In my last column, the Muse inspired me to write about dreams. And since then, I’ve been thinking about other types of altered consciousness. As a guy who often hangs out with Catholic monks, and who practices “Will Rogers spirituality”—that is, I’ve never met a religion I didn’t like—I take an interest in miracles and myths of all sorts, and the season of Christmas, Chanukah, and the winter solstice (the pagan Yule), which all speak of the miraculous arrival of light in darkness, is a good time to reflect on such matters. And surely, we are in a time of darkness and any light is welcome.
How do you get access to the miraculous? Obviously, I think, the miraculous is not perceived by “normal consciousness.” You need to be outside yourself for encounters of this sort. So, how do we get there? (Other than the obvious highway of sleep…)
I have shared before that I am a recovering alcoholic—I haven’t swallowed or injected anything mind-altering in over a quarter of a century—but I do not forget the appeal. After years of sobriety, I wrote of those memories, invoking Allen Ginsberg to help me describe them: “…booze./My old buddy./The stuff that dreams are made of./My connection to the starry dynamo of the machinery of night.” So, booze is no longer “poetry juice” for me.
Even after sobering up, I have never lost the drive to find altered states of consciousness. Poetry is one route, nature another. Playing about with astrology, tarot, and divination are also effective, and all sorts and types of religious rituals (I am nothing if not a child of the ’60s).
Today, I’ll talk about “shamanic journeying.” First, one thing to set aside: I do not favor “cultural colonialism.” I am not enthusiastic about dressing up in Indian costumes, or making pilgrimages to the Amazon to learn to be an “indigenous shaman” in a (very expensive) weekend workshop. But I do think that the so-called “shamanic” practices are part of our universal inheritance, and I try to respectfully embrace that. Sometimes the lines get fuzzy, I know, and I hope I’m willing to be corrected. That said, here’s the story:
A few years ago, in a time of crisis (I seem to have a lot of these), I stumbled across a strange little ad. A psychologist in the hills above Santa Cruz was offering a one-day workshop on “shamanic journeying.” It caught my eye because the charge was only $40—a bargain considering what these things usually cost. I ascertained that the guy was well-educated, a full-fledged Ph.D., and the locale was a truly beautiful retreat-type location in the rustic town of Ben Lomond. I prepared to pony up my forty bucks, and drove through the redwoods to emerge in a brave new world.
As it turned out, I was Steve’s only student that day. For my forty bucks, I received six solid hours of instruction, and learned a skill that changed my life and my writing forever. I was so excited by the experience, and so taken with the good Dr. Serr, that I signed up for a year-long “apprenticeship”—retreating once a month with a group of students, to be led through a remarkable series of experiences in altered consciousness. I finished a thousand dollars poorer, and immeasurably richer in spirit. I also got a very nice certificate, authorizing me to practice shamanic healing (I have never done so), and assuring any who asked that I subscribed to a code of ethics.
Since I am no “shamanic healer” by profession, how have I used these techniques? To go on amazing adventures in the privacy of my home and write poems about them.
In drumming-induced altered states, I have visited a refugee camp where I met with a “captain of lost souls,” lay in a marsh covered with mud where I was stung by bees until I lost consciousness and woke up healed from a mysterious illness I couldn’t even name, howled with a pack of wolves on a snowy tundra, met a male personification of the ocean who told me he was my mother and taught me to breathe under water while he sang to me. I’ve formed an intimate relationship with an imaginary wolf and an imaginary cat-man sort of like Puss in Boots. I have visited with ancestors who died in concentration camps.
These experiences are as real to me as the dinner I ate last night at the best Mexican restaurant in Rodeo, California.
So, if this type of experience intrigues you, here are some book recommendations that might lead, perhaps, to some interesting adventures and artistic expressions:
Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality by Michael Harner
The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities by Daniel C. Noel—a sympathetic, scholarly study that understands the so-called revival of shamanism in first world countries as a fictional creation, but not necessarily inauthentic in terms of effectiveness)
Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life by Tom Cowan (Practical exercises)
So, this stuff has worked for me. I offer these anecdotes and recommended books as a New Year’s gift to those of you that might want to experiment.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.