Creative Art As a Bridge

Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation - Sandra Ingerman MA, Hank Wesselman Ph.D. 2010

Creative Art As a Bridge

Another doorway into the hidden realms is through shamanic artwork or participation in a creative activity such as spinning fiber into yarn.

Our uniquely human capacity to create helps dissolve the veil between ordinary reality and the spirit worlds, but acquiring a visionary state of consciousness through art requires both practice and discipline. It also requires balance between the mental egoic soul that is the source of our creative imagination and the subconscious body-soul—the self-aspect that manifests the painting or drawing, sculpture, or poem or song.

When that balance is achieved, the doorway through the heart opens and the created object can take on truly amazing levels of expression, for that open channel allows inspiration and intuitive guidance to flow into us from our oversoul that resides always in the dream worlds.

These activities reaffirm the shaman as a person who can move out of the mental state and become a “hollow bone” or “hollow reed” through which the Navajos say the many colored winds may blow. Inherent in the practice of shamanism is the understanding that the shaman opens himself or herself to allow the power of the universe to flow through them and bring healing to those in need. By serving as the bridge between the worlds, the visionary can literally merge with and act as a conduit for the power of the universe. One way to do this is through making art.


Many archeologists consider the painted caves of the Late Stone Age to be examples of shamanic art. The earliest of these sites dates back to 32,000 — 36,000 years ago in Europe, and perhaps to even earlier in Africa and Australia, yet there is controversy among the primary researchers of prehistoric art over the art’s interpretation and purpose.

On one hand, many claim that we simply cannot know the minds of our prehistoric ancestors, and these investigators affirm that the rock art itself becomes more and more cryptic the more they study it. On the other hand, others proclaim with equal fervor that as far back as 36,000 years ago, the artwork, such as that painted on Europe’s cave walls, depicted the visions of entranced shamans, suggesting that the art makers were the shamans themselves.

From this standpoint, French archeologist Dr. Jean Clottes and South African researcher Dr. David Lewis-Williams have suggested that the purpose of making the art was magical—that it gave the shamans access to the spirits of the animals, who provided them with food (meat), clothing (leather), and shelter (tents) across tens of thousands of years.1

Animals completely dominate these earliest compositions; the human figure is almost absent. An exception can be found at Grotte Chauvet in southern France where a sketch in charcoal, deep underground, depicts a human-animal figure with the head and shoulders of a bison and the lower body of a human. Perhaps this too is shamanic art, and it is a depiction of a shaman merged with a power animal 32,000 years ago or perhaps a mythic figure such as the minotaur from Greek mythology.

Peoples of the Gravettian culture, which dominated Ice Age Europe 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, carved into rock, ivory, and antler what appear to be fetish objects of animals as well as images of pregnant women like the famous “Venus” of Willendorf found in Austria. They also made the first sculptures combining animal and human form such as the bipedal lion-man from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, fashioned from a mammoth tusk—a power animal or perhaps a shaman merged with an animal spirit ally.

Hank Wesselman, a paleoanthropologist, has studied shamanic artwork and emphasizes how it played a role for an entire tribe or community:

Shamans created art in order to maintain equilibrium, both physical and metaphysical, between the community and the archetypal forces that affected the well-being of the community. They knew that one of the ways in which we may honor these wise beings is through our art, for we humans are the only ones on this planet who make art. The shaman has always been the mediator between the forces of Nature and the people, and the continued survival of their bands most likely hinged upon their ability to do this.

Today’s modern visionaries must play a role similar to that of the visionaries and shamans of ancient cultures. In a world that is increasingly out of balance, most of us live in a state of ongoing and pervasive disharmony for much of the time, and so the role of the visionary in restoring equilibrium and harmony and thus contributing to the greater good of their communities cannot and should not be underestimated.


The shaman is the master healer in the imaginal realms and is able to perform a variety of healing rituals and ceremonies on behalf of individuals in his or her community who are emotionally or physically ill.

