The Hero's (Shamanic) Journey
My heart quickened in tempo with the familiar pounding pulse of the shaman’s drum. The journey was beginning—and I had not yet managed to decide on my destination!
Following a group discussion on the inextricable relationship between grief and love (two sides of the same coin—you can’t fully experience one without intimately knowing the other), our weekly shamanic journeying circle had finally settled on two alternatives, left to personal choice. We could journey to the “secret door” of our locked-away grief (through which one must pass to access deeper love), or we could journey to meet an archetypal mother spirit who could shower us with unconditional love (thus preparing the soul for deeper integration of grief). I was torn. On the one hand, after my sister’s death many years ago, recurring dreams of stairways beckoning me down into darkness attested to a need to confront my unprocessed grief. On the other hand, thanks to a soul retrieval performed by this very shaman just two nights past, I now found myself integrating a lifelong backlog of unprocessed grief, attached to the four returned soul parts who’d been traumatized enough to take off in the first place. Just how masochistic was I hoping to get here?
With mounting panic—each moment spent deliberating left one less for journeying—I finally said fuck it and resorted to my go-to strategy: when in doubt, let the spirits decide. I slipped on my eye mask and relaxed into the hypnotic rhythm.
… The trip down my hollow tree into the Lower World is a quick one. Crash-landing unceremoniously into a cushiony pile of leaves, I dust myself off and exit onto a rocky beach. I am psyched to find Horse waiting for me there—though not as wildly ecstatic as she is to see me! This is our first communion after twenty-five long years apart, reunited by the same shaman who performed the soul retrieval, and the sleek blood bay whickers and prances around me in a mutual frenzy of nuzzles and neck-hugs. I fight her off with a laugh. “Yes, baby, okay—I’m super happy to see you, too! But we’re on a mission and we don’t have much time, so come on, let’s do this!” Looking into her liquid eyes, I briefly restate my dilemma. She makes no reply—some power animals are the mysterious silent type—but vaulting aboard, I trust her instincts intuitively as we take off like a rocket down the shore.
Spacious beach gives way to sandy cliffside strand, until my mount abruptly slows to enter a cleft in the rock. Uh oh… My stomach lurches as the tunnel darkens and narrows, suspicions confirmed as we draw up before a foreboding arched door—a heavy oaken affair straight out of Game of Thrones, complete with iron bands and flanked by torches. Grief it is! Horse’s patient stance suggests that this is one journey I’ll have to make alone; I reassure her (and myself) that I’ll leave the door open. Grabbing a torch, I steel myself and throw my weight back against the cold iron ring. With a thunderous groan, the door eases open.
Stone stairs lead downward into darkness. Ohhhh boy… A resolute sigh precedes my echoing footfalls as I start my descent. Deeper… Deeper… Deeper still… Another door? I shudder to think what the hell I must be hiding down here that merits two dungeon doors just to keep it in the dark. My trepidation triples as I pry this one open.
Inside, all is pitch black. My torch scarcely makes a dent, save to suggest the rough rock contours of a cave. Yet as I hesitate in the doorway, instinctively anticipating an ambush, a wash of wan light illuminates some shadowy figure further inside. I cringe. If this is my dead sister come to commune with me, she certainly is being melodramatic… Forcing my feet forward, I remind myself firmly that I am in no physical danger—and after all, this is what I signed up for.
Whatever I was expecting, it could not be further from what I find. An ageless woman of unearthly radiance sits tall upon a throne of stone, a swaddled babe resting in her arms. Waves of honey hair tumble down her shoulders like a golden cloak. Her gown, blue as the evening sky in summer, seems studded with stars. Likewise the ornamented golden crown that graces her regal brow.
No Christian, I fall to my knees and cross myself without a second thought.
There is a hint of humor in her serene smile as she turns her gaze upon me. Her eyes seem to hold every color at once—or perhaps no color at all. I cannot even say whether her mouth moves as she speaks. “Rise, Robin. You need not kneel before me.”
Sadly, I cannot claim her eloquence just because I’ve embarked on a shamanic journey that would make Joseph Campbell proud. “Um… No, that’s cool. I think I’m more comfortable down here.”
“Well… Aren’t you the Divine Mother?”
She arches an elegant eyebrow. “And who are you, then, if not a part of me?”
She has me there. I find my feet. “With all due respect… what are you doing down here? I assumed I was on the grief journey, not the motherly love one.”
The Lady’s eyes lock with mine. “I am your original grief.”
