"My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was." Sheila Walsh
Did you ever have one of those times when life really overwhelmed you?
Of course, you have.
Overwhelm is a natural human response to too many things breaking, too much to do, too much strain, too much loss.
Suddenly, someone close to you dies. And you have dear friends whose parents become deathly ill. And your dog is sick. And your car breaks down, and then there’s suddenly a massive bill you cannot pay; this always happens when finances are so tight that the food budget makes lentils and rice “what’s for dinner” as well as breakfast and lunch. Local acquaintances, whom you barely know, and who you thought might become friends, pull a nutty and, wow, this time your well-honed resiliency escapes. You take it personally.
Are you with me? Have you been there?
If yes, you know if doesn’t stop there. If you were me a few months ago, you had just wrenched your back, and dislocated your hip joint, and the pain, registering at a high eight on the scale, arrived like a charging bull elephant. The meds you were given didn’t even begin to touch it, making you wish it were the 1960s again, and you could find a Quaalude.
And you have to move your mother with Alzheimer’s very soon with the skill of Patton and the understanding of Mother Theresa.
Panic now moves in, and unpacks her valise.
A week ticks by, then two, and other things go a bit bonkers as well. You thought your equilibrium, and some semblance of order would be back by now because you have worked for a long time to build and hone your grit.
But they haven’t returned. In fact, the pain has ratcheted, and you’re still biting bullets so hard you can taste gunpowder in your mouth. Anxiety soars, and cortisol starts flowing like martinis at an open bar.
We all cope with overwhelm uniquely, but my instinct is to plant myself, rooted to one stubborn square inch of dirt.
All of the pressures, heartaches and woes spin around me, and rush toward me, crowding me in. It’s exhausting, and confusing because it feels like I am moving through my problems, but I’m not. I am not moving at all. I have become their punching bag.
When stress hits like this? Our bodies release a cascade of cortisol and catecholamine. The stream of flooding hormones and chemicals that accompany overwhelm are too long to list.
All of which makes our muscles tense, shallows our breathing, and shrouds rational thought. Flight or fight are having a spit fight.
When such need arises, you lean hard into the spiritual and cognitive practices you’ve worked on for decades, but this time, it's different.
You can't really show up because your are done in. Played. Out.
But first things first. You know you have to be present to all the feelings because they are all yours, valid and valuable. Because you have done soulful work, and because you understand there is no such thing as a “bad” feeling, you don’t try to avoid the ride.
Every feeling you have has a courteous seat by the good fire. And through all of this you try to rely on what you know to be true. You know you can, and will rise eventually because you have many times before. Empirical evidence.
My usual M.O. is pretty straightforward. I take shamanic journeys, breathe and contemplate, and talk it all out with a select friend or two. And eat chocolate sparingly.
This time, none of this worked, mostly because I could not journey for myself. And not being able to journey? It meant I could not converse with Bear. Shamanism is the language we share.
Journeying enables me to grow in power because the helping spirits are my true Counsel of Elders. They have saved me and my ass when major stress has hit for the past 24 years. But this time, I felt my heart begin to shred like tissue paper caught in a meat grinder.
My best and worst habit kicked it. When big overwhelm occurs, I instinctively hibernate. Usually in my cave, in the sanctuary of my soft blue-lavender bedroom. I stare at a picture of Captain Jack Sparrow, and try to remember I am a pirate. I cut off contact with just about everyone, and settle in to still the noise.
I don’t just have Sparrow as company. I am never really alone in the cave. Bear is always with me.
His power, love and humor hold me as I try to find my strength like a missing sock that the dryer ate. There’s really nothing like leaning back onto a 1,200 pound bear to help you regain a titch of equilibrium, and feel a little bit more grounded.
And because of his omniscience, Bear teaches me things I really must learn (whether I know it or not (or want to or not)) in these times. He is my ultimate teacher and protector as well as my partner and ally.
Hibernating usually shuts out cacophony, and in the womb of the cave, I begin to slowly heal. And typically, when I journey, the world and its craziness makes sense again, and I emerge on all fours, a bit hungry for berries and life.
But this time? My hibernation threatened to last through winter.
This was new.
