Natural Trance and Ecstasy:
The Shamanic Journey to Drum and Rattle
Today in the Western world, people often say that shamans enter an 'altered state of consciousness'. Well, altered perhaps, but intentionally so and happily, very much removed from what the consciousness 'norm' is in the contemporary world (which certainly is not something to brag about)!
First, what a shamanic state of consciousness is not. A shamanic state of consciousness is not interested in much of the contemporary world's drama, such as who won a presidential election or how idiotic, embarrassing or dangerous that person is. Neither is a shamanic state of consciousness interested in the latest clothing style, who said what on TV, or a new way to cook tofu. It is not waiting for the next installment of Grey's Anatomy, Breaking Bad or even Scandal.
So what is a shamanic state of consciousness? The shamanic state of consciousness - referred to as ecstasy, trance, etc. - is a form of consciousness practiced and developed to reach another, shamanic reality. All of this is done in order to do such things as find answers to questions from spirit teachers, gain assistance in solving problems, find a way back to wellness and health, or regain a natural empowerment with the assistance of power animals. Of course, there is much more to shamanism than these things, but these at least indicate how different this consciousness is from that of the contemporary world in general.
Unfortunately, shamanism when it was first being 'rediscovered' by the western world of the '60's, embraced a serious misconception that got it off on the wrong foot: there was an assumed association between entheogens (plant teachers, plants with a chemistry that produced altered states of consciousness) and shamanism. Though the association proved to be entirely mistaken, this initial notion led us to stumble onto something else that was actually important: that we had it in us to journey naturally, all along!
However, retracing the steps through history, the bad start came from people like Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda, who was ostensibly studying anthropology, creatively brought his literary imagination together with some pieces of his experience to produce several widely selling books that proceeded to fuel the cultural imagination and set back the potential of shamanism by dozens of years. Although he and his creativity were soundly denounced by his own anthropological community, his creative license interfered what could have been a real exploration of shamanism as it brought a mistaken idea of it into broad public awareness.
When Richard Alpert (Ram Das), Tim Leary, and Ralph Metzner 'turned on' and 'tuned in’, a public already mesmerized by Castaneda, quickly assumed that ingesting or smoking a substance was the path to insight. America was already prepared for easy paths, as the public was already 'tuned in' to the growing fantasy of a quick fix to all sorts of what used to be problems. For instance, America, and much of the western world had bought the dream that medical problems could be solved simply by a pill (such as in medicine) or by 'tinkering with things' such as with science. This utopic vision was driven into the culture at that time through television, radio and even educational institutions.
Ralph Metzner was the one of the abovementioned 'turn on, tune in' group to focus on shamanism, and he and Michael Harner, whose solid anthropological research leaves us today knowing the predominantly shared elements of shamanic theory and practice, initially thought that shamanism and taking advantage of the hallucinatory aspects of plant chemistry, were simply two parts of the same basic stuff.
People like Metzner and Harner traveled to South and Central America to find shamans, participate in their ceremonies and learn from their plant teachers. Naturally, they found what they were looking for, wrote about it (which again, fed the popular imagination) and the rest of the mis-association between entheogens and shamanism is simply a matter of history.
Actually, when Michael Harner and others really started pursuing shamanic study, they realized that the reality of shamanism was quite different from what the imagination of the '60's produced. As it turns out, most shamanic activity throughout the world does not - and did not - use entheogens. This is because a shamanic state of consciousness during the shamanic journey was found to be far more reliably reached, maintained, and the non-ordinary worlds navigated by means of 'sonic driving', that is, the beat of a drum or a 'swoosh' of a rattle at a rapid beat of about a four to seven Hz.
We have since discovered that the monotonous rhythm of a rattle or drum at this beat induces the altered state of consciousness in which the human brain's ability to image is remarkably facilitated. This is a process called brainwave entrainment, with the drumbeat or rattle stimulating the production of brain waves in the low alpha and theta range, a state which is associated with heightened creativity and vivid imagery. It required a little more effort than just ingesting a pill, such as picking up a rattle and swooshing it, or a beater and thumping at a drum, but the consciousness that was produced was clear, steady, reliable, and able to be controlled.
This last element, ‘control’, is crucial. The shaman must have the ability to fly in his or her consciousness, yet simultaneously, have the capacity for absolute control.
A second explanation for the ability of sonic driving to encourage shamanic trance is that with each beat, the drum or rattle attracts the attention of a brain that is always 'on alert', and from of innumerable generations of survivors, naturally given to attend to sudden stimuli. Because the brain is unable to attend to two external stimuli simultaneously, this actually helps the brain to focus. Clearly, the rattle or drum’s sound helps mask other noises or movement in the environment. However, is can be theorized that the brain eventually reaches a kind of ‘comfort level’ with what it eventually categorizes as an inconsequential drum or rattle stimuli that it must, nonetheless, return to with each beat. Like meditation practices that focus on the breath, the drum or rattle enables the brain to give up worrying about stimuli from the environment, including that from the practitioner’s own body. The wonderful consequence is that he shamanic practitioner is thus freed to more fully attend to altered shamanic states of consciousness.
To fly, that is to reach shamanic ecstasy and trance, and yet retain control of your flight is the key. The essence of a shaman’s ability is not the non-ordinary realities that he or she can reach, but their ability to come, go, and turn on a dime no matter where they are. It is this balance of apparent contradictions that make up the shaman: absolute control when needed, and pure flight when desired. I encourage you to take the more ancient and widespread path of 'riding the shamanic drum-horse' by journeying to drum or rattle. Your journeying ability is already established in your very genetic code. It is part of your human heritage.