In my last Reflections, I referred to a current running through all my teaching experiences between the Spring and Fall Equinox of this year. This was a current regarding boundaries in both the practice and teaching of shamanism.
In June, the SSP annual conference focused on 'Shamanism without Boundaries' and involved tending various sites in Santa Cruz where previous traumas had left imprints on Land and Beings therein. In this conference we were focused on extending our usual physical boundaries for tending and healing. Inevitably our mental boundaries also surfaced.
In mid-Summer I was presented with the requirement to dislodge my shamanic conceptual boundaries while teaching An Introduction to Shamanism
workshop. It was a fascinating, and always challenging, process in which I became engaged. I was required to bring fresh eyes and an "I don't know" approach to something I would be doing for what seemed the umpteenth time!
I am still integrating my experiences from that week-they have rich implications for my walk in the world. These are teachings that came as unexpected gifts to my life. In this time of harvest, I want to share some fruits from that Circle experience with you.
I'm sharing the journey I undertook while planning for a specific and unusual workshop because it required that I re-examine some assumptions made in the ordinary process of teaching shamanic workshops. The process raised some important issues in the understanding and practice of shamanism. These are not issues only pertinent to teaching but can be
applied to our daily practice and our Circles. As I started writing this, I realized that if I could lay out the bones that eventually held the structure of the workshop, maybe this would be useful for others of you...and hopefully interesting!
Perhaps this sharing will encourage some to bring the Beginner's Mind to shamanic practices that we have been doing over months and years. From such an approach might we reward ourselves with fresh appreciation of this ancient way and with the wonder that can accompany seeing something old for the first time.
Before focusing explicitly on using Beginner's Mind, some context is required. The context indicates why the customary teaching methods could not be employed without loss of the vigor and the awe-some moments that characterize revelatory spiritual practice.
An Invitation to Begin Again
I met Hideki at Esalen over fifteen years ago. He was one of several seminarians from Japan who had signed up for my workshop "Shamanism and the Medicine Wheel." This was his first introduction to shamanism and he was particularly interested in the paradigm of the Plains Medicine Wheel. In the course of that week, there were moments when it seemed I was sitting in Circle with someone whose lineage with shamans of Japan was very manifest. His understanding of shamanic states of consciousness was very apparent in the physical vigor and clarity with which he enacted certain shamanic activities or ceremonies. His dancing evoked memories of those times when our ancestors gathered around the Fires or merged with the Animal
Sensing an apprentice to the Path, I spoke with both Hideki and the teacher who had brought this group from Japan. I wanted his teacher to know here was someone who might benefit from support to pursue shamanism when he returned home from Japan. For reasons unclear at the time, I knew I needed to bear witness to the possibility that this young man might be experiencing the 'touch' of his shamanic Ancestors calling and awakening him to the shaman's path. My behavior at the time did not seem presumptuous, unusual, or out of line in any way. It seemed natural and utterly appropriate. And even though there were the great waters between us, when that group left Esalen, I had some hunch that Hideki and I would meet again.
What was most remarkable to me during that week at Esalen was the language differences within the group:
most of the Japanese did not speak English and I did not speak Japanese. However this was also a group in which some were from Israel, Japan, South America, Germany and there was a wide range of fluency in spoken English. The language difference often made verbal communication difficult. This was somewhat allayed because the group from Japan decided to tape record the sessions. Using a translator between meeting times of the group, they met, learned what had been spoken during the previous workshop session, and shared their responses with one another. Needless to say, they were hard workers and serious students!
Meanwhile, the first two nights, I acquired hardly any sleep as I stayed awake to develop a teaching strategy in which gestures, drawing or graphics, and movements became
the vehicles for exploring Shamanism and the Medicine Wheel. Of course, the whole group benefited tremendously from being at Esalen where there were both other teachers and students, in other workshops, who spoke the varieties of language present in ours.
