Entering the Imaginal:
Journey to the Great Beginning
Barbara Finn interviews shamanic practitioner Janet Piedilato
To know ourselves and understand better our personal path demands we connect with the roots of our being to uncover the nature of our origin. We must return to the great beginning, the eternal void from which all originates, to the place where the Great Dream was birthed. Each one of us carries the seed of this dream within ourselves. Yet the Dream takes on different meanings in different incarnations.
While many of us feel drawn to the shamanic experience and are fascinated by the role shamans have played in human cultures, we stumble over its place in a complex urban world. At the same time, we struggle to understand our own part in the great human journey and our soul's connection with the great mystery of the sacred. Janet Piedilato is a shamanic practitioner who has faced these questions squarely.
Janet holds a Ph.D. in physiology from NYU and is a doctoral candidate in transpersonal psychology at Saybrook Institute. She founded and directs Temenos, a center for shamanic studies in New Jersey, and maintains a private practice. She is also a minister of the Circle of the Sacred Earth and a priestess in the Fellowship of Isis. In late March, she will be visiting the Seattle area.
Barbara: How does your background in physiology and dream work relate to your current work?
Janet: My interest was in the psychological side of physical reactions when I studied various hormones (estrogen, TSH, melatonin, and ACTH) to determine how much of our responses as humans is related to the flow of these substances. There were exciting years when I found my time divided between the laboratory and the classroom, yet I was always interested in that "something more," the edge just beyond the physical, where all these reactions had their origin.
A lecture long ago at a local university brought me into the circle of Stanley Krippner, respected psychologist and dream expert. It was the beginning of a friendship that continues today with my present studies under his guidance in the field of altered consciousness. I see my various endeavors as pieces of a grand puzzle.
My background has set me aside. I no longer fit in with my more critical, rational colleagues, who pursue the tangible world and scoff at the visionary one. On the other hand, I am also apart from my visionary colleagues, who often belittle and dismiss modern scientific vision in an attempt to capture the visionary experience. I sit somewhere on the bridge between the two. I believe that we can respect both perspectives and, in doing so, come to an experience that is unique for us at this particular time and in this particular space. "One could look at my daughter's death as the 'wound' that brought me full circle to the place I began to being a dreamer." Barbara: The "call" to shamanism often involves a personal journey on the part of the practitioner, who moves from a "wounded" state to one of profound personal transformation which, in turn, activates gifts of healing. Do you want to share any of your story?
"One could look at my daughter's death as the 'wound' that brought me full circle to the place I began to being a dreamer."
Barbara: The "call" to shamanism often involves a personal journey on the part of the practitioner, who moves from a "wounded" state to one of profound personal transformation which, in turn, activates gifts of healing. Do you want to share any of your story?
Janet: Perhaps there are some for whom there is no obvious wound from which they grow, yet the "call" does often involve a wound. I can speak only from my own personal experience. I was always a dreamer. By this I mean that, even as a small child, I saw things that others did not. As I grew older, I came to realize that there was little joy in seeing things that often were tragic. In response to a tragedy that involved a childhood friend, I made the conscious decision that I would devote my time to my rational scientific pursuits. I would ignore and vanquish my "feelings." Years passed, with study, marriage, and children filling my days. I was happy and content.
Then my world fell apart. My young daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. During the five years of her illness, my psychic abilities reached a pitch. It was as though a gate was open and the flood could no longer be contained. My daughter died, and yet due to my experiences, I, in my grief, was consoled. Since I held bitter disappointment for the scientific world that had failed her, I decided to turn within and began to write novels when the "mega dream," as I call it, came. It stopped me in my tracks. It was "The Call." It is still propelling me on my path. Many other events joined with it to move me to look toward the shamanic journeying method as a way to access and harness my natural inclinations. Thus one could look at my daughter's death as the "wound" that brought me full circle to the place I began to being a dreamer.
Barbara: Many shamanic practitioners train and work in a specific cultural tradition. However, I understand that your approach is more contemporary and does not require formal identification with one cultural form.
Janet: To train in a specific cultural tradition is fine if it is your culture and your tradition. Trying to adopt another's culture is a difficult thing. It is the problem of translating beliefs from one world to another. What we can do, however, is to try to understand how powerful belief systems are, and thus adopt our own in a sensible and rewarding manner.
