The Westerners’ First Journeys: The Lower World and Power Animals

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


The Westerners’ First Journeys: The Lower World and Power Animals

My second helping spirit was a shark. One day when I was out in my kayak, it came swimming up to me, lay alongside quite silently and whispered my name. I was greatly astonished, for I had never seen a shark before; they are very rare in these waters. Afterwards it helped me with my hunting, and was always near me when I had need of it.

—Aua, an Iglulik Eskimo shaman1

IThe Way of the Shaman, I wrote about how power animal retrieval was done for another person and mentioned how soul retrieval was done in a similar way.2 That exercise was aimed to reconnect other persons to any power animals they had, or still had, not to obtain a new power animal—typically a more demanding process, as illustrated by my cave experience (see Chapter 1).

Now I wish to describe an introductory or practice journey given to Westerners to help them develop a close relationship with at least one power animal as a helper through doing divination work with its assistance. The examples in this chapter of how this was done were primarily drawn from the Foundation’s Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory. The Lower World was chosen for this subject mainly because plant and animal life, including power animals, seem more easily encountered there than in the Upper World, although they are found in both. If the relationship is good, power animals can easily join the journeyer in traversing all three worlds.

An animal that regularly can be depended on to answer questions or otherwise help a person is, by definition, a helping animal of that individual. If, as in the journeys below, one is given the help of an answer by an animal, or help through a ride by an animal, then the journeyer knows, simply put, that it is a helping animal! By the way, there is no “official” restriction on how many there may be for one person. Such helping animals in nonordinary reality are commonly known as “power animals,” following the general introduction of the term in 1980.3

THE HELP AND WISDOM OF POWER ANIMALS

In shamanic cultures all over the world, one finds the shamans conscious of special nonordinary animal companions or helpers, commonly referred to in the anthropological literature as “guardian spirits.”4 Other names for these animal helpers in the literature include: tutelary spirits, assistant totems, guardian angels, and familiars.

Such guardians are not unique to shamans, for in their cultures it is assumed that almost everyone needs spiritual help, whether from guardian spirits or other powers, to reach adulthood. Shamans, however, are different from most other people in that they know who their guardian spirits are, simply because they repeatedly interact with them firsthand in nonordinary reality.

Among Native Americans of the Northwest Coast of North America, the guardian spirit is commonly called a “power animal.”5 I personally prefer to use this term because it reminds us of the powerful forces that the animal brings to the person with whom it is connected. The power animal, or guardian spirit, might be compared to an electric transformer or adapter that receives the immense power of the universe and modulates it into a form that can be safely transmitted to a human. The immensity of the power is one of the reasons shamans work with intermediary “powers,” such as power animals, rather than calling upon the total universe itself.

This power is something like energy, and native peoples sometimes translate it as “energy” when speaking to Westerners. The concept of power, however, is more than just “energy” as we usually know it, which I discussed earlier in Chapter 1. This power also has knowledge and can pass qualities on to the individual human. So this power is not exactly the same as the “energy” defined in college physics classes.

The guardian angels of Christianity, being guardian spirits, resemble power animals in some of their roles and functions if not in their understood appearance. This similarity is often recognized by native peoples. For example, several years ago I was working with an elderly native Hawaiian lady who is a healer and a proud repository of her people’s knowledge. Missionaries, however, have been operating in Hawaii for approximately a century and three-quarters and, as a result, Christian and Hawaiian spiritual concepts have become interwoven in native Hawaiian cosmology. Thus, she used the English term “guardian angels” for power animals or guardian spirits. One of the Hawaiian “guardian angels,” by the way, is Shark, something I am not sure that the missionaries would have comprehended, although the Iglulik Eskimo shaman quoted at the beginning of this chapter would have understood completely.

Power animals are not by any means the sole power connection that shamans have with the universe. There is almost an infinite variety of plant helpers, spirits of elements, of places, of heavenly bodies, of ancestors, and so on, with whom shamans work. The power animals, however, seem to be almost ubiquitous in shamanic practice. Perhaps this is partially because we have a close connection to the other animals, and perhaps because the power animals, as animals, are highly mobile and will come whenever the shamans call for assistance.

The importance of the power animal goes far beyond calling it for assistance. Power animals connect one to the incredible power of the universe and modulate it in a form that does not overwhelm the individual human. Shamans and others who have such spiritual guardians become themselves power-filled, or power-full, and stay that way as long as they remain connected to these spiritual representatives of the universe.

Power animals tend to be compassionate spirits who particularly help those who act in a like vein, such as by healing others. If someone they help stops acting compassionately, they do not seem to punish that person but simply withdraw their help. Unless new power sources are acquired, that person’s power will gradually dwindle until they lose protection from illness and misfortune.

This power connection is viewed in shamanic cultures as making people resistant to disease and misfortune, something like a force field that both surrounds and pervades the person. With that power, not only is the person protected, but life goes more smoothly, as though riding the current of a river.

Power animals tend to come and go, just as other spiritual connections may be temporary. An important part of shamanism, therefore, is to maintain one’s spiritual power connections for health and success in life. Indeed, if shamans or other persons find themselves seriously ill or experiencing other misfortune, it usually means that their power animals and other helping spirits have left them.6

When people lose such spiritual connections, as the Indian peoples in the Amazon explained to me many years ago, then they are in danger. There is a lag, however, for as the Shuar poetically pointed out, “the power is like perfume.”7 That is, the power will linger for a time after the actual connection is gone. So for a brief period one is still protected by the lingering, but dwindling, power.

Shamans, unlike most other people, do not have to wait until things go wrong in their lives to realize that they have lost their spiritual power connections. Through the journey method they can discover, well before the symptoms of power loss or powerlessness occur, whether they are still connected to their power animals. The method is simple: when they repeatedly journey and call upon their power animals for help, and no power animal appears, then the shamans realize their power animals have left them. Knowing this before misfortune occurs makes it possible for shamans to take action to get the power connection restored. An important method for doing this is called “power animal retrieval,” described by me elsewhere.8

The power of these nonordinary animal helpers includes the ability to answer our questions. One might wonder, however, how people know if they can trust the answers the power animals give. In reply, the standards are the same as those that people apply in ordinary reality to learn whether they can trust a specific doctor, lawyer, or other acquaintance, and the trust is determined by their track records. If people consistently provide you with reliable advice and help, you learn to trust them. In other words, in both ordinary and nonordinary reality, we are working with knowledge based upon firsthand experience.

Here is a comment by a student: “For me the experience that animals possess the power of knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence was new. I found that I could accept that they had something to teach me which I had not yet touched on in other spiritual disciplines.”

In shamanism, individuals should conduct their own personal experiments in nonordinary reality and arrive at their own conclusions regarding the reliability of experiences and the answers received.

DEPARTING FOR THE LOWER WORLD

Most adults have, or have had, compassionate spirit support in their lives, but in Western culture they generally seem not aware of it, nor of its common manifestation as an animal. The Westerners whose accounts were used in the Celestia Study generally had already discovered the identity of their preexisting personal power animals in the Lower World, and they had usually read about them in The Way of the Shaman.

In that book9 I described common locations used by indigenous shamans to depart for the Lower World, so I will just touch lightly on the subject now. The departure places mentioned here are among those known to indigenous shamans and used successfully by contemporary Westerners. Additional sites are noted in Appendix B.

Suggested departure points include a hole in a specific location, a cave, a spring or well, a lake, a bay of an ocean, a tree with a hole in it (for entering the tree and going down), a whirlpool, and a waterfall’s pool (or an entrance behind the waterfall).

Whatever the entrance is, it must be firmly located in the Middle World and known firsthand in ordinary reality to the journeyer. Many places look alike in nonordinary reality, but this does not mean they are the same place. Accordingly, it is important that journeyers not simply close their eyes and visualize any cave or other type of departure place without knowing that it is located in the Middle World and where that site is. Otherwise journeys to the Lower World cannot be reliably mapped from it.

A HOLE IN A SPECIFIC LOCATION

A hole in the earth is a common departure place for going to the Lower World. If one knows a cellar doorway but has never gone through it down the steps, that too has the potential of being used as a departure point, because it provides a transition from the known to the unknown. Carl Jung’s famous journey down through a cellar was a spontaneous parallel of the shaman’s method of departing for the Lower World.10 However, for most Westerners, a cave or opening into the earth usually is more successful.

A LAKE OR BAY

Among the Native American peoples of Northern California, the shamans would sometimes descend through remote mountain lakes they had visited and by which they had slept.11

JOURNEYS TO MEET AN ANIMAL

Although both human and animal spirits can be found in the Lower World, the animals tend to be more common.12 To encourage the success of Westerners new to journeying, they are often asked to make their first journey simply to meet an animal, any animal, without any further mission. Here is an example.

THE HORSE DANCER

Upon exiting the dark cavern, I confronted an immense landscape bathed with bright, almost blinding, light. I found myself standing before a golden plain scattered with sagebrush. I walked down a slope toward an open corral occupied by several white horses. As I approached them, there was one that seemed to command my attention. We looked at each other eye to eye and soon became locked in an intense, almost hypnotic connection.

Eventually we began a very vigorous and rhythmic dance together. The white horse would toss its mane about wildly, lifting her front legs in the air, then pounding them into the earth. Sometimes she would raise her front legs so high that she seemed to grow in size, towering above me. It was during these moments when her face would appear to be more like a woman’s, though magical in appearance. Her mane would become a tousle of white hair; the elongated horse face would turn into the attractive face of a young, beautiful woman.

