It’s been a while
since I wrote in the Life Betwixt series. To be honest, I’ve not had a lot of branewidth to do so, though the experiences I’ve had offroad with health crisis of the last 2-3 years have taken all of my spiritual teachings even deeper.
Turns out, that soul tending shit works! 😉
To that end, I still see questions all the time around the challenges that folks face with ecstatic travel, and in addressing them I’d like to add a few more points to the list. Read the first two installments, Part 1 and Part 2, to get caught up.
Most of the concerns in this part of the series are ones that arise for more advanced soul travelers. They are folks for whom trekking was going fine, then it wasn’t for no discernible reason. The thing to know about any approach to soul work is that most of us don’t have access to elders of unbroken tradition to teach us. We, even at the 2.0 of modern shamanism, haven’t had knowledgeable mentors who could fall back on potentially thousands of years of wisdom, relationship, technique, and cosmology in soul travel. We don’t have folks who could recognize every pitfall right away and identify their fix. So why would we automatically know how to do it right? Ease up. Give up the fantasy of perfection in this pursuit before going further in reading this article, or in deeper ecstatic adventures. Understand that none of us will not and cannot know it all without help, and even then we’re a process.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t knowledgeable people who carry viable modern traditions. There is help from folks who know what they’re doing. What it means is we have no collective lexicon of living elders to walk with us. Part of our growth in this work is to feel the grief of the lack of elders. Deal with any shame that arises around why there are no elders.
We won’t go deeper into ecstatic work until we do.
It Used to Work
One concern that is often raised is that techniques for induction into trance stop working. They worked fine for ages, now they don’t. The usual imaginal route taken leads nowhere, the posture that’s always aligned worlds feels disjointed, drumming or other sensual induction either don’t shift states or they agitate. Foremost, that trance functioned really well initially, is fortunate. It’s not that way for everyone. Understand that good fortune is a neurotypical cognitive imperative, which has everything to do with trance success.
However, the key factor in soul travel is our brain. The ability to change brain states at will is what drives the trance mechanism at a neurological level. For folks for whom the base inductions worked well, that’s great. But as we further explore those spirit realms and amass the wisdom of the ages, our brain changes. It wires in different ways to accommodate Other reality and be able to make sense of it all in a way that we can use it in the everyday–which is the whole point. Synapses get dull and demand that we update our routine.
This suggestion leaves many people uncomfortable. They would rather bear the frustration of trying to force old inductions and rituals to work than have to learn new ones. They don’t want to risk a discomfort zone around their beloved spirit engagements. For this reason (and several others), I’m not a huge fan of the triple world model the way it’s taught in modern shamanism, or of the fact that most classes in ecstatic trance focus most on far out Other exploration rather than in immediate animistic network (Midgard/Where You Stand). That triplicity is comfy and forcing it is not a realistic depiction of the flexibility or skillset that are demanded on this path. That model also favors a specific kind of mental organization that relies on able-bodied cognition and neurotypical wiring. To that end, people who aren’t starting with that privilege rarely run into their induction methods interfering with soul travel. It’s something to think about.
Deal with the ego and hesitation around incorporating a new ritual. Try new things. If lying down is the norm, sit up. If sitting no longer flows, dance, walk, run. Chant. Tone. For those brave enough to explore ordeal, do so with someone who is informed in how to provide healthy support and intervention. What must be affected is the mapping of mind and brain to the places we desire to go. The reality is, having problems getting there means the map has already changed. We have to update our tools in accessing it. Other isn’t the problem, and neither is here. The road between the two is.
Where’d Everybody Go?
Another challenge I see all the time is rejection of changing cosmology, and the reasons for it not sustaining can be related to the above point. Cosmology is how we make sense of ourselves among–the worlds, beings in them, order of operations– all of which make All Things embodiable. People don’t want their cosmology to change, and when it does so spontaneously (and it will, many times), it affects the navigation and experience of Other.
