The 7 Keys to Accessing Shamanic Consciousness: An In-Depth Guide to Understanding and Practicing Shamanism
BY HANK WESSELMAN, Ph.D.
shamans are masters of navigating higher spiritual realms and understanding the intricacies of more subtle layers of consciousness and awareness. photo: alex polezhaev
Shamans still exist in some form in every culture on the planet, including our own modernized Western world. Engaging with the shamanic tradition is not about cultural appropriation or ripping off thespirituality of any indigenous peoples. We all come from indigenous ancestors if we go back far enough, and they all had great shamans. Thus, the shamanic path is one of our birthrights and the ancestral precursor of all of our spiritual and religious traditions.
In the Western world, when we hear the word shamanism, many of us think of a costumed tribal person dancing around a fire in the dark, involved in some sort of mysterious ritual, accompanied by drum beats and singing. But inside that costume and ritual there is a woman or a man with a set of very real skills.
All true shamans are distinguished by their ability to achieve visionary states of consciousness in which they can redirect their focused awareness away from everyday physical reality and into the hidden, inner worlds, all while very much awake. This conscious shifting of awareness is called shamanic journeywork in the Western world, and it’s an ancient form of meditation that improves with practice. It has been my experience that most of us in the West can do this to some extent, and some of us are real naturals at it. In shamanistic journeywork, we quiet ourselves, focus our intentions upon the inner worlds, and watch. Shamanic practice thus begins with intention, and we trust that the rest just happens.
The first thing those with shamanic abilities discover is that the hidden inner worlds are inhabited by transpersonal forces that the traditional peoples call spirits—the spirits of nature, the spirits of the elementals, the spirits of our ancestors, the spirits of the dead, as well as higher angelic forces, many of whom serve humanity as helpers and guardians, teachers and guides, and there are others. The imaginary friends many of us had as children most likely fall into one or more of these categories.
It is this extraordinary ability to connect with the inner worlds of things hidden and the beings that reside there that sets shamans apart from all other religious practitioners. I remember asking Michael Harner long ago what qualities revealed someone as an authentic practitioner of shamanism. He replied, “Do they journey to other worlds? Do they have relationships with spirits? And do they perform miracles?” It is through their relationship with the spirits that shamans are able to do various things, initially on behalf of themselves and then increasingly on behalf of others.
And of the things shamans can do, many could be said to fall into the realm of the miraculous. What sorts of things are these, you might ask?
Working with the assistance of their helping spirits, those transpersonal forces with whom they establish relationship, shamans are able to restore power to persons who have been dramatically disempowered and diminished by their life experiences.
This is what I experienced when Sandra Ingerman reconnected me with my childhood spirit friend. Through the lens of shamanism, the rest of my life then began to unfold in an empowered way, and nothing has ever been quite the same.
Recently I had the opportunity to be of service in this way for an old friend from high school who attended a workshop on shamanism I was offering in Oregon. Mark and I had seen each other only twice in the past fifty years or so, but there was still a heart connection. As part of a demonstration for the group, I invited Mark to volunteer for an empowerment exercise known as a power-animal retrieval, in which I as the giver would attempt to find a spirit helper for him as the receiver. In the process I would ask the shaman spirit to provide him with power, protection, and support.
As we lay down on the floor of the workshop room side by side, the other participants watching, Mark was uncertain about what was going on, yet I settled myself beside him and brought my conscious awareness into an inner-world place in the dreaming of nature that I call my sacred garden. I allowed myself to just be there for long moments, then I simply set my intention to invite a helping shamanic spirit to reveal itself to me for my friend. My job was simply to watch and to listen.
My attention was drawn to a large tree overhanging a pond.
In the tree I saw a good-sized snake, a python or boa, perhaps.
I have always been fond of serpents, so I focused my attention upon it and asked the snake, “Are you here for my old friend Mark?” The response came in the form of an emotional pulse—one that I perceived as affection. I took that as a yes. I approached it and gathered the snake into my arms, then transferred my awareness back to the workshop room, holding the serpent in a bundle next to my heart. I then conveyed the snake and its medicine to my friend’s heart center with my breath, the way Sandra had done for me so many years earlier.
