Tag Archive for: meaning

understanding solitude

The Seriousness of Solitude

I was brought to tears this morning by the most surprising of lines in a book:

I see more and more that solitude is not something to play with. It is deadly serious. And much as I have wanted it, I have not been serious enough. It is not enough to ‘like solitude,’ or love it even. Even if you ‘like’ it, it can wreck you, I believe, if you desire it for your own sake.” – Thomas Merton in A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals

This is one truth I have endeavored to express in any myriad of ways, but Merton’s gravity does it more eloquently than I ever will. Solitude can wreck us and that is precisely why we should come to be with and know it, seriously.

What We Don’t Understand About Our Need for Solitude

Solitude is not simply taking time out for ourselves. Here is how we get solitude wrong: We think it simply has to do with being alone and not talking to anyone. To many, solitude means unplugging from email, social media, internet searches, television, texting, and phone calls. Others go further and believe that true solitude means turning the lights off, putting away all literature, leaving home, going outdoors, refraining from elaborate meals or fasting altogether.

When we think we are going towards solitude we are really looking to be left alone. This is what Merton means when he says, “desire it for your own sake”.

By looking at what we do when seeking solitude, we can easily see that the root of our need for solitude is one typically born of our need to escape, to get away from it all. Overwhelm is likely the most common excuse for a flight into solitude, but so is frustration. How many times do we say, “I just need to get away and clear my head?” But, how many times are we secretly hoping to regain control?

Solitude has a way of stripping us clean this is true, but we have no say in what is left over after it sweeps through. Solitude is not about being in control, precisely the opposite in fact. The process is anything but obedient.

What About Not Liking Solitude?

While living on an island by myself which I wrote about in my memoir Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, I met the perils of solitude. I hadn’t gone to the island to be alone. I was not one of those people that Merton says “likes” solitude. Albeit, at times I had wished I could escape the shackles of societal pressure and expectations – why else would I be out in the wilderness? – but I preferred to be with both a crew of researchers and the sea.

In regards to alone time, I had nameless hours alone during my childhood as a latchkey kid. That was enough for me, thank you. I was afraid to be alone on that island because, like many others, I associated being in solitude with feelings of emptiness, abandonment, and depression.

So many of us are afraid of what we will find in ourselves when left to our own devises. What if we encounter that deep pit of sadness/hopelessness/pain/apathy? How will we ever come out? The question, “What is wrong with me?” often looms in the quiet of time alone along with “What am I doing with my life?” and “What’s the point?”

The Grace in Solitude

Yet no matter, there is great beauty and peace in this life of silence and emptiness. But to fool around brings awful desolation. When one is trifling, even the beauty of the solitary life becomes implacable. Solitude is a stern mother who brooks no nonsense.” – Thomas Merton

And, thank God she does brook no nonsense. What I found in living alone for such an extended period of time in such a harsh environment, was that solitude was stern. I was forced to stay in a solitude (my only way off the island was a private plane that came once per week), which took charge and ferried me past the anguish and tears.

I found an inner space so quiet and clear that I truly felt the sacred for the first time in my life. This was no fooling around. For those of us who currently reside in a fear of solitude, this is the gift of staying in solitude beyond the point of discomfort. Solitude surprises us with meaning and soul.

For those of us that wish, at present, to get away from it all, the craving is eventually destroyed by our own self-involvement. Our need to escape overwhelm and frustration follows us into the wilderness and we find that to know peace we must let go of ourselves. It is this surrender of control that can be messy, fitful and tumultuous.

If we stay in solitude long enough, we have the opportunity to glimpse the true grace of solitude that changes the life we no longer want to live. Solitude allows the sacred to infuse our being. Clarity becomes ours.

Understanding the Joys of Solitude

Sometimes life comes through and brings us into solitude without our planning or choosing so. This can be the unexpected job loss or the debilitating illness. One of my teachers called this “cocoon time” and it is known by mystics as a sacred gift along the road of transformation. If we can take these unplanned way stations without resistance or resentment, the benefits of going with the flow of divine timing are numerous.

What we usually forget about solitude is that the decision to retreat into solitude can beget from gratitude, joy and love. Simply taking the time to give thanks and reflect on this beautiful life we have is reason enough to seek solitude.

The magic of an honest experience of solitude is that what we once thought was important falls away. We are given the chance to touch something greater both inside and outside of ourselves. Pain and anguish melt away. We become centered and generous and good once again.

Not all of the time we spend alone is time spent in solitude. The grace of an experience of solitude is too strong to maintain for prolonged lengths of time. So we simply set the stage however we know how and wait for solitude to come to us.

 

 

About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a Spiritual Director and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the matters of the soul easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More About Spiritual Direction.

is shamanism a religion

Is Shamanism a Religion?

Is Shamanism a Religion?

Shamanism is experiencing a great resurgence. As everyone figures out how to pronounce shaman and shamanism (the first “a” is soft, like an “ah”), there are alternative terms adding to the confusion. “Shamanistic” and “shamanist” being primary contributors.

Given that people are still getting accustomed to the words, it is no surprise that few know how to categorize shamanism. The question of “is shamanism a religion?” is a worthy inquiry. 

Religion is typically seen as an organization of people that follow the teachings of a set spiritual tradition. Shamanism looks a lot like a religion because it is about spirituality. There are also strong shamanic traditions. But, is there enough organization to make it a religion?

Shamanism is involved with worship of the Divine, but the practices vary widely. It doesn’t have a written moral code like we see in religion, but shamanism does have a set of common beliefs. We’re used to seeing a head of a religion – the Pope being a primary example – so who is the leader of the shamans? There are local but not global figures. 

Religion is defined in the dictionary in these three ways:

  1. “The the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods
  2. A particular system of faith and worship
  3. A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”

Absence of a Shared Shaman God

Shamans do believe in a higher power or powers that orchestrate life on this planet and the movement of the heavens. So, strictly speaking, shamanism fits the definition of “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.”

