The Search

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

The Search

Shamans are delusional and quite possibly schizophrenic, I learned in the early 1950s as an anthropology student at the University of California in Berkeley. The evidence offered was that shamans claimed that they could see and talk with spirits, and even use them to heal people. However, since shamans sometimes actually did seem to effect cures, they deserved more study if it was done from a psychological perspective. Walter Cline was a quiet dissenter regarding this purely psychological view of shamans.

Such a perception of shamans was a heritage of Western prejudices stretching back centuries to the Inquisition’s ridicule and persecution of shamans, then in Europe called “witches,” which they are still called in northern Finland. The Inquisition’s methods of torture and execution were gradually replaced by the more subtle pressures of secularism that accompanied the rise of science during the Age of “Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century.

In that century one of the last vestiges of European shamanism, visualization methods, still survived to some degree in folk medicine, known as “journeys of the soul.” However, eighteenth-century academicians declared that there was no scientific proof of the existence of the soul. Therefore, the emerging medical establishment decreed that visualization for healing had to be abandoned on those grounds. The “heresy” of visualized travel did not return to European medicine until Freud in the late nineteenth century asked a patient to “imagine” himself in a train going through the countryside and to describe what he saw.

The academic reluctance to take seriously souls, spirits, and shamans continues to the present time.1 Not having actually tried shamanic methods themselves, even sympathetic anthropologists have tended to view shamanism not in terms of first-hand knowledge but within the framework of Western preconceptions or paradigms.

Although perhaps no longer ethnocentric, most of these scholars still tended to see shamans through the lens of cognicentrism, which is a tendency to judge the validity of other people’s experiences in altered states of consciousness without having experienced those states oneself.2

Without adequate participant observation, such scholars were liable to inconclusively put shamans and shamanism into currently fashionable theoretical pigeonholes. While “participant observation” was given lip service in anthropology as a desired field method to arrive at an accurate understanding of native behavior and practices, no anthropologist was known to have attempted it in the case of shamanism prior to the latter half of the twentieth century.

At the same time, the shamans’ feats of healing and unbelievable journeys to other worlds both fascinated and perplexed Western scholars. The armchair French theorist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl proposed in his early twentieth-century book Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures that “native” accounts of their incredible experiences were indeed genuine, but that such peoples were prisoners of a prerational “primitive” mind.3 That this opinion has not entirely disappeared is evidenced by the more recent book of another influential armchair writer, Julian Jaynes, who theorized at length about the consciousness of preagricultural peoples without investigating the consciousness of “preagricultural” peoples, hunters and gatherers, who still existed on the planet.4

Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion about tribal peoples and shamans was perhaps relatively charitable compared to those that were subsequently expressed for decades in the twentieth century by much of the psychoanalytic community, where shamans’ experiences tended to be viewed as “hallucinations” and the shamans themselves as actively psychotic or psychotics “in partial remission.”5 Indeed, Weston La Barre, an anthropologist heavily influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory, argued that virtually all mystical experiences, including those of shamanism, were manifestations of neurosis or psychosis.6

Carl Jung stands apart from such a view and from Freud in making what he himself terms “journeys” to a lower world,7 and being educated there about the reality of spirits by Elijah, who tells him, “We are real, not symbols,” and again, “You may call us symbols.… But we are just as real as your fellow men. You invalidate nothing and solve nothing by calling us symbols.… We are certainly what you call real.”8 However, it is notable that Jung wrote these words only secretly in his Red Book, which was not made public until 2009, almost half a century after his death.

Undoubtedly the foremost twentieth-century figure in the scholarly rehabilitation of shamanism, and in the recognition of its virtually pan-human occurrence, was Mircea Eliade, who published the first version of his classic book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy in French in 1951. Eliade proposed that although local practices had their own variations, a key consistent feature was the shaman’s journey to other worlds in a trance (“ecstasy”).

In his book, which remains the outstanding general reference work on shamanism, Eliade suggested that shamanism was the progenitor of all other spiritual systems and religions, although he made it clear that shamanism itself was a methodology, not a religion. However, even Eliade was not immune from the mental-illness view of shamans. As late as 1951, just five years before my first Amazonian fieldwork, he took the position that “the majority of shamans are (or have been) psychopaths.”9

Thus, from the scholars’ “psychological” perspective, shamans were not “liars and charlatans” but merely insane! The shamans had the good fortune, however, to be born into “crazy” cultures, where they could be accepted. They could even employ their craziness by catering to the mass delusions of the people among whom they lived by being shamans.