In a tribal setting, the shaman is the person who enters altered states in order to obtain information for the benefit of his community as healer, ritualist, seer, and advisor. Often he uses some specific means to alter his state of consciousness, such as drumming, rattling, or hallucinogenic drugs. He is a storyteller as well, keeping alive the mythology of the tribe. He is a sorcerer in the sense that he sources the power, the spirit, in all about him. For many, shamanism exists only in the few places of the world where such a community exists.
The shamanic tool of altering one's consciousness by use of drums, rattles, and the like has been made available to the West. We have found that Westerners could in fact be taught to journey [the term for such an alteration in consciousness] without ascribing to some elaborate mythical system for which they had no foundation.
I use "mythical" to refer to a language of transcendence rather than the more common reference as fantasy or fallacy. The images that surface during the shamanic journey, or during any vision or dream, come together to form a story, a myth. These myths are very powerful forces that lead us on our life journey. My work is to teach people to access their personal symbols or images and come to understand their individual stories.
The word "journey" is really very appropriate as one moves from a waking reality to the altered states. A person can learn this without becoming part of some alien belief system. Spirit dwells in all manifest. We have all we need at our disposal if only we know how to access it. No one has the monopoly on this! We are all capable of accessing that which we need. We all have different roles, and thus the needs are appropriate to this. Not everyone is to become a healer.
Barbara: How do you define shamanism?
Janet: In today's society, shamanism has really come to mean a method by which a person is taught to alter consciousness for the purpose of accessing information. The individual, in his or her altered state, journeys to other worlds where teachers, power animals, or helpers give advice and aid in the gathering of information or in healing clients, yet there is no real consensus on where they go. In our culture, I would say that anyone who alters consciousness and journeys to interior teachers for the benefit of others is carrying out a very shamanic exercise. Is this person a shaman? No, quite simply because I choose to honor the original communities from which we have accessed this. We can best honor the tribal shaman by calling ourselves "shamanic practitioners."
Barbara: You have used the term "entering the imaginal" to describe the process of shamanic journeying. What do you mean by "imaginal"?
Janet: The imaginal is the realm beyond waking consciousness. It is often the space between wake and sleep, where ideas appear as images to excite, seduce, and propel us to new awakenings. It is the realm of the vision, the shamanic journey, the dream, the reverie. William James would call it "beyond the margin." Its language is the image, which we need to understand in order to understand the message. The image is naturally part of the myth. Think of Hermes as the god who rules the imaginal, not only bringing messages but interpreting them as well! While many are excited about accessing those messages, the more important job of interpretation is often neglected.
Barbara: When we deepen our connections with the unconscious, are we also connecting with a collective unconscious?
Janet: I believe that there is a collective unconscious of which our personal consciousness partakes. I believe that many people access only a small part of what is unconscious, and that most often this is from their personal unconscious. On the other hand, those more attuned are able to delve deeper and come up with what I feel really extends beyond their personal domain. This would account for premonitions and past-life remembrances.
Barbara: Does everyone have the ability to journey in a shamanic manner?
Janet: Given enough drive, I think most people can. I have met a few for whom it was not easy. There are dreamers and non-dreamers. I think the very rational personality might find it too fanciful.
Barbara: Can you describe the process of shamanic healing? What is really happening when this occurs?
Janet: I really can't answer this, as I am very much in the dark when the healing occurs. I can tell you this: I really am just a tool in this. I sing my song, honor sacred space, and allow whatever needs to be done to be accomplished through me. I never know what I am doing! I just honor my ignorance and fully put myself in the very capable hands of my teachers.
Barbara: Any final thoughts?
Janet: Set aside space to honor the teacher within. This creates a sacred space, which you carry with you throughout your day. Feed your dreams. Cultivate the romantic, the personal story. Read mythology. Look to the ancients that appeal to you and learn from them. Start paying attention to dreams. Write them down. Draw pictures, no matter how crude. Begin to be familiar with the images that make frequent appearances. It is a beginning.
Janet Piedilato will present a workshop March 27-29, "Meeting and Honoring the Ancestors A Pilgrimage to Find Our Personal Identity." The workshop is part of the "Being at Home in the Cosmos" series, hosted by David Spangler. For more information call the Stonehouse Bookstore at (425) 883-7825.