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(if you should learn to do this will your toys of knowing, you will achieve a form of liberty more valuable than any other skill)
rock-reading : rabbit : turtle
Michael Harner and his group are a well-known, and academically established cohort of people who conduct experiential and academic research into what he calls ‘core shamanism’. This is, generally speaking, a set of practices discovered to be largely central to most cultures in which shamanism of some sort is occurring, regardless of whether there’s been any traceable contact between them.
It turns out that there are a reasonable number of practices shared across diverse cultures — and even a general outline of the universe — being (and this is -very- general) a tripartite one: below, with(in), and above. Reaching the other worlds is done by first traveling inward. In the lower world, are allies and spirit helpers — in the upper world are teaching beings and gods. Again, this is a vast generalization — yet it’s useful to accomplish a simple goal — which is to get people to experiment with traveling to these worlds. I heard he’d be giving a two-day introduction to core shamanism, and decided to sign up — and see if an expert could actually offer me anything of value. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. I had looked over a few books by MH, however, and I had the general impression that he was at least serious, and well-respected in general.
It was a two-day event, and it was held in a large empty classroom on one of the many campuses in San Francisco, probably in the autumn of 1998 or 1999. About 150 people showed up, and we sat in a circle of three or four rings. I remember feeling incredibly skeptical that we were going to accomplish or experience anything shamanic in this rather sanitized western classroomSpace.
Michael told us something of core shamanism, and there were some questions, and then we went into demonstrations or trainings about the essential skills of rock-reading. The idea is that the shaman obtains a stone or other natural thing (but rocks are pretty universally preferred) and presents the stone as a readingToy to the one they work with. The participant examines the stone for a while, and tells what shapes they see in it, pointing them out to the shaman, who then uses these reflections to diagnose, guide, or otherwise aid the participant in understanding their own stone vision. Michael remarked that the shamans do not reveal anything about what is seen in the stone: it is crucial that the participant do the revealing themselves, guided by the shaman’s gentle and imaginal eye. Thus the shaman does not read the stone, nor what is seen there – but may guide the assembly or elucidation with inner seeing and gentle suggestion. However, this is merely a general guide, and many admixtures of method exist successfully alongside one another. I volunteered as a participant, and got to read a stone for myself with Michael, which made me feel enthusiastic although I did not find the experience essentially enlightening. It seemed an interesting and very primitive sort of toy that would allow a different portion of the mind to speak — but its apparent primitivity caused me to initially judge it somewhat harshly. It certainly didn’t appear powerful — and, in typical boyish fashion, I wanted to be blown over, or away — by some powerful new thing.
So then the group set up in pairs and experimented with this for a while. There was a break, and Michael began explaining the threeWorld toy. He explained that in many cultures it was common knowledge that there was a lower world and an upper world, whose interpenetration created this world. The lower world was not a hell of any sort — it was the place of animal spirits, allies, and spirit-friends. A world of childSpirits learning together with their upperWorld counterparts. The upper world was that of teachers — assemblyBeings, gods, angels and other forms of ‘vasterOlder’ beings.
Michael proceeded to explain the concept of soul-retrieval. In our world — the middle-world — people had spiritAnimals that were once within them — who’ve either been lost or rejected, or trapped away from their heartMate — often in the world below. So a common procedure is for the shaman to travel with the participant into the lower world and retrieve (re welcome) lost or departed spirit-animals. The return of these animals to the spiritual and emotional proximity of the participant is perceived to result in healing, renewal, and insight.
Michael discussed the mechanics, and a little of the poetics and history of his work in this regard, and then we prepared to ‘travel to the lower world’ ourselves. We were instructed to find and select as an entryWay one of the magical doorways: a hole in the earth, in a tree, or a cave — perhaps a place where water enters water, or where there is a vortex of some sort. An animal’s hole will do, but it is best to select one of great personal significance.
The ceremony is unpretentious and simple. There is a slowly beating drum, which is boomy. One travels to the place of the hole in one’s imagination, and becoming whatever size is appropriate, travels into the hole...and down...down....down...to the lowerWorld. Once there, one adopts the position of a child within a vast and mysterious garden. One needn’t ‘do’ anything, per se. It is best to see what happens.
Michael began beating the drum in a slow rhythm similar to a heartbeat — but more regular. I went in my mind to a (tiny) cave I discovered in Nevada when visiting with M (my then roommate) and k. I went flying into the cave to its farthest recess — and then I was ‘falling’ through a twisting circuit of pipe reminiscent of a cylindrical waterSlide. There were ‘green rings’ on the cylinder I was falling through, and it twisted madly in upon itself in a totally random seeming way — spiraling, turning, changing angle or turning such that I was certain I was traveling (back) upward in some sections. I didn’t really ‘see’ myself during this time. Everything inside the tunnel was black, except the rings flashing by to indicate the walls of the tunnel itself. At last I saw we were approaching a green dot (I felt that ‘we’ were approaching, for some reason). The dot grew rapidly into a green terrain seen by one approaching head-on from above.
