Cosmic Dismemberment, Union, and Healing Power

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

Cosmic Dismemberment, Union, and Healing Power

In my eye sockets are two emeralds. I am being healed. From the very base of my body. From the very base. From my bones. Where my third eye would be is a diamond, a cut diamond. The facets are sending out light. I am an amethyst skeleton with two emeralds as eye sockets and a cut diamond where my third eye is. That is what I am now. Right at this moment.

—from a Westerner’s report

Avery famous kind of shamanic experience that has long perplexed many scholars and ethnographers is related in indigenous reports of the dismemberment of the shaman’s body. Lurid accounts in the anthropological literature told of shamans who described how their bodies had been torn apart, chopped up and eaten, or otherwise dismembered, and then reassembled.1 Details varied, but in the most commonly reported cases of dismemberment, the shamans found themselves being attacked and their bodies being destroyed down to the bones. These dramatic experiences were most famously reported for Siberian peoples but were also widely reported for the Inuit, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and other shamanic peoples.

Scholars and anthropologists generally seemed to have no explanation, although some suggested that the shamans were either lying or psychotic. For others, the dismemberment experiences were just additional evidence of the barbaric and primitive nature of shamanism as a form of spirituality. My own experientially oriented investigations while practicing and teaching shamanism led me to quite different conclusions. A key to understanding how dismemberments happen to shamans is an awareness of the existence of two realities, for the shamans’ dismemberment takes place in nonordinary reality. In NOR, shamans can experience dismemberment in any of the three worlds.

As I taught shamanism in workshops beginning in the mid-1970s, I found that students who had never heard of shamanic dismemberment were having spontaneous dismemberment experiences, sometimes even in their first journey to either the Lower or Upper World during introductory workshops. Their dismemberment experiences could occur unexpectedly at any time and were completely painless. Beyond that, the Westerners often reported deep ecstasy in these experiences. The “ecstasy” I speak of here is not just the theological term for an altered state of consciousness, but an ecstatic sense of merging with “everything” and oneness with the universe.

Also surprising was the similarity of their experiences with the accounts of indigenous shamans, such as those of Siberia. It became clear to me that we were documenting an experience not based on cultural expectations. For example, let us start with an anthropologically famous representative Siberian experience offered by A. A. Popov.


A Samoyed shaman was very ill and expected to die. Almost unconscious, he made a spontaneous journey to the Lower World, where he was led on by two spirit animal helpers, Mouse and Ermine. Following them, he “came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it.…” Note that such journeys away from our world are “outside of time” and are not ordinary-reality days. The same is true for the mention of “three years,” below.

… [He] entered an opening and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as the Earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice [shaman] had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything into the cauldron. There he boiled the body for three years … [Later] the blacksmith fished the [Samoyed man’s] bones out of a river in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again.2

The blacksmith also changed the Samoyed’s eyes so that he could see shamanically, and fixed his ears so that he could understand the language of plants.

All these events clearly took place in nonordinary reality during the journey. Westerners also may have the experience of being away days or even years.


For comparison, now consider this account from a present-day Euro-American who had neither heard nor read of dismemberment experiences. His assigned mission was simply to journey to meet an unknown animal in the Lower World. (The contemporary Westerners’ dismemberment experiences were similar in both the Upper and Lower Worlds; none were reported in the Middle World.) Following is the report of his spontaneous and unexpected experience.

To the sound of monotonous drumming, he went down through the hole at the bottom of a tree he knew in ordinary reality, then through a cave, and emerged into sunlight on the first level of the Lower World. There he met a fawn that led him to a grassy and forested knoll where there were other deer. Like shamans who in some cultures sing their journey experiences as they travel, as he journeyed he narrated his experiences into a tape recorder while he listened to the drumming through earphones. His own words tell the rest.

I don’t know what I should do—whether I should sit down, stand up, or walk, or … oh, the deer disappeared. It’s like I stayed at the knoll, but you know, the sun went down. And it’s dark now and there’s a fire.

And now I’m just supposed to be with the animal but it is like there’s something going on around the fire. It’s like there is a pot or a cauldron boiling. The voices are calling to me to come closer. I’m supposed to look into the boiling pot. I don’t know if I want to though.

I’m wondering where the deer is because that’s all I was supposed to do is be with this animal. I don’t know, I feel like it’s around. Oh, I’m the deer. It’s like I’m the animal now. I’m like the fawn and I’m real cautious about, you know, wanting to approach the fire and, you know, look into the bubbling cauldron.

Oh, dear! The scene has changed. Just like it went dark and I thought I was the deer and then I became me again. And the deer was separate.

Now it’s like a village scene. It’s like dusk, and it’s like a tipi and there are people moving around. I guess I’m in the center of it but I don’t think anyone sees me.

