The Shamanic Journey: A Simple and Powerful Approach to Self-Healing
Many of us have already experienced the ways in which nighttime dreams can provide information crucial to our healing. Shamanic teacher Isa Gucciardi calls dreams “emails from the higher self.” It’s not surprising that our higher selves would find it easier to reach us at night, since we’re all processing so much stimulation (and many of us are getting so many actual emails!) during our waking lives. When we’re asleep and our rational guard is down, non-ordinary communication can reach us more easily.
Still, some of us have trouble remembering our dreams, or connecting their messages with our waking lives – and few of us have developed the ability to formally consult with our higher selves in our dreams. Can you imagine how helpful it would be if you could request a dream on a particular topic, dream it in just a few minutes’ time without even having to go to sleep, and remember it perfectly? Further, can you imagine being able to use these waking dreams to request specific kinds of healing from your guides, and get more insight on any topic you choose? You can do all this and more with the tool of the shamanic journey.
Although the term shamanic journey refers to a specific practice which I’ll soon describe, many people have intuitively discovered some form of “journeying” on their own. Just as you may already be in contact with your guides even without having thought of it that way, you may also have found yourself able to access healing visions. Human beings seem to come equipped with structures in consciousness that make it easy for us to receive support, insight and healing from the symbolic realm. While such experiences come more easily to most of us during meditation or with the aid of consciousness-altering plant or pharmacologic substances, some of us access them simply by intending to – or
sometimes even without intending to. (My own experience being visited by guides at age four is obviously an example of a “journey” I had no conscious intention of making.)
Yet people whose guides appear to them spontaneously often lack both a framework for understanding what is happening, and tools to help them take the contact further. In this case, the shamanic journey can help you better comprehend, trust, organize and make use of the non-physical support you’re already receiving. And if you haven’t previously found yourself able to access non-ordinary guidance, the shamanic journey can provide you with a safe, structured way to do so.
The type of shamanic journeying that I practice and teach is based on the work of anthropologist Michael Harner, who spent many years studying indigenous healing traditions in various parts of the world. (Although the word shaman comes originally from the indigenous healing tradition of Siberia, shamanism is now used as a general term for spirit-based, non-physical forms of healing that have been practiced for millennia all over the globe.) Harner discovered that across many different times, places and cultures, very similar understandings of non-physical reality had emerged. From these diverse sources, he developed what he called core shamanism.
Because core shamanism is drawn from the elements held in common by shamanic practitioners from all over the globe, it is likely that at some point in your ancestral history, your relatives practiced healing methods similar to these. Therefore, no matter what your race, ethnicity or nationality, these powerful tools are your birthright.
Shamanic journeys are usually done with the accompaniment of a regular, rhythmic drum beat, which helps to induce a very slightly altered state of consciousness similar to the state of daydreaming. While listening to the drum beat, either live or recorded, you internally, imaginally “journey” to another world where you can meet with your guides and receive their help.
Core shamanism describes a three-part world, consisting of an upper world, a lower world, and a middle world. Journeyers who are seeking their own healing should journey only to the upper or lower worlds, since in those two realms, only compassionate beings have ever been reported. (Experienced shamans also work in the middle world, but that’s a more advanced practice.) To travel to the upper or lower world with more ease, it helps to choose a departure point that you’ve actually visited in the physical world, ideally a place where you have felt comfortable and safe. Departure points for the upper world are usually a hill, mountain, tree or rooftop; for the lower world, the most common departure points are a cave, hollowed-out tree trunk, or body of water.
Generally, you will use the same departure points each time you journey. Once you are a seasoned journeyer, the process of getting to the upper or lower world may become streamlined or instantaneous, but as a beginner, it’s advisable to go step by step.
If you are journeying on your own, many recordings of shamanic journey drumming are available online. While listening to the drumming, simply close your eyes and bring yourself to your departure point in your mind, while holding and re-stating to yourself a clear intention for the journey. For instance, if this is your first journey, your intention might be, “I’m going to the upper [or lower] world to meet a higher-consciousness guide, a compassionate being who has only my highest good as their sole intent.” You can journey to the upper and lower worlds in separate journeys, in order to make contact with guides in each world; or, you can simply pick departure points for each world, and then see which world you feel more strongly drawn to in any given journey. The upper and lower worlds are both completely compassionate, trustworthy non-physical realms, although they are dimensionally different in ways each journeyer must discover for herself.
