How To Answer A Question: The Shamanic Journey

Meeting My Teacher

When I looked into his eyes it was like meeting a friend you have had your entire life. There was a mixture of delight, mischief, and curiosity. He awoke these same qualities in me. “I will be your teacher and friend,” he told me as he looked into my eyes. This was the day I met a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon, on a beach after swimming across a dark sea.

Our meeting was a new experience. I lay on a yoga mat covered with a Mexican wool blanket in a Victorian living room on a former military base converted into a state park. I closed my eyes and listened to two people playing frame drums.

I entered a door in a tree trunk I saw when walking in my neighborhood and descended into the earth on a winding dirt path. I came to a cliff and dove into the sea, swam with the stars shining above me, and came up onto a beach. Walking ashore, I was determined to find my animal teacher as instructed. This first journey was a meet-and-greet where he became one of my shamanic guides.

Talking with an imaginary animal might seem unfamiliar, but it is part of an ancient practice that can support us with a new way to answer questions. The type of question should be important to you – Should I move? Should I take this new job? How can I deepen my commitment to this relationship? Before we start receiving answers to your questions you need to meet the teacher who will help you.

How Did You Get Into This?

A woman asks me in conversation, “How did you get into this?” The answer starts with living with my mother during the last months of her life. She told me several times to do whatever I wanted to in this life and not be concerned about others’ opinions.

Every morning while she was still asleep, I would do yoga at a nearby studio. I saw a flyer for a weekend workshop that combined yoga and shamanism. I wasn’t expecting an instructor who reminded me of a truck driver in her matter-of-fact approach to life.

A few weeks later, I did a second workshop where I made a drum and a rattle. I still remember being outside with a group of eight people on a warm summer day. I cut a piece of deer hide, stretching it over a round wooden frame. 

I would share my experiences with my Mom. I saw her excitement as I learned new things. She would smile and nod. Sometimes we would talk for only 10 minutes, and then she would nap; other times we spoke for 2 hours. We both loved watching the moon in the sky together at night and the deer that would gather outside to nibble on the green bushes during the day. Shortly before my Mom died, she told me, "Be brave like me."

What Are Helping Spirits?

Shamanism is a study of the earth’s wisdom and a way to tap into the unseen powers of the natural world. Shamans have been doing this for thousands of years. One thing commonly found across all shamanic cultures is the understanding that the natural world is alive. Behind the forms of the natural world are unseen powers that can be understood and even directed to help human affairs. You often hear the term helping spirits, the enlivened and unseen aspects of the natural world. These helping spirits often take the forms of nature and meet the shaman in the altered state of awareness generated by the shamanic journey.

You are invited to do the journey yourself. The teacher who comes forward through the journey is meeting you exactly where you need to be met. The journey becomes a path of self-understanding and self-transformation. 

The Role of the Drum

The journey will be taken listening to a drum. The repetitive sound helps you alter your awareness. We tend to live our lives in a fairly straightforward, rational, problem-solving state of awareness. Our conscious mind is good at helping us filter out non-essential aspects of our experience. The journey requires an expansion of consciousness, awareness, and the ability to step into a different way of knowing. We all do this every night when we dream. As we move into the dream state, our awareness shifts, and we have a different experience of ourselves and reality. The journey allows for a more directed way to access this altered state rather than waiting to dream.

A Three-Part World

Shamanism often describes a three-part world that is like the natural world around us. We have the upper world of the sky, the middle world of the earth’s surface, and the lower world below the surface. Shamans from many cultures report that only compassionate beings are found in the upper and lower worlds. The middle world has both compassionate beings and those that are not. A bit of practice and study is needed to enter into the middle world safely and without fear.

Finding Your Teacher

Lying down and listening to the drum, you will be closing your eyes. Choosing to cover your eyes may help you look inward more. The journey usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. You will want to have your journal and pen. You may want to record your journey if you say something during it. Make sure you are in a place where you can lie down and not be disturbed. For this first journey you will travel into the lower world to meet a teacher in animal form.