However, there is no unifying story about the nature of this power that ties all shamans together. Without the glue of a specific mythology, shamanic practitioners around the world don’t unite in a cohesive way like other religions.

There is worship of superhuman powers, but no agreement about what or who that power is. Consensus is missing. Whether or not consensus needs to be present to make shamanism a religion is up for debate.

Shamanism is different than traditional religions because there is no set God or pantheon of deities that every shaman believes in. Some shamans work with a single God, like in Christianity. Others relate to a collection of goddesses and gods, like in Hinduism and Paganism.

Western shamanic practitioners that have lost trust in Christianity leave the definitive God or gods altogether and simply speak of life force or “the universe”.

In addition, there is no collection of written works to refer to in shamanism. Shamans don’t have a Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Quran, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Upanishads, Dhammapada, or Vedas to refer to.

This is a reflection of the locality of shamanism and how much it varies from place to place. As an earth-based practice, it adapts to the environment and people where it takes root. A shaman may adopt teachings from a spiritual text and incorporate those into their shamanic practice. This is a personal choice, not a collective one.

Shamanism Beliefs

Shamanism is a worldwide collection of people that have certain shared beliefs and world views. Here are the basics that unite shamans around the world going back as far as we know:

  • There is a physical reality AND a spiritual reality. Both exist at the same time.
  • The cosmos is made up of three worlds (lower, middle and upper) and connected by a central axis (such as a mountain or tree)
  • Spirit guides in human, animal, and other forms are real
  • We have the ability to travel to the spiritual realms via an altered state of consciousness known as the journey trance
  • Everything has a soul or is at least imbued with spiritual energy
  • All of life is interconnected and sacred
  • There is a higher power or powers that help coordinate the movement of the cosmos
  • There are cosmic laws that govern illness, healing, life, and death

As you can see, shared shamanic beliefs are about the big picture.

Variation in Shamanic Beliefs

The smaller, specific details vary widely. Shamanism is found on every continent around the world, and variations in the details depend on the country, culture, and individual. For example, some cultures believe that the three worlds have multiple worlds within them while others adhere to a simpler three world model.

There are many ways different shamanic cultures travel to the spirit world. Celtic shamans travel through a mist while Greek shamans use caves. Himalayan and Peruvian shamans travel via mountains and Norse shamans use rivers and oceans.

So when considering a “particular system of faith and worship” it is a matter of degree with shamanism. 

There is immense variation in shamanic practice. Because of this, we could easily make the case that shamanism doesn’t fit into the basket of “religion”. There is just not enough agreement on the details of both belief and ritual that bind the world-wide shamanic community together tightly enough.

There is no PARTICULAR system. In this way, it seems that shamanism fails to meet the definition of a religion.

Shamanism Religion for Lay People?

Traditionally, people who practiced shamanism held an esteemed and unique role in their communities as the tribe healer. The members of the community practiced a religion such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Paganism. They went to their shaman for guidance and healing. 

I’d argue that more people today than ever before are accessing the wisdom and healing of shamanism directly via their own journey trances. This makes shamanism less of an elitist practice than it used to be. It’s now a spirituality available to anyone.

There is a collective identity in practicing shamanism. Many believe, including me, that laypeople can practice shamanism without needing to have a career as a shamanic practitioner. This opens the door to the possibility of shamanism as a religion because it has a wider application and following.

However, without centralized leadership and gathering places, shamanism still looks different than we expect religion to be. The leaders and communities are more localized than other organized world religions.

Pursuit of Supreme Importance

Then there is the last definition of religion: “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance“. Shamanism most definitely carries that supreme importance for me. When I ask myself “Is shamanism a religion?” in this light, I can easily say it is for me.

I appreciate participating in a spiritual practice that doesn’t require I believe a set way. The freedom to mix and incorporate different spiritual and religious stories and teachings is what draws me to shamanism.

Shamanism provides a container, a conduit, for our relationship with the Divine. Rather than tell us about the nature of a higher power, shamanism allows us to experience The One directly. Rather than require I read a book or speak to a priest to learn about the Divine, I can engage in direct revelation. For me, this is of supreme importance.

Re-Evaluating Religion Itself

You can make the case for a shamanism religion or not.

You have the opportunity to choose.

As we re-evaluate our relationship to “religion” and what that word means, we can decide for ourselves if we want to fit shamanism into that mold or not.

For people who have been betrayed, disappointed, or wounded by organized religion, shamanism offers an alternative spiritual path. For them, embracing shamanism as a spiritual practice and leaving the term “religion” altogether brings safety and freedom.

For others, calling shamanism a religion and reclaiming the word “religion” in a revolutionary way is what is healing. Whether or not we call it a religion, I can say for certain that shamanism is a worldview, a healing modality, and a spiritual practice. 

Is shamanism a religion? I’d love to hear what you think! Post your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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“Journey Circle” from Gracious Wild

In this excerpt from my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, I share the story of the first time I ever taught a group to go on a shamanic journey. This was an incredibly frightening thing because the women I was teaching were of such high intellect and integrity. I was humbled by the fact that I could have anything of value to teach them and that they, these gorgeous, empowered women, would trust me with this piece of their process. For all of us, opening up to talk about matters of the soul was a rare and vulnerable experience. To this day, I have the same experience with every group that I teach. I am awestruck by everyone’s brilliance. I couldn’t be any more fortunate and it is amazing to think back ten years and see the amazing gift this seed planted on the evening of this story grew into. 

Five days before the meeting with my friends, to my complete shock and horror I came home to a full-blown construction site. My house sat on blocks with a three-foot trench dug around all sides. Parts of the foundation had already been jack-hammered away. There was a huge mound of dirt circling our home and the yard was littered with tools, supplies, trailers, and wood. I had left that morning to a quiet neighborhood, my house fully intact, with no warning that this was coming. The owners of the house we were renting had decided that three quarters of the house’s foundation should be torn out and replaced. I had no phone for twenty-four hours and no rest for days. The workers would come at 7 a.m., turn on their stereo, and start slamming away at the foundation underneath our bed where we slept. The noise upset our dog so much that I had to take him to work. Everything was thrown on its head.

