Tag Archive for: relationships

being compassionate

Are You Good at Being Compassionate?

Discovering Your Capacity for Being Compassionate

About two years ago I added two questions to my intake form for new clients. I put the questions on my intake forms to learn more about each individual client and how she sees herself. The plan was to garner information from how these questions were scored and use it to tailor the content of conversations to best help each person. Here are the questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how compassionate are you with others?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how compassionate are you with yourself?

You may want to take a minute to answer these questions yourself. For reference, 10 is the most compassionate and 1 is the least. Do you answer these questions quickly using a gut reaction or do you deliberate over them, concerned about what someone else might think if they saw your scores?

What is Compassion?

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary compassion is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” and a “feeling of wanting to help someone”.  It means to suffer together. I often see the word simply as “with passion” or being “with feeling”.

Compassion is something intangible that is hard to measure like love or kindness and it is relative to each person, but it is worth considering your own capacity for being compassionate. Do you simply tolerate other people’s pain or are you the kind of person that falls into it with them? Are you able to sit with another person who’s in distress and be a companion for them offering comfort in a way that helps? Spending time describing your capacity for compassion is a good exercise to do on occasion. It is worth noting the times you are compassionate and the times you aren’t.

Compassion for yourself is called “self-compassion” and it means a willingness to be with your own suffering and to want to alleviate your own pain. Dr. Kristin Neff has done a fabulous job of mapping out the intricacies of self-compassion on her website self-compassion.org.

Compassion leads to connection and gives substance to our lives. Many people include compassion as one of their values and they strive to learn more about being compassionate.

What Happened with These Questions?

What I ended up discovering is that the answers to these questions were incredibly tough to predict and even harder to understand. As an outsider looking in, I was continually baffled by the answers. The responses were not what I would have guessed even after getting to know the clients.

A little kept secret of mine, is that for each individual session, these answers are have little, if no, bearing on how I guide the process. Yet for some reason I left the questions on my forms even after numerous revisions sensing that there was something there I had yet to discover.

I’d like to say thank you to all the clients who have taken a moment or two to consider these questions. You may not have liked answering them or thought they were kind of frivolous. I think now is when you have the opportunity to benefit from that time you took.

My Survey Results

Over time, I’ve noticed a consistent trend among the scores that clients sent me. The scores for compassion for others was nearly always higher than the scores for self-compassion. Just this week, I decided to tally up the data I have to date and see what else I could learn from this impromptu survey. Here’s what I found:

  • 87% of clients who answered the questions had more compassion for others than themselves
  • 13% of clients had the same amount for others and themselves
  • ZERO clients had more compassion for themselves than others
  • The average self-compassion score was 5.5 compared to the average compassion for others score of 8.0

Here is a graph of the relative results to give you a visual. You can see that overall people felt they were better at being compassionate towards others.

being compassionate self compassionate

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Far from a rigorous scientific study, my simple, small survey will not win any notice among psychologists I’m sure, but that’s not the point. The point is there is an obvious trend here that many people can learn from.

From my outside perspective, my clients are some of the most self-compassionate people I know. They are not only aware of their suffering, they are willing to be vulnerable in sharing about it. They are so committed to alleviating their own suffering that they are willing to dedicate generous amounts of time and energy to getting better. But, since they are on the inside looking out they can’t see the heroism of their own efforts. Taking a moment to step outside yourself to look in will help you see how much you’re really doing.

Do you know the saying that we are our own worst critic? It may be that many people have bought into this mythology, and although it may be true it doesn’t help us work towards alleviating our own suffering. Next time you catch yourself thinking or saying that, go ahead and replace it with a compassionate statement such as, “I’m my own best companion.”

To have more self-compassion, we need to apply the compassion we give to others to ourselves. Clearly with an average score of 8 when it comes to being compassionate with others, we know about being compassionate. Learning how to befriend yourself can help you up your self-compassion score.

If you are a person that feels you are better at being with the distress of others than your own pain, this data should help. Dr. Kristin Neff says that a component of self-compassion is “common humanity” and knowing you are not the only person struggling. It is quite a layered thing to realize that you are not alone in feeling of you have a deficit of self-compassion and that this will help your sense of self-compassion.

Take some time each day to acknowledge all that you do to take care of yourself. You may do twice as much to beat yourself up as you do to help yourself out, but beating yourself up over that isn’t going to help. Focus on the ways you do know how to love yourself and do one new thing, no matter how small, to nurture you.

 

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.

archetypal hero archetype

The Hero Archetype

The hero archetype is one of the most recognizable archetypes in literature, film, television and video games. It seems that any compelling story has a hero of some flavor that is easy to name.

Here are twenty real-life and fictional hero archetype examples: Superman, King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Luke Skywalker, Rocky, Hercules, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Neo (The Matrix), Rosa Parks, Frodo, Daniel LaRusso (Karate Kid), William Wallace (Braveheart), Dorothy Gale (Wizard of Oz), Moses, Robin Hood, Amelia Earhart. Please note that this random smattering is no indication of value, ranking or merit of each example. I’m merely trying to touch on someone you recognize.

