The Unbroken and Your Elemental Nature
Encounter: The Shaman in the Modern World
’Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered.
Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.’
Let’s come back to the concept of the Unbroken that I talked about in the introduction. The Unbroken is the intelligence of life that has been in constant evolution since this whole shebang got started nearly 14 billion years ago. A connection to it is vital to shamans the world over. And if you wish to evolve into the very best version of yourself you can be in this life, then I believe that a connection to it is vital to you too.
I want to invite you to take an imaginal journey with me so I can share with you where I first had a direct experience of this force. Imagine that we’re in an old canoe carved from a large tree, travelling down a wide river close to the border of Peru in the Ecuadorian Amazon. New sounds, smells and sights awaken your senses and you have the spirit of adventure in your heart. Imagine the steady and warm presence of our indigenous hosts sitting up front guiding and at the back steering us through the deep fast-flowing waters of the Bobonanza river. The sun is setting and the sounds of the forest are changing with the fading light as we approach the bank of the river. The engine cuts out and the sweet thud of wood into soft earth tells us that we have arrived. It’s the home of a powerful Achuar elder called Sumpa. I love this place. It is one of the most biodiverse environments left on the planet and one of my favourite places in the world. I am always deeply touched by the people and the power of nature I meet here.
Come on, I’d like you to meet Sumpa and his family. We step out of the canoe onto warm, brown earth, then climb steps carved into the steep bank and enter a sizeable clearing. In it stands a large oval house with a thatched roof and open sides. Inside, the warm glow of a fire and a family sitting round it emphasize the feeling of welcome. Sumpa, wearing a woven skirt, beautiful black and red seedpod beads and a yellow, black and red-feathered circular head-dress, stands to greet us. His face is painted in the patterns and symbols of his people.
He tells us he is glad we have come and that his tribe’s elders have passed on stories foretelling the times we live in. He tells us that they have assured him that the rainforest will stand, despite the pressures to exploit and destroy it. They have foretold that this will happen through making alliances with different peoples from around the world. He looks at each one of us in turn and his warmth and strength touch us.
Imagine you start to hear the sound of a soft leaf rattle. And then the deep pulse of a drum. Overhead, the stars are dancing. A quarter moon has risen.
It was a night just like this when I first experienced the Unbroken. I had been working in ceremony through the darkest part of the night. It was still dark, save for the misty light of the moon and stars. The song of the forest just before the morning star heralds the arrival of dawn is exquisite. As I listened to that song, I decided to take a little tobacco to help ground myself after the work of the ceremony. Tobacco in the forest is different from the tobacco to which so many of us in the western world are addicted. It’s pure leaf, with nothing added, and for the people of the forest, it’s a master plant medicine.
I take some tobacco juice through my nose now and settle in to concentrate. I feel the weight of my body and the support of the dark brown earth and I feel myself letting go. My eyes are closed. Step by step, I deepen my breath, expand and include more of what is inside me and around me.
I feel a little pressure in my chest and then, like a rather stiff door opening, my heart widens and I feel flooded by the love of the plant, the surroundings and the melody of the night. Inside my body and my own circle, I am quietly ecstatic, calm and focused. My vision clears and my mind opens. I sense people resting around me, my wife close by. Our hosts have not yet stirred for their morning tea. I feel such love for them.
I open to the forest around me and I feel part of it. I sense the late-night hunters and the prey. I feel the trees breathing and the insects busy playing their part in this intelligent system. I feel it inside me and all around me. Everything is just itself. Nothing is trying to be anything other than itself. There is a peace in this that I’ve never experienced before. It’s not quiet. Animals and plants are living and dying all around me, but nothing is interrupting the magnificent symphony of life. It’s unfolding according to its nature.
As I fall deeper and deeper into my own place in this system, I see spirits on the other side of the river. They appear to me as the warrior shaman protector spirits I have met before. They are magnificent — fierce and uncensored. I hear their song and I am singing with them. We are singing a song I have never heard before, and though the language is not one I know, the words are a blend of sounds that make perfect sense to me:
We are the Unbroken.