Even though many on this path aren’t church-affiliated, we still carry internalizations that how Other has formed for us in the past is how it will continue to do so, forever. I have long taught that strong relationship to cosmology is one of the requirements to journey well, let alone be grounded on a path of soul tending. But that doesn’t mean to hold onto it with a vice grip. We often make the ego-based assumption that the allies, the Nature Spirits, shadows, grimoires–all of the guides that have been there, we assume will stay there. The destinations on the other end of travel we assume will always be where we left them, and they will always address the same types of needs we’ve always brought them. We expect familiar faces to always show up and show support. But how many things stay the exact same through life? More specifically, what relationships stay the exact same over time? None. And this is also true of cosmology.
Cosmology is relationship, foremost.
Animism is relationship. Everything required for healthy interhuman relationships is required for healthy interspiritual ones, even for the destinations of our soul travel, the methods we use to travel them, and the organization of souls, guides, tools, and beliefs we house in them. The limitations in how far we can go in soul relationships is the same limitation experienced with people. Again, the vulnerabilities that hold us back with human-people will be the same ones that hold us back with Other-people.
There’s a phrase in the alternative relationship structure community–new relationship energy (NRE)–which some compare to ‘ the honeymoon phase.’ It’s the early part of a relationship, in which everything is sweet and inspiring and passionate. NRE is, in essence, an altered brain state. It’s when we don’t know each other very well, and we’re so carried by hormones and endorphins that we overlook a lot. Real life is still happening, just in the background. However, as we become more emotionally intimate, we become more vulnerable, and it becomes difficult to keep the realities of the mundane separate from the sweetness.
The same thing happens with soul travel. Most folks arrive at it due to some need or trauma. At first the rush of the imaginal and having that need met is enough. However, once we find that medicine and sustain the tending, we don’t feel the intimacy with trance that we originally did. By virtue of that healing, we have changed our base brain state from one of trauma to a more subdued everyday one. That brain shift leaves soul space less satisfying, and we start to think the magick’s gone.
It isn’t gone, though. We’re just not in dire straits anymore, and have to learn that this type of soul work isn’t meant to be self-help, only, ever. It must evolve.
Shit changes, and the folks who struggle the most with shifting cosmology usually end up walking away from soul tending. To update cosmology or even commit to holding it in flux for the long haul requires confidence in self and All Things. To gain that confidence requires dismantling a lot of belief systems, the tendency to cling, as well as releasing biases and the containers we hide them in. The level of faith required for this part of soul travel is immense–faith in self and in the spirit beings who support us. It requires that we show up to path and calling in a way that no other demand does.
We can’t talk about the difficulty in allowing cosmology to change without mentioning the shame behind that reluctance. We shame ourselves when anything spiritual stops feeling supportive, because we still subscribe to the patterning of patriarchy/church that insists there’s only One Way. It has indoctrinated us to believe that all we have to do is hear the good news and we’re good. There’s no allowance in that for listening, for interpreting all the other news. And there is other news.
The 411 on cosmology changing is that it happens often because we’re actually doing a fabulous job of soul travel, and/or the originating challenge that brought us to trance work has been resolved and it’s just time to regroup on how we relate to it all. Relationship is organic. It is ever-evolving. It changes because we’re doing it right for what was needed at that point. But we’ve grown, and to take it further our skills and rituals have to update.
A lesser often observed component of shifting cosmology is that our spirit allies will always work to keep us on our toes. They will not let us become complacent, and if that means urging to come at things a different way–so it is. It might be time to gain new skills, or admit that we’ve hit the end of DYI in our soul tending and it’s time to go to a trusted soul caregiver for help. Whatever the reason, ignoring why it’s changed, blaming your helping spirits, or insisting that old methods should still work is not part of calling. Stepping out of the rut and getting help is.
My only advice here is roll with it. Allow the changes, and grow. This one doesn’t come with choice. It’s fire in the head 2.0.