I can’t tell where the deer is. Oh, like I’m the deer and everybody is jumping on me or something. And, ah, I’m the deer and they all cut me up and threw me into the pot. That’s why I didn’t—wow, umph—yes, that’s why. I was the deer and I didn’t want to walk in towards the pot. Because now I’m the deer and it’s like no one told me, but I appeared there. And now it’s like they all got me. They put knives in me and cut me up and butchered me and I’m cooking in the pot.

And now people are eating me. You know, it’s like I’m cooked up in a stew. This is bizarre. I’m cooked up in a stew and it’s like everyone is eating the deer, but I’m watching it from—I don’t know where I’m watching it from. Oh, I see. It’s like I’m above. I’m above them and I’m just like watching them. And I’m dead. And I’m in their stew pot cooking over the fire. And I’m watching them go about their lives. It’s almost like I didn’t die. I mean, you know, I still feel like I’m alive or something, watching them, but I no longer have a body.

And I’m, um, going real deep now. I don’t know what’s going on. Just like I’m fading away. (Singing.) Ah! (Laughter.) Yeah, I died and went to where there were these singing voices and into the darkness but I see that there is more light.

It’s like I can go on from here where I am dead, and (laughs) I can come back again. (Intense breathing) … Wow!3

In the above experience, this Western journeyer not only was cut up and cooked in a cauldron, as happened to the Samoyed shaman, but first he had the experience of merging with the deer, separating from the deer, and then being one with the animal while being butchered. Then he saw the scene in an out-of-body type of experience similar to that reported by near-death experience survivors. Thus he learned that he still had existence even though he no longer had a body, an important teaching. As a bystander, he saw his flesh (the same as the deer’s) being eaten—much like reports of Inuit shamans viewing their own bones as onlookers. He also heard singing voices.

He received these revelations in a profound shamanic state of consciousness, as indicated by his deep, intense breathing. He also learned, as have shamans long before him, “I can go on from here where I am dead and [laughs] I can come back again.”

Death will never again hold the same meaning for him. His laughter is symptomatic of the joy and deep ecstasy resulting from a dismemberment and resurrection experience.


The vivid and incredible nature of dismemberment experiences has caused some Western scholars to focus upon them as the rite of passage or “the initiation” of the shaman. While the experiences can be legitimately viewed as initiations, this does not mean that persons who have passed through them are immediately shamans. Normally many months, probably years, of successful healing and helping others using shamanic methods would be necessary for a person to be called a shaman. The ability of that person to produce miracles of healing through shamanic work is usually the real criterion, and the decision to give someone that name is made by others who have witnessed the miracles.

Initiation by the spirits is really a never-ending process when one is doing serious shamanism. Frequently the best shamans and shamanic practitioners are those who have had the longest practice and experience, often including repeated dismemberments.

Among Siberian shamans I have known, there is almost a competition to let others know how many dismemberments they have experienced. Perhaps this is because dismemberments are profound teachings as well as healings that transform shamanic journeyers at a deep spiritual level. The following example of a journey by a Euro-American woman illustrates this point.


This woman, Nicolina Halvorson (hereafter “NH”), on a mission to her teacher in the Upper World, had never heard nor read of the dismemberment experience. To her astonishment, she was both dismembered and reconstituted with new body parts after asking the teacher for advice on achieving optimum health.

This is her simultaneous narration of what happened as she journeyed, listening with earphones to a drumming tape and recording out loud what she was experiencing in this ascension to the Upper World. NH starts her ascension.

I am floating slowly upward from the plateau. I am beginning to pass through a cloud, floating up. It is a gray cumulus cloud. I am still floating up. I am going through something else: a clear sheet of haze.

Now I am standing on a plain. The ground is a hazy yellow. A sort of ghost horse with an Indian on it is approaching. He turns back toward some hazy mountains. There are two other horses with Indians on them. They seem quite ethereal and ghostlike.

Now I am turning toward another direction. I see a very beautiful Indian princesslike goddess. She has on a buckskin dress with glass beading across the chest. The design is a purple flower with yellow leaves. There is an edge of black beads around them. The tail of an animal is hanging from her waist, an ermine tail hanging down from a belt around her hips. She has on moccasins with beads, like those that were on her chest.

I see her face more clearly now. She is tall, slender, and she has high cheek bones. She is wearing a beaded headband. On each side of the headband is something of an animal nature hanging right by her temples. She is smiling.

“Are you my teacher?”

She is my teacher.

“I have a question. Could you please answer it? How can I have optimum health?”

She reaches out her hands toward my hands. She has her hands on the tops of mine. Her skin is quite soft and warm. I feel an electrical sensation flowing from her hands up my arms as far as my elbows. It is sort of infiltrating past my elbows with green light, reaching my shoulders. Purple, like neon light, is swirling at each of my shoulders.

Our hands have become one. We are merged at the hands. I am starting to take on energy that is flowing from her body. A ray of red neon-type light is shooting from the purple light on my shoulders into my chest area.