We come to remind you
That in everything that lives,
We are there at the centre.
We are the harmony and the melody of the Wind, the Fire, the Waters and the Earth combined.
We have many names
And we are everywhere that life is.
We are inside you.
We are the roots.
We are the sky.
We are all around.
We are the ground
From which all healing grows.
We are the Unbroken and we come
To remind you.
Carry me with you.
I am the Unbroken inside you.
I am the Unbroken inside everyone.
I am the medicine that heals.
I am deeply touched by their presence and by the message I am hearing. I feel the sweetness and strength of the song in my foundations. I have never felt so held. The direct experience of being in touch with this ’Unbrokenness’ outside me and inside me is a step further than I have gone before. I am meeting an essential state, and one that I sense has already changed a fundamental story inside me that has identified strongly with what is broken in me and in my fellow human beings.
Like so many of us, I have lived with a deep sense of what is wrong with me, what needs healing, what needs adjusting and fixing. What needs improving. I have worked hard to heal, and I don’t regret that. Perhaps this is the harvest: the recognition that deep inside me, and all of us, there is the perfect intelligence of life evolving, just waiting to be recognized. I ask the spirits about this and they tell me:
The Unbroken is at the centre of life. It is there inside everything that lives. Knowing it does not heal that which is broken. It gives us the ground to heal from. It is the memory of that which remains whole throughout all experience. It is the intelligence that is the movement of the tides, the cycle of the seasons, the elliptical dance of the planets. It is the beat of the heart and the beat of the drum. It is the song you hear in nature. It is the pure medicine you are made from — the elemental building blocks of life that are always connected to the source. It is the source of life itself as it lives in you.
I felt that jaguar-in-the-body, butterfly-in-the-heart fusion that has become such a living metaphor for the blend of strength and sensitivity that is the ground of my work.
Maybe one day you’ll join me on a journey to meet Sumpa and his family. For now, let’s come back to what we so love to call the ’real world’. We’ve work to do and things to discover.
The best way I’ve found to stay connected to the Unbroken in the ’real world’ is through my ongoing relationship with the elements. These aren’t just signposts in the four directions; born from the prima materia of the universe, they are the fundamental building blocks of life. Our physical body is made from them. We are Solar-powered beings made of Earth and Water and our spirit is embodied and animated through the Breath of life. We all have the possibility of making an embodied connection to the elements and, through that, to a greater power and to the essence of the Unbroken.
Through the Earth of your body, for example, you can connect to the extraordinary intelligence and power of the Earth beneath you and experience what being grounded truly means. Through the spark of life inside you, you can connect to Fire, and through that to the power of the sun and the light of the universe from which the sun was born. Through the Waters, you can discover the shapeshifter inside you as you follow the cycle of water from an ocean evaporating into vapour, becoming cloud and rain, becoming a river and then finding its way back to the ocean. Through embodying the breath, you can experience the power of the Wind lifting you up and taking you past the boundaries of your mind into the wide-open space of the sky.
There is a fifth element, too. Though it’s normally called ether, I prefer to call it Love. By that I mean that it’s the universal force of attraction that keeps the planets turning at just the right distance from one another for the miracle of life on Earth to happen. It contains all the elements and is the essence from which they all came into being.
The elements are an endless source of teaching, creative inspiration and energy. Nevertheless, the shaman knows that relationship isn’t a one-way street in which we are empty-handed, always asking for more. Reciprocity is a universal principle of shamanic practice. It describes the equal importance of giving and receiving and is the key to the kind of dynamically balanced and mutually enhancing relationships I believe we are all hungry for.
By now, you won’t be surprised to read that giving your body to the dancer and asking that part of you to show you how the elements move is the best way I’ve discovered of embodying them. What I love so much about the process of moving with the elements is that because we are physically made from them, we don’t have to rely on our imagination alone but can simply focus on the part of us that is each element and then invite the dancer to work with the movement and creativity that is part of its nature.
