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character courage and commitment

Character, Courage, and Commitment

March is women’s history month and the theme of the month for 2014 is: Character, Courage, and Commitment. This is an interesting set of words, two of which I wouldn’t be inclined to usually study. Typically, I’m interested in words like compassion, kindness, honesty, integrity, and, yes, courage. It was a helpful to spend some time with the theme for the month that includes character and commitment and gain a little more insight into what it means to be a woman in today’s world. Each section ends with some questions to help you explore each aspect of the theme yourself.

Character

“You don’t handle the world, you handle yourself in the world.” – Caroline Myss. The definition of character is a person that focuses on handling herself a larger percentage of the time than she handles, or more so attempts to handle, the world. Caroline Myss talks about the importance of conscience and how we rarely use that phrase in our society anymore. These days we talk about understanding our shadow side and researching our unconscious, but we don’t talk enough about how to stop these parts of ourselves – the pieces that gossip and resent and resist – from taking over. That is where conscience comes in. Women of character have a deeply felt and realized list of values, an active conscience, that guides their actions on a moment-to-moment basis. We can’t just decide to be “good” when others are watching and secretly allow our minds to berate our loved ones for not doing the dishes. This resentment weighs us down and prevents us from acting in a loving way. To have character means to throw out our addiction to toxic thoughts, underhanded comments, and strategic manipulation. This is not easy because we build up these mechanisms to cope with past pain and safeguard against future loss. This means that to have character you must have faith and trust on your list of values.

What are your values? How well are you living them? What percentage of the time are you handling the world compared to handling yourself? How do you feel about this? What would you change?

Courage

“It’s ironic that I’m the most afraid when I’m being brave. Vulnerability = Courage” – Brene Brown. As women we can find that we have to strive especially hard to “man up” and be brave. We’re taught that women are inherently emotional and weak, that they need shelter and assistance. We fight against these stereotypes too much in our lives. How liberating is it to realize that you can be scared AND brave at exactly the same time? In fact when you are absolutely terrified is likely when you are the most brave. I have found this to be true and disorienting in my own life. When I first heard Brene’s words so much finally made sense. Now I understand why I’ve made such good friends with adrenaline and fear. I’ve tried a lot of new things. I’m always pushing the envelope. My envelope is not one of thrill-seeking, sky diving, or mountaineering, my envelope is living my truth. This involves a lot of risk.

How do you view fear? Do you feel ashamed or angry or beaten when you’re fearful? How can you help yourself better weather your fear?

Commitment

When I think about women and commitment I must admit, I am absolutely hard pressed to think of a woman I know that ISN’T committed. I know committed mothers, committed business owners, committed counselors and therapists, committed scientists, committed friends and spouses. Commitment with them is not about being a martyr or putting on armor and being a warrior through the difficult times. Commitment is not doggedly sticking to a path regardless of the obstacles. Commitment is a way of staying optimistic and connected to the whole, the big picture. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded to great women like I am or to even know one or two of them, you don’t need to find an expert or study a famous person’s teachings. All there is to do is to go and watch a committed friend for inspiration. Ask her how her day was or what her new project is. Listen to how she stays at her goal with courage and character, in line with her values. Understand how she forgives herself for failure and uses the mistakes to enhance her creation.

Who do you have in your life that is a model of commitment? What do you see in them and their practice that you could bring into your own life?

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?
Visit the Spirit Animal Guide

 

“No Sense of Direction” from Gracious Wild

The following is an excerpt from the book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks

I went in to see Thalia around noon. I was able to coax her onto the stump near the front door with a piece of chick. Once her appetite was whetted, she was eager to come to me. The first pounce on my gloved hand was pure bliss. I watched her slender, long legs dance as her fierce talons gripped my fingers hard. She bent down to tear at the meat with her beak. Now I could absorb the scene rather than worry about how it looked to bystanders. I carried her to a perch with fluid steps as she picked the glove clean, asked her to step onto the perch, and returned to my post in the open corner of the mews. We danced, moving and flying from different perches to avoid routine. I wanted every moment, every pounce to be fresh. She chirped a few times in excitement over the tasty activity. It was all I could do to take in her features through the blur of hunger.

