Sometimes, the greatest tragedies bring the greatest benefit. Our greatest strengths paradoxically sourced from the same root as our greatest weaknesses. The death of something old and worn, like a garment from a dying life, is necessary to usher in something new as it is reborn into another form that takes the shape of who we are now. Meta-physical composting. This is true for individual selves, as it is for communities, families, interpersonal relationships, nations and the entire world. Such is the path of transformation -- the evolution of the self, identity, spirit, and meaning.
This is also the way of the shaman. It is a way of transformation, from one state of being to another; from one way of engaging and knowing the world to the expression of something entirely new. This path brings healing, clarity, knowledge, capacity, growth and transformation -- but it can be a road wrought with difficult passages. It is essential to remember the basics, the foundation of our spiritual and personal paths.
And as we do, and apply what we know from the ground up, with each new realization that comes, and with each new intention that's planted in the soil of personal transformation, we grow. We change. We evolve. This is shamanic evolution. It is the action paired with shamanic intent that leads to manifestation. With each ceremony, each medicine experience, and every movement along the path, there is movement and change in the spirit -- in your spirit, and the spirits all around you. If engaged, it is inevitable: there will be change, there will be newness, and there will be growth and development.
But you have to do it. This is a path of action. It is the engagement of the intention that creates the movement, not the desire for the change to happen. The desire for change can be formed into a pattern that actually works against the ultimate resolution of your intention. Part of the challenge that is faced when trying to transform ourselves and our lives is that wanting to change these things is an integral aspect of the same cycle that actually works against fostering the desired changes. It's tricky, a Catch-22. It would seem like wanting to change something is a necessary first step in order to initiate that change. But when that desire is coupled to the continuation of a cycle that does not include taking the necessary actions, it gets worn into a pattern of not doing, and thus no manifestation and no change. You find yourself right back where you started: having the same kinds of challenges or problems, constructing the rationale about the problems in your mind, wanting to change those problems, telling yourself you are going to do it, and then not doing what it takes to make it happen but continuing to have the thoughts and desires about it.
This is because the action of change is independent of the desire. The desire is only satisfactory in the dimensions of the mind. And because the desires and thoughts are experienced entirely in the mind, they satisfy the mind just enough in order to keep the cycle going. They are essential to the cycle that perpetuates not transformation, but continuation of sameness and stagnation. Thinking about doing something or wanting to do something isn't a requirement to actually get up and do it. Consider it. Do you need to think about walking in order to walk? Do you have to think about eating in order to eat? How many times have you done something that you didn't really want to? For instance, physical exercise: How often do we think in our minds that we really don’t want to exercise, and then do it anyway? Or how many times do we create the plan to change something about ourselves or our lives and then never do it -- like for New Year's resolutions?
The action is independent of the desire. The desire can't ever manifest into something. It will always and only be a desire. So it's really simple. Shamanism, or any kind of transformative experience or path, is dependent on your actions and what you are doing. And so despite the mayhem and chaos found in the mind, and regardless of all the fear that keeps you from moving, here it is: the doing is the doing is the doing IS the change.
Trance can be defined as a specific state of consciousness. (Read more about defining shamanism and states of consciousness here.) So this means that you are always in a specific state of consciousness, which means that you are already in a trance state. Thus, whether or not you have the ability to be in trance is not in question. Difference trance states are the norm in terms of human experience, and everybody experiences multiple trance states throughout a single day. What is challenging about trance in the context of shamanic practice is learning how to intentionally move from one trance state to another for specific purposes. Often, this specific purpose is to practice some kind of ceremony or ritual.
Guiding oneself from one state of consciousness to another can take time to learn. Shamanic traditions throughout the world often include various techniques for establishing deeper trance states. Some of these practices include inducing sacred substances, fasting, solitude, isolation for long periods of time, sensory deprivation, ecstatic dancing, and so on. As a modern person practicing shamanism, a challenge that we face is finding ways to incorporate trance into urban lifestyle, often with less time and less-than-optimum spaces for deep trance practice. For instance, long periods of isolation and sensory deprivation are not practices that are supported by modern lifestyles.
Even so, there are absolutely ways that shamanism can be practiced and integrated into daily living. Here some suggestions that can help enhance the ability to deepen your trance experience. These are based on experimentation, keeping both traditional trance practice and modern lifestyle in mind.
