For those who have no idea what dreaming is, or are curious as to the nature of shamanic practice, the following outlines my current thinking.
I’ll update or supersede it as necessary: my understanding of what it is to dream changes daily, as does my ability to express it in words that makes sense. If that daily change were ever to stop, it would be time to give up.
If you’ve arrived here looking for my Shamanic Courses website, now run with my apprentice Louise Mayor, you can find it here:
WHAT IS DREAMING?
Shamanic practice is the modern extension of indigenous spiritualties that once encompassed the globe. Our ancestors of many tribes and many nations understood that this reality is one of an infinite number of possible realities and that, wonderful as it is, we limit ourselves if we don’t learn to step beyond it. Shamanic practice incorporates three main arms by which we connect more fully with whatever we hold to be true:
• Shamanic journeying: the basis of core shamanic teachings – in which we use a drumbeat to travel to other realms of reality, to meet with and ask the help of, the animals, teachers, guides and gods who live there
• Shamanic dreaming – this is an amalgamation of sleep-dreaming, lucid dreaming and dreaming awake
• Ritual practice: shamanic practice is grounded in the natural world. To ground solidly, we need to create a framework within which we can relate to the world. Generally, this is based on the properties of the four cardinal and non-cardinal points of the compass, relating these to the four elements and other natural phenomena. I work with the medicine wheel and the twenty count and will teach within that framework. You are entirely free to create your own framework if this doesn’t suit your world view.
Above all, shamanic practice is a spiritual path – that is, it helps bring me closer to the non-dual point where I experience unity with the All-That-Is.
My aim in the long term – to which all the dreaming courses taught by me and my students lead – is to bring together a group of people who can ask the question ‘what do you want of me?’ of something that they trust implicitly, and who have the capacity both to hear the answer and to act on it. Note the concept of a long-term goal. It won’t happen in a weekend.
Dreaming is not an end to all grief, a spiritual and emotional analgesic, or a useful way to withdraw from the world. It’s not a useful, or even a valid, means to avoid responsibility or to bypass personal work.
Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice of which we have any knowledge.
Shamanism is evidence-based – which is to say, it has no basis in any text or creed, but is instead, grows from and facilities a direct connection between the practitioner and the worlds around her/him.
As with any spiritual practice, shamanic practice teaches us two things:
how to live
That is, how to be fully present in each moment of each day, and in doing so, to live to our fullest potential. In doing so also, we learn to see beyond the boundaries of the world, but this is an effect, not a primary aim
how to die
That is, how to progress with full awareness from this life to whatever comes next. It’s important to remember that ‘whatever comes next’ is unknowable and unknown. We can presume a lot. We can project a lot. We can hope for things to be as they want them to be. But we can never know.
What we can do is to practice mindfulness so that we are fully aware of the entirety of our self in each moment of living, and so – we hope – in each moment of dying.
We can also practice our dreaming such that we remain fully aware of our central essence, the core of our self/Self throughout the night or other times of sleep in the belief that this will enable us similarly to hold our awareness through death.
We can also practice as a psychopomp – that is, someone who helps to usher the essence of the dead on its path through the other worlds. Nevertheless, however much this feels real to us, we can only infer any sense of reality through the impact on the living. (which may be dramatic, and is, in my opinion, well worth the effort as long as we don’t get sucked into dramatics)
Shamanic theory teaches us that this reality is a very small part of all possible reality, and that the boundaries we perceive within it and around it are entirely fictitious.
Shamanic theory teaches that everything has spirit – in this reality and beyond it.
Shamanic theory teaches us that, with training, the practitioner can move through the gateways from this reality to the other realities, to engage and interact with the spirits in the other realities in order to ask for help – and that we can then bring that help back to our reality and make use of it.
Shamanic theory teaches us that the shamanic practitioner knows where to go, how to go, who to speak to, what to ask, how to ask, how to get back and what to do when we are back. If even one of these is missing, we’re not undertaking shamanic practice, we’re spacing out.
