The Animal Intelligence of the Shaman’s Heart
Empowerment: A Basket Full of Medicine
’I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.’
My father died when he was just 56 years old. I’d not long turned 30, and back then, 56 seemed young, but nowhere near as young as it feels to me now, not long after turning 55. It occurred to me this year that if I were to die at the same age as him, I would just have the grace of one more spring. In addition to everything I received from my parents, not least the gift of life itself, my father ’s early death has been a constant motivation to live while I can. It’s a simple equation. The older I get, the more precious life is, and the more it sinks in that there really is no time to waste.
Having said that, my father and I didn’t get on whilst he was alive. We were as stubborn as each other. And whilst there’s no doubt that he gave me, my sisters and my mother everything he could in the best way he could, the more I became myself, the more conflict there was between us. A difficult relationship with either or both parents as we grow up has quite an effect on our emotional world. Whatever we need to do to survive the challenges of incarnation and childhood lays down patterns deep inside us. The deeper our friendships and relationships go, the more these patterns get activated. And the more there is to lose, the more our survival instincts come into play. The good news is that as we learn to accept these survival modes as parts of ourselves, we are more likely to change them for the better.
There are two major keys to unlocking our heart and setting it free. The first is to learn how to move creatively with all the different weathers of the heart. I originally learned from Gabrielle that for the Inner Shaman, fear, anger and grief are energies we need to learn to work with in order to awaken our joy and compassion. The second key is a good relationship with something called Benevolent Death. In the shaman’s world, Benevolent Death is a being from the imaginal world who can become one of our greatest teachers in life. As our consciousness expands, Benevolent Death can teach us how to shed old skins we have outgrown. Learning how to die whilst we are still living is the shamanic art of letting go, another universal aspect of shamanism. So, far from being morbid, a healthy relationship with death makes the unlikely miracle of life on Earth that much sweeter.
It is my experience that when someone close to us dies, our relationship goes on. After my father died, I started meeting him in dreams and ritual spaces. At first, it appeared to me that he was still going about his daily business as if he hadn’t died and I had to tell him respectfully that he had. In dreams, I put my hand through his body to show him he no longer had a physical body. Over time, I watched him progress. He would often show up in ceremonies and once I saw him with wings, flying ecstatically in the upper realms. I was astonished. In life, he was an entrepreneur with not much time for things of the spirit.
I asked him, ’How did you get those?’
He replied, ’Do you think you’re the only one doing the work round here?’
Though I trust my experience, I have to concede that the father I see in ceremony could simply be my own internal sense of him and have no external reality at all. But I am less interested in discussing what the ’ultimate truth’ of this is and far more interested in how, with the Inner Shaman’s help, we can allow these kinds of experiences to empower us, bring us more dignity and deepen our capacity to be who we are.
In a recent solo ceremony to celebrate my birthday, I saw my father sitting quietly waiting at the edge of my circle as I drummed. At one point, I turned to him and asked, ’Is there anything you need from me?’
He shook his head softly and smiled in a way I rarely remember him smiling in life.
’So why do you always show up in ceremony?’ I continued.
His reply was totally unexpected. ’To offer help if you need it.’
My jaw dropped. ’Help?’
’How long have you been showing up before I thought to ask you if you needed anything?’ I asked.
My heart cracked and my eyes became a river. I couldn’t believe it. I had been so used to being the strong one since he died, supporting him, and now here he was offering me support in a way that our mutual destinies never allowed when he was alive. My tears were a triple-natured blend of joy (that my father was offering me help in my work), shock (that he’d been available to do that for a decade before I’d thought to ask) and childhood feelings that took the opportunity to be heard.
My tears opened my eyes and my heart so that I could see the pattern of my life’s journey from above. Much like a Zen garden, there was a perfect placement of form that allowed me to recognize that the artist that had made up this dream was beyond my everyday sense of self. Stepping into that garden that represented the journey of my life, I found everything making perfect sense. All I could feel was gratitude.
The thought came to me like a soaring bird appearing out of the morning mists: Recognize yourself as that artist.