Do you know what makes these people and characters heroes or heroines? To make the hero an archetype, we must be able to identify universal patterns of behavior and story, which we can!

The Archetypal Hero’s Remarkable Birth

The hero archetype by definition has unusual circumstances surrounding his/her birth. Immaculate conception, birth from the foam of the sea or the blood clot of a buffalo, or emergence from the mother’s heart are examples of the mysterious stories surrounding the hero’s birth. (SOURCE: SideEffectsOfXarelto.org) Often the hero is born under a prophesy of the coming of the savior. The hero or heroine may also be born into an opulent or privileged family or be of esteemed ancestry, but they may not know it.

If you are considering if you have the hero archetype, how do you reconcile this piece of a hero’s mythology with your own history? If your family tells wild tales of the storm that raged the night you were born or the colossal labor your mother went through to have you, this can be considered a remarkable birth.

If everyone is counting on you to be the first college graduate, lawyer or doctor of the family, this can be a reflection of the idea of you as the savior. If you feel you were born to greatness, but can’t find the reason for this, you may very well have the hero archetype as part of your make-up. Remember, if the hero is one of your natal archetypes, the legends surrounding the archetypal hero should relate to your life symbolically.

The Estranged or Abandoned Hero

In the stories, the hero archetype may be estranged from his family at birth as in the story of Moses or he may lose his family in an accident like Luke Skywalker. The heroine may deliberately leave her family out of distaste for their values or out of necessity. If you’ve “left home” no matter what the age, this could be connected to the archetypal hero patterning.

The hero archetype and abandoned child archetype have a lot in common, so if this is the only part of the hero you identify with, look instead to the abandoned child. It is possible, however, to have both archetypes.

The archetypal hero typically has a strained, or even shattered, relationship with his or her father. The journey or quest he or she embarks on often helps the hero or heroine reconcile or heal from this wounding.

The Hero’s Journey

I speak at length about the stages and process of the hero’s journey in a three-part series of articles. When considering if the hero archetype as one of your own archetypes, be sure to familiarize yourself with the stages of the hero’s journey and relate those back to the seemingly insurmountable quests you’ve endeavored to accomplish in your life. I will touch on a few key aspects below, but for more in depth information…

Read The Shamanic Journey & The Hero’s Journey Series

Supernatural Guide for the Hero

At the beginning of the hero’s journey, he or she encounters a supernatural guide. Merlin helped Arthur, Obi-Wan tutored Luke Skywalker, and the Good Witch of the West advised Dorothy. I pull this important piece out of the hero’s journey because it is a key element to search for in your personal history when considering the hero archetype for yourself.

Have you had the assistance of one or more gifted teachers, gurus, or guides of this world or another? Has a loved one come from the other side to visit in a dream and show you the way? Has someone with uncanny wisdom been there at just the right time? You don’t have to know an actual witch or a wizard to have the hero archetype, but you do have to know what it’s like to get help that is supernatural from an especially gifted mentor.

The Archetypal Hero’s Special Weapon

Very often the hero or heroine receives a special weapon that only he or she can wield. The weapon is a symbol, a metaphor, for a unique talent or gift. If you feel like you are especially gifted at one thing or another and that you can use it to overcome great adversity on behalf of others, you may well be in the realm of the hero. Aphrodite’s special weapon was her beauty. She disarmed many with it. Whereas, Athena had the weapon of great strategic ability, continually outsmarting her adversaries. Beatrice Prior in Divergent has the ability to be many personalities at once which eventually breaks the oppressive social caste system she lives in.

The “Hero Complex”

When acting within the archetypal hero, we are at risk of falling into the shadow known as the “hero complex”. The larger than life mythology of the hero can lead those with the hero archetype to become self-involved and over-inflated. Someone with a hero complex will unconsciously create crises so that he has an opportunity to swoop in and be the hero. The hero archetype compels us to act as a lone ranger, refuse help, and ignore the benefits of teamwork. When out of balance, the selfless nature of the hero can also cause us to overdo the need to triumph at the cost of our own health and wellbeing

Light Aspects of the Hero Archetype

The hero puts the needs of others, whether it is one person or many, before his or her own needs. For the good of others, the hero archetype may submit him or herself to extreme physical danger or crippling emotional trauma showing an admirable selflessness. The hero displays unwavering bravery in situations where most people wouldn’t. His or her moral integrity is proven out in the end even if the hero’s honor was in question at the beginning of the adventure. The hero’s actions and character in the face of great adversity inspire others to rise above their own trials.

 

Want to know what archetypes are yours?
Schedule an Archetypal Consulting Session
and Find Out!

 

Spirit Animals: WOLF the WITNESS

Wolf Symbolism

Wolf spirit animals embody a wide range of qualities in the human psyche. Just think of how many stories you’ve read and movies you’ve seen that have wolves or werewolves as characters.

