Eyes of a Shaman
A report of my experiences with a local weekend workshop in basic core shamanism. "Core" refers to universal or common principles derived from traditional practices as researched by Michael Harner, author of "The Way of the Shaman" (first published in 1979) and founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
In order to put us in such a metaphorical frame of reference Lesson One, at our small workshop of 11 people, was Object Divination. Here we were to use a rock for the purpose of mapping out an answer to a question. Not a yes or no question, but a who, what, why or how question. A partner would record our session.
"How can I improve my ability as a professional organizer with my clients?" I asked.
We were then to interpret what each of these things was telling us in answer to our query. The face was obviously a forlorn client as full of suffering as the painting of the Scream by Munch. What the face was trying to tell me was how much this emotional and existential suffering was also about a need for meaning in the context of the clients cluttered life. The arrow showed that progress with the client would be uplifting, but not in a linear fashion. The first two stepping stones were very visible thus the first steps of our work would be obvious, then the path seemed to take two paths, both would work, but one would seem to me to be the better path because it was better positioned to see the distant star representing a focal point for our work. The star was telling me that the goal was as yet unobtainable, but was a powerful motivator.
We were then to flip the rock either towards us or away from us and repeat the process.
I immediately saw a smaller, but happier face with a deep hole next to it where an ear might be, marked by a triangle. On the other side of the face I saw another, larger, cat-like face. Down low and to the side, a set of three indentations.
Obviously the client was happier plus she had companionship either from an animal, a supportive family member or some kind of relationship involving other people. The hole was for me to speak into and suggest ideas for further progress. The 3 indentations were a set of portals integrated into the client's life for the removal of items not useful to their life. (Organizers often think in threes when dividing up items for removal.)
This was a pretty accurate narrative of the work that I do with clients, but because of the format, I was pushed to see just a little bit more about the work and introduce some elements that are not usually part of my repertoire. It was in effect, a map, but because it was a map I had made myself in a relationship with a natural object it had an added dimension that made it stick in my mind in a meaningful way. It also reminded me which part of the process I needed to work on.
I had essentially been coached by a rock and with better results. If I got nothing else out of the workshop the rock had already won me over.
Port of Entry
Having learned to see messages in nature, we wasted no time getting to the meat of Shamanistic technique—visions. I knew that no drugs were used, in this school, for the conjuring of visions, so was intrigued to learn that drumming prompted a dream state. At 3 to 7 beats per second, the brain would produce theta waves much like those observed during dreaming.
Our teacher, a woman not given to inflections of awe or wonder, taught class as though it were a hands-on technology, much like any computer tech class except that her tools were handmade. A rawhide drum, several rattles and a beater for the drum were laid out on a striped woven blanket at her feet. She wore an unusual pendant around her neck, but was otherwise dressed in ordinary slacks and attractive blouse. I appreciated her no nonsense style. It made the material feel accessible especially when she told us that a box of Tic Tacs would do fine as a rattle.
She gave a brief introduction to shamanism as a system of knowledge found all over the world—humankind's oldest spiritual practice. The Foundation's purpose in teaching shamanism was to bring back spiritual democracy so everyone could personally access the sacred. Thus we were not borrowing another culture's religion, but bringing back our birthright through our own practice.
To start the journey we needed a portal into the lower world. A place we had actually visited, a tree stump, the bottom of a lake or a burrow in the ground. We were given only a minute to come up with such a portal so I went with the first one that came to mind, a ring of tall Redwoods where I had once thought to build a tree house.
Whatever we chose it should provide a barrier between this world and the imaginary world of the journey. For it was the imagination, she told us, that provided the visions. She left it to us to believe (or not) that there actually was a Spirit World being accessed by the vision journey. She then assured us that the Lower World, to which we would go, was populated with compassionate beings who would do us no harm. Indeed they wanted to help us. The same was true of the Upper World, which we would visit later. It was the Middle World, the reality we lived in, that was tricky to journey into, containing as it did both benign and harmful beings.
The drumming would begin as we descended. Once we reached the lower world we were to look for an animal that would guide us and see what unfolded. After 15 minutes, the drum would stop. That was our signal to come back; the drumming would resume again to guide us home.
