My client’s eyes were wide with amazement. Flushed and glowing, she described the herd of wild horses that had thundered through the room during her shamanic journey–how she could hear their pounding hooves, smell their dusky coats, and feel the floor vibrate. She was filled with awe. There was not an ounce of her being that didn’t sense the reality of those horses. And she left my office that day feeling the same wild power in her own soul. The horses had come to heal her.
This kind of experience is common in core shamanism, and as I reach out to people to share the beauty and power of the shamanic path, I continue to search for just the right way to articulate its significance, especially to those who think of it as “new age, weird, fringe, only for psychics, tree huggers, and pagans, or just not my religion.” The latter misunderstanding is especially sad to me because core shamanism, as I’ll explain, is not a religion at all but a spiritual methodology; as such, it is entirely compatible with any religion. But we’ll get to that.
So since this article is for those of you who are curious but perhaps a little skeptical, I’ll share with you how I stumbled onto the shamanic path, almost by accident. I was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia (yep, “city of brotherly love.”) If you don’t know anything about Quakers except that maybe they wear funny hats, I’ll tell you the one thing that matters: they believe in direct revelation. That’s it. Quakers, for more than 300 years, have had a practice of sitting in expectant silence, waiting for direct information from what we have always called “the inner light.” No ministers, no holy books, no doctrine. It is assumed that none of these interpretative crutches is necessary because every human has, if they give it a chance, a direct line to spirit. The name Quaker comes from the experience of being filled with this spirit so strongly that the person trembles–thus a “Quaker.”
The only problem for me, after a lifetime of going to Quaker meeting, was that it could take a very long time of sitting in silence waiting on the light, as we termed it, for anything to happen. Too often, especially these days, people just fall asleep, stare out the window, or ruminate. Enter shamanism.
I didn’t discover shamanism until around the age of 50. I was going through one of those periods we all have at certain times in life–a loss of focus in the work I was doing, along with a vague restlessness and feeling that I was not quite living my life purpose. I enrolled in a graduate program in Spiritual Psychology, searching for a truer course in life. Our first class met at a week long retreat in New Mexico. I really didn’t pay much attention to the curriculum for the week; I was just open to whatever they had planned for us. It turned out the week was devoted to the shamanic journey as a spiritual method. I had no idea what a shamanic journey was, but I followed the teacher’s instructions and successfully completed my first journey to the lower world. I met, to my astonishment and delight, a stunningly beautiful and vivid power animal that left my heart thrumming with love and joy. When the journey ended I sat bolt upright and exclaimed “this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life!” It is now 15 years later, and I am blessed to be doing my heart’s work in the world–teaching core shamanism and helping clients in my private practice in shamanic healing.
As I’ve gone about this work over the years, I’ve noticed that there are many misunderstandings about shamanism in our culture; I’ve picked a few of the most common ones to talk about in the hope that you will be encouraged to explore further, to learn more:
1.” It’s all in your head.” When I teach journeying (the fundamental shamanic practice of shifting consciousness to travel in non-ordinary reality,) the most common question that comes up is “am I just imagining all this?” Notice the word “just” as if to suggest that imagination is a booby prize, a mere clunker compared to the Cadillac of human consciousness we call intellect or rationality. This assumption about imagination always makes me wonder how we came to denigrate this most precious human faculty. Why is imagination by definition considered to be “not real?” The client above whose experience of wild horses was transformative for her, really didn’t care if anybody else in the room could confirm the presence of those horses. Now, some among you might question her sanity. Well, isn’t that a symptom of schizophrenia, you might ask. And this leads us to another core principle of shamanic practice: a shaman is a master of both ordinary reality AND non-ordinary reality. The shamanic practitioner must be disciplined in the practice of moving back and forth through that portal. You can be in the spirit realms working with wild horses, eagles, bears, and wolves, and then be able to clearly return to ordinary reality when you choose to and balance your check book or do the dishes with no confusion. This is shamanic work, not mental illness. So when beginning journeyers ask “am I just making all this up?” I invite them to keep at it, to keep journeying and come to their own conclusions about this question based on their personal experience, not on cultural assumptions such as “imagination isn’t real.”
2.” People who get into shamanism are flakey weirdos. Regular people couldn’t possibly have anything in common with these types.” This is one of my favorites. My teacher Dr. Michael Harner, the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, once said to us “best to keep your day job.” Shamans in traditional societies were always regular members of their community with regular jobs like everyone else–be it hunter, herder, weaver, doctor, plant gatherer, etc. They practiced their shamanic work in their off time, usually at night. To be a shaman, you also had to be grounded, responsible, and capable of being a contributing member of your community. The modern version of this is the person who might run a business or a household, or otherwise carry on with the necessary routines of making a living and raising a family say, and also, when needed, enter the spirit world through journeying to do healing work or divination. The capacity to work directly with compassionate helping spirits in non-ordinary reality has always been a part of human life in all cultures, and has only relatively recently been relegated to fringe status. So to me, this shamanic way of living and working is a normal part of the human experience; in fact, people who are properly trained and exercise discipline in the practice, are pretty regular folks.
3. “Well, I’m a Christian, Buddhist, or (fill in the blank,) and since shamanism is a whole different religious practice it has nothing to offer me.” This one is simple. Shamanism is NOT a religion. It is a method. It is a technique for communicating directly with spirits. In my 15 plus years of shamanic training I have been in circles with people of many different religions–Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, Taoists, Muslims, and more. In every case, no matter the person’s religion, there was agreement that the techniques of accessing the spirit realms, as taught in core shamanism, were found to be complementary, not contradictory or confusing; in fact, people were consistently able to deepen into whatever religious or spiritual practice they came in with, using shamanic journeying to get direct teachings from compassionate helping spirits.
So I hope I have at least inspired your curiosity about shamanism, and perhaps even opened the door for you to seek out more knowledge and experience by taking an introductory workshop. If you feel the slightest nudge to learn more, check the FSS workshops listing for the introductory weekend called “Way of the Shaman: Shamanic Journeying, Power, and Healing”. This is the starting place for all further study. Here’s the link: https://shamanism.org/workshops/calendar.php?Wkshp_ID=10.
As Rumi said: “Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”
Narrye Caldwell is a shamanic practitioner and martial artist with a private practice in Santa Cruz, Ca. She is Guest Faculty with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, and teaches Tai Chi at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts in Santa Cruz.