Shamans as Dreamers, Dreamers as Shamans

By Robert Moss

The shamans who interest me are world-class dreamers who can travel between different worlds in the multiverse at will.

They know the roads of the afterlife because they have died and come back. They walk with Death at their left shoulder, as an ally, not a dread.

They know where to find lost souls and how to guide them to where they belong, in one world or another.

They travel in the company of animal spirits, and can borrow their senses and use their forms.

They are time travelers who can scout out the future, repair the past, and heal ancestral karma

They are poets of consciousness who entertain the spirits by bringing them fresh words. They heal body and mind and re-enchant the world by telling better stories about them.

Let's go back to the beginning. In all the descriptions of the shaman in literature — as wounded healer, as guide of souls, as walker between worlds, as negotiator with the spirits — there is an essential element that is rarely featured strongly enough, and is sometimes missed altogether.

First and last, the shaman is a dreamer. Shamans typically receive their calling in dreams, and are initiated and trained in the Dreamtime. The heart of their practice is the intentional dream journey. They may incubate dreams to diagnose for a patient and to select the appropriate treatment. They travel — wide awake and lucid — in their dream bodies to find lost souls, to intercede with the spirits, to fight sorcerers, and to guide spirits of the departed along the right roads.

In Indigenous North America, the dominant word for "shaman" (and also for "healer" or spiritual elder") means Dreamer, as in one who dreams strong, one who can dream for others, one who can travel at will into other realities. In Mohawk (a language I had to learn because of my dreams) the word is "rateshents.” Among the Dane-zaa of northern B.C. and Alberta, the Naachin, or Dreamers, are the shamans who travel between worlds and open roads for others.

Anyone who dreams, as the Kawahiv, an Amazonian dreaming people say, is "a little bit shaman.” We stand on the brink of claiming this power when we remember our dreams and start to develop the practice of working with dreams as daily practice.

Dreaming, a contemporary American woman finds herself in a different body, traveling with her clan beside a river in a primal landscape untouched by the ax. She knows the lives and relations of these native people intimately and feels the coming of a hard winter. She sees an eagle flying near the river, and someone tells her, “You can go fly with it.” She is afraid to go too far from the river, so she waits until the eagle hovers overhead. Then, as she told me later,

I fly an eternal moment with this magnificent bird: beautiful brown, glistening feathers with golden speckles. Eagle is above me, beside me, then lands in the river. I land downstream and float on the warm white foam. The river is blanketed in white foam.

After I dry off, I fly over the river again. I see turtles where Eagle had flown and landed. The turtles are a darker green. They are solid on the foam, not moving, just peacefully sunning themselves.

The dreamer asked me how she should approach the meaning of this dream. For me, an experience of this kind requires not analysis but honoring. Her dream was a journey into the life circumstances of an Indigenous people, an entry into a “past” life that might be a previous experience of her own multidimensional self, or that of an ancestor of the land where she lives, or of her wider spiritual family. Within that life experience, she learned what Indigenous dream shamans know: you can become an eagle.

Robert Moss describes himself as a dream teacher, on a path for which there has been no career track in our culture. He is the creator of Active Dreaming, an original synthesis of dreamwork and shamanism. He leads popular seminars all over the world, including a three-year training for teachers of Active Dreaming. He has published 12 books on dreaming, shamanism and imagination. Visit his website here.

The story of the woman who flew with the eagle is adapted from Robert Moss’ book, Dreaming the Soul Back Home: Shamanic Dreaming for Healing and Becoming Whole.

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 9: Dreams