The Concept Of Shamanic Journeying

The Concept of Shamanic Journeying

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The Shamanic Journey

A journey is a time-honored tool of many native cultures. It involves entering a state of non-ordinary consciousness and having an out-of-body adventure in a rich landscape that some might consider a parallel universe. In Core Shamanism it's called "Non-Ordinary Reality" or NOR for short.

It may help to think of a journey as a waking dream. You enter into a state of consciousness where you can see things you wouldn't normally see, and travel to places where extraordinary things can happen.

One enters NOR with purpose and questions, and one's first journeys into NOR are to establish relationships with natives of those other worlds so that you have guides, helpers, teachers and allies who will help to show you around, answer your questions, and protect you both in NOR and in ordinary reality.

To leave NOR, one retraces one's steps and goes back into one's body.

Shamanic Counseling

Whether you participate in shamanic counseling in a group or one-on-one, in a shamanic counseling you will sit with someone experienced in coaching people to journey and in coaching people on interpreting symbolism, and you will be given the opportunity to go on a journey. This journey is voice-recorded, so you relate what you see and experience while you are in NOR. The idea is that eventually you will be skilled in journeying and able to perform shamanic journeys on your own if you wish, although some people prefer to journey with a witness and guide present. Having the voice recording is very important, because many people wake up and forget details of their journey just like they forget details of a long and convoluted dream. Having recorded the journey, it can be reviewed and kept as a reminder in the future.

The shamanic practitioner that is running the shamanic counseling session practices a role of non-interference during the journey and during the interpretation. They are there as a coach, and will not interpret for you, but will help you bring out your own inner meaning for the symbols, interactions, places, and environment in your journey.

If you cannot hear or speak, please ask about alternatives to using audio recordings during shamanic counseling sessions: we may be able to find a way to accommodate you with other hypnotic means such as staring into candlelight, or if conditions permit with live drumming so that you may be able to fully sense the percussion rhythm and with a video camera to record your journey if you can sign what you are experiencing during the journey. I am open to experimenting with customers with special needs.

Shamanic State of Consciousness & Drumming

The state of non-ordinary consciousness that we enter to visit non-ordinary reality (NOR) is called the "Shamanic State of Consciousness" (SSC). We enter into a trance or hypnotic state usually with the help of vibrations of sound, most especially drumming although some may use singing bowls, rattles, chimes, or other vibrations to enter the SSC. The sounds can be treated as a magic carpet transporting you into another world.

The drum is a sacred object in shamanic practice, because it is your transport into and out of the shamanic world. When it is "time" to return home, the drumming changes to remind you that you are a visitor in NOR and that it is time to return back to ordinary reality and your body.

Other means of entering NOR are also possible: I've personally used staring into fire or candle flames to enter NOR. I've also entered NOR just by imagining or remembering the drumbeat, since I'm so used to it. There are recordings of drumming accompanied by other instruments that can be used, too.

The Shamanic State of Consciousness is never to be used while driving or operating vehicles. It is considered a hypnotic state of consciousness, and never should be mixed with doing anything critical in ordinary reality.

All that Is, is alive!

An important quality of shamanism is the core belief that "All that is, is alive. If you travel in NOR, everything and anything can be significant and can have a message to convey. You can have a conversation or symbolic interaction with almost anything, and in shamanic practice we honor the spirit in all things.

An easier way to understand this, for those of you who may be religious, is that all things are of Source energy. That's the energy that God used to create the universe. That energy is Of God. Since all things in creation are thus Of God, they all have meaning and significance. When we step into NOR, that meaning and significance is amplified and apparent, it is our adventure to interact within that reality that makes the connections more apparent and find the messages that are there for us.

If you do not believe in religion and God, keep in mind that at minimum all water bodies and creatures, plants, animals and even rocks share molecules. The oxygen molecules you breathe and the water molecules in your cells and blood that are absolutely necessary for life flow through so many other things that we are all connected. Also, once you step into NOR, and you are in a world that may very well be a landscape painted by your subconscious similar to when you dream, anything and everything can communicate with you.


First there is the ordinary or waking world, the world in which you and I interact directly. Then there are the worlds in the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC) -- the trance state that we enter to visit non-ordinary reality (NOR).

There are 3 basic layers in NOR.

There is the Middle World, which is a direct spiritual parallel of "ordinary reality" although many features in the Middle World may be changed. One might travel to the moon, and find that it really is made of cheese, or is a big old man's face and he might talk to you. Or it could be something entirely different, say a big cotton ball. You can visit ruins and relics, you can visit the past and the future of the ordinary world. One simple type of journey that might take place in the middle world is looking for a lost object. I've used Middle World journeys to perform distance healing work.

I like to call the shamanic Middle World "the subtle world". It's there, just out of reach. Some practitioners can be in both ordinary reality and the subtle world at the same time, like standing over the threshold with one leg inside your house and the other outside your house. If you look one way you see inside your house. If you look another way, you see outside.

The shamanic Lower World is a rich landscape often with jungles, forests, swamps, rivers, deserts. There are many creatures and animals in the Lower World, and much of the communication there is in symbols. It is called the "Lower World" because typically one goes "down" to get there. Down through a lake, down through a rabbit hole, down through tree roots, down through a cave. One's first journey is typically to the Lower World to ask for a power animal (see Protector Spirits). Alice in Wonderland is a literary example of a "Lower World" journey: Alice fell down the rabbit hole and landed in a world full of creatures and strange experiences.

