Real Spirits and Imaginary Friends
Responsibility: A Bridge across the Arc of Time
Finding Ground in the Imaginal World
’I have fallen in love with the imagination. And if you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere, and it can do anything.’
As you work with your Inner Shaman, it’s possible, even probable, that you’ll come up against scepticism, either from others or from yourself. This is normal. We live in a world that has made the rational mind the emperor, so we are bound to question any other perception of reality. I trust the spirits that guide me and when I am working in ritual or healing space, doubt is in the background, where it needs to be. But I’ve come to realize that without the allies of doubt, critical thinking and the checks and balances of elders and mentors, there is only certainty. And certainty closes the door on other possibilities and leads to the desert of dogma. So I’ve learned to nurture my doubts and to flirt with uncertainty. The Inner Shaman is no stranger to charisma and power, and they are a heady blend that can lead to self-importance. And we’ve all seen what happens to those who believe their own press. Over the years, I’ve made it my business to seek out people of power who have remained humble, teachable and challengeable as their mojo grows. They do exist and the fact that there is a paucity of such people in the world is a sobering reality check.
I’ve come to recognize that the more connected I feel to the spirits that guide me and the more I learn to trust them, the more I need my rational mind, and my human friends and teachers as mirrors once the ceremony is over. I take note that the elder shamans we know and love in the Amazon, who have been leading ceremonies for more than 60 years, still have their teachers.
Not long ago, I was in a taxi in slow-moving traffic with a young Algerian driver called Mourad. He asked me what I did for a living and I told him. He was curious. His grandmother had worked with herbs and he remembered people coming from far and wide to seek her help. He asked me about my beliefs and I told him that what I believed in most was the Mystery. Then he asked how I prayed, so I told him, ’Sometimes I light a fire and drum. I dance and sing and the warmth of the fire touches the Fire inside me, and through that I feel a connection to the Great Light that feeds our sun. I express whatever is in my heart, and in the emptiness that follows, I receive guidance. I hear words or see images or feel a sensation in my body. And when that guidance touches my heart in a way that rings true with me, I find that my will surrenders to a kind of divine obedience that I have learned over the years to trust.’
Mourad was silent for a while. Then he said softly, ’How do you know that what you hear isn’t just what you want to hear? How can you trust it? When I pray, I only repeat the words of the Prophet. I only have to follow the words of the Koran and all will be well.’
I felt the passion and the power of his faith. They touched me and I told him so. He smiled. And then he continued, ’What book do you follow? How can you be sure that your voice from the fire or guidance from your spirits will lead you on a good road and not away from God?’
’I can’t be sure. Shamanism isn’t a religion based on belief, but a way of experiencing the divine through embodied connection with the powers of nature and the spirits. That, alongside the guidance of my elders and teachers, is the book I follow. To me, nature is the physical intelligence of the Creator. It is a pure mirror. Nothing in nature is trying to be anything other than what it is. And therefore when I look in that mirror, I see reflected back to me what is true within me and what is false. When I take the time to ask for this mirroring, nature is always generous.’
’But what if nature told you to harm someone, even your enemy? How can you trust something as changeable and varied as nature?’
’I’ve never been asked to do anything that is against my own nature,’ I replied. ’And I have checks and balances that I use to help me. I ask my wife, my elders and my mentors for their reflections. I listen. And often I adjust my view accordingly. Sometimes I have to go back to my spirits and dialogue with them. It’s a process. I know there have been many “messages from spirits” that have turned out to be plain psychosis. And there are spirits of all kinds hanging out wanting to be heard and there’s no guarantee that their guidance will be any wiser than the guidance of a stranger on the street. Or in a taxi, for that matter.’
’That’s why,’ I continued, ’knowing ourselves and taking responsibility for our decisions are so important in shamanism. I know my own intentions and the spirits who have become my guides are with me because they have the same intentions. We are partners in a shared project.’
’I’m sorry,’ Mourad replied, ’that you’re having to rely on imaginary friends and human beings for advice.’
We said goodbye as brothers on different roads and there was genuine warmth between us.
If you were to ask me, ’Are your spirits real or are they imaginary friends?’, my most honest answer would be: ’The Shaman in me knows they are real. My rational mind questions what “real” means. And my heart is in love with the Mystery of life. I’ve learned that doubt and patience are good things. And that the more powerfully myself I become, the more I need the human mirroring of those I’ve asked to keep their beautifully beady eyes on me and challenge me when I go too far off-piste.’
I’ve also found it useful to recognize that in the spirit world, visions and dreams can appear fully formed at the speed of our imagination. So, in my earlier years of working, I often made the mistake of thinking that because my visions were so real to me, they would be easy to bring down to Earth. But we need to give some consideration to the density of the physical world. I’ve had to learn that being embodied means moving more slowly than my mind and working with the world of physical limitations. As a species, we may have to learn this too, or be stopped in our tracks.
Evolution is a regular updating of our underlying story. I encourage you to regularly ask your Inner Shaman what updates they suggest for you. I know that my own life would be much the poorer if I didn’t do this. Regular ritual has taught me to see my life as one long creative project, and I’ve found there’s enormous satisfaction in seeing how my dreams take form over time.