Intent is everything. Learning how to focus intent with integrity is the key to any spiritual path. It’s essential to genuine, authentic shamanic practice.
Nobody in the west is a shaman. We don’t grow up in spiritual culture and, frankly, we don’t go to the places that true shamans go, however much we might like to think we do. What we can do is to use the tools of shamanic practice to enhance our lives and to heal those around us. We can learn how to live, how to die, how to heal our own lives, and those of others and how to aid the dead in their passage.
All of this is immensely worthwhile and is worth a lifetime’s practice in my view, but there’s a world of difference between modern western ‘shamanics’ and the remaining genuine indigenous peoples and the work that they do.
It’s worth bearing the following in mind when we begin to journey to the other worlds: in (some) shamanic cultures, there are people who would – and do – prefer to die rather than become the tribal shaman. There are people who do die in the effort to become the tribal shaman. The training is generally between 12 and 20 years and the only way you know you’ve passed is if you’re still alive at the end of it – and the pass rate is not high. What we can learn in a weekend – even a year of weekends, is the first step. It is not the entire journey.
Dreaming is not a game, it’s not a fad, it’s not a replacement for psychotherapy, it’s absolutely not a means to escape the pressures and trauma inherent in living, nor is it a means to accumulate power, wealth and an infinite supply of free sex.
To live daily in the eyes of the gods is extraordinarily rewarding but requires a steadily increasing amount of self-discipline, self-awareness and a willingness to change. Dreaming, in any of its various forms is life-changing so if what you’re looking for is your current life unchanged but with an easier cash flow and an end to all emotional upheaval, this isn’t the way to find it.
Dreaming ethics are straightforward: only travel for a reason, even if that reason is simply to meet with your teachers/guides/helpers and to sit with them for a while. In general, tourism isn’t a good idea – if you’re going somewhere, know before hand why you’re going and what you’re going to ask for. Woolly questions receive woolly answers. Some dreamers are healers, some are counsellors, some simply dream to enhance the world around them at the behest of the gods. We have the large left brains, the problem solving abilities and the three-dimensional grounding in this version of reality. If the gods want something done here and now, it is generally easier for us to do it.
This is a field beset by charlatans, wannabes and overbearing egos, enter it with extreme care and check out every move before, during and after you make it. If you want to learn from those who have walked ahead, there is an increasing number of magazines, books and courses/workshops around the world. I’ll run workshops on a regular basis. There are others equally good, if not better.
CAN EVERYONE DREAM?
I had a particularly lucid email from someone who had:
a) read all the Boudica books and taken on board the nature of Dreaming, and
b) wanted to come on one of my foundation courses in Shamanic Dreaming but was concerned as to the nature of dreaming, of shamanic practice.
Her question was this:
“From your books I have been left with the impression that, for the characters at least, dreaming is not possible (or, readily available) for everyone. Have I misunderstood you in this? Or, is it that everyone is able to dream, but some individuals have a greater facility for it than others? I suppose I am really asking you if it is common or indeed, even possible, for a person to turn up at one of your courses and spend the entire time struggling to achieve a single moment of true dreaming?”
Which is an entirely sensible question. Having answered it in an email with a fairly short response along the lines that, while everyone can dream, not everyone chooses to be a dreamer, I thought it was worth answering in more depth. Everything I write in response is my own opinion, based on my own experience, using as a seed those things I have been taught.
The word Dreaming has two uses: I used the word ‘dreamers’ rather than ‘druids’ for a number of reasons, not least because it lifts us away from the white-bed-sheets-at-Stonehenge-summer-solstice stereotype. It also encompasses more of what I see as genuine shamanic practice.
I am well aware that the Michael Harner school of Core Shamanic Study teaches that the journey is everything – that is, journeying on the wave of a drum beat to specific locations to ask specific questions of specific entities, in order to bring the answers back to this reality – but this is not my experience.