I am going down to the lower world to meet my teacher in animal form. I can enter through a hole in the ground, a hole in a tree, a cavern, or a body of water. This is not an imaginary place or a place from my dreams. I can walk, swim, fly or fall. I may move through some kind of transition or simply stop going down. I may find myself in a forest, in a desert, in the snow, or in a place I have never imagined. I may move through the lower world or stay in one place. I will keep my attention focused and ask my teacher to present itself. I may hear, see, or feel the presence of my teacher. When I become aware of an animal, I ask, “Are you my teacher in animal form?” I will pay attention to the animal for an answer. I may receive a verbal message, a telepathic message, or simply have a knowing. I will stay with my teacher learning until it is time to return. If the answer is no, I will simply look around for another animal to meet. When I hear the callback, a change in the drumming rhythm, I will turn around and come back exactly how I came.

When the music finishes, you should be back in the room where you started. As you come back, let yourself get oriented. Review your journey. And when you are ready, go ahead and write down your journey in as much detail as you can. Then take some time for reflection.

Asking My Question

You will return to the lower world for your second journey and ask your animal teacher a question. You will journey there the same way you did the first time and return when you hear the callback.

I am back on the beach with the tanuki and ask, “What practice can you offer me for  when I feel overwhelmingly lonely?” Suddenly the beach and my teacher are gone. I am inside the lobby of a movie theater with multiple films showing. Looking down, I notice the hypnotic red and black pattern of the carpet. Looking up, I see no staff and feel I cannot walk in and watch any of the films. I reach into my pockets and feel no money or ticket. I have been here for a thousand years. Why is this nightmare happening? I thought I was alone before, but now I am alone. My forehead is dripping with sweat as I shake in fear. I do not know what to do. 

There is no solution and no one to ask for help. I feel unable to speak but manage to whisper a feeble call for help. Suddenly I am inside a room with people, and there is a film showing. Tanuki is sitting next to me. He grins and then winks. Suddenly we are in a different room. We continue to teleport between rooms several times. Next a tree starts growing inside the theatre. No one seems to notice the tree except for the tanuki and me. The tree is large and continues to grow, branches sprouting and writhing with leaves. Hearing the callback, I returned to the room where I started.

Asking Your Question

The question you ask on this journey is a question of importance to you. It is on any subject, in any arena, and any level of experience. The critical thing to remember when generating the question is that it should not begin with “why” since why questions are challenging to answer. You want to have a question that starts with what or how, or where. The reason for this is because the answer needs to be understood in the context of the question. So when you’ve asked a simple one-part question, you’ll know that everything that happens in the journey and with your guide pertains to the question. When you have your question, write it down, so you don’t forget it. You don’t know what your teacher will do to answer your question. Stay close to the question paying attention to everything that the guide does.

Interpreting The Answer

How do you interpret the answer you received to your question? The journey helps you build an inner trust, learn to trust guidance, and receive knowledge from your own ways of knowing. Learning the language of the journey can take time and is not dissimilar to the language of dreams. As you learn to interpret the images, ask what they mean to you. Ask where you may have been exposed to the image before. Does the image remind you of something? Have I experienced this before? Spend time trying to understand your emotional experience and your emotional reactions in the journey. Spend time with the images, the emotions, and looking at the journey symbolically like you would a dream. The language of the journey and dreams is primarily one of images and symbols. With practice you will be able to trust your inner knowing more fully.

With my journey, I realized I am prone to indecision and can become lost in my sense of loneliness. There is a hypnotic quality, and it feels endless. All I need to do is to join with others. They are not avoiding me. We can share in everyday experiences represented by the films. On a deeper level we are all connected. I needed the gift of seeing that connection made clear with the tree growing before my eyes. That connection is both alive and needs to be nurtured.

What’s Next and Resources

You can take other journeys to the lower world. Next you can learn to journey to the upper world and then the middle world. Some parts of the journey may not be clear, or you may feel the process is not working at all, or you may even feel you are only making this up. Keep practicing. Be brave and seek answers to those questions that are important to you.

Shamanic drumming music is readily available from the Internet. Some possible sources are Sandra Ingerman, Michael Harner, and my favorite, “Sacred Drums for the Shamanic Journey” from sacredstream.org.

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