Lead into Gold
Empowerment: A Basket Full of Medicine
The Alchemy of Movement Medicine
’That’s what alchemists do. They show that when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.’
Now that the Inner Shaman has their helpers in place, we can turn our attention to their alchemical expertise and the power we all have within us to transform lead into gold. The lead we are talking about here is the weight of our undigested personal and collective histories. In a day-to-day sense, it can simply be the weight of a difficult day or experience. The gold we are seeking is the gold of present moment awareness through which we can relax into the arms of a greater power.
Ancient alchemists were seeking gold because of its stability. Once gold is gold, you can do what you like to it. Freeze it, melt it, chop it into pieces — whatever you do, gold is gold is gold. If you apply this to the psyche, alchemists are looking for the stable, we might say Unbroken, gold of the soul. For the Inner Shaman, who must often travel to the unpredictable land of the unknown, gold is the self-knowledge that enables them to withstand that pressure and return safely. Don Juan, the old Yaqui medicine man from the Carlos Castaneda tales, used to say that people were often surprised when the doors to the unknown opened. He would laugh, saying that people seeking freedom would approach those doors, and when they opened and they saw the vastness of the unknown staring back at them, most would run for their lives.
Gabrielle used to tell us all the time, ’Teachers come and go, but life is the master.’ We call this master intelligence in life the Great Choreographer. I have noticed again and again how, with impeccable timing, life puts the people and situations in front of me to deliver just what I need to become a little more conscious of who I am. Imagine how your life might be if you acted as if each significant encounter you had was a direct invitation to look in the universal mirror and know yourself more deeply. Batty Thunder Bear, one of my original teachers, used to tell his apprentices that ultimately, there was no inherent universal meaning in our existence. However, we humans are meaning makers and storytellers, and we do derive meaning from our experience. So, he asked us to seek out and choose meaning for our lives that empowered us, so that waking up in the morning, no matter the external reality of our situation, was simply another invitation to create with the raw materials at hand.
We have seen how much power the story we tell has in creating our perception of ourselves, each other and the situations life puts us in. If I can choose the meaning that I give to my life as a whole and to each situation as it arises, then I can become what shamans have always been — a master of perception. I’ve tried this out in all sorts of unlikely situations, and it works.
For example, I was once arrested in South Dakota for speeding on my way to catch a flight home. I was late, and in my hurry, I’d rather stupidly lost awareness of my speed. Whoops! Not only that, I was in an open-top sports car and had a copy of Russell Means’ excellent autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, on the front seat next to me. Russell was a political and spiritual leader of the Lakota people who had a fearsome reputation and in his constant search for justice for his people was a constant thorn in the side of the authorities.
Suffice to say that the white policeman who stopped me wasn’t one of Russell’s greatest fans. He picked the book up, saw that it was a signed copy and before I knew it, my luggage and car were impounded, my shoelaces and belt removed, and I was in the back of a police car, my arms handcuffed behind my back, being driven at breakneck speed to the South Dakota State Penitentiary. When I explained to my arresting officer that I had to catch my flight to get back for work, he seemed to take great pleasure in telling me that not only would I now miss my flight, I would almost certainly be spending the next three nights in prison due to it being a holiday weekend.
I was shocked by the sudden change in my situation. My heart was pounding, sweat was stinging my eyes and my mind was leaping into all the repercussions of missing my flight. My inner Persecutor was out of his cage, too, putting the words of a meme I’d recently posted right in front of me and mocking me with them:
Your story is mostly an unconscious set of expectations and beliefs about who you are and what life is. In any challenging situation, being aware that there might be a story operating creates the possibility of perceiving beyond it.
’Okay,’ I said to myself, ’let’s see if this shamanic alchemy shit works.’
I quietly called my allies, the Tree of Life, the elements, the whole crew. The Inner Shaman’s way of working with alchemy involves five simple steps, each one related to an element:
1. Earth — Presence: This is the art of being in the Earth of the body and heart, quieting the mind and being with the reality of what is happening as it is happening. The Inner Shaman knows how to focus their attention on what is happening and in doing so interrupt the mind’s ability to cloud the situation with overwhelming fears, which so often leads to dissociation, the direct opposite of presence. The ability to dissociate is a powerful survival mechanism when we are powerless to protect ourselves or make any change. But we have been learning ways to tolerate being present and embodied, even in very challenging situations. Being in the body and connected to the Earth grounds our thinking and gives us access to a feeling of safety that calms down our nervous system, opens our awareness to a wider picture and ultimately helps us to make better choices.
2. Fire — Expression: This is invoking the Fire within to help us find the courage to express, in shape, movement and breath, what is happening, especially emotionally. I hope that the importance of letting emotions move is now clearer to you. Fire’s medicine is its ability to transform everything back into its original state, releasing heat and light in the process. This means that the more we know the Fire within and connect through that to the power of the sun, the greater our capacity to express what needs to be expressed and, in doing so, transform it in the flames.
3. Water — Release: Calling the Waters to wash through our body, heart and mind, releasing debris through a little shaking medicine, purifying ourselves, and becoming as fluid as water will stop the old stories taking over and drowning us in their self-fulfilling expectations. The more we deepen our relationship to the Waters of life through our practice and through being grateful for them, the easier it is to identify with their medicine when the need is there.
4. Air — Receive: If we have worked successfully with Earth, Fire and Water, then we will have emptied ourselves of any debris and we will naturally come into the hollow bone space and be able to call the spirit of the wind to lift us up, show us the bigger picture and bring in the inspiration of an appropriate new story. Finding new stories that dignify us and release us from the past, supported by the archetypal energies of the medicine circle, is the shaman’s way.
