In Shamanism * Journey to the West, I suggested that Shamanism had come to the West in the same way that successive waves of Eastern philosophies and practices had come. Just as yoga and meditation, Buddhism and Taoism were embraced by a spiritually bankrupt West, so Shamanism has resonated in the Western soul. I observed that Shamanism seems not only here to stay, but is here because – even in its stripped-down “westernized” forms – Shamanism works.
I wondered if we in the West have been mistaken in our concerns about emulating the dramatic indigenous forms of traditional Shamanism. It seems clear that the spiritual and psychological power of Shamanism lies in the metaphysical realities – alchemical processes of the Mind – which it has embodied and transmitted through the ages. Though we have so much to learn from traditional Shamanism, is it possible this is a two-way street? Has Shamanism come to the West on its own Journey, to explore its origins, find new forms, and express itself anew?
Here, I look at the elements of Shamanism that I believe have been somewhat obscured in both Indigenous Shamanism and the new “Core” Shamanism in the West. It seems to me that, beyond all these cultural forms of shamanism, there exists what an essential Shamanism in which the psyche, through symbol, can access energy and matter to create transformation and healing.
Psyche and Soul
“Man, the symbolic animal, can resolve even the deepest divisions within the self upon the symbolic plane.” (Carl G. Jung)
Shamanism in the West works, I believe, because what is essential to shamanism is not found in the external trappings of the traditional Shaman nor in their varied adaptations in western forms.
It is found internally, in the dynamics of the psyche, which we meet first in its basic, deep psychological life processes. As we engage in psychological exploration of conscous and unconscious Mind, we connect our psyche to our Higher Self, which is the bridge between psyche and the Soul.
So when I use the term Psyche I am referring to a continuum, a spectrum of consciousness, from the most elemental levels of our self-awareness through higher and higher levels of the Self as beings first and foremost of Mind. As we enter Higher Mind, we seem to connect to a dimension of ourselves nearly all cultures consider something akin to a Higher Self. It seems capable of transformative inspiration and healing which brings together the missing, broken, and cut-off parts of our basic psychological selves.
You may want to pause here and visit my Travels With the Higher Self, a prelude to my writings on shamanism, but in many ways talking about the same Path….
As Soul, the psyche is freed from the limits of what we call the lacy fabric of space-time. Through the medium of symbol, the psyche can move between dimensions of reality, effecting changes in other worlds, and from these transformations we bring change into this world, this reality.
While the Shaman is traditionally a specially gifted individual serving as priest, healer and protector to a community, I believe that – to the Higher Self within each of us – Shamanism is a natural activity of the Soul.
Carl G. Jung, the great psychiatrist, paved the way for Shamanism to make landfall in the West. Unequalled in his cross-cultural studies of alchemical transformations of the psyche, it is now clear that Jung was also, as his friends called him, “the Shaman”. He became a living bridge between the ancient mythologies and modern psychology and integrated this new map of the psyche with ancient understandings of the Soul.
Perhaps Jung’s greatest legacy was his recognition that the mysterious, noumenal processes of the psyche are gently orchestrated towards a Whole by a presence within each Psyche which Jung intimated was a window to God, expressed in an Archetype, the Higher Self who seem also to be the Christ.
Symbol * Language of the Psyche
Western Shamans are exploring the terrain of the human psyche with the aid of shamanic concepts introduced to the West by Jung . They are finding, as Jung did, that our psychic interiors were mapped long ago – in all cultures – in mythology, stories and legends which form the universal womb from which Shamanism was born.
The Shaman’s rituals of healing for social and personal trauma have worked for millennia precisely because they were always keyed to these “core” maps which are coded in pictorial language or symbol. The natural language of the psyche is Symbol. We see this in the rich life of the Soul when expressing itself in dreams, hypnagogic imagery, Tarot cards, Astrology wheels, the I Ching, and playful, large-scale symbolism enacted in synchronicities.
A symbol is anything which has one meaning in a literal, concrete sense, and another meaning when we see it as conveying another, more abstract meaning. A tree can be something part of Nature, but it can also represent growth of all kinds, links among human beings like clan and family, and the links between Earth and Sky/Heaven.
A ladder can be something on which we climb to paint a house, but it can also bring to mind more general ideas, depending on the other activity around it, in a dream, movie, meditation, and so on. It might represent attaining some kind of social success, and even the more negative idea of ambition as “social climbing” with its implied disdain for socioeconomic classes which are “lower” on the social ladder. Or it might suggest, in the context of other symbols, a desire to move “upwards” as a spiritual development.
In the Bible, Jacob’s ladder figured in Jacob’s dream in which he received a message about the Jewish people.
But the symbol of Jacob’s Ladder might mean something else, in a person who did not belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For Jacob also sensed that the location in which he had the dream was a literal portal, a physical opening between Earth and God’s House.
