The Tree of Life and the Three Worlds
Encounter: The Shaman in the Modern World
’All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the golden tree of life springs evergreen.’
The Tree of Life is the most universal of shamanic symbols. On a physical level, we all know that trees are of massive importance to our planet’s ability to sustain life. The life cycle of a tree is also rich with potent symbology that can help us to connect with the teachings of nature.
Imagine an acorn. Perfectly formed. Fresh, green and bursting with life and potential. Imagine a handful of acorns. None of them are the same. Let’s find a good place to plant them all. Some open, fertile ground, not too wet, not too dry, with plenty of light, where the lie of the land gives some protection from the wind. Let’s put our little acorn friends in the ground here. Good.
Now let’s watch the scene through the bright lens of our imagination as the seasons pass. We see those husks breaking under the ground as the force of life, moved by some invisible will to be itself, expands beyond its previous form. Something inside each unique acorn compels it to do its best to fulfil its potential and become an oak tree. And so it shatters its previous form and risks opening itself to the elements around it. It begins a powerful dance with the nurturing Earth and the Fire of the warming sun and the cleansing Waters and the clear Air that, as wind, teaches it to dance. It’s a wonderful thing to see an oak sapling moving with the world around it and, season by season, following the complex pattern of its own DNA as it puts down its roots and reaches for the sky.
Ten years go by, then 20, then 100. The tree follows its own internal development and at the same time is shaped by everything around it. The mature tree is a blend of what it is and what it has come into contact with. Envisage yourself walking around the mature oaks, touching them, leaning into them. Go on, give one of them a hug. No one’s watching. Isn’t every one of them majestic? See how big those roots are, how wide that canopy. What a complex dialogue these oaks are weaving with the dark earth that holds them steady. What a channel they are creating through their strong trunk and the chaos of their branches as they hold their leaves out to the vast light of the sky.
Imagine it’s winter and one of those great trees is dreaming. Fall into its roots with me and feel how the intelligence that began life inside an acorn has matured into a tree and is already dreaming of spring. But for now, lean into the nourishment of winter. The blessing of no growth. Of resting in the dark. Then feel the change as time moves through the seasons. Each spring, there is a surge of life — wild and free in youth and sweet and sensually slow in older age, but always willing to expand beyond current form in summer. Each autumn, there is a glorious sharing of colour, a falling back, a superb surrender. As one more cycle of life passes, one more circle of experience and self-knowledge is tattooed around the solid, secret core. A branch falls; another grows, filled with the tiny buds of tomorrow’s forest. As the years go by, the tree is shaped by storms and droughts and snow and sunlight. It provides shelter for a huge number of beings. Trees display such generosity towards one another and towards life. They show us how to receive everything we need and give everything back in return. They go about their business, taking long, even breaths, in and out, slow but silently rhythmic. As time goes on, they decay and die, as all living things must. But all the experience that they held nourishes the earth that brought them forth.
The Inner Shaman learns from the power and intelligence of the natural world around them. For our friends in the Amazon, the forest is everything. It is their grocery, their pharmacy, their clothes store, their building materials supplier — everything. Going beyond that, they understand its importance for all life everywhere. All the indigenous shamans I know have shared with me how the wisdom and love of the Great Mystery is directly available to anyone who pays attention to the intelligence of nature. In the Amazon, the kapok tree, which towers above the forest’s canopy, is considered sacred, a gateway to the spiritual realms.
Working with the Tree of Life as a shamanic practice helps in both the physical and the imaginal world. Physically, sensing roots going down from our own two feet gives us a much deeper experience of being grounded. Being aware of the core of our body — the trunk — can help us to stand up straighter inside ourselves, and flexibility in our backbone creates more fluidity in our heart and our feelings, while ’opening our branches’ to the wide open space above us can create a sense of more space and blue sky thinking in a busy day. The following story from one of our apprentices illustrates how embodying the symbol of the Tree of Life helped her. (I will share the practice she mentions with you later in this chapter.)
At one point, we were practising the Tree of Life meditation. I had danced the Tree of Life so many times before, but in this moment of dance my relation to the tree changed. Rather than simply visualizing the tree, I realized in my body that I AM the Tree of Life. More than that, I felt how this had been true for my whole life. Up until that moment, I had never really stretched out and inhabited my roots and outer branches. I felt so strong and centred and I felt: ’I am stable and I am nourished by the Earth and now I really can stretch into the sky and the sun to grow and expand.’
After that, I did the Tree of Life practice every morning, not because I ’should’, but from an inner call to feel this connected in my life. This practice helped me to be much more stable and grounded in challenging situations, especially in my work. I understood my work in a new way. I saw that I am called in when other people or organizations have lost their roots, or do not have the inner strength or orientation to stretch out to the sky and see the bigger picture. The more I embodied this, the more people around me felt it, and it has been a big help in all areas of my life.
