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roses in the snow

May 2011
Notes in the Time of Dying

Dear Friends,
In my last two newsletters, I shared my experiences and reflections that evolved during the time of tending two friends who, in turn, were taking care of family members who were dying. In the last Reflections, I share regarding the Memorial or Remembering services that Cheryl had for her Mom and Pirkko for her sister. If you'll recall these were times when shamanic tending became a major source of support for them.

About three weeks after writing the March Reflections, our ElderBear Clan was gathering in the desert just outside Tucson. In addition to the renewal these retreats offer us, I was really looking forward to hearing directly from these two sisters and sharing about these experiences in our whole Circle.

About a week before we would be gathering, and following a routine chest x-ray, my doctor called me on the phone one night and told me she wanted me to get a CT scan... to get it 'at my convenience' since she was going on a month long vacation the next morning and would not be back until early April.

I asked why she was ordering a CT scan? She quoted the X-ray findings that revealed a 'hyperinflation with a questionable lung nodule at the right lung apex.' I asked if this was something about which I should be anxious and, following a pause, she said: "Well, I don't know; that's why we are doing this follow up scan... but Carol, it doesn't help to be anxious." Immediately, of course, I felt my whole body flush with anxiety.

That evening I went on the Internet to start researching what possible diagnosis might be inferred from such x-ray results and just what might be revealed with a CT scan. I had some key words of inflated lungs and nodule in upper right apex. My first night of research indicated that this WAS something about which I should be concerned and I began to feel more anxiety.
 
I remembered in 2003 that only a CT scan had revealed a small tumor in one of my pancreatic ducts. I had gone through a year of troubling symptoms (fatigue, weight loss, no appetite). Even a week in the hospital for various tests had not revealed anything that would be causing these symptoms and yet I knew I was ill. It was only my doctor's persistence that resulted in certain tests to track down what was causing the symptoms. So I knew from experience how 'hidden' can be some of the most serious sources of illness in our bodies. What she read to me now, and my initial web searches, sounded suspiciously similar to the eventual detection of this tumor in my pancreatic duct. I marked on my calendar the date of her return. I noted when to order the CT Scan so that she would have the results when we met. I realized I now had four weeks for research and to prepare myself for what the CT scan would reveal. I was determined to make good use of these four weeks.

Week 1: The River of Anxiety
**Possible Diagnosis Starts Surfacing

By the end of the first week, I was flooding myself with anxiety and unable to sleep. For that first week and a half, I "lonelied" myself considerably. There are several nights when I'm almost certain I'm having a heart attack because my heart is pounding so hard; it seems to be racing very fast, and feels as though it is going to burst through my chest wall.

These nighttime episodes are more frightening 'physically' than emotionally. I've never had this kind of anxiety swelling up my body before. A couple of times I think to wake up Bob, and have him take me to the emergency room, but after talking to myself; asking my heart to slow, slow down; asking Spirit to touch and calm me, I start reducing the pounding and at some point, I've managed to tame the outrageous anxiety. Invariably just as I start to relax and entertain the notion that I might be able to sleep, I sense some stalking demon in my belly and once more, the demon clutches my heart and floods me with acute anxiety.

To my utter dismay I am unable to summon the shamanic impulse that would lead me to grab one of my rattles, or my drum, and seek help from my heretofore many Helping Spirits. Towards the end of this first week, I come to realize that the deepest loneliness is this sense of being bereft of my helping spirits and scarcely able to speak aloud to my husband and friends regarding the anxiety and the sure knowledge that what's really happening is that I am dying.

Week 2: Last Times & My Bucket List
By the middle of the second week, everything I had wondered about in the last six months now made sense because I had lung cancer. For example, there was my comment in October, at our last ElderBear gathering, in which I share that I was filled with a sense of "last times." A few weeks ago, I had decided this was connected with the death of Cheryl's Mom and Pirkko's sister. Now I saw it was my own 'last time' for my own life.  I realized I would need to share this at our ElderBear retreat coming in ten days. This would be my last time to gather with them; many of my thoughts and dreams now focused on my relationship with this incredible group of women - whom I consider my sisters. I knew that, if nothing else, my BearSisters would sing for me... they would sing for me during a time I couldn't summon the strength to sing for myself. I surely hoped I would be able to see them, at least individually, before my actual death even if the last time in full Circle had already taken place in October.

