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If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life? ~ Sue Rodriguez (42-year-old woman with ALS)

In my work as an advocate for those who are facing death and wish to have choice on how they will die when death is imminent, it helps to be walking the walk myself, to understand on a visceral level what we all are facing. After all reasonable measures to extend life have been exhausted, there is a point where fear of dying and facing the ultimate grief can kick in and heroic measures may be utilized to keep the body alive at any cost. Some of these measures include: intubating the trachea for ventilation, CPR, inserting a nasogastric tube that goes through the nose into the stomach for short-term nutritional support, and a gastrostomy, a feeding tube that is placed surgically through the stomach wall for long-term nutritional support. (I heard a doctor who personally had this procedure say that intubating the trachea is one of the most painful procedures one can have.)

Heroic measures is a legal term that to me is anything but heroic when utilized in avoidance of facing the inevitable, when a person is in the dying process. If these procedures would improve the person’s health or a person chooses this for themselves regardless of the outcome, I would completely support that personal choice. However, utilizing these procedures to avoid feeling the feelings that facing death evokes can actually prolong physical suffering and support our cultural fear of death. I’m not sure what is heroic about that. Often people feel compelled to do something, because feeling powerless is excruciating. I’ve been there with beloveds. It is not easy.

In order to dispel our cultural fear, talking about one’s impending death with our beloveds is essential. It is surprising how many people don’t. If the family can be courageous enough to face death straight on, which requires feeling our feelings and being vulnerable together, we can enter the Sacred together.

Many states have passed a law granting a person who is dying the right to choose how they can die to avoid needless suffering. The difficult discussions many people are having when facing their own mortality, or the mortality of a loved one, now includes the consideration of using MAID, medical aid in dying, if they meet the rigorous criteria for eligibility for this medication. Considering this choice can be less ambiguous when one is dying from an acute condition than when the condition is a progressive, degenerative neurological illness when end-of-life suffering can have a very different quality. With an acute condition like cancer, there is a more predictable trajectory depending on the aggressiveness of the particular cancer. With more chronic conditions such as COPD, ALS/MS, or others, there is more of a gradual decline, but during end-stage can have what seems like endless agony.

A DNR, or do not resuscitate, also known as no code directive for allowing a natural death, in my opinion, is a necessary paper to consider for anybody who chooses to exercise choice at a time when they are most vulnerable. I would consider it mandatory if you have a chronic illness that might require a 911 call and your autonomy is as important to you as mine is to me, where quality of life is more important than quantity. Most EMTs know to look on the refrigerator for a DNR. Many people don’t realize they can choose the level of suffering they have to endure. It takes a lot of Presence to be with an emergency in the moment and, if life-threatening, to move through it consciously. It is a big ask if one has not taken the time to contemplate our impermanence before things become emergent.

There is no right or wrong in my opinion. One must process through this rigorous part of the journey the best they can. At a certain point I decided I had lived in a victim framework long enough and I took my power back and got into the driver’s seat of my life, metaphorically. I began to realize that though I have much life force and a clear mind, my body was declining considerably and I needed to come to terms with the inevitable. It helps that I have a strong belief that our physical life is temporal and our soul is eternal. This understanding was hard earned. For some, letting go and letting doctors or family members make the decisions might be exactly what they need to do. It is not for me to determine what sort of death other people need.

Nobody who really knows me would say that I am a quitter.

Once I realized in 2007 that I was going to live alone with this degenerative, life-threatening illness in this harsh and magnificent desert town in Colorado, I gathered my resources, internally and externally, and began the sacred art of creating my life how I want it to be. Living alone for 18 hours a day and only being able to move from the neck up requires much creativity and fortitude, for myself and the caregiver. We have done it with Grace and much humor. It’s been a joy and a joint adventure with my caregivers and my family.

