In shamanism the axis mundi (also known as the world tree, cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, columna cerului, "center of the world") is the world center and the connection between Heaven and Earth. It is a point of connection between the upper world, the middle world (where we normally reside) and the lower world and the point where the four compass directions meet.
I discussed shamanic journeys to the lower world in my last post. In that post I described entering an opening or portal through which you could descend into the lower world.
What you were doing was traveling down the axis mundi from the middle world to the lower world. For me at least, it is easiest to view the axis mundi as the world tree. The world tree functions like an elevator. I enter the door and the “elevator” takes me down to the lower world or up to the world above.
The World Tree
A world tree or cosmic tree serve as images of the axis mundi. The image of the World Tree provides an axis symbol that unites three planes: upper world (branches), earth or middle world (trunk) and lower world (roots). Many stories keep the image of the world tree alive for us. Remember Jack and the Beanstock? He ascended up the world tree to a realm above the earth.
The axis mundi can take many forms. One of the most common is a high mountain and in fact shrines are often erected at the summit or base of these locations. Mount Fuji in Japan, has long symbolized the world axis in Japanese culture. In China Mount Kun-Lun, "the mountain at the middle of the world", fills a similar role. Mount Zion probably served the same purpose for the ancient Hebrews. The Sioux view the Black Hills as the axis mundi. To Hindus, Mount Kailash is holy. The Pitjantjatjara people in central Australia consider Uluruto (Ayers Rock) be central to both their world and culture. In ancient Mesopotamia the cultures of ancient Sumer and Babylon erected artificial mountains, or ziggurats, on the flat river plain. These supported staircases leading to temples at the top. The pre-Columbian residents of Teotihuacán in Mexico erected huge pyramids featuring staircases leading to heaven. For Christians the Cross on Mount Calvary expresses the symbol. Recall that Christian literature has Christ descending and ascending from the Cross.
It doesn’t really matter what image or place you use as your axis mundi. Select an site or a tree or anything else that can serve as a symbol for you of the connection of the our realm, the middle world, with the lower world and the upper world. This will help you remember that you are not stuck in the middle world but that you are a shamanic traveler and that you can find wisdom by traveling between realms
I noted above that the axis mundi is also the point of contact of the four directions. East is the direction of beginnings. It is the direction of the rising sun where a new day is announced. Over the course of the day the sun rises higher in the South, reaching its maximum at mid-day. The West is the direction of the setting sun, the direction of fulfillment, completion and death. North, the direction in which the sun never travels, is the place of shadows. It is the direction of sleep, dreams, visions, and regeneration; the place where the earth and the human spirit wait to be reborn in a new dawn.
Today try and be conscious of the directions as you face them and the feelings that they may engender within you.
First Shamanic Journey
If you have been reading along as I have posted about core shamanism you might be ready to try your first shamanic journey. As I mentioned in a previous post, the big difference between a shamanic journey and a dream is that shamanic journeys are intentional. So, given your intention, let’s get started.
Before you begin your journey you need to do a couple of things. First, determine the purpose of your journey. To common objectives are to (1) explore the lower world just to get to know your way around, like how to get there and how to return, or (2) to meet your power animal(s). The second thing that you need to do is to identify your portal. I use an opening in the bottom of a big oak tree that is on the side of a path where I frequently hike. Your portal can be any opening into the earth, it might be a well, a lake, a waterfall, a cave, the roots of a tree, an opening in a wall (see below) or you can borrow my opening at the bottom of the tree. Don’t worry about the size of your portal. You will not enter it with your physical body, rather your intention will lead you through the portal.
Your opening might be a place that you have seen before, once or many times, or one that you imagine. I prefer openings that really exist in the physical world because they help me experience passing from one reality into another. I think that the best portals or openings are ones where you feel that the veil that separates one reality from another is thin. Here is a picture of one of the portals that I frequently use. It is an opening in a stone wall and the ground on the other side is about 20 feet below the opening. That doesn't matter because I don't physically jump through the opening (and I'm way too big to fit through the narrow opening anyway) but flying through the opening gives me the option of directing my energy upwards to the sky to visit the upper world or down into the ground to visit the under world.
