The journey of a lifetime

From an email (Gaia Shamanism’s first newsletter!) dated October 16, 2016:

“It all started because of mold. I didn’t know it was mold, hidden and out of view, that caused my migraines, my son’s joint pain and rashes, or the relentless fatigue from which we all suffered for years. I surely didn’t know that by being forced to dig a bit deeper each day just to keep moving I was going to come out on the other side with a gift, a gift I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered or claimed, but that’s what happened. And this is why I am writing you this letter.

Since arriving in Eugene, Oregon, five years ago, I stepped off of all established paths of spirituality and followed what drew my attention, awakened in me a childlike sense of awe, or just plain felt like fun. I picked wild blackberries, canned cases of apple butter, and began to keep chickens and bees. As one raised Catholic, trained in theology, long-dedicated to learning the spiritual teachings of the world religions, exploring what it meant to practice a pathless spirituality rooted in the rhythms and teachings of the natural world felt at once invigorating, frightening, and infuriating.

“What in the hell am I doing?” I’d wonder as I sat in front of my two empty beehives, meditating on the silent, dark emptiness of the bee boxes before me. I had no idea.

Despite myself, for myself, I continued to carry out seated meditations in front of my beehives, sought to remain present while washing dishes and folding clothes, and practiced returning to my senses by smelling the damp earth or listening to the sounds of tree frogs instead of being wholly captivated by my chattering mind. My rituals became the work of caring for bodies and gardens and critters, my devotion expressed through deep listening to Life itself, a listening behind and under and beyond words.

Instead of a learning, I was apprenticing in a holy undoing, not altogether unlike the one underway in the world all around us. I willfully embarked on a spiritual journey that was as darkness to my mind, and I believe that collectively we are also on an underworld journey of remembering, reclaiming lost wisdom, and missing parts of ourselves.

I began to write. It seemed to me that the world was speaking to us, the colony collapse of the honeybees intimately linked with that of our own, from school shootings to the rising temperature of the earth. Life, like nature, speaks in the language of symbol and action, and we, up in our heads, besieged by texts and busyness, remain uncomprehending, no longer able to speak in the native language of our souls.

But I was still sick. I began practicing shamanism, donning a headset to listen to a drumbeat at a frequency long used by indigenous peoples, a frequency that entrains the right and left hemispheres of the brain and produces a high theta or low alpha brain wave pattern. My journeys into the spirit world fed me on a profound level and helped me get through a deeply dark, yet richly productive, time of my life.

Not that any of you were going to hear about this, mind you, because I had every intention of taking my secret with me to the grave. Why jeopardize a lifetime of work in matters of spirit— spending months in silence in a desert monastery, attending Yale Divinity School, working as a university chaplain, acting as a spiritual director for a death row inmate— by coming out as a shaman?

In March [of 2016], I decided to ask a friend in Toronto, a classmate of mine at Yale, if I might do a journey for her just to see if I could do it. The journey was very much like a fable, starting with a white-headed eagle picking her up and circling a tree high atop a mountain in the Himalayas. The eagle circled for what seemed like an eternity, probably 5 minutes of a 15-minute journey.

When the eagle finally landed on the treetop and the journey commenced, it became clear that what I was seeing was a metaphor for my friend’s journey as a soul, her love of the unitive dimension of life, her talent for seeing the “big picture” from above, and the difficulty of learning how to use her wings to get down to earth and master the so-called ordinary aspects of existence such as building a suitable nest for herself out of the available materials and hunting for food that would sustain her body and soul.

“You know my twin is in Tibet right now, right?” she asked me, but no, I didn’t know that.

We didn’t think much more of it because soon we were busy interpreting the symbolic messages of the journey. She was taken by the experience, told several friends about it, and within the week I was doing journeys for others thousands of miles away.

I wasn’t convinced, however, that this was the direction to go. There was too much to lose in terms of credibility and I wasn’t sure what the heck I was seeing when I journeyed for others anyway. It always seemed to do with spirituality and had important messages for each person, but whatever: I’m a writer dammit. I decided on my birthday, Good Friday, to let it go.