Clichéd as it may sound, at that moment I knew myself to be an embodied soul on an eternal journey through the Mystery, connected to other souls through many shared projects. With my father at my side and my heart open, I felt I could trust myself not just to be connected to power, but to consciously wield it. For someone who had spent so much time in the shadow lands of considering power to be a dangerous thing to be avoided at all costs, this was a great victory. I now knew how important it was to wield power in service of life, and that became my prayer.
As I prayed, I looked up and saw a choir of my ancestors singing beautiful Hebrew nigguns (spirit songs). A strong line of light appeared through the dark sky, connecting my heart to the heart of the Creator, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt deep joy and peace in being Jewish.
For decades, my relationship with my ethnicity had not been an easy one. But at that moment I was able to distinguish between the dogma of religion and the pure and specific connection to spirit that I was being reminded of. One more ex-communicated part of me had returned, and as I welcomed it back and ended that ceremony, I remember thinking to myself, My goodness, this unfolding never stops, does it?!
’No, it doesn’t,’ came the laughing reply, and who knows who spoke those words?
The shaman knows that only the immanence of death or the felt presence of love beyond self will move us sufficiently to mature from purely consuming life to serving life. I have learned again and again that righteously telling people how to live or telling them off for how they are living just closes them up further. This is especially true in cultures where children have grown up being told so much of the time that they and their impulses are wrong. This creates adults who are easily closed down into defensive-aggressive postures when they feel criticized. The fact remains that life on Earth is a free-will gig. We get to choose what we do with the cards life deals us.
If we are to choose wisely, there is no way round the heart. Love has the power to crack us open and change our view. In a world where genuine self-love, meaning a mixture of warm acceptance and clearly intentioned discipline, is a very rare state indeed, we have one mighty Gordian knot to untie to access the emotional intelligence of the heart. When the Inner Shaman sees a challenge like this, they call up their resources and step forward with joyful intent into ceremony.
The road to self-knowledge is a healing road. And there’s only one person in the whole wild universe who can choose to walk that road for you. And that is you.
I’m not going to paint a pretty picture of the work of self-discovery. At times, you may wish you’d stayed comfortably numb. But the harvest of doing the work is to be at peace with yourself, and in my experience, the less energy that goes into fighting to be myself, the more energy there is to create the dreams I came here to create.
For the Inner Shaman, the heart is the gateway to vision. If it is full of self-doubt, self-criticism, undigested hurts and fearful expectations. It’s like trying to see through a window that hasn’t been cleaned for a very long time. But to imagine that you need to clear up your entire history before you can see clearly is equally unhelpful. What is needed is the courage to enter the world of emotion. I hope that your work with the elements has already shown you that to know them, you don’t have to understand them, or to know where they all come from and why. You simply need to experience them and how they move through the hollow bone that is the Inner Shaman’s natural state. The same is true of your emotions.
YOUR ANIMAL HEART
As we’ve already seen, the heart is the bridge between the Lower World of the unconscious and the Upper World of the superconscious. To receive a guiding vision that really inspires you to be who you can be in this world, you need to engage your heart both physically, in terms of getting aerobically active, and emotionally. A healthy baby will laugh, cry, express their fear and anger in a sweeping torrent of feeling and then move on. As we grow, we learn what is acceptable in our family home and our culture. So we learn to mask our feelings and censor the emotional intelligence of our heart. The patterns we learn then go on repeating themselves throughout our lives, with the unfortunate consequences that our capacity to communicate clearly is much diminished and we expend an enormous amount of energy simply denying what we feel.
The Inner Shaman can help us break free of these patterns. They aren’t interested in living up to someone else’s ideals and attempting to bypass the heart in order to present an idealized version of who they are. They know that it is the truth that eventually sets them free.
The Inner Shaman knows how to call on animal emotional intelligence to support human emotional intelligence. All mammals share the same basic emotions. We learned from Gabrielle Roth how to dance with our emotions, and then, through research and practice, developed what we had learned from her. There are four emotions that the Inner Shaman needs to engage with. Together, they lead to a fifth and form a five-chambered mandala that is the foundation for developing fluent, embodied, emotional expression:
The Movement Medicine heart mandala
· In the South, we have the chamber of awakening, which relates to fear.
