The walk to my high school was only about a mile, but that day it felt three times as far. The bus going down the hill next to me was slamming up against 8 foot snow drifts just to slow down on the frozen blacktop polished to a glass sheen. I leaned into the sub freezing wind, hoping my shoes would stick to the ice that covered everything not buried in snow. It was an epic day in an epic winter. I’m sure I was wearing something that was not as practical as I needed. I was after all a teenager who placed his image much higher than his health on his list of priorities.
That was the day I found the doorway.
The special way of moving in the cold I’d developed over the last few years was really helping this morning. It wasn’t something I started consciously, just a reaction to my joints that ached whenever it got too cold. Back then I didn’t really know my body was that different than anyone else’s, I just thought this was how everyone’s body felt. Periodic inflammation was one of the lasting side effects of the serum syndrome I went through as a kid. My Mom said they used army surplus vaccines on us, I later read in a study that it was just a new strain of the rubella virus that didn’t work out.
I slowed everything down a bit, trying to move with the grace I had learned in ballet. Every step came under scrutiny, I wanted to float across the frozen pavement. If I walked like I was dancing, the molasses that my joints had become would hurt less. Find the flow and I’ll get to school less exhausted, not feeling like I would shatter if I sat down too hard. Look both ways, step off one curb (heel-ball-toe … gently) out into the road and then to the other side, not stepping up but letting the momentum lift me up. It became a kind of meditation, a trance I fell into on days like today. But this day was especially strong. The wind was harder, and my ability to drop into that state was at its peak.
Maybe it was all just about trust, that was the day I let go into the flow.
At some point it stopped being about the pain, everything started to take on a golden glow, like it was being filled from within by some great light. I was moving in a different world, the snow and wind were no longer an enemy, they could be met with grace. By working with my body I’d found a doorway into the spiritual dimension of this world. It felt wonderful – freeing, warm and peaceful. Somehow full of an unknowable potential.
I was close to school, less than a block away, I couldn’t believe the freedom I’d just found. Maybe days like this didn’t have to hurt all the time. Maybe I could survive. I felt like a river was now carrying me forward, I didn’t have to put any energy into it, just have an intention to move forward.
Once I stepped through the school doors the light quickly faded behind the chaotic school life that swallowed me up. Even though I loved that place I could go to, I didn’t understand it, couldn’t really claim it yet. I felt so scattered then, filled with the stress and confusion of adolescence, that I didn’t really know what it meant, much less how to talk about it. I returned to that place at different times, not just when it was cold. I knew I’d touched something important.
In hindsight, my body was already made ready for the light years before I found the doorway.
Many years earlier I drowned. Funny how nature was so much a part of that experience. I dove into the deep lake water to wash off like my older brother and sister. Unfortunately I couldn’t swim, and it was deep clear water. I went down fast. My body froze in the classic drowning behavior, I’m sure I looked fine from above. I didn’t go through a tunnel, but I left my body with my last convulsive breath – shot out through my solar plexus with an agonizing squeeze. When I “looked” back at myself I saw my body floating in the water above me. It was so weirdly peaceful, to see “me” up there, lifeless, with the sun trickling through the water. Then everything just turned to light. I came to on the shore with my Dad coaxing me back to this world.
Perhaps when you have an experience like that your body is changed. Something in you knows there is another dimension you can move into – its always there. Its written into your cells, so quiet your waking self can’t hear it unless something alerts you. That day in the snow I found that same light, but I was much more present and self-aware, and I was still in my body. I reawakened to the transcendent reality.
Pain is a surprisingly good teacher.
I never stopped moving, never stopped thinking of myself as a dancer. As I’ve gotten older the aches in my body have ebbed and flowed. I’ve noticed food sensitivities, other triggers, and still the weather. But it has never struck me as a barrier to moving, rather its an invitation. When we first moved to our house in the country I started a dance practice at dawn. Movement has evolved to include many different sources, with many unique results, all the while feeding a deep sense of transformation in me. From “The way a Snake sheds its skin:”
“I’ve had many dance teachers since my first childhood ballet instructors. I remember each of them as if they were each a parent. Their smells, touch, the feeling of their attentions are always available to me. Though they didn’t all know it, they were snakes one way or another. Some knew exactly what they were, and made sure I didn’t shirk my skin shedding duties. Good snake parents.”
Then Aikido taught me a new way to move through the world.
I stopped training in dance for a period of time starting at about 17. A knee consuming case of Osgood-Schlatter’s disease slowly crippled me. I was devastated, dance had become a way to access that light, though not as striking as my walks. At the time it offered me the purest joy in my life. I had a hard time letting go of it and asking for help. I danced until I could barely walk. No amount of grace would help. It took years to recover.
I didn’t know what Aikido was, I just knew when I saw it in the college PE course listing I had to take it. Aikido was the one form of movement my body could love without hurting too much. It wasn’t dance, but that was OK. Aikido was a new awakening for me. Not only was its movement much more organic than most dance or martial arts I’d seen, but it was focused specifically on the light – called Ki flow there. I could feel it every day I showed up to practice. Some days it was so strong I dissolved almost completely into the energy of it all.
The form itself is complete in its expression and understanding of the flow of energy in that world. It is a language of movement infused with the play and power of that other world. When you start to learn that language it changes how you think, how you can relate to the world. It was as if I’d found a new kind of dance training that was designed to help me cultivate my approach to the other world. I devoted as much time as I could to the practice, sometimes training 3 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week for months. Many of my fellow practitioners were interested in the martial arts aspect of the movement. I don’t think I could ever put into words why I was there. But I was cultivating that same doorway, that same way into the other reality that felt so good to me.