We danced for an immeasurable duration. Feeling exhausted, I wanted to stop and, instead, to climb onto her back for a ride. At first she seemed reluctant to allow me such a request. But after I persisted, she finally calmed down and approached me with gentler movements. But before I could climb onto her back, I heard the drumming signal to return to the Middle World. My ride would have to happen some other time.13

The above journey illustrates the frequently experienced mythical nature of shamanic journeys. In this case, the horse’s face becomes that of “a young, beautiful woman.” The ability of an animal to reveal its human side is well known to shamans in tribal cultures, and it is part of the reason the term “animal people” is used and why animals and humans are often mythically united as one. This account also illustrates the reality of the experience for the journeyer, for she became exhausted dancing with the womanhorse. Thus, this journey illustrates both the “mythic realm” and the “reality” that shamans encounter via journeys.

RIDING THE WOLF

In the next example of a beginner’s journey simply to meet an animal, the person was hoping to meet an eagle. Instead, she encountered a wolf, which she reported “completely surprised me.” Such encounters with the unexpected are typical of shamanic journeying, and they are part of the reason experienced shamanic journeyers no longer worry about whether they are “making up” what is happening in the shamanic state of consciousness. They have come to understand that normal psychological models do not easily explain many of the mysteries of shamanism.

Here is her account, narrated as the journey was happening, using simultaneous narration (for information on this technique, see this page). Her departure place for the Lower World was a pond located in a mountainous region in upstate New York.

I’ve turned the tape on, it’s beginning to play the drum sound. I’m lying on the floor trying to get relaxed … not much going on yet … I’m peering into the frog pond … just looking into it before I decide to get into this pond … little unhatched frogs … I’ve got my feet in … it’s kinda scary. I’ve let my whole body in … the first sensation is I’m up to my neck in cool water … I just decide to dive in.

There’s a space in the rocks down below. I find a way to get my body around the rocks and there’s water over me … my body feels real relaxed, real loose. I feel like I’m being sucked down into a passage. It’s very bright, though. It seems like there’s a lot of light, although I’m underwater and can breathe easily. It’s almost as though the drum is like the water, beating.

I’m moving that fast … I can hear the sound of wolves, but don’t see anything yet, like they’re far away.

I see a big black hairy animal. He’s very black. My body’s very hot right now. It’s like I’m moving through the tunnel, but I see this black fuzzy dog—no, it’s a wolf. He’s got his head up … my body feels very hot. He’s got his head up, like he’s singing to the moon.

I’m in a place that’s very dark, it’s nighttime. It’s an open area. It’s weird ’cause I don’t remember coming out of the tunnel. The tunnel just opened out onto this space where there’s a lot of snow. There are a lot of stars. It’s huge, vast, open, there’s nothing on the horizon. It’s very bright because of the stars and there’s this black wolf … he has very yellow eyes and he’s looking at me now. I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me, and we’re not moving. I feel something very deep in my belly, like fear. His tongue is hanging out of his mouth and he’s just looking at me. The stars are very bright. It’s like we’re hypnotizing each other. I can’t really move. I feel adrenaline pumping in my body like I’m afraid, and I know I should be afraid. His eyes just say “I belong here.” (Me or the wolf? I’m not sure.)

He points with his snout for me to look at the stars. I’m supposed to look at a particular constellation … I think it’s the Pleiades. I saw these stars in Peru last summer. The drums seem to be company. It feels lonely here, but this wolf is with me.

I feel like I’m him. I feel like I have become the wolf looking at these stars. I feel like there’s this expansive openness and I start running. I feel the wind in my ears … very fast … I’m moving very fast, my legs pumping. It’s almost as though the snow is very hard, it just slides, glides beneath me, it doesn’t give. Moving very, very fast … very, very fast. It’s almost as though moving so fast we (I) could fly.…

Now I’m riding the wolf, the wolf is taking me and we can fly.

We’re flying, my body is shivering, I feel so cold. I’m freezing, very, very cold. I’m riding his back. My body’s shivering and it feels like he’s taking me up to one star. It’s getting bright, very, very bright. Big sister … I don’t know where that …

Big sister star, brother wolf, sister star. We’re on a knoll now on another plane. It’s still nighttime, we’re still in the open. Now I see a white wolf … very black around its mouth, a pink tongue. I think it’s a shewolf. She’s beautiful. She wants to run with us … We’re running together, I’m still on the hewolf’s back. We’re now on the round again and we’re going closer … closer and closer to … to a crest, and over the crest. We leap across a large iceflow. They’re together, they’re playing, we’re all playing in the snow. It’s beautiful. The stars are magnificent. Moving very fast. The drums seem to be slowing down, the drums are there. I don’t understand it: the drums seem to be going very very slow. We’re moving much, much faster.

