Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eyes of a Shaman

A report of my experiences with a local weekend workshop in basic core shamanism. "Core" refers to universal or common principles derived from traditional practices as researched by Michael Harner, author of "The Way of the Shaman" (first published in 1979) and founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

Monday after my beginning workshop in core shamanism, the world was freshly washed after a storm. A blue sky set off the many cumulus clouds. And I wanted to sit and watch them. I'm not normally given to a desire to commune with nature, nor was this impulse an awakened interest in natural beauty. It was more that I had learned a new language and everything now looked like it had something riveting to say. Not in that trippy way of having spent the day on LSD with your synapses jammed open with a pry bar providing the effect of everything seeming to breath, calling out for attention. This was a more subtle knowing, a realization that I could pay attention to the physical world and have it tell me things. Nothing dramatic, just a lively conversation with unique friends interested in what was on my mind.

Object Divination

In order to put us in such a metaphorical frame of reference Lesson One, at our small workshop of 11 people, was Object Divination. Here we were to use a rock for the purpose of mapping out an answer to a question. Not a yes or no question, but a who, what, why or how question. A partner would record our session.

"How can I improve my ability as a professional organizer with my clients?" I asked.

We were then told to look at the rock and point to four different things we saw. I immediately saw a face taking up a large part of the rock. To the right an arrow pointing upward in a zig zag. Across the face a path of stepping stones. In the distance and visible from the path was a distinct star.

We were then to interpret what each of these things was telling us in answer to our query. The face was obviously a forlorn client as full of suffering as the painting of the Scream by Munch. What the face was trying to tell me was how much this emotional and existential suffering was also about a need for meaning in the context of the clients cluttered life. The arrow showed that progress with the client would be uplifting, but not in a linear fashion. The first two stepping stones were very visible thus the first steps of our work would be obvious, then the path seemed to take two paths, both would work, but one would seem to me to be the better path because it was better positioned to see the distant star representing a focal point for our work. The star was telling me that the goal was as yet unobtainable, but was a powerful motivator.

We were then to flip the rock either towards us or away from us and repeat the process.

I immediately saw a smaller, but happier face with a deep hole next to it where an ear might be, marked by a triangle. On the other side of the face I saw another, larger, cat-like face. Down low and to the side, a set of three indentations.

Obviously the client was happier plus she had companionship either from an animal, a supportive family member or some kind of relationship involving other people. The hole was for me to speak into and suggest ideas for further progress. The 3 indentations were a set of portals integrated into the client's life for the removal of items not useful to their life. (Organizers often think in threes when dividing up items for removal.)

This was a pretty accurate narrative of the work that I do with clients, but because of the format, I was pushed to see just a little bit more about the work and introduce some elements that are not usually part of my repertoire. It was in effect, a map, but because it was a map I had made myself in a relationship with a natural object it had an added dimension that made it stick in my mind in a meaningful way. It also reminded me which part of the process I needed to work on.

I had essentially been coached by a rock and with better results. If I got nothing else out of the workshop the rock had already won me over.

Port of Entry

Having learned to see messages in nature, we wasted no time getting to the meat of Shamanistic technique—visions. I knew that no drugs were used, in this school, for the conjuring of visions, so was intrigued to learn that drumming prompted a dream state. At 3 to 7 beats per second, the brain would produce theta waves much like those observed during dreaming.

Our teacher, a woman not given to inflections of awe or wonder, taught class as though it were a hands-on technology, much like any computer tech class except that her tools were handmade. A rawhide drum, several rattles and a beater for the drum were laid out on a striped woven blanket at her feet. She wore an unusual pendant around her neck, but was otherwise dressed in ordinary slacks and attractive blouse. I appreciated her no nonsense style. It made the material feel accessible especially when she told us that a box of Tic Tacs would do fine as a rattle.

She gave a brief introduction to shamanism as a system of knowledge found all over the world—humankind's oldest spiritual practice. The Foundation's purpose in teaching shamanism was to bring back spiritual democracy so everyone could personally access the sacred. Thus we were not borrowing another culture's religion, but bringing back our birthright through our own practice.