5. Ether — the Echo: For the Inner Shaman, ether is the force of attraction or the loving intelligence of the divine that keeps the wheel of life turning. It is essentially the emptiness from which all the elements emerged. This empty space allows new learning to bed in and find its ground in both the imaginal and physical worlds. We all need this phase of digesting and resting in the echo, and it is an important aspect of integration after any healing process.
Working with Movement Medicine alchemy
In the situation I was in, it was clearly impossible to dance, but I have used this process so often that I knew that I was capable of engaging with it on the micro level without attracting any more unwanted attention. And so I did. Coming into my breath and my body and becoming present helped calm me down. Quietly, I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and inside me. I felt how angry I was, with myself, with my arresting officer, about missing my flight, and, most of all, about not getting home to Susannah. I felt the Fire rising, and as I breathed, small adjustments and imagination aplenty gave me the feeling of that Fire moving through me. I called the Waters and felt the micro shake inside as they washed through me. And then I gave my attention to the wind coming through the patrol car ’s open windows. I let my spirit climb into the sky, and as I looked down, I saw the big picture. As a white man, I knew that being arrested for speeding wouldn’t be life-threatening. Being late for work would be unfortunate but not deadly. And what was life teaching me about trying to fit too much into a busy day and getting myself into a rush? The wind gave me the feeling of space and freedom that I’d always known nobody could take away from me. So then I just sat back, relaxed and let go. The whole thing barely took five minutes, but afterwards, although nothing had changed externally, my whole world looked different. I was curious, unafraid and, remarkably, even enjoying the strange adventure I was in.
The policeman clearly noticed something and began telling me it was his son’s birthday and he was upset about having to work and miss the celebrations at home. Five minutes later, we were talking freely about all kinds of things. By the time we arrived at the prison, he was reassuring me that I shouldn’t have anything much to worry about.
I had alchemized the heaviness of my situation and the sparkle was back in my eyes. And the reality that unfolded over the next two days was quite different from the one my fears had shown me. A series of mini-miracles and the generosity of many people got me home 20 minutes before my work was due to begin. And I will always remember the kindness and humour of the Lakota guys I shared my cell with. They all knew Russell and were pretty certain that it was his book that had aggravated my arresting officer. So I learned more about their situation. And on my way back home, I made a commitment to slow my driving down and allow more time for the unexpected in my travel plans. Good outcome. Lesson learned.
Of course, there are many more serious challenges in life than this, but it does illustrate that this alchemical process really does work if we are willing to give space to what’s actually true and to be open to whatever the Great Choreographer is attempting to teach us. Like any new process, it can be a bit clunky at first. But if there is a way to feel the safety of ground under our feet, practice will lead to results.
Shamans are often called shapeshifters, which honours their ability to change their form in order to move through different worlds. In the modern world, the biggest freedom we have is the freedom to acknowledge, express, release and eventually change and choose the meaning of any situation. That changes the shape of our consciousness and that in turn changes our perception of reality. If we attend to what a situation is teaching us, we will discover the golden seed that becomes part of the stability and power of the Inner Shaman.
Alchemists work with the elements to create just the right amount of pressure in the alchemical container known as the alembic in order to transform the dull metal weight of lead into the shining stability of gold. In life, the alembic is the body. And for alchemy to happen, we have to commit ourselves fully to each stage of the process.
Opposite, you will see the medicine wheel that sums up all the empowerment work we’ve been doing in this part of the book.
In our last practice in Part II of our journey, I’m going to invite you to work with the five steps of Movement Medicine alchemy. Be patient as you are learning. Feeling incompetent is a sign of being on new ground. To move past feeling like a failure, we have to feed the Fire of our passion, which means understanding why what we are learning matters to us. I’ve given you many reasons why I think this work matters. I’m sure you’ll have your own. The deeper you go, the clearer you must become about your own motivation.
The Movement Medicine medicine wheel
PRACTICE: LEAD INTO GOLD — THE ALCHEMY OF MOVEMENT MEDICINE
How long you take for this ritual will depend on the subject you choose to work with. It’s a good idea to start with a minor irritation rather than a hugely challenging issue.
· Choose a specific issue. This could be something that has upset you in the last week or a challenge you’ve faced at work or with a friend or colleague. When other people are involved, remember that you’re looking for the meaning you’re making, rather than blaming someone else for your condition.
· Prepare yourself and your space in the normal way and call in all the support that is now available to you. Connect as strongly as you can in movement with the Inner Shaman and their allies.
· Once you feel ready to begin, follow the five steps of the alchemy process (above). As you do so, beware of old ideas that may tell you that you’re not capable of doing this. And beware of the characters from the vicious circle getting hold of your work. If they do, use what you now know to give them space to move and then return as soon as you can to your focus. Remember that emotional expression is like weather, and thunder and lightning are sometimes necessary to clear out your heart.
· When you get to the last step, if you don’t feel you’ve finished the process, be prepared to go round the circle again and give more space to your heart and to what you feel. I’m confident that you have it within you to do what is necessary to transform a spoonful of lead into a spoonful of gold!
· Complete your ritual in the normal way, making sure to leave enough time for the echo.
Congratulations. You now have enough medicine in your basket to empower your Inner Shaman to transform your world. Take a moment to study the medicine wheel before moving on.
So far, you’ve been gathering power through your work. The next stage of your journey will focus on taking responsibility for that power.