· In the East, the chamber of integrity, which relates to anger.
· In the West, the chamber of surrender, which relates to sadness.
· In the North, the chamber of gratitude, which relates to joy.
· In the centre, the chamber of grace, which relates to compassion.
Compassion, meaning ’to feel with’, is the result of allowing ourselves to know the emotions associated with the other four chambers of the heart. If we aren’t okay with any of these four, our capacity for compassion will be greatly reduced.
It’s important to acknowledge that we’ve probably all experienced emotion in negative ways. Too much fear leads to feeling disassociated, overwhelmed and panic-stricken. Unowned or irresponsible expression of anger often leads to violence. Too much identification with sadness can lead to feeling depressed and waterlogged. And I guess we all know the ’sugar on shit’ do-gooding saccharine sweetness of someone doing their best to cheer people up but just irritating the hell out of everyone.
All of these negative expressions of emotion are massively present in our world and, I would guess, in each of us too. It’s so important to recognize that they arise from a distorted or wounded relationship with emotion rather than being the result of emotion; for instance, anger is an appropriate response to the breaking of boundaries. It has recently been discovered that one of the best ways for those unfortunate enough to have been sexually abused to work effectively with that trauma is to learn to box. Apparently, the physical contact of hitting a pad or a gloved hand is a much more effective form of healing than expressing anger in words alone. Anger, like all emotions, is a force that we need to learn to use wisely. Our emotional wellbeing is really down to our day-to-day relationship with all these basic feelings, and I cannot stress enough how important this wellbeing is for our health in every sense.
The best way I know of keeping the flow of the heart clear is to get physical and allow the Inner Shaman to move their way through the chambers of the heart on a regular basis so that we can experience the simple equation I learned early on my journey from Batty Thunder Bear, one of my first teachers:
Emotion = Energy in Motion
Where there’s energy, there’s life.
I guess that by now you’re sensing it must be time for another practice. And you’re right. The intention of this one will be to give space to the animal instincts of your emotional intelligence and, through the power of your heart and all the other support to which you have access, create, renew and enhance your vision of who you truly are and who you can become. If you are new to this work, you may want to take this in bite-size pieces. Going at your own pace with this kind of thing usually gets you where you’re going in good time.
PRACTICE: YOUR ANIMAL HEART
You will need an hour for this practice.
· Set up your space and invoke your support in the usual way: Awakening the Dancer, greeting yourself and your heart and acknowledging the reality of your emotional condition right now.
· Once you feel present in your body, you’re going to oil the doors of your heart by giving it a good workout both physically and energetically. You’ll be hunting the moving shapes of your feelings rather than putting yourself under pressure to feel the emotions themselves. The purpose is to let your Inner Shaman explore a wider range of physical vocabulary for each chamber of the heart. If there is real emotion that needs to move, it will flow down the channel that your physical body is creating, either now or when that emotion arises in your life. The aim is to make friends with these emotions and deepen your emotional intelligence.
· You will need some good rhythmic music without verbal content. A shamanic drumming track like Track 5 on my Shaman’s Song CD (Hay House, 2018) will work well.
South: the chamber of awakening; the deer
· Once you are moving and present, turn your attention to the chamber of awakening. Recognize the part of your animal intelligence that knows itself as a prey animal. I like to work with the grounded sensitivity of the deer. So go ahead and invoke the spirit of the deer through your movement. You are light on your feet yet totally connected to the ground beneath you. You are curious and very alert. When something scares you, you stop and orientate yourself. If you sense danger, you run. If something has really frightened you, you find a safe space to shake off any excess adrenaline.
· Go through these movements in a cycle, using your embodied imagination:
o Move lightly on your feet and explore the sensitivity that keeps you alert to your surroundings.
o Imagine something startles you. Freeze. Breathe slowly and deeply as you orientate yourself towards the perceived danger.
o Melt into movement and run for your life.
o Find a safe place and shake your whole body from the inside out to release any excess adrenaline.
· Repeat this as often as you feel you need to, but five minutes will be time enough.
· Thank and release the deer.
