“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ― Aristotle
You have applied Shamanism before, I am sure of it. But no one would have told you that’s what it was. And so the question becomes, what is Shamanism? If you ask Wikipedia, it will tell you that….
“Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.”
The altered states most of us are familiar with come from the delirium of alcohol, the muddle of Cannabis, or the shiny veneer of club drugs. These substances indeed render altered states but - with the exception of Cannabis - are not used with the intention of interacting with the “spirit world” to manifest transcendental energy. We are more familiar with these substances as a method of, as we say in this part of Canada, getting dickered. But there are at least two Shamanic methods of consciousness exploration that have shook their way into contemporary consciousness. The first is lucid dreaming.
A lucid dream occurs when the sleeper is able to dance on the razors edge between sleep and wakefulness. Upon this edge, dreams become participatory. The dreamer can exert a degree of control upon the dream, influencing the events, characters, narrative, and even the environment itself.
“The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego-consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends.” — Carl G. Jung
Within lucid dreams, you can soar through the cosmos, turn your demons into flowers, and make love to angels. You can interact with a dream-like world and channel your conscious energies into your subconscious dream state. Dreams are a known mystery. We are comfortable with what we do not know about them. We feel they can be revealing but we tend not to examine them with rigour or consistency. We close our eyes, go on a journey, wake up, then forget it all.
The idea of influencing a dream is one we can accept. I have had many friends and colleagues inquire as to the tricks of deeper sleep and more vivid, lucid dreams. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness. When you play with your dreams, you are enjoying The Life Shamanic.
“In sleep, fantasy takes the form of dreams. But in waking life, too, we continue to dream beneath the threshold of consciousness, especially when under the influence of repressed or other unconscious complexes.” — Carl G. Jung
We seem open to anything capable of increasing our productivity or competitiveness. Like the student gobbling up stimulants to pass the BAR or the manager who gleefully escorts his underlings to the local roaster for caffeination, we are open to giving ourselves a cognitive boost.
As much as we love chemical short-cuts, we are even more infatuated with techniques. Information, that sweet bit of wisdom that gives you the edge – four hot tips for a photographic memory, three ways to get people to fall in love with you. One of these nuggets of wisdom you might recall.
You might even have had a room for it, or a spot on a shelf within that room, or a line on a page within a book upon the shelf residing deep inside the ebony cellar etched with the dense, wooden carvings. If these evocations unearth stored memories, then…
We are visiting your memory palace!
“The soul never thinks without a mental picture… No one could ever learn or understand anything, if he had not the faculty of perception; even when [one] thinks speculatively, [one] must have some mental picture with which to think.” ― Frances A. Yates, The Art Of Memory
In his 1966 book The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates restored an idea borne from the well-bearded philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. To them, it was known as the Method of loci, ‘loci’ translating from Latin to English as ‘places’. This method has been lauded by memory champions, who leverage it to stuff details deep within their subconsciousness for later retrieval.
The method requires deep focus and visualization. Breath in, breath out. Be calm. Keep breathing. Now picture an environment. Maybe it is warm and bright and the air is crisp. Now, visualize a structure.
Perhaps it is on a hill. It is the first time you have seen it and it excites you. The sun is shining. Its sunlight reflects across old stone which reaches towers the heavens like the branches of an ancient tree. You see a door. The door is the colour of concord grapes. You walk in and to the left there is a room. Within the room is a tome.
The dark wooden floors creaks as you walk upon it. Light pours in through the windows, sparkling off of the empty glass display cases that line the barren and rocky walls. You feel like the place invites you and begs you to fill it with things. You reach for the tome and open it. You decide to write some numbers there: 180352080556190488200984. They are important dates, belonging to loved ones. You close the tome and depart.
Later, weeks from now, you feel like something important is on the horizon. But you cannot remember what! You return to your breath. You focus, imagine, and return to that grape door - it even smells like concords.
The inside smells musty, though, like the flowers outside are writhing through the stone-work and settling themselves in during your absence. You open the tome, and it is there, clear as the light still streaming through the hovering dust: 180352080556190488200984.
When we visit this place we call imagination, we are altering our consciousness. Imagination is the container where spirits and transcendental energies become the images that we project outside of ourselves in a way similar to that of a hologram; as within, so without.
Within this space, we perceive and interact with a non-ordinary world, morphing and molding the energies to do our bidding, if we can, if we have practiced - if the spirits are willing! This is Shamanic practice.
“Skywalker is a direct translation of the word shaman out of the Tungusic, which is where Siberian shamanism comes from. So these heroes that are being instilled in the heart of the culture are shamanic heroes. They control a force which is bigger than everybody and holds the galaxy together.” — Terrence McKenna
If we bend to this premise, that we become the master of our subconscious dream states - and our conscious state through imagination - what is off-limits to us? What other Shamanic techniques can we deploy? To bludgeon you with more weird things, I explored one such technique in the midst of an Ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazon. I provide guidance as a volunteer.
During a period of rest when no one needed tending to, I found a quiet corner in our maloca, our ceremonial hut. I write a lot. As is common among advice within the Peruvian Ayahuasca tradition, I put forward an intention to the medicine. I sent an open call out to spirits of all ilk: “Would anyone like to be written about?” Be careful what you wish for!
Following my request, every faculty of my being became overwhelmed by input. Every synapse crackled to life, every cell vibrated in response. Vistas of dense harmonies erupted through my ears, pungent smells oozed into my nostrils; vision, after vision, after vision bombarded my mind, smashing into one another and accumulating in an eternity of fractal creature, place, feeling, emotion, duality – ecstatic madness – vast weirdness.
“Whoa! Hold on, gang. We’ll have to come up with something a bit more — Erhmm… Manageable…,” I think after recovering.
At that moment, all becomes clear. Three platforms hovering, one above the other. A waterfall splashes down from the top, to the middle, to the bottom, drawing from an infinite well of liquid that rests somewhere within the black abyss which cradles three blazing suns made up of pure creative frequency. One white, one violet, one a shimmer I cannot quite comprehend, each with a different hue of feeling, attitude, character, setting, and opinion.
I walk up the steps, which themselves hang suspended in the air. Here, I am weightless. I marvel at the rich soil which stretches as far as I dare make it go. I find myself mesmerized as the garden plots spirals downwards, ever-downwards, or maybe upwards. I query the spirits again, refreshed by the reprieve from my temporary madness. This time, I am more careful.
“Whomever would like to be written about, kindly plant yourself as a seed. I will water you and help you grow. This garden has everything you need. When the time comes to write about you, I shall pluck you gently and take you into the world.”
Suddenly, the seeds began to sow. Row, upon row, upon row, all fill with saplings. Without time, some explode right then into labyrinthian forest, echoing into the vast reaches of space. Flowers bloom, fruits bare, vines stretch upwards into a sky that is lost to perception.
I will need help, I decide. And a friend appears. A spirit I am familiar with. He agrees to tend this place with me, as long as I live; not long, for he, but that does not detract from this most honourable of gestures; a reward for strong will and perseverance; an accord of integrity.
When I catch quiet moments, this is where I go. I walk among the rows, through the forests, singing to the plants, the wild-life, the flowers, and the trees. I converse with strange characters and hear fanciful stories of conquest and romance. Ideas become seeds, rumination and insight the waters that nourish.
The spirit is there, always toiling, and when comes the need to pluck something, we pluck it together. He protects this place. He cares for it. He carries out his duties with serious diligence and holds me accountable to procrastinations. Only the right things may enter; even I am not allowed in from time to time. I know this garden well and marvel at the intrigue, mystery, romance, and adventure that wait in bloom.