I didn’t know how Mark would respond, as he is a professor of education, very mental. But as I related the journey to him, a funny look came over his face. He then told me that several weeks earlier he had been at the Oregon Country Fair, where he had encountered someone walking around with a large boa draped around himself. This individual then wrapped this big snake around my friend’s shoulders. Mark felt the connection with the serpent, and it felt good. He didn’t know what to make of it, as he had never been particularly fond of snakes, and when I perceived the serpent in a relationship with him as a power animal, he was amazed. He now possesses the shamanic snake medicine, and he will find out through direct experience what that means.
Shamanic practitioners are able to access information from the inner worlds through divination. I can recall many instances in which I and other shamans have been able to be in service to another person using divination, accessing information or symbols on the person’s behalf in response to their request about specific issues. I simply quiet myself, and using a rattle or a drum for liftoff, I access the expanded state of awareness in which I first connect with my own helping spirits and then put out there the questions I have been asked. Then I simply listen and watch. The information that comes through my mind, verbal or symbolic, is sometimes cryptic though invariably on the mark.
Accessing information this way is not difficult to do once you learn the art of shamanism. It’s simply a matter of practice, and once again, the buzzword is trust.
the art and practice of shamanism takes many forms depending on the indigenous culture from which the lineage originates. photo: magicshow photocase.com
Some shamanic practitioners are good at guiding the souls of the recently deceased to where they are to go in the afterlife, a skill known as psychopomp work. In our Western culture, we have priests of many different varieties who are adept at conducting funerals or celebration-of-life ceremonies, but how many can track the soul of a recently deceased person, connect with it, and guide that soul to where it is supposed to go next on its journey “home”? This ability resides in the realm of the shaman.
I would like to share one of my more recent shamanic dreams that involved psychopomp work, one in which I became aware that I was dreaming and encountered a discarnate soul in need.
I awoke at first light with my lady, Jill, asleep next to me in bed. As I allowed myself to slip back into my dream shamanism practice, my vision came up as it often does at this time of day, and I found myself lying on the slope of a hillside under many big trees in full leaf. The imagery became more dense and I sensed the presence of others. Looking up, I saw several children hanging in the air above me on what appeared to be a swing with no ropes. It was simply floating. The children observed me curiously. They seemed to be sitting among garlands of flowers and greenery that were part of the swing seat.
I then became aware that someone had embraced me in a fullbody hug. Whoever it was literally wrapped themselves around me like a python, immobilizing me completely. I could barely breathe and could not disengage. As I tried to extricate myself, the person tightened around me like a wrestler who has you in their grip. I felt some alarm and sent a mental probe toward this person. In response, I felt his fear and his deep remorse. I knew in those moments that it was indeed a him, and I also felt his need for reassurance and help.
“Who are you?” I asked. All I sensed was confusion and turmoil, but I did get a response. I was in contact. “Do you need help?” I asked. The coils of his arms and legs that were wrapped around me loosened slightly. I took this as a yes.
Slowly, I felt the grip of this terrified, confused soul begin to relinquish its hold on me. As I felt his release, the shamanic trance state I was in deepened and I felt myself suffused with the familiar ecstatic sensations of overwhelming power or force. My body (in bed) began to shake. I could not control it. I was now completely possessed by this force, and I could only hold on to the emerging whirlwind within and around me and try my best to direct it with my conscious awareness. The shamanic power held me immobilized as the soaring ecstasy continued to amp up, and I knew that this meant that the spirits were arriving.
The spirits came in a procession, like a parade, and I could both see them as well as feel them observing me curiously as I lay sprawled, paralyzed, on that hillside under the trees. There, to one side, was the one who needed help. He looked like a stiffened cadaver curled up on his back. I had no idea who he was.
The procession of shamanic spirits slowly passed by. They all seemed to be wearing masks, human masks like those worn in the carnival in Venice. I noted that the spirits all seemed to be female. As they passed, I could feel their spirit bodies, the “robes” that were their energetic fields, sweep me gently, pressing curiously against me as if they were offering their support.
In response to each, my body surged again and again with sensations of “the power.” I felt one of them pause and run her fingers through my hair, lifting it upward, and words came into my mind—that the shamanic power was coming into me through my hair.
I thought briefly of the biblical hero Samson and felt the spirit’s amusement.
