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Dreaming The Soul Back Home
Shamanic Dreaming for Healing and Becoming Whole
By Robert Moss
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Robert Moss
All rights reserved.
Shaman as Dreamers
I had to have dreams in order to act.
— Isaac Tens, Gitksan shaman
What is a shaman? The word was borrowed by anthropologists from the Tungus people of Siberia. Its original meaning is disputed. Some think it meant "priest," yet shamans, practitioners of direct revelation, are very unlike priests, the custodians of received doctrine and ritual. The word shaman came into widespread use after the publication of Mircea Eliade's classic work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. In Eliade's depiction, the shaman is a spiritual practitioner who has mastered the art of journeying beyond the body to communicate with the spirits, to guide the souls of both the living and the departed, and to bring them healing.
Cross-culturally, these are some of the defining characteristics of shamans:
They can travel at will into hidden dimensions of reality.
They work with power animals and spirit helpers.
Their province is the care and guidance of the soul.
They have gone beyond death and returned.
Their skills and services are valued by their community.
Among Central Asian peoples, the shaman's primary tool for journeying is the single-headed frame drum, the type we use in Active Dreaming circles. There is a Buryat (Mongolian) story about how the shaman's drum came to be this way. Long ago, Death complained to the High God that a powerful shaman was disturbing the balance of things. This shaman was so successful at bringing the souls of the dying back into the body that Death was being cheated of his share. The High God reached down from the heavens, plucked the vital soul of a perfectly healthy man out of his body, confined it inside a bottle, and sat on his high throne, waiting to see what the shaman would do. Approached by the family of the unfortunate man, who now lay lifeless, the shaman mounted his drum — which he called his "horse" — and rode it through the Lower World and the Middle World, looking for the missing soul. To fulfill his quest, he had to journey higher than he had ever gone before, into the Upper World, until at last he saw the High God on his high throne holding the soul in the bottle. Even the boldest of the other shamans might have given up at this point. But this shaman refused to abandon his mission. He shapeshifted into a wasp and stung the High God on the forehead. Shocked and in pain, the High God relaxed his grip on the bottle. The shaman grabbed the captive soul and began to gallop back toward his village with it. The High God, in a fury, hurled a lightning bolt after him. It split the shaman's double-headed drum in two, giving us the classic form of the drum as we know it today.
From this wild archaic story, several vital aspects of the shaman's practice emerge. The shaman works with souls. The shaman has the ability to travel at will through a three-tiered universe — Lower World, Middle World, Upper World — that opens into a multidimensional cosmos. The shaman practices the art of shapeshifting. The shaman is on intimate terms with death. The shaman is willing to test the limits of the possible. The shaman serves the community.
We find that these statements are true of authentic shamans in many different societies. "The only thing of importance in a man is the soul," an Inuit shaman, or angakok, told the explorer Knud Rasmussen. Ancient Taoists in China described the heart of their shamanic practice as "the art of ascending to heaven in full daylight" and sought to master the techniques of "crane-riding" — traveling to the skies on the wings of the crane, or the wild duck, or the dragon, or the flying tiger. When asked how he healed others, an Aboriginal spirit man told Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak, "I become an eagle." Everywhere, as Holger Kalweit observes, the shaman walks close to death. He knows the roads of the afterlife because he has traveled them personally; "he actually dies and is actually reborn."
In indigenous cultures, shamans may be born into a specific lineage and may undergo ritual training, ordeal, and initiation. But the shaman's calling is typically announced through a highly individual crisis. This may involve a serious illness or a near-death experience. Most frequently, the shaman's calling is announced in dreams and visions. Among the Ojibwa, the revelation of a shaman's calling — or whatever form the soul's purpose may take — is frequently the gift of a dream guide, or pawauganuk.
In all the descriptions of the shaman in the literature — as wounded healer, as guide of souls, as walker between worlds, as negotiator with the spirits — there is an essential element that is rarely featured strongly enough, and that is sometimes missed altogether. First and last, the shaman is a dreamer. Shamans typically receive their calling in dreams and are initiated and trained in the Dreamtime. The heart of their practice is the intentional dream journey. They may incubate dreams to diagnose a patient and select the appropriate treatment. They travel — wide-awake and lucid — in their dream bodies to find lost souls, to intercede with the spirits, to fight sorcerers, and to guide spirits of the departed along the right roads.
Yes, hallucinogens or entheogens are characteristic of shamanic traditions in some parts of the world, especially South America. But the master shamans manufacture their own chemicals inside their bodies, and hallucinogens are never required by a truly powerful dreamer. They have never been part of my own practice, but then I was called by dreams in early boyhood and discovered the reality of other worlds during life-threatening illnesses, so I do not judge those who seek help in opening the strong eye of vision.
