In which I seek a shamanic soul retrieval in an attempt to reconcile the severe episode of dissociation I was left with in my previous post. The seeking of this ceremony offering me an unexpected exploration into a long neglected period of my life.
"So this is where we first met," said Lenore Norrgard
as she invited me into her office which she shared with two therapists of the conventional kind. We took up the usual seating arrangements. She in the armchair and I on the couch.
She had one of those expressive, quirky faces that looks different from one visit to the next depending on what was going on. Right now it was professional. A bulky turtleneck sweater, warding off the winter chill swallowed most of her up.
I seldom allowed myself to take up residence in a therapist's office. Therapy was my British mother's profession (until she retired and became a watercolor artist). Nor could I be helped by the majority of therapists because they were so rarely equipped to handle the three cultures I was constantly juggling.
And the study of western psychology itself, by definition, lorded it over any other culture's perspective of the human condition. It took me most of my Buddhist meditation practice just to reclaim the territory so handily dismissed by the phrase "village mentality" that the discipline had given my mother to describe the interconnectedness of community identity in an Asian culture. (That the term was seldom used now did not erase this cultural hegemony.)
When I stepped on the path to follow the practice of shamanism two years ago, I had been enthralled by the connection between the world of spirit and the earthly world of individual choice as we make our way in life. And so I had come to humbly seek help, guidance or further teaching from this shamanic counselor. I had long followed her on Facebook, but only just met her three weeks ago at the solstice ceremony where my mind had somehow been hijacked and I was left with no memory of nearly the entire evening.
The purpose of this interview was to probe into any incident of trauma in my history to discover if there was indeed reason for soul loss that would justify a soul retrieval. It was also, I could see, a chance for me to earn Lenore's trust. I had, after all, stepped forward from the crowd of seventeen hundred plus followers on her Facebook page and she was hardly expected to know me at all. Shamanism was so off the beaten path it was likely to attract all manner of thrill seeking tourists.
And here I had come to an event she was running where I knew nobody and had to be put back together for an hour afterwards before she felt it was safe for me to drive home. I pressed for these details of my missing narrative. What did it look like? Per the slim details she gave me, I didn't have any memory of having come to the event. I kept asking over and over again "Did I come with somebody?" and then forgetting that I had asked the question. I didn't know where my car was parked and someone went with me to look for it. Someone else wrote the directions that later became my only proof that I was even at the event.
To my ears hearing this, I sounded like a royal pain in the ass when everyone was trying to go home, but all of that care had left me filled with complete reassurance and love for the next three days. While everybody involved was likely left wondering who was this person and what caused her such dissociation?
I had been following Lenore since she was living in Germany. This in itself intrigued me since so seldom do Americans live abroad, but it was key to me trusting her. She also, I later learned, had a certificate in Chinese language studies from Peking University in China. This feat knocked my socks off, but there was no further clues of why such a young life was headed to China in the '80s. The purpose of her "about" page was to support a twenty year career as a Shamanic counselor based on the same teachings of Michael Harner as I had been studying. Her postings communicated a highly sophisticated political awareness of social activism. While at the same time she was committed to the arts with a movie project
for which she had written the script with a shamanic plot-line of healing. Being able to speak movies, especially independent films, was what held my community together.
It was Catherine (my life partner) who set me on the Shamanic path, having seen that Buddhism, as practiced in the States, wasn't going to do it for me. As far as I was concerned, American Buddhism had stripped my home religion of all the mystical parts that I had enjoyed plus all the animism of the host country of Thailand. These "cultural beliefs" that couldn't be justified by Western psychology had been dropped by the American Buddhist teachers. Practitioners were not required to believe in reincarnation or spirits. This made the very valuable meditation practice much more accessible to Americans, especially in the highly competitive, stressed out culture of Silicon Valley. (My gratitude to all of you for removing so much road rage from our freeways.)
