Zen mind, original mind, compassionate mind, loving mind, awake mind, Soul mind…. these are descriptions of full-bodied states of awareness. A way of continuous being. An ongoing and open-minded perception that spiritual practitioners cultivate in order to experience a more expansive and informed way of living. The goal is to encounter the world with open-eyed wakefulness as often as possible through an intentionally cultivated state — love, compassion, beginners mind, clarity… It may not be realistic to expect to be in a unified state all the time and in every circumstance. Sometimes the details of our lives hijack our attention; we lose ourselves in the demands of a day. Sometimes our habits distract us, or we just feel overwhelmed and become less conscious. At other times, we come into flow with an activity through the alert application of acquired skills. We may not be aware of it, but our actions can be informed by the Zen-link of direct knowing achieved through deep connection. When we finish the activity, our direct connection with the knowing itself may also have left us. The ideal would be to return to mindful states without fanfare or will-grinding effort. The ideal would be to adopt mindful states as both a backdrop to everyday activity and the natural home of the heart/mind. The ideal would be to make these states the ongoing experience of our consciousness. This is a worthy intention — the ripening of our spiritual predilections, the growth of our soul-gifts.
I’d like to add another angle that may broaden the view: shamanic mind. Like original mind or compassionate mind, it is a state of mind that can be groomed for continuous expression – the backdrop of an ongoing practice.
Because this notion may seem a bit counter-doctrine, or even ill-advised, allow me to provide a brief history of the development of shamanic practice in a contemporary, non-tribal context (core shamanism is arguably the spark that has led to the modern proliferation of shamanic practices).
Many modern practitioners began, at some point, with a variation of the shamanic journey. Michael Harner was very clear in his training – you begin with a question, embark on the imaginal journey, return on callback, and reenter consensus reality. We are to begin in an ordinary state of consciousness, journey into a shamanic state of consciousness, and return back to an ordinary state of consciousness. Like many rituals, there is a clear beginning and ending. Harner felt that it was important to intentionally experience each individual journey with practiced method and discreet boundaries from everyday life. He wanted everyone to be aware that: “This work isn’t for everyone.” He did not want to contribute to the difficulties of those who cannot successfully navigate consensus reality – people with mental illness such as chronic schizophrenia (while acute psychosis can be a call to spiritual practice, long-term schizophrenia involves an ongoing and chaotic break with stability). And he did not wish to encourage those who would excuse themselves from everyday life through escapism into drug-like realms. Harner contrasts the Ordinary State of Consciousness as distinct and separate from the Shamanic State of Consciousness. That is a responsible ethic for a teacher with a wide audience of unknown beginners.
To be sure, there are times when necessity may suggest the need for depth. Through cultivated intention, with the guidance of powerful spirits and/or the structure of living rituals, we travel deeply into Otherworld. At these times our attention needs to be clearly and completely focused in Otherworld, and it is wise to become solid with this world when the work is done.
But Harner also taught that part of the discipline of shamanism is to perceive both worlds simultaneously. There are times when this is necessary — if you are performing an extraction or dancing your power in a crowded space you need to see both the shamanic realm and consensus reality. If you are leading a shamanic ritual you need to have some awareness of the group. But I also discovered there were times when I could shift back and forth from Otherworld to this one to help keep track of necessity, or to birth a vision into this world. This type of experience was what started me on the path toward shamanic mind. Early in my practice (1980s) spirits taught me a practice they labeled “shamanic walk.” The walk entails crossing a subtle boundary while on a walk in nature (or even in my neighborhood), during which events take on shamanic meaning. For example, you might see an animal superimposed onto the exterior landscape through active imagination. You might experience an omen that either answers an intentional question or speaks to you like a living dream or personal symbol. Or, you might find yourself in conversation with an otherworld teacher or Oversoul. You might feel power enter into your body like in a dance or song. You might feel someone in need from a distance.
I began to understand that the shamanic shift did not require a ritual circle or drum beat. Wind, water, your own footfalls, and the thin veils in spirited places all contributed to the quality of shamanic mind. One’s intention still guided how that state could communicate just as it does in the classic journey method.
Now, shamanism is not my only path. I practice mindfulness meditation and Soul conversation as well. I’m finding that depth of mindfulness is not so different from shamanic mind. All true paths can eventually merge. For example, “the sun my heart” is a mindfulness practice taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is not so different from shamanic merging with divine light. Genuine compassion is not so different from empathy with Nature. Feeling the wind in your breath is not a different from calling and merging with spirit helpers. A conversation with Soul is not so different than a conversation with an Otherworld teacher or daemon.
For the mature and well-integrated practitioner, shamanic mind is a desirable state. Like mindfulness, it does not require ritual circumstance – an altar, chanting, dancing, or change of clothing. It requires connection with Presence, an internal perception that has its own cast on your mind and body. You don’t fall into deep trance. It’s like having additional council at the roundtable and allies working silently for your own ongoing efforts, which will gravitate naturally to best possible outcome. With shamanic mind you may feel more focused while preparing and engaging in a difficult task, or more equanimous after completion of a task. You’ll either perceive the spirit world through your body or mind, or sense the imaginal in local proximity. Walking in beauty, harmony, and light. Compassionate spirits in a circle around our being.
For the truth of it is that we often cross boundaries where there be spirits, and it’s a missed opportunity to ignore it. When I get into my car, it is like respectfully entering a cave. The car has a spirit, the road I’m on has a shifting spirit, and the place I’m going has an individual spirit or a convergence or spirits. I need to have driving mind — I can’t fly off in my spirit body while at the wheel. But if I’m paying attention, with respect, to the various spirits on the road of my journey, I’m more open to being informed on the most harmonious means of travel. If I am coming into a room with which I am unfamiliar, it is a good idea to bow to the spirit of the room, and to open myself to to potential communion (this type of recognition and respect is part of Shintoism). Whenever I come into contact with a sentient being, I can greet both the outer form and the inner sacred presence — Namaste.
An ongoing practice of awareness, deep participation in the field of alert stillness, benefits from a stabilizing practice of mindfulness — paying attention to what is present. Likewise, Shamanic mind benefits from a solid base of experience, paying attention to what we discover through a discerning practice. Shamanic mind has confidence in both ordinary and shamanic worlds, with a practical ability to navigate the reality and challenges before us — with a little help from our friends. Shamanic mind, mindfulness with spirit helpers, is like walking wing and whiskers into the world. Like all spiritual practice, it is an ideal that is accomplished better on some days than others, something to muse over in the company of resonant connections.
Image from Facebook page: Woman’s Page, artist Matteo Arfanotti