Saturday, 31 May 2014

Shamanism: Embodiment and Disembodiment in Ordinary and Non-ordinary Reality

Many thanks to guest blogger, Sally Ibbotsen, for this fascinating piece which compares and contrasts the similarities and possibilities of Graded Motor Imagery used to treat Complex Regional Pain Syndrome with the shaman's journey and the embodiment of Spirit.

I have just returned from Western Canada having spent time at a congress hosted by a community of Shamanic Practitioners. There were people from many different Western forms of shamanism with numerous ceremonies and rituals, some of which included the process of embodying spirit helpers. Shamans, both indigenous and Western, experience embodiment which can take place when we ask a spirit teacher or power animal to merge with us while we are in an altered state so that we can reap the benefits of their particular qualities. For example, merging with a Wolf on a journey might offer us speed and strength.  Perhaps more importantly it offers a way of seeing things differently – from a Wolf’s perspective in this case – allowing an objective, ‘Wolf’s eye, view on the question or intention of the shamanic journey being made.  Sometimes embodiment takes place because spirit wants it in order to teach us something, even though we may not have asked for and may not even wish that temporary loss of personal identity.   
Having been immersed in shamanic song, journeying, ritual and language in Canada for 7 days I travelled across the continent from Vancouver to Toronto by train, marvelling along the way at the wonders of wild nature then returned to the UK and my NHS job in physical rehabilitation.  On my first day back I attended a seminar held by Tim Beames, a specialist in a condition known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). This condition can be brought on by any injury, small or large and the cause is sometimes unknown. It leaves people debilitated by pain and, frustratingly for the patients, has only recently been recognised as an actual condition.

CRPS usually involves a particular body part. The patient will feel great pain or discomfort in that part such as a hand or arm and often feels nauseous when even thinking about it.  Over time, the patient will usually undergo a process that Tim Beames describes as disembodiment –  at best the patient will be disgusted by the body part, often physically turning away from the limb so as not to catch sight of it - at worst there are thoughts of amputation and/or suicide to escape the pain and intense disgust. Disembodiment in this sense is a rejection of a body part. Perhaps most significantly, once disembodying has taken place the immune system no longer serves the rejected part/limb; neural pathways fade and eventually the pictorial imprint of that body part, which is normally held in the brain, fades.  The limb often becomes smaller (although it can be oedemic), hair growth becomes abnormal, the colour and texture of skin changes and these are the signs that often distinguish CRPS from other complex pain states.  Current treatment  involves a process known as Graded Motor Imagery (GMI) which is Tim Beames’ specialism – it is often very long term and gradual – sometimes taking years and often requiring constant work throughout the person’s lifetime – it does appear to offer respite to the degree of returning the patient to a more acceptable  level of existence.

GMI is a reversal of the road the patient has taken and so involves a re-embodiment of the affected part.  Embodying can be a frightening journey for patients – it involves reversing a pattern of behaviour that may have long been in place and which patients may believe, at least to some degree, to be helpful to them. GMI consists of laterality training (distinguishing left from right both in self and others and this is almost always challenging for these patients) and, at a later stage, the use of mirrors to create an illusion of a healthy limb to replace the affected one (for example, for the upper limb, sitting  with a small rectangular mirror horizontally to the chest will result in the illusion that the unaffected arm  is healthy again).  The work with mirrors tricks the brain and stimulates neurons in the part of the brain that relate to the affected limb.  Sometimes even this is too much and here is where it gets very interesting!  There is now evidence that if one replaces a limb with a rubber replica and faces a mirror – so creating the illusion that the rubber limb is one’s own – and then stimulates the hand of the limb by, say, gently stroking, then eventually the stroking will be experienced as if it were on real skin.  Also, if acupuncture needles are placed in the rubber ‘hand’ a patient will experience no more or less healing than as if it was a real limb – so open is the brain and the parallels between mirror ‘seeing’ and shamanic ‘seeing’ began to emerge.

