This is an ongoing US and global project to help enthusiasts, scholars, practitioners, and curious parties learn more about shamanic living in a contemporary culture. The space here is devoted to sharing info, experiences and opinions about all forms of shamanic expression covering shamanism's multiple permutations. Among subjects explored are traditions, techniques, insights, definitions, events, artists, authors, and creativity. You are invited to draw from your own experiences and contribute.

What is a SHAMAN?

MAYAN: "a technichian of the Holy, a lover of the Sacred." CELTIC: "Empower the people...by changing the way we think." MEXICAN APACHE: "Someone who has simply learned to give freely of themselves..." AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL: "...a teacher or healer, a wisdom keeper of knowledge... (who) takes people to a door and encourages them to enter." W. AFRICAN DIAGRA: "views every event in life within a spiritual context." HAWAIIAN: "...human bridges to the spiritual world and its laws and the material world and its trials..." QUECHUA INDIAN: "embodies all experience." AMAZON: "...willing to engage the forces of the Universe...in a beneficial end for self, people, and for life in general."

-- from Travelers, Magicians and Shamans (Danny Paradise)

Monday, March 24, 2008

This excerpt is from my new mini-book, "A Woman’s Beauty:
The Beauty Of The Downward Spiral" and it speaks to the stages of alchemy as in The Emerald Tablet

The sweat lodge is crammed full. Maybe you could get one or two more into the small dome, but I’m not sure how. The large, red-hot stones come in on a pitchfork, passing close enough to frighten. One slip of the wrist, one stumble, and flesh would burn. It has never happened, at least not in any sweats I’ve been a part of. But it could, and you know it. It grows a sense of respect and awe—sentiments just right for ridding yourself of yourself and connecting to Something More.

The flap is closed and all light is shut out. Chanting begins, a high-pitched and whining sound-song. Truthfully, I could do without this. I prefer silence, having sensitive ears, but it is not my call. I submit to this, as I will to the heat.

Time passes. Water is repeatedly poured onto the rocks. The steam rises, again and again, filling the lodge with holy water. It is not holy because of the religion or ritual of it, but because it is so raw. Earth’s rocks, steeped in fire, baptized in water, rising on air. Back to the basics of creation.

It Gets Hot

Really, really hot. My body rocks back and forth gently, as if I innately recall the pulse of the mother, being in her womb. I’m comforted by something I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m in a process where I don’t feel the need to.

Before long, the moist heat has my full attention. Sweat rolls down me as if being poured onto me, not coming from within. But it is from within. I imagine the Wicked Witch of the West—the caricature culmination of my smallest desires and assumed needs—is melting.

When the intensity finally breaks me, I lower my head closer to the earth. It’s cooler, clearer, more free down here. My lungs expand fully in gratitude for what, on most days, I take completely for granted—air.

This is the beauty of the downward spiral: Forced closer to the hot rocks in the pit, yet further from the high steam, I get up close and personal with the elements. I am shoved smack into my humanity, and, at the same time, relieved of it.

Bidden Or Unbidden

The downward spiral never looks pretty, but its beauty is unmatched. Whether invited, through such ritual as a sweat lodge, or uninvited and arriving by terrible circumstance (death, divorce, illness, handicap—the list is endless), the result is the same. We are forced to the ground, to the earth which offers clarity, to remember what is simple in order to survive.
Released of all things we cling to but don’t really need, we come to our core beauty. We hear the pulse of what is true for us. We rock ourselves into other worlds, thus expanding what we thought were our limits. We encounter our own personal Wicked Witches, and we watch them melt away.

My Downward Spiral

I have been through this ritual many times in my life. In the beginning, it was circumstance-induced. Only later would I welcome it.

Five years old seems too young to begin the downward decent, but it was then that it began for me. My favorite teenage babysitter was pushed out a car and killed on her graduation night. I went to the funeral home, not wanting to be left behind with a new sitter, yet having no idea of what I was getting into. Maybe others didn’t see all the dead spirits flying around the room, but I did. Terrified and crying out too long into the night, I was finally told by my ever-exhausted mother to shut up. Though she lived another thirty years, I mark that night as the night I lost her, too.

