Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation - Sandra Ingerman MA, Hank Wesselman Ph.D. 2010
The Return of the Shaman
Shamanism, and by association the visionary path of direct revelation, is an organic practice that has shifted shape throughout the ages and different cultures to address the needs of the times. Hank Wesselman notes that although some researchers claim that shamanic practices are dying, they are, as we’ve mentioned, truly re-emerging:
A paper published by Graham Townsley about the current shamanic revival in the journal Shamanism reveals how the central momentum of the last few hundred years of history has been away from indigenous communities and their worldviews, a trend that has resulted in the waning of the shamanic method among the indigenous peoples.1
Anyone who has done time with “the traditionals” in the remoter parts of the world during the past several decades has seen how they are rushing to join what they perceive as the exciting new world of the future. For indigenous peoples, shamanism begins to look increasingly like old-fashioned hocus pocus, a view instilled in them and fostered by Christian missionaries. In addition, the arrival of modernity with all its glittering gadgets is usually the death knell of their ancient animist beliefs.
And yet, just as these “primitive” worldviews appear to be dying in the new global system’s hinterlands, paradoxically they are taking root once again at its center. To our urbanized Western populations, saturated with modern paraphernalia and bored with a world that has been bled of meaning, shamans and their visionary practices of seeking direct revelation of the spiritual realms suddenly seem very appealing.
To the so-called primitive, marginalized, and usually powerless, the promise of the modern is things, ease, and security. To the so-called modern person, the promise of the primitive is the one thing he or she lacks—a sense of meaning and mystery.
This primitive rush toward the modern and the modern rush toward the primitive has emerged as a feature of our current cultural landscape, and many in the Transformational Community are quietly, yet definitively, reconsidering their personal belief systems and priorities as they engage in spiritual explorations beyond the carefully patrolled borders of our mainstream Western religious traditions.
This is much in keeping with the predictions made more than a half century ago by the Oglala shaman Black Elk just before his death. With the ending of this cycle of ages, the primordial spirituality based in the practice of direct revelation is indeed re-emerging and re-establishing itself, and it will be on this spiritual foundation that the next cycle of ages will be built.
We cannot predict exactly what the practice will look like in the future, yet we can be assured that the shaman’s path will continue to be a viable practice for healing and problem-solving, a time-tested and sacred way of life that will nurture and sustain us just as it has for many tens of thousands of years.
Historian and master of Celtic shamanism Tom Cowan now draws on the wisdom of an archetypal figure, the wise old shaman Merlin, who in life may have been among the last of the Druids and the mythic advisor and mentor of Arthur Pendragon, the legendary sixth-century king of the Britons:
With the approach of the end of his days on earth, Merlin gave all of us who would follow a prophetic vision, one that ends with a startling scenario: Root and branch shall change places, and the newness of the thing shall be thought a miracle.
Of course there are many ways to interpret old prophecies, but I like to think that this particular image of the tree being inverted is profound in encouraging us to view the transformational changes that are occurring in a positive light. Perhaps this tree is the great archetypal World Tree that connects the many worlds, and now after many centuries, the roots from which we sprang will be fully seen and honored as branches. And the branches that were formerly upper parts of the tree—responsive to the winds and rains of the past ages—will become the new roots and be revitalized in the fertile soil of the Earth, and in so doing revitalize the Earth itself.
We who practice shamanism spend time in the juice and sap of the World Tree, exploring the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds of existence. If anyone should be prepared for this transformation, it is us. In that way we are the seed people who will shape spiritual practices for the future. We will bring “root wisdom” into the light for coming generations, and we will plant the “branch wisdom” of earlier ages into the soil for renewal.
In addition, we are experienced in seeing things from other perspectives, such as upside-down. In faery traditions, there is an image of the inverted tree whose roots become the branches of the underworld beneath the surface of the earth. This image reminds us how we on the surface of the visible earth share energies and life forces with the spirit-folk who live in the invisible places within the earth, in the hollow hills and springs, and behind the waterfalls. In ordinary terms, shamans are bridges who have relationships with the spirit worlds and who can be both branches and roots to carry the life force back and forth between the ordinary and nonordinary realities.
In reflecting on Merlin’s and Tom’s shared wisdom as well as the shape and the scope of this book as we have created it for you, the reader, we have asked all the contributors, shamans and visionaries, to offer their thoughts about where their work in the world is moving in order that we may continue to be of service to ourselves, our families and friends, our communities and our societies, and to the planet.
