Article: The Journey: Buddhism and Shamanism at the Crossroads
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
We live in a time of paradox. On the one hand, wars and conflicts of all sorts rage all around us. The Earth is buckling under the effect of them. We also live in a time where there are opportunities for innovative solutions to our situation. We could focus on different types of innovations – technology, new ways of doing business, and more. But here, I would like to focus on the new spiritual and healing possibilities that are emerging to address this crisis. These approaches to addressing the difficulties of the current time can help us explore consciousness in ways that might not be accessible in less tumultuous times.
Fortunately, there are two ancient wisdom systems that can be adapted to address this modern calamity in an effective way: shamanism and the philosophy and science of Buddhism. This article will explore how key elements of these two methods of understanding provide a path back to a deeper comprehension of the nature of consciousness even as they provide a path to healing and realization.
Although we have lived for thousands of years now in the grip of wars of all kinds, we also live in a time – at least in many areas of North and South America and western Europe – where there is relative freedom to explore less orthodox forms of spirituality and new ways of understanding the nature of consciousness. We have the real possibility of bringing these new understandings to bear on both our individual and collective situation.
This freedom is crucial, as many who might have found spiritual sustenance in traditional religious belief systems are hard-pressed to do so when faced with the ways some religious orthodoxies are not upholding their charters to expand consciousness and offer meaning. The sexual improprieties in the leaders of the Catholic church and gurus in various eastern traditions, the honor killings of innocent women in Islamic and Hindu cultures, and the oppression of so many in the effort to establish a safe haven for the practice of Judaism are just a few examples of the loss of a compassionate path to spirit. This causes those who might have thought to look within traditional forms of spirituality to hesitate as they try to come to terms with the effect of so much violence.
Another place people look for help in coming to terms with the traumatizing effects of climate change, forced migration, and political upheaval is in medicine. In the West, when people turn to the medical establishment to address the emotional and psychological dislocation created by these events, they are confronted with an array of chemicals that might allay their distress temporarily but do little to cure it.
In the midst of this modern crisis, many of us find ourselves at a loss in trying to understand and remedy our situation. With traditional systems of belief offering little comfort, and with a medical and scientific establishment that views emotional and psychological problems as a chemical issue, those seeking spiritual meaning in their experience are left with few options.
The challenge is to find a path to meaning and healing that meets us where we need to be met in the midst of this modern calamity. In order to define that path, we have to look beyond the institutions where we hoped to find assistance. We have to reconsider what is meaningful and what truly provides a path to greater consciousness that can help us grapple with our situation.
When we realize that many traditional religious orthodoxies are struggling to meet their mandate to support the spirit, we can feel a sense of loss as we recognize their failure to deliver on their promises. We might experience this loss in a variety of ways as we try to metabolize the fact that we no longer have the spiritual mentorship we had hoped for. It can be difficult to articulate the effect of this loss, but our spirits register the loss of integrity, moral discipline, compassion, and a loss of reliable guidance these failures create.
There can be a sense of loss when we see how many people are left without viable assistance from a scientific medical establishment that largely rejects the existence of the part of the self that is sick and seeking help – the spirit. We may experience grief and a loss of direction when we realize the difficulty of finding spiritual help within a framework that is supposed to offer healing.
As I mentioned, shamanism and Buddhism are two wisdom systems that, in synthesis, provide a potential solution to this situation that is both accessible and comprehensive. Each has something to offer to narrow the gap between the modern seeker and the path to healing and meaning that every person needs in order to be whole and happy.
Both of these systems of knowledge find a happy home together in a spiritual counseling model called Depth Hypnosis. There, they work together to provide a path to healing for those seeking assistance in addressing the crisis we all face. In this model, the methods of healing the spirit that shamanism offers are combined with Buddhist understandings about the causes of suffering to offer spiritual, emotional, and psychological assistance.
Buddhism’s rigorous scientific inquiry into matters of the spirit offers a strong foundation for the pursuit of meaning, and shamanism’s joyous engagement with the mystery of the unseen powers of nature offers an elixir for the exhausted spirit. Each of these paradigms has strengths and weaknesses as they are applied to the current crises of our modern world.
Fortunately, in the place where one is weak, the other is strong. Within the context of Depth Hypnosis, together they provide modern people an effective way to relieve spiritual distress and establish a coherent path to the development of consciousness. By synthesizing key principles of shamanism, Buddhism, hypnotherapy, energy medicine and transpersonal psychology, Depth Hypnosis brings the ancient healing wisdom of many cultures to the unique imbalances of contemporary Western society.
Let’s look at these two models in a general way. Then, we will see how they combine to create a powerful vehicle to redefine pathways to consciousness that include the needs of the spirit in the healing process. We will examine how this potent combination addresses the issues of integrity, moral discipline, compassion, mentorship, and guidance in restoring wholeness. We will also see how a non-dogmatic approach to the reclamation of the needs of the spirit provides an effective navigation system to find meaning and purpose.
The word “shaman” originates from “šamán,” most likely from the Tungus language of Mongolia. The word was brought to the West in the 17th century by the Dutch traveler Nicolaas Witsen who recounted his experiences with the Tungus speaking people of Siberia in a book, Noord en Oost Tartaryen, that was published in several languages. The root of the word means “to know.”
However, Mircea Eliade, who has written extensively on shamanism and shamanic experience, points to the Sanskrit word śramaṇa, which refers to a wandering monastic or holy figure. That word has spread to many Central Asian languages along with Buddhism, and could be the ultimate origin of the Tungusic word. This particular etymology indicates an ancient interface between shamanic and Buddhist wisdom systems – and it is of great interest to our enterprise of bringing together these two traditions in the modern context.
The general definition of the word shaman that Ronald Hutton offers in his book, Shamans: Siberian Shamanism and the Western Imagination is a helpful one. The word shaman refers to “anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness – particularly on the behalf of others.” What the shaman “knows” is the nature of the spirit world – the spirits of nature, the spirits of human beings, and the spirits of other forms of beings who, according to shamanic understanding, influence the affairs of humans. The shaman uses this knowledge to heal, guide, divine, mediate, and educate the community in which they live. Shamans are the doctors, priests, psychopomps, and teachers of their communities.
They accomplish these tasks with the help of the spirits they establish contact with by altering their state of consciousness through dreams, the use of repetitive sound, or the ingestion of psychotropic plants. The spirits generally take the forms of nature – so the shaman may have spirit guides in the form of a hawk, a bear or a plant. Through repeated encounters with these guides, the shaman comes to understand the spirits’ particular skills and capacities. Forays into the spirit world provide them with the information they need to accomplish particular tasks required of them.
Shamanism takes many forms depending on the cultural setting in which it is found. According to Mircea Eliade in his book, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, the following statements can be made about the practice of shamanism in most cultural contexts where it is found:
1. Spirits exist in different forms- particularly those of nature, and they affect the lives of human beings.
2. The shaman can communicate with and enter the spirit world to search for answers to problems or to heal sickness.
3. Dreams are an important access point to the spirit world, and the information and guidance that comes in dreams that the shaman has is important and can be revelatory.
There are many other aspects of shamanic practice that are important to a complete understanding of shamanism. However, it is these particular aspects of shamanism that we are interested in for the purposes of this essay, as we will draw on them later as we bring the practices of shamanism and Buddhism together.
Shamanism has been practiced for millennia and has many powerful and important aspects. The proximity that it keeps to the natural world, and its effort to tap into the power of the Earth, is fundamental to helping shamans maintain a strong relationship with the wisdom of nature.
The loss of this connection is, according to shamans I have spoken with, the reason for the current crisis that we are experiencing. The effort to try and discern the wisdom that is held in the processes of the natural world is an important step in the evolution of awareness. As such, according to Robert Lawlor’s extensive treatise on Australian Aboriginal shamanism, Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, shamanism is the earliest form of spiritual inquiry and contributes to the theological inquiry of later spiritual traditions.
This spirit of inquiry into the worlds of the unseen is a very important contribution that shamanism provides to the expansion of consciousness. One form this inquiry takes is through the shamanic journey, one of the primary tools that Depth Hypnosis weaves together with Vipassana meditation techniques to reestablish an accessible path to spiritual coherency.
Buddhism: Another Way to Address the Calamity
Buddhism is often viewed solely as a religion. For many people around the world, it is indeed a religious path. But it is also a science and a philosophy. It is based on the set of teachings that Gautama Buddha, a spiritual seeker who lived in the 6th Century BCE brought forward. Buddha means “the awakened one.” This refers to the state of awareness that he attained in the process of trying to understand himself and his relationship to the world around him.
There are many schools of Buddhist thought – but they all share a basic set of teachings and practices that are designed to bring the follower into this same state of consciousness that Buddha attained. One of the ways of attaining this state of awareness is to analyze one’s own experience – even and perhaps particularly – one’s own suffering. Much of this analysis takes place in the altered state of meditation.
Buddhism is sometimes viewed as a pessimistic philosophy by the casual observer because of this interest in suffering. Its emphasis on suffering is misunderstood as a misplaced focus for a spiritual path. But, Buddhism’s focus on suffering actually can provide a path out of that experience. In this context, pain becomes a vehicle through which one can explore and understand the self.