Clearly, to create a sincere environment to house my new soul family, I needed to tear down my outdated foundation. All the beliefs I held true and dear in the world needed to go. I couldn’t guide a group into other worlds if I was fearfully holding on to this one. This message was coming through so plainly that it was manifesting everywhere I turned—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

My soul sister was also showing me how to release my roots. Graccia had moulted (shed) two of her old tail feathers in the center of her tail. By the time the three women I’d invited made it to my doorstep, I was down to bedrock. I had no idea what to expect and with no ground to stand on I placed my fate entirely in Spirit’s hands.

Like the beaver felling the tree, we began construction on the dam that would serve as the base of our new lodge. We gathered in my living room around a small candle on the wool sun deity blanket I’d spread out. My old yellow lab plopped down in the middle of the group,lavishing in lengthy belly rubs and occasional hugs.His fur collected in handfuls on the dark wool blanket.Everyone remarked on how soft his coat was and settled into comfortable conversation. We talked about the simplicities of the day and each woman, not knowing the other, settled into fresh relationships. Among the four of us we covered over twenty years, but in this room we regarded each other on level ground. My black cat Gretchen joined us, sauntering in from the bedroom on her long legs. She stretched out on the sofa overlooking the circle.

I began the evening by inviting each woman to talk about a place of honoring, meditation, or contemplation she may already have set up in her home. Quickly we learned that each one of us had, even if by happenstance, assembled an altar—a sacred space—in our homes. It was good to give voice to these places and to honor them in the circle. These spaces were quiet manifestations of our inner knowing, physical representations of life outside the mundane. Each woman spoke lovingly of these places and the support they’d received while being there.

I had a new set of animal cards that I unwrapped as we talked. I’m typically very superstitious with these decks of cards. The first card I see by mistake or on purpose is always the one I go with. While unwrapping the deck I carelessly turned it over and caught a glimpse of the bottom card. It was horse. This was perfect. I had journeyed the night before for instruction on how to advise my friends. One piece of guidance was to suggest each woman call in a horse to accompany her on her journey.

I pulled the card from the deck, and before I could lay it in the center of the circle, one friend, then the next, asked to see the picture on the card. As the card passed hands around the circle, we each shared about our relationship with horses. The room was split right down the middle between those who loved and those who wrote off horses. It was refreshing to hear the varied perspectives because in the mosaic of stories sat each woman in her truth. One friend asked me to give instructions on how to go on a shamanic journey. I hesitantly entered into lecture. These were my colleagues and mentors, and I found it hard to take a position of authority in the group. I quickly realized that I had information to offer that they couldn’t find many other places, and my friends valued it as much as I did.

I started by explaining the basic shamanic perspective of the cosmos. “There are generally believed to be three worlds,” I described, “lower world, middle world, and upper world. Lower world is generally of the earth and tangibles. Middle world is where we currently sit but free of time and space. Upper world is commonly of the ethers and subtleties.” We talked about power animals and helping spirits. I gave them a series of phrases to clarify the idea of helping spirits—“ancestors, angels, spirit guides, and archetypes.”

Each woman shared that she was already in a relationship with a power animal or helping spirit. None of them had visited a shaman or done a traditional shamanic journey. My friends had found their own ways to connect with Spirit. These women had vivid imaginations, which I explained was the key to the shamanic journey. They had already been journeying in their daytime and nighttime dreams, and it was my job to teach

them how to visit these spirits and places intentionally. I gave them the ground rules for safety, explained how to travel to these other worlds, and instructed them to ask their guides for help. “I will drum for about ten to fifteen minutes,” I told them, “and then I will give the callback beat, which sounds like this.” I played seven beats in three sets followed by a fast rumble beat, and ended with seven more beats in three sets. They all lay down, one around my yellow lab, another on the yellow lab’s bed, and another in between. I dimmed the lights and began playing my drum.

I was immediately enraptured by the sounds that rose out of each beat. The drum filled the room with twenty tones and moved the floor beneath us. Looking back, I jokingly feel fortunate that the vibrations didn’t send the house off the blocks. In all honesty, I did not play that drum. She played me for the twelve or so minutes my arm could keep up. All the hesitancy, fear, and anxiety I felt over holding a group of such high caliber was completely overwhelmed by the music of the beats. Whenever I’d start to get self-conscious, my drum would pull me right out or in, depending on where I needed to be.

Before befriending horses, people could only travel so far. Through the beat of my drum, our allegorical horse, my friends and I traveled into other worlds. We had experiences that spoke of light, letting go, finding balance, and moving forward. The metaphors in their journeys wove a natural web through the circle. Two saw a yellow light in the northwest. Another pair had the experience of being hollow and full, being split between left and right, being heavy and weightless. Three of us never made it onto our horse’s backs. We were all bewildered to one degree or another over our journey experiences, but  the compassion we extended into the circle held us all in a good way. It was no coincidence that on my journey that night I followed a spirit red-tailed hawk into another world. The magic Graccia brought into my life was apparently at work again.

animal symbolism

How to: Research Animal Symbolism

Venturing into the world of animal symbolism, otherwise known as the study of power animals, can be very daunting. There are sometimes wide gaps and obvious contradictions between the various books and websites that tell you what a spirit animals signifies. It is important to fact check any power animal reading as well as flesh out these readings with additional information. I can tell  from experience, that it would be incredibly easy to write an entire book about the symbolism and power of just a single species of animal. That means that any power animal interpretation available (yes, including mine), will not cover the entire scope of the animal’s gifts. Most books and websites have a limited number of animals listed, and it can be hard to find a reading on the less common animals. This is when we are forced to create our own interpretations, which is a good thing!

Any true inquiry into the nature of a power animal should include an absorption of simple scientific facts about the colors, structure, eating habits, mating, survival, and environment of the animal. Understanding how the animal makes a living and what their social lives are like can be incredibly enlightening.

