my summary of the year — what I’ve accomplished, and what I do not wish to carry forward — blessed with flame. The ashes are then scattered through the garden, to build the life of the near year. Both the log and the fire are relevant to this act. While the fire transmutes the sacraments of my own wellbeing, the log reminds me that I don’t have to be my only vessel. I don’t have to carry everything by myself.
Snowman. Yep. The snowman is shamanic in essence because mythologically it is the direct result of a manifest human creation taking on its own life force. It’s the shamanic narrative of entering some magical space and shapeshifting with the elements to return some inspirational spirit to the world, and carrying on its teaching long after the ecstasy has melted–with a button nose and two eyes made out of coal. If we have snow, there will be a snowman in our yard. And if we don’t have enough precipitation for frozen art, through the spirit of the snowman I recall the power of the elements to mirror myself, to remind me that everything is alive and looking back at me, extending an opportunity for partnership.
Rosemary. Yes, the culinary herb. I grow most of the herbs used in my cooking and ceremonies, and my relationship to this particular plant spans about 12 years. Rosemary figures into my ritual work often as a smudging agent, clearing away mental, emotional and energetic clutter. Tying into evergreen life force, consuming rosemary at this time of year gives me a sense of inner purifying and connecting with that renewable stream of life force. It reminds me also that ultimately, I consume life.
As you decorate for this season, think about the totems that are important to you and the reason that they move you. Are they traditional to your family or religion? Have you discovered new totems as you explore personal meanings of the season? How do you incorporate totems into your ceremonies and observations? If you’re not sure where the totems of your holiday expression originate, look them up. Learning their history can help delineate their potency for you. And if you’re truly ready to embark on the spirit of the season, ask the totems of your holy days to speak their spirit of the season to you, themselves.
For a comprehensive study on totems and how to work with totems, check out Lupa’s Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic and DIY Totemism, and Peter Aziz’s Working with Tree Spirits in Shamanic Healing. Other great resources are Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak and Nature-Speak. These are great places to learn about totems and how to work with them, in general, and can significantly inform you of identifying new power allies for the holidays.
In discussing the challenges sustaining relationships with guides can pose, I bring up a topic often overlooked in many esoteric arts circles, not just in modern shamanism: personal truth, or as it is more commonly called Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG).
Most of us come from religious paths that strictly forbade us to act as our own spiritual conduit with the Divine. Part of what leads us to a more direct path is realizing the lack in such spiritual tropes. Yet, I see this same trap wrapped in different words and habits in esoteric arts all the time. I’ve known people who won’t order food from a menu without asking their guide’s input, first. I’ve known others who firmly believe that a ritual to Air won’t evoke the favor of the element if it isn’t done precisely so, every time. I’ve known intuitives who were called upon to assist in emergencies but declined because they didn’t have their portable altar with them to create sacred space. I’ve known people who never once uttered an insight of their own, replying “Well, my guides say ____,” or “I can’t comment until I ask my totems.”
How we roll with our Spiritual Council is exactly that–our relationship with our personal spirit allies. Part of the shaman-guide relationship is knowing its boundaries, with regard to spiritual discipline and possibly even health. I’ve got my own sacred eccentricities. I’ve had plenty of times that I became static in my process. Above all else on my path, I’m an advocate of results and growth, and I find that when I inhibit my instinctive responses, I stop getting meaningful results from my actions.
We’re creatures of habit, and the one thing that focused, dedicated journeying will teach in a hurry is dynamic self-reliance. Yes, the core component of a shaman’s effectiveness is committed relationship to spirit allies, though that doesn’t mean to the effacement of self. The idea that we sacrifice our innate wisdom at the feet of our guides is really no different from the rigid doctrines that talked us out of our spiritual knowing.
Soul allies don’t want to be a crutch or habit. They don’t want to be a convenient escape, or to keep circling the same healing wagons with us. In fact, projecting that wisdom can only come from guides eventually strains our relationship with them. When we stop forcing their counsel out of habit, the emphasis on belief that we need to ceases, and a willingness to enable direct experience with personal truth emerges.
