Anyone who has spent time reading these pages knows that I do not just talk about magic, I actually do it. This post is slightly off topic but covers a magical issue I am passionate about.
One of the paths that I follow, is modern neo-shamanism – the shamanic journey protocol first established by Michael Harner in his book The Way of the Shaman. I’ve been working with this style of journeying, on and off, since the 90’s and find that it works quite well for me in certain situations. While I do find the ranks of modern neo-shamanism to be swollen with New Agers who are constantly edging toward Native American cultural appropriation, there are also practitioners out there, like Tom Cowan who have derived some interesting and original approaches to working with the spirits of their own culture starting from a modern neo-shamanic base. For those interested in this type of work, I strongly recommend Mr. Cowan’s Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life.
Briefly, the road map for the shamanic universe ala Harner includes three worlds. In the Lower World, one encounters spirit helpers in animal form, often referred to as power animals. The Lower World is the place of recovering the power to live in a sacred manner (my interpretation – I am sure there are plenty of practitioners who would argue this with me). In the Upper World, one comes across spirit helpers in a number of forms ranging from human to what one might call angelic. The Upper World is the place of guidance. The Middle World is the realm closest to our own and is inhabited by all manner of spirits ranging from what one might call faerie to the ancestors. In neo-shamanism, one is most often introduced first to the Lower World and then to the Upper World. The Middle World is introduced, if at all, cautiously and with some trepidation at the end of a basic learning sequence. Part of the reason for this is that the Middle World is the place of the ancestors and, as I have been told by more than one neo-shamanic practitioner, they have “their own agenda”.
This business about the ancestors having an agenda is a nice way of saying that these folks view any interaction with the ancestors with suspicion. Now, I do not find this suspicion of ancestor work in all neo-shamanic workers but it is a common thread, depending on who they learned from. I think that some of this suspicion comes from the fact that ancestors are most often encountered in the Middle World, a place on the shamanic map where anything can happen. While one is fairly “safe” traveling in the Upper and Lower World, it is quite possible to encounter spirits in the Middle World who are hostile to humans and their interests (think for example of the nature spirits who have had their habitat destroyed by humans). Encounters such as these can be frightening and require the practitioner to use negotiating skills or ask for assistance from their power animal or other spirit helpers in order to free themselves from the situation.
I think that this fear of “negative” encounters has filtered over to the ancestors, who are most often discovered in the Middle World. If we change focus for a moment and look to Voudoun or, really, any of the Afro-Caribbean religions, we find a rich traditions of working with the ancestors. I have had correspondence with a priestess of Haitian Voudoun who told me outright that, before one can approach the lwa (their gods), one must establish a relationship with the ancestors. I know, too, that the Chinese and Japanese indigenous religions have strong components of ancestor work. It is my feeling that those practitioners of neo-shamanic work who neglect the ancestors are setting aside a powerful group of spirits who can support them and their work.
In answer to the oft cited idea that the ancestors have their own agenda, I respond positively that, yes, they do. This is why, when you commence ancestor work, you are told to reach out first to those ancestors that you know love and support you. This is just common sense; your ancestral pool is vast and there are bound to be some un-evolved ancestors out there. You want to call to you the people who knew you and loved you in life. One of the foremost ancestors for me is my grandmother, for example.
Different traditions have different ways of approaching the ancestors but I have actually found a neo-shamanic approach quite effective. Basically what I do, several times a week, is light candles and a good smelling incense on my altar. I spend a few moments cleansing myself with a crow feather, sing a medicine song and then get out my rattle and begin some light rattling to take me into a shamanic state of consciousness. I offer honor to the powers of the four directions, Above, Below and Within, and then I put myself in my safe spot in the Middle World. I look out over a vast plain and see all my ancestors there. I offer them blessings from deep within me where the Divine Spark rests. I look closer to me and see the three ancestors who love and support me standing nearby. I offer them blessings as well and, if I have time, I ask for their counsel. I then work a little with various spirit helpers before closing out. The whole process only takes few minutes and really helps get things set up for the day.
What I have found, in doing this regularly, is that my shamanic practice has become more powerful. By that I mean that, in given situations, when I call for help from the spirit world, interesting things happen. I recently worked with a friend, long distance, who was having some major health issues. When I asked for diagnostic help during a shamanic journey for him, a whole crew of ancestors showed up and actually did a healing for him, on the spot.
Working with the ancestors is like working with any group of humans. You are going to get along better with some than with others and you have to deal with their little quirks at times but, as long as you hold the strong intention of only working with those ancestors who love and support you, I see no reason to fear them or regard them with suspicion. At worst, you will simply have to tell them “no”.