My perspective flipped sideways, and I ‘landed’ in the grass. I was in a dell, a small, irregular clearing...toward what I considered the southern end of it. Around be a vast and healthy forest stood. it was very bright, the temperature was ‘just right’ and there was, strangely, no Sun in evidence. I was, I noticed, naked. There was a large dry trunk near me, clearly fallen long ago, that sported various flowers and interesting growth. While all of this was visible to my inner eye, it was not as though I were witnessing it, per se, but really a sort of ‘slightly better than usual’ imagining, and thus a part of me was significantly withholding the authorization that any of this was happening in any way that was meaningful beyond my own creative occupation with it in the moment. For example, the circumstance was such that I felt (although I admit I didn’t test this) that it would dissolve at the slightest inspiration of my will. On the other hand, I was curious and reasonably able to proceed and thus I did as best I could to simulate faith in the process, by remaining actively and enthusiastically engaged.
The setting was naturally glorious. Everything was green, unthreatened, and alive. Although I saw neither animal nor insect near me or afar — the serenity of the clearing and the nearby wood seemed to be ‘hiding something’, and I experienced this sensation as ‘a kind of wordless jest’ on the part of the environment itself. About the time I began to notice this effect, the entire scene was suddenly swept away, and replaced with a giant circular eye! It was a golden eye, very round, against a white background. We surveyed each other for a moment, and I got very excited thinking it must be a bald eagle (due to the colors, and perhaps a portion of my own desire for a ‘powerful’ animalSpiritFriend).
The eye seemed to be adjudging me, and as it gazed deeply into me I sensed ‘great power’ behind it. It wasn’t as if I was ‘facing it’, really — but more that all that could be perceived was the point of my visual perspective, and this vast golden eye looking back at it. There simply wasn’t any other terrain, at all.
A few moments of this passed, and then in an invisible flash, I was back in the dell, sitting on the grass. Before me was the owner of the golden eye. A small white rabbit. I inwardly bemoaned my loss of the powerful ‘eagle-spirit’ I’d expected — which I imagine the rabbit could easily taken as a mortal insult. In retrospect, I was stumbling a bit — but then, a child does. I certainly felt more childlike now. I had not willed or ‘imagined’ this eyeThing. In fact, it was quite startling. If this rabbit before me belonged to that eye — which its ocular hue did certainly imply — then I was determined to pay close attention. Besides, I liked this rabbit. A lot. I felt a profound and sort of playful kinship with it. It wasn’t doing anything though. I mean, we were both there, in the dell. It smelled good in the grass. But it was just a white rabbit. It wasn’t apparently special, in fact, it was very overtly normal. I decided I had better do something, so I asked it a question.
“I want to learn from you. I think you can teach me something important.”
“Will you teach me what I most need to know about?”
i will show you something. but you must follow.
you’re always leading.
“I will follow.”
The rabbit leapt off to my left, and behind me, around the trunk. I was up and sprinting nakedly after it immediately, and we ran through some of the woodland for a while, leaping over some small debris here and there until we came to a place with a large trunk. The rabbit continued up onto the trunk, and I saw it leap off. I went over it just in time to see the rabbit leap into a small puddle a few feet away, and without hesitating, I leapt into the puddle.
We were in a second pipe! We sped downward, in a near duplicate of my first journey, eventually ‘flipping over’ at the bottom — above brownGrey terrain. I was sitting there again, with the rabbit, on a vast and totally featureless mudPlain, cracked and dry. The same in all directions as far as could be seen. The sky was not bright here, but greyish. There was no sun. There was nothing at all but me and the rabbit and the cracked mud we sat on. The rabbit wasn’t doing anything again. I had no idea why we had come here, and was feeling disappointed. ‘What could possibly live here?,’ I wondered. I started to have that ‘something is hiding’ feeling again. A humorous ‘wisp’ of a feeling, really — and there was a flash — and there was another eye.
This one was green. It looked like an amphibian eye, or perhaps a reptile. We repeated the ritual of studying each other for a moment, and then my perspective returned to the mudPlain. Before me, on my left, near the rabbit, was a small green turtle. I’m pretty sure it was a turtle, the kind you get in a petStore, with a little yellow ring around the shell. It was very small, its shell being perhaps three inches in diameter or less. It wasn’t doing anything, so I asked it essentially the same question I’d asked the rabbit. I was made aware it wished to crawl up into my hand, and I was sitting indianStyle, so I let my left hand down, palm-up, and the turtle crawled into it. Almost immediately, I began to have a strange sort of dream. It was ‘just shapes’ — glowing, lightly hued primary colored geometric forms. We would ‘dream’ each one for a few moments, and there was a sort of wordless emotional poetry involved in this activity. They were mostly simple. Cube, Cone, Pyramid, etc — but a few were more unique. The dream continued for a short while, and I awoke upon the plain. The turtle crawled across to my right hand, and I began to have a similar dream. A short while into this dream, the rhythm of the drum changed, signaling that it was time to return.
I bid the animals farewell with great fondness, and leapt up into a tunnel above me, up to the forestWorld, and all the long way back up to the middle world, where I opened my eyes, and felt ‘mostly sure’ that this experience was ‘mostly imagination’.
I was almost correct. The problem was, that back then, I had little idea of the incredible consequence of things that are ‘mostly imagination’ in that particular way...
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