Thursday Betwixt – Modern Challenges in Shamanic Journeying (Part 1)

S. Kelley Harrell - Soul Intent ArtsIn the first phase of the Thursday Betwixt Series we’ve discussed diverse possibilities in allies available to support the modern shamanic path, and to a great degree that of animism. Moving into phase two, I’d like to talk about how we do what we do on those paths. As this topic is a bit in-depth, it will span two posts.

A definitive technique of shamanism is ecstatic trance. It’s regarded as the pièce de résistance in modern shamanic education, often to its own detriment. For those unsure, journeying is the term most often used to describe the process of shamans engaging the spirit world.  Referred to as ecstatic journeying or shamanic journeying, starwalking, skywalking, the process encompasses setting an intention, then traversing the layers of the spirit realm with one’s spirit guides for healing or insight retrieval.  Often paced with drumming or other rhythmic induction, specific tempos induce a theta, or light dreaming, brain state.

Sometimes confused with pathworking and guided visualization, in which participants are guided in what to see and do, journeying involves a more organic approach. When learning to journey, a general framework is followed to access the ecstatic state, though what occurs once in the spirit realm is entirely unique. The particular framework is based in a specific cultural or philosophical approach (cosmology). Upon mastery of theta trance, the framework used can be as personal as what occurs in the journey, itself, if a framework is necessary at all.

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.

However, for some students of the mystical, accessing trance states poses particular challenges.  Where the will may be strong to learn ecstatic practices, the mind sometimes prohibits allowing them.  As westerners who are mostly not raised in an animistic life view, our decision to release the veil and immerse into seamless awareness can challenge our experience of form. How we respond to that challenge determines the value that we place on journeying.

Over the course of deepening my relationship to the practice of ecstatic trance, I’ve encountered several factors that confound modern soul travelers.  As a teacher of ecstatic technique, I’ve observed that most modern studies teach how to journey, though omit what to do with what comes from it, how to process the life changes it inspires.

Generally speaking, for all shadow strata travelers, the three things most required for successful shamanic journey are intention, cosmology, and ritual. Without those is little sense of why journeying, how to stay with it, and what to do with the information gained upon return.

Below are four challenges we encounter in journeying. Sometimes only one of the following creates stumbles, though some students experience a combination:

Self-doubt.  Many of us were not fostered to have faith in our own experiences, those of tactile five-sense origin, or ones of a more metaphoric, figurative significance.  Culturally, we have been conditioned to distrust our imaginations as contributors of meaningful data; thus, some people struggle to accept trance experiences as relevant.  They can’t get past questioning whether they saw or heard what they did. Unable to accept their own observations, the journey experience cannot unfold; thus, intentions for soul healing cannot be fulfilled. A complicating factor in self-doubt is that most often the students who experience it never expected to. With that realization, an element of shame becomes involved.

Resolution of self-doubt in journeying usually relies on altering factors in the perception of self in formed reality, so that relaxation into the trance experience and affirmation of it can occur.  Common proclamations of self-doubt that I hear regarding journeying are, “Nothing happened,” or “I think I saw/heard/felt something, but I’m not sure.”  Most often when I work back through the journey experience with students who express doubt as such, what I find isn’t that ‘nothing happened.’  Rather something did happen, but it was dismissed due to a lack of faith in personal perception.

To release self-doubt, I support students in accepting their every intuitive impression.  I challenge them to accept every perception as fact, no matter how surreal or far-fetched.  If the sky is suddenly purple with yellow polka dots, I encourage them to accept that for that moment, it was exactly as it appeared. If a second later, the same sky is cerulean blue with fluffy white clouds, honor it as such, and move on.  No analysis required, just honor the observation and move on.  Through encouraging them to realize that both perceptions are true and unrelated to each other, the need to compare or judge either perception is relinquished.

Intuition requires confidence.  When the need to judge observation is released, journeying can be accepted as another way to experience awareness.  In blessing all observations, the emphasis isn’t on accepting all data as fact, but on processing all perception as real.  The empowerment of accepting all of our experiences as real opens pathways in journeying we would otherwise never find.

Failure of imagination.  Often, limitations in journeying are the result of limited awareness.  What we can’t conceive, can’t be.  To draw on a contemporary energy medicine teaching, life force follows awareness.  What we put our attention on leads us forward. It allows us to fulfill our intention for journeying.  However, some people don’t have strong creative problem solving skills, a requirement for meeting ecstatic intentions successfully.  They may be entirely confident in their observations, but they don’t know what to do with them, how to move them forward in a way that fulfills the intention.  Sometimes called ‘negotiation’ by traditional shamans, unleashing boundless imagination not only ensures meeting obligations in the journey space, but solidifies the personal experience of it.  Imagination is needed in journeying not just for navigation, but for interaction with the spirits of the worlds, themselves.

The common model followed as the journey map for most modern seekers is that of a triple cosmology including the Upper, Lower, and Middle worlds.  There are countless other cosmologies.  Those raised in shamanic cultures are likely to find their way around these worlds more easily than those just honoring a cosmology for the sake of learning to journey.  For that reason, upon arrival in the spirit realms we quickly find a lack of sign posts to point us along, or the legend we discover is unlike what was expected.  The road just ends.  In some cases, a spirit animal, or totem, may not be as forthcoming with information we need.  How, then, can the journey proceed?

Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism by S. Kelley HarrellWhen students feel constricted in their imaginations, I direct them to call in their five-year-old superhero personas.  Many adults are uncomfortable reaching back into the limitless imaginations of their youth, seeing that untamed logic as archaic, erratic, invaluable. The truth is, that wild mind can solve anything, because it knows no bounds.  This primal youth knows how to ask for directions from a bird. It understands that when the road dead-ends, it’s okay to weave between the grasses.  It rests comfortably jumping off a cliff to soar higher.

When we can realize that every facet of the spirit world is alive and responsive, we begin crafting our unique dialogue.  Yes, the ability to intuitively read and navigate the events and symbols of the spirit realm meets our needs for the journey, though it also sets the stage for how future journeys unfold.  Ecstatic trance is a dialogue that builds with every adventure.  Forming this fluid relationship with the mechanism of journeying is the core of the ecstatic practice.  This merging of the imagination with the spirit world teaches us how to decipher personal signals.  It enables us to form relationships with guides, scapes, elements, forces, absolutely everything in the journey space.  These relationships are what shape the shaman.

Next week, Part 2 will further discuss challenges in journeying, and ways to overcome them.

These are a few challenges we may encounter in ecstatic journeying. Available now for pre-order on Amazon and other stores, Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism covers several more concerns about shamanic journeying, and how to resolve them. 

Read Part Two of Modern Challenges of Shamanic Journeying.