Teachers—Compassionate Spirits Who Advise

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality - Michael Harner 2013

Teachers—Compassionate Spirits Who Advise

Lots of people who dream [ascend by drumming] to heaven—they don’t see God. They just see the people who are working for God.

—Words of the Dunne-za (Beaver Indian) shamans of British Columbia1

My [spirit] companion then said “… when you come here, ask questions … You will be a great shaman indeed, you find out everything.”

—Words from a spirit teacher to a Siberian Nganasan shaman on a journey to the Lower World2

Indigenous shamans and Westerners alike have commonly reported the existence of anthropomorphic deities and sacred ancestors in the Upper World. These are perhaps best understood as transcended compassionate spirits that have ascended above the conflicts of the Middle World, in contrast to the quasi-compassionate ethnocentric spirits remaining behind. These transcended spirits have been found to be unconditionally ready to respond to anyone who reaches them seeking advice or a healing. They also seem to avoid giving advice that might, when carried back to the Middle World, cause pain or suffering to any being.

In my teaching of students in experiential shamanism, however, I avoided using such spiritual terms as “deities” or “gods” in order to give them maximum freedom to make their own discoveries, as did the Foundation faculty I trained. Therefore I introduced the use of the term “teacher” to give students the objective of visiting a secularly defined person.

The students were told in advance that the teachers could be historically famous persons. The intention here included an effort to avoid “programming” journeyers to expect to meet religious figures. Nonetheless, these Westerners soon found out for themselves that quite a few of their teachers turned out to be famous religious figures.

They were simply asked to seek their own unknown anthropomorphic teachers in the Upper World. The assumption was, and remains, that they were not “getting” a new teacher but rather bringing to consciousness one that was already there. Then when they encountered a being in human form who admitted to being that person’s teacher, they were to ask a question or make a healing request.

The Westerners were asked to go to the Upper World, following the instructions in Appendix A, but they were not told its characteristics, other than it was “up,” nor what to encounter there, other than being asked to find a teacher. The identities, locations, and environments of their teachers were entirely their own discoveries, as were their experiences.

Seeking help in this individualistic way is part of shamanism, and it is the essence of what the Westerners were assigned to do here. This chapter is devoted to representative accounts of their experiences finding teachers and seeking advice from them.

A few more relevant items need to be mentioned. The indigenous Salish people of British Columbia and Washington State often refer to such an anthropomorphic spirit as “the Indian” or “power man,” as distinguished from a “power animal.” However, it should be noted that the teachers in human form can also appear as animals or in any form they choose, as well as invisibly “manage” anyone’s experiences in a journey after that person has asked for their help.

The Westerners in the present study were already familiar with calling on power animals for help during their earlier shamanic journeys to the Lower World. Readers will find power animals commonly assisting the Westerners in their Upper World work in the accounts to come.

Having already gone “over the rainbow,” the Westerners were ready to learn more of the work shamans do there. One important task is to obtain answers for people to their hitherto unanswered questions, much as they had already learned in the Lower World with the help of a power animal. As readers already know, “divination” refers to getting hidden (“occult”) knowledge that people have not yet been able to find in ordinary reality. Indigenous peoples commonly depend on the interaction of shamans with their helping spirits to obtain important, even life-saving information for members of their societies.

After that Lower World task was complete, the next divinatory task for the Westerners was to go to the Upper World to ask their teacher a question. There compassionate spirits in human form are normally easy to find. Often their answers and advice are not what people want, but what the teachers think they need, for the teachers may have their own opinions that contrast with those of the visitors. The visitors typically later find that the teachers were right.

The first step for the Westerners was to find an Upper World being in human form and ask it the simple question, “Are you my teacher?” The answer always seems reliable, for in the Upper World we do not find prevarication, which appears rather to be a feature of the Middle World.