I glanced over at the one in need and it came to me that he wanted to die, that he wanted to kill himself, and with this shamanic insight I realized that he already had. I knew that he (his soul) was in a personal hell realm of his own postmortem dreaming and that he was suffering and afraid. I understood that he needed to cross over into the transitional world between life and the afterlife. As I tried to engage him again and tell him this, a curious impulse emerged in my ecstasy-drugged mind, and I knew that before he could cross over, he needed to tell his story.
He had to do this so that he would not be forgotten, so that he would be remembered for who he once was.
I extended my shamanic awareness toward him and said, “You need to tell me your story. And then you will be free.” There was hesitation, and then I could feel him begin to coil around me again as his fear gripped him. Suddenly, I began to receive the story of his life. I got it in spurts, each one representing a vignette, and then in an instant, I received the transmission of all of it in one long download, all of his loneliness and pain and sorrow, his few successes and his many failures, a very strange and sad tale. After his sharing, I felt him relax.
At this point a very unusual message appeared in my mind.
I offer it here without understanding what it means. He said, “Bury me standing because I spent my whole life on my knees.” The impact of this statement shook me, so I said to him, “Now you are free, and you will not be forgotten.” Reassured, he relinquished his grip on me.
In that space, I perceived another spirit who detached herself from the procession passing by. She stood over me, and I could see her eyes looking down through her human mask at me.
I observed her completely and caught glimpses of her sensuous belly briefly revealed by her swirling blue and white robes. She moved forward, slowly enfolding and embracing me, her salty lips suddenly brushing mine. And then she was kissing me.
It was her—the queen of the sea, the mother, the orisha that the Yorubas call Yemoja, Brazilians call Iemanja, Cubans call Yemaya, Vodou practitioners call La Sirene, Hawaiians call Namakaokahai. I had known her as long as I had been practicing shamanism. It was the water woman, the one who had been following me all these years since my first contact with her fifty years ago in West Africa, the one who often comes to assist me at my shamanic healing ceremonies for those in need.
The shamanic procession continued to pass by as she held me in her embrace, kissing me more and more ardently. I managed to surface beyond my shamanic awareness as my sensual side emerged. Still gripped by my trance, I was aware that I was still in bed next to my wife.
With this thought, I whispered against the water spirit’s mouth, “You are being very naughty.”
She giggled with the delight of it, and I felt her hands stroking my ecstasy-gripped soul and my body as well.
“Will you help with that one?” I asked, indicating the tortured soul who was still curled up nearby.
“Of course,” she whispered against my mouth. “It is done.” And in an instant, he was gone, conveyed across to where he was supposed to go in the afterlife, his trials over.
Slowly, her mouth disengaged from mine and her arms released me. In response, the shamanic trance diminished in surges, each pulse of power less than the last.
I sensed rather than heard her words of farewell, and I felt the love that she held for me, and I for her.
The physical paralysis lessened as the shamanic dream faded, and my awareness slowly transferred back to my body lying in bed next to Jill. She was holding me in her sleep, and I felt the great love that we share with each other, the love of the gods, expressed and experienced through us here.
Like a good shaman, I slowly reviewed the dream, again and again, and at the end, a sound appeared in my mind’s ear, a sound like wind chimes tinkling, the laughter of the saltwater oceanic goddess suffused with her delight. Then I emerged fully, disengaged gently from Jill’s embrace without waking her, and taking a pad of paper and pen I wrote down what had just occurred.
Some shamanic practitioners are adept at working with the weather and this is without a doubt an ancient practice developed and refined across time. Here is an example.
On a Saturday afternoon in March 2010, just after the release of Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation, my book co-authored with Sandra Ingerman, I had scheduled a book signing followed by a mini workshop at a local bookstore called Kona Stories here on the island of Hawai‘i. Jill was with me, and we were discussing what we might do with the workshop group, drawing upon the book to bring forth some of its shared wisdom.
Both of us were much aware that our district on Hawai‘i Island had been in a severe drought for several years, and the land and trees were in dire need of water. Accordingly, we decided to draw on the chapter in Awakening that deals with working with the weather and environmental changes. The workshop group convened, and after a short discussion about modern shamanic practice, I gave a brief overview of meditative shamanic journeywork and how it works. I then asked if they would like to engage in some weather work, specifically to attract rain. Everyone liked this idea.
