I grew up without religion. My mild curiosity in second grade led to a trip to Easter and Passover services, respectively. My parents then allowed me to go with our neighbors--Jehovah's Witnesses--to one Sunday service. When I showed danger of being converted, I wasn't allowed to attend again. There was no Hebrew School, no Bat Mitzvah until I was an adult and on Birthright. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, both in a secular way (that is to say, I got a lot of presents as a kid). Religion wasn't offered as an explanation for the existence of the world or my place in it. I learned about evolution, The Big Bang Theory, an expanding Universe. I learned that our solar system existed in one spiral arm on the edge of the Milky Way, that our planet was one of billions, that humans developed from primates. That there was no such thing as miracles, or magic, and any historic references to such came from early people misunderstanding and misinterpreting the natural phenomena they witnessed. That people ceased to exist as entities after they died. That, in the end, we're all worm food. That the Scientific Method was the only method that mattered--and I did real research in school, ultimately at a graduate level. I know how to set up an experiment, test a hypothesis, eliminate variables, do statistical analysis, and draw conclusions. I'm no stranger to a rational approach to the world and all its phenomena.
And yet, here I am, 27 years old, sick as a dog, spending the weekend at a seminar on Shamanistic Journeying put on by the LightSong School of 21st Century Shamanism and Energy Medicine. There are some 40-odd other people in this large, well-lit seminar room at Mt. Hood Community College, a mix of men and mostly women. The youngest of us in the circle is a teenager here with her mom, the oldest perhaps late 60's, early 70's--a woman who has undergone a couple rounds of chemotherapy already, and is now here for something that western medicine does not offer. Scattered among us are Jan's assistants, more advanced students and teachers who are here to help her run the course. We go around the circle introducing ourselves and explaining why we've all decided to take two gorgeous days in January (perhaps the only two days of sunshine we'll be getting) to sit around in a drum circle listening to Jan tell us that Spirit loves us unconditionally.
When it's my turn, I'm not quite sure what to say. I'm wearing a hospital mask, hopped up on antihistamines, battling a cold that I'm trying to avoid spreading to anyone else. How much should I say in the ten seconds allotted to me? There's so much of my past wrapped up in this weekend--depression and mental health struggles, an assault while I was in the military, a gradual collapse of faith in the western institutions of democracy and capitalism, a re-prioritization of the basics of life. Rationalism has failed to deliver contentment--the pursuit of money, education, and material goods somehow does not fill an ache in my soul that has only been widened by my traumas. I, too, am here for something western medicine does not offer.
We begin our first journey to meet our power animal, a trip to the lower world facilitated by a rapid drum beat and a blindfold. I lie on the hard carpet, my poncho scrunched up under my knees to provide some relief for my back, orange wool scarf wrapped around my eyes. I wish I had brought some kind of yoga mat or cushion. I'm too sick to feel foolish--with a cold, and with all the ills of civilization. If I'm going to be here, I might as well as be committed.
We count down from ten in our heads, visualizing some sort of passageway down. I climb down a ladder that morphs into a tree root, then, at the count of zero, hit the floor of some vast, dark space. The underworld is a shadowy jungle, green and muted. A riot of animals scramble around my feet. They all, evidently, have destinations that have nothing to do with me. I am an interloper. I ask each animal as it passes whether it is my power animal, as instructed. After a dozen or so "no's" I am close to despair. I wonder if this imagined tableau says something about my own inner resistance to anything that smacks of faith. Finally, in exasperation, I ask a passing rabbit if it can take me to my power animal. I am whisked almost immediately, startled, to a barnyard owl perched in a tree. Owl swoops down towards me. A warm, tangible weight pushes against my chest and left shoulder. I could swear that my dog has curled up on my chest, not a projection of my own mind under the influence of rhythm and group expectation. The fictional projection of my wired-for-religion monkey brain later tells me that his name is Radalpho.
We perform other types of journeys. A partner journeys for me, her intention to ask the spirits what it is I need to know right now. She tells me that she sees me as a young girl. I have swung across the monkey bars on a playground, failing each time to make it to the other side. I persist, and with great effort accomplish the task. I then swoosh down the slide--as if in celebration, something easy to do, but not really taking the time to celebrate the amount of work I just put in. I'm then in the car, looking out a back window, regretfully leaving something or someone. She has a vision of me with my head above the treetops, looking out over a vast forest canopy. I climb down, as the weaker limbs at the top cannot support me, then sprout roots and elongate and merge with the tree. My partner tells me she senses there has been much pain in my life.
Pain, loss, regret, unacknowledged effort--these themes could, perhaps, be used to describe anyone in this room, maybe anyone in the world. Any good psychic could give a client the sensation of real truth with such parlor tricks and generalities. But trees, now. I have a thing with trees, an imagined spiritual connection that pre-dates this weekend and comes from experiences I've had at Trackers. I have already had visions of myself becoming a sort of energy force and merging with a tree (a specific tree). I am startled by this vision from someone else, a person who does not know me, who I've never spoken with before. I have not previously written about my tree-speriences online. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Saturday night I get home, exhausted. I shower, inhale more cold medicine, and collapse into bed at 7:30 PM. On a whim, I spend twenty minutes imagining myself reaching out into the world and gathering up pieces of my soul that have been stolen from me. These triangular pieces come flying back into me, settling into missing spaces like the missing holes in Swiss cheese. On Sunday morning, before I leave for class, I'm able to have a difficult conversation with an individual where I feel, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I have really listened and understood them.
We end Sunday with an around-the-room exercise. We each find four positive statements that have come out of our own and others' journeys for us. We stand up, state our name and these positive attributes. The whole circle repeats them after us, echoes of power and truth reverberating from the walls.
"I am Laura.
I am curious.
I am young.
I am peaceful.
I am infinite."
On Monday afternoon, I explode my life, claiming an independence of being and demonstrating a strength in my interpersonal relationships that I have never before shown. I do so without forethought, without planning, and the outcome of my actions could have resulted in swift and severe blow-back. Yet instead of the end of something, of sadness, or regret, what I'm experiencing is the start of something new. I am more grounded, happier, more hopeful than I have ever been. I now have a new type of relationship between equals, a reclamation of my own inherent self worth, a repudiation of my demons, a creation of a platform from which we can both grow and encourage each other to reach for our dreams.
Credit must be paid to my partner, too, who--without any shamanistic journeying whatsoever--steps into the fiery storm that I bring, without warning, and with a great deal of immaturity, into our lives. He listens and responds in ways new to us both. We step forward into a new world, together.
Temporally, it looks like this weekend of journeying is responsible for the real changes in my world. Yet correlation does not equal causation, and it is so easy to falsely correlate. It's not that simple--I've been in counseling awhile now, I'm enrolled in a program that gets me into the woods three days a week, something I find healing and empowering, and this weekend isn't my only source of spiritual exploration or efforts at personal growth and healing. Perhaps something else reached a critical mass. Too, I still don't know whether anything I experienced was real. I am not under the delusion that God was talking to me--I would really have to be smacked in the face with a metaphysical experience beyond the pale to believe that anything other than material existence is real. But my skepticism apparently didn't matter to Radalpho, and the changes I sense in myself these last few days are just as real as a new hair cut or outfit.
Maybe - it doesn't have to be real to make a difference. Maybe just the effort to break free from established patterns, however that breakthrough occurs, is enough.