But What Do I Do with It?
The challenge to soul travel that I see in people who express “nothing happening” in their travel, they successfully navigate a route out and back yet can’t really root into the experience of being There, and/or can’t derive meaning from what took place… This result expresses a need for mindfulness skills.
We cannot successfully travel out without fully knowing how to embody ourselves and be grounded here, first. Yes, we can do soul travel. We can be naturally dissociative and even get wonderful results from it. Approaching soul travel this way as a rule won’t sustain over time without creating imbalance somewhere in the process. This is where rituals of self-care and self-awareness make all the difference in the quality of soul travel. Having a grounded ritual of mindfulness enhances every aspect of soul travel. In fact, mastery of tending all aspects of presence enhances soul travel.
Strictly from a self-care standpoint, everything can’t be managed by journeying out there. Treating soul travel like an escapist hobby will incite crisis. In fact, we have to master being within first, which is mindfulness (this is another issue that I have with the immediate animistic community being overlooked in early soul tending studies). These are our rituals of centering, grounding into our bodies, then creating and holding that space. When we experience distraction, inability to focus, fully embody yourself, or glean meaning from your travels, skills in mindfulness will resolve these.
I also caution folks to check their internalized biases when it comes to not finding meaning in their soul travels. Personal prejudices may be limiting progress. Likewise, there’s a tendency in the modern shamanic community to assert that anything at the mind level is less than the soul, or that mental and emotional levels of being carry negativity that can only be trumped by spiritual practices. This is a very Christian viewpoint. Mindfulness doesn’t take away from soulfulness. In fact, mindfulness comprises the rituals needed to produce useful soul travel. Done properly, they are connected and enhance each other.
Consider learning approaches to breathwork, moving meditation, chanting, rune galdring, forms of relaxation that are soothing and centering, or somatic methods that ground deeply into the body. Embodying self fully is the singlemost important thing in soul travel. Presence roots self firmly into the immediate animistic community, which allows travel with more proficiency.
A Word on Brain Chemistry
Chronic neurotransmitter imbalances affect the ability to proficiently and effectively engage trance and mindfulness, and our ability to process the experience into meaningful life narrative. Address hormonal and neurotransmitter concerns before beating self up about specific approaches to presence and soul travel. not working or producing results. Sometimes it isn’t that the induction doesn’t work or that anything has changed or needs changing, but that the brain isn’t capable of making the leap to Other in its current chemical state. Forcing it to do so generates distress, which will create barriers to soul travel.
Neurotransmitters are everything when it comes to effective trance work. Get them in balance as part of the routine trance tune-up.
If All Else Fails
If these suggestions fail to create new entry ways into Other or elaborate on their meaning, it’s time to go to a pro who can help. No one is born knowing this skill, and no one is expected to master it on their own. That expectation is a very colonized and patriarchal approach to an animistic way of being.
Remember that we can only voyage into Other as far as we’re capable in the everyday. If we’re unable to accomplish the things we need to in how we access it, the blocks aren’t Out There. They’re in the everyday. Healing is required.
Find a mentor who can facilitate understanding exactly where the challenges lie personally in soul travel, so that strategies can be given for adapting. I offer classes that teach the basics of soul tending, as well as private mentoring sessions to identify needs, strategies, and actionable rituals to support progress in soul work.
We can’t identify our own blind spots. No one can. Bless us all for our willingness to identify them and find help.
S. Kelley Harrell, M. Div.
Kelley is an author, animist, and deathwalker on traditional Sissipihaw land in North Carolina. She teaches rune work, ancestral healing, and deathwalking, as well as mentors and leads the soul tending training intensive, The Spirited Path. As an interfaith minister, she has served her local community and an international client base since 2000 through Soul Intent Arts, and advocates embodied soul tending and sacred activism through Nature. #beyourcommunity
elder well, die well, ancestor well