Shamans are not only called by dreams; dreaming is also at the core of their practice. A common name for the shaman in the Western Hemisphere means simply "one who dreams." In the Mohawk language, as mentioned earlier, the word is atetshents (masculine form: ratetshents), pronounced "adze-edze-ots." It means "dreamer" in the sense of one who dreams strong, one who dreams true, one who can travel in dreaming and heal others inside the dreamspace. It also means "doctor" and "healer." There we have the ancient understanding that to be a shaman, or doctor, or healer, you must be at home in the dream worlds.
Among the Daur people of Inner Mongolia, the shaman (yadgan) is a powerful dreamer, one who can travel safely and effectively down soul-roads in dreams where others become lost. In cases of suspected soul loss, the shaman will seek a special dream (soolong) to reveal the truth. "The soolong dream was the main method of divination before any shamanic séance, and by it the shaman could tell people which spirit was active, where it was in the universe, and on which day to make propitiation." Shamans trade on their reputed dreaming ability as one does with a precious commodity, and they may refuse to dream on behalf of others until plied with gifts and accorded respect. When someone is near death, his family members beg a shaman to "watch his dream" to discover whether a dolbor (night road journey) must be done and, if so, which road to take. The Daur shaman requires his patients to dream too. "If you do not have a dream, the rite cannot be done," a Mongol shaman told a visitor who begged for his help for a stomach complaint. Interestingly, the Mongol word for the shaman's dream, soolong, is related to the word for "rainbow" (solongo). We may catch the hint that a dream may be a rainbow bridge between the worlds.
Among the Worora of Australia, it is said that "if a shaman speaks with spirits of the dead, this takes place by his soul leaving him when he is asleep." The shaman meets the "shadow" of a dead person, and it guides him to and from the realms of the dead. He brings back sacred dances and songs.
Among the Aborigines of Walcott Inlet, Australia, it is believed that the snake god Unggud summons potential shamans in their dreams. Initiation depends on the individual's ability to brave up and undergo a series of fearsome tests, at the end of which he is reborn with a new body and a new brain filled with light. The shaman now has the ability to project a dream double. His powers are described as miriru. In Aboriginal Men of High Degree, A. P. Elkin explains that miriru is fundamentally "the capacity bestowed on a medicine man to go into a dream state or trance with its possibilities." Here, built into the language of the earth's oldest people, is the understanding that the heart of the shaman's power lies in his or her ability to dream.
A Singing Shaman Called by Owl and by Dreams
One of the classic accounts of how shamans are called to their practice by dreams comes from Isaac Tens, a halaait (shaman) of the Gitksan people of the Pacific Northwest. The French Canadian scholar Marius Barbeau recorded his narrative and his songs at Hazelton, British Columbia, in 1920. This is a fierce story, in which dreams spill over into the physical world and birds and animals behave like spirits (which shamans know them to be).
"Thirty years after my birth," as Tens tells it, he was chopping firewood at dusk when a huge owl flew at him. "The owl took hold of me, caught my face, and tried to lift me up." Tens lost consciousness. When he came round, he found he had fallen into the snow and blood was streaming from his mouth. His world became stranger. As he dragged himself home, the trees seemed to lean over him and then slither after him like snakes. In bed, he fell into a chaotic state. He felt he had fallen into a whirlpool.
His family brought in two shamans, who recognized a possible calling in this spiritual emergency. They told Isaac Tens he was meant to become a shaman like them. He did not want to hear this. He recovered and went hunting. After killing and skinning a couple of fishers, he saw another huge owl. He shot it and saw it fall. But when he went to recover the body, there was no trace of the owl. Returning to his cabin, he had the impression of a crowd of spirits pursuing him. He fell down in a trance in the snow.
When he was able to make his way home over a frozen river, his flesh seemed to be boiling and a song burst from him. "A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it." Around him, visible only to him, he saw spirit animals. "Such visions happen when a man is about to become a halaait. The songs force themselves out complete, without any attempt to compose them."
The shaman songs continued to stream from him. He now accepted his calling. To learn his trade, he was advised, he had to live in seclusion, seeing only four cousins, fellow members of the Wolf Clan, who watched over him. The key element in this period of training and preparation was dreaming. "I had to have dreams in order to act."
Established medicine men shared their craft with him when he proceeded to work with his own patients, but Tens's primary guidance came from dreams and visions. "I began to diagnose the cases by dreaming." His dreams showed him the right songs and charms and animal spirits to use in a particular case. To extract an ailment — or more exactly, the evil spirit that had carried an illness into a patient's body — he would place a charm over himself and then extend it to reach or cover the patient. The charm "was never an actual object, but one that had appeared in a dream."
Through a powerful dream, Tens acquired a spirit canoe that he used in healing. "In a dream I once had over the hills, I saw a canoe. Many times it appeared to me in my dreams. The canoe was sometimes floating on the water, sometimes on the clouds. When any trouble occurred anywhere, I was able to see my canoe in visions."