To start the journey we needed a portal into the lower world. A place we had actually visited, a tree stump, the bottom of a lake or a burrow in the ground. We were given only a minute to come up with such a portal so I went with the first one that came to mind, a ring of tall Redwoods where I had once thought to build a tree house.

Whatever we chose it should provide a barrier between this world and the imaginary world of the journey. For it was the imagination, she told us, that provided the visions. She left it to us to believe (or not) that there actually was a Spirit World being accessed by the vision journey. She then assured us that the Lower World, to which we would go, was populated with compassionate beings who would do us no harm. Indeed they wanted to help us. The same was true of the Upper World, which we would visit later. It was the Middle World, the reality we lived in, that was tricky to journey into, containing as it did both benign and harmful beings.

The drumming would begin as we descended. Once we reached the lower world we were to look for an animal that would guide us and see what unfolded. After 15 minutes, the drum would stop. That was our signal to come back; the drumming would resume again to guide us home.

Shaman Journeying

The assistant teacher started drumming and off we went. Down into the soil I scrambled, following the twisted roots, watching for a light at the end of the tunnel. When I emerged there were trees overhead and a black furry creature dropped into my arms.

"Oh no", I thought recognizing the animal, "did it have to be a simian?" I was somehow disappointed, but the urgent beat of the drum did not let me remain argumentative. I accepted the gibbon guide (I'd had several gibbons as a child) and he dropped to the ground leading me by the hand, across a meadow to another grove of trees. There a tall indigenous man waved me down the path, the drums seeming to summon us. All around were people in celebration.

Soon we reached an amphitheatre filling up with people. I could see them far up into the stands. A leadership figure, another tall indigenous man in a long tunic came to the center of the stage. For a lesbian, I thought, this vision sure was filled with a lot of handsome men. It was a diverse crowd of many nationalities. I looked for the animal guides and saw them appear, sitting with their people—lions, cheetahs, birds—each surrounded by a glowing light.

The man welcomed us and spoke of what we were to expect during this day how we would be well taken care of. There were things we would be shown. Eager to see what technologies might be on display, I stood up and made my way outside towards a sandy beach where I saw several sailing vessels moored on the water. How perfect for a sustainable lifestyle, I thought. They were catamarans only with more hulls, about five hulls per vessel.

I was invited on board by the men already seated and given a place at a tiller, my gibbon pal tucked inside my jacket. We set off at a brisk pace, my feet braced on the sides. I was energized by the speed we were going and could feel the water spray, the wind and the pull of the boat. Everyone was working in sink together. After some time we landed at an island where I stepped onto the beach, as did the gibbon. We walked into the forest to drink from a stream with our hands and eat fruit from vines overhead.

"What's your name," I asked my gibbon friend.

"Panda," he said into my mind and added "I know you like jokes." Ha, yes, a gibbon named Panda, an animal by another's name. And the name of a college friend with hippie parents.

Climbing up a bluff I asked if there was a Tarzan swing.

And soon one came to hand. I grabbed one as Panda Gibbon grabbed another and we swung across the forest floor.

Then the drum stopped and I was far from my portal of entry, but I knew from reading The Way of the Shaman that I could go back through another one; there was a tree stump not far off that would do. I ran to it and jumped in through the top, climbing up the tree roots to the quickening beat of the drum, exhilarated with all I had experienced especially the sailing.

Talk To The Animals

The next exercise was more daunting. We were now to partner up, return to our animal guides and ask a question on behalf of our partner.

"The Spirits respond to altruistic intentions," our teacher told us. I was liking this world of compassionate beings more and more.

"Form your question," carefully said our teacher, "the question changes the future as it is being asked." She did not offer an explanation of why this was so. It was part of intention making I surmised. These were not lighthearted questions being asked either. Some in the room had cancer diagnosis or relatives who were ill.