The teacher takes her hands and NH feels “an electrical sensation” flowing into her. This is one of the ways that spiritual power feels, like a kind of energy, as it is passed on to a shaman or from a shaman to a patient. Indeed, the journeyer immediately recognizes that she is “taking on energy.”

The power or energy manifests as green and purple light that sends red light into her chest. Then a white light floats out of her chest (below). Similarly, Amazonian Shuar shamans see a person’s power manifesting as light in rainbow colors in the chest and, in the case of particularly powerful persons, sometimes as a white light in the chest.4

NH is undergoing spiritual death and rebirth. As Eliade has observed: “All experiences of the supernatural light present this common denominator: anyone receiving such an experience undergoes a change in being … a meeting with the light indicates a spiritual rebirth.”5 NH continues:

A white light is floating out of my chest. It is exploding, making fireworks, like sky rockets, up into the air and coming down on each side of me. Now a stream of white light is going from my heart to her heart. We are connected at our hearts. The stream of white light is becoming quite large. Our whole chests are connected with white light.

The white light floating out of the journeyer’s chest demonstrates that it is a form of power by exploding. In a similar way, the Shuar in an altered state of consciousness may see a light-emanating power vision (arutam) explode in darkness at a sacred waterfall.6

The white light then goes out from her heart. The radiation of light from one’s body is known to the Iglulik Eskimo as “lighting” or “enlightenment” and is part of shamanic initiation.7 An Iglulik shaman described it as follows:

I had gained my gaumang, my enlightenment, the shaman-light of brain and body, and this in such a manner that it was not only I who could see through the darkness of life, but the same light also shone out from me, imperceptible to human beings, but visible to all the spirits of earth and sky and sea, and these now came to me and became my helping spirits.8

The light going out from NH’s heart, described above, connects with the heart of her tutelary spirit or teacher. She merges with the spirit teacher and becomes one with her. This “merging with the teacher” is another classic step in shamanic experience, for example in Siberian tribes and among the Tamang of Nepal, as described by Larry Peters, where the shamans connect with their spirit teachers in the Upper World and in white light become one with them.9 NH goes on:

Now the connection is beginning to happen between our foreheads. It is yellow light now becoming a solid golden yellow rod. It is light that has become solidified between her forehead and mine. We are becoming one. A green light is circling my waist and becoming a figure eight connecting her waist with mine and flowing between our waists.

Her hands aren’t lying on top of mine anymore. We are joined at the fingers now. We have one set of fingers that go from my hand to her hand. There are no fingernails. We are joined at the fingertips. There is a band of purple light around our pelvic areas. Our legs are merging at the knees with a pink light. Our toes have become one.

There is a golden light surrounding us. We are becoming one. We are merging into one body. We are one. We are spinning. We are one ball. Spinning. Spinning over a landscape like a golden tumbleweed. There are sparks of light pouring off us. We are a whirlwind of light. We are spinning light. We are one spinning light. Golden light. Thrashing, sparking. We are pure electricity now.

Yellow light becomes a golden rod connecting her forehead to that of her teacher. The forehead among the Australian aboriginal shamans is the location of the “strong eye” that permits one to see shamanically.10 The merging with her teacher continues, while a “figure eight” connects them (the infinity symbol is commonly experienced spontaneously in Westerners’ journeys). Then they become one, pure energy or power. NH reports:

We have collided with something. We rolled into a stone, something like a big granite block, and have split into two halves. I am a piece of solid gold. I am in gold rock form. She is also in gold rock form. I am a piece of solid rock. I am gold. I am in the form of gold. My human form is not here.

It feels a bit scary wondering if I will get my human form back again, because being in gold is like being paralyzed.

A hand is coming out of that other half of the piece of gold. She is reaching out to me. I have an arm coming out of the gold, too. Once again we are holding hands. It is my right hand in her left hand. She is stepping out of her half of the golden ball. I see her again.

She is trying to pull me out. I am not coming out very easily. Just my arms are out. I am a skeleton. I am a skeleton of purple glowing light. My skeleton is made of amethyst. That is all there is of me.

NH becomes a skeleton, first of light and then of amethyst, a kind of quartz crystal. “That is all there is of me,” she says. Becoming a skeleton is one of the most famous and widespread shamanic initiatory experiences, being described in detail by peoples in Siberia, as well as among the Eskimo and in Australia. NH continues:

In my eye sockets are two emeralds. I am being healed. From the very base of my body. From the very base. From my bones. Where my third eye would be is a diamond, a cut diamond. The facets are sending out light. I am an amethyst skeleton with two emeralds as eye sockets and a cut diamond where my third eye is. That is what I am now. Right at this moment.