From Hank once again:

For the shaman, the emotional or physical manifestation of the illness is not the primary issue. The spiritual healer is concerned first and foremost with the cause of the illness—with the loss of personal power or the damage to the fabric of the soul that allowed the illness to enter and manifest itself within the body in the first place.

Drawing on her study of the Ulcchi shamans of Siberia, Sandra Ingerman notes that shamans often bring about healing by journeying and using artwork in the same session:

There are many different ceremonies that can be done to restore power and, by association, harmony within the client. The Ulcchi shamans in Siberia, for example, might work for a person who is ill or suffering from a loss of power in a way that incorporates shamanic art.

The Ulcchi shaman will journey into the spirit worlds on behalf of the client to find a power animal or helping spirit who is willing to come into relationship with the client to help restore the client’s personal power and provide him or her with support and protection. Then the shaman will commission a carver in the village to make an image of the power animal—a bear, for example. From the traditional perspective, shamanic art does not represent power. Rather, it is power. The carving of the bear becomes the vehicle, the embodiment, of the spiritual power of bear, so the next step is for the shaman to imbue the carving with that power. Then the carving will be placed by the shaman in the client’s home in order to serve as a literal and symbolic bridge between the person and the bear spirit.

Most shamanic cultures have traditions of using art for healing. The Navajo peoples of the American Southwest say that sometimes it is necessary to create a doorway between the two halves of the world—the inner and the outer—and between the people of time (ourselves) and the timeless people (the spirits). This is a poetic and symbolic way of referring to the relationship between ourselves and the helping spirits. The Navajo accomplish this with sand painting.

At a healing session to cure an emotional or physical illness, for example, a group might gather in a hogan, the traditional Navajo one-room, circular, dwelling. On the sandy floor, the shaman will create elaborate iconic and symbolic designs of the spirits using colored sands. When the healing ceremony commences, the shaman sings a very long prayer such as the Blessing Way while the patient sits right on the painting in the center of the room. This healing ceremony traditionally continues from dusk to dawn for two consecutive nights, and the painting serves as the doorway through which the spirits come into the hogan and into the patient. Through their grace, the sufferer is cured. Its work accomplished, the painting is then obliterated.

Among the Shipibo Indians in Peru, illness is understood as a breakdown in the body’s energy system. To restore harmony, Shipibo shamans make visionary journeys into the Dreamtime to receive healing symbols from the spirits. When they return from their journey, they use a strong dye to actually paint these energetic symbols on the body of the patient, or they will embroider energetic patterns accessed through a healing song into the clothes the patient wears. These designs are colorful and filled with power, thus creating a strong impression in the subconscious body-soul of the sufferer and enhancing his or her own inner-healing abilities.

José Stevens, who has worked for a number of years as an apprentice to Herlinda Arevalo, a Shipibo woman in the Peruvian Amazon, notes that some visual shamanic art works hand-in-hand with musical art:

Most of the Shipibo women—as well as many of the men—are highly skilled artists and craftspeople who embroider their textiles with brightly colored and distinctive designs of many varied shapes. According to Herlinda, these designs are in actuality icaros (healing songs) embroidered right onto the cloth. She and other shamans are able to sing these songs in a beautiful, melodious voice as they trace their fingers along the designs like a musician reading notes from a sheet of music.

Sandra adds to this:

Through José’s work I have heard many beautiful icaros and have seen many examples of how the songs of the Shipibo have been embroidered onto their textiles. It is quite a wonderful process, and the designs are passed down through their families.

For example, a song that would bring protection would actually have a design that is embroidered onto a cloth. The design is akin to how we use musical notation to record music. As José has stated, when the Shipibo sing their icaros they might use their fingers to read the song. It would be like reading the words as they sing.

So far we have talked about the Navajo use of sand paintings, carvings made by the Ulcchi, and icaros, or healing songs, embroidered into cloth to give you some examples of how shamans use art for healing. We continue on with a method for healing used by the Kuna Indians of Panama.