If you are ready to proceed then:
1. Lay down in dark, quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Get comfortable. It may help to put a pillow under your head or knees. You might want to put an eye pillow over your eyes. If you don’t feel totally relax then tighten all of your muscles and then, starting at your feet and working up to the top of your head, slowly relax each muscle.
2. Turn on a shamanic drumming track (you can download one from iTunes, get a CD of shamanic drumming, or check YouTube (I’ll post one later and will update this page with the link). You can easily find 10, 15, 20 and 30 minutes tracks. I usually use a 15 minute track. I suggest that you use a track or have someone else drum for you until you are an experienced traveler, then you can drum yourself.
3. When the drumming starts go to your opening. I usually take a few minutes and walk, in my mind, through the forest to my portal. Go through your entry point.
4. As you pass through your portal see or imagine that you have entered a dimly lit tunnel, hall way, or passage way. The tunnel may be only a few feet long or it may go on for hundreds of feet, either way see or imagine that you can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. That bright light is the opening into the other world, the lower world.
Note: Some of you may be able to close your eyes as see visual images that are as real as the world around you. Others, like me, close your eyes and “see” darkness. Your ability to “see” images with your eyes closed is irrelevant. If you can’t “see” in the dark, then imagine or “know” what is around you. Some people don’t “know” or “see”, they may hear. Use whatever sense seems to work best for you. Don’t worry if you have to “imagine” to get things started. Aristotle said that image is the language of the soul. It’s alright to help your soul get started on this journey by using your imagination to image a new reality.
5. When you enter your portal or opening don’t try to go into the ground. Our objective isn’t to see the dirt, bugs, or roots that are under the surface. We are traveling to a different realm that we perceive as existing beneath the surface of ordinary reality.
6. Once you are in the passage way take a few minutes to get centered. Breathe deeply, relax and become familiar with the sensations or thoughts of being out of ordinary reality. You might want to look around and notice the texture of the walls, the smells, a breeze, temperature, humidity and anything else that will help you get a sense of the place. If your intention was only to go and return then once you have soaked in the sensations of the passage way, turn around and move back up and out of your opening.
7. If your intention was to meet your power animal then walk to the end of the passage way into the light. Look around a get a feel for the other world. When I enter the other world I don’t find myself in a dimly lit cave under the earth. I find myself in a different reality, a different world with bright light, sky, trees, rivers, and mountains. Call to your power animal and ask it to accompany you and to introduce you to the other world. Enjoy your stay.
8. When the drumming changes (usually the drummer will stop for an instant, and then change the drum beat to a very fast beat for about 30 seconds, and then takes up a slow and quiet beat.) you have your signal to return to ordinary reality. Ask your power animal to take you back to your passage way. Power animals sometimes take you back, retracing your steps, to your passage way. Sometimes they just point and say, “There it is.”, and sometimes they use my favorite way and transport you at the speed of thought back to the entrance to your passage way. Return through the passage way up through your original opening and back into ordinary reality.
To summarize, here is a general template for lower-world journeys:
1. Lie on the floor, cover your eyes and relax.
2. State the intention of your journey.
3. Begin the drumming.
4. Find your entry point to the lower world
5. Go through the entry point and into the passage way.
6. Emerge from the passage way into the lower world
7. Call to your power animal.
8. State the purpose of your journey to your power animal.
9. Let your power animal conduct you on your journey.
10. Return to the passage way when the drumming changes.
11. Go through the passage way, up and out of your entry point, and back into ordinary reality.
Enjoy your first journey . . . more next time.