East: the chamber of integrity; the jaguar
· Invoke the hunter animal in you and ask the spirit of the jaguar to come through you and take you into the chamber of integrity. Feel the difference in your body. The jaguar is totally secure in their own circle. Sense the grounded, fiery power in your body and the ferocity of your intent when you are hungry. Feel your capacity to protect what needs protection. Explore the explosive power within you (as always, taking care of your physical body).
· Find your roar. For a short time, let this animal power help you find the movement of anger. Don’t feel pressure to feel anger, just let the jaguar’s power show you the movements that could support the clear expression of anger, were it to be present. Find your ’No!’ and find your ’Yes!’ Again, five minutes should suffice.
· Thank and release the jaguar.
West: the chamber of surrender; the salmon
· Now invoke through your movement the Waters of life and a master of the Waters, the spirit of the salmon. Imagine yourself totally at home in the Waters, in your fluidity and in your depths. Let your body and joints become fluid.
· Invoke the chamber of surrender. Salmon are extraordinary beings: they know how to go with the flow and they know how to use their full strength to swim against the current to return to the place of their birth. Invite the spirit of the salmon to show you how to go with the flow and how, when necessary, to find the fluid strength to move against it. Feel how these movements might give you the courage to follow the flow and release the dance of sorrow and grief. Let go, again without the slightest pressure to feel any specific emotion. Again, continue for five minutes.
· Thank and release the salmon.
North: the chamber of gratitude; the kingfisher
· Still in motion, call to the Wind and invoke the spirit of the kingfisher. Breathe deeply, open the wings of your imagination and feel what it’s like to fly with your feet on the ground.
· Invoke the chamber of gratitude. Imagine you are free to feel joy, again without any pressure to feel anything. If you were joyful, how might this shape your body and your experience? Play, make space for your breath to move joyfully through you (five minutes).
· Thank and release the kingfisher.
Centre: the chamber of grace
· Now ask all these animal helpers to stay close by as you, as Inner Shaman, enter into the central chamber of your heart, the chamber of grace. Feel your roots going deep down into the ground. Feel the space you have created in your trunk and the strength and fluidity of your heart.
· Reach up through your imagination into your branches and look down on your life. See it as your medicine path, your initiatory journey. Imagine that you can witness any aspect or situation from your past from a place of deep compassion and grace.
· Find a simple way to acknowledge or bless the road you have travelled. Let yourself sense how your life has made you who you are, and if you can, open your heart to the possibility that your journey is a huge creative project.
· Now take a look at the road ahead. See it as the time life is giving you to both be and become who you are. Somewhere along that road, Benevolent Death is waiting. As I mentioned, Benevolent Death is a great teacher and a good friend. In my experience, it usually asks some pretty poignant questions like: ’If you knew you only had one more year to live, is there anything in your life you’d change?’
· Dialogue with Death for a while and then ask yourself: ’If I were to find the courage to let myself be and become who I truly am, who would I be? Who would I become? What is mine to give?’
· Continue to move your body and ask the deep emotional intelligence of your heart to help you feel and to experience a little more of your essential self. That vision can come through words, images or feelings. It can be a more yin process, which means that it feels as if you are receiving the answers from a greater intelligence than your day-to-day self, or a more yang process, which means that you choose to create in alignment with the inner library of wisdom to which the Inner Shaman has access. A blend of both usually works best.
· Trust your heart to receive what you are ready to receive. Try to find that mixture of kindness and discipline with yourself that is part of the shaman’s wisdom. Whatever ingredients life has given you, the Inner Shaman is there to put them all in the cauldron and cook them down into the sweet medicine of self-knowledge.
· The answers to questions like those that Benevolent Death may ask you can take a while to come into focus. They may arrive in dreams or just as you wake up. The important thing is to be as present as possible for what comes. And be patient. Dialogue with Death again and again if you need to. Be clear that you wish to discover more about the mystery of who you are and who you can become in this world.
· Finally, thank and release each element.
· Make a few notes about your experience.
· As usual, think of one simple action you can take in the days to come that will help you to know that you are integrating this ritual and commit to it.
Congratulations are due once again. But this is just the start. With all of these practices, repetition will give you confidence and make you stronger. A blend of patience and passion helps, and your Inner Shaman has plentiful access to both.