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‘…I was surprised and delighted that one (of the photographs)
showed a modern shamaness from Central Asia
during a healing ritual…
She had her arms folded across her chest
in the way I had seen
in the two ancient pieces of art and
she was sitting with her legs crossed.’
The Felicitas Goodman that I knew had tremendous respect for the power and sanctity of the alternate reality. She cast herself as a seeker with a focus on research and exploration and while she was intrigued by how people responded to their visionary experience, she was adamant that she herself was not in any position to initiate people into a particular shamanic lineage or practice. Instead, she observed the individual experience and considered how it could be related to the cultural context and area where the posture was found.
The posture first came to my attention early in 1985
in a publication about antiquities from Tennessee
The stone sculpture,
Created about 700 ad
Represented a woman who had her arms
Placed on her chest in a special way
So her right hand
Came to rest
Above her left.
Subsequently I saw the posture
In Marija Gimbutas’ book about ancient Europe.
The terra-cotta figure,
Once more a woman,
Was much older (5th millennium BC)
But there was no mistaking the position of the hands.
Representations of the Chiltan Posture,
As we are now calling it,
Have turned up on
the Northwest Coast, in Arizona,
and with the Olmecs in Central America,
In addition to Tennessee,
It is known in
And modern Africa.
She sought and reported consistent visionary experiences from a particular body posture so it is no surprise that participants in her sessions using the Chiltan Spirit posture all reported departing for a journey and experiencing energy in multiple waves and forms. They were also consistent in describing the energy as hot to the point of being fiery and militantly organized. Healing was a consistent theme for those in need. For those called to be healers, common factors of their initiatory experiences included dismemberment, flowing blood, death, and rebirth.
‘It seems that in inner Asia,
In the valleys of Uzbekistan,
Shamanesses ask for the help
Of a group of spirits
when they are called upon to cure.
The Chiltan are said to be forty-one young girl knights.’
While this body posture does consistently bring about a sense of support and assistance from a multitude of spiritual allies, the precise description and number of forty-one girl knights has not been spontaneously reported among any group I have worked with. I have wondered if that might change if I traveled to Eurasia or made direct contact with an Uzbekistan shamaness. It has also occurred to me that one reason that westernized workshop participants do not experience the energies of the Chiltan posture as forty-one girl knights is because they are the culturally defined masks for the orderly manifestation of energy that develops as the Uzbekistan shamanesses learn to focus and direct their energy through their intentions. Meanwhile I focus my own intention and consider how the individual visionary experience may vary depending on:
- Individual experiences and attitudes
- Spiritual callings
- Geographical area
- Cultural context
- Ancestral lineages (DNA)
One of my most distinctly defined sessions with the Chiltan Spirit posture occurred about 15 years ago when:
- A young mixed blood Indian from one of the Eastern American tribes who felt isolated and unsupported, overwhelmed by the demands of their dysfunctional tribal remnants, approached me for a private session.
- They had come to the American Southwest to study and teach about healing plants
- They reported that during the session beetles came in great numbers to eat away the energetic and ancestral blockages that hampered healing energy from flowing into the healer and out their hands to the plants and the patients they worked with. In this part of the world, the beetle is one of the honoured guardians of the doorways to the spirit realms.
- Not surprisingly, as this person was teaching botany at the local acupuncture school, they described the energetic channels as acupuncture meridians.
- They sought a connection to their living ancestors as well as support in the alternate realities and as it turned out, a group of indigenous elders was meeting in the area at this time. One of them, the Algonquin Elder William Commanda, turned out to be not only friendly, but a close blood relation once they were introduced.
Since I have striven for congruence between all realms of my awareness for as long as I can remember, I was pleased that my intention of opening doorways for this young person to be able to thrive while following their spiritual calling was so promptly and clearly manifested.
My emphasis on facilitating a session with conscious and clear intent has not made me popular at the Cuyemungue Institute however. I began puzzling over the issue when one of the board members informed me that I was to cease all exploration of ‘new’ trance postures because having just any one try out a posture would pollute, dilute, and distort the information received during the trance. She went on to explain that the board’s inner circle who worked with Felicitas directly were the only ones capable of revealing the ‘true’ past and receiving the ‘real’ purpose of a posture.
Apparently, when these board members tried to repeat their experiences during Felicitas’ sessions with their own groups, the reports from the participants were varied, unpredictable, and could be unpleasant. I finally began to understand the root of the problem when one instructor actually had the self-awareness to ask me why groups Felicitas and I facilitated consistently reported cohesive visionary experiences that concluded positively when hers did not. Much like the experiences the board member had described to me, the groups this woman facilitated all too often resulted in people’s experiences being fractured, disparate, and inconclusive with a distressingly consistent percentage reporting unrewarding and unpleasant experiences.
