Shaman Tracks
Shaman Tracks

Some words defined...

Altered States of Consciousness (ASC)


One of the questions that arises in core shamanism is: what is the nature of altered states? There is a preconceived notion that in an altered state, one is out of control or beyond control and that one is tripping out.   And, since the shaman uses an altered state, what happens to me when I journey?  

Some of this confusion most likely derives from the literature about shamanic cultures in which drugs are used to achieve the altered state.  Westerners often don’t have an appreciation for the context in which psychoactive substances are consumed and can confuse the change in awareness promoted by the drug as something they should or could experience in core shamanism through the use of the drum.  When this loss of control or lack of spontaneity is missing from the journey to the drum, disappointment can set in.  A student can determine that he or she hasn’t experienced an altered state and is failing to journey. 

Perhaps a more helpful way for the student of core shamanism to think about the altered state would be to call it an expanded state.  There is no sense of loss of control or tripping out that is implied, but rather a push or pull beyond what is considered normal conscious awareness.  This is precisely the note Mircea Eliade strikes when he talks about the shaman and the shaman’s visions. Once considered a psychotic, the shaman, according to Eliade, is distinguished from the psychotic by the fact that he or she controls the flow of visions while the psychotic cannot. 

Robert Moss has done a tremendous amount of work investigating the dream state.  In his book Dreaming True, he lists ways in which we dream. 

1. spontaneous sleep dreams    

2. incubated dreams    

3. dream reentry     

4. hypnagogic experiences    

5. daydreams & reveries     

6. creative visualization    

7. meditation    

8. conscious or lucid dreaming    

9. journeying or conscious dream travel    

10. astral projection    

11. interactive dreaming    

12. dreams within dreams    

13. flow states    

14. continuity of awareness 

Without going into the specifics of each, it can be noted that there are a number of ways in which consciousness or awareness is altered; each of the fourteen ways entails an altered state.  And, upon investigation, it can also be noted that these states are natural to the human being, not foreign or induced by hallucinogenic substances, and are variations on a theme. 


Shamanic Journey via the Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC)

Many terms are used to describe the shamanic journey.  Moss, above, calls it a dream state.  Eliade has called it ecstasy.  Others have called it a trance.  These words for the journey carry an additional burden of misconception about the altered state or, as Michael Harner calls it - the shamanic state of consciousness - through connotation.  To circumvent the confusion, the student of core shamanism might best be served by thinking of the journey as a natural state of expanded consciousness or awareness in which control and volition are retained by the journeyer and in which state the journeyer accesses information beyond his or her normal knowledge.  To attain the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), a sonic driver is used. This is typically repetitive percussion as in the drum or rattle. 




The shaman stands as a nexus in relationships with many helping spirit partners. One avenue of partnership for the shaman is that of lineage.  Orion Foxwood in The Faery Teachings makes it clear that the voices of our ancestors sing in our blood and that it is time well spent learning to hear those voices. Although we commonly think of ancestors as strictly those blood relatives who have gone before us, it is useful in the circular, no-time of the shaman to include descendents. Also, any of those people who have cared for us, taught us or in some way nurtured us are also lines we can acknowledge and learn to hear. This includes healing traditions (Reiki, Healing Touch, etc.), martial arts, Sacred Orders and more. In the case of adopted individuals, one can look to the adoptive family as the "milk line" in the words of Frank McEowen, and track ancestry using that string of relationships.  Some ancestors are wise and some need healing attention. Ancestor work is not an endeavor to undertake lightly. 


Cosmic Zones


Mircea Eliade in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy identifies three cosmic zones as evidenced in his vast research of shamanic cultures. These three zones according to Eliade are: sky, earth and underworld. These three zones are connected by a central axis - the axis mundi - and the pre-eminent activity defining the shaman is his ability to pass from one zone to another: the shamanic journey. Some traditions use the image of a World Tree to classify these same zones: crown, trunk and root. In current shamanic language there is: Upper World, Middle World and Lower World.  Some shamans specialize in travel to a particular zone.




