In the last post (“Shamanic Dream Perspectives”), I began a series of articles that will explore shamanism as it relates to dreamwork. I mentioned briefly that a shaman’s task is “to facilitate communication and alignment with Spirit, on behalf of the larger community (and individuals)—especially where that connection has been damaged,” and “shamans journey into ‘other worlds’… where an experience of Spirit is more accessible, and they return bringing what they have learned from those experiences to be applied in concrete ways for healing and restoration.”
This week, I’ll focus on what is meant by “journeying,” and briefly consider some similarities and differences between journeying and dreaming. It’s important to understand that although shamans use journeying as a primary tool to fulfill their healing role in community, this tool—like dreamwork—can also be a meaningful spiritual practice for non-shamans. Just as a person who pays attention to dreams does not have to be a professional dreamworker, a person who journeys is not necessarily a shaman!
In fact, a shaman must develop a wide range of tools and skills, in addition to journeying—according to the unique calling of the individual shaman and the particular needs of her/his community. Each shaman may have a specific set of specialized skills (such as dreamwork, plant medicine, etc.), but journeying is an essential practice that might be considered a prerequisite to all other shamanic arts.
Journeying can be hard to define. In the broadest terms, it refers to a process of entering an altered state and traveling to “other worlds.” The “altered state” might be anything from a profound trance to a gentle shift in orientation allowing visual, auditory, or sensory experiences outside ordinary consciousness to occur.
Describing journeying as “creative imagination” or “visualization” would be controversial, since, from a shamanic perspective, the experiences one encounters in a journey are real—the “other worlds” are real—they are not “made up” by the conscious mind. However, this reality includes non-physical experiences (“non-ordinary reality”) that many non-shamanic cultures would call “imaginary,” so it could be just a question of semantics.
The “other worlds” explored in journeying, like the worlds explored in dreams, are absolutely real in the sense that they can be experienced as meaningful, and can offer insights and information not available to the conscious mind in physical reality.
The prevalent contemporary way of entering a journey is through the use of a “sonic driver”—repetitive sound, such as drumming, rattling, or chanting—to induce a light trance or altered state. There are many shamanic training programs available that teach journeying for beginners, and almost all use this method, at least as a starting point. (Traditionally, altered states, including deeper trance-states, can also be induced through dance, psychotropic substances, fasting, sleep deprivation, or other means as well.)
A shaman or shamanic practitioner might journey on behalf of another person or a community, but journeying for oneself is also a useful and meaningful spiritual practice (and a necessary part of any shaman’s ongoing development). Whether the journey is undertaken for others or not, the journeyer often carries a question into the journey, and seeks responses to that question from the experiences, and the Spirits, encountered there. This is similar to the process of asking one’s dreams for a response to a particular question or concern.
In the journey or the dream, the question or request may receive a direct answer in words or images, but more often the response is metaphorical and sometimes ambiguous, requiring the engagement of the journeyer’s or dreamer’s conscious discernment to determine how best to apply the guidance received.
From what I’ve heard others describe, my own experiences with journeying seem fairly typical—at least typical of those who are not necessarily immersed in a shamanic cultural tradition. I don’t experience journeys as vividly and strangely as dreams, so my conscious mind is probably more actively engaged in the process than it is when I am asleep and dreaming. However, just as in a lucid dream (where there is conscious awareness of dreaming as it is going on) the experiences that come in journeys are certainly still capable of taking my conscious mind by surprise.
Here’s a much-abbreviated description of a journey:
Listening to drumming through earphones, I enter the journey with a question in mind about a physical health problem. I travel deep underwater (along with a Spirit helper) and emerge in a lake, in a place that I have visited many times in previous journeys. I expect to see the familiar wooded shoreline and nearby village, but instead see that a tremendous fire has taken place and the landscape is nothing but desolate, charred ruins. Flying over this landscape (with another Spirit helper), I find that the devastation goes on and on. I expect that at some point I will see a green sprout of returning life, or a bubbling spring, or some other sign of hope—but there is nothing. In the middle of nowhere, we stop, and my companion begins to dig down through the ashes. He buries me in the ground, and covers me up with heavy, dark earth. I wait in the dark, going beyond panic and claustrophobia, until I am quiet and at peace. Then I feel a tearing sensation and I reach upward until I break the surface. I grow and expand, reaching into the sky, spreading my branches—I’m an oak tree… The journey continues.
I can feel the influence of my conscious mind in this journey throughout—and the journey follows a more predictable pattern (a kind of spiritual cliché) than a typical dream might. Yet, repeatedly, I expected certain things to happen and found something else happening instead. I expected to see a lakeside village, and saw burnt ruins instead. I expected to find signs of life, and found the devastation going on and on. I didn’t expect my companion to dig, or to bury me. And, the experience had a powerful healing effect that was beyond my expectations as well.
So, in comparison with dreaming, journeying is a process that can involve more of the waking imagination, but it can also extend beyond that imagination. In dreams (other than lucid dreams), we have little or no conscious involvement in creating the environments, events, and encounters that present themselves. Personally, I find this aspect of dreaming especially beneficial, because it allows me to go beyond my own assumptions and expectations to a significant degree.
In journeying, there is perhaps less of the uninhibited open-endedness of dream possibilities, but there is also some added benefit to increased conscious awareness in the midst of the journey experience. And, even with the conscious mind’s influence, new insights and information emerge in the journey that would not be available to that conscious mind in an “ordinary” waking state.
If I had just “imagined” the journey described above as if I were writing fiction—using my conscious creativity, and without a sonic driver or an altered state of any kind—it would have been a different story. I would have come up with some interesting things, but they would not have been the things that happened in that journey. The experience of the journey was something other than my usual imagination.
So, who created the journey? Where did the journey come from? These are the same questions we ask about dreams. And the answer, from a shamanic perspective, is that journeys and dreams both take us outside of our familiar idea of “reality” and into another reality that is equally (or more) valid. The journey or dream reality has its own inhabitants, systems and language—and when we visit, we will learn things that are entirely new to us if we conduct ourselves appropriately and pay attention without preconceptions.
In the next article, I’ll turn to the subject of “Spirit helpers” and “power animals”—since it’s really impossible to talk about journeying without talking about the Spirit beings that share those journeys with us, as guides and companions.