Rather, my experiences is that while drumming journeys can be powerful and useful and have their place in modern practice (although often as the opening of a gate and the asking of a question rather than as an answer), so too does the practice of dreaming; of listening to night dreams, of setting dream intents, of actively dreaming to specific locations.
We have no evidence whatsoever that the tribal peoples of the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age possessed any drums with which to conduct shamanic drumming journeys and while ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ – and I did create the skull drums of the bear-dreamers – it is my belief that night dreams play as much of a part in many shamanic cultures as journeys conducted to a rhythm or with psychotropic drugs.
(Note on psychotropic drugs: we don’t go there in my group. I would venture to suggest that nobody in the west has sufficient grounding to go there and that we certainly don’t have the route maps to know where to go safely and how to return intact).
I teach journeying just as I teach all the aspects of safety that I consider essential to sane, coherent, authentic shamanic practice.
I also teach the use of dreams and the ways by which they might safely be harnessed. The aim is to provide a toolbox from which the practitioner can select the appropriate technique for the occasion. If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems become nails. I use other tools and want my students to have access to them – together with an absolute baseline of how safely to use them.
And so, in final answer to the question: I believe everyone can dream.
Everyone can have night dreams – in fact everyone does have night dreams, it just takes some people a while to learn how to remember them. When they do, they are often revelatory. Other people have astonishing, action-filled nights full of prophetic dreams and yet others have one single dream they remember that recurs once a year and they know of nothing else, but everyone can dream.
Almost everyone can journey. Those who can’t, in my experience, are often those who have a current or past history of major recreational drug use – I ask that people not come on my courses if they’re currently using recreational psychotropics on the grounds that they simply don’t have the grounding necessary for genuine shamanic practice – but past use can still unhinge the wiring. Successful journeying comes with practice, but it may take a lot more time and a lot more practice of focusing intent if there’s a history of spacing out.
Which brings us to the next part of the answer:
Everyone can dream –everyone – but not everyone becomes a dreamer. For some, it’s just not their path. For others, it’s attractive and fun and sparkly and they can use it as a vehicle for their projections and as a means to upset Great Aunt Agatha who’s wedded to one or other of the major religions, but it’s not a life’s path. For others, it’s useful when they’re in trouble, but it’s not a life’s path.
For a few, it’s a life’s path: these are the people who put in the time to journey, to dream and to meditate; the people who understand at a visceral level the distinction between head mind and heart mind; the people whose guides/spirit helpers/gods are as real to them through day and night as the people they encounter in the flesh and blood of our consensus reality; these are the people whose life grows out of the dreaming, not the other way around. These people are the dreamers of our society. The rest are people who dream. And there is no great kudos in being one or the other. We are what we are. We live as best we can, each of us, in the moment. That’s what makes us human.
MY OWN JOURNEY
I first began learning (modern, western) shamanic practice in the early 80s. Some of my teachers were ego-driven fantasists, but some were people of huge integrity with the capacity to facilitate authentic experiences. Some were western, some were from the First Nations of the Americas (taking north, centre and south as three separate sections, which they seem to be in terms of culture) and some were European.
The move from veterinary medicine to writing grew out of my shamanic practice, as did the move from writing contemporary crime thrillers to writing the Boudica series – that, in particular, was entirely driven by a series of events which have very little bearing on what we might call consensus reality.
In brief, I had written No Good Deed and was planning Absolution, its sequel, when my lurcher killed a lactating hare. Hares are sacred to the old gods of this country and so it became imperative to find the kits before they starved to death.
I failed, as you do in thirty or so acres of tall grass.
So it seemed to me that if something had to die for me to wake up to the fact that I was walking along with my brain in neutral, then I had better start paying attention. I went on a vision quest and set the question (the only relevant question as far as I’m concerned) – ‘What do you want from me?’