Phew! A shooting star, like a comet, it just dropped in the sky. Just dropped onto the horizon. It’s very bright. So we go over to it. It’s very bright. It’s a crystal! A crystal has dropped in the snow.

It’s a pure, clear stone. There is a face in the stone. I’m left looking at the stone. There’s a … a brown face, it has two almond-shaped eyes … he’s looking …

Oh, I just got it! It’s like I’m looking up through ice. I’ve been traveling under ice and I have to find the opening, the hole. And there’s this face looking down at me and it begins to chip away. And it makes an opening for me. It’s a fisherperson, a person who’s fishing. I climb out of the hole. So I’m the one who’s been trapped underneath. Think I must have been in the tunnel all this time, but it felt like a wide-open space.

It’s brilliant daylight. It’s like the tundra and there’s a sled and a person, like an Eskimo, who’s been fishing there. He looks at me, or she looks at me, and we just look at each other. Very dark brown eyes. And he’s talking to me, but I don’t understand what he’s saying to me. I don’t know who this is … I’m trying to tell him about my friend the wolf, and he nods his head, like he knows what I’m talking about … he’s laughing, he’s laughing.

He takes me over and I eat some fish. It’s delicious. But I have to leave now. [She hears the call-back signal.] I thank him … so I go back to the hole in the ice and jump in and come back. It’s very dark now, very dark, and I’m coming back. It feels like a long way, like I’ve dropped through the middle of the earth and … I wind upward … I’m coming through the rocks now. The rocks are slippery and brown and gold. And I’m slipping up through them. I see the frog eggs. The frog eggs are still there. The tadpoles are moving around … and I come up out of the water and sit on the edge of the bank of the stream.14

These were the journeyer’s comments immediately afterward:

I feel like I’ve connected with … some old ancestors somewhere. The wolf was beautiful. His eyes. And the fish was delicious, raw fish. I could taste it. I felt like it happened so fast. My body felt very cold, and it felt fear, and it felt hot, too. It felt a lot of extremes of temperature.

The things that were especially clear were: the wolf, the eyes, the crystal, the face inside the crystal, then me looking up through ice and … me getting up through it, seeing it’s very bright. It was as though I’d been underneath the ice all that time, but I’d seen a universe … of stars. It was strange because I seemed to pass from the frogs to the wolf very quickly. It was as though I went around the bend of some rocks and there I was! I saw the wolf almost immediately and the stars were there, they were there, it was as though it just opened up and I was out there immediately. The most vivid thing was the yellow eyes of the wolf and the black eyes of the face, the Eskimo face. My body’s shaking. I have chills all over me.

Among the noteworthy features of her journey was the fact that she was not just seeing but feeling (heat and cold as well as slippery rocks), hearing (the sound of wolves), and tasting (fish). She also found herself able to breathe underwater.

Then she became one with the wolf, a classic shamanic experience characteristic of interaction with one’s guardian spirit or power animal. Further evidence that this animal was a helping animal for her was that it gave her a ride.

Her spontaneous merging with the wolf exemplifies how even a beginning, naïve, “civilized” journeyer unexpectedly and readily enters the mythic reality known since ancient times to the tribal shaman. As Eliade observes, “Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing the animal mode of being, he in a manner reestablishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and animal had not yet occurred.”15 Evidence of her changed state of consciousness is her observation, “The drums seem to be slowing down.…” In ordinary reality, the drumming on the tape was constant and did not slow down at all.

She discovers, as have many shamans the world over, that the quartz crystal can help one see shamanically. She also spontaneously learns something of the hidden cosmology of nonordinary reality, such as the observation that there are stars in the Lower World, and that she can come back up into the Middle World through an opening somewhere else (in this case, an ice hole made by an Eskimo or Inuit), and then return down through it to get back to her original entrance into the Lower World. These things, too, are well known to tribal shamans. Specifically, this last technique—of going down through a pond or waterhole in order to travel though the tunnel parallel to the Middle World and then coming back up to the Middle World through another opening to accomplish distant travel—is a widespread shamanic technique, known in Aboriginal Australia, Native California, and even in survivals of shamanic knowledge in Celtic Scotland.

DIVINATION JOURNEYS TO AN ANIMAL

A major difference between shamans and most other people is that the shamans have ready and reliable methods for obtaining hidden knowledge to answer questions and solve problems. Therefore, an important task of shamans the world over is to help people obtain answers to questions in their lives.

This work is known as “divination” and refers to accessing hidden (“occult”) knowledge that is not normally available to people. Of course, nonordinary reality is not really “hidden” from us; we just have to know how to access it. Shamans may engage in this work for family, friends, strangers, or simply for themselves. Probably the shamans’ most distinctive method for divination is using the journey into nonordinary reality to obtain answers to questions. Here are a few examples of beginners doing this exercise to ask an animal a question.

In the first account, the journeyer asks what seems to be a simple question and gets an answer of deeper wisdom than she expected.

I traveled down an ant hole I remember, and came into the Lower World fairly quickly. When I emerged, there was a doe standing by the entrance—she was very beautiful. I asked my question, “Where shall I live?”

She turned and began to run down a trail. I ran after her but couldn’t keep up. A large buck ran up behind me and swooped me up onto his back. I was in a crowd of deer all running together. They took me into the woods and showed me many things, little of which I remember. The buck said I needed to learn to live like a deer—what I was being shown were different parts of a deer’s life. I do remember a fawn lying in a nest of grass on the ground and also had a feeling that hunters were shooting at us at one point.

Finally we ran up a hill. There was a small house on top of the hill, but it seemed hazy. I couldn’t quite see it.

I was afraid I was falling asleep and asked the deer to help me to stay awake on the journey. The buck reached up and removed his antlers and put them on my head. I then began to dance a deer dance very energetically. The herd of deer began to run again, but this time I ran with them. My body changed, I was part deer and part human. I had no difficulty running with the deer this time. This felt very freeing and exhilarating.

We finally arrived back at a little house on the hill. I could see it clearly now. It was a small round hut covered with hides, possibly a yurt. The buck indicated that I was to go inside, but first he placed the antlers again on my head (I had become fully human again by this time) and put some sort of cloak on my back. The cloak was made of fur, deer hides, and pieces of antler or deer hoof. It felt special, a ceremonial garment of some sort. I was sent into the tent.

Inside there was a very old man sitting on the ground. He looked like a shaman. He had a thin face and Oriental features. He, too, was wearing antlers on his head. He was holding a shaman’s drum in one hand and indicated that I was to go through it. I put my head into the tunnel of the drum. It was very dark—I became frightened and pulled back out and left the tent. I went out with the deer for a while (I don’t remember these details), but then returned to the tent. I entered it and this time went willingly into the drum. The tunnel was very dark and narrow. I had difficulty breathing. Finally, my head poked out the other side. It was very beautiful there—like heaven. There was a lake with willow trees around it and exquisitely dressed, smiling people walking in groups by the lake.

I tried to leave the tunnel to explore this new world but found that the shaman had tied a rope around my waist to keep me from going too far, or to be sure I would come back. I went back through the tunnel and when I emerged, I saw that there was another string around my waist—attached to the drum—this one made of gold. The shaman told me that it was to allow me to always return to this other world.

I went back out to the deer. They took me several places and showed me things. (I was getting very hazy here and remember few details of this.) I kept asking them where I was to live, but they wouldn’t answer. At one point they showed me what looked like a factory at a great distance, with smokestacks—very dirty. The buck told me that I had to clean that up first. I was getting depressed.

An eagle flew along and picked me up by my scalp. We flew and flew over many sorts of landscapes. I asked if he was going to show me my home. He said it was all my home.

Then the drum called me back.16

Her journey involved the answer to her question as well as other teachings. First, a female deer led her and then a male deer carried and instructed her. Since they both helped, it may have been a teaching, and the animal that helped her may not have been “just” a male or female deer, but Deer. Future journeys can clarify this for her.

Being told to live like a deer, and being shown how they were threatened, may well have been a spiritual ecological message about her home, as with the “very dirty” factory. She was initiated into becoming one with the animal (in this case, the deer), learned to do the deer dance, and was given a deer costume, complete with antler headdress, similar to what shamans in Siberia and Mongolia sometimes wear (although she did not know this). She was aware it was a ceremonial garment. Indeed, when one is given such a costume in a journey it usually is a message to make a replica of it in ordinary reality for one’s shamanic work, thereby honoring the spirits that conferred it.

Then she was ushered into the shaman’s hut (he had a drum and was also wearing antlers). He taught her how to travel through the drum as a method of journeying. The experience was so real that she experienced difficulty in breathing in the tunnel. She emerged into what seemed like heaven and wanted to go on.

She could not go on, however, because the spirit shaman had tied a cord around her waist. Amazingly, this is precisely the technique used in Siberian tribes to be sure the shaman returns from journeys, and this detail was not known to her previously. Here, then, is a good example of how very specific and ancient shamanic techniques are taught again and again to us in nonordinary reality regardless of our cultural background. Since she was shown this method, presumably she was being instructed to use the cord when venturing through the drum to go to that “heaven.”