Persons first visiting the Upper World are often surprised by the identities of teachers waiting for them. For example, when I briefly taught shamanism in Moscow during the early 1980s, two of my students who were involved in the then-Communist government wondered if they would meet Karl Marx or Lenin in their shamanic ascensions. Instead they encountered Moses and Buddha! On a later visit, one of my students discovered his teacher to be Czar Nicholas.

Here in North America, members of the Christian clergy often found their teachers to be ancient Greek and Egyptian deities, Native Americans, or Hindu saints, a result that most seemed to accept. In other words, there commonly was an ecumenical aspect to their experiences. Likewise, agnostics, atheists, and Jewish visitors are frequently surprised to find that their teacher is Jesus or a Christian saint. To repeat what was said earlier, the word “heaven” was never used or implied in preparing persons to ascend to the Upper World.

These Upper World teachers seem consistently to be compassionate beings ready to help and heal all visitors. In addition, each teacher tends to present itself in a form exactly suited to the visitor, regardless of whether it might be an unappealing figure to someone else, especially someone with a very different personal history or from a very different culture.

Now let us read some reports by Westerners of their first divination work with an Upper World teacher. Each student had learned the techniques of ascension and how to ask their own divination questions. This is a method that students of shamanism can use to improve their lives. The following pages illustrate some representative teachers and the way the teachers answered questions put to them.


My journey to the Upper World to find a teacher and ask a question was extremely profound for me. Once again, we lay down with our eyes closed and covered by a scarf to keep out the light. The room was darkened as well. We were instructed to go to a jumping-off place that we knew in ordinary reality. We would travel upwards and through a barrier or membrane. When we saw a human form we were to ask, “Are you my teacher?” If the answer was yes, we were to ask our question. If we didn’t find a teacher there, we could go up to the next level and try again.

The question I decided to ask was, “On my spiritual path, what could/should I be working on now?” This is what happened:

I jumped off the porch on the roof of my childhood home. I expected to fly but almost immediately was sucked up in a whirlwind that seemed to be silver and very fast. I went up through a floor and stepped out on a glasslike surface … nothing to ask, got worried, tried to go up again, then thought maybe I hadn’t really given the first level a chance—got panicky that nothing would happen, could see nothing but light.

Finally, the Master I had visited in a dream once was by my side smiling in a mock-serious-chiding-protective-lovingly-being-amused-at-my-panic way. He touched my arm the way he did before in the dream, as if it were a sign. Like then, it burned, not a hurting burn, but intense heat, like electricity.

He said, “Remember?” I did.

I asked if he was my teacher. He looked as if it were inconceivable, my asking after having just felt the energy on/through my arm. But then he smiled and said, “Yes.”

I asked what should I be working on now. I heard, “Just that.”

I assumed that to mean what I had just experienced: energy transfer, heat-light-particles, like electricity. Before I could ask anything further he seemed to disappear, though I knew he was there.

I said, “I can’t see you.”

Then I saw a tiny spark hovering-darting-dancing nearby. As I was about to speak to it/him, there was a shift in my perception, which told me he had become big, huge, enormous. All around me was him. I could see nothing but thick violet, swirling, pulsating expansiveness. I was in it/him.

I heard, “See.”

The word was both a question and a command. He became the original man-form again and told me, “What you see, you are connected to.”

Then there was a woman off to his left, my right, just a little above us. He made a gesture as if he were introducing me to her. I couldn’t see her clearly because her form kept changing into many women. She seemed to be The Woman. It was as if what I saw was love, grace, power. (I was going to add “radiance,” but everything in that place seemed to be radiant.) He said, “See behind the veil. See her.”

She said, “Like the way you came here. Remember?”

I was in awe. Just then the drum signaled to return.

Immediately I was traveling back down the spiral at an incredible rate.

I opened my eyes and felt as if I were boiling. I was so hot I sat up and tore off my bandana, feeling my forehead. It felt like I was on fire with fever. I looked at my hands and saw that my brand-new silver and emerald ring was all bent out of shape as if it had melted!

