Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Tree Hugger

I had a very interesting couple of days this weekend. Spent most of it down on the coast near Brighton, firstly on a workshop with Susan Greenwood and Jo Crow learning techniques of shamanism. Then on Sunday training with my long time teacher, Tai-Chi master and general martial arts aficionado Nigel Sutton who's over on one of his periodic visits from Malaysia.

This post will deal mainly with my experiences of the Saturday shamanism workshop, I'm going to do a separate post on the stuff Nigel's been teaching as there's a lot to go through.

The workshop was held in a Yurt (or possibly a Gurt, but I'm not too up on the stylistic differences) in some woods around Brighton. It was themed around trees, their place within an animistic worldview and the practical aspects of opening lines of communication.

The course was implicitly a practical one, with philosophical discourse kept to a minimum. We were given the opportunity to take take various 'journeys' and then encouraged to discuss our experiences on our return. There were six others on the course with me but I'm going to stick with my own journeys here, one because they are easier to recollect and two I don't know if the others would want their own stories published in the public domain.

The first exercise involved going out into the surrounding woods and finding your own tree to commune with. After leading us through a very lovely preparatory meditation and shifting our perceptions into a more open state via the use of a rattle we were all sent outside to find a tree.

As I left the cosy confines of the Yurt, after this period of meditation and opening up, I found my senses were suddenly much more alive to the increased sensory input. The colours and sounds were more 'there' as if someone had just cleaned glasses you hadn't realised had become fogged.

Walking away from the immediate surrounds of the Yurt I began to walk down a nearby path, but after walking a few yards I found that I kept thinking of a particular clearing right back where I had started. So, deciding to pay attention to my gut feeling, I turned around and came back.

As soon as I came back to the clearing I noticed a particular tree. It had been partially uprooted in a storm and the first part of it's trunk was almost horizontal to the ground, then it bent sharply upwards and shot into the canopy obviously grasping for he light. I figured this tree looked like it had a story to tell so I decided to stay with it.

Standing by the tree, I tried to keep my senses open and tune into it's presence. We had all been given a rattle to use on our walk and I used this intermittently to keep myself in a slightly altered state (not having used rattles before, I was surprised to find it rattling seemingly of it's own accord whenever I needed it). I spent a bit of time with the tree, observing and placing my hands on it, there was no sense of actual verbal communication but a definite feeling of connection.

Coming back to the Yurt we all lay on the floor and commenced journeying, with Jo pounding a beat on a circular drum I lay there and tried to ride the rhythm to somewhere else.

I wasn't holding much hope of anything actually occurring as normally when I lie down to relax in a yoga class I invariably nod off. However after a couple of false starts and a few thoughts of 'nope, this isn't working' I found my mind being drawn to the image of the tree I'd just spent time with. Holding the image of the tree in my minds eye, with the second heart beat of the drum pulsing through the tent, I suddenly found that I'd been joined by a woman dressed in green robes (it was very much a 'Mr Ben' moment, as if by magic a woman in green appeared). She sat on a bench by the tree her face covered with a hood, turning her head and standing she drew back the hood to revel a distinguished and handsome face with green hair and eyes.

Now I was quite surprised by this, I hadn't forced this to happen and none of the previous conversation of the day had laid any seeds of this nature within my mind. We stood by each other, as earlier no real verbal communication took place (though she did tell me she was a Dryad and gave me her name) but I felt comfortable with her there. At one point she hugged me and I felt that I became suddenly much more grounded like a tree and at another I felt the need to cough but placed her fingers on my throat and the need went away. Then the rhythm of the drum changed and I was being called back to the tent, I said my good byes and returned to the Yurt.

After a discussion of our experiences and some lunch we proceeded on to work with some other aspects of trees, this time the concepts of the underworld and the upper-world common in so many mythologies.

We each chose a part of a tree. Half the objects were tree roots while the other half were aspects of it's canopy such as branches, leaves or berries. I began with a tree root, one that I felt was suitably wand like, and I lay on the floor with it clutched across my breast. As this was straight after lunch I found that my attention kept drifting to the edges of sleep and a clear vision was difficult to maintain, however I did find a continuing theme that kept reoccurring as I lay in the shallows of sleep.

