To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun….
— Ecclesiastes XE “Ecclesiastes”
After a year, I felt remorse for my habit of being “in my head” so often, remembering the past or imagining the future, even simple stories I might tell, and so I was rarely “in the now.” I prayed for something to help me learn to be more conscious of the present.
The next time I went to town and returned to the land, a friend returned came with me, and within minutes of our arrival, I discovered a rattlesnake very near my front door.
I marveled at the perfection of this teacher: I could not walk outside my door without watching and thinking, in the present, every step. I was delighted and grateful, and told the snake so.
The next day, I walked outside for sunset and sat in my usual place on the futon couch. My friend, more cautious than I, looked under the couch before sitting down. He saw the rattler coiled exactly beneath me.
After a short disagreement over the danger or non-danger of this, I convinced him to take up a watching position fifteen feet away, then went immediately into meditation and felt an etheric snake form writhe up inside me.
Aware of the sexual connotation, I thought it was probably only incidental to a more important message, though she could certainly heal my sexual wounds too. Perhaps my snaky wound would be a part of my strength one day, as all wounds have potential.
Snake confirmed I understood her main purpose: that she came to teach me consciousness.
One aspect of me was a little giddy, realizing this was a shamanic first – a real relationship with a spirit animal, speaking to me! – and I felt the urge to hug someone in happiness. Actually, the snake came to mind, though I knew this was silly.
Sternly she warned (and I was embarrassed, since it was so obvious): she was not a huggy teacher, and could be brutal if I continued in my careless ways. When I apologized for my inappropriateness, she responded that apologies were a waste of time. Focus on the present. Always on the present. I said I would, and she disappeared.
A week or so later, walking with my friend back from the mailbox, I thought I heard a cicada. I’d never heard a cicada’s ch-ch-ch-ch at the land, but I’d recently visited my Apache friend across the valley, who’d captured one in his hand while we walked in the desert. I turned toward the rattling sound, looking at the tops of the grasses, asking, “Cicada?”
My fiend, who’d stopped ahead on the rocky road watching me, countered calmly, “Rattlesnake?”
My eyes dropped to the ground, and I saw it: a huge rattlesnake, head writhing high as if to strike, only a couple of feet from me, his form beginning to slide backward into the grass, head now waving side-to-side in warning. I spun on my heel and strode away quickly, chastising myself for my failure of consciousness – again!
I tried to practice presence with wordlessness, since even silent storytelling is a tool for revisiting the past or projecting into the future and missing the moment. Daily, I tried to walk the mile to the mailbox and back – a 45-minute walk over a rocky road with lots to notice on the way – without thinking in words. My goal was to enjoy the walk, admire whatever beauty I saw, and just experience it, without imagining telling friends about it.
I knew that we – our minds, our brains – have been changed by the fact of language in our lives. Language is learned on a structure of culturally defined concepts, through which we learn to perceive everything around us. I wondered, If I could stop the mind chatter, might I begin to perceive the world differently, fresher, truer? Whatever truth was….
Again and again, I’d catch myself telling stories. But after a few days, I was better at the inner silence. I could go farther and farther down the road in my wordless state.
A year after the first plant medicine circle, I attended my second one on a Full Moon, and experienced a powerful sensation I couldn’t explain, which happened while “coming down” from a medicine journey.
An exquisite expansion and contraction of different sets of muscles started in my torso, then tensed all my limbs along one side or another. Then my arms and legs twisted slowly in every different position that might be thought of, one after another, including lying face up, limbs underneath me, my chest so high in the air I felt I could turn myself inside-out through my heart in a spasm of glory.
For perhaps twenty minutes, while everyone else lay silent and still, I quietly rolled and twisted my body in exhilarating contortions. I wondered if I were channeling some ancient yogic postures, but didn’t care, just gave into the sensations with tremendous satisfaction.
When I came home from that gathering, I was surprised to see a picture I’d saved for years and finally got around to framing and hanging just the day before I left – which I only remembered as a picture of a woman dancing..
Now it was a shock to see it! “Night-Sea Spirit,” by Durga T. Bernhard, depicted a woman with snakes for hair, arms, and legs, and a vagina that split into multiple, writhing snake-shaped caverns inside her. I’d kept the magazine cover art for years, had copied and framed it and never noticed the more-than-obvious snake motif I’d happily hung on my wall!