This view is well-articulated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a western Buddhist monk: “In this sense, pain is like a watering hole where all the animals in the forest – all the mind’s subconscious tendencies – will eventually come to drink. Just as a naturalist who wants to make a survey of the wildlife in a particular area can simply station himself near a watering hole, in the same way, a meditator who wants to understand the mind can simply keep watch right at pain in order to see what subconscious reactions will appear. Thus, the act of trying to comprehend pain leads not only to an improved understanding of pain itself, but also to an increased awareness of the most basic processes at work in the mind.”
When this perspective is applied in a modern therapeutic context many new possibilities for understanding the self can emerge. One of the first possible questions to explore is: where is the suffering coming from, and how is it being generated?
Buddhism offers an answer to this question in the form of one of the primary Buddhist teachings, the Four Noble Truths. This teaching states:
1. The truth about suffering is that it exists.
2. Aversion, attachment and ignorance (or misunderstanding) generate suffering.
3. It is possible to bring suffering to an end.
4. Following the Eightfold Path can help us to break our habits that generate suffering.
Buddhism is a deep and far-reaching philosophy, and it can take lifetimes to follow all the paths that lead out of these four statements. Let us focus on one aspect of what is causing our suffering indicated by the Four Noble Truths and bring it into the modern therapeutic context. This is a fundamental truth about the nature of our suffering and our pain of which most of us are ignorant: that we create it.
Once we allow ourselves to consider this possibility, we can step onto the path of truly observing how we create our suffering. Then, with this information we can change what we are doing and thus reduce our pain. This is all done with the empirical and disciplined approach that is prescribed by the aforementioned Eightfold Path. The Eightfold path offers a replicable set of guidelines to help the practitioner develop the qualities that are needed to pursue spiritual inquiry in as informed a way as possible. We will see how important this discipline is when we bring together the practices of Buddhism with shamanic tools in Depth Hypnosis.
The Eightfold Path asks that the seeker bring the following intentions to the understanding of suffering:
1. A realistic view regarding the nature of reality, which includes an acceptance of the impermanent nature of life and the awareness of cause and effect.
2. A realistic intention based in ethical self-improvement.
3. A careful and judicious use of speech and communication.
4. A commitment to non-harming action.
5. A commitment to non-harming ways of earning money.
6. Positive determination and effort to the development of awareness.
7. Mental exertion to resist being drawn into delusion or illusion.
8. Concentration and discipline.
When the understandings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are considered within the context of meditation, a powerful form of inquiry for the purposes of personal development becomes available. In particular, Vipassana, or insight meditation techniques offer this kind of perspective. Vipassana can be cultivated by practice that includes contemplation, introspection and observation of bodily sensations, analytic meditation, and observations on the nature of life and death. The practices may differ in modern Buddhist traditions, but the main objective is to develop insight about the nature of the self.
Depth Hypnosis and the Altered State: Where Buddhism and Shamanism meet
Both shamanism and Buddhism seek to plumb the mysteries of life through their own particular forms of inquiry. In shamanic practice, the shamanic journey provides a method of inquiry that is focused primarily on forming relationships with normally unseen forms of guidance contained in the natural world. These forms of guidance are often called “helping spirits.” These helping spirits assist the shaman in healing, divination and problem-solving. In Buddhist practice, meditation, study and reflection within the context of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is the primary vehicle for self-development.
If both forms of inquiry work so well within their individual contexts to accomplish the aim of those who practice within each model, the question is: why bring them together?
Part of the answer lies in the particular requirements of modern people who are struggling with dislocation due to the loss of connection with the natural world and its processes. Another part of it lies in the disorientation many modern people experience due to the betrayal of integrity by modern orthodox spiritual leaders. This experience combined with the paucity of tools western forms of healing offer to heal the spirit leaves people spiritually sick and unable to gain traction in addressing the roots of their illness. These are complex healing requirements, and if we are going to reach a new level of consciousness, we need to draw from as many sources as possible in order to address all of the issues that present themselves in the modern environment.
Up until now we have been discussing the relative merits of these two ancient wisdom systems in offering a path to meaning and a path to healing in general terms. The intention was to provide a context to understand just one of the ways the two systems come together to create a path toward greater self-awareness in the practice of Depth Hypnosis.
There are many techniques in Depth Hypnosis that emerge from the intersection of shamanism and Buddhism, but here I will focus on the way altered states of awareness are accessed in order to expand consciousness: The Journey. The Journey is an altered state process that combines the method of practice of the shamanic journey with the intention of the Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation.
Meditation and the shamanic journey are processes that take place in the altered state. The altered state helps seekers connect with their inner experience in a broader way. We spend most of our time in the vigilant, problem-solving state of consciousness of the conscious mind. In Buddhism, the goal of working with the altered state is similar to the goal of working with the altered state in shamanism – to move beyond the confines of the conscious mind and thereby receive information or insight that cannot be accessed in working with the conscious mind alone.
We are so used to working within the bounds of the conscious mind that we forget that there are other states of consciousness that we are able to access. This is true even though we all access other states of consciousness every night as we dream. The shamanic journey and meditation offer access points to some of these other states of consciousness. They both shift awareness inward. Both, when practiced regularly, naturally open perceptual capacity in discerning inner experience. The method they employ in opening the doors to inner experience is different. The shamanic journey uses sound as a vehicle for shifting awareness inward, and meditation uses a single point of focus, usually the observation of breath to focus attention inward.
The importance of rediscovering these pathways inward and working in the altered state is fundamental to resolving issues such as the loss of compass, loss of meaning, and the loss of access to healing that modern people are facing. This is because, as Albert Einstein pointed out, problems cannot always be solved at the level they arise.
Depth Hypnosis is different from all other forms of hypnotherapy because of this emphasis on working on a spiritual or energetic level in an empirical way. Within this model, it is understood that all imbalance begins at the level of spirit and all imbalance is resolved at the level of spirit. Spirit, as it is defined here, is not limited to a particular religious or orthodox definition of what spirit or spirituality is. Rather, Depth Hypnosis has many processes that help a person discover the ineffable within them which is fundamental to personally-defined forms of spiritual inquiry. Much of this inquiry takes place in the altered state.
An altered state of consciousness differs from the ordinary waking, problem-solving state we are most used to. While this vigilant state enables us to navigate the complexities of the consensus reality we all share and helps us understand our place in the world, it has certain limitations. The conscious mind is designed to help us eliminate aspects of our experience that might interrupt the way we organize reality. The conscious mind filters out anything which interrupts the way we are trying to structure reality.
In some instances, this filtering is necessary. When you’re driving down a freeway for example, it’s important to know what requires your attention and what you can ignore. There are serious advantages to working within the purview of the conscious mind. However, we all have inexplicable things happen to us – experiences that simply do not fit into our usual frame of reference. For example, many of us tend to eliminate emotional experience from our conscious minds because it can be disorganizing to the way we are trying to think about our experience. When we try to eliminate emotional and other experience from our conscious mind, it doesn’t disappear, but is instead stored at other levels of the mind. These are the parts of the mind that can best be perceived in an altered state of awareness.
As Westerners, we tend to think of ourselves as “brain-oriented,” and we tend to discount the experience and wisdom of the body, as well as the wisdom of the subtle bodies correlated with our physical bodies. The idea that there is subtle energy affecting things on a physical level is a model that western science and western medicine don’t consider in any serious way. Many western scientists tend to forget that biochemical or biophysical components possess a subtle quality that can be measured with thermonuclear imaging and electromagnetic measurements. These remind us that there is scientific evidence of the body’s subtle energy fields that many non-western systems of medicine have always described.
In Depth Hypnosis, we recognize there are certain unexplainable experiences everyone can relate to. One of the most common, sometimes puzzling, experiences we all have is dreaming. Dreams can seem illogical and may not fit easily into our view of reality. So, we tend to discount the information that is available to us in dreams. Working with dreams in an intensive way is just one of the ways Depth Hypnosis creates pathways between the conscious mind reality and the larger experience of the self. This larger self contains critical information about the problems we have within the conscious mind.
In Depth Hypnosis, it is understood that many issues arising on the conscious mind level cannot be solved there. Again, this is because the conscious mind has filtered out certain information about our experience that becomes stored in other parts of our being and remains there until it is processed. This phenomenon is often the reason people have nightmares.
When the conscious mind filters out certain types of unwanted experience, it moves into the further reaches of the psyche. When we dream, we may come into contact with that layer of experience as the usual filters of the conscious mind relax. That contact can be unwanted. Yet the larger self, which always seeks integration, brings forward the information that has been filtered out by the conscious mind through dreams. This is an opportunity for the dreamer to integrate that filtered experience into waking consciousness.
The larger mind-body complex we all exist in seeks integration and looks for ways to bring the conscious mind’s attention to whatever it has filtered, rejected or repressed so that information can be better integrated. Dreaming is just one of the ways this task is accomplished. Another way this is accomplished is through The Journey. Through The Journey, valuable information, including solutions to intractable problems, can be accessed in a more specific and intentional way. The journeyer does not have to wait for the larger psyche to deliver messages through dreams.
In The Journey, the journeyer can make direct inquiry into the nature of consciousness through Buddhist principles with the help of inner guidance provided by shamanic methods. The intentionality of Vipassana meditation is combined with the joyous, yet disciplined guidance of helping spirits who take the forms of nature in shamanic practice. This provides a potent tool for modern seekers trying to resolve personal spiritual, emotional, and mental problems so they can step into a broader state of consciousness.