Nine years old also seems to young to slide down the spiral, but in that year a double blast grabbed me by the life force and sucked me down farther than I can tell. Nelle, my best friend in the neighborhood, and the greatest companion of my heart, died suddenly of Leukemia. I had not been warned.

Then JoAnn, my “new best friend” from the same block, died less than a month later during an emergency appendectomy. The night of her death started as a plan to sleep over at my house. She left early because she was not feeling well. For me, what began as a simple stomach ache became cause for deep contemplation.

I might have been young, but I was reasonably smart. A teenage babysitter and two young girls on one block dead, with me as common denominator. Add to that the fact that, so far as I knew, I was the only one with the “gift” of seeing dead spirits, and it is not hard to see how I came to the conclusion that I must have had the power of magical killing. And that the people I loved most were at the highest risk.

Down We Go

Fifteen is still too young for dark initiations, at least in my way of thinking. But the spiral continued when my father was arrested for sleeping with teenage boys and girls (fortunately, not me), thus making me the only kid in town with a jailbird-public-freak-sex-maniac-on-the-front-page-of-the-newspaper dad. But that was little compared to his early death only a few years later. He was my father, after all.

Yet that, too, came to seem small compared to the death of my younger brother (who had not escaped my father’s sexual attention) two years later. Ricky, the only living soul-companion who truly knew and loved me, shot himself for fear he was gay and would be a man like our father. That spiral had me buckling at the knees in an instant. It would be five years before I could speak Ricky’s name without a thick, hard swelling in my throat.

I Could Go On, But I Won’t

Suffice to say the refuge I sought in a “normal God-fearing life” with a husband, two children, a nice house, and church every week didn’t begin touch the pain within. I was labeled manic depressive, put on drugs that could never have relieved the heart of my ills, and felt myself a complete outsider in any social situation. That life lasted ten years, and when it ended, I had no job, a certifiable mental condition, and only half-time custody of my children. Being unable to see my children on the off-weeks unless I snuck into the school lunch room was a pain I can never describe. But in the end, the weeks alone were useful.

As I believe always happens if you really stick with things, the tide did eventually turn. At the very bottom of the spiral, I awakened to a spirituality that was nothing short of sucking beautiful clear air at the earth floor during a full-fledged, five-alarm fire. With every outward beauty taken, and the many years of internal crushing, something of a diamond began to form inside of me.

I Took The Time I Was Given

Though I hated my force-fed solitude, I used it to search for that diamond. When I found it, I excavated it. I polished it. I sought to understand it. Most important, I loved it. Eventually, I did what seemed to me to be the impossible—I came to love and trust myself and my life. Even the downward spirals. As a result, the manic depression, which the experts assured me was inherited and thus would need lifelong medication and management, was healed.

And so the Phoenix did rise again, as promised. But with her came stuff. Ideas about who I had become, who I was meant to be, and how I might change the world. Lofty ideas, and not all of them divinely inspired. New kinds of books and icons filled the shelves, and then clothes and furniture and new cars and new houses and new insurance premiums and, well… stuff.

Soon enough, I began to miss that whistle-clean feeling of having nothing to hold onto, and so nothing to take hold of me. At first, I made it a regular practice to clean out my closets and give away anything I could. I also got rid of people—anyone who professed family and friendship but did not support my highest and best interest. (This was not so easy, as people are harder to give to good will. But if you are firm, holding to your true self-esteem and not playing into their lack of it, they often go of their own accord.)

Then, even later, things began to accumulate beyond the possibility of a regular pitch and toss. You see, the children came back full-time in their teen years, and then a wonderful new partner arrived with his two young adult children—oh beautiful, wonderful, crowded, messy joy! So I did the only thing I could do. I began to learn to live clean and clear even when the house wasn’t sparse and the friends and family weren’t always ideally supportive.

I began to go to sweat lodges and undergo other rituals that clean and clear from the inside. They helped me keep my own personal version of “close to the earth” going within, especially when the outer world blew the heat full blast and chaos came to fan the flame. In short, I learned to find beauty in the chaos, as well as beyond it. And I learned how to offer it to others. The killer-magic that I feared was within me as a child turned to an opportunity to offer others life-affirming healing through “magical” means. A shaman was born.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I’m not saying I like the life-induced downward spiral. I’m not wishing another round of it for myself, thank you, or anyone else. What I am saying is that when it comes, it is not a mistake, and it is not only the ugly, festering boil it first appears to be. It is, in fact, the path by which all saints come to their sainthood and shamans to their healing gifts. It is the alchemical process that turns base metal into gold and ego into spirit. It is inherently beautiful because the seed of the beauty it brings lies waiting in the very depths it takes you to.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just take a look at the alchemists who have followed such a process with the same results, time and again. The mysterious Emerald Tablet explains it all, though it appears impossible to understand. Let me take a crack at reviewing the basics as best I know them, and if you want to know more, I suggest visiting Alchemylab.com, or reading The Emerald Tablet by Dennis Hauck.
And remember, in this series of articles we are invoking a shapeshift in the very areas that we cover. In other words, something of an alchemical transformation can begin and be furthered within you simply by reading about the stages, even if you don’t fully understand them. Your imagination and your willingness to allow for a shift—far more than your doing something—is the key.

The Alchemical Process

With processes that include labels such as “Dissolution,” “Separation,” and “Fermentation,” it is clear that alchemy is not for the faint of heart. But the promise of turning base metals into gold and freeing the ego and soul longings to embrace a pure spirit is not something to quickly toss aside.
It also doesn’t hurt that, in understanding the process of alchemy, you’ll finally realize there is a reason for the Dark Night Of The Soul experience.
If you are anything like me, you will be relieved that there is even a possibility of there being a reason for it. You will also enjoy the possibility that, as alchemy also proposes, being depressed can actually be evidence of entering an advanced stage of the process.

So, you start with the base metal. Now add fire, and so begins the process of Calcination. In psychological terms, you take the infantile ego who has barely a spark of divine spirit within, and then you burn down the house. All goes to ash. You can set the fire yourself, or simply wait for the ravages of life to get you. Either way, it is the process by which you loose your ten levels of self-deception (twenty, in some of us). Things are what they are. You are what you are—ash, and maybe a smoldering ember or two.

Next, Dissolve With Water

Lots of water. Like a tsunami or a levy-breaking flood. This is the stage of Dissolution. You are a basket case, as abandoned as Moses set down the river. The mother-moon energy floods your emotions and breaks down your rational structures (this can’t be happening...) and all your previously secure belief systems (why doesn’t God save me?...I thought if I would just be a good girl it would all turn out all right…). To progress, you simply need to realize things can change. More important, you can change. There is an ocean of possibilities. Grab a raft, if only in your imagination, and hold on.

After fire and water, the stage of Separation comes through the element of air. Basically, you get space—alone time, and lots of it. Maybe you left the people in your life, or maybe you were left. Or maybe you’re still there, but it is as if you are not. Maybe you are stuck in a job (or marriage) where you don’t connect, so you might as well be alone.

Whatever the case, you can no longer turn to others. You ask yourself what serves your highest purposes and what doesn’t. You figure out who you are, not who you are after everyone else’s suggestions have been followed and demands have been met. You review your habits and patterns and make changes where needed. It can be a lonely stage, but with time, it turns lovely. I can vouch for this.

Next, you bring in the earth element for the stage of Conjunction. Here, you figure out what is in sync within you, and what isn’t. This is the reuniting of the archetypal masculine and feminine that brings balance. The drive of the masculine forces within that strive for a linear path to greater illumination of truth and beauty join with the feminine forces, which are more interested in living through stories, an earthy lifestyle, and taking a round-about path. No longer tied to convention, you are centered as the creative ideas formed in the air get mixed with the down-to-earth practicalities and put into action.

Beyond The Four Earth Elements

The next step takes you to Fermentation, starting with the process of putrefaction. Sorry, but it is as bad as it sounds. Think composting—rotting, digesting, decomposing—and just when you thought you had gotten your conjunction together! It’s a festering black stage where you can’t ever get comfortable because you’re swimming in your own shit. That may sound harsh, but anyone who has actually been through the Dark Night Of The Soul depression knows I’m really calling a spade a cute little bunny rabbit. There are no words to do it justice. It feels endless. Even hell, you think, might be a relief. Truth is, here is where you not only want to die, you think you really might.