Most obviously, wolf symbolism is about dismantling fears and not letting them control you. When wolves used to roam the habitat around our small towns, many people feared going out at night. Despite the myths, thank you Red Riding Hood, wolf is not a vicious man-eater. It is truly the stories in our heads about wolves that make them much more dangerous than they are. This is the case with other fears we own. They are illusions, blown out of proportion to prevent us from venturing out into the unknown.

Remember the saying, “we’ll feed you to the wolves”? This conjures up images of a ravenous pack tearing us to shreds. Over the centuries, there has been a projection onto wolf as being a malicious, mindless killing machine. Luckily, awareness about the incredibly complex and intelligent nature of wolves is expanding. We now understand their capacity for caring and nurturing young as well as the intricate, subtle communication that exists between them.

Wolf as a Witness

When we think of wolf we often think of him chasing down big prey with his pack. We picture him fighting with a pack mate over a carcass. We imagine him howling at the moon. We don’t usually think of wolf watching quietly in the background, but this is often what he does. Wolf is not born knowing how to behave or hunt. As a pup, he learns by watching and this habit carries over into the rest of his life. He will sniff out a situation before moving in. Wolf will lurk on the perimeter, watching, until he determines the best course of action.

Wolf spirit animal teaches us about the power of detachment. Many of you may have heard of the concept of being a witness in your life. This entails watching your life as if it were someone else’s. If you’ve studied your triggers you’ll know that being a witness means not being triggered by a situation. This doesn’t mean you don’t care or love or feel. It just means that you let go of trying to force a certain outcome. You let go of the need to be right. You stop trying to direct everything to serve your own needs. You stop distrusting others and trusting in the nature of the universe.

Forget the “Alpha”

How many of you are familiar with the term “alpha male” ? A scientist conducting studies on captive, unrelated wolves in the 1930’s and 1940’s developed our notions of pack structure. Many people are now aware that if you’re not an alpha, you’re a beta in the middle of the pack or, heaven forbid, an omega at the bottom. We’ve carried this term over into our own social structure. We see our scraping to get to the top as the natural order of things, and have used the analogy of the wolf pack to justify our behavior.

More recent research conducted on wild wolves has revealed something different. Packs are not dictated by a set of leaders who’ve fought their way to the top. Nor are they composed of a group of submissive followers, but instead packs are family groups that are run by the parents. This paper by renowned wolf researcher David Mech sure turns things on their head: http://www.wolf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/267alphastatus_english.pdf.

Regardless of the true nature of pack social structure, we like to think of leadership as a static position. In reality, leadership in the natural world is a fluid notion that changes by the moment. Leadership seems to depend less on dominating another, and more on earning their following over and over again. The “submissive” member of the pack always has a choice whether to comply in the moment or not. Different leaders have different styles. Some are more quiet, others more gregarious. Leaders can be aloof or everyone’s best friend. We see this demonstrated in the wolf world and in our own.

If you have concerns over your role in a group and are tired of fighting for position, now is a good time to let go of the idea of the alpha. What qualities can you embody that will earn respect of others, and, even better, yourself? Part of being a witness is releasing concern over what other people think. What is your style of leadership? What do you look for in a leader? Wolf spirit animal offers you the opportunity to stop wasting your time thinking you weren’t born an alpha and start practicing the qualities you look for in a leader.

Wolf, The Guru

“At the beginning of the world, the Great Spirit sent the wolves out into the wilderness to measure the earth. They came back to the Great Mysterious One and told of what they had experienced and learned. Great Spirit said, ‘As you have named it, so it shall be.’ Wolves clearly interpret and impart the way to others.” – How to Find Your Spirit Animal by David Carson

“Because they wandered it was believed they knew everything.” – Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer

In many North American tribes, wolf spirit animal is the quintessential teacher. I go a step further an call wolf a “guru” because all great gurus are essentially great witnesses. Gurus are able to quietly watch their students struggle with tough questions and wrestle with uncomfortable truths. They have infinite patience, waiting for the student to come along at whatever pace they may. Gurus are willing to release the outcome and endure immense hardship without irritability. Gurus are also believed to know everything.

Teachers and gurus alike must be able to adapt their style of communication to match the student because not everyone learns the same way. Knowledge must come through different channels to be assimilated. Wolf has three ways of communicating: visual (body language), verbal, and scent.

Discerning Truth from Illusion

Gurus are incredibly good at discerning truth from illusion. To discern is to distinguish, separate and differentiate. My friend Margaret Burkesmith teaches that discernment is, “Sitting very close to something and allowing it to spontaneously reveal itself.”

Wolf has a superior sense of smell, and smell in religious symbology is linked with the skill of discernment. We don’t pass anything into our mouths without smelling it first just like we do not let any idea into our spiritual life without first discerning if it serves our path. Smell is likened to the ability to discern good from evil. Wolf spirit animal teaches us a great deal about the power of discernment.