Look for what makes this animal unique in the animal kingdom. Take notes on what fun facts really jump out.

We are drawn to the qualities in our power animals that we either identify with or we desire. In pinpointing what we like about our power animals we have the opportunity to make these characteristics conscious in ourselves. Identifying with power animals is a great way to boost self-esteem and become more empowered in who we are. It can be hard to sit down and write a list of what traits we like about ourselves, and a good place to start is by listing the positive aspects of the power animal that match our own great qualities. If the power animal has a characteristic we covet, they have come to help us manifest that expression in the world. A elk that proudly bugles his voice into the world can help someone with speaking up and claiming their territory.

Don’t dismiss what is ugly, cruel, or frightening about an animal. These traits help point out our judgements and fears.

We often think that our power animals are a direct reflection of ourselves, so when we unearth a piece of information about the animal we don’t like we tend to get discouraged. Just because a salamander eats baby birds doesn’t mean that those of us with salamander power animals are heartless individuals that devour helpless beings. This fact can either be taken as a metaphor – that the resource we need may come from those who haven’t left the nest – or as a generous reflection. When we find something that turns us off, this can direct us to the way we judge others unfairly. When we polarize strongly against a certain way of being, we are limiting our own path. In choosing to not do something we can waste a lot of energy making sure we don’t become what we fear.

With the scary or gross power animal we have the chance to learn acceptance and let go of fear. When we encounter a power animal we’d rather not have, we are being offered the opportunity to look into our own shadow. The characteristics of the animal will point out the best way to do this. A bat who is a creature of the night, for instance, is a perfect helper in going into the darkness. They often go out in groups and they use a chirping voice to call out into the darkness and see what’s around them. This could mean that the best option is to join a support group that is a safe place to navigate frightening subjects and ask the others to be a sounding board for what we’re working through.

Any animal can easily help us with both our fears and our triumphs. It is up to us to determine what the animal has come to help with.

Once we fill up to the brim with information on our power animal, it’s time to filter through the information and get clear about what the animal has come to help with. Some facts about the animal might resonate while others don’t. Our intuition is a powerful ally for us in this process. Try not to think this through too hard. Our rational minds can help sort the information while our intuitive nature deciphers the meaning.

Creating our own power animal interpretations is a practice that takes a lifetime to perfect, and it gets easier with each reading we create. I’ve put together a list of my favorite online resources for biological information on wildlife. If you have a website you’d like to share please post it in the comments below.

Here are my videos on Spirit Animals:

 

IN DEPTH ANIMAL GUIDES

This list of websites starts with sites that have the most animals listed with the most information on each animal. I also recommend an internet or library search for information on the particular animal. There are many books and websites dedicated to a single animal (such as polar bears) or group of animals (such as marine mammals) that have much more in depth information not always found in the general animal guides.

Encyclopedia of Life has all species around the world. Be sure to click “Read Full Entry” link below the bottom right hand corner of the image of the search result: http://eol.org

National Geographic has pictures and videos of featured animals: 
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/topic/facts-pictures

 

QUICK FACTS ABOUT ANIMALS

Short on time? These sites will give you a quick summary so you can get in, get what you need, and get out.

One Kind is an animal protection charity with quick and great unique facts: https://onekindplanet.org/animal/

A to Z Index of Animals has wildlife and domestic animals: http://a-z-animals.com/animals/

Defenders of Wildlife has many North American megafauna: http://www.defenders.org/animal-factsheets

World Wildlife Fund has megafauna throughout the world that are of conservation interest:
https://www.worldwildlife.org/species

 

BIRDS AT THE SPECIES LEVEL

There is a lot of great information out there about different species of birds and I highly recommend that all interpretations of birds go to the species level. To simply have an “owl” as a power animal will get you some of information about what they offer as guidance. Being able to see in the dark and fly without making any noise are characteristics of the whole group, but we are limited on what we can learn given that there are over 100 species of owls around the globe. Going to the species level helps us delve deep and gives us magnitudes more information.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the premier source for all things avian. Be sure to listen to calls: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search

Seattle Audubon Society has facts about species hard to find elsewhere: http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/

 

ANIMAL LEGENDS

For fun I wanted to add in some animal mythology. I couldn’t resist sharing this link to an extensive list of Native American myths about animals. http://www.native-languages.org/legends-animals.htm

what does seagull mean

Spirit Animals: SEAGULL

Seagull Spirit Animal

Why do you spot “sea” gulls thousands of miles from the ocean? Do you know if all sea gulls look alike or how many places on earth they can be found? Have you stopped to think where you would find a seagull’s nest or chicks? Have you considered how gulls fish?

These were all questions I didn’t have the answer to before the summer of 1999. Then I was offered the opportunity to work with a PhD student from the University of Washington. She was studying Glaucous-winged x Western Hybrid Gulls on the Washington coast.

Quickly I learned that gulls were the unseen birds in my life. I didn’t even have the basics down. First of all, ornithologists refer to seagulls as just plain “gulls” instead of sea gulls. The distinction is made because not all gulls rely on the ocean for their livelihood. Secondly, there was no one species of bird called a seagull. There are more than four dozen species with various plumages, life histories, and habits. This fact alone opened up an entirely new world to me.

Many people, young or old, who first enter into birding have this original epiphany about the nature of things. What they used to think was a “finch” now could be any number of species of finch from a purple finch to a pine siskin.

What in your life have you been glancing over with the assumption that you know what you’re looking at? Remember that just because a bird or animal or topic or activity is plain doesn’t mean it’s worth dismissing. Stop and take a look. When exploring what does seagull mean as a spirit animal, it might be time to immerse yourself in the ordinary to start to understand how nothing in life is such.

Seagull Bravery

Once I had the amazing opportunity to trap and hold a live gull in my hands I was overtaken with how magnificent he was. His white head and breast, and bright yellow beak marked by a striking blood red dot were extraordinarily clean. I felt as if I’d never seen such pure, true colors in the natural world. To see these true colors amidst the muted sky, gray sea, and beige shore made him that much more blazing. His waterproof coat of feathers was luxurious.

