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





Center for Shamanic Studies



Foundation for Shamanic Studies



Ordinary Reality



Mapping of Nonordinary Reality (project)



Nonordinary Reality



Ordinary State of Consciousness



Shamanic State of Consciousness



Unpublished MONOR Report


When still a professor of anthropology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, I taught a seminar in which graduate students learned to do shamanic journeying in order to understand better the experiences of indigenous shamans. Each week the seminar participants were assigned the task of making a shamanic journey at home while listening to a journeying drumming tape, and writing a report on their experiences.

The second week, after doing her first homework assignment, a quiet young businesswoman, who had enrolled in the seminar only because its hours fit into her schedule, timidly raised her hand. She asked, more as an observation than a question, “Dr. Harner, we aren’t ever going to be the same again, are we?”

She was probably right.


Since the appearance of my last book, The Way of the Shaman, more than three decades ago, my teaching has been primarily oral, in keeping with the age-old traditions of shamanism. The time has come, however, for me finally to address publicly certain questions that urgently deserve wider attention in the contemporary world. Two fundamental questions are whether there is more than one reality and whether we need to be alone in solving the challenges of existence.

This book tells the stories of some of the thousands of Westerners who found answers to such questions using the ancient methods of shamans, including drumming “over the rainbow” to discover amazing heavenly realms waiting to help them. They also found a new spiritual freedom, a freedom to know, and no longer just to believe or disbelieve.

The late, great scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade emphasized that shamans are unique in the world’s spiritual traditions due to their ability to fly to other worlds, including heavens. They reached those worlds in what he called a state of “ecstasy,” or an altered state of consciousness. This state was achieved, he said, “through the musical magic of the drum” that permitted the shaman to “reach the highest heaven.”1 Little more was said, however, about the nature of that “musical magic.”

Drums are everywhere in photographs of Siberian shamans, particularly famous for those flights out of this world. Those drums, many scholars suggested, were used just for “theatrical effect” in shamanic sessions, and some even claimed that Siberian shamans did not change their consciousness at all. Others, following mycologist Gordon Wasson, believed that the ingestion of the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria was really responsible for the Siberian shamans’ belief that they flew to other worlds.

The ubiquity of the drums in those photographs aroused my curiosity, and in the late 1960s I started experimenting with drumming to see if it had an effect in making those magical flights. After various experiments, I was excited to conclude that a steady rhythm of 205 to 220 beats per minute worked perfectly to change consciousness and, with knowledge of shamanism, to make flights or journeys to spirit worlds.2 This is “auditory driving,” or “sonic driving,” an entirely drug-free and classic method of the shaman.

In response to requests, my personal practice with the drum led me to teach small groups how to use drumming to change consciousness not only to visit other worlds, but also to bring shamanic help and healing into our daily lives. Demand for this knowledge grew, and in 1979 my wife Sandra Harner and I started the Center for Shamanic Studies (now the Foundation for Shamanic Studies) as a vehicle for teaching shamanism. At that time, I also experimented with making shamanic-drumming recordings so that people could journey without a live drum. (It should be noted that the practice of making shamanic journeys in itself does not make one a shaman, but such a practice is a very useful step toward learning and practicing shamanism, for through journeying one can learn directly and rapidly from the spirits.) Then in 1980 I published The Way of the Shaman, a book that started the worldwide shamanic revival.3

Through personal fieldwork and training with surviving tribal shamans starting more than half a century ago, as well as through my own shamanic practice and by reading reports on hundreds of cultures, I discovered, learned, experimented with, and revived a variety of shamanic practices. From these I originated “core shamanism”—those universal, near-universal, and common features of shamanism, together with journeys to other worlds, a distinguishing feature of shamanism—as a teaching methodology to bring shamanism to contemporary life. It includes the implicit, if not indigenously explicit, recognition of two realities, ordinary and nonordinary, the latter usually entered by a change into what I call the shamanic state of consciousness, which has a learned aspect and differing degrees of depth.