The olfactory region of nasal cavity in wolf is 14 times that of humans and his nose is 1,000,000 times more sensitive to odor than humans. Wolf has somewhere around 280 million olfactory receptors. When a wolf stops to smell the marking of another wolf, he can tell how long ago that wolf was there, who exactly the wolf was, the gender of the wolf, and countless other things.

Now is a good time to pay attention to your own power of discernment. How much do you know, really, about what is going on in and around you? Can you take more time to sit with it and know more?

We so often picture gurus sitting cross-legged, in meditation for hours. They are allowing truth to reveal itself. Wolf spirit animal, our guru of the wild, watches quietly from a distance doing the same.

 

ONE WAY TO HELP THE WOLVES:
At Wolfwood Refuge in Ignacio, CO, I had the great fortune of meeting and interacting directly with wolves. Not only are wolves in the wild hunted and harassed due to misunderstanding, but wolves and wolf hybrids raised for domestication are continually discarded, mistreated and abused. Paula and Craig Watson offer these abandoned and mistreated animals a forever home where they have the chance to live outdoors in big enclosures with others of their kind. If you live nearby you can visit yourself. Anyone can donate to help out. http://www.wolfwoodrefuge.org

 

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

 

Love Her is What I Still Do

Publishing a memoir has paradoxically pushed my personal life more inward as if somehow I can counteract the effect of my innermost thoughts being so public by making my current motivations hidden. It is challenging to meet people for the first time and know they’ve had access to some of the most raw moments of my life. I hold my realtime vulnerabilities closer. They are more precious to me now. On the other hand, I know it is my candor, my willingness to show my imperfection, that helps people connect to their own stories and their own guidance.

So, here I am, ready to share more. Today, in the simplest of ways, my heart broke open. I was in yoga at work in a room with co-workers. Our instructor Margaret invites us to have an intention for what we’d like out of the time there. Sometimes I adopt a focus. Other times I rebel and enjoy the opportunity to let go of the drive of the workday. Today I wasn’t passionate either way, so I haphazardly chose open-heartedness. Then as I laid in shavasana the grief came. I had a simple thought that unraveled me.

I should probably write down everything I enjoyed about my time playing with Cherokee before I forget.

For those of you that don’t know me too well or that have been successfully shielded from my private life, my current animal muse is an 1100 pound bay mustang mare named Cherokee. She’s been in my life for over seven years now. She started out like the harrier hawk Thalia I tell the story of in my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. When I met her Cherokee was just like Thalia, deathly afraid of humans and ill equipped to manage the perils of captivity. I spent a year gentling, hand walking, and befriending her before I saw her eye soften for just a moment in my presence. I remember the day I looked over into Cherokee’s face and exclaimed to my friend Sue, “There’s the horse! That’s the horse that’s been there all along and just now I finally get to see her!” Little did I know that it would be another three years before that softness would settle in for good.

But my mission here is not to tell the tall tale that is the history of our relationship. That would encompass another volume I may write someday. For now, I’m here to capture this one moment in time, this instance in which my grief has resurfaced. Cherokee is well. She may have many more years of life ahead of her. I keep reminding myself to be grateful that she is still in my life. I continue to push back on that gratitude.

Earlier this year the vet discovered significant arthritis in Cherokee’s front feet. As we began to diagnose the severity of the problem I started to see what had likely been creeping up on us for months, if not years. I am no longer free to ask my playmate to run with me and jump even the smallest of obstacles for me. I can’t even ask her to trot. Walking down a hill or taking a sharp turn exacerbates the problem. Nothing  alleviates her condition, not pain medication, not acupuncture, not herbs, not specialized farrier work and not chiropractic. Prayer is a way to honor her sweet soul, but so far has not had an effect on the physical. Cherokee is not excessively old by horse standards, she’s 18, but the neglect she’s experienced in her life before I met her may have contributed to her body aging sooner than I’d like. It could have just been in the cards for her. I’ll never know why her athleticism has been taken from her what seems like too soon.

She lights up still when I even hint at play. Her neck arches, she sets her head perfectly, and her ears lean expectantly forward. She lifts into this incredibly light-footed trot. It pains me that I have to retreat and pull away from the magnetism that is this incredible horse. I so want to jig and egg her into a canter, ask her to go one way so she’ll dart another. She is a riveting playmate with a fantastic sense of humor.

When we used to play she would be contrarian and sassy at the start, living out loud how big and strong she was by kicking out at me and tearing off at a gallop. She never left me mentally however. She always had an eye or ear on me waiting to see if I was being drawn in. She’d find higher ground, turn to me with her head held high, and snort a big “huff” my direction pushing at me with her nose. My favorite thing was to beat her to the punch and “huff” at her first with a bob of my head. She’d then stand there indignantly as if to say, “well, I’m still bigger and faster than you.” I’d smile and she’d smile back with her whole body. After some time tearing about and countering every request I made, she would come to me and link up, no ropes attached. Then whatever I asked she would offer. If she didn’t get it right she would try again. That horse has a lot of try in her that few have given her credit for. The trainers saw attitude and/or fear. I’ve had the benefit of her full engagement and confidence. There is nothing better than that gift.