Her meaning transfers itself to me in one profound flash (what spiritual types refer to as a “download”). The fall of the Divine Feminine. The global subversion of women—along with sexuality, nature, intuition, the sacred cycle of birth-death-rebirth, and so many other manifestations of the feminine principle. The “mother wound,” internalized pain dutifully passed down by countless generations of repressed women. The rape of Mother Earth by her own children—an unspeakable well of suffering to which various psychedelic experiences have afforded me a front-row seat. Even my emerging soul connection with Mother Mary (!)… In other words, the very grief I now understand I am here to help heal, in my own unique way. After all, most if not all of my incidental personal traumas—a lifetime of depression, anxiety, and medication starting at age 10; the disintegration of the nuclear family; my repeated failure to maintain healthy romantic relationships; the innocent combination of prescription drugs that took my sister’s life; my mountain of student loan debt despite multiple scholarships; the recession that destroyed my parents’ livelihood; breast cancer at 31—all find their roots in this original grief, as products of a world crippled by chronic imbalance and systemic separation.
I nod, gathering my thoughts. “… I understand. More than anything, I want to help heal this grief in the world. What can I do?”
“In order to truly be of service to the world, first and foremost, you must focus on healing yourself.”
Of course. I feel childish; this mandate is common to many spiritual sources. “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others,” so to speak. Still, it does little to satisfy my crusader ego.
“But surely I have more to offer? Is my whole life really meant to be just one long narcissistic exercise in healing from my own traumas…?”
“By healing yourself, you empower others to heal. And, you are already doing more, just by joining this circle of your sisters and undertaking this journey. This is part of the work that is helping to heal the world.”
A little cloud of familiar purple sparkles interjects itself behind my eyelids as we speak. Faeries! “Ah, look—some of your little friends have joined us,” she observes with amusement as they swoop and soar around us. “This, too, is a service to the world: your receptivity and commitment to communing with the spirits of nature.”
Ever the overachiever, this still feels like a copout to me. I glance around, vaguely sensing the presence of other doors deeper in the darkness. “What about those doors—will they lead me to confront my grief?”
Her amusement deepens. “They will indeed… But not today. You have already taken on so much, Robin. You are doing well. Be patient with yourself! Those doors are not going anywhere.”
I give a little sigh. “Okay… Well, since I’m down here, can you give me any guidance for the future—how to approach this grief more constructively, what my role in all this is, how to use my unique talents to help heal myself and others…?”
Her smile is enigmatic. “I have a gift for you.” She gestures to indicate a sudden shaft of light piercing the darkness behind me. I gasp—a gleaming sword! Enchanted, though a bit surprised to see this markedly masculine symbol, I examine my gift. Beneath the bejeweled golden hilt, the blade looks razor sharp. A tentative touch, and blood blooms in a scarlet slash across my hand… which heals instantly.
“Well, it is not meant for wounding,” she quips.
Cautiously removing the sword from its stand, I turn to face her once more. “What is it for?”
Stars sparkle wryly in her eyes. “Cutting through bullshit.”
I blink at this heavenly goddess in bewilderment. “… I’m sorry…?”
Without warning, a large cage materializes beside us—and Horse is trapped inside! Horrified, I slash blindly at the iron bars. They shatter like glass into a fleeing flock of black birds before vanishing in the darkness. My power animal, just part of the illusion, is nowhere to be seen.
“You are correct: a sword is the ultimate symbol of masculine power,” she confirms. “Yet you may wield this gift, because you, Robin, are a warrior woman. You are blessed with a unique and powerful balance of feminine and masculine, sensitive yet strong, creative yet logical, receptive yet penetrating. This sword represents piercing insight, cutting wit, a sharp tongue, an incisive intellect. Thusly armed, you can pierce straight to the heart of the matter, separate truth from lies, as a service to yourself and others. You can cut through the eons of bullshit heaped upon the pure grief and loss mankind suffers in my absence, creating a space for light to penetrate the darkness. In doing so, you not only facilitate your own healing and that of others, but you help restore the natural balance that heralds my return… when the world is ready.”
Her gaze falls lovingly upon the child nestled in her arms. With a surge of dread, I realize I have not seen it move once since our dialogue began… then I relax as I get a peek at its peaceful little face. It’s only sleeping.
The Lady gives a little laugh at my sigh of relief. “Yes, let him sleep a little longer… He has slept such a long time now. But he will wake soon, when he is ready. Until then, I wait, and watch over him. That is a mother’s place.”
She cocks her head to one side, attuned to some signal I cannot hear. “You had best get going. She will be wrapping up shortly.”
Overwhelmed and at a loss, I stammer out a humble expression of my gratitude for this momentous meeting—though my heart is not yet open enough to feel the immense and unconditional love she offers in return. The Lady is not concerned; she has all the time in the world. She chuckles knowingly at my surprise and discomfort as we exchange a swift open-mouthed kiss.
Sword sheathed dutifully upon my back, I thank her for the gift as I head for the exit, adding lamely, “… I’ll try my best!”
“I know,” she replies graciously. “You always do.”
I am almost out the door then, my foot on the first stone step—
I glance back over my shoulder.
Her smile is warm, patient. “… I love you either way.”
I am barely halfway up the stairs when a sudden shift in the shaman’s drumbeat signals that it’s time to return.