Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How many ways are there to contact the hidden realm?

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Three recent posts have advanced the argument that the world's ancient scriptures and traditions share a common, unifying, and shamanic worldview: 

Together, they provide evidence that cultures around the world and across the millennia, from ancient Egypt to the steppes of Mongolia, and from the far northern boundaries of Scandinavia to the southern continent of Australia, at one time shared a worldview characterized by the understanding that our familiar, material, "ordinary" reality exists in conjunction with and is interpenetrated by another reality: the seed realm, the hidden realm, the realm of the spirits, the realm of the gods. 

This shared shamanic worldview was characterized not only by an awareness of this other realm, but by the understanding that it was possible in this life to deliberately undertake journeys to the spirit world in order to obtain knowledge or effect change that could not be accomplished in ordinary reality. 

There is also abundant evidence that this worldview has been deliberately stamped out over the centuries and that practice of shamanic techniques of ecstasy (or transcending the boundaries of the static, physical, ordinary reality) has been discouraged, stigmatized, and even prohibited by law in some places right up to the present day or very recent decades, and that the tools used to cross the boundary to the other realm -- the shamanic drum in particular -- have been outlawed, seized, and deliberately destroyed. 

The extent of this persecution of the shamanic worldview across both geographic space and historical time leads to the possibility that those responsible for the campaign are not persecuting this worldview because they believe that it is false, but rather because they know that it is true, and that there actually is knowledge which can only be obtained and change which can only be effected through shamanic techniques.

Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy, first published in 1951, was the first text to attempt to attempt to map the outlines of the entire broad landscape of the phenomenon of shamanism, and to attempt simultaneously to situate the shamanic worldview within the history of human religion. As such, it contains many first-hand accounts describing shamanic technique from parts of the world where the old traditions were still relatively undisturbed.

Let's examine the various methods recorded in Eliade's work by which men and women from traditional shamanic cultures were able to journey to the world of the spirits and to return.

Eliade himself does not actually provide a single succinct list in his book, although he describes and comments upon a wide variety of methods from many different shamanic cultures. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the techniques he covers from page 220 of The Undying Stars, showing the wide range of methods employed by different people in different places and times -- below we will examine a few of them using quotations from Eliade's work:
In Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy, Mircea Eliade catalogues many of the rituals and practices used by shamans around the world to enter altered states of consciousness, including ecstatic dance, whirling, rhythmic drumming, chanting, songs, music involving various instruments and especially flutes, fasting, the use of entheogenic substances derived from plants, the use of difficult exercises or postures similar to or including Yoga, the undertaking of deliberate spirit quests, the use of constricted and enclosed spaces,  the use of very crowded spaces, the imposition of long periods of solitude, rubbing the body with rock crystals, rubbing together two stones for days or weeks on end, elaborate initiatory processes involving experienced guides, and many others, as well as many variations and combinations of the techniques listed here.
The same passage also notes that Eliade records evidence that some shamans gained the ability to cross into the spirit world as a result of accidentally being hit by lightning, bitten by a poisonous snake, or experiencing a traumatic accident or illness. As part of an examination of the possibility that the life-changing experience of those who participated in ancient mysteria such as those at Eleusis and the life-changing experience of those who have reported out-of-body experiences in modern settings are also related to shamanic travel (in other words, the possibility that they are all going to the same hidden plane of existence, the same unseen realm), I conclude:
The point to be made is that the techniques of inducing ecstasy in the human consciousness are profuse and multifarious -- suggesting that the human consciousness is perhaps designed to be naturally capable of achieving this state -- and that therefore the techniques that were used by the mystery cults may have included almost any combination of those listed, as well as many others.  220.
Below is a partial list of techniques of ecstasy, chronicled by Eliade, with quotations from his landmark study of the subject:

  • Use of drums and rhythmic drumming: "The drum has a role of the first importance in shamanic ceremonies. Its symbolism is complex, its magical functions many and various. It is indispensible in conducting the shamanic seance, whether it carries the shaman to the "Center of the World," or enables him to fly through the air, or summons and 'imprisons' the spirits, or, finally, if the drumming enables the shaman to concentrate and regain contact with the spiritual world through which he is preparing to travel" (168). The importance of the drum is indisputable, and it is used to accomplish the shamanic journey in cultures around the world. 
  • Use of other musical instruments, including rattles: "In North America, as in most other regions, the shaman uses a drum or a rattle. Where the ceremonial drum is missing, it is replaced by the gong or the shell (especially in Ceylon, South Asia, China, etc.). But there is always some instrument that, in one way or another, is able to establish contact with the 'world of the spirits.' This last expression must be taken in its broadest sense, embracing not only gods, spirits, and demons, but also the souls of ancestors, the dead, and mythical animals" (179).
  • Use of chanting: "He sways, chanting, his eyes half closed. First it is a humming in a plaintive tone, as if the shaman wanted to sing despite some inward pain. The chanting becomes louder, takes the form of a real melody, but still hummed. [. . .] The song is repeated ten, twenty, thirty times in succession, uninterruptedly, the last note being immediately followed by the first of the beginning, with no musical rest. [. . .] The shaman sings only a few measures by himself. At first he is alone, then there are a few voices, then everyone. Then he stops singing, leaving the task of attracting the damagomi to the audience. [. . .] As for the shaman, he meditates deeply. He closes his eyes, listens. Soon he feels his damagomi arriving, approaching, fluttering through the night air, in the bush, underground, everywhere, even in his own abdomen . . ." (305-306).
  • Use of dancing: "From the earliest times, the classic method of achieving trance was dancing. As everywhere else, ecstasy made possible both the shaman's 'magical flight' and the descent of a 'spirit'"(451). "The Kirgiz baqça does not use the drum to prepare the trance, but the kobuz, which is a stringed instrument. And the trance, as among Siberian shamans, is induced by dancing to the magical melody of the kobuz. The dance, as we shall see more fully later, reproduces the shaman's ecstatic journey to the sky" (175).
  • Use of masks or related face-coverings: "In some places the mask is believed to aid concentration. We have seen that the kerchief covering the shaman's eyes or even his whole face plays a similar role in certain instances. Sometimes, too, even if there is no mention of a mask properly speaking, an object of such nature is present -- for example, the furs and kerchiefs that, among the Goldi and the Soyot, almost cover the shaman's head" (167).
  • Use of the tobacco plant: "The apprentice shaman of the Conibo of the Ucayali receives his medical knowledge from a spirit. To enter into relations with the spirit the shaman drinks a decoction of tobacco and smokes as much as possible in a hermetically closed hut" (83). "Throughout the instruction period fasting is almost absolute; the apprentices constantly smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco leaves, and drink tobacco juice. After the exhausting night dances, with fasting and intoxication superadded, the apprentices are ready for their ecstatic journey" (129).
  • Use of the cannabis plant: "The kapnobatai would seem to be Getic dancers and sorcerers who used hemp smoke for their ecstatic trances" (390). "Herodotus has left us a good description of the funerary customs of the Scythians. The funeral was followed by purifications. Hemp was thrown on heated stones and all inhaled the smoke; 'the Scythians howl in joy for the vapour-bath'" (394). "One fact, at least, is certain: shamanism and ecstatic intoxication produced by hemp smoke were known to the Scythians. As we shall see, the use of hemp for ecstatic purposes is also attested among the Iranians, and it is the Iranian word for hep that is employed to designate mystical intoxication in Central and North Asia" (395).
  • Use of mushrooms: "After fasting all day, at nightfall he takes a bath, eats three or seven mushrooms, and goes to sleep. Some hours later he suddenly wakes and, trembling all over, communicates what the spirits, through their 'messenger,' have revealed to him: the spirit to which sacrifice must be made, the man who made the hunt fail, and so on. The shaman then relapses into deep sleep and on the following day the specified sacrifices are offered" (221). "In a number of Ugrian languages the Iranian word for hemp, bangha, has come to designate both the pre-eminently shamanic mushroom Agaricus muscarius (which is used as a means of intoxication before or during the seance) and intoxication; compare, for example, the Vogul pânkh, "mushroom" (Agaricus muscarius), Mordvinian panga, pango, and Cheremis pongo, "mushroom." In northern Vogul, pânkh also means "intoxication, drunkenness." The hymns to the divinities refer to ecstasy induced by intoxication by mushrooms" (401). Note that this linguistic analysis provides yet further support for the arguments put forth in previous posts about the N-K sound, in "The name of the Ankh" and "The name of the Ankh, continued: Kundalini around the world."
  • Use of ascetic disciplines: "The power of flight can, as we have seen, be obtained in many ways (shamanic trance, mystical ecstasy, magical techniques), but also by a severe psychological discipline, such as the Yoga of Patañjali, by vigorous ascetism, as in Buddhism, or by alchemical practices" (411).  "Finally, we will briefly point out some other shamanic elements in Yoga and Indo-Tibetan tantrism. 'Mystical heat,' which is already documented in Vedic texts, holds a considerable place in Yogic-tantric techniques. This 'heat' is induced by holding the breath and especially by the 'transmutation' of sexual energy, a Yogic-tantric practice which, though quite obscure, is based on pranayama and various 'visualizations.' Some Indo-Tibetan initiatory ordeals consist precisely in testing a candidate's degree of preparation by his ability, during a winter night snowstorm, to dry a large number of soaked sheets directly on his naked body" (437). 
Even this dizzying list of widely varying techniques is by no means exhaustive: Eliade discusses and documents many others in his study. Further, those catalogued by Eliade are themselves by no means exhaustive: it seems that the methods for inducing ecstasy or trance are as widely varied as the human experience itself.