Two weeks later, on the New Moon, I found myself giving into the “yogic contortions” again, and it finally occurred to me what I’d been doing: I was moving like a snake!
Throughout that evening, I’d feel the powerful urge, stop whatever I was doing and let Snake move through me. I’d read that shamans and shamanic practitioners express their totem’s natures in song and dance to more fully bond with them. But I’d never wanted to do that, as it seemed presumptuous to assume I might have a spirit helper willing to move through me, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by making a false assumption.
My lack of confidence, even in shamanic realms, was more profound than I’d been able to recognize. I would continue to require that my spirit helpers push me along.
One summer mid-morning, on the way to my mailbox, I came across a rattler lying sinuously in the dusty road. It seemed too late for him to be warming himself, so I concluded he was stretched there just for me. He remained still while I walked to a spot a couple of feet directly in front of his head, squatted down, greeted him with a namaste, then told him he must be careful because my neighbor would love to run over him with his truck if he could. Returning from the mailbox, I was glad to find only his slither trail.
Two days later, heading to town in my truck, I found his body, limp in an end-of-writhing pile, crushed on a cluster of rocks in the road. I lifted him carefully and put him in the back of my truck.
My friend Kay and I skinned him, using an obsidian blade I’d made in a primitive skills class that year, then I stretched his skin in the egg-shape of an Ouraborus, the ancient symbol of life everlasting, then sewed it on black cotton velour, added blue silk bat wings, embroidery, tiny gold glass beads, yucca pods topping the shield, and the snake’s own vertebrae dangling – and realized I’d created something that might be called a “medicine shield.”
Creating “The Rattle-Dragon” was a new experience. I’d never thought of myself as an artist, and didn’t know what I was doing when I began – which was probably perfect. I worked intuitively, never knowing from stage to stage what was coming next. And I was surprised and excited as each new phase led to the next.
Throughout the process, however, I was careless, and sometimes left the work outside while I went in for water or food, and often returned to find the wind had tossed the shield, breaking his head from his body, or some other accident.
A friend and I invited other friends out to view the Leonid meteor shower under this rural, dark-night sky. Wanting the Rattle-Dragon safely out of the way, I hung it near my bed with a temporary attachment.
We stayed up most of the night, and went to bed at 5 a.m., so I’d have only two hours to sleep before the first friends would rise to leave. I’ve never done well with sleep deprivation, and lay down, anticipating those two hours would be painfully precious.
At exactly 6 a.m., the mid-point of those two hours, to the minute, the shield crashed to the ground near my head, waking me in great fear and psychic pain.
Eventually, after showing the shield in two galleries, I decided I didn’t have the right to display it. I disassembled it and buried the skin, head and bones, with apologies and promises to learn to be more careful. And conscious.
Months later, I realized another thing: When I’d been skinning him, I came to something down his belly mid-line that seemed like a sticker or burr. I was in the middle of trying to saw it off with my obsidian blade when she told me it was his penis.
I thought she had to be mistaken, but she told me she’d studied snake anatomy once when she’d illustrated a children’s book about a snake, and told me that that’s exactly what their penises look like: stickers or burrs. Disturbed by the mystery of how that shape could function, I continued sawing mindlessly and then unceremoniously deposited the thing on top of the guts to be thrown away.
In so many ways I’d dishonored this teacher, even sexually. What an irony, for someone who’d been sexually dishonored herself, and was attempting to increase her consciousness, couldn’t leave a fire without acknowledging it, and respected symbols intensely. No wonder it had crashed by my head.
One afternoon, I came in from outside and, without any conscious intention, immediately turned to the bookcase and pulled out my Bible – an inexpensive, red, faux-leather edition, given me by my minister husband on our second anniversary, thirty years earlier. Having not opened it for over two decades, I turned it over in my hands like an artifact, then slowly opened it to read beside the fireplace.
Randomly turning pages, I found myself in a gospel story of two disciples helping Jesus get away from the crowds by rowing him across the lake.
Suddenly, I stood on the hillside overlooking the lake, beside a small tree, watching the three pull away from shore. I’d just arrived and had expected to visit with Yeshua that afternoon, and now it was clear that I wouldn’t. Disappointment clenched my heart.
Sitting on my sofa, I dropped my face in my hands and sobbed in grief – while another part of me witnessed, astonished.