One of the most fascinating tasks of the shaman is to free a living person from the undue influence exerted over him or her by a deceased human being. According to the Brazilian Spiritists, souls can get stuck in this world upon death and out of confusion, anger or unfinished business, attach themselves to the living as kind of an anchor in their turmoil. There are varying levels of influence that these suffering beings can exert on their host. According to Fr. Nicola's Diabolical Possession and Exorcism, there is temptation, infestation, obsession and possession, each representing a greater degree of influence. The shaman, when treating a person for possession, is really working with two beings: the human and the attaching spirit. His focus in the work is to compassionately help the attaching spirit to move on to a better more appropriate place - quite different from exorcism -  and to help the human understand the nature of the attachment and how to avoid such in the future.  William Baldwin has called this work Spirit Releasement which reflects the kind, but firm, approach of the shaman.




To engage in divination is to discover hidden knowledge by occult or supernatural means (Webster). The shaman is often the master diviner who uses the journey as well as other means to discover hidden knowledge.  Divination may be practiced in a number of forms: the omen or omen text, sortilege, augury, ceremony. The omen or omen text is a passive form of divination in which events or circumstances have an established system of meaning and one has only to know the connection to have information. Astrology in the sense of knowing one's sign is a form of this. If he is born under a particular sign, then he will have these characteristics. Think if-then. Sortilege or casting of lots is more active. One poses a question and a kind of sorting of objects takes place and an answer results from the sorting. There is a limit to this method based on the number and kind of markers used. The rune stones are an example. With augury, the means is also active but includes the Law of Similars. The object consulted becomes a representative of higher intelligence. Any of the "-mancies" fall into this category. The field of interpretation here is generally less limited than sortilege. A common example of augury would be scapulomancy or, reading the burns on shoulder blades of animals. Ceremonies also can uncover hidden knowledge. In the case of the Shaking Tent of the Kootenai, the shaman engages in a ceremony in which he is bound and information comes to him from the spirits and spirit world. Ultimately, the whole world speaks to the shaman and as he learns to hear and read the signs, he uncovers hidden knowledge in ways beyond the ordinary. 




Entheogens are psychoactive substances used in a religious or spiritual context. The roots of the word are Greek and address the result of ingestion; one through ingestion calls forth the inspiration of the divine, is possessed by god, is full of god. The words hallucinogen and psychedelic have been used interchangeably with entheogen, but suggest a recreational use which is far from fact when considered in a shamanic context. Many cultures around the globe have entheogens that shamans use to make contact with the spirit world to gain knowledge. In the Amazon region of South America, there is ayahuasca, also known as yagé, caapi, and santo daime, depending on the locale. Another well-known and widely used plant is the psychotropic mushroom. In Mesoamerica, various species of Psilocybe are used while fly-agaric, an Amanita, appears in Siberia. Europe, too, had its entheogens of choice which included: nightshade, henbane, mandrake and thorn apple. And, Africa has the iboga plant.  While some like R. Gordon Wasson and Terence McKenna advocate for the use of entheogens in personal explorations, Michael Harner has often expressed the opinion that the shamanic explorer can achieve similar, safe and reliable results using the consciousness altering monotonous percussion of the drum. Plant products while useful are more than simple chemical substances in the shamanic model; they are beings with consciousness themselves and extensive preparation and supervision are critical in their use. Many who have ingested them without the proper initiations and guidance have experienced a kind of soul interference from the spirit of the plant that has required shamanic intervention to correct.




As a healing practitioner, the shaman can be confronted with localized pain and illness. Like an allopathic physician, he will often extract the cause of the pain to bring relief.  In the shaman's world, the cause is called an "intrusion," something spiritual that has entered into the body of a person and doesn't belong there - a kind of spiritual splinter. It is misplaced power. To undertake the removal, the shaman uses his ability to see, that is, to perceive in a non-ordinary way, to find the intrusion, remove it and disempower it. These spiritual objects may appear to the shaman in many different ways, but according to each shaman's system of experience, the intrusion will be recognized and then removed to a place where its power can no longer cause harm. Many intrusions cause physical distress, but also, the ethnography has examples in which intrusions can cause mental, emotional and spiritual distress, sometimes leading to death. The tsentsak which Michael Harner writes of in his book The Jívaro are a classic example.  


