Opening the Doors to the Self - The Shamanic Journey

Article: Opening the Doors to the Self – The Shamanic Journey

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

Summary: Shamanic journey work can help people understand and heal imbalances that create difficulty and distress in their lives. Two shamanic counseling case studies are described.


We understand the breadth and depth of the self in many ways through many types of experiences. Often, we come to understand our experience as human beings by directing or projecting parts of ourselves either outward or inward. The self at a soul level reveals, through the language of images, which parts of ourselves are seeking understanding at ever-deepening levels. In relationships with others, we project these parts outward in the form of images. In dreams, we project these parts inward in the form of images. The reflection we receive back gives us information on which we base our sense of self.

The images projected inward in dreams and those projected outward into external relationship both have the same source. That source is the self at a soul level. It seeks to reveal all that is hidden by projecting these images outward or inward. This is an effort to allow the individual to integrate the experience and information contained within those images and return to a sense of wholeness.

For many of us, this process takes place almost entirely unconsciously. We feel that life just happens to us, that our dreams are just fragmented recreations of our daily lives. Many of us live our lives with a sense of emptiness, never imagining that we could look within for guidance.

But, if we allow ourselves to begin to trace the images we create in relationship while awake and in dreams while asleep, we begin to perceive patterns. These patterns can be further elucidated through conscious intention and explored through hypnotherapy and, more intimately, the shamanic journey.

In this exploration, images open to reveal patterns. Patterns open to reveal motivation. Motivation opens to reveal what is needed for understanding. The need for understanding opens to reveal the fulfillment of that need. And the fulfillment is the self at a soul level. This path can be taken from many different starting points to understand many different issues. And the shamanic journey provides the compass and maps for any path, starting at any point, and leads always to the rediscovery of the self at a soul level.

The journey into the self at this level is the journey that the shamanic experience defines. It is taken in an altered state, very similar to the hypnotic state, but this state is induced with repetitive soundings, such as drums, rather than words. The shamanic journey provides us with direct and controllable access to the inner workings of our self at a soul level. The images that energy patterns take within the shamanic journey reveal the nature of our self at a soul level. They even point to the realities in which the soul is contained. Although our ability to perceive the information available to us in non-ordinary reality is ever-expanding, that ability can be severely tested at each level of understanding which the shamanic journey unfolds for us. Although the shamanic journey reveals ever more complex levels of reality, the form that it takes is quite simple. The journey begins with lying down and closing and covering the eyes. A drum or other repetitive percussive instrument is sounded at regular intervals. In indigenous cultures where horses are common, a shaman might say s/he is riding the drum like a horse to non-ordinary reality.

What is this non-ordinary reality where so much is revealed about the nature of the workings of the self at a soul level? The existence and the general cosmography of non-ordinary reality has been described in very similar fashion in cultures that are vastly dissimilar in all other ways and have arisen in different corners of the globe. Before describing non-ordinary reality, it is important to note that discovery and journeying in non-ordinary reality is participation in a process, not an establishment of a belief system.

The general description of non-ordinary reality where the journey takes place is strikingly similar across cultures that have never had contact with one another. This description that has emerged from cultures across time and space is as follows. There are three worlds: the Upper World, Middle World and Lower World. It is understood that the Upper World and the Lower World are the realms where compassionate spirits or energies can be contacted. The Middle World is understood to comprise ordinary reality (“the every day world” we experience when awake) as well as a non-ordinary reality where other classes of spirits or energies also dwell. Generally speaking, the spirits people come across that are involved in spirit possession, hauntings, or other anomalous encounters are understood to be confined more or less to the Middle World. Therefore, journeying to the Upper World or Lower World does not involve the encounter with these classes of spirits.

Access to the Upper and Lower Worlds in non-ordinary reality is generally undertaken from a known point in ordinary reality. This is a place in nature in ordinary reality where the person making the journey has been and knows well. The departure point for the Lower World is generally through a cave, a hole in the ground, a hole in a tree, or a body of water. The departure point for the Upper World is generally through a high place such as the top of a tree, mountain or hill. In many indigenous cultures, springs or mountaintops are revered as testament to the understanding of them as portals to non-ordinary reality.