I got out my drum. We suggested that at the journey’s beginning each of the participants listen to the drum either while sitting or lying down with eyes closed. Each of us would then transfer our awareness (journey) to a place on the island where we felt connected to each other and our shamanism, a personal place where we felt at ease and empowered. Once there, each was to settle and make a prayer to the great Hawaiian deity Lono, the transpersonal force associated with agriculture, shamanic healing, navigation, and science. Lono is also the keeper of the winds and the bringer of rain, and so each of us would humbly ask this spirit to bring forth rain to nurture our dry island.
The participant shamans were to perceive themselves sitting in meditation in that place on the island and “to remember rain.” This meant that each shaman was to visualize the clouds gathering above this place, to smell the moisture building in the air, to feel the wind coming and the first fine drops on their skin, and to hear the force of the rain coming through the trees. Finally, we were to experience ourselves in the midst of the rain as it pummeled down, drenching and sustaining the land with the water of life.
That was it. We held the journey constant with the drum for twenty minutes or so then brought everyone back from their shamanic vision. We discussed what we had perceived, sharing our shaman journeys with each other, and then we dispersed, confident that with our having made rain magic, Lono would respond.
Some participants got a sprinkle where they lived that very evening, and within a day the island received a deep, driving tropical rain, the gutters on our roof edges overflowing as Lono responded to our shamanic prayer. Many e-mailed us with wonder, even from neighboring islands. The television weather commentators were amazed, as they simply hadn’t seen this storm coming. It just appeared over our island.
In sharing this with you, the reader, allow me to acknowledge that this was not about me flexing my shamanic muscle.
This ritual was about we, about all of us in that circle working in connection, engaging the shaman spirits, singing their praises, and sharing our needs. We did this ritual with a common focus and intention, and with the assistance and support of the shamanic deity Lono, the land and our souls were refreshed, the drought ended, and the rainy season began early that year.
This story also reveals a truth of shamanism: when the transpersonal forces that we call spirits are engaged, and when “the field” is favorable, there can be a response. The why of it is elusive; this is part of the Mystery that we cannot really know. Yet when we are paying attention and coming from a place of compassionate intention for the greater good, things do have the tendency to happen.
Traditionally, shamans served their communities as the mediators between the human world and the world of nature, the source of food and all good things upon which the community depended for their continued survival. Rock shelters and cave sites have preserved pictographs and petroglyphs that reveal the shaman’s connection with the spirits of the animals that were hunted by the people—spirits with whom the shaman had to maintain a good working relationship. If the shaman failed to maintain this balance, the people might starve.
Imagine that you are an American Indian, perhaps a Hopi or a Zuni, living in one of the pueblos on top of one of the mesas three hundred years ago in what is today the American Southwest, in desperate need of shamanism. Imagine that it is spring and that the life is returning to the land. The corn has been planted, and it is growing, though it has not yet borne fruit. The winter has been hard. The piki bread made from last year’s corn has been consumed. The people are starving. The children are crying, for there is no milk in their mothers’ breasts. It is time for the men to hunt.
In accordance with ancient custom, the men withdraw into the kiva, the community sacred room built down into the ground. It is time for ceremony, and the shamans will likely lead those ceremonies. Perhaps they approach the large pot where the sacred fetishes of the animal spirits are kept and periodically fed with cornmeal. Perhaps the animal first addressed is mountain lion. Its fetish is withdrawn from the pot and becomes the focus of the ritual, for in addition to being the guardian of the north, mountain lion is also the elder brother of all the animals. His permission to hunt is required, and his support for the endeavor necessary for a successful outcome.
Next, the spirit of the deer, the elder brother of all deer, is addressed. It is the deer that the hunters wish to hunt, yet protocol is everything. The shamans go into a trance and journey into the spirit worlds to connect with sacred brother deer, the oversoul of all deer, and make their plea: “The people are starving. The children are crying. We, the people, need you to send some of your deer people out of the mountains, down to the hunters’ bows. And when we kill them, we will let their souls out of their skins. And we will invite their souls to come back to the pueblo with us so that as we eat their meat, we can celebrate their souls and your spirit. There will be singing and dancing and music.”