The Kuna create wooden medicine dolls called uchos in order to perform soul retrievals for patients. Uchos are figures carved from sacred trees by a medicine man or blessed by a medicine man. The spirit of the tree, as embodied by the ucho, travels through the spirit world to find and retrieve the lost soul part needed to heal the patient. The uchos may also travel into the world to help heal the Earth and to retrieve messages for the Kuna people about how to cope with the changes affecting their lives. The Kuna honor and respect their uchos because, to them, they are alive. In gratitude for their protection and healing help, they sing to their uchos and ceremonially bathe and feed them with the smoke of cacao beans. They are seen as extended family members.

The Kunas are only one culture of many who consider some of their art pieces to be alive. The Zuni people of the American Southwest, who are known for their carvings of animal fetishes, utilize different forms of stone, bone, and shells to create power-filled objects that not only represent a spirit but actually hold a spirit. They treat these fetishes as living beings and believe that they will bring protection to those who own them, as long as the fetishes are fed and nurtured. The Zuni often feed their spirit creations with blue cornmeal or tie turquoise or coral onto them as an offering. A hunter, for example, might use a fetish to invoke the presence and power of Mountain Lion, the guardian of the north in their mythology, the elder brother of all the animal spirits, and the master hunter as well.

We have given you a variety of examples of how different shamanic cultures use art for healing. As we look at the petroglyphs and pictographs on the walls of rock shelters and caves, and as we observe the paintings of Ayahuasca visions from the Amazon,2 and the visionary yarn paintings of the Huichol shamans in Mexico, we see imagery of the well-traveled territories of the hidden worlds, as well as the powerful helping spirits who are so familiar to the shaman. Through shamanic art, we are touched by the mystery and are given the opportunity to heal and discover more about ourselves.


You too can make shamanic art. This might take the form of a painting, drawing, or a carving out of wood or bone, or a creation from ceramic or stone. You might journey to invite a power being to embody your creative work, thus bringing your helping spirits into ongoing and dynamic proximity for healing and protection. Your power objects can be placed on an altar that you have created in a room where you meditate or do sacred work, or you might position them on the land where you live or in a garden.

Sandra, who uses spinning as a form of shamanic practice, notes how the act of creating can be a kind of meditation:

I like to spin fiber into yarn. As I spin, I meditate and focus on the power with which I want my yarn to be filled. For example, I might repeat the words “love,” “light,” “joy,” “beauty,” and “peace” as I spin. Then I take what I have spun and crochet a blanket or scarf for someone. With each crochet stitch, I focus on the words of power I am placing into what I am making. In this way what I create is truly filled with power and healing. Many people use knitting in the same way.

Wearing an item of clothing made with this kind of mindfulness brings power, life, and immortal Spirit back into the material world. It is time to once again be surrounded by objects made with love and intention.

You can do this with anything you make, including food. Through daily activities such as cooking, making a bed, or ironing a shirt, we can focus our thoughts on a healing intention, and love will fill our lives with power, harmony, and beauty.

Drawing on his own experience with making shamanic art, Hank emphasizes that with patience, the spirit of what you are creating will come through:

More than twenty years ago, when my shamanic practice was taking form, I was inspired to make a large oil painting of one of my primary spirit helpers, the one I call the Leopard Man.

In creating this image, I accessed a light trance state and waited. Slowly the image began to take form in my mind. I sketched it onto the canvas, then began to work in color and value. The painting was completed quickly over a series of sessions, and it graces the cover of Visionseeker, the third book in a trilogy in which I wrote an account of how I use this image as a doorway to access the power of my spirit helper.3 Today this painting remains in my care and hangs on the wall of my office where I write. It is a watchful presence, providing protection for my home and family, as well as quick access to this powerful ally in the Lower World when the need is there.

