My Introduction to the Shamanic Journey
In the mid-1980s, on every other Tuesday afternoon, I would make the ninety-mile drive to Milwaukee to work with my therapist, Dick Olney. I loved those sessions. No two were alike, though the structure of them was similar. I would talk for several minutes about what I was working on and what was happening in my life, and then Dick would induce an altered state and the healing experience would begin. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “altered states” refers to our minds capacity to shift levels of consciousness from our ordinary conscious waking state to states of deep relaxation that allow us to connect to our past, present, and future experiences and resources. Examples of these natural shifts of consciousness include daydreaming and spacing out, meditation, shivassana in yoga, lucid dreaming, and the states of being that we go into falling asleep and waking up before we are fully asleep or fully awake. They are characterized by a sense of openness and receptivity in the present moment, and by the ability to go more deeply into the various realms of our experience.)
On an afternoon in April of 1984, I entered the session feeling particularly distressed, but uncertain of what was wrong. As I talked, I associated to an experience I had years before in an all-night encounter group for the therapy collective I was a member of. Sometime after midnight, I volunteered that I wanted to say a few things to the group. I don’t remember what I had in mind to say that night, but I remember clearly that when I opened my mouth, I started crying and could barely speak. I had no idea what was happening. When my fellow group members tried to help me express what I was feeling, all I could say was “Don’t count on me. I’m not enough. You can’t depend on me. I’ll let you down.” I continued crying but couldn’t talk. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, I know now. Then I only knew that I felt like something was terribly wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. My friends in the group were shocked and confused. They did count on me. They saw me as one of the leaders of the collective, and someone who could be depended on for leadership and participation. This was true, but I knew that I had uttered important feelings about me, something that I needed to express and didn’t know the meaning of.
In this session with Dick, I recognized an old feeling of inadequacy and uncertainty about my strength of character. I had worked on the “not enough” feeling in my therapy group and later in my therapist-training group. I thought I had resolved the issue, but here was this overwhelmed, incapacitated feeling once again. I noticed that Dick was looking at me sympathetically, and then he said, “I think you need to go on a shamanic journey, Tom.” His words made no sense to me. I didn’t know what a “shamanic journey” was. When I asked what he meant, Dick began to explain that in earlier times, the shamans, the medicine men of their tribes, used a healing method called “the journey.” They believed that in times of trauma or extreme distress that a part of a person’s soul would leave them and take refuge in the “Spirit World.” This part of the soul would then be safe and would live on in the other world, but if the person it left didn’t recover this part of their soul, that person would eventually become ill. He saw my feelings of weakness and inadequacy as signs of “soul sickness,” and hypothesized that I may have lost part of my soul. I remember feeling that as crazy as this sounded it made sense to me somehow. I connected to the trauma associated with the loss of my Aunt and my Mother. Certainly, these terrible losses could have resulted in my losing a part of my soul.
So here we can find the juncture between what the Shadow knows, that we can reject parts of ourselves under the pressures of our growing up years, as we try to conform to the desires of the people who are most important to us, and what the Shamans know, that we can lose parts of ourselves due to the trauma, distress, and tragedy that befalls us over the course of our lives. I began a discussion of “shadow work” in my last blog. Here I propose to explore the “shamanic journey” for the recovery of lost parts of our souls. Hopefully, I will be able to help you to understand this healing process, and to recognize the power for healing that resides in this ancient practice. *(I realize that not everyone will be comfortable with the word “soul” in this context. Reading it as “self” is OK, also.)
Dick Olney explained to me that there was another important matter that the Shamans understood. They knew that we human beings could leave our world and cross over to the Spirit World for healing purposes. Finding the lost part or parts of our souls and retrieving them, and divination, the seeking of guidance and direction in our lives, were two of these important healing journeys. He went on to explain to me how “soul retrieval” works. He taught me that an “intention” would focus this experience for me, and he had me repeat the intention over and over until I had memorized it word for word: “my intention is to journey to the other world, to find my power animal and my teacher. When I find them I will ask them to help me find the lost part of my soul. When I find the lost part of my soul, I will ask it to return with me to this world.” He told me that I would use this intention when I was about to cross over into the other world, and that if for some reason my journey bogged down or felt blocked, I would use it again to reconnect to the process.
He further taught me that the Spirit World had three distinct levels, the Lower World, the Middle World, and the Upper World. The power animals usually inhabited the Lower World and the teachers inhabited the Upper World. I assumed that the lost parts of our souls lived in the Middle World, but he didn’t say that. What he did tell me was that what I was about to experience was not something that I could control. If my ego got into the act and tried to produce the major motion picture that it usually desired, all would be lost. For that reason, he was going to guide me into a trance state so that I would be open and receptive to whatever I experienced. Fortunately, I had experienced being hypnotized many times and I had learned the process of experiential self-acceptance. I knew what passive receptivity and passive intentionality felt like.
Copyright 2001 Toby Landesman
After focusing on my breath for a while and turning my intention inward, Dick began to guide me. “I want you to see the front door of the building that you call home from the outside. Once it comes into focus, walk up to the front door, reach out and place your hand on the doorknob or latch, but do not enter. Instead, once you have touched it, turn 180 degrees and walk back toward the street. Now turn in the direction of your choice and begin walking slowly along the street. Take your time and see the buildings and the cars parked there along the street, an occasional passer-by perhaps, a car making its way down the street, the trees, the vegetation…soon you will find that you have moved quickly and easily beyond the boundaries of the city and the suburbs. You will find that you are walking along a country road and that you are leaving civilization behind. You may see a barn or a silo, even a farmhouse, though quickly the road becomes narrower, and soon you find yourself on a path that takes you through an open prairie and then into the wilderness. Follow the path until you come to one of these three things, a tree with a hollow trunk, a cave that goes deep beneath the surface of the earth, or a bridge that will allow you to cross a body of water, a brook, a stream, even a river. These are the passages to the other world. Let me know when you discover one of these openings.”
Although I do not usually visualize things very readily, I saw everything that he was describing as I made my way from my apartment on Wellington Avenue to the country and then the wilderness. I was walking and watching closely for some time before I finally came to a wooden bridge that crossed over a stream. I stopped and told Dick I had arrived at a bridge. Once I had described it to him he said simply, “This is the bridge to the other world. State your intention out loud and then cross the bridge.” As I crossed over in my mind’s eye, he began to shake a rattle in a repetitive rhythm, which he continued to use throughout my journey. As soon as I was in the other world, I saw a small boy pulling a wooden cart. Even though he looked something like me at the age of five, I didn’t think that he was the lost part of my soul because he was dressed in a tunic and his hair looked like it had been cut by putting a bowl on his head. The cart he was pulling was made completely of wood and had very primitively shaped wheels. He quickly disappeared. I found that I was on a narrow path that seemed to lead into the woods.
Dick had instructed me that I was to say out loud whatever I experienced that seemed important. So I told him of the boy and his disappearance. He said to let him go and continue on the path. I hadn’t gone too far down the path when a very large bear, perhaps a grizzly, loomed up in front of me on the path. When I told Dick of his appearance he said, “Ask him if he is your Power Animal. He will communicate with you telepathically. If he says no or says nothing, quickly move on. To my surprise, within a few seconds, the bear told me that he was indeed my Power Animal. I knew what to do next. I asked him if he would help me find the lost part of my soul. He nodded motioning for me to follow him.
I neglected to say earlier that the path where I met the Bear was sloping downward. Dick told me I was descending into the lower world where the Power Animals dwell. He also let me know that the Bear’s presence would confer strength, perseverance, and courage. I felt the connection, and as the Bear took the lead I noticed that I was not afraid. I also realized that the Bear was leading me on a new path that rose upward toward an open horizon. Fairly soon we were in a deep thicket. I couldn’t see anything at all in the thicket, but the Bear persisted, going deeper and deeper into it. While this was happening I noticed the rattle’s volume was increasing. I felt excited, hyper-aware. I was going more deeply into an altered state. Suddenly the Bear stopped and looked intently into a stand of shrubbery. All at once, the little boy I had seen earlier stepped out the brush. I was startled and a bit dumbfounded again by his medieval dress, but I did what I had been taught. I asked him if he was the lost part of my soul that I was seeking. He nodded and smiled ever so slightly, so I took the next step. I asked him if he would return with me to my world. After a pregnant pause in which he looked at me very intently, he opened his arms and I knelt down to embrace him. As I held him, I felt him enter my body very gently. I immediately felt that the soul retrieval was complete, and asked Dick what I should do. Tears of joy were streaming down my face. “Ask the Bear to retrace your steps and take you back to the bridge,” he replied. It seemed like the return trip to the bridge took only a few seconds. When we arrived there, I expressed my appreciation and gratefulness to my Power Animal, who turned out to be a very large Brown Bear. As he made his way back to the Lower World, I was almost certain that he let me know that I would see him again.
