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Shamanism – techniques of ecstasy

Shamanism – ecstatic meditation techniques

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

Carl Gustav Jung

Mircea Eliade defined shamanism as “techniques of ecstasy”. Emergent from the same roots, tantra is at heart a shamanic practice. In both systems the practitioner learns to access and embody unseen worlds of energy and spirit: duality is transcended through the union energy and consciousness, or matter and spirit.

Shamanic teachings have evolved to offer guidance for very practical aspects of daily life. Similarly the major arcana of the tarot offer a route map to worldly aspects of spiritual evolution. I have found these systems of teaching natural companions to my tantra journey, with the ways in which they differ to tantra offering a deepening of alternative perspectives. I am indebted to my teacher John Hawken for the teachings of the shamanic shields, which form the basis of this article.

Shamanism – breaking free

There’s a theme I see reoccurring often in sessions, for which I found shamanic teachings particularly insightful. Having seriously explored tantra for a sustained period, a crisis can occur whereby ones existing commitments are perceived to be deeply at odds with a newly awakening sense of self. Earlier seemingly binding life-choices start to appear as traps. I am speaking of those times we find ourselves saying:

  • I am no longer sure if I want to remain in my marriage of xy years
  • I no longer enjoy my job of xy years and long for something more meaningful
  • I cannot evolve my tantra journey further because x/y/z in my life is stopping me!

Hanged man on tantra4tigersThere is a quality to these uneasy times of transition encapsulated by the hanged man of the tarot deck. The right and proper position for the hanged man is – upside down! And when we accept the lesson of this card, we are at ease with our deepest intuitions, even though those around may us feel we have everything backwards and upside down.

Reverse the hanged man though, and we have a picture of someone desperately attempting to keep their head up top – ‘business as usual’ may mask a deep inner turmoil. Unable to work ourselves free of social pressures we resist our own growth, resulting in a hung quality in our journey.

Medicine wheels

Shamans, noticing nature’s patterns, drew maps to show how energy flows in the universe, often in the form of medicine wheels. Using the 4 directions of the medicine wheel (and the centre), the shamanic shields teach us about stages of life from childhood through to the wisdom of the elders.

Unless we are enlightened, we view the world from a limited perspective. Shamanic teachings describe our limited perspective as a series of shields, and like the lens of an imperfect pair of glasses, these shields define the limits of reality that we see. Each shield also represents an initiation, the entire journey through the shields encapsulating shamanic teachings about the journey to enlightenment.

The shamanic shields offer a wonderful diagnostic tool for practitioners as they expose lessons about where we are in our journey, thus helping identify appropriate practices. Put quite simply there is a time on our journey for catharsis, a time to dance and a time to sit still – and the shamanic shields can help show us what is needed and when.

The south shield – lessons of the fool

The fool on tantra4tigersWe begin life looking at the world through the south shield, that of the child. When viewing life through this shield, our emotions tend to determine our actions. We see things through the lens of innocence; expressing qualities of spontaneity, creativity and playfulness. Ideally through a fully living out the lessons of the south shield, we will emerge with a sense of emotional wellbeing, and a capacity to flow joyfully with curiosity through life.

Many of us tend, to varying degrees, to not fully complete the lessons of this shield. Healing a wounded inner child is often a primary motivating factor towards personal growth. Therapies lacking a transpersonal perspective will tend exclusively to address completion of the journey from the child’s south shield to maturity.

In tantra we may begin by relearning our capacity for creativity, play and spontaneity. We awaken our senses, rediscovering a childlike delight in the world around us and retrieving some of those qualities we inadvertently left behind when we grew up. We may also heal aspects of the south shield, for instance undoing negative messages we received around our sexual awakening when growing up.

Returning to the tarot, our south shield is activated any time when like the fool, we step out on an unknown journey with a carefree sense of trust. And it is through listening for the energy of the fool or south shield, that we find inspiration for any new beginning.

The North shield – wisdom of the heart

In shamanic terms, maturation into our adult selves is the result of a reversal in the polarity of our energy body, whereby we come to look at life through lens of our north shield. Our actions here are determined by our ‘heart mind’: a symbiotically relating single entity within which the function of the mind is to receive and process information, whilst the heart discerns what is true. As a unified whole these centres lead us to qualities of clarity, wisdom and understanding.

An interesting aspect of shamanic teachings is that the heart, and with it our capacity to love, is viewed not as an emotion, but as a wisdom. In western schooling love is often framed as an emotional response. Mind therefore tends to dominate our adult experiences and love never matures into wisdom. It is this separation of the unified heart mind that often creates junctures of crisis in our adult life, whereby our minds speak one way and our newly awakening hearts tell us something different all together.

If we never really go deeply into Tantra teachings, then we are in danger of using them as a confused dash back into pleasure principles of the south shield. This is Tantra as an endless party zone and may apply if you find yourself saying, “groan back to reality” at the end of Tantra groups! Another possibility is that from the north shield, we seek enlightenment through the east shield without surrendering to the dismantling of the west (read on below!). So that spiritual practice merely polishes an ever brighter ego.

Tantra is a movement towards the transpersonal dimensions of our being. A healthy child and emotional body in the south, coupled with the maturity to parent that child in the north are all facets of the journey. But ultimately Tantra calls us onwards to the place where traditionally the shaman is born, through learning to live out our west shield.

The west shield – demons and taboo

The shaman is born through a shift in the energy body that allows him / her to view the world through the west shield. The shaman acts as a medium between visible world known with our rational minds, and the invisible worlds of energy and spirit. The shaman is able to navigate and effect changes in unseen worlds, which alter a corresponding physical reality. For instance, s/he may journey and release unseen energy that corresponds with an illness in the physical reality of an individual.

