The Eightfold Path to Altered States of Consciousness

One of the differences between shamanic work and other sorts of energy work is that sooner of later, altered states of consciousness are required. This is partly because shamanic work is not only working with energy (like thaumaturgic magic) or with universal paths (like theurgic magic) but working with entities. In order to properly perceive and deal with the wights, you need to go into a state of consciousness that brings you closer to them. The more dramatic and serious the work, the more extreme the altered state needs to be. Even people who are good at going into mild altered states - the sort who trance out easily - will sooner or later find that they need to go further and deeper if they take up shamanic work.

A large part of the "basic" shamanic training is learning how to control one's state of consciousness at will, whatever that takes. Fortunately, our ancestors spent thousands of years working out a wide and varied array of altered-state technologies; much of the research work has already been done for us. These techniques have been sorted into a system referred to as the "Eightfold Path", or eight groups of similar techniques.

There is a good deal of debate over what the "real", authentic, correct Eightfold Path contains. You'll find several versions of it in books about altered states; it seems that the most radically different versions seem to be those where the authors disapprove of some of the paths and conveniently eliminate them, splitting up others to fill in the gaps. The version that I explicate here is the one that is the most relevant and accurate for northern-tradition shamanism. All eight of these techniques were used somewhere at some point by my ancestors; I will be discussing all of them regardless of how controversial they are in today's modern society.

I should also say up front that no one "spoke" of this wheel is better or worse than any others. Some are admittedly somewhat less safe, but the truth is that none of them are perfectly safe. There is no way to make shamanic work safe, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or not teaching actual shamanic techniques. The Ordeal Path and the Path of Sacred Plants are currently on the most-unwanted-bogeymen list in our modern commercial American culture. Part of this is because too many people ignorantly abused the tools of these paths and messed themselves up. Part of it is because they are simply the scariest-looking, externally, and the most likely to put you in the emergency room if you're careless and stupid. I don't claim that there is an easy way to travel down any of the eight paths, but these two require special care. They are difficult, and every step must be taken with alertness, mindfulness, and mental discipline. You're not supposed to master them in one hundred-dollar afternoon workshop. There are people who train for years to be able to use these paths regularly. Approach them with the respect they deserve, or you'll end up injuring or killing yourself.

To say that these are all legitimate shamanic paths does not mean that every shaman or shamanic practitioner can or ought to practice all of these. I've only very rarely met people who had done all eight, and no one who used all of them with any sort of regularity. The reason that there are so many is because most people - and that includes most shamans and shamanic practitioners - will not be able to access all of these paths. Most use only one to three of them in their work. Some use as many as four or five, but usually a couple of those will be reserved for occasions when extra power is needed. Don't feel that you have to be good at them all; I'm certainly not. There are some that I seem to be "wired" for and some that simply don't work for me. I think that's the way of it with everyone...but most people with any knack for it at all can find at least one that works for them reasonably well.

Also, there is the issue that most people don't end up using just one path. The eight roads can intertwine, cross, and join for periods of time. Their boundaries blur. One can sing and drum, using both the Path of Breath and the Path of Rhythm. One can fast before meditating, using both the Ascetic's Path and the Path of Meditation. One can create a ritual of painful obstacles to build courage, using both the Path of Ritual and the Ordeal Path. All these roads are at your disposal, if you're willing to practice and learn how to use them properly.

Each of the paths has a specific set of skills and tools that the journeyer needs to become proficient in, or it just won't work - or worse, it will work badly and screw you up. These tools and skills are for your own safety and protection as well as for the efficacy of the working. Don't skimp on safety, including your own psychological as well as physical safety, when doing these journeys. Machismo is the worst possible attitude to don when facing the wights. They aren't impressed, and they may feel that you are better off stripped of that attitude, by force if necessary.

All eight of these paths have been used, to one extent or another, by ancient and/or tribal cultures of the subarctic western Eurasian area. We have better records of some than of others, but echoes of all of them persist.

