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.
"Okay," I consented. The only way to get anywhere was to try. She tossed me a black hand-sewn bean bag that looked like it had come from Central or South America. "Place that over your eyes," she directed softly, "and let me know when you are ready."
I took a deep breath.
The drum started pounding, immediately, fast and loud, and my heart jumped to the same pace. I was horribly conscious of lying on the floor with a bean bag over my eyes, but I forced the picture of the old oak into my mind, determined to transcend into the lower world no matter how extreme the pressure. Each drumbeat marked precious seconds. I imagined myself squeezing into the hole in the tree. It was a tight fit. Hurry up, I told myself. Transcend, transcend. The inability to move reminded me of a dream in which monsters began to chase me, and I was trying to run away through waist-high mud. Then I remembered Catlin saying, "This is safer than a dream; you are in complete control of what happens," and I relaxed. Only when I stopped pressuring myself to "do something" did my awareness of the room fade and the closeness of the hole surround me.
The hole was cold, dark, and strange, but I ran like a frightened mole, conscious of the world behind me and the underground ahead where I would soon feel safe. The hole twisted and turned, growing darker and creating a great distance between the world of the oak tree ("the middle world," as Catlin called it) and the approaching lower world. At a certain point, I neared a light and knew the lower world was just around the corner, the same way you know when your bus will come or when the traffic light is about to change green.
For a moment, the landscape where I landed seemed like the wrong one. It was a giant plain in Africa. Not at all what I expected, but I realized that I could expect nothing, only act and do. The drumbeats reiterated that there was no time to expect or think. The plain, bathed in mid-afternoon sun, wide and expansive, lured me into exploration. I looked around for an animal and found an antelope peering at me from the tall golden grass. "Are you my animal?" I asked it intuitively. The antelope intuited back that it was, but only for the moment. Follow closely, at your own risk, it said. With that, the antelope took off across the plain, and I wasted no time in running after it, feeling the agility of my body, the sun on my back, my breathing unified with the pounding of the drum. Across the plains and up a rock formation I followed him, and at the top together we both stood still to catch our breath. The drum still audible in the distance kept my heart racing. Our stillness disturbed me. Why are we stopping here? What are we doing on these rocks? What do we do now?
As soon as I reached the smooth wet sand, the antelope appeared out of the grass behind me and shot into the ocean. He swam to where the blue darkened, as if it were perfectly natural for an antelope to swim that far out into the ocean. This doesn't make sense, I thought. This journey is going haywire. How can the antelope just leave me on the shore with no clues or instructions?
How can I continue this journey into the ocean when I know I can't breathe under water? As fear crept in, the reality of my journey loomed larger and clarified the truth: I was afraid to enter the ocean, even though the antelope was leading me to do so. I hesitated, the drum pounding behind me, raising my anxiety level. The antelope was way out in the ocean now. I could barely see his antlers anymore; they had faded to a speck on the horizon. Soon I would be all alone.
Before I knew what I was doing. I was in the water, swimming down into the depth of the ocean, lower and lower. Giant sea plants surrounded me as I descended until I felt a thud on my leg, the whap of the tail of a dolphin. Are you my animal? I asked eagerly. The dolphin, like the antelope, didn't exactly say yes or no, but made it clear that it was my temporary guide, and that I should hold on to his tail. I was aware again of the pounding drum as the dolphin soared through the water in a rhythmic motion. The faster we swam the more liberated I felt, my body rippling through the water as easily as seaweed. Breath was no trouble. The dolphin was a mammal, and so was I. That fact alone made it possible for me to breathe.
The dolphin finally led me down farther into the dark depths of the ocean, to a rock formation close to the sea floor. Suddenly I was face to face with a giant sea turtle. I didn't even have to ask if it was my animal, I just knew. Without exchanging thoughts, I jumped on the turtle's back and slowly wafted upward, feeling each of her giant, deliberate strokes cleaving our path. Together we traveled leisurely through the sea until again we were on the beach. The beach, I thought. But why? Is the turtle escorting me home?
"You will do it like I do it," Turtle replied easily. "I am a turtle that lives in the sea, yet I come and exist on land when I need to."
Oh, I thought. That's true. Turtle feels no need to divide its life, because it is already unified. She just goes where she needs to go when she needs to go there. I can do the same, I suppose. Suddenly, life looked a little brighter.
"I want to go back to the ocean," I told Turtle. "Hop on then," she said and swam me down to the ocean floor. Here I dismounted and picked up the beat of the drum that was still pounding. We began to dance. I hopped from one foot to the other and waved my arms over my head, and the turtle was doing a kind of two-step, which she seemed familiar with, and which actually looked a lot like that smooth Motown dance the Temptations made famous.
Then I asked Turtle, "How will I live with the passing of time? How will I cope with my rate of growth and progress as time passes, and how will I handle the passing of time that brings with it the death of loved ones?"
"You will endure it like I do," Turtle said. "Slowly, and at your own pace. I've been around for hundreds of years, and I live as if I have hundreds more. You do the same," she said, "and you'll be around for hundreds of years."
This cryptic answer sated me at the time. I understood it to mean that time and its passing was relative to my own life. If I would just go at my own pace and take change slowly, I wouldn't have to worry. If I could live as though I had a hundred years, I would somehow have them.
At that moment, I heard the first set of seven short drumbeats, Catlin's middle-world drum telling me that it was time to come back. I did not want to leave Turtle. "It's okay," said Turtle, "I'll swim you back up to the beach." She pushed her head up under my bottom and guided me up through the sea. This time, I cleaved the path through the water. We left each other at the shore and I ran back across the plains to the hole, clambered up inside the tree trunk, through the dark tunnel at light speed, and landed in the living room just after Catlin beat the last count on the drum.
"What happened?" she asked enthusiastically. I told her. "Wow," she said. "On the first journey, many people can't even get down the hole."