What we access when we alter our state
The shamanic consciousness and world-view
The World of Shamanism
Altering our state enables us to access wide-ranging information, with fluid boundaries, depending on many factors.2 What we access depends on what we intend to access and how profoundly we alter our perception. It includes:
Material from our personal subconscious
Psychology has shown beyond doubt that when we alter our state we can access personal material that usually lies hidden on different levels of the personal subconscious/unconscious realm, which stores vast amounts of information. This material can take various forms: memories and past experiences, images, associations to a theme, deeply held beliefs, strong emotions and so on.
We can say that such personal material is accessed in the alpha state.
On the next level, beyond the personal, we enter transpersonal realms that are more difficult to describe. A shaman would call them the ’spirit worlds’, some people call them ’the level of soul’ and in our society they are known as the realms of the ’collective unconscious’, as defined by C.G. Jung.3 The consensus view is that these realms hold material that we don’t acquire individually, as it is either genetically transmitted or held in a ’pool of consciousness or other dimensions’, but can nevertheless access when we alter our state of perception. The content of these realms is universal, likely to be recognized anywhere in the world and presents itself in our brain in archetypal form.
Archetypes are more than images. They are ’knowing patterns’ that are built into our psyche, associated with meaning and translated into images. They are drawn from myth, fairy tales, folklore and spiritual and psychological teachings. They can take the form of humanoids, such as the Mother, the Hero, the Goddess and the Teacher, or animals and mystical creatures, such as the Serpent, the Jaguar, the Eagle, the Unicorn and the Dragon. They can also be more like concepts, such as the Self, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus and figures of Death and Rebirth.
In shamanism, the transpersonal realm with all its archetypal elements has been thoroughly explored and in some traditions precisely categorized. The figures, materials and events are seen as arising from levels of the multidimensional reality to which a person’s consciousness, energy body or soul can travel. The traditional shaman would refer to some of the figures as ’spirits’. For example, if you were to dream about your grandmother, the shaman would see her, if she presented herself in a certain way, as an ancestral spirit connecting with them in the ’dreamworld’, an energetic realm as real as any other.4
In some contemporary schools it is postulated that we need to be in the theta state to access the transpersonal realms.
Extreme visionary states: beyond the limits of the ordinary
Whilst we can all learn to alter our state enough to access archetypal material, extreme altered states take this further, opening gateways to dimensions beyond those we are normally able to experience. The closest we can come to describing these states is to call them ’out-of-body experiences’, ’near-death and rebirth experiences’, ’dismemberment visions’ and ’profound lucid dreams’. Some can be induced by taking psychedelic plant medicines. The brain is mostly in delta state whilst these experiences take place.
Such extreme altered states, and the realms entered during them, are part of the training and initiation of traditional shamans worldwide. They are not the norm in contemporary shamanism, but can be sought when we get deeply involved in shamanic practice. (I have been through a dismemberment experience and attended initiation rituals that were designed to induce extreme states and near-death experiences.) This book will not provide exercises that lead you into extreme states, but I will describe them briefly, as some knowledge is necessary to understand the shamanic view of the world.
Everybody who has experienced or studied such states, myself included, acknowledges that they are transformative. They dismantle our identity and change our sense of who we are and what the world is about.
The literature about the training and initiation processes of traditional shamans shows that the shaman has to go through such transformational processes to expand consciousness, to become skilled in traversing and working in all the realms we can access and to synthesize the fragmented parts of the psyche into a harmonious whole.
A well-known example of such a transformational process is the initiation of the Lakota shaman Black Elk. He became very ill at the age of nine and spent 12 days unconscious and on the brink of death. In one of his visions during that period, he saw the six grandfathers, representing the west, south, north and east, the sky and the Earth. Each of them gave him certain powers and he was shown how the world worked. According to members of his tribe, he emerged a changed person. He describes his ’strangeness’ afterwards and his inability to put into words all the images, feelings and words he had been presented with:
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.5
Another description of the visionary world accessed in extreme states comes from my friend Matthew Pallamary, a shamanic writer who works with sacred medicine plants in the Amazon. It gives an idea of the energy fields that can be accessed:
[These visions] speak through colours, patterns, abstractions, and archetypes, introducing concepts beyond limited rational thinking. Moreover, the language of teacher plants unfolds their cosmic wisdom, blossoming in geometric permutations that speak in mathematical progressions using the universal language of sacred geometry to reveal the true nature of the divine unfolding of conscious intelligence that permeates all that is.6
Another form of extreme state experiences are dismemberment visions, during which the shaman’s body is taken apart and reassembled in a different way, which transforms them and gives them power. These rather frightening death and rebirth experiences have been reported globally. The spirits shamans encounter during dismemberment give them power, but also have to be wrestled with and learned from. The laws of the other realms have to be mastered, too.
The initiatory visions of a Yakut Shaman includes dying in a three-day ritual, being dismembered and then put back together. The Mongolian shamans’ initiations — in the Tungus, Buryat, Manchu and Ostyak tribes — include ritual dismemberment, death and resurrection, involving shamanic ancestors. Australian shamans have their bellies opened by a supernatural being called the Nagatya who places crystals within the body, which give them magical powers. Some Eskimo shamans report being devoured by animals so that new ’shaman flesh’ can grow and in many African tribes the shaman’s head is removed and the brain is restored to give the shaman spirit vision.7
These transformational experiences take place whilst the body is ’dead or nearly dead’ and the consciousness or energy body is in the other realms.
That the consciousness can indeed travel whilst the body is clinically dead has been confirmed by contemporary research. A profound study by the Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel has shown that most patients who report near-death experiences travel outside the body to realms beyond normally perceived reality.8 Although the NDEs studied in contemporary literature are a far cry from the experiences traditional shamans go through during their death and rebirth periods, the research confirms that NDEs are transformational: they change patients’ self-concept and what they believe their consciousness to be, as well as their world-view and attitudes towards life and death. Van Lommel found that after an NDE, patients lost their fear of death, showed heightened intuitiveness and believed that the soul lived on in other dimensions. They did not acquire the power of the traditional shaman, but love and compassion for self, others and nature became dominant values and material strivings became insignificant. Like others before him, van Lommel came to the conclusion that there was a strong case for the existence of ’other dimensions’ in which our consciousness or soul lives on after death and which can be accessed via extreme altered states before physical death — something which is quite normal in traditional shamanism.