The shaman understands that the deer oversoul includes within itself all of the deer souls who manifest into our world as deer. The shaman also knows that the animal and plant spirits love music. When the pueblo people plant corn, they always sing. It doesn’t matter what they sing. What matters is that they do it. The corn maiden hears the music, and the corn grows and offers many ears in response. The deer spirit loves music too.
The shaman prevails, and a bargain is made. The deer spirit will send four deer people to the hunters, who must wait for them at such and such a place. The shaman advises the hunters, who then do more ceremony before they go to that place and wait. The deer arrive and allow themselves to be sacrificed to feed the starving humans. Their souls follow the humans back to the pueblo, where their meat is cooked, and the people offer their gratitude through singing and music and ritual.
The deer’s souls are now released according to the principles of shamanism. They return to where the deer oversoul resides in the spirit worlds and dreams. As they resume residence within the spiritual field of deer, all the other deer spirits therein are curious. The incomers tell them what has occurred, that they allowed the humans to kill them and let their souls out of their skins, and that they went back to the pueblo with the humans where they were celebrated with singing and dancing and music.
The other deer spirits are very interested in this, and they say, “Music? We love music. Maybe we’ll let the hunters kill us too so that we can have this wonderful experience.”
Hunting shamanism is still performed by indigenous peoples living in close proximity to nature. Today, most of us in the Western world buy our food at the supermarket, yet we can still employ a form of hunting magic. Whenever I prepare food, I always pause to acknowledge the source of the meat or fish or corn or squash and offer my gratitude. It is my hope that the hunters and fishermen among us engage in some sort of shamanic ritual before they practice their craft. Whenever I cut a stalk of bananas from our groves on our family farm on Hawai‘i Island, I remember that the bananas and I share forty percent of our DNA in common. So during those moments, machete in hand, I offer those banana trees my profound respect and gratitude for providing my family and me with sustenance. And whenever Jill and I plant or harvest other food crops on our land in south Kona, she always consults the Hawaiian moon calendar for fishing and farming, and I always sing. It doesn’t matter how you offer gratitude and respect; the way of shamanism merely asks that you do it.
Shamanic healers also may be masters at the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels of being. In their role as shamanic healers, many practitioners of shamanism are accomplished at restoring the fabric of a client’s soul, a transpersonal healing modality known as soul retrieval. As discussed by Jill in our co-authored book Spirit Medicine: Healing in the Sacred Realms, soul loss happens when parts of the soul complex (to be discussed shortly) become dissociated, often in response to severe trauma. In the indigenous perspective, this dissociation is one of the classic causes of illness and premature death, yet curiously, soul loss is not even mentioned in our Western medical textbooks. Nor are Jill’s insights into the transpersonal shamanic healing modality known as soul retrieval mentioned therein.
Sanctified by their initiatory experiences and accompanied by their spirit guardians, shamans are alone among human beings are able to expand their conscious awareness and travel into the spiritual worlds to recover those dissociated soul parts, returning them to their original owners with the assistance of their helping spirits, thus restoring and renewing the matrix of their client’s soul. Not surprisingly, many recipients of soul retrieval describe their responses to this experience as life changing.
Jill has performed more than four thousand shamanic soul retrieval rituals on behalf of her clients over the past twenty years. We have often shared the following account in our teaching workshops, a story of how Jill was able to be of service in a long-distance soul retrieval for a man we’ll call Bob.
We lived in California at that time, and a woman friend of Jill’s had just attended her high school reunion in Minneapolis.
There she encountered Bob, her high school sweetie. Upon graduation, she and Bob had gone their separate ways, had careers and families and children, and now were both widowed, their children grown and gone. Upon meeting once again at the reunion, they discovered that the spark of love and attraction was still there.
Despite the spark, Bob felt he was unable to commit to another long-term relationship because of something that had happened to him as a boy, something that had profoundly wounded him emotionally, leaving him rather remote at that level. He was in Catholic parochial school at that time, and when he was in third grade, on the first day of the new school year, his class was going to have the ritual of Holy Communion in the front of the chapel before any of the other grades. This was an initiation, and he was really, really looking forward to it.
When he got to school on that day, he was thirsty and ran to drink from a water fountain only to feel an iron fist gripping his neck from behind and hauling him upright. It was one of the nuns informing him point blank that he had been told not to eat or drink before coming to school and taking part in communion.