This conforms to a vast global storehouse of oral tradition and written literature in which such portals are described, especially by the shamans around the world. But many individuals, who are not knowingly shamans, find themselves near to such portals, and sometimes even swept up through them into experiences of other realms and esoteric knowledge.
Names can be seen as symbols – to dream, for example, of two people named Mr. Black and Mr. White might draw one’s attention to thinking or perceiving life in “black and white” or simplistic terms.
People – or dramatic situations – have become symbols of particular qualities or values or dilemmas, and these are larger symbols called Archetypes, like King Arthur, Moses, Joan of Arc, Lady MacBeth, Darth Vader, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, and so on.
In Star Wars we have dozens of these ancient archetypes, some of which are situations – like the hiding of royal Luke and Leah at birth, the battle between good and evil as the Jedi versus the Sith – or the son battling to be free of the father, which both Luke and later Kylo-Ren go through, albeit complicated by other plot twists.
When we see a movie, or read a piece of literature, whether science fiction or Shakespeare or mythology, we appreciate these more and more as we look for and discover the symbols which are part of the landscape.
A symbol does not have to be an image, like a tree, river, mountain, old man, dragon, etc., but can be something in a dream or movie, like opening a mysterious door, or taking a dark, rarely traveled path in a forest, which we “see” as the universal theme of embarking upon the unknown. We analyse the opening scenes, the decor, certain aspects of costume (like mask, robe, etc.) repeated actions or phrases, all of which tend to be loaded with meanings other than what we see at first glance.
The Psyche seems to be strongly “turned on” by symbols. As we introduce the language of symbol to the conscious mind, we become more and more “fluent”, more aware of symbols running as a second layer of meaning through much of our own lives and the cultural and political worlds we see around us. Indeed, critical theory, as a movement, consists largely in deciphering – and deconstructing, as a form of political protest – all mainstream culture, especially literature, as a symbolic edifice used to conceal harsh, oppressive realities imposed by a hidden elite.
The Psyche is activated and engaged primarily through symbolic forms, but is also deeply responsive to different sounds – which are vibrations. These tend to have their own distinct meanings as interpreted by the Psyche as part of its symbolic language, but in this case, geographic, even mathematical (because vibrational) symbols.
Different frequencies heard in music, chanting, and drumming or in the opening of a movie literally open portals and transport the Psyche into distinct space-and-time locations.
The Shaman’s world is one of symbol and the path of the Shaman is to learn to master both visual and geographical symbols – the ability to travel through time and space at will and to interact meaningfully with symbolic realities he or she encounters along the Way.
In healing, the Shaman uses symbol to open dialogue with the Psyche, to help it tell its story in a way which allows the outcome to change.
Journey and Transformation
As we look at the power of symbol, we can see that to dream of Jacob’s Ladder, or to see it in a meditation, carries powerful meaning in terms of what it brings to mind. But symbol can at some point turn into reality, when in a dream or meditation we interact with, for example, a Jacob’s Ladder.
If we feel ourselves climbing it, if we experience an encounter with a Being or an Idea as we ascend, something new and alive is happening – the Shaman’s Journey. The key is the nature of the interaction – when it changes from mere contemplation to certain activities of the mind, not our everyday mind, but Higher Mind.
Taking The Journey: The psyche recognizes the categories of Time and Space which we further divide into Past, Present and Future. It is possible and at times necessary for the Shaman to travel back and forth across these frontiers for a variety of reasons.
One, the shaman may be looking for fragments of the psyche that have drifted or been torn apart, “left behind”, in some space or time.
Two, the shaman may wish to prepare a kind of pathway or opening up of space and time for some event to take place, so travels to the future.
Three, the shaman may be called to do transformative work inside past events. This may well involve soul/fragment retrieval but it may also involve actually changing the way an event occurred.
Fourth, the shaman may journey to a hospital or to a prison to bring a sense of physical comfort to someone, a kind of ethereal laying on of hands.
Fifth, there may be need to help a soul pass from life through death, or to even assist souls who are striving to find their way between realms. This may be less common in the West, where the belief systems about life after death are different than in the East, even among those who believe in karma and reincarnation.
These are some possible reasons for a Journey. However, the shaman may not have any idea before he or she sets out where they are going or for what purpose. This reflects the nature of the shaman – the suppleness of the shaman’s psyche allows it to be led, yet endows the shaman with the strength to be both a protector and a guide.
The shaman can fly space and time including realms less dense than this one, yet he or she is still of this world and partakes of its physical structures including those of body and the denser layers of personality. He or she is thus uniquely fitted to be a bridge between physical and nonphysical realms and states of being, unlike those now in spirit, as we say, on the Other Side.
