All Change Involves a Death

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

All Change Involves a Death

In the last two chapters, we have been talking about physical death—the one that can be referred to as “the big death.” There are also the little deaths we experience in life that help us grow and evolve. An example of a little death would be the loss of a relationship, and through the ending of that relationship we see how we would need to work on unfinished emotional issues from our childhood. We might suffer from an illness that requires us to let go of an unhealthy way of life. Or maybe we experience the pain that comes from losing a job only to find that a better job was awaiting us all along. Death and, in turn, rebirth surround us all the time, according to Sandra Ingerman:

When we change jobs, end a relationship, move into a new house, graduate from school, or launch into a new time of life, we are experiencing “little deaths.” It is through such deaths that change happens; it is through the death of the old that something new can be born. Death and change are not something to fear for they allow the birth of the new. By learning how to gracefully let go of the old and accept change, life can become the adventure it was intended to be.

Death is an initiation in which we move from the known into the unknown and from separation to the possibility of oneness. All deaths require that we surrender to the gifts that life has brought to us. Shamanism is a path filled with initiations, and it is through the process of initiation that shamans grow, allowing them to move into their visionary abilities and healing gifts. Initiations are ways for the powers of the universe to shape the ego of the shaman thus creating a person who remembers the power of the universe and the truth of who he or she truly is. There are always new doorways to open when we enter into a new spiritual path, and typically there are things we need to leave behind as we cross over these thresholds.

Shamanic initiations often occur without our having to ask for them. The spirits will create new life experiences to help you move into a new level of awareness.You can also ask a helping spirit to provide you with an initiation through a journey. Dismemberment, which we mentioned in Chapter 7, is one of them.



The experience of dismemberment is a classic initiatory experience in shamanism. In a dismemberment experience, the initiate is usually attacked in the nonordinary dream reality of the Middle World, an experience in which a helping spirit or some force of Nature literally destroys your dream body. Dismemberment isn’t given much credit by academia, yet it is an experience that has been reported by many.

There are many ways in which this dismemberment experience can occur. For example, a bear, dwarf, or giant might appear in your visionary journey and suddenly set upon you and rip you apart, or a large bird might peck out your eyes and proceed to reduce you to bare bones. You might be eaten by an animal or a powerful sandstorm might strip off all your skin, muscles, and organs until you are just a skeleton.

Although the process sounds violent, there is no pain. This is an initiation into the shamanic path, and it provides a formidable form of healing, because at the end of a dismemberment experience, you are reassembled once again by a helping spirit but with all the distortions and illness left out. It’s a classic way to achieve a new, luminous energy body that is free of the burdens you have been carrying for much of your life.

In a dismemberment experience, you may also lose your ego and your sense of separateness from the power of the universe. It is literally a death experience, yet it is one where you are reconnected once again with the source of life. Through dismemberment you are able to recall that you are in essence pure spirit—and that you are able to remember your true origins.

As Hank Wesselman points out, a dismemberment experience is often a wonderful gift:

For many of the workshop participants in the circles that my wife, Jill, and I have been leading for the past eighteen years, a dismemberment journey often marks the end of inflammatory and chronic conditions, even allergies, in which the sufferer emerges healed and free of formerly debilitating conditions. The frequency of this happening has impressed my inner scientist beyond measure.

According to Sandra, dismemberment is a kind of liberation:

I have been leading dismemberment journeys in my trainings for many years, and I have discovered that dismemberment appears in the mythologies of all major religions, showing that the egoic, self-possessed individual must die so that a new self may be reborn.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the dissolution of the ego that liberates one from the limitations of the mind. In the Hindu tradition, it is only when we can allow our attachment to the material to be destroyed that our resurrection is possible. We sacrifice our identity, ego, and beliefs to the divine, and in response we achieve liberation from formerly limiting beliefs and concepts.

The practice of dismemberment clears away and dissolves all the unhealthy aspects of our earthly selves—the ones that keep us from remembering our connection with the source from which we came. In shamanic cultures, having such an experience is seen as a sign that one is destined to become a shaman. Once we remember that we, like the shaman, are more than our bodies and minds, we can open ourselves to the universal forces that provide healing, insight, and guidance.

In my beginning workshops on shamanic journeying, many participants have a spontaneous dismemberment experience in their very first journey. Although the experience sounds gruesome, people come back with a sense of peace and healing—and a feeling that something very sacred has occurred. Or, some participants remember that they had a dismemberment dream as a child. The psychologist Carl Jung taught that many children have dismemberment dreams as an initiation into a spiritual realm of knowledge.


During the experience of dismemberment you lose your ego and any sense of separation from the power of the universe, Source, the divine, and all creation. During the “re-memberment” you remember your connection to the source of all life.

To accomplish this extraordinary level of healing—a level of dismemberment followed by “re-memberment” (being reassembled) you might journey into your Sacred Garden and invite a power animal or teacher that you met in previous journeys to join you there. You can also do this journey in the Lower World, Middle World, or Upper World. The place is not important. What is important is that you meet up with a helping spirit and state your intention. You might tell them that you would like to be dismembered. Although this may seem a strange and esoteric experience to you, it is well known to those in the spirit realms.

In response to your request, your helpers might find another spirit or elemental force to do the work of the dissolution of your body and mind. Remember to request that you be put back together after the experience. And, as Sandra points out, try to keep your mind open, as the dismemberment experience can occur in a variety of ways:

The helping spirits are infinitely creative in how they will orchestrate your dismemberment. Allow yourself to be placed into the loving care of your helping spirits.