In many indigenous cultures, the shaman has been charged with interceding with the spirit world on the behalf of another person. This intercession generally involves a request for assistance in healing on a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual level. In order to act as an agent for healing, the shaman spends many hours developing relationships with compassionate spirits that are understood to be available in non-ordinary reality. The shaman develops these relationships by journeying in non-ordinary reality. The shaman also journeys in non-ordinary reality to seek help from these spirits when s/he is asked to provide a healing.

In most indigenous cultures, it is not common for all the members of the culture to have access to the knowledge contained in non-ordinary reality. However, anyone with an interest and dedication in understanding the nature of the shamanic journey and non-ordinary reality can have this access. Anyone with strong intent can develop a relationship to at least some of the knowledge contained in non-ordinary reality.

So, it is simply a matter of focusing one’s intention to journey for understanding. We journey to create relationships with the energies that dwell in non-ordinary reality within us. These energies, which are traditionally called spirits, appear in many different guises, usually in the form of a felt or seen image.

These guises are generally forms in nature, but can also be mythic figures or beings that are close to our culturally held notions about reality. The guises these energies choose are the bridge they make to contact us. The bridge we make is our attention and intention to make contact. When both sets of intentions are aligned we are able to interact with these images taking form within us in non-ordinary reality. This allows us to gain insight and understanding about the nature of our lives in ordinary reality.

In my practice, I usually introduce the concept of the shamanic journey once a space has been cleared in the psyche through the resolution and understanding of (seemingly) externally generated imbalance. Within the context provided by Depth Hypnosis, the knowledge gained in the shamanic journey demonstrates clearly how a person’s relationship to his issues shifts through the process of clearing.

Over the course of six to ten sessions, the client is taught how to journey in non-ordinary reality. He learns to establish relationships with different points of inner power, which appear as forms of nature, and he learns how to interpret the information that is received. The client is helped to connect the information received in the shamanic journey to the larger context of his relationship to himself at a soul level.

By the end of this cycle, the client is able to function independently in non-ordinary reality to gain insight on issues that once seemed unknowable or unsolvable. He becomes able to understand more clearly the influences that affect the future. He becomes more able to make decisions based upon a sound understanding of those influences.

I will often use the information gained through a shamanic journey as I would the information gained through a dream. Information from both experiences is generated in image form, which is rich with nuance and possibilities. As in dreams, much of the information contained within the shamanic journey is “coded” in such a way as to evade the defenses of the conscious mind. Learning how to “read” these images is an extension and elaboration of the “sixth sense” mentioned earlier. Developing the skill to decode information provided in the journey is very helpful in situations in ordinary reality that require deeper understanding than the five senses provide.

To understand how this process works, the texts of two journeys, taken by a person who had no previous experience with shamanic journeying, follow. A client I will call Judith had come to me with symptoms of exhaustion and insomnia bordering on a chronic fatigue pattern. She wanted to regain her energy through our work together.

Through our hypnotherapy sessions, Judith was able to identify patterns in her external relationships that had been robbing her of her energy. She found that she was able to trace the patterns of energy behind her relationship interactions that were almost contrary to the nature of the external interactions. In other words, she began to see how she was actually being robbed of life energy in relationships that she thought were feeding her emotionally and intellectually. She was stunned to find that these patterns, which had been hidden from her within the context of conscious-mind reality, were so easy to perceive in an altered state.

As Judith began to regain her physical energy by applying what she had learned in hypnotherapy, she wanted to learn more about energy patterns and the way energy is used. This is a subject I find very hard to teach anyone about through the use of words alone. It is a subject that one must approach experientially in order to begin to fully comprehend the myriad of implications it contains. I decided that the internal teachers found in the shamanic journey would be much better than I, in teaching her what she wanted to know.

Michael Harner, to whom I am deeply grateful for making accessible the complexities of shamanic reality, introduces people to shamanic journeying with a journey to the Lower World. I do the same. This journey is designed to facilitate an encounter with a power animal. The idea of having an inner teacher appear in the familiar form of an animal allows for a broad communication of emotional and mental qualities. This form generally makes it easier to interact with the enormous energy and wisdom that is brought to bear in such an encounter.