The answer was unequivocal and came very fast – I was to write Boudica. This didn’t come entirely out of the blue – I had made a commitment in ceremony some years before that I would write the life of Boudica – but had assumed that I’d get round to it whenever my writing was ‘good enough’ which was always, by definition, at least a decade away.
So I argued. I’m a vet, not a historian, an archeologist, an anthropologist. My editors won’t let me do it. My agent won’t let me do it. I can’t afford to do it… I can, when I try, spin out a vision quest to far longer than it need be because, plainly, the answer didn’t change. I had enough money to last 3 months before I had to go back to the day job full time. Based on that, I made an agreement to do the necessary research and, if it turned out that I had enough to go on, I’d do it – and if not, I’d come back and we’d have the conversation again.
That night, I called a friend who writes a major historical series and was told to forget it: that my editor would never let me do it – which was true, she didn’t – and that there was no point because there wasn’t enough known about Boudica to write a story or else my colleague would have done it already.
The light in the tunnel came from my agent who was entirely supportive. Thus fortified, I did the research and by the end of the month, had a chapter and a 23 page synopsis. By the end of the second month, I had 3 chapters and while my editor at Headline turned it down, I had an offer from a new editor at Transworld – one who clearly understood (and still understands) the dreaming.
Thus was the Boudica: Dreaming series born, or at least, conceived. The full gestation took six years of intense writing and even more intense journeying and dreaming. I was single at that point, more or less, certainly I lived alone and spent most of my time with two dogs and an increasing number of cats as company. I walked in the east Anglian forests, I journeyed, I dreamed, I asked for help and wrote the results of that help. The books are, entirely, a product of dreaming about dreaming.
I made a commitment with the first one to be sure that I didn’t write anything that couldn’t be done today. My remit for the whole series was: This is who we were, This is who we could be. At least for the first book, every single act of dreaming within it, I had either done or seen done – nothing was, or is, out of our reach. The gods are there, the land is there, the ways of connecting are there if we are prepared to step back from the cushioning and the distractions of western society and reconnect (I live in a house with no music unless it’s live and when I was writing the four books of the series, I had no television. I did, however, spend most of my evenings dreaming with the fire. It’s not impossible, but it’s not normal by the standards of modern living)
ABOUT OUR COURSES
These are fully residential, self-catering courses. Shamanic practice is almost impossible to learn from books and magazines, and so these courses are designed to give participants first hand experience of the first steps. We learn protection and grounding as an essential basic. Following this, we learn techniques that enable us to dream and journey so that we can begin to build our own geography of the other realities and to meet some early guides and helpers who can undertake the fuller teaching.
The long term aim of the advanced programme is that we develop a circle of dreamers capable of working together in confluence, and that each individual has reached a depth of heart-mind connection where she or he can ask, ‘What do you want of me?’, of something that can be trusted, can hear the answer clearly and can know how to act on it.
Before that, we are learning to ask basic questions and to ask for help to aid our own growth. The aim, as in all spiritual practice, is to strive ever towards personal healing and wholeness of self. This is rarely as easy as it sounds, is almost always a lengthy path and almost always involves some mistakes. We balance the knife edge and fall off. The key is to be able to recognise sooner rather than later when we’ve fallen and to step back on again.
We aim to create an atmosphere within which active dreaming can take place which is why the courses are residential.
Shamanic practice is non-denominational, depending on a direct connection between the practitioner and the spirits/guides/gods. However, because I work within a medicine wheel tradition and find the grounding of that constructive, the courses will be taught within that framework.
Anyone can come as long as they’re 21 or over and not taking any mind-altering pharmaceuticals, either recreational or prescription. Tea, coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and alcohol don’t count in the above ban, except for the duration of the course and, ideally, for at least two days either side. Try not to book anything big in the days immediately after. It takes a while to come back to consensus reality.
When? Where? How Much?
To find out more about courses visit the Dreaming Awake course website here: