“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
I was at a the FSS Two-Week shamanic intensive a dozen or more years ago, and was just beginning to dive deep into the mystery of core shamanism.
A shamanic intensive is unlike any other kind of retreat. In this one, we worked for two weeks with only one day off to do laundry, integrate, sleep late, chatter.
I am someone who is affected by dreams, but only the most rare, Big Dreams, as they are called shamanically. You know a Big Dream when you have one. It changes you. It fills you, and its reality is so strong that it takes a lot of discipline to tether your body back into this world when you awake.
To understand the portent of this dream, you need to know that no one can practice shamanism without knowing, loving and working with her unique compassionate, helping spirits who live in the worlds of nonordinary reality. The word shaman is a Russian word, and one translation is this: one who sees in the dark.
The dream I had at the two-week intensive was as clear as if MGM made it. Crystal clarity, colors of many hues and subtleties. My sense of smell and taste were heightened.
To really understand my dream you need to know that my most beloved helping spirit is Bear. It is very unusual in shamanism to speak of a Power Animals; usually, this information is held secret. It is said that if you speak of your power animal he might leave you. This loss would be incalculable because it is the all-knowing, all-loving compassionate helping spirits who are omniscient, cure illness and hold mystery as safe, as adventure into the soul of life. The helping spirits cure in shamanism; the shamanic practitioner is the hand maiden.
But Bear gave me permission long ago to speak about him. This has been very important for my life and my work, to be able to speak of my love for Bear. Bear is my soul mate, the wise one, the kind one, the fierce one, the one who loves me whole. He, and other helping spirits I shall not name, has directed my spiritual development for the past two decades. I am who I am because THEY are in charge of my spiritual development. Trust me when I say this is like a having a bear by the tail. So while this is not always easy, it means that I am often pulled into initiatory experiences.
At this two-week intensive, we did shamanic work from 10 a.m. until noon, from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m., and from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. for twelve days.
By the time you get past day seven, everyone begins to feels as if it would really be just fine to stay in nonordinary reality and not come back out for pesky things like water, food or sleep. Nonordinary reality is where the compassionate helping spirits live in worlds of magnificence and love, which is one reason why this modality is called “the practice of ecstasy” by Mircea Eliade. It is the reality you do you work in for beings that are sick or when you want questions answered for clients or yourself.
I do not know if it was night eight or nine when I had my Big Dream, but the dream was to forever change how I walked in the world.
In the dream, I am in beautiful summer woods – oaks and elms and others. The warm, dappled light in the woods and the happiness and love of the people I was with in the dream made me feel so alive, so happy. We were all building a new house, a new way to live. We were building a new way for all of us to live in the world.
I had my knee on a bench, and was hammering something when I saw a shape move in the woods. I turned to investigate and I saw Bear coming through the trees in all his beauty, and he is coming to join me.
I am ecstatic and turn to everyone and yell, “My friend Bear is coming! Bear is coming! You need to meet him.”
And all of the lovely people who are building the new vision pick up hammers and 2 X 4s and mallets as Bear comes into the clearing. He walks right to the center, and every single person there begins to club him. I scream, and try to pull people away, but the brutality continues, and I see my soul mate drop as he is beaten to death.
I scream and run out of the clearing into the woods, and suddenly find myself on top of a huge and beautiful grassy knoll fringed with forest. The sun in the sky is huge, and so bright that even shadows are washed light. And all the people are standing on either side of a path, which leads out of the woods across the center of the knoll, and then back into the forest. There’s an air of anticipation and exuberance in the crowd. I am still sobbing, shocked that my Power Animal Bear has been murdered.
And then I look to the woods and the beginning of the trail, and I see Bear stride out. He is now in full sun, and his coat beams. He is enormous and perfect and I sink to my knees in shock because he is alive. And he is not alone. All of the animals in the world follow him. Elephant and owl and cheetah and lion and buffalo and turtle and wolf…. all the animals of the world walk this processional path, and the crowd begins to cheer. They are all ecstatic as they see the magnificent animals stride through them, and now there is a sense of honor and excited humility in the people. When the animals have passed by me, I wake up.
I was drenched in sweat and horrified. Yes, the dream ended well, but I SAW MY POWER ANIMAL BRUTALLY BEATEN TO DEATH. Power Animals CAN’T die, and seeing people actually kill my soul mate so brutally, made me shake so hard I could hardly stand. I could not eat and did not want to see anyone, and so I headed to the 10 a.m. session, not wanting to go, but you were NOT allowed to miss even one session in this initiatory two-week period.
I will never remember the journey work we did in those two-hours where I could barely contain the tears and the huge confusion I felt. And the second the class was over, I bolted and began to run.
I do not run. I didn’t run when I was a child. That’s yet another story, but on this day, I ran as fast as I could and as far as I could into the forest that surrounded our sanctuary. Sobbing, stumbling, I ran.
Shamanism is a very disciplined spiritual practice, and is based on empiricism and not on woo. I knew my discipline well even then, knew the thing I was supposed to do. Take a journey to the spirits to find out what teaching the dream held for me. But I just couldn’t. It was as if I was Bear in the dream; I was what I wished Bear had done – run away deeper into the forest.
The deer trail I was running along finally turned into a tiny glen where I could run no father and I fell, face first to the ground, crying and begging. Please, I said, please tell me why you showed me that. Please tell me Bear is fine. I was keening, and humiliated by what the people had done and that I had watched it happening. I was beyond reason – after all, Bear led a processional later in the dream, but the matter of his murder was incomprehensible.