Everything that was shown or given to her can be construed as an answer to her question, “Where shall I live?” She shall live in union with the deer; she shall live in the spirit shaman’s hut; she shall live through the drum; she shall live in the heaven beyond the drum; she shall live in many places (“many landscapes”); she shall live near a dirty factory. Her home is everywhere, as the eagle told her at the end of the journey. This is truly a shaman’s perspective on the meaning of “home” and where the shaman lives.

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The next journeyer’s question was: “How can I transform my fear of power?” The account is given via simultaneous narration (see this page):

I am running into the cave. I come to the first ladder and I run down it a step at a time. I take one step to the side. I run down the next ladder. I reach the bottom.

I run into the darkness. I see the pool in front of me, hold my nose, and jump feet first into the pool. I am falling, tumbling, falling. Falling, rolling, tumbling.

I land feet first on the ledge of the Lower World. The grizzly bear is there to greet me. I ask the grizzly, “How can I transform my fear of power?”

He grabs me with his paw and jumps off the cliff. I am close to his chest. We are rolling over and tumbling into the canyon. We are falling free. Rolling and tumbling into the canyon. We land in a meadow. The grizzly lets go of me and starts walking through the meadow.

He leads me into a pool of quicksand. He has his paw in my hand. I’m afraid. We are up to our necks in quicksand. The sand oozes in over our heads. Everything is dark. I can only feel the power of the grizzly. I grip his paw with both hands. Everything is so close. My heart is beating loudly. The grizzly begins to pull his paw away, but I hang on tightly. I say, “No, don’t, don’t let go.”

But he takes the paw away, and I’m pressed on all sides by this quicksand. Now I understand: I can stay here as long as I want to.

I don’t like it here anymore. I fight my way to the surface and back into the pond. I am in deep water. I see the grizzly on the shore; he’s holding his stomach and laughing loudly.

“What are you trying to tell me?” I call.

He replies that I can be afraid just as long as I want; I can be closed in just as long as I enjoy it; that when I’m tired of that stance I can break free in the same way I came out of the quicksand.

I am moving toward the grizzly. He’s finished laughing, but he’s still smiling.

He puts me under his paw again. He’s running on three legs. We come to the edge of a cliff. He stops quickly and throws me over. I can hear him laughing wildly.

I’m falling, falling, falling, falling. The colors are changing. I am alone. But I don’t mind being alone. I’m free-falling. The air is clean. Slightly cool. I’m falling into a cloud. It’s still warm. I’m resting on this cloud.

I see a speck in the sky. It’s getting bigger. It’s the grizzly. He’s rolled tightly into a ball. He lands right on my middle, laughing wildly, and takes me by the hand. We fly off toward the horizon. I ask the grizzly where we are going.

He says, “We are going to another level of fear.”

I’m not too sure I want to go to another level of fear.

He says, “You asked; don’t give up now.”

The colors are changing. He now has me clasped to his middle. We are rolling in a ball. We land on the edge of a cliff. We are dancing down a fiery cliff. We are being consumed by the flames. X and his friends are here. The grizzly and I are being burned up. We are both skeletons, but the bones do not burn. I notice that the grizzly is not laughing now. [She laughs.] I think it’s funny.

He says, “You frequently laugh when you are really afraid. Laughter for you is both a medicine and a shield. Do not tempt me to penetrate this shield unless you are ready.”

The flames have subsided. I feel cold. My bones are cold. There is a field of bones. My bones and the grizzly’s bones are running hand in hand over this red sunset-colored desert of bones.

Grizzly tells me that from this point on I am not to ignore my fears. He says that part of my fears are buried in the bones of my ancestors.

He gives my bones a shovel and tells me to dig. His bones sit nearby in an attitude of watching. I begin shoveling faster, faster, faster. The amount of dirt flying out of this hole is exhilarating. Shoveling, shoveling dirt. Deeper, deeper. I look up from the bottom of this hole.

Grizzly is leaning over watching me. He shouts, “Deeper.”

I can’t throw the dirt out of the hole anymore, so I begin to burrow. I take this form of a mole, burrowing deeper, deeper, deeper into the heart of the earth mother.

At the end of the hole I find a red, beating heart. The heart is beating rhythmically. I lie face down on the heart. As I listen, the heartbeat grows stronger, faster.

I ask the heart, “How can I transform my fear of power?” I ask the heart to help me.

It folds in on top of me. I am lying in the heart of the heart. I am lying enfolded in the heart of the heart. I am being flushed from one vein in the heart. I have a very emotional feeling as I am being pushed out of this heart, beat by beat, into a vein. Beat by beat. Down into the very foot of my understanding.

I am still in the vein of my foot. I am in the joint of my big toe. I ask the bone of my big toe if it thinks I will be able to find my way back, for I am far away.