As I mentioned, the journey is taken with the eyes closed, lying down, and to the beat of a drum. At the end of the journey, the drum changes beat, which is a signal for the journeyer to return to the departure point in ordinary reality, along the same route that was taken to arrive in the Lower World.

The following is the text of Judith’s first journey to the Lower World to meet her power animal. It is presented with her permission:

I am going to a sinkhole or pond, which is sunk down into the ground near where I grew up. I am walking into the water. It is very dark. I start to go down. I am just dropping into the sinkhole. I see lots of tree roots and things sticking out. They brush me a bit. Looking down, it is very dark. I have stopped falling. I am sitting cross-legged. Looking up, I see a dark hole above me, like a cave. I am in a place with narrow ceiling four feet above the ground. There is a dirt floor. There are grass and stones. I am on all fours. I start crawling through the cave. It is not so dark that I cannot see. There is some light. I don’t know where it is coming from. There is a windy tunnel. It opens to a cavern. There is a lake at the bottom of the cavern. There is a boat. There are murals, or hieroglyphs on the walls. I get into the boat. It starts floating out into the lake. I put my hands in the water. It is very dark, a dark navy blue. There is a creature in the water. It looks like a seal. It is coming up to the boat. It’s got big dark eyes. It is floating around the boat. It is greyish in color. This is my power animal. The seal is swimming ahead of the boat. Somehow, the boat is following it. It is swimming on top of the water. I am not sure what to think of it. I am going towards what could be sunlight or moonlight. The lake is narrowing. There is an archway, not a tunnel, which opens and the water flows out through it like a river. It is moonlight and forest. There are tall, tall trees, like cedars. The seal is swimming around the boat and it pushes it over to the side. There is a path. I walk along a path beside the river and leave the boat behind. The seal follows me. We come to some kind of cliff. There is a waterfall. I am standing on a cliff on a mountain overlooking a city. It is nighttime, with lots of lights. It is not artificial light, but candlelight and firelight. I stop. I sit down on a rock and look at the city. The seal stays in the water and moves toward to the edge and looks with me. I am not frightened. It is not somewhere I have been. I get the feeling that someone was here before me, but I have not seen them. I get up and walk along a path. I get back into the boat. The seal leads the boat back through an archway into a cavern and into the middle of the lake. It swims up beside the boat and almost gets into the front of the boat. It looks at me. It is a seal, but the face is almost more human than seal. It is trying to tell me something. It gets back into the water and swims circles around the boat. It disappears into the dark, swimming half in, and half out, of the water. I go back into the tunnel. Back into the hole. I am going back up and coming out of the water. I am back on the ground and out of the sinkhole. I am on the path, walking.

As you can see, the shamanic journey shares some characteristics with dreams. In both realms, the image is the main form of communication. Players in both realms understand what is asked of them and how to communicate without necessarily resorting to words. There is much more information contained within a simple interaction than would appear if actions were taken only literally. Forms can shift without logic but the form shift seems utterly logical at the same time.

The fact that the seal’s face seemed to be human part of the time does not seem illogical in the context of the journey. This shapeshifting or form-shifting is common in non-ordinary reality. I am sure there are more reasons for this than I understand. But some explanations lie in the fact that the spirits or energies using the form or image to communicate are not always in complete control of the world of form. And, they tend to choose forms that suit the moment and fill the need of communication in the present without so much regard to future form as a basis of communication. Also, more information can be conveyed in shape or form shifting, so spirits or energies tend to use these changes to add complexity and shading to the information they are trying to convey.

Most important, in both the dream and the journey, information is presented that completely circumvents the constructs and defenses of the conscious mind. In dreams, the coding of this information is often more intricate than in the journey. I suspect, however, that the intricacy of the coding in dreams is due more to lack of intentionality than anything else. Most of us tend to bumble, willy-nilly, through the issues of our lives. Because of this, the messages our dreams contain often seem to be scatter-shot, rather than carefully aimed. This is due to the lack of corresponding target in conscious-mind reality rather than any failure in communication in the dream itself. Because the attention is so focused in the journey, the images are more easily related to the intention of the journey.