In the personal narratives that follow, each of the book’s contributors has also written on how they perceive their students to be changing. There is no doubt that what each contributor has shared will change in the coming years. But for now this is what everyone offered in 2009—and in alphabetical order.
So here are our final words from our circle of elders.
In my early years of teaching shamanism, I found students were primarily interested in training to become practitioners. As the years went by, I got students who already had a strong practice but who now seek retreat or renewal time. Americans have a great need for novelty, and many students feel they must get something new from each workshop or the workshop is not worth it. But slowly the ones who practice sincerely and intensely come to realize that novelty is not necessary. They are looking for time away from their ordinary lives to deepen their spiritual life. I notice that my own practice must deepen to meet their needs. I cannot just offer new content but must offer what comes from my own life as well. As shamanism becomes a more integral part of students’ lives, they seek time in workshops to reflect and meditate on what they already know and do, and they deepen this. Some work can only happen in circles away from ordinary-reality concerns. So I try to tailor my weekend or sessions with that in mind.
I am now getting students in my workshops who are more mystical—the ones who continue their practice, that is. The desire to “know” is not so much a desire to acquire more knowledge but to “know” experientially on cellular or soul levels. In other words, they seek mystical knowledge/experiences rather than practical knowledge such as how to do some shamanic trick. So ritual and journey work should be simple in that it provides an experience that will go into people on a soul level and remain with them. Too much complexity or intellectual content is hard to retain and requires mind-memory rather than soul-memory.
There are still some students for whom “to know” is novelty, who want to learn and know new things. But as the mystical students live their lives in a shamanic way, “to know” or acquiring knowledge is not about newness but about depth. They are content to repeat and deepen already-acquired knowledge rather than acquire new knowledge. They watch themselves change rather than need what they do to change.
Throughout Awakening to the Spirit World I have been sharing how my work has evolved over the years. I have stressed my passion for moving away from methods and technologies to bringing in the feminine principle of shamanism as a way of life.
We are evolving and in a transition time. Every change involves a death. The spiritual is eternal. In this time of great change and uncertainty it is important to infuse spirit into everything we do.
It is time for us to bring back the soul of the world by once again honoring this life-giving force. We need to honor our divine light and our spiritual nature, and we need to honor the spirit that lives in all things, including the elements and the Earth itself. We must honor the spirit of everything we build in the physical world.
This includes living a life of honor and respect for all of life and nature; honoring the cycles of nature; living from a place of awe, wonder, and passion; and being a presence of love and light in our daily lives. The key principle I teach is that we change the world by who we become and by our presence in the world—not by just what we do. This includes learning how to transmute negative states of consciousness that arise throughout the day. And it means we need to be diligent in being aware of our minute-to-minute thoughts in order to change the world and ourselves. Remember that our inner world creates the outer world we live in. And I stress the importance of being a dreamer and the need for us to hold the vision of the world we want to live in. In this way we own our creative potential and gather our efforts together as a global community.
I am a person who does not fall into a complacent state about my work. This means my work, teachings, and writings are always evolving. In this regard I can only write what I am exploring right now, knowing these explorations will lead to new doorways and pathways by the time you are reading this book.
The basis of my exploration is how we can transcend the limitations of the human mind and our collective beliefs. For we do know that the true shamans and mystics were not limited by the collective beliefs of what is possible. My motivation is to be able to help support the global community in creating a world filled with harmony, love, peace, abundance, light, and equality for all. We don’t want to use spiritual methods for power over others, manipulation, or psychic abuse. And I will continue to encourage people to work on themselves to attain the emotional maturity to avoid falling into this trap.
I continue to work to create a world that our descendants will sing songs of gratitude about. By working together as a global community we can do this.
In 1989, following a long safari through Africa, I returned home and quit my job at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My experiences in Africa had altered radically my perception of this planet and my place as a pilgrim here.
I did not know what I was going to do, but I knew that the field of psychology (I was an adjunct professor and a counseling psychologist) had a limiting paradigm for individual change and that the place of the animals and the spirit of the land was missing in what I was doing.
Shortly thereafter I was asked to teach the Medicine Wheel Way at Esalen in Big Sur, California. Thus began my journey as both walker and teacher of Earth-based medicine.
In the earlier 1990s, I did extensive training with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and was appointed a faculty member. These apprentice programs and the courses I taught became the launching platform for my shamanic explorations.
Then in the mid-1990s I was vision questing in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I encountered a Mother Bear and her cubs. This encounter became the basis of a covenant to walk and teach the path of Bear Medicine.