Our guides want and need us not to just explore and implement UPG, but to stand in it. Not once, but over and over. That’s the thing about truth. Even if core truths we knew of ourselves at the age of four are still true, the ability to hold ourselves open to the possibility that they can change creates the evolving atmosphere for them to remain true.
Years ago, a dear friend summed it best: “We find truth, we know it, then we set it down, and back gently away.”
We must make peace with the demand to become active participants in our own Spiritual Council. However uncomfortable we find the idea of being ‘wise,’ or ‘aware,’ part of our job in self-healing is defusing the ego charge of these concepts. That charge runs the gamut of not believing that we can be wise, to believing we don’t have the right to be, and fear of being misled by our truth. We forget that the body has its own wisdom. Soul components of ourselves can make meaningful contributions to our spiritual path and practice.
Given that, how do we discern UPG from the insight of our guides? Do we even have to? How much does ascribing the source of insight matter, as long as it rings true? These are individual considerations with which we all must find balance. I don’t always know precisely where an insight came from. I do hear my guides’ different voices, along with that of higher aspects of myself, my body, an individual organ, the grass. For me, what it comes down to is having developed a keen ability to pin-point my truth, and actually listening to it, acting on it when I hear it. In the end, I don’t care where it came from. I’m just glad I could receive it.
When we can accept our personal truths, our life view shifts from the divisions of Here and There, to the moment, to no veil, to All Things. The power of spirit teachers doesn’t weaken when we initiate ourselves as allies. If anything, it strengthens.
See for yourself. They can take it.
Read other posts in the Thursday Betwixt series.
“Journeying” is the term most often used to describe the process shamans go through to engage the spirit world. The word was associated with shamanic ecstatic trance by Michael Harner in the 1980s, which for those keeping ancient score, wasn’t that long ago. My emphasis on that recentness is that what has caught the attention of those attracted to shamanism in the modern context often isn’t actually shamanism. It’s a fabricated semblance of that spiritual experience distilled to a set of techniques appropriate for western people not to hurt themselves and others (again, Harner). It’s important to understand that journeying isn’t the summation of shamanism, or the role of shaman. In fact, many cultures and traditions don’t “journey” at all. Nonetheless, various techniques of ecstatic trance abound, though the purpose of this post is to unpack the notion of “journeying.”
Seriously. Read on.
Some call it ecstatic journeying or shamanic journeying, starwalking, skywalking. it is all a form of intended ecstatic trance. “Can’t everyone do that?” you ask.
We’re all wired for the capability, though no, we can’t all readily access that wiring, and even those who can’t don’t automatically understand what to do with it. Ecstatic trance requires training to do effectively and well. That training includes learning to set an intention, then traverse the layers of the spirit realm with one’s spirit guides for healing or insight retrieval, with the intention encompassing the duty to bring that wisdom back and make it active in the world. That part is often skipped, as if “journeying” is just the trip out of body. Not so. Effective shamanic trance includes doing something useful with that information, for the betterment of community.
Logistically how do you do it? It’s often done with drumming or other rhythmic induction, specific tempos induce a theta, or light dreaming, brain state. If you’re not sure what those things are or how to use them, this is when you find a mentor. Again, wired, but not active.
Journeying is often confused with pathworking, in which participants are guided in what to see and do. When learning to journey, a general framework is followed to access the ecstatic state, though what occurs once in the spirit realm is entirely organic. Upon mastery of theta trance, the framework used can be as unique as what occurs in the journey, itself, if a framework is necessary at all. As well, it’s associated with meditation and astral projection. Meditation can be any of a gajillion techniques geared for mindfulness–all of which are beneficial to effective trance work. They, however, are not the sum of shamanic trance. Likewise, astral projection is travel outside the body. It doesn’t encompass relationships to a specific destination, flanked with specific spirit allies who assist on that trek, or guidance in what to do once you get there. In short, pathworking, meditation, and astral projection aren’t equivalent to shamanic ecstatic trance.