“No communion for you!” she proclaimed with grim finality. Eight-year-old Bob then had to sit alone in the front of the chapel while his entire class got up to have communion.
On that day, he had experienced a profound and enduring soul loss in shamanic terms. In fact, he could not speak of this event for thirty years, nor could he relate it without crying for forty.
Jill’s friend told Bob about her work in shamanic soul retrieval, and he wondered if she might be able to help him. Bob connected with Jill by phone, and she agreed to do a long-distance soul retrieval for him. She would go to her office, she told him, where she would state her intentions for him. She would then expand her conscious awareness into the shamanic state and connect with her spirits, who would advise her and help her journey to recover his lost soul part. She would then send this soul part back to him while he was sitting in a park (a place in nature) in Minneapolis.
At the day and time agreed upon, Jill did just that, and when her inner shaman vision came up, she found herself with her team of shamanic spirit helpers in the back of a church. The building was empty, yet Jill intuited that this was the church where the soul loss had transpired. In vision, she and her team walked down the central aisle, and way up in the front pew she could see a tiny head.
When she turned the corner, she saw a little boy sitting there.
He appeared to be made of stone, of marble, frozen. It was Bob’s eight-year-old soul part, still waiting for communion.
As she quietly observed him in her shamanic vision, an intuitive download appeared in her mind, and she asked the powers at large if there was any other shamanic spirit who would like to come forward to be of service to Bob at this time. Immediately, a door opened in the back of the church and a luminous form entered and floated down the side aisle. On turning the corner, the spirit took the shape of a tall bearded man with long hair who was wrapped in robes made of light. He was smiling with radiant benevolence, and in that moment Jill felt that it could well be the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
She explained to the shamanic spirit why she was there and told him the story of Bob, the frozen stone boy sitting before them.
The revered shamanic healer turned his attention upon the boy for long, thoughtful moments, and then leaning over, he breathed into his face. Two pink spots appeared in the boy’s cheeks. With successive breaths, again and again, the spirit blew life force back into the small figure who slowly thawed, becoming a living boy once again.
Little Bob sat blinking up at Jill and the tall shamanic spirit beside her, and as Jill prepared to gather him into her arms, she became aware that the spirit had withdrawn into the front of the church.
When she turned, she saw the shamanic spirit come back, bearing the tray with the wafers and the wine, whereupon he served that little boy communion.
When the ceremony was complete, the shamanic spirit, with a smile, slowly dissolved into a misty cloud that simply disappeared, leaving an impression within Jill that she would never forget. She then gathered the boy into her arms and transferred her conscious awareness back to her office in California where she intentionally used her own breath to blow Bob’s soul part back into him as he was sitting in the park in Minneapolis, and then recorded the entire episode on a compact disc and sent it to him Priority Mail.
In response to his soul’s renewal through shamanism, Bob recovered his emotional strength and proposed to his high school sweetie. They married and lived happily ever after until his passing more than a dozen years later.
In discussing shamanic healing, it is worth noting that while every shaman is a medicine person, not all medicine people are shamans. Like shamans, medicine people often function as ceremonialists and ritual leaders, working on behalf of large numbers of people, even entire communities at once. Yet most of the medicine people that I have encountered in both the indigenous and Western worlds are not involved in shamanism, but rather fulfill social roles more like those of priests or priestesses.
Like shamans, medicine people may hold considerable understanding of physical medicine and perform tasks such as mending broken bones, healing wounds, preventing infections, facilitating childbirth, and treating illnesses with their knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants and through other shamanic healing modalities, including energy work. However, non-shamanistic medicine people tend to do their main work in the objective, physical reality of things seen. All our specialists in modern Western medicine—our physicians and surgeons, our naturopaths and homeopaths, our energy workers and acupuncturists, our midwives and many practitioners in our psychotherapeutic communities who are in service through the medium of talk therapy—are medicine people and may or may not have knowledge of shamansim.
By contrast, shamans do their main work in the spirit worlds in states of deep trance. Many do not engage in lengthy ceremonies, although some do. In such cases, they do what is necessary to create a sacred space and expand their conscious awareness.