During these intervening fifteen years, intermittently Hideki came to the states and participated in wide range of shamanic workshops and gatherings. Sometimes he would bring two or more students with him. Most frequently these were large, international gatherings offered through the non-profit, Shamanic Circles. I also knew that he was gathering regularly with a Shamanic Circle in Japan.
A constant stream through all these years was our intermittent attempts to communicate through email. Periodically I would send him my latest thoughts on some workshop I was teaching. I did not realize
at the time that his sister, a professional translator, was translating these and I began unconsciously assuming that his fluency with English had increased. This was not evidenced in his written letters to me but they were always quite brief with just enough content that I could assume my written materials were clear.
Thus, when Hideki wrote me in mid-Spring this year that he wanted to bring a group from Japan to study with me, this seemed another opportunity to work together and continue shamanic explorations. He made clear that he wanted a workshop that would further his own shamanic education as well as provide instruction for the students he would be bringing with him. Even though my schedule was full at the time, I experienced his request as both invitation and obligation. It was a matter of keeping faith with our journey begun many years ago at Esalen.
Through a flurry of emails, we were
able to book the Santa Cruz retreat center during the only dates of the year he could take vacation from his job. Once the rental contract was done, he began reaching out to find potential participants who would come with him.
We decided to focus on Bear Medicine because Bear has always been a primary Being in the history of both Japanese and North America shamanism. This Great Being would be the Bridge-Maker for joining East with West. I also knew there was material on Bear medicine and ceremonies, written by Japanese researchers, that could be useful to them.
In the course of our May correspondence, I came to realize that most the individuals coming had not studied any shamanism and were not from his Circle there in Japan. It was a group of individuals with widely different backgrounds--- the presumable constant being their
interest in learning shamanism. Thus, my first resetting of expectations was to move my approach from teaching advanced shamanism to teaching an introduction to shamanism.
By the middle of June I began to realize that only one of the people coming spoke English and that was the translator who is also Hideki's sister. She had not studied shamanism but was very enthusiastic to come and to learn. However, her ability to come was based on being able to bring her husband and two children. I wondered: "How could we do our Circle shamanic work yet also weave in a place for the larger Circle that includes the family?"
Each week some new concern or 'wrinkle' would arise that required another flurry of emails. Each time another
assumption on my part was exposed. I had to shift my expectations and rework my designs. I kept perceiving each wrinkle as another opportunity to rethink 'How to teach shamanism?" I took some comfort in the memories from that week at Esalen in which we surmounted the language differences. But this was a large magnitude of difference and we were missing some of the indirect support that had been available to them at Esalen.
At times, our attempts to communicate through email were almost comical. I would write to Hideki about different approaches for teaching introductory shamanism and what we might do together during the week. Inevitably our correspondence raised more question for clarification until I finally realized we were trying to verbalize some subject matters whose understanding could only come from experiencing. The misguided attempt to explicate certain shamanic activities becomes compounded
when there is no common verbal language for describing complicated concepts and methods.
There were so many unknown factors, and real inability to communicate or clarify those unknowns, that I was becoming anxious about what I had committed to do! I am sure that what kept me from becoming dysfunctional in my planning was a sense that this workshop was meant to be. I could compare this with some uncertainties I had while planning for the SSP Conference and wondering "Just what are we trying to do?" and "Is this approach to working with trauma within Land going to be a complete flop?" Once these events occur, of course, we can wonder about our anxieties; often those things requiring the most planning work result in simple designs. But it takes a while to arrive to that simplicity and the process can be quite nervous-making. I think this is especially true for venturing into heretofore
unexplored terrain: whether of the Mind or of the Earth Body.
I realized how much we were at the mercy and grace of Spirit to guide, inform, and shape our week together. We were dependent on the good will, compassion, and sensitivity among us. From one perspective, this was a group that would soon be arriving to a small retreat place in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They were participants making real sacrifices to afford coming to the United States for the opportunity to study with "Hideki's Teacher" (I learned this was one way he had framed his reaching out for potential participants). I had an obligation to respect their commitments and do my best by each participant and the Circle itself.
