One thing you can say about the shaman is that she lives on the edge of cultural maps. The shaman acts as a kind of interface between the specific culture of a particular tribal group and the world outside, a world that we can think of not only as nature, of course, but as the cosmic, the abstract, the alien. The shaman lives at the edge of the village; in her zone, we start to move into the wild. And that’s a very potent image for being a transfer point between the outside and the inside of human culture. One of the interesting paradoxes of shamanism is that, on the one hand, it is very technological, very savvy, and full of knowledge in almost a modern sense of the term, like scientific knowledge. And yet the worlds that are being produced, sustained, and performed by the shaman are extremely cultural, spiritual, and mythological. Look at a healing ceremony, and think about what exactly is happening there. Let’s say that healing is occurring through the use of quartz crystals being pulled out of the body. What’s happening there? What’s really going on?
It is essential as we travel through the worlds that we know where we are. There are very specific rules that I have relaxed teaching. One of the basic rules that I was taught was to break through a barrier. We are going to work on journeying into the three worlds with the specific intent of using barriers as indicators of where we are. A road map does not tell you where you go; rather it gives you ways to get there (where you can go).
Journeys reflect the shamanic view of the cosmos, triparition upper, middle, and lower worlds, the middle one corresponding to our earth. The shaman ranges throughout this threefold world system in order to learn, obtain power, or to diagnose and treat those who come for help and healing. During these journeys shamans may experience themselves exploring other worlds and meeting the people, animals, or spirits who inhabit them, seeing the cause and cure of a patient’s ‘illness, or interceding with friendly or demonic forces.
Entrances into the Lower world commonly lead down into a tunnel or tube that conveys the shaman to an exit, which opens out upon bright and marvellous landscapes. Journey down to the roots of the largest tree you have ever seen, or enter into the bones of mountains. Uncover the pathways and they will take you beyond, meeting a variety of helping spirits that can help the shaman with healing individuals, the community, and the planet. From there the shaman travels wherever he desires for minutes or even hours, finally returning back up through the tube … to emerge at the surface, where he entered.
Journeys to the middle or upper worlds have the same general features as those to the lower world. There are, however, some differences in purpose and in the types of entities likely to be encountered. The lower world is often a place of tests and challenges, but it is also a place where power animals are acquired and the shaman is guided and empowered to victory.
The middle world is our familiar world. In their visions shamans journey over it at will, unimpeded by barriers or distance, seeing far and wide, and returning with information about hunting, weather, or warfare. Middle-world journeys are particularly common in hunter/gatherer societies as well as journeys to understand the very stand of trees or forest that is around you. As well as introduce you to the urban spirits, how to see the sacred when all you see is concrete!
When traveling the three worlds you may experience an ineffable joy in what you see, an awe of the beautiful and mysterious worlds that opens before you. Shamanic experiences are like dreams, but waking ones that feel real and in which you can control aspects of your actions and direct your adventures. While in the trance, in either world I am often amazed by the reality of that which is presented. Exploring the three worlds gives you access to a whole new, and yet familiar ancient universe providing profound information about the meaning of life and death and our place within the totality of all existence. During the great adventures you can maintain conscious control over the direction of travels, but you do not know what will be discovered. A shaman is a self-reliant explorer of the endless mansions of a magnificent hidden universe. Finally, you bring back your discoveries to build your knowledge and to help others.
Observation with one’s own senses is the basis for the empirical definition of reality; and there is no one yet, even in the sciences of ordinary reality, who has incontestably proven that there is only one state of consciousness that is valid for firsthand observations. Children of the ‘Age of Science’ prefer to arrive firsthand, experimentally, at their own conclusions as to the nature and limits of reality. Shamanism provides a way to conduct these personal experiments, for it is a methodology, not a religion. Pursuing their shamanic practices, modern shamans have come to realize that what most people describe as “reality” only barely touches the grandeur, power, and mystery of the universe. The new shamans often cry tears of ecstasy when undergoing and recounting their experiences. They talk with mutual understanding to persons who have had neardeath experiences, and see hope where others may see hopelessness.
They tend to undergo transformation as they discover the incredible safety and love of the normally-hidden universe. The cosmic love they repeatedly encounter in their journeys is increasingly expressed in their daily lives. They are not lonely, even if alone, for they have come to understand that we are never really isolated. Shamanic enlightenment is the literal ability to lighten the darkness, to see in that darkness what others cannot perceive. This may, in fact, be the most ancient meaning of “enlightenment”.
Joseph Campbell says, In the Buddhist systems, the Buddha appears in two aspects. There is the peaceful aspect and there is the wrathful aspect. If one clings to one’s own view of one’s world, and tries to hang on to that which may be needing to change in oneself – and the deity wants to open you – the wrathful aspect comes. It seems terrible, but if one is open enough then that same deity will turn into peace. You leave his body, pass through a series of heavens, and communicate with all manner of spirits, seeking and gaining knowledge for the welfare of your community. By providing a link with the spiritual world and bringing back knowledge gained there you defends yourself and those around you against darkness.
The universe of the Mongols can be visualized as a circle, not only in the three dimensions of space, but also in time. Everything has a circular motion: the path of the sun from day to day, the cycle of time from year to year, and the cycle of the spirits of all living beings that return to the earth to live again and again.
Intersecting the circle are the axes of the four directions and the axis of the center of the world, going up to the upper world beyond the eternal heavens and going down beyond mother earth to the lower world. Superimposed on this is the image of the universe as seen in the visions of shamanic journeys, in which the shaman can climb the World Tree or fly to the upper world, travel down the spirit river to the entrance to the lower world in the north, or simply find a tunnel in the earth through which to travel below.