Specifically, I used the term “the Other”, which takes the focus away from the term “spirits”. When people commonly talk about the spirit world, what they are talking about is an idea of former humans (humans who have passed away) inhabiting a type of astral space. If trained or versed in “shamanic” thought, the typical thought would be a world, either “upper” or “lower” where one can venture to find answers to questions (divination), heal on a spiritual level, or interact with a variety of beings.
In many forms of occult/magical/folk magic practice, such as “traditional” witchcraft (for whatever that term is still worth these days) as well as animist-thought, there is an understanding that the Other is our nightside, associated with the moon, with magic or spiritual work, as well as the darker, primal aspects of our own nature. That it is right next to us, within us, a part of our daily lives.
The term “Other” in its usage then not only implies the huge link between ourselves and what we can access spiritually, the power of the “Other” or Outlier– the idea that the aspects of ourselves that think and are different from what is culturally construed as “normal” are a source of power, insight, and in fact, magic… rather than something to be locked or hidden away– and more generally, the idea that there is little divide between our daily, human selves and the Other.
It is a huge difficulty that the commoditization of spirituality and animist-type paths has led people to believe that the Other is truly separate from them. It is somewhere else– it is in Peru, or at a weekend workshop. I do not wish to disregard the power of some of those experiences, they certainly can be life changing; but they also offer the capacity for people to push the Other away from them, to go somewhere else other than their bodies and their lives to contact it.
Arguably, some people are simply at that point in their lives. What they are ready for is a spiritual vacation that in some ways is life-changing and consciousness expanding, but not too far, and still with the understanding that daily life can be gone back to without much having changed.
The first step for developing positive relationships with the spirit world is to realize that you are already in spiritual relationship(s).
You just may not be aware of them yet. Picture this– you have been living in the same house or apartment for five years. In your front yard is a tree. You pass by it every day on the way to and from work. It has seen you get in arguments with your partner, shaded you when you decided to have lunch outside, and has felt your back against its trunk.
Saying “hello” to that tree to and from work, thanking it, bringing it offerings (gratitude if not something tasty to drink– ideally you would ask first), and journeying or doing simple grounding exercises with that tree can bring you not only a vital connection (in a world starved for and separated from connection) but bring you a solid spiritual education, strength, depth, and understanding that what is right out your window, what you run across in your daily lives, is spiritual and can be connected to.
While you can go to Peru and connect with an “apu” there and I am sure it will be a magical, life-changing event… you can begin to talk with the trees, greet the birds, plant your feet firmly in the dirt and state that you are here, and that you are willing to notice. Willing to realize that spirit surrounds you.
Then, examine your personal psychology and needs for the spirit world.
It is funny, I was talking to a colleague the other day and sometimes there is a thought that if we are animist, spiritual workers, ritual magicians, or whatever we may be where we have the belief that there is more beyond “archetypes” or psychological constructs to the spirit world (as in, there are actual spirits there. And beings. And stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with us and isn’t centered on us or our needs) that we wish to throw psychology out the window.
It is easy to think in such simple polarities, but if you ask any seer, spiritual worker, etc. worth their salt if there is a need for psychology and psychological understandings, the answer would be a resounding “yes”.
This is because we have so separated from the sacred, from spirit, from the “Other” that we can no longer discern (or are not willing to discern) personal psychology, projections of unmet needs, perpetuated trauma, and mental imbalances from authentic spirit contact or contact with the Other.
This should really be the first question: “Is this coming from personal psychology?”
It should also be perhaps the second, third, fourth and fifth questions. Because not only do we create and project, we can use spirit and the spirit realms to further disassociate and perpetuate illusions (and delusions).
Unless we are willing to examine our personal psychology first, we are likely not only to project but in some cases to be deceived. If in the physical world, someone comes up to you in a bar and says that they are a big movie producer who is going to make you famous because you are beautiful and special, many of us would have no problem recognizing that person as a con man… who likely is not a big movie producer.
But if the same thing happens with a spirit, we either do not have the tools or the willingness to question what is coming across. Don’t be this person.
We may be so confused that we are entirely self-creating as well. More common is that we have an unmet psychological need that is creating this. For example, if all of your spiritual encounters are an older male and you are always in situations where they “save” you, the first question you should ask yourself is if there is anything to heal psychologically around your father.
In other cases, we may be interfacing with something spiritual, but we have filters. We are projecting what we expect to see, or the spirit is appearing in a form that would be palatable for us. Navigating the spirit realms with respect means that we are willing to move beyond simplicity and to question our clarity and wounding patterns, healing what is necessary to move forward with greater clarity.
Realize that what you pick up spiritually may not have a lot of meaning.
This is another hard one for people. At the beginning of our spiritual path, we think that every feather we run across is specifically for us and has some deep, significant meaning. This is part of the excitement of realizing that there is more around us than we have been aware of previously… and sometimes that feather does, in fact, have meaning.
Part of my early meditation practice was in Zen, where one of the foundational principles I learned was that spiritual visions, encounters with beings, and sensations were distractions to be disregarded. Even siddhis (“powers”/capacities developed through awakening) were seen as distractions.