Today, using core shamanism and auditory driving, tens of thousands of persons worldwide are now able, like traditional Siberian shamans, to enter another reality to travel to other worlds as well as to work here in this world to provide healings and other shamanic help. (For those new to core shamanism, see Appendix D for more detailed information.)

For more than a quarter of a century, we have sponsored a project at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies that involves collecting and archiving shamanic knowledge, including almost five thousand reports by Westerners about what they found in their shamanic journeys into nonordinary reality—what have been called “journeys outside of time.” The term “Westerners” is used simply as a term of convenience to cover present-day Americans (the largest group having unpublished records in the Foundation’s archives), Canadians, and some Europeans.

This “Western” collection, which serves as the main source of this book’s reports, is unique in the world. It is part of the Mapping of Nonordinary Reality (MONOR) project and belongs to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory in Northern California, which also has a collection of publications on indigenous shamanism for hundreds of societies worldwide.4

For years I have been loath to publish this knowledge prematurely, for fear that once it was “out there,” it might deprive new students and other Westerners from having uninfluenced, autonomous experiences. Now, however, through the Foundation’s oral teachings in training courses and workshops as much as anything, “the word is out.” To avoid “contamination” of experiences by excessive advance communication regarding what others have experienced (thereby preventing truly novel and spontaneous journeys to the unknown), the Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory no longer accepts new Western experiential shamanic reports, and it seems the time has come to unveil a small sample of these discoveries through publication here.

The Westerners whose experiences are in this book made ascensions to what many scholars of shamanism call the Upper World and descents to the Lower World, as contrasted with the one in which we live, which is the Middle World. The worlds above and below are entirely in nonordinary reality, and they are solely spirit realms, while the one we live in has both its ordinary-reality aspect, the one we easily perceive, and its nonordinary aspect, which is a domain of spirits and is less easily perceived without shamanic training.

The Upper World is quite different from the ordinary-reality phenomena above us, the phenomena observed by astronomers. Even the most distant galaxies of our universe are still not the Upper World of the shamans. The Westerners, in descending to the Lower World, were likewise not going down the rock layers of the geologists’ Earth but were passing into a purely spirit realm below us, one without earthly limitations.

This book provides examples of nonordinary Western experiences in all three worlds, with the main emphasis being on the Upper World, partially because today in the West there seems to be great curiosity about what, if anything, is “up there” spiritually. In other words, are heavens real, fantasy, or metaphorical?

Our evidence suggests that the answer depends upon which of two realities, ordinary or nonordinary, one is talking about. In nonordinary reality—accessed with classic shamanic techniques, including auditory driving—there now seems to be no question of the existence of heavens, celestial choirs, deities, and the presence of beings, or spirits, in the Upper World. Evidence is also presented for the existence of spirits in our own world, the Middle World.

The ascension-derived evidence in this book challenges the beliefs of those who claim that there is only one heaven and that round-trips there are restricted to a few long-dead prophets, saints, and founders of Great Religions. Evenhandedly, the reports also challenge the beliefs of those atheists and “secular fundamentalists” who think that heavens are figments of the imagination. Even in Christianity today, some members of the clergy suggest that heaven is a feeling rather than a place.

Years ago in The Way of the Shaman I gave Westerners an introduction to making shamanic journeys to the Lower World, and many have traveled there during the past three decades. That is one of the reasons I do not place as much emphasis in the present book on the Lower World as on the Upper. Still, the final chapter of Cave and Cosmos provides new and surprising information about what some Westerners have discovered in the Lower World.

As the cosmographic reports contained in this book are important contributions to shamanic knowledge in and of themselves, I do not attempt in the limited space here to make comparisons to the accounts of near-death survivors, nor to the firsthand journey experiences of indigenous shamans, the latter being surprisingly scarce. I recognize the importance of these and other comparative studies and urge that they be undertaken. The work in your hands is intended, among other things, to encourage just such investigations.

