Going Under…

Hello and Happy Fall!

It’s been a minute. 

Generally, I send my newsletters out at those cherished stops of the wheel (Solstices, Equinoxes and cross-quarter sabbats). However, the Summer Solstice came and went and no newsletter. Then Lughnasasa snuck up on me, and no newsletter. Argh! I was determined to get my “news” out for the Fall Equinox. 

The fact is: A lot has been going on, and the following is a very personal and very revealing “update” on me. I have trimmed down some details for sake of brevity but suffice it to say that the summer of 2022 proved to be one of the most difficult periods of life I’ve experienced. 

I’ll start my story with some background: A much-anticipated training I took at the end of May with Animas Valley Institute launched me into an initiation, a personal crisis, a dark night of the soul. 

The training was around mirroring, and the art of council. I had wanted to learn how to guide using the techniques of mirroring and council ever since I was guided by two phenomenal women I’ll call Fran and Tiffany. Located on a remote island off the coast of Maine, in June of 2007, I participated in a women-only retreat designed for any woman who wanted to have a ‘soul encounter’ through an immersion in nature.

The practice of immersing oneself in nature, walking with the spirit of the island, consisted of being outside, fasting from 6 AM to 5 PM. Once we returned to the meeting place at 5 PM, we broke our fast in silence then joined one another in council (there were around twelve women). Being in council meant speaking from the heart, and listening from the heart. And each and every one of us told our story of the day: what we experienced, what signs and signals nature offered us, what bubbled up that was difficult to sit with. To really get to the core, the heart of the matter, one must be still. Sadly, stillness is not a practice or a propensity anyone in the modern world is very familiar with.

That fateful retreat led me to do many more retreats with Fran. I’ve not only participated numerous times in what she calls ‘Walks’ or ‘Wanders’, I’ve experienced dream councils where Fran guides you through the territory of a particular dream you feel called to investigate. Both with dream circles as well as nature councils, the soul-charged technique of mirroring is employed.

When was the last time you SAT on Mother Earth for eleven hours? To be instead of do, to rest and reflect instead of organize and execute is a gift only wise people give themselves. But the juicy part was the mirroring: after you shared your story with the group, Fran and Tiffany re-told your story back to you, implementing metaphor and tossing about images in a way that told the story under the story. Fran might mention a poem from the opening council the night before; Tiffany might back-pedal to something you mentioned in passing, in casual conversation over dinner. It’s really hard to describe how powerful this experience is; it takes a skilled guide to hold that much space with active listening and mental tracking. And it’s transformative. I knew what ‘happened’ to me out there but after sharing it in circle, with witnesses and Fran and Tiffany working their magic?! So healing. Hence, from that very first circle, I was hooked. I wanted to hold space in that way, on those deeply engaging levels.

It is revelatory what becomes of the human mind when the only demands of the body are sitting, watching, listening, observing. With no distractions, the soul speaks. On a wander, you are encouraged to ‘follow the thread’ of how your soul is nudging you toward this reflection or that; if it’s freedom you’ve been craving, maybe you take off your shoes, your shirt, your bra and dance around. The edge you might be walking could be one of grief, of loss, maybe even anger so you build an altar made of seaweed and pine cones to honor these emotions. With the ego having a time-out, other systems of engagement are able to come forth. And our souls get busy inciting a sense of wonder, of curiosity that easily takes over our reality. Plus, the extended stay in nature allows for one to hear the innermost truths about ourselves that are waiting to be revealed. Whether you want to hear them or not…

Fast forward fifteen years and it’s 2022. I was finally ready to commit to taking my long-ago desire to be a guide, a mirror for others, to the next level. The technique of mirroring is a staple for the programs at Animas Valley Institute, an organization based in Durango, Colorado and founded by Bill Plotkin. An organization where vision quests are the substantial bulk of their offerings, AVI also offers a variety of retreats and apprenticeships in guiding. If I was going to be a Fran, I needed to start with some of their foundational workshops.

I landed on “The Art of Council and Mirroring” which was scheduled for the last week in May, in Vermont. I did a quick Google Map search and figured I could make the drive from Hollis to Shaftsbury, VT in about four and a half hours. The facility was called Spirit Hollow and was run impeccably by a woman who is an Animas-trained guide. I’ll stop short of sharing everything that transpired in those five days at Spirit Hollow because, frankly, I’m not sure I have the language to get anywhere close to do it justice (but more for the reason of confidentiality). That much “time-out-of-time” does something funky to one’s perceptions, and much of what I experienced happened to all of those in attendance. At the risk of sounding cliche, I’ll just say: you had to be there. I’m not talking about levitating or roaming the woods naked with deer antlers affixed to my head. I’m talking about something much more extraordinary than that: the Descent to Soul. If you think sitting alone fasting on an island sounds pretty intense, imagine the immersion happening for five days, albeit not fasting. Imagine being in company with some of the most articulate, passionate people you could ever meet. Imagine not being able to get to know them by asking the (prohibitive) questions of where are you from, what do you do and the like. These more authentic ways of interaction split my heart wide open, and made carvings on my psyche with a spiritual precision that unlocked something I hadn’t anticipated: meeting an alternative Me.

But was it a meeting, or a remembering? Again, it would be difficult to attempt to explain how and why the emergence of my soul identity revealed itself. A descent to soul often includes meeting your shadow. And meeting one’s shadow is hardly pleasant. Who wants to cozy up to every single insecurity they’ve ever known, be shown every single one of their methods of protection? And! After seeing these things, try to puzzle out what replaces modes of protection, once the reasoning behind those behaviors is lovingly unraveled and understood, in the face of Awakening? What, by God, can sustain a soul after this type of spiritual workout?