When I awakened from the journey in Dick’s office, I felt that I had just had a profound experience, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Dick then told me that there were four steps left to complete in order to integrate what had just happened. Over the course of the next two weeks I was to meditate on three questions, and, in addition, I was to take the part of me that had just returned on a tour of my life since he had left for the other world. The three questions were: 1) What gifts and blessings did the returning part bring to me? 2) What did the returning boy need from me and require of me? 3) How would the two of us implement both the gifts and blessings he offered me, and how would we fulfill his needs and requirements? These are the questions that Shamans apparently posed to anyone who successfully experienced soul retrieval. If these questions were not answered, and if the gifts and needs not implemented and filled, the retrieval would be nothing more than a dramatic experience. The work had to be completed or the benefits of the experience would be lost.
In my meditations over the next two weeks I learned that my returning child-self brought me two important gifts. He returned with my five year old vitality and joie de vivre. My Mother had a great sense of humor and a fondness for play and adventure. She loved music and dancing, cooking, gardening, road trips, long days at the beach, and last but not least, the Chicago Cubs. I believe I was born with a temperament similar to hers, and I definitely grew up loving the things that she loved.
After the journey, it occurred to me that my Mother’s illness and dying affected my younger self as profoundly as it affected my fourteen-year-old self. I realized that the little boy was carrying his dead mother in the cart he was pulling behind him, signifying that he had left me because of the distress caused by losing his mother. Now he had returned to me bringing the vitality and playfulness I had lost at fourteen. In return, he wanted me to stay attuned to him. He needed me to attend to his needs and desires, to do things with him that were playful and exhilarating. He needed me to exercise regularly in ways that were pleasurable. He let me know that I was taking myself and my life much too seriously. I was too intent on saving the world. I needed to attend more to my own needs and desires.
When I took him on a tour of what had happened in my life since his departure, it became very clear that one of the matters that I had neglected in my life was adequate self-care. I had become a workaholic, overly industrious, overly serious, overly other directed. Even my romantic relationships were elaborate rehabilitation projects, where to some degree I was trying to save my relationship partner from unhappiness. So my first shamanic journey was a total wake-up call that let me know that I had important changes to make. The overriding experience was that I returned with a more complete sense of self. The feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency began to evaporate. I felt more complete, more intact. I felt like I knew who I was and that I needed to attend more to what I needed and wanted. If I didn’t, I would return to being a shadow of myself. As part of my self-reclamation program, I changed my diet, began running, meditated more consistently, returned to doing Tai Chi and took up early American folk dancing. Most importantly, I brought playfulness and joy back into my life by doing the things that I loved, which included going to more Cubs games.
If this sounds like a conversion experience, in a sense it was. I felt revitalized and more connected to myself than I had been in years. I came to believe that healthy self-attunement is essential to our health and wellbeing. If all that we do in our lives is attend to the needs and desires of others, or focus mainly on the hard work of gaining other people’s approval or worldly success, we lose much of ourselves in the process. What the returning part of my soul brought to me was the realization that I needed to value myself as much as I valued others. I didn’t need to give up being a psychotherapist or being of help to other people; I just needed to put myself back into the equation of my life.
In the months that followed this first journey, I made a second journey to the Spirit world to retrieve an adolescent part of me that had also left when my Mother died. I will write about that in next month’s blog, when I will also explore some of the other Shamanic healing tools, and the roles of the Power Animal and the Teacher. Soon after my second journey, I began to guide journeys for my clients that were open to working in this way. Over the years, I have witnessed many powerful soul retrievals, almost all of which have had very positive results. The only problems that have occurred have happened when the person on the journey tried to script the experience, choosing their power animal or the place where they would find the lost part of their souls before the journey started. When they learned to give up control and trust the shamanic process, the healing experiences took place.
A Step-by-Step Guide to the Shamanic Journey
So here is an outline of how to use the shamanic journey in your own healing. As you know, if you have followed this blog, I recommend having a guide who knows this territory with you when you begin to use it. If not a guide, then have a trusted friend present who can act as a witness for you while you journey. The experience works best when you say out loud what you are experiencing. This sets up a feedback loop that reinforces your unfolding experience. If you are an experienced meditator, have trance experience, or are someone who remembers and works with your dreams, you can try this on your own, but I would still recommend using a recording device and saying vocally whatever is happening in the altered state experience.
It’s best to lie down for the journey, perhaps putting a yoga mat on the floor. Chairs that recline also provide a comfortable launching pad. If someone is with you, they can do the drumming. If not, you can easily find snippets of spiritual and shamanic drumming online through Pandora, You Tube or iTunes.
