Many years ago a teacher told me to say this command to my knife before using it: “You are my dog. I am the master. Don’t bite me.” After saying that, I was supposed to bite the knife. Then I could go to work. That’s one of those strangely charming things your shamanic teacher says. But there are deep lessons about power weaving through that phrase.
Lesson one: All things carry power. The knife carries power- the power to slice and sever. My teacher called it the power of “biting” because one of the powers of shamanism is poetry, image, and allegory, so “cutting” becomes “biting” which sounds more alive, and points to the idea that the knife has its own life.
Shamans recognize that everything carries and expresses power. My Celtic tradition says that the Great Song that is the universe is made up of uncountable “little songs of the heart” which pour from each creature. This idea is found throughout the shamanic world - that everything has - or IS - a song, a melody, a pattern of vibration. When you sink beneath the poetic loveliness of that idea that "everything is music," you realize we move through a world of chaos in which all things are simultaneously expressing their power in infinite variables of vibration.
The sun, the winds, the worms, the cactus, the galaxies, the vines, the leaves, the birds, the viruses, the waters, you and me – everything is busy expressing the power - the vibration, the melody - laid into its DNA. And that’s just the visible part of the spectrum. Even more action swirls in the etheric, the non-visible DNA. We try to make our way through our day amidst this incomprehensible swirl of powers, most of which are undetectable by our ordinary senses. The knife carries and expresses an energy that can hurt me - it is a dismembering energy. Also, because the knife is made of metal, and because it takes so much energy to extract, forge and shape metal, the knife has an immense energy locked into it.
I forgot to call it in because I was operating from too much fear. I was cutting white willow stalks from a behind a construction site in the wealthy western suburbs, near a busy intersection. I was cutting them because I’m rebuilding my prayer house in my back yard in the inner city. The willow grows near ponds, and the ponds are in the wealthy western suburbs. I fear the suburbs and its BMWs and beautiful people and cosmetic dentistry and churches and 911 calls to police because someone who is not one of us is is wandering the streets with a jagged knife. So I was working fast. I made tobacco prayers to the willow and prayers of gratitude to the land but I forgot to call in my helpers to keep the knife from biting me. Lesson 3: Don't take short cuts when you are working with Spirit. Short cuts are the result of fear and/or ego, and they lead to clumsiness and untidy work, and lack of attention, and that leads to bad shamanism. Which may or may not lead to a sliced up finger.
Because of the fear, I forgot to pour smoke on my tools, including the knife, which is another way of asking it to play nice with me – to use its power to benefit me. I forgot to exert my power with the knife and tell it that it is my dog and don’t bite me. I forgot to summon my own strength and “train the dog” because a trained dog is a happy dog and an untrained dog is a dangerous dog and telling your knife that it’s the dog and you are the master is not an act of power over it, it’s an act of stepping up and taking responsibility for making the powers work with each other harmoniously rather than chaotically against one another, which is what shamanism is all about. Sometimes we get caught up with reverence and submission and honoring, which are all, of course, crucial, but so is asserting our own power.
I'm aware as I write this today that we are in the height of summer, which is represented by the south on the medicine wheel I work with. On the Celtic Wheel, the south is the place of the fullness of the life force - the fullness of heat and fire and growth, the sweetening of the fruit and the fattening of the animals. The south is about dancing and singing, feasting and sensual pleasure and joy. The South is all about asserting the fullness of life force and inborn power, and I say now to the South: thanks for this lesson.
I sometimes like to write about my shamanic screw-ups as an antidote to the New Age fluff that populates the internet which frames shamanism in 160 characters as a sunrise illumined path where you "just let go" and "become the powerful you that is meant to be you" and where all you need to do is "sink down into your heart," and where people's guides so often seem to tell them to buy the next shiny thing. Shamanism is real. The spirits are not memes. The work requires tidiness, training, concentration, attention and sacrifice. I bless the spirits for reminding me of this when no one else was around.