A few months ago, in a circle of women I had been meeting with for over ten years and with whom I have had a profound level of intimacy, I stated without fanfare that I felt complete. It was a strange sensation and a communication that came from an inspired, deep place inside mySelf. In a way, it felt like a proclamation. I was sharing my feelings about having the prescription that will release my body from the accelerating suffering. I realized that making that decision will take all of the courage I have inside me and, to me, that is true heroism.

Ironically, my digestive system began shutting down soon after this talk. (You know it’s bad when the hospice nurse cries for an hour giving you the diagnosis of gastroparesis.) I felt shock and grief stricken and wondered what happened to the part of me that felt complete. It’s like amnesia set in and my emotions took over. All of my human grief from living a full life arose: all of my attachments to the most important people to me arose, as did my attachments to my identity as a person of service to love, and even my attachment to this beautiful, struggling body; it all surfaced to be processed once again.

As I am writing, an adolescent mule deer peeked into my window. First, I saw velvety antlers and then a little face looked inside, curiously. It can’t be an accident that this young deer came at this moment, so close to my home, and peered into my window while I am writing this essay. The shamanic symbol for deer is that of gentleness, unconditional love, and kindness. The male deer, the buck, represents independence, purification, and pride. People have sought to identify with them ceremonially, wearing antler headdresses and imitating the deer’s leaping grace.

If you by chance connect with me in Spirit, you might notice me leaping gracefully through the clouds in ceremonial Joy. Rest assured that I will be finding a purer way to connect more deeply and in service to LOVE.
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To love fully and live well requires us to recognize that we do not possess or own anything – our homes, our cars, our loved ones – not even our own bodies. ~ Jack Kornfield

A very close friend of mine told me when her son was dying, droves of people wanted to come to visit him, but he had limited energy for visitors, which left her conflicted. Their hospice nurse explained to her, “It’s like your son is the guest of honor at a party and its rude to be the first one to leave. The presence of your friends, because of the love between you, forces him to go beyond his limits to attend the party. So you have to end the party.”

The party can mean different things to different people. For me, connecting with people means sharing where I am and seeing where they are and being there for each other. I am interested in others’ processes and cannot help myself from continually looking for an opening to strengthen our connection by identifying obstacles to self-awareness and self-love. After all, it’s been my work my whole adult life, however, at this point, at the end of my life, this practice is too other centered when I’m needing all of my dwindling life force to be more Self oriented.

This party metaphor really hit home for me. Not only is my friend a hospice chaplain, but she has been initiated by Death and also deeply initiated by what lies beyond the doorway called death. Her son died at sixteen and this experience did not destroy her; on the contrary, it was a springboard for her to experience different dimensions. We do have different curricula, don’t we? And we do draw those people to us we most need in our life to help take us to the next step in our development. If interested, she tells their story in A Swan In Heaven: Conversations Between Two Worlds.

I have many reasons to want to stay in this dimension. I have so many Beloveds wanting connection with me, deep connection. I feel insensitive wanting or needing to leave the party. And believe me, this body is not holding up so well.

Last night I finally said it, “I don’t feel like I belong here anymore.” And there it was. This no longer feels like my Home. My body is turning into bones with little connecting the bones. Still, I am reluctant to leave. Who wants to end their party, especially when we live in the illusion that we are truly losing something dear?

As I explore my reluctance, I see how many things I have completed in the last three months. If I listed them, it would exhaust you. Although I am confined to a body that is extremely restricted, I have learned that I am much more than my body. And that part of me has been: joyfully connecting with Beloveds, completing more and more legacy defining projects, and even forging new relationships.

Concurrently, I am getting increasingly more excited to see my Beloveds on the other side and they are getting increasingly excited to receive me. Still, what is before me is familiar and where I am going is unknown.

I am seeing that many people visit me with different intentions and expectations. I tend to want to meet all their expectations, to focus on their needs over mine; then I find myself completely exhausted. Many are unaware of their own unconscious intention to keep me at the party. Who wouldn’t? I am an awesome person, a good friend, and an interesting character with a good sense of humor when I don’t take myself so seriously, which is becoming more of the time. Still, staying at a party after it has peaked is not in good form.