Obviously as an animist I do not follow this instruction, but it was actually a wonderful foundation because it taught me that we hang on to so much. We puzzle over it, create stories around it, and can get really, really stuck because we grasp so tightly onto anything we feel has some sort of meaning (or is strange or unusual or magnificent).
We may have a spiritual experience but by the time we open our eyes or come back to “ordinary” reality we find ourselves mentally creating, adding on, thinking.
While sometimes this is helpful, if not necessary, an approach with a sense of curiosity and “flow” is really helpful. This means that you can regard something as important, but recognize that if you really need to know something, that if something really needs to make its way to you, it will. And it will likely do that faster and easier if you don’t add eight pounds of mental imaginings and creations on top of it.
Be a Psychonaut.
If I have one piece of advice, this is it. If you approach the “Other” as a respectful explorer, that is a much different experience than approaching wanting to take, consume, or even to get answers.
We are so used to consuming, and are so hungry and deprived for anything sacred that many of us are walking around with the equivalent of a black hole within us. We look for anything with the faintest hint of magic or spirit to consume.
As a teacher I have come across many people like this. They are looking to consume me, and my work, as quickly (and typically as cheaply) as possible so they can move on to the next spiritual thing they find to consume it as cheaply and quickly as possible.
People are where they are, and I understand how hungry these people are. While I have compassion for it, such voracious appetites have caused schisms between us and the Other. They have caused for us to be less able to navigate it, less able to approach it in communion and respect, rather than just looking to take.
A psychonaut is an explorer. They explore seeking other worlds, other dimensions, the corners and dark places of things. They seek truth, knowledge, purity, to evolve personally (what they know to be true will change), or to be of service, either to the Other or some facet of it, or for others who are not able, or willing, to traverse the Other.
If interaction with the Other does not drastically change you, evolve you as a person, make you into a better, clearer, truer version of yourself, it would be an indication that navigating in a different way, with different intentions, and more openness (willingness to move beyond your version of current “Truth” and dogmas/cosmologies and thoughts you have been given), should be considered.
Approaching things as a psychonaut, looking to be in right relationship, to learn with humility, will get anyone far.
Understand that knowledge and spiritual experiences have layers.
By being a psychonaut, what will happen is that the more that you explore, the more you realize how much you have left to learn, as well as the vast expanse of what is out there will exponentially increase. Instead of achieving some sort of illusory “mastery” or “knowing everything” there will be a softening, a realization that no matter how conscious, how much of a psychonaut, how in contact with your inner Other you are, or how much power you have cultivated, that what you know is nothing.
Well, it is something, but one of the ironies of doing this work for so long is that it is easy for people truly in contact with the Other to have a bit of imposter syndrome. To realize that despite decades of study and experiences, that it is a small drop in the bucket.
This is opposed, of course, to Dunning-Kruger syndrome, where people have a tiny bit of information and feel they know everything and can answer anything about the spirit realms.
One of the places that people really stop themselves is actually not at point “A”. It is not at the beginning of their path. We certainly can stop ourselves there, but often there is motivation and enthusiasm that will carry the person forward. Many people do not move on from point “A” not because they are stuck, but because point “A” works perfectly well for them.
Where people get really, really stuck is point “B”. They have a bit of information, have maybe done a ritual or two, or have some books on their shelves they have somewhat read, and so they see where they were at “point A” (these are just for crass descriptive purposes, by the way) and how many people are at that point, and start to enact wounding around inferiority/superiority and feeling separate. I cannot tell you how many people I have interacted with who have told me, at point “B”, that they feel isolated because they know so much.
I do not wish to make light of this situation, as feeling isolated is not a good feeling, but it is rare that such individuals contend with the fact that there is the rest of the alphabet. There is a Trungpa quote about how common it is to mistake the first step on the spiritual path for the last, and it is incredibly true.
Commonly such people will find others at point B and get themselves quite stuck, sometimes for decades. Arguably such individuals are at the perfect place. At this point you can still engage with a lot of wounding patterns and not have to examine them, can still find a lot of people at the same stage, and have a lot of people in group “A” to look down on. You can still engage in group think, and never really have to contend with the sort of small drop in an ever-increasing abyss sensation that moving further creates.
But each layer, each step of the spiritual path, is a test. It is an initiation.
I am not sure when I realized this, but with each layer of knowledge I went through, the more I could see the patterning of the prior layers of knowledge (things are easier to see through the rear-view mirror and with some time).
But I also realized that we all, at every stage, will fall victim to ego-inflation and believing we are further than we are.
Realizing that this is a continual factor, you can call yourself out on it at every stage of the game. And you can begin to see the “Other” not as something tightly confined, to be controlled, or that you can even fully know, but a vast, wild expanse that it is your honor to traverse.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual healer, teacher, psychonaut, and author of several books aimed at helping those undergoing spiritual awakening. You can find out more in her book, The Spiritual Awakening Guide: Kundalini, Psychic Abilities, and the Conditioned Layers of Reality.