NO SPACE FOR SQUATTERS
Shamanism is a blend of step-by-step care and the free-form surrender of dancing on the edge between the known and the unknown. People often ask me about the dangers of working in this way. After all, there are all kinds of mischievous and unhelpful beings in the imaginal realms, just as there are anywhere else. I admit, I used to feel critical of those who experienced the drama of ’psychic attacks’. I always felt that they were using the feeling of being attacked to avoid taking responsibility for a snake pit of unowned personal emotion. I had to learn, through a good slice of humble pie, that these attacks do have an external reality. So, I was wrong, but I was also right in that there is always an element of personal story, as I will explain below. Where I’ve got to is recognizing that having good boundaries in the shamanic realm and protecting ourselves properly are important.
How do we protect ourselves? The best way I know is to commit 100 per cent to doing our own personal work and to making sure that we take care of all the basics whenever we enter the realm of the unknown. Most importantly, it means occupying our own physical body and doing our own inner shadow work. If I am fully present in my body, aware of my heart and have set up a strong circle before I work, then there is no space for squatters. At the same time, we all have an unconscious and, therefore, there will be gaps. What I have come to understand and find most helpful in this arena is the understanding that any shadows that try to enter my circle are mirrors of things inside me that I have not yet owned and accepted. I have learned not to be naïve and at the same time not to be paranoid. In this way, I can see my own experiences in this area of attachments and attacks as teaching situations.
There are two main things to learn. First, the importance of ongoing shadow work to own what we have been unconscious of. And second, the importance of having clearly stated and defined boundaries. Finally, I’ve come to realize that the only power these kinds of energies have is the power we give them. I suggest that you move forward with care, work more with the Mesa Practice and Your Animal Heart, and if and when you feel the need, look for some good human guidance from someone further down the road than you.
The deeper you go, the more important your relationship to your allies becomes. There are many kinds of allies in the shaman’s world.
You already know the elemental spirits. There are also animal allies and spirit guides who have more human form. There are many kinds of nature spirits, like tree spirits, plant spirits and spirits that are connected to special places like waterfalls. And there are archetypal allies such as the medicine archetypes and Benevolent Death.
For many years, I knew that I had help, but it was unspecific. It was only when Matthis Pentha, a Sami shaman and a dear mentor of mine for many years, asked me, ’Who are your spirits?’ that I realized that although I felt their presence, I didn’t have any kind of personal relationship with them. So, I set out to find out who they were, using the practices I’ve already shared with you. In Chapter 14, I’ll share some more guidance on how to come into personal relationship with your own guiding spirits. For now, making it clear that you wish to know your guiding spirits and working thoroughly and deeply with the practices I have shared with you up until now will make your circle strong enough for you to continue your development.
Now you’ve reached this point in your practice where you’ve gathered some power, I invite you to make the commitment to going deeper by undertaking a profound ritual enquiry. This will involve focusing on a Nine-Step Checks and Balances Guide for the Inner Shaman over the next 21 days. First, let’s spend some time together in a quiet, slow ritual space, designed to keep you alert and safe as our journey continues, then we’ll go on to work specifically with your biography and hunt for the considerable life energy that is locked up there. Remember the resources that are available to your Inner Shaman and remember the Unbroken intelligence of life that is movement and you won’t go far off-course.
PRACTICE: A NINE-STEP CHECKS AND BALANCES GUIDE FOR THE INNER SHAMAN
I suggest that you do this enquiry at a time when you can spend 21 minutes a day for 21 consecutive days on it. On Day 1, set up your space, read through the nine steps below and set your personal intention for this work. From Day 2 to Day 19, spend two days with each step until you’ve done all nine. Spend Day 20 integrating whatever you’ve learned and then on Day 21 dedicate the totality of your work to the safe and ongoing development of your shamanic practice over the years to come.
If doing this over 21 days isn’t possible, find your own timing and work with each of the nine steps. The intention is to build solid foundations for your ongoing practice by committing to making it as safe and responsible as possible, so that your creativity and adventure with the Inner Shaman can flower.
1. Ruthless, kind and ongoing self-inspection
There’s no replacement for recognizing that we all have major blind spots and no matter how awake we are, we always will. Our unconscious isn’t a bad thing, though — it’s all potential wisdom. Go on discovering what your imagination is dedicated to and keep deepening that knowledge through congruent action.
· When we state our intentions out loud in ritual, we are taking a powerful step. If you are willing, state your commitment to ruthless, kind and ongoing self-inspection.
2. Gather a circle of human support
We need good mirrors — people who have nothing to lose from telling us the truth as they see it. Look into what qualities you want to see in any elders, mentors and teachers you might invite to be part of your circle of support. Then go ahead and invite them to support you. Check in with them regularly, especially if you’re feeling really good and confident.
· In ritual, name your elders, mentors and teachers or state your intention to find them.