The nature of the focus or target is, in fact, the main difference between dreams and shamanic journeying. The journey is intentional and focused. The dreamer does not necessarily intend what he will dream. (Although I would argue the same mechanism, the self, operating at a soul level, is directing both sets of content.) The person making the journey chooses when to enter and when to leave the journey; the dreamer, unless he is lucid dreaming, typically does not appear to have control over when the dream begins and when the dream ends.

In any case, I use both the dream and the journey within the context of hypnotherapy to help the client establish contact with a greater sense of self. Once contact has been well established between the images and forms contained in dreams and/or journeys, we have an infinite amount of guidance and wisdom readily available to us. This information can focus our attention on past issues that need to be reviewed and re-integrated. Or, it can guide us as we begin to form an expanded sense of self in conscious-mind reality.

Once we begin to establish contact with guidance, in the forms of nature it takes within the shamanic context, we are in a position to ask specific questions. Once Judith had established a relationship with the seal, she could take a second journey to ask her question about energy patterns. She took the same path, leaving from the same place in ordinary reality and returning to the same place in the Lower World to find the seal.

Her question was: How do I process other people’s energies so I remain safe without shutting other people out? This question was born out of her perception that she had begun to shut herself off from interaction with people in order to preserve her physical energy. She was not happy with this solution and was looking to find a new way of dealing with energy in her relationships with others.

I am going back down into the sinkhole again, through the water, down the hole. I am at the bottom now. I am in a narrow tunnel, crawling through the tunnel. I am back in the cavern. There are some stone steps down to the water. There is the boat. I get back into the boat and sit down. There are two sets of hieroglyphs on the wall. There are dark blue ones, which were the ones that were there before, and there are same-sized bright red ones underneath. I am floating into the middle of the lake. The seal pops up in front of the bow of the boat. It is floating on its back. I am glad to see it. It does not frighten me. It does not want me to be frightened. It is playing so I won’t be frightened. I am actually frustrated. I want to be in the water, not in the boat. The seal lets me know it is okay to go into the water. I take off my clothes and jump into the water with the seal. It swims around me, not circling, but just so I feel comfortable with it. I swim over to a rock, which is in a series of rocks coming out from the shore of the lake. They are smooth and rounded; I get onto the very tip of one. The seal swims back and forth in front of me. I ask the question. The seal swims further out into the water. It starts swimming, with the top half of its body out of the water. It is glowing. It is as though I can see an aura around it. It is a white light, about two feet out from its body. Then it dips under the water. It swims off to the left and floats on its back. This time it’s got a yellow light. There is a yellow, doughnut-shaped ring around its body – about one and a half feet away from its belly. “What are you doing?” I think. It is trying to teach me how to see the energy so I know what kind of energy it is. It swims, still on its back. It floats up towards me. I am supposed to touch the yellow light. I put my hand six inches into the light. It makes me a bit agitated. But what I can do is use the energy coming from my hands to push back on the aura from the seal. When I push it back, I feel safe. I can see the energy that comes off my hand when I do that. The seal comes out – again with the top half of its body out of the water. There is a bluish white light fully around it. I can’t see under the water. It is too dark. It comes closer. I push my hands onto it. It doesn’t feel threatening. I can feel where it begins. And the feeling is the seal is trying to show how it can transfer beneficial energy to me. I don’t have to protect myself against this energy. It does not deplete me. I put my hand through the aura and touch the seal’s skin with my hand to say thanks. I want to give it some of my energy without feeling threatened by that. It feels very, very good. A good, loving feeling is going back and forth between us. The red hieroglyphs are doing something. It is more intense now. I have noticed them again. The seal is swimming with its head out of the water, looking at me moving away. It fades into the darkness. I get up and go back toward a narrow tunnel and crawl along. I am going up through the hole and up out of the water. I am on the path walking out of the sinkhole.

The information Judith was given here by the seal was profound, to say the least. She was so lucky to have been given the visceral understanding, in almost an instant, of the futility of trying to block negative energy with shields or walls. The lesson of drawing on her life force, of reconnecting and revitalizing the life force from within to push out negative energy is invaluable.