Carol Proudfoot-Edgar calls bringing artwork into her shamanic practice “soul-crafting”:

In some guidance I received in the mid-nineties, I was shown how soul-crafting through the hands was vital to shamanic practice. Following this guidance, I began focusing on crafting activities that would deepen our group work in Circle. Some of the crafting we do allows individuals to take their items home, and some crafts are done and left on the land where we are gathering.

The range of crafting activities is varied. You can make masks, prayer sticks, totem poles, medicine wheels, prayer beads, designs on the body with paint, shamanic garments, medicine bundles, dream gatherers, healing quilts or blankets, stone pictographs, animal clay footprints, and much more. Something happens in crafting such items that joins all the senses with the heart, mind, hands, and the landscape wherein the Circle is gathering. Throughout history, crafting has been a fundamental part of human activity, and I am not surprised that participants engage in these activities with joy and intense engagement.

After the objects are crafted, they are empowered, blessed by the whole Circle, and used according to the intention with which they were formed. But the main intention of this work is to craft our souls through our hands—to create art and objects infused with spirit power.


Meditate on what area of your life you would like to infuse with more spiritual vitality: this could be your garden, home, or a relationship with one of your helping spirits, says Carol Proudfoot-Edgar. Ask your heart and hands to join together in creating something that will remind or assist you in accomplishing this infusion.

With soft eyes, take a walk through the landscape of your home and see what materials you are drawn to for creating a “reminder” for you. Do this walk without preconceptions—sometimes unusual materials wish to be joined. Gather the materials and set aside some time to work with them. Crafting is the art of shaping forms. We cannot fail in such explorations; the very activity of crafting imprints body and soul with ancient memories as we shape modern materials. As you craft, you might look into where the finished item wishes to be placed—and be sure to place it where it can serve the function for which it is crafted.


We have mentioned that when the modern visionary steps onto the path of discovery, it becomes a way of life in which he or she gradually incorporates the spiritual teachings learned from many sources and traditions into his or her practice, which enables the visionary to live more consciously. One of those spiritual teachings includes the importance of being conscious of the words we use with ourselves and with others, and even the words we use about our wider community and the planet.

Words are power. Words are seeds. Every time you say a word, a seed is planted into yourself, others, and the world. This seed will grow as you continue to use those words. This reveals that it is important to reflect on whether you wish to plant seeds that create sabotaging thoughts, fear, or hate or whether you wish to plant seeds that create hope, love, and inspiration.

All indigenous cultures have creation myths upon which their way of life and their perceptions of themselves are built. In most of the creation stories, the world was created by a sound or a word. In this same manner, words can be used to create the world we live in.

In her teachings, Sandra stressing the need for us to remain mindful of the words we choose:

The Navajo people have a saying, “May you walk in beauty.” Whenever there is someone from the Navajo nation at one of my lectures, he or she comes up to me and tells me about this term. It means that one can choose to speak words that are loving and that will be healing to others—words that create beauty.

One of my favorite teachings is about the true meaning of abracadabra, which many of us used as children. This word comes from the Aramaic abraq ad habra, which literally translates to “I will create as I speak.”

Indigenous people take words very seriously because they can be used to heal or to curse, yet the modern person tends to speak very quickly without really considering his or her words. When we say things like “there is no hope,” we are creating no hope. When we say things like “I am grateful for all I receive in my life,” those words of gratitude become affirmations that reverberate back to us and ripple through the web of life.

The first time I did a journey about this, one of my teachers had me sit in a beautiful place in Nature. He asked me to say the word “brilliance” out loud and watch as the vibration went up into the universe and then “rained back down on me.” Then he had me repeat words to create a vibration that I would rather not see the manifestation of. I have guided many on such a journey and it has always been an eye-opening experience.


Journey to a beautiful place in the Middle World, perhaps to your personal place of power and healing: your Sacred Garden, suggests Sandra. Ask your power animals and teachers to meet you there, and request a teaching about the power of words. Next, begin saying words you commonly use out loud. Observe the vibration of the words and see how they manifest a particular energy in your life. Notice if the intention behind the word creates a different manifestation.