On the other hand, they would only be able to
do this because they had a translator who, in turn, needed to bring her whole family. We would be a small village at this retreat center. There was something important about weaving shamanic ways into times with the whole gathered village. We needed to include times when the whole family participated with the Circle in a way that supported our shamanic focus and did not distract us. If nothing else, these young children would be daily reminders of the requirement to tend the Fire of future generations. I have done two or three workshops where children were present because of some special situation in the family. In those workshops, however, one parent tended the children while the other participated in the Circle. And they were lodged at some distance from where the Circle met and lodged.
This situation was different both because of the physical layout of the retreat center and also the language
difference. The mother was our Circle's translator so needed to be present throughout our week together. The husband and children did not feel comfortable leaving the retreat grounds and going into situations that would require spoken English. On the positive side, this retreat center provided land and woods within which they could roam, play, and discover with their father.
Yet it was clear to me we needed to plan times including the whole family. If not, then we were keeping the usual boundaries and the customary separations. And a major theme I was exploring this year was dissolving these self-created boundaries that inhibit rather than flourish a sense of the Whole.
A different approach was being required of us. A paradigm that held, not the either/or dialectic but rather the both/and approach. We needed an approach that didn't
speak about the place of children in the shamanic community but practiced ways of being with the children of our community. We needed to experience a different way of walking. I felt very deeply that our eyes and our ears needed to be touched by the presence of these children...and by the father and husband of the woman whose task just now was supporting the mother and wife while she did her tasks that required her undivided attention. How to do this??
Here I detected the hand of Spirit seeking to teach us....or provide me...with an Introduction to Shamanism that would stretch beyond my usual behaviors of thought and activity. I surmised that through their presence, we might discover shamanic activities that would deepen our understanding about tending the Fire for future generations. This would be manifested in how we did ourselves and not only in how we spoke ourselves. If we could find, through
actual experiences, how to hold and teach the shamanic heart-beat to even the youngest, then there would be a "two generations Circle" returning home to Japan. And who knew what the children might teach us and that could come only through the child? I did not know what Dream was dreaming us but I certainly began to realize something altogether unexpected was moving through all of us who were engaged in arriving to the retreat center.
Beginner's Mind in Designing a Workshop
A few weeks before the workshop, I had a quite vivid dream. In my dreaming world I was with a group of people - a mixture of people known and unknown to me. We were in a unfamiliar and unknown landscape. As this group started moving to form a Circle, I began walking to the center
with a large stone in one hand and a blue candle in the other. Just as I started to place the stone on ground, someone tugged on the bottom of my jacket pulling me backward. I was momentarily thrown off balance, turned to see who was tugging at me but no one was there.
Then a Voice whispered clearly in my left ear: "Be Beginner's Mind, Be Beginner's Mind." The meaning of those words shivered through my body and suddenly I saw the Candle, the Stone, and the Center of the Circle with wondering eyes of "Why am I doing this?" In my dreaming, the question implied that I needed to share the reason for placing a stone and a candle in the Center before lighting the candle. I woke the next morning with a fresh clarity for approaching this workshop and most of what I have written here was informed by dreaming Beginner's Mind.
After that dream, I sought to plan with a Beginner's Mind; before doing any specific workshop preparations, I would either drum or rattle myself---seeking help to alter my usual style of planning from "one who knows something" to walking myself through possible activities with a Beginner's Mind. I found this a marvelous strategy for culling out the many presumptions I use in teaching shamanism. As I walked myself through some session I would inquire: "why do this activity?" or "what is the purpose in doing this activity?" I wasn't asking for the usual reasons of a design having its own integrity. I was seeking, rather, to understand anew some of the rituals or ceremonies we use in most shamanic workshop circles or gatherings.
I found the Beginner's Mind to be so freeing of my own creativity. The strategy for learning from this approach
is to temporarily set aside any notion of being an expert on something. Often people ask us to teach some topic, because they consider us to be an expert on the subject. I get weary of being a so-called expert. I can also bore myself repeating ideas, methods, or activities focused on shamanism---or focused on any topic that I might address several times in a year. I miss the freedom to fully participate. I have a suspicion that, in the absence of my own full participation, I can actually lose touch with both students and some of the subject matter.