Before we do so, there’s one more practice that I’m certain will support you with that. As a child, I used to do a ritual every night as I crossed the bridge from waking to sleeping. I would expand from myself to others, to the community, to the imaginal world and to the source. At the edge of my imagination, like an oasis of sweet water in the deepest desert, I would find the question that has guided me my whole life. ’My rabbi tells me that God created all this. Wonderful. But what is God?’ Asking this question blew my mind each and every night as I burst out of myself and fell back into the arms of the Great Mystery. In that place, I felt connected to a power of love that held me and all things in its embrace. There were no answers. But the question was without beginning or end, and the Mystery it opened me to was nectar for my soul.
Later in life, as I developed my shamanic practice, this experience returned to me and became the basis for my work. I learned that this natural capacity to expand beyond ourselves but stay connected to our own backbone was the basis of our ability to connect authentically with the physical and non-physical worlds around us. I have found it extremely helpful in building a connection between the elements as they exist within us and the greater power of the elements as they exist beyond us. The same is true of the Unbroken. If I can touch the experience of the Unbroken inside myself, I can connect to it outside myself. It is also true that if I can experience the Unbroken outside myself, as I did that night in the forest, bringing that experience into my body will support me in experiencing the Unbroken inside myself.
The foundation of this ability lies in something called interoception. Interoception is a new word from the relatively new field of neuroscience. It refers to the capacity to pay attention to the interior sensations of the physical body and to describe those sensations in words. People who are skilled at interoception have much better self-care because they recognize what their body needs when it needs it. Low interoception generally leads to poor self-care.
Interoception is also the basis of our ability to accurately perceive others, to the extent that there is a strong correlation between people with low interoception and violent behaviour.
In terms of working with the elements, we are much more likely to be able to connect with them as allies when we can experience them through our body and then expand into them as a power and intelligence that is also beyond our body. As chance would have it, this is the precise focus for our next practice.
PRACTICE: THE MESA ELEMENTAL PRACTICE
Mesa is the Spanish word for ’table’ and in many South American shamanic traditions, it refers to the safe space in which the shaman does their work. In Movement Medicine, it also stands for the Movement Energetics of Spatial Awareness. The Mesa Practice is the means through which we connect our internal experience with what is around us. We do this through expanding and contracting our awareness from the ground of our body. So, while remaining connected to ourselves, we come into relationship with others, the environment, the imaginal world and the source of life.
I will invite you to work with the Mesa Practice first, then use what this teaches you to experience your connection to the elemental powers within and beyond you, and through this, enhance your connection to the Unbroken.
You will need a minimum of 45 minutes for this practice.
· Set up your ritual space and prepare yourself. As part of preparing your space, create a small altar in each direction that honours the element associated with it. This could be as simple as a bowl of water, a candle, a feather and a flower, but please feel free to give your creative energy and intention to this. It will be good preparation for the more complex rituals I will share with you later.
The Mesa Practice
· As before, do your invocation by standing at the centre of your space, turning to the directions and asking the elements to be there: Earth in the South, Fire in the East, Water in the West and Wind in the North.
· Place a simple physical representation of each element in the relevant direction.
· You may wish to add: ’I am calling to any and all help and guidance from the elemental powers for my highest good and for the highest good of all I love and care for.’
· Take time for Awakening the Dancer, and in so doing, focus your attention in your body, quieten your mind and make space for your heart.
The micro dance
· Once your body is warm and your joints mobilized, slow down and, whilst remaining in movement, bring your attention to the surface of your skin and to the universe of experience within your body. You can do this following a plan (for example, from head to feet) or by just sensing where there is energy in your body, beginning there and taking your attention around the rest of your body as you bring it into movement.
· Breathe a little more deeply. Close your eyes if you wish. Move inwards and find words to describe what is happening inside your body. Say them out loud as you move. They can be as simple or as poetic as you want, for example: ’I feel warmth in the soles of my feet’ or ’My lower back feels fizzy and bright.’ I suggest that you include ’Here I am, as I am’ from time to time as a reminder to both accept what is and to bring it into movement. Your movement may be slow or fast, but keep your attention focused on your internal experience. We call this the micro dance. It will help you to be more aware of the subtleties of your experience and to include them in your movement and therefore in the dance of life.
