Shamanic journeys arise from ancient and vast chambers deep within the earth, sharing the same wisdom root that gives rise to dreams, myths, fables, and fairy tales. We have access to these realms, and to stories with timeless truths woven through them, even in these times. These are the dreams of the Great Mother, Gaia.
This story comes from a recent journey that centered on a stag with a solar disc in its horns. This stag was our guide in the Unseen world, and it brought us to a forest so dense and dark that we could barely see though it was still daylight. Here, in the heart of this dark forest, we lost the stag’s trail.
I asked my companion on this journey, let’s call her Astrid, what she wished to do now that we were lost and in the dark. She replied: “Make a fire.” And so we helped Astrid to create a ring of stones and gathered wood for the fire that we found scattered throughout the forest.
Once the fire was built, we stared into the flames together, and Astrid fell asleep. She began to dream that she was in a bar. As she picked her head up off her arm where she had been sleeping, Astrid noticed that the air in the bar was stale and lifeless; she knew that she could stay there no longer.
So Astrid got up from her stool and climbed the stairs to leave the basement bar, which had until now provided her shelter from the world. Out on the city streets, the air was indeed more alive and free, but the city was altogether too much for her: it was jarring, loud, and difficult to navigate without purpose or direction.
As in the dark forest, Astrid was lost. She woke with a start at the campfire.
This theme of “going to sleep” and “waking up” is significant. One consistent message in shamanic journeys is that we are most asleep to Spirit when we’re “awake.” Forgetfulness of Spirit is no biological necessity, but rather a characteristic of our culture’s waking consciousness.
Building the campfire makes visible the invisible ceremony of the shamanic journey: creating a sacred circle of time apart from the demands of the day, gathering inner and outer resources for a specific purpose, and focusing the heart and mind on a question until an inner flame ignites and begins to burn.
Staring into the sacred flames of intention, participating in this inward ceremony of soul, creates the conditions necessary for the shamanic “dream” state to catch fire, the light by which we can discern the hidden truths of our lives.
The Soul, centered in the ancient and dark forest of the mind’s unknowing, is shown here to be a place of refuge from the stale air of the bar, which symbolizes the common gathering places of “spirit” in our age. Inspiration, meaning literally “in spirit,” is shown to be unavailable within the confines of our culture’s sheltering walls of belief.
But outside the walls of spiritual structure and belief, out on the streets if you will, the situation is difficult. The world to a sensitive, or a “feeler,” is loud, confusing, and often overwhelming. Our minds are adept at creating grids, the pattern of thought suggested by city streets, but it is our feeling sense, not our minds, that can help us to chart a course through the maze of life.
Astrid is startled awake by the truth that she is lost. Only once she awakens from the collective dream of bar and city can she realize that she is actually here, safe, in the forest of the soul, her head resting on a pillow of pine needles by the fire. This our existential situation as well.
Until we leave our collective inebriation behind, until we realize our ways of living in this world are gravely limited, until we are startled awake by the realization of just how damn lost we are as individuals and as a people, the goodness of a simple, grounded, and organic way of life remains out of reach.
At this moment in time, we are hopelessly lost in the dark forest of unknowing, and yet every hair on our heads is safe. There is nothing to fear. We are resting on a bed of pine needles safe in the lap of the Mother even as we dream that we are lost and orphaned–indeed, separate–from Ultimate Reality.
I ask Astrid to show me the direction in which she would like to travel. There is no staying at the campfire bathed in the warm light of meditation, forever. Choosing a direction forward, getting up and on with it, is the next chapter of the spiritual journey.
To travel soulfully through life means we first move inward to gain insight, then move outward into the world with inspired action. This living exchange between the inner and outer worlds is meant to be repeated time and again in a rhythm not unlike breathing.
The Winter Solstice, this darkest of days, represents the furthermost point of our collective journey into the dark forest of the soul. Soon we begin the journey of return, a movement from unknowing to illumination.
Now her task, like ours, is to choose a direction in which to travel. A glimmering in one direction catches her eye. Compelled to move forward by a logic larger than her own, she begins to make her way through the dark wood of unknowing.
Intuitive sight can only be developed through practice. This subtle vision is the fruit of an unbroken connection to Spirit. Neither the mind nor the light of reason can guide us safely through life, but instead the felt sense, a knowing in the dark, a “seeing” born of the heart’s stubborn insistence on remaining connected to Spirit at all times; this is the sure guide. The connection between heart and Spirit is the golden thread that guards against our becoming lost in Life’s labyrinth.
As we walk along led by Astrid, I am gifted a view of the forest from above: the forest, I see, is in the shape of a circle. No matter what direction Astrid chooses, her success–and our own–is assured. But. She has to choose a direction, stick with it, refrain from second-guessing herself or turning back–all this while wrapped tight in the darkness of unknowing.
This is how we come into conscious partnership with our soul in this life. And Life, it seems, is intent on delivering the right climatic conditions for soul growth on our planet right now.
After only about an hour of hiking, we arrive at the place where the forest meets the meadow. Before us stands the stag, regal in power, the golden disk of the sun beaming from its horns.
Just a few days after taking this journey, I came across a video titled “Remembering the Deer Mother.” There is an ancient tale from the northern peoples of Scandinavia and Siberia (where the word “shaman” originates) about a Deer Mother who brings the sun back from the underworld in her horns at the winter solstice.
Mature female reindeer keep their horns in the winter, not the males. In a blessed reversal, the “stag” of our journey was revealed to be none other than the archetype of the Great Mother.
The Great Mother is not met in the stale air of our common watering holes of spirit, nor is Her natural habitat to be found in the busy city streets of the mind. No, the Great Mother leads us into the forest, the dark night of the soul, where we are humbled by our blindness and inability to move forward on our own.
Simply put, we are brought to the dark forest in order to rekindle and tend the inward fire of Spirit.
Even when we don’t know the significance of what we have encountered in a shamanic journey, or a dream, or in life, we are given clues or intuitive flashes to follow forward to future understanding.
With faith in a larger and as-yet unknown purpose to our journey, we strike out in a direction and press onward through the dark of the forest, taking care not to lose our end of the golden thread.
Should we persevere in our efforts, one day our mind’s unknowing will meet illumination in the meadow glen. The Great Mother, Source of Life, awaits our arrival, and our recognition, on the other side.