One of the things I have commented upon in my writing is that for some practitioners, certain aspects of the Kabbalah and ceremonial magick are very "left-brained." These practices, which are a focus for some people, though logical and well thought out, lack passion. Indeed, I was there once. I was a member of a magickal group where you were required to choose a magickal name. I chose one rather quickly, and then went on to write a long paper on the meaning, value and Kabbalistic interpretations of the name. It was all very left-brained.
But it doesn't have to be that way! In Modern Magick, I briefly discussed a mystical tradition that was a direct forerunner of the Kabalah—Merkabah Mysticism. A basic technique of this system begins with the practitioner altering his or her consciousness. One writer suggested that this was done though fasting and additionally changing the blood flow to the brain by placing the head between one's knees while sitting. Once you are in this state you go on a journey through various "palaces" (this evolved into Kabbalistic pathworking), where you would have amazing experiences, communicate with spiritual entities, and eventually see the Merkabah, or Throne of God.
One shamanic practice, which has been described in numerous sources, is to similarly alter the consciousness (more on this in a moment) and journey to different worlds where you interact with other entities and spirit guides. As I interpret it, then, Kabbalistic practices and ceremonial magick as practiced today have common roots with shamanic techniques practiced all over the world for many thousands of years. How, then, can we bring this personal and experiential aspect back to the world of ceremonial magick?
My First Shamanic Ritual
I was led through my first shamanic ritual about a decade ago. It was very simple. I took a relaxed position and listened to a tape recording of slow, steady drumming. The use of such drumming has long been a technique to alter the consciousness. Soon, I visualized walking to a tree stump with a large hole in it. I entered the dark hole and walked into a new reality. There I saw forest scenes and communicated with animal guides and spirits. After a time, I could sense that the drumming was changing, and I worked my way back through the forest, out the tree stump and back to normal consciousness. There was no great theoretical or philosophical musings in this practice. It was all experiential and "right-brained." For me, it was a powerful and moving experience.
For those of us who have had the fortune to be part of drum circles, the power of drumming is unmistakable. But for those of us who are not great drummers, the feeling of needing to compete or be part of what is going on without messing things up can make us feel uncomfortable. I have been a musician for most of my life, getting piano lessons before I was in first grade. I've sung in choirs for thousands, and I've played keyboards in bands that opened for Elton John, Great White, and others, the largest audience being well over ten thousand. But I have a problem with hand drumming.
Say Hello to Buddy Helm
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Buddy Helm at the Heartland Pagan Festival. Buddy has spent years in the music scene, too, working with the likes of Frank Zappa and many others. We spent hours sharing our music industry "war stories." Today, Buddy travels the world teaching about the blending of drumming and spirituality.
One of the things I learned from him is that when your heart is in the right place, it is only your belief that you are not a good drummer that prevents you from doing spiritual drumming. He took a crowd of people, many of whom had never played drums before, and not only taught them how to do spiritual drumming, but actually gave most of them a solo! And they all did well. It would seem that everyone can drum if, as Buddy puts it, you simply quiet your "inner critic."
Buddy also talked about the speed of the basic beat. He said that when you keep the tempo below sixty beats-per-minute, you must calm down, relax, and reduce tension. Surprisingly, some of the experienced drummers in the workshop had trouble doing this and struggled to just keep a steady, slow beat.
In my opinion, what Buddy was teaching was how to achieve a shamanic state of consciousness through drumming. You can do this with a drum or by just using your body as a drum. In a personal and clear style, Buddy explains this in his book, The Way of the Drum. It includes a CD with examples so you can play along. There are also lots of fascinating stories from his musical experiences.
What Good Is Shamanism?
Okay, so you've learned how to enter an altered state of consciousness that will allow you to travel through different worlds and meet spirit entities. What practical use are shamanic techniques?
Shamans have been spiritual guides, counselors, and healers. The healing aspect comes from your heart and spiritual work. A wonderful book to learn some of these techniques is Kristen Madden's Book of Shamanic Healing.
For example, one topic of the book is how to partner with your drum to create healing. Thus, you can use drumming both for your own spiritual development, as in Buddy's book, and to help heal yourself and others, as described in Kristen's book. She also teaches how to free your voice for shamanic work.
Her book goes much further, including information on how to develop shamanic abilities, communicate with spirit guides, perform soul retrievals and extractions, create sacred space for rituals, and perform healing ceremonies. The book also explores shamanic methods of healing work with dreams, stones, crystals, and colors.
There are many good books on Shamanism that are available, but few actually get down to the practical work of how to safely do what shamans do. Together, The Way of the Drum and The Book of Shamanic Healing can give you shamanic techniques that can help add passion to the magick you do, or even provide you with a path to follow.
Using the Kabbalah-Shamanism Matrix Today
Just as shamanic work can be used for physical, psychological, and spiritual healing, the Kabbalistic system that evolved from shamanism can be used for spiritual development. Earlier I wrote that Merkabah Mysticism is derived from shamanic techniques (in practice, if not in fact), and that this early form of pre-Kabbalistic spirituality evolved into what is known today as Kabbalistic pathworking. This pathworking is a journey through the Tree of Life that is either visualized or done through astral projection. There was a time when the term "pathworking" exclusively meant this type of work, but over the past few decades it has come to mean any type of visualized journey. To differentiate the traditional system from the new use of the term, I call the journey through the Tree of Life "Kabbalistic Pathworking." The techniques were codified and developed by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In my opinion, this is a true modern adventure derived from shamanism, forming what I call the Kabbalah-Shamanism Matrix. It's truly exciting to experience, and no matter how hard I try to describe visiting different worlds, communicating with spirits and angels, and the incredible rush of freedom that occurs, I don't think my words will ever do it justice. In Modern Magick, much of the training and practices give you the information and skills that will enable you to become fully competent as a voyager on the Tree of Life. However, my book is designed to cover many magickal techniques, and a large number of other skills and information on varied subjects are included.
If you are intrigued by the possibility of taking the ancient system of shamanism and using it in a modern framework—and I hope you are—you might want to just focus on learning this system. To that end, I recommend Nick Farrell's Magical Pathworking. What a wonderful addition to magickal technique this is! It is written exclusively on pathworking, and includes all of the information, exercises, and methods you need in order to do this work yourself. Examples are given so you can see what it is like. You'll see how you can use these techniques as a form of "psychological magick" to achieve a better life and make contact with the divine. And you'll come to personally experience the Kabbalah-Shamanism Matrix.