On Being a Woman Shamanic Practioner – November 2014
Tamara Sertic, one of our new Apprentices asked me to write about the journey of being a woman shamanic practioner. I found that a fascinating invitation, so below is my answer. Thank you Tamara for the suggestion! Before I go into that, I have a few other thank you’s.
First of all, I want to thank each of you who sent love and support over the time following the death of my mother in July. Your response to what I posted on Facebook at the time and to what I wrote in the last newsletter has touched me deeply. My father is doing well with the dual task of grieving his huge loss after their 55 years together, and at the same time embracing the new configuration of his life and stepping forward into it with open arms and great deal of aliveness.
And thank you for all the celebration and honouring of Ya’Acov’s and my silver wedding anniversary. We had a challenging and rewarding silver honey moon in Greece in which we fought our way through the thickets of habit to a new level of relating and love, in which I still feel like a total beginner. I do recommend relationship as a spiritual path. There is nowhere to hide and the rewards are so rich and deep when each new veil is finally lifted.
On being a medicine woman
For me being a medicine woman is about the journey of being a woman; a physical, emotional, intelligent, spirited, strong, sensual, vulnerable, creative, wild and delicate woman. It’s quite a journey as I’m sure you know yourself, whether you are woman or man, this journey of learning how to be and embrace yourself. Because that’s what it means to be a medicine woman, or a medicine man, it means to be yourself, for your medicine is YOU. My medicine is ME, and it means daring to include and own all of me, shadow and light. For me that is a task, and a journey, and I’m still very much in the middle of it. The more I learn, the more I know about how little I know, and the more conscious I become, the more I am aware of the vast vistas of my own unconsciousness. It’s very humbling and at the same time liberating and exciting.
A lot of what I am learning right now is about being a woman. In fact, I might more accurately say that I am beginning to unravel some of the unconscious assumptions I’ve held about being a woman and about being in relationship with a man. I’m in the process of seeing and emerging from a skin of an apparently paradoxical mixture of insecurity and superiority, defensiveness, arrogance and unconscious aggression. It’s been a journey over the last 2 or 3 years to recognize these aspects of myself, as I normally think of myself as a kind, gentle and caring person, which, of course, I also am.
My story and “herstory”
In the early 1980s I was studying Anthropology at UCL and at the same time was studying Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Gestalt Centre London, and was also involved with pagan women’s work and direct action (a la Starhawk) with a group called ‘London Peace Action’. I became fascinated by trying to understand different interpretations of the witch burnings in our European history and wrote my Anthropology thesis about it. Last night on the train to London I read this text that I wrote 30 years ago and had not read since handing it in to my tutor all that time ago.
We occidental women share a common history (or ‘herstory’) of the witch burnings. Not so many generations ago and for several centuries, women who were powerful, different, eccentric, creative, challenging, magical, healers, or marginal, lonely or poor could be and often were tortured and killed as witches. This is not all that far in our distant past. Something I recognized through this study was that, not many generations ago, women must have learnt, for their own survival, to hide their power, their creativity and their healing capabilities. The message “showing your power can be fatal, so hide it!” went into our lineages and became part of an unconscious and unexamined inheritance. As I read my thesis, one quote jumped out at me and struck a powerful chord:
“A woman during the ages of Christian imperialism in Europe could either become a totally subservient ‘wife’ – beaten and bullied by her husband, her eyes lowered to the ground, or she could stand straight, proud in her own woman wisdom, and be burnt as a witch” .
This was written by a modern woman, and I’m cautious about taking it literally, as there certainly were many powerful and even despotic women too throughout the ages. Nevertheless, it certainly has a resonance in me which makes sense of a kind of deep defensive alertness I have come to recognise in myself. In turn, I think this has made me more aggressive, untrusting and defiant than I need have been. The big shift in awareness that I am still integrating is how this fear in my cells has created in me the same arrogance, aggression and imperiousness that I fear in others. Thus the victim-persecutor wheel turns. This is painful and shocking to recognise, for those of us who identify with being victims of present or historical violation, that, in that identification, it is likely that we become the energy that we fear, and unknowingly, keep the wheel of suffering turning. In admitting my own lack of trust in others, and my own assumption of being more “right” I’ve had to admit the arrogance and, ultimately the fear and insecurity which underlie the “know it all” position. I say a thousand thank you’s to Ya’Acov who has been helping me unpeel this one with such understanding and gentleness. Remaining entrenched in this story has robbed me of a level of support and softness which could have been there if I had dared to trust my man, myself and life. As I begin to realise and release this, the support and softness appears and I feel received, loved and honoured as I am.
I know how much time, inner work and outer support I have needed to feel confident to stand up within the power of the woman I am, to become visible in my medicine, and to know that it is safe and valid to make my offering without restraining or diluting it even as I offer it.