She receives emerald and diamond crystals in her head, another common cross-cultural initiatory experience of receiving power. Similarly, among the South American Cobeuo Indians, a shaman “introduces rock crystals into the novice’s head; these … then take the place of these organs and become his ‘strength.’ ”11

It is well known in many shamanic cultures that crystal (usually quartz) power helps the shaman to see.12 For example, among the Wiradjeri of Australia, quartz crystals were put into water to be drunk in order for one to be able to “see ghosts” (or spirits).13 When the Australian aboriginal journeyed to the Upper World, sometimes the spirit teacher Baiame “sang” a quartz crystal into the forehead of the journeyer “so that he would be able to see right into things.”14 NH goes on:

My teacher now looks like she was when I first saw her. But I look like something from outer space. I don’t have any flesh. Liquid is pouring down on me. Something like liquid gold is pouring down on top of my skeleton. It is turning into veins and arteries. I see my heart. My heart is gold. I am getting veins now and they are liquid gold. And my heart is gold.

Then liquid gold flows into her, becoming her arteries, veins, and heart. This echoes reported shamanic journey experiences among the Yakut of Siberia, where a future shaman, after being reduced to a skeleton, is given new blood.15 NH continues:

I am an amethyst skeleton with emerald eyes, a cut diamond in my forehead, and now I have a golden heart with arteries and veins of gold. There is a liver being formed for me somewhere. It is made of—it looks like ruby. It is like a liquid ruby. I see hands putting it into the place where my liver would be.

There it is. Now there are hands bringing other organs to me. It is happening so quickly I can’t see what each organ is. There is my spleen now—it is like liquid sapphire.

I think I am being made of stones. It is strange. These stones are spirit helpers for my body. These stones are healing me. My body is being healed.

She receives new bodily organs in the form of healing stones—in other words, stones of power. This parallels the shamanic initiation of the Unmatjera tribe of Australia, in which atnonqara stones are placed in the initiate’s body in connection with providing him a new set of internal organs.16 A similar initiatory experience is reported for the Binbinga tribe.17 NH continues:

Flesh is coming in. It is flesh. It is new flesh. I have muscles now too. They are strong. They are strong new muscles. The flesh is new. The hair is new. The teeth are new. I am being healed at a cellular level. By precious stones.

I still don’t recognize myself. I almost feel like I have wings, like I am an angel. I feel like I have died.

The process of receiving new flesh is typically reported in the dismemberments of tribal shamans. The healing is completed by giving this journeyer an entirely new body. This is generally considered by scholars to represent death and then the rebirth of the person as a shaman. Indeed, she says, “I have died.” This is similar to the earlier statement by the Westerner who felt he had died and then returned. NH goes on:

I am an angel. I have wings. They are golden wings. I have a white robe on. And I have a golden light coming out of my head.

This, too, echoes the experiences of shamans in other cultures. For example, again among the Wiradjeri of Australia, the journeyer grows wings after receiving quartz crystal water in the Upper World from Baiame.18

“The growing of wings,” as Eliade notes, “as a result of mystical initiation is a well-known motif, found also in the higher religions. Thus, for instance, the Taoists believe that when a man obtains the tao, feathers begin to grow on his body.”19 NH continues:

My teacher is touching me with her hands. I am returning to my human form again. I kneel. She says, “You have a new body. You will know how to take care of it.”

My health has been restored. I have been healed by the stones. [She sings.] A golden rod of lights is coming in through my head and coming out of each leg at my toes. It is making a humming sound.

The understanding of how to take care of her new body presumably is a result of the power and knowledge she has received. The journeyer states, “My health has been restored.” She sings, in a state of deep ecstasy, aware that she has a new body free of illness.

Dismemberment and reconstitution, as those of us who have experienced it know, is a healing in which the journeyer receives a new spiritual body, free of illness and pain, with positive consequences for one’s health in ordinary reality. NH goes on:

I am lying down now. My teacher is sitting beside me. I see green people at my feet. I don’t know if they are real or if they are Egyptian mummies. They don’t look human. The middle one seems human. I think she has a message for me. She is handing me something on a tray. It is a ball, a glass ball.

She says, “It is filled with light and energy. It is all the energy that you will need.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

It is a gift. It is a gift from a very ancient being. It is such an important gift. It took three people to give it to me—one to hold the energy and the two others to somehow help and protect it. It is a very beautiful, wonderful gift. I am very grateful.

I don’t know what to say. “Thank You.”

This was a gift of power. She was given the gift of a glass ball “filled with light and energy.” That she calls it “glass” rather than “crystal” represents the fact that she is seeing something of which she does not yet have full knowledge, for the crystal ball, ground down into a sphere from a large quartz crystal, is a direct descendant of the shaman’s quartz crystal representing light and power—the quartz crystal often being used by tribal shamans as a power object par excellence, such as among shamans of the Upper Amazon and Aboriginal Australia.20 NH continues:

“Thank you” doesn’t seem like it could ever be enough. There is a purple light coming out of my shoulder, like rods of light.