It took a while for the particles of energy I felt racing in my body to settle down. I went off to lunch feeling like a walking pointillist painting, after Seurat. I’m sure it will take quite a bit longer for the answer I was given to sink in.3

The preceding ascension experience illustrates how the teachers not only answer questions but also can convey immense spiritual power, “like electricity.” In this case, the conveyance of power was the answer to the visitor’s question, as well as a gift for her life. This is something common in working with the teachers: you may ask them for information, and they also give you help. Likewise, if you ask them for help, such as for a healing, they usually not only do the healing but provide information on how to do it to help others. The bent ring was part of that information—about the reality of her experience, and the reality of the power given her.


Much more happened in the following report beyond the words in the heading above.

 … I floated up the tunnel and there was my Mom and Grandfather … I didn’t want to hug them at first, but then I did, and we all cried and cried. It felt very healing and nice.…

I left and found myself on a floor that looked like a library/Greek building. It was very quiet, and I noticed that there were many people, but everyone was focused upon themselves and what they were reading, or looking up. They really didn’t see me or anyone else.

My teacher “told” me (in the way she has of giving me volumes in a flash) that they were shaping their path. They believed in reincarnation, so here they were, looking up future lifetimes to live.

I looked around and saw that if they looked around they could have seen that there was more to heaven than what they were doing. Since there were no walls, they could have seen other people doing other things.

We left and went past a place where people were sitting on clouds or whatever and just taking it easy. We went on by that and came to a place where God and Jesus and Buddha and other beings lived with lots of people around them. It was the heaven of my church teachings, only with all the great masters there.

Next we went to a choir, and that was beautiful. The music came into me and my cells became the music. I was very touched. Then we went farther away and I sat, for a few moments, on a quiet hillside. Getting my breath, I guess. My teacher didn’t say anything. We just sat quietly.

I asked if there was more. Did all religions have a part of the truth of heaven? Would I find it all here?

At that, she took my hand and we floated up higher and came to a place of “light beings.”

This felt like the ultimate of ultimates. They could not be too close together because they each gave off so much light. I was fascinated. Light poured out of them for miles and miles. The word “beacon” came to mind, but where the beacon of a lighthouse shines at the top, they shone all around, and for miles the lighted shining part reached out. They were at one with that whole huge mass. I was surprised at how isolated they were. Oh, they were in great shape, energetically, but there wasn’t communication going on with others.

I was surprised that I didn’t want to stay, but I didn’t [and] went farther up. Suddenly I became nothing and everything at once. I was like the great I AM. I had no ending, no beginning, and yet I had not lost who I was either. I was so large, so expansive. I feel it as I write, but there are no words to describe it. Utter stillness, utter expansiveness.4

This Westerner received an impressive landslide of information and became nothing and everything. However, the journeyer apparently forgot the instruction to ask only a single question with each visit to a teacher. The “single question” instructions are given because the teacher “manages” the visitor’s experiences after asking a question, and all those experiences are usually part of the answer to the question, whether the visitor understands them right away or not. With more than a single question in a visit, it becomes almost impossible to know which question is being answered symbolically or otherwise in the rest of the journey.


To reiterate, the Westerners were told only how to seek their teachers, not who they were. This is part of the spiritual autonomy of shamanism: to find out for oneself through direct experience. In the following account, an American’s question was “How can I be happy?”

To get to the Upper World, I went to the island of Maui where the Iao Needle rises up from a valley. I climbed to the top of it and let the mists lift me up through the layers of clouds [the barrier].

I saw some pastel colors in the distance and started flying towards them. There were all these pastel-colored cubes floating around so I started to look for the one where my teacher might be. There was a lavender one that had a door in the corner, so I went through it.

Inside there was an old man behind a white desk. I recognized him as Ben Franklin. He had the little fringe of shoulder-length white hair and the little spectacles. He was wearing robes, and I knew he was my teacher. We greeted each other very warmly.

I asked him, “How can I be happy?” He immediately picked up the small white plastic spoon and started spoonfeeding me ice cream. It was all the flavors that I had never tried because I had not thought that I would like them. They were delicious! That was great, but it didn’t seem like enough, so I asked him for more help.