The Intention of Vipassana Meditation
Different schools of Buddhist thought place differing levels of emphasis on the various forms of meditative practice. But most schools agree that Vipassana meditation, or insight meditation, is a meditative technique that cannot be fully employed until samatha meditation techniques have been mastered. Samatha is translated variously as “calm abiding” or “quiescence.” The task in samatha meditation is to develop a one-pointed focus of attention. This is generally done by focusing on the breath to the exclusion of all else. This allows the chatter of the conscious mind to settle. Once the practitioner has mastered this technique, then the practice of Vipassana can begin.
There are many ways to practice Vipassana meditation, but the basic approach is the observation of phenomena in order to gain understanding about their nature. Some schools emphasize the observation of the body and its functions, others focus on mental conceptualizations – and some combine both. In all cases, the goal of Vipassana meditation is to understand what we conceive of as the self and its relationship to all that surrounds it.
Focus is brought to the area of inquiry – and the concentrative focus developed in samatha is used to open the object of inquiry to see what information might arise. Then, that focus is turned to the information that has arisen – and more information continues to arise.
It takes considerable practice to learn how to stabilize the mind and clear preconceptions in order to develop a Vipassana practice which provides a reliable vehicle toward the goal of self-understanding. Once this is accomplished however, the meditator engages in a step-by-step inquiry into a particular area of interest. Each answer that arises emerges from this inquiry, and forms the basis of the next question. In this way, Vipasanna meditation could be said to provide a method of rappelling into an issue with a good, strong rope. The rope of inquiry is strong and solid because each question is based on the answer to the previous question.
The intention in this method is to circumvent false conclusions or faulty logic. It also helps us resist the pull to move away or deny aspects of our experience we might consider undesirable that might reveal themselves in the process of inquiry. Vipassana meditation brings the steps of the Eightfold path into active practice as we seek to maintain realistic concentration, effort, mindfulness, view, and intention into our internal inquiry about our experience.
The Method of the Shamanic Journey
The method for going inward with the process of the shamanic journey is different than the method of going inward with Vipassana meditation techniques. The use of sound to focus the seeker’s attention rather than the practice of focusing on the breath is used in the shamanic journey.
A type of sonic driver, which can be a repetitive sound of a drum, rattle, other instrument or the human voice, is generated as the journeyer focuses inward. In Siberia, shamans have been heard to say that they use the drumbeat to travel into the inner cosmography of the journey in the same way that they use their horses to travel from place to place in ordinary reality.
Through focused attention on the sonic driver, the shamanic practitioner enters into an inner cosmography. The inner cosmography of the shamanic journey is described in similar ways in many shamanic traditions. This inner cosmography is a reflection of the outer landscape of the natural world. It consists of three worlds that are called the Upper World, the Middle World and the Lower World. It is in these worlds that the seeker meets the helping spirits who provide guidance as the shaman offers assistance to others.
In The Journey, this method of using sound to alter the state of consciousness is the same. But the reason for developing contacts with these guides that take the form of nature is different. In traditional settings, these teachers assist the shaman in performing healing rituals and ceremonies, divination, the guiding of the souls of the dead, and other duties the shaman performs on behalf of the community members. The shamanic journey is not generally used to delve into the nature of the self in a focused, disciplined way.
The meticulous combing through personal experience in order to understand how one is creating reality is not the point of the shamanic journey. The examination and inquiry into the roots of personal suffering is not a typical goal of the shamanic journey in traditional settings; nor is the use of the shamanic journey to delve into different levels of consciousness emphasized. The reason to establish a connection with these guides, or helping spirits, or teachers in the forms of nature in the journey is to pursue such forms of inquiry.
These types of investigations are commonly undertaken within the context of Vipassana meditation. However, in Vipassana, the investigation is entirely self-contained. In The Journey, this investigation takes the form of a dialogue between the journeyer and the helping spirit. This provides a more concrete point of departure and focus for inquiry and, as you will see in the examples below, provides invaluable support as the journeyer is guided to confront even the most painful personal experience.
The point of the shamanic journey is to establish relationships with helping spirits who then help the shaman perform their duties. I have been using “spirit guide,” “helping spirit,” “inner guidance,” “teacher” and “guide” interchangeably in this discussion. These words all refer to the inner guidance that is accessed through both the shamanic journey and The Journey. I often use the more neutral term of “guide” or “teacher.”
This is because the concept of spirit can be complex for some people. Those who are former followers of traditional religions or those who view things from a rational or scientific view might find the concept difficult. The experience of spirit is very personal. It is an actual experience rather than an intellectual exercise.
Within the context of the shamanic journey and The Journey the visceral experience of spirit, however it is conceived, is actually very consistent. This inner guidance personified by the different forms of nature is characterized by a compassionate attitude, a lack of personal agenda and a sometimes “tough love” approach in responding to inquiries that come from the journeyer.
