Shamanism and the Imaginal Realms

Martin Duffy in Conversation with Tim Hannan

I am fascinated by the influence of shamanism on psychotherapy and the interface 
between them. I have worked for 20 years as a community psychiatric nurse and
 trained in transpersonal and humanistic psychotherapy and I principally see myself
 as a psychotherapist. The shamanic work I do is very much rooted in my
 psychotherapeutic training.

What I’ve become more interested in, in recent times, is the whole area of
 psychoneuro-immunology. This refers to the use of the imaginal realm to influence
 physical healing. We find that the immune system responds to visualisation and 
guided imagery and this is the area where I see the connection between shamanism,
 physical health and psychotherapy.

Shamanism, in fact, forms the core of all we do today in terms of medicine and
 psychology, because if you look at what the traditional shamans did and still do,
 they used art therapy, psychodrama, dance, gestalt, visualisation and music to
 promote healing.

If you look at the practices of any shaman and you analyse it from a psychoanalytic 
or psychotherapeutic point of view you will find that much of what we think we 
have invented in the twentieth century has always traditionally been done by the 
shaman. Psychotherapy has limited itself to the emotional and psychological realm, 
but I think we need to move into what James Hillman and Thomas Moore term
 soul-work, re-souling the world in community, bringing people together to tell their

Hillman’s criticism of therapy is that it concentrates too much on two people
 talking together in a room without looking at the environment and the world and 
how that is impacting on a person. I don’t believe however that this is true of all 
humanistic or transpersonal approaches. When you think shamanically you may
 journey to retrieve the soul of a piece of land, to heal its soul. The whole world has
 a soul, everything in it has a soul. A building can lose its soul or a piece of land can
 be so ploughed up and overused that a shaman will be called upon to re-soul it.

Essentially, what characterises the shaman is that the shaman goes on a journey 
into non-ordinary reality what we might call the imaginal realm. You could look at 
it from the imaginal point of view in terms of Jung’s active imagination or guided
 imagery. But, I believe that it’s not just about working with the imagination, it’s 
journeying through the imaginal realms into non-ordinary reality.

I believe through my own experience, that non-ordinary reality is an actual place. Non-ordinary reality exists at the imaginal level in the imaginal realm. When someone asked Jung about “it being only the imagination”, Jung answered, “but the 
imagination is everything”, which I agree with.

Where we go in the imaginal realms, from a shamanic point of view is that we go 
to an actual other reality. If we read Carlos Castaneda’s work we see this very 
clearly. What the shamans discovered thousands of years ago is what the quantum 
physicists have now discovered. Three-dimensional reality of time and space is not 
the only way of seeing reality; it is not the only perspective. We are locked into an
 ego-state, which sees everything as solid, the universe is real, it’s here, and it’s 
tangible. But when we move out of that three-dimensional view we move into 
another reality.

Due to the age of rationalism and the Cartesian world view, what has happened is
 that all we recognise is the three-dimensional world view of time and space. We
 have lost contact with the imaginal realms, with the enchantment and magic of
 everyday life. If we look around what we see is soul loss at a personal and social
 level because we no longer trust our imagination. It’s seen as something that is 
suspect. It has led to “psychophobia” as I call it, fear of our own psyche and fear 
of going into those realms.

We all have the ability to work shamanically but many of us have been educated
 out of it, culturally, socially and in our educational system. The whole area of
 church religions and scientism has done great damage to the western human 
imagination and psyche. Not only has it not given us permission to access these
 realms, but it has actually warned us against going there.

The shaman works in the non-ordinary realm and always works in contact with
 what the shamans would call their power animals and spirit guides. If we look at
 Jung’s way of working there is no doubt that he worked shamanically in this way. 
He talks of Philemon and Ka, his spirit teachers and guides. He talks of going into
 the forest and meeting his guru in Active Imagination. This is all very shamanic.

The power animal and the spirit helper are spirit beings that live in a parallel reality 
to ours and I think Jung believed that. He didn’t state it openly because of the time 
he lived in.

In the shamanic cosmology there are three realms, the lower realm which you turn
 to in order to connect with your power animal and this is the place the shaman goes 
to when they want to work with power. If someone comes to me and they are 
having a lot of bad luck, losing things, etc. I will work with the lower world, which 
is related to the power loss.

I believe that when I work shamanically, I am working in non-ordinary reality 
which parallels this three-dimensional reality and also informs its. So, if you make
 changes in the non-ordinary state, it will have effects in ordinary reality.

The next realm we meet is the middle world, which from the shamanic point of
 view is this reality here, past, future or present. The kind of work done here would
 be things like clearing negative energy from where somebody has died in difficult
 circumstances. In this age of rationalism, little credence is given to the presence of
 spirits. Entities or spirits can get trapped in time and space and the shaman’s work 
is to help the spirit cross over. Another kind of work here would be divination.

Someone might say to the shaman, “I’ve lost my cow” so the shaman would
 journey out over the next valley and see it in such and such a place and the man
 would go and find it there.

