First, I want to thank any of you who participated with prayers or thoughts for me while I was on this adventure. My experience was deeply powerful, often glorious and often painful. My reentry back into ordinary life has been marked by a palpable sense that something in my core self has shifted – hopefully deepened and matured. My life will change because of this experience with Spirit.
In our group meeting the Wednesday evening before we all went out on the land, someone made a comment about being afraid. José (one of the teachers) said, "Well if you were certain you were going to live through it, it wouldn't be much of an initiation would it?" I love that phrase so much and intend to say it whenever I can from now on.
He and Lena, the other teacher (and his wife) have worked with a variety of indigenous shamans for more than 25 years. Another comment that one of them made came from their teacher in Peru. In that tradition the shamans say that our main job as human beings is to become "walking blessings." We become a force that blesses everything around us: other people, animals, the land, the spirits, the ancestors – on and on. We become "walking blessings." That, too, is a phrase I want to hold close to me.
It made me think about something that Martìn Prechtel, a Mayan teacher, said to me so many years ago about the same topic. He too said that the shaman's main job is to bless. And I remember a Unitarian minister telling me once that the archaic meaning of "blessing" is to expand one's palpable relationship with the Holy, and to "curse" is to separate or shrink one's relationship with the Sacred.
But Martìn also put a caveat on the idea of blessing: it's dangerous to be blessed by an unblessed person. This implies, and I think the Peruvian might agree, that to become a walking blessing entails work that involves deep cleansing of the ego (or the false personality, "the parasite," the small self, the Nafs-al-Amara - it has many names). If the person blessing hasn’t done this work, and followed it with the work to align themselves with the Big Love, it is quite likely that they are merely projecting their unfinished psychic business into the people they are supposedly blessing. So there's a lot of work to be done to become a walking blessing, and some care to be taken by those seeking to be blessed.
During the three nights and four days on the mountain I had many bizarre miracles and visions, many times of extreme emotions and it will take me months, perhaps longer to integrate the teachings given to me by that land.
So much of the shamanic path is about wondering if you are “just making this up,” and wondering if things that happen really did happen. If you were kneeling over your little smoking coal, making prayers of thanks to the land and the elements, and when you say “…and thank you to the winged ones who are here with me-” and suddenly two little yellow birds fly a few inches over your head and land playfully in a nearby branch and stare at you, followed by a hummingbird that suddenly appears three inches from your eyebrows, hovering for 20 seconds before departing, followed by a crow flying over and croaking one deep caw seemingly directly at you, you may too wonder if it really happened.
And when, on the very first day at the communal camp (perhaps because you are decaffeinating) your head feels like bursting open with pain and you are nauseous, and sweating profusely with some kind of weird fever that just seemed to jump into you, and you are waiting for the shaman leader to make his way around the circle of people with his ridiculously large cigarette of Peruvian sacred tobacco, blowing huge clouds of purifying smoke on each person’s head, and you think, “Oh God, I’m for sure going to barf on the shaman when he blows that on me” and when he does, instantly the headache, nausea and fever vanish completely, you may also wonder if this was real.
And when the Woodpecker Boy appears to you and says, “When you get up on the mountain my people are going to peck you open and give you a healing” - and three days later they do - you may also think this is not real.
For us, shamanism as a spiritual path is fundamentally about learning to expand, or to redefine what is “real.” We have been sold a small universe by the powers of western culture. Shamanism is all about expanding that small, hard, and often cold universe that has been given to us.
Well, enough of that. The 500 details of what happened to me in New Mexico actually don't matter. What mattered was becoming open, vulnerable, throwing my body and spirit and psychology open to Spirit, to be worked in whatever way it chose.
Now the story of bargaining with death.
Friday afternoon: I have not felt hungry this entire time, but I do feel myself getting weaker and slower from lack of food. I’m only 30 hours in, but I’ve conducted several ceremonies and experienced many sudden tidal waves of emotion – anger, regret, grief. Not much fear, which surprises me. I’ve wandered in and out of the stone circle I constructed with the quartz rocks abundant on the mountain, but mostly I’ve spent time inside the circle.
I'm now sitting quietly in the pine-tree shade inside the medicine circle, the sun sinking behind the tops of pines to the west. My chest suddenly swells with pain, and I'm filled with fear. Three years ago I went to the emergency room with chest pain. The doctors said they didn't know exactly what had happened but “let's just call it a heart attack.” I always knew it was not primarily physical, but a call for a change. But since then, I’ve had to carry the idea that I could blink out of this life at any moment. My father did that - he was sweeping my brother's garage and he was "dead before he hit the ground."
So my chest pounds and hurts and I think to myself “My time has come. This life is over.” I grieve that I won’t be able to say those final one hundred important things to my boys. A giant wind - and I mean immense - whirls up behind me. It doesn't blow on me - it's blowing 15 feet behind me, bending the pines with a toranadic shushing sound, wrenching brown needles and dust up from the earth, whipping them into frenzied mini-cyclones, and carrying everything to the west. At least my death is mythic, I think: literally being picked up and carried across the western horizon by a breath from the great abyss. That’s really good, although no one will ever know.