Such “crazy” cultures, of course, are the “primitive” tribal ones, in contrast to our own “civilized” Western culture whose manifestations of presumed sanity include two world wars, the Holocaust, and other wholesale acts of genocide, urban violence, and the accelerating destruction of the planetary life-support system.

Another thing I learned as an anthropology graduate student, but not from Walter Cline, was that fieldworkers were to keep a skeptical “objectivity.” Out of paternalistic good manners or, perhaps more practically, to avoid alienating their native informants, the anthropologists’ skepticism was not expressed directly to the indigenous peoples, but only upon returning home to the academic community, where Western psychological and sociological assumptions were used to explain what “really” was going on in the native cultures. This somewhat hypocritical approach was considered entirely proper. Implicit in all this was the patronizing assumption of the superiority of modern Western knowledge and that the natives’ function was to be subjects for study, rather than to be possible teachers of us in the West.

I was similarly taught the dangers of “going native” in the field, something that “unstable personalities” might be tempted to do. Examples that I was given of ethnologists or cultural anthropologists who had “gone over the edge” included Frank Cushing of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. About a century ago, Cushing stopped publishing on Zuni religion after becoming formally initiated into their secret societies, thereby depriving the Western world of his discoveries. He also achieved the rank of First War Chief and generally became a scandal for many in the profession by failing to “keep his distance” and thereby not fulfilling his academic obligations.10


It was with this academic background that I engaged in my first fieldwork in the Upper Amazon in 1956–57. My intention was to go beyond the frontier of Western colonization to experience life in a still-unconquered Native American tribal society. I was almost a century too late for this opportunity in North America, so I chose South America, and specifically the Jívaro proper or Untsuri Shuar of eastern Ecuador, who were famous for their ability to resist would-be conquerors over the centuries. My anthropological responsibility and intention was to do an accurate ethnography or description of their total culture, for their sensationalistic practice of “head-shrinking” had resulted in many lurid, inaccurate, and prejudicial accounts of their life and ideas.11

In 1956, shortly after I arrived among the Shuar, I noticed a man who wandered in the forest day and night, seeing and talking with spirits. Having just come from the lofty towers of academia, I thought, Aha, I have one! So I asked the people if he was a shaman. They replied, no, he was crazy!

Although they viewed him as crazy, they did not consider him to be having hallucinations. After all, almost everyone in that society had taken the native hallucinogens and knew the spirits were real because they had seen them, too.

The reason they considered him crazy was that he could not turn off his contact with the spirits. He was useless to his people. Their shamans, in contrast, consciously chose when they would interact with the spirits and did so with defined purpose to help others. This was the beginning of my real education about shamanism.

Soon I learned that I was in a society not only of warriors, but of shamans. The shamans numbered in the hundreds, and their healing and other activities permeated daily life everywhere. I found them fascinating. They introduced me to concepts of reality far more exciting than anything I had ever encountered before.

Much of this seemed connected to their use of consciousness-changing plants and plant mixtures. Both the shamans and the nonshamans employed a variety of hallucinogens, or psychedelics, to see and interact with otherwise invisible spirits in an invisible alternate reality.

Perhaps no indigenous people in the world used a wider assortment of psychedelics. There was a very mild one for babies to help them gain contact with the beneficial spirits of the hidden reality; there were ones for children, both boys and girls; there was one for hunting dogs so that they, too, could gain the help of the spirits; there was one especially for shamans, and another for the vision quest. If a young boy misbehaved, his parents might force him to take a psychedelic to straighten him out; the idea was that he would respect the authority of his parents more if he discovered that they really knew what they were talking about when they spoke of the spirits and the hidden reality.12

My dissertation project, for which I had received a grant, had nothing to do with shamanism or psychedelics, so I had to focus my investigations on other topics. Twice during that first fieldwork among the Jívaro in 1956–57, shamans offered me the opportunity to take their mind-altering potions and plants. I was tempted but held back, concerned about even slight brain damage. A clear-thinking mind was the most important resource I had for writing a successful doctoral dissertation.