What struck me as I listened to Tim Beames was the similarity with shamanic journeying where we embody, say, a spirit teacher or power animal to learn or relearn something – to add a skill or uncover knowledge or to be taken to somewhere for healing or assistance, as in the example of the Wolf above where the lesson of embodiment may be to ‘fit in with the pack’ or even be more fierce in a specific situation. This is also known as shapeshifting. Often, embodying a spirit helper takes us down paths we have not trodden before or perhaps have avoided for years.  Just as in GMI treatment, when we journey our body doesn’t change – we are still sitting in a chair or lying on the floor - but the effect on our brain, our emotions and even subsequent actions, is the same as if we had physically gone down that route.  We come back changed – a pathway has opened up and we have the opportunity to incorporate a new more holistic perspective.  At the end of our journey we disembody from our spirit helper, or it from us, because we no longer require that pathway to remain permanently open during our ordinary reality existence. Without this separation it would be difficult to be grounded in our everyday lives.
"The Shaman of Trois Freres" 15,000 BCE
Just as in placebos, illusion, along with ceremony and ritual are powerful tools which shamans knew about long before modern day medicine. Shamans, ancient and modern, know that here may be the illusion and there, the world of spirit, may be the true reality of existence. As with GMI treatment, it is what we choose to accept as ‘real’ that allows healing to take place. Given the ancient power of the shamanic journey to change our hearts and minds I wonder how journeying might be used in the future to help people suffering CRPS. Perhaps seeing their painful, ‘disgusting’ hand or arm through the loving compassion of a spirit helper would be just what is needed to help them heal.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shamanism in Motion

Recently I was invited by Visiting Lecturer and Visual and Performing Artist, Silvia Battista, to teach a short workshop on the Core Shamanic journey at Royal Holloway College, London University. The students were very young people doing a degree in theatre. Part of their module included exploring shamanism both theoretically and practically.
The workshop was held in the stunning setting of the old Boiler House which is now a theatre space. There were about 20 students and most were tired at the end of a long term; some pretty sceptical and most only there because they had to be. 
I began the teaching by rattling the circle of all the students (with the exception of one young woman who only observed the workshop without taking part, for religious reasons). Having brought the circle together I made a journey, spoken aloud, to find and bring back a spirit helper for everyone present. To my surprise and pleasure this turned out to be Mickey Mouse who told me that he could help the group by reminding them how to have fun. 

Years ago I might have found it hard to accept a cartoon character as a spirit helper, but of course spirit is everything that is, which includes animations! I was struck even during the journey by how amazingly spirit works, because there wasn't a person in the room who didn't know Mickey Mouse and my task, which had seemed a bit uphill at the start of the workshop, suddenly was much easier.

The students did a first Middle World journey to meet Mickey and ask how he could help them personally to have fun. A few people struggled with altering consciousness which was unsurprising as it was cold and there were workmen restoring the bulding directly outside the door. However most students did journey and many met Mickey Mouse and asked the question about how to have fun with some wonderful results.

After drumming, dancing and rattling to warm up and move the energy of the room and everyone in it, the students did a second journey to find a personal spirit helper. This time, everyone managed to journey and even the sceptical were astonished and even moved by their experiences. At the end of two hours the whole atmosphere had changed and there was laughter and enjoyment. 
Royal Holloway

Part of the  students' course work on shamanism included producing 'responses' to the experience of journeying. One response was to make a short video and HERE on UTube you will find some of these. ‘Fun’ is a theme in many of the videos. I was impressed by most and moved by some and enjoyed them all, particularly the dragon animation and the one about Hitler! I am always amazed by what spirit can do in such a short time.

Finally, I'd like to reflect on how much things have changed just in a few years. It's wonderful that there are forward thinking people, like Silvia, in academics today, people who are prepared to step forward and attmept new ways of thinking and feeling. Who would have thought that a highly respectable academic institution would be encouraging its students to alter consciousness and experience the numinous as part of general course work. Perhaps the Age of Aquarius really is upon us!

I hope you enjoy these short videos as much as I did.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Shamanism in Devon

I'm really looking forward to returning to Devon tomorrow, one of my favourite places in the UK.

For those of you living in the West Country I shall be in Dartmoor this month, between 19 and 26 October and then in South Devon between 28 and 31 October.

