The mask that arose from the void was an eyeless Crow. I was arguing with Nancy – it seemed like all we knew how to do was fight. Our relationship had taken a turn so many of my past relationships had. A bright relationship full of potential dissolved into anger. Surely there must be something within me I wasn’t seeing what this person was mirroring for me.
I wouldn’t run this time. I’d committed to being a step-parent, I’d committed to ending my cycle of serial monogamy by seeing our relationship through until the bitter end. One way or another I was going to face the woman I was living with and make peace with her. Desperate for any help I stopped, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and looked within. An animal mask emerged from the darkness.
I met Nancy at Art School – not your typical art school. Did you know there was a Masters in Transformative Arts degree available from an Arts and Consciousness Dept, at JFK’s School of Holistic Studies? Only in California, or more specifically, Berkeley could such a program exist. I was still finding my way out of my shamanic intensive care ward when a friend pointed the program out to me. Maybe this was a way back on my feet. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood I’d danced and performed. The shamans of the world were at least one part thespian, or rather our best actors are part shaman. Maybe I could go to school, take out student loans and learn to embody more fully the path that was unfolding for me. I might even be able to put three square meals together in one day!
I didn’t have a car but figured out a way to make it to class on public transit – six hours round trip three days a week. If I budgeted carefully I could buy books, BART and bus passes and still feed myself. It gave me time to read, do homework, and continue my recovery. Maybe I would even meet someone who would date me. Then of course there were the classes:
History of Sacred Arts
Art and the Symbolic Process
Art and Alchemy
The entire degree program was being restructured when I first arrived. A new Dean, out with the old, etc. Many of the teachers remained, many of them were mentors worthy of their own programs. Having a window into the creative processes of the teachers themselves, who were all artists, made up the bulk of my education. Looking over their shoulders, following the breadcrumbs that led them to the art that revealed and embodied their own spirituality was the real education.
A typical class might include Tai Chi and mask making, authentic movement, a Sami spirit canoe, or a field trip to a creative arts program for people living with AIDS. My practice of journeying continued and expanded. I discovered I could dance my journeys, slipping directly from this world into Non-Ordinary Reality (NOR). I discovered I could journey in partnership with others to new states of consciousness.
Journeying with intention eased the frequency of my spontaneous visions, though they still occurred. Rounding the corner and heading up to my studio I saw a giant wreath of fire floating in the sky. It later became the model for an art piece. Sitting in my room, meditating on my day caused a bright energy to grow in my belly until it overwhelmed my mind and caused me to lose consciousness. I awoke the next day feeling reinvigorated and not having any idea what had happened. I was learning to trust my crazy path.
Graduate school wouldn’t be graduate school without some exploration of context. I learned how shamanism had disappeared in the West and something about the toll it was taking on us. Michael Harner has suggested many times that shamanism tends to disappear in cultures because of power struggles. Communities are dissolved in favor of societies capable of conquest. Religious and political structures are built on the bodies of our pagan ancestors and their well loved community healers. It has also been said by some Feminists that all religious institutions are at least initially built on the oppression of women. I believe both of these perspectives to be true.
The presence of the sacred evaporated in art as the power of women was diminished. The presence of the all powerful father established itself as our own indigenous shaman were silenced. When a culture mutes the free expression of women and spiritual visionaries for centuries it creates a void into which the most vibrant spiritual activities must be banished. From a shamanic perspective the void is real, and that which is cast into the void does not disappear. It is alive and present with us the way an absentee parent haunts its children.
Surely you’ve faced that darkness, the unnameable ghost in our culture. More than even the presence of the Goddess long buried, it is the ability to feel the profoundly intimate pulse of life that makes up the core of all things sacred, and is the source of shamanisms power. The shaman bridges two worlds, realizing spirit and matter are not separate. In that act of uniting the worlds a vibrancy is unleashed. We in the West tend to recognize that vibrancy as female, I came to think of it as the Shadow Feminine. The final phase of my stay in the shamanism recovery ward required a journey with her.
It began for me with death and dying, something I’d studied in college. Death is after all unnameable, especially for us modern folk. We don’t have any images of death that are approachable. Death is seen largely as an illness, never having a chance to reach the status of Sacred Mystery. The most vital representations of death with a capital “D” I was able to find were rendered by the 19th century artist Kathe Kollwitz.
Witness to the Nazi war machine she and her physician husband cared for the poorest of the poor. The time she lived, 1867 – 1945, pushed her work in the direction of the Shadow Feminine. Intimate, connected and not shying away from suffering, her art revealed a deeply sympathetic connection to her subjects – often impoverished women. She could not escape the plight of the poor in her art. She drew the most emotional, grounded archetype of death I’d ever seen [Death And Woman 1910].
Can death direct us towards the intimacy of life, can it be a gateway to the sacred? Her simple print reflects the dramatic struggle Mothers experience in bringing children into the world. Niether weak or victimized, her Mother is torn between the needs of her child and her own vulnerability as a living being. Kollwitz sees how Mothers embody completely the archetypes of life and death. She illustrates woman as bridging two worlds, that of the giver of life, and the giver of mortality – that which creates a home for death. You cannot know the sacred without including the basic processes of life that Mothers deal with every day.
We have lived for centuries without a shamanically empowered understanding of death in our culture. Part of this is due to the silencing of women, who used to be tasked with caring for their dead. Part of this is due to the silencing of the psychopomps who used shamanic techniques to shepherd the dead to their next phase in life. The shaman is able to live as an average person and also journey to places only the dead know. The shaman’s special knowledge of death imparts essential wisdom about life. Kollwitz illustrated this wisdom as implicit in the condition of Motherhood.
Death entered my life in another way during my studies. My Uncle was in the advanced stages of AIDS. An occasional caregiver for him, I watched the disease rob him of life in microscopic degrees. It took years for his strong body to finally become the skeleton that would cease to function. When he finally died I brought my grief to class. I created a mask and a death shroud to bear witness to his suffering. In a performance I sat muted and powerless before my classmates, a testament to a culture robbed of its sacred gateways.
Maybe I was externalizing the darkness I’d been walking through during my time in the shamanic intensive care ward. These were threads I could see and understand, not like the feelings and visions that overwhelmed me. I explored death in Non-Ordinary Reality (NOR) through journeying. Many of the places I visited are best not spoken of, but I found there is still much to learn after we’re alive. Quite by accident I stumbled upon a Grandmother Death spirit while on a journey. She had a power in NOR that took me by surprise. In my first meeting with her I was unable to leave her domain until she was ready to let me go. I returned to see her throughout my time at JFK, feeling a permanent space for her presence take up residence in my heart.
One of my mentors who had buried his wife five years before shared a painting with me of a gateway into a void. It summed up many of my experiences well. “Death is a doorway, and it is not” it was titled. I’ve come to understand there is a place for death that lives in all of us making it intimate and approachable, and yet still alien to the living.
Of course I wasn’t the only person in my Arts program struggling with profound experiences and ideas. Each student had their own set of extraordinary events that led them to our program. Many were generous with sharing some of their most vulnerable and important experiences. One friend named Bridgit was studying the Shadow Feminine intensely with a well known author and speaker on the subject, Andrew Harvey. He seems to have a unique grasp of how the Shadow Feminine lives at the intersection of love, passion, mysticism, chaos, suffering and transcendence. Students of his learn how to authentically surrender to the power of the Sacred Feminine.
Part of honoring her own unique journey into darkness, Bridget lined her room entirely with black velvet. Sitting in there, with only candle light, one immediately became altered. She’d created a place in which she could not avoid the visions that might arise from the depths of her soul. It was a living art installation, and a journey she took for months on end.
She was one of the members of an art group at school focusing on the Shadow Feminine that I started with another artist, a married woman named Dianah with whom I had an affair. I told myself it was more important to honor her wishes than the covenant of her marriage, it was more important to honor the voice of this woman than her husband. Helping her to break her vows is my one regret during this time. Our brief relationship started a new chapter for her and sent me into the arms of Nancy, a Mother who would help me to confront my own issues with the Shadow Feminine. Its especially important not to lose one’s balance when dealing with forces much greater than oneself.
Nancy had a daughter, I moved up to the Bay Area and we formed a family for a time. I was honored to call myself a parent of sorts, learning from the struggles young women endure in our culture. I was immersed for years in the feminine in the form of driving, cooking, and helping to support our small family. Nancy is a talented visual artist, I learned so much trying to see the world through her eyes. My time with them is too rich and precious to write about in the context of just this chapter. The gift of the life we made together carried me into adulthood.
