Soundings: the Shaman's Journey

Enroll in Stephen Williamson's Rattle-Making Workshop -- April 24, 1999

How can we use the creative, projective, and energetic
quality of words and sounds to aid a shamanistic journey?

We are trying to extend and explore the edges of consciousness for its own sake, as a part of being human; to see if we can acquire knowledge, skills, and insights to help in dealing with our own personal problems and those of the human community at large. "Ordinary" consciousness may be too narrow and limited to solve problems, personal and human -- shamanism implies a willingness to go further afield, to explore and extend the mind in an unconventional way.

For those interested in shamanistic practice, this means to experience modern variations on some of the most ancient and widespread of human psychophysical practices, dating back (on the evidence of artifacts) at least 35,000 years. Practices whose aim is to deepen knowledge of existence, penetrate some of the mystery of life, and bring help to others. This is what shamanistic practice has traditionally been about in almost every society in which it is found. But can a practice so ancient and developed in early human societies very different than our own be useful, and if so how? This may be a question best approached experientially, as we do here.

Here is one shamanistic practice:

It presupposes little in the way of belief, although a plethora of beliefs, ideas, and perspectives are associated with shamanistic practices. This practice, like a kind of meditation, should not offend anyone's beliefs -- from Christian to pagan -- although the capacity of fundamentalists of all stripes to discover worrisome heresy can't be underestimated. You do not have to accept the underlying assumptions or unspoken metaphysics of earlier cultures in order to practice this exercise, but previous shamanistic experience should help. It uses the power of words and sounds as discussed in its companion article, "The Creative Power of Words."

I make rattles, and teach rattle making, which influences my work. But you can easily modify this exercise to fit your own practice -- use a drum instead of a rattle, or nothing at all.

Rattles have several advantages for shamanistic journeying, but the central one that concerns us here is the ability to keep rattling during a journey -- drumming is considerably harder to maintain. If you have a drummer to accompany you, the way many shamans do in primal cultures, or if you have group support, a drum is perhaps better. Ideally you can rattle with the drummer, and then at the appropriate point lie down and stop rattling while the drumming continues. Most of us don't have a drummer to work with, so many people use tapes.

While rattles work better with this exercise than a drum, it is most important to be doing something kinetic with your body, drumming or rattling, at least at the beginning of the exercise -- even if you use a tape of drumming to accompany you.

I suspect that for this particular exercise it is better not to use tapes; I never use them here, though I do use tapes occasionally with other practices. One reason is that variations in rhythm naturally occur within the exercise. You don't want to be tied to a rhythm on a tape. The use of the voice makes the variations in rhythm larger than in other practices. If you do use a drum keep the drumming soft, you do not want the powerful ringing sound that works so well with groups. Keep tapes of drumming low as well.

I spend hours working on the sound of rattles, and have my own approach and theories. If you watched people making rattles in one of my workshops you'd find them spending as much time listening to the rattles they are making as working on their design and decoration. But you don't necessarily need an elaborate rattle -- a friend of mine put some stones in aspirin jar and shook that; it worked fine for her. Only after a couple of years did she switch to a rattle she had made.

The small, black, egg-shaped rattles filled with shot widely used in children's musical performances can be bought for a few dollars, and have a good, clean sound. Some rattles sound terribly dead -- you lose more energy than you get from them. It's better to use something cheap, but lively -- although too lively can also be a problem. Click sticks work well, so does a sistrum for most practices. I don't use them with this particular exercise.

Begin by sitting as close to a relaxed meditation posture as you can. Sitting back on your legs or legs and a small pillow, knees forward, may be the best posture -- an old injury prevents me from using this posture very much. Otherwise sit in a comfortable meditation posture, your back reasonably, comfortably, straight. Unlike Zen or other meditative practices you don't have to sit still, and you probably won't sit still. Shift your position if you need to. Don't try to sit in such an extreme posture that you are uncomfortable -- there may be reasons to do so with certain forms of meditation, but not with shamanistic journeying. Most people have the easiest time with journeying by lying down on their back; if you do use a tape it's probably easiest to shift to that position at some point.