When I read the first principle of shamanic practice stating that spirits were real, I could hardly believe my good luck. This path would actually start where I had been left dangling in isolation with my too exotic background of ghosts, nature spirits, a coffee table that shot across the room in a seance and prophetic readings from psychic spirits summoned by channelers.
People, who come to Shamanism often did so because of some paranormal experience not easily explained by the science-dominant Western culture. My workshop partners told of prophetic dreams or incidents of psychic knowing that startled them. It was briefly stated on Lenore's page that a compassionate spirit had intervened into her life and spontaneously cured her long term clinical depression.
As for traumatic experiences Lenore and I were looking for in our introductory session, I could name one immediately. Leaving Thailand at the age of ten had been the defining trauma of my life. This history had led me to write my book Diamonds in My Pocket in an attempt to reintegrate my childhood experience in that spiritually rich land, with my American and British identity.
Lenore continued to probe the rest of my life for further incidents. No I had not, thankfully, suffered any of the usual trauma of rape, incest or physical abuse. She then asked if I had experienced an incident where I had had to defend myself either physically or verbally. Well there was one I remembered from when I was nineteen and had written about already. I had gone to visit a high school sweetheart on my way back to college at the end of Thanksgiving weekend.
In our reunion we had gone to the pool house of the apartment building complex to get some privacy from her mother who had meanwhile taken the opportunity to read my journal (left in my back pack in Helen's room) and had then come down to confront me about my lesbianism only minutes after Helen had confessed to me that I was the one true love of her life. (I had already moved on to a new love, but I would happily have scooped her back up too.) Her mother proceeded to accuse me of being a lesbian, then berated me for making this choice against God's law and told me she would shoot me if she ever found me with her daughter in such a compromising situation. I was so proud, at the time, that I held my ground until I realized that she wasn't going to let me return to the apartment to get my things, including my shoes. So I had turned back and done what I knew she wanted of me. I swore to her that I would give up my lesbianism, kneeling on the floor as she bid me repeat after her the statements of my conversion.
She had also asked me in a rather creepy voyeuristic way what it was that lesbians did. Would we go into a corner and make out?
"No", I protested, "it's about love".
"It's not about love," she spat out, denying me the only truth I knew to be so at the time. The retelling of this confrontation still had heat.
This brought us to the end of the interview. Lenore asked if I'd like her to do a short journey to see if her guides could tell her if I did indeed have soul loss. For this five minute trip she drummed herself there and back while I visited with my own power animals to wait. Mongoose drew lines in the sand and we played a game of tic tac toe.
"You are a two spirit person," Lenore said upon her return, using the Native American word for homosexual. The Native Americans treasured their LGBT people and gave them special tribal roles often as Shamans themselves. I had first learned about them in the book "The Spirit And The Flesh" which I had bought at least 20 years ago. It was my first introduction to an example of shamanism. One I had wanted to step into, but never thought possible.
The two spirit part was also literal. I did have a soul entity split off who was very near me, had been there a long time, but was refusing to reintegrate. It first appeared to her as a fairy by my head. It was this entity that had done the ceremony. Which was why I had no memory of it. I wasn't there.
I was dumbstruck.
Well that explains it I thought. I still had no idea what had triggered such a black out, but I did feel that this spirit entity had chosen to step in, had perhaps taken advantage of the whole situation in the most dramatic way possible, setting me up to be rescued.
Lenore told me that since this entity was so close, I could do this retrieval myself as part of my Shamanic work.
Whoa doggies, this was not a DIY project I wanted to take on. There was good reason this soul entity wasn't coming back. There wasn't enough self love on my side of the fence. So many layers of rejection had been absorbed over the years. Nor did the gay community have enough love in it to help me. No, it would take a cross cultural agent to provide reason for such entities to come back.
The Dark Within
We scheduled the ceremony for the following Saturday. Meanwhile I was to hold myself open to receiving. And I could bring items for the altar which would help to attract the soul entity to me. Also an item of comfort for myself such as a stuffed animal plus photos of my younger self. All of this optional. The only thing required was something from the plant world that I would then take home and put on my own altar.