The first path - and it is first because most people start with it - is the Path of Meditation. This is also sometimes called the Path of Breath, because altering consciousness through specific forms of breathing is one of the classic techniques of meditation. However, not all parts of this path require breathing techniques; it can include any technique where one goes into an altered state while sitting or lying quietly, using only the tools of one's mind. This path includes techniques of trancework such as utiseta, "faring forth", and so on.

The second path is the Path of Ritual. Creating sacred space and doing deliberate (and often repetitive), mindful activities that are heavily laden with meaning in that space can create an altered state by itself. With carefully designed ritual, the mind can be coaxed into a state of openness. This path is one of the most gentle, and the best for doing any kind of consciousness work with a group of people. However, it is much less likely to take people very deep unless it is worked with on a regular basis.

The third path is the Path of Rhythm. This includes drumming, dancing, or any repetitive rhythmic motions. Drums and rhythm are an important part of northern-tradition shamanism; while there is little reference to them in the "lore-era" medieval writings, their neighbors the Saami use drums to this day. Dancing - wildly or just repetitively - has been used by shamans all over the world as a way to achieve altered states, and some believe that if the origin of the word "seidhr" actually means "seething", then it might refer to a form of deliberate rhythmic shaking used for the same purpose.

The fourth path is the Ascetic's Path. This includes fasting, sensory deprivation, and purification ordeals, all of which have various precedents in the North. While the sweat lodge has been associated only with Native Americans, the northern Eurasian equivalent - the sauna - is still very much in existence, and its rituals need only to be reconstructed.

The fifth path is the Path of Sacred Plants. From Thor's henbane beer to the infamous Little Red Man mushroom, hallucinogenic plants have been used with surprising frequency in the ancient North. The main difficulty with this path - leaving aside the issues of legality - is that it can be physically dangerous. On the other hand, for those who have trouble opening up in other ways, nothing blows the doors off like drugs. While no shaman's work is entirely safe, the folk who work with these plant substances stress that the first part of making them safer is to establish a good relationship with the plant spirit in question, which most people don't think (or even know how) to do.

The sixth path is the Path of the Flesh. This path involves using sexual energy as a way of opening one's self to the spirits. While sexual energy - alone or with a partner - has been used for raising power to do magic in traditions all over the world, using it as an altered-state mechanism is a specific subset of sex-magic technique. Since little or no references to sex magic (except for highly negative ones) survive in the "lore", much of this material has had to be rediscovered by folk who work with those Gods and wights whose specialty this is. It also seems that there are different styles of sex magic, depending on whether one works with Aesir, Vanir, or Jotun allies.

The seventh path is the Ordeal Path. This path revolves around intentional and careful use of pain in order to put the body into an altered state. Pain and endurance ordeals are found in many places in the Northern path, from Odin's suffering on the Tree to blood-runes carved into the flesh of warriors for building courage and conferring safety in battle.

The eighth path is the Path of the Horse, which involves direct spirit-possession, bringing the Gods or wights into the body for a short period of time. If there is one path that is both rarer and more direct than any of the others, it is this one. Most people are not wired for it, and there is no way to take it if you don't have the wiring. It is also the path that is the most directly tied into the religious side of shamanism; once you've had the Gods and wights inside you, it takes a ridiculous amount of denial to disbelieve in them again.

I will be discussing the pros, cons, and techniques of all eight of these Paths as they relate to the northern tradition over the next several chapters. The important thing to remember, again, is that no path is safe and no path works for everyone. If you try something and it doesn't work out for you, don't feel as if you are damaged. Some spirit-workers that I know do wonders on the Path of Meditation alone. More importantly, in each case, consult the Gods and wights that you work with as to which Paths they think would be right and wrong for you; sometimes they can see more clearly into the situation than you can. If you've never managed to get any Gods or wights on the phone, maybe that's a message right there. Be careful. Be cautious. Don't think that this is a game.