· It is likely and normal that you will discover that some parts of your body feel more or less alive than others. Acknowledge this and keep moving. Keep in mind that your intention in this dance is to discover the ground of your body and reclaim any ground that has been temporarily lost due to past experience.
· Though it will take time and effort to reclaim your whole body, everything you discover is potential medicine. So, get to know the language of your body. The deeper you go with this, the more you will discover the powerful healing medicine of interoception.
· Well done. It’s time now to expand your awareness and, without losing your interoception, focus your attention on the life of the space immediately around your body. We call this your medio.
The medio space
· As you continue to move, use your body to occupy your own circle, not by puffing yourself up, but by being present in your own interoception and aware of the space around you. Imagine your energy field is like a luminous cocoon around you, pulsating with the life inside you and strengthened by your connection to the elements in the four directions around you. Focus on the elements one by one and feel how they give you more ground, more clarity and strength, more fluidity and space. Spend at least five minutes on this. I cannot over-emphasize how important and useful it is. It will help you to strengthen the bridge between your internal experience of life and your capacity to express yourself and accurately perceive other people. It will help you to feel safer and support you in taking back the territory of your body and your energy field if the effects of the past have annexed it from the present. It will also support you in strengthening your boundaries.
· Keep shifting your focus from inside yourself (micro) to the edge of this ’second skin’ around you (medio) as you move. Keep naming what you feel inside your body. Finding the words for it is part of the skill of interoception.
The macro dance
· Now use your body to sculpt this sensation and give it a repetitive movement. Involve your whole body. Say the words that describe the feeling out loud.
· As the next step in building your connection to the four elements, embody your experience, and in so doing, communicate with the four directions around you. Introduce yourself, your condition and your intention as you face each direction. Your communication is being expressed through your body and it is rooted in the micro, engaged in the medio and connected with what is around you through what we call the macro dance.
The Mesa Practice
· Go for it. Fill your whole circle with this feeling and movement, find the breath that supports this, and practise connecting your internal experience with the world around you. Stay with this Mesa Practice of expanding and contracting through the micro, medio and macro for a few minutes.
· Next time you expand your awareness and your movement into the luminous energy field around you, open your eyes and let in the environment in which you are moving. Name what you see whilst staying connected to your energetic boundary and your interoception. Make it as simple as you can. The intention is to remain connected to the feeling inside, whilst maintaining a sense of boundary as you connect through your body to the environment around you.
If you lose the connection to your interoception at any time, simply begin again. Keep moving through the three spaces of: 1. interoception (micro); 2. your energy field (medio); and 3. your environment (macro). You are learning a new and important skill. When I do this practice, I feel so present and grounded, and the more I have done it, the better I have become at staying connected to my own ground as I enter into relationship with the world around me.
Now for the second part of our ritual. This involves focusing on all five elements one by one and feeling how they give you more ground, more clarity and strength, more fluidity and space, and more aliveness at your core.
· Start with the elements inside you (micro). Find the shape and movement of each element (medio) and through this, invoke the power of each element beyond you, i.e. from the Earth of your body, connect to the greater power of the body of the Earth under you.
· Engaging physically with this and sensing how your energy changes with each element will result in a deeper experience. At the same time, follow the waves of excitation (higher energy) and relaxation through your body as you expand and contract.
· Speak to the elements as you move. Don’t just ask for what you need, but, in the spirit of reciprocity, offer your dance as an expression of gratitude for what each element brings you.
· Spend a minimum of five minutes with each element.
· Once you feel replete and nourished by your practice, thank and release each element.
· Make a few notes about your experience.
· 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.
· Thank and release your allies.
Return to this practice as often as you can. I never get bored of it and, like any relationship, the more attention I give to each element, the deeper my relationship with it becomes. And once you’ve got used to the Mesa Practice, you can use it on the dance floor of life — as you walk to work, sit in a meeting or as you fall asleep at night.
Congratulations. Your foundations are now in place and it is time to meet your Inner Shaman.