ANY practice that combines compelling rhythm and music with the freedom of motion can serve as the catalyst for inducing a trance state.

Urban Shamanism

12.04.2009   Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.

Written by Gerry Starnes, who continues to guide the longest running TranceDance Evening Ritual program in the world, which began in 1995 with Wilbert Alix & Holly Curtis.

For about 97% of the 120,000 years that humans have been on the planet, they have lived intimately with and within Nature. From the earliest artifacts known, humans recognized the power and ultimate authority of forces they could not control: predatory animals, elements, illness, and thousands of other forms of instant death. Over time, humans worked their way up the food chain from prey to predator, yet always within the context of a deep and impenetrable natural environment.

By about 10,000 years ago, humans were living in larger communities – proto-civilizations and city-states. Even as the earliest of the great civilizations, such as the Egyptian, Incan/Mayan, and Chinese emerged, the vast majority of human-kind still lived in close connection with the deep natural environment. While we hear about kings, palaces, and great cities, the people remained ultimately hunter-gatherers while the agricultural societies developed.

It has only been over the past 100 years – roughly since the Industrial Revolution – that humans have removed themselves increasingly from Nature at a geometric rate. For fewer than three generations have we so completely urbanized a vast percentage of the world’s population that many of us have great difficulty comprehending indigenous primary cultures at all. We have, on the whole, forgotten our deepest roots.

An estimated 80% of all humans now live in urban environments, within 50 miles of a coastline. As we surround ourselves with glass, steel, and concrete, and cover the earth with asphalt, we also huddle close to the oceans and rivers that we unconsciously recognize as our ultimate source.

So removing ourselves from the food chain has come at a significant price. On the whole, we have lost a critical connection with Nature, and as that connection has been severed, humankind faces the most severe consequences. The disconnect from our Natural source no longer feeds our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits directly. We reach the gods only through intermediaries.

Urban shamanism – shamanic practice within the urban context – is a serious approach to a serious problem. As we reach back through the millennia to reconnect with ancient beliefs and techniques, we find that the practices used for at least 40,000 years can still heal us. More than that, they bring us to a deep and rich connection with Spirit.

How do we re-establish and maintain that connection?

First and foremost, find time to get into the soil. Take off your shoes and bury your feet, plant something – anything! Get out into the most natural environment you can find and take a walk in the sunlight every day. Spend time – perhaps the whole day – in the woods, or even a park. Lie in the grass; take a nap or watch the birds. Unplug.

Your body needs many sources of energy:  food, fresh air, sunlight, and bio-energy. Feed your body/mind, soul, and spirit with the specific vibrations they each need every day. That will help recharge a sagging energy field, and give you a fresh, invigorated connection with the fullness of Nature.

On another level, begin to realize that even within the relatively “frozen” urban environment, everything is still alive! Our current definition of “life” – that is, eats, moves, procreates – is incorrect from a shamanic perspective.  We can have a dynamic relationship with everything around us, in mutual appreciation and communication.

In some ways, we do this already. But as with most things in our culture, we do them unconsciously, and therefore they become easily entangled with our wants and fears.

For example, many of the people I have worked with (and perhaps you) seem certain that their computers are out to ruin their lives. Cranky systems crash; files and messages are “eaten;” connections between computers are “shut down” or lost. Who can argue that the computer is a living entity, even in our language?

Forge a new relationship with your computer as a helper, scout, and guide. Appreciate its service as well as its needs. Keep it clean and unclogged with the flotsam and jetsam of its daily work for you. Rather than shouting at it and threatening a plunge through the nearest window when it gets cranky, examine it for the cause and try coaxing it back into cooperation.

Give it a powerful name. Aries is my workhorse office computer, and Pegasus is my amazingly agile and reliable laptop. Other computers I have known include my first, Janus, to the most recently retired Odysseus. (One should probably not name computers Loki or Cerberus unless one wishes to deliberately evoke that kind of energy!)

The same goes for one’s pony. Of all non-human relationships, which are more intimate than the one with one’s carefully chosen and (hopefully) well-cared-for vehicle?

These are only two examples. Consider that, because all things are alive from a shamanic perspective, each building, bus or subway, street, stop light, and lamppost can be communicated with and can be cooperative if treated with respect and appreciation!

Relationship with Spirit

For thousands of years, shamans were the representative of the tribe in the Spirit world. It was their role to keep the community and individuals in balance with the forces and energies of Spirit and Nature. A key means of doing so was to go on “Spirit Journeys.”

Our contemporary culture has evolved in such a way that we are, as individuals, increasingly accepting responsibility for our own lives, creations, and relationships with Spirit. That is wonderful, as long as we have a means to do so! However, having been estranged from an ongoing experience and understanding of our connection to Spirit, most urbanized humans find themselves with a mixture of teachings, most without deep or solid roots.

There is a good deal of “talking about” as an approach to gaining knowledge in these arenas. Yet, the real understanding that goes beyond gathering information comes from direct experience. Shamanic teaching is experiential, not cognitive. You can gather all the information in the world about electricity, but until you actually experience it directly, you can never understand it. You don’t even have to know how it works. A shock from a bare wire will assure you that it does work and what its effects are.

In general, encounters with Spirit involve voluntary induction of a variety of trance states. They may result from rhythmic sounds, and in some cultures, from ingestion of hallucinogenic substances (power or teacher plants). Such substances should only be undertaken under the protection and guidance of an experienced shaman. They generally provide deep and profound trance experiences, but are dangerous by their nature.

Psychogenic substances are not required and are not a substitute for ongoing shamanic practice. The most powerful aspect of urban shamanism is not repeated peak experiences, but the integration of shamanic practice into everyday life.

Shamanic journeying is a key practice in which the individual experiences a trance state, supported by the steady rhythm of drums, rattles, or other droning instruments. In the journey, the individual communicates with Spirit through a variety of media and intermediaries, such as spirit guides and power animals. The journeyer seeks information, guidance, and healing through an interchange of spiritual inspiration and intellectual observation. Journeys can be reflections of the current situation, which may lead to insight, and also may result in more direct guidance.

Shamanic journeys can be practiced daily or more often as desired. A variety of drumming CDs are now available that can be effective support for the journey process. Journey circles also are held in many cities around the world. Group journeys are extremely powerful because the energies of all the participants combine to enhance the journey experience.

Ecstatic dance also induces trance states. Movement to rhythm accesses a fundamental organic drive that reaches back at least 40,000 years. Allowing the rhythm to move the body brings consciousness to a very high level. Ecstatic practices such as Sufi whirling, Gabriele Roth’s 5 Rhythms, and TranceDance (a blindfolded ecstatic practice) are among the more recognizable, but ANY practice that combines compelling rhythm and music with the freedom of motion can serve as the catalyst for inducing a trance state.

Returning to the Root


The practice of urban shamanism is an ongoing exploration of ways and methods by which we can penetrate the protective – but essentially disconnecting – shield humans have built in our relationship to Nature and Spirit. They reach back to the beginnings of our humanness, and the fiercely powerful relationship we once forged and maintained with deeper aspects of living experience.

Shamanic practice has persisted for tens of thousands of years because it works. It is ultimately pragmatic and practical. Its effects are measurable and immensely healing of oneself, of one’s family and relationships, of one’s community, and ultimately of the planet. It is clear that the spirit world and its wondrous inhabitants are ready and willing to help. If only we ask.

Gerry Starnes