Using the Shamanic Journey in Psychotherapy
Revised October 2010
Marianne Baskin Gabriel Mejia, MA, LMFT
The three women, one with her long, flowing white hair, one a wizened wise old crone from the north, and the last, a beautiful water spirit woman from an ancient fairy tale, all welcomed me and sat with me in the forest near the waterfall. "What is the work you want me to do now, in this year of 1995?" I asked. "What you are doing," they said, "Shamanism and psychotherapy, and we want you to write it down, to write articles about it, not just for therapy magazines but for people to see." I then saw myself sitting at my computer. "We will help you," they added. "How?" I questioned, really wanting the help and feeling a little helpless.
"You will do a ritual before you sit down to write and we will write through you. You don't have to know what you will write beforehand, just sit down after calling us and we'll take care of it." "Thank you," I said and hugged them as the drumbeat changed and I turned to leave. The drumbeat was fast and insistent as I followed the trail back over the pine needles in the forest. I hurried along the white ethereal fluff after I left the cool cathedral-like darkness of the forest finally reaching the tip of my tree, which stretches from ordinary reality through past the soft white barrier of the upper world. Quickly I slipped down the tree and back into my prone body. The drumbeat changed again and I opened my eyes, surprised by what my three teachers had told me.
This description is part of my personal Shamanic journey experience in the "upper world". It is a technique I use regularly with much benefit. Recently while attending a Shamanic workshop, I noticed that five of the participants, people I had known and journeyed with for the past four years, had undergone extraordinary growth and positive change in a short time. This, I thought, is what we try to facilitate as therapists and here I am seeing it in people who journey regularly, some of whom aren't even in therapy. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the journey was a powerful tool, even more powerful than I had previously realized. If I could add this technique to my psychotherapy practice, what a potential gold mine for growth and healing I could offer my clients.
Although I had already taught the method to a few selected clients who had expressed a spiritual readiness, I started presenting it as an option to more and more people and witnessed astounding results. I realized the strong connection between the psychotherapist and the traditional Shaman and knew that it was time to take this ancient method and use it to help the people in our age of technology and alienation from nature. It is time to reclaim this wisdom and use it in context of who we are now.
Core Shamanism, a method developed by Michael Harner, is a distillation of Shamanic techniques from people throughout the indigenous world. This method is not culture-specific, as it takes the key ingredients which are found in every Shamanic culture and presents them in a form compatible with use by people now, in the 21st century. What I present here is based on this method and is accessible using a drum or a recorded drumming tape or CD played on any audio player with earphones. It is a simple technique, which can be used easily by most people.
The Journey as a Psychotherapeutic Technique
The Shamanic journey fits into the class of therapeutic technique of visualization and imagery.
I have been teaching the Shamanic journey technique, a form of visualization using one or more of the five senses, to many of my clients in order to help them decrease anxiety and stress, center, access information and positive resources, and in some cases to find and/or connect to their own spirituality.
A Shamanic journey is a structured visualization with a focused intention done while listening to a monotonous drumbeat which quickly (usually within 10 minutes) induces a theta brain wave state (like that of a very deep meditation).
A person experiencing a theta brain wave state (even without a "successful" journey) will often feel a deep sense of relaxation and well being, thus accessing a state conducive to spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.
During the journey, while in the theta brain wave state, the journeyer (the "Shaman" in indigenous societies all over the world) will enter non-ordinary reality where she/he may contact spirit helpers for healing, empowerment and/or information. These spirit helpers are often perceived in the form of animals and humans.
For the purpose of exploring the use of the Shamanic journey in psychotherapy, I will be talking primarily about access to the lower and upper worlds. The lower world is usually the home of the power animals while the upper world is known as the home of the humanoid teachers of the spirit world. The "middle world" (all between the lower and upper worlds) includes the realm of the nature spirits. Here one can access the spirits of nature, from stones to trees and other plants, to animals, wind, sun, and even the spirit of a specific place. When more advanced, the client may be taught about the middle world and encouraged to work with the nature spirits to aid in their healing.
The basic intent of the Shamanic journey is to access spiritual healing and information from non-ordinary reality, from one's "spirit helpers". Whether the journeyer believes that this comes from beyond the self, from the spirit world or from deep inside the unconscious self does not affect the success of this technique and therefore is not important in this context. What is important is that the Shamanic journey technique works and is helpful. This must be communicated to the client.
The first journey is almost always to the lower world to meet a power animal. The power animal, as the name implies, is a source of personal power as well as a source for healing. This connection with the power animal connects the client with the world of the helping spirits, provides a guide for subsequent journeys, and spiritual protection for the journeyer. For most people it is often an easier journey than the upper world.
Many of my clients have come back from this first basic journey with a sense of comfort, empowerment, joy, relaxation, and hope. I have often seen the heaviness of depression lift after a 10 or 15 minute first journey. However, more than one journey is usually needed for lasting effects and a regular practice of the Shamanic journey is recommended for continued healing.
