Shamanic Journeying: A Transpersonal Psychotherapeutic View

by / Sunday, 10 November 2013 / Published in Shamanic Journeying

For thousands of years shamanism was the primary method of healing prior to the advent of modern medicine and psychology. “The term shamanism is commonly used to refer to a complex of practices of a micro-religious character concerned primarily with what may be called, in our modern Western idiom, psycho-spiritual and psychosomatic healing” (Smith, 2007). Shamanism represents a vast array of somatic, psychological, and spiritual healing methods of which Shamanic Journeying lies at its heart. The following paper will look at the essence of shamanic journeying, explore its transcendent nature and purpose, as well as identify its strengths and weaknesses in the context of modern psychotherapy. The author will also explore how shamanic journeying may be a helpful tool for the support and facilitation of shared death experiences.

Shamanic Journeying: Its Essence and its Use

Traditionally, shamanic journeying was reserved for shamans, according to Harner (1990), founding president of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He pioneered in the introduction of shamanism to contemporary life, and describes the shaman as “ A man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness – at will – to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other [s]” (p. 25). Historically, shamans made use of journeying to access the spirit world for four distinct reasons:

(a) as mediator for the community, taking an offering to the celestial deity, (b) to seek, find, and restore the lost power or soul of a sick person that has been stolen or wandered away; (c) to guide the souls of the dead (psychopomp); and (d) to increase knowledge of the other worlds and their spirit beings. (Smith, 2007, p.27)

Although the shaman may travel through numerous dimensions, they generally can be categorized into three planes of reality:  the Lowerworld, Middleworld, and Upperworld. The Lowerworld, often characterized by the visualization of entering Mother Earth in some way, “is often a place of tests and challenges” (Walsh, 2007, 156). Here, the landscapes are often earthly in nature and filled with visuals of mountains, trees, animals, forests, etc. There, the shaman will encounter perilous beings and surmount numerous challenges in order to gain power to recover a lost soul, retrieve a power animal, or simply placate angry spirits. According to Walsh (2007), in this world the “shaman is guided and empowered to victory” (p. 156).

The Middleworld is in essence the spiritual dimension of our physical world.  Historically, shamans would travel this world to return with information about hunting, weather, or warfare (Walsh, 2007). Today such journeys are often used to find lost and stolen objects, to see how a relative is doing at a distance, to commune with nature, or to do long-distance healing work. In the Middleworld, the shamans may seek the qualities often associated with the elements of this earthy plane such as the moon, sun, or other elements of nature. Shamans often prefer not to draw on the spirits of the Middleworld because many of them are confused and lacking in power. In contrast, when one travels to the Upperword, or Lowerworld, one reaches spiritual beings of compassion, power, and wisdom (Harner, 2011).

The Upperworld can look similar to the Lowerworld in that they both may be populated with strange animals, plants, and people and often have various levels in which the shaman must navigate through (Walsh, 2007).  The qualitative state of the Upperworld is more luminous, translucent, and effervescent. For many cultures and religions, travels to the various dimensions of the Upperworld are naturally attained by the soul, being determined by the habits and patterns of one’s life (Villaldo, 2005).

The shaman’s journey can be characterized by three phases: preparation, induction of an altered state of consciousness, and the actual journey (Walsh , 2007). The shaman may enter such altered states of consciousness through the use of dance, exposure to environment, dietary restriction, psychotropic drugs (plant medicine), and drumming.  Harner (2011) suggests that, typically the shaman will make use of a drum or rattle to propel himself into what Harner calls the Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC).

The repetitive sound of the drum is usually fundamental to undertaking shamanic tasks in the SSC. With good reason, Siberian and other shamans sometimes refer to their drums as the “horse” or “canoe” that transports them into the Lowerworld or Upperworld. The steady, monotonous beat of the drum acts like a carrier wave, first to help the shaman enter the SSC, and then to sustain him on his journey. (Loc 1177-1180)

Over time, the shaman not only acquires inner power and guidance for the benefit of his community, he will also gain a greater appreciation of his own cosmology, including his transcendent capacity.

The Transcendent Nature of Shamanic Journeying

Recent studies by Rock (2008) in attempting to determine the ontological nature of shamanic journeying imagery suggested that most images derived by shamanic journeys to the Lowerworld were primarily from autobiographical memories. Despite Rock’s (2005) claim, he further suggests that, “other visual mental images were amenable to tentative categorization as symbolic, transpersonal and indeterminate” (p. 53).