Yet, as my months passed, something happened subtly to my spiritual orientation. I was consciously adopting some of the Shuar assumptions about reality, including the reality of spirits. With the river crossing incident, I really started to wake up to the importance of acquiring spirit power.13 Now I found myself silently invoking the protection of guardian spirits on the occasions when the Indians’ continuous feuds, raids, ambushes, and killings placed me in physical danger. The spirits’ presence felt tangible and reassuring, although still invisible to me.

Naturally I did not communicate this slight shift in my Weltanschauung in letters I wrote to my doctoral dissertation committee back at the university. Indeed, during this first field year, I basically kept my “proper” distance as an ethnographer, remaining much more an observer than a participant. When I returned to the United States a year later, the personal spiritual perceptions that I had experienced in eastern Ecuador gradually receded from my consciousness and seemed more like faint memories.

Then, four years later, on another expedition to the Upper Amazon for the American Museum of Natural History, I actually crossed the threshold fully. On a fateful night in 1961 among the Conibo Indians of Eastern Peru, I drank the shamans’ psychedelic plant brew, ayahuasca.14 The Conibo required it of me before they would describe their own spiritual experiences and religion. I cooperated, determined not to repeat my failure to drink this potion among the Shuar.

My visionary experiences that ensued among the Conibo were not only extremely powerful but coincided incredibly closely with those that the Conibo later revealed to me. I began to realize that the cultural theories I had been taught as an anthropology student were inadequate to explain this consistency of experience, apparently regardless of culture.

This discovery radically challenged my Western views of reality and started me on a truly serious search for knowledge. While I was still with the Conibo, this search took the form of training in their methods of shamanism, using ayahuasca and shamanic song as nightly catalysts to journey into sacred realms and to work with the spirits. There was an excitement and fulfillment in my life that had never existed before, for I was discovering and exploring a whole additional reality, the reality of a hidden universe.

Eventually I had to leave my Conibo friends to return to the United States in 1961 to take a position at Berkeley. I was also leaving two North American missionaries who had told their mission board they would no longer teach the Bible to the Indians and wished to serve only as medical missionaries, for they recognized that the shamans’ daily revelations were spiritually more authoritative than the old stories in the Bible. They were Dick and Dorothy Kendig, for whom I used the pseudonyms “Bob and Millie” in The Way of the Shaman.15 On my way out of the jungle, I stopped by their mission station to say good-bye. Dick told me that he had just been to the river town of Pucallpa, where he ran into a bearded “beatnik” from New York who had just taken ayahuasca, too. It was Allen Ginsberg. I was sorry to have missed him, since he was the only other “gringo” I had ever heard of who had drunk the brew.16 I wondered how his experiences compared with mine. I sought him out when I returned to San Francisco but learned that he had left for India. It would be some time before we could compare experiences.

In the San Francisco Bay Area I found myself unexpectedly becoming involved in a small but rapidly growing network of adventurous psychologists, poets, musicians, botanists, chemists, and bohemians whose psychedelic experiences with LSD, Mexican mushrooms, peyote, and mescaline were engendering great excitement and discussion. There were now people in Western culture who were beginning to understand something of what the shamans already knew. They were the avant garde of what would be later known as the Psychedelic Sixties. Allen Ginsberg finally returned from India, astonishing me with his long hair, the beginning of long hair in the American counterculture. On my visits to him and others at the place he stayed on Gough Street in San Francisco, I began to feel that I had found a second home outside academia.

Most of these early-sixties fellow explorers of consciousness and hidden realities were well-educated, intelligent, creative, and articulate individuals concentrated in the San Francisco region, as nurturing an environment for them as it had been for the immediately preceding Beat Generation. It was exciting to spend time with them and to see the rapid evolution of the New Age movement.

In early 1963 I gave a public lecture in Berkeley under the auspices of the University of California on “Drugs and Reality in the Upper Amazon.” At that time, psychedelics or hallucinogens were not yet a “dangerous” academic subject. In the talk I explained that the Shuar (then called the Jívaro) believed that the only real reality was that seen with the aid of the ingested hallucinogen ayahuasca, and that ordinary daily life was by comparison a “lie.” Unbeknownst to me, the talk’s content was summarized in a newsletter sent to all campuses of the university.