And, that was just his appearance. His spirit was fierce and strong. The gaze from his small but complex eye was what I would have expected to encounter from a hawk or tiger.

seagull power animal

A study conducted in 1976 confirmed that gulls are actually attracted to their predators. A colony’s alarm regarding the predators is strongest when the predators were seen previously with a dead bird [4]. The birds are able to distinguish particularly lethal threats.

I remember the experience of walking uninhabited, sandy islands in the middle of broad harbors with a swarm of gulls overhead calling the alarm. Oftentimes, a bird would fly low and look me straight in the eye. There was nothing gullible or ordinary in that glance. They were acutely aware of what I was up to and on watch for any danger I presented.

What Does Seagull Mean?

Gulls are consummate opportunists, thus the reason why we see them so often associated with human civilization. They can  hunt for their own fish and crabs or steal catches from other seabirds. Gulls will beg for crumbs from tourists and scavenge the shore for crustaceans buried in a pile of kelp. They are also relatively bold, willing to bob around in the fray of a busy feeding frenzy and snatch any opportunity that comes by even if it happens to be hanging out of the mouth of a seal. Western gulls will  steal milk from lactating seals. Glaucous-winged gulls have been seen hunting live, terrestrial prey such as rodents [1][2].

All gulls, like many seabirds, swallow their prey whole. To look at the meaning of seagull we need to understand the important relationship here between the name “gull” and the words “gullet” and “gullible”. It seems that the term gullet developed first in reference to throat with the name gull referring to the bird following a couple hundred years later.

The word gullible followed an earlier use of the general term gull which meant to dupe or sucker in reference to “someone who will swallow anything thrown at him” [3]. We have added the negative connotation to the idea of a person that believes anything he’s fed. However, we see that evolutionarily seagulls have done extremely well with this approach.

Once again, we see the theme of not taking anything for granted and not leaving any opportunity untapped. Are you passing possible opportunities by because of what others may think of you if you don’t appear discerning? Are you picking apart the divine gifts in your life because they aren’t impressive or stunning enough?

Maybe it’s time to drop the judgement for awhile and allow yourself to gulp life in. Sounds scary, I know, but with seagull spirit animal you can test this bold way of being in the world.

Gift of Being Ordinary

There is a theme of conventionality and commonality here. It’s worth challenging the parts of yourself that you consider ordinary. Being ordinary is not a handicap. Even in their abilities, gulls are pretty average. They aren’t the deepest divers, fastest fliers, or most aggressive fishermen, but because they haven’t specialized they have been able to adapt and live all over the world in a vast realm of habitats. You may want to consider stepping out of a specialization for awhile and being more flexible.

This brings me back to why I ended up working on the research project about gulls so many years ago. I had always wanted to study marine mammals, specially dolphins and whales, and despite my best efforts at specialization I wasn’t able to land an internship. So, I stepped back, let go, and decided I was willing to be a bit more ordinary if that’s what it took to be in the larger field of marine biology. Then I was able to find work and have a chance to be in the field working hands-on with wildlife like I’d always dreamed.

Most species of gull have a gray cape of one shade or another speaking to the ability to carry the “gray areas” of life with ease. If you are adept enough to know the species of gull you have sighted and are studying, take particular note of the distinguishing marks. Black caps speak to a mysterious connection to the divine realms and being willing to release your thoughts to the unknown. Black wingtips speak of slicing through the mist of confusion or illusion. A red beak speaks to passionate expression and red legs to grounded passion.

[1] http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Gull/lifehistory
[2] http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Glaucous-winged_Gull/lifehistory
[3] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=gull
[4] from The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye

 

Want to learn more about spirit animals?
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raven spirit animal

Spirit Animals: MYSTERIOUS RAVEN

Raven Spirit Animal

This beautiful black creature brushes mountainsides with wingtips. His black eyes drink in landscapes as subtle breezes hold him aloft. Raven’s undeniable determination is audible in the whir of his heavy wingbeats. On occasion he joins with a troop of two or three others to cackle at the wind and tease the beasts on the ground below. His voice cuts through the forest’s silence. It echoes like an inside-out gurgle of water down a seep-hole. His call is an invitation to other worlds. Is he calling those worlds forth? Or is he calling us to those worlds? This is for raven to know. He is incredibly clever. We admire him for his ability to use tools and solve puzzles. The trick is we haven’t even begun to solve the puzzles he creates.

Initiation into Mystery

Bringer of hidden truths, Raven spirit animal wanders the world over probing mysteries. He contemplates the unknown as the ravens named Hugin (“Thought”) and Munin (“Memory”) – the Norse god Odin’s trusted advisers. Odin is the god of wisdom and seeking. His wisdom is owed to the help of two intelligent ravens.

Ravens help us discover the the hidden treasures within our own mysteries, lighting up the unconscious. An Inuit tale tells of a raven tricking his way into a whale’s belly where he meets the soul of the whale and eventually feasts on the rich oil inside the whale. He carries two fire sticks with him that he goes to great pains to retain. Raven’s confidence in his ability to light up the dark helps us navigate the unfamiliar in life and in ourselves.

In other myths, raven is known for birthing the human race by coaxing the first humans out of clam shells. For us, raven spirit animal draws us out of our own protective shells and guides us through the mysterious unknown “out there”. He is an opener of doors for the mind and soul.

Raven spirit animal’s intelligence was passed down to humans when he taught people how to sow seeds and hunt. He is known in the mundane world for his ability to outwit other animals, use tools, and use complex communication. If anyone is going to lead you into cloaked and uncharted territory, cunning raven is a good bet.

Raven is depicted as a hero god who either created or helped create the world in stories of the Northwest Coast of North America. On the other hand, we find associations with death in Celtic and European folklore. He is associated with the decimated battlefield littered with the corpses he feeds on. Comfortable with death and the underworld, raven spirit animal helps us enter into that Great Unknown during important life transitions.