He eventually gathered twenty-three songs of power and healing, mostly delivered directly to him through dreams and visions. He dreamed a song of the Salmon.
The village will be healed when my Salmon spirit floats in.
He dreamed that his two deceased uncles gave him rattles for each hand, and that a Grizzly Bear ran through the house and then soared up into the sky, among the clouds. Shaking a rattle in each hand, he chanted the sounds of the Bear making thunder on the earth, then flying up.
In a vision, he traveled in a strange country, full of bees. The bees stung him all over his body. Then an ancient woman helped him to grow. He sang:
Beehives were shooting my body.
Grandmother makes me grow
in my vision. Eyiwaw!
In another vision, he fell from a great height into a canoe that carried him up between the peaks of the mountains, where he heard the mountain spirits talking to each other in voices like bells. He sang:
The mountains are talking to each other.
To treat the most serious cases, Isaac Tens would dress in a bearskin robe with a bear claw headdress, assuming the power of the greatest medicine animal of North America, whose song he carried through his own dreaming. On such occasions, family, friends, and fellow shamans would be called together to create a healing community.
Soul retrieval was often the order of business. "If the patient is very weak," the shaman "captures his spirit into his hands and blows quietly on it to give it more breath. If weaker still, the halaait takes a hot stone from the fireplace and holds the spirit over it. Perhaps a little fat is put on the hot stone to melt. The hands turn from one side to the other, thus feeding the sick spirit." Finally, the spirit is transferred to the patient's head.
Thirteen Levels of Shamanic Dreaming
Ruby Modesto grew up on the Martinez reservation in Southern California. Her dreams called her to become a pul, or shaman, introducing her to the eagle that became her ally, giving her wings for flight. She did not need the medicine plants used by some shamans among her people, the Cahuilla, because, she said, she had her dreams.
The medicine plants were very strong. However, not all puls used power plants. That should be clear from the start. I am a pul myself but the "ally" as Castaneda calls it, the spiritual helper which distinguishes a pul from ordinary people, came to me through Dreaming not from the effects of a plant.
Modesto learned that there are successive levels of dreaming, and that you achieve increasing clarity and get closer to the really good stuff when you go to level 3 or beyond. Her uncle was a dream shaman, and he taught her about "setting up dreaming" in order to get to those interesting levels. She explained the practice to anthropologist Guy Mount like this:
The way you do that is by remembering to tell yourself to go to sleep in your 1st level ordinary dream. You consciously tell yourself [inside the first dream] to lay down and go to sleep. Then you dream a second dream. This is the 2nd level and the prerequisite for real Dreaming. Uncle Charlie called this process "setting up dreaming." You can tell yourself ahead of time where you want to go or what you want to see, or what you want to learn.
On the 3rd level you learn and see unusual things, not of this world. The hills and terrain are different. On both the 2nd and the 3rd dream levels you can talk to people and ask questions about what you want to know.
She adds that "during Dreaming the soul goes out of the body, so you have to be careful." When she was young, she dreamed to the thirteenth level but did not know how to come back. "I kept having different dreams and falling asleep [inside each level of dreaming] and going to another level." In the course of this immense, multitiered experience, she met her shamanic ally, Ahswit, the eagle. But her spirit was lost in the dreamlands. For days she was semicomatose, in a sleep from which no one could rouse her. Her father tried to bring her back to her body, but couldn't. Finally Uncle Charlie, a specialist in soul retrieval, was able to find her spirit and put it back in her body. "When I woke up they made me promise not to Dream like that again, not until I knew how to get back by myself."
To do that, you must learn "how to dream and think simultaneously," so that you don't forget where you left your body, and you remember, whatever level of dreaming you are on, to give yourself a clear direction to go back.
Once again, we see that dreaming is a discipline. To get to the different levels, and to return with gifts for this world, requires practice and attention to flight safety and navigation. While we all dream and can all gain from doing far more in dreaming, dreaming to the thirteenth level is not for the "innocent" and is not recommended as nightly practice for anyone!
Listening to Ruby's voice, as mediated by anthropologist Guy Mount, is to be in the presence of a wise woman of great common and uncommon sense.
She tells us, as her grandfather told her, how to talk to the Creator and find his or her voice in the world around us. Here's what she says about this:
Grandfather Francisco taught me how to pray to Umna'ah, our Creator. He told me to go alone into the mountains, to find a quiet beautiful place and to pray. He said I should talk out everything, say whatever I felt or needed, and then listen for an answer.
That's the secret: to listen. You have to say everything that's in your mind, cry until you're empty. Then listen. He will speak to you.
Excerpted from Dreaming The Soul Back Home by Robert Moss. Copyright © 2012 Robert Moss. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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