Instinctively I took my training out into the coastal redwood forests of UCSC, spinning, turning, dancing to the wildlife there, opening that same door with new movements and a deeper sense of grounding. It took awhile for me to train the ballet out of my body (no releve please!) Breathing through my feet, into the earth I would open the door again. Aikido moves in spirals, blending with whatever energy its given. It translates literally as “the way of harmonizing with spirit.” I was able to fall immediately into harmonious movement with the forest because of my earlier experiences.
I noticed the citizens of the forest responded positively to my approach. I would open my eyes to see deer walking towards me, inquisitive birds landed on branches near me. They seemed attracted to me when I used the movement style I was learning in Aikido with the same intention and focus I had stumbled over in my winters walks. Everything was combining to communicate a feeling that was subtle and peaceful. I thought I could just continue to practice Aikido and meditate for the rest of my life. Things were falling into place. Who I was finally made sense.
Then Aikido and meditation ended, and Shamanism began.
After college came the great falling apart. When most of my friends were launching their post-college lives mine was imploding. All of my attention to energy and spirituality had led me away from a deep emotional process I needed to attend to. I suffered what I can only call a complete dismemberment of my life. I lived between the worlds then, seemingly at the whim of spirits both animal and human, who took me apart over and over again. You can read more about that here. Some of what I was processing were the toxins of my early illness, but most was the deep feelings I had about life that I had avoided. The core of my identity needed to be destroyed so that I could open fully to that new world.
Eventually I found my way to a shamanic practitioner who began a series of healings that spanned 3 years. I learned that in the traditions of many animistic peoples the kind of energy I was experiencing on my original walks was considered a beneficial spiritual power that can be imparted to people by helping spirits, or raised through various activities. Its not unusual for suffering of some kind to be associated with that process, though it is not always necessary. I began to study Core Shamanism through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS). Shamanism as a body of knowledge, and the FSS course work are acutely attuned to the nature of spiritual power and its impact on us.
Through various practices I learned how to merge with spirits, to dance with their power. Later I discovered through direct teaching from my helping spirits how to transform my own spirit into that of another being. I was able to experience even more directly the nature of this reality through totally different eyes. For a time I developed a daily Shapeshifting practice. It grew to involve journeys to my ancestors to learn more about how shapeshifting played a part in their cultures. I discovered that all of us have ancestors who, whether it be through a desire to survive or through a passion for life on Earth, developed ways to empower their spirits through deeper relationships with the natural world.
One of the most important practice I learned from shamanism was how to receive, hold and integrate power. Shamanic healers address the needs of the soul, in a way the soul is the terrain of their practice. With that comes an infusion of spiritual power. Negotiating that power, what it feels like, where it needs to live, what it looks like when its missing, comes with the territory. Through journey work, dancing, drumming, giving and receiving healing, the soul and spiritual power become the reality from which all activity is referenced. The shaman is not a physical being accessing spiritual experiences, they are spiritual beings impacting the physical world. I further cultivated my ability to access that other world, but I also learned how to measure and receive the power available there.
Its completely without words, that place.
My wife Terry became very ill in 2017, she passed away in April of 2018. If you read my blog posts at all you’ll know this already. It was a long journey for all of us. I am so grateful she is free now, beyond the struggle and suffering she met with such fearlessness. Its surprising when you’re rushing around working and trying to take care of kids and someone who’s struggling to heal, how much time you can spend sitting. I spent a lot of time feeling like a blob.
I had little time for myself then but when I did I would go out to the forest and move, just a little. Movement fed me, even then. I found a great, nourishing silence there. There have been a number of times in my life when I felt that everything that I thought myself to be was torn away, and not in a kind way. In those moments I become more attuned to the silent space of living.
I think thats why it can be difficult to talk about that doorway, I disappear completely. There are no words, and little thought. Absolute silence from within.
Today I went for a run in the forest, then made my way down to the river. I’ve learned that when I pass through the doorway in a forest, by a river, there is a natural power that flows into me. There have been times when that power has been too much, but I’ve finally found my balance in the last few months. Today I found 50 foot logs strewn across the river. I stepped up on one and began a dance thats been evolving since my days in graduate school. I breath deep, in a way I was taught in Aikido, then step forward with the grace I developed on those frozen days of my youth, flapping my wings like the birds I’ve learned to shapeshift into. I made my way down the length of the tree, opening the doorway again with each breath, receiving in the power thats there. Much of the time my eyes are half closed.
When I open them I see the world as the radiant, unified, embodied song of Spirit.
This is only the beginning, there is still the prayer.
Really, this has all been prayer, but the spirits want me to know its not yet complete. When I dance with the forest in this way I’m engaging in a sacred conversation, offering up the deepest words of my spirit through movement. But there’s more I need to do, more that needs to be said. There is a prayer I’m yearning to discover, something that I can embody now that I understand the doorway fully, and trust myself to work there with depth and love.
“Where” has started to matter much more.
I’m being pulled to rivers now, to spend more time with them. It seems strange to me now that almost all of our dance training, and much of our celebratory dance takes place indoors. How incredibly disempowering! Moving outside in a forest undisturbed by our machinations is required for me now. I wonder what it will be like if I can find a way to spend a day or two by the river in silence, to talk to the river there with my body.
I long to take the conversation deeper now.
Perhaps I’ll run into you there one day.
Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.