These thoughts led me to wonder: "What is my Bucket List?" This term refers to a list of things one would like to do during one's life; these are things heretofore put aside (dropped in a bucket). If they are to be done, one must start NOW. I started making my Bucket List. Much to my surprise, and delight, the items I started listing were not things that 'had to be done' but rather things that would be fun to do----or that elicited a sense of anticipation within me (e.g. another African safari, going back to the deserts and mountains of Israel with Ziva).

There was only one item that I would categorize as important 'unfinished business' and that involved reconnecting with my oldest brother. We did not grow up together and have had an intermittent relationship over the years but I felt it important that I be the one to write him to let him know I was dying.  I needed to see if there were things to speak or share with one another. I didn't try to understand all the reasons for why this was important; I just listened to the whisperings of my heart and knew this needed to be done. I had come to recognize that if I followed the impulses of my heart - rather than being led by my mind - then I was going to feel right within myself in this dying time.

Week 3: A Pain that Rivens My Soul

At some point during the third week, I woke with a very painful and swollen left jaw. I call my dentist only to learn that he is out of town too! An antibiotic is prescribed and an appointment scheduled for the next week.

This occurred on Wednesday; by Friday morning I am much worse. Another call to his office results in a different antibiotic being prescribed! The pain is now very fierce and unrelenting. There is something quite discombobulating in having two physical situations, needing attention, and both my doctor and dentist are out of town. I am starting to feel profoundly disconnected from actual sources of help on the physical plane. What am I supposed to be learning through my emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering - for now I characterized my 'pain' as suffering and every part of me is affected by this pain. That night was replete with various nightmares in which I am attacked on all sides and my cries for help go unanswered.

By Saturday morning, the whole left side of my face is swollen and the pressure feels like a vise around my head that is tightening more and more by the hour. I also felt quite toxic and knew I was getting into some kind of serious trouble. There was some irony in trying to confront my dying while simultaneously being overwhelmed from this physical pain. I search the Yellow Pages, find an 'emergency dentist', call Cheryl, and we go together.

An X-ray reveals an extensive abscess that has spread down two different pockets and underneath those two teeth. The dentist is concerned because I am running a temperature and the infection might have spread beyond its immediate location. She prescribes a different antibiotic - now my third medication for this abscess and I tell her I'm starting to doubt the efficacy of these medicines. She explains that this is a much stronger antibiotic; if it works, I should start feeling some results by Tuesday but she urges me to see my own dentist on Monday. When I asked: "What happens if this antibiotic doesn't work?", she replies "You can die from this" and explained to me how this could happen from a dental abscess. (If she only but knew the irony of that comment!)

It was the trip to the emergency dentist that made me realize I would not be able to go to the ElderBear retreat on Monday. On the one hand, I was deeply disappointed; on the other, I could not imagine going anywhere, but to bed, until this infection began loosening its hold on me and hopefully the antibiotics would do that in a few days.

When I wrote the Circle to share why I could not come, I asked for some healing focus on my infected tooth and gum. When the time was right, I would then share with them the fact of my lung cancer and ask for their support. Without some relief from this pain, I just was not clearheaded enough to share and discuss the nodule on my right lung. I felt acute sadness from knowing this was my last chance to be in Circle with all of them... I knew that some would come and support me when I requested this but that is different from all of us arriving to a retreat place together to sing, dance, and shamanize for our lives.

Yet there was a gift in being here at home, imagining them there in the Arizona Desert, and trying to embrace my dying. Several times I saw them in my bedroom, and we were in Circle; my eyes would alight on one, then another, then another and I could feel the softening of my heart and the quick brightness of my Spirit as our eyes conveyed "I love you - I love you."

One evening when they are here in the room, I begin imagining that I am sharing about the nodule on my lung and my dying...including the fact I did not yet know what type of lung cancer so how much time I might have left here on Earth was still a mystery from that perspective. At one point I am looking at Cheryl  (who knows about my dying and she is the only one there with whom I've shared). She starts forming the words "I will miss you" and I could see anticipated 'missing of me' in her eyes. I was quietly startled and realized I had never really thought, or imagined someone missing me. I didn't want to be the cause of someone's sadness. Why this should be important at that moment I don't know but it has something to do with how I say my goodbyes.  There are other experiences, like this, where some awareness occurred to me that I know requires meditative time from me... and I will so do. 

Third/Fourth Weeks: A Blanket Of Healing

I had now entered a phase where all my attention (both physically and spiritually) was being given to ridding my body of this serious infection and dissipating the pain that had been so fierce and persistent. My relationship with my BearSisters in Arizona was very strong during this time. We would speak on the phone each day and thus, I had some sense of how they were unfolding. I made known any specific request for healing I had.  The same process was occurring between Susan and the Circle for she, too, was quite ill and unable to go to the retreat. This was the first time in all these years that two sisters of the Clan were unable to join our Circle's retreat due to illness.

In addition to all their other activities, they worked some of each day on behalf of both of us. The Circle chose two stones, representing us, and rotated among themselves who would 'carry Susan' and 'who would carry Carol' on that specific day. I remember at some point that I began to see and experience 'how' I was being walked and where I was being taken. I could hear their singing for me - wrapping around me like a Blanket of Healing and that Blanket remained until the next day when a fresh energetic Blanket of Healing came to me. Listening to Susan on the phone, I learned she was having similar experiences of their healing arriving to her.    

I developed a rich and renewed appreciation for our work and our developed love over these many years. When someone told me on the phone, that at one point in that day's activities, one of the sisters wondered aloud: "What would Carol do now?" I laughed because I realized we had become so open, so vulnerable and known to one another, that such a question made sense; equally important, they could well imagine 'what Carol would do right now.' Rather than feeling that I was predictable, I felt that I was 'known' to and by them. This led to a period for me in which I was focused not on me but on each one of them: individually and as a Circle.

I also traveled back through the history of my very first encounter with MotherBear and Her Cubs in the Colorado wilderness. This was my initiation to the Path of Bear Medicine in 1992. Subsequent years found me passionately tracking this Medicine in the wild, with Elders, in other countries, and drawing on Ancestral wisdom, dormant in my bones, and now awakened. An immense gratitude began welling up and filling my whole being. I knew I had been incredibly blessed in my life's walk. I felt special gratitude for this Circle of BearSisters. As is true of any family or Clan over decades, we had experienced together the serious challenges that living gives us and we had been blessed with times of epiphanies, of breakthroughs between the worlds, and the opportunity to use our healing ways on behalf of individuals and the larger human community - as well as the whole Earth Community. And we were greatly nourished by the wild and semi-wild landscapes in which we had retreated ourselves.

By the end of the fourth week, the antibiotics had begun their work on the physical plane and the shamanic healing was doing its work on the spiritual plane---with the serious pain and discomfort receding, I was able to return my focus to "Now what?" in terms of preparing myself in my dying time. and for my actual death. I could think more clearly about my dreams and the various images around dying and death that had been present with me these last four weeks. Now that I was feeling better---in all ways---I knew it was important to use the time given to do whatever was involved so that my departure from Earth did not mean leaving a mess of things not tended that someone else would have to tend. I started making plans for what needed doing which included making sure my priorities were based on impulses of my heart and not of my brain. I was more interested in feeling good about 'what and how I was doing me' rather than any rational explanation that I could offer to others for what I was doing.
   
The Gift of Being Loved and Being Loving
&
Love's Presence at Every DoorWay

Through their healing activities for me, my ElderBear Sisters had given me the finest gift for the time given to me; namely, I KNEW I was loved... and loved in my specificity rather than 'loved in general.' I could see and hear the specificity of who I am in the ways they would describe their experience of me while carrying and holding the 'stone' that represented me that week.  I knew that they would miss me when I died but that they would know how to re-member me so that missing me would become a joy rather than some sad hole in the Circle.

Likewise I got a much clearer sense of what needed doing so that Bob, my husband, could tend his feelings and care for himself, rather than being swamped by household stuff and all those details of estate that can truly swamp a partner or spouse during the months immediately following the death of their partner. I newly appreciated the solid, steady presence he has been in my life. The last two to three years have been challenging for him and I saw how easily I could lose sight of our long life together when only focused on immediate concerns or events. I also knew that if I informed him of my wishes both for 'beside the bed' and ceremony afterwards, I could rest assured he would do whatever was required to support these and have them happen. Acknowledging that is very important because there are major differences in our views of the world, of reality---yet these very differences have made each of us stronger.

