It may be surprising to think about the “technology” of a spiritual practice.
After all, by definition, technology refers to the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, or the machinery and equipment designed to facilitate doing so. That understanding of spiritual practices and science seems at first to be antithetical.
However, shamanism, in general, is a kind of “spiritual science.” While we study and pursue knowledge about the world through a spiritual lens, that study is not random or chaotic, though it may seem arbitrary if viewed by those in the physical sciences. Nonetheless, knowledge is gained over time and experience. In the case of shamanism, that study has been going on for thousands of years with an important guiding principle: if it works, keep doing it; if not, let it go.
Let’s take a look at the shamanic journey as an example. That practice can be seen as made up of two compatible technologies: the outer technology – what happens in the physical world – and the inner technology, the scaffolding of the inner experience.
Outer Technology: Creating the Container
If you have done journeying before, you know that there are certain things that you should do in order to prepare for the journey experience. It is important, for example, to turn off the lights, turn off your phone, lock the door for privacy, and otherwise ensure that you will not be interrupted.
You also know how important it is to have a comfortable place in which your body can rest, so that discomfort will not hinder your experience. Whether you lie down or sit really doesn’t matter, as long as you are comfortable. You also may have found that journeying in the same place and position each time enables you to relax more quickly and enter the journey more easily.
Burning sage, palo santo, or another aromatic that you enjoy may be beneficial. Lighting a candle or using a special blanket can also assist you as you prepare for the journey. You may call the directions, spirit guides, or have a special chant or statement of intention that helps to focus your awareness away from ordinary reality and begins to build a bridge into the imaginal world of Spirit.
You may have one or several sources of rhythmic sound. The number of beats per minute of a drum can lead to different journey experiences. Your selection of the sound on which you plan to ride into your journey is also an aspect of the outer technology of journeying.
All of these actions form a ritual that creates a safe and supportive container for your journey. Failing to create the container affects your inner sense of safety and ease. In addition, as you go through the steps of your own ritual, you are loosening your awareness from the confines of the physical world and retuning it toward the inner, imaginal experience that is the shamanic journey.
Inner Technology: The Scaffolding
Hundreds of books have been written, videos made, and classes and workshops presented in-person and virtually – including my own – about the process of shamanic journeying. If you are interested in the practice, you have already encountered many of them. They are all valuable resources to construct and understand the inner technology of the journey experience.
Through all of them, there is a thread that can be considered to be what I referred to above as the “scaffolding” of the shamanic journey.
The base of the structure can be considered the transition process, what you might do to create and cross the bridge from ordinary awareness to the non-ordinary world of Spirit. It may be an actual bridge to cross into the spirit world, or it may be any one of a broad variety of transitional elements: entering a hole in the ground or a spring; following a magical guide into a forest; slipping into the shadowy crack between tree roots and soil; climbing a rope or riding on the back of a giant bird; sinking into the earth; riding in a boat; and so many more.
All of these are part of the inner technology of the journey. Especially in the beginning, some sort of structured transition is necessary to guide awareness away from the ordinary world into the non-ordinary. Humans need some time in which to make the shift, and the imaginal world of holes and spaces and guides are ideal to perform that function.
With experience, the need for a long or protracted bridge becomes less necessary. Yet, it remains an important element and part of the inner technology of journeying. At the very least, it helps you to discern between ordinary and non-ordinary states of being, and that is helpful to your ability to function in your everyday life.
Once the transition is made, other forms of the technology come into play. Most notably, perhaps, is your interaction with the spirit world – where you are, the environment and setting, who or what you might encounter, and what happens as a result.
Meetings with teachers, guides, guardians, and healers are a core part of the shamanic journey experience. It is from them that you have the opportunity to learn, to gain perspective, and to heal. Such encounters are central to the purpose of journeying, and thus are a core part of the journey scaffolding.
This is not to take away at all from the fact that they are all living Beings in their own world, because they are. As such they form part of a living, breathing, changing, and evolving structure in which you can safely act. It is not to be understood in one way only. This evolutionary core – this inner container – is where you learn and grow.
In the end, there is also a need to return to ordinary reality. Again, much has been expressed by authors and teachers about how this transition can be undertaken. In some teachings, you may return by reversing the steps you took in the transition into the journey. In others, you might simply “release your hold” on the journey and find yourself back in your body.
However you make that transition, it is important to do so. Humans need that sense of perceptual shift in order to close the container and return safely to ordinary reality.
Once you do return to your bodily awareness, you find yourself again within the container of the outer technology, which has been waiting for you – protecting you – throughout your journey experience. It is a good time, if you have not done so already, to express gratitude to all of the Beings you may have met and the lessons you have learned along the way.
Share your gratitude also to the aspects of the outer container: the room, the setting, the guides and guardians who you called, and who might walk with you in your everyday life.
Write down your journey so that you can revisit it when you want or need to. Turn on the light. Unlock the door. Release the container and take your learnings with you into your everyday lived experience.
The shamanic journey is a fundamental spiritual methodology in contemporary shamanism. Understanding and working with the technologies that support it can afford a deeper and richer experience of that practice.
Article by Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.
Author, teacher, shamanic practitioner
Gerry C. Starnes, M.Ed. is a shamanic practitioner, teacher, mentor, and author in Austin, Texas. He started the first shamanic journey circle in Austin in 2003 and continues to facilitate journey circles weekly. For more than a decade, he has been committed to assisting people to discover and express their essential and authentic selves. To this end, he offers regular personal and group experiences, and a variety of workshops based on the shamanic worldview.
Learn more about Gerry’s work through his videos here.