But wait—a really wonderful, surprising, amazing thing begins to happen if you stick with it (not that you have another living, breathing choice). When following the physical process of alchemy, you start to see an iridescent peacock’s tail begins to form on the surface of the oozing black. In psychological terms, you discover a beauty being formed in your deepest, truest self. It is nothing like you have ever felt. Something new has been created, though you don’t yet understand it.

The alchemists call it Pure Imagination. All you know is that you are not who you were, and you’re beginning to suspect you might become even more than you thought you ever could. I like to think of it as the diamond I spoke of finding within myself, shooting off glints of light from within the core of darkness. This Pure Imagination is what brings new life to dead, decaying matter. It is the process by which you develop your inner genius—that heavenly inspiration that burns steadily within.

Where The Magic Is

The next stage is Distillation—that bootleg process that turns ordinary stuff into magical “spirits.” It is a process of purification that allows the human to get out of the way of the Divine. It is also there to craft us in such a way that the Divine experiences don’t overwhelm us (and trust me, they can). The process, repeated again and again, is infused by the Divine Perspective, and so clears away more and more of the base emotions and ego identity. A more pure substance is found as the soul is released from matter. Now that you are really getting somewhere, you are more content to just be where you are.

Finally, we reach Coagulation. The glorious final prize. The Phoenix rising. (By the way, please do not interpret my earlier comment about the Phoenix rising in my life to mean I’m claiming to be fully cooked—life comes in cycles!) The base metal becomes gold, the body is made spiritual and the spirit becomes tangible. Miracles become commonplace. Heaven and earth are transcended, which means you can walk in both worlds with ease. On a daily basis, peace of mind is normal and heightened energy is readily available. You walk your given path fully capable of whatever it throws at you. In short, you become the clean, clear, pure air you used to have to put your face close to the earth to find.

That, my friends, is the beauty of the downward spiral.

Your ShapeShift

As you go through your days and the chaos swirls about you, imagine yourself in a sweat lodge. Imagine that you have chosen this pressure cooker for your personal transformation, because when you believe you have chosen a situation on a Divine level, it is always more bearable. Then imagine placing your head (your mind and thoughts) low to the ground. They are nearer to the actual fire, yet fall below the highly pressured and steamy heat. Breathe in the cool, clear, clean air near the earth surface. Feel gratitude for the simple things, and see all the unimportant “stuff” of your life fall away, like droplets of sweat being released and reabsorbed by the earth. Go about your day imagining that some part of you has continual access to this divine clarity and that the transformation you seek is already in process.

(free use by permission only, write Robin@bewhoyouare.com.


ancientwindrunner said...

Thanks - Very Helpful.

hearsthetrees said...

It’s a dark and freighting hole…
watch your head down we go…

Peter Mayer

Anonymous said...

I could not ask for more of a heartfelt explanation of the process we are going through. I get confused at times, ask myself whether or not I'm "getting it" or spending too much time in ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is what cooks us. The call to Spirit is the gift. When Spirit calls to us, we need to respond. I can only hope that my response is pure and as heartfelt as yours, and that I can avoid tricking myself with my oh so facile intellect .

shewhofacesspirit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shewhofacesspirit said...

Thank you for answering my question...have you ever done a sweat lodge? your timing could not be more perfect as I sit on my own coals heating me up to a boiling point within.....to know that someone has gone on before is like a cool breeze to me.
thank you

Night Sings said...

This is elegantly written, and catches the essence of our current reading material, I'm guessing-I'm nowhere near finishing :) .

I was in a steam room over the weekend trying to relax. There were others in the room with me. I could not see their faces but got the sense that they could have been ghosts and that life was cycling up and down before me in the way you describe. These conditions bring on a purification of the body but more exists. Having such a potent combination of the elements working harmoniously could create the ideal window to the immaterial world. Is it any wonder that biodiversity peaks in the tropics; the part of the world where all the elements are most prevalent, and also the part of the world where shamanic and indigenous life still retains a foothold, I believe.

Heart of The Mother said...

Thanks, I get it !