In your daily life you might start to make lists of words that you would like to incorporate into your daily vocabulary. Be conscious also of those words that you would like to avoid using. Incorporate healing, loving, and inspiring words into your life as you speak about yourself, others, and the planet. When you engage in conversation, always be conscious of the seeds you are planting.

Another powerful journey to make is to actually merge with a seed. Seeds are very potent; they contain the code for the manifestation of a living being and are an expression of the collective wisdom of the universe. They are small packets of the universal life force itself. When you can experience the true power of a seed, you will receive a real appreciation for the power of the words you are planting into yourself and others.

Word Blessings

Shamans are masters of the power of words, as they know what words need to be spoken aloud to create change and healing. The words that shamans use for healing are known as blessings. A blessing is created by words and actions—such as making art to create beauty, love, light, inspiration, hope—that affirm healing and success for yourself, others, and the planet. What we bless with our creative acts, thoughts, and words blesses us in return.

Many people feel they are not poets or songwriters or believe they cannot use words in a magical way, but, as Tom Cowan teaches, each of us has the poet/songwriter in us:

We just need to learn how to encourage that part of us to express itself. One way to do this is to find short prayers or blessings that can be used as formulas for your own words and sentiments. Once you know the formulas, you can slot in your own words or lyrics whenever needed. The more you practice this, the more you will remember phrases and images that are important to you.

For example, take the Scottish blessing, You are the wife/husband of my love (a variation is You are the wife/husband of my joy). In rural Scotland these phrases are used to bless people, animals, even features of the landscape: You are the neighbor of my love, You are the cow of my joy, You are the mountain of my joy. With this little formula, you can bless anything in your life for which you wish to express love or joy.

Another formula you can use for blessings comes from a medieval poem called “The Loves of Taliesin”:

Beautiful the rising sun, beautiful too the shadows it casts.

Beautiful the morning dew, beautiful too the grass where it lies.

Beautiful the passing clouds, beautiful too the blue sky behind them.

The formula is simple. “Beautiful . . . beautiful too . . . ” As you walk through the woods or down a city street, let your attention focus on places of beauty and honor them by inserting your own words into this formula. Don’t worry if it takes a few moments to think of what you want to say and how to word it. The moments you spend considering how to express yourself are meditative and create an intimacy with the object. Notice in the original blessing how the second half of each line is connected in some way to the first half. This is not absolutely necessary, but it expresses how things are connected and interdependent.

A third blessing you might use comes from the Scottish Highlands:

As the mist scatters from the crest of the hills,

May each ill haze clear from my soul, O God.

The formula is to notice something happening in Nature and then find an analogy to something that is happening in your soul or life. The following are some samples:

As the sun rises and warms the earth,

May my soul warm with gratitude for the good things in my life.

As the rain falls gently on the grass,

May any hardness in my heart soften and grow moist.

As the stars shine brightly overhead,

May my heart sparkle with gratitude for all that blesses my life.

As the road stretches to the horizon,

May my life go forward with joy and hope.

As the bird sings in the tree,

May my heart sing with joy for my life.

The idea is not to memorize these examples (although you can to get started), but to create your own blessings from them. When you use the same blessings over and over, they become second nature to you. And you can always create a new one based on what you are doing or the place you find yourself at the moment. Again, if it takes a few minutes to come up with words and phrases that please you, don’t get discouraged. These are meditative moments when your attention is deeply focused on something. Such deep attention can be prayer in itself.

The above are just three examples of formulas, but as you find poetry, prayers, chants, or sacred song, look for the formula in them and learn it. Then find ways to put your own words into that formula to create magic.

In this vein, we might say something else about prayer, for these are words of power that we speak aloud or in our hearts when we wish to talk to the gods or our own immortal self-aspect.