Getting my new gibbon friend to give a straight-forward answer or any answer at all was not an easy task. When I asked him my partner's question, he spun around in circles for quite a bit before he would calm down and sit quietly beside me. I asked him again and he started grooming himself. Then I started putting words in his mouth. "Do you mean this?" I would ask. "How about this?" "What else should he do?" He mimed playing cards with me without looking at me. I asked the question again and he formed words into my head. "And how should he do that?" I asked. The gibbon mimed painting a picture. Then he ate some nearby grapes and sat quietly watching the horizon.

Well it would have to do. The drum was calling me back.

The journey having ended I sat up and composed my notes, then faced my partner with my answer. "Stop looking for solutions in a state of turmoil," I said."Find a quiet place in yourself. Nurture yourself away from your parents. Then return to them and listen with your other mind, your objective mind. Do something companionable and non-confrontational with them. When they are ready, tell them what you see is their future and paint a picture for them. Then nurture yourself again and let things unfold."

I was not used to giving people advice so boldly which added to the sense that I was delivering a message. My partner nodded in agreement to most of what I said.

"It's pretty much the same as what the rock said," he told me. Whew.

In turn the question I had asked my partner came back with an answer that gave me a new perspective into my question though the actions of her animal guide had much more meaning for her than for me. I was beginning to see how this worked.

"The Spirits arrange things that have some meaning for us," our teacher told us. With practice we would get more adept at communicating with this spirit world and interpreting the answers.

We ended our first day with a dance. We were to dance our animal guides and let them express themselves.

The Healers

The next day we journeyed to the Upper World. We were to ask the first person we met if they were our guide and ask for a healing. If the answer was no we were to go in search of another person.

I entered the Upper World via a tree and found myself in a white room similar to a doctor's office. A woman in white robes came toward me. She had long dark hair covering her face completely. When I searched for a face I saw almond eyes that were closed and a very wrinkled face smiling up at me. She looked not quite human, her skin being the color of paper, but she worked with me nonetheless, passing her hand over my sore hip and shoulder joints. Nothing seemed to work. Healing was not going to be my strong point I could see.

When I came back, on the second journey, with a question on behalf of a partner, the guide beckoned me down the hall to a garden full of patients healing. She spoke words into my mind and showed me things to make her point, a fountain full of coins, water over flowing.

New Animal Friends

By the end of the day I was feeling taxed by both thinking up questions and the retrieving of answers. Thus the final exercise was a welcome replenishing of our spirits.

We were to return to the Lower world on behalf of a partner and call for their power animal. We were not to bring back any insects, menacing reptiles or fish showing teeth. The animal was to show itself four times and then we were to gather it up, feel it in our arms and carry it back. On our return we were to blow the animal into our partners chest with great intention and then into the back of their heads whatever was left. Only then would we tell our partner what the animal was. If it was not the right animal for them it would just evaporate in time.

My partner journeyed first; I lay quietly next to him our knees and ankles touching as instructed. As the minutes went by, I grew eager with anticipation as though awaiting a gift. Then I saw my partner rise, his arms wide. After he blew into my chest and head, he told me there were two animals that wanted to come. While he gathered up one, another had insisted on coming too and had hopped on.

It was fitting. Two was my lot in life, two countries, two languages, two races, two spiritual philosophies east and west.

The first animal was a bear, as big as any you could find. The second a mongoose. I liked them both. I had just been calling for the emergence of my inner bigger self. And the mongoose was indeed a versatile character, Rikki Tikki Tavi having been a favorite childhood story.

A Birthing

In our final journey of the workshop, we met with our power animals to get to know them and ask how they could help us. The Bear was indeed filled with power and the Mongoose very talkative and busy. I asked how I would tell this story, overwhelmed as I was by all the new material and philosophical implications. Bear put his paw on my head, patting so hard that I felt like a basketball being dribbled.

"Hey I thought you weren't supposed to hurt me," I said; (it didn't really hurt) and I got the message that these were very big concepts I was trying to cram into my head. Then he lifted me to face the open landscape. Mongoose came along to interpret.

