by Andy Groggel, M.A. and Erica Christenson
The past four decades have seen a blossoming of non-native individuals offering to guide groups through shamanic experiences using the practices of core shamanism (ala Michael Harner). Core shamanism emerged from an assertion made by Anthropologists and academics that any one could access the altered states of consciousness (ASC) necessary for ones soul to travel to the spirit world, commonly referred to as the shamanic journey or soul journey. For this experience to be facilitated safely, the founders of the core shamanic movement created a system of ‘best practices’ that were rooted in the ancient healing wisdom’s of the indigenous cultures they studied. Participants first sit in a circle, are cleansed by sacred plants such as sage, cedar, tobacco, or palo santo. Then, sacred space is created through a ritual of calling in the cardinal directions. Prayers are offered for protection and the shamanic practitioner hosting the gathering appeals to his or her helping spirits. Typically a brief introduction is made to explain the shamanic journey and the principle elements of core shamanism and then participants are invited to listen to drumming, rattling, singing or a combination of those elements (also known as auditory drivers) to assist their transition into an ASC.
While these rituals have come under [justifiable] scrutiny by indigenous peoples and the cultural anthropologists for appropriation of various indigenous knowledge systems, the phenomenon has become so popular in western cultures that I have personally come to recognize core shamanism as an intentional manifestation of non-specific ancient wisdom by contemporary techno-culture’s across the planet. The techniques presented in core shamanism represents knowledge contained within our shared consciousness as a species.
Contemporary western culture is a surprising, perhaps ironic, place to see such practices emerge. The history of its pandemic spread from the European continent and the suppression of its own indigenous healing systems leaves a majority of its population unaware of their own ancestral/indigenous roots. Even after centuries of violent suppression, a call to return to ancient ways of knowing remains and is growing with the passing of each year. Shamanism, in the most broad application of the term contains the tools and technology of human consciousness needed to help contemporary cultures answer the call from Mother Earth and the Spirit World.
How then can a culture so far removed from its ancestral roots reestablish a connection with the great tree of life that unites us all? The answer for core shamanism lies in developing a close, reciprocal relationship with ones power animals and helping spirits. This concept is of central importance to a responsible practice of shamanism, but is often left underexplained in popular culture.
Power animals and helping spirits can be understood via the concept of the archetype. Archetypes are primal energies that exist as entities in and of themselves, but express themselves through human behavior and natural phenomena. An archetype is an energy existing outside space and time; it arises spontaneously through intention and awareness. Mother and Father energy. Creation and Destruction. Expansion and Contraction. We can use our minds to tap into archetypes. To let them guide us and provide greater ease and comfort in life. An example of an archetype is the Mother. There is a strong mothering instinct expressed throughout existence and across species. It is made manifest through nurturing oneself or others, giving birth, feeding and being an empathic presence during a troubling time. These set of behaviors are mutually agreed upon within the collective conscious and compose the archetype, Mother.
Animals represent their own set of archetypes. Animal medicine speaks of the archetypal energies an animal carries. Owl medicine, for instance describes energy steeped in careful watching, in wisdom. Owls carry the archetype of the wise one, the watching one, the patient one. Seeing through illusion. Seeing through lies and deception. Deep seeing.
In my own experience as a shamanic practitioner and a facilitator of shamanic journey groups the topic of power animals and helping spirits is often met with resistance. Whereas the idea of entering into ASC to receive healing and find answers to some of life’s biggest questions are sexy to a culture obsessed with quick self help remedies, being asked to first take the time to locate and form an alliance a non corporeal energy form is met with skepticism. To do so requires at minimum an often unanticipated suspension of disbelief. But to consciously jump into the experience of non-ordinary reality vis a vis ASC requires the participant to begin a lengthy process of confronting, then letting go of a deep set of cultural programming. This programming tells him or her that helping spirits and power animals only exist in the realm of ghost stories and the fanciful imagination of children and artists. If they do exist, then they do so in a third world native context far removed from the sophistication of the “modern world”. And so begins the sometimes jarring process of reconnecting with our ancient roots.
To get there we must dissolve the complex mental constructs that we have formed around what is ordinary reality versus non-ordinary reality. These constructs are so much a part of the composition of our brain, we cannot see them. Much like ideology functions on the level of collectives, we carry beliefs in our mind and they drive our behavior. How to suspend belief? What is it? It is a flexible, receptive brain. And this is the state of ASC we try to enter. A place where the brain is available and open to a great, huge, mysterious, omnipresent knowledge. Where we are not necessarily ourselves, thinking of all the tasks we need to do or who we are. We suspend belief in ourselves for a while so we can be open to cosmic/ancient/inherent wisdom’s of the archetype.
For those of us who are fully engaged in the process of reconnecting, remembering and releasing, our connection to power animals and helping spirits marks the beginning of our path. Their appearance in our journeys to the spirit world not only confirms their existence to us, but they validate our experiences in a non-ordinary reality governed by very different rules than our waking life. This validation is extremely important because with it comes a host of teachings of how to navigate the spirit world safely. Without a strong relationship, or at least an earnest desire to form a strong relationship, the practice of core shamanism is not sustainable.
Why? Because our power animals and helping spirits serve as our translators between the spirit world and our reality. They have the ability to move fluidly through the liminal space between worlds. They teach us how to stand with a foot in each world so that we can learn to bring medicine back and forth in a grounded way. Through observing their behavior during the shamanic journey we can learn how to move with the rhythms of nature, how to let go of spiritual detritus that no longer serves us. They are the gatekeepers to the deeper truths that exist transpersonally in our collective consciousness. Without this strong bond the practice of entering into ASC/the spirit world is risky.
Spanning the multiple layers of the spirit world is a great tree; the world tree. This is the origin of all living things on this Earth. It’s roots run deep into the lower world and its branches stretch far into the upper world. The practice of shamanism, irrespective of indigenous lineage or spiritual state, provides us humans a technology with which to remember that we are all a part of the same tree. Regardless of which root we connect with first they all lead to the same trunk, they feed the same tree. Our power animals and helping spirits help us find this tree, they help us feel connected to its power, they remind us that its power lies within us and that we are all interconnected.