If you’re seeing this on my website, you probably want to know about my spiritual development and how I got to be a shamanic practitioner and teacher, So I won’t give you the soap opera of my marriages and divorces or what it was like to be the least popular girl in high school.
I lived with Grandma, Grandpa (aka “Pop”), and Aunt Dorothy on the family farm in Nebraska while my parents finished their educations. Dad turned into a chemistry professor, and Mom a psychiatrist. They were scientists, uninterested in religion or any kind of experience in what we now call “nonordinary reality.”
I had a brush with some spirits when I was around two years old with my parents in California. I remember, after being put to bed, seeing three mean-looking faces floating in the air above me. I was scared. I called out for my daddy and told him about the faces. In his gruffest, most authoritative voice, he said, “Ghosts? No such thing!” The faces disappeared right away. To this day, if I feel bothered by a sense of unfriendly spirit energies, I only have to remember Dad growling, “No such thing!” and they disappear.1
Grandma was a devout Christian and told me Jesus loved me, Santa Claus would come on Christmas Eve, and the Easter Bunny would bring us candy. When I was about four Daddy let me in on the big secret about the Easter Bunny — that he wasn’t real, so naturally I concluded that God must be a big Easter Bunny for grown-ups.
At eight years of age I moved in with my parents for good. I thought a lot about death in those days, maybe because I missed my grandma so much. I knew death was inevitable and it scared me. I drew pictures of skeletons and gravestones and ghosts with scary faces, and dreaded bedtime when I would lie stiff with fear because I couldn’t stop thinking about dying. Mom and Dad would be close by in the living room watching TV but I knew better than to call them. Because what could they do?
I read a lot in those days. My favorite poet was Edgar Allen Poe. I’ll show you why:
“And so all the night tide,
I lie down by the side,
of my darling, my darling,
my life and my bride,
in her sepulcher there by the sea,
in her tomb by the sounding sea.”2
He captured my dark mood so well.
Despite all my reading, I never found comfort about death. But when I was fourteen, the Universe must have taken pity on me. I was sitting in the bathtub ruminating, as usual about death, looking down at my arms beneath the water, each pale hair lined with tiny bubbles, and thinking of how these living arms would one day will be rotting underground. At that moment I heard a voice, or more accurately, a “loud thought,” that came straight down from the sky through the ceiling into the top of my head, “Consciousness” is what it said.
I knew right away what it meant. Consciousness is primary, Consciousness is the cause of everything. And Consciousness is eternal. It never dies.
It was too good to be true. I couldn’t let myself believe it. This wasn’t something I could talk about with my parents, nor obviously, other kids. Not only wouldn’t they believe or understand it, there was a kind of taboo feeling around it. Nevertheless, my memory never let go of that moment.
Fast forward skipping the trauma years of high school and the me-too events shortly following my eighteenth birthday, I left home and came to Boulder, Colorado to go to the University of Colorado. It was the sixties and Timothy Leary was urging people my age to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” I wanted to do just that and before very long met people who introduced me to pot and acid (LSD).
I had some amazing mind-opening trips on acid for which I’m still grateful. I felt the planet spinning around the sun to the tune of “Monday, Monday” and understood that everyone is connected so we can naturally read each others’ minds and communicate with animals.
Once I accidentally took a double or triple dose of acid and learned that all forms are illusion. It seemed hilarious, the way we take things so seriously when all we have to do is laugh and laugh until all the silly forms are laughed away.
But that was only the beginning. Later in that same acid trip, I saw everyone walking around as loose, wrinkled bags, and when I looked into their eyes there was no one home.
During the dropped-out years after that, I experienced the dark side of having one’s mind blown open. Unsure of what, if anything, was real, all I knew was that I was real because, like Descartes, I thought, therefore I was. But there was no way to prove anyone else was real. It felt like they weren’t, which made me, as the only sentient being alive, responsible for all the suffering in the world. (Don’t expect this to make sense.) I must have created everything and then forgotten how I did it. I had no way to make it right. Worst of all, I had brought innocent children into the world to suffer. The mother’s guilt I experienced then was deep and black. I still did a lot of reading to look for answers but the only thing I learned was that this state of being had a name: “solipsism.”
I was looking for ways to understand what was real and what wasn’t, but I was definitely through with acid. After my tenth trip I got a message from the sky that I should quit. Meanwhile I had children to take care of. Their dad wasn’t helping, so I was working at secretarial jobs.
I was employed at a patent law firm when my boss, a Catholic, invited me to his daughter’s wedding. It was the first time I had ever been inside a Catholic Church. At a critical point in the ceremony, the priest announced that in a minute the Holy Spirit was going to come down to bless the couple. We waited the minute and it did! A minute after the priest had spoken, I saw a the air around the couple grew brighter. It was a miracle! I was so impressed I decided to take instructions to become a Catholic — but only got as far as the lesson where they told me I had to believe the Virgin Mary rose up in the air to Heaven in her living physical body. I like miracles, but there has to be a limit!
It was about that time when finally realized I would never be able to give my kids a college education if I didn’t do something soon. I still couldn’t prove I wasn’t the only conscious being in the Universe, but now there were more pressing things to think about.
It was too late to qualify for med school, which had been my first choice, so I settled for law school. Luckily I aced the LSAT and, in spite of the way my grades had crashed at CU during that last semester when I dropped out, I got accepted to night law school at the University of Denver. I worked all day, went to classes at night and graduated with honors in three years. I started working as a patent attorney for the law firm where I had been a secretary but eventually found a more interesting job and became a partner in a firm in Boulder specializing in biotech inventions.
Of course, during that time I continued to look for ways to find out what reality really is. One morning leaving the house for work I looked up at a big tree in the neighbor’s yard they had scheduled to be cut down. “What a shame,” I thought, “to cut down that beautiful living being.” Just as I was having that thought, a ball of light came down from the tree and landed in my chest.
All during my career as a patent attorney I remained in search of the real. If I could only reach “enlightenment,” surely then I would know. I followed famous gurus Ramana Maharshi and his student, PapaJi, both now deceased. I still like to watch YouTube videos of satsangs led by spiritual teacher MooJi who followed in their tradition.
About the time I graduated from law school, I found Michael Harner’s book, “The Way of the Shaman.” Michael was a well-known anthropologist who taught at Columbia, Yale and UC-Berkeley. He had studied with shamans in the Ecuadoran Amazon, and experienced ayahuasca, which convinced him that spirits were real. In his book he gives instructions for a shamanic journey into nonordinary reality to find a “power animal,” a helping spirit thought in many indigenous cultures to be necessary for every child to have if they are to survive to adulthood. Of course I had to try the journey.
I waited until everyone else was out of the house and made a recording of drumming with a pencil on a cylindrical oatmeal box. Drumming at a regular beat of 3-8 beats per second is a way to put the listener into an altered state of consciousness3 where we’re more open to seeing spirits. I followed the instructions in the book and listened to the drumming, using my imagination to journey to the shamanic Lower World. To my surprise, it worked! When I reached the Lower World and looked around, I saw a deer — and as I looked at the deer, it moved — by itself! I didn’t make it move. I knew I did not instruct my imagination to make it move. I was hooked.
Shamanism doesn’t present itself as a “path to enlightenment” but at least this would be a way to have experiences outside of ordinary reality.4 Michael Harner was teaching a workshop in “Core Shamanism” with his assistant, Sandra Ingerman, now a famous shaman in her own right. He called it “Core” shamanism because he had scoured the literature about shamans, both historical and contemporary, and learned directly from practicing shamans in indigenous cultures that had preserved their shamanic traditions. He was looking for methods shamans had used for millennia all over the world, such as extraction, soul retrieval, power animal retrieval, etc. The idea was that if these methods had lasted so long in widely separated cultures, they must work. They were the “core” of effective shamanism.
Finding the common features of these methods from all over the world allowed him to streamline them by getting rid of nonessential embellishments that had accrued over millennia. The streamlined methods of core shamanism were easy for Westerners to understand and apply. He also developed effective ways of teaching the methods. In the early 1980s I took his basic workshop, in those days a two-week residential experience. This convinced me more than ever that shamanism was a pathway to a reality beyond the realm of scientific cause and effect. I continued learning from the Foundation, and in their Three-Year program experienced many miracles which completely erased my doubts about the reality of spirits.
Meanwhile a friend, who had recently finished his PhD in anthropology and returned from studying with Himalayan shamans in Nepal, offered me a place in a group he was taking to Nepal to learn from the shamans there. This would be a “beta test” of his plan to establish a shaman school with Mohan Rai, a Bhutanese mountain guide based in Kathmandu who was also a shaman. I jumped at the chance and took a sabbatical from work to learn from indigenous shamans practicing their ancestral shamanism.
After I came back to the United States, I recorded my experiences in Nepal in my book, Thoughts in the Mind of God. With Mohan Rai, I wrote another book, World Shaman, about Mohan’s shamanic training in Bhutan with his father, a famous shaman — how he abandoned his shamanic calling to join the Gurkha army and carve out a successful career as a mountain guide, and how finally in the end, he was forced to surrender it all to return to his original calling.
When I was ready to retire from my Patent Attorney career, Michael Harner invited me to teach for The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which is what I do now, along with healing work and private shamanic instruction for clients. I never get tired of watching students have first-hand experiences communicating with compassionate helping spirits and come to understand that “reality” is big enough to embrace both the ordinary reality of materialist science and the nonordinary reality of spirits operating under a different set of rules. To find that they can safely move between these worlds and work with spirits to bring healing, information, and good advice to others can be life-changing for students.
Interestingly enough, the understanding that Consciousness is primary (that I thought was taboo when I was fourteen) is now accepted by many mainstream scientists.5
As far as the solipsism is concerned, I no longer play with the fearful idea of being the only sentient being in the Universe. It doesn’t seem logical when the Universe is so big and I am so little. And besides, from time to time I get to look into another pair of eyes and connect with a real person inside.
It’s all done with the heart.
1. I believe now that there really are such things as ghosts and spirits.
2. Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe, last stanza. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44885/annabel-lee, accessed 11/10/23.
3. See Huels, Emma et al., “Neural Correlates of the Shamanic State of Consciousness,” Front. Hum. Neurosci., 18 March 2021, (“Shamanic practitioners were significantly different from controls in several domains of altered states of consciousness, with scores comparable to or exceeding that of healthy volunteers under the influence of psychedelics”). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2021.610466/full, accessed November 11, 2023.
4. Now I think shamanism really is a path to enlightenment.
5. See e.g., “A Conscious Universe” by Rupert Sheldrake, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqWbIVlnmNM, accessed Nov. 12, 2023.
Order an autographed copy of my book, Thoughts in the Mind of God. The cost is $20 including shipping.
(Be sure to include the address where you want the book sent when you pay)
Order an autographed copy of my book, World Shaman, with Mohan Rai. click here. The cost is $20 including shipping.
(Be sure to include the address where you want the book sent when you pay)
MORE ABOUT ELLEN
Copyright © 2004-2023, Ellen Winner, Healing in Consciousness
All Rights Reserved