"Give an overview, then tell your story from the heart," said Mongoose, at which point I turned my head to the Bear's chest and pressed my way into his body, through his heart, descending through the internal cavity and finding myself in a birth canal as Mongoose assisted in my being born. He wiped me off after I emerged and I asked him to dress me. After all, perhaps what I was really in search of was a new wardrobe.

He put a flowing shirt of a swirling, red and ochre pattern over my head, then adorned me with brass pendants. Could this be kosher I wondered, this asking for fashion advice? They seemed okay with it; it was all part of the presentation. Then the drum summoned me to return.

We danced our new power animals; this gave them the joy of being alive, manifested in our body. Then the lights were turned on. Our workshop was done. We lingered, saying our goodbyes, everyone smiling happily.


In the days ensuing, I was stumped by how I was going to integrate this new experiential information into my daily life. Who would take seriously that I was seeking wisdom from animals? It was so childlike. Buddhism was so much more elegant and dignified.

My first day out I had lunch at an outdoor café with Bart, my editor at the Energy Bulletin. He was eager to hear what I learned at my workshop and I was hesitant to tell him. He was more a man of science than an enthusiast of the occult.

I turned to the sky to take in a pair of large cumulus clouds on that fresh, storm washed morning. One cloud had an in-y and one had an out-y. And as they moved towards each I could see that the out-y was lined up to slide into the cavity of the in-y.

I began to explain, to Bart, the metaphorical techniques, the Rorschach test-like interpretations. It would take me a while to get to the animals.

My pair of clouds were sliding into each other and I sensed that Bart was, after all, quite receptive to this intuitive based seeking. We certainly needed all solution seeking on board. Why not the pre-industrial techniques of medicine men?

I turned to him smiling, daring him, "Don't you think Peak Oil could use a Shaman?"

"Oh yes," he said enthusiastically, and we left it at that.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

In which I uncover the most compelling reason to stay put in my California home, track my about face from a knowledge driven quest for truth to an intuitively informed one, and contact the dead.

Recently a peak oil blogger I follow, the Russian born US based Dimitry Orlov, published a guest post by a writer urging us to leave the United States for a country more conducive to good living. Or at least not so frustrating, given our perverse, denial ridden, but nevertheless failing empire politics. And because I do have that option open to me I had to give serious thought to why I chose to stay put. The post had even suggested Thailand as a viable option.

It is certainly true that the US government consistently favors the rich and fleeces the rest of us while our economy sits on the unstable specter of printed money. Our education system, healthcare system, pension plan and infrastructure all fail to offer us the amenities expected by our first world counterparts (not to mention those enviable five-week vacations).

None of these reasons are new revelations. Nor were they ever motivating factors. The prevailing reason for me staying in the US (specifically California), is because of what I am easily able to think while living here. California is the most conducive place for believing, as Lewis Carroll put it, six impossible things before breakfast.

Not that I can't believe impossible things in Thailand. The population is, after all, obsessed with ghost stories. Reincarnation is a given and every homeowner offers a comparable tiny home for the spirits while other spirits of the land are also honored where they make their presence known. Technological wonders are equally embraced. In Thailand I can express whatever impossible things I might want to believe playing both sides of the cultural fence (given my foreign born mother); most will nod in agreement or listen in wonder. Thus unchallenged, my new thoughts slip away in favor of the next congenial social event. And being from a wealthy family I had fewer material and social limitations to act as a whip. What impossible thing would I strive for when all is provided?

I occasionally think of living in England, my birthplace. Europe, we all know is more enlightened as far as social welfare, walkable cities and culture. The level of intellectual discussion I've experienced is refreshing. However it is much harder to get away with verbalizing six impossible things before breakfast. Despite the UK being the land of Stonehenge, table-rapping spiritualists and crop circles, the way one speaks is so important that nearly all my effort is devoted to shoring up evidence that I am properly educated and not given to unscientific notions or fits of grandiosity that might lead to life-changing experiments.

