Wondering whether I could achieve trance states using sound and breathing instead of psychedellic drugs, I ended up reading a copy of Cave and cosmos, a book by Michael Harner. Harner seems to have became somewhat famous for having written The Way of the Shaman, a book in which he apparently introduced a framework of techniques and practices which many shamanic traditions shared around the globe.
I can’t talk about the style or the content of Way of the Shaman, but I will tell you what I learned from Cave and Cosmos.
Traveling with the spirit.
The basis of this work is the belief in the reality of a spirit world, be it really spiritual or simply a mental space, the foundation of this book is the idea that using our imagination and external tools such as drugs or drumming, human beings can reach altered states of mind in which they can perceive, or see, to different degrees of precision, sounds, faces, other spiritual entities and have entire experiences altogether. So basically, that we can just imagine things and visit a neighboring plane of reality in which things exist independent of our subjective perception. A world of spirits, if you will.
In this world of spirits humans encounter entities that have their own ideas, their own plans and prejudices. In africa they are the spirit of the Tokoloshe, in siberia they are the spirits of the animals and mountains, in Vietnam you find them as the spirit of the ancestors of kings and queens. But all around the world, in all cultures and traditions, we see a very similar set of practices. We seem then forced to come to the conclusion that there is something, a certain knowledge and a certain reality that accompanies this knowledge, surrounding these spirits and inhabitants of the other world.
The world above, and the world below.
After laying the foundation for this spiritual traveling, we then have to analize what kind of places we are able to visit in these other worlds. Where are they, first of all? Above, and below. And right here, among us. An unknown number of worlds, of unknown size, inhabited by mostly unknown entities. How we start our imaginary travels determines where we go. If we go down a rabbit hole, or a hole in the trunk of a tree, we might end up in one of the many underworlds. Xibalba, Tartaros, the final destination is determined by our cultural expectations. Or we might decide to climb the highest tree in a familiar mountain, to find ourselves in the clouds, talking to enlightened buddhas, or any of the archangels, devas or residents of Olympus. Entities of the upper realms can heal, teach and give advice. Entities of the lower realms can destroy, curse or manipulate gross matter. But above and below are only two ways of looking at the world. We could also consider the existence of a middle world, or many middle worlds. Even if these worlds are real, it seems difficult to understand how are they organized or what rules they follow.
Meditation is the main technique used by shamans, meditation understood as using your imagination. Imagination understood as that which you see with your eyes closed.
Using a drumbeat, or listening to a recording of a drumming session, you let your mind wander around. You visualize a place you want to go to, and then use symbols to estimulate the appearance of spirits that you want to talk to. If you want to talk to animal spirits, or to talk with “evil” (mind the quotes!) entities, you want to go “down”. Hell is down, the underworld is under, caves were always the gateways to the world of the deceased. If you climb a tree, or use the rainbow as a launching platform, you visit the high realms, high as much as they are the residence of those spirits who are related to peace, serenity, and wisdom.
It seems that there is no need anymore for formal initiation into cults, religions or any secret societies in order to acquire the knowledge that the spirits have to teach. Buy a drum – no, just download an mp3 file for a drumming session, take a deep breath and lay down with your eyes closed and a firm intention to visit with your imagination the place where you will find the spirits you seek. It’s never been easier. Talk to the spirits. Today, yourself!