There are so many ways to punk the muse. Last week, I talked about visiting specialty bookstores. Visiting places of all sorts—bookstores, museums, caverns, mountains, river rapids, foreign lands—is perhaps the most time-honored muse-punking device imaginable. Few writers or artists fail to travel. And those that stay put (consider Vermeer or Emily Dickinson) distinguish themselves with exceptionally deep interior travel.
Interior travel. Now that is something worth thinking about. My mind moves instantly to reflections upon the great mystics and monastics of many religious traditions. Some of my happiest and most creatively productive times have been spent on retreat in the company of Benedictine monks. Here in San Francisco, the profound influence of Buddhist practice on the writing community is as obvious a part of our landscape as the Sutro Tower.
Special techniques of meditation and mind alteration are not unknown to artists. There is the obvious attraction to alcohol and drugs; we all know the joys and dangers found there. There are also the lifelong magical experiments of William Butler Yeats and his fascination with automatic writing and spirit communication. Robert Graves is another writer who speaks of almost otherworldly inspirations and communications. We all know how Allen Ginsberg and his friends explored both meditation and drugs as muse-punking tools (and many, of course, are still at it). Marion Zimmer-Bradley was so successful in communicating the wonders of magical practice that her work has inspired the formation of entire pagan religious communities of creative artists.
But today, I am going to talk about shamanic practice. Five or six years ago, I committed an entire 12 months to a shamanic apprenticeship with Dr. Steve Serr, a student of Michael Harner, developer of the theories of so-called “core shamanism.” It was a life-changing experience. I learned techniques for inner travel (journeying) that I continue to use. They are not complicated. If you wish, you can begin experimenting right away.
You will need two tools: an excellent blindfold and a recording of shamanic drumming. This second tool is very important. Harner claims that research establishes an ideal rhythm for inducing what he calls the “shamanic state of consciousness,” which seems to be a state somewhere between waking and sleeping where it is easy to generate images. It works for me.
Before beginning, take a walk in some rural area or park. You are looking for two specific things. First, find a hole in the ground or in a tree or perhaps a little cave of some sort. The idea is to find a place that you can imagine as a doorway to an underground world. You will use it later in your visualization. Similarly, you want to find a portal to an upper world. This might be the top of a hill or a tree. I usually recall a particular stand of redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains that seems to create a circle in the sky I can imagine passing through. Fix these spots in your memory. If you like, keep your eye out for some sort of natural souvenir—a rock, a leaf, a pebble—whatever appeals to you. You may find it an effective imagination booster, later, to hold this in your hand while you are journeying.
Back inside, lie down in a comfortable spot, put on your blindfold, and start the drumming music. You are now ready to begin your journey.
Imagine you are traveling to an “upper world” or a “lower world” by means of the portals you identified on your walk. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. Pick the one that comes first to mind.
As you imagine your movement into another world, the key element is to include some sort of struggle. If you are entering a lower world, you may have to squeeze through a tunnel caked with mud, or swim along a stream, or crawl through dense forest. It doesn’t matter what you make up, so long as it includes a struggle. An upper world struggle might involve a strenuous climb, or extreme cold, or slogging through heavy snowdrifts.
Eventually, imagine breaking through to a new landscape. I will suggest nothing as to what that landscape will look like. Let your imagination go wild. It will. The rhythmic drumming will help.
Explore this new landscape. Make mental notes of what you see. Describe everything to yourself. Be especially aware of physical sensations. More than likely you will meet people or animals. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Listen to what they have to say. Have fun with this.
Eventually, you will notice a change in the rhythm of the drums. That is your signal to return. In your imagination, follow the path you took in reverse. Do this quickly. By the time the drums stop, you should be out of the imaginary landscape and comfortably aware of your surroundings. If not, take a bit more time.
Right away, record everything you remember in a notebook. Now you’re done.
This kind of practice is a great stimulation to the imagination, even if you don’t use anything specific in your work.
How it will effect you is unpredictable. I can only suggest that if you find these ideas appealing, experimentation will almost certainly bring some surprising and rewarding results.
If you find this stuff interesting, here are some suggested books you might like to take a look at:
- The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities by Daniel C. Noel
- Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Ph.D.
- Shamanism As A Spiritual Practice For Daily Life by Tom Cowan
- The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian