Shapeshifting is a peculiarly shamanic and little understood phenomena. In my experience it manifests in different ways. It is possible for your consciousness to shape-shift into an animal in dream and journey states with various degrees of intensity. Once I found myself in the jungle with a curandero. He sat on my chest and blew tobacco smoke on me. My consciousness immediately shape-shifted into a mouse. Mouse-me ran into a mouse hole in the earth. In the hole I experienced exactly what it was like to be a mouse. The little hole was vast, like a cathedral to me and the other denizens of the earth like spiders and centipedes were uncomfortably large. Eventually my consciousness couldn’t hold the shift anymore and I came back to my human size, bursting out through the earth to the surface. The size difference aside, I felt there was very little difference between being a man or a mouse.
A more intense form of shapeshifting came when I was receiving initiatory experiences from the polar bear. Being attacked by an animal in a dream is a typical form of shamanic initiation and to this end the polar bear returned. I dreamed of being in a sea between Ireland and the Nordic lands. Whales were with me, teaching me to slow my heart rate and hold my breath to dive deep into this cold northern ocean of spirit. Then, a giant polar bear appeared, grabbed my arm and began to savage me and shake me like a rag. The polar bear then stood up and walked like a man into a clear icy sea. I was then pulled out of my body, the polar bear was standing waist-deep in water, its paws raised in the air. From between its legs a dark haired spirit child swam towards me. That the polar bear should be an initiatory animal for me did seem unusual as it predominantly associated with Inuit shamanism. However, I discovered that polar bears trace their family tree back to Ireland. Genetic evidence shows they are descended from brown bears living in Ireland during the last Ice Age. Scientists extracted mitochondrial DNA from the teeth and bones of seventeen bears found at eight cave sites across Ireland. Ten Irish brown bears from the ice age period between ten thousand and thirty-eight thousand years ago had the maternal DNA that is now seen in every polar bear. So, in this sense, the polar bear is a perfect animal to initiate an Irish shaman.
That night a profoundly beautiful gift was given; the spirit Tiger took full possession of me. It was in a way similar to that time in Ireland all those years before. I awoke in the early hours and the Tiger entered me from the left hand side and again I felt thick viscous spirit energy. I was taken completely control of, the part that was ‘me’ in my body was very, very small, one percent, ninety-nine percent was Tiger. I was full of delicious spirit ecstasy, a sort of ‘wild’ kundalini, my spine was alight my whole body electrified. My hands became claws and I was growling. Although my physical body was still human, my spiritual body had shapeshifted into a Tiger. After this the Tiger energy remained with me and I received a profound healing on both the emotional and physical level. Emotional and health issues that had been troubling me vanished and I walked with the strength of the Tiger within me into a new life and way of being in the world.
The next night I awoke to see a tree in my third eye. It was a ‘dark tree’ glowing with dark light. The tree came towards me and I felt it enter into me. This time I internally shapeshifted into a tree, a different energy to the Tiger, softer and more sexual. I just lay there with the tree energy inside me. All through this I received a message, it was non-verbal, it didn’t even form words in my head. It was of the importance of always doing the right thing. I think perhaps that the druids may have specialised in communing with tree spirits in this way.
The Buryat shamans call states like these, ongon orood, which means ‘embodying the shamanic spirits’ and may induce it at will. There was a time, when Michèle had a sore back, so I gave her a massage. During this I felt spirit energy enter into me, I heard a voice say, THIS, is a jaguar walk, and suddenly there was the jaguar, leaping through my third eye. I knew felt the jaguar come into me and I concentrated on letting the spirit do the healing. The jaguar is of course associated with ayahuasca and it was the great purgative power of the plant that came through because Michèle then began to feel sick and spent the rest of the night on the toilets! This is the difference between shamanic healing and other spiritual healing modalities like Reiki for example. A Reiki practitioner channels chi, universal energy, Reiki in fact means, ‘high chi’. With shamanic healing, the shaman embodies the shamanic spirits and they do the healing. As Michèle’s case shows, the shamanic healing goes very deep, the bad back was only symptomatic of something else entirely, needing to be released. Western medicine often tastes nice initially, but may only masks the symptoms, shamanic medicine may be bitter and unpleasant initially but can dig down to the root cause of the sickness and expel it.
I’m quite sure that truly powerful shaman can take shapeshifting much further than what I have experienced. The Buryat shaman Sarangerel said,
‘Sometimes when you merge with animal spirits you will transform yourself into those animals-I have seen my teacher turn into a wolf and I myself have left wolf tracks in the snow!’ 35
I feel that these shapeshifting experiences were a direct result of healing my cumha, I no longer had a sense of separation, the barriers between myself, the spirits, nature and ultimately the One Soul had been broken down. I felt a certain fluidity in my spirit, that I was no longer strictly confined to regarding myself as only a human being.
One night, I saw a standing stone in a field. My Sami drum appeared and entered into it. The drum began to play, it was beating both within the stone and upon it. I felt myself merge with the stone and the drum. I was, at the one time, inside and outside the stone. I was the stone, the drummer and the drum. I was the vibration, the sound and the listener. I was the observer and the observed. I was, in essence, everything.