I realized I needed to make some provisions for Shamana, our dog, so that Bob would have some help in caring for her. And finally, I had to decide what I wanted to do with all my writing and creative work. I have filing cabinets, a computer, and two hard disks full of my writing----saved over the years from my very first poems in junior high school to the shamanic articles, designs, and poems I still write. Some of my BearSisters want to do 'something' with these. A part of me thinks I should just shred all of this once I am closer to death but while I still have clarity and energy to do so. At this point, I've just decided to revisit and journey on this issue later yet soon.

Towards the end of this fourth week, not only did I begin thinking about the 'remains' of my life, but also what I might wish for my self during my 'closing days'; that is, the days when Death has clearly made presence yet I am still lucid and present. Of course, I realize none of us know how and when we shall die nor the circumstances surrounding our immediate death. But these preparations are not just about those moments: such preparations can reveal to us matters of our heart which we have not heretofore focused on; ceremonies that would honor them, in the specificities of who they were.

It was during this week I became very clear about wanting to see, and be present with, my ElderBear Circle during this time.  Given this deep desire, I wanted to enable this to happen. As women we are scattered around different parts of the country with one of us having home in Israel. It somehow felt absolutely right to me, that I provide for the expenses involved in coming to be with me. I wanted this to include whatever re-membering Ceremony I desired or requested. Once this thought took hold, it grew strongly in me. I wrote a note to that effect and placed it in the box containing our Wills. I still don't quite understand why this is so important but somehow it's connected to the gifts and blessings I have received from my walk with Spirit, specifically with MotherBearSpirit, and with this Circle.

I also felt this was in keeping with how MotherBear held, taught, and nourished me during all these years. We are her Daughters as well as Sisters unto each other. How we honor, tend, and re-member each other needs to be congruent with what this Spirit has revealed to us over these many years...and what was revealed to our Ancestors. Perhaps, unknown to me, I am also keeping faith with some ancient tradition of BearClan Women.
 
I now have shared my wishes and written them down for future availability. I have an empty Bucket because I wrote my brother and we are in conversation. When I contemplate 'what else do I want to do', I realize that right now I am doing what I wish to do...I am learning to Be and let the next moment emerge from my Being.

I guess my main feeling is that I do not wish to be somewhere else --. Rabbits Run Rd and all the Beings here nourish me deeply. I do hope that my death might take place here within this very Land---but I don't fret this. I have some sense (maybe erroneous) that when we actually die, it's because it is time to die, time to leave, and our whole organism knows this. Based on my experiences with others in their time of dying, I know that the degree of experienced pain can influence the quality of departure. Crossing over can be the whole Being's desire because this IS the time for Crossing----or sometimes pain drives one and creates a desperate urge to take leave of one's body.  Regardless of which circumstance, our tending and support of one another can make a radical difference for Body releasing Soul and Soul's movement to Elsewhere.

Looking at my journal notes, I see that the day I completed the one item on my Bucket List was followed by a night of various dreams in which appeared several ancestors whom I had not known or had never seen. In particular did I dream of my Mother's Ancestors; in one dream I'm seeing my Mother beside the bed of her Mother as she is dying. I had vivid images of a Motherline of women tending each other through generations. Upon waking I wrote about these dream scenarios and ended with the comment:
"They are letting me know they are here for my crossing. I feel so loved."

I'm quite moved by reading this comment two weeks later. I can still see those dreams and can summon that experience of being held with Love. I can see this thread of conscious Love woven throughout these weeks of dying. Experiencing Love in this reality; experiencing Love in the Doorway Between the Worlds; and seeing Love beyond the Doorway as manifested in the arrival of my Ancestors.

Paradigm Shift: From Dying to Shedding Death
Early in the fifth week, I came out to my cottage to update my dream notes and saw on my calendar that my doctor would be back in her office and I had an appointment in six days. I called to arrange my CT scan two days before my appointment.