Many aspects of our being are put to one side, as we are conditioned to become good citizens. The shadow work of the west shield begins to unpack the energy of that which has been displaced. To enter the west we need to let go of certainty and invite a little chaos into our lives, allowing our ego identified self to be turned on its head. For instance in some shamanic initiations the practitioner may cross dress

allow[ing] the shaman to walk “between” genders, and to unite or balance within him or herself the abilities associated with each. Upsetting ordinary gender assumptions loosens the psyche and allows one to perceive in a new way.

From  Seidr and Norse Shamanism

The west shield initiation is a deliberate inversion of ego identified societal norms. And here is where things start to feel tricky. Many people approach spirituality with egocentric notions of themselves as ‘good people’ conditioned to reject all that is ‘bad’. And yet the illumination of the next shield in the east, promises a non-duality entirely beyond ego attachments, so that we become able act freely in any circumstance, in accordance only with the absolute truth of spirit. To return to our original examples:

  • I am no longer sure if I want to remain in my marriage of xy years
  • I no longer enjoy my job of xy years and long for something more meaningful
  • I cannot evolve my tantra journey further because x/y/z in my life is stopping me!

Our journey can stall around these questions, when we resist the energy of the west shield. If we regress at this point to the south shield, any notions of creating change will tend to have an insubstantial fantasy quality about them and so never materialize. Or otherwise we may suddenly and rashly act out change, in emotionally charged, destructive and unconscious ways. Or we may do nothing at all, simply ignoring our deeper truths where they clash with our ego identification, and over time our energy will become flat and depressed.

The lessons of the west shield invite us to go deeper, to really face our demons by stepping into and embracing the power of the unknown. In the above examples, we might come out and simply own “I am not sure if I want to be here any more”. Then like the hanged man, calmly meditate upon the chaos and uncertainty that results as our world turns upside.

The lessons of the west shield begin here, as we start to let go of our ego identification, in order to embrace a fuller truth.

Tarot card death on tantra4tigersUltimately the west shield lessons invite us into a deeper exploration of many things we may deem as uncivilized, contrary to our ego identified self or taboo. This process can initiate a death, as suggested by the figure that follows the hanged man in the tarot deck. Through this death, which is the dismantling of ego identifications, we make way for a more complete surrender to spirit.

If you feel the west shield bears no resemblance to Tantra, then it may be worth reflecting on the prevalence of cremation ground and taboo breaking rituals in some early Tantra teachings. Left hand Tantra practices may include the ritual consumption of Panchamakara (forbidden substances). Early texts are replete with demonic cosmology. Take for instance this poem from a 6th Century Shiva devotee (Shaivism is said to be one of the “major tributaries to the river of Tantra”) and poet Karraikal Aimmaiyar, who prayed to have her beauty removed from her:

A female ghoul with withered breasts, bulging veins, hollow eyes, white teeth and two fangs, shriveled stomach, red hari, bony ankles, and elongated shins, Stays in this cemetery, howling angrily. This place where my Lord dances in the fire with a cool body…

From the poems of Tiruvalankatu

In the west we have combined Tantra teachings with leisure activity and personal growth. This has opened radically transformative gateways for many who encounter Tantra in this way, myself included. However it is worth considering what may fall outside the brackets of this format; the west shield initiation offers clear pointers to what we may bypass if our focus is solely on pleasure.

Moving on we come to the East shield, all the shields thus far are a rite of passage and not the complete picture. If we hang out in the playground of the south we never mature. If we cling to worldly accomplishments in the north we remain enslaved to egos and convention, never truly surrendering to spirit. If we get hooked on the excitement of the west we can become trapped grasping after shadows of power, or prey to destructive addictive patterns.

The East Shield – illumination

In terms of what we may encounter in tantra workshops, the east shield can seem more familiar spiritual territory! This is because the east shield is determined by spirit and is the place of fire, illumination and sexuality. Shamanic and tantra teachings expose their shared roots beautifully here: observe that in shamanic teachings sex resides in the east, the location of spirit, and not with the body in the west shield.

Tarot card: the Sun on tantra4tigersThe east is where we learn to surrender to guiding principles that are bigger than the individual. We step into the devotional and service qualities of Bhakti or Karma yoga. The emblem of the east is the eagle, suggesting we rise to new heights where we can see the complete picture. We also find here a child of the opposite sex to our own self, one that expresses both innocence AND wisdom, as so beautifully embodied by spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama. The wise child of the east corresponds with the childlike figure that appears in 19 -The Sun, bursting into light after a dark passage through figures such as Death, the Devil and the Tower.

In the shamanic shield teachings the usual order in which we meet our shields runs from south to north, west through to east. Until eventually we come to stand in the centre of our own circle – the place of the grandparents and wisdom of the elders from where the whole journey is visible….

Spiral journeys

But this teaching does not suggest that we progress neatly from one to the next leaving each behind as we do so. Throughout our path we may continue to deepen the lessons of all shields simultaneously. Understanding which shield we are attached to, which needs healing, which we are avoiding, can really direct our choice of practices.

And as we deepen the lessons of each shield, then we can really learn to dance with the energy of them all, so that no one shield is resisted or felt to be more desirable than the other.

This is truly standing in the centre of our circle, free to embrace all aspects of our being. And this freedom to dance with the whole of creation is none other than the liberatory intent of tantra.


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