SHAMANIC STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS:
or what am I doing here?
by Jonathan Horwitz ©
"Shamanic States of Consciousness" is more than just a label to describe the changing states of consciousness the shaman experiences as he travels on his journey to, through, and from the Spirit World . It is also the consciousness that resides within the shaman at all times. It is also a part of the greater consciousness to which we are all connected at all times. One of the great and beautiful mysteries of life is that we all share the same consciousness, and each of us manifests it so differently. The shaman's path is but one way to consciously come closer with awareness to that consciousness.
Preparing for the Journey
The shamanic seance, as I and many others have experienced it, has basically three phases: the preparation, the journey, and the return. Already from the first steps of the preparation, the shaman's state of consciousness starts to change, as awareness of the intimacy of the Spirits expands. I use the word "expand" because, for me, that is what it feels like, as if there is more in my chest, in my body, than there is room for, and yet, at the same time, there is room enough. It is in this deepening consciousness that the would-be journeyer to the Spirits formulates precisely why she is going to the Other World. What is the errand, the mission, what is the reason for contacting the Spirits? Although my ordinary reality consciousness has only started to change, this change is enough for me to clear away much of the everyday busyness which could otherwise clutter my vision, cutting down on my concentration for the mission at hand.
Lighting the sacred fire, setting up the alter, and washing the sacred objects in smoke are all a part of the preparation, but what is also going on is that I am becoming more and more aware of the Spirits, and as their nearness becomes more and more tangible, so does my mission, whether I be asking for help for others, or for myself. It is my experience that I should be as clear as possible in my intentions: without clarity of intention, one can easily return from a journey knowing that something has happened, but not knowing what it was, as Alice experienced with her adventures in Wonderland. This is also what can happen when the goal is simply to experience the ecstasy of the shaman, but the ecstasy is only the doorway to the world of the Spirits, while the intention is the key to understanding.
However, there are some interesting and seemingly paradoxical aspects to this. For example, sometimes when I get to my spirit helpers and tell them why I have come, the mission which comes out of my mouth is not necessarily the same as the one that I so carefully formulated before I left my body. The reasons for this are mainly that when I first formulate the mission, even though my consciousness has already started to change, I am still in fairly close contact with, and influenced by, my own personal desires concerning my life, my hopes, my fears, or, if I am working for someone else, the life circumstances of that person who has come to me for help. However, when I cross the threshold into the spirit world there is a shift, and for each threshold I cross after that there are further shifts. The deeper I get away from my own ordinary reality the further I leave my ego-self behind. The result being that when finally I get to my teachers and helpers in the spirit world to ask my question, my original and mundane view of the situation is changed into a more universal perspective, and I am shown what I need to see instead of what I thought I wanted to know.
It often happens that the mission I start with is very appropriate, but even so, the response of the Spirits can be very surprising, as I once experienced in a healing ceremony. Illness can happen when what seems to be separation, or blockage, comes into the flow of life. The shaman works together with his spirits to remove those blockages. In this particular case, I was working with a woman who had been suffering from colitis, and unsuccessfully treated medically, for two years. Doing the diagnostic work I could see that there was a huge python coiled in her lower intestine. The python told me that it was the woman's spirit-helper, and that it had been unsuccessfully trying to get her attention for some time. I was told by my teacher to remove the python and put it into a special stone I had, and then give the stone to the woman. This I did. Thereby the woman not only became aware of the python and its benevolent intentions, but she could also communicate directly with it by holding the stone in her hand. While removing the python from her intestine, it told me that it wanted the woman to seek and to come into contact with her own spiritual path. I delivered this message to her. At the time of the work, I had no personal knowledge of the woman. After the healing, she told me that her parents were from India. She had been raised a Hindu, but did not have a serious religious or spiritual practice, and was in fact a psychologist working in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in an industrial city. Two months later I received a letter from her, telling me that that since the healing ceremony she had had absolutely no symptoms of the illness. She also wrote that during her holiday she had visited an uncle who was a guru. Her uncle had giver her the same message as the python - to seek her spiritual path.