3. Become the master of your own circle
The Mesa Practice is particularly good for strengthening both our interoception and our boundaries. In ritual, if you ever feel the presence of any energy you’re unsure of, ask: ’Are you here for my highest good?’ If you don’t get an immediate ’yes’, respectfully and clearly send that energy away using clear movement, breath and voice if necessary.
· Take some time to practise the Mesa work now and to practise your clear ’No!’ and your clear ’Yes!’ State your clear intention to protect yourself and keep safe on your journey. You don’t leave your front door open all the time. Being closed is good. Being open is good too. What we want is the ability to open and close appropriately.
4. Move beyond naivety
The last step will have reminded you of the need to protect yourself and stay alert when you are working shamanically by yourself. Always be willing to say ’No!’ and if you ever feel unsafe, take a step back and gather more resources before moving forward again.
· Take some time now to remember the shadow archetypes and their medicine helpers. State your clear intention to check the guidance you receive with people you can trust. Statements like ’Spirit told me to…’ need to be checked with human beings who can uphold and challenge you where necessary.
5. Discover your Inner Shaman’s allies and deepen your relationship with them
· Begin with the elemental powers. Bringing objects from nature, like a stone or a beautifully shaped small branch, into your ritual space will make your connection to the elementals more personal. Always introduce yourself, share your intention and ask for permission first.
· Then, in ritual space, ask: ’Who are my spirits?’
· Perhaps most importantly, there will be your ancestors and descendants. Making space for them in your circle is important and I believe that we are much the poorer for the lack of attention we give to them in the modern world. Take time to acknowledge them and then invite those ancestors and descendants (whether you have your own children or not) who love and support you to be with you.
We inherit the strength, wisdom and experience of our ancestors. We also inherit their undigested experiences. The more we learn through epigenetics (the passing on of traits) and the study of trans-generational trauma, the more we are coming to understand how the past lives on through us in the present. From the shamanic perspective, this is good news. The more life energy is locked in the past, the more potential energy is available to us now.
· Spend some time simply being in the power of the imaginal space. Tell your allies what really matters to you. Have a dialogue with them. Then, once you have said all you need to say, release them.
6. Treat everyone as autonomous
Never try to make changes on behalf of anyone unless they have specifically asked you to do so. Imagine someone walking into your home, redecorating according to their taste and then calling up your place of work and handing in your resignation. When you ask them why, they tell you they did it because they love you and they know what’s best for you. How do you feel? It’s a beautiful thing to pray for others, but respect their autonomy and respect that they are, like you, on their own journey.
The way I offer prayers for my loved ones is always in this spirit unless I’ve been asked to pray for something specific. You can always ask people if they would like you to include them in your prayers.
· If you have prayers for others now, with this in mind, set up a ritual space with the intention of feeling, embodying and offering your prayers for others. In micro, sense your love for that person. In medio, let that love shape you and become a dance. In macro, offer that prayer from your heart into the heart of the Great Spirit and let it go.
7. Take small steps
I’ve had to learn that the spirits in the imaginal world don’t have the same concerns or challenges that we have in the physical world. In the spirit world, all time is now, all manifestation is instant, there’s no need for rest and there’s no physical body to look after. In bringing guidance and healing from the spirit world to the physical world, we need to learn to translate whatever we receive into small, everyday, consistent steps that move us in the direction of our dreams. If we don’t, we are likely to overstretch ourselves and fail. Patience, discipline and consistency are the keys.
· What vision or guidance have you received that you have been unable to manifest up until now? Can you break the steps to manifestation down into smaller steps? What small steps can you take now to deepen your relationship with the imaginal world and your dreams? How can you bring more awareness to the connection between what you dream and how your life is?
8. Enjoy the journey and celebrate results
In the process of making changes, improving ourselves and our lives and making our offerings, some things happen quickly and some don’t. Some realizations that land in shamanic work take years to make their way into our lives. So it’s important to be both committed and flexible. Just do your best to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
· When you have success of any kind, it’s important to notice it and celebrate it. What can you celebrate now? What can you give thanks for? What needs more attention?
9. Always pay attention to the basics
In each ritual we’ve done so far, I’ve asked you to take care to open and close the space properly. Whenever you open or complete a ritual, invoke or release all you’ve called and take some notes. Practise these basics until they become as natural and easy as riding a bike. I speak to my allies when I wake up, before I go to sleep, in the shower and, of course, in the preparation and in the work itself. The more I am aware of them, the more present I experience them to be.
Day 20: Integration
· On Day 20, your integration time, ask yourself and your guidance what you have learned and if there is anything from this enquiry you need support with. Are there things you need to reflect on? What steps do you need to take moving forward?’
Day 21: Dedication
· On Day 21, do a ritual to dedicate what you have learned to your ongoing progress and, of course, to all your relations.
Congratulations. Each time you walk through these doors and back again, you discover a little more about the road you are on and strengthen the connection between the imaginal world and the physical world, between what you dream and how you live. Feet on the ground, head in the clouds, heart present. Right here. Right now. Your imaginary friends and your very real spirits at your side. Moving on. One step at a time, with an occasional quantum leap…