There are many forms of magic and energy dynamics that specialize in creating walls and shields or breaking down walls and shields on an energetic level. I believe this is not only a misuse of energy, but it can also be quite dangerous. Many forms of black magic indulge in this block formation or dissolution and create all kinds of havoc with it.

Even when black magic is not involved, the use of energy to create blocks contains many dangers. The blocks may not work. Or, the life energy may get frozen, and sometimes forgotten in the block. And the life energy involved in keeping the block in place is lost for more dynamic uses. These types of blocks of frozen life energy are one of the main problems I encounter in helping people heal on an energetic level. We create shields, walls, fences, and fortresses around us in our energy field with our life force without being consciously aware of it. And then we wonder why we have no life energy to live our lives fully and completely. It took me years to map the anatomy of these types of energy blocks so I could help my clients negotiate them. And the seal simply offered an alternative to her as a matter of course.

The visceral experience of life essence filled with love pumping between two beings is an experience many of us die without ever knowing. And yet, she was able to drop all defenses and experience this life-changing exchange simply and easily within the context of the shamanic journey.

Again, I emphasize that she had no previous experience with energy patterns or energy healing. The information she received in this fifteen-minute journey was profound and complex. It took me years of study of the subject of energy healing to learn what she learned here in fifteen minutes. I was humbled to be in the presence of such profound teaching, taking place so simply.

This is all information she could not have obtained as easily, clearly, and profoundly in any other way. She was able to take these lessons and change the way she used her life energy. She began to sleep better, to have more rewarding interactions with her colleagues and family. She began to feel full of energy on a regular basis as she used her energy based on the information she gained in this journey. Naturally, she had to be disciplined enough to keep her attention focused on the energetic nature of her exchanges with others. She had to commit to her life force each day. But this is what we must all do to live our lives fully and consciously.

The power of the shamanic journey to reveal one’s inner relationships to balance or imbalance is well demonstrated in another case. John came to me because he was experiencing panic attacks. Within a few hypnotherapy sessions, the panic attacks subsided, but he decided to spend more time exploring the roots of the panic for further self-understanding.

After exploring his external relationships and discharging hidden fears held in them through hypnotherapy, he was ready to turn inward to examine how fear affected his relationship with himself. He was reluctant to do this and kept looking outside of himself to find the source of a type of low-grade depression that remained, even after all the work he had done.

I thought it would be helpful if he developed a relationship with an inner teacher through shamanic journeying to help him focus inward. This would help him focus inward long enough to see the role he was playing in maintaining the depression. On his second journey, he asked the question: What is the source of this depression?

His power animal had an interesting experience planned for him to answer this question. It led him through high grass to a clearing. There, John saw the fur or body of an animal in a heart shape. Then he saw the head of the animal come off and roll into a hole. John was afraid of what he saw in this clearing.

When he emerged, he did not have a full understanding of the message contained in this experience. Through our discussion, he came to see the following answer:

The source of his depression lay in the way he separated the knowledge and experience of his heart from that of his head – and he realized that fear was a major reason why he maintained this separation. He admitted that he had a habit of using his intellect to understand his experience and that it had never occurred to him to listen to his heart to understand his experience.

But he had trouble admitting that he was responsible for the depression through his maintenance of this separation. Through later hypnotherapy sessions, we were able to explore this separation and the fear that engendered it. By doing this, John was able to begin to allow an integration of the experience of his head and heart. And, most important, he began to listen to his heart and process his life experience through his heart as well as his mind. As this occurred, his depression began to lift.

It is doubtful that he would have been able to step into full accountability for this depression without the tool of shamanic journeying. It was difficult for him to admit that his actions, not someone else’s, were responsible for his depression. The combination of hypnotherapy and the shamanic journey allowed him to take on that responsibility and resolve the depression in a gradual and profound way.

Many, many people have been helped in similar ways through the insights they have gained through the shamanic journey. And these types of insights are just the beginning of the definition of an ever-deepening relationship with the self at a soul level.

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