In the beginning, for most eager shamanic students, journeying is vivid, lush. Deep emotions stir and challenge how we hold our changed psychology in waking reality. For many, those first flights out fulfill a deep longing to connect, or reconnect as it were, with the unseen, that other belief systems or practices don’t provide. In those early stages, journeying seems to provide answers to everything, and for that reason it can be addicting, even escapist if not done with care.
Inevitably, though, the journeying process begs to deepen or to expand in some way that challenges the shamanist. Perhaps getting into trance becomes more difficult. The devices that facilitated it at first no longer smooth the path. The sensual experience internalizes. We begin to see that the spirit realms aren’t wonderland, serving up what we want to see, comfort, companionship. Its messages become less clear. Guides are absent or not as forthcoming. What happened? Why would a process that so fulfilled and provided stop working?
Traditionally, in indigenous and ancient cultures, shamans were chosen by heredity or transformation of a trauma (also called a shamanic death), while some were self-appointed. How they are revealed isn’t as significant as noting how shamans developed and were supported by their communities. Most modern students of shamanism come to it out of personal need, be that trauma or a sense of needing “more.” However, we are not a shamanic culture. We haven’t been surrounded from birth in an animistic life view that fosters our connection with the spirit world in and out of trance. As a result, we leave shamanic circles and classes to return to a mundane that doesn’t support our experiences. We don’t have the network of support to help us sustain the miracle of the ecstatic state beyond the journey. Thus, the journey process, itself, becomes strained. It becomes isolating.
That lack of network also tends to create the pattern of journeying only when something is wrong, when we feel a lack in our lives, or on behalf of others. Shamanic trance isn’t self-help. in fact, shamanism isn’t self-help. In its full manifestation, shamanism is acting as the bridge between worlds, to bring healing to seen and unseen beings. Anyone who remains stuck in shamanic function as a mode of self-help is not a shaman. This is a modern misunderstanding of the role of shaman as distinct from the trance practice, and is largely the result of the renewal of shamanism happening alongside Reiki, tapping, and various other actual DIY modalities. When shamanism is considered DIY and self-help, a constant pattern of taking is established, creating an imbalance in how we relate to the spirit realm. When we take too much from the spirit realm, it becomes ill, unable to assist us. For this reason, balance must be observed in the role of shaman. We must see ourselves as facilitators of healing in all worlds, not just the one of humans.
Likewise, learning this method of soul travel and how to apply it well takes practice, time, and diligence. Without making it a daily practice as part of our personal spiritual discipline, we can’t evolve to be truly proficient at journeying, and we can’t begin creating ourselves as an animistic culture. We can’t become solid anchors engaging in waking what the spirit realm guides in trance. We aren’t proficient at manifesting that teaching if we don’t have solid roots in mindfulness, emotional maturity, and knowing our own boundaries and skills. These we learn from a teacher, a mentor, someone who actually does this work every day. This is why shamanisn can’t be learned from a book or in a weekend class. It’s not a technique, not a method; it’s a way of being.
Should journeying lose its initial luster, instead of forcing it to suit expectation and demands, dig deeper into formed being. Find a mentor and community who can support soul travels. Connect with the the spirits of immediate surroundings — familiar space, daily relationships, Nature. The more grounded we can be in the awareness that unseen reality is with us all the time, not just in trance, the more we lace spiritual interconnection through everything we do, the more readily trance comes.
Normalization of the journey experience isn’t failure. It’s natural, it’s progress, integration. The act of journeying is a relationship, not just the connections we make from it. At some point, it is right for the experience of trance to integrate, for us to become the embodiment of the community, connections, and wisdom we gain from it. Yet at the same time, we must hold our journey experiences loosely. Let the process unfold as it desires. Along the path of ecstatic journeying, we learn to trust the inner compass, not just to show direction, but when to be directionless, when to become the direction.
Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma
Available on Amazon.