At the beginning of the practice of The Journey, the fields of compassionate power described as “helping spirits” in traditional shamanic journey practice can be conceived of as being either part of the self that is wise or as a field of energy or power that is arising outside of the self. It is important to allow each new journeyer to approach these definitions on their own terms in order to keep the practice from crystallizing into a dogma.
I always counsel students who are new to the process of The Journey to allow themselves to consider what these spirit guides might be in whatever way makes most sense to them. In this way, they can enter into the process of inquiry with these spirit guides and learn from that experience rather than staying outside of the experience and learning nothing.
An important aspect of the current crises of meaning in the West is the psychological isolation many people feel. By working with inner guidance that takes the form of nature the seeker can feel accompanied and supported as they delve into the deeper recesses of the self. The guides provide an important source of sustenance.
The relationships that are formed with these guides are healing in and of themselves because of their compassionate nature. These relationships provide an important antidote to the psychological isolation that can be at the root of many imbalances. People who work with personal issues through The Journey after establishing relationships with this guidance feel supported internally in ways they may not with meditation practices which emphasize a more “go it alone” process.
The Journey: Bringing the Intention of Vipassana together with the Method of The Shamanic Journey
When the methods of the shamanic journey are combined with the intention of Vipassana meditation techniques, the process of an internal inquiry becomes more interactive. Most Westerners find this interaction easier to track than the perceptions that emerge from the self-mediated inquiry of Vipassana.
The seeker asks the question of the guide rather than trying to perceive what might arise out of focused meditative concentration on a particular subject. This makes it easier for the seeker to receive answers because the question and answer process is more concretized and personalized because of the relationship with the guide. There is still the issue of perceiving information properly in this context that exists in Vipassana meditation. Often answers come in the form of images – not unlike the images in dreams. And sometimes answers come through kinesthetic cues that people have to learn how to translate. Students are taught how to open these images and tune into these cues as part of the learning of The Journey.
The discipline in forming the question that the journeyer will bring into The Journey reflects the analytical focus of Vipassana. In The Journey, the question must be one-pointed. Often, students are guided to start with one question that can lead into a series of questions on the same topic – each one deepening perspective on the same issue with each new journey process. After each journey, the seeker records the journey in a journal, spends time reflecting on the answers that have been provided by the guide, and sets forward another question for the next journey.
The rigor of Vipassana meditational focus is preserved in this way of working. Yet, the method of The Journey provides what is perhaps an easier access point to the mysteries of the deeper self, and also provides a method of internal support that is valuable to Westerners starting out on the path of self-inquiry.
The processes of inquiry are placed in the hands of the seeker through interactive investigation with the guides from The Journey. The seeker has the opportunity to ask questions about the cause and effect of that which needs healing with compassionate, accessible support. The healing that emerges from this process creates a stronger base for the seeker in meeting the complexities of modern life.
Ultimately, when the shamanic journey is combined with Vipassana practices in Depth Hypnosis the hybrid offers a unique solution to the western seeker. Those who have suffered from a loss of spiritual compass find sustenance in the relationship with inner guidance. Those who have found it difficult to find the help that they need in healing their emotional and spiritual issues with conventional psychiatric solutions find assistance. The disciplined interaction with accessible inner guidance helps focus spiritual practice and provides a container for the development of greater awareness.
Putting it All Together
To help you understand this process better, let’s look at how the focused intent of Vipassana combines with the method of the shamanic journey in the context of The Journey in the clinical setting. The following is a brief overview of how a young woman who was suffering from a persistent depression worked with The Journey.
The goal of this journey was to meet a guide in animal form in the Lower World. This is the first time she had ever tried to journey:
“As the drumming started, I focused on the swimming hole I used to swim in every summer when I was a kid. The swimming hole was in the bend of a slow-moving river in Iowa, near the farm where I grew up. There is a big rope hanging over the swimming hole. You can climb one of the walnut trees on the bank of the river and catch hold of the rope and then swing out over the water and drop in. I must have done this a thousand times, and I did it again with the intention of going to the Lower World through the river. I splashed into the water after letting go of the rope and found myself dropping like a stone.
I kept my mind focused, I am going to the Lower World to meet a teacher in animal form. I kept dropping, dropping, dropping – going lower and lower in the water. Suddenly, I was on a sandy beach. The sand was luminescent and sparkling. I was mesmerized by the grains of sand. They were like jewels. I remembered to keep my attention on the fact that I was here to meet my teacher in animal form, so I started walking along the beach, looking for a teacher. The sand almost sang under my feet as I walked. It was definitely magical, this sand. I walked for a long time, without really seeing any animals, so I decided to sit down on the beach and wait for an animal to come find me.