The shaman is tied into the web of everything, he believes everything is alive – the
 trees, the grass, inanimate objects all have spirit – and the physicists will now agree 
that everything is a dancing mass of molecules. When you tune into that you realise
 that it is all a web of creation. If you alter your consciousness you drop down into 
that level. If, for example, a crow flies by, the shaman can tune into what the crow 
says. The shaman can dialogue with the animals because he dialogues with the 
spirit of the animals. She doesn’t speak English to the crow but she’s tuned in to
 consciousness. At a consciousness level she can talk to the animal, at the three 
dimensional reality, she can’t.

Animals are much more attuned to nature. Humans used to be but through 
industrialisation and urban living, they have lost touch with that, and I think that’s
 why more and more people are becoming attracted to shamanism. It is the ability
 to tune into nature and also this instinctual knowledge we humans have that there 
is such a thing as a spiritual realm.

The third realm is the upper world, where the shaman journeys to encounter the
 mentor, the guru, the spirit teacher. It is a place of knowledge and wisdom, the
 collective unconscious in Jung’s terminology. The place of the Akashic records, the
 total knowledge of humanity. The shaman journeys into that dimension whenever they want to gain wisdom and knowledge for the community or for healing the

A very important function of the shaman is as a mediator between the spirit world 
and the human world and much of the teachings that come through from the
 collective unconscious is mediated through the shaman.

There are different cultural ways of accessing the non-ordinary reality. Drumming 
is a very widespread method of journeying and what you tend to find is that
 shamanic drumming operates at a rate of 4 to 7 cycles per minute. If you monitor
 this on an EEG the rhythmic drumming actually brings the brain’s frequency down 
to the theta range and this theta level is associated with deep trance and
 meditation. When people listen to shamanic drumming for any length of time,
 control tests indicate that 74% of any sample group will have shamanic visions just by listening to the drumming. Rattling is another method often used to divine 
illness and to clear energy blockages. Sacred plants, such as psilocybin, mushroom
 and ayahuasca are used in South American rituals to access non-ordinary reality in 
a sacred way. The ritual use of sacred plants never leads to drug addiction.

The sound and the sacred plants bring the person down into the theta states so they
 can open up to the imaginal realm.

Another part of the shaman’s work was working with death and dying. In our
 culture we have a taboo against looking at death and grieving openly but a 
wonderful and fascinating part of the work of the shaman is to act as psychopomp
 in escorting the dying person’s soul as it is leaving their body into the next realm 
and taking them where they need to go.

I would believe in the reality of the soul and the spirit and just as you can be 
confused in crossing three-dimensional reality of time and space, so you can be 
confused in crossing the imaginal realm of the beyond. Because if you die suddenly 
or afraid, or if you haven’t made peace with someone you may be confused.

Some of the work I have been asked to do is with people who haven’t passed over 
successfully and are trapped. I believe in the reality of that trapped soul. I am
 working at the imaginal level with the person’s soul and spirit. This may not be 
popular thinking in a rational society but I know from the reality of what happens 
that it is important work.

A series of tapes prepared by the Monroe Institute in the U.S. called “Going Home”
 can be useful in working with the dying, to bring them across and show them the
 other side before they die. It gradually teaches them how to leave their body, how 
to have out-of-body experiences, how to travel across to meet people who have 
crossed over. The helper also crosses over and returns, they do it together. A 
beautiful feature of the series is that you can then set up a rendezvous so that after
 the person dies you can go and meet them in non-ordinary reality.

In my work with my psychotherapy clients, I would sometimes introduce shamanic 
techniques. If they had come to a block, I might do a diagnostic journey to see what
 was going on, then negotiate a soul retrieval or a power animal retrieval or an 
extraction. There are particular situations where I have used it, perhaps after a road
 traffic accident or the loss of a relationship. I sometimes do a journey and find that 
a part of the soul has gone on with a dead relative into the other realm. Part of the
 work can be taking the dead relative’s spirit off to where it needs to go.

Another shamanic task is the extraction of intrusions into the person’s psyche, for 
example a negative projection that has become lodged in a person’s belief system
 as a physical symptom or depression. So the work would be to journey and extract that and send it back to where it belongs.

So the shamans work includes power retrieval, soul retrieval, extraction and
 ceremonial and ritual work with individuals, couples, families, community groups
 or working with the sacred sites or power places, places where power is gathered
 naturally in the earth.

When I do shamanic work with people they don’t have to journey, I do it for them. 
But when people come for shamanic counselling they do the journeying. It usually 
starts with an issue the person has in their lives. We spend the first part of the 
session clarifying what the issue is and getting them to make an intention for the
 journey. Then I describe what the journeying entails – “you go into a tunnel”
 perhaps. I then do a little exercise with them, to have them close their eyes, to
 imagine their home, to visualise their favourite armchair, teaching them that they 
can imagine things, despite their protestations to the contrary. I find that most
 people can have relatively easy access to the imaginal realm. People who have 
most difficulty are those with a left-brain focus. Having said that, I find that people 
who come to journey often experience what it is they need to experience.