Upon arriving to my doctor's office, I ask for copies of the Imaging Lab reports but wouldn't you know that I cannot make heads or tails of the jargon!!!! I can see that it talks about a post-inflammatory tissue response. Just as I'm pondering this, my doctor comes out and we go into her patient room together. First she slides my blood test results over to me and proceeds to interpret them. She is pointing out to me that I have the best results on these tests than I've ever had over the past two decades. I met my target rate on the heart stress test. My sugar is completely under control so that I'm no longer checked as 'borderline' diabetic. Controlling diabetes has been an issue since I had a section of my pancreas removed in 2003. Everything e.g. triglycerides, liver test, etc. is good and she has even written at the bottom of the sheet "Yea!" because she knows I've been developing a diet that would result in healthier outcomes in these various areas. Prior to this appointment, we had discussed the likely possibility that I would need to start taking blood pressure and lipid control medications based on my blood panels over the last two to three years. The fact that is not the case and that more attention to my diet had resulted in positive benefits was the reason for the "Yea."

As she is showing and telling me this, I am thinking to myself ("how can I be so healthy while dying?") and then she pulls out her copies of the CT scan and the X-ray and reads them to me. After reading, she interprets the medical terminology and I am hearing that I DO NOT have lung cancer but that there is a nodule in the right upper lobe that is likely post inflammatory in etiology with no worrisome... etc.

And I feel my legs go weak as I ask in a quivering voice "you mean I am NOT dying? I thought I had lung cancer." and then I share with her some of the inner country I have traveled while she was off on holiday. She does not say
"How could you think that?" or "I'm sorry you thought that"
...no, instead, she offers the comment:
"Maybe for some reason, you had to go there."

And that comment alone was worth the whole visit!  I did share with her how difficult had been the time between our last phone call and this office visit. If at all possible, maybe a better arrangement could have been set up so that I would have been able to get the CT scan and seen a back-up doctor. But that's in retrospect and doesn't address her suggestions that maybe "I had to go into my time of dying." I know her comment has triggered an awareness that I was given this experience for my own edification so I need to understand more just what matters of Spirit and my Spirit were being addressed during these weeks of dying. It is so challenging for me to have experienced, with certainty, that I was dying... only to learn later that I am not dying... (except in the sense that once born, we are all dying).

Initiation and the Path Beyond
In retrospect, I consider these weeks as an initiation by Spirit. Shamanic training in tribal cultures always includes, at some point, being initiated into one's death; when the apprentice returns from death, supposedly it is with a reconstituted body and a more in-formed Soul. These are considered 'real' experiences of dying; the apprentice has no idea what is going to happen at that point in the training. If they knew they would 'return,' then they couldn't possibly experience dying or their own death.

There are some experiences in which we recognize our concerns or worries are based on possible 'what ifs' and we entertain these realities along with other possibilities. In my case, an 'alternative reality' never entered my consciousness. Or when it did, I perceived it as wishful thinking and taught myself to stay focused on what I was learning and experiencing as I was dying. Thus, in retrospect, I now consider that I was undergoing such an initiation.

Another possibility: during shamanic healing, sometimes the healer 'takes on' the illness of the person. Shamans are taught how to maintain, with their Helpers, their own vital core so that in 'handling' the illness, they do not absorb the unwanted entities into their own body. Since late October, I had spent considerable time focused on tending the dying and death of others... even if I was not directly involved with the ones dying, I had opened my whole being to the energy field of the person and to the energy field of the ones directly present beside the bed.

I believe it was my very openness that allowed me to truly be a Singer for these individuals-including experiences of greeting Ancestors from Elsewhere who had come to assist their Crossing Over. It's as though I was a moving spiral and following these experiences, I had arrived back to the center of my own Self and now was my time to experience this transformation of Human Embodied Self to complete Soul or Spirit. This is the perspective that teaches:

On this spiritual path, you cannot stand on the sidelines of life; you are called both to rejoice in life and to tend the sick and the dying; called to assist Souls in their crossing and sometimes assist healing in the Other Realms. There will be times in healing activities, when somehow your deepest Self knows the need for further education and may be open to that education. During those times, Spirit will take you on a revelatory Journey that contains a lesson plan for your spiritual development in a specific area.