What can we conclude from the above examination of the techniques of shamanic travel found around the world? 

I believe we can conclude for certain that there is no single "right" way to initiate contact with the unseen realm. While some shamanic cultures utilize psychotropic or narcotic plants, these are by no means the only methodology used. While drumming appears to be one of the most widespread techniques of initiating shamanic journeys, Eliade notes that even drumming is not universally practiced even in some deeply shamanic cultures. It appears that there are an almost infinite variety of methods which can be used to make contact with the spirit world -- almost as if someone wanted to make sure that men and women would always have some method available to them, no matter where on the planet they might find themselves!  

The vastness of the range of techniques by which men and women in shamanic cultures have accessed the hidden realm also suggests the probability that human beings, by their very makeup, are inherently "wired for ecstasy." We can access the world beyond the five physical senses by so many pathways that it is no exaggeration to suggest that we seem to possess a sort of "innate shamanic sense" or "sensitivity."

This possibility is attested to by modern shamanic practitioners and teachers, who have guided hundreds of modern people from all backgrounds in their first experiences of contact with non-ordinary reality. In Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner's Guide, Sandra Ingerman states: 
I have never met a person who could not journey. However, I have met many people who tried journeying many times before they felt that something was happening. I suggest that you keep up the practice -- relax, keep breathing into your heart, open all of your senses beyond just your visual awareness, set an intention, and in time, you will be journeying. 42.
She explains those concepts in her books -- you can find the books and other information at Sandra's website here.

In The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming, Michael Drake (discussing the work of Mircea Eliade, and coupling it with his own experience of guiding and teaching shamanic drum and journeying for many years) declares: 
All people, therefore, are capable of flights of rapture. Ecstasy is a frequency within each of us. Like tuning a radio to the desired frequency, the drum attunes one to ecstasy. 14.
Michael Drake's website can be found here. On one of the pages of his site (this one), he reiterates his belief that virtually every man or woman is capable of such travel: "Researchers have found that if a drum beat frequency of around four-beats-per-second is sustained for at least fifteen minutes, most people can journey successfully, even on their first attempt."

The evidence from history -- and from the personal experience of longtime practitioners and teachers of shamanic journeying -- appears to be overwhelming: we are designed to be able to access the hidden realm of non-ordinary reality. This fact seems to fit well (fit perfectly) with the possibility that, as previous posts have explored, the testimony of the ancient wisdom inherited by virtually every culture on our planet, appears to declare a complementary message: that the ability to access the hidden realm is absolutely essential to human existence.