That there was a soul entity to retrieve gave me so much to think about. The story of Helen's mother brought back so many memories of that time, that I felt like I was bungee jumping back into time. The emotions plummeting into me. This was not the story I had wanted to tell, but it now appeared that it had to be told in order to save my own life as Alice Walker put it. "If it doesn't save your own life first, it won't save anyone else's", she had said. There was a whole decade of my life I had been loathed to write about.
I was first angry at feeling so abandoned by the homophobic society of the '70s. Even the feminist lesbian culture, (very white at the time), rejected me because I refused to tow the political agenda of the day, kept my hair long and hung out with guys. It wasn't that they were unwelcoming; it was just that they didn't feel comfortable with me.
Then there were the guys I hung out with at the art, theatre and dance college of UC Santa Cruz known as College V. The ring leader of this group had been so snide, cynical and caustic, he was basically creating psychic warfare on all unsuspecting persons who wandered down our hall. He was also conducting a low grade of sexual abuse and domination over any attractive woman who was lured in by his handsome face and romantic French name. I thought it was funny at first, because I was an actor and I was game for public acts of depravity that aimed to shock onlookers, so I didn't stop him from grabbing me, but he came to expect to continue.
He had a side kick who was much more benign, even endearing, but he was also quite capable of criticism that was so to-the-point that there was no escaping the stinging truth of it. He took one look at my childhood teddy bear the week I arrived and declared that I was sentimental, a term that haunted me as a writer for many decades afterwards. These two attracted to them other writers who were witty and erudite and encouraged scathing put downs for every occasion. To protect myself from further abuse I chose to join them and participate in their commentary, but it only marginally protected me from being the direct target. I also initiated pranks of my own to manipulate people's feelings. I reviewed these acts. They didn't seem so bad in the light of day, but nevertheless the destructive intention of them disturbed my sensibilities.
My friend Dave, who also went to UC Santa Cruz, a little after me, told me that what was going on there had been described as an unacknowledged form of hazing; the unacknowledged part just making it that much more dangerous and destructive. He had given College V a wide berth.
With these memories coming at me, I was now bungee jumping with a cobra that was trying to bite me as I had everyone who crossed my path. It went on for so long that I just had to resolve to ride it out like a 24 hour bug of self-hatred. My equilibrium was eroding at such a pace that I snapped at Catherine when she was trying to do something nice for me. This stunned me. I came to long enough to remember that I now had the ability to talk about my feelings so I sat down and told her what was going on. She understood the importance of this psychic work and gave me the space to do it. This arrested my deterioration and I turned to creative solutions. I was sewing a new shirt with bright turquoise sleeves matched to a pink and yellow grid pattern. I would wear it for the ceremony. Sewing allowed my thoughts to flow without attacking me. It was my walking meditation practice.
I had spent so much energy protecting my bear from the characters at College V that I knew I had to bring him to the soul retrieval. I retrieved him from his hiding place in the cabinet by my bed. Just looking at him melted my heart. I showed him to Catherine who had never met this very important member of my psyche (in 17 years of living together). Her heart also melted. Then I decided to make him a new outfit to match mine. When I told this to Catherine she burst into delighted laughter and I could see that she was beginning to understand this creative metaphorical theatre of the shamanic path. And if she could understand it so could others and I knew then, that it was going to work. Was already working just in the getting there.
The Sum of Us
I spent the rest of the week gathering pictures of my younger self and thinking of things I would add to the altar, telling myself the stories that went with them. (And as I was able to lay my hands on each of these sacred items I realized that this was the true test of being organized. This was what my organizing clients wanted to be able to do, but had lost the ability to do in the chaos of their lives. I felt my professional life validated by this realization.)