The shaman is assisted in flight or Journey by allies, such as an eagle, on whom we may ride, conserving owr own strength for battle. The use of such animal allies may seem foreign to westerners, but in my experience they appear spontaneously, and are natural to the practice of shamanism. I discuss my own experiences with this dimension in Animal Allies and Helping Spirits * When Shamanism Enters Your Life...It seems we must indeed keep open minds along the Road.
On completing his Journey and arriving in the desired location, the shaman engages in the magical use of symbols to effect change.
The role of the Shaman now is to stand at the center of the interplay of symbols as a living matrix, crystal processor or chakra, through which energy and meaning pass and from which they emerge in transformed state. This can be a kind of battle with dark forces or a more gentle transformation, but the Shaman must be willing to be the Bridge as well as the Force of Light.
This sounds very esoteric, but we understand it so easily in figures like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, the tales of Harry Potter, Merlin in the Arthurian Mists of Avalon, Obi Wan-Kenobi in Star Wars, and so much of science and fantasy fiction.
Ultimately, the Christ figure can be understood to be shamanic in that what occurred within the single event of His interaction with a symbolic form of Death, is said to have generated a vast reservoir of Grace, available to all of creation, through time and across space.
It is interesting that indigenous shamans tell of meeting these Christ-like very superior ahamans in other realms, who speak of coming here to the Earth plane to act as mediator and humanity-healer, when the sins of the Earth become too great. It is as if these Great Shamans, Christ among them, stand between us and a great Dark Force which even “ordinary” earthly shamans could not hold back.
Yet all shamans, indigenous or neo-western shamans, have some of this mystical ability to take up their position between opposites, becoming a Center which allows for some mysterious resolution of conflict. Indeed “finding the Center” is another great tradition in the use of symbols to manipulate reality – i.e., a situation or event, or psychological state, which calls for some kind of healing.
No matter “where” he or she travels in time and space, the shaman interacts with people, places and events at a level described by advanced yogis, rishis, and the Upanishads as a Source or Fourth Dimension where mind and matter are one. The shaman taps into the Creating Mind behind mind.
What we see and experience in the world around us arises in multiple editions of the ideas or dreams (master templates) created and continuously “updated” in this Source Dimension – it may include the Akashic Records, but is likely to be an even higher plane.
To change the forms of reality experienced in our everyday world, they must be altered at their origin, at their root – in this Fourth Dimension, in the Akashic Records, the realm of The Forms – whatever name seems best to fit.
The shaman’s role is to be the living bridge – as mind enters Mind – between our world and the Creation World.
The Aboriginal peoples of Australia consider this realm the original and ongoing matrix of creation. Significantly, they call this the DreamTime, which reminds us of the shaman who says “I helped you change your dream”. Now we know how he did this. And it is worth noting than some traditional shamans have expressly declared that “it is all done in symbol” – despite the ceremonial rituals which encompass what the shaman does in his or her Mind.
A spiritual law which binds even the Shaman is the spiritual “ownership” of master or root templates – the Dream Stories – that a Soul creates. Hence, the shaman cannot change a root reality unless he or she has received permission from the one, or ones, whose Reality he feels called to change. That one, or those ones, “own” the Template.
This permission does not come from the conscious mind, but from the unconscious mind – if we do not give consent from this deeper level, it is not given, and we will ask – and pray – for help, in vain.
Hence the greatest law of inner growth is “Know Thyself” – only then will you know if you have given permission, have released a master Template for change. Even after a Template is changed, there may still be the old effects – Karma – rippling through time, and these we can only accept, and live through, with a spirit of grace.
Shamanism works in western, as well as indigenous cultures because it reflects universal truths about the human psyche and its organic relationship to something we call the Source Dimension.
The dramatic, and essential feature of shamanism is the conscious, alchemical transformation of reality at its source. This may be achieved through indigenous training which produces states in which “journeys” to the Source take place. But because it is all Mind, we in the West may take such journeys when trained by the Higher Mind.
We will not be without training – quite the contrary, we may prepare to become shamans for years in meditation.
But we do not require the specific kinds of training and rituals of indigenous shamanism, because the real Path to the Source is – for the human psyche – the medium of symbol.
Those human beings who have a natural affinity for this kind of “psychic” work will eventually discover their calling to express it. Shamans of all cultures find they have little to say about the process of being called to this Path, though it may be a much more gradual process than it seems.
It is possible that the mental, psychic gifts of the shaman develop only over many lifetimes, involving training in the indigenous Shaman’s Path as well as lives of religious devotion in many traditions, including lives of intellectual training. For the mind of the shaman must be strong, and the inner self in some way purified of what the I Ching calls “inferior elements” lest the psyche be overwhelmed by the multiple realties of a vast World, as all who have travelled this Path are well aware.
© Carol Leigh Rice Updated 2022
For further reading, have a look at Active Imagination * The Higher Self and the Spiritual Life