At this point, it is fitting that we look at "the Spirits," especially as we are examining something so unknown as consciousness, the Great Mystery. In the past I have often described "spirits" as being bundles of the energy/power of the Universe which present themselves to us in ways which we can understand (if we are so inclined). To this, I would like to add Richard Noll's comment that Spirits "can be thought of as ego-alien currents that step forward from the shadows of the 'not-I' to introduce new information to the individual who cannot access this information while in an ordinary state of waking consciousness (1987:48-49)." Spirits are certainly agents of change, as many of us come to find out sooner or later, and the change which the shaman undergoes at initiation is certainly testimony of this. But most importantly, the spirits are the agents of the change which make shamanism possible: no spirits, no shamanism. I feel that it is especially important to remember this in this day and "new" age where so many would try to make shamanism socially acceptable, and turn it into another form of psychotherapy. Of course, it is a form of psychotherapy, the oldest form that exists, but that is only the surface. Beneath the surface is the spiritual discipline and practice which come from the teachings of the Spirits
The shaman's journey is often seen as a metaphor. This point of view is handy for those with no direct experience of the shamanic journey, or who wish to explain or understand the shamanic journey from within the narrow framework of our time and culture, and, indeed, it is clear that the Spirits often seem to communicate with what we call metaphor. However, the shamanic journey is much more than metaphor
The shaman has spirit helpers. The Spirits are not metaphors of anything. The shaman works by asking the spirits for help. Some of the keys for doing shamanic work are knowing how to ask for help, knowing what to ask for, being able to receive the help offered, and being able to bring the help back home with all its power and depth. The journey begins when the shaman steps into the spirit world, and this generally happens while the shaman calls to her spirit helpers, guides, and teachers, asking for their help, as in this incantation of Ghindia, a shaman of the Orochee of eastern Siberia:
"I am a poor woman. There is nothing that would distinguish me from any other woman in our village. I was a poor orphan. I was a deserted girl. My parents died very early. I do not remember my mother. My youth was hard; my childhood was without joy and my girlhood lonely. My relatives reared me. I have always worked hard. I was just a poor woman, but thou noticed me. Thou, powerful spirit, chose me, a poor woman. I became thy servant . thy humble worker. Thou didst not dislike to enter into me. My body was pleasant for thee . Thou didst choose me and I became a shamaness. Without thee I am only a poor woman. With thy assistance I am powerful. All people respect me; all buseu [lesser evil spirits] fear me. I am thy servant . thy messenger, thy worker. I have entertained thee with my singing and dancing. My drum frightens thine enemies. The clanging of my belt scares them away. . I have prepared food for thee. Thy favorite dishes are ready. Come, my master, I am ready to receive thee. Come, come!" (Lopatin , 1940-41. Anthropos 35-36:354-55. Italics added).
The deeper the shaman journeys, the closer he comes to the essence of his power - the power of the Universe - both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically in that the journey takes him further and further away from the reality of his daily life where he started, literally because the experienced separation between him and the essential Power of the Universe dissolves, until, in some cases, there is no separation.
The World of the Spirits
In accounts gathered from shamans in traditional cultures and experiences of shamanic practitioners in modern western societies, it is clear that the geography of the spirit world is extensive. These areas are often referred to as the Upper World, Middle World, and Lower World of the shaman's universe. Changes in them, which can be horizontal, vertical, multi-directional, and even multi-dimensional, often seem to be synchronous with ever deepening changes in the journeyer's consciousness. Some practitioners feel that one travels to the Lower World to get power, healing knowledge or primal energy, to the Middle World for practical advice and help, and to the Upper World for answers to the great or existential questions which Life gives us. These guidelines should be looked at as rules of thumb, as even in traditional societies there are shaman specialists who journey only to certain areas of the spirit world under specific circumstances and for specific reasons.
The shaman experiences many shifts in consciousness during the journey. As mentioned before, these shifts can occur with changes of location and/or dimension in the spirit world, but there is no limit to the depth of the shamanic journey, or to the changes of consciousness experienced by the journeyer. For example, embodying a spirit helper is a wonderfully empowering experience and involves a total reorientation. It can also happen that the shaman enters into the body of one of his spirit helpers and experiences the Universe from that spirit's being, while at the same time maintaining her own awareness. With each of these changes the shaman's experience of consciousness expands. Some people even experience dying and death during the journey. Once, on one of my courses, an anthropologist, close to seventy years old, died. Fortunately, his wife, who had died some years before, knew that his time was not at hand and, after a deeply moving reunion, sent him back. When he finally returned to the world of the living he told us that when he realized that he was dead he did feel a detached concern because of all the trouble his death would cause for me and the course organizer. But now he was dead and that was that. But for him, there was no question - he had died and gone to heaven: it was not a "near-death experience", it was an experience of death.
But even deeper changes in consciousness than death are possible, and these are not unheard of, even for practitioners with a modern western cultural background. These experiences go beyond what we call today "visualization" or "imagery." They include all the senses, and sometimes even go way beyond the senses, for example, the experience of becoming unified with what I refer to as the Power of the Universe. To experience this is to go beyond knowing, beyond awareness, and beyond death. This is to go into the essence of being, into what some would call consciousness.
The animistic way of moving through life - that is, recognizing that everything is alive - is the foundation of shamanism. It is also the basis for understanding consciousness. Jaime de Angulo quotes one of his Pit River Indian friends as saying to him,
"Every thing is alive, even the rocks, even that bench you are sitting on. Somebody made that bench for a purpose, didn't he. Well, then, it's alive, isn't it? Everything is alive. That's what we Indians believe. White people think everything is dead.." (Indian Tales. P.242).
To further the point de Angulo noted:
"The spirit of wonder, the recognition of life as power, as a mysterious, ubiquitous concentrated form of non-material energy, of something loose about the world and contained in a more or less condensed degree by every object, - that is the credo of the Pit River Indian (AA, ns, 28, 1926:354. The Background of the Religious Feeling in a Primitive Tribe)."