Soon I heard a rustling in the bushes between the beach and the rocks that led up to what looked like some fields. I couldn’t see what was making the rustling sound. I was sitting on a rock near the water, which was a smooth, clear lake with very dark blue water. I kept hearing the rustling and looking toward the bushes, but I still did not see anything. I decided to get up and go investigate what was going on in the bushes, but as I stood up, I looked into the water of the lake. In the water’s reflection was the image of a huge brown bear standing behind me looking into the water with me.
At first, I was scared. The bear was huge, but it had these very kind eyes, so I settled down and just looked at its reflection in the water. I was afraid to turn around because it was so big. Finally, I remembered to ask, Are you my teacher in animal form? As I asked the question, the bear’s eyes fixed on me in a very powerful way. I felt all this love and kindness coming from the bear. It was filling the lake where her reflection was – and soon the whole lake was filled with this love and this kindness. I sat for a long time just trying to take in how much love was all around me. I knew this must mean the bear was my teacher. I sat there for a long time, as the bear’s eyes, then the whole bear, then the bear’s eyes, then the whole bear reflected in the lake before me. The view of the bear kept alternating.
I never did turn around. I really could not move for a long time. But then I heard the change in the rhythm of the drumming and knew I had to go back to the place where I started. I thanked Bear and started walking back along the beach with the glistening sand, then jumped back into the water and swam back up to the swimming hole of my childhood. I grabbed the rope hanging over the water, and pulled myself out, and swung over the riverbank where the walnut trees were.”
After having reviewed the transcript of the journey, and reflected on the nature of Bear, this young woman was ready to ask Bear for assistance in dealing with her depression. In the second session, she asked: “What power do I need to help me with my depression?” Once again, she listened to the rhythmic drumming and started at the swimming hole of her childhood:
“As the drumming started, I focused on the swimming hole where there was a big rope hanging over the water. I caught hold of the rope and I splashed into the water. I kept my mind focused, I am going to the Lower World to ask Bear for a source of power which will help me with my depression. I kept dropping until I found myself back on the sandy beach. I walked down the beach of sparkling sand to the place by the lake where I had met Bear in the reflection of the water. I looked into the water of the lake. In the waters’ reflection was Bear. Again, I was afraid at first. But I asked the question, Bear, can you provide me with a source of power to help me with my depression around my relationships?
As I asked the question, the reflection of Bear in the water became disturbed. I was worried that Bear had disappeared. And then I heard, but not in words, but rather in a kind of knowing, If you want to find that power, you have to turn around. I was frozen. How was I going to turn around? I knew the bear was kind, but it was so big, and I was not sure I could look at it straight on. I was paralyzed. The bear did not return to the reflection in the lake, but I kept looking at the lake. I remembered how the lake had become so filled with kindness from the bear’s gaze the last time I was here. I kept looking into the lake. It was almost like I was trying to drink in the kindness of the lake to help myself unfreeze. It took a long time, but I finally began to feel the warmth of the love and kindness I had felt before coursing through my veins, unfreezing me.
Slowly, I turned and there was Bear, with her huge, kind eyes. I started crying uncontrollably. I was just sobbing. Bear sat patiently with me, gazing at me with those eyes. When at last I could stop hyperventilating and I could breathe normally, Bear, in the simplest of gestures, handed me a small package. It was wrapped in cornhusks. Then, without a word, she turned and walked toward the bushes on the bank, disappearing before she reached them. I was an emotional wreck. I tried to compose myself. I felt foolish sitting there with this package of cornhusks. Then the rhythm of the drumming changed and I got up and walked back along the beach with the glistening sand, then jumped back into the water and swam back up to the swimming hole of my childhood. I grabbed the rope hanging over the water, and pulled myself out, and swung over the riverbank where the walnut trees were.”
Once again, we reviewed the transcript of her journey. She wanted to know what was in the cornhusks. She said she understood that the power she had asked for was in the cornhusk package, but she did not know what it was. I asked her about her experience of being frozen and then finally being able to turn and face Bear. She said she really did not understand why she was so afraid. I suggested she rest a bit and we set a time to work later in the week to understand her journey better. I asked her to watch her dreams to see if any information about the journey or Bear or the cornhusks might come to her.
For the next journey, her intention was to ask about the nature of the power that was held in the cornhusk and to ask how to apply that power to her sense of depression:
“The drumming started and I headed to the swing above the swimming hole. I walked up the trunk of the old walnut tree and grabbed the rope, swung out over the water and dropped in. Once again, I dropped downward, dropping like a stone until I came out onto the sandy beach by the lake. I walked down the glistening sand to the place where I looked into the lake to find Bear’s reflection.
As I looked into the lake, I saw her reflection. She was standing at the water’s edge. I got all my courage together and turned to face her, hoping I would not break down crying again. Her eyes were so kind. We stood facing each other for a long time, and again I felt the kindness and the love coming from the bear and filling the lake around us. Finally, I asked, What is the nature of the power you have given me? The bear nodded toward the cornhusk package that had suddenly appeared in my hand again, as if to say, If you want to know what kind of power I have offered you, open the package. I unraveled the cornhusks and found a small box.