In the 8th year of its journey, bestseller Gift of the Dreamtime is now available in its second edition, in several ebook formats. With a foreward by shaman and founder of The Last Mask Center, Christina Pratt, the second edition of this fantastical memoir chronicles a modern shamanic journey from pain, to healing and accepting a calling to work as a soul healer of others. Groundbreaking at the time of its first publication in 2004, still no other modern shamanic work shares an experience of soul healing told from within the shamanic narrative, bringing relatable and credible insight to contemporary shamanic healing. Through that rare glimpse into her experiences traversing the spirit world, Harrell’s story becomes the reader’s adventure.
Not always easy to read, there are unflinching passages examining hurtful childhood memories, confrontations with overzealous spirit guides, and challenging personal obstacles she must overcome in order to heal. The book combines Harrell’s personal journey with instructions for creating similar soul journeys to help the injured child in all of us look at the hurt, understand it in a spiritual context, and forgive both ourselves and others.
Gift of the Dreamtime has remained a bestseller in modern shamanism since its publication, and has stayed in the Top 100 New Age Bestsellers at Tower Books since its publication 2004. Enjoy Gift of the Dreamtime in ebook for of various formats, print from Amazon, or order it from your local bookshop.
Hi Kelley. Some of my Reiki friends get upset because I use Shamanic techniques during my Reiki practice. These same friends, however, will use “psychic surgery” techniques including the psychic extension of their fingers to reach into a client’s etheric/physical body to dislodge or remove energy blocks. My question is: isn’t this “psychic extension of digits” essentially the same as shape-shifting? If so, that is a shamanic practice. If not, I can see little difference between the two, other than degree of transformation of the energetic/physical body. Thanks, R.
Just for today –
I will not worry.
I will not be angry.
I will do my work honestly.
I will give thanks for my many blessings.
I will be kind to my neighbors
and all living things.
The Reiki Principle, Dr. Mikao Usui
Thanks for your inquiry, Roger. Before going into the specifics of your dilemna, I’d like to tell readers a bit about Reiki, as it may not be familiar to them. I describe Reiki as a Japanese form of hands-near energy healing. I’m a Reiki Master and have worked with two different forms of Reiki for many years, one form of which is the original Usui practice, and another called Ascension Reiki (ask me why two approaches in another inquiry). The word ‘Reiki’ translates roughly to “spirit healing.”
There are many takes on the history of Reiki, leaving it steeped in a bit of conflict. As best I can tell from the divergent perspectives on the modality’s origins, it began in the early 1900s, when Japanese ascetic Mikao Usui had a vision that led him to powerful healing. Not an uncommon story in the halls of enlightenment, Usui’s experience spawned a great following that continues to captivate those interested in energy healing.
Heavily influenced by Shintoism, the religion predominant in Japan prior to Chinese influence, Usui honored the spirits behind symbols, believing that incorporating them with other components of etheric healing allowed the practitioner to embody a Universal life force capable of healing. Usui formalized his ecstatic experiences into a system of energy healing called Usui Reiki Ryoho, originally comprised of three levels of study.
Usui’s practice moved into western culture in the mid-1900s, where it took off like wild fire. Today it is likely the most-taught “New Age” healing practice. At best, we in the west practice hybridized Reiki, though that statement attracts all sorts of speculation. There is much argument around what Usuis’s true teachings were. That it is a spiritual practice and energy healing modality taken out of its native space, elements, and teaching, shaped in the form that best adapts to our culture–is what we know, and adapt it has. There are as many forms of Reiki as you care to look into. Given that, Reiki is culturally appropriated, a fact that goes without mention amongst many modern energy medicine circles.
To answer your question, my understanding of Reiki is that it is an alignment with the true self–in other words with All Things–in such a way that there is no ego involvement. There doesn’t have to be. Working at that level of awareness there is no intellectual process driving what is done during healing. The job of the Reiki Master is to be out of the way and merely allow the life force to move through. In that light, that means no elements are brought in from any healing practice, belief system, or viewpoint, because Reiki happens well above the level of those things. I think this unconscious (?) need to bring other modalities into Reiki is why other forms of it were created. Is it that we can’t stay out of the way of Source? Must we project ourselves into/onto it? Or do we need to custom fit healing methods to what best suits our elements, our space, our teaching?