He had me lie down in a giant waffle iron and he closed it on top of me. I stood up inside it. He opened it and I stepped out. I left behind in the waffle iron this hard shell of who I had thought I was, like all the limitations that I had placed on myself. He picked up the shell, dropped it into a tank of water, and it dissolved. Then he playfully flicked some of the solution onto my face and dumped the rest down through the clouds to become rain. I felt there was a burden lifted from my shoulders. I don’t even remember the rest of my journey.5

This visitor asked the question, “How can I be happy?” and was immediately fed delicious ice cream by the teacher. The very first thing a teacher says or does is typically the core of the answer to the question, even if the visitor does not realize it. In this case, she was given all the flavors she had not tried, because she had not thought she would like them. She did not understand that she had been given a metaphorical answer, so she asked for more help. Now, to supplement the answer, the teacher gave her a treatment, a healing to remove “all the limitations” she had placed on herself. She felt a heavy burden lifted from her shoulders.

It occurs frequently that the teacher not only gives an answer but provides a healing, as noted before. Also to be noted is the fact that the visitor reported no pain when the waffle iron was closed down on her. It was not because of a lack of senses (she tasted the ice cream), but because we have never found pain or suffering in the Upper World. A distinctive feature of our Middle World is the near-certainty of experiencing pain, to greater or lesser degrees.


This visitor’s point of departure was Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which he had once climbed in ordinary reality. His question was: “What can I do to help?”

As I jumped upwards, I passed through a layer of clouds [the barrier] and immediately saw a black bird that took me to the second level through a thin film of clouds. I found myself in a world of whirlwind clouds, one of which enveloped me and took me up to the third level through a large hole in a thin cloud layer.

This level was filled with pastel colors, and I experienced a feeling of warmth and calmness about me. I looked around for my teacher but found no one. Upon realizing that I needed to go to another level, I spotted an opening in the cloudy sky. A lightning bolt opened up the space and became a conduit for my transport to the fourth level.

I immediately found myself in front of two immense, open, golden gates. I started walking through them. The feeling I experienced was that I was entering an ancient Egyptian palace. There were beautiful fountains and lots of children playing around in the water.

I entered a large room filled with dignitaries, apparently waiting in anticipation for someone special to arrive. I proceeded to the center of the room and sat crosslegged and waited with everybody else. In front of me were two thrones. My immediate thought was, “Oh my, I will have two teachers, a male and a female!”

I heard the sound of trumpets. A figure clad in a simple white robe came out from the right side of the stage. To my surprise he came toward me, and went around me in a clockwise direction, and then stopped in front of me. I stood up and recognized the person of Christ. I asked him if he was my teacher. Without uttering a sound he gave me a broad, warm smile, and I knew indeed it was he.

I then asked him my question, “What can I do to help?”

He raised up his left hand with the open palm facing me in the sign of peace.

To my amazement, the next thing I knew I was going upwards through his open palm to the fifth heaven, and I found myself standing next to him at the end of our galaxy, staring at the stars. I was in awe, but somehow it felt very natural being there. Then we both became stars and started playing around the other stars, in complete abandonment. Then we came back to the large room. I thanked him for the sign and said that I hoped to see him soon.6

This journeyer commented afterward:

“Although I grew up as a Greek Orthodox Christian, I was really stunned to see that Christ was my teacher, because I had rebelled against Church authoritarianism and dogma. I had avoided participating in mainstream religious practices for a very long time.”

His question had been, “What can I do to help?” We cannot speak for him, for he is the only person qualified to interpret an answer from his teacher, an answer that was perfectly designed for him. If this visitor is uncertain about his interpretation of the answer, he can make more visits to the teacher for elaborative information.