If you would like to do some shamanic work with me or if you would like a talk or workshop you can email me or call on the contact details on this page.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Shamans: Lords of Time and Space


* Bum yn lliaws rith
Kyn bum kisgyfrith.
Bum cledyf culurith.
Credaf pan writh.
Bum deigyr yn awyr.
Bum serwaw syr.
Bum geir yn llythyr.
Bum llyfyr ym prifder.
Bum llugyrn lleufer
Blwydyn a hanher.
                                                                         ‘Kat Godeu’, Llyfr Taliesin VIII

From a purely shamanic perspective time and even age do not exist in any ordinary sense. The experience of many who journey is that time and space can be both compressed and conflated while in an altered state of consciousness. This can also happen in everyday life while day-dreaming and of course, in dreams. Humans, it seems, are hard-wired to be in more than one place at a time.

Traditionally, shamans have been both the Walkers Between Worlds – those aware of Essential Time – and the keepers of the community calendar, guardians of seasonal cycles and Material Time. This dual role reflects the dual nature of humanities’ relationship with time and age. Paradoxically we are both in and beyond time, part of the cycle of life and death and simultaneously outside and beyond it. Shamans have always been a bridge between material time and essential time, which we also know as non-ordinary reality time. Part of a traditional shaman's role is this merging of interior/spiritual and exterior/material histories.

Since The Fall, The Flood, the end of the Dreamtime, the stories suggest that we have lost connection to the origin of Time and now are left only with an awareness of material time. This in turn affects the ways in which age and ageing are perceived; mostly, in the West at least, as a inevitable, and even frightening, decline towards death and non-being.

Time v. Age
[ageing+process.JPG]Surrounded as we are currently by a cult of youth, age and ageing are becoming increasingly taboo subjects, as death already is. However we regard time, there is something impersonal about it. Age on the other hand is very personal, affecting each woman or man differently and having different implications.
What is it about age or the prospect of ageing that affects us? Is it a loss of youth, a loss of physical beauty, the end of childbearing, an increase in infirmity and weakness, the onset of ill-health that will gradually drag us towards the grave? Most people will experience anxiety about one or more of these things. Shamans are as much part of this process as anyone; unlike most people however, the true shaman has always known that time and age are merely perceptions. This knowledge is a privilege, but one that is gained by making a journey that only the dead ordinarily make. By leaving this world and returning to it with knowledge and power the shaman proves that she is spirit, because she is able to transcend time and space and exist in a place where these things have no meaning.

Time, Age and Myth  

Festivals around the world Eid, Passover, Easter, Chinese New Year, mark human time. Some, like Samhain, mark no-time, the time between the old and the new year, between life and death, when anything is possible. This can be seen in the trick or treating of Halloween – the modern Samhain - where the underlying premise remains uncertainty or surprise.

Many creation stories from around the world refer to a golden time, an era before material time was first measured. Then, all humans could do naturally what only shaman's now do, that is, pass between worlds. After this era ended humans were left with an awareness of life and death and age and material time were born. However, there is a long history of humanity aware of its own immortality. In many cultures, poet/shamans claim to have been present throughout history, existing beyond both time and age.

Early Irish and Welsh myth and literature are filled with semi-historical/semi-mythical characters who through shapeshifting and a continuous cycle of existence, claim to have experienced all history in a variety of forms. Tir na n’Og, the mythical Irish Otherworld that lies westward with the setting sun, means ‘land of the ever-young’. Age and time are particularly powerful influences in Celtic myth and literature.

* I have been in a multitude of shapes, before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated, I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a   tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars. I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
I have been the light of lanterns, a year and a half.
I have been a continuing bridge, over three score Abers [river mouths].
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been compliant in the banquet.
I have been a drop in a shower;
I have been a sword in the grasp of the hand.
I have been a shield in battle.
I have been a string in a harp, disguised for nine years.
                                                 The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin VIII

