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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Clearly, to create a sincere environment to house my new soul family, I needed to tear down my outdated foundation.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.

Mustang Mare Horse

On Immediate Results and Real Consequences

Do you ever have the experience of immediate response from your environment? Do you know what it feels like have something shift so quickly that you’re overwhelmed with the results?

In the course of the last 24 hours my reality has been completely shattered and then repaired to its beautiful self. Some of you may know of the challenges I’ve faced with my 17 year old bay mustang mare. She used to be absolutely terrified of humans, and nothing in the human world, let alone riding, was simple or even possible with her. People don’t believe that now when they see how calm she is, how willing, connected and intelligent she is. Cherokee has been in my life for six years and I have invested hundreds of hours into the relationship. We had a brief riding career a couple of years ago until I ended up ungraciously on the ground twice. Neither of us are very good at working through anxieties over riding. So, we continue on on the ground, online and at liberty. She follows me around a grassy pasture now as I do chores. She comes to greet me and our visitors with enthusiasm and curiosity in her expression. She walks, free of ropes, by my side on our 38 acres. Still I want more.

So, when I had a vet offer to treat her state of mind with herbs, the temptation was too great. What if we could “cure” the last vestige of tension left in her heart? What if this was the “key” to being able to ride her? Wouldn’t this be phenomenal? Once again, I repeat an old mistake. So many times experts promised that if we just do these few things over and over or for this amount of time or repetitions that she’ll come around. So many times I’ve succumbed to the juicy quick fix that doesn’t involve me. Still I couldn’t resist.

We started her on the herbs four days ago. A few reports from my family members came that she was acting different. I saw it but was preoccupied. Then on day three (yesterday) when I had time to engage, I found a terrifyingly different horse. She regressed, literally, all the way back to five or six years ago. She was a fire-breathing dragon that jumped at my every move. Every muscle in her body was erect. Her eyes were as hard and black as stone, and there was no light left in them. Just like that, I lost my horse. All of a sudden our relationship was gone. I was absolutely crushed. Of course, we took her off the herbs.

I lost sleep over wondering if I’d ever get my best friend back. Would I have to start all over again? Could I really, really go through it all again? This morning she still shied from me, snorted and tensed up as I walked past her. She was wishing for me to leave. Then, just like that, it all went away. Tonight she slipped back into her current day skin as if yesterday had never happened.

As we stood in the pasture side-by-side calmly watching a cinnamon colored black bear wander across our property I felt safe with her. She watched the bear with quiet curiosity. All was serene. Really, it sounds absurd, but it’s true. Bear is about turning inward and knowing the answer is within the vastness of my being while staying open to the unknown outcome. Gosh this horse has been a test. How willing am I REALLY to listen to my own guidance and to trust that I am enough? This isn’t some fairytale, this is the truth, the hard truth with real consequences. Today I am so overwhelmingly grateful that the real consequences, the real answers were so extreme and so immediate. It’s not everyday we have the opportunity to correct our course so drastically and come out unscathed. This too is a gift and I am thankful.

lil bit horse shamanism

Little Bits at a Time

In our Journey Circle today we talked about how trauma can be repeated throughout our lives. For example, I broke my left femur when I was 11 years old and I can’t say how many times I’ve re-injured my left knee or hip since then. Today, I shared how I see these kinds of patterns repeated in the lives of rescue horses. No matter how many owners the horses have in their lives, the story is the same. Some horses starve, are “rescued” and then starved by the people that rescued them, and I’m not talking one cycle of this, but repeated cycles. Other horses attract owners that aren’t experienced enough for them, and the horse gets passed on to one owner and then the next because they are considered “too dangerous”. Really the horse never has the chance to connect with humans and learn how to be around them. It is no fault of their own.

When I lived at the horse rescue a horse named Little Bit (we called her “Bits” for short) and my mare, Cherokee, were the very, very best of friends. This meant I got to know Bits very well. You see, my horse Cherokee used to be incredibly hard to catch and while I was out in the pasture taking the time it takes to catch Cherokee, Bits would follow me around, cuddle with me, and nuzzle me. Whatever rejection I felt from Cherokee was soothed by Bits’ constant presence.

Cherokee’s “Crew” from left to right: Ginger Snap, Cherokee, Star, and Little Bit. All now have forever homes.