The shamanic Upper World is usually a lighter, brighter, more airy world and one reaches the Upper World by traveling -- you guessed it -- up. It can be by magic carpet, by riding on your power animal, by flying, by going "up" a tall tree and taking a "leap of faith". However one always passes through something (a cloud, a membrane) and lands in what is definitely another world. Most interactions with creatures in the Upper World are verbal and many of the creatures of the Upper World are humanoid. As a literary example, think of Jack and the Beanstalk when you think of an Upper World Journey. Jack climbed up and up but it isn't until he passed through the cloud that he was truly in the Upper World. Then he could walk on the ground, and indeed there was a castle to go to. Typically your first journey to the Upper World is to find a teacher or mentor spirit.

While these are the usual expectations, one can find animal helpers in the Upper World, one can get a message in words in the Lower World, etc. Trust your own experiences in your journey to be what you need at the time.

Protector Spirits

When one is going to step into the subtle world, you want some basic help on the other side. There are two types of spirits that we actively seek out: we look for a Power Animal and we look for a Teacher or Mentor.

A Power Animal is a spirit helper who acts as a guide, and protects our personal power. Typically these are birds and mammals, although with some limitations they could be reptiles or fish -- and they could be a mythical creature. When we are in NOR, our Power Animal(s) should be called to accompany us on our journey. This helps keep the connection with them strong, and helps care for them. This is an interdependent relationship. You should care for your Power Animal as you would a beloved animal companion, however keep in mind that they are not a pet and do not need you to attend their most basic survival necessities. They need you to remain connected to them, to give them love and honor them. They typically enjoy being represented in the "Real World" and so you can "dance them" (literally dancing around acting like them while connected to them in a trance), draw them, keep symbols of them (statuettes, carvings) around you, or I have a carved semiprecious stone of one that I keep in my medicine pouch close to my heart. Power Animals, much like ordinary reality animals, usually speak through body language, emotion, action, etc. If you are very proficient to talking to animals in general you might "hear" what they have to say even though their lips do not move. If we experience a power loss -- a loss of energy and oomph in the "real world" -- we may need to look to our Power Animal to make sure that our connection to them is strong and that we indeed even have a Power Animal any more. The other type of power loss is Soul Loss, which is an advanced shamanic concept.

Mentors or Teachers are usually humanoid, and they speak to us directly. They typically accompany us on Upper World journeys although we can call for them for any journey. When we have a question that involves a complicated verbal answer, often we will seek out our Mentor or Teacher in the Upper World.

So typically for every journey, one enters the Middle World and calls one's Power Animal(s). Then one sets off on the tasks or adventures that one is looking to pursue. At any time, one can call on one's Mentor or Teacher to join in.

Blocks and things to avoid

If the way is blocked in a journey, and one cannot find another way to go, one may either return to ordinary consciousness (go back to your body), or one can change from attempting a Lower World Journey to a Middle World or Upper World Journey.

One avoids swarming, stinging and biting insects, or reptiles and fish that show their fangs or teeth. If the way is blocked by these, one might either find an alternative entrance to the world one is seeking, or decided to try going to the other world to find an answer. Make sure your Power Animals are with you, and you may want to call to your Teacher or Mentor as well if you encounter blocks or unwanted creatures. They may know a way around the problem, but do not tackle these challenges on your own.

Spirituality vs. Religion

Shamanism is a core spiritual practice. Similar to yoga or meditation, it is a group of tools and philosophies that stand apart from any particular religious system. As such, anyone who is comfortable with the concept of shamanic journeying may undertake journeying as a spiritual practice and it will not interfere with their religious practice, unless their religion specifically has a doctrine against out-of-body travel, speaking with spirits, etc.

As such, shamanic practice has no particular gods, no particular spiritual beings, no particular images or icons that are proscribed. One idea that I do hold forth for people who are going to undertake a journey is "All that is, is alive." It is a core concept of shamanic journeying that everything has spirit. So in a journey one may find oneself getting messages from anything and everything: a rock, a computer, a car, a bird, a mouse, a stream, a person, a turtle, an angel or even a single blade of grass. And the symbolism is potentially as rich as all of human mythology, so you could encounter a fairy, a unicorn, a centaur, a mythical god or goddess, etc.

You may think of it as having a waking lucid dream that is always significant and enlightening. It is much more than that, but that understanding of what is happening is sufficient.

Spontaneous "Soul Retrieval"

Ordinarily a Soul Retrieval (see my article on Soul Loss) is a highly advanced journey done for you by another practitioner, because if there is real trauma in your life retrieving essence lost in the trauma can be challenging and potentially dangerous -- so deliberate soul retrievals are reserved to experienced and trained shamanic practitioners. However, during ordinary journeys and asking questions of your guides and helper spirits, you may experience soul retrievals of parts of your past that are lost and need to be re-integrated with your essence-in-the-now.

So for example, your helper spirit may bring you to a place you "know" from your youth, and you might "accidentally" recover some lost part of yourself. It can be symbolized as an object you "left behind" there, or it may actually be a younger "you" -- a child, a baby, a youth -- and it may become clear that they belong "with you". If you are at all uncertain, ask your helper spirit, or call your teachers to come and counsel with you on the matter of whether you should free this little spirit from its situation and bring it home.

If you do recover a lost "Soul Part" then make sure to welcome it back in a loving fashion after your journey. Perhaps give it honor on your altar if you have one, or give it love and hugs inside of you. You can make drawings or artwork in honor of the part, journal about how much you want it and welcoming it back, but make sure that it knows that it is wanted.