In his book ‘Fire In The Head’, Tom Cowan explores the shamanic roots of Celtic myth, including the stories of Taliesin and Tuan mac Cairill. Welsh poet/druid Taliesin, an historical figure thought to have lived in the 6thC, claimed to have witnessed all history and in one poem described some of his many forms:Irish seer, Tuan mac Cairill, who lived in the same century as Taliesin, reputedly narrated his life as a man, a salmon, a boar, and a stag, to the Christian holy man, St. Finnian. Each time he aged and prepared to die, he was transformed into another shape. Finally as a salmon he was captured and eaten by the fisherman's wife, who then gave birth to him as Tuan mac Cairill.
Core Shamanism seldom explores the issue of reincarnation, in the eastern esoteric sense of literal rebirth, but the Celtic tradition offers a very different glimpse of immortality, a shapeshifting existence that does not have humanity as its goal, but offers experience of everything that is, of an eternal consciousness of which we are both a part and, paradoxically, all. 
As well as tales of humans aware of their existence outside of time, there are many Celtic-origin stories of humans suspended in alternate reality.
Grail legends and the medieval Arthurian romances are full of characters who become lost in time and space, and for whom time passes either very slowly or very quickly, and space/place become confused or irrelevant. Castles are discovered after many years of searching, only to vanish never to be found again. In the image on the right, Sir Perceval, a tiny figure dwarfed by the towering landscape, arrives at Castle Carbonek where he will be tested in a vacuum of time. Ordinary time and space, become meaningless, as Arthur’s knights search for the ineffable within the unmeasureable.  
This ancient Celtic experience is still alive in the 21stC, in digital recordings of ballads like the 13thC, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ which tells the story of an historical Scottish lord taken by the Queen of the Elves to an unseen world and returned home after many years, physically unchanged but with the gift of prophecy. Even more modern tales, such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White contain these elements of the suspension of time and youth.

Time – Keepers

[chukchi+woman.JPG]It was not just as a bridge between worlds that shamans explored time for their communities. Traditionally shamans were keepers of the calendar.The Chukchi people of north-east Siberia have a myth about how the Moon was captured, by a shapeshifting woman he’d pursued but failed to catch, and obliged to mark the passing of time by repeatedly changing his shape. In the sub-arctic regions of Siberia shamans had great social power until the Soviet period because of their connection to both material and essential time. Their opinion was sought before any seasonal activity; such as hunting or fishing. Shamans of the sub-arctic, being particularly subject to lengthy periods of light and dark, understood the power of time. They knew that what we now call the biological clock and circadian rhythms, affect judgement and perception in the same way that fever and hallucinogens can. Some shamans doubtless used this knowledge of time in a less than scrupulous way. Presbyterian missionaries who tried to convert Siberians away from shamanism in the 19th-century, found themselves unwillingly participating in out-of-body experiences along with the locals because they had underestimated the shaman's knowledge of time and showmanship!

Time and The Time Lord
At a seminar looking at time and age my students journeyed with the intention: ‘Show me what meaning time and age have for me and how I can bring their positive power into my daily life".

Discussing this journey on the phone a few days later with an attendee of the seminar, we started discussing BBC TV’s ‘Dr. Who’. We decided that, though not exactly a shaman, the Time Lord is indeed a shapeshifter in the Celtic tradition, passing from one form to another, never actually dying; in fact Dr. Who has not aged but ‘youthed’ as the series has progressed.
[Tardis1.JPG] The Doctor ‘journeys’ between worlds and eras, looking and learning and often dropping hints about his experiences in other times and dimensions to listeners he knows can never fully comprehend him. The character’s strength, and his burden, is his awareness of never belonging to any one time or place. He (almost) never carries a conventional weapon, but wields his trusty Sonic Screwdriver which, like a rattle or drum, can open any closed door. His TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space) is a craft, grown, not made, which draws on all the power of the universe for its life and actions.

Even today, it seems, we have our contemporary time- travellers and shapeshifters. Taliesin, Tuan mac Cairill and the old Chukchi shamans would, I think, feel perfectly comfortable in the company of Dr. Who, and vice versa. Perhaps, as you read this, they are together somewhere swapping stories.   