Although the bear did not speak, I heard, Open the box. As I opened the box, a flood of memories emerged of me playing in the cornfields around our house with my brother and his friends. I saw myself in my favorite blue shorts playing hide and seek in the corn stalks. I heard my brother counting as we all tried to find the very best spot to hide. I smelled the richness of the earth as I lay down in the irrigation ditch that ran alongside a row of corn. My heart was flooding as all this experience ran through it. I was having trouble taking it all in. I was having trouble breathing. I sat silent. Bear was gazing at me.
She was patiently waiting for me to process everything. I was trying to figure out what power was indicated in all these experiences when she asked, again, without speaking, Who are you now – and who were you then? This was quite a question. What could she mean? I pondered the question for quite some time. I could not with any kind of coherent answer to that question. Then she asked, How did you see yourself then? I saw myself as carefree and lucky – and pretty cool – to be able to play with the older boys rather than having to do the girl things that my mother always wanted me to do around the house.
Then Bear asked, How do you see yourself now? I felt burdened now. I saw myself as flawed. I always felt I had done something wrong – but did not know what it was. I had a flash of an insight that this was the reason I could not stay in relationships – because I did not want anyone to get to know me well enough to find out what that something wrong was. But Bear brought me back to the question. How did you see yourself then – and how do you see yourself now? In a flash, I realized the power that Bear had returned was the power to see myself with kindness. The same kindness that was in Bear’s eyes.
I held the box with the cornhusks up against my chest and started crying again. As I was crying, I saw all the ways I did not treat myself kindly and the ways I could change that way of treating myself. I did not even need to ask the questions about how to apply the power in my life. I knew what I needed to do. The change in the rhythm of the drum called me back to the presence of Bear beside me. I could not believe it had only been 10 minutes that I had been here by the lake with Bear. I fumbled with the box and the corn husks, mumbled a thank you to Bear and stumbled along down the beach to the place where I swam up through the river to the rope hanging over the water. I hauled myself out.”
Through the example of this series of journeys, the fruits of disciplined Vipassana inquiry emerge within the context of compassionate guidance that holds the seeker in the process in a supported way. It is important to remember that this person had no previous experience with The Journey before these sessions. It is remarkable how quickly the source of her depression – and its cure – was revealed in these three sessions. Without the discipline of the well-articulated question, and the pursuit of the issues emerging out of the initial question in a methodical way, this insight would not have been accessible. This is Vipassana’s contribution. Without the steady, supportive and insistent guidance provided by Bear, it is unlikely that the journeyer would have been able to stay the course in looking into the murky depths of her depression. This support is shamanism’s contribution. All of this is especially true when we consider that we are bringing these many threads together to address some of the most intractable and disturbing aspects of modern experience.
With The Journey, we can reestablish ownership of our spiritual life. Our spiritual experience need not be dependent on religious authorities that may or may not demonstrate the integrity and moral discipline they tell us we have a right to expect from them. Through The Journey, we are met consistently and reliably by internal teachers who demonstrate compassion and good judgment as they offer us guidance.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Journey is that it offers us a path to healing of emotional and spiritual wounds that drive some of our more intractable imbalances. We reclaim our right to know ourselves outside the definitions of science which reject that aspect of ourselves that we know to be most truly our own, and we are given tools to deepen our knowledge of this part of ourselves – our spirits.
It is clear that for many, there are few effective ways to address the effect of this crisis of spirit within the current cultural structures. The crisis in consciousness that has generated this imbalance and is perpetuated by it can only be healed by discovering a coherent, viable path back to our deepest knowing. It is clear we must look beyond the current religious and healing institutions if we are to find assistance in navigating the ever-increasing complexities of our experience.
The important point here is that this modern synthesis of these ancient wisdom systems provides tangible, accessible solutions for the modern seeker. This method is empowering to the spirit, and helps people learn to trust in themselves and their ability to follow inner guidance. This method provides hope for those who have lost their faith in their ability to heal or to receive the kind of help they truly need. It shows them that they can step into a broader state of awareness by addressing their problems directly, and gives them the tools to do this. It liberates them from dependence on systems that purport to provide healing and meaning, but do not provide either. It provides a clear path toward greater awareness and consciousness.
Editors’ Note: If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of Shamanism and Buddhism, check out Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D. and Robert Thurman, Ph.D.’s Shamans and Siddhas class, offered annually at Menla Mountain Retreat Center in Phoenicia, NY. You can also join Dr. Isa Gucciardi for her talk at the 2019 Science and Nonduality Conference entitled “The Doorway Between the Worlds: Medium and Oracle Traditions in Shamanic and Buddhist Traditions.”