Consider the many varieties of dance and movement that are involved in shamanic and other ceremonial practice. Getting your body involved by dancing and moving rhythmically is a time-tested trance inducer. Any kind of repetitive movement ranging from tapping the floor, rocking back and forth, bobbing your head, or even something like pacing or walking around in circles can help deepen trance. Consider changing the tempo, beat, intensity, and duration of your movement to discover what works best for your state of mind and body. Try something slow and monotonous, or wild and exhilarating. Be creative and free.
Establishing regularity and structure in your ceremonial practice is grounding and can be especially productive if you naturally resist or have trouble with regular schedules. Creating rituals that support you can include having a set time and place to perform ceremony and induce trance. This is not meant to be onerous, but to help you build a structure that supports your growth. Regularity when inducing any kind of trance state - i.e. trances linked to exercise or meditation - is incredibly powerful and encourages enhanced ability and strength over time. This is exercise for your mind and spirit.
Change it Up
On the other end of this spectrum, too much monotony can breed a lack of focus and harbors the potential for discouraging practice. The impulse here is to do something different - or do everything different. Change the set and setting. Find new music to listen to. Incorporate different rituals. The creativity is up to you. But if you find that your ceremonial practice is becoming mechanical and you aren't satisfied with the results, then it may be time to revisit the drawing board and create a new space and protocol. Some of the other suggestions in this post are good starting points for finding new ways to practice.
This one is a lifeline for me. And it can be as simple as going out on a balcony, sitting in your backyard, walking through a nearby park, or as extreme as taking a backpack into the forest overnight with the intent to do nothing but practice ceremony for 12 hours straight. The nature spirits have a way of taking your mind off whatever it is focused on and guiding you to focus on something else - if only the nature spirits themselves. Shamanic traditions around the world are rooted in nature-based practices. This is an unlimited resource for creating ceremony - and the first step is to get outside and start exploring.
Connect to Your Voice
Your voice is an incredibly powerful spirit. Many spiritual practices incorporate medicine songs, different kinds of chanting and vocalizations as a way of enhancing, guiding, and changing experience. Being vocal during your ceremony has a way of propelling you from one state of consciousness to another. And it doesn't necessarily matter what you vocalize - from simple sounds to elaborate invocations - but the intent driving your vocalizations will affect the space differently. You can try simple repetition, include alterations in rhythm and volume, or rise into an ecstatic crescendo, all geared towards shifting you into a new state of trance.
Try playing an instrument as part of your ceremony. Drumming and rattling work great as recorded tracks, but they can be even more effective when played live. Like vocalizing or singing, playing music has an uncanny ability to alter your consciousness. If you don't have a drum or rattle, any instrument will do, as will tapping a beat on a bucket, the floor, a pot or pan, or whatever you got. This can also help train your focus as well as keep you moving.
This is a new discovery for me. I noticed that while lying in bed and drifting off to sleep, my visionary space opens dramatically. Guides manifest, shamanic vision becomes crystal clear, and thoughts are less inhibitive and distracting. Perfect for trance. Now I will purposefully perform ceremony at night when under normal circumstances I would have just gone to bed. It takes practice to keep from dozing off - and it's no problem if you do - but it is worth all the effort to remain lucid. This half-asleep, half-awake state can produce radical shifts in perspective, perception, and shamanic ability...
Under the Moon
It's amazing how much one simple change in the definition of space - the darkness of night rather than the light of day - can shift your consciousness. Some shamanic traditions will only perform certain rituals and ceremonies at night and hold the belief that spirits are more accessible once the sun goes down. While spirits are always present and accessible,performing ceremony at night (especially outside in unfamiliar places) can have a profound impact on your state of consciousness. Experiencing the night is a trance state of its own - harness it!
This is another mainstay in trance practice. Working with breath alone is sometimes all you need to establish deep trance states. Meditation is a kind of trance that focuses on and utilizes breath. So is exercise. As well as sleep. In all of these states of consciousness, there is a correlated pattern of breathing. By purposefully focusing on and changing breathing patterns, the state of consciousness attached to your breath can shift. And the creativity found in different ways to alter your breathing is unbounded and gives you the freedom to explore your breath as a vehicle to changing your experience.