MARTINA WERTHMANN, CONSULTANT
THE THREE WORLDS
The roots, trunk and branches of the Tree of Life represent what shamans around the globe call the three worlds — the roots represent the Lower World, the trunk the Middle World and the branches the Upper World. What are these worlds?
The Middle World
The Middle World is the world of our everyday experience. It is the place of physical reality and, for a shaman, the place where what we dream, either consciously or unconsciously, comes into being. It is the manifest reality of our everyday life, the direct result of what rises from the roots of the Lower World and what descends from the branches of the Upper World. The Middle World is our trunk, heart and guts — the place where we experience life. The beat of our heart is like the beat of the shaman’s drum, illuminating deeper truths and dispelling the fog of our daily affairs to reveal ourselves and the world more clearly. With each year, a shaman’s heart and knowledge of themselves widen and so can include and accept more fragments of soul, more broken shards, more mysterious and Unbroken jewels, and more possibilities of expression as the Self matures in its unique expression.
In my experience, when visions and ideas rise from the depths or fall from the sky and land in the Middle World, they are usually pristine in nature and without an instruction manual. Bringing our highest inspirations, aspirations and dreams into the unpredictable physical reality of the Middle World takes courage. It involves becoming aware of our own unconscious and recognizing what Susannah calls not just our blind spots but our blind domains. It involves the willingness to let our inspiration evolve and develop, and usually it involves a lot of work! But I can tell you this: working towards a dream that has meaning for you is very different from working without meaning or a satisfying purpose.
The Lower World
Naturally, the health of any tree is hugely affected by the health of its roots. In amongst the roots of the Tree of Life rests the deep potential of that which is usually out of sight — the unconscious. All our experience bubbles away here in this underground cauldron. Tragedies and delights, victories and defeats become the hidden motivations that drive the story of who we are and the actions that arise from that story.
Travelling to the Lower World gives us the possibility of discovering the roots of any situation in which we find ourselves and seeing what has been hidden in the dark. The Lower World is also traditionally where we connect with an important aspect of a shaman’s support system: power animals. Power animals are spirit allies. They are usually animals with whom we have an affinity or who carry qualities that we need to develop in order to be who we are. When travelling in the Lower World, I was always taught to ask any animals I came across if they were showing up to help me at that particular moment or if they were offering a more long-term relationship. It took me some time to discover my more long-term helpers and to recognize what was needed from me to maintain those relationships in a good way.
The Upper World
The Upper World is where we go for an overview. Following the drum, we open to the sky, to a place where we can unfurl the wings of our imagination, catch the wind and let our mind soar. We learn to listen to the very fine guides made of light who live here and help us to see the big picture. The Inner Shaman knows how important it is for us to lift our eyes from time to time. We can get so caught up in the details of our life that we forget what actually matters to us. The Upper World is the place where we can see the connections between the choices we have made and the experience we are having now. We see what we are doing with the cards we have been dealt. We remember the contexts that make up the multiple fragments of our identity. We see our people and their experiences. We see how often our unhealed past is acting itself out to create an equally traumatic present.
WISDOM FROM THE WORLDS
A shaman will often have a relationship with a particular tree somewhere in nature that acts as their centre-point or axis mundi. They will visit it often and make offerings there so that they can work with this place in the imaginal world without physically having to be there. In my work with the Tree of Life, I access this place through the repetitive rhythm of drum and body moving together. This focuses and opens my awareness so that I can travel through my body into the imaginal realm of the Lower and Upper Worlds and bring back what I discover there to help myself in the Middle World.
With every important question in life, a shaman leans in to hear the whispered wisdom of their ancestors and the yet-to-be-formed dreams of their descendants. They know that we are all only holding this torch of life for a while before passing it to those who will follow. In the Upper World, we can receive the guidance and gain the perspective that can help us to see our mistakes and the consequences of them. And, perhaps more importantly, we can see that the road ahead is as yet unoccupied by consequences. Whatever we see on that future road is at most probability. Change how we are and how we act now and we change the probability of the outcome.
My first experience of travelling into the three worlds happened in a ritual I did for myself not long after our son was born. I felt in need of guidance in this new chapter of my life and so I set up my space with the intention of seeking out that guidance. I danced and drummed until my mind was quiet enough to focus and the road opened to the imaginal world. My body went into a repetitive movement and I entered the Lower World through a door in the roots of the Tree of Life. I found myself in a workshop with some small men in overalls. I watched as they took my body apart, cleaned me up and put me back together again. They then threw me up into the sky, where I was surrounded by ethereal wraith-like spirits who communicated through light. I asked them the question that was the focus of my ritual. Their answer was simple but life-changing: what I did was much less important than how I did it. Receiving this guidance was so helpful at that time when I felt under pressure to succeed and support my family.
