Shamanism experiences the world as alive and conscious (conscious in a way that may be quite different to human consciousness). It recognizes that, not just humans, but all things have a soul – a life-force and consciousness.
Ordinary reality and Shamanic reality...
If everything is alive and conscious, this raises the possibility that everything can be communicated with. To see how this might be done, we need to explore more about what this consciousness is, and how things come into being.
Shamanism tells us that there is another, deeper reality behind this day-to-day, physical one. These days, modern physics agrees. The physical, reality that we inhabit is made from information that exists in the deeper, implicate reality.
Putting it another way, the physical matter in everyday reality is organized and held together from the patterns (or blueprints) in the deeper reality. Shamans have long understood and described the difference between these two worlds.
This ability to be aware of both levels of reality is central to shamanic practice. In fact, shamanism is sometimes described as having ‘one foot in this world and one in the other’. Or, sometimes, as ‘walking between the worlds’.
Having one foot in this world and one in the other is very important. Shamans recognize that having both feet stuck permanently in either reality is a form of madness. And most people in the modern world have both feet firmly in this surface, ordinary reality, and have forgotten that shamanic reality.
Shamanic people live with the sense of both ordinary reality and shamanic reality but there are times when they choose to deliberately and temporarily immerse themselves more fully in shamanic reality
This involves entering an altered state of consciousness. It is a particular kind of altered state, known as ‘Shamanic State of Consciousness the trance state shamanic practitioners enter. Characterized by high levels of theta brainwaves—the brainwaves associated with creativity and spirituality. High theta brainwave levels are also characteristic of other deep meditative states too, and also are present when we are immersed in being artistic or creative.
The shamanic trance state itself can be very light or very deep. It can be as light as a daydream, something that we can easily snap out of. Or it can be very deep.
There are many ways of venturing into this trance state to enter shamanic realms, including dancing, or other repetitive rhythmic movements, singing and chanting, fasting, and the use of hallucinogenic plants. Most common though is the use of the shamanic drum and rattle.
For shamanic journeying, the drum is used in a very particular way. It is usually played at somewhere between 200 to 240 beats a minute – so around about 4 beats per second or slightly slower. This rhythm has a particular effect on the human brain. Research has shown that as little as ten minutes of shamanic drumming can produce the same level of theta brainwaves as two hours of transcendental meditation.
As well as the effect on the brain of playing the drum at that particular speed, shamanic drums are also deliberately tuned in a way that produces a lot of overtones and undertones. The human brain has trouble processing these, and so starts to fill things in and ‘make things up’. When listening to a shamanic drum then, after a while it is common to start hearing not just the drum, but chanting, pan-pipes, whistling, singing, bird-calls, other drummers, and all sorts of other sounds.
In addition to this, overtones and undertones tend to produce synaesthesia, which is where the senses become crossed over. So, the drum sounds start to be perceived as colours and visual images, sensations, smells, and even tastes. This further aids the shamanic journey, in making it a rich multi-sensory experience. In this way, the shamanic drums are a beautifully crafted piece of technology, perfected over thousands of years, and used worldwide to enter a rich meditative state.
The 3 Shamanic Realms
It is common to experience shamanic reality as being divided into three distinct shamanic realms.
The Upper World, the‘spiritual’ world. Home of ‘aware’ human or human-like beings – spiritual teachers, angels, etc. Also, the home of upper-world Gods and Goddesses, and the realm of Father Sky.
The Middle-World, this physical world, and the energies ‘behind’ it. Everyday reality, both seen and unseen.
The Lower-World, the shamanic realm that is the origin of nature. Characterized by an abundance of animals, plants, geology, and people living close to nature. The realm of Mother Earth. A realm of safety and healing.
The realms behind this ordinary, surface reality are quite different to each other. Each realm has distinct qualities and different ‘inhabitants’. Each realm needs a different set of skills from the journeyer and a different awareness and approach. So, learning to journey involves learning to recognize the feel of each realm, and knowing what signs to look for to know which realm you are in at any given point in a journey. This is of crucial importance when it comes to good shamanic practice. To journey well, it is vitally important to know what realm you are in at any given time, so that you can act accordingly.
The Upper World
The Upper-World has an ethereal quality to it, which can make it feel vague and insubstantial when you first journey there, until you get used to it. It can feel a bit floaty, a bit wispy, and spacious to the point of appearing almost empty sometimes.
There is an amazing quality to the light. Colours, smells and sounds are beautiful. There is a palpable sense of majesty and awe. There is usually very little nature, and what nature there is tends to be formal gardens of some kind, although there are often mountains too. Otherwise, mostly it is filled with beautiful awe-inspiring buildings such as temples, cathedrals, monasteries, and even fairy-tale castles. Animals are rare, and tend to be mythological ones (Dragon, Pegasus, Griffin etc.). Any people encountered are the kind we might expect – ‘spiritual teachers’, in either human or human-like form.
It is a place where we can go to get a bigger perspective on things; to ‘rise above’ petty concerns and problems; to get help with transcending our own ego concerns and limitations. Or we can get help and healing in order to be able to align ourselves more with the Upper-World, the ‘spiritual’ world and this can help us live more from our own ‘higher self.
The Lower World
In journeying, the Lower-World appears as pure, unspoilt nature; nature as it was before humans messed with it. There are humans in the lower-world, although they are generally few and far between. All the humans in the Lower-World are living as we used to live, as hunters and gatherers.
They live respectfully alongside the other-than-human Peoples (the other Animals, the Plant People, the Stone People, the living rocks, minerals, crystals and chemical elements. The first of the People.
As well as healing any specific wounds or dis-ease we may have as individuals, just being in the Lower-World can be healing in a deep and profound way. It heals the deep sense of loneliness, isolation, and separation that, as modern humans, we nearly all carry − a wound caused by our separation; by our loss of the experience of interconnection. The Lower-World heals this wound, by connecting us back to the web of life.
The Middle World
The middle-world is, of course, where we live and spend most of our time. It is here, this day-to-day reality. Shamanically, there are two aspects to the middle-world. One is the physical world, and the other is energetic.
Shamans work with both, and understand the connections between them. This is why shamans can ‘see’ things in this reality that others may not be aware of (one meaning sometimes given to the word ‘shaman’ is ‘one who can see the things that others can not see’).
Both the Upper-World and Lower-World are places of love and healing. Nothing ‘bad’ happens in those shamanic realms. In the physical middle-world though, we can experience pain and disease.
Waking up to the reality of the energetic middle-world can be sobering, disquieting, and sometimes shocking and frightening. For this reason, amongst others, it is not the best place to start one’s shamanic journeying.
Shamanism is sometimes described as a process of ‘waking up’ and facing things as they really are.
Shamanic journeys are an essential part of shamanic healing, in terms of dealing with unhealthy energies, possessions, unhealthy entanglements, soul loss, and so on.