I became so enamored with Bits that I ventured to take the relationship further by haltering her and taking her out of the pasture. That was a disaster. She’d try to run me over, bolt, and do whatever it took to get back to her herd. I was keenly aware of how far she had to go. With enough of a project in Cherokee, I never could commit to giving Bits the education she so desperately needed. So instead, I advocated for her. In fact, I worked to start an entire training program at the rescue with Bits in mind. When we had the program running I assigned her to the best trainers we had. To my chagrin she still wasn’t able to find a home. To my delight the training program continued on after I left.

Ever since moving from the rescue I’ve followed Bits’ progress and inquired about her health. For two long years she’s been in and out of training and despite the hurdle of a mild lameness issue and the relocation of her primary trainer she’s made steady progress. I had a couple opportunities to visit her in that time and she always remembered me. She’d come up to me like she always did and bury her head in my chest. It brought tears to my eyes. She was such an amazing friend to me.

This evening I learned that Bits finally has been able to move on from her past and find a great home. It’s a reminder that although we do unconsciously repeat ugly patterns in our lives that we can shift them. It may not happen as quickly as we’d like and we won’t be able to do it ourselves. We need to trust that the right people will cross our paths to help guide us along. We need to work hard, very hard, and persevere.

Today with her guidance, I remember that change happens in little “Bits” at a time and my heart swells with the memory of those warm nuzzles forward.

animal communication

Do They Speak English?

Being in the world of animal welfare as a shamanic practitioner I commonly get asked the question, “Can you talk to the horse and help him understand?”

From a shamanic point of view, the animals do not speak our language. Historically, it was the job of the shaman to learn how to speak the language of the land, the animals, the elements, and the ancestors. The shaman communed with these spirits and surrendered to their cosmic view, so she could work with them on behalf of her tribe. She learned how to communicate in metaphor and story, empathy and wonder.

Many superstitions did and still do surround the telling of the shamanic experience because shaman understood that in the telling the power may be lost. Some cultures forbid the unveiling of one’s power animal while others believe that sharing the name of one’s spirit guide can cause illness. Shaman often would act out their journeys for the whole tribe but refuse to narrate the same to anyone. The shaman was both leader and hermit. This traditional way of being must have weighed heavily on the healer, but carries some important lessons.

The spirit world is not polarized. There is no right or wrong, up or down, inside or out. It is all one. In contrast, our language is inherently polarized. Think of how many times a day you use the word “good”. When I embark on a shamanic journey I am entering into a rich, multi-layered experience that is felt and loved. I put the experience into words as a way to remember so that I can revisit the learning over and over again for deeper levels of understanding. I do this knowing that even my own words read to myself change the experience. I am taking pure white light and shining it through a faceted crystal so that I may follow the rays of color back through the crystal and into the light.

Now, consider this process in relation to another living, breathing autonomous being. When I journey to them or for them I am in the spirit world. This allows me to empathize their experience with more clarity, but I am still a human connected in part to my experience of being human. Now if I take what I experience as them during the journey and translate it into human language I am twice removed from the actual form. I am twice removed from the truth that is that being’s experience. And the being is twice removed from me.

From this standpoint, all that is being had is a hopelessly garbled conversation. Like a foreigner trying to order dinner I will first try to select a dish I think I would like from a menu I can’t read. Then, with much difficulty, gesturing and mispronunciation I will ask the waiter to confirm that I have made a good choice. Not satisfied with his answer I will order it anyway. He has the chef make what he makes everyday and what arrives on my plate is no where near what I would have guessed.

healing animal communication

The Healing That’s Offered

The piece on “Do They Speak English?” leaves the reader with a new question: “If the shaman cannot help a horse understand what can they do?”

Domestic animals live in a world full of human agenda. Before the time of domestication, animals operated solely on their own will. Now we force them into trailers and kennels. We demand they be quiet when asked. We expect them to give solace and comfort to our tired souls. In all of this work, all of this submission, they can become weary and ill.

By nature, the shamanic practitioner works from a place of no personal agenda. To conduct healing, the shaman must surrender to and direct the spirits in equal parts. It’s in the surrender that agenda must be shed. The direction given is not respected unless the agenda is released. Agenda is polarized and the spirit world is not. Mother Nature is not malicious or kind in her power. Her power just is. The spirits work in the same way.