It was the pain. I couldn’t walk or sit or rest well. When physical pain is this big, shamanic journeying isn’t always possible because you can’t focus or hold strong intention – the two essential prerequisites to altering your consciousness.
So I sat hapless in my cave with Bear, unable to tap into my first, best practice to gain power. But my desire to heal, plus desperation, prompted me to try something I had never thought of before.
One afternoon around 3 p.m., with no resources left, I opened my eyes, glanced at Captain Jack and petted my dog Lily who had planted herself next to me. And then, I shouted out loud to Bear. “Please help!” I said. “Help me now, right here as I lie in this bed. I cannot journey. I am in pain. Cure me. Love me whole.”
And POW. It began. For the next three days, Bear's power coursed through my body. My limbs assumed strange postures, and an array of wild gestures and stances took over my body. I bellowed.
At times, I shuddered with power, and the mattress hopped. I watched as pillows bounced off the bed. And although I was not in a shamanic state of consciousness, I could still see and feel all the work the spirits were doing. I spouted like a whale, my pain geysering from my mouth, and Bear and his helping spirits flew above me to eat that pain as it flew into the air.
I stalked, I quaked. And I began to change.
I danced spontaneously, sometimes prone and sometimes pulled to my feet. I sweated, and turned bright pink all over. I could feel Bear’s claws pulling me apart painlessly, and putting me back together in a series of cures that lasted for days.
Bear replaced my spine and hip, and the pain dropped to a low two.
I dreamed Big Dreams, seminal ones that you never forget, that revealed new things about my present and my future.
And when Bear had finished? I was cured. I was changed by his work in ways that I am just now beginning to appreciate. I have new boundaries, and new vision.
Peace has trumped cortisol and its pals. Bear has, yet again, filled me so full of his power that I now feel strong, unruffled and BIG.
And those heaps of problems? Many are still here, of course, but they no longer have the power to rule me. Which means I can now face them, and begin to solve them. My creativity has returned, and I am, again, living outside of the pesky box.
If you were to see me now, before and after all this? I am not sure if I look different, but my husband Don says my eyes look somehow deeper and kinder. I have noticed I am standing taller and striding long. Earthly woe, money, health – all the challenges look like ants, and not flesh-eating dinosaurs. I got to the chiropractor, and resumed work.
Physical pain has reduced to a one now. I am remembered, remade with the strength of mountains and rain and fire. Hope and excitement are my welcome companions.
I share my story, not because overwhelm is unusual, but because each of us is overwhelmed sometimes. What was unique this time was the cure, and the way it happened.
I share my story because we all must learn to accept and reveal our vulnerabilities when visited by overwhelm. We all have our unique ways of coping, and that we each manage to crash and then rise? This cycle is a our strength, and not our weakness.
Because it is important to know you can receive cures from your power animals if you ask for them prudently, respectfully – even if you are helpless, and all you can offer is the word “please.”
Because maybe you don’t KNOW who your Power Animal is, and, trust me, you need to.
Bear’s is the finest medicine. All power animals offer it. Their gifts are free, and birth seminal power and new vision.
Now, I am dreaming of swooping, scarlet cardinals, and flowering dogwood. True gifts. I dream of my mom, who will soon be sitting happy (we hope) in her new sunshine-yellow abode.
I dream for my new clients and my old ones. Of my students. Of a fantasy book I am writing, and (what a shock) I am falling in love with writing in a whole new way. I am exploring a brand new, unexpected and impossibly strong friendship.
All of these real, concrete gifts are the result of Bear’s work. All of them.
Tomorrow, I will prepare a gift of honey for Bear’s altar. Today, I offer him the river of honey in my heart. Still next to me, I feel his fur, his breath on my neck. It’s feels like a prayer, a song, a celebration of mortality and immortality.
It feels like this: welcome home to the new place where you have always lived.
Lora Jansson is a shamanic practitioner, teacher and writer. And this is Lily, quite muddy after a roll in one of her beloved puddles.
While Lora is aware that shamanic practitioners shouldn't really have favorite practices, she admits that Power Animal Retrieval is hers. Receiving and working with your power animal is the best gift you can ever receive.
If you need help or want to have your Power Animal retrieved, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She'll be happy to chat, and explain the process. You can also read about the practice here.
She and Bear would love to meet you.