Pulled Through That Dismemberment Keyhole

shamanism story

You are barely holding onto the threads of your life. It feels like new energies are erupting out of you almost as quickly as old parts of you are being wrenched off. If that wasn’t bad enough, this has been going on for months and maybe even years. This became the new normal long ago.

I was sitting with a client today, reflecting on my own experience of deep, life changing dismemberment that left me a penniless couch surfing patient in the shamanic dream-healing ward for about three years. I was young, still in my twenties, so I didn’t have much of a life to dismember. I know many people who are making such a journey much later in life, sometimes with kids, jobs, retirements hanging in the balance. Couch surfing for a few years is not really an option for many of us.

Making the dismemberment connection.
Dismemberment is not a metaphor, nor is it a recent phenomena. Its one of those core human experiences that points to a universal spiritual terrain we all walk as human beings. It may be wrapped differently in each culture, but it appears in Greek myth, Buddhism, as well as the initiatory practices of myriad of peoples around the world and throughout time. Holger Kalweit writes extensively about indigenous references in his classic, “Dreamtime and Inner Space”. It seems we were made to be remade.

Dismemberment involves the initiate in the spirit world (through a dream, journey or spontaneous visionary experience) witnessing their own body being torn apart and perhaps completely destroyed. Usually (but not always) the body is put back together, perhaps now containing power objects that will enable the initiate to heal or perform other important work in the world.

As I said, each culture may hold this event differently. Its clear however that in many cultures it signals an initiation into a new work (or level of work), a new level of shamanic power. It may even be supported in one’s community as signaling a new identity, a new you.

In my own healing I came to realize after a journey from my shamanic healer, that as my own life was falling apart I was also in the process of a deep and lengthy dismemberment in the spirit world:
“There was a group of men sitting around a fire. They were roasting your bones over a flame. There was a kettle in the fire with some liquid boiling in it. Your boneless flesh was in the kettle. From time to time they would take you out of the kettle and see if you could stand. There was dancing. I had the sense this had been going on for some time” ( read more in “Writing as Re-membering“).

I felt that it had been going on for years. As I was being dismemberment so were aspects of my life, my general awareness, all greatly diminishing my ability to function in the world. My spiritual practice disintegrated, my community dispersed, I had no job, I could not concentrate, I could only sleep, dream and heal. This went on for years. No exaggeration, years.

As I’ve worked with others and reflected on my experiences, I’ve come to understand that dismemberment is something that is just part of the human condition, something we modern people no longer understand. We don’t expect to run into a dismemberment in our life, but for some of us, it is waiting. It looks different in different cultures, but its part of being human.

With our built in Westerners blindness to the tangible presence of spirit, having forgotten the processes of caring for the soul, our dismemberments become drawn out – sometimes looking like slow moving train wrecks. Its as if our souls are dragging us through the crevices of the concrete edifices our society has been perfecting for centuries. It ain’t pretty.

Being so disconnected from the support of community ritual and our helping spirits, without traditions to address dismemberment, we lack the story and the shared understanding of how to hold this process. Set adrift, how will our lives ever feel whole again? Many of us instinctively blame ourselves. There must be something wrong with us on a fundamental level. We must be rotten to the core. We seek therapies to fix us, heal us or medicate us – with varying degrees of success. Without the understanding that we have a soul that can be transformed, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, we seek to fix an abstract psyche, purportedly made up of chemical chains. Sadly some of us resort to suicide, not knowing we could be well on our way to flourishing if we were only met by the right, wise circle of beings to support us on our journey.

Pulled through the keyhole.
In shamanism, and in mythology, dismemberment works like a slingshot fired backwards through time – your soul feels a purpose it can manifest in the future – it knows this future “you” down to the core of its being – it is in every way real to the soul. Sensing that future “you” it drags you towards it, everything that does not fit is sloughed off. Your soul knows you can take it even if you don’t know you can take it. You are on the road to transformation whether you like it or not!

This is a gift. It doesn’t often look that way, we suffer, we lose a life we’ve woven over the years, we are challenged in ways we never dreamed possible. It is, however, a challenge that brings us into the presence of the great truths of our souls. It enables our spirits to work with the greater world in becoming the most whole, giving version of ourselves. We are swept away and remade so that we can return to join the dance of life renewed, with more to offer others.

Thats a big part of the reason people often feel a greater sense of purpose in this process, the reason we ultimately surrender to it: our soul is already awakened to the potential we are in the process of fulfilling. As we are laid bare, reduced to the most fundamental aspects of ourselves, our souls calling can be much more easily heard.

Our awareness of our soul’s purpose can quickly become acutely powerful, we are deeply empowered by the presence of our most profound spiritual truths. This process feels like falling apart and coming together all at once, because we are both within the bounds of time (suffering there often) and beyond those bounds, enduring the mundane while we fulfill the transcendent. It can be an ecstatic emergence from the cocoon of a former life.