To help you understand how a teacher may answer, here is one possible interpretation: Jesus’s answer could be, “You can help by being in peace” (the sign of his palm) and “by going through me” (as the visitor passed involuntarily through his hand), and also, “I am with you wherever you are” (as he joined the visitor at the end of our galaxy). To summarize this possible answer: “You can help by being in peace through me, for I am with you always.” I have just speculated on the possible meanings of the teacher’s actions only to illustrate how to divine symbolic answers.

In this visit the journeyer, like an indigenous shaman, kept track of the number of levels as he ascended to reach a palacelike structure where he found the teacher. Now that he knows the teacher’s level, he will be able to return again to learn more.

He also heard the sound of trumpets. This is a good sign of progress, for he is no longer limited to his visual senses in experiencing the Upper World.


Sometimes one gets involved in a two-way conversation with a helping spirit. The next example is a good illustration of a dialogue with a teacher following a divination question. As I said before, normally one tries not to ask more than one question during a single visit in order to avoid confusion about which symbolic response is an answer to which question. In this case, however, the journeyer’s numerous secondary questions all fit into the framework of the larger one that he asked, which was: “How can I release my held feelings into a life of peace?” Since he did not encounter symbolic communications after the dialogue, confusion did not occur.

I started at Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Flying up the spouting water, I looked down at the crowd of spectators. They couldn’t see me. I flew south toward the Grand Tetons. When I reached the highest and most central peak of this range, I flew straight up through an opening in a cellophane-like membrane [the barrier].

I looked around and at first saw only sky. Then I saw an old hermit with long gray hair and a beard standing in front of a cave. There were trees outside the cave, and an owl was perched in one of these. I received the thought that this hermit was Merlin, but at the same time I felt very skeptical because I long ago dismissed the belief in God being an old gray-haired, bearded man who lives in the sky: Yet I was surprised that this image would appear to me, since I have not read or thought much about Merlin.

While I was pondering all of this, I repeatedly asked him, “Are you my teacher?”

He was not at all welcoming. In fact, he seemed annoyed with me. Anyway, I followed him into his cave, where he busied himself with the fire.

I decided to journey onward and rose upward on a spark through the hole in the cave ceiling. I went through another cellophane-like membrane to another level. There was a tropical landscape over to my right. I walked over and, finding no one, I decided to rise to yet another Upper World level.

There was the most radiant, full rainbow I have ever seen, and I rode it upward on my stomach, headfirst to its crest. From there I ascended through another transparent membrane and came out onto the third level. The moon was very close. I could see both its curve and the texture of its mountainous surface. The rock was black and yet looked white, being bathed in the light of our sun.

Finding no one, I decided to return to Merlin and again ask my question.

I journeyed downward through the chimney hole of the cave and landed on my feet beside him. Again I asked, “Are you my teacher?”

He seemed annoyed at my skepticism and said, “Yes, I told you before that I am.”

I asked him my question, “How can I release held feelings into a life of peace?”

He answered, “Stop doubting. Stop so much questioning.”

I decided to explore this further. I asked him, “How can I release my anger?”

He said, “Stop doubting your experience.”

I asked him, “How do I release sadness?”

He said, “You were there. Remember. Experience your experience.”

Next I asked him, “How can I release experiences of held terror?”

He said, “You were there. Experience your experience. You will release all that is not you.”

Lastly I asked him, “How can I release the fullness of love?”

He answered, “Release the first three—anger, sadness, and terror—and all else is love.”

At that point the return drumming began and I returned downward through the barrier, descending to the base of Old Faithful again in the Middle World.7


Ascending to the Upper World, one can interact directly with gods and goddesses that others only learn about through stories. This visitor did not know in advance that a divine figure would be her teacher, and she had prepared this worldly question: “What am I going to do as the next step in my moneymaking career?” This is probably not a question that many would think of as appropriate to ask Jesus, but he, as a spirit teacher, had the choice of making himself available. As she found out, he was not only available, but he also provided a symbolic answer.

Shamans have learned from firsthand experience that the teachers in the Upper World do not mind being “bothered.” Indeed, they are too powerful to be capable of being “bothered.” Shamans also know that any question that is important to them will normally be responded to by the teacher.