So, I then get them to lie down on a mattress and listen to the drumming on a set
 of headphones while simultaneously describing what they are experiencing, for 
example, “I am now going down to the lower world”. They are describing the
 whole journey so that really focuses their intention. I find that people, who usually
 have a lot of difficulty visualising are helped by describing it in this way.

Then at the end we have a tape recording of the actual journey so that they can go 
back over it and make notes on it. The journey usually lasts for about half an hour
 so when they have returned we sit down again and we tease through what has
 happened, seeing if it makes sense in light of what we had discussed earlier.

So basically, shamanic counselling consists of describing the journeying to the 
client, getting the person to journey and then having a counselling session around
 what has emerged. I find it is a very powerful method, promoting huge changes and 
insights. It is fascinating to see what happens with people who have been working 
on issues in therapy for months and months and then something happens on the 
journey that breaks through it and changes it. The same happens in power animal
 or soul retrieval work it really enhances the therapeutic process. I am not saying it
 should replace it. Good grounded psychotherapy is very important and very 
relevant, and I do a lot of that work, but teaching someone to journey brings it onto
 another level. I would see my shamanic work as an adjunct to my
 psychotherapeutic practice.

A participant in one of the shamanic workshops had a series of encounters with a
 fox in addition to a series of synchronistic meetings with foxes in his daily life. 
Recently, in one of our sessions his fox began to bite his ear and began to tell him
 about painful issues in his life, which he didn’t want to hear about – relationship 
issues, his marriage. This man is coming to midlife now. The calling of the other is getting stronger. He left the session in a very different place, having really listened 
to what his power animal was telling him, something he was reluctant to do in
 ordinary reality.

When I journey for someone, what happens is that I experience myself, for
 example, journeying down and coming into the lower world realm, going down a 
tunnel and opening into the imaginal realm of non-ordinary reality. You can move 
about in a shamanic state of consciousness. From the shamanic point of view we 
have several different souls, one of which is used for journeying. The shaman 
believes that the soul travels out of our body through the imaginal realms.

While journeying recently, I entered the lower world and saw a stag racing along a
 forest path. I came down close to the stag and could feel his heartbeat, the feet
 pounding the ground. I could smell him. I could feel the power of him. I could feel 
the vibrancy in everything around me. Then I was seeing through the stag’s eyes, 
breathing the air, sweating, really in that space. You are there. You are not
 imagining anything. As an eagle or a raven, when I turn and bank the whole thing 
changes, just as it would if I were flying.

Sometimes when I am out in nature I might see a bird and I am spontaneously up 
there with it. I can see myself and my dog from where the bird is. It changes your 
whole perspective. You are actually projecting part of your soul out of your body 
and you can see yourself from that perspective. This is the classic out of body
 experience where people who are blind can see, where people who are on the 
operating table and pronounced dead know afterwards every word of the
 conversation in that room and can describe everything that happened.

And yet when I describe my journeys here I know that this is not just how I see it
 because I’m very much involved in hearing other people’s journeys during the 
shamanic counselling sessions. It is a very real physiological as well as imaginal 
happening and we know that what happens on the imaginal level influences us
physically. People coming to the shaman have their own expectations and belief
 systems and their expectation of being healed sets off their own healing response.
 So, both the client’s imagination and the shaman’s imagination are pivotal.

One of my plans for the next year is to set up a closed group for people who want
 to journey together over a two year period, using a mixture of breathwork and 
shamanism. Also to set up a group for young men since our society doesn’t have a
 container for their natural instinct for the ecstatic. There are no elders anymore.
 Our psychiatrists and psychologists are inaccessible by and large so we need more 
people to hold the container.

We are dealing with very strong impulses that are archetypal, instinctual and they
 are being preyed upon by the consumer society and they get lost and destroyed. It
 is little wonder that so many people are turning to drugs. We have lost the sacred, we have lost the sense of magic and enchantment. Our churches no longer hold it
. We have lost our sense of direction and myth.

So more and more people are instinctively drawn to work with shamanism. People
 who are working as therapists or healers are not calling it shamanism and they don’t
 have to call it shamanism, but that is what is informing their work. People coming 
to me for shamanic counselling or workshop often say “Thank God, I’ve found a 
place for what I have always felt but never wanted to talk to my colleagues about”.

I feel strongly about it because of the results I see it getting, but also because of its
 post-modern application to psychoneuro-immunology and behavioural medicine. It
 really is time for people to open up to the transpersonal and include it in their work.
 The thing is for each person to try it. If it works then use it, but at least try it and
 see what you think.

Martin Duffy, MIAHIP, MIACT, is a director of Dunderry Park Transpersonal
 Centre and a graduate of the Scandinavian Centre of Shamanic Studies. He is an 
accredited counsellor and psychotherapist with a Jungian/transpersonal
 orientation. He trained in Holotropic Breathwork with Dr. Stan Grof and is a
 founder member of the Transpersonal Group. Martin can be contacted at Dunderry
 Park and will be holding regular shamanic workshops beginning in early 1999.