Understanding the Levels of Reality

We exist on many levels of reality. Reality is rather subjective as we can never know what is real for another person. In some teachings, what we call reality is an illusion, maya. For most people, what is real and what is true is the material world. In this article, we explore the different levels reality through shamans’ cosmology.


We are all born with the history of our parents’ stories. Is your own life story like your parents’ or your other ancestors? Are you fated to have the same struggles? Did you one day wake up and realize you’ve become your mother or your father?

Even if you aspire to be like your parents, what about fulfilling your own destiny and potential?

In The Heart of the Shaman Alberto Villoldo shares the teachings of the Andean shamans called Laika. His own worldview was transformed in this way. We are lucky to receive these teachings from one of his mentors, Q’ero elder and medicine man Don Manuel Quispe.

Alberto Villoldo writes that there are three common dreams we can easily get caught up in. These are the dream of security, dream of permanence, and dream of unconditional love. For many reasons, we come to believe that these dreams are true.

If we do not wake up from them, our dreams will turn into nightmares as we live out other people’s truth. We can instead transform them into a sacred dream. Our story and who we are will not be what is reflected in other people’s eyes. We shine with our own light. We write our own life story.

I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are dreamers and those who are being dreamed.

Alberto Villoldo, The Heart of the Shaman
Andean mountains stock photo by Nicholas Prieto
Photo by Nicholas Prieto “A picture I took a little time ago when crossing the Andes by plane, from Argentina to Chile. Aconcagua is a massive mountain (highest peak in South America), and always a beauty to see.”

The Five Powers in Creation

Part of transforming these three dreams is to understand the five powers. The Laika believe that four powers exist in creation and wove their symbolism and meaning into their cosmology and art using four Spirit Animals. These are the Serpent, the Jaguar, the Hummingbird, and the Eagle.

Each of these four Spirit Animals brings us a unique gift, perspective, wisdom, and power that we can call upon. In a ceremony described in his book, each person is asked to stand in one of the four cardinal directions. Don Manuel invites them to become all the Spirit Animals in turn. From the South (Serpent), to the West (Jaguar), to the North (Hummingbird), to the East (Eagle), and finishing in the centre.

Don Manuel teaches that it is crucial we are not seduced by the trappings of any of the Spirit Animals. We are to master and embody all four forces. This way, we can begin to become a luminous warrior. When we see through the illusion, we can love what is difficult rather than destroy it. Love – that is the fifth force.

In the South, we can get caught in the spell of the sensuous. In the West, the Jaguar can snare us with its power…In the North, hummingbird can trap you in a fascination with yourself, so that the world seems to spin around you and you become the centre of the creation. And in the East, the eagle or condor can be enticed by greed.

Don Manuel, The Heart of the Shaman

These four Spirit Animals also represent the four levels of reality, and of cosmic creation. The first three levels are real though only hold part of the absolute truth, which is “the truth that can be known but not told.”

The Four Spirit Animals & Levels of Reality

The Serpent

As you know, the Serpent sheds its skin, representing the discarding of the old and what we have outgrown. It also symbolizes the purging of the four toxic emotions – hunger (or not having enough), fears anger, and loneliness – that can bind us within the dream of security.

The Serpent represents the material world, where most people reside. A literal world, it is one of appearances and where we believe in the I am [fill in the blank]. Here, we believe I am safe/unsafe, I am a mother, and all the identity and modifiers we add to I AM.

The Jaguar

The Jaguar symbolizes fearlessness and holds the wisdom of being beyond death and in infinity. Jaguar shamans can exist as particle or waveform, in the physical or in the field.

Representing the second level of cosmic creation, the Jaguar is the world of the mind – ideas and thoughts. This is where we find “opinions disguised as facts” with people manipulating us to believe that what is real is also true. It is here where we begin to discover “nothing is only what it seems to be” and “I am”.

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird symbolizes courage, the gift that allows us to go on the journey, even if it seems impossible.

World of the soul, this is the level where we get myths. With the clarity of the Primordial Light, only our own shadows exist and can still confuse us. We come to understand that life is a dream and love is a force.

The Eagle

You may have heard the phrase “eagle-eyed”. Soaring high above, the Eagle sees with clarity the big picture and the details. The Eagle also symbolizes freedom.

In this realm of the Primordial Light, reality fluidly moves into creation and back into light. Here we come to understand that we are the same light as the Primordial Light.

levels of reality stock photo by caroline-hernandez
Photo by Caroline Hernandez

Working with the 4 Powers

You may be familiar with Einstein saying that the solutions exist not on the level of the problems. The Laika teach that to effect change, we dream on the level above it. If we are struggling with stress, we go to the level of the soul. We can do this by experiencing awe, perhaps by looking at the vastness of the starry skies.

These levels exist nestled within each other and we live on all of them. We eat, we sleep, we work … now when we can see through the veil of what is real is not always true, we will awaken from the dreams that keep us from dreaming the sacred dream.

Understanding there are levels of reality, we can remain respectful of the wounds and trauma we and others have experienced and also move beyond them. The stories of wounding and trauma are real – we experienced it; they are not true.

From the teachings of Caroline Myss, we have a choice to not give them weight. We always have the choice to define our world by shadow or be lifted by grace.

Instead of living out the stories handed down to us, we can rewrite them. We can write the narratives we want, without feeling we have betrayed anyone. Guilt, such as survivor’s guilt, is real and can keep many people from moving forward.

Love – the Fifth Force

Love is the force that can help us see the truth amid the lies. And above all, love is the power of the Primordial Light.

Alberto Villoldo

How do we unleash this force? We speak its language – truth. Alberto Villoldo reminds us that the practice of truth is “speaking the truth, hearing the truth in the words of others, and seeing only the truth.” It’s helpful to remember that what is real may not be true.

By being the truth and bringing the truth all the time, we dream the world and our our sacred dream into being.


The Heart of the Shaman is a great book to understand more deeply about these three common dreams of security, permanence, and unconditional love that we chase after. Alberto Villoldo also includes the four practices that activate the force of Love.

You may also want explore Caroline Myss’ Defy Gravity to learn about the seven shadows and the seven graces. In a sense, these seven, moving through the seven chakras, also represent levels of reality we have come to see as true. Defy Gravity can help us to see how we may be indulging these shadows and how we can invoke the graces by name.

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