(Warning . . . This started out light, and I’m afraid that I may have waxed too philosophical and heavy. I promise the next post will be lighter)
As an aside, if you don’t remember this from an earlier post, religion and shamanism are not in competition with each other. Shamanism doesn’t ask that you give up your religious beliefs. Nevertheless, shamanism and traditional religion are fundamentally different in several respects. For example, shamanism asks that you view the world, both seen and unseen, with different eyes. It asks that you see all that is with a fresh perspective and realize that (1) there is more to this existence than what we can see, touch, feel, and hear; and (2) you have the ability, without help from another mortal, to access the unseen world. In addition, from my point of view, most religions teach that you have become separate from Source and that you need to realign yourself once again with IT. Shamanism on the other hand believes that you are one with Source. That means that you and I and Source are all interconnected and that IT is present in all of us.
Traditional religion has colored the way that we see the world and has tended to turn concepts that should be simple into ideas that are very complex. Religion doesn’t describe reality, it describes an interpreted reality. If we presume that reality is one, that is that multiple realities cannot exist simultaneously in the same time and place, and if religion described reality, then there should only be one religion (one reality leads to one religion). On the other hand if we presume that reality is one but that religion is an interpretation of that reality, we can have multiple views of that one reality from different perspectives (one reality with multiple interpretations of it). The great religions are messages that have been given to humans by Spirit, and then which have been interpreted (in a specific place and time) by humans . . . an interpreted reality.
In the same way, a shamanic journey is an interpreted reality. I go on a shamanic journey, have an experience, and then interpret that journey in light of my own background, needs and wants and experience. We are always limited in our capacity to interpret the messages that we get from Spirit. The message is as “true” as we are willing and able to understand an incorporate into our lives. Because we are human the logic of the brain may never be sufficient to fully grasp and incorporate the full reality of messages from Source.
Finally . . . Power Animals
Most of us, born into this world without memory and with free will, are perfectly poised to make a complete mess of our lives and the lives of those around us. Guess what? Source doesn’t care . . . It doesn’t care about your weight, your race, your gender, your political leanings, your nationality, or your pocket book. On the other hand it does care about you learning to use your free will in ways that are good for all. Source has provided helping spirits in forms that we can relate to, to teach, guide and direct us as we learn how to use our free will. Source doesn’t care how you see your helping spirits, as long as you see them in a way that helps you and makes it easier for you to work with them. My guess is that we see our helping spirits in ways that are culturally and experientially meaningful to us.
From a shamanic perspective, everything that is is alive. Obviously a tree is alive, but so is a rock. The life of a rock is different is from the life of a tree which is different from your life or mine. The Oak tree outside my window has a spirit. Oak, as a species, has a universal Oak spirit as well. All that is alive may communicate with us by speaking spirit-to-spirit.
Whether you accept them or not, whether you believe in them or not, you have Helping Spirits. All true helping spirits are protective, though they may specialize in healing, guidance or teaching. All true helping spirits are a voice of Source. Helping Spirits come to us many ways and generally reflect back to us what we are, especially the parts of ourselves that we haven’t discovered or are not yet owning.
They may appear in dreams, shamanic journeys, or during meditations. Helping spirits may appear in the forms of animals, plants, fish, mythical beasts and beings, ancestors, deities, or elementals, and features of the local geography, like mountains or lakes, and even rocks (remember that everything that is is alive). I will always remember picking a beautiful piece of petrified wood while hiking near Vantage in Washington State and hearing in my mind the rock tell me, “I use to be a tree but now I'm not, and I’m pleased with my new form.” As I age that message means more to me now than it did 40 years ago. I use to be young, and I am pleased with my new (older) form. It just took some time for me to catch up with message, to be in a place where the message now has meaning in my life.
Power animals are one of the many ways that shamanic peoples, both ancient and contemporary, envision the help that reaches out to humans from Source of All That Is (whatever you may call it). Humans have never responded well to direct communication with Source. We tend think that a visit from God would solve all of our problems immediately, but when the visit comes we are overwhelmed in such a way that the message is totally lost. Humans prefer mediation from burning bushes and angels and things that have faces they can talk to. After all, we are just little kids at heart.