Implementing and establishing a solid trance practice can also help move you beyond doubts. It is common for doubt to creep into the space when attempting to shift your consciousness. All kinds of creeping thoughts emerge. This is a key point in the practice. In becoming proficient at deepening trance, you will continue to move into spaces free of doubt, while simultaneously propelling your consciousness to new states that strengthen and nourish the growth of your shamanism - and this, the growth in your life and in yourself.
Photo "Medicine Woman" from Our Infinitely Evolving Universe blog
Traditionally, shamanic practices are rooted in small communities and tribal societies that lived a primarily pre-modern life. While all shamanic cultures are most likely not expressions of the idyllic state of oneness with nature that is commonly portrayed, it is at least safe to say that shamanic cultures were certainly much more in tune with and nature-based than typical modern society. Shamanistic elements also can be traced back to virtually every religious and spiritual tradition, including the more widely-practiced monotheistic traditions of today. This is not to say that every religion or spiritual tradition is shamanic, but that there are common elements and practices inherent to these traditions that have roots in these older ways of relating to and understanding the world.
As small, earth-oriented societies began to condense, diversify, and eventually move towards more stationary, technologically-focused and complex systems, shamanism went through a similar transformation. The traditional role of the community's shaman was multifaceted: healer, sage, priest, ceremonialist; and sometimes political chief and war leader. These roles were not always held in concert by a single person or practitioner, but often the scope of the shaman's duties was to fulfill several of these various functions. The movement away from small communities to larger societies began to unravel these once unified roles into separate, specialized positions. Today we see these same needs being satisfied through a number of more refined roles: doctors, therapists, religious or spiritual leaders, and so on.
Shamanism has never truly been replaced or lost, however. It is a nicely packaged misapprehension that shamanistic practices and traditions are relics of the past. As already mentioned, there are traces of shamanism in the most widely recognized religions of today. In many places around the world there are active, historically rooted traditions that continue to serve communities and individuals. Moreover, and especially over the last several decades, shamanism has also seen a rise in popularity among traditionally non-shamanic, Western people. There are many avenues and expressions of shamanism still operating beyond the thin veneer of materialism upheld by modern Western culture. Some of them do exist in the far reaches of the world, and some are right smack in the backyard of this urban madness.
It would be more accurate to say that Western culture has gone through a process of losing its shamanic roots. The evidence that people are scrambling to get them back is apparent. There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and spiritual longing that seems to come hand-in-hand with the growth of modern society. Essentially, this is a crisis of meaning that points towards a deepening loss of identity, authenticity, and genuine spiritual connection. This meaninglessness could be acknowledged as both symptom and sickness -- a self-perpetuating, illusive and illusory spiritual emergency that leads its sufferers towards any number of possible outlets that promise answers and resolutions to the crisis.
One of these outlets is, or has become, shamanism. People come to shamanic practices looking for something that's missing. They are looking to solve the riddle of their life, to have the emptiness inside finally filled with something that makes sense, with something that makes them feel like they are alive again. They want purpose. Meaning. Or they come just as people have for millennia: to heal any and all illnesses sourced in any and all dimensions -- physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual.
People often look to shamanism as a way to help them live more fulfilled lives. But these needs and perceived deficiencies are not uniquely answered or sought after through shamanic means. Indeed, these questions are at the root of spiritual seeking itself. A devout Christian or Buddhist would undoubtedly find answers in their respective traditions. But for people who have no religious pedigree; or for those whose spiritual inheritance has proved to be arid, what choices do they have?
I know this path because I walked it. I still do. And the more people I see treading the shamanic current, the more I see how pervasive this longing for authenticity really is. How deeply people suffer for lack of meaning and purpose in life. How the fantasies of modernity have betrayed people. Sure, there are those that fit snugly into their seat, with seatback pockets nicely tucked, seatbelts on and tray tables secured. But there are many who just can’t sit still. They stir. They writhe. They want to know. Is this real? Is there something more? Does magic exist? Where is Spirit?
Matt Toussaint has immersed himself in shamanic practice and exploration for the past 10 years. He currently resides in Peru where he serves as an apprentice shaman and facilitator at a plant medicine retreat center. Read more.