The bone of my big toe says, “You are farther away than you think. The bones of your ancestors are in your bones. The release from fear that you seek is supported by the bones of your ancestors and by the bones of your bones. Beyond a certain useful alerting, fear is a waste of a precious, precious energy. The supply of power and of energy being furnished you for your life’s purpose is beyond your comprehension.

“The very fact that you are afraid of abuse and that you ask frequently that your motives be checked, that you turn it all over to the great spirit, our lord, the Sun, the central Sun, to that and that which may not be said, means that if you are far off track in your request, you will be aligned.

“Have no fear. It is easy to say, ‘Have no fear.’ It is something else to put it into practice. Your headaches are frequently caused by blocking incoming power and information. I am finished with you now. Return.”

I thank the bone in my toe. But I don’t feel like returning. Maybe I’ll go back up to the heart. I have my hands over my head. I’m going up the vein from my toe, back to the heart, that I now realize is my heart. I ask the heart if it has any other information for me regarding the transformation of my fear of power.

The bear says, “You restrict your own power with your fear. If you are ready to accept the responsibility of additional power, the power is available to you.”

I feel twitching in the back of my neck. I am ready to return from this journey. The heart says that I can go back through the hole that I came from.

I’m slowly coming back. I can now look up and see the bones of the grizzly watching me. I realize that part of the answer in this journey is that I can experience my fear as long as I want to.

I now hear drumming for the return. The grizzly grabs me by his hand of bones. We run back across the field of bones and up onto the cliff. We roll and roll and roll. We are now flying over the terrain to the edge of the first cliff.

As we stand on the edge of the cliff, I thank the grizzly for his help. I enter the tunnel. I come back up through the pond, up the first ladder, up the second ladder, into the mouth of the cave, back into my body. This journey is over.17

The above journey has a number of classic shamanic aspects. As soon as the journeyer asks the grizzly bear the question, it immediately starts answering by putting the person through a number of fearful experiences: jumping off cliffs, drowning in quicksand, being thrown off a cliff, and being burned down to the bones in fire. The journeyer is reduced to a skeleton, much as one finds in descriptions by Siberian or Inuit shamans of their dismemberments (see Chapter 11).

The journeyer discovers that he not only survives all these experiences, he learns answers to his question from them. He also finds that the grizzly is there to help him and even to give him direct mental–verbal answers.

The journeyer realizes that not only is the animal answering his question, but the heart and the toe bone also respond. Since they are helping him in nonordinary reality, it signifies that they are helping spirits, or spirit helpers for him. He can return to them in the future for additional assistance.

The journeyer is also beginning to discover for himself, as shamans everywhere know, that everything, even a bone, is alive and able to converse with the shaman. Finally, the journeyer does a conscientious job of retracing his route when it is time to return. This is part of the discipline of shamanic journeying.

LEARNING TO UNDERSTAND THE POWER ANIMALS’ ANSWERS

As discussed earlier, the animal may reply to a question directly by thoughts or words. Such replies are usually relatively unambiguous. Many other times, though, the animal may answer by shaking or nodding its head, or using other movements. With regard to the head or body-movement type of answer, usually the first thing the animal does is the essence of the answer.

Often a person new to divination journeying fails to understand that the animal has replied through head or body movement, and he or she journeys onward without realizing that the answer has already been given. For example, one man new to divination journeying met a horse in the Lower World and asked the horse his question, which called for a “yes” or “no” type of answer. The animal pawed the ground two times with his right front hoof. The neophyte journeyer was very disappointed, assuming that he had not been given an answer, and he continued journeying.

The horse disappeared and then returned, this time richly caparisoned as a circus horse with a plumed headdress. It pranced around. The journeyer still did not know what to make of it and went on. The horse disappeared and reappeared another time, now doing somersaults and other fancy tricks. There was still no meaning for the journeyer. So when the journey was over, he told me he had not received an answer to his question and was disappointed.

I shared with him a possibility that was consistent with my knowledge: the maxim that the first thing the animal says or does is commonly the answer, whether or not the journeyer understands it. Since he did not understand that the horse had answered by pawing the ground, the horse then undertook to educate him by showing it was a circus horse. When he still did not understand, then the animal showed him it was a trick horse. Although this journeyer still did not understand, other journeyers in the same situation might have known that trick circus horses give answers to questions by pawing the ground with a front hoof. The journeyer presumably was being taught that he had to learn the body language or code of this animal and then would be able to understand the answers.

Many persons perceive immediately the metaphoric meaning of nonordinary animals’ body language, even without training in shamanism. One famous case is that of the renowned mid-nineteenth-century German scientist Friedrich Kekulé von Stradonitz, who is celebrated for his discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule, a concept that paved the way for many of the modern advances in organic chemistry. Kekulé had long struggled without success to figure out the benzene molecular structure, a problem that had chemists baffled at that time.