You might find that you get put back together at the end of the journey, or you might find that the spirits have some more work to do on your behalf and they don’t reconstruct you fully at the return. You will come back, and you will live your life as usual. But on a spiritual realm the spirits might keep working on you. You can continue to journey to your helping spirits from time to time and check on your progress. Remember that everyone’s experience is different.

According to José Stevens, a dismemberment experience can liberate us from our limiting beliefs and habits, and it can free us from our past:

To the shaman’s way of seeing, attachment to personal history is the most restricting obstacle that confronts an individual as he or she aims to become free as a human being. Our personal history is the story we tell ourselves about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going.

Through dismemberment, we are given the opportunity to erase our personal histories. Personal history consists of every memory that you have acquired thus far in your life, both conscious and unconscious. It includes memories of people, events, places, and experiences recorded through your five senses—whether positive or negative—as well as your evaluation of them. These memories are chained together to form your story, your identity, your personal dream that entwines constantly with the mass dream that humanity is collectively dreaming. This narrative is what each of us constantly references when we make decisions. The narrative determines our self worth, our willingness to take risks, our confidence, and our sense of shame and guilt.

From a shaman’s perspective, personal history also figures in how we age, our health status, and how long we live. Our stories are so powerful (where we think we came from, who we believe we are, what we believe we are capable of doing) that all of our lives are completely overtaken by them. To a shaman, the story of our lives is a trap because even if it is positive it circumscribes our true limitless potential.

Thus, our personal history holds us hostage to an enormous store of energy that, if liberated, could be used for powerful and productive endeavors such as healing, traveling to other dimensions to gather knowledge, and working with the spirit world for the liberation of people everywhere.

For a shaman to make progress, personal history must be erased, which will set the shaman free to fly, to enter the Great Mystery, and to be extraordinarily powerful. A shaman therefore wants to erase the load of emotion that his or her history carries, to render it neutral. This is what is meant by erasing it. It is helpful to remember that your history is nothing more than a collection of thoughts with emotions attached. When the emotion is gone, the story loses its punch and becomes completely neutral, thus freeing us from feeling compelled to act out (or react) due to these emotions.

Shamans know that we each have an official storyline, one that we believe is the way it is for us, yet upon close examination of our stories we can see many possible perspectives on the same set of experiences that make up our storyline. For one person, flunking out of college is a disaster that ruins his life. For another, flunking out frees her to pursue a much more interesting life. The events themselves mean little; the conclusions and assumptions are what dictate our lives. And shamans even question whether these events have any reality at all.

The stories we tell ourselves about our experiences can shift and change through time. Every storyline comes with a complete set of memories that seamlessly move into place, depending on what we want to believe, so that the story seems correct and right to us as we reflect on it. In one story we were neglected and abandoned, and in another we were loved but given freedom to roam and explore.


Shamanically speaking, there are various methods of erasing your personal history. One method is to inventory your life in some kind of organized way, perhaps according to decades, or according to places you have lived, or however it makes sense to you. What method you use does not matter, as long as it works for you. This process may take weeks of remembering and making lists, and it can be quite remarkable because it brings up so many charged memories that had been forgotten.

Next, gradually go through each memory and pull the emotion out of it. The simplest technique for doing this is breathing. As you contemplate each memory, breathe in while mentally saying “Accepting,” and as you breathe out mentally say “Releasing.” While you do this, you can turn in a complete circle to “unwind the emotion,” a Mongolian shamanic method for releasing emotions, or you can simply rotate your head from side to side, a Toltec method from Mexico. Shamans the world over have noticed that whirling, rotating, or moving from side to side tends to erase a mental construct and pull the energy out of it. This is why the psychological technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves sliding the eyes from side to side, tends to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Another method for erasing personal history, which is used by the shamans of the Mbuti pygmies in Africa, involves ingesting a hallucinogenic plant that helps a person to recall his or her entire past—including genetic history. The Shipibo of Peru use a plant to accomplish the same thing. As a memory comes to consciousness, a person will look at it and then release it with the help of the plant spirit. Sometimes a session like this can accomplish in one twenty-four-hour period what other methods take months to do.

The Huichols of the Mexican Sierras make use of Grandfather Tatewari, the god of fire, to burn away memories and negative emotions. They build a ceremonial fire and then throw into it strings with “memory knots” tied into them. Sometimes they simply talk to the fire and in this way release past events.

These are only a few of the potential methods for releasing the past. Psychoanalysis tries to do the same thing, but from a shamanic perspective, the psychoanalytic approach tends to reinforce memories because they become such a focus with each session.

You need not be a shaman to benefit from releasing your story. Story only reinforces the ego or the false personality created by the ego—the parasite that we may believe is real and that tries to control us. Although it may seem strange, you do not need a story line to live.

Zen masters live very successfully without any attachment to the past. They rid themselves of attachment to personal history by penetrating to the core of who they are in deep meditation. What is most important in achieving acceptance and detachment is the deep desire to do so, as well as the willingness to let it all go.

Shamanic initiations such as dismemberment help us evolve and grow into a deeper understanding of our connection with the web of life. They help us remember that we are more than our bodies and our minds—that we are spiritual light embodied and are connected to all of life. This understanding helps us to remember who and what we really are and to live a spiritual life. For as we have been saying throughout this book: shamanism is more than a series of methods. When it is practiced with humility, reverence, and self-discipline, it becomes a way of life that is utterly free of any religious overlay or dogma.