I am being called back now by the drum. My teacher is sitting me up. We embrace. I thank her.

I am walking back. She is behind me but I don’t know if she is coming with me. I am floating down. I am floating down. Rose petals are floating down, too. I am now back, sitting on the plateau.

This was an emotion-filled journey. Afterward, NH had this to say:

I asked how I could have optimum health, and I was changed, energized, turned into pure energy, and then into metal. I felt I was really metal. Then I was built up again from the skeleton, and helped by the mineral kingdom and stones. I was recreated and then given all the energy I needed. And I was told that I would know how to take care of myself. Being changed into so many different things has left me a little stunned. I feel like my question is answered, more than I thought it would be answered.

At times it was scary. Just being in such a different form than I am used to. A part of me was afraid, when I was the metal and then the skeleton, that I wouldn’t get the rest of the body back. Also when I was the angel I didn’t know if I would get my body back again. A lot of the time I was frightened about what was happening to me—all of the energy changes. I think it might take me a little while to sort of absorb it all and incorporate it. [My teacher] didn’t tell me that I was going to be healed or recreated. She didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t know anything. It just started happening. So I got slightly blown away.

I guess I felt I died. When I first came back I felt frightened because I wondered, do I still know my children? Do I still know anybody that I knew? But I am sure that as time goes by I will. In fact, I probably know everybody still. But I feel like I am new. I was re-created, but instead of turning back into me, I turned into an angel first. I finally got a body back, but it was an angel. I knew I wasn’t back. Then my teacher touched my cheek, and I turned back into me. She was helping to bring me back. I was told that now I had the new body, and that I would know how to take care of it. It was like I was given a second chance.21

“A second chance,” of course, is another way of saying that a new beginning to her life had commenced, or that she had undergone an initiatory experience. She had been built up from the skeleton: reerected, resurrected, remembered—any and all of these words could apply.

An important reason that dismemberment–rememberment is often recognized by shamans as a critical, even initiatory, occurrence is that it not only resurrects one with new power, but it can also radically expand the shaman’s perspective about reality. Through the experience, the shamanic journeyers temporarily have much of their ordinary-reality personal history erased, an important part of “remembering” their unity with nonordinary reality.

For comparison, let us consider the case of a man named Ilpailurkna of the Australian Unmatjera tribe. Like the Western woman whose experience has just been described, he underwent a dismemberment and reconstitution involving the use of stones in the replacement of his internal organs. When he came out of this altered state of consciousness, he had no idea where he was.

Ilpailurkna had completely forgotten who he was and all about his past life. After a time the old man [his ordinary-reality mentor] led him back to his camp and showed it to him, and told him that the woman there was his lubra, for he had forgotten all about her. His coming back this way and his strange behaviour at once showed the other natives that he had been made into a medicine man.22

Although our Western journeyer, NH, had not even heard of shamanic dismemberment prior to her own experience, note what she said upon her return: “I felt frightened because I wondered, do I still know my children? Do I still know anybody that I knew?” Her remarks strikingly echo the account of Ilpailurkna’s experience. While she feared she would not know anyone upon returning from her journey, she subsequently found this fear groundless. Yet these two examples, Western and Aboriginal Australian, illustrate how the dismemberment experience is much more than the simple replacement of body parts, for the “remembering” of organs, including the brain and the heart, is also an awakening from ego-centered preoccupations with one’s own personal history in ordinary reality and remembering or reconnecting with a very ancient and sacred memory.


What is this remembering? It is one memory and yet many. It is the Dreamtime. It is the mythic reality. It is the reality where there is no time. It is the memory of the union with the universe that existed before we were each individualized through conception and birth into this ordinary reality. It is the memory of the cosmic consciousness from which we came and to which we will return. Besides receiving new power, an important unexpected gift from dismemberment–rememberment is the gift of experiencing, however briefly, dismembering our ordinary-reality consciousness and experiencing rememberment not just of the body but of the mind, remembering our union with the infinite, the ineffable, the total universe.

This remembering, because it is union, does not have particular defining characteristics and thus is almost impossible to describe. Even the classic stories of sacred union in the histories of the major religions cannot convey adequately those experiences of deep ecstatic union, for they are ineffable experiences, beyond the confines of language.

One should therefore not be surprised that ethnographers and other Western observers rarely elicited information on such experiences from shamans. Indeed, there seems to be little evidence that most Western fieldworkers were even looking for the possibility of such ineffable experiences among “primitive” peoples. A rare exception or two can be found in the writings of the great part-Eskimo (and possibly shaman) ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, as mentioned earlier.23

As a virtually indescribable experience, the deep ecstasy often accompanying dismemberment was rarely communicated to researchers and documented for shamans in the ethnographic literature. In contrast, the readily describable details of the recounted dismemberments were easily noted and did find their way into Western ethnographic reports.