Friday, 29 March 2013

Shamanism, Society and the Natural World

Shamans seem to be increasingly visible these days: in mainstream newspapers, on the shelves of conventional booksellers, in children’s TV shows, and even on Radio 4. Shortly before the recent royal wedding The Sun newspaper got in touch and asked me to perform a “Shamanic Sun Dance” to celebrate the event. I declined. However, despite, or maybe because of, increasing media attention it’s not always easy to discover what shamanism really is and what it can offer us in the 21st century.
Ask any passer-by on any street to describe shamanism, and the result will probably be a blank stare. Most people are surprised to learn that shamanism is not a religion but the oldest spiritual and problem-solving technology on the planet. Even more surprising is the discovery that it’s the precursor to most major world religions, including the Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions, and that it has been practised on every inhabited continent on Earth for at least 40,000 years and possibly very much longer. Historically, shamanism was a significant survival tool of prehistoric humans.
'The Shaman of Trois Freres', France, 15,000 years
Our hunter-gatherer forebears decorated the stone walls of caves and cliffs around the world with carved and painted images drawn directly from shamanic experience. We no longer live in caves or in very small communities whose members are all known to us. Most of us live far longer, healthier lives than our ancient ancestors, but the part of us that is capable of fearing the dark and asking for help from things unseen hasn’t changed in almost a quarter of a million years. What made the uncertain lives of prehistoric people easier still works today because, although the world may have changed, fundamentally we have not.
Ask what a shaman is, and the question may evoke a few words about Native American ‘medicine men’ or perhaps the words ‘witch doctor’. Such attributions can be offensive to native peoples as this article on indigenous North American spirituality entitled 'We Do Not Have Shamans' clearly states. 
In fact, what a shaman is and does is simply explained. In the Siberian Tungus language from which it originates, shaman means ‘the one who sees’ or ‘the one who knows’ and refers to a person capable of making a ‘journey’ to the world of spirit while in an altered state of consciousness in order to meet and work with personal spirit helpers and teachers. What the shaman ‘sees’ and what she or he ‘knows’ during this experience of meeting with spirit is that there is no separation between anything that is: no separation between me writing and you reading these words, between a dog and cat, between life and death, between this apparently material reality and the non-material realities of the spirit worlds. This idea of ‘oneness’ is common currency in contemporary culture and is increasingly given credence by certain quantum physicists working with sub-atomic theory, though of course it is a predominantly physical rather than spiritual oneness that such scientists are attempting to describe. However, where most of us can only think about the notion of ‘oneness’, shamans actually live it through the experience of the shamanic ‘journey’ and direct, personal interaction with spirit.
Described as a ‘breakthrough in plane’, it may be that in physiological terms the journey begins as the shaman voluntarily redirects the primary cognitive process from the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain to the right, through the corpus callosum, that is, from the predominantly structuring, organising hemisphere to the predominantly visualising, sensing one. Many journeyers experience passing through a tunnel, en route to the Lower World,  or a 'membrane', to the Upper World. It is intriguing to consider if these experiences represent the passage through the literal corpus callosum within the brain.
In the overwhelming majority of traditions around the world this ‘breakthrough’ will be assisted by the use of percussive sound, such as drumming, rattling or clapping. Although hallucinogens such as ayahuasca are widely advertised in the West as a means to help alter consciousness, in fact fewer than 15% of traditional shamans around the world use plants in this way.
Greenland shaman
Metaphysically, the journey begins when the shaman’s consciousness shifts from the here and now and enters worlds visible only to him or her. These worlds, which vary with each culture and tradition around the world, have many names, including ‘the realm of the spirits’ and ‘non-ordinary reality’. Some traditions call shamans ‘walkers between the worlds’ because they are the bridge between ‘here’ and ‘there’.
Although often considered primitive or seen as a ‘religion’ of less developed peoples and cultures, shamanism is both subtle and paradoxical. The ‘worlds’ of shamanic journeys are utterly real – they exist and can be felt, smelt and experienced as clearly as this ‘ordinary’ reality. At the same time they are qualitative spaces, states of being that reflect and support the reason for the shaman’s journey – to ask for help, healing or information from spirit. Unlike many esoteric practices and religions that aim to ‘raise the consciousness’ or elevate the spiritual above the physical, shamanism focuses on travelling to ‘heaven’ in order to return to ‘earth’ with the means to change material reality for the better, to increase the sum of human happiness and wellbeing.