There are many paths to healing. Each has it’s own merit, but in shamanic work the path is tailored to the patient’s truth. In this way, the animal is allowed the opportunity to regain their sense of self which is a healing on its own. The animal is treated as an autonomous being valued for who they are outside of their relationship with humans. The healing is offered to them to do with as they please. This may be the first time in their entire lives that they realize the opportunity to manifest their desires. Do they want to stay and support their human? Would they rather languish in disease? Will they stay disconnected? Are they up to the task before them?

Self realization is a powerful healing, but disperses in the first wind of the civilized world without some shoring up. This is where the next piece of the work comes into play. The shaman brings forth energy that until this point has been unavailable to the patient. Since domestic animals have so little control over their physical environment, pieces of their essence are easily lost. Their personal power is forfeited. The brilliant light of their will grows dim. The shaman seeks out this essence and brings it back into the sphere of the patient’s conscious control. In this work, the desires of the animal may shift to reflect who they truly are at the core of their being.

There are as many benefits of shamanic healing for animals as stars in the sky, and what I’ve laid out here is the groundwork. I encourage you to explore the field further. This is our opportunity to offer back the unconditional love our furry friends are so courageously infamous for.

horse leadership

On Leadership

I find it an interesting synchronicity that at this time in my life I find my perspective of leadership turned on its head. In the over 2 years I’ve known my mustang mare she has been the lead mare of her shifting herd of 15-18 mares. She has shouldered the role so gracefully that life in the pasture has been ordered but playfully choatic, friendly with a sound level of ownership. She rarely, if ever, exerts her power over the others and has been willing to let many a discretion slide. My mare is not a micro-manager or one to delegate tasks, she lets each horse fall into their natural role in the herd, and shares her time with each regardless of rank. She has continually demonstrated that leadership is not about brute force, shear power, or outright enchantment, all of which she has in excess, but about sound quiet confidence.

Now, in the last few months I’ve watched another, smaller but quicker, mustang throw the herd into a jumble and bully my mare out of her position. I’ve realized how desperately I’ve clung to Cherokee’s identity as a leader, and I’ve had to go through my own path of transformation to reframe our relationship.

Relationships are tricky, especially those we have with our animals. So frequently I see that an animal’s illness, spiritual, emotional, mental or physical, is strongly tied to the human’s circumstances. We regularly project our own stuff onto our furry friends. We commonly ask them to excuse our faults. We pursue a mirror of our strengths. This is the natural order of things. To be in relationship is to connect and share our energy, love, and life.

The problem arises when the bond we share becomes static. This stunts the growth and transformation that is primary to every living being’s path. When this happens with the humans in our lives we begin to either voice or hear a good deal of grumbling which, when not heeded, turns to outright defiance and the severing of ties. Our furry companions cannot explain to us what the problem is with language, so we start to see other symptoms. Misbehavior and noncompliance are the first signs. Physical illness or violence are the last stage.

In the case of my mare and myself, I saw immediately that the shift in her role and my strong reaction to it required a big adjustment. I could have chosen to wallow in pity and spend my hours wishing for her to regain face. Instead, I saw an opportunity. Here was my chance to direct all her freed time and energy into our work together. Since she didn’t have a herd to watch over all day, I could provide Cherokee with more play sessions to ponder and I could visit at odd times. The weather this winter has been awefully cold, but I bundled up and went out. She met me in the middle by adjusting to the strange environment of the indoor arena. We’ve had some absolutely outstanding days together and now more than ever we look forward to making contact in a new way.

Many times I’ve pursued a position of leadership in my herd of two, but never would I have wanted Cherokee to have to give up her own. I still don’t know for certain that she had to relinquish her role in her herd to accept me as her leader, but something tells me that the opportunity arose for her and she took it. Maybe she’s thinking the same of me?

Feel like evaluating your own relationship with your furry friend… Here are some great questions to get you going:

1. What roles do my animal and myself play in our relationship together?
2. How have these roles shifted over time?
3. What role(s) would I like to work towards in my relationship with my animal?
4. How might our relationship change if I shifted into those roles?
5. How can I honor who my animal is in their life apart from our relationship?