As a consequence, it is understandable that many Western scholars have prematurely assumed that tribal shamans were limited to “gross” experiences and were less “evolved” in their spiritual work than practitioners of the Eastern and Western civilizations’ spiritual disciplines.

Not surprisingly, even Western journeyers, when asked to convey the emotional experiences they had upon dismemberment, have difficulty describing them. For example, one said: “I think it’s what we call love.… There doesn’t seem to be any separate intelligence there, separateness there.… It’s one tremendously vast presence which just is. [crying, sobbing] It feels like nothing, but it’s everything. I keep describing it, but I don’t have any words for it.”24


Particularly in the early years of my teaching, dismemberments happened spontaneously when students were ascending to the Upper World or descending to the Lower, and without my having mentioned the possibility to them beforehand. Eventually, since the students expressed enthusiasm about their unexpected and profound dismemberment experiences in the Upper and Lower Worlds, I decided to see if advanced students could achieve them voluntarily. The results were very successful, and I include below a few examples of their accounts.

The intentional ascension or journey for dismemberment should be prefaced by significant advanced training in shamanism, for it is an important initiation, and it should not be practiced just on the basis of reading this book. Shamanic ascensions or other journeys for intentional dismemberment as recounted here are part of a careful sequence of initiations that I strategically planned for students considered ready for this next phase.

It should be reiterated that this exercise, to ascend intentionally to the Upper World to be dismembered, and to return, did not come from the literature on comparative religions but directly from the experiential approach of core shamanism. Now, in retrospect, I can say that this straightforward core exercise from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies somewhat resembles the most advanced chöd practice of Tibetan lamas, although I am not clear if some go out of the Middle World to do it. In chöd, the purposes and ritual methods are complex and complicated by local spiritual and religious elaborations, with one approach used by the village shamans and another used by the lamas.

For Tamang village shamans in Nepal, who are linguistically and culturally Tibetan, the chöd dismemberment is part of a method of helping to heal a community and is done in the Middle World. Specifically, in the shamans’ chöd ritual the intention is for the shamans to gather into their own bodies pollution from localities in their communities, and then invite the local ghosts, who cause illness by eating the living members of the community, to come and feed on the shamans instead and absorb the pollution. They thereby satisfy the ghosts’ hunger and, at the same time, accomplish the consumption of the pollution in the community through their consuming the shamans in this special form of dismemberment. A sacred union with a spirit, with hints of a possible infinite union, often occurred for the shamans consequent to dismemberment.25

For Tibetan lamas, the advanced form of chöd dismemberment is used as a secret method specifically to obtain sacred union, according to W. Y. Evans-Wentz.26 Lamas pursuing dismemberment are taught as initiates to have the intention of seeking union involving loss of ego, presumably in infinite union, so it is difficult on that evidence alone to assert that their subsequent experiences were independent of their prior programming.

This is one of the ways in which their dismemberment exercises were apparently somewhat different from those that I originated for the Foundation, for the possibility of an infinite union outcome was rarely offered to students until after my first years of teaching. The dismemberment journey exercise that I eventually devised was in keeping with the principles and practices of core shamanism, unencumbered by cultural traditions and expectations. It provided minimal methodological instruction, so that students could independently discover its consequences.

Following are a few reports of ascensions made with the intention to seek dismemberment.


I asked my loving and compassionate spirit helpers to take me to the Upper World to be dismembered.

I went through a tunnel to the Upper World and I ended up being thrown into the sun—it was like a slow burning in which layer after layer of my body was melted, disappearing into the sun as ashes, then as fine particles. The particles wanted to be united with the others and were allowed to do so. Then I entered into a dream state, and as soon as I started dreaming, the whole dream and me were again thrown into the sun, and again the slow burning began. My dream and I were converted into ashes and particles; then I entered a dream state, and again as soon as I started to dream, the whole dream and I were thrown again into the sun. The same cycle happened several times.

When the call-back came, I was in my entirety filled in by space (like the space from outer space). It was as if my body was a shell containing the universe inside. I was completely hollow, empty (no body with organs and bones) yet filled with the whole universe. I felt as if I was a shell with a window through which I could see and experience the whole universe.

After the dismemberment, while being outside, I had the impression that all the plants in the garden were the same as me, shells holding the whole universe inside them. It was beautiful.27


 … the Four who had done the dismemberment (Elephant, Merlin, Old Monk, and The Silver One) took what appeared to be a thin, transparent, gossamer remnant of myself and began stretching it out in each of the Four Directions. They stretched and stretched, moving ever outward from the center, out from the Earth, past the sun and planets, the stars and galaxies, to the outer reaches of the Universe itself. When they reached the outer limits, this gossamer thread (like a super-thin spiderweb) suddenly became the outer limits of the universe. At the same time I just as suddenly became me, like an instant rememberment, but now the whole universe was contained inside my body. I had just a brief time to experience this new form of Oneness with the universe before the call-back.

