The three cosmic worlds
The World of Shamanism
The three basic cosmic levels — the upper, lower and middle worlds, connected via the cosmic tree — are nonlinear, timeless and infinite. They exist independently of the human mind but also form the different planes of human consciousness. Together they make up ’the whole’.
The lower and upper worlds are energetic realities, sometimes called non-ordinary realities, which we are rarely aware of in normal waking consciousness but which can be accessed in altered states. The middle world is twofold: it consists of both the invisible energetic aspects of the everyday world we live in and the visible material aspects of it.2
The lower world
The lower world, or underworld, is mostly pictured as a landscape, with mountains, deserts, forests, rivers, oceans, caves, valleys, jungles or combinations of these. It is the home of the spirits of animals, trees, plants and rocks, as well as human-like spirits that are connected to the mystery of the Earth.
The lower world is also the world where we find ’the shadows’. The stories of the underworld are myths and fairy tales, mostly involving an encounter with a dark force. Frightening, devious, evil or monstrous beings can populate the lower world of the shaman’s clients, be they individuals or the community. The lower world is also concerned with the human psyche: our cut-off shadow aspects can be found there and our split-off soul parts will mostly flee there.
Shamans work regularly in the lower world and have extensive knowledge of it. They, and indigenous people in general, own the whole — the dark and the light — and they have devised many ways and means, such as rituals, prayers, journeys and soul retrieval, to work with them and transform and integrate them.
The lower world is accessed via a journey through an imagined opening or portal into the Earth in the form of the roots of the cosmic tree, a tunnel, a hole in the ground, a well or anything that leads down. The knowing that we receive when we access the lower worlds, for instance via a shamanic journey or ceremonial means, is more instinctual than intellectual, providing us with images, sudden insights, emotional reactions, energetic forces and — quite an important aspect in all the worlds — it will be shown and taught to us by our spirit helpers. The spirit helpers of the lower world appear mainly in the form of power animals.
The upper world
The upper world(s) appear and feel quite different from the lower world. They often appear as etheric realms of many layers. The light is brighter here, colours are usually more pastel and somehow fuzzy, and the whole place feels quite airy. Crystal structures, cloudlike realms and cosmic beings can be encountered.
The upper world is traditionally accessed via the branches of the cosmic tree, ropes, staircases leading upwards, high mountains, rainbows or smoke. It is inhabited by helping spirits, powerful teachers in humanoid form, formless spirit beings and ancestral spirits. Sandra Ingerman remarks that the upper worlds are ’formed by the dreaming of the higher gods and goddesses, the ancestors, the ascended masters, the compassionate angelic forces that are willing to be of service to us — most often as teachers and guides’.3
In the upper world we seek guidance and wisdom, and what we perceive and receive is not instinctual, but rather has philosophical and wise qualities in the sense that it is knowledge that seems to reach beyond ’what we know’.
In the upper world we can connect with our spirit guides and teachers and our ancestors in spirit form. Some contemporary shamanic teachers also recommend we look for our own ’higher self’ within those realms. This is our transpersonal aspect, sometimes also called the over-soul, the immortal aspect of ourselves that can communicate with us through dreams and visions and be a source of intuition, inspiration and guidance.
The middle world
The twofold middle world consists of our everyday physical reality and the underlying energetic reality — the ’spirit aspect’ — of the physical universe we live in. This is where the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energy fields of living humanity and the spirits of manifest nature flow in patterns. It is where psychic phenomena happen, thought forms exist, synchronicities are observed, hunches and omens are received and telepathy is believed to be possible. Healing work may take place in these energy fields and cures be sought either before or after someone becomes physically ill.
Middle-world journeys are mainly used to communicate with the nature spirits that exist within our realm, such as the spirits of trees, plants, rocks, the sun and moon and, in some cultures, nature spirit people.
To access the middle world, the shaman enters an altered state and floats through the realm, merging and communicating with those energies. In a healing ritual, for instance, they might travel to the middle world to gather facts about people, animals and plants that are significant to the illness of the person in need and then perform extractions and cleansings of the energy fields and provide the herbal and other medicines needed.
In some teachings, it is stated that some middle-world work can be difficult because the energy fields and spirits there can be negative, detrimental or outright evil. This can be the case in war zones or places that have witnessed much suffering and cruelty. Also, souls who haven’t made their way over to the higher planes, perhaps as the result of a traumatic death, are trapped in the middle world.