If I went out to the pasture right now, I could have all of this again. She would forget the pain and hand herself over for the joy of the play. I’ve given in to temptation and opened the door only to have to close it abruptly. I have the unfortunate talent of foresight. I know how much she will hurt tomorrow from a luxury taken today. She has a memory like an elephant, but, alas, foresight is not a capacity she possesses.

So, I mourn the loss of the freedom of indulgence in the play we shared together. I have friends optimistically tell me she’ll get better, but they haven’t been through countless vet visits, mounting vet bills, and numerous dead ends. Aging happens. It is an unfortunate circumstance that comes with the opportunity at life. It is so odd to mourn the loss of what we had together and still see her every day. I feel like I am dishonoring her by grieving. She is more calm, sweet, and affectionate that I’ve ever known her. Those who knew her years ago would have never described her as affectionate or, even, friendly. All is more than well.

If I had the gift of laying my hands on her and bringing a miracle about with her arthritis, God knows I would have done it, but my gift is not in that kind of healing. I work with the spirits to mend broken hearts and souls. Cherokee and I already worked our miracle, the miracle of turning fear around into fun, and we’ve tasted the sweetness of success. What a heart wrenching experience to come into wholeness and experience true happiness so that this cloud can come and cover my heart. It seems an unfair agony to find such play that brings unfurled bliss and then to have to deny it. I am not sure why the universe works the way it does, and this is not from lack of trying. I too have a lot of try in me. Every day finds me trying, trying to continue to engage even though it hurts, trying to trust in the process even though I despise it, and trying to be grateful even though I am sad. It might be easier to close the book on it all and turn my back on my best friend, but I vowed to love her and love her is what I still do. There’s no trying needed there.

If you’d like to read other stories about Cherokee and I, here are links to other posts about lessons from my big girl:

Hopefulness in the Face of Hardship

On Immediate Results and Real Consequences

On Leadership

Photo credit: Petra Christensen, Red Horse Coaching

“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.

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?

meaning of red-tailed hawk symbolism

Spirit Animals: RED-TAILED HAWK ALLIANCE

Red-tails adapt easily to life with and around humans and, in general, are more in service to humanity than other hawk species. There is a famous red-tailed hawk that has nested on the side of a skyscraper on the edge of New York City’s Central Park for over twenty years. The male hawk, known as “Pale Male”, has an entire film documentary about him, his various mates, and his young.

It seems that the spirits prefer to send red-tails as messengers because of their gregarious and more approachable nature. In a sense, they are the labrador retrievers of the hawk world and both in spirit and in the flesh they can be our loyal best friends. The are also very conspicuous, found throughout North America in nearly every type of open or semi-open habitat. Seeing red-tailed hawks is such a common occurrence that one may miss the significance of red-tailed hawk symbolism all together, but just because a host of angels are sent to the skies above you doesn’t mean you should ignore them.

Symbolism of Red-Tailed Hawk Feathers

The red tail feathers of this hawk are extremely significant as they bring strong power in relation to the first chakra, otherwise known as the root chakra. The first chakra relates to situations and circumstances around family, friends, and community. Here is where our insecurities around being abandoned, outcast, and left alone are held. Here are our worries about being humiliated. To have red feathers at this chakra that is characterized by the color red amplifies the power of this message and demonstrates how integral these hawks can be in helping us work through healing wounds around our sense of belonging in tribes.

Red as a color relates to love, anger, and passion, matters we’d typically associate with the heart, but this is the personal heart, the one that ties us intimately with those we come into contact with on a daily basis.

If you look closely at the tail of a red-tail, you will see a thin black horizontal line running across the base of the feathers with each feather tipped by white. Red-tails are divine messengers meant to bring guidance from the heavens and ground the guidance out in the physical world. In grounding out the guidance (black line) the realms of spirit (white tip) are available even in the lowest, most mundane places. Many of a red-tail’s feathers are “barred” with multiple dark lines. This is a common feature of hawk feathers and speaks to how they are able to navigate multiple altitudes and embody many layers of understanding.