I have assiduously journeyed, researched, and worked with other women to learn the medicine ways of Bear. I track SheBear in all the realms I am permitted and I know that She tracks me. I am continually amazed and graced by the new teachings, visions, and dreams this Great Spirit brings to me, to others, and with the healing powers of Her ways. It’s as though She has been longing and waiting to be heard and to be called. And we have been longing, perhaps unknowingly, to walk and learn from Her.
Work with Bear has now led me to work more with our companion animals, so I am volunteering in animal shelters. I speak of this because I think we are being called to consciously tend all our animal relations: the wild ones and the domesticated ones. We must learn what the animals are seeking to teach us as well as how to take care of their habitats and how to offer healing when needed. All animals have a purpose in the great web, and they are attuned to why the humans are here. They can help us find our way home. They can teach us in what ways “home” is in trouble, and from these teachings we can co-create new ways of living on this Earth.
I stress this issue of learning from the animals because frequently the question has surfaced within me: “If there are no wild animals left, how do we understand the nature of our power animals?” Just as our ancestors, who work with us, once had physical bodies, so too did many of our power animals. We understand them better because they live in both embodied and spiritual forms. The capacity for recognizing and receiving information “through” the realms of things hidden is intimately related to being and form through the realms of things seen. We shall be sorely diminished in our embodied selves if the wild beings around us continue to disappear.
Likewise, our companion animals chose us because we have something to learn from them about being human. Part of our humanity is to learn the way of respect and the compassionate tending of animals.
The focus on transformation through relationship to physical form is also manifested in my increased emphasis on enstatic shamanism. Ecstatic shamanism, the major contemporary emphasis, uses methods for journeying outside the body. In other words, ecstatic shamanism is the practice wherein the person goes out of the body in order to achieve shamanic states and gain knowledge or the power to do. Enstatic shamanism is the practice wherein the person plunges inward to achieve shamanic states and gain knowledge or the power to be.
The practice of shamanism has been with us since the dawn of time and like all things in this world is in the process of evolution. Yet because of ignorance and deliberate distortion this evolution is not clearly understood and consequently this makes it difficult to know shamanism’s true value to the human race. Without shamanism it is my opinion that the human race would never have succeeded as it has and would never have reached its current status on the planet. How would humans have survived without ancient healing techniques, a knowledge of plants, a knowledge of how to read and turn the weather, the intuition to know where to hunt at the proper times and a host of other survival techniques? Purely rational thought and opposable thumbs were advantages but not enough to save a comparably weak simian in the face of daunting odds. In order to truly understand the shamanic tradition and where it is headed we must expand our definition of evolution and see the big picture, the shamanic picture of evolution.
According to our contemporary mainstream perspective it would seem that the impetus to evolution comes from the bottom up, or from the past forward. This would be the strictly scientific approach to looking at the evolution of anything, from nature to technology. However, from a shamanic perspective we could consider that there are larger processes that go beyond technical or economic ones, if you will, spiritual needs that pull the process of evolution forward rather than it being entirely pushed from behind. In other words we could say that Spirit plays a hand in evolution by having an overall game plan that it supports by leading from our so-called future. This would suggest that there is a major cooperation between the natural process of bootstrapping from behind and the natural process of pulling from ahead, thus supporting the old adage, as above so below. We don’t bootstrap up without a ladder to give structure to the process. There is a ladder, perhaps one with many options, but nonetheless a ladder that leads us into the future.
Thus there are ways we can understand the evolution of visionary abilities in a shaman within the context of their times and cultures. In the beginning we have someone who shows some proclivity for shamanic skills and has an interest in developing them. Let’s say these are like a few simple circuits set up as a foundation. This prospective shaman finds an experienced shaman or perhaps several shamans to train and initiate him/her over a period of many years. Songs are learned, techniques for soul retrieval and healings developed, and ceremonial skills deepened during the training. These in turn create opportunities to advance to new levels of skill. These then are like more advanced circuits with more inputs and outputs. As the older shamans initiate the young shaman, they sing songs and embed prayers into her/him; and these are like designs or vibrations that become part of that person’s makeup.
Perhaps, under the supervision of an advanced shaman, the young shaman undertakes a series of diets with various plants— allies that raise power levels and add great knowledge. These plant vibrations now interact with the song vibrations and the prayer vibrations, creating new and different combined vibrations that perhaps have never occurred before.
So the young shaman may eventually spring forth with totally new skills or abilities that have been bootstrapped up by earlier existing components. Because the shaman initiate has a personal essence or soul that is urging the new developments, this essence acts as the force from the future actually pulling forward these new abilities as they are bootstrapped from behind.