The Trickster God

Mythology surrounding raven shows him providing aid and causing trouble at the same time. He’s a trickster who causes hardship for humans and other creatures by convincing them to do foolish things. He’s just as likely to steal the light as bring it. However, raven’s conniving can also result in him putting things right again. An example of this is the Athabaskan myth of raven stealing the sun and moon back from a greedy chief who hid them away. Trickster energy can change the course of things for good and grant us valuable wisdom.

Have you ever had something go terribly wrong and later been grateful for the detour? In looking back do you now realize that there was a Divine hand in the event? Did what you learn in this experience make you all the richer? Or did the redirect take you to place better than what you could have imagined?

Remember when considering raven spirit animal, that you aren’t looking for ways he’ll bring you material wealth or outstanding recognition. Raven helps you know deep mysteries that help you breathe into the infinite.

Ravens vs. Crows

Ravens have wedge shaped tails and long fingers on the ends of their wings. This is how even the novice can tell them apart from their close cousins, crows. Crows have square tails and rounded wingtips. It is important to know one from the other because crows carry aspects of community, civilization, and play. They understand more of what it means to be in society.
(View article on Crow Symbolism here)

Ravens, on the other hand, are closer to the heavens, to solitude, and to wilderness. They keep company with clouds, hawks, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wolverines. They scavenge carcasses of big game. Raven spirit animals relate to what we experience when we spend time alone contemplating the big game, the big questions in life, and how we relate to this mystery.

 

Find your spirit animal workshop. Painting of red-tailed hawk.

Raven’s Illusions and Magic

So much is shared about this bird that engulfs mystery with his black coat of feathers. Jamie Sams and David Carson write in Medicine Cards: “If you have chosen Raven, magic is in the air. Do not try to figure it out; you cannot. It is the power of the unknown at work, and something special is about to happen. The deeper mystery, however, is how you will respond to the sparkling synchronicity of this alchemical moment.”

Ravens often come to assist me with ceremonies such as weddings and land blessings. I believe they are responding to the opening of the veil that occurs when we call in the holy. One particularly poignant raven encounter happened at a wedding ceremony I conducted for friends. As I was setting space and asking the guests to circle around the couple, two ravens flew directly overhead right through the center of the circle.

Ceremony involves working with what we call magic. Magic is simply an unseen force that adds power to a setting and it relies on the power of illusion. When magic is in the air surprising omens appear and events outside the laws of nature seem to take place.

Raven spirit animal, like a magician, weaves intricate illusions that causes us to see unbelievable things. When you have an experience you don’t think anyone else will believe, raven is often afoot. He helps shatter our preconceptions and shows us new possibilities. Raven spirit animal captivates us with tricks and causes us to question everything we once thought was certain.

Power is never created or lost. When you direct power to create the dazzling illusion, you’ll find that another area of your life seems to lose power or attraction. There is nothing wrong with this situation, just something to be mindful of.

The part of your life that now seems mind-numbingly boring hasn’t changed, but the balance has shifted. Give the illusion some time to fade away and things will seem less uneven. Ultimately, once raven comes to visit you will never be the same. Adjusting to this new world view will be your new task.

The Flight into the Dark

The path to enlightenment is the same road into the dark. Our ability to hold awareness allows us to persevere rather than tumble into suffering.

Can we tell if the darkness is our own shadow or if it the vast void stretched out before us? When does our shadow merge with the void?

How do we choose the unknown over our fear? Raven has the skill to navigate these currents, to steer through this illusory black hole, and come out more robust than before.

The next time you notice a raven in your field of view, pause to watch what he’s up to. Remember you can learn much about the illusion and the mystery of existence. If you’re luckily enough to notice and engage, raven spirit animal just might offer you some flashing insights.

For more information on raven symbolism and the spiritual path, read my article on the fairytale of “The Seven Ravens”.

 

Find your spirit animal workshop. Painting of red-tailed hawk.

Spirit Animals: MAGPIE the MYTHOLOGIST

Magpie goes about her business, chattering to and fro. Both of the old world and of the new, she wears her black and white costume with her brothers and sisters going on about life as if everything were normal. Then a ray of sunshine glimmers over the tips of her wings and tail and a burst of royal blue radiates. She knows this and she is clever. She does not worry if the rain will come or go. Magpie is the rain and lightening. She is the drought and wind. She carries on as if neither were of consequence, full of joy and mirth, warning of nothing and foreshadowing everything. Magpie knows that she and her tribe are bigger, louder, and brighter than the others, and she knows stories about the others. She is an artist at knowing these stories.

The Rebel in Biblical Lore

Magpies are found around the world from the western half of the United States to China to England and Africa. Their association with humans goes back a long time as they followed nomadic people scavenging leftovers from hunts. There is a story from biblical lore that survives today that the magpie would not go into Noah’s Ark, but instead insisted on riding out the storm on the ridgepole of the boat, chattering the entire time. There are some references to the fact that the magpie either did not attend or refused to mourn Christ’s crucifixion. This pairs this cunning corvid with the archetype of the rebel.

Magpie spirit animal reminds you to ask: What beliefs did you adopt that now act as blocks in your quest to find your divine self?

Magpie Funerals

These birds are related to crows and ravens and are a member of the jay family. They mate for life and are dedicated parents. A pair can spend up to 40 days building a large covered nest and they often are seen in small groupings of 3-5 birds as they travel about in their undulating flight looking for food. “One of the most notable Black-billed Magpie behaviors is the so-called ‘funeral’—when one magpie discovers a dead magpie, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of raucously calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds disperse and fly off silently.” [1] This speaks of the ability to call on the help of your tribe in times of mourning.

When studying the meaning of magpie symbolism, it may be time to watch how you congregate with your kind and remember how others can help you with a death. This could be a death of the ego, the self, a way of life or a loved one.

 

Find your spirit animal workshop. Painting of red-tailed hawk.

