One of the hallmark differences between shamanic practice and other spiritual arts is the shaman’s ability to consciously move beyond the physical body. In our modern language this is commonly referred to as journeying, while there are other terms, for the sake of consistency I will refer to it as journeying throughout this article. These journeys may take the shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of existence, to parallel physical worlds or other regions of this world. Shamanic Flight, journeying, is in most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape, but is reported to be the shaman’s flight beyond the confines of the physical body.
Historically shamans have been called through near death experiences, being struck by lightning, a fall from a height as well as dismemberment followed by resurrection. Survival of these initial inner and outer brushes with death provides the shaman with personal experiences which strengthen his or her ability to work effectively with others. Having experienced something, a shaman is more likely to understand what must be done to correct a condition or situation.
While shamanism may be readily identified among hunting and gathering peoples as well as in some traditional herding societies, identifying specific groups of individuals who might be called shamans is a difficult task in more stratified agricultural and manufacturing based societies. A society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when the presence of shamanic motifs in its traditional folklore or spiritual practices indicate a clear pattern of traditions of: ascent into the heavens; descent into the nether-worlds; movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld, are present in its history. Such a society or tradition may have become very specialized, combining aspects of mysticism; prophecy and shamanism into more specialized or more fully developed set of practice and may have assigned those to highly specialized functionaries. When such practices and functionaries are present or have replaced the traditional shamans found in historical or traditional shamanism the use of Post-shamanic is appropriate. Ecstasy is still present in modern shamanism, but light trance techniques are also used to access the Otherworld.
Religion and spiritual methodology has become more fully developed and can no longer be properly referred to as ‘archaic’. This is especially important for rituals, ceremonies and ecstatic techniques which had traditionally been the domain of the shamans. Mystical ecstasy and unitive visions have become at least as important esoteric experiences and doctrines as shamanic ecstasy, ascension and descent in the religious and spiritual life of the community. The shaman is no longer the primary escort for the souls of the dead into their place in the next world (psychopomp). This role generally either passes onto the priest craft or clergy to perform through ritual, individual or group prayer, or is believed to be done by gods of guardian spirits, angels or demons. Other forms of healing, divining and counselling are present have replaced shamans as the primary source of such services.
Post-shamanic motifs are found among many Indo-European, Asian, African and some native peoples of North America. The use of Post-Shamanic as a term makes examination of these parallel traditions and possible survivals of earlier shamanic traditions easier. From the Greek ‘ekstasis’, ecstasy literally means to be placed outside, or to be placed. This is a state of exaltation in which a person stands outside of or transcends his or herself. Ecstasy may range from the seizure of the body by a spirit or the seizure of a person by the divine, from the magical transformation or flight of consciousness to psychiatric remedies of distress.
Shamanic ecstasy is provoked by the ascension of the soul of the shaman into the upper worlds or its descent into the lower worlds. These states of ecstatic exaltation are usually achieved after great and strenuous training and initiation, often under distressing circumstances. The resulting contact by the shaman with the higher or lower regions and the spirits they encounter enable him or her to perform psychopomp ceremonies, affect the well-being of the sick and to convey the story of their inner travels upon their return to the mundane awareness. One form of modern shamanism uses the drum as the means of ascension into the three worlds.
The utterances of the shaman are in contrast with those of prophetic and mystical ecstasy. The prophet literally speaks for God, while the mystic reports an overwhelming divine presence. In mysticism, the direct knowledge or experience of the divine ultimate reality is perceptible in two ways, emotional and intuitive. While these three varieties of ecstatic experience are useful for the purposes of analysis and discussion, it is not unusual for more than one form of ecstasy to be present in an individual’s experience.
The use of the drum in modern shamanism relies on a physiological response, in which the mind becomes absorbed in and focused on a dominant idea (the intention of the journey) conscious attention is withdrawn and the nervous system itself is in part cut off from physical sensory input. The body exhibits reflex inertia, involuntary nervous responses, frenzy.
Often times we experience emotional perception as overwhelming feelings of awe, anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment and passion. As we learn to alter our states of consciousness we gain intuitive perception through direct experience and understanding of the transpersonal experience of expanded states of awareness or consciousness.
While the physiological response is always present, the emotional response may or may not be significant when intuition is the principal means of ecstatic perception. Some have argued that beyond the intuitive state there is a fourth condition, a in which the holistic perception exceeds mental and emotional limitations and understanding.
The ecstatic experience of the shaman goes beyond a feeling or perception of the sacred, the demonic or of natural spirits. It involves the shaman directly and actively in transcendent realities or lower realms of being. These experiences may occur in either the dream state, the awakened state, or both. Dreams, and in particular, lucid dreams, often play a significant role in the life of a shaman or shamanic candidate.