As the drumming began I found myself running up a familiar mountain path that I know in ordinary reality. I continued running as my feet lifted off the ground, running through the sky, running up a type of ladder. Higher and higher I ran, up into the clouds, passing the barrier to the Upper World. I saw a pasture with a shepherd, but he was not my teacher.

I climbed onto the back of a large black bird I met and flew higher still with him. We flew through a waterfall into a meadow. Jesus Christ came walking across the meadow to greet me; he indicated that he was my teacher.

Jesus was playing with a red apple that he held in his hands. I began to bow before him, to sit at his feet, but he told me to stop, that I was as much a teacher as he.

I asked him my question, “What am I going to do as the next step in my moneymaking career?”

He answered, “Trust.”

I wondered what he was doing with this apple in his hands, if he was going to eat it or what. He surrounded my body with a bubble of soft green light, a type of healing, a protective shield, that washed over me. The sky began to become a wash of brilliant colors: pinks, blues, greens.

I looked deeply into his eyes, and my heart sang with joy. It was so intense a feeling that I began to cry. He began to float up into the sky, again telling me to trust, as he disappeared.

In the sky I saw an image of a ram’s head, then images of knights riding across the sky. A wave of golden color began to flow across the meadow, changing all the grass to gold. As it reached me I flew with it, changing everything I flew over to a beautiful gold color. Then I sat again in the meadow, playing with sending bursts of color out into the sky until it was time to return.8

Afterward she said: “It was not until I was sharing the journey with my partner that the significance of the apple made sense. I am a computer consultant and have a Macintosh computer—made by Apple! It seems clear that whatever business I undertake will produce money—gold. I still do not understand the brilliant colors or the images in the sky.”

The above account is an example of how shamanic journeying is useful even in the computer age. It also exemplifies the combination of joy and tears that typifies ecstatic spiritual union, an important subject we will explore further in Chapter 11.

As regards the question lingering in the student’s mind concerning the “brilliant colors” and “images in the sky,” she can ask about that in future journeys to her teacher. One possibility, and it is only that, is that she will use color with her Macintosh as the “next step” in her moneymaking career. However, we should keep in mind that only she is qualified to interpret her journey.

Another point needs to be noted: her question was somewhat ambiguous. Did she really want to know only what will happen? In other words, was she being completely fatalistic? Note also that asking “will” questions involves prophecy, a very advanced and complex form of divination, something for which she was not prepared.

Or did she really intend to ask for advice to improve her situation? If so, it would have been better for her to ask, “What should I do …?” In divination, it is important to formulate a question very carefully. (By the way, asking “should” questions is perfectly permissible in shamanic divination; shamanism is a different system from psychotherapy.)

Be aware that no matter what a spirit teacher says you “should” do, view the teacher as a friend, not a dictator. If after doing divination, someone justifies an action by declaring, “the spirits told me” to do so-and-so, it is a serious mistake. The person does not yet understand that he or she is in an equal relationship with the helping spirits and commits a serious error in abdicating responsibility for consequent actions in ordinary reality.

The successful shaman balances information from both realities. Shamanism is a system or method for regaining your own spiritual authority, not giving it up, even to spirits.


The next example of a first visit involves the practical question, “Where should I vacation this winter?” The question may seem mundane, but it is similar in content to the question, “Where shall we have the summer camp?” that might be asked by a Siberian shaman herding reindeer. The account is in the present tense because the journeyer is using the simultaneous-narration method (which involves a tape recorder or other electronic recording method; for information on this, see Appendix A, this page).

I’m climbing the rainbow. Below me it is smooth, like silk. I feel a power pulling me up. Below me I see the hills, and a road. I’m climbing up the rainbow. Above me I see clouds. They are white, gray, and fluffy.

I reach the top of the rainbow. I step onto a cloud [the barrier]. I’m surprised that it holds my weight. I walk along the clouds, among the clouds.

An eagle flies to me. I ask him, “Where am I?”