Use any "helper applications" that work for you -- fasting, incense, reduced light, darkness, sitting facing the sun, a candle, whatever -- or use nothing, if you prefer. Dance or shake out your body before beginning if you like. Do Tai Chi, yoga or other exercises. If you do Tai Chi, try doing the last round breaking up or improvising on the movements. No drugs or psychoactive chemicals are needed; you've already got the psychoactive chemicals you need -- your brain is filled with them. You are psychoactive chemicals is one way of looking at it.

There are extended discussions about which direction to face and what to wear and so forth. For what it's worth, my advice is this: If it's an issue about which you are debating unprofitably, drop that concern and go on to something else. If you don't have a "feeling," a fairly clear and strong intuition that you should sit facing in a particlular direction, leave the issue aside and work on area you do have a feeling for. The same is true of something someone else seems terribly convinced of, but can't explain in such a way that you can share the conviction.

This is why Michael Harner of the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies dispenses with all this and goes to a generic or what he calls "core shamanism." I'm suggesting something a little different. Exactitude and detail are a part of practice and ritual for a reason, whether you're talking about ancient China or the Near East, whether you're talking about Tai Chi or yoga. They cause the attention to focus, and signal and help prepare for the alternation of consciousness. I'm not saying that details are not important, only that you shouldn't spend time getting tangled up with issues, if that piece of your practice hasn't come to you.

We're highly differentiated individuals in the Jungian sense, not members of a shared tribal society or tradition-- our practice will, in all likelihood, become highly individualized, and not generic or "core." Such knowledge has to come from the practice itself or from the "right theory," if one is sure what the right theory is!

Kabir has a good portion of the truth, at least when it comes to a practice like shamanistic journeying, when he says:

"What Kabir talks about is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something, it's not true."

trans. Robert Bly

In any case, you do need to lower your visual input in some way. You can -- but don't need to -- close your eyes or tie a handkerchief over them, but you do need to at least half close your eyes or unfocus a bit when you begin. Vision tends to fix reality, you are intending to un-fix it. Imagine that you are shifting from a "specific point" in time and space to a kind of floating point.

Don't overprepare the session. Something is likely to be wrong -- kids outside will make noise, it will be too hot or too cold, or your nose will itch. What I've found works best is to either try to ignore the problem or work with it, but if it becomes a serious distraction, then give in to it and go on. Scratch your nose, check the clock if you're worried about the time -- then get back to chanting. Often people set up too elaborate rituals for this work. If you find you are spending more and more time getting ready, but the practice has less energy -- simplify.

Begin to rattle or drum. It can sometimes take a few minutes for the rhythm to be established -- sometimes as long as ten minutes. At some point when it feels appropriate, begin chanting. In this practice we are using "speaking in tongues" as a process. You can use copied sounds, bits and pieces -- Native American, Indian, Middle Eastern -- whatever comes. Borrow and use whatever you need. Be motley! Chant words, sounds, "nonsense" -- whatever. You are exploring sounds and words, pushing them and moving them -- and listening. You are looking for words or patterns of sound that have some depth, energy or power, even if you can't understand why they have it. The process may even become funny for a moment, or silly. You can come to dead ends, just be aware that a pattern has dead-ended and move on.

No one can tell you exactly how to do all this. It's an active, creative process. You are not following somebody else's pattern. You are creating your own pattern. For this particular practice, avoid a structured chant. It will take you to a particular "place" or nexus. And besides, you'll have simply chanted something someone has taught you or told you to chant. How will you know the reason for doing it? Sooner or later, you must find your own ground (on your own) to do shamanistic journeying, because you are entering an area where shared, discussed experience is not strong, and doesn't define reality.

What you are after is an active and creative process coming from or through you. Don't chant a phrase unless (however derivatively) it's come to you personally. We're trying to use "speaking in tongues" effects to encourage a journey. We don't have to have a theory of "speaking in tongues" for the purpose of this exercise. We don't claim to be speaking a genuine, unknown language.

When you begin chanting, it may seem awkward at first. You'll probably get in a pattern of inhibiting the sound's movement in particular directions, of shifting directions by will. It will not seem organic or unified. This something that you just have to work with.

When you've used the rattling to synchronize kinetic movement and sound, and you have put something out into the space around you with your rattle -- or called something in, however it seems to you -- this will help.

We tend to think of space as three material dimensions, but for the purpose of these exercises, music changes the structure of space; smell can change it, mood even. Music can change a cell into a garden, a prison into a continent to wander. Try think of space as not physical place and placement, but a multidimensional modality. This will help the chanting process. Your rattling and chanting is gently alternating the psycho-physical space you are in. And you have your "helping applications" to assist you. Fasting intensifies the sensitivity of the senses and concentration, for example.