Interestingly, the word for “prayer” in Old English is bede or bed, the origin of our word “bead.” When you string your beads, you string your prayers or blessings, and the beads then become objects of power imbued with your words and intentions. This, of course, is no news to anyone who uses a rosary or prayer beads.

The Practice of Truth

There are many ways that we can use words to create blessings. It is also important to remember that the words we use in our daily life make a difference in what we create for ourselves and for the planet.

In his book Courageous Dreaming, Alberto Villoldo teaches us how we can change our self-talk so that we can live from our highest potential:

The discipline of self-talk is one of the most difficult to practice. It states that when we practice truth, everything we speak becomes true: whatever we say comes to pass because our word is golden. When we don’t practice it, everything we say becomes a lie.

The practice of truth requires vigilance, honesty, and acceptance of ourselves and others. It begins with mindfulness and with not pretending that little acts of cowardice are unimportant. When we are not mindful, we are sleepwalking; when we are, we notice when something isn’t sitting right with us, which opens us up to ask the question, “Why am I so uncomfortable?” “What thought is making me unhappy?” and “What unsettling feeling am I experiencing?” There are a few core practices within the discipline of truth, including those of nonjudgment and transparency, that help us understand how little control of our lives we actually have and how Spirit is always in charge.

Whenever you are hiding from an uncomfortable truth, life will draw your attention to it by providing you with situations that will challenge you to stop the charade. If you choose to ignore these signals, your body may very well give you a wake-up call. A story created when you avoided a painful realization will become buried in your subconscious. Eventually, it will manifest as a physical ailment.

Practicing truth means being willing to consider that everything we say and do might be a mirage designed to perpetuate the nest we’ve built for ourselves in the material world: our reputation, our marriage, our career, our house, our credit rating, and so on. So often we tell ourselves lies about who we are so that we’ll feel secure in our identity, thus not having to do the hard work of facing our failings. When we believe our own press releases, we’re like the fellow driving the car with the bumper sticker “Practice Random Acts of Kindness” who cuts off someone else to get into the parking space first.

Accept who you are, laugh about your foibles, and allow others to see the real you rather than presenting them with a smoke-and-mirrors act designed to trick them into believing that you are someone you are not. To let others know who you are, you must be willing to see who you are, with all your beauty and ugliness. This is the practice of transparency, where you allow yourself to be seen by others for who you are, having nothing to hide. This does not mean that you go around sharing your dirty laundry with everyone, but rather that there is congruence between who you say you are (to yourself and others) and who you really are.

In Judaism and early Christianity there is a sin known as loshon hora, which refers to engaging in gossip. According to loshon hora, speaking negatively about someone is equivalent to cursing them, and listening in on gossip is as bad as spreading it yourself, because you are actively participating in it. It’s best to remain silent and not speak poorly about anyone, regardless of how great the temptation is.

Every great spiritual tradition speaks of a universal truth that can be experienced by all, whether it is known as the “perennial philosophy” or by the Greek word logos. A personal truth, on the other hand, is always a lie designed to justify the terror felt in the face of the mystery of creation. If my truth is different from yours, it’s because we are both latching on to a limited idea, mistaking our own perspective for universal truth. The minute we become attached to our personal dogma, we start justifying it, and that’s when we slip into the nightmare of judgment, bigotry, and discrimination. The way to peace is through the practice of universal truth—it takes you out of the story of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and it helps you create your life journey with creativity and courage. But universal truth can only be experienced through your spiritual practice.

Making art and working consciously with imagery and words have been used by shamans worldwide to provide a focus for bringing the energies required for healing an individual, community, or the planet from and through the transpersonal worlds of things hidden.

We suggest that you use craft to bring spirit and power into your house, your community, and into society at large. Work consciously with weaving blessings into the words you use throughout the day. Start to observe your self-talk. By doing all of this you will feel a shift in your consciousness which will bring healing into your own life and into your everyday world.