One account of his discovery (there are many versions, but they all tend to be visionary) was that he was alone at home one night in 1859 when he saw in the darkness a serpent holding its tail in its mouth, forming a circle. He immediately recognized that the animal was using body language to communicate the answer that had escaped him up to that time: that the structure was a circle or ring. As a result of his visionary experience, Kekulé in 1865 published his theory of the benzene ring. Finally in 1988 scientists of the IBM Almaden Research Center in California confirmed his theory when a special microscope made the benzene ring visible for the first time.

A fine treatise on scientific discovery, The Art of Scientific Investigation, by the British pathologist William Beveridge,18 cites numerous cases from the history of science where now-famous investigators struggled to solve a problem without success for weeks, months, and years, unable to obtain the hidden knowledge that would provide the answer they sought.

Then, giving up on solving the problem (at least temporarily), the researcher, relaxed in a carriage, streetcar, railroad train, or other conducive environment, entered a different state of consciousness and saw or otherwise retrieved the revolutionary solution to the problem. It is perhaps no accident that a carriage, streetcar, and railroad train all produce a monotonous percussion sound and thus would facilitate a trance-like state of consciousness somewhat analogous to that effected with the help of the shaman’s drum.

FROM SYMBOL TO MEANING

Since we have discussed one journey that exemplified the need to learn the animal’s body language, let us now briefly introduce the shamanic perspective on deciphering the symbolic information that power animals often use to provide answers.

There is no “official” meaning of the visual symbols encountered by shamans in their journeys. Each shaman and shamanic journeyer discovers these meanings for himself or herself. No one is better qualified to know the meaning of the symbol than the journeyer.

This does not imply that the meaning will be understood immediately; but it does mean that each answer is perfectly suited for the journeyer. The spirits know everything about the journeyer and take it all into account in their communications and advice. If the journeyer is a Freudian psychoanalyst, the spirits will be aware of that and communicate appropriately using the symbolic framework that the person understands. If the journeyer is an Amazonian Indian shaman, the spirits will communicate in terms of the symbology that that person understands.

Let us suppose that the psychoanalyst and the Amazon shaman are both receiving the same advice for their lives. In order for them to be told symbolically to do the same thing, they must be told in different ways, since each has a different cultural history and environment. By the same token, even persons who belong to the same culture, such as modern Western “civilization,” will be shown somewhat different symbology in their journeys in order to be given the same answer, because each journeyer has his or her own personal history and understanding of symbols. In other words, the same images are likely to mean different things to different people, especially people of distinctly foreign cultures.

For example, if an unmissionized Australian aboriginal is shown the Virgin Mary as a Neapolitan would see her, much like a robed statue in a church, the image would not mean the same thing that it does to the Italian Catholic. For the Australian aboriginal to see the same thing in terms of its meaning, it would have to appear at least somewhat different. Perhaps it would be an ancestral-looking naked elderly aboriginal woman with tousled hair. I do not really know. Shamans see with the heart, not just the mind, which means that for something to be the same for two people in nonordinary reality, it must be the same in the heart, whatever the external appearances.

Thus, in nonordinary reality things often must look different to different persons in order to mean the same thing. The images we receive from the power animals, and in nonordinary reality in general, are perfect for each one of us. This is the perfection of direct spiritual experience, a perfection that does not normally characterize ordinary reality.

How does the shaman know what an image represents? The answer is simple—the shaman goes on a journey and asks the image. This is one of the many strengths of the journey approach to hidden knowledge: you can work on any puzzle in a journey and, if necessary, in subsequent journeys, until satisfied that you have received an adequate answer.

Sometimes a power animal will give a direct answer telepathically, or in words, or with body language. On the other hand, the power animal may just turn around and run off, leading or carrying the person on a journey to show the answer to the question. As the journeyer is shown each vista or thing, she or he should try to consider how it may be a part of the answer that is sought.

LITERAL VERSUS SYMBOLIC ANSWERS

Sometimes the visual and verbal communications are to be taken quite literally, rather than symbolically. One can only learn from practice how to distinguish the two. With such practice, one discovers that sometimes even an “outlandish” journey answer should be taken quite literally, or at least examined as a possible literal communication before jumping to the conclusion that it must be a symbolic or metaphorical answer.

In one of my workshops in Europe, for example, a woman reported that in reply to her question, her power animal told her to take a streetcar to a certain suburb in ten minutes. She asked me, “What does it mean?” I had to reply, “Since you finished your journey five minutes ago, it means that you have five minutes remaining.” She immediately left.

I was not being facetious. As she had no symbolic interpretation of the message, and time was too short to take another journey to get additional clarification, the shamanic thing to do was to honor the power animal and immediately take the action advised. She dashed off to her destiny. I do not know what the consequences of her action were, but I feel confident that by taking that streetcar she got her answer.