As a result, in November 1963, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, I was approached by a stocky, well-dressed, Latino-looking gentleman who introduced himself as Carlos Castaneda and said that he was a student at UCLA. He wanted to talk with me about what I had said in that lecture in Berkeley. He explained that he was having difficulty organizing his field notes from working with a Yaqui Indian and expressed interest in the dichotomy of realities on which I had lectured.

We retired to a quiet corner to converse. I found that Carlos was the first anthropologist I had met who was enthusiastic about the realms that I had been penetrating, and who seemed to share my serious respect of the indigenous knowledge connected to them.

During the ensuing weeks he often drove to Berkeley from Los Angeles to share thoughts and experiences. Our discussions helped develop the usefulness of a concept of two realities for Westerners. In his future publications, Carlos formalized the dichotomy into two simple terms, “ordinary” and “nonordinary” reality, which I have associated respectively with the “ordinary state of consciousness” and the “shamanic state of consciousness.”17 Encouraged by at last knowing an anthropologist with whom I could share experiences involving shamanism and hallucinogens, I was stimulated subsequently to revisit the Shuar three more times.18

Carlos had a great sense of humor and a dramatic earnestness. He told wonderful stories about his encounters with peyote and a Yaqui man, a brujo named don Juan. Sandra Harner and I encouraged him to start writing them down. Within just a few weeks, he brought us the first written account. It was such an impressive and presumably accurate ethnographic narration that we encouraged him to bring more.

As his visits continued, and the possible chapters accumulated, it was clear that Carlos had now produced a book-length manuscript. We helped him get it to Grove Press in New York, which immediately turned it down, something its owner reportedly later deeply regretted. It was, of course, finally published in 1968 by the University of California Press under the title The Teachings of Don Juan after many difficulties and drama—but that is another story for another time. One thing was clear, however: popular Western indifference to indigenous spiritual and philosophical knowledge was about to change.

Even before then, after the 1964 publication in English of Eliade’s 1951 book on shamanism, interest in the subject was rapidly developing in the United States, especially in California. This interest was stimulated significantly by the widespread use of psychedelics such as LSD in the 1960s.

Prior to 1964, few of these American psychedelic explorers had any idea that they were rediscovering territory familiar to shamans for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, they sought frameworks for their experiences in the well-known spiritual traditions of Eastern civilizations, especially Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. They spoke of “trips” rather than “journeys,” and few of them had heard of shamans or their journeys.

At the same time that Eliade’s book appeared, a strange thing was starting to happen to the psychedelic “hippie” explorers of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Their trips with LSD and other mind-altering substances led many of them to conclude that they were reincarnations of deceased American Indians. Accordingly, quite a few began to wear beads, buckskins, and feathers. From a shamanic perspective, many had probably indeed experienced merging with spirits in their trips, especially spirits calling for recognition.

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, I attempted to communicate my ayahuasca and other shamanic experiences to my fellow anthropologists. They tried to be sympathetic and act interested, but I came to realize that my experiences collided as much with their secular paradigms as they had with the missionaries’ religious views. Largely dropping my attempts to communicate the ineffable, I turned instead to the stacks of the great university library in Berkeley to find kindred spirits, both literally and figuratively.

At first I focused on searching for overlooked evidence of tribal use of hallucinogens, for the powerful effects of ayahuasca, and later of datura. My experiences with those substances, and the use of other plants in native North, Central, and South America, made me think that human spiritual experiences must have originated from the use of psychotropic plants; in other words, that the plants were the fundamental source of religious experience and, thus, of religion and shamanism. Convinced that the use and impact of such plant substances had not been taken seriously by students of the origin of religion, I dug into the ethnological and historical cross-cultural literature with great curiosity and anticipation.

I found considerable evidence that shamans in some parts of the world had indeed used psychedelic plants to achieve the experience of another reality. Such plants also seemed to lie behind the stories of flying “witches,” werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Some of these discoveries were embodied in my article on the use of psychedelic plants in the survival of shamanism (then “witchcraft”) in late medieval and Renaissance Europe.19 The article was part of my edited book, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, composed primarily of papers read at a symposium of the American Anthropological Association meeting in 1965. Carlos Castaneda was among those in the symposium. His paper, unlike the others, was never published. It was his decision.