It was quite an experience to have the whole universe contained inside my body, to have stars and galaxies, mice and snakes, insects and birds, trees and flowers, mountains and rivers—things that I normally experience as separate entities—now be a part of me in a most intimate way.28


As I started this journey I repeated my intention over and over and asked the compassionate spirits to dismember me. I traveled into the Upper World and quickly to Celeste, my planet teacher, and I circled round and round inside her sphere many times and then outside on her ring. And then I circled around the atmosphere of Earth and I could see all the beautiful living things; then I was taken up, up, up into the distances of outer space … past stars and galaxies and light energies. My body as it was then got very cold and all components—every bit, at the cellular level—became a frozen, solid mass … a big ice cube in outer space. That was the beginning of the destruction, the dismemberment, all cellular connections frozen solid. Then in the distance a ball of intense heat and light, a supernova, raced toward me; and as it neared (but was still very far away) I began to melt slowly—drip, drip, drip—melting into the universe like a Salvador Dalí painting. And then, as the supernova got closer, the intense heat in a flash melted the entirety of me, and “I” as “I” was … was gone … melted into the universe … little droplets (bits) of melted being … dispersed among the vast spaces of the universe. I was one with the celestial beings and nature of the Upper World. I spent a long time merging with that energy and rhythm, and the spirits told me to just drink it in. They showed me different light energies—purple and yellow—and they took me to the Earth to merge with various animals and plants and waters. I asked them if there were certain parts of me that needed changing … and they said: no, not specific parts, just a total energy shift … toward “heart” and “light.”

In the outer reaches of the universe they reassembled me … and I could physically feel my musculature form from head to toe … coming back together as a unit again—with incredible strength and peace. And I existed in that form in the universe for a while (and I thought that I was all put back together). I lay there as various things happened. Stardust showered on my body and was absorbed through my skin … light energies came by again (purple and yellow) … and I just merged with it all.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a pounding in my chest which was very real and very physical. They said they were giving me the heartbeat of the universe—and that I would no longer be separate in that sense (from the universe). The lesson for me was to lose that sense of individuation. The heartbeat they were giving me was/is the heartbeat of the universe, and now the heartbeat (mine and the universe’s) are one and the same. Now, within my body, there would always be this connection (direct link) to the universal life force—we are one.

This heartbeat gives me life in this form—in this reality of individuation—but I am never to forget that the heartbeat inside this body of mine is the heartbeat of the universe. It connects me to all things. It is a direct link to the spirit world. I am never to forget, hide from, or disallow this connection. It resides in me in a very present way now through this pounding in my chest (although it was always there); it is a re-awakening … a re-remembering (!) … a true gift from the spirits. Body-soul-spirit are now consciously connected—never to be forgotten. It has been experienced.

I came back down to Earth on the supernova and tumbled down through the atmosphere and to my tree and landed in my nest—to be held there.29


I had barely stated my intention to ask for a dismemberment when Eagle snapped me up in her claws. She flew me up to her nest, pulled my flesh apart, ate me, and regurgitated me into the mouths of her chicks. I was digested by the chicks and became parts of their cells as they grew and fledged. I became their scat on rocks. As it rained, I became liquid and was consumed by the Earth into her soil. I traveled up the hair roots of trees. Up, up the trunks, into the branches and into the leaves. I evaporated into the sky. As moisture I became clouds. I was blown by the wind, got very full and burst into rain. The rain became streams, rivers, and a large lake with boats floating on it.

I am the water. I am the wake behind the boat, moving furiously, flying through the air. I spill over a dam and into a river again. I move forward and become water in the water-treatment plants to supply water to humans. I come out of the tap and into a glass. I am consumed by a human. I move throughout the body and am expelled as urine. I merge with other water and am flushed away, on to another treatment plant and into the ocean. I am ocean spray from waves, carried into the air. I am one tiny molecule. I travel up to become the ice crystals of a jet stream. I am floating, melting, moving upward, out past our galaxy limits. I float in the quiet.

I see a large imploding nebula and am taken in by its power. I am spit back out as millions of myself floating in the universe. I regather into a tiny drop and Eagle appears and takes this in her beak and flies me to the sun. I become steam. Eagle gathers all of my particles with a sweeping motion of her wings, and I am formed into a multifaceted crystal. She carries me back to her nest. An image of the human me, looking like a deflated, plastic blow-up doll, is lying on the ground beneath the nest. She picks up the crystal me and flies down and places it in the area of my solar plexus in the flat me. As she places the crystal, I inflate and become my human form again. The crystal is now inside me.

Eagle says, “You have been one with the universe and now the universe is within you.” I thank Eagle for this beautiful gift and journey.

I hear the call-back and reluctantly come back to OR.30


The following two Westerners were invited to seek cosmic union while in the Upper World. Dismemberment was not mentioned to them. One succeeded in achieving various experiences of union. The other achieved what appears to be cosmic union after an unexpected dismemberment late in the ascension.