They then work in tandem with their helping spirits in the transpersonal levels of reality to accomplish what needs to be done. Shamans are medicine people who know that all illnesses have a spiritual aspect, and by working with their helping shamanic spirits to diminish the spiritual aspect of an illness, they may diminish, even eliminate, its expression into our physical world of form—this is one of the core essences of shamanism.
An authentic shaman’s work with spirits is not the same as straight-on energy work, although it does involve energy. Shamans use their own bodies and minds to create bridges between the personal world of form and the transpersonal worlds of the spirits. And when that bridge is formed and the spirits are engaged, it allows the healing and harmonizing powers to flow across that bridge and into our world to manifest something—shamanic healing, for example. I should also note that some healing practitioners function as shamans, as energy workers, and as ceremonial leaders as the need exists. And most indigenous shamans also know a great deal about physical medicine.
Shamanic States of Consciousness and the Technology of Transcendence
In my work as an anthropologist and because of my books about my own experiences on the shaman’s path, I have been brought into close connection with increasing numbers of modern spiritual seekers at conferences and workshops over the past thirty years. I have watched, riveted, as non-tribal Westerners successfully achieve shamanic states of trance, often on the very first attempt, and I’ve listened to their stories of their inner adventures recounted upon their return—accounts that would pass muster at any Aboriginal campfire. It may be that tens of millions of people—maybe more—have these shamanic abilities.
Evidence from my own experiential workshops has led me and others to suspect that there may be a biological-energetic program on our DNA—on our genetic hard drive, so to speak—and when this program is double-clicked with the right mouse, higher functions coded into the personal mind-body matrix may be awakened. In response, our consciousness may expand dramatically, allowing us to have that direct, mystical connection with the sacred realms that defines shamanism. I believe now that this is what happened for me on the clay pan in Ethiopia so many years ago.
The inner fieldwork of the Eastern shaman mystics suggests that this biological-energetic program is associated with the ductless glands, the brain, and the heart—organs that, in turn, are in relationship with those dense concentrations of energy known in the East as chakras and are located in the core of our personal etheric matrix.
When these physical and energetic mission-control centers are activated, the relationship between them can dramatically affect the body and the brain, which may undergo striking changes as a result of the shamanism.
It is also known that the people in indigenous societies have developed techniques for altering consciousness in specific ways.
These techniques constitute a form of technology—a technology of transcendence.
When I was living among indigenous shamanistic people in Africa, I learned that they know everything there is to know about their surrounding environments. If there are psychotropic plants growing nearby, the ritual use of hallucinogens derived from these plant teachers is sometimes utilized to expand consciousness and access the inner, hidden realms. This type of visioning is always carried out in ceremonial circumstances steeped in shamanic cultural significance.
The visionary shamanic explorers Terence McKenna, Ralph Metzner, and Michael Harner are among many who have revealed that the same use of hallucinogens held true for the mystery schools in the ancient world. The growing literature on hallucinogens reveals striking cross-cultural similarities in the reported effects of these natural substances on human consciousness. These effects include the capacity to channel the energy of the universe, to discover the most profound secrets of nature, and to acquire wisdom that may be used for magical, medical, and religious purposes. But taking a hallucinogen and seeing visions does not necessarily make someone a shaman.
Equally powerful and far more widespread are the psychological and physiological methods that the shamans of the traditional peoples have developed for altering consciousness and re-patterning it in specific ways—techniques such as fasting and sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion and hyperventilation, and subjecting the body to temperature extremes during rituals of purification, such as the sweat lodge.
It is also generally known that the intensely physical stimulus of monotonous drumming and rattling, combined with culturally meaningful ritual and ceremony, prayer and chant, singing and dancing, can be equally effective in shifting consciousness into visionary modes of shamanic perception. Not surprisingly, the use of drums and rattles by practitioners of shamanism around the world is almost universal. Shifting consciousness by means of the drum and rattle is the time-tested method that Jill and I use in our training workshops.
Until relatively recently, most Westerners have tended to regard the whole issue of altered-state experiences as mysterious, paranormal, or even pathological, and so some, in ignorance, still fear and reject the idea of expanded awareness and connection with helping shamanic spirits and guides. By contrast, in a traditional indigenous society, each child grows up with elder ceremonial leaders and shamans who are able to access expanded states of consciousness intentionally for the benefit of themselves, for others, and for the entire community. They know that virtually everyone can learn how to access sacred states of consciousness to some extent. They also know that some of us are real naturals at it.
