Like Pieces of a Cosmic Puzzle – Maps of the Non-Ordinary Reality

“Shamans have their maps in their heads.” – Michael Harner (1)

Shamanic Cartography

The practice of Core Shamanism enables shamanic practitioners to have their own experiences of the non-ordinary reality and thus gives them a new spiritual freedom, “[...], namely the freedom to know and no longer just to believe [...]” (2). Part of this freedom is the knowledge, which becomes more extensive with each shamanic journey, of what in Core Shamanism is called the “extra-temporality of the Upper and Lower Worlds”. In his last book, the 2013 volume Cave and Cosmos, Michael Harner (1929-2018) gives us this encouragement about this: "[...] like the pieces of a cosmic puzzle, your individual journeys will gradually come together to form a whole picture." (3) This overall picture is nothing more and nothing less than a map of non-ordinary reality.

We humans create maps of this kind – without thinking – on an ongoing basis in psychology and geography as “cognitive mapping”. This is initially about orientation, but ultimately about "[...] the way we engage with and understand the world around us." (4) Even if sciences, such as modern quantum physics and mathematics in particular, have long since demonstrated their limitations, our experience of ordinary reality is still shaped by so-called Euclidean geometry (5) and Newtonian laws (6). In shamanic journeys into non-ordinary reality, however, we enter terrain where the laws and axioms formulated by Euclid of Alexandria and Sir Isaac Newton do not apply. Space, time and causality do not have the same meaning here as in the everyday physical world: In the shamanic journey we can fly through the air and cover huge distances in the shortest possible time. Time passes completely differently than we are used to, before and after, cause and effect may well exchange roles.

Orientation and Knowledge

To find one’s way in the upper and lower world not only satisfies our possibly existing urge to explore. Orientation in the non-ordinary reality is not an end in itself, but an important part of our shamanic knowledge and a prerequisite for effective shamanic work. This begins with the importance of our starting place in nature as the “point zero” of orientation and thus for our ability to work out a meaningful map of non-ordinary reality. Harner reminds us of the importance of traveling there from the same place each time, if possible, just as cartographers do their work from a fixed point of reference: “The more journeys they make from the same place, the more details they can enter into their mental map.” (7) Slowly, a map is formed from individual parts, and a shamanic cosmology is formed from maps of the different areas of the non-ordinary reality.

Such maps also enable us to find certain places in the non-ordinary reality, such as the place and level in the Upper World where we met a certain teacher. Equipped with this knowledge, we can reliably revisit and consult our allies. (8) An ever-improving map of non-ordinary reality is an instrument of our autonomy, the ability to direct the journey and do the healing work through our intention – such as bringing healing to someone. This is done with the power and wisdom of our allies, but ultimately autonomously by ourselves. And to do this, we must know what we are doing, who we are addressing, and where we are traveling. In itself, in keeping with the oral traditions of shamanic cultures and also Core Shamanism, purely mental “maps in the mind” are quite sufficient for shamanic practice. Shamans of all times and cultures are basically very secretive about this highly personal knowledge, just as they usually give little information about their allies. But it can be helpful for our own learning process or also for the common learning in workshops to document our knowledge about cosmology either by written reports of our journeys – quasi “narrated maps” – or also by graphical (or other) representations. If we create such documentations, we learn additional things about the dynamic character of extra-temporality. Places in the upper and lower world shift. Paths to these places run differently, unexpected shortcuts open up. We suddenly get deeper into terrain we often passed by unsuspectingly. This dynamic may remind us that our own shamanic development is also not a linear process, but a path marked by detours and surprises, by obstacles and unexpected progress, ultimately a path marked by transformations and initiations.

Systematic Comparisons

Written reports and graphic maps also allow a systematic, comparative view of the experiences of shamanic practitioners, their differences and especially their amazing parallels. Such comparative considerations of shamanic cultures and methods were also at the beginning of the development of Core Shamanism by Michael Harner. For decades, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Northern California has built up a collection of such reports and maps as part of its own Mapping of Non-ordinary Reality (MONOR) project. These experiences of Western practitioners of core shamanism are part of the “Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory”, a unique collection of shamanic knowledge worldwide. They document the young tradition of core shamanism that has been developing since the 1970s and in this way complement the Foundation’s archive with its extensive material on native shamanic cultures. Also documented there are historical representations of shamanic cosmology, such as those found on drums or on cave walls. Results from studies of contemporary accounts of the Upper World have been summarized under the title “Celestia Studies” (from Latin coelom – heaven) and excerpts published in Michael Harner’s book Cave and Cosmos. A comparable study on the Lower World – “Netheria Studies” (from English nether – below) – is still pending, although Harner had already presented important findings on this in his book “The Way of the Shaman” in 1980. (9)

The life’s work of Michael Harner, the methodology of Core Shamanism and the studies on mapping the non-ordinary reality may encourage us to make our own experiences on shamanic journeys and to improve our orientation with each journey. Consistent shamanic practice and work on our map – mental, narrated or drawn – offer us the chance for an ever richer and more differentiated picture of the extra-temporal and thus for more effective divination and healing work. Step by step, pieces of a cosmic puzzle come together for us and we arrive at a deeper understanding of the world – both in ordinary and non-ordinary reality.



(1) Harner, Michael (2013): Höhle und Kosmos. München. Ansata / Random House. p. 116.

(2) Ebenda. p. 9.

(3) Ebenda. p. 360.

(4) Downs, Roger M./Stea, David (1982): Kognitive Karten: Die Welt in unseren Köpfen. New York: Harper & Row / UTB. p. 23.

(5) Presented by the Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC in his work "The Elements".

(6) Formulated by the English naturalist Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) in his 1687 work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin; "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy").

(7) Harner, Michael (2013), p. 116.

(8) Ebenda p. 362.

(9) Ebenda p. 119.


Dr. Andreas J. Hirsch is an author, photographic artist, curator, editor, and faculty member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.