Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Unexpected Animal - A Shaman Journey

 Years ago, I wrote The Ghost Drum, about a shaman who steps into other worlds and explores them as easily as we breathe.
Lucy Coats
     At the end of last year, I went on a shaman journey. Not a very long one. Barely across Shaman Street.
     Like the first, it was under the guidance of Lucy Coats, fellow member of the Scattered Authors Society and well known writer and witch about town.
      A few years ago now, at the SAS's annual conference at Charney Manor, Lucy led a 'shaman journey' workshop. Like Lucy, who has written several retellings of myth, I love these ancient stories and their imagery and have a great interest in all things pagan and witchy. So I went along out of curiosity.
       Lucy had us all lie down on the floor, close our eyes and get comfortable. Then, with her drumming and her gentle voice, she hypnotised us into a state of deep relaxation. She was going to take us on a guided journey, she said. What did we see, behind our closed eyes?

          There's a proverb that I used as a touchstone while I wrote The Ghost Drum -

'When we sleep, the dreamer inside us wakes.'

          I used it to help myself imagine how someone could walk in another world - to remind myself how vivid, solid and in every way real dreams can be.
         When Lucy asked us what we could see, the dreamer inside me woke, and looked up at an enormous tree towering high above, its grey branches spiralling upwards against a starred sky. I was taken aback by the strength and vividness of the image, so much so that, of course, I had to belittle it.
         'Oh, of course, it's the World Tree,' I thought - something I'd been imagining since I first came across the Norse Myths at eleven. I knew that the World Tree was about as ancient a symbol as you could find, and that Siberian shamans had 'climbed the World Tree' to travel between worlds.
         My mind is very well stocked with mythic images - so there was nothing very surprising in it producing one on request.
        But it was so very clear and real an image. It had solidity and weight. I've seen - and touched - images as real in dreams, but my waking imagination can't attain that degree of detail. So maybe, I thought, something out of the ordinary was going on here.
Ygdrasil - Wikipedia, public domain
          Maybe that's how it works, I thought. If you're taking a trip into your own inner world and dreams, you can only use the imagery in your own head. My own image of the World Tree had been with me a long time.
          So I decided to stop bitching and let things happen. Lucy led us, with her words and drumming, along a path and to a door... Behind the door were three caves, and we were to find, if I remember correctly, a spring in one, a fire in another, and some kind of prize or gift in the third.
          It was a long time ago, and I don't remember all of the experience - what did stay with me was the extraordinary reality of everything I 'saw.' There was a large bowl carved out of crystal, a burning fire lighting the darkness of a cave. Perhaps none of the imagery was very original - but then, the archetypal, by definition, is not going to be original. It was all very real. I felt the heat from that fire. If I'd put my hand into it, it would have burned.
          There was also the great feeling of peace and relaxation the experience left me with when Lucy called us back. I remember thinking it a very interesting experience indeed and that if ever the chance came along to take another trip, I would jump at it.

The chance came at another SAS event - the 'Winter Warmer' held at Folly Farm in Somerset. Lucy was there, and offered another chance to take a 'shaman journey.'
     The event took place at the end of November 2015, over a weekend where one storm roared into another. Or maybe it was one long storm that lasted three days. It was dark, wet and cold. Lucy suggested that we bring our duvets with us to the studio, which might be a bit draughty.
       I'd had a sleepless night - as had many others, as the storm roared and stomped about the sky - and had just returned from a walk with my friend Jenny Alexander, where we'd tramped over a hill in strong winds. So I was more than willing, at Lucy's suggestion, to lie down and stretch out, snuggle into my duvet, close my eyes and - Zzzzz-Zzzzz
        Unfortunately, I do snore and I did keep falling asleep. For me, Lucy's voice faded in and out...

