All of our perceptions of reality are based upon – or extrapolated from – the product of our five physical senses. The general paradigm is "if I can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it or smell it – it must be real."
The problem with this paradigm in a shamanic context is immediately apparent. So much of what we are working with – the soul, spirit, ancestors, journeying – deals with experiences that are necessarily beyond the realm of our physical senses.
Fortunately, it is relatively easy to refute this perspective – as I've done frequently in many workshops and with many students over the past twenty years – through direct experiences that the ego cannot entirely dismiss. To this end, I suggest a definition of reality that allows for a much broader experience: "If the experience leaves a lasting impact on my life – it is real."
THis is not always enough. Many people have an ego that is so strong and fearful, that it doesn't allow them to experience anything that it feels threatened by. Perhaps what I'm looking for is really more a matter of "validity" than "reality", however, because we tend to discount anything that doesn't pass our definition of "real", I need to address that directly.
Another, more subtle, paradigm of reality is "if you experience the same thing I do, then it is probably real." This is also problematic in shamanic work, because to much of what we encounter is filtered through our subjective perspective. When encountering the World Tree, everyone seems to experience "something" that they define as the World Tree, however,t he details vary widely. I do not believe that this is because what they are experiencing is really so different but that we do not have the practice of matching our perceptions to a consensus in the otherworld as we do here.
At the root of all these issues, is one prime cause: That is the struggle between the ego and the soul. It is the nature of the soul to awaken, just as it is the nature of the ego to resist that awakening. The soul is patient, but it will respond to opportunities. The ego wants to hold onto the illusion that it is the Self. Having to recognize that it is merely one part of something much larger is uncomfortable at best and generally terrifying. But it is this recognition that really frees up the Self to experience a larger reality and thus re-set the paradigms of what is real.