Others were simultaneously engaged in a similar scholarly search set off especially by Gordon Wasson’s experience with the “magic mushroom” among the Mazatec in Mexico,20 by Albert Hofmann’s publications following his discovery of LSD,21 by Aldous Huxley’s accounts of his experiences with mescaline,22 and by Timothy Leary’s introduction of LSD to the cloistered undergraduate students of Harvard.23

Thus, the assumption among many of us in the early and mid-1960s was that “the drugs did it,” and therefore various articles were published ascribing the origin of the “religious experience” to the ancient ingestion of psychedelic plants.24 The prevalent experimentation with LSD during those years reinforced the view that an ingested bioactive substance was the “secret” key to the shamans’ experience of entering another reality.

In 1968 the first books by Castaneda added to that general opinion,25 as had the Wassons’ 1957 opus Mushrooms, Russia, and History, in which they ascribed the visionary experiences of Siberian shamans to their ingestion of the psychedelic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria).26

However, as a result of my cross-cultural research, by the late 1960s I was beginning to conclude reluctantly that shamans in most of the world’s indigenous cultures did their work without the appreciable use of psychedelic substances. It was becoming inescapably obvious to me that throughout the world, percussion sound, most notably by drumming, was far more widely used than psychedelics by indigenous shamans. Yet it was difficult to accept the possibility that the shamanic use of the drum could profoundly alter one’s state of consciousness.


Starting in 1948 at Zuni pueblo in New Mexico, I was awed by the effect of repetitive ceremonial drumming in a sacred context and, in fact, had a truly religious experience at Zuni. In the early 1950s I was exposed to the enchanting effects of Mohave and Cahuilla rattles, and of wooden foot drums in Northern California sacred “roundhouse” ceremonies.27

Then in the 1960s I found drumming being used in a specifically shamanic healing context among the Coast Salish people of Puget Sound in western Washington State, although no journeying was involved. Gradually, my cross-cultural reading in shamanism forced me to conclude that shamans in most of the world’s cultures did not ingest or use psychotropic plants in order to change consciousness.

I bought a Pueblo-type double-headed drum in the 1960s and decided to experiment with it for journeying. Much to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that steady, repetitive drumming immediately altered my state of consciousness. I could make shamanic journeys without psychedelics! I should not have been surprised, however. Shamans, as usual, knew what they were doing, benefiting from millennia of experimentation.

Early in my personal experiments, I found that a steady, monotonous beat of about 205 to 220 times a minute was the most effective for making journeys. At that time, however, I lacked information as to whether this was the same frequency of beat used by the drumming shamans of Siberia for their journey work. Then, a few years later, a four-minute tape recording of a Siberian shaman drumming was “bootlegged” to me from the Soviet Union, where shamanism was illegal. (See Plate 2.) I was excited to find that their drumbeats were in the same range as mine.

Years later, during my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1984, Yuri Simchenko, a Russian ethnographer who had spent twenty-eight seasons of fieldwork in Siberia, told me that the real Siberian shamans normally employed only the drum to change their state of consciousness, rather than the psychoactive Amanita muscaria mushroom. The mushroom, Simchenko reported, was mainly used by nonshamans who have been unable to journey successfully with the drum alone. Also, he told me it is usually difficult to maintain the discipline necessary for shamanic work when the Amanita spirit takes over the body.

The Chukchee of eastern Siberia are well known for sometimes ingesting the Amanita. However, the great Russian ethnologist Waldemar Bogoras in 1907 wrote in his classic work on the Chukchee: “The single means used by the Chukchee shamans, novice or experienced, for communication with ’spirits’ is the beating of the drum and singing.”28

When the Siberian shamans begin to beat the drum for the early portion of their journeys, it is in a steady, monotonous rhythm. This tends to be replaced with more irregular drumbeats as the shamans merge with specific spirits in their journeys and engage in adventures in nonordinary reality.29

Very soon I concluded that monotonous percussion sound, or “auditory (or ‘sonic’) driving,”30 done in conjunction with shamanic methods, could yield shamanic results in many ways comparable to those achieved with psychedelics. For example, the ayahuasca-based shamanic extraction healings with which I was familiar in the Amazon were accomplished equally well by Indian peoples on the West Coast of North America using only auditory driving, as in the form of wooden “clappers” and stamping staffs in Northern California,31 or in the form of drumming, as in the Puget Sound area, or through the repetitious use of hand bells, as among the Indian Shakers of Oregon and Washington.32

This conclusion was a major personal discovery, for it meant that shamanic spiritual experiences could no longer be dismissed as simply due to the effects of drugs. Indeed, the implications were enormous, as they suggested that drums and drugs were different doorways to the same spiritual realms.