Relationship to the Tribe

Each red-tailed hawk has a unique plumage (coat of feathers), so despite the fact that they are literally one in a million of their kind, each is a unique individual with an important story to tell. In my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks I tell the story written on the breast of my best friend, Graccia the female red-tailed hawk I worked with in a raptor education program:

I stood memorizing every single feather on her body. Each was as unique as a snowflake. Then, like peering through a looking glass, noticed a figure on one of the contour feathers among those in her belly. It was in the shape of a spirit, much like that of an angel. The spirit’s arms were straight out and it wore a long flowing robe that extended across the tip of Graccia’s feather. I took a step back and widened my focus. Before me stood a gathering of angels spanning the width of her breast. As I absorbed the entire picture I was without breath. Below the feathers painted with spirits were feathers hatched with horizontal lines. In reading the story written there, I saw that these markings represented the earth. The earth lines rose to form a fleet of spirits that looked like robed angels with arms outstretched. The spirit fleet then morphed into vertical lines, beings of light, shooting into the heavens. The pattern was so plainly written at this moment outside time. The story told on her breast was that of enlightened beings that are born of the earth and then merged with the heavens.

The fact that these stories are demonstrated on the hawk’s chests like a “shield” harkens back to family and tribal shields or coats of armor. If you had to draw the coat of armor for your family or your current tribe, what would it look like? If you are yearning for a new tribe, draw that coat of armor. Imagine what it would look like painted in cream and brown in the feathers of a hawk. Know that “your” people are out there.

The path may be to grow your own self-esteem so that you have the courage to be vulnerable with those around you. Graccia helped me open up and connect with those around me in a profound way, helping me see my tribe wherever I go now. Another opportunity may be to go out and risk making new friends and trying new things. With the image of your tribe to guide you, you will know your people when you meet them.

 

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

 

Divine Messengers

An overabundance of red-tailed hawk spirit animals in our lives can mean that our prayers are being answered… the answers are being brought to us on hawk’s wings. What are you wishing for right now? What are your dreams? Are you able to recognize the gifts being brought to you and the doors open before you?

If you are not able to see the gifts coming your way the red-tails may be coming to assist you and to CALL your attention to them. They can help you identify who in your tribe is granting and fostering these gifts. The hawks may be calling your attention to old habits, patterns, or defenses that are getting in the way of you relating to your fellow humans. Listen and be willing to let your guard down. Trust your reputation into the talons of the red-tail and you will be rewarded.

Red-tailed hawks typically hunt by either using the power of the wind to hold them aloft while they soar or by roosting on a high perch. Aloft or perched, they wait quietly and watch carefully. Once they see a mouse move below them they swoop down on their prey in a slow, controlled dive. The message here is to not waste your energy tirelessly trying to stir up the answer, but to find a high vantage and to take in the whole picture.

With red-tailed hawk symbolism, it’s time to become the observer and see things from a mystical perspective. This is not about being “better than” your tribe-mates, but about seeing things away from your ties to worry about what others will think of you. From this wide-angle view, wait to see a glimmer of movement and use your sharp, keen vision to focus in on what caught your attention. Then you can confidently dive down and grasp hold of the knowing.

Hawk spirit animals in general are about vision and the ability to shift from a wide view to a microscopic focus. It may be time for you to review your life to get in touch with a larger vision and purpose while at the same time checking in to make sure that you are focusing on key relationships. Look for the gifts of your tribe, revel in the gifts of your life, and give thanks to divine messengers. You can release your gratitude to the red-tails and they will carry the memo back to the heavens on your behalf.

gracious wild book by stacey couch

hope hardship horses

Hope in the Face of Hardship

Those of you that own a troubled horse may know a particular type of isolation I am familiar with, the type of loneliness that comes when an expert looks down their nose at you and says, “this is too much horse for you” or the kind of despair that comes from finishing yet another clinic in humiliation because your horse was the most explosive, fearful, defiant, you name it beast there and everyone knew it. I can’t tell you how many times people have politely said to me, “Green and green make black and blue,” meaning that a novice owner and untrained horse are a set-up for injury. Some owners of troubled horses decide that because the effort and training is hard that the partnership was just not “meant to be.” These owners sell or give away their horses and hopefully, but not always, find themselves a more calm, obedient mount. Others believe that nothing great comes without blood, sweat, and tears so they shoulder in and work hard to overcome all odds and wow the crowd. I have many talented friends and trainers who have done just this. I also know five times as many horses who are the “discards” still waiting for their chance at greatness. I have one of those discards standing in my pasture. She is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I’ve come to know beside her the greatness within. No amount of outside praise or accolades will ever match this brilliance.

Cherokee is my reminder every day of how easy it can be to lose sight of our own inner light. After 6 years and 7 trainers she is still too unpredictable to ride and still sometimes fearful. In a world that values outside measures of success and that idolizes goals, we become addicted to praise and, by default, criticism. We come to fear both, for praise only causes a craving for more praise which requires exhaustive effort and, well, the pain of criticism is an easy one to be habitually phobic of. Our fear causes us to set up a belief system that helps us make decisions when the outcome (praise or criticism) is unknown and adversity arises.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown outlines the two paths people commonly take when encountering hardship.