Staying at the party after the musicians have left and the food is put away just because it is hard to say goodbye, to me is an avoidance of what is, a rejection of the natural process, or worse, a refusal to truly be with myself and my circumstances with honesty and courage.

My body is shutting down. There is no ambiguity about that. My Home is shifting, my breath is becoming much more shallow making it difficult to even write, my last creative outlet. Large parts of the day, I cannot even communicate audibly. I have stomach pain most of the day due to gastroparesis, the shutting down of the upper digestive system; the lower shut down years ago. And, I feel sleepy much the time.

One of the greater disappointments I feel at this time, besides “leaving” my children and grandchildren, is where my effectiveness in working with others has become so fine tuned, that all I need to do is say a few words and there is spontaneous change and transformation in the other person. After a lifetime of service, it has taken much inner work to get to this place of working with others so effectively. I have been questioning why I couldn’t stay to help when it is most needed? I have just been sitting with this question.

A few days later, I had the last event of my life in my home. My intention was to offer a profound Shamanic Journey by Peter May to a few people who had been reaching out to me, but I didn’t have the energy to receive them. Jordan and Emily have been here for the past month to care for me at this time and I thought this would care for them, as well. During the journey, I heard an amazing answer to my question. I heard, “When you are fully in the other vibration, you will be of more service than you ever have been while embodied.” As soon as I heard this, I knew it to be true.

Being between the worlds is a profound, sacred, yet awkward place to be with more uncertainty than I’ve ever encountered. May I be here in Grace.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. ~ Anaïs Nin

Much has been written about The Shadow, originally described by Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, a pioneer of Depth Psychology, an approach to psychotherapy close to my heart that includes the exploration of the unconscious and transpersonal aspects of the human psyche. The Jungian construct of the shadow involves those parts of the Self that we deem as flawed and unlovable, often due to early trauma, and therefore, relegate them to our unconscious. Eckhart Tolle describes it as the painbody, a semi-autonomous psychic entity of old emotional pain not faced, accepted, and let go of in the moment they were experienced.

Encountering the Shadow

Often these traumas have roots in our childhood, transferred by the unexamined (shadow) aspects of those in our family of origin whom we most trusted. Delivered as criticism or rejection, we learn to deny these injured parts to avoid further pain and, ironically, end up attracting to us exactly what we are trying to ward off.

Our shadow reveals our deepest wound, which also holds the key to our greatest healing. Our unexamined pain accumulates and combines with that of others’ to form a collective shadow. Wars have erupted due to our unconscious collective shadows. I believe by working to bring these aspects to consciousness, one person at a time, we can not only lessen the conflict in our own lives, but ultimately achieve world peace.

Robert Bly describes the shadow as the bag we drag around behind us through our life and when aspects of ourselves appear that create discomfort, we throw them into the bag as unclaimed, unlovable parts of our persona. The bag becomes heavier and heavier until we develop the courage to begin to take each dissociated part out to bring it into the light of consciousness.

In shamanism, the shaman, or healer, is seen as one who can walk between the human and spirit worlds to retrieve our discarded parts in order to restore balance to the soul, whether the imbalances are caused by fear, loneliness, addictions, or other ills.

Dancing With the Shadow

If we are courageous enough to enter into long-term, committed relationships, it is likely we will encounter the proverbial mirror that forces us to see our shadow projected onto our beloved. Discerning what is ours from theirs is the crisis and the opportunity of deep intimacy. For me, it took a series of divorces to realize who the common denominator was. During my first and most tumultuous marriage, it was easy to shrug off any criticism as his projections, but when I encountering similar criticisms during my second marriage, I began to recognize recurring patterns.