I view power animals as energetic constructs that help us to live in harmony with Source. By the way, you are a highly stable energy construct. That means that power animals are just as real as you are. We are all energy. There is something about our energy that makes us manifest in the physical world (a low vibrational level perhaps). There is something about the energy of our power animals and other helping spirits that keeps them from manifesting in the physical world (perhaps a vibrational level that is just a bit too slow or too fast for our eyes to detect ). Are we real? Are they real? Both are as real as is energy.
For us to be mature spiritual adults it is necessary for us to have a working relationship with Spirit. We need to have tools so that we can send and receive message from Spirit. Power animals are stable energy patterns that take meaningful forms so that Spirit can communicate with us.
From a shamanic perspective we humans are not at the top of the ladder in terms on consciousness. In fact, I expect that we are close to the bottom of the ladder. If you have read research on plant consciousness (non-local, instantaneous communication for example) then you may realize that they may be a lot higher on the consciousness ladder than we give them credit for being. Have you ever heard a tree or a rock deny its true destiny, its life purpose? They accept who they are, often times we don’t. Source and helping spirits know that we have a tendency to mess things up so there are here to help. Pay attention to them. Listen to them.
Next post . . . how to engage with your power animals and other helping spirits.
In my last blog I wrote about core shamanism and shamanic journeys. This morning I thought that I would write about the other worlds, place to which I journey. In a future blog I'll give you some ideas to help you embark on a shamanic journey of your own. But first you need to know where you are going and who you might meet.
What makes shamanic journeys different from other types of spiritual experiences is that they are intentional. A shamanic practitioner initiates contact with the other world . Many people have what I would call random spiritual experiences where they are visited by Spirit, it could be in a dream, while day dreaming, or during full consciousness. The point is that in these experiences Spirit has initiated the contact. In shamanic journeys the shamanic practitioner initiates the contact and travels to the world of the spirit.
I like to think of our three-dimensional consciousness in term of something that I can relate to. A box. We live in a 3D box and everything we know with our conscious, rational mind is inside that box. There are other dimensions outside that box. The underworld is underneath the 3D box, the upper world is on the other side of the lid of the box. Shamanic journeying lets us experience life outside the box.
We live in the middle world, our world of day-to-day reality. The two other worlds than shamanic practitioners visit are the underworld (no, it is not hell) and the upper world. Both types of journeys lead you through portals that lead down below the earth or up to the other side of the sky. If you think back to childhood, the story of Alice in Wonderland is really the story of an underworld journey. The Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, is an upper world journey. Alice found an opening in the earth and fell down into the underworld realm. Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz was taken up by a tornado into the upper world, and remember, it wasn't Kansas anymore.
Journeys to the underworld lead you to earth spirits, the spirits of nature like sprites (water spirits), tree spirits, fairy land, and to your power animal(s). The underworld doesn't exist in the ground. If you were to journey into the ground you would find dirt, roots and bugs. Rather, when you travel down into the underworld you are traveling into a realm that exists beneath the surface of ordinary reality. I enter the underworld by walking across the street from our home, in my mind of course, into the forest and entering a portal formed by an opening in the bottom of a tree.
If you choose to journey you can expect to find your power animal(s) in the underworld.
An upper world journey takes you to the realm of the angels, spirit guides and ancestors. I feel that this realm exists about three feet above the ground that I walk upon. Journeys into the upper world don't take you into outer space. Outer space is still part of the 3D box that you live in. The upper world is the world that lives on the other side of the lid that contains your 3D world, the other side of the sky if you will.
I have found that the upper world is a wonderful place to which to travel to seek wisdom and guidance.
In my next post I'll write more about power animals, in the following post I'll walk you through a shamanic journey.
Over the course of living and working for six years in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Peru I became interested in shamanism as a spiritual practice. No, I don't think of myself as a shaman although I do know quite a few. I am however a practitioner of eclectic shamanism as a daily spiritual practice. A practitioner is simply someone who practices something. I practice eclectic shamanism.