He says, “You are in the Upper World.”

I ask the eagle if my teacher is in the Upper World. He says, “Yes, she is here.”

The eagle walks with me, perched on my shoulder. We find the teacher. She is walking along the clouds, her long black hair glistening in the sun, which is high above us. She talks to the eagle in a strange language that I do not understand. She’s still walking along the clouds. The eagle and I follow her. She asks if I have a question for her.

I ask her, “Where should I vacation this winter? I have been wondering whether to go to Florida this winter or go skiing.”

She says she will show me, saying, “Now we must go up to the next level. It’s easy, all you have to do is let go, and the power will pull us up.”

We let go. I feel myself flying. I feel a breeze. It’s warm.

We go up to the next level. It is a tundra filled with snow. There are little trees like sticks, with no leaves, and bushes scattered along the tundra. I feel the snow under my feet. It is very cold.

We walk along the tundra. Above us there is another flock of birds flying in a V. They are Canadian geese. They fly off.

I’m walking in the snow. I’m walking. I am cold. A polar bear comes near us. He is growling. He is all white.

He says, “I am the Spirit of the North.”

I am cold. As he comes near me, I shriek. I’m scared.

The teacher says, “It will not harm us.”

My teacher talks to it in the strange language I do not understand.

I ask the teacher, “What did it say?”

She says, “It said you must seek the warmth because that is your nature.”

We go up to the next level. Again, a force pulls us up. I am being pulled up. The eagle is still perched on my shoulder.

The next level is a forest. We are walking along the forest floor. There is moss under my feet. It feels spongy and warm. The sun is peeking through the clouds. We walk through the forest. We come to a stump.

My teacher says to me, “See how this tree has fallen down. There is just a stump left. This is what happens when things grow in the wrong place. There was not enough light here and not enough warmth, so the tree fell down. Now we must go up to the next level.”

Again, I feel a power pulling me up. The next level is a field. There are many flowers in the field. The flowers are blue and red. They are very cheerful. The sun is shining above us. It feels warm.

My teacher says, “This is what you need. You need the warmth of your grandparents in Florida. You need the warmth of the sunshine in Florida.”

Now my teacher says, “It’s time to leave.”

I feel the power pulling us down. We go down through the forest, down through the tundra, down through the clouds, along the rainbow again. I’m sliding down the rainbow. It’s smooth beneath me. I reach the ground.9

This account illustrates a clear question and a clear answer. The person seeking help speaks of feeling the breeze and cold, and of feeling scared. These are all good signs that she is truly entering nonordinary reality and is not limited to only visualizing an experience. She also finds out that her fears are unwarranted—an opportunity for her to start discovering that the Upper World is a safe place. She is assisted by a polar bear and an eagle, indications that she has power animals available to support her.

Her teacher speaks with the eagle and the polar bear in a strange language. Unknown to this journeyer, “unintelligible” languages for communication with animal spirits were once well known by indigenous shamans. The “secret shamanic tongue,” as Eliade puts it, was often used to communicate with the animal spirits, as among Eskimoan groups, or as among the Tungus of Siberia, who talked with all of nature.10 We have already seen in Chapter 2 how even Westerners involved with shamanism learn new languages from human spirits, as in my own case and that of Amanda Foulger.

Once the teacher is involved, anything that happens during the journey is either part of the answer or a “gift” from the teacher about something the visitor needs. The visitor can seek more information in future visits to the teacher.


Teachers occasionally may be persons still alive here in ordinary reality, and who may have admitted to being one’s teacher when encountered in the Upper World. These often are the spirits of shamans or other highly spiritual persons traversing these realms. Such a living person is almost never conscious of that kind of heavenly encounter. This perhaps is just as well. Otherwise, the living person might make the mistake of acquiring feelings of unjustified self-importance that would cause his or her compassionate spirits to leave in disappointment. The disappointment would be over the failure of the person to recognize that the spirit is not the same as the whole person back here in the Middle World.