Once I finished feeding Thalia the meal I’d prepared, I stood by the door for a while to bask in her presence. She stood quietly on her perch, her crop bulging with food, and set to preening her lovely coat. The mixture of colors in each feather was exposed as she chose one and then another to zip into place. She roused (shook her entire coat) and a shock wave of release coursed through my body.

Instantly aware of herself, she turned her head to look me in the eye. It was as if to say, “Who is this strange woman in my company today?” I felt her legs and wings tense just before she leapt to a perch inches from my shoulder. I held my breath. She released her firm grip on the perch and went back to preening. I exhaled. Her feathers relaxed across the contours of her frame and she cocked her head to meet my gaze. My steady breath was all that broke the silence. The maiden harrier subtly lifted the foot furthest from me while curling it in a loose ball. Her ebony talons disappeared into the thick down on her belly. She was far from the anxious hawk I’d seen pulling feathers from her legs. Likewise, I was miles from the frightened woman trapped on an island. Here stood our window to salvation.

Our next month of training was plagued with paradox. The times I spent alone with Thalia in her mews were serene, heavenly hours. This is where I fell hopelessly in love with this harrier’s unbound spirit. She was at once confident, aggressive, and friendly. I worked tenaciously to gain fluidity and strength in my raptor handling skills while she patiently walked me through the process. Even the simple task of accommodating the weight of this one-pound hawk on my outstretched hand could not be taken for granted. My shoulder and arm ached for weeks. I had so much to learn. I could only use five fingers to manipulate her leather ankle jesses through a swivel and onto a leash. It was just like knitting one-handed—the highly tuned muscles in each of my fingers could only remember the motion through repetition. Thalia allowed me to train my right hand over and over. She would often use the time to pick any hint of meat she’d missed off the glove.

The days I met with either Annie or Sandra for training outside the mews varied from hopeful to nerve-wracking. Both women were superior teachers and lovingly supportive. Not for a moment would I ever fault their skills at falconry or at coaching, but regardless of our best efforts Thalia easily slipped into distress. My first attempts to have Thalia step to my glove from a perch outside ended in her flapping wildly at the end of her leash. Sandra was able to work with Thalia and the perch with no incident. Annie diligently walked me through the process on our next outing and Thalia was perfectly calm. Another day, Annie and I had tried everything we could do to get Thalia to step on the scale. To the hawk it was a leg hold trap and there was no way to convince her otherwise. After the struggle over the scale ended, I was able to stand with Thalia resting quietly on my glove while Annie and I talked.

During walks to and from the raptor barn, Thalia would waver from patience to panic. Sometimes the five-minute walk took twenty because we had to stop and wait for her to settle every time she jumped or looked like she would jump. When the wind was unnerving Thalia, Sandra suggested I face her into the wind. For five minutes, this worked fabulously. Thalia roused and was pleased, but then she took back to crouching and holding her wings out—both clear signs of anxiety. Encounters with strange people or dogs also stressed her, but the worst was when we had to grab her, wrap her in a towel, and do health checkups and maintenance. I did my best to hold steady, but the fight or flight response coursing through Thalia’s veins automatically raced through mine.

Secretly, I wondered if it was my fear that Thalia was picking up on or vice versa. Regardless, I found very quickly that whatever emotion moved through the hawk also moved through me, often in a physical sensation. Her releasing rouses shook tension from my body. Her panicked body posture froze fear in my muscles. The swings between comfort and fright were severe. Through my experiences with Thalia I was accessing layers of joy and fear I never knew existed in my being. The moments of joy were exhilarating and the flashes of fear were paralyzing. I wasn’t sure if Thalia’s anxiety was inextricably linked with mine or if it was coming from those around us. I yearned to walk the grounds of Willow Brook alone with her to unwind the mystery.