This process of bootstrapping and pulling from the future is not simply a random set of developments but is based on the needs of the individual, the needs of the community, and the needs of the present to have another trained shaman with special new skills. Unneeded or unwanted skills would then not be developed. In this way we see that the training and development of a new shaman is not independent of the needs of the community or the world, it is integral to it. In the same way, we find the great new inventions happening just when they are needed the most. We don’t invent a device to breathe in space unless we are actually going there and will be needing it. So the skills developed by a new shaman are partly desired by the shaman’s personality, partly the deeper intentions of essence, and formed partly by the needs of the community/ world. This is why a shaman with a supernatural skill such as flying like Superman does not emerge into the mainstream, because the world does not need it and is not ready for it yet, if ever.
What is more needed is a shaman who can heal cancer or diabetes, clear polluted water, remove radioactive contamination, clean up toxic wastes, and point the way to new energy sources and creative ways of thinking.
When we understand the push/pull dynamics of evolution, we are in a much better position to see the intelligence behind our evolutionary path on this planet. Charles Darwin helped bring the concept of evolution to light, yet he did not see both ends of it. He saw it from one side alone. It is up to us to see the whole evolutionary process and understand where it wants to lead us.
Those who understand such shamanic tools as the Mayan calendar can readily see this big picture at work. After all it is extraordinarily useful to know where we are going in the long run. Random evolution makes little sense in this light. The times now call for new developments in the shamanic tradition. The world has changed and is changing dramatically as we speak.
More than half our planetary population now lives in urban centers, and this calls for developments in urban shamanism, in shamanic practice that is not dependent on long traditional apprenticeships or tradition-bound practices relevant only to the very few. This is not to say that traditional shamanism is dying out. There will always be traditional shamans practicing their trade among their people. What we need now is a worldwide understanding of the shamanic way, an understanding that can be applied by millions of people in the ordinary course of everyday activity. For example, the widespread practices of shamanic prayer, of seeing the world as interdependent, of having great respect for and understanding of the ways of Nature, and of knowing the power of helping spirits and how to use them would be most helpful at this time.
In fact, most astrologers agree that among a variety of developments in the near future will be the return of shamanism as a powerful planetary influence. Yet this shamanism—like our material technology—will be more powerful, more relevant, based on the needs of the world, and infinitely more varied. Whereas at one time only a few scientists and engineers had computers, now the masses have and use them. Thus will shamanism continue its role in influencing the survival and evolution of the human race.
In my opinion the shamanic path on this planet is no accident nor is it an archaic path with no future. Likewise technology has ancient roots and a powerful future. In fact shamanism and technology both have much in common and have cross-fertilized each other for centuries. A simple example would be the ability of shamans to speak with plants that informed them how to grow them in ways to produce more abundant fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
We are not evolving in a vacuum, we are evolving with specific goals given to us by the cosmos. I have no doubt that the shamanic path is designed to help us evolve toward greater unity, universal respect and love for all of nature, and access to infinite power and the consciousness to use it appropriately. Thus the path of shamanism is here to stay and any attempt to eradicate it or ignore it only slows us down on our spiraling path toward enlightenment. There is no question in my mind that at this time the human race is involved in one of the most important shamanic initiations in its history and a wise choice right now would be to harmonize the evolution of science with our evolving shamanic path.
We are living at the end of an era. The stories of this era were written when the earth was still flat, when our planet was thought to be at the center of creation, and before the Hubble space telescope showed us that we are one of a billion galaxies in the sky. The old stories have exhausted themselves. We are in need of new life-giving myths that can sustain us and our children for the next thousand years. These myths are beginning to appear. They are the stories of sustainability, of right relationship, of stewardship of the Earth, of everything around us being alive.
The difference between a shaman and a priest is that during ceremony, a priest re-enacts an event that occurred two thousand years ago. A shaman enacts an event that is occurring right now. Shamans are storytellers and mythmakers. In sacred sites throughout the Americas, archeologists find ceramic fragments of vessels that were deliberately shattered during ceremony. In the same way, shamans shatter myths that are no longer useful. They point out that the king has no clothes. And I believe that the new shamans, the new caretakers of the Earth, will come from the West. I believe that we are the ones whom we’ve been waiting for, the new mythmakers. Perhaps there is no task as important as this one today. Without a guiding myth we are like a ship without a rudder in a storm.