Given the eternal politeness of the British, barbed as it is with an ever-judging wit, everyone is allowed their say uninterrupted. This slows the pace of conversation way down and I become quite self-conscious. It is not an atmosphere conducive to off-the-cuff suggestions that might rapidly marshal a meeting of the minds. I can't really get up a good head of steam unless I get to interrupt someone.

In the US we have proven that being well-educated does not necessarily result in logical beliefs, given the absurdities of our politics. In the Bay Area, however, the tension between intellectual vigor favoring technological innovation and the diversity of spiritual practice managing to co-exist with equal determination, make Northern California a haven for far out thought and activity. One can partake in all manner of healing modalities and alternative medicine, several flavors of Buddhist meditation, Taiko drumming, a gathering of Queer Pagan Faeries, Qigong, sex-positive masturbation workshops and spiritual environmental activism without having to drive more than an hour or two if that.

Unimpaired by inclement weather, California is a place of perpetual intentions—the perpetual pursuit of health, individual sports, spiritual enlightenment and entrepreneurial wealth. Any of six impossible things I might think up before breakfast can manifest itself into full-blown immersion by evening with a book from the library. Thus last month, when I became interested in Shamanism, I went from book to weekend workshop in a matter of weeks.

I had been practicing meditation with Catherine who is a more serious enthusiast of Theravada Buddhism than I. Meditation was a good tool for identifying, then dispelling my mind of my many intellectual arguments. But lately, I began to hanker after the vividness of the guided meditations that I had experienced when I spent a year studying the earth-based religion of the European Goddess tradition aka witches, the medicine women of the times, burned at the stake to make way for the Christian Church. I had studied with an engaging teacher on the coast in Moss Beach who focused on using the Tarot.

The last time I had entered the pastoral landscape of those guided meditations was 15 years ago. I went to see my cat who had just died, killed by a car. I wanted to say goodbye and make sure he had found his place with the witches, being a very fine black cat. He greeted me with such familiarity that I was immediately comforted by the warmth and feel of his fur and his face pushing into mine. We spent some time together as he showed me his new home among the welcoming wise women. Buddhism does not encourage such telling of stories, favoring the stripping of illusion from the mind to enhance a dispassionate perspective (and thus free ourselves from the sufferings brought on by clinging and grasping). It is a stark discipline. I lacked enough intention to get on with it. I was a zafu potato.

Chronic Disaster Fatigue

Over the last decade, I have been immersed in the concerns of the environment, from climate change to peak oil. And in between, the discovery of plastic islands in the ocean, the depletion of natural resources, globalism replacing colonialism and all the rest of it. It has been a very grim decade indeed, but not without its rewards. I felt less like a Cassandra over the years and gained a modicum of respect. I am even part of a movement (claimed by name, even, by one of the Peak Oil brethren—published author Sharon Astyk, the academic turned domestic diva of sustainable living and farming).

In recent years, given the dire economy that sucker punched us all, I didn't feel like haranguing my readers with how bad it was and have mainly amused myself by reporting on projects I have undertaken to teach myself skills for the deindustrialization of the world (as the pragmatic John Michael Greer, the Archdruid describes it). I got a lot of mileage out of imagining a life simplified enough to fit into a tiny home that I could then build.

And then suddenly I was done with it. There is something rather pathological (and boring) about the accounts of one who is preparing for the end of the world as we know it especially since I am part of a metropolitan area that is thriving, relatively speaking, and I live in a fairly luxurious suburban house, while making a living helping people cope with the expectations of a standard lifestyle.

My peak oil colleagues, having carefully persuaded their readers of the particular flavor of future doom to prepare for, were now in lock-down mode, inventorying their skills, writing how-to manuals and haranguing anyone who disagreed with them. They were so sure of themselves that I felt they were damn well going to live the future they entertained whether it happened that way or not. Talk about intentions.

I will continue to read them because we share an interest in educating the public. But in the context of this community, I was no longer able to believe six impossible things before breakfast; the scientific mindset didn't take into account the built-in features of the world I had grown up with—the world of Spirits, the communication between this world and the next; the possibility that the earth was fully alive and capable of reacting in a different way than science predicted; not to mention what science was proving—that human intention, focused in a disciplined way was able to do seemingly impossible things.