These two statement capture the essence of the animistic experience of life. Further, to the point, Frank Cushing points out that
"The Ashiwi, or Zuñis, suppose the sun, moon, and stars, the sky, earth, and sea . and all inanimate objects, as well as plants, animals, and men, to belong to one great system of all-conscious and interrelated life (italics added).. In this system of life the starting point is man, the most finished, yet the lowest organism; at least, the lowest because the most dependent and least mysterious.. all supernatural beings, men, animals, plants, and many objects in nature are regarded as personal existences, and are included in the one term á-hâ-i = Life, [or] the Beings" (Cushing, Frank, 1883: 9 bid.11)."
At this point in my life, I define shamanism as a spiritual discipline which enables one to directly contact, use, and willingly be used by the spirit power of the Universe, generally for the purpose of healing or restoring balance in some way. Although shamanism is defined by culture, the ability to shamanize is a natural human endowment . The shaman is someone who is chosen by the Spirits to represent them in the material world. The shaman learns to call his spirit helpers and teachers when necessary, and to send his soul out to journey to the world of the spirits. The shaman's mission is to ask for help from his spirits and to bring the help back to the material world.
Thus, the shaman is a servant of the people and a servant of the Spirits at the same time. Being a servant of the people and a servant of the Spirits at the same time is not an easy job, as Ghindia's invocation indicates. It often does not leave much room for the individualism we pay so much homage to in the western world. The shaman is often required to make a pact with the spirits, which often contains certain taboos. If one will be a powerful shaman, this can only happen with the participation of the Spirits, and this calls for surrender.
But what happens to the shaman after his return from the spirit world? Up until now, we have been talking about shamanic states of consciousness only in relation to the shamanic journey. My first teacher (in ordinary reality) of shamanism used to say that a shaman is a shaman only when he is shamanising. From one point of view this is true enough, but it is not the only truth. The path of the shaman is a spiritual path, no matter which state of consciousness he is in. If the shaman wanders too far from the path, from the dictates of his spirit helpers and teachers, he risks losing them. The Spirits are constantly a part of his daily awareness, and this has an effect on his ordinary reality consciousness. It also has an effect on how others regard him. As Don Handelman (1972) so perspicaciously points out, most people who do not have direct recourse to the spirit world fear the shaman simply on the basis of his ready access to the Spirits (84-101).
The more the power of the Spirits flows through her, the more powerful the shaman becomes, as long as the power is used properly; that is, as defined by the Spirits. After initiation, perhaps the most important teaching from the Spirits for the would-be shaman is how to live with power in her own daily life in a way which is acceptable to the shaman and acceptable to the society she lives in. Without learning these teachings, the neophyte risks insanity, or, perhaps worse, being feared as a lunatic, or merely dismissed as a neurotic. These teachings are necessary because the more she works with the Spirits, the more conscious the shaman becomes: more conscious of the spirits as entities, or containers, of the power of the universe, and therefore more conscious of the energy/power of the Universe, and more aware that the energy/power of the Universe is the power that is in her, and that it is the source of - and the same as - her own power, her own deep consciousness. With this realization comes the knowing that there is no separation between the power of the individual, the individual's consciousness, the power of the Universe, and Universal consciousness. They are one and the same. In other words, as one of my teachers in this reality once told me, "Everything that's me isn't ME."
Non-recognition of the animistic nature of the Universe is one of the major stumbling blocks which keeps western science from understanding consciousness. If we think everything is dead, we separate everything from us. With this point of view it is very difficult to investigate consciousness except as something removed from our own being. From the very little I've learned it seems clear that the place to start to study consciousness is from the inside, that is, from my own connection to consciousness. Something so beautiful, so deep, so all-encompassing as consciousness cannot be fully studied with only a western scientific approach. The scientists of the East have been studying consciousness for several thousands of years, and shamans, by moving into and with shamanic states of consciousness, have been studying consciousness for perhaps a hundred thousand years or more. The results of these studies clearly show the inter-relationship of life and consciousness. Life is consciousness. Everything is alive. Everything has consciousness, and it is this consciousness which joins us all together.
This paper was originally written for the meeting of
the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness
held in Tucson, Arizona, April, 2000
Cushing, Frank H. (1883): Zuñi Fetiches. Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, DC. (Reprinted KC Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada. 1987)
Di Angulo, Jaimi (1926): The Background of Religious Feeling in a Primitive Tribe. American Anthropologist, ns.
Di Angulo, Jaimi (1953): Indian Tales. New York
Handelman, Don (1972): Aspects of the Moral Compact of a Washo Shaman. Anthropological Quarterly, 45,2. Washinton DC
Lopatin, Ivan A. (1940-41): A Shamanistic Performance to Regain the Favor of the Spirit. Anthropos 35-36. Freiburg
Noll, Richard (1987): The Presence of Spirits in Magic and Madness. In Nicholson, Shirley (ed.) Shamanism, An Expanded View of Reality. Wheaton, Ill.