Regardless of other specialities - which may include plant medicine, divination, or healing rituals - the key approach of all shamans both ancient and modern is the shamanic journey. This is a special state of trance consciousness that enables communion with the energy or spirit of the universe. The Sora of India believe, for example, that the shaman can command his soul to leave his body so that the spirits may speak through him. In Siberia, the shaman takes flight to the Otherworld to rescue lost souls. In Haiti, the soul of the shaman goes to Gine (primal Africa) so the Lwa (spirits) can take over his body and transmit their healing through him.
The shamanic journey is a method of exploring the spiritual universe, making contact with tutelary spirits, recovering energy that has been lost, or simply finding out more about ourselves and our purpose. It is also quite a simple practice. Anyone should be able to take a basic journey for themselves by following a few easy guidelines.
To take any shamanic journey, you need to find a time and a place where you can be alone and undisturbed for 20 minutes or so. Dim the lights or cover your eyes, and lie down on your back with your legs outstretched. Make yourself comfortable. Keep your right arm by your side, fingers straight, and the whole arm relaxed, then bending your left arm and placing it over your forehead so it shields your eyes. This is the classic posture for shamanic journeying. This trance posture comes from the Amazonian Jivaro people and was first described in the book The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, following his field research there. (1).
Most shamanic journeys are taken to the sound of drumming, which encourages a specific state of trance and "dreaming" brain wave patterns which take us into a deeper and more holistic experience of the world in all its fullness. You can either drum for yourself (although you will not be able to maintain the posture, of course), have a friend drum for you, or use a drumming tape to guide your journey. All are equally effective.
Expressing your intention - the purpose for your journey - and keeping this in focus is very important as you journey. Intention is the energy that guides the journey and ensures you do not wander aimlessly in the Otherworlds. So the next thing to do when you are lying down is to express your intention by putting whatever question or purpose you have into a positive statement of intent.
So, for example, the question "should I move to another part of the country?" could be expressed positively and definitely as: "My intention for this journey is to explore the outcome of moving to [whichever county or state has appealed to you]." This statement of intent alerts the spirits to your purpose so they can work with you more effectively. To put it another way, it begins to direct your energy and the energies of the universe towards your specific purpose. It also ensures that you do not get distracted, that you have a clear and definite purpose in mind.
As soon as the drumming begins, imagine yourself entering a place that will take you down into the earth, such as a well or a cave (for a "lower world" journey). Continue in your imagination until you reach your destination. The light of the Otherworld and the spirit guides will be waiting there to help you with your question. Remember to stay focused on your intention throughout and, if you lose your bearings at any time, focus on the sound of the drum and come back to your purpose again.
Once you are in the Otherworld, do not try to control or dictate the action that takes place or the information you receive. Just relax. Imagination is the bridge we use to cross to the Otherworld, but once we are there the spirits are our guides. All we need do is receive.
Drumming tapes have a special call-back signal at the end to bring you back to ordinary reality and normal consciousness. When you hear this, or when you yourself are ready, retrace your steps out of the Otherworld and come back to normal awareness. Then write down your thoughts and feelings as well as the answers to your questions so you have a record you can refer back to.
1. Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman (HarperSanFrancisco, 1979)
Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.
He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.
He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.
As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.