  1. “When we experience something that is difficult and requires significant time and effort we are quick to think This is supposed to be easy; it’s not worth the effort, or, This should be easier: it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it.” I would like to add that in the new era of spiritual positivity and the chase for happiness many also now see roadblocks in a given path to be a sign from a divine source that this is not the right direction. These believers think It’s only hard and slow because it’s not meant to be. 
  2. Others believe “that everything worthwhile should involve pain and suffering.” Brene uses “never, fun, fast, and easy” to explain this mindset. For spiritual seekers looking to become more aware/conscious/enlightened this can look like I need to learn these lessons and clear these woundings before I can attain this dream; the tougher the lessons the bigger the dream. I would venture to say that in there is also the thought I need to learn these lessons before I am worthy of this dream.

Take a moment to consider: What kind of believer am I? We each have a default setting when hardship arises. What is yours?

Awareness here is the first step. If we can catch the first thought of this is too hard or I have to struggle on before our mind takes off in the whirlwind of drama around either path we can hopefully avoid errant action. This is where we break old patterns of ejecting from one friendship/job/marriage after the next or of suffering through unhappy friendships/jobs/marriages way past their expiration date.

I typically default to the “never, fun, fast, and easy” mindset and have been quick to idolize the “meant to be” mindset because that seems so easy and elegant. I sobbed after riding Cherokee for the first time, it was an overwhelming release. I realized that for once, I felt worthy of her. I wasn’t sure if the countless hours of effort and training for both myself and her had been the ticket or if I’d finally healed to the point of deserving this dream. I had been bracing for so long against the hardships and lessons that it was such a relief to have succeeded.

I only had five more rides on her which didn’t always go so well.  I started to loosen my grip on my vision of a blissful riding connection with her. Then, surprisingly, I fell out of love with her. Sounds harsh I know, but I was willing to be with that truth, albeit I kept it a secret at the time. Then I allowed myself to be with What if it’s not meant to be or What if I will never be good enough? 

Luckily, I understood that neither viewpoint was the truth. Every time I heard myself say I’m ready to quit or Just keep going, I used this as a cue to check in with my core self. Always, the entire six years, the truth has been that she is my horse and I am her human. Call it fate or destiny or karma I don’t care, but I know in every fiber of my being that we are family. That’s just it.

It is in this knowing that I find value every time. I don’t know why we’re supposed to be together or what she has to teach me or me her. It really seems to go beyond all of that. There is just a truth in our togetherness that is unfaltering and that itself has value. Trusting in our relationship and our intrinsic value always takes me out of the praise/criticism addiction and brings me hope in the face of hardship.

Here is what Brene Brown has to say about cultivating hopefulness:

“We develop a hopeful mind-set when we understand that some worthy endeavors will be difficult and time consuming and not enjoyable at all. Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast , and easy doesn’t mean that it has less [or more] value than a difficult goal. If we want to cultivate hopefulness, we have to be willing to be flexible and demonstrate perseverance. Not every goal will look and feel the same. Tolerance for disappointment, determination, and a belief in self are the heart of hope.” (page 66 of The Gifts of Imperfection)

So next time you catch yourself thinking that Spirit has approved your goals by making the path easy, stop to ask your inner self how you feel about the goal. Next time you start thinking that you have too many wounds to heal to be worthy of your dream ask your inner self how you feel about your path. Is this worth doing even if you fail? Remember the outcome will never be how you expect it.

Just yesterday after a quiet play session together I took a moment to stand with my bay mare out in the sunny, snowy pasture. I was in her shadow standing beside her neck as we both faced northeast, the place of rebirth and renewal. I ducked my shoulder under her jowl to wrap my arm around her head and hold the bridge of her nose in my hand. For the very first time, she softened in to my embrace. I felt the loving and gentle pressure of her jaw resting on my shoulder. I immediately understood the tenderness of her gesture and brought my entire awareness to bear. We stood doing nothing else but soaking in each other’s light. This is what love and value look like. Everything else is just an illusion.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa

barn owl gracious wild

“Letting Go” from Gracious Wild

Gracious Wild is primarily about my relationship to two spectacular hawks, but other animals including one defiant barn owl contributed to the story as well. This excerpt from the book Gracious Wild tells about how “Papa Rhett” taught about letting go. I would also say, behind the scenes, that this owl taught me a lot about not caring what other people think. When you have supernatural hearing and sight like he did the truth is always there with you. Why bother trying to figure out another person’s version of the story? He was relentless in stomping out my self-consciousness. I loved this quirky beast and am happy to report that he is still alive and well and representing his kind in front of many audiences a year. Now on to the story…

For days on end there was this unnerving tension between us. I waffled back and forth between my desire for companionship and my complete distrust that anyone would ever want to accompany me along my path of discovery.

With his body language, Rhett seemed to mirror the same experience. One moment he would glare at me and chatter some rubbish, as if to say, “How dare you think you can talk to an owl like me?” The next moment he would take to delicately preening a long flight feather on the end of his wing. His head would gracefully twist sideways as his beak carefully zipped and caressed the barbs of the feather into place. I was swept away in the ballet of the moment until he noticed himself, turned to glare at me, and stomped his foot on the glove.

