FLYING SOUL: The Shamanic Journey
"Sila…the soul of the universe …(has) a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot become afraid. What he says is: ‘Be not afraid of the universe." Najagneg, Inuit Shaman to Arctic Explorer Knud Rasmussen.
For 12,000 to 15,000 years, somewhere on earth , a Shaman has been exhorting his people to not be afraid of either life or death but to embrace all creation, seen and unseen ,as a part of the cosmic soul. Technicians of ecstacy, they ingest hallucinogens, or drum, dance, fast and sing themselves into a visionary state of consciousness – a journey to where the veil between the world of spirit and myth and the world of everyday awareness lifts. There, under the tutelage of the helping spirits at the primordial core of life, they acquire knowledge and power for themselves or their people.
Shamanism shares with systems of divination the notion of a living world, where all creation, animate and inanimate, is filled with spirit or energy, where ritual connects the everyday concerns of the questioner with the powers that can influence a favorable outcome to the quest – whether that be health, good fortune, wealth, love or power. The Shaman becomes the messenger, a translator between the language of daily concerns and the language of the invisible. What God or spirit is presenting me with this situation? asks the seeker. How do I appease these harsh gods, find their favor, seek solace, find the right time to die, find balance?
Traditionally Shaman have sought spiritual knowledge and power on behalf of a whole people. However, cultural gossip is filled with stories regarding punishment for the misuse of spiritual power to harm, protect the guilty, bind love or to fulfill personal greed. In many traditions, seekers of love medicine, money or protection from justice must pay for these dark gifts from the spirits with a curse on their families – a curse which can lead to personal illness or death in other family members. Shaman who provide their services to fulfill these requests also have a soul price to pay.
Initiation and training of the Shaman is also legendary. Referred to as "Wounded Healers", many traditions describe torture and dismemberment of the initiate by various demons and spirits. Whether by disemboweling, flaying, cooking, or separation bone by bone the fledgling shaman is psychically ripped apart only to find himself or herself in ecstatic flight through the realm of the sacred.
The initiate is not left to face this wounding alone. Each has at least one guide to the spiritual dimension - often in animal form. A teacher and tour guide to three realms of the tree of life – above, middle and below. Through the trials of initiatory sickness and symbolic death, the Shaman’s capacity to enter the realm of the sacred emerges. Out of psychic chaos, extraordinary strength of spirit, craft and insight develops – telepathy, psychokinesis, precognition, ability to defy physical laws and to perform tremendous feats of endurance. Some do not survive. In the end, many find themselves living on the fringe of the very society they seek to heal. They become creatures of the liminal, living on the borders of common experience, sought out only in times of need, sickness and death.
The past two decades have seen a resurgence of Shamanic practice as spiritual seekers learn the techniques of "walking between the worlds" in workshops around the world. As Tom Cowan in his "Shamanism As Spiritual Practice for Daily Life" asks " Why would anyone in his right mind want to learn shamanism at a weekend workshop…you’re sitting quietly in your yurt, minding your own business, when suddenly a hideous four-headed spirit monster blasts its way through the door flap, grabs you by the neck, yanks you up through the smoke-hole into some dreary realm, where it proceeds to slap you around, rip you apart, dip you in a foul-smelling gook, staple you back together again, and drop you back through the smoke-hole. Then it says, "There! Now you’re a shaman!"
Good question. As Cowan goes on to point out, this classic description of the invitation offered to the chosen, is not the only way. While the path of spiritual enlightenment is never easy – in any tradition, suffering of one sort or another is apparently mandatory – the core experience of shamanic practice does not have to be terrifying, nor do all practitioners of the central arts have to become shamans. The core philosophy is the notion of the living world, that stones and trees, animals roadways, highrises and rivers are all part of the creative energy, the spirit of the universe and all have a message to communicate about the nature of the soul’s journey. Shamanism shares with other mystical traditions the notion of a divine principle present in every quark and available for a fireside chat. The notion of the spirit guide in the form of an animal feels familiar and comfortable to many people – we often identify our attributes with that of an animal special to us in some way. We collect images of animals, or one particular animal. Everyone knows cat people or dog people. Most people dream about animals and know these dreams feel special in some way. The search for an animal helper is often the first journey for the New Age shaman. These animal spirits become important companions and teachers throughout life and death. For a beautiful example of this see The Power of the Bear with paintings by Susan Seddon Boulet or Creations Heartbeat by Linda Schierse Leonard.
As Inuit Shaman Aua instructs us all in Joan Halifax’s , Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives: "These two, the shore spirit and the shark, were my principal helpers, and they could aid me in everything I wished. And to call them he sang a song of few words: "Joy, joy, joy, joy!"