The shamanic state of consciousness can now be partially understood in scientific terms. It is known, for example, that the nature and quality of the visionary experience can be determined to some extent by our focused intentionality, by our belief systems, and by the set and setting in which we find ourselves. These may serve as patterning forces that can reshape our visionary experience once our initial state of consciousness has been destabilized by the drum, the rattle, or the hallucinogen, if one was used in whatever form of shamanism is being practiced..
With more than thirty years of apprenticeship in this shamanic tradition, I have learned that the achieving of this expanded state of consciousness is a learned skill that improves with practice—a skill that can give seekers access to many varieties of experience, including connection with the shamanic-spiritual-astral world, if that is their intention. Experience with an indigenous spiritual tradition and cultural overlay is often useful and interesting, but it is not required (although some feel it is).
I also know with absolute certainty that the program, once activated, allows us to ascend toward the luminous horizon of our personal and collective destiny in a completely new way.
Traditional peoples practicing shamanism would agree with this statement because they know a great secret: any human activity or endeavor can be enormously enhanced through utilizing and eventually mastering this sacred technology.
The Path of the Modern Shaman
The shaman’s path emerges from the seat of initiation as part of the cultural heritage of all people everywhere. As I have said, it is one of our birthrights, although it was largely lost in the West due to ruthless and barbarous suppression by Christianity during the Middle Ages.
Interestingly, shamanism is not a religion, nor does it conflict with any religious tradition. As Michael Harner has affirmed, it is a method for exploring the connections between humanity and all of creation. And when this method is practiced with humility, reverence, and self-discipline, the shaman’s visionary path can become a way of life, one that may enrich our everyday experience beyond measure, as well as contribute to raising and expanding the consciousness of humankind.
From my perspective as an anthropologist who has spent large parts of my life living with traditional indigenous peoples, shamanism is our key to a re-enchantment of the world and a re-enchantment of ourselves.
As we experience the ending of one cycle of ages and the beginning of the next, a growing number of accomplished teachers and practitioners in the Western world are creating a modern upgrade of the ancient path of the shaman. A new shamanic tradition has taken form over the past forty years, one that could be called Western shamanism. This new form of shamanism reflects who we are now, as well as who we are becoming.
Because this is a new form of shamanism, it seems fitting that there be a new term for those who practice it. Why? Because those who practice shamanism usually do not claim to be shamans. Authentic shamans tend to be very humble people.
Calling themselves shamans just isn’t done, because doing so is regarded as spiritual arrogance and a quick way to lose one’s power. True shamans are aware that the power to which they have access—the power that enables them to facilitate shamanic healing, for example—is not theirs to claim. Rather, it is the power of the universe, on loan and channeled through the spirits who work with them. The term shaman is thus an appellation that can only be given to them by the spirits and by the members of their communities, based on their shamanistic abilities to be of service.
Those who practice Buddhism do not claim to be Buddhas; they call themselves Buddhists. Those who practice Taoism call themselves Taoists. In this same vein, perhaps those of us following the shamanic path today could call ourselves ‘shamanists’.
Whatever we are called, we know that by utilizing the shamans’ time-tested methodology, we can awaken from the consensual slumber of culture at large, and it then becomes possible to personally experience a reunion—one of unlimited power and connection—with a mysterious, godlike mind. We then know with certainty that no holy words or books, no secret ceremonies or rituals, and no spiritual leaders or gurus or faiths can convey these experiences to us. This is why the shaman’s path is, and has always been, one of direct revelation. Once the higher evolutionary functions are triggered within us, some mysterious, predetermined schedule is set into motion, activating a program that cannot be given to us by any outside agency.
This is because most of us already have it.
This piece on shamanism is excerpted with permission from The Re-Enchantment: A Shamanic Path to a Life of Wonder by Hank Wesselman, Ph.D.
About The Author
Hank Wesselman, Ph.D, is a respected paleoanthropologist and shamanic teacher with more than 30 years of experience. In addition to his scientific publications, his nine books include Spiritwalker (Bantam, 1996) and The Bowl of Light (Sounds True, 2011). He lives in Honaunau, Hawaii. For more, visit SharedWisdom.com.