I find the mere idea of this journey absolutely amazing. I returned with the most astounding experiences, and the fewest words to describe them with. I can describe the narrative content of the journey, but could not ever describe the effect it had on me.

As I began to journey outward, I saw two endangered species of animals that I care very much about—the polar bear and the snow leopard. I realized I will never really lose them because I can journey to their spirits. Then I realized that I am one with them; then I realized that I am them. Next, I saw a friend of mine, who is in a period of deep depression. I realized that part of the reason why I care so much is that here, as I approach cosmic union, I am she.

After the above encounters, which seemed relatively close to home, I journeyed very far out. I saw a very gold place in the sky like the light from a gold sunset, surrounded by dark clouds. I entered there and was surrounded by the gold light, and reached what seemed like the end of the cosmos, though to me, that is a contradiction of terms. Here there was pure compassion. I was surrounded and permeated by it. I felt overwhelmed by how much I cared about everything. I experienced the compassion of the universe as an irresistible force that must constantly find expression.

I feel that my human existence as a shamanic practitioner can best be described as a great bottleneck, through which only the tiniest, subatomic particle of what is really “out there” can be expressed.31


In the following case, this person had not yet reached the Upper World (she was still in the astronomer’s universe), and then she dove into the wormhole of a galaxy in that universe.

I left from the designated starting point and moved on out and out and out past the sky and the stars and other planets and other times and other places. At one point I nearly passed a wormhole in some galaxy or other. I had traveled far and had seen civilizations and planets and colors and beings, all described in other journeys, so I won’t repeat them here.

When I went past that wormhole, I knew this was the place and I turned back and dove through. At this moment, I didn’t know which end was up or which way was forward or backward. I felt much like Alice must have felt when she went through the looking glass.

I went down and down and down. I went through things that were big and complex like planets and galaxies that had been sucked into this vortex a long time ago. I went into them and into the things that were in them.

I went into planets and saw that they were made of many things. There was not just earthlike material and rocks and water, but there were gases and minerals and things I had never imagined living in there. There were beings both large and small. I found a lot of smaller beings, I don’t want to call them bugs, but they seemed to have their own sort of civilization. They had their own set of rules. The message I got was that this was the only place they could live and so here they were.

I went down further into some of the components I found, and there were other civilizations made of beings even tinier than the ones that had previously amazed me. They lived here too. Some lived in fires that burned here and they were quite happy to do so. Others lived in places I found that were as cold as ice.

I found more substances and went on into them. I cannot call them molecules or atoms or pi mesons or anything else. Those are not the words that would be used here. Our words in our world don’t mean a thing in this place.

These components were small, and as I traveled through, I found more and more civilizations, increasingly smaller than the previous. I think I must have reached some sort of critical mass at one point because I was suddenly surrounded by giant beings, and their world was very odd. It was light in places and very dark in others.

I kept going down, diving into whatever material I found, and heading to where I thought the center might be. My feeling was that it had to be somewhere down this wormhole. This was a vortex that would suck everything in the universe into it, and so I should be able to come to the end at some point.

I started to feel odd now. It was as if I was leaving myself because I was too big or something.

I began to deconstruct and bits of me joined into the vortex as it swept through what we would call time and space, but what I realized now was not time and it was not space. Those things no longer existed for me. I just was. I was just here and this was cosmic union and it was turbulent and peaceful all together. It was colorful and colorless all together. It was nothing and everything all together and I was happy to be here.

But I knew I had to return because I do have a mission to achieve in my life and I had to get back to it. I moved on back through the vortex and [came back].32


What the spirits have in mind for us in our ascensions and other journeys goes far beyond any personally planned goals, for they provide us with gifts according to our needs, not our expectations. Cosmic union is one such gift, a gift that fuses the journeyer with the awesome power of the universe. In this way, shamans become more than themselves, for now they can be midwives to miracles, miracles of helping and healing others.

The cosmic dismemberments in the Upper World are different from those in the Middle World, with an example of the latter provided by the Tibetan Tamang tribal shamans. The dismemberments of our Westerners involved no “hungry ghosts,” because when we are fully beyond our Middle World, we do not find hunger nor pain, having left the “suffering beings,” the “ghosts,” behind. The merging in the Upper World was not with suffering beings of the Middle World, but with the entire universe: cosmic union.

Concluding with cosmic union, it is now possible to say that the quest for healing power, with which our book started, has almost ended. The next step, if one chooses, is to accept that immense cosmic power through the modulating powers of the compassionate spirits, and to undertake the classic healing work of the shaman to help those who are suffering or in pain.

As Essie Parrish, the great California Pomo Indian shaman, said:

“Be careful on the journey,” they said, “the journey to heaven,” they warned me. And so I went.… Then when I entered into the place, I knew: if you enter heaven you might have to work.33