Why this method is so effective so quickly can be a matter for debate. The specific journey drumbeat takes the journeyer into a theta brain wave state, which is the state of a deep meditation or trance. In this state the immune system seems to be enhanced. A person who journeys, usually returns from the journey extremely relaxed and refreshed, as if having had a healing sleep with good dreams. Most likely, the effectiveness of this method is a combination of the benefits of the theta brain wave state, deep relaxation, an experiential spiritual connection, and actual help from the spirits.
The act of Shamanic journeying also can function as a therapeutic container for a client. When in pain or in states of high anxiety a person can journey and feel a sense of containment, a sense of being taken care of. I believe it is a similar experience to that of a Christian "finding" Jesus and feeling great peace and serenity. In the act of spiritual connection people tend to find wholeness, a sense of oneness, as well as peace and feelings of wellbeing.
This act of connecting spiritually not only functions as a container but also creates a sense of empowerment in that the client is taking initiative and asking (the spirits) for help. The client can do this alone as well as in the company of the therapist, which adds to a sense of empowerment. The actual process often has an element of instant gratification because the client will usually feel better, thus creating a beneficial positive feedback loop. Of course, this enhances the sense of personal strength and empowerment in the client.
In terms of Self Psychology, the journey may also function as a self-object experience.
In summation, when using this tool, clients can find comfort, relaxation, self-soothing, a sense of wellbeing, and feelings of self-empowerment as well as accessing useful knowledge.
The Shamanic Journey is helpful for clients dealing with and overcoming many psychological disorders.
In my private practice, I have found this technique useful for clients suffering from
3. Nightmares and other sleep disorders
4. Chronic illness
5. Dissociation (as in DID as well as lesser extremes)
7. Low self esteem
8. Feelings of alienation and isolation
9. Hopelessness and despair
10. Spiritual bankruptcy
11. Negative habit patterns.
The usefulness and success of the Shamanic journey in this context can be linked to the "intention" of the journey, and how that intention is framed. The intention is a specific question or plea for help to the spirits. It is very important and is the guiding theme of the journey. In other words, the journey is the answer to the question. Therefore a yes or no type of question would not be conducive to a good, full journey. "What would the result be..." or "Please tell me about..." would lead to a more full, richer journey. This process also aids the client in defining his needs and desires. The following subjects for Shamanic journeys can be seen as examples of how to work successfully with this method.
The Shamanic Journey as used for deepening and guiding the therapeutic process.
- A client can journey for what issues and in what order they would be most useful to work on in therapy.
- A client can journey for deeper understanding of a specific issue. A client can journey for information that would be useful for healing from a specific experience worked on in the therapy.
- A client can journey for further information about and/or for healing regarding an issue raised in an EMDR or general therapy session.
I have been using this method in conjunction with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, developed by Francine Shapiro). EMDR tends to speed up a client's processing and can quickly bring up vivid, traumatic past experiences in an almost brutal manner. There are times when this processing cannot be fully completed during the allotted therapy session and containing work must be done for the client to function safely after leaving the therapy session. When I feel that the client has not fully completed the processing I often recommend a homework Shamanic journey for further healing after an EMDR session in order to finish processing a traumatic memory. The journey can also be a request for more helpful information regarding the experience.
Another positive use of the Shamanic process can be made during the actual EMDR session. When needed, the client's power animal can be called to sit with, hold, or give strength in other ways to the client during a traumatic, difficult, or stressful EMDR session. This serves very well as another containing technique for the client.
All of the above can be extremely empowering as well as comforting and soothing for the client.
The Shamanic journey is also useful for enhancing communication skills.
The real art of journeying is the framing of the question. Journeying itself is easy once it is learned. However, the way the question is framed can be an important key to success. Learning how to frame the question in order to get the best answer, teaches and hones communication skills. It also reinforces teaching a client to ask for what she/he wants. One quickly learns from the spirits that one must ask for the help one wants in order to get it and how specifically, concretely, and directly you ask will very much affect the answer you get. Mastering this task may also increase a sense of empowerment and clarity.
Conflicts between Shamanic practice and organized religion:
Some clients, especially Catholics, experience an initial conflict or guilt about doing the Shamanic journey. I teach them that this is not a religion, but often that is not enough for them. However, when I tell them that a colleague of mine (John Tuberville) taught some former Catholic nuns to journey and they loved and used it, my clients feel better. The acceptance of the journey technique by these members of a church has helped my clients to resolve their conflicts and to be able to accept the Shamanic journey as an adjunct to their personal spiritual experience. In their journeys, my clients with strong associations to organized Christian religions often get spiritual teachers in the form of religious personas, such as Jesus, various angels and saints, archangels, and Mary. The compatibility of the Shamanic journey practice with organized religion is touched upon by Dr. Leilani Lewis in her article on "Coming Out of the Closet As a Shamanic Practitioner". Quoting the following passage from the Bible, Book of Job, Chapter 13, Dr. Lewis shows the similarity of the Shamanic concept to elements of Christianity.
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.
I find that helping my clients resolve any inner conflicts around the journey process is necessary for this technique to be useful as a psychotherapeutic tool as well being part of good therapy.