Answering the call to the shamanic path implies that one makes and accepts this Agreement that is often manifested in various initiatory experiences.

I am just beginning to process the possible teachings from this experience. I know that the teachings for me ranged from a different understanding of my actual physical Vessel (and its importance) to lessons pertaining to shamanic community: this balance between the intensely individual Being to the communal Self. I developed a more acute appreciation for my place in the Circle of Community because while dying, I could 'see' the space in the Circle where once I stood. While saying goodbye, I sensed both what I was taking away with me and what I was leaving behind.

I need time to meditate, journey, and integrate. It is one thing to 'suffer' an experience and quite another to understand the meaning of the suffering. And beyond meaning is how to apply what has been taught. Yet there are a few windows opening for me now; a few marked doorways. Just now I can only read the titles on those portals-titles that indicate what may be the teachings to absorb and from which to profit. Their importance is not limited to the time of dying and death but also to the path of living.

The Art of Listening
My friends listened to me for which I am incredibly grateful. They did not say "Oh don't think that." or "How can you possibly think that?" They listened as I described my dying and my desires for how to be tended in my last days. They listened to my dreams, to my fears, anxieties, and never once offered their own interpretation. I now know the Blessing of true Listening...for by simply listening, they enabled me to uncover more and more of myself, come home to myself, and, at the same time, let me know I had friends who could walk by my side; they could not do my dying but they supported me as I did my dying.  The primary Instructor during these times is Spirit. Through such listening to one another, we support both the Teacher and the Student. I hope that I can so listen to others as did my friends to me. And I recommend we bring awareness to the quality of our Listening with our friends, in our Circles, and those whom we may be tending.
   
Unexpected Ancestors from the Mysterium
I had several dreams in which I met Ancestors for the first time - I knew both while dreaming and upon awakening, that these were my actual, once embodied, relatives. I had never met them and I do not recall ever hearing of them. Yet I knew they once had lived and they were here for me in my time of dying---I was shown scenes from earlier historical times, when one of them assisted the other while they were dying and during the actual burial of two. I knew this was so real, that were I to choose (despite all odds of actually being able to do this) that I could go to these very burial sites on the Plains and would eventually uncover their bones...
The way in which I encountered these Ancestors had the quality of what some call a 'revelatory' moment. When we have shamanic experiences, the possibility of 'revelation' in the most profound meaning of that word, is present. We don't need to stretch or stress ourselves to find their 'meaning';  revelation implies "to be revealed" or "is revealed." That is, we can trust that the reasons for their appearance will become known to us----it is our job to keep doorways for them open.


During a journey this week, I was informed that many Ancestors are seeking our attention and especially those that acquired wisdom during 'big-changing times' in their own lives. Based on this, I invite each of us to do some journeywork to see if some of your Ancestors are seeking engagement with you; it is quite possible they have some wisdom teaching for you and for your larger Earth community.

Clapping Hands and Thumping Foot

In closing, I wish to share notes from an email I received today. My friend Ziva wrote me about a Sufi practice. She said "the Sufi believe that in the center of the hand there is a sacred place called the Well of the Soul. And the action of clapping hands arises the Well of the Soul And by this sacred memories flow to the heart."

I delighted receiving this description. It is so in keeping with the practice of clapping one's hands and thumping one's foot which, done simultaneously, is part of one of the Plains' Buffalo Dances. The intention and effect of this Dance is to 'draw up from Earth' the joyful wisdom of how to walk on Earth...as the Buffalo know... as the Old ones knew, and science has confirmed, Buffalo's walking refurbishes the soil because the specific grasses upon which Buffalo feed is part of an evolutionary process by which Buffalo and Grass keep Covenant to 'feed and replenish Earth'....

I was touched to receive this on the very day that I was writing this Reflections. Almost as though Ziva was saying to me:
"It's time now Carol to clap your hands,
let the sacred memories flow to your heart"
And I sing back to her:
Yes, may I clap my hands, may I thump my foot
May my walk leave a trail of food and song
Yes, may we Clap our Hands with Joy
And thump our feet in delight
Sing up the Sun
And welcome the Night...
Blessed are we indeed...
To dwell within this Earth Community

Love and blessings,
Carol

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