I don’t believe my rigorous life path of learning through relationships has been arbitrary. I believe it was specifically designed for me to learn and teach others self-love through the healing power of intimacy. As a psychotherapist, being of service has been a large part of my mission and doing my own personal work has been an essential prerequisite. I remember asking my former mentor, “Do I have to experience everything in order to be of service to my beloveds?!” Not everybody needs to experience a curriculum as extreme as mine, but as a psychotherapist, you can only take other people as far you have already gone.

From another former mentor, Werner Erhard, a complicated but significant leader of the “human potential movement,” I learned that in order to truly have a relationship, you must be willing to not have that relationship. To me, this meant that in order to truly have an intimate relationship with another person, I needed to be willing to risk it for my own Truth. This is not an easy principle to follow, especially when the ego is invested in maintaining status quo at all costs, but it is a tenet I have learned to follow more and more as I have matured spiritually. As Maya Angelou eloquently stated, “When someone knows better, they do better.” Choosing our Truth over our egos’ desires is the difference between feeding our shadow or feeding our authentic Self – choosing Love over fear.

Opening to the Teachings

From this end-of-life perspective, sitting still twenty-two hours a day, I have opened into what could be called my life review. Those who have entry into what some call the bardo or the life between lives, either through dreams, meditation, or visions, are able to begin a broader process of self-reflection over their lifetime and begin to identify the themes the soul has come in to work on. My many years in non-ordinary states of consciousness through Holotropic Breathwork, both as a practitioner and a facilitator, has helped me to access these healing states.

Throughout my earlier life I struggled with feeling victimized by energies outside of myself over which I felt powerless. This common pattern is often an imprint from the family of origin. My mother was my initiator in this journey of duality (drama). I was terrified of her and then of my teachers and went on to attract relationships that affirmed this worldview.Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer are three different expressions of victim in the dramatic triangle. (For more information, see the Karpman Drama Triangle – three faces of Victim, a must for psychotherapists and addictions counselors!)

Drama vibrates at a low frequency and like attracts like. To maintain a low vibration, which serves to keep vulnerability at bay, a victim can only draw a persecutor or a rescuer, which then always switch roles. Shadow Work involves bringing each role to consciousness to allow vulnerability and intimacy, a high frequency.

Breakthrough From Drama to True Self

During my breathwork visions, for years I was a Jew in a concentration camp. However, one day, to my shock I suddenly became the Nazi – feeling the power/control of oppressing, enslaving, and murdering others. (This collective shadow, by the way, is the core of racism, or othering, a fear prevalent in the world today. A critical mass must be reached to bring this hatred out of the shadow, one person at a time.) I let myself marinate in these excruciating feelings until I felt the energy complete itself. I didn’t know what to think afterwards – feeling shame mixed with horror that shifted into empowerment, and even liberation.

For me during breathwork, as in life, the most arduous part of the process is learning to stay with uncomfortable feelings. I learned firsthand that it was much more comfortable to experience Victim than Persecutor; the latter forced me into shadow of the motherwound. However, by avoiding the pain, I suppressed my natural fire energy – creativity and passion (joy). I was so afraid of being my mother that I couldn’t fully be me! After this breathwork retreat, I knew my life would be different.

Staying in drama temporarily lessens anxiety, but the cost is one’s true power. The role of Victim (the one down position) was familiar to me. When people emulate the childhood abuser who appeared to have more strength and power; the Persecutor becomes their go to persona during conflict. The Rescuer (the one up position) feels the illusion of safety from the messiness of intimacy, by staying above the fray. Feeling less than was my shadow and Persecutor was the shadow of my shadow. Only when I allowed myself to fully experience this repugnant role, replete with abuse of power, shame, and fear, could I liberate myself and experience Wholeness. In that way, I was my own shaman.

Integration

During this sacred time of life review, I want to honor the teachers in my life of which I have only mentioned a few. I especially want to honor my mother who chose to play this role with me in this lifetime. Mother, I know you are with me and I look forward to dancing with you soon with less fear and more joy.

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. more...

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