Of course, I'm aware of agreeing to fulfill certain responsibilities that involve teaching. But there are different ways of fulfilling these responsibilities.
The image that kept appearing to me was that of the 'teacher' or guide who was
carrying a flashlight---used to focus attention or eyesight on some specific terrain. That metaphor carries the assumption that my batteries are primed and I have a flashlight with appropriate focusing powers. On a journey of teaching with a group, I do not know the terrain we are scouting but I do have a good, working flashlight, a pointer to what may be important to highlight as we explore. I don't know what we shall find but I can assist us to seeing what we encounter. And one delight of this metaphor is the recognition that others may be carrying flashlights too! So with my Beginner's Mind, I did not expect myself to be the expert on shamanism! But I did expect myself to carry a flashlight.
Another benefit to the Beginner's Mind is that we allow ourselves to fail...and failing simply becomes the opportunity to start over again or to seek congruence between teaching goals and possible ways of
reaching them. I have found it to always be a wonderful moment in teaching when I'm cracked open with laughter by what didn't work!...and we all get to laugh together. That's when you know you are truly exploring even if you have traveled that particular territory hundreds of times. It's also why the Trickster Coyote has such an elevated status and elicits genuine affection because Coyote appears and tricks us into learning what we thought we knew. And most of the time, Coyote's a quite humorous instigator.
A Team with Shared Beginner's Mind
Now I began scenting for the tracks of Spirit moving us towards new approaches to teaching shamanism and creating a shamanic village. My dreaming had created a wonderful alertness to unexpected
I began tracking specific words being used in our correspondence and discerned the trust Hideki was placing in me as his teacher who would work with his students. When I suggested Hideki teach with me, he reminded me of his desire to come and learn - not to teach -- he was clear about not wanting himself to be seen as teaching with me. And, of course, this raises the issue of "Who is the teacher in shamanism." For several years now I've sought to uncouple many of those associations we have with 'the teacher' in shamanism so we can return ourselves to the real teachers: namely Spirit, other Beings with whom we share the World; and those invisible Teachers of Power Animals whom we journey to inquire and to seek wisdom.
It is not that I avoid being a teacher of shamanism or the attendant responsibilities. It's just that sometimes the human teacher becomes the
focus of attention and we forget that we are each both student and teacher in addition to those enduring Teachers of the Many Worlds.
I also thought it would be wise to have another person working with me so there would be different models for teaching. I thought our time together would be more productive and intimate if there were other teachers of whom they could inquire and/or who would be available for the Circle when we spread ourselves out and over the Land. This is land with many different ecologies; each presents the shamanic enquirer with messages and Beings unique to it.
I ask a friend and shamanic practitioner if she would assist me. To my delight, Cheryl embraced this opportunity. Eventually I ask another friend and shamanic walker if she would join us. The three of us, Cheryl, Nancy, and I became the home-team to work with
this Circle in matters related to teaching, the logistics of the retreat center, and scouting the land. We conversed among ourselves about working from the Beginner's Mind. This was especially appropriate as the three of us had not taught together before.
As we planned, I shared my goals for this week around which all our activities would somehow be focused. These were very basic goals:
When we came to the end of the workshop, I hoped that each participant would have:
- Found some way to connect and commune with other Beings and Powers with whom we share Planet Earth (some might call this shamanic engagement with "Spirits of Nature")
- Experienced the transforming Power of Circle and Being within Circle
- Begun encountering Teachers, Power Animals, Ancestors; this means they would have begun relationship
with the many 'other worlds.'
- Some possible ways for continued exploration of the shaman's path when they return to Japan (if they desire more explorations).
The issue became what activities and methods would support these goals in ways that were creative, clear, and employed a variety of models (e.g. graphics, movement, song, dance, mini-lectures, dream enactment, etc.)