I wish to add that in this book I am not trying to bridge disciplines. I am an anthropologist, a shamanologist, a practitioner of shamanism and, in the case of this book, a cosmographer of Western shamanic experiences. Nothing more. Those who wish to reconcile shamanism with another discipline—for example, psychology—should try to resist the immediate temptation, as in Casablanca, to “round up the usual suspects,” the standard reductionist tools. I have nothing against reduction-ism per se, but in my opinion it should only follow true mastery of any field being “reduced.” In the case of shamanism, it should include mastery of shamanism from extensive firsthand experience, experimentation, and study, in addition to a comparable mastery of whatever field is being compared. Admittedly this is not an easy task … but when was serious scholarship ever easy?5

Considerable care was taken over the years during workshops and courses to teach the Westerners studying core shamanism how to go to other worlds without giving them more than minimal directions. Detailed information on the instructions they received can be found in Appendices A and BThere you are invited to use the same shamanic journey methods yourself to compare your own experiences with those described here. However, the appendices are not intended to form a “how-to” book, but rather to be an opportunity for readers to test the reality and nature of the discoveries made by Westerners in the Upper World (and to a lesser extent the Lower World) that are reported in these pages.

Once you have read this book, you unfortunately will no longer be naïve about what to expect if you ascend to the Upper World or descend to the Lower. Even so, if you accept the above invitation, be prepared for some amazing discoveries, including the discovery that you yourself will no longer be dependent on others’ reports of what is there or not. With core shamanism, some of the ironclad cosmological dogmas of church, state, and science may be expected to rust away.

As I write this, I am now eighty-three years old. Much of what I have learned about shamanism in the last half century has long since been evaluated and internalized into a personal body of knowledge that I’ve passed on to others orally in many talks with footnotes of remembrance lost in the sands of time. Portions of this book embody talks I gave to my students and to the public over the course of more than three decades.

However, one of the safeguards in reading my statements about shamanism is that serious readers can experientially test most of my statements through their own shamanic work. Central to what I offer in these pages are new data and ways to verify them. If you find that parts of the book remind you of something you have read or heard elsewhere, do not be surprised, for I have personally taught the principles and methods of shamanism and shamanic journeying to thousands of students. Some of them have already published portions of my oral teachings,6 but not the new data presented here.

Bringing shamanism back to the West includes encouraging you, the reader, to become more confident of your own spiritual authority. I wish to encourage your spiritual autonomy even in reading this book. Although I could not restrain myself from some personal comments regarding certain of these Westerners’ reports, others are purposely presented with few or no remarks to foster your own independent thinking.

We have had enough people speaking on pulpits and before congregations of one religion or another, repeating or analyzing to exhaustion the same old stories regarding the experiences of founders of Great Religions. Now it is time for you to avail yourself of the opportunity to have such experiences of your own. In that connection, the reports here, however interesting, are not a substitute for the real thing: your own firsthand experiences. Likewise, this book is not intended as a traditional scholarly tome addressed primarily to an academic audience but is an effort to inspire readers to new heights, literally, by exposing them to new data and concepts.

I see the new information presented here—i.e., the records of others’ experiences and the inspiration they may provide—as my main task and contribution in this volume. The Foundation’s archives have been combed for examples of a wide range of experiences that, while nonordinary, are within the range of possibility and potential for all of us. Together with the tenets of core shamanism just outlined, these accounts—vital perspectives on our situation as human beings—constitute a package that can broaden the horizons of interested readers.

I have chosen to spend my limited time to put information into this book that I feel is really important, even urgent, to pass on to a fractious and perilous world willing to quarrel interminably about spiritual matters on the basis of belief in old stories. The shaman’s way is that of firsthand knowledge, not of stories (even mine!), and in many indigenous cultures the shaman is “one who knows.”

I hope that readers will find this book useful in helping them lessen their dependence on the cosmological dogmas of organized religion and science. I hope you are encouraged, or further encouraged, in your own shamanic encounters with another reality, for there we can find incredible compassion, help, and healing that we badly need in our world. In a way, this is a data-oriented declaration of spiritual independence, and an invitation to use that knowledge and freedom to bring more wisdom, compassion, and joy into your life and the lives of others.

—Michael Harner

Autumn 2012