I was even in the mood to believe in the assistance of beings waiting to help us, whether those on the Other Side or alien life forms from outer space.

There was one peak oil writer, the cantankerous James Kunstler, who entertained the idea of people with psychic talents coming to the forefront as advisors, as well as children raised to exceed the capabilities of today's expectations. But given his Western tradition, he was doing it with fiction (in his recent novel The Witch of Hebron). Still, that was enough encouragement for me to open myself to alternative sources of knowledge. That same week I saw Clint Eastwood's movie The Hereafter which made contact with the dead seem more possible than not, so I decided to make an appointment with a psychic so as not to bypass such an opportunity. Catherine had contacted one after her mother's passing last Spring.

A Visit From The Other Side

My father, having been dead for 8 years now, had waited a long time to talk to me, but it had given him time to become wise and patient. The psychic, a Mexican American named Rachel,with a young and vibrant voice, said he had rushed to see me. He seemed used to this kind of work with mediums, she said. Though a scientist, my father was completely accepting of the Spirit world and had consulted psychics throughout his life, as did his mother who would send a yearly reading.

When he approached, Rachel described him as a generous soul and asked if that's how I remembered him.

"He was hardly able to express it," I said, giving her the benefit of the doubt. My father could never have been described as generous, preferring to use money and possessions to control and manipulate people.

He was offering an apology, she said. She went on to explain that he had had a social disorder that caused him a great deal of frustration and pain. (Here he transmitted the pain to her to illustrate his point; she didn't need pain she told him and thanked him when he stopped.)

"Like Aspergers," I said recognizing the social disorder part immediately.

"Yes, things didn't make sense to him. It was a puzzle that he couldn't piece together; he withdrew because he was afraid of making mistakes especially with family and as a parent—he did make mistakes, but work helped a lot because of the structure." (My father loved his work and held a patent for a piece of engineering he did for the heads-up helmets now used by military pilots.)

And here he was leveling with me from the Other Side, much as he used to explain science to me. He said he had damaged me with respect to trust levels due to his lack of closeness. That, because both my parents put up a wall to me, I had had to become self-sustaining. That was certainly true of me; I was a self-contained unit endlessly able to amuse myself. That's why, he said, I sought out nurturing partners, but she was not able to right now. He counseled me not to try to fix the relationship, that was "putting the cart before the horse", but to nurture myself. I was too isolated and it was going against my nature. I needed to focus on myself. Whole people make good relationships, he said. I was later amused that my father, who had had three problematic marriages and was clueless about women, was giving relationship advice. (Rachel reported that the Life Review process he had gone through after passing had helped a lot.)

Then he proceeded to give me business advice, told me not to panic, that it would all work out—he was arranging contracts and negotiations for me. He was paving the way and here Rachel said he was showing his hand as though smoothing a path. So I should surrender and let the worry go. That watching over me was his greatest pleasure. Then before he left he said, "I offer you the greatest love." Rachel described the emotional message as one given not out of regret or guilt, but because of a missed opportunity.

"Thank-you," I said, completely dumbstruck. "Yeah" Rachel agreed. This would take time to sink in, but I accepted his love and more so his apology. I liked his use of language. It was spare and grand in an antiquated, but formal Thai way that fit him had he been able to express such sentiments in life. He liked the title Father, Rachel had reported, as though he just now was becoming a parent.

Part of the reason I had decided to contact him was because I had come to suspect he was helping me when I took on the property in San Bernardino. Things reminded me of him and I had a sense that everything about the project would be serendipitous and intuitive. Every time I went down there I had a sense of wellbeing.

Just before booking with Rachel I got a client whose husband was working on the very same heads-up project my father had a hand in. The coincidence gave my client goosebumps. I just acknowledged it as another gift. There is no word for coincidence in Thai.

Thus armed with a guardian angel it was difficult to look at the future with quite the doomer perspective I had been operating under. At least I didn't have to figure it all out. I would have help.

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