I learned to walk in the world again during that time – chop wood, become a soccer Mom. I also made art and began to dance again. Heading out into the wooded hills of Berkeley every day for months I danced, or tried to dance with the spirit of the forest. I struggled to bridge the imagined space between nature and my inner world, between dance and shamanism, between modern and archaic. I struggled, I danced, I sat.
I danced with Hollister, a teacher trained in Japanese Butoh who also shared her own shamanic influences from her Sami ancestry. She taught me to witness everything that arose in my dance with welcoming compassion. At times she led me to places where I moved with the echo’s of earths most ancient past. I witnessed other dancers with the eye of a transcendent witness. I discovered I could open gateways into other worlds simply by letting go. Through my process with her a ritual practice began to take root. Part journey, part performance, part art making it was a cauldron’s edge I could approach – reaching into is depths for healing and wisdom. I made a simple padded canvas circle to practice dance at home in. I could feel its edges with my toes, better to be able to dance with my eyes closed for the sake of journeying. My degree would culminate in a public ritual performance, and an accompanying thesis on its development.
That was when I started to stitch together the face of my Crow out of black velvet cloth. The blind Crow would guide me through the terrain of the unnameable, the Shadow Feminine. The first time I put the mask on I had just shaved my head. When I slid it on each bristling hair of mine interlocked perfectly with the black velvet fabric. It was a second skin. I tied each knot at the back of my skull tightly. This was a shamanic tool made to take me to an extraordinary place whenever I put it on. Like my red model car it functioned as a sacred tool without any conscious planning on my part. Like Bridgits room it was an environment that altered ones consciousness by its very form.
My mentor, guide and protector was Mark, a visual artist, father, wild man, and Sun Dancer. He kept my attention returning to the vital process that was blossoming. Back to the center of the circle, back to my flight into the void. The Crow, or more precisely the Raven is one of the forms of Morgain, a Celtic Goddess who among other things rules the land of the dead. Ravens were common on battlefields, picking over the carcasses of fallen soldiers. They were thought by the living to carry the dead to their next life. My blind Crow was the means for me to enter her world, albeit as a stumbling initiate. I would also be a guide for others, my audience could journey with me out into the void if they so desired. I was to become a bridge for them.
Dianah’s life had changed since we both first started the program. After her divorce she moved into a large artists loft with high ceilings in the warehouses of West Oakland. Generously she allowed me to borrow her space for one evening, blocking out all avenues of light I made a cavernous shaman’s gateway into the void.
The time leading up to the performance was filled with the presence of women. My new family, my sister who arrived to help me perform, and Dianah comprised the inner circle of my first attempt at a community based shamanic act of empowerment. The Dark Feminine was stitched into every aspect of the performance, not through my planning, simply through the inertia of my life leading up to that moment.
With friends, faculty, fellow students and family assembled, drummers and didgeridoo players ringed my circle, I entered our black box theater as the blind Crow and felt my way to the center of the circle. Slowly I moved in a circle, beckoning others to follow as I journeyed into the lower world. My small black velvet wings spun until the lights were extinguished and all were allowed to find what they would in the Sacred Darkness. I was embracing the void, and enticing others to do the same.
In the aftermath a break was taken and a discussion ensued. Some people had empowering cathartic experiences, others just sat in the dark while a crazy guy in a mask spun around. Whether it succeeded as a ritual or a performance turned out not to be the point for me. Speaking the language of the sacred in a public setting mended something within me. I learned not to fear the void, not to be afraid of the dark.
A woman in my program summed it up well. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I used to be afraid of the dark until I had my first child. Then I had to get up in the middle of the night to breast feed her. It was through that experience that I came to know the dark was sacred.” My audience allowed me to publicly claim and work with the darkness that was part of my dismemberment. Along the way I came to understand it as a fundamental aspect of sacred works and of life.
My wife is fond of saying “that experience can change you at the DNA level.” I’ve joked with her about it, chiding her for using scientific lingo to talk about things that are basically emotional. The program at JFK, the students, the connections and my own creative work changed me at the DNA level. Many years later I came to understand more fully the change I’d undergone. The shaman is both alive and dead. She or he must be if they are to create pathways to worlds the living can only dream of.