With regard to shamanic journeying to other worlds, I still had not found anyone in western North America using the drum or other auditory driving device for this purpose. Much later I learned that drumming was being used for shamanic ascension among some Canadian Athapaskan peoples.33

Worldwide, it appeared that the most common vehicle for the shaman’s journey was auditory driving in the form of simple, monotonous percussion sound. Although this was usually produced by the drum, in some places other percussion instruments were used, such as click sticks used by most Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In the wet tropics of Southeast Asia, shamans normally used gongs and metal bangles instead of drums.

In some regions of the world, such as in parts of North America, Mexico, South America, and Siberia,34 the rattle was employed to provide the monotonous percussion sounds, often in conjunction with the ingestion of a mild psychedelic such as peyote, or with consciousness-changing Piptadenia snuff and certain varieties of tobacco.35 It was clear that auditory driving in shamanism took many forms in addition to the use of the drum.

One such form was the use of the musical bow, and of its metal relative, the mouth-harp, both of which produce a repetitive, percussive twanging sound and are used by shamans. Those in Mongolia and Siberia today generally prefer the mouth-harp, while the Upper Amazonian Shuar still use the musical bow (see Plate 3a). The fiber string of the musical bow is plucked at the shaman’s open mouth, the mouth serving as the resonance chamber for the bow’s percussive sound.

The musical bow is often almost inaudible to others nearby, but its repetitious percussion is strong enough inside the head to permit the Shuar shaman to change consciousness. A half-human figure, presumably a shaman merged with the Bison Spirit, is recognized by archaeologists as playing the musical bow among the wall paintings in the famous Upper Paleolithic cave of Les Trois Frères in France (see Plate 3b). If the painting represents what a shaman was doing inside the cave, the quiet musical bow would have been a good auditory-driving choice, compared to the drum, to avoid dislodging rocks from the cave’s ceiling.

My personal discovery of the effectiveness of the drum for shamanic journeying was, of course, just a rediscovery of what shamans the world over had long known. For example, the drum is called the “shaman-horse” among the Soyot people in Tuva, on the southern edge of Siberia, because of its ability to help the shaman fly to the Upper and Lower Worlds,36 the beats of the drum resembling the beats of a horse’s hooves.37 The drum not only helps one travel shamanically but stimulates visionary experiences. Thus, the Sami (“Lapp”) people of northern Scandinavia call the drum literally “a thing out of which pictures come” (gavados).38

I began to call the altered state accompanying the drumming (and also psychedelics) the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC). It is not a naïve altered state of consciousness but a state that includes knowledge of shamanic purpose and discipline, such as that involved in helping and healing others. The SSC has differing intensities, from light to deep, and can have different effects, particularly if a properly prepared powerful hallucinogen like ayahuasca (yagé) is used.39 From a shamanic point of view, the spirits of such plants not only have power, but they also have their own personalities and messages, which impinge significantly on the nature of the experience. Auditory driving in many ways does not carry such influences.

In the 1970s, searching the scientific literature for an explanation of the mental effects of drumming, I was able to locate only three significant publications in English on the subject. This was both surprising and disappointing, since even in the Western world, as we all know, drums continue to be used to alter one’s state of consciousness for entertainment and recreation, mourning processions, and military marches. Perhaps drumming has been such a natural part of our lives that we have lacked the psychological distance to wonder why.

Two of the three publications I found were by Andrew Neher, who in the early 1960s pioneered the scientific study of the effects of drumming on brain wave patterns. As a result of his laboratory research, he concluded that drumming produces unusual changes in the central nervous system. He called this “auditory driving,”40 which I sometimes alternatively name “sonic driving.” Two factors he noted seemed particularly important: (1) a drum beat contains many frequencies and thus electrically stimulates a variety of sensory and motor regions of the brain simultaneously; and (2) a drum beat mainly contains low frequencies and thus can be loud and provide great energy input without causing the pain and damage that would result from high-frequency sounds of a similar amplitude. Neher also proposed a connection to ceremonial and religious experience.41

The third publication was by a psychiatrist, Wolfgang Jilek, who had studied the therapeutic effects of the shamanistic Spirit Dances of the Salish Indian people of British Columbia and Washington. He and a colleague found that the Salish deerskin drums were predominantly beaten four to seven times per second during shamanistic initiation procedures. He noted that this was in the theta-wave EEG frequency range, a range that “is expected to be most effective in the production of trance states.”42 This was faster than the tempo range I had found effective for journeying, but both practices shared a loud, monotonous beat.