It is not my experience that you can lift a single technique out of a culture, bring it into another, and expect it to behave the same way. This has been a concern around the appropriation of tribal healing practices for centuries. This consideration generates questions like is it respectful to the originating practice to append your beliefs/symbols/deities/methods to it? Is it respectful to the culture from which it came not to honor it at all in your application of the modality? How do you honor the originating culture if you occlude it with your ego? Are you doing the same “kind” of healing if you change the foundation of the technique?
These are personal questions that require deep contemplation before you undertake working with clients, IMO, and are components that I teach in my Reiki classes. To me Reiki is a spirit ally, much as a totem or fetish is. It is a tool that allows us to connect with the Divine in a way that we can consciously process–symbols, movements, chants, often all at once–what might otherwise be too foreign to hold. Reiki engages both hemispheres of the brain; thus, brings us fully present in our power. It allows us to be part of the process without having to worry about the process. I do not tell my allies what to do. In fact, I do what they tell me, and Reiki tells me to step aside. Can it tell each of us different things? That is the question, though given Usui’s original teachings, we’d never even ask that.
There are striking distinctions between Reiki and shamanism that should be noted. Part of the role of a shaman is to be active in the process. Reiki in its true application is only passive. The Reiki Master embodies the life force, and that is the only role. A classic quote is attributed to Usui, though I’ve never read that he actually spoke it: “We do not master Reiki. Reiki masters us.” To me, that is what this quote means. We surrender.
Shamans have many roles, depending on what is needed, and those roles call on active knowledge of plants, animals, elements, symbols, so that we can engage our knowledge with our soul work. In shamanism, we engage the physical layer with the etheric. We spend years distinguishing between being active or passive in our work, as needed. In short, we know the difference and we fall back on the best tool for the job.
Despite difference, these approaches to healing are very compatible. In terms of actual healing and benefit, I find that a combination of modalities is required, each in its own time. Reiki is often best-suited to people who are early in their healing process–those recovering, gaining strength, not ready for the full marathon. In the presence or absence of Rekik, at some point in the healing process, though, we must all become active participants. At that point Reiki gracefully steps aside for more involved techniques.
That said, I don’t mix modalities; rather, I do them in separate sessions. I am in the camp that the whole point of Reiki is that I am not part of the process. For me, Reiki is THE go-to tool that I don’t have to consciously direct. I don’t drive it or tell it where to go, what to do, or how to do it. In reality, this passive healing is a very Eastern (feminine) approach to accessing All Things, which flies in the face of the typical western push to be the active (masculine) principle in everything we do (which I hasten to add, “forcing” healing is common in modern shamanism, though ancient and indigenous cultures honor more of a balance–again, another article). Perhaps this is the real reason that mutations of Reiki permeate western culture? As well, perhaps Usui shaped Reiki as a more passive system in an effort to promote healing without threat of spiritual emergency.
In short, I’m not in favor of psychic surgery or the use of shamanic techniques in Reiki sessions, especially if a client doesn’t understand the distinction, or hasn’t expressed a more active approach to energy healing. There are plenty of energy healing modalities that do allow us to engage, use our intuition, be an active part of the process. I reserve Reiki as a gift that is just sweetly here to use, without my or anyone else’s interference.
When we decide to go down any healing path as someone who will work with others, we have to consider the origins of the techniques we are learning, how honoring the originating culture factors into our work every time we use that technique, and how we can find integrity in upholding that heritage without undermining our own innate truths. Moreover, we have to consider when we’re doing none of the above.
Learn more about Reiki and energy healing from the following resources:
Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma, revised second edition now available, with a foreward by modern shaman, Christina Pratt.
A lot of you already know that my 7th birthday is a pivotal event in my book, “Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma.” To celebrate my birthday Sunday, you can purchase the ebook from now until midnight Sunday for $1 when you enter the code: DU59V at SmashWords.
This memoir chronicles my transition from a childhood of PTSD and a young adulthood of confusion, to realizing my personal power and helping others do the same.