I think many of us experience this kind of life transformation, even if it does not involve the sloughing off of major aspects of our worlds. We intuitively take a class or train in a career that leads us down a path that turns out to be the right path. We endure arduous challenges, for what we don’t know, until we arrive there.

Dismemberment is like that, only with major soul surgery thrown in there while you’re doing everything else. In fact there are likely many degrees to which we experience a dismemberment reflected in our daily lives. I’m sure it is often not even noticeable, just a graceful shift in course. Sometimes however, much greater transformation seems to be required, one in which every aspect of our lives is offered up for possible demolition.

It doesn’t have to hurt this much…probably.
There is a community component to all of this, the community of ones people, the community of one’s helping spirits, and the community of the spirits of the world. When we are re-membered we’re often asked to take part in the work of the world, expressing the compassion of our souls for the greatest good of all. When we discover this aspect of our experience, encourage it, we also open to receive the support of the spirits of the world, we give the helping spirits an invitation to show up to embrace us and carry us forward. We get more help.

It can make all the difference in the world to feel held when you’re going through a prolonged dismemberment; held by life, by the spirits, and by your community. To try to reach out from this process to pay your bills, worry about a career, take care of little ones – all of this can work against the journey your soul is on. It feels like trying to juggle a chainsaw, ping-pong ball, and a cat all while being stretched like salt-water taffy. You can only stretch you so much. In fact I don’t think you’re supposed to stretch you at all, its a process of receiving something fully.

This is a natural process, but it best happens within a close knit community of caring people who are aware of the process and its importance to the world. There is some of that we can compensate for, and some we cannot. We cannot instantly transform our society into the perfect tribe. Still there are some practical steps you can take or can recommend that others on this journey can take.

  • Seek out compassionate shamanic healing. Though an understanding of shamanic healing is still growing in our culture, sometimes a working with a Western shamanic practitioner can be most effective, because they’ve developed tools and understandings relevant to our way of life. There are practitioners out there that know this slow moving train when they see it coming down the tracks.
  • Transpersonal therapy and related therapies can also be supportive of this process. Stay aware of what feels right though, the spiritual dimension of journey is not always embraced by even our most well meaning therapists.
  • Medication may have a place in all of this, but I’m not sure. I wonder if medication does not slow an already difficult process, or perhaps detach us from that process so significantly that the dismemberment can never complete. It may turn out to be another concrete edifice you have to find your way through later on. If you do work with a therapist to get on medication, be aware of how that changes your connection to the experience of being reborn. If it is thwarted or diminished you may want to consider alternatives to medication.
  • Pay attention to the spirits in your life, including those associated with early religious upbringing. In my experience all spirits have a transcendent aspect that can be called on when we need it most. Reach out to the helping spirits you already feel connected to and ask them to support and guide you in this process. While I had only a brief, childhood connection to the Virgin Mary I’ve often called on her spirit for support throughout my life.
  • Consider learning to journey. This is not appropriate for all people in the midst of this kind of experience, sometimes it just doesn’t work given the turmoil they’re in (receiving shamanic healing is more appropriate). For some however, intentionally connecting with the spirits can allow them to move you more quickly through this powerful transformation. They can intensify the dismemberment safely in Non-Ordinary Reality (NOR), helping you through the difficult parts. Additionally they can always offer wise advice on how to best navigate this experience in a way that supports your living in our modern world.
  • Consider working with others to develop a ritual to acknowledge and support this process. There is a soft animal within us that ultimately has to integrate all of these powerful experiences. Sharing our story, expressing the experience, acknowledging the journey can empower our re-memberment. If metaphor is the language of the spirits, ritual is the embodiment of that language. Ask the spirits for a ritual to help you in bringing this process to a successful fruition.
  • Look to community to hold you. The phone call might begin like this: “I know I’ve been acting a little weird lately, and this is only going to sound stranger but ….” I think we’re often surprised by how happy our loved ones are to show up and offer us support. Its often a gift to be invited in to help someone really show up for this kind of a transformation. It is deeply affirming of our bonds.
  • Pass this on to people you think can help you or others. Building awareness of this kind of experience is key to developing a supportive process. Talk about it, hash it out, research it if it interests you. Its fascinating if only in discovering how these shamanic themes permeate our lives.
On with the journey.
     For some of you, this has not made sense. You’ve shaken your head and sadly said to yourself something like: “poor Tim…at it again.” Others of you were nodding throughout, perhaps the hair on the back of your neck stood up a few times. There may be some of you neck deep in this process but afraid of acknowledging it. To those people please know that saying “no” to a dismemberment is much more difficult, painful and challenging than saying “yes.”
     Only in “yes” can our souls carry us forth to where we know we need to be. Only in saying yes can we open to the river of spiritual presence available to us. Only then will we look up from the fearful place we’ve been hiding in and look around to see we are never alone, its impossible to be alone. We are always surrounded by the spirits, all that is required is that we say “yes” and allow ourselves to receive the abundant grace that is so freely offered.

Photo Keyhole by Aaron Vowels
From Flickr, used under 
a Creative Commons license

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