Shortly after the initial diagnosis of liver disease, my friend Jeannie phoned.
“How’s it going?”
“Not so good, Jeanie,” I answered.
“I just talked to someone over in Arizona who is doing shamanic work with others over there. Why don’t you go?”
What did I really know about shamanism? So, I did some reading. I learned that shamanic religions are the oldest healing practices on earth, the ancient roots of all modern psychology and spiritual healing. But shamans don’t use belief systems for their healing work. Instead they are trained usually through their own initiatory crisis, whether it is mental, emotional, or physical to become channels of healing energy to others. They had a range of techniques: the use dance, drumming, mask making and other kinds of art, ritual, dream, imagination, and astrology. It is an experiential pathway into the quantum invisible world.
My condition worsened and so did my desperation. I flew to Arizona in October a month after my diagnosis. I arrived in the late afternoon and drove to the hotel. I was to meet the shaman at 6:00 in the coffee shop. Slipping into the booth opposite me, the shaman smiled, “Everything is arranged for tomorrow. We meet at 7:00 a.m.,” he said, handing me directions. “But I need you to do something tonight. Draw a picture of your body and bring it with you tomorrow.”
At dawn with my map in my lap, I pulled my car up to a small flat clearing that was surrounded by low hills. The desert morning air was cool and still, the sun not fully visible above the distant mountain range. A large sweat lodge a few yards away was firmly anchored in the reddish earth. It was shaped like an igloo. My determined mind mustered up enough courage to get out of the car.
The shaman lifted the flap on the opening and gestured for me to enter. It was dark inside. After adjusting my eyes, I saw that poles made of thick willow branches provided the main support as smaller branches were arched from all sides and woven together supporting the layers of tarps that lay on top keeping this sacred space dry, dark and cool. Animal skins covered the earthen floor. It was like being in a womb.
He welcomed me with a few words and gestured for me to sit on the animal skin while he prepared for the ceremony. Filling his pipe with a mixture of tobacco and cactus resin he puffed on it to get it going. It seemed like my heart was beating against the canvas walls of the tent like a drum.
A thin veil of smoke slowly lifted into the air and began to fill the space. The odor was strange and heavy. It resembled the smell of licorice. Then getting directly to the point, he said, “What do you want from this?” Nervously I answered, “I want to know what this liver disease is about. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT MY PSYCHE IS TELLING ME ABOUT THIS ILLNESS!”
He nodded with a knowing smile. Looking at the drawing I did of my body, he asked, “What is this black area in your body?” I felt my stomach tighten and said to myself, ‘here goes.’ “I want to name the demon! They did this in biblical times.”
Sensing how hard it was for me, he said, “Your wounds are sacred ground for healing. Continuing to smoke, making it denser in the tent,” he said, “Tell me more.”
After 12 hours of intense processing this is what happened.
Then the tempo speeded up and I entered a trance-like state. The smoke-filled space was heavy and strong. I felt all of my boundaries cracking open, the smoke being part of the cleansing but also part of the new forces. Now two women started working on either side of my body, blowing the tobacco and cactus resin on me, preparing me for what was called the “thinning of the veil” between the conscious and the unconscious. As they continued to nuzzle me, I felt an escalating intensity and internal heat moving through my body. The beating of a drum and the sound of a rattle charged the atmosphere with a passionate invitation for something to happen.
And then it did! I rose up suddenly from the ground and started screaming in loud guttural tones, “My lion has been wounded! My lion has been wounded!” My voice emerged from my gut, almost like a growl. I named the wound over and over. My boundaries ripped apart to free this caged animal.
Finally, my groaning subsided and transformed into quiet, slow weeping. I was exhausted. Hot tears, tears that seem to come from eons ago, burned down my cheeks to carry away the despair and anguish hidden in the cells of my liver. My shoulders drooped, my knees wobbled, and I started to fall. Right next to me, two of the women assistants caught my body and guided me to the ground where they held me in their arms. I continued sobbing quietly, surrendering all I had held onto, surrendering to the healing work of the shamans. Then something else happened.
While in their arms I felt an ecstasy grow inside me as a pure whiteness illuminating my whole body. The two women holding me alchemically transformed into Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. I don’t know how I knew this but I did. I felt as though I was embodying Michelangelo’s Pieta, only I was supported by two strong and compassionate women. They were the midwives in this Mary/Magdalene force. In this sacred moment, I knew there was no life or death. There was only the bodily sense of being with Source in a crucifixion. I was opened fully to my beloved God.
I continued to weep softly, not with tears of sorrow or pain any longer, but with tears of gratitude and humility. It didn’t matter if I lived or died. I was in the tomb with the women—in the stillness, in the quiet, in the love. Later, one of my teachers would tell me, “Tears let the mercy of the universe flow through us. Your dissolution in the shaman’s tent brought you to the Mary’s. Mary brought you to Mary. One Mary gives birth to the cosmic heart, while the other Mary embodies the flesh of daily life in the manifest world.”