Story-telling with Beginner's Mind
One morning I gathered the tools I nearly always use: drum, rattle, crystal, feather fan. With Beginner's Mind, I inquired as to who they were and how they understood their own role in the life of a shamanic practitioner. It was during this morning with my tools, that I found how their stories could become the avenue for teaching shamanism. Always have I appreciated the power of
stories to move me towards some new visioning and understanding. But that's different from using story-telling as the primary teaching tool for teaching shamanism. By story telling, I include various forms to convery a story such as acting the story, drawing a story, using musical instruments to convey pace of the story. There are so many ways that stories can be shared.)
My strategy in planning became that of the "teacher in search of the story to share." I began inquiring of my tools "What is your story? How did you come to participate with the Humans in their spiritual practices?" I branched out from my "Shamanic Tool Stories" to "Stories from the Land". These were tales from the plants, the stones, the waters, the Sky, Stars, Sun, Moon etc. Sometimes old stories from Ancestors
surfaced....stories I had forgotten yet were remembered within my Body. I inquired of others: "Do you know a story about_____(and here I would reference to some particular subject.) I was seeking Stories both universal and specific; that is, I wanted to learn stories of Beings or Powers specific to the Place where we would be gathering as well as stories that were not place-dependent, eg. the Birth of Drum into the World.
Invariably there were times in story gathering when I would fret that this was 'unproductive planning' because our language difference precluded stories as a primary teaching tool. At those moments I would become Beginner's Mind: in this approach, one acknowledges assumptions and opinions about "what's right, what will work, what's best for now" and puts them all aside for the sake of engaging in the Now or the experience at hand.
What I was experiencing was re-discovery of the roots of shamanism via the route of stories. I did not know how this would be applicable for our work together and it was okay to say "I don't know." What eventually I discovered is that, indeed, story-sharing became the primary avenue for our learning together....but it was not the specific stories I was gathering. In retrospect, I was being lured to story hunting so that when the week came,
my whole Being was attuned to the experience and process of "stories coming through" and "let them flow through you."
Had I not approached this time of planning with Beginner's Mind, I might still have worked with and through stories. Yet my process would have been different. I imagine I would have wanted to make sure whatever story I spoke would be related to some specific subject and that relationship
would be obvious to the listener.
That dream influenced the rest of our planning and came into vivid replay the evening we first gathered in Circle. Looking around I could see anticipation in all our faces. I suddenly remembered the words: "Be Beginner's Mind" and felt electrified by the Journey we were beginning. My chest literally expanded as I breathed in all the fresh air, releasing it with the prayer
"Spirit take pity upon us...keep us in your Care"
A sense of Awe flooded from experiencing me-and us---as we stood there in a Silence full of Voices - the whole world around us held us in song...where we gathered the trees branches were swaying with wind; water was running through layers of ponds in the background. There were hens clucking and scratching, wee bird songs from the Oaks; altogether we were being held in a Sheltering Place and by the Great
In that moment something shifted in my chest and a beautiful energy ran through me. I can only call this 'wonder at the new and unexpected' for wonder brings forth some childlike emotions and responses -- with laughter being one...and we unexpectedly laughed together...as I said "Now we begin..' and we began.
My plan at this moment is to focus the next Reflections on ritual, ceremony, and journeying with a Beginner's Mind. However, I've a hunch there are some specific moments and teachings to share from what actually unfurled in this July Circle. Yet Who knows what shall occur between now and the next time I'm at my computer writing Reflections.
This is the creative freedom of Beginner's Mind: to have a plan yet know something unplanned may find me and redirect my attention towards other issues shamanic!
I wish for all of us time with our Beginner's Mind and joy on this path
so rich with the delightfully unexpected.
Carol P Edgar
Special note: I am planning a 7 day retreat at Blacktail Ranch, MT for Sept. 2011 on "BearMedicine and Buffalo Wisdom: Two Sides of the Same Stone." If you did not receive an announcement of this and are interested, go to this web page.
Please make note that my email address has changed. I no longer can received email at my old AOL address.
My new address is:
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