Why Journeying Isn’t Shamanism
“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.