This technique is contraindicated for any client who cannot distinguish between ordinary and non-ordinary states of consciousness and/or cannot move freely between these states at will. It is important to stress that this technique must be utilized intentionally. It is not healthy, for example, to go into this type of altered state of consciousness while driving. It must be done at will. One must be disciplined to return from non-ordinary reality when the drumbeat changes (a signal to return). People who already have a problem with this should not be taught to journey until they have sufficient ego strength to utilize the technique in a positive manner.
Some people may be concerned about the nature of reality. I prefer to use the terms ordinary and non-ordinary (see Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman) because to me there are many types of realities. Are the spirits really contacting my clients or is it just coincidence? Am I encouraging hallucination and psychosis? Whether the spirits are real and are actually helping is a matter of belief. In a sense it doesn't matter. My clients may merely be contacting their own inner wisdom. In any case, the advice is accurate and helpful. Hallucination and psychosis imply that a person cannot tell what is "real" and what is not (or which reality they are in at a given moment). One can evaluate a client by checking to see if there has been a consistent or at least intermittent pattern throughout his/her life of psychosis or hallucination problems. If it is not, if she/he can easily distinguish what is "real" or "ordinary reality," then it is appropriate to teach this technique.
Possible Blocks to the success of the Journey:
• Unresolved conflicts regarding the journey process, ie. guilt, fear.
• Use of alcohol or other drugs just prior to or during the journey.
• Not staying with the power animal or teacher (helping spirits).
• Not focusing on the intention.
• Using a vague intention.
• Trying to control the journey or do it "right".
• Trying to "see" the journey, when the predominate accessing sense may be kinesthetic or auditory, etc.
More About the Shamanic Journey
I have mentioned the first journey to the lower world and the journey to the middle world. There is also a journey to the upper world to meet a spiritual teacher. Usually one journeys to the upper world for advice and information and to the lower world for healing and empowerment. But, there is no hard and fast rule and anything can happen in either world. I usually teach my clients to journey first to the lower world. After they have mastered the technique and can use it at home, I will then teach them to journey to the upper world. People usually find one world easier to access (at first) than the other. While not totally necessary, journeying to both worlds adds dimension to this process and is recommended.
The last aspect that I would like to focus on is that psychotherapy as it is done today is not a spiritual practice. The Shamanic journey is. While I have shown here how I use the Shamanic journey as a "tool" in my psychotherapy practice, Shamanism is a spiritual practice and should be viewed as such. This spiritual practice can be very powerful and therefore a powerful force in transformation. As one continues the Shamanic exploration, not every journey will feel good, because change and transformation can be difficult and challenging. But, a strong relationship with the helping spirits can increase trust and the willingness to face and to work through issues.
Personally, my attitude toward death has changed since I have been journeying. Journeying has given me an experiential knowledge of other realities, which goes beyond my former intellectual constructs. My gut attitude has changed and my old fears are no longer there. So, it is important to be aware that offering the Shamanic journey to clients is really more than merely offering a technique. It is the offering of a spiritual practice that has the potential to catalyze and integrate important positive changes in a person's life.
After the upper world journey I described at the beginning of this article, I made another journey that fall asking for a message, any message. Every so often, an open-ended question like this gives the spirits a chance to give me information I might not think to ask for but that is important. The message the spirits gave me was a detailed list. "Write, write, write," they said, "include case studies and soul retrieval experiences. Tell about your work with us and your multiple personality, dissociative clients. Winter is the time to write, read, and sleep. An inward time." They also gave me specific instructions for teaching a particular dissociative (multiple personality) client I was seeing that day to journey.
In addition, my helping spirits suggested that I call a particular person to help organize my computer and they told me names of some places to send articles and whom to make connections with. I am still working on that list. It is important to do what you agree to do when working with the spirits (although you can also tell the spirits you are not going to do something. Free will is always in effect). Fortunately, the spirits don't seem to have a "western" time sense! And, I have certainly started on that list.
This article is a result of that journey. I am not yet done. The Shamanic journey is continuing to aid my own growth and development as well as that of my clients. It is an on-going process and so is never finished. It is a tool that remains useful and relevant. It is a gift, which I continue to treasure.
Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner, Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1980, 1990
Coming Out of the Closet As a Shamanic Practitioner, Leilani Lewis, Ph.D., The Foundation for Shamanic Studies Newsletter, summer 1991, Vol.4, No. 1
“Using the Shamanic Journey in Psychotherapy”, has been previously published in “Shamanic Applications Review”, Volume 1, Number 1, (this issue focused on Dissociative Disorders) Fall 1995, a quarterly journal published by the Foundation for Religious Resources in Psychotherapy (PO Box 0314, Niles, Michigan 49120, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, by Sandra Ingerman, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991;
“Using the Shamanic Journey in Psychotherapy”, written August 1995, was revised in October 2010.
Marianne Baskin Gabriel Mejia, MA, LMFT, has been in private practice in Santa Cruz County since 1986. She has formally been studying Shamanic work since the 1980’s and offers a Shamanic Healing practice as well as her psychotherapy/counseling practice.
Marianne is a graduate of the FSS Three-Year advanced Shamanic Training Program and the Two-Week Shamanic Healing Intensive.