Shamanic Mind

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


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6 Responses to Shamanic Mind

  1. Excellent little essay save for one detail. In the penultimate paragraph “body” and “mind” were separated by the word “and.” I doubt if a sound connection with Presence can be achieved if the two are considered somehow separated. (Cross-posted on FB.)

  2. Jim says:

    Yes, when you mention it I realize that integration is often denoted as body/mind. As I was writing this I was feeling a trickle down affect, the cast of Spirit onto my mind and body as the initiation of connection. The feeling in this angle is that body/mind starts with Spirit. Perhaps, for example, in yoga, the entry point to body/mind could be initiation through the physical asanas. In shamanic mind, the entry point would be connection with Spirit or spirit helpers.

  3. Lynda says:

    Yes! “Shamanic mind” is how I like to live 🙂 But I still practice shamanic journeying as well – it gives me an extra layer of clarity, of being able to totally delve into Spirit. Thanks for your post Jim.

    • Jim says:

      I agree. Sometimes I want to be completely focused on non-ordinary reality. I also think a regular practice makes shamanic mind more accessible.

  4. Patricia Wetterman says:

    I find Hit a bit disturbing when the article mentioned that he didn’t want, ” 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 health issues. He did not wish to encourage those who would excuse themselves from everyday life through escapism into drug-like realms.” Is the writer referring that Harner thinks that humans with mental health issues cannot be shamans? Or that they shouldn’t be involved with shamanism? I find my clients with mental health issues the very people that can use shaman work to help clear up their mental health issues and get off the drugs that the big parma companies and most mental health workers seem to rely on…..Ummmm

  5. Jim says:

    The reason for citing Harner’s communicated ideas on shamanism was: “Because this notion may seem a bit counter-doctrine, or even ill-advised, allow me to provide a brief history of the evolution of shamanic practice in our modern society.” The notion of keeping consensus reality separate from shamanic mind may have begun with Harner in his early days of teaching. I’d heard second hand accounts that Harner felt that people with mental health issues disrupted group dynamics. Harner didn’t teach one on one or in small groups. I can’t speak for Harner beyond his apparent concern for introducing shamanism to our culture with a minimum of societal backlash, thus his stance on encouraging students to keep shamanic experience separate from consensus reality. In a workshop I attended, Harner told one participant who was taking an extended period of time returning from the shamanic journey that “You need to consider whether this work is for you.”

    I’ve worked with schizophrenic clients whose main objective was to gain a foothold in the everyday world. The phrase “mental health issues” is broad, the depth and variety of issues way beyond the scope of this little post. If you’ve had success working with folks with mental health issues, I say: good work.

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