As I have developed my own way of working with this ancient medicine, I have come to connect more and more with the Tree of Life that I see every time I enter into ritual. The more I get to feel that tree within the roots, trunk and branches of my own body, the more I can connect to it. When I am holding ritual spaces for others, we always have something to represent the tree at the centre of the room. The more present each dancer becomes in their own body, the more energy there is in the centre, and through that, everyone is free to make their connection with the Mystery in their own way.
PRACTICE: THE TREE OF LIFE
The intention of this practice is to explore the three worlds of the Tree of Life and to get a deeper sense of where you are in your life through that exploration.
You will need a minimum of 15 minutes for this, but feel free to take longer.
· Set up your ritual space and prepare yourself. Ideally, find a beautiful, strong tree somewhere in nature where you feel safe and private. Introduce yourself to the tree, share the intention of this ritual with it and make an offering — a pinch of tobacco, a piece of fruit or a piece of chocolate will suffice. It is the feeling in your offering that matters most. If it’s not possible for you to do this in nature, don’t worry, you can do it in your own home — the imaginal world is always accessible to us, so imagine a beautiful, healthy, mature tree right there in front of you.
· As before, do your invocation by standing at the centre of your space, turning to the directions and asking the elements to be there: Earth in the South, Fire in the East, Water in the West and Wind in the North.
· Place a simple physical representation of each element in the relevant direction.
· You may wish to add: ’I am calling to any and all help and guidance from the Lower and Upper Worlds that is here for my highest good and for the highest good of all I love and care for.’
· If you have a drum, feel free to use it. If not, put on some shamanic drumming music. The instrumental version of the downloadable track from the first chapter will be fine (PRACTICE: AWAKENING THE DANCER).
· Go through the Awakening the Dancer practice again, acknowledging your condition and bringing yourself into movement. Make sure you are as present as possible in your body, aware of your emotional condition and as focused in your mind as you can be. As always, don’t overdo it and don’t hold back.
· Keeping your body in motion, feel into the roots, trunk and branches of the Tree of Life inside you. Strong feet and legs connect you to the roots and the Lower World. A flexible and strong trunk keeps you connected through your heart to the Middle World and everyday life around you. Consciously and carefully, stretch up towards the sky and feel the branches connecting you to the Upper World and the wide-open space and light it is made from.
· Still moving, see the Tree of Life in front of you, either in your own imagination or represented by a physical tree. Imagine a door opening up in the roots and imagine yourself walking in and down a spiral staircase, lit by beautiful lanterns all the way down. Go on down into the roots. Pay attention to what you notice in the roots and in the space around you. When you reach the bottom of the stairway, step through another door into a wide-open plain. See what you see and call out to any animal helpers who can support you in your life at this time. If nothing comes, don’t worry. Sometimes it takes a while. If an animal comes, find a way of communicating with them. Ask them if there is anything in your unconscious that it would be helpful to become conscious of at this time. See what comes. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it immediately. Sometimes understanding takes a while.
· Ask this Lower World guide if they are here just for now or are one of your long-term allies. Thank them and ask them if there is anything further you can do to thank them and to strengthen your connection with them.
· When you’ve finished your conversation, come back up the stairway, and when you get back to the Middle World, keep on climbing.
· Making sure that your physical body is still moving, imagine the stairway spiralling up through the trunk of the tree into the highest branches. Notice the different quality up here as you find a pathway into the Upper World. Look around and call out for your guide in the Upper World to reveal themselves. Again, if nothing comes immediately, be patient. Ask again. Guidance can take many forms. It may come as a feeling in your body, as words that you hear, or as a visual image. Don’t leave your body, but expand your awareness to include this space. Your body’s rhythm and movement will anchor you, so your imagination can open.
· From this vantage point, look down on the road your life has taken. See your origins and the whole journey of your life up until now. Witness this with a sense of love and acceptance and truth. Your guide can help with that. At the same time, be honest with yourself. There may be hurt, anger or grief down there. Just notice it for now.
· Ask the power of the Upper World to illuminate the road you are on, where you have come from and where you are headed. Give your attention to the road ahead. What do you sense about it? What do you want from it? How do you imagine it, not from a place of fear but from the broad perspective of the Upper World?
· When you feel ready, come back down the same way you went up.
· Your body is still moving to the rhythm. Open your eyes and confirm: ’I am here, at the centre of my circle, rooted, connected and present.’
· Thank the Tree of Life in whatever way feels appropriate.
· Make a few notes about your experience.
· Think of one simple action you can take in the days to come that will help you to know that you are integrating this ritual.
· Thank and release your allies.
Well done. Take a little time to congratulate yourself.
With practice, your work with the Tree of Life will enhance and broaden your perspective. It will also help you to strengthen the connections between your unconscious, conscious and superconscious mind. Working with the Tree of Life inside you as a dance will undoubtedly support your grounding, your standing tall and your presence.
Each step we take together is preparing the ground for you to meet your Inner Shaman. In the next chapter, we will continue by working with the elemental powers of Earth, Fire, Water and Wind.