My work is to train Western shamans through my organization, The Four Winds Society. I am not interested in training people to become Indians, as this is impossible, but to learn to heal themselves and the Earth through the practice of shamanic medicine, and to dream a new world into being. We are working with cutting-edge neurologists to discover the brain science underlying shamanic practices. I believe that we can bridge the ancient wisdom with our new understanding of the brain.
Most important, I believe that we have to discover a new personal and collective mythology and begin telling empowering stories about ourselves and our epic journeys through life. I remember one of my early trips to the Amazon. I was then a young anthropologist investigating the healing practices of the shamans of the rainforest, and I’d decided to use myself as a subject. I explained to the jungle medicine man that as a child I’d fled my country of birth because of a Communist revolution. I had seen bloodshed in the streets and been terrified by gunfire in the night. Since then I’d suffered from recurring nightmares in which armed men would force their way into my home and take away my loved ones. At that time I was in my late twenties, yet I’d been unable to enter into a lasting relationship for fear that I’d lose the person I loved, just like in my nightmare.
During one healing ceremony the shaman explained to me that like everyone, I can either have what I want or the reasons why I can’t. “You are too enamored of your story,” the old man said. “Until you dare to dream a different dream, all you will have is the nightmare.”
That evening I learned how I could craft a different story for myself, one in which I’d been tempered by adversity and my experiences had taught me to have compassion for others who were suffering. The first step to dream my new dream was to craft a new story in which I wasn’t playing the part of the victim. I then realized that not only was I dreaming my life, but I was also dreaming the entire cosmos into being, just as it was doing with me.
My work today is to dream a greater dream for myself, my family, our students, and the Earth. I do this with other dreamers, who come and gather around a holy fire in the Dreamtime. Each of us brings a small piece of the dream, and when we share it, suddenly we can taste it, feel it, sense it—and occasionally we see it. The reason we dream together is that in the shamanic myth of creation, on the seventh day the Great Spirit said: “For I have created the butterfly, the salmon, and the grasshopper; aren’t they beautiful! And now, you finish it . . . ” Creation is not complete. It is up to us to finish the task, and have a great time doing it!
As a practicing scientist and academic teacher trained in biology and anthropology, I have observed the participants in my workshops for more than two decades of teaching and three decades of practice. It has been my experience that most of these individualist seekers in my workshops are not religious ascetics who shut themselves away in monasteries and ashrams, nor are they religious extremists who invoke fundamentalist belief systems in search of their own exclusive connection with the godhead. Modern visionaries are not involved in cults, nor are they the least bit interested in turning their power over to some holy so-and-so who claims to have the inside corner on the market of spiritual truth.
In addition, members of my circles tend to reveal a distinct character profile that I find deeply reassuring. Most express a strong sense of social justice and seem to be deeply concerned about the quality of human life at all levels of society. They feel strong support for women’s and minority issues. They are concerned for the safety and well-being of both children and the elderly, and they see human relationships as more important than material gain. Social tolerance, personal individualism, and spiritual freedom are highly valued ideals. The reweaving of the social fabric through the rebuilding of families, neighborhoods, and communities are major areas of concern. This is what I mean by “deeply reassuring.”
In looking at these values, it quickly becomes apparent that they have little to do with being a liberal or a conservative, a Christian or Jew, Hindu or Muslim, or even a patriot. Yet they have everything to do with being a humanist in the evolved sense of the word. Although the Western world continues to be driven by greed, fueled by denial, motivated by fear, and dominated by competition, members of the Transformational Community appear to be oriented toward democratic, humanistic ideals, and they tend to favor cooperative endeavors that benefit the many.
The transformationals are environmentally savvy, and the importance of balance and harmony lies right at the core of their values. In this respect, they, like the indigenous peoples, have grasped that humans must strive to live in ways that contribute to the greater good rather than pursuing goals that create its opposite. Accordingly, the value of simple, natural living is seen as a high ideal, and the monumental waste being generated at every level of the world capitalist system is regarded with grave concern.
It has been my privilege to spend much quality time with these worthies over the past thirty years; doing so has reinforced my own best qualities so that I have become more like them. Although I continue to function as the spiritual teacher in my ongoing seminars and workshops, I am well aware that I, like them, am a student—a student for life—and I learn as much from them as they take home from me. So to all of them, and to those to come, I offer my unending gratitude and my appreciation.
In closing, allow me to invoke the spirit of the kahuna nui Hale Kealohalani Makua, my great Hawaiian friend. With his blessing (and his words), I extend to each of you “the light and the love of the ancestors, the source of life, rejoicing in the power and the peace, braided with the cords of patience, revealing the tapestry of the strongest force in the universe . . . your Aloha.”