This, I decided, had to be a connection to what Carl Jung called our “collective unconscious,” because it was obviously too much for me to have been one of the disciples who would have assumed such a close connection.
If powerful memories like this could be from the collective, then could it also be that my memories of abuse were also from the collective consciousness – someone else’s?!
I liked the theory, but the remembrances had felt like me in this life, young, recognizable in my core, only long forgotten. The interpretation that they were my memories also explained a lot of other memories and experiences. And, accepting them seemed to have been intrinsic to my mental healing. As much as I’d have preferred to believe they weren’t mine, I couldn’t accept it. At least I knew I was open to considering all possibilities as they occurred to me.
In the spring, a friend visited and had a severe asthma attack. She asked me to drive her up the mountain immediately, as fast as I could, where the pollen would be less intense. As we drove, she wheezed desperately, and I was suddenly surprised to see her aura. It seemed to be absent at her arms, indicating, I intuited, a sense of powerlessness.
Later, I would find in a holistic healing book that asthma is indeed related to powerlessness, as is the symbology of having no arms. That was the only time I’ve ever seen someone’s aura. But it was the beginning of a number of surprising healing events.
Another night, meditating, I was suddenly struck with the conviction that a young friend of mine needed three things: to have another friend (closer to him) look intently into his eyes, hold his hands firmly, and speak a particular phrase to him.
I immediately called him and learned that the man was there in an emotional state, and my friend had been at a loss to help. He accepted my instructions and later called back to say it seemed to be exactly what was needed.
A year earlier, I’d bought a Tarahumara rattle in a Native arts shop owned by my Apache friend X, mostly to support his business. It had a bright sound I liked, but I had never wanted to use it. I didn’t feel I had a right to use shamanic tools.
I would, though, buy a CD of shamanic drumming, to practice “journeying” in the Spirit realm, as taught by Michael Harner in his classic book, The Way of the Shaman, which I’d picked up in a used bookstore.
For a short while I’d had interesting and positive experiences using the CD and Harner’s “core shamanism” ritual. Then trickster spirits began to plague me. When I called on my helping spirits, they’d arrive as cartoons making stupid or leering faces, or they’d be crippled or dead, and eventually were falling from the sky, lots of them, magnifying my terror.
Unnerved, as it went on for weeks, I quit journeying for a year or so and imagined a trip to Mexico to find a shaman to teach me how to deal with such things, but didn’t have money to travel.
Other shamanic-type events occurred spontaneously, without any ritual or expectation. One night, I felt inspired to create a new altar in the southeast corner of my home. Quickly, I gathered a candle, a few pictures, and a stack of books on which to balance the arrangement on top of the window seat pillows. Though simple, its beauty overwhelmed me, and I knelt before the altar and stared.
Suddenly, I was in a marble hallway near a doorway with very bright light shining out. I sensed I was given permission to step into the doorway and see Someone who emanated a great deal of light, but I was afraid.
Quickly, I stood and began to stride away from the altar, but caught myself in the middle of my second step and forced myself to turn, but the vision was gone.
Then I knelt, open to whatever else might transpire, and heard the words, “Daughter of Isis.” This seemed too big a responsibility for me, and I sat perplexed. Besides, I wasn’t very familiar with Isis. Where in the world did she fit in relation to Jesus? And where did they all fit in with Snake? And Owl or Wolf? This was getting confusing.
Suddenly curious, I lifted the books I’d grabbed to support the candle, and pulled out the one on the bottom. It was a journal I’d hardly used, not liked, not paid any attention to, but Isis was on the cover.
My friend visited again, bringing with him a book on “star shamanism” from the public library. He’d long been an amateur astronomer and found it mildly humorous, as it offered a meeting place for our swiftly diverging interests. He hadn’t read it, but thought I’d find it interesting.
After glancing through it briefly, I decided to meditate on the roof and talk to any star that seemed to call. Immediately, I noticed to the south a bright star in Scorpio, and stared for a moment, then was suddenly frightened. It was Antares, which I suddenly thought was nicknamed “the Demon Star” (but that’s a different star).
Spinning on my heel, I faced north and was deeply relieved when I saw Polaris. Strangely soothed, even nourished, I stood still, arms hanging at my sides, palms forward, and stared for a long while, drinking up the calm.
Later, I read that Polaris is associated with Isis. And Isis is often depicted with a snake.