Then, two days later, on Easter Sunday, I received a remarkable email from my friend’s twin, a woman I had never met, telling me that while she stood atop a mountain in Nepal, at the Peace Pagoda, a white-headed eagle circled and circled above her.

She asked her friend, a Tibetan, what the eagle circling might mean, but her friend had no idea.

“It’s a sign,” the twin sister said, “but I don’t know of what.”

*******

Today, on Easter Sunday 2022, six years after the news of an eagle’s appearance in Tibet changed my life, I write you with a grateful heart and some updates.

The shamanic path is a strange one, especially for a white girl like me with no intact shamanic lineage or tradition to draw upon. It has been a wonderful, wild, and wooly six years of on-the-job training.

I think of myself as the Lucille Ball of the unseen world, gaining knowledge by getting myself into tight spots. There is no learning more effective than suffering teeth-chattering chills for days after getting too close to an unwell ancestor or having my kidneys sputter during a demonic attack issued by an unwell client. With the help of other energy workers, and Gaia herself, I’ve been pieced back together, again and again, hopefully, a bit humbler and wiser for the experience.

Working as a shamanic practitioner is a lot like beekeeping. Whenever I open up the beehive and peer down into the darkness to see some 50,000 honeybees peering back at me, I recall, viscerally, that they have the power to kill me right then and there. It is only through their goodwill and kind forbearance that I continue to live.

Now that I am more experienced as a shamanic practitioner, I don’t disturb the dark hive of the unseen world without damn good reason and have learned how to be on my best behavior whenever I am dealing with forces “greater” than myself in every sense of the term.

When one has even a small understanding of the power of the unseen energies at work beneath our daylight world, engaging in shamanic work gives one reason for pause.

But where subtle energies can harm, they also have the power to heal. Six years into my journey in shamanism, I know this in my bones.

******

Among the people of Mongolia, the birthplace of what we in the West call “shamanism,” women who serve as shamans are called udgan, and male shamans, böö. The Mongolian Buryat tradition traces its shamanic lineage back thousands of years to the first shaman, a woman.

In my private practice, I use sonic driving (drumbeat or rattle) to journey for and guide others in deepening their relationship with the unseen world through journeywork. The guidance that comes through, and the healing I witness in the unseen world, is potent stuff indeed.

But until this point, I have shied away from the grittier shamanic work needed for the healing of deeply wounded people, beings, and places. One needs skill, training, and protection to open the hive of the Unseen world, even when one is guided by a heartfelt intention to serve Life.

For a couple of years now, my guides and ancestors have pointed me back to the land when I have asked how to be of the greatest service. Being in a balanced and reciprocal relationship with Gaia is foundational to the shamanic worldview, and is a profoundly healing and protective practice in its own right.

This January, I began training to become an ANFT-certified forest therapy guide. It has been a transformative experience and I can’t wait to share these ways of connecting with the more-than-human world with you!  Much of the sense of community I have sought throughout life is being fulfilled in tending relationships with our tree, rock, river, and honeybee relations.

Besides guiding at events in Oregon, I will soon be offering nature immersion experiences online where you can connect to the more-than-human-word from wherever you might be, likely starting in May.

With the earth-centered part of my practice well underway, Mongolian shamans began visiting me at the campfire on my journeys, laughing, smiling broadly, and drinking vodka. This March, six years into starting Gaia Shamanism, an opportunity to study with a Mongolian shaman, a woman fluent in English, opened up (complete with the necessary funds) during my birthday week.

In my Mongolian shamanism class, we have begun our studies in divination to help us diagnose the presenting problem before taking a journey, much the way one learns how to read the behavior of bees at the hive entrance before opening it up for inspection. It’s safer that way for everyone.

My hope is that over these next six years, I will learn and pray and practice my way into being of greater service to you, my extended family, and Gaia herself.

Thank you for being on the journey of a lifetime with me.

With all my love,

Anna

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