In contrast, Villoldo (2005) suggests, “The Upper World is what psychiatry refers to as the superconscious, a realm that’s greater than the limited ego sense we have in our everyday existence” (Loc 1768). When we journey to the Upperworld, we enter this collective superconscious with access to our personal destiny, along with the destiny of our family or village or the piece of earth over which we have stewardship. It is one of the ways in which shamanic journeying expands into the transcendent. According to Walsh (1993), shamanic journeying allows the shaman to enter altered states of consciousness  which is often experienced, “[as] leaving the body and journeying as a disembodied soul or free spirit to other realms to meet with spirits in order to gain from them information and power with which to help their fellow tribes-people” (p. 38). Such instances can be recognized as remarkably similar to those of the well-researched transpersonal near-death experiences (Green, 1998).

Historically, primitive indigenous cultures focused primarily on navigating the middle and Lowerworlds as a function of survival while other cultures such the Egyptian and Tibetan societies became significantly preoccupied with the transcendent nature of dying (Halifax, 1976). It is in the Upperworld, that the shaman is equipped to accompany the dying into the ultimate transcendent experience. According to a personal interview with Mujiba Cabugos, a Philipino shaman, “Today, our neoshamanistic journeys are sort of a preparation for our final transition at the time of death” (personal communication, July 18, 2012).


Strengths and Weaknesses of Shamanic Journeying

It is in the landscape of the formless that we can gain the greatest insight into our inner worlds. “In recent years, shamanic practices have generated increased interest as a complementary therapeutic strategy in the traditional medical and psychological areas” (Rock & Kripper, 2008). Practices such as shamanic journeys have helped to not only to inform us of the qualitative nature of our psyche, it has also offered us a potent tool for empowerment and personal growth (Gagan, 2003; Walsh, 2005). It is here where shamanism and psychology share in the use of altered states of consciousness for health and healing. Jung, as well as other supporters of Analytical Depth Psychology, found value in exploring the ecstatic states to demystify the hidden dimensions of the unconscious (Smith, 2007). Others have viewed such practices as the gateway to expanded stated of consciousness (Walsh, 2007).

Shamanic journeying experiences are often compared with hypnotic experiences where both employ a state of altered state of consciousness. “Both hypnotic and shamanic travels can be therapeutic, but only the shaman enters and leaves the state at will” (Walsh, 2005), p. 170). This capacity offers us a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our inherent nature though through the empowerment of freewill, a quality of being that is inherently healing in itself. It is in this dimension that individuals gain the understanding that they are the creators of their own destiny.

Shamanic journeying also can become a door to the sacred through an experiential method, which may be viewed as spiritual. As Smith (2007) articulates, “the shamanic vision of reality and the shamanic authority rest upon levels of experience rather than upon priestly ordination or institutional hierarchy” (p. 38). This gives way to higher orders of embodiment and presence, which once again are recognized as key components for a fulfilling life.

In contrast, image based perspectives which view shamanic journeys as only mind-created images, can lead to scrutiny and the pathological diagnoses that are often prevalent amongst practitioners of Western medicine. “Pathological interpretations of such images label them as hallucinations” (Walsh, 2005, p. 172).

Another potential weakness of this approach is the lack of empirical validity and scientific findings that this method provides. “Shamanic healing techniques cover a full gamut of what can be called (for lack of a better term) paranormal, which refers to phenomena and experiences that lack scientific, rational explanation” (Endredy, 2009, p. 193). Such experiences are often subjective and non-quantifiable. This being said, we are reminded by even the psychological humanists movement, the therapist (or shaman) doesn’t actually heal, rather he simply realigns and reinforces the natural healing processes within the individual (Endredy, 2009). This makes way for the soul to inherently find flow (i.e. health). It is in facilitating the natural flow that the shaman can aid in the process of dying.


Shamanic Journeying and the Death and Dying

            In understanding the transcendent nature of journeying to the Upperworld and the potential healing strengths it holds in its methodology, I propose the use of shamanic journeying as a preparatory tool for possible shared death experiences as well as a viable vehicle to support bereaved families. According to Moody (2010), shared death experiences, where the family members shared common deathbed visions and events with the dying (such as out-of-body experiences), significantly resemble those of the shaman’s travels. It is also noted that these transformative experiences offer profound healing capacity, which often leaves family members with a deep inner peace and knowing that is carried into their lives (Moody, 2010). It is also suggested by Moody (2010) that only 5 to 10 % of individuals experience shared death experiences. Providing grieving families with shamanic journeying tools may very well be the supporting mechanism that can help families enter more freely these liberating states of consciousness, such as shared death experiences. In addition, shamanic journeys may also be used to help the grieving family members retrieve power animals, spirit guides, or ancestors that will support them in their grieving process. No research on this subject has been found to date by the author therefore additional inquiry and exploration is necessary to develop any further application protocols.




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