As a journalist and author of books on health and wellbeing I’ve tried pretty much every technique and treatment going. All were interesting but there were only some I fell in love with and made part of my regular spiritual ‘regime’. Shamanic journeying is one of them. Shamanism is not a religion: it’s a practice that is compatible with all spiritual paths. When you journey, you put yourself into a state of trance (usually by drumming or using a rattle) and travel to other planes of where you meet guides (either animals or discarnate teachers) for healing and knowledge. Shamanism treats the whole of the natural world as sacred – and as a teacher.
Floatation – where you lie suspended in 10 inches of highly salted water – is another of my loves. So the idea of combining shamanic journeying with floatation was just too tempting for words.
Recently I had been feeling a bit stuck. I had taken a gamble and tried my hand at teenage fiction. I wrote a novel about shamanism, Walker, and then a spooky supernatural romance called Samael. At first it looked as though Samael would be snapped up by a publisher but, what with one bit of bad luck and another, nothing happened. Then, to add insult to injury, my shamanic guides seemed to have deserted me. I didn’t feel their presence in daily life and, when I journeyed, they weren’t around. So I hoped that floating might be the extra dimension I needed to get back in touch.
Hands On is a small clinic not far from the gorgeous North Devon coast. Owner and bodyworker Phil Steward knew from the moment he planned the centre that a float room was central. ‘My healing journey started when I broke my back when I was 18,’ he says. ‘I was at university in Oxford and there was a treatment centre nearby with a float tank – one of the old pod ones. I went in it every other day, and suspended in zero gravity in water, my body could concentrate on healing. Up to 75 percent of the nervous system has to deal with keeping the body upright in gravity,’ he explains.
But I was more interested in floating’s other claim to fame – the way it switches your mind into a very deep state of relaxation. In shamanism, you use a blindfold to shut out the light and employ drumming or rattling to put the mind into a light trance state. I thought that floating would surely help the brain to fall into the right pattern even more quickly and easily. ‘Yes. When you float you produce slower brainwave patterns,’ says Phil. ‘They’re theta waves, normally only experienced in deep meditation or before you drop asleep. The two hemispheres of the brain work together (what’s called whole brain thinking).’ He explains that this is usually accompanied by vivid imagery, very clear creative thoughts, sudden insights and inspirations.
Phil’s partner Ellie MacGregor (a regression therapist) often uses the float room for trance work and considers it ideal for encouraging the intense visualisation of shamanic journeying. ‘It can be emotionally and spiritually transforming,’ she says. ‘Floating can help open doors into your inner world, gradually allowing access to those deeper levels at which real changes take place.’
I’m excited. But before I venture into the float room, Phil suggests I have some therapeutic massage. He believes that massaging before a float helps people relax and the floating session can ‘embed’ the shifts he makes to their bodies with a healing massage. He has a strong, assured touch, using a combination of techniques and also a fair amount of healing [Reiki and Theta]. The very base of my spine had felt ‘jammed’.
At the end of my hour I am so chilled I nearly collide with a wall en route to the floatation suite. Ellie laughs and sits me down to talk through the float process, ‘It’s totally different for everyone,’ says Ellie. ‘There’s no right or wrong experience.’
I go into the private floatation suite, strip right off (you get cold if you wear a swimming costume) and have a shower. Then I pop in a pair of ear plugs (to keep the water out) and open the door to the float chamber. Some clinics have small ‘pods’ (where you clamber in and pull the lid down on you) but this is a proper small room filled with 10 inches of warm water; large enough that you can stand up straight and when you lie down you can stretch right out. It’s beautiful. A soft blue light shines under the turquoise water and the ceiling is sparkled with tiny lights like stars. I lie down and the water lifts me up gently – it’s body temperature and feels curiously silky.
At first I try to hold my head up but then I release the tension, let go and allow the water to hold me. Once I’m used to the sensation, I reach for the two buttons and turn off all the lights (you don’t have to but for the best effect floatation should be done with total sensory deprivation). It’s not remotely claustrophobic – just blissfully serene.
Then the drum beat of the shamanic CD starts, steady and insistent. Yes, I can still hear it through the ear plugs. I visualise myself at my usual entry point, a young oak tree in a wood near my house. To my delight, a small snake (one of my spirit animals/guides) slithers up to greet me and we plunge down into the lower world almost instantly, down a tunnel studded with gemstones. In fact we go much deeper than usual, right down into the fiery core of the planet, and then my snake guide and I become two huge pillars of light – one red, one white. The pillars fuse and our energy shoots out. Then I shoot out too, back to the middle world (the shamanic equivalent of the world we live in here on the physical plane) and find myself being greeted by another of my spirits, a proud red eagle. I fuse with the eagle and we fly upwards and are joined by another eagle, this one white: together we circle upwards until we are way out in space. We turn into human figures again but now we are absolutely huge. Looking back down to earth, just a pinprick in the vast spaces of outer space, I am given the message: ‘Heal the earth from the inside out.’ And then another, which seems more personal. ‘Relax. Don’t try so hard.’
Energy courses through my body and I feel as if I’m going to explode with it. But then the drum beat changes, signalling that it’s time to ‘come back’. I thank my spirit guides and bring myself back to my starting place, by the oak tree. And then I become aware of my physical location, here and now, in the float room.
The drum beat fades and I am left in complete silence and blackness. I feel a huge sense of peace, as if I’ve had a vast burden taken from me. I do try too hard, all the time. I try to make things happen, rather than allowing them to be.
So I don’t try to do anything for the last part of my float – I just lie back and enjoy the sensation of being held, supported, without a care in the world. Time becomes meaningless but eventually some music comes on to tell me that it’s time for my float to end. I turn the lights back on and step out, being careful not to get any salty water in my eyes. I have another shower, dry my hair, and emerge in the reception area, slightly dazed and feeling like a newborn baby.
‘Was it good?’ says Ellie and then smiles as she looks into my eyes and nods. ‘I can see it was good.’
Phil gets me a glass of water and I sit down to ‘come to’ thoroughly. He tells me that, in the US, they do all-night dream-quest floats, more intense and long-lasting shamanic journeys. My eyes light up.
In the days that follow I remember more and more of my float journey and feel more and more reassured. I feel that I will be able to move forward, that what I need will come to me – and to the earth too. I just need to let go and relax. In other words, to float.
Hands On Clinic, Braunton, North Devon, EX33 1AH, 01271 812998, http://handsonclinic.co.uk/
A good introduction to shamanism is The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
He has also produced a CD of drumming that facilitates journeying, Shamanic Journey Solo and Double Drumming
My shamanic novel, Walker, which is based entirely on real shamanic practices, is available on Amazon for Kindle.
You might also be interested in The Smudging and Blessings Book: Inspirational Rituals to Cleanse and Heal
This feature first appeared in Spirit & Destiny magazine.