Eclectic shamanism isn't a religion, its more of a way of seeing the world and our place in it, and of interacting with the normally unseen world of spirits. Because it is not a religion you can practice it if you like, no matter what religion calls to your heart.
Practitioners of eclectic shamanism often refer to non-ordinary reality. We recognize, as do quantum and theoretical physicists, that there is more to this world than what we can sense with our five senses. Non-ordinary reality is the place, a unseen dimension if you will, where nature spirits, the spirits of the land and animals, reside. It is also the dimension where we find our deceased ancestors, spirit guides, totem animals, angels, gods and goddesses . . . whatever fits into your belief system.
From my perspective, just because I can't see something doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't exist. By the same token, just because I can see or feel something it doesn't mean that my perception of the object is reality. For example, take the table that is probably in front of you. It looks solid. You can feel it and it supports objects. But the apparently solid table is, just like you and me, made up of whirling fields of energy in which there is more empty space than physical atoms. Thus, I have learned to be quite open about what I accept as "reality".
One of the practices of core shamanism, given that non-ordinary reality exists, is to visit it. In core shamanism we use practices to alter our consciousness (spirit, soul) and travel into non-ordinary reality and have direct experiences with our ancestors, friends, guides, guardians, and instructors who reside there. You may have grown up believing that you have a guardian angel. If so, then why not make friends with that being and interact directly with it (him or her)?
The process of sending your consciousness into non-ordinary reality is called a shamanic journey. Although some traditions use plant spirits (for example the spirit of Peyote) to assist in making the journey, most non-native shamanic practitioners like me use deep meditative states assisted with drumming. A rapid, constant drum beat seems to facilitate the shift from perceiving ordinary reality to perceiving non-ordinary reality.
Step outside your box and discover that there is more to "reality" than you ever imagined. We all live inside a three-dimensional box. Guess what? There is "stuff" outside that box and you can discover it for yourself.
More to come . . .
The word "shaman" comes from Tungus language where it refers to a person who enters into an altered state of consciousness to facilitate a journey into non-ordinary reality. Although the term is from Siberia, the practice of shamanism existed on all inhabited continents.
Shamanism is not a religion and it may not even be a spiritual practice. However, it is the most ancient form of healing, practiced by humans around the world and it is a method for connecting and working with spirit. Once in non-ordinary reality the shaman is able to request healing and advice from personal power animals animals, humans and other spirits including spirit guides and nature spirits. Spiritual healing is complementary to modern medicine, therapy and training. Often it is the missing link, the wind in the sails that allows healing, recovery and training to rapidly progress.
Is shamanism a religion?
A “religion” is usually defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Shamanism does not have any prescribed doctrines or belief systems. In fact, shamanism doesn’t have any beliefs at all. I learned from Andean shamans in Bolivia and Peru and they didn’t “believe” in spirit helpers like the Apus or mountain spirits. They worked with them every day and knew them. The Andean shamans didn’t believe in spirits any more than they believed that they wore clothing, ate food or lived in a home. Shamanism isn’t a faith-based system, rather, it is experiential and so rather than believing something shamans know because they have experienced. If you begin to practice shamanism then you too will eventually come to that knowing.
Shamanism coexists with Buddhism and Lamaism in Siberia. In Japan it coexists with with Buddhism and Shintoism. In fact in some Buddhist traditions a monk is ordained as a Shamana. In South America shamanism coexists with Christianity and you will find shamans who place Christian symbols on their mesas.
So it if is not a religion, what is it? It is a method, a way of working with spirit. It is also a holistic approach to healing that can work alongside and with contemporary Western medicine. A shaman’s role in society is not to convert others to a way of believing, it is to use spiritual means (as in working with Spirit) to help the people become well and whole, not to prove that his or her system is the only one that works.
I'm Dr. Dave, an eclectic shaman. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice eclectic shamanism.