I also gathered my community. I happened to be going to see Life of Pi with Dave and he asked about the outcome of my meeting with Lenore. He was following my hints on Facebook and had read my last post. So I asked him if he would come to the soul retrieval. A support person was recommended to help receive and welcome the soul parts back home. Not to mention driving me home afterwards, given my last episode with Shamanic ceremony. I also asked a colleague as back up. (One of the advantages of sharing so much of my life with others in these essays was that I was quickly able to find the people who could respond to whatever was going on in my life. There were indeed people in my network who had experience with shamanism.)
I also went to lunch with a very old friend who followed my writing and I told her what I was about to attempt. She got the logic of soul retrieval and accepted where I was going with it. She was a children's librarian and had a grasp of metaphor and story telling that could embrace my journey with a whole literary culture. In my twenties, she had put Dante's The Divine Comedy in my hands at a time when I was in need of a metaphysical fix not long after dropping out of UC Santa Cruz. Reading it had taken nine months and by the end of it, made me high with the symbolic poetry of it.
Other people I told did not have quite the ability to grasp all of what a soul retrieval might be, but they wished me well. And on the appointed day I had my tiniest rollerboard suitcase packed with my memorabilia including Rupert Bear in his brand new outfit.
Lenore welcomed us into her office. She looked different again and was wearing a tunic with a scoop neck that had a ceremonial air to its design. Her face was welcoming and warm. She admired my shirt and told me she too sewed. I was surprised by this additional thing we had in common. Not too many people sew these days.
She asked how Dave and I how we knew each other. We also spoke of Stacy whom I had invited, but hadn't been able to come. Stacy was the third member of our old Seale House family when we lived together. We also spent an hour debriefing my week of bungee jumping. I told her about the scene at College V.
Then she prepared us for the ceremony, describing how she would journey into my psychic terrain with the help of her guides in search of soul parts. She would return any she found and make additional trips to bring back any others that were needed and a power animal to help me with the integration. She would blow these entities into my chest and head with each trip as prescribed by shamanic protocol. This was the technique by which I had received my original power animals and brought back for others their power animals.
She asked me all the names and nicknames and terms of endearments by which I had been called in my life. I included my Thai nickname. This would assist her in talking to my soul parts. She asked me, too, what I wanted from this soul retrieval. I had mentioned leadership skills at my last interview.
"I want to be nicer," I said thinking of the biting cobra that had come out of my College V years. Then I turned to Dave and said, "I can't believe I'm asking to be nicer." He agreed. In the retelling of this event, Stacy said she would have giggled had she been there. That would just not be me in all my impudence and natural sense of absurdist humor. It would suck the life out of me. Then I remembered what I had prepared.
"I want to feel legitimate so that every time I go to do my creative work, which often includes breaking rules (of convention), I don't feel like I'm committing a criminal act." Lenore understood what I meant and reframed my request as a desire to be less defensive, softer and more positive when presenting something new and different.
Then I unpacked my suitcase laying out all my pictures and memorabilia on either side of her altar. I had the book The Spirit And The Flesh at one end with the photographs and a 35 mm film splicer from my days as a projectionist. At the other end, my journal and fountain pen, my red childhood lock and key diary, my high school yearbook open to my senior picture, a portfolio album from College V opened to my self portrait posing as Patti Smith. My black belt to divide the two. My book Diamonds In My Pocket. And my passports from my three countries. Got to have traveling papers. I placed Rupert Bear closest to her tiny circle of precious figurines and ceremonial instruments.
"Matching outfits!" Lenore exclaimed when she saw him.
"Isn't he cute?," I agreed.
My object from the plant world was a petrified lemon that I had hung onto since College V because my friend Tim gave it to me already in a dried up state. He had lived on my hall, but because he was a year older and had a strong sense of what was right, he had managed to stay out of the fray created by my adopted gang. We had stayed friends, but he now lived in New York.
"Why on earth did you hang onto a dried up old lemon?" Stacy asked me later.