The assistant teacher started drumming and off we went. Down into the soil I scrambled, following the twisted roots, watching for a light at the end of the tunnel. When I emerged there were trees overhead and a black furry creature dropped into my arms.
"Oh no", I thought recognizing the animal, "did it have to be a simian?" I was somehow disappointed, but the urgent beat of the drum did not let me remain argumentative. I accepted the gibbon guide (I'd had several gibbons as a child) and he dropped to the ground leading me by the hand, across a meadow to another grove of trees. There a tall indigenous man waved me down the path, the drums seeming to summon us. All around were people in celebration.
Soon we reached an amphitheatre filling up with people. I could see them far up into the stands. A leadership figure, another tall indigenous man in a long tunic came to the center of the stage. For a lesbian, I thought, this vision sure was filled with a lot of handsome men. It was a diverse crowd of many nationalities. I looked for the animal guides and saw them appear, sitting with their people—lions, cheetahs, birds—each surrounded by a glowing light.
The man welcomed us and spoke of what we were to expect during this day how we would be well taken care of. There were things we would be shown. Eager to see what technologies might be on display, I stood up and made my way outside towards a sandy beach where I saw several sailing vessels moored on the water. How perfect for a sustainable lifestyle, I thought. They were catamarans only with more hulls, about five hulls per vessel.
I was invited on board by the men already seated and given a place at a tiller, my gibbon pal tucked inside my jacket. We set off at a brisk pace, my feet braced on the sides. I was energized by the speed we were going and could feel the water spray, the wind and the pull of the boat. Everyone was working in sink together. After some time we landed at an island where I stepped onto the beach, as did the gibbon. We walked into the forest to drink from a stream with our hands and eat fruit from vines overhead.
"What's your name," I asked my gibbon friend.
"Panda," he said into my mind and added "I know you like jokes." Ha, yes, a gibbon named Panda, an animal by another's name. And the name of a college friend with hippie parents.
Climbing up a bluff I asked if there was a Tarzan swing.
And soon one came to hand. I grabbed one as Panda Gibbon grabbed another and we swung across the forest floor.
Then the drum stopped and I was far from my portal of entry, but I knew from reading The Way of the Shaman that I could go back through another one; there was a tree stump not far off that would do. I ran to it and jumped in through the top, climbing up the tree roots to the quickening beat of the drum, exhilarated with all I had experienced especially the sailing.
Talk To The Animals
The next exercise was more daunting. We were now to partner up, return to our animal guides and ask a question on behalf of our partner.
"The Spirits respond to altruistic intentions," our teacher told us. I was liking this world of compassionate beings more and more.
"Form your question," carefully said our teacher, "the question changes the future as it is being asked." She did not offer an explanation of why this was so. It was part of intention making I surmised. These were not lighthearted questions being asked either. Some in the room had cancer diagnosis or relatives who were ill.
Getting my new gibbon friend to give a straight-forward answer or any answer at all was not an easy task. When I asked him my partner's question, he spun around in circles for quite a bit before he would calm down and sit quietly beside me. I asked him again and he started grooming himself. Then I started putting words in his mouth. "Do you mean this?" I would ask. "How about this?" "What else should he do?" He mimed playing cards with me without looking at me. I asked the question again and he formed words into my head. "And how should he do that?" I asked. The gibbon mimed painting a picture. Then he ate some nearby grapes and sat quietly watching the horizon.
Well it would have to do. The drum was calling me back.
The journey having ended I sat up and composed my notes, then faced my partner with my answer. "Stop looking for solutions in a state of turmoil," I said."Find a quiet place in yourself. Nurture yourself away from your parents. Then return to them and listen with your other mind, your objective mind. Do something companionable and non-confrontational with them. When they are ready, tell them what you see is their future and paint a picture for them. Then nurture yourself again and let things unfold."
I was not used to giving people advice so boldly which added to the sense that I was delivering a message. My partner nodded in agreement to most of what I said.
"It's pretty much the same as what the rock said," he told me. Whew.
In turn the question I had asked my partner came back with an answer that gave me a new perspective into my question though the actions of her animal guide had much more meaning for her than for me. I was beginning to see how this worked.
"The Spirits arrange things that have some meaning for us," our teacher told us. With practice we would get more adept at communicating with this spirit world and interpreting the answers.