Before you begin your journey, memorize the statement of intention: “My intention is to journey to the other world to find my power animal and my teacher. When I find them, I will ask them to help me find the lost part of my soul. When I find the lost part of my soul, I will ask it to return with me to this world.” You will need to say this intention before you cross over into the Spirit World. You should also say it if nothing seems to be happening or your journey bogs down or seems thwarted in some way.
Copyright 1993 Toby Landesman
Begin the journey by focusing on your breath, and following your breath inside your body. Breathe slowly, breathing out to the end of each exhale for several breaths. This signals your brain that you desire to alter your conscious waking state. If you are a meditator go into a meditative state before you begin the journeying process. Once you are relaxed, adopt an open, receptive state and allow the experience to happen. Do not try to control it or script it in any way. Begin your journey by visualizing the building that you call home from outside. Then walk up to the front door. Touch the doorknob or latch and then turn 180 degrees and walk out to the street. Turn in the direction you choose and slowly walk through your neighborhood or town. Just intend to move quickly on to the country and then to the wilderness. Once you find yourself in the wilderness, remember that you are looking for a hollowed out tree, a cave that leads down into the earth or a bridge that crosses water, whether it’s a stream, a creek, or a river. Before you enter the tree or the cave, or before you cross the bridge, vocally state the intention that you have memorized. Once you are in the Spirit World stay on your path and look first for your power animal and then for your teacher. When an animal comes into view, ask if it is your Power Animal, and if it is, ask if it will help you find either your teacher or the lost part of your soul. If it says nothing or moves away from you, proceed on your path. Sometimes an animal will return several times. If it shows up three or four times, it likely is your power animal. Usually, however, your power animal will communicate with you telepathically, meaning that you will hear it speak to you, or you will get a visual cue, or you will feel clearly that this animal is the one you are looking for. Your Power Animal may guide you directly to the lost part of your soul, or it may take you to your Teacher. Ask any person who you see on your journey if they are your teacher. Once you ask them, if they are your teacher, they will reply directly in a way you can identify. If they do not respond, just continue on the path until you find your teacher, or the lost part of your soul emerges. Once you have found it, ask if it is willing to return with you to your world. Sometimes the lost part of your soul will refuse to come back immediately. If it does, ask it what you need to accomplish before you return to the Spirit World once again. You will usually get very precise instructions. One of my clients was told by the lost part that he was too angry and needed to return to his world to work through his anger. Only then would the lost part consent to return to him.
If the lost part of your soul is willing to return with you, either embrace it as I did or make some meaningful contact, like holding hands or linking arms as you make the return journey. Retrace your steps and return to the point where you crossed over. Then simply intend to return easily and effortlessly to wakefulness in the place that you started from. Ask that you remember all the important parts of your journey, and write the details of your experience in a journal or log them into your computer soon after you return. Also, as soon as possible, work your way through the three questions. First, what gifts and blessings is the returning part of your soul bringing to you? Second, what will this part need from you, and does it have any requirements that you must meet? Third, you must work with the returned part of you to decide how you will utilize the gifts and blessings it brings to you, and how you will implement meeting its needs and requirements. Then take it on a tour of your life from the time it left for the Spirit World to the time it returned to you. All of these four parts are best accomplished in a meditative or deeply relaxed state. Remember that it is very important that you complete them in order to reap the full healing benefits of your journey.
Do not despair if you do not get immediate results from your first attempts at soul retrieval. It may take a few unsatisfactory or thwarted journeys before you learn how to surrender enough to start receiving and experiencing the true shamanic experience. In the process you will be joining with many generations of our ancestors who walked this path. You will be aligning yourself with the tribal people who first inhabited our planet, and you will be receiving the grace and spirit that is available to us from our brother and sister animals and from Mother Nature herself. You may come to know what our tribal ancestors meant when they spoke of the Great Spirit. I think you will find the shamanic path deeply enriching, powerfully healing, and full of enjoyment, satisfaction, and surprise. You will discover that finding a lost part of your soul and bringing it back inside yourself can be a life changing event, one that can further your healing, increase your sense of self-worth, and secure your feeling of the value and importance of your life.
In next month’s blog, I will revisit the realm of Shamanic Healing to explore other healing practices and to give you an account of my second journey. I also hope to interview a Chicago Shaman, who will reflect on her Shamanic healing practice. Until then, thank you for your readership and your feedback. I offer my gratitude and appreciation to my esteemed collaborators Toby Landesman for her magical images.
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.