Despite the work of Neher and Jilek, the effect of the drum in altering one’s state of consciousness remains a subject of controversy among academics, and lately it has been fashionable to criticize Neher’s findings, as did Gilbert Rouget, whose position in turn has been usefully criticized by Gabe Turow.43 New scientific research by psychologists Melinda Maxfield and Sandra Harner supports the view that significant psychological and physiological effects are produced by shamanic drumming.44

In any case, persons interested in practicing shamanism need not await the outcome of academic debates and scientific research. They need only listen to shamanic drumming for their journeys to discover for themselves its importance. The effectiveness of auditory, or sonic, driving for accessing another reality was only one of the innumerable discoveries made by shamans and other indigenous people. Later we will return to the use of the drum in shamanic journeying.


If the shaman is moving about, another type of tool is sometimes used in shamanic journeying. It is what I call the Siberian eye curtain. Hanging down over the eyes from a crown or headdress of shamans in Siberia and adjacent areas, a row of fringes helps shamans to see both realities simultaneously. When working, the shamans wearing these eye curtains typically swing their heads left and right, causing the perceptions of ordinary reality to be constantly interrupted by darkness.

These interruptions of sight reinforce the regular auditory interruptions of silence produced by the drum, as I found.

Just as shamanic drumming produces a result in consciousness that I am calling auditory driving, especially for journeying, the swinging eye-curtain fringes seem to constitute a kind of coexisting optic driving. The two together result in what might be called “auditory-optic” or, for syllabic economy, “sonic-optic” driving. The drumbeats and the swings of eye-curtain fringes “break up” ordinary reality, helping shamans pass through them to other worlds. (See Plate 4.) For this to work, however, the external light should be dim, so that light does not interfere with the visual imagery coming to the shaman.


Over decades of my own practical experimentation, cross-cultural research, and fieldwork, I gradually winnowed out underlying universal, near-universal, and common principles and practices of shamanism, including the use of auditory driving to alter the state of consciousness. Especially in the 1970s I actively developed methods for practicing and teaching these principles, continually refining and going farther with them. Partially this work was pursued within the development of my private practice of shamanic healing and divination, and partially it was done in response to requests from other persons for training in the methods of the shaman.

These underlying transcultural principles of shamanic practice provide the basis for what I named core shamanism. As I indicated in the introduction, core shamanism consists of the universal, near-universal, and common features of shamanism, together with journeys to other worlds, a distinguishing feature of shamanism. For most Westerners, learning and practicing core shamanism, including shamanic journeying, is a far more productive approach than imitating a shaman’s practices in a single culture, for each culture has its own symbolism, mythology, and conceptual elaborations. If that is not your own culture, then those elaborations, specializations, and meanings will not be appropriate for you in the way they are appropriate for that particular indigenous people. In connection with this, anthropologist Joan Townsend carefully distinguished core shamanism from neo-shamanism.45

For more information, see “Principal Concepts of Core Shamanism” in Appendix D.

The hunger so many Westerners seem to have for this long-lost spiritual way is remarkable. In response to requests, I began teaching Westerners core shamanism for practical use, giving training workshops in the mid- and late 1970s in North America and Europe. I especially emphasized shamanic journeying with drumming, which I found to be of central importance in initiating Westerners into contact with the spirits, the essential ingredient in shamanism and shamanic healing.

Gradually the training workshops increased in frequency, complexity, and length. To meet the demand, during the last three decades or so I have been assisted in the teaching of the workshops by former students who were invited to be members of the faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a nonprofit organization founded to save, study, and teach shamanism and shamanic healing worldwide.

Today presented by the international faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, the teachings cover many shamanic practices besides journeying, including power animal retrieval, extraction healing, soul retrieval, divination, psychopomp work, depossession, and very advanced shamanic initiations that include a great many other practices. They are all taught within the framework of core shamanism.