 

Magpie Helps with a Healing

This September, I started to see two or three magpies with my horses on a regular basis. My horses would cock a back hoof so the magpies could clean the underside. The magpies would jump up and cling sideways to the horse’s legs to pick bugs from their fur. Other times the birds would be perched atop my mustangs cleaning bugs from their ears, manes, and backs.

Cherokee and Legend seemed to enjoy the attention. I was absolutely caught up in the beauty of the scene. I started working with what the birds’ appearance meant in my life and began to discover a link between their presence and my process of breaking down myths I held about other people. We all attach stories, judgements, beliefs and meaning as to why other people are who they are and what they represent in our lives, but ultimately these myths keep us from truly connecting with people. The myths stand in the way of us truly seeing them and truly being seen. I started to notice the birds every where: at work out the window, on my drives home, at my house, and with the horses.

Then, last week Legend, my white mare, feel gravely ill. A large portion of her colon had flipped 180 degrees and gotten stuck between her kidney and spleen. I went on a three day mission to save her life and the magpies were no where to be found. But, I felt their presence still haunting me and haunting Legend.

Magpie Omens

In British and Scottish folklore magpies are believed in different numbers to foretell death, a funeral, and bad luck. I learned the popular saying about magpies: “One for sorrow. Two for mirth. Three for a wedding. Four for death (or birth depending on the origin)”. [2] 

As is the way of things, Chinese folklore portrays magpies of omens of good luck and sometimes I had seen the fortuitous two or three birds at a time, so I tried not to be overcome with foreboding. I waged an inner battle with my fear and superstition.

Here is when I realized that my fear of my loved one’s death was keeping me from my ability to channel healing for her. I had adopted the myth that “I can’t really channel healing that makes a difference on a physical level” because I feared what would happen if I surrendered myself fully to grace and had her die anyways. I didn’t know how I would recover from that kind of grief, but I couldn’t both protect myself from utter devastation AND surrender to divine guidance. As I broke this myth down I went through waves of intense fear, doubt, and suffering. I showed up for Legend to channel the healing power of grace in a way I never had experienced before and she survived.

Less Myths and More Meaning

On the morning of the fourth day, I checked Legend over endlessly to absolutely convince myself that she was okay. A single magpie came to her corral and landed on a fence post. As the black and white bird with a long tail looked at me with her shiny black eyes, she christened me back into the world of the living, a new world with less myths and more meaning.

Seeing one magpie is supposed to be an especially grave occasion as the popular saying goes “one for sorrow”. I knew the death and sorrow had happened in me.

I was a different person now. Legend was well and healthy. I opened the gate to let Legend out onto her pasture and life went on.

The Mythologist

This is why I have come to think of the magpie as a mythologist. Magpie spirit animals can help us study myths we have about spirituality, the universe, others and ourselves. Magpies are known for eating anything as is indicated by their scientific name “Pica“, meaning to crave things unfit for food, and they remind us how we can crave and eat odd stories that aren’t true in an attempt to secure nourishment and safety or to feed the small fears that protect us from the big fears.

Ultimately it is not important to know why we adopted those myths in the first place, but to understand the role of myths in our lives and to treat them lightly. There’s no need to crawl inside the ark and hide away from the storm for the storm of fear and suffering is of our own making. We can light upon the ridgepole of the boat and find humor and humility in the art of rebelling against that which we thought we ought to always know.

I would like to finish by quoting a favorite song of mine by Neko Case that takes on a deeper meaning now. It’s from her album Middle Cyclone and is called Magpie to the Morning. I have to say that Legend was always the closest to death in the mornings…

Magpie comes a calling
Drops a marble from the sky
Tin roof sounds alarm
And wake up child
Let this be a warning says the magpie to the morning
Don’t let this fading summer pass you by
Don’t let this fading summer pass you by

You can listen to these lyrics on her website: http://nekocase.com/music/discography/middle-cyclone/

References: [1] http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black-billed_magpie/lifehistory [2] http://www.wisdomportal.com/MagpieNotes.html

 

Find your spirit animal workshop. Painting of red-tailed hawk.

 

 

The medicine wheel and the qualities of each cardinal direction.

Calling the Directions & The Medicine Wheel

Working with the Medicine Wheel

Honoring the directions within the framework of a medicine wheel is a common practice of shamanism found throughout the world and at the root of each of our ancestral lines. This prayer to honor the directions can be called a number of things depending on the culture and preferences of the person praying. Some say we are “calling in the directions” while others state we are “calling ourselves to the directions”. Others just see that we are setting up sacred space to do sacred work.

Regardless of the nomenclature, it is important to take a moment and reflect on why you have chosen to enter in to this practice.

Intention for Calling in the Directions

Are you worried about negative energy entering in as you open up to meditate or journey, so you feel compelled to set up protection around yourself? Do you wish to offer your gratitude to the seasons and rhythms of nature? Is it just because you learned it in a class and you’re trying to explore the power of the medicine wheel practice? Are you asking for help from all of creation for a healing? Are you offering yourself as a channel for the Divine? Would you like to call yourself back to center so that you can be your authentic self and be grounded in your being? Do you intend to set up a quiet space for meditation free from the chaos of the everyday?

The good news is that calling in the directions using the medicine wheel does all of the above and more. Your intent will shape the content and power of the chants or prayers you say. So take the time to reflect on your intent and then be willing to allow that intent to shift over time. The beauty of a shamanic practice is that it is personal and place based. Depending on who you are, where you live and what stage of your life you are in, calling the directions will look different because your relationship to nature will be different.

Directions of the Medicine Wheel

The medicine wheel can be broken into five or seven parts depending on your inclination, but always contains the four primary directions: East, South, West and North and a central point or axis.

“Above” and “Below” can also be recognized individually or not because the central axis is seen as inherently connected to these two spaces. As you determine what qualities, gifts, elements and power animals to acquaint with each direction of the medicine wheel I have a simple framework for you to start with.

