Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Shamanic Journey: Where Shamans Go

Stairway to Heaven by Yannis G.

Upper World
Middle World
Lower World
All forms of shamanism, whether traditional or contemporary, describe the ‘journey’, 'soul flight' or ‘spirit travel’. The shamanist scholar, Mircea Eliade, described this as:
"... the pre-eminently shamanic technique [of] the passage from one cosmic region to another - from earth to sky or from earth to the underworld. The shaman knows the mystery of the breakthrough in plane."
This ‘breakthrough in plane” which has been described, in physiological terms, as shifting from the left brain to the right brain via the corpus collosum, refers to the moment the shaman’s consciousness shifts from the here and now and enters worlds visible only to him. These worlds, which vary with each culture and tradition around the world, may be described as 'alternate reality', 'the realm of the spirits' or 'non-ordinary reality'.

Although often considered ‘primitive’, part of a pre-modern heritage modern people seem to prefer to forget, or seen as the ‘religion’ of less developed peoples and cultures, shamanism is both sophisticated and paradoxical. The ‘worlds’ of shamanic journeys, are utterly real – they exist and can be felt, smelt and experienced in every way as clearly as this ‘ordinary’ reality. At the same time they are qualitative spaces, states of mind that reflect and support the reason for the shaman’s journey. This geography of worlds, Piers Vitebsky suggests, ‘can be seen as a topography of mental states’.

Different shamanic cultures perceive the world, seen and unseen, in roughly three different ways. Some traditions of the Arctic, sub-Arctic and North American regions consider the sky as a tent and relate to the tent pole as the Sky Pillar, the link between Earth and the celestial realms. This was translated to a flag pole during a Santeria ceremony I witnessed in south east Cuba. Animals were sacrificed at the base of the pole and at the nights end the master of ceremonies climbed the pole to hang a flag in a gesture of climbing towards heaven. This symbolic link between Earth and Heaven is also familiar in the architecture of pyramids, temples and ziggurats which can represent the Cosmic Mountain, another connecting image between Earth and Sky.

The World TreeThe third and most extensive cosmological symbol and the one that contemporary shamanism, uses is that of the World Tree.
A tree, any tree, is a simple yet effective symbol of the three-layered cosmos that shamans, past and present, and from many different regions of the world, experience on their journeys. The Tree pervaded Mayan culture and in Norse mythology the god Odin hung on Yggdrasil, the World Tree. From the basic three layers many others may extend and in some shamanic cultures these many-tiered worlds are clearly identified and taught to new apprentices. In contemporary shamanism, which focuses on an individualist approach, each journeyer’s Lower, Middle and Upper World will be unique and personal; despite this, archetypal images and themes are common.

Lower World
The roots of the tree lie deep in the darkness of earth; the roots support and nurture the tree physically; the roots are the naked mirror image of the branches reaching into the sky - as above, so below. What lies under the earth, beyond the unseeing darkness is the Lower World, the place of power, of healing, of animals and our own animal ancestry. The Lower World is the place where we touch our origins and genetic heritage and it is from here that we draw the energetic power of the ancestors, which is to say all that has gone before.
In contemporary shamanism, as in many traditions, the Lower World is accessed by the shaman sending her 'free soul', her travelling self, to a familiar, real life place, such as a hollow tree, a pool, a cave, a rabbit hole. Entering the ‘access point’ the journeyer looks for a tunnel that leads deeper down into the ground, a tunnel that will eventually open to reveal the shaman's unique Lower World landscape. This landscape varies from person to person and can alter according to the lessons or information being sought in the journey. The Lower World is most frequently a place of forests and mountains, of rivers and seas, of small woodland clearings and vast chasms. 

Snowscape by Siberian-born artist Pavel Elagin

Middle WorldThe Middle World, the trunk of the tree, that which can be touched, embraced and climbed, is the alternate reality closest, and in some traditions, identical to, our present, everyday reality. It is the axis mundi, the link between above and below.
In the Middle World, a contemporary shaman’s journey may take her on trains, in cars and on aeroplanes to meet a teacher and ask for help and advice on the worldly issues that affect us all: finances, career and matters of home and hearth. The Middle World is the place we are most easily tuned to in waking state, the place of the senses. In a Middle World journey however, the shaman will go beyond the ordinary sensations of everyday life and perceive the natural world untrammelled by the physical body. A journey to the Middle World can deepen understanding of ordinary reality and reveal its wonder and beauty; things often taken for granted.

Photograph of desert by Zoe Bran

My own Middle World, the place where I go to learn about the relationship between world and spirit, is located on the ordinary-reality border between Egypt and Libya. It’s a dune in the Western Desert, where sand teaches me about permanence and impermanence, about the ways in which things that seem solid and firm, can flow and vanish to reform in a different shape.

Upper World
Just as the shamanic Lower World has no resemblance to the Hell of Christian cosmology, the Upper World is not necessarily filled with bright light and singing choirs. However, a shaman, like everyone else, is subject to their context and for many people the Upper World is indeed a place of brightness and grand architecture. For others it is a place of cloud and birds powerful enough to carry the shaman on their backs. Reaching the Upper World can be achieved by the shaman climbing a tree, or other plant, like Jack and his Beanstalk; by rising up in the smoke of a fire, climbing a mountain and jumping upwards, walking along a rainbow or, as in the Bible story of Jacob, climbing a ladder.

Jacob's Ladder by Shalom of Safed

In contemporary shamanism, the Upper World is taught as a place of higher consciousness where we can meet teachers of profound wisdom who will guide us in the exploration of our own divine self and help us uncover our own mystery.

If the Lower World is the place to ask for power and healing, the Upper World is the place for existential Q & A: ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘Show me my true path in life’. In my experience however, the spirits are both subtle and wily; if I ask to be shown my path I am shown a path, literally! Sometimes if I ask questions that have no immediate bearing on my life or work I am asked, "Do you really need/want to know the answer to this?" and the truth of course is that often I do not.
A few years ago a new place started appearing to me in journeys, a place where all the Worlds meet and where all my teachers appear simultaneously. From this place I can visit any of my own three Worlds, or I may travel to somewhere new and unexpected. My Upper World, once green and busy with humans and animals is now a thin, biscuit crust that snaps and breaks at every step revealing other Worlds far below. I don’t know why this is happening, I have just accepted it. Perhaps one day I’ll ask!

The shaman's cosmology is a complex one that describes both the alternative universes that physicists are just starting to explore and the internal topography that reflects the society in which the shaman works. While this may seem paradoxical or inexplicable, in purely shamanic terms, where all is spirit and all is one there is no separation between this or that, between here and there, between you and me and the concept of inner and outer states loses meaning.


Nin Muir said...

Brilliantly said, thanks so much for sharing!

Riverwolf, said...

great site! I'll return and read more. New to shamanism myself and seeking to learn.

Michael said...

Makes me want to return again to seek answers to help Humanity. Why else would one venture into this other Reality?


michael j
Conshohocken, PA USA