Guest Post: Thoughts about Shamanic Workshop

Polly Wood and Susan Haase-Derrett, both of whom are psychotherapist participants in this network, have graciously written up some of their thoughts about the latest event.

Polly Wood writes

I came to this workshop on British Shamanism feeling twinges of ambivalence about exchanging a bank-holiday Sunday with the papers for a potentially unsettling few hours. However I am delighted that I did. I am a ‘project participant whose background is more on the academic and clinical side’ though I have made two other shamanic journeys during my psychotherapy training. So I had some experience to think about but not a great deal. I feel that the purpose of writing this report is to encourage others to come and overcome any ambivalence they might feel.

Afterwards, mulling this over with Susan, I felt I wanted to say first that I had felt extremely well held by Nick. He is clearly someone with a huge experience of Shamanism and he was a lovely mixture of enthusiasm, knowledge and modesty. I felt very safe with him – he is clearly not into cults.

Nick began with a description of Shamanism, its origins in many different parts of the world and some striking features of shamanic belief that have arisen separately in different cultures (including neuroscience). This is going to be put on the website so I will not go into it here. He talked personally about his own experiences and about working with others and journeying with them. The work and the journeyings are seen as taking place in a space of altered consciousness where we can encounter spiritual beings who can give us information about our lives that can help us – though perhaps we will only see the point years later. This area of altered consciousness is thought to exist in that space between sleep and waking where our brains are experiencing theta wave consciousness. This can be accessed in many ways – using drugs, using sleep deprivation or fasting, by chanting, by using pain. Nick’s preferred way is by using rhythm. He had brought a selection of beautiful rhythmic instruments with him – a skin drum and rattles he had made, bows, a Tibetan wheel, a singing bowl. He proposed to use a drum.

After tea Nick lead us on a fifteen minute shamanic journey. He gave clear instructions as to what would happen and we set off. We were to settle on a jumping off point in our minds – this had to be a place of meaning for us that existed in ‘normal’ reality. From this place we were to journey down into a deep layer of altered consciousness and ask to encounter someone or something in that spiritual layer and to explore. He gave us suggestions about how to react to anything we encountered and he emphasised that in the ‘down’ or the ‘up’ we are less likely to get into trouble as neophytes – it is in the middle layer where we already exist and which is attractive to spirits too that encounters can be more troublesome.

Nick drummed constantly and sometimes chanted as we journeyed. I found that although the journey unrolled in the way he had described, I could direct it. For instance, I found that my first plunge down was not deep enough – I simply knew this – so I went up and journeyed down again. As I went down I felt a sensation of falling bodily that was not frightening but was definite and exhilarating. Once down in the spirit layer I first encountered objects and animals that seemed to be disinterested in me so I moved on past them until I came face to face with some charged and familiar people. I had an exchange with them and then I lifted up in a cartoonish way, like being in Ghost Busters, to meet another figure with whom I had another interaction. It was reassuring that Nick had previously talked about experiencing cartoon images and that some encounters were funny. After lingering awhile longer the drum insisted it was time to leave and I came straight back up.

After arriving back in the room we had some time to make notes and then a time for discussion, with our neighbours intimately if we wished and then in the wider group. I felt that what I was doing was akin to dream work or active imagination. So I agree with the idea that Shamanic journeying is analogous with some of the ways we work in psychotherapy. I found it a rich experience and one I would like to do more of.

Susan Haase-Derrett writes

It was an inspiring morning. I have only a few thoughts to add to Polly’s.

What really came into focus for me was the importance of ritual, how going through a ritual helps you step out of ordinary time and into a different dimension. At the beginning of the descent I thought 15 minutes of continuous drumming would feel like a long time, either boring or overwhelming, I guess an expression of my anxiety. But then deciding to let go or with Nick’s phrase ‘to cut’, time just vanished and before I knew it, Nick gave the drum signal for the approaching ending and ascent. I felt that I had been a long way down and was reluctant to come up that soon.

What made it possible and safe, beside Nick’s experience and skill, was the structure of the ritual: the seven beats repeated four times, pause, then for the journeying 12 – 13 minutes of continuous resonant deep sound of the drumming of four beats a second, 240 beats a minute, followed by the seven beat pattern repeated three times and finally the ascent to the continuous fast drumming for a minute. And then a final seven beat pattern repeated four time. It created a defined soundscape in this other layer of existence that might otherwise have felt endless. I felt contained.

The drumbeat was powerful, especially when it hit a particular deep resonance. I just suddenly felt myself sink deeper. But Nick’s chanting at the start of the descent was equally important, as if he was a bridge into that other place.

The similarity of a shamanic journey to psychotherapy is patent: the regular rhythm of the therapeutic hour at a set time, in the same place, the stepping over the threshold of the room and entering a space that carries the potential of experiencing a different dimension, if you like the possibility of entering the layer of the theta wave in which images emerge. Another word for this state might be reverie. Jungians might call that space Temenos. All in the presence of an Other as a bridge.

Nick mentioned an intriguing aspect of shamanism that is very different to traditional psychotherapy, namely ‘clearing blockages’ for people when you are not actually with them. They might be on the other side of the world. I would have liked to hear more about that. It is as if the theta wave dimension wraps itself around the world like a jet stream. But maybe I’m going off on one here. I’ll stop.

For those of you who feel they missed out, there was great enthusiasm for more shamanic journeys. So hopefully that will happen.

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