Four Paths of the Shaman


There are many paths one can take when one undertakes the study of shamanism. According to an article by Stanislav Grof, there are four paths or ways: the way of the warrior, the way of the adventurer, the way of the healer and the way of the teacher. These distinctions are not sharp and, according to Grof who synthesized them from the work of Serge King and Angeles Arrien, there can be an overlap.  The work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies emphasizes the way of the healer. Through the use of core shamanic techniques such as extraction and soul retrieval, the intention of the shaman is to return the client to a state of well-being. 


Healing vs. Cure


One of the best ways to understand the difference between healing and curing is a quote from Boiling Energy by Richard Katz. "A healing seeks to reestablish the balance in the individual-cultural-environmental gestalt. One expression of this new balance might be a cure, relief of symptoms. But the person being healed could also die, and a new balance can still be established, a healing accomplished. As the Kung say, sometimes it is proper for the spirits to take a person away." Simply put, a cure is an alleviation of symptoms while a healing involves balancing an individual's relationships in the grander cosmic context. The shaman, on the path of the healer, works simultaneously to effectuate cure and healing.


Plant Spirit Work


In many parts of the world, the shaman is the consummate herbalist. He is keenly connected to the web of life and plants are an integral part of his work. Elliot Cowan in his book Plant Spirit Medicine and Mark Plotkin in his book Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice expound on the significant relationships shamans have with plants and their efforts to learn from and communicate with them. Each relationship is idiosyncratic; what one plant says or how it can be used by one shaman may be very different for another. What is important is that the shaman can cultivate relationships with members of the plant kingdom. According to Cowan, one doesn't have to travel to the jungle to begin this process. The plants one finds locally are many times as potent as those at a distance. And size or delicacy is not an indicator of strength. One of the ways plants can teach is to shake humans out of their human-centric view. They help us to understand that there are others alive in the world with gifts, yes, but also with destinies of their own.


Power Animal


The shaman stands in the center of many relationships with beings in ordinary and non-ordinary reality. One of the preliminary contacts he may make is with a spirit that presents itself in the form of an animal. Many traditions have longstanding associations with animals calling them guardian spirits, totems or familiars. Regardless of the term used, it is this spirit helper who performs many tasks at the behest of the shaman. The shaman recognizes his role as the vessel of power. It is not he who is making the miracle or discovering hidden knowledge. It is his spirit helper doing the work and he, the shaman, is merely a conduit. Power animals, like their ordinary world counterparts, have their own personalities and characteristics. Size is not a sign of strength or lack thereof. As in all relationships, it is critical for the shaman to show respect for his helping spirit and to pay attention to the relationship.


Soul Retrieval


The shaman knows that trauma can cause the soul, parts of the soul, or power to leave the body as a strategy for self-protection. The shaman also knows that people can give their soul, parts of their soul or power away. A person who has lost soul/power via any means is not whole in a spiritual sense and can experience a less than fulfilling existence until this wholeness is returned. Using many techniques from calling the soul back, to a journey out into the cosmic zones to find the lost pieces, the shaman acts compassionately to recover the essence of the living person, ultimately bringing back power that was lost. The focus of this work is not on the trauma to the person or the soul, but rather the reestablishment of a healthy, whole life through the integration of this power into daily living.  

Spirit of Place


All of the world is alive. Places have a "spirit" which is more than a feeling or sensation evoked by scenery. Places are made up of Stone People, Standing People, Creepy Crawlies and Four-leggeds. They are filled with Plant People, Cloud People, and landforms. These beings come together to form places we call "mountains," "deserts," "forests," "rivers," and more. There are deep organizing principles - beings - with intelligence and wisdom in these landscapes and they can reveal this knowledge to the shaman.  Societies across the globe recognize that humans are tied to the land from which they arise and often dedicate newborns to the land. This deep chthonic kinship feeds each individual, and the shaman can build upon this in his activity to create well-being for his community.         


Shaman Tracks
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