“Oh yes, that’s right, Rhett, how dare I fall in love with you,” I’d adoringly chuckle. And I did—fall in love with him, that is.

Over time I learned when to sidestep his grumpiness and when to meet it head on. We spent hours in the corridor of green grass that lay between the cages on the property. There he’d fly from my glove to the perch stationed at the far end of the lawn. I’ve been told that owls, for reasons I have yet to speculate on, prefer to fly from the glove to the perch, while hawks prefer the opposite routine. This reversal of roles was healing for me. I had to learn how to communicate to the owl that I was ready. I’ve been told that owls, for reasons I have yet to speculate on, prefer to fly from the glove to the perch, while hawks prefer the opposite routine. This reversal of roles was healing for me. I had to learn how to communicate to the owl that I was ready to let go, rather than beg him and bait him with food to come to me.

This letting go part was easier said than done. It took me weeks of standing with him on the glove, staring at the perch and waiting. The antics I went through to try and convince him to fly were, I’m sure, absolutely hysterical to onlookers. He seemed to gather the most pleasure out of watching me dance, cajole, coax, and whine. Certainly, there must be some key movement or cue that I’m just not doing right or at all, I convinced myself, and continued on with the arm waving and gibberish talking. It’s hard to tell what spirits I cursed or conjured or plain offended, but I just couldn’t get that sticky owl off my glove. This, keep in mind, was the same owl who apparently despised stepping onto my glove at the beginning of every session.

Eventually, though, my persistence paid off and, paradoxically, I was able to let go. Letting go didn’t just entail that I release his leash, point, and say “perch,” because I’d done that dozens of times before with no results. This was an entirely different way of working in the world. Like magic, as I turned to face the perch on this occasion I felt the cells in my body relax and tingle. As I opened my fingers to release my hold on his tether I felt energy lift up through my hand. As I raised my right hand to point to the perch I felt my intent and focus carry me to the perch, and without hesitation Rhett’s stare locked in on his destination and he lifted off. I stood, jaw dropped, and watched him glide like an angel inches above the blades of grass. Then with a whimsical flutter of the tips of his wings he lifted up and lighted quietly on the perch. Every time he left my glove from that moment forward, I had the same transcendental experience. In this way, my friend by default supported me in holding on to the lessons Thalia had brought me. By teaching me how to let go, Papa Rhett was teaching me how to consistently embrace the unknown and live in the moment.

Click here to learn more about Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks

Beginning shamanic journey workshop.

I Love Me… I Love You

I have come upon a magic time in my life where I hear and say those three special words from and to many people in my life. “I love you.” When I SAY the words my heart opens. When I HEAR the words my heart opens. My arms open wide to receive and give. There is nothing but wild sincerity in the action.

I remember in my youth when I was in eighth grade, about 14 years old, when my friends and I came to a place of free expression. We were fledging our families and reaching out for connection elsewhere. We were seeking independence and also acceptance amongst our peers. At that time, I probably wouldn’t have been able to count the number of times I gave hugs in one day. We were, literally, hug junkies. We hugged every time we greeted each other even if our last parting was 5 minutes ago. We hugged when someone said something funny or sweet or cute. We hugged before rushing back off to class. We started to play with those simple, yet so important three words, but that’s all we knew how to do, play.

When we said “I love you” we were testing the words out. We were asking a question rather than making a statement. “Do you love me?”

I remember that same group of childhood friends creating a group agreement that being “conceited” was the worst possible trait anyone could have. This polarization prevented us from ever looking inward to find love for fear we’d overindulge and become self-involved.

I moved the next year and was thrust into an entirely different culture full of strangers. The three words fell out of use and were only spoken to a boyfriend, in private. I spent the next decade exploring what those words triggered in me in an intimate relationship. Then I realized the real question was, “Do I love me?” After digging through the morass, clearing out the enchantments and pushing out the pity, I found that at the root of it all, yes, I do love me.

Since then the task has been to not let anything get in the way of that love, absolutely nothing. For those of you that know this path, you’ll know how easy it is to get pulled off course. Some days it comes easier to plague ourselves with guilt, judgment, and doubt than to stand in our truth.

The gift of it all is that thru self-love we can find universal love and then all that acceptance and embrace we have been seeking since our youth becomes limitless. Now I’m finding the fluid ability to open my heart and arms to brand new acquaintances, to co-workers, and to lifelong friends. I do not hesitate to share love because there is no boundary to it. I do not hesitate to receive love because I know it comes through my own filters of self-love and I am capable of navigating those.

I don’t know if this is a sign of the times or a sign of my time. Regardless, I would like to invite you to explore your relationship with those simple three words, “I love you.” If they’ve lost meaning or, worse, become a trigger for trauma, turn inward and make a commitment to traveling deep to the core of who you are. This path may take minutes, months or years, but don’t give up because beyond all the ways you tell yourself that there is no love, there is.