We ended our first day with a dance. We were to dance our animal guides and let them express themselves.
The next day we journeyed to the Upper World. We were to ask the first person we met if they were our guide and ask for a healing. If the answer was no we were to go in search of another person.
I entered the Upper World via a tree and found myself in a white room similar to a doctor's office. A woman in white robes came toward me. She had long dark hair covering her face completely. When I searched for a face I saw almond eyes that were closed and a very wrinkled face smiling up at me. She looked not quite human, her skin being the color of paper, but she worked with me nonetheless, passing her hand over my sore hip and shoulder joints. Nothing seemed to work. Healing was not going to be my strong point I could see.
When I came back, on the second journey, with a question on behalf of a partner, the guide beckoned me down the hall to a garden full of patients healing. She spoke words into my mind and showed me things to make her point, a fountain full of coins, water over flowing.
New Animal Friends
By the end of the day I was feeling taxed by both thinking up questions and the retrieving of answers. Thus the final exercise was a welcome replenishing of our spirits.
We were to return to the Lower world on behalf of a partner and call for their power animal. We were not to bring back any insects, menacing reptiles or fish showing teeth. The animal was to show itself four times and then we were to gather it up, feel it in our arms and carry it back. On our return we were to blow the animal into our partners chest with great intention and then into the back of their heads whatever was left. Only then would we tell our partner what the animal was. If it was not the right animal for them it would just evaporate in time.
My partner journeyed first; I lay quietly next to him our knees and ankles touching as instructed. As the minutes went by, I grew eager with anticipation as though awaiting a gift. Then I saw my partner rise, his arms wide. After he blew into my chest and head, he told me there were two animals that wanted to come. While he gathered up one, another had insisted on coming too and had hopped on.
It was fitting. Two was my lot in life, two countries, two languages, two races, two spiritual philosophies east and west.
The first animal was a bear, as big as any you could find. The second a mongoose. I liked them both. I had just been calling for the emergence of my inner bigger self. And the mongoose was indeed a versatile character, Rikki Tikki Tavi having been a favorite childhood story.
In our final journey of the workshop, we met with our power animals to get to know them and ask how they could help us. The Bear was indeed filled with power and the Mongoose very talkative and busy. I asked how I would tell this story, overwhelmed as I was by all the new material and philosophical implications. Bear put his paw on my head, patting so hard that I felt like a basketball being dribbled.
"Hey I thought you weren't supposed to hurt me," I said; (it didn't really hurt) and I got the message that these were very big concepts I was trying to cram into my head. Then he lifted me to face the open landscape. Mongoose came along to interpret.
"Give an overview, then tell your story from the heart," said Mongoose, at which point I turned my head to the Bear's chest and pressed my way into his body, through his heart, descending through the internal cavity and finding myself in a birth canal as Mongoose assisted in my being born. He wiped me off after I emerged and I asked him to dress me. After all, perhaps what I was really in search of was a new wardrobe.
He put a flowing shirt of a swirling, red and ochre pattern over my head, then adorned me with brass pendants. Could this be kosher I wondered, this asking for fashion advice? They seemed okay with it; it was all part of the presentation. Then the drum summoned me to return.
We danced our new power animals; this gave them the joy of being alive, manifested in our body. Then the lights were turned on. Our workshop was done. We lingered, saying our goodbyes, everyone smiling happily.
My first day out I had lunch at an outdoor café with Bart, my editor at the Energy Bulletin. He was eager to hear what I learned at my workshop and I was hesitant to tell him. He was more a man of science than an enthusiast of the occult.
I turned to the sky to take in a pair of large cumulus clouds on that fresh, storm washed morning. One cloud had an in-y and one had an out-y. And as they moved towards each I could see that the out-y was lined up to slide into the cavity of the in-y.
I began to explain, to Bart, the metaphorical techniques, the Rorschach test-like interpretations. It would take me a while to get to the animals.
My pair of clouds were sliding into each other and I sensed that Bart was, after all, quite receptive to this intuitive based seeking. We certainly needed all solution seeking on board. Why not the pre-industrial techniques of medicine men?
I turned to him smiling, daring him, "Don't you think Peak Oil could use a Shaman?"
"Oh yes," he said enthusiastically, and we left it at that.