Trying to answer these things is one reason this newsletter is three months late. I walked into a mental, emotional and spiritual crisis. Admittedly, I enjoy evoking hyperbole for the sake of a good yarn but I do not exaggerate when I say: I initiated myself into a dark night of the soul. Whether I was ready to look at, sit with and admire the contours of soul and shadow mattered not–I was swimming in it, swinging from vine to vine in the costly endeavor of seeing all aspects of myself. I unwittingly unburdened myself with my persona–that adoption of conditioning that churns out our personality. Like any good dark night, this one asked me Who are you? Are you the sum of all of your woundings, your triggers? Is your coat of arms a little too snug? Lay it down, I heard over and over again.

No mud, no lotus. If you want to touch the flame, be prepared to be burned. And nothing compares to that flame! When you come to terms with your shadow, you get to own it. No one tells you this is one of the most empowering feelings in the world! Yes, you have to go through hell to realize it. And another irony is that I had no idea what to do with myself upon re-entering my life after the training. Well, that’s not exactly true. I thought I had the world by its balls, as the strict review of who and what was or was not working in my life got underway. The saturation of soul in the Vermont woods was the beginning of diluting the bullshit out of my life, of leeching the untruths I’d gotten accustomed to. I chucked paltry relationships out the window, attempting to purge anything or anyone who might not be able to handle the New Me, although I hardly had a handle on who that was.

This next bit is difficult to write and I’ll start by saying BE MINDFUL on your first week of enlightenment because you very well may discard people who do, in fact, care about you and you just didn’t realize it, or know it. Or, maybe you simply haven’t seen those people in a long time and are mistaking the absence of connection as a ‘fake’ relationship. For the love of God, do not slash and burn the way I did upon re-entry. When I realized that my mental and spiritual house-cleaning was a rather astute way for my ego to continue its protection routine, I doubled-down on my humility. If you think a dark night of the soul is unbearable, try putting relationships back together as the fallout of your Awakening looms ever larger.

And here’s where my story reveals what I may never understand, and I am finally okay with that because life doesn’t come with a user’s guide. One way in which I tried to honor the Wake Up Call I received in my descent to soul was to regularly check my motivation. Again, once the conditioning starts to lift and you can stand witness to all the reasons you did this or said that at any particular moment in life, you are left with wondering about new conditioning. You may go about seeking mentors, wise ones who have been there. You realize you are a tabula rosa at this stage, a blank slate eager to get going on some kind of window dressing–at least–in order to function in the world. However, Disorientation, as described in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, only promises this: Be prepared to NOT be prepared. I ask you: why would anyone sign up for this willingly?

Again: no mud, no lotus. As Joni Mitchell once said of her songwriting, ‘It’s the sand that makes the pearl.’ We, too, are left to grind away at some unnamable irritation as we stare, drooling, half out of our minds, at the blank slate that is suddenly our lives. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a legit dark night of the soul, then you know what I am talking about. The old adage bears repeating here: Enlightenment is not for the weak.

There’s no “right” way to enter an initiation, or to go through one. After Vermont, returning to the construct of a life that held the unenlightened woman has been challenging on good days and torturous on bad days. But feeling empowered to own your shadow is a game-changer. However, knowing how to function in the present-day world (yikes!), carrying my newfound awareness, is a feat not many are able to actually succeed at. I’m not sure I’m succeeding at it. Not by a long shot. It could be said that this is exactly where enlightenment takes hold, unlocks something inside of us that escorts us to the edge of madness, then pulls us back a wee bit.

We will never really comprehend what happens to someone in their encounter with soul, with shadow, and so if you’re still reading this, I thank you for honoring my journey. We can maybe get the gist of another person’s crisis, and we can certainly sympathize. ‘Intrigued’ is also a possibility but we can’t understand why the initiated is all of a sudden in the breakdown lane, unable to make sense of life.

And that’s because life doesn’t make sense. I was a mess. Depression, lethargy, feeling like there was nothing in my brain–like no thoughts to contend with! I felt erased, and I was the one holding the enormous pencil. The distractions and amnesia spray of the modern world keep most of us locked into a quasi-belief that we could make sense of life if only, therefore we keep hustling. Having seen the source of the suffering, the initiate might install some new ways of being in the world because, really, what is there to lose? I don’t have to tell you: not everyone in your life will appreciate this move. Some folks might be outwardly cheering you on but secretly hoping for the day when “everything goes back to normal.”

It’s personal, so let it be. My antidote for recalibrating not only to a “new me” but to the process of destabilization with the hopes of designing some fresh conditioning has been mutli-faceted, and I will save you the details. I also have a LOT of people to thank; I had to say goodbye to some people in my life as well. One of the guiding principles for the inner-work that AVI advocates (and the essential invitation during my training) was a simple/not simple question: What is your deepest longing? The Animas guides repeated this question over and over again. How I dance with that question on any given day is unpredictable, unscripted. Most of the time, my deepest longing is to not suffer this dark night any longer.

And I truly feel the dawn is coming, the hours of darkness are quantifiable now. This summer, I met with Fran to unpack my experience with AVI and the training in Vermont. She offered me the great gift of mirroring the experience! Another level of integration was achieved. One thing that she said to me that day struck me so profoundly, and it has been my mantra henceforth: Respect the pace of the unfolding.

We do not know where the soul wants to take us. If we are very lucky, we can catch a glimpse, a flash of light coming through the forest. Surrender to the longing, to your longings. Believe me, it has nothing to do with being brave or courageous. As I swim to the surface, I do not regret going under.

Shine On, Friends.

The Great Standing Stones at Stonehenge, photo by NASA

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