Explaining that coming from my background, the clarity and usefulness of the individual trance experience is directly dependent on the facilitator’s knowledge, clarity, and the focus of their intent did nothing to clear the air. In fact, it seemed I had transgressed yet again just by bringing up the idea of maintaining ones mental and emotional hygiene. Such ideas are systematically dismissed as belonging somewhere off into the hazy and mysterious arena of a personal subjective spiritual practice and are not considered appropriate professional, academic, or scientific pre-occupations. That the Institute certification process fails to transmit any sense of the responsibilities or the profound influences of the person facilitating the trance experience was illustrated by the number of aspiring and certified instructors who repeatedly told me that they found rattling or drumming for a group both boring and exhausting.
Why spiritual practices are so repugnant to westerners interested in shamanism continues to puzzle me, although occasionally a window of insight opens up. Reading anthropologist Taisha Abelar’s book ‘The Sorcerers’ Crossing’ gave me a sense of how lost she felt as a young American woman of Hungarian and English ancestry. It was not until she was initiated into the post-colonial Yaqui Indian tradition that has its own context and imagery for the visionary realms and shamanic experiences that she began to gain a sense of herself. Rather than depending on hallucinogenic plants to change her world view like her contemporary Carlos Castaneda, she shares a specific body posture she was taught to take and hold to aid in clearing old inimical emotions and patterns in order to regain energy, clarity, and vision:
- Sit with spine curved forward
- Tuck chin in
- Bring knees up close to chest
- Keep feet flat on ground
- Wrap arms around calves
- Clasp hands around knees or elbows
- Hold position and breathe for at least ten minutes
- Then roll back
- Release arms and straighten legs
- Lie flat on back
The German version of the Cuyemungue Institute’s workbook includes a pottery figurine from Nayarit, Mexico that resembles this description in their catalogue. Workshop participants holding this position consistently report the experience of a spirit journey and Taisha Abelar’s shamanic initiation emphasizes learning how to control the ability to travel between worlds and cope with the unexpected.
The emphasis on holding a specific body position as part of an indigenous American shamanic practice is not unique to the Yaqui Indians. Another anthropologist, Michael Harner, also includes a specific body position in his book ‘The Way of the Shaman’. He describes it as a means the South American Indians he studied with used to facilitate their entrance into the underworld.
While Harner’s workshops retain many of the ideas that he learned from them about traveling to a specific realm in order to be able to accomplish their culturally defined task of soul retrieval, the use of the specific body posture was dropped. Instead, his students are taught to visualize and seek out specific images and perform certain actions as they enter into the trance state.
Since visionary experiences directed by body position can be intensely discomfiting if the position taken is not correct, this lapse might indicate that important particulars of the posture have been overlooked. For example, letting ones feet relax and flop about loosely while lying on one’s back instead of maintaining tension by holding the ankles at a 90o angle can result in a severely disorienting sense of spinning or aimless tumbling rather than the experience of focused purposeful traveling in the trance state. If it is accurately described and has been correctly executed, it is likely it is not taught because the cultural fusion of a specific indigenous ritual into the context of urbanized western civilization with untrained practitioners of multiple ancestral lineages is not entirely smooth or complete. One of the hallmarks of the visionary experience directed by body posture is the visceral recognition of the profound difference between what we expect to see and experiencing what is actually happening.
One of my most illustrative examples came from a newcomer to the trance experience who reported a most perplexing (to her) experience in a posture Felicitas called ‘The Feathered Serpent’ because of the consistent appearance of a specific visionary guide. Standing figures with their hands on teir hips, palms up, are also found world wide.
The newcomer said that everything went dark after she took the posture and closed her eyes. She was focusing on the sound of the rattle, as I had directed, when suddenly it began to sound like the rotors of a helicopter landing. When she tried to look at the helicopter however, she realized that what she saw could not be possibly be a flying machine, nor could it fit into the room where we were gathered. Her confusion made everything go dark again, and then the rattle changed into what sounded like dragon wings. Once again, she realized that what appeared could not possibly be described as a dragon. Everything went dark again until she finally relaxed into not knowing, and decided to look at what was actually there instead of trying to name it beforehand.
She described what she saw then as an improbably weird combination of an enormous snake with feathers sticking out of its back. Even more surprising to her was that once she permitted herself to engage with the unknown, it turned out to be quite friendly. Having persuaded her to climb up on its head and hang onto a couple of feathers for balance, the Feathered Serpent took her for a sight-seeing ride, showing her an aerial view of an expansive and striking southwestern landscape.