  1. Path of the Sun: The medicine wheel is laid out in relation to the path of the sun. The East is the place of dawn (beginnings) and the West is the place of dusk (endings)
  2. Seasonality: The medicine wheel can be laid over a seasonal calendar which for us places spring in the East, summer in the South, fall in the West and winter in the North (see photo above). If you lived at the equator you would only recognize two seasons, rainy and dry, or if you lived at the poles you would recognize light and dark, so your associations would be different.
  3. Diurnal Cycle: You can also overlay the wheel with the a 24 hour clock with the East being sunrise, South being midday, West being sunset, and North being midnight.

Qualities of the Directions

To help you determine your own, unique blend of qualities to associate with the directions of the medicine wheel, I offer the following ideas that I’ve accumulated from studying a number of cultures and nature herself. You may see some qualities listed in more than one direction. Feel into the quality and see where it fits for you.

  • Qualities of the East: dawn/sunrise, spring, new beginnings, birth, infancy, mental body, element of air, seedling plants, new shoots, fresh start, innocence, play, childhood, the Sun or Mother Earth, blue, yellow, green, swords tarot suit, astrological houses 1-3.
  • Qualities of the South: midday, summer, adolescence, physical body, mature crops, abundance, element of fire, the Sun or Mother Earth, passion, drive, vitality, fullness, ripeness, maturity, red, orange, wands tarot suit, astrological houses 4-6.
  • Qualities of the West: dusk/sunset, fall, adulthood, emotional body, leaves dropping from trees, letting go, harvest, gathering resources inward, the void, discernment, element of water, the womb, the Moon, surrender, trust and faith, the unknown, black, blue, cups tarot suit, astrological houses 7-9.
  • Qualities of the North: midnight, winter, elder, spiritual body, frozen landscape, silence, communion with Spirit, element of earth, the Moon, death, union, intuition, complete understanding, being filled with the Divine, white, pentacles tarot suit, astrological houses 10-12.
  • Qualities of the Center: Heart of the matter, in the moment, timeless, ageless, integration of all bodies, openness, channel/hollow reed, grace, connection to above and below, trees, mountains, inspiration, rainbow, all colors.
  • Qualities of Above: Cosmic currents, collective unconscious, movement of the heavens, wisdom of planetary bodies, future, possibility, stars, galaxies, expanded consciousness, God, angels.
  • Qualities of Below: Planetary currents, collective history, ancestors, roots, creation, fertility, the womb, the cave, Goddess.

 

Want to learn more?
Read this article about How to: Prayers to the Directions

 

meaning and purpose

On Meaning and Purpose

I am lucky to have blessed revelations peppered throughout my 7 day a week morning contemplation practice. Since March this year I’ve given myself at least 60 minutes a day of focused time for writing, reading and meditating. There’s one pre-requisite – the practice must be focused around my relationship with my soul. All distractions are dismissed from the conversation.

There is one particularly meaningful conversation that occurred over a month ago that I refer back to every day. I would like to share this with you. My task was to ask my soul and ego each for their interpretation of meaning and purpose.

This is what came:
To my soul, meaning is that deeply felt sense, a feeling of rich connectedness, a sense of flow and draw. To my ego, meaning is the ability to connect something in to a pattern, a system, in a logical way. It’s taking a string of symbols, synchronicities and experiences and finding that they all point in one direction or add up to a truth. 

To my soul, purpose is a life force welling up inside that fuels service and loving action and joyous experience. There is no end result in mind, just the full experience of this moment. There is a drive, but it’s a drive to pour forth the divine. For the ego, purpose is tied up in appearing like I know where I am going, in achieving a goal, fulfilling a need. There’s a practicality to this purpose even it it is to find joy. There is a striving for something rather than being in it. for the ego, if I don’t know where I’m going then I am insecure. For my soul, I am fulfilling a purpose if I know where I am. My life has meaning when I’m connected to where I am. 

When mapping the route of each, I see that the ego creates paths that I wander down, paths that take me outside the moment. I see that the soul accesses the moment as it resonates with meaning and moves with purpose.  

Degrees of Frozen

It seems just such a short time ago I was carrying on about noonday sun and flower petals. Enough time has passed somehow that all the vegetables have been put up and all the tinctures are brewed and bottled. The snow has come early and blessed the Earth with its quiet breath. So why has my life been caught up in the whirlwind when the air outside is so still and crisp? When my activity level does not mirror the seasons, appearances show that I am living out of harmony, but is this so?

Somehow, some way I don’t feel in discord. Disoriented maybe, but discordant no. There are these heavenly moments in the day when everything stands still, when the truth comes from my lips, and my heart is open wide. The subject of the conversation doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who I’m speaking with or who I’m speaking of. As I dash from one task to the next all the details spin together like colored paint in a blender. There is no time in this melee to ask who I am or who I would like to be, there is just doing. I don’t even remember breathing once today, but here I am still moving through the world, enacting change.

Many spiritual masters teach stillness and observation as the keys to enlightenment. Most of us envision harmony with winter as a quiet, peaceful turning in. But, how many other manifestations of winter have we explored? We make assumptions and form static definitions of what each season is. Nature does not conform to such Platonic ideals.

An observation comes to mind that Sandra Ingerman expressed during the Medicine for the Earth class I took last month. She told us that when she merged with the Earth during winter she expected to find everything still and quiet. In contrast, she experienced a moving, shifting Earth, one very much alive and in motion. The concept of being “frozen” is relative. Absolute zero is hundreds of degrees below our current winter temps. That is how far we are from absolute stillness, hundreds of degrees.

My current degree of motion and activity may seem like madness to some. To a restless hummingbird that’s just traveled across the Gulf of Mexico, I am resting. It’s all a matter of degree and what experience of this season we choose to have. Somewhere along the way I choose this experience. Bewildered? Me too.

But, then I stop to consider. This winter has not been that still. We’ve had plentiful snowstorms that flood the warm ground, turn it to ice, then melt it to mud baths the next day. Winter is busy remaking the landscape with furious vigor and it seems, so am I.