Movement Medicine is shamanic practice
This kind of enquiry is inherent to the journey of becoming a medicine woman or man. “Know thyself” and “Heal thyself” is a totally key instruction for anyone called to a healing path. As Gabrielle used to say, shamanism is indigenous to its culture. I would add that is also indigenous to its time; its moment in history. It is through knowing yourself intimately that you know your culture, know the dilemmas and pains and struggles of your people’s zeitgeist. It is through working with the dilemmas and pains and struggle’s of your culture and your time as they show up in yourself that you became able to work on this level with others. That is intrinsic to any true medicine path as I understand it.
Movement Medicine is medicine for the dis-ease of our times, for the dis-ease of disconnectedness: disconnection from the sacredness of life, disconnection from our hearts, our bodies, our imagination, our creativity, each other, our earth, from spirit and the ineffable mystery and beauty of life itself. As we know, this disconnection and the actions it is creating are proving disastrous for the planetary eco-system which we are part of and depend upon. So this dis-ease carries within it a beautifully perfect challenge, simply put: “wake up now!”
The name I feel comfortable with for myself is “medicine woman”. I regard my work and my life as being shamanic practice, though I do not call myself “shaman”. For me shamanism is a way of orientating in life that respects and tunes into the spirit and energy which everything and everyone has. It’s about a vibrational awareness that simultaneously feels and appreciates the spirit, vibration or medicine of specific beings (e.g. a person, a fire, a waterfall, a dog, a drum) and at the same time feels and appreciates the connectedness and interwoven quality of everything through time and space. Thus a systemic and particular view of reality co-exist within it. In this world-view it is clear that individuals depend for their health on the balance and health of the whole system, which simultaneously depends for its health on the health and connectedness of all its constituent parts.
For me, shamanism is spiritual practice, and like all spiritual paths, it’s about bringing together meaning, inspiration and vision with the practice and action of our actual lives. One of its dangers is that it can attract “psychonauts” who are into visionary experience more than the work of integrating that vision into the daily practice of our lives, simply put, the work of walking our talk.
The light of body, heart and mind
One key aspect of awareness and practice that supports me as a woman on this medicine path is the integration of body, heart and mind. This is a key element of Movement Medicine practice, which we call the ‘Journey of Empowerment’ and corresponds to the integration of the first 3 gateways in our mandala.
My physicality, sensuality and pleasure in my own body support me to feel viscerally connected with the earth and to resonate and empathise with other people and beings through my interoception. Interoception is the physical perception of one’s physicality- one’s skin and physical sensate interior, and it has been found to be related to one’s emotional intelligence about oneself, and one’s capacity to resonate accurately and empathise with others. Sociopaths and psychopaths generally have very low interoception.
The good news is that we can practice interoception by choosing to pay attention to the sensation in our bodies. This means giving it importance and choosing to actively tune into the body sensation channel of the inner radio station of our own consciousness. At first its signals may be feint, and this is quite normal. But if we keep making an effort to tune in, eventually this station will begin to work loud and clear. And it pays off. The increase in presence and empathic wisdom can be huge. These are some of the most startling changes we have seen in participants on the Movement Medicine Apprenticeship programme. The cost of increasing our interoception is that we are going to have to start feeling our own feelings. A classic (and useful) way to survive overwhelming feelings is to numb out and literally not feel, not feel ourselves, our bodies, each other. It’s a bit like taking an anesthetic. And when we choose to attune to our interocpetion sometimes people (including myself) report a feeling a bit like when a dentist’s anesthetic is wearing off.
Sometimes this is surprising for people. We think we live in a body-orientated culture, or a culture of librated bodies, a sexually liberated culture because we live in a culture strewn with images of the naked or sexually suggestive body. But we don’t. We live in a world where surface and image is everything, and has taken over from inner experience. I would say we live in an asensual and anti-sexual culture where the experience of connected sensuality and sexuality is further from most of us than we can imagine, because most of us haven’t been there, and therefore don’t even know what we are missing. So retrieving the experience of our bodies and their pleasure and their sensation, their wisdom and through this the power of our own embodied and empathic hearts is a big piece of the jigsaw of the initiation as I see it of the modern medicine woman (or man). It is and was for me.
Being with the Achuar people in the Amazon has been very powerful on this front. Here are a warrior people, never cowed by Christianity or the conquistadors, showing us how it is to stand powerfully; with everything they are, to protect life and the forest. They are so strong (and I mean physically as well as emotionally and spiritually) and at the same time there is a gentleness and empathy in them which has a different, fine tuned and hugely patient quality from ours.
On the heart level what supports me to work as a medicine woman healer is having become friendly and able to resonate with the whole emotional spectrum in myself, and therefore in others. It means knowing the true value of our emotional instincts, and being able to distinguish between instinctive emotion and that which arises as a result of our outdated stories, as well as
being able to distinguish between primary and secondary emotions and knowing how to track the primary emotion. The key element here is developing the power of the inner compassionate witness (or wise elder) who is able to include all of it, without being identified with any of it, just as the white light contains the whole spectrum of light, but is not colour. I’ll write more about this next month.
