Photo by Vivolino via Pixabay
by Jan Van Ysslestyne © 2018
Before I begin this article, I need to define the parameters of a “shamanic journey.” There are two competing views of how shamanism is defined in the field of anthropology. The first defines a shaman as a healer from indigenous animistic tribes. The other approach makes a clear distinction stating that the word “shaman” should only be used in context to the Manchu-Tungus speaking peoples where the word originated. I agree with the latter.
Having worked with the last shamans of the Ulchi people, a Manchu-Tungus speaking people from the lower Amur River region, my research led me to theorize that the layers and nuances of the practice may suggest that the stages of hypnagogic, hypnapomic, wake induced lucid dreaming, and REM Sleep Behavior Disorder may be the foundation of the practice. These may be the very keys in unlocking the process.
First, let us examine how they enter into a controlled trance state (different than the types of possessive trance states found in other indigenous tribes). Rather than constructing a contrived creative visualization of going deep into some type of cave, they speak of the process in this way.
“First you close your eyes. It is just like when you are falling asleep but don’t go to sleep. You will see all sorts of forms and shapes and strange images of all sorts of things. You might see something frightening — if you do, then drive it away with the drum! All of these things may appear in bright or grey colors that are changing their shapes, but just keep following where they lead you. When you see that your spirit helpers have arrived then focus on entering the spirit world at this intersection. If your helpers do not show up, then do not travel any further.”
They seem to be describing a hypnagogic state of awareness followed by entering into a wake-induced lucid dream.
Now let’s examine how the Manchu-Tungus speaking peoples of eastern Siberia define the dream world.
“The dream world is a real world where our ‘wind’ soul travels to and from all of the time. This ‘soul’ lives between the waking and dreaming world. We have no shaman school. No one can make you a shaman. Ba (a term with various meanings about Nature) decides who will become a shaman.”
In examining how they explained to me the entry (hypnagogic) into the spiritual (dream) world, I wondered how they were able to bypass REM sleep atonia. This, of course, led me to the current research in REM sleep behavior disorder. The correlations are remarkably similar to the practice of Ulchi shamanism, including the anecdotal physiological and psychological experiences as reported by the elders.
The classical style of shamanism is defined by three distinct sections: entry into the other worlds (hypnagogic), taking the journey (wake-induced lucid dream), and the return to the human world (hypnopompic experience). In my many discussions for almost 30 years, the key to the practice is about learning to control the process while allowing the natural course of the dream to unfold without interfering. When a shaman may find themselves lost in the landscape, they will ask a question of the dream about where or how to proceed, and return to the “waking world” is only undertaken when the intent of the journey has been accomplished.
Their ability to overcome skeletal muscular atonia may actually be a controlled version of REM sleep behavior disorder. Who knows? I just find the correlates compelling, but one thing I can be sure of is that the “shaman’s journey” is related to the conscious awareness in the land of sleep and dreams.
Jan Van Ysslestyne, M.A. is a fluent speaker of the Manchu- Tungus language spoken by the Ulchi culture. She lectures on Classical Shamanism through the University of Washington, Burke Museum, Antioch, and Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. Her publications have appeared in Shaman’s Drum and Sacred Hoop magazines. She is a contributing author to the book First Fish, First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim, University of Washington Press. She continues her research into the pre-technical medical practices of indigenous cultures in the territories of southeastern Siberia. Her current book Spirits from the Edge of the World: Classical Shamanism in Ulchi Society is available at local bookstores or though Amazon.