A teacher sometimes is an unidentifiable person in ordinary reality. This seems to make little difference in the quality of the teacher’s answers, and it may seem presumptuous to ask his or her name. Yet the teacher’s identity may be discovered unexpectedly. Following is such an account.

For years one of my main teachers had been an old man in the Upper World who inhabited a cabin in an unknown countryside. Then one day, in ordinary reality, while driving along a road in California, I came to a beautiful canyon and on impulse stopped there. An inviting path led up the canyon and I decided to follow it. Much to my surprise, I arrived at a cabin almost identical to the Upper World one of my spirit teacher. There was even a similar fence around it.

I could not resist knocking on the door. A young man appeared. I explained that the cabin reminded me of one I had known elsewhere. He graciously invited me in. I entered, and in the dim light saw an elderly man half-reclining on a couch. He turned his head toward me and smiled. It was a wonderful shock. I recognized him as being my teacher in the Upper World or, rather, being an aging ordinary-reality version of my teacher in the Upper World.

We began talking, and it was like a meeting of old friends, although he could only talk haltingly. He had been suffering from an incurable illness for a long time, an illness that had forced him to stop his work as a landscape painter. In fact, he had been suffering from it approximately the same number of years I had known my teacher in the Upper World.

I did not tell him about my teacher, but on some level he seemed to know something. He said that I seemed familiar to him, and he gave me a print of one of his paintings haltingly inscribed, “To my Old Friend.” He died about two years later, but now I know his name, and I can still visit him.11


Two of the notable features of power animals is that they are able to transcend all three worlds, and they can easily be called by the shaman. In contrast, the teachers normally reside in the Upper and Lower Worlds and are visited by the shaman.

Nonetheless, there are occasions with the help of shamans that the teachers may come to the Middle World, such as when merged with shamans to do healing work, or alternatively to do mediumistic work answering questions, as in Korea. The teachers also may choose to take on animal forms on certain occasions.

A skeptic might naturally suggest that such a “perfect” teacher is simply a psychological projection of the visitor. The shaman’s way is not to argue such points but simply to invite skeptics to conduct their own personal experiments and arrive at their conclusions empirically. (To begin to do this, the reader can consult Appendix A.) In this connection, one can seek an answer from a teacher for a complete stranger. Usually the answer is so accurate that both the stranger and the diviner are surprised.

For one person’s shamanic journey experiences over ten years, see Sandra Harner’s Ema’s Odyssey, to be published by North Atlantic Books in January 2014.


The beings in the heavens of the Upper World frequently provide information in the form of metaphor. Why? This is, of course, similar to the kind of mystery that many psychologists, such as Freud and Jung, have attempted to penetrate by studying dreams.

From a shamanic viewpoint, metaphor is a tool used by the spirits to provide messages in a manner deeper than literal communication. Metaphorical communication, when deciphered by the shaman, indeed contains the information requested, but it also goes beyond the literal to teach profound knowledge. One frequent teaching that the spirits give us through metaphor is simply this: the unity of all things. By repeatedly showing how things we ordinarily consider to be different are really the same, the powers are subtly educating us spiritually.

Another advantage of metaphorical communication is that it forces the visitor to try to comprehend the message and, as a consequence, the effort of decipherment can engender a revelation with deeper and longer-lasting emotional impact than a literal communication.

Metaphorical communication can also teach the value of self-sacrifice in the quest for spiritual knowledge, for one achieves such understanding through the personal effort of decipherment. The shamans’ self-sacrifice in vision and power quests, in efforts on behalf of others, and in the personal effort of decoding symbolic or metaphorical communications from the spirits, are all part of the same continuum of ever-deeper understanding and learning.

Shamans use metaphor throughout their work, including in their visualizations of all things. Shamans see with the heart, not just the “strong” or “third” eye, and the heart is awakened by healing metaphors and symbolic communication. The language in shamans’ songs is consequently filled with metaphor, and the use of song reinforces the consciousness of unity. Healings most commonly occur when this unity is experienced.