Contemporary research by cognitive scientists such as David Lewis-Williams suggests that the modern human brain is hard-wired to see the ‘unseen’ and the mystical; even the Lower, Middle and Upper Worlds of the shaman – translated into Hell, Earth and Heaven in later tripartite cosmologies – are seemingly a natural part of human perception rather than cultural projections.
Self in Spirit Mask
Not surprisingly, one of the questions most frequently asked by students being introduced to shamanism is, “What are spirits?” Perhaps because Western society has mostly avoided thinking about spirituality for many generations, we lack a clear, objective understanding of such things as spirits. These days it’s a one-size-fits-all word encompassing entities, energies, ghosts, angels, ancestors, the undead, elves, fairies; the list is seemingly endless. Personally, I have two understandings of the concept of spirit, and though the two coincide they are not the same and yet they work for me. The Core Shamanic or Western tradition, which underpins my own practice and teaching, describes spirit as part of all that exists. I am a spirit currently inhabiting a physical body in order to have a human experience. The spirits I meet on my ‘journeys’ are disembodied and therefore have an existential overview unavailable to me, but we are essentially the same: particles of infinite universal energy, fragments of all that is. We all come from this energy, exist within it and return to it. It is actually living this perspective that allows a shaman to experience the absence of separation between things that ordinary reality considers very separate indeed, such as life and death, or health and disease.
My second understanding of spirit is more psychological and archetypal and was described with great clarity and simplicity by C.G. Jung in his autobiographical book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Referring to personal experience of his spirit teacher, Jung wrote, “Philemon … brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself.” This is a beautifully lucid explanation of how it can feel to interact with spirit during a shamanic journey. More prosaically, I describe to my students the process of journeying as having one’s imagination harnessed and directed by something external or as attaching to a larger, impersonal consciousness, which can then be accessed.
So what is the purpose of all of this, and how can shamanism help us, here and now? What can it contribute to the sum of human happiness? What is the shaman’s intention when he or she sets out to make a journey for man with cancer, for a young woman needing to make changes in her life, for a river whose spirit is dying because of pollution, or for an animal grieving the loss of its mate? For the shaman, all disease and distress is caused by dis-harmony and dis-order and all physical and mental ill-health is caused by one of two things: something being present that should not be, such as a spirit of depression, or something that should be present being absent, such as part of the person’s own soul or energy. Virtually everyone I work with has some kind of power loss, most as a result of simply living their lives. A large part of any shaman’s work will be Extraction, the removal of intruding spirits, or Retrieval (such as Soul Retrieval or Power Retrieval) – finding or replacing missing parts of the sick person’s own soul or power. Soul Loss, described by Jung as “the scattered self”, can be experienced by anyone or anything, including animals and the natural environment.
Relationship with Nature is a vital aspect of all shamanism. Hundreds, even thousands, of years of Western thought has placed humans ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’ Nature. This perilous illusion underpins all that is done in the name of ‘progress’, from the destruction of forests to the use of animals in experimentation. Nature is not something separate, not something that we can stand back from and damage without thought, or even something external we can work to nurture. Nature is us and we are it, and this very different way of seeing the world and all it contains is, I believe, key to a new relationship between humanity and the rest of the planet. Of course, for most Indigenous peoples who have always understood their place in Nature this is not a new idea at all. Tragically many of these same peoples are now as threatened as the land on which they live. But it is this deep ‘knowing’, this way of ‘seeing’ who and what we are in relation to what is around us, that is most needed at this time if the sum of human happiness is to increase rather than shrink, along with the resources on which we all depend.
When I started on the shamanic path nearly 15 years ago I enjoyed Nature greatly but felt little personal connection to it. Now, as a result of journeying and knowing my own spirit helpers, many of whom are animals and plants, that perspective has completely changed; even a walk in a London park can be a magical experience. Finding the magic in what we once thought was ordinary is a gift that the practice of shamanism offers the planet at a time when it is sorely needed. It would be a difficult thing to poison a lake or cut down a forest if you felt that in doing so you would be directly damaging yourself. Fortunately there are still shamans walking between the worlds as they have done since the earliest days of our species, and every day more of us are rediscovering how shamanism can positively affect our own lives and the world around us through its unique blend of practical support and true enchantment.

(This post first appeared in 'Resurgence Magazine' online.)