And then the voice of a Teacher, a spiritual teacher in human form, with whom I had been working for some years shamanically started talking to me.
He told me that when you work in the shadows, no matter how good your intention, you will never be in harmony with the one tribe only. And that, no matter what the cost, I had to always stand in the light and be seen when I did my work. There could be no hiding, no secret work. I could not worry about what people thought of my work or of me for doing it. I had to stand my ground. And that if I did the work in the light then only good could come, and there would be no harm.
From that instant, I always answered the question directly when people asked me what I did. Most people who do what I do don’t do that. They may use other words that are more societally acceptable, more reasonable. And I do my work full time. Which is very rare. Most people do it as ministry and not full time. It’s intense work, but this is the way I was called to it, to do it as my life's true calling.
Only a few months after this big dream, I received an invitation to Career Day at our local high school. At that time, we lived on eight acres of forested land, tucked into the Cascade foothills in Washington. The boonies. The land had the ability to heal people, and was only fifteen minutes from a small town named Monroe. Which was as conservative as a Republican convention held in Selma, Alabama.
I laughed – hard – when I opened the invitation. It was clearly a bulk mailing, sent to every business in our zip code. After the laugh, I put the invite on the Mess That Is My Desk, a chaotic pile of paper and notes and books. But later that week, the invitation kept beckoning.
I knew what the room would look like for the speakers, the guest invited to career day. Business and blue collar people. People that owned the local car dealership, and, for sure, a fire fighter. And I thought about my charge: stand in the light. Be seen.
So I said yes. And showed up at the highs school with a drum and a rattle – my “business” tools. And I wore my medicine bags. I was in my usual working clothes – jeans and some nice shirt. But the medicine bags I have are far from plebian – beaded by a remarkable Hopi named Shirley. They glared beautiful in that room of grey suits.
By the end of the day, I had done three rounds of presentations. The students were attentive, and intensely curious. Many came up to me after to ask if I could teach them, something that could not be done for students under the age of 16 (for shamanic reasons), and, of course, not without permission (legal reasons). By the third presentation, the room was filled beyond capacity, with students and teachers standing to hear about my unusual career.
When I had told the handful of people I knew in Monroe that I was going to Career Day, they all urged me not to do it, and they were serious. People who fringed pagan in the community were ostracized in a big way. A few friends were honestly concerned for my safety (which was not dramatic; shamans were killed just last year in South America).
Although shamanism is not a religion, but a spiritual practice, fundamentalists think I am The Devil. And should be driven from their communities. My friends feared burning crosses would be built and lit in the meadow in front of our house. We were unpopular as it was because we would never permit the animal control folks to step onto our land. If a cougar came down from the hills and ate a sheep, and made it to our land, he was safe.
Bears sauntered by the front door every now and then, most notably, one day when I was teaching a class. I bowed when I saw him through the window.
While coyotes ate cats and wounded dogs in our area, they played chase with our dog Star Gazer and never bothered our cats Ollie and Capra. We were Weird. The artist and that woman (God only knows what she is up to).
There was no retribution from Career Day, just sweet notes of thanks from students and one from the school, asking me to please come back the next year and drum again.
What has supported my work for 25 years is tenacity. I will not be stopped. I do work to make whole a world so broken that there is endless despair. I see unimaginable cruelty in the world, and I work in service with my helping spirits to tend the tortured, the maimed, the suffering, the dying.
I have made my stand. I believe our greatest challenge is right in front of us now. Will we choose to become animal human and humane or will we continue to commit cultural suicide? I know our culture is dying now, but shamanism does not see death as something evil, something to be afraid of. It is almost always a process, is crazy messy, and is the most intense experience any of us will ever experience. Anyone who has tended someone who is dying knows the truth of this.
So why would the death of the culture not be the same? A period or transition and transmutation. Except the process is slower, infinitely more chaotic and, because we are hard-wired to survive, those in power (not true power used in harmony with the one tribe, but power warped to greed, enslavement and self gratification) are gripping harder and harder, clawing to stay alive.
The culture will crash, and there is suffering we must witness as it does. And that suffering, it creates humility. And those who are brave enough to quest, we are the ones who are now building the new culture. I pray we will not kill Bear this time when he comes to help us build the new world, but we will stand and applaud as animals are allowed to live free and wild because we will have earned the right to say the most precious thing: we value life more than money. We live for harmony and passion. We live for equality for the one tribe only.
My eyes are tired of seeing tortured bears. And tortured humans. And tortured land. At 63, I sometimes close them, but that I cannot keep them shut because that, most emphatically, is not in my job description. I KNOW we all have to look and tend. Transmute anger into compassion which then breeds activism. Stop the game of the “us” and “them.” There is only us. All of us riding the spinning blue orb. This is never-ending work. There is the personal work of riding your own rage and pity, and then the job of tending anyone who shows up. Anyone.
Were it not for my tenacity, I would have given up long, long ago. I’ve actually tried, and spiraled into what was called a breakdown years ago; it was labeled depression. I now think that depression is NOT what is epidemic in our culture as the doctors’ claim. It’s soul brokenness, and the work is to regain our selves, all parts of ourselves with compassion, and then proceed whole (and deliciously imperfect) with love and curiosity. Our numbness disappears if we "kneel where prayer is valid" (T.S. Eliot -- The Four Quartets)."
Tended as we tend, we will again be able to hear the very whispers of our souls, which know exactly how to be seduced into our our humanity and a new cosmology.