I cry out a loving goodbye to my children. And then cry out a loving goodbye to the drummers.
And to the wind, I say, “Take me if you want, I know I can't do anything about it." And then I add, "But I really don't want to go. I have a lot of love yet to give and receive, and I have a lot of healing work to do for people." The wind rushes, my chest pounds. I go on, “So take me if you will. But if you decide not to, here's the vow I will make to you: I will live with more joy, I will become a walking blessing. I make that vow to you.” The wind rushes, the trees bend and my chest pounds. I add on. “And you can take me now, but if you don’t, I’ll deepen my shamanic work. I’ll work even harder on releasing the grasp my small self has on me. I’ll get tidier in my ceremonies, and I’ll doubt less and trust more.” I make this vow to you.” The wind rushes, my chest pounds, and I add on, “Take me if you will, but if you decide not to, here is the third vow I make to you: I will allow myself to be loved. This vow I make to you if you let me live."
The wind dies down. The pain in my chest vanishes. All is quiet. One crow caw from a distance.
After a few moments of absorbing exactly just what may have happened (did I seriously just successfully bargain with Death?), I notice the sun is almost sitting on the hilltop across the valley. About now, back in Minneapolis, drummers are gathering at my house to make prayers for themselves, for others and for me. I had decided earlier to climb the 80 or so feet up the craggy rocks near my site to make my prayers for the people in Minneapolis from the crest of the mountain. So I gather my supplies and start scrambling up the rocks, unsteadied by fasting, thin air, and the lingering fragrance of Death’s breath. I begin thinking that it would be the height of irony to negotiate my way out of a fatal heart attack only to stumble clumsily off the mountain and die a few minutes later.
Near the top, I look up to see a noble pine tree, one of those trees with powerful presence, growing impossibly out of what seems to be bare rock. Twisting limbs reach in every direction like some kind of divine dancer, green-needled fingers gathering power from the four directions and feeding it into the earth - or perhaps dispensing it outward to the world from the depths of the Mother. Reddish bark makes the tree look alive and warm in the slanting dusk light.
As I reach the top, breathless from altitude and Mystery, I stand up and am stunned by what I am suddenly a part of: a 360 degree vista of valleys and hills reaching out hundreds of miles. To my left, a giant pulsating rainbow arcing over the entire eastern horizon, like a forgiving gateway flung open to admit new life. To my right, a western sky aflame in orange and red, kissing the delicate undersides of indigo clouds that visibly roil and undulate from this celestial caress.
And me, having just made three vows to Death which had, apparently, stayed his hand for the time being, my back against the tree of power at the center of creation, gasping a few rudimentary prayers of gratitude that I lived to be here for this moment.
I kneel, light a little coal, burn tobacco and make prayers for my people. Specific prayers for those who emailed me, and prayers for those who wanted to email me but didn’t. Prayers for wholeness and peace of heart for those who always open and read my emails and those who instantly delete them, for those who have come to the drums for years, those who came once and never returned thinking I was a kook or a charlatan, for those who returned after six years gone and for those who just cannot ever seem to make it – for all of them, prayers from as deep in my heart as I can reach. When I pray I nearly always weep, and I’m heartened to remember José relaying to us the words of his Q’ero teacher: “When you pray, pray with tears.” Martìn echoed this when he said that tears shed during ceremony are one of the sweetest foods for the spirts and the ancestors.
I pray for my people to receive whatever it is that fills them with such heart-twisting yearning, for them to receive the love that they deserve, for them to be whole again, to retrieve what has been lost or what has been stolen from them, for them to let out the song hiding inside of them, for them to feel wanted at long last, to stop fearing abandonment and entrapment, and to have the courage to resolve what needs to be resolved between themselves and others, and between themselves and God. I pray that they are forgiven and that they forgive. I pray that whatever veil hangs between them and Beauty be lifted, that whatever wall has been erected between them and their inborn soul-power begins to crumble, and whatever role I can play in that inner renovation, that I am given the grace, the skill and the clarity to work on their behalf.
Standing on a desert mountaintop between the great gateways of birth and death, blessed unimaginably by this land and by Spirit and by people back home, I pour prayers into the earth for my people, who are everyone, whether or not we have ever met.
Down from the dark hilltop and at my site once more, I thump heavily onto my sleeping pad mumbling that already I can barely believe this day has happened, and I hope that I can trust that these things actually happened, and hang onto that trust. In the distance to the south, the mournful howl of a farm dog: a welcoming song to the stars shyly appearing in the blue black sky. To the north, a sudden low, rumbling, whooshing through the trees: a nighthawk is hunting. Something’s time has come, and the hawk gratefully lives another day.
And, by the loving Grace of all that is mysterious, so do I.