Through word of mouth I was referred to someone in Brooklyn who could teach me shamanic techniques. Her name was Catlin. In her apartment, we sat together in her small living room on a shaggy orange rug. It was a very soothing and comfortable space, with windowsills and ledges decorated with tropical plants in good health, totems and figurines from Mexico and South America. Catlin brought me a glass of water and explained her style of shamanic work. She gave personal instruction on taking shamanic journeys according to Harner's "The Way of the Shaman."
"Shamanic journeying," she explained, "is transcendence into non-ordinary reality of either the lower world or the upper world, in order to retrieve information." Though Catlin had been studying and practicing shamanic methods for more than ten years, she said she would never call herself a shaman. It is an inappropriate title, she continued, for anyone who simply works with shamanic techniques. "Once I was speaking in Europe, and someone introduced me as a shaman to a Native American woman. It was really embarrassing. The Native American woman was understandably offended, for her mother had been a very gifted seer. There was just no comparison between the two of us." Instead of labeling her practice as "shamanism," Catlin prefers to explain her work as "shamanic methods."
Again I worried-was it okay to do such work with people who were not of the culture originally? I decided that authenticity depends on the quality of experience; the proof would be found in whether I felt empowered by treatment, not the impressiveness of someone's credentials. I asked Catlin to begin.
"Today you will be going to the lower world, which you can access through a hole in the ground that is somewhat familiar to you. You crawl into the hole and end up in a landscape of some kind, and from there, you will begin looking for your power animal. The power animal will act as your guide--your confidant--who will answer your questions and show you around the lower world. Eventually they will help when you journey to the upper world."
The lower world, I had already read, was not anything like my Catholic concept of hell, but instead a place connected with the Earth, its energies, and all of its creatures. There I might meet many kinds of animals, plants and other living organisms. Supposedly, I could have an increasing number of relationships in the lower world the more often I went. But the journey worried me. Getting there seemed complicated. When Catlin said that I "would go" to the lower world, it seemed like an awfully long trip to take without a vehicle. What would propel me? How would I know how to do it?
"Here is what will happen," she said. "You will lie down and cover your eyes, and I will beat this drum for ten minutes." Her hands reached down next to her where a pan drum sat. She picked it up and demonstrated how she would beat it, and I was surprised at how rapidly she banged it. The speed of beats was about the same as the frantic beeping that comes with leaving the phone off the hook for too long. The pace made my pulse race instead of relax.
"Now think of a place where you will enter into the lower world.a knot in a tree, through a hole in the bottom of a lake."
"Okay," I said.
"Where is it?" she asked.
"Through a hole in a giant old oak in the backyard of the house where I grew up."
"Perfect," she said. "You are ready to go."
I lay back on the orange rug and rested my head on the small flat pillow she set for me.
"Now when you go down the hole through the tree, really use your senses. See if you can smell the dirt, the tree roots. Try touching the walls. When you get to a landscape and find an animal, ask it, 'Are you my animal?' It's really important that you find out whether or not it is your animal," she cautioned.
I thought of Harner's description of the fanged insects and serpents that might appear in the tunnel, and then a picture of a landscape loaded with critters filled my mind. I wondered if this task of finding my animal would be any less huge than walking into Times Square and making a friend. What if I had no animal? I wanted to ask. What if I was one of those people who were to go through life without any guidance? Is this how I want to find out-stuck in the lower world surrounded by creatures, none of which were my kin? That might cause some kind of psychic schism. I mentioned none of this to Catlin because it seemed ridiculous to express doubt about a cosmology I hadn't even witnessed yet.