At the same time I was working out this new relationship, I was still trapped in a struggle to find gainful employment. I had no a sense of direction. Galena suggested I do a journey and ask, “What is my major block to finding my path at this time?”

I went on a shamanic journey to lower world and met a wolf that led me through the maze of dead-end paths in the dense forest that I had been wandering for years. The paths were worn to dirt from all of my pacing. This time the wolf led me to a grassy path that led out of the dense brush and into an open, old growth coniferous forest. There were no more choices to make along this path—just the squish of soft grass under our feet. Then everything went black and I knew that I was at a point where the landscape was going to be different. First I saw dapples of light and then deciduous trees. Then a whole different forest of shorter trees with an open understory came into focus. It was autumn and the trees were ablaze with red and orange. The wolf disappeared and the fawn, my life purpose animal, was with me. As we talked, I learned that this was a metaphor for where I currently was in my life. I turned around 360 degrees and was surrounded by the colors. The fawn suggested that I paint a picture of what it looked like to me. A blank canvas stood on an easel below an oak tree. It was clear that this place was where all my options were. There was no clear path on the ground. I talked to her about how frightening fall was for me. It was cold, the sun was far away, and the end of the year was near.

“All of these things could bode poorly,” I voiced.

“For your future, you have to let go of your fears,” she reassured. “There is still plenty to eat this time of year, and the temperatures aren’t life-threatening. In the end, winter is not so bad. Most animals find food and enter spring to start anew.”

Then an image of a great gray owl swooping down onto an untracked field of snow came into focus. The owl reached out its massive feathered feet, dug them into the snow, pulled out a mouse in her talons, and silently slipped away. I understood then that I needed to find a space clear of fear to paint an unbiased picture of where I was and, thus, where I was going.

PRESS RELEASE – Gracious Wild

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(PDF VERSION)

A quest into the wild and important spirit messages and soulful gifts gathered from animals while there… 

Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks

Stacey L.L. Couch

“A highly recommended, beautifully written story of power and transformation.”
Kay Kamala, editor for A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism

“This exquisitely written book warmly touches hearts and gives flight to the soul, while offering opportunities for healing and cathartic release. Don’t be surprised if Gracious Wild moves you to tears and helps you experience some spontaneous healing of your own.”
Colleen Deatsman, author of The Hollow Bone: A Field Guide to Shamanism

“Stacey’s heart-warming, at times heart-wrenching narrative scintillates with possibilities the modern human mind normally embraces only in dreams.”
Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus and Power of the Herd

Gracious Wild is the story of Stacey Couch’s incredible journey out of the mundane world of science and reason into the vast shamanic realms of creativity and inspiration.  Readers will travel on this intimate exploration of what happens when one woman allows the messengers of nature to guide her. These winged guides wrap her mind up in the mysteries they present, leading her to a richer, more fulfilling life

Stacey’s tale begins on an isolated island where, as a scientist, her main responsibility is to care for a couple dozen foxes in captivity. As a result of a series of ecological tragedies, the fox population is on the verge of extinction and a novel hawk species begins nesting on the island for the first time in recorded history. It is during her time watching the nesting hawks alone in nature that her real quest begins – a series of hawks become her guides; rousing life’s biggest questions like “why am I here?”

Gracious Wild weaves Stacey’s relationship with the hawks alongside her study of shamanism with a good deal of information included for those seeking more details about this spiritual path.

