I found a petrified bone in a river bed in the Southwestern Desert of Utah. Colored like the cliff walls that rose tan and purple all around me, it made a quiet rattle when I shook it as sand tumbled through its hollow center.
I knew this bone was held by the ancient people that fed on the animal it came from. Holding something stone that was once living opens a world of possibilities. It was remade by the elements to span centuries. It stood between the world of immediate creature needs and the ancient world of pre-history. It was betwixt and between – bridging two worlds as the shaman does. It had to be magical.
When I took it to my Shamanic Practitioner she told me it was a place I could journey through – a doorway into non-ordinary reality (NOR). I took her advice and learned to journey through there. It led me out into the stars and across time to the ancient people of that place.
When we journey we are reaching back to the dawn of human consciousness, uniting with the totality of our collective earthly existence. Holding that bone and using it for a sacred purpose brought that home for me. Its girth, weight and magic felt ancient but familiar. Like holding a well used family heirloom.
Since those early journeys over twenty-five years ago, there have been hundreds and probably thousands of journeys. My journeys have been sung aloud and danced. They have been spaced weeks apart or followed one after the other, hours apart, for weeks at a time. They have brought healing and transformation to others, and always to me.
There are many ways to journey into the spirit world, and there is only one way to journey into the spirit world. A journey is not visualization, even a guided visualization. It is not prayer or channeling. It is not imaginary. It can feel as solid and as heavy as a petrified bone in your hand, and it can seem like sitting in your car at a drive-in watching something on a distant screen.
A journey can take a moment, or it can take (in some cultures) a full day and night cycle. It can be intentional or completely spontaneous, even against the apparent will of the journeyer. It can be brought about or enhanced by psychoactive substances but more commonly intentional journeys are accompanied by rhythmic sounds.
Journeys have left me feeling ecstatic in ways I never thought possible and they have left me so exhausted I feared I might never journey again. I’ve traveled to places that have revitalized me and restored my health and the health of others. I’ve traveled places and visited beings that ran the risk of hastening my own death.
The most important part of preparing to journey has always been to reflect upon what is in my heart. Its not always easy for modern people to understand that we journey not with our heads but with our hearts. We are guided by our intentions, they must be true and deeply felt. I believe the spirits wait to lead us to shamanism sometimes, they want our hearts to be open and ready.
“It felt like coming home.” If you get a chance to learn how to journey in the company of others that is a phrase you will likely hear. Before the drum beat you might be thinking “can I really do this? How embarrassing will it be if nothing happens? Maybe I should lie. I’ll just wait to hear what others say first.” Then the drumming begins and you are on your way to another place.
When its over may have been changed forever. Its best to wait a few minutes to really feel all the sensations of being back here. Slowly the stories find their way into the circle. People share with astonishment who they met and where they were taken. Some beings are ancient, some current, others have yet to exist on earth.
Some had trouble but most will not. As Michael Harner once said: “It is embarrassingly easy to journey.”
Though I had been to the spirit world before, in spontaneous visions and dreams, learning to journey was a way to reclaim an innately empowering practice. We do not need guru’s or priests or even shaman to connect us to the sacredness of life, to connect us to every human being as an ancestor. We just need to remember how to journey.
The instructions for journeying are as simple as the most basic driving directions. “Go here, look for this then turn there.” That about sums it up. The real trick is to learn from someone who’s been there. They’ve been changed by it. Their heart knows the way.
That makes sense to me, that spirit is in fact so readily available to us if we’re willing to listen to our hearts and trust each other. It also makes sense to me that it has been lost in this troubled age. We must be at least a little blinded to live as we do. To journey is to remember what it is to be fully human and deeply connected to life.
That bone sat there for centuries while the chaos of the modern world came into being. Like our innate ability to journey it was completely undisturbed, forgotten. I returned it to the desert, to that river bed. It lies there waiting for others to find it and learn its ways. Perhaps it will be a thousand years from now. If you are the next person to learn from that bone, please treat it well. Someday make sure to return it to where you found it. Magic bones and other wondrous things feed us all in ways we don’t even realize. I’m sure someone else will need it too.