As you wait at your departure point and reaffirm your intention, a way will generally emerge for you to travel into the upper or lower world. For instance, you might find yourself flying, swimming, crawling, running, walking, floating, or being carried. When you arrive in either world for the first time, simply continue to hold your intention: “I’m here to meet a higher-consciousness guide.” Your guide can take any form in the universe; he or she might appear to you as a tree, rock, plant, animal, or other aspects of the natural world, or might take a human form, the form of an angelic or mythical being, or the form of a voice, light or sound.
Your journey will not necessarily be strongly visual; people can experience journeys with any of our five (or more) senses. Although some people do “see” their journeys in clairvoyant fashion, many people tend to have journeys that are more kinesthetic (clairsentient), auditory (clairaudient), or that simply induce a state of knowing (claircognizance) in the journeyer.
However you are perceiving your journey, when you encounter a being you sense might be your guide, it’s important to ask, “Are you a guide for me?” You may get a straight Yes or No, but more often, you will simply receive an intuitive sense of the answer. Or, the being may answer with a gesture or action. If the answer seems to be No, simply continue to hold your intention and wait or look for another being. When you do encounter someone who indicates that they are your guide, you can use the rest of the journey to get to know them. It’s also fine to ask whether they have any messages or teachings for you right now. In subsequent journeys, you can return to that same guide with specific questions or requests. You can also ask to meet guides who will work with you in specific areas of your life, or will help you with specific healing processes.
Time passes differently in journeys, just as it does in a dream. Often, things happen very quickly. I generally keep each journey to ten minutes or less, so that I’ll be more likely to remember every detail when I emerge. As with dreams, journeys tend to fade more quickly from memory than things we’ve experienced in waking life, so I highly recommend writing down each journey as soon as you’ve finished it. Messages or symbols that are not immediately clear may become clearer when you reread your notes; if not, you can always do another journey to ask your guides for clarification.
Although there are many ways to access information and healing from our guides, the shamanic journey is one of the fastest and most effective tools I have ever used. Later in this book you’ll find descriptions of a number of my own shamanic journeys. For now, here’s a story of a client’s journey, a journey I will never forget.
Laura contacted me in a state of extreme distress. Her boyfriend had broken up with her suddenly, with no explanation, and Laura later found out that he’d been having an affair with a friend of theirs. “I want to move away, but I can’t afford to,” Laura told me bitterly. She no longer trusted her friends; it seemed to her that any one of them might betray her. She had been through a lot of therapy and done a lot of spiritual work already, but felt as if none of it had helped. She had come to see me only because she felt so desperate – and because at the time I offered a free initial session.
At the time I had only been in private practice for a few months, and as Laura’s pain filled the room, I wondered how I could possibly help her. Then, to my relief, I remembered that I didn’t have to. Laura had learned shamanic journeying many years before, and vaguely remembered a guide who had taken the form of a dragon. I suggested that she visit with the dragon now, and simply ask for help. Then I picked up my drum.
Ten minutes later, when I stopped drumming, Laura looked transformed. Tears ran down her face as she told me that her dragon guide had scooped her up with his enormous claws and tenderly carried her to a warm pool of water, where he gently washed her from head to toe. Then he blew on her very lightly to dry her off with his warm breath. After that, he held her to his chest – which Laura described as “kind of scaly, kind of feathery, but very soft” – and let her listen to his beating heart.
That was all that happened – but in ten minutes Laura had gone from feeling angry, hostile and betrayed by life, to feeling soothed, comforted, safe and loved.
Of course, this journey was only the beginning of what would clearly be a much longer healing process. I don’t know whether or not Laura continued with that process; a few days later she emailed me that she had found a way to move to Oregon, and was leaving town. But even though I never heard from Laura again, this session was a watershed for me as a new healing practitioner. It showed me just how available – and how profoundly gentle, wise, strong and compassionate – our inner teachers are.
Although Laura’s journey seems deceptively simple, I believe that her dragon guide was not only comforting her, but also providing her with some very specific types of energetic healing. The “washing” she experienced seems to have been a clearing process, and the warm breath and “heartbeat therapy” helped her experience her vulnerability as safe, rather than life-threatening. In this way, the journey was both helpful on its own, and also set the stage for further work.
It also seems to me that this journey embodies the force that theologian Paul Tillich called “grace.” Tillich writes, “Grace strikes us when we are in deep pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life… when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment, a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: You are accepted. You are accepted… Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
And Tillich adds, “After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”
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