First It felt as though the root began to grow in my hand and wrap it's tendrils around my body in a cocoon. Thus mummified I was drawn into the earth where I lay, the sound of drumming echoing through the earth. As I looked up I could see a large tree growing from the centre of my chest it's branches reaching far above me.

After we were called back from the journey we were then asked to stand up and, keeping the feeling of the vision, see if we could translate the feelings into a dance. As Jo and Susan beat a vigorous rhythm we tried to join with the drum beat and allow it to find it's expression.

I'll admit I found this bit difficult and couldn't find myself getting into the rhythm. I wasn't feeling particularly self conscious but maybe there was a part of me that was reluctant to let myself get into it. Plus I couldn't get the image of Bez from the Happy Mondays out of my head, which was understandably most distracting. Anyway I chalk that one up to experience and it's something I'll have to work with.

For the second journey I chose a small branch with leaves at the end of it, there was no reasoning behind this other than it looked nice. This time I decided to stay sitting upright as I felt I would be able to maintain my concentration better. The drumming began again and I concentrated on the beat filling the Yurt, hearing the subtle song that sits just under the surface of the rhythm. A strange siren harmonic, like an angelic choir hidden in somewhere in the drums skin.

This time my mind settled on the meditation we began the day with, I felt a tree growing outwards from my heart it's roots sitting down in the earth and it's branches reaching for the sky. I stayed with this feeling for a while, feeling the wind through my branches, when I suddenly felt I could reach higher. I felt my tree self expand and my branches reach right up, breaking the surface of the clouds. Looking down my trunk/body I could see the earth far below me and my roots buried in the soil, I realised I'd become the world tree, bridging the three worlds. I kept with this feeling until the drum called me back, shrinking the tree into my chest and back to the Yurt.

Again for the second dance I had much the same problem as before, I think the difficulty is that I'm used to meditating from a static position and I find trying to maintain that state of mind while moving quite challenging.

After these two journeys we sat and discussed what had happened, sharing our individual experiences with the group. I was impressed with Susan and Jo's methodology of letting the journeys talk for themselves, we weren't forced to shoehorn our visions into a particular worldview or symbolic system, rather I believe they wanted us to use them to begin to create our own experiential maps instead of trying to contain them within a formal structure.

Did these experiences have any objective reality outside my own head? Would someone else going to the same tree have the same experience and met the same being? Possibly not, but I think we find the experience we need at the time and dress it in the appropriate clothes.

As to the question of was this all in my head? Well in my own opinion I think consciousness is far more complicated and expansive than a simple lump of tissue carried in evolutions own crash helmet. But even if the whole thing was a product of an overactive imagination, does it matter at the end of the day? Working this way is encouraging us to interact with our environment in a dynamic way, blending the subjective and the objective. To often do we draw a sharp boundary between what is 'out there' and 'in here' when really our lives are constructed on the shore between the two. Instead of sitting behind our eyes and looking out, relying on other peoples maps of reality, we can begin to create our own personnel mythologies, stories and relations with the landscape from direct experience. We are not just talking to the world but also hearing it answer back.

As my first direct experience of shamanism I feel I have come away with a lot of new things to play around with, but also a sense of connection to my own practices. It's nice to do something new and find there is already a lot of common ground, fresh ways of looking at the same thing.


Anonymous jan said...

Hey,wonderful to read of your first shamanic experience, not suprised that it was a good 'un. I couldn't begin to articulate my own experiences as beautiful as you do so i wont bother, although i will share my thoughts on the whole 'journey' experience... As i lay on the floor waiting for some kind of contact, i felt as if the fine line between actuality and imagination was strung above my head, somehow a chord was struck upon this fine line and it resonated throughout my entire being, i couldnt tell if it was inside or outside of my mind, didnt matter anyway, but the harmonics that were born of this chord appeared to me as clearly visual and fully tactile conceptions.Yet no sounds were heared,only seen and felt, and they have stayed with me ever since, unlike most of my 'real life' memories which inevitably fade and distort. All of my shamanic journey memories remain sharp, beautiful and real. May you be blessed with many more xx

11:14 am, August 03, 2005  
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