The Grace of a Daily Shapeshifting Practice

animal spirit celtic spirituality dance shamanism story

This morning I took my daily practice of shapeshifting to the edge of the Pacific. I was not feeling up for running or swimming, still I needed to do something to empty out my head and care for my body. A walk on the beach sounded nice, why not bring that music I’ve been listening too and the practice of Swan-shapeshifting I’ve been working with for months out into the world?

Right now you might be wondering exactly what that looks like from the outside. Part Swan-dance, a little like martial arts, and a lot like a grey haired white-guy looking for his lost keys in the sand. I have not yet sprouted feathers. Am I likely to get arrested? Probably not, Santa Cruz county is known for its crazy old white guys doing strange things on the beach. The priveledge of making myself a public spectacle is one I’m learning to embrace as I get older. Did it feel different than practicing at home in my circle? Yes – it felt delicious in a wonderful, new way.

I often start my daily “spirit work” as I’ve named it for my kids, feeling very tiny in the world. With the cold sand between my toes and people walking by, I felt even smaller. This is a good thing I’ve found. After calming myself for a few moments, I became entranced by the brown churning waves dropping heavily twenty feet in front of me. Boom! They came again and again, stomping ancient giant feet sending challenges to the cliffs. I felt those calls to battle vibrate inside of me as I began breathing deep and going into my heart, where my transformation begins.

This work first started as part of Reclaiming Wildness, which focused in part on teaching people to engage their animal ancestry. Through exploring that work I stumbled on the realization that virtually all of us have ancestors who had stories of a time when people and animals took each other as lovers and sometimes spouses. Woven throughout these ancient human stories were the animal stories that made the most sense to me. I love these stores for many reasons, not the least of which is that they point to a world alive with a kind of feeling that rivers, lovers and stomping giants all know.

These stories know True Wildness.

Tom Cowan once wrote to me: “wildness is our salvation.” This work brings me to that edge where its not only our salvation, but our challenge. How do you reclaim wildness, when you are part of a culture hell bent on minimizing or destroying everything wild? How do you embody the presence of an animal to call forth your humanity?

A month before, on that same beach a group of Aztec dancers held a circle mid-day. Brightly festooned with feathers and embroidered cloaks, hauling out great standing drums, at least a few were honoring the Hummingbird. How Hummingbird Got Fire is an important story to the Ohlone who once inhabited this area. My daughter Truly and I watched with mouths open as they raised power and offered their dance to the world amidst the bustle of a holiday weekend. I claim no kinship with what they were doing, but I celebrate a world in which my kids might stumble upon their dance, or later on the same beach be embarrassed by their Fathers passion for a great bird profoundly central to Celtic Bards and dreamers.

My practice grew to include Celtic myth, specifically Caer Ibormeith, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Fianna. Every morning I return to the circle I made for this practice, greeting my body with its ache’s, needs, and hidden treasures. I used to journey with every movement practice, sometimes to Caer herself. Most days now though I just focus on shifting into Swan.

Waking Swan
Searching for Mate Swan
Hissing Swan
Bossy Swan
Curling Winged Flight Swan
Broken Hearted Swan
Swan Powerful and True
Lost Dreaming Swan

My circle work is not the merging with a Power Animal that I learned through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS), though that is powerful and important work especially for those engaging in soul doctoring. This comes from a knowing that my soul needs to transform into other beings. This comes from the example of many of my ancestors (Arthur  and Merlin is only the tip of the iceberg), still remembered through myth and folklore, describing a time when the kinship of animals and humans was deeply felt.

Sticking headphones in my ears I bring up Balmoreah’s Tapering Ash and pull up my hoodie. I’ve surrendered to my love of music and dance to carry me forward today. I begin a chant that is slow in coming, a few words dropping like fruit, “I am the Swan powerful and true …”

So many of us spend time scratching at that door, the one we know opens to the vast sacredness of life, the one where wildness pounces on you like a great Tiger out for your joy. How many of us do that work publicly, owning that we’re hungering for something greater? Embarrassment may be one of the blocks to awakening our true relationship with the world – one of communion, of reciprocity.

When I first spread my arms and feel them curve into great wings – their fullness pushing out almost immeasurably – I feel something greater than myself emerge from me. Like a flowing stream of energized gravity it spreads out to touch the sand sky and surf. Soon the personality of my male swan puffs out, my spine stretches and curves as I staunchly advertise my gaudy superiority to all who care to glance at me. Does this make my butt look big? My butt should be huge and my neck a giant thread curling to the heavens! Am I not gorgeous? Am I not the most manly consort you could ever hope to be courted by?

BOOM! The sound of the waves can even be felt through my music.  I am reminded of how tiny I am in the world, all while transforming into the fullness of a Swan. Somehow, all of it makes me more human, certainly more present. I wend my way through a courting figure eight typical for Swans hunting for a mate. Feathers extended just so, I tilt to catch a glance. Circling, circling in the sand.

You know when you stand at the edge of a great chasm, or a well and drop something over into the darkness? You wait, counting until you hear that “plunk” that lets you know you haven’t really found the edge of the world. Sometimes you wait for minutes, turn your back and start trudging off when you hear a quiet “plink” over your shoulder. Thats what this practice has felt like coming to me. First the spirits encouraged me to dance at dawn years ago. Next step was resurrecting my circle for practice, and the invitation to explore the myths of my ancestors. Lately the requests from the spirits have grown – time to make a little time for you away from the kids. Time to stop eating meat. Time to ease up on beer or wine with dinner. Its time … its time… Yes, its time.


As the music gives way to the sound of trains, something endemic to my home and the Elkhorn Slough near to us, my breathing returns to normal, I find my feet again, look up at the waves. My keys are nearby with my shoes. A few more final breaths. Its good to be alive, to have a practice that pushes me out over the edge further than I really want to go.

Now I know how to do something that undoes my feeling that I know everything. Now I know something that is authentically me. Now I know something that unseals my own wildness.

Now I have something to share with you. I hope to start teaching again soon.

Blessings to you and yours this Samhain.

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