"I don't know. How an earth do you throw away a dried up old lemon like that?" I said. It had so much history in of itself. I told her how Tim had found it on a nail on his door. He figured it was a message from someone telling him what a sour puss he was and he was giving it to me for the same reason. I had once thought to e-bay it with some sort of story, but I never got around to it.
Lenore smiled at it when I offered it, took it gently and placed it in the middle of her altar.
The Soul Retrieval
For the ceremony I lay down on my back in the middle of the floor. And for a good forty minutes or so Lenore danced around me, rattling, sometimes singing her songs. She was listening on her iPod so we did not hear the drumming that was assisting in the journeying. Dave sat in a chair assisting with his own interior landscape. I stayed present as instructed, trying to turn off my interior narrative and become a sponge of reception. I visualized a tide pool of creatures feeding on incoming plankton, then a mossy piece of earth sucking up rain.
Lenore blew into my chest a total of four times with much journeying in between. I was struck by the endurance required of this work. (I still kept my journeying to a mere ten minutes.) I absorbed each delivery as best I could and finally when she rattled around me I felt the many layers burnish into my body and fuse together like a lacquer finish. Only then did the interior narrative stop. I opened my eyes to her waiting face and said "thank-you" so softly she had to be reading my lips to hear it. "Welcome home," she said and she held my gaze.
"Would you like contact?" she asked me. I nodded and she gave me her hand which I took in both of mine. And in the half light of the dim room, I took in her gentle face, her bobbed hair slipping over one eye and all I could think of was "Do you KNOW how beautiful you are?" And I saw this thought reflected back at me in that gentle reverberation of mirroring and oneness that can appear when you truly get to look at someone.
She asked if I wanted Dave to come closer. I said yes and sat up. He left his chair to join us on the floor and I took his big hand in my other one. Then she told me about the soul parts she had brought back.
The one nearest to me was a ten year old of such erratic movement that Lenore had to shape shift into a panther in order to get her to stop and persuade her to come back to me. The ten year old hadn't wanted to come back and was very resistant, but Lenore caught her up with my life as it was now and then she was persuaded to reintegrate with me. She was also given a spear and a shield with which to defend herself. I had been very angry at ten years old at being in this new country without the rest of my family. And likely depressed too. Private school had helped nurture me back.
Lenore went out again to check for more soul parts and this time found my nineteen year old self who was buckled over as if she had been punched in the gut. She had left because the lifestyle at College V had offended her integrity so she had shot off to live in the spirit world. She too, was resistant to returning. Lenore talked to her about how hard I had worked to build my integrity back up. She described the kind of life I now led and how much I needed her talents to continue with my life. She too was persuaded to return.
Hearing about her was a profound confirmation of my original goodness. I had felt her loss the greatest in the following years, exhibiting many symptoms of soul loss in my twenties, including alienation, despondency and the sense that there was no point in planning for the future because there wouldn't be one. Only the obligation to finish a degree pulled me forward.
Finally there was a very young soul part of two or three years of age who was hiding behind one of Lenore's guides. She was playful and was making herself visible as if to say what about me? Lenore easily scooped her up and blew her into my body where she saw a joyful reunion between the three soul parts as the nineteen year old one picked up the little one and held her as they danced around in a circle. It was at age three that I had left England and my beloved grandma.
There was also the gift of the power animal of which I will only say that she was female and so perfectly suited to me that I couldn't wait to make her acquaintance. Lenore's work was done. It was now my turn to nurture these newly returned soul parts so that they would stay.
For a definitive guide to the general practice of soul retrieval you may want to check out the book Soul Retrieval: Mending The Fragmented Self by Lenore's teacher Sandra Ingerman.
For a general description of Shamanic practice as it was introduced to modern Americans see Michael Harner's The Way of the Shaman.
Labels: bicultural perspective, cross cultural, homophobia, paradigm shift, Shamanism, soul retrieval, writing