        This time, Lucy played a tape of gentle music rather than drumming but, as before, she first lulled us into a deeply relaxed state. It was very cosy, lying on the floor among my fellow Scattereds, warmly snuggled in a duvet and drifting off gently into a half-sleep.
         When she had us all relaxed, Lucy suggested that we were lying cradled in the roots of a big tree, in a forest. I was there! I felt the roots around me, smelled the leaf-mould and earth, looked up and saw the branches and leaves above, scattering the light.
          As others said, the sound of the storm outside helped our imaginations - we didn't have to call up the sound of wind soughing in branches. It was soughing like billy-o. My imagination, somehow boosted or freed by the hypnotism, worked at full strength, using all my memories of trees and woods, weaving them together into a - well, a virtual reality. An alternative reality. I could smell the forest. I could hear it. I could feel those cradling roots.
          I've experienced this other-worldly reality in dreams but here, I wasn't exactly asleep. I wasn't exactly awake either. I kept drifting off - but then I'd hear a snatch of what Lucy said, or a whisper or movement from one of the others around me.
          An animal is going to come to you, Lucy said. It doesn't matter what kind.
          Oh, it'll be a cat, thought my doubting mind. I like cats, I had a cat narrate the Ghost World books, it'll be a cat for sure.
          So I 'looked around' as it were, into the wood, fully expecting to see a cat. Trying to see a cat. Probably my ex-cat, Biffo.
          Coming through the trees, I saw a huge white stag. Plain as anything, there was this huge white stag with an enormous spread of antlers -
          No, no, I thought. Hang on. Return to sender. This is wrong. Should be a cat. Stands to sense it should be a cat.
          The stag came on regardless. It was white, it had a big mane or ruff of fur around its
shoulders, and from the great tree of its antlers hung golden chains, bells, apples, and a golden key. These golden ornaments swung as the stag came, catching the dim woodland light and shining.
          (Since I've been trying to learn to use graphics programmes, I tried to make something like what I saw, but the stag in my image is Bewick's engraved stag and much daintier than the white stag I saw in my dream or whatever it was. The stag I saw was a much beefier, shaggier specimen with heftier antlers.)
          If, awake, I'd tried to imagine how a stag would walk, I doubt I could do a very good job, but here I saw each movement of the head and hooves.My subconscious was drawing, I suppose, on a lifetime of BBC Wildlife documentaries.
          Follow your animal, Lucy said. It will take you to your special place, your safe place.
          I can't remember exactly what Lucy said about this place, because I kept drifting off to sleep, but I think it was the place where you can go for inspiration, if you need an idea or a solution to a problem. The place where your imagination lives and springs from.
          So, I got up and went with the stag. He greeted me by blowing on my hand, and I felt his warm breath. I felt his fur (which I suspect felt more like a cat's fur than a deer's, since I don't think I've ever touched a deer's fur in my life.) I walked at his shaggy shoulder and he led me uphill through the trees that arched overheard and rutted the track with their roots.
          Your animal will bring you to a door, Lucy said, and the stag led me to a small wooden door. of thick planks, set in the hillside.
          Your animal will give you the key.
          And there was a big golden key hanging from a chain on the stag's antlers. He lowered his head so I could take it.
          I turned the key and ducked through the low door into a dim, round, warm little place. There were wooden beams, an open fire, and benches covered with hides and fur. I think it probably owed a great deal to a yurt I once ate venison and blueberries in, in Arctic Finland, and maybe a little to Scara Brae, the Stone Age village in the Orkneys. It was a very nice little gaffe to find inside your own head, and certainly felt safe and warm, but my memories of this 'shaman journey' weren't of 'the safe place' but of meeting that amazing and unexpected stag.
          Why a stag? And why one bedecked in gold chains? - If, waking, I'd been asked to predict what animal would appear in this half-dream, I'd have said, a cat. Maybe a dog. If pushed to be a bit more dramatic, I might have said, 'A wolf,' since I've several times written about wolves. But never a stag with gold hanging from its antlers
          It's this quality of the unexpected, as well as the vivid detail, that makes these experiences, for me, so strange and so interesting. I remember the feeling of surprise, even shock, when I 'saw' the stag. I expected to be in control, to be able to 'order up' the expected cat. But I had no control. I wasn't expecting the stag, but there he was, gold and all, and there was no getting rid of him.

         At the end, we sat up and recounted what we'd seen. I was glad that my inevitable snoring had turned into 'a giant in a cave' for another traveller. Everyone had 'seen' an animal and had been led to a secret, special place - but it's for them to give their account of their journeys, if they choose, not for me.

          I've tried repeating this experience, but it's not easy without Lucy's soothing voice.

          Thank  you, Scattered Authors Society, and especial thanks to Lucy Coats, for making this trip into my own head possible.

          Lucy Coats' website is here.

          And here is Lucy on 'creative napping.'


Joan Lennon said...

Extraordinary experiences - thanks for telling us about them!

Sue Bursztynski said...

A shaman journey workshop! How wonderful - and ideal for the author of The Ghost Drum. I'm afraid I really would have simply dozed off in such a relaxed atmosphere. :-( The closest I have come to it was a workshop run by American SF author David Gerrold, who told us to close our eyes and imagine, step by step, our ideal writing work space. I imagined a wonderful study overlooking the sea, and it was so very real to me that tears of joy fell from my closed eyes, impressing Mr Gerrold! But we were sitting up and there was no soothing music or drumbeat, just his voice, so I stated awake.

Katherine Roberts said...

That's a pretty impressive graphic of the stag with gold in its antlers, even if not the one you 'saw'. Would make a great cover for a book...

Susan Price said...

Thanks, Kath, but I can take little credit - the stag itself comes courtesy of Bewick, with a little jiggery-pokey on colour-balance and exposure to make it look white, and the trees in the background are taken from my brother Andrew's art work for 'Wolf's Footprint.'

Jenny Alexander said...

Lovely post, Sue - it brought back my own journey, and that whole delightful day. Why the stag? I never ask why, any more than I would with ordinary waking experience - it is what it is!