Guided imagery has its uses, but its shortcoming is that it allows the practitioner to avoid acknowledging or dealing with anything outside their socially entrained notions of what should be. Perhaps more to the point, its predictable pathways are marketable. Successful sales strategies in our society do not include leaving one’s clients in a state of befuddlement, questioning their grasp of reality. I was relieved to read in Abelar’s book that the real enemies on the visionary path are exactly those ingrained attitudes and unexamined emotions that make up our social conditioning. She lists the sources of her own misery and some of the sincere aspirants’ most deadly enemies as:
- Unchecked ambition
- Unexamined sensuality
- Self pity
- Moral indignation
She continues that a visionary’s most essential allies are their ability to recognize, organize, focus, and direct the multiple energies of memories, thoughts, and feelings. The muscle cramps and discomfort she felt when she first took the specific body position her tradition taught eventually dissolved with her conscious breath and focused awareness of her inner state. In reading her story, I was struck not so much by the difficulties she encountered on her path, but by how profoundly threatening success was to her. At first, both her own journeying and her meeting those capable of consciously initiating such shifts in perception triggered an overwhelming sense of trauma, disorientation and flat out fear, a collapse of her sense of self and an inability to function so intense that western psychology could label it a psychotic break. Abelar’s book was published in 1992, and she notes that it took her twenty years of daily practice before she could write about her experience, verbalizing from the viewpoint of the accomplished sorcerer not a terrified adept.
Felicitas herself describes the steps of spirit calling her to come to New Mexico in her book Where Spirits Ride the Wind’. She came to visit my parents in the summer of 1960, and they took her to the Corn Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo. After being overcome by what she described as the ‘bewildering beauty ‘of the ceremony, she dreamt that night that three of the male singers from the choir came and knocked on her window. When she looked up, the one holding the drum waved the stick at her as though to invite her to follow along. Over the next two decades she bought the land that would become the grounds for her institute and acquired her doctorate in anthropology specializing in religious altered states of consciousness, laying the basis for her next step. Mandatory retirement from teaching forced her to seek out other avenues for her work, and so the Cuyamungue Institute was born, propelling her along her spiritual path as well. She writes of this time:
I was, at least figuratively, stamping my foot,
Acting like a very spoiled child.
Wisdom does not automatically come attached to grey hair.
The Old Ones took one look at me
And decided I needed to be taught alright.
But the initiation they meted out to me very nearly cost me my life.
Having decided to have her first class at the Institute trek to the Shrine of the Stone Lions in Bandelier National Park, she goes on to describe how she stepped into a different world when she was descending to the bottom of Alamo Canyon on a clear warm August day. The basalt walls opened for her, as though they were curtains, to allow the face of a Koshari, one of the sacred clowns of Pueblo tradition, to look out at her. Heat and exhaustion overwhelming her, she turned back towards the visitor’s center by herself. As part of the class, I was left shepherding the students from Ohio, and while they might not have seen Felicitas’ friend, he had his fun with them nonetheless. After repeatedly trying to point out the obviously extant signpost pointing out the way to the shrine and the head of the clearly marked and well-traveled trail heading up out of the canyon to a group of people who were adamant none of it existed, I gave up. I escorted them in the direction they insisted they should go, down along the bottom of the canyon to the river, and then back the same way to the visitors center.
Meanwhile Felicitas was accompanied on her walk by the intermittent sound of drums beating. After they had faded away, she persisted in walking despite her symptoms of heatstroke. Then, she writes:
I looked around me
And suddenly I dissolved.
I was gone,
melted into nothingness.
In the days to follow,
I was to ponder over and over again
What had happened to me in that canyon.
Sometimes I thought that nothing had happened,
Nothing at all.
Then I knew that that was not true.
For in that crushing awesome total enormous aloneness
Where there was nothing human
except the almost obliterated trail
I sank down within myself
To the very bottom,
Deeper than I had ever been before.
I was not afraid.
I just sank.
And when I reached that deepest point
In the abyss of myself,
That point of death,
I was hit by something
That was neither in me
Or outside of me.
It was not light or emotion.
if it ‘was’ at all,
a coarse grained vibration.
Its touching was faster than
When the tip of a streak of lightning
Hit the top of those sacred Jemez Mountains.
Then I came up again,
And rose into my conscious self,
Suspended on a wave of life.
She tells the story of how her life changed after that, but for me the key element is her persistence in following her path once she set out upon it, despite all the challenges and distractions that arose. Like so many others on the shamanic path (click here), it took Felicitas nearly twenty years to find herself, physically and energetically, in the right place to finally be able to follow the call of the Old Ones, the Pueblo Indian drummers in her 1960 vision. That call was to experience the coarse-grained vibration of the heartbeat of the earth itself, the source-sound she had first experienced through the drumming at the Santo Domingo Corn Dance.
One of the persistent peculiarities of our times is that popular perception has somehow managed to divorce the idea of shamanic trance from that of dedicated spiritual practice and self-discipline. Unfortunately, the Felicitas Goodman’s and the Taisha Abelar’s who decide to work through their fears and persist on their individual and particular paths are rare. I eventually realized that, regardless of whether their primary motivation was cowardice or ambition, the Cuyamungue Institute board members failure to recognize that the primary responsibility of the facilitator is holding a cohesive field of intent for those participating in the ecstatic trance experience meant that they been riding on Felicitas’ Goodman’s energetic coattails all along. Blindly depending on her focus and intention to direct their experiences instead of developing their own has all too often left them, their workshop participants, and the Institute itself, floundering in her absence.
All quotes in italics are from
Where the Spirits Ride the Wind
Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences
By Felicitas Goodman
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