From the book:

I was running from my own shadow, and through my fear; my shadow had the upper hand. This time I couldn’t run. I had to solemnly live the nightmare. I relied on a grounding intuition that under­stood that this marsh, this fear, was only one portion of the island. If I could walk in, I could walk back out. There was no quicksand, no swallowing mud, only my annoying distaste for myself. The terrain changed. A gently sloping spine of ten-foot hills rose on both sides. Now my path was more defined. I looked up. A pair of piercing eyes stared back from a mysteriously dark, circular face. The hawk stood still, perched atop a bush, the shield of her cinnamon breast in full view. She wore a dark chocolate cape. Is she a mirage or has she really allowed me to wander so close? I felt a soft strand of hope spiral between us. The young harrier hawk looked like she had been standing there for cen­turies, waiting for me to pass. The intimacy of the snug valley was consoling. Then she turned her dark face to something over the crest of the hill, opened her wings, and lifted away.”

Stacey’s belief is, “that wild animals are trying to speak and interact with us every day.  To listen to them is to listen to that which is divine within each of us.  Their calls mirror our own inner calling to a greater purpose.”

Gracious Wild offers a vivid and candid tale of a woman who loses then rewrites the meaning of her life at the same time showing readers their own humanity; how being open to spirit messages from animals can provide important and beneficial (life-changing) guidance.

About the Author

Stacey L. L. Couch describes herself as a shamanic cowgirl who works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature. A pioneer at heart, she empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions. She aims to show how to form a real connection with our own souls through the natural world. A life-long student of nature, she has a biology degree in ecology and conservation as well as a 2-year shamanic certification. Her home on a 38-acre ranch is in Pagosa Springs, CO. She offers shamanic healing and teaching services at www.wildgratitude.com.

Gracious Wild: A Journey with Hawks

Stacey L.L. Couch

Turning Stone Press

Paperback, $21.95

ISBN: 9781618520692

November 2013

Available wherever books and eBooks are sold or directly from the publisher:

1-800-423-7087, orders@rwwbooks.com, or www.turningstonepress.com

PDF VERSION OF PRESS RELEASE

lewis woodpecker spirit animal

Spirit Animals: LEWIS’S WOODPECKER

He has a barbed tongue for snagging insects from holes in trees. He has two toes facing forward and two facing backward, like all woodpeckers. His stiff tail feathers make it possible for him to lean his tail along a tree trunk to climb erect. He can drill a hole through wood as well as any of his cousins. Still one gets the impression that the Lewis’s woodpecker is distinctly trying NOT to be a woodpecker.

This woodpecker’s namesake, Meriwether Lewis made famous by his expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase with William Clark, commented in his journal that this woodpecker flies “a good deal like a jay bird”.  This woodpecker doesn’t pound out holes in trees to harvest insects or sap. The Lewis’s Woodpecker prefers to hunt by what’s called “hawking”. This bird, which is adapted to cling to the sides of trees and penetrate their bark with hammering blows, catches insects on the wing. He also delicately gleans insects from the ground or from the surface of the bark. He’ll gather nuts and berries too, and, on occasion, he will find natural crevices in the bark and probe those.

It’s hard to comprehend tens of thousands of years of evolution bringing this bird to it’s stunning form as a woodpecker then to have that form employed for occupations other than, well, woodpecking. If the Lewis’s woodpecker spirit animal has flown its beautiful self into your life you are being asked to let go of how familial or societal norms have shaped you. Clearly if this woodpecker can adapt his awkward climbing body to ballet-style flight and make a living doing it, there is no need for you to conform. Let go of the belief that your creativity is limited by what you are. This simply is not the truth.

This absolutely stunning, rosy chested woodpecker has a black back that glimmers the deepest shade of emerald green in the sunlight. The sweetest color of red covers the sides of his face and clean lines create a collar of grey feathers about his neck. This bird resonates with the deep nature of his forested environment and emanates true, heart-centered compassion from his being. Merge with this love, and know what it feels like to love without judgement in a way that overlaps with professionalism and confidence. A perfect companion for business dealings, this monogamous woodpecker is clear in his partnerships and exemplifies how creativity and duty meet for beneficial ends.

It is interesting that like his cousin the acorn woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker will stash acorns in holes in trees, but the acorn woodpecker drills holes to fit the acorn. The Lewis’s woodpecker re-shapes the acorn to fit natural crevices. This, again, shows how the Lewis’s woodpecker is willing to adapt his resources and his character to match his world, rather than manipulate the world to his needs. This is the power of a true artist, one who flows with his form and that of his environment to accent the power around him rather than play the engineer who strives to perfect.

That this bird is named after a famous explorer tasked with mapping the resources of a newly purchased territory is no cosmic mistake. In asking about the meaning of woodpecker, you are being asked to take a gliding, relaxed flight through the unmapped territories of your world and see the resources available to you. Don’t look for imperfections or weaknesses in other people, things, or yourself. Ask, “what is stunning here that I am drawn to work with?” In this way you will find that you don’t have to awkwardly think your way through using the resources available to you. You don’t need to go through the task of creating more opportunities. All you need to do is open your creative heart with confidence and come into alignment with the deep abundance of the forest about you.

Note: I’ve been largely writing lately about animals others have encountered, but this lovely little beast kept crossing my path on my drive too and from work. The other day as he crossed just in front of my windshield I spontaneously felt his energy cross through my soul. It’s one of those callings you can’t dismiss and I hope you find some resonance as well with this sweet expression of the Divine.

 

Want to learn more about spirit animals?
Visit the Spirit Animal Guide

 

into summer

Into Summer… Imagine Winter?

Given the lovely promptings of a dear friend I made it a goal of mine this season to partake in summer. For perhaps the first time in my life I decided to fuel summer experiences with my own imagination.

As a single child, a part of a two-home family I spent a lot of hours indoors waiting for my mom or dad to make it home from work. My eleventh summer I was trapped indoors in a full body cast. We titled the cast and the experience the “summer bummer”. So, needless to say I have a tad of seasonal agoraphobia. While everyone else is out loving the sun and abundance, I’m often inside searching for the motivation to leave the dark cave of a cool house.

Part of it was cellular memory. I just didn’t have it. I had learned how to enjoy the summer on camping trips and vacations, but I didn’t have the countless days of hours on end playing at who knows what outside. There were few other kids to play with and even fewer to romp careless with me around the relatively sterile suburban neighborhood I grew up in.

Given that most outdoor excursions I had in my youth required some sort of reason, as an adult I was left without one. Who was I going out to play with? Where were we going? What time would we be back? What was I going to do?

During my years as a field biologist all of these questions were taken care of for me. I got to play on the beach and in the woods as part of some extrinsic scientific plan. I was in heaven and didn’t realize that this lack of responsibility was a large part of it.

As my profession changed in favor of a steady income, my reason to go outside was no longer outside myself. I had to generate it from within and found it a troublesome chore. It was a heavy weight I couldn’t shake.

So, this summer I just kept going out against the doubt, the resentment, the apathy, and a lovely transformation came about. I stopped worrying who would entertain me. I quit fussing over the finish line because the weeding is never done. I found the sun flooded all hours of the day and took up with whatever small task caught my fancy.

I picked bouquets of flowers to decorate our table, lulled around with my mare in the noonday heat, found solace in the morning shade on our garden, picked bowl after bowl of lobelia and chamomile, and watched colorful new bugs come to visit our plants.

For the first time in my life I’ve gotten so caught up in summer that I’ve absolutely forgotten what winter is like. What a strong lesson about being in the moment. May the children of today trapped in video games, cable TV, and air conditioning find it sooner than myself. May those of us that have lost the memory find it again.

In Gratitude, Stacey

In response to “Into Summer… Imagine Winter?” you may choose to journey and/or journal on the following questions:

1. What season am I least familiar with?
2. What has kept me from partaking fully in this season?
3. When have I most appreciated this time of year?
4. Am I prepared to seize the next opportunity I have to partake?
5. How will I know I’ve fully immersed myself in the time?