Put as much into your chanting as you can. You can think about some slight you've received at another time, a new true love, etc. during the rest of your day. The old Zen image is to mediate as if you were going to get gold as your reward. How hard would you try then is the question they ask. You won't be able to force attachments out of your consciousness here, any more than in any other activity. Try to chant as fully as you can or you are wasting that portion of your time and effort. On the other hand don't worry about results. See what happens.

You are not trying to achieve anything -- at least not at first -- try to explore without a fixed goal. If you're not planning to tell anyone about your experiences for entertainment, there will be no need to re-imagine them as more dramatic than they are. It's best to share such journeys only in a "democratic" situation to avoid the temptations of competition for exciting descriptions and over-interpretation. What will happen? Expectation clutters and interferes with the process. (even though it seems we're telling everything these days) You are looking for the chant to "take on a life of it's own," just as a character in a book may seem to exist beyond the pages, beyond the story you are reading, so that you can clearly imagine them doing something which the author hasn't described.

At some point you may feel caught up in a kind of current, like a river. There's much talk about what happens -- imagery and so forth -- but this is the clearest signal in almost all journeys. The song is beginning to sing the singer, the book beginning to write itself, the bike no longer needs peddling, the glider is free of the lifting craft. That's when you know. It's not exciting visual imagery in itself.

The chant will take on a life or energy (and forms) of its own. New sounds or tones in pronouncing words will appear. Again, it's this push -- you're in the stream or feel yourself "flying" -- that is most characteristic of shamanistic practice. Just as with other shamanistic exercises, you needn't worry about awkwardness. The chanting will then take unexpected turns -- words, sounds will occur. Enjoy, but listen carefully.

At some point you may begin to think, intend meanings. Begin to mean things, or ask things, or dialogue or explore words widely. For example, try names (but continue to chant.) This separation of meaning and intention -- and the words or sounds being chanted -- can be valuable in freeing the imagination and opening the self to imaginal experience. The unexpected can occur.

You may find yourself in a different location, and find that it's not you chanting --or not just you chanting. Sometimes this other chanter (helper, friend) will have a "familiar" (in the ancient Greek sense), or form-energy icon ( power animal) or.... It's then that you can attain an extension of consciousness, or the senses, or a change in consciousness. Don't try to make this meditation overlong. Don't worry about resistances, it just means you have a strong ego or grounding. Schizophrenics might have an easier time, but becoming schizophrenic is not shamanism. It is similar in some ways, but you don't have to become schizophrenic, or crazy, or more "wounded" than you already are to do shamanistic work, despite what you've heard, said or seen implied. Also consider that in trying to acquire "power" out of pride, you are going to put yourself, sooner or later, into a very worried, unhappy state. You may end up in a paranoid "universe" that's not much fun to inhabit-- to put it mildly.

Go to silence at some point; continue drumming or rattling or listening to the drumming tape until it seems appropriate for practical or internal reasons to stop. It's possible that you may have to use other shamanistic techniques to fully end a session, although I think not. This mildest and gentlest of exercises -- no drugs, no drawing of energy from the darker side of life.

This exercise, when done regularly, will vary with your state of mind like everything else, but it will also deepen and become more complete.

It can be done alone or with a group. When done with a group, it needs to modified intelligently according to the situation.

As a practical matter, this exercise unlikely to survive in the presence of strongly negative individuals, raging skepticism, or perhaps even the hostility of even a single participant. Try to limit group exercises to the sympathetic or open-minded. They don't have to believe anything in particular, or even that the practice will necessarily work, but they shouldn't be hostile to it.

Don't use this exercise to entertain anyone. On the other hand, remember that to reasonably sane non-participants, a bunch of people chanting "nonsense" in a room can seem pretty say the least. Expect that reaction -- it is reasonable -- and be discreet.

The exercise is not going to work for everyone on a given day. Ask those individuals for whom it's not working to concentrate on rattling or drumming, to put as much energy in to the circle as they can for the others to journey with. Indeed, if the exercise does not work for you, at one time or another, and you are alone, simply imagine that someone is trying this mode of journeying, and drum and rattle to help them.

Stephen Williamson

Steve's Rattles