And knowing my own shadows and traps and having got (at least some of the time!) to a place here I can witness and acknowledge the cavortings and distortions of my own personality (my “spasms” or “understudies”) with kindness, knowing that they are part of me but do not define me. Through this, when I am working as a healer with someone else who has got caught in one of their “spasms” or “understudies” I know the need for this to be witnessed and acknowledged, not as the truth or essence of that person, but as part of the theatre of their personality. Once this happens, and we find the strength and centredness to be in our own central axis as witness (wise elder) to ourselves, we can tune into our deep values and true orientation (dancing warrior) and can start to update, to move in new ways, to step into the unknown asking “why not?” and creating new stories which fit our current reality (dancing fool). (Related workshops: “Power of the Heart”, “Fire in the Heart” and “Journey of Empowerment” “Apprenticeship.”)
Being a medicine woman means valuing my mind, my consciousness, my awareness and my conceptual intelligence and my imagination. I “grew up” in the human potential movement of the 80’s and 90’s in which the mind was often dismissed as if it were the problem. It was as if having “no mind” would help. That’s not my take on it. I feel we need every bit of our intelligence, every bit of our rationality (the attempt to see truly and to be more interested in reality than in our stories) every bit of our imagination and our understanding, connected (and this is the crux) with our emotional, physical and spiritual intelligence. In this time its as if people got confused between the stuck repetitive stories of our minds and our minds themselves. I feel that developing our self-reflective consciousness (our capacity to become aware and reflective about the workings of our own minds) may well be one of the keys to the liberation of a benevolent human presence on this earth.
So, for me, being a medicine woman, or man, means being conscious and awake to the multiple levels of unexamined assumptions which filter our perceptions, influence our interpretation and therefore condition our emotions and therefore our actions, which create results which almost inevitably tend to reinforce our initial story (unexamined assumption). I find developing this level of capacity to make our stories (our unexamined assumptions) conscious and thereby to dislodge their apparent monopoly on reality is deeply humbling, as I discover how strong my own filters still are.
And then there is the medicine task of becoming ever more awake to the interplay between micro and macro, between individual and system, to whole and part, to self, other and field, to the meta evolution that is happening or trying to happen which our individual struggles are all part of.
There is a whole other chapter to write about this theme, which is about the relationship with the elements and spirit helpers. Coming up soon!
Finally on this mind level, and most importantly, there is the ever-deepening acknowledgement of my fallibility, the certainty of the vastness of all that I do not know or understand, about myself, about you, about the universe and the way things work. And, as my mother said a few months before she died, the certainty that this is also true for us as a species. This was one of the things she shared with me when I asked her to share the wisdom she had gained in her life: the knowledge that the universe is infinitely mysterious, and however much we know or will ever know, it is within the context of so have much that we don’t have any idea of. Which does not make our understanding or our seeking of understanding worthless, it’s simply important to remember the mystery and not knowing that it is always situated within. (“Journey of Empowerment”” “Phoenix Retreat” “Apprenticeship.”)
In a Kabalistic image, the soul is likened to a plaited candle, made up of three candles plaited together, which together make the light of the soul. The three candles are the body, the heart and the mind. I agree. I would say that the light of myself as a medicine woman depends on the light of these three intelligences interwoven, interdependent and aligned. I feel very blessed to feel so much joy, pleasure and vitality in my body, so much potency and empathy in the full resonant spectrum of my heart, and the sense of sparkling intelligence in my mind. I celebrate all 3 levels in myself and in all of us. I love being a sensual, strong, emotional and thoughtful healing woman. I know that whatever I experience on these levels is just the beginning, there is far more, and that is exciting and humbling.
All this is part of my ground as a medicine woman… as well as my love of song, my voice as channel for healing energy and trusting it, in spoken words, in song, in melody and my drum, which often feels like an extension of my heart. I think that is the key feeling of myself as medicine woman. It’s about the power of love. Not as some kind of generalised pink haze, but as an attunement to a vibration of love, service and respect for all life which is often very precise and particular. As I remember writing some time ago, the light of love is not a comfortable fuzziness, but a searing discipline to let myself be seen and to see myself with love and truth, to be transparent and through this to rest and live in integrity, in wholeness.
So I’d say that the journey to become the medicine woman I am so far, is all about trusting myself; my being, my intention, my capacity to respond to and meet what and who life brings and ultimately to trust my own self as healing medicine. What this means is to trust the simplicity of what is obvious to me and to trust that what is needed from me is already within me. At the same time, it means to be in a continual process of self-challenge and enquiry within the context of gratitude and love for my life, my being, the dear beloved earth of which I am a beloved, grateful, dancing daughter, doing her best, in the mystery of it all, to turn up fully in this life and to give and receive everything,
My very best wishes to you and to the life that dances through you,
And I look forward to sharing a dance floor with you sometime soon,
Susannah Darling Khan