St. Francis, Shaman

Last October I was asked to perform an informal blessing of the animals at my local community church on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. I knew little about St. Francis beyond his designation as patron saint of ecology and the animals, so when he showed up as a choice for a research project for my interfaith seminary program, I dug in.

statue of st francis with a bird on his shoulder

Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

Despite years of working with guides during Shamanic Reiki sessions and in journeys, my logical mind tends to question what is going on when I am being called by Spirit to take some action. I project those doubts onto the visions of others, too, and wonder if their visions are just something they have conjured up in their imagination or the result of mental illness. All those questions surfaced when I read about Francis’ early life.

Francis, it turns out, liked to party. He came from wealth and privilege and behaved like a spoiled teenager. Francis thought it would be cool to be a knight, got himself top-of-the-line armor, and joined the army. Shortly after, Assisi went to war with Perugia and Francis’ first battle went horribly for Assisi. All of Francis’ friends and compatriots were killed, but Francis was taken prisoner because his expensive armor gave away his family’s wealth.

Francis was held prisoner in Perugia for a year while his ransom was negotiated. While imprisoned, Francis became seriously ill and began to receive messages from God.

Whoa. When I read that my alarm bells went off. Francis must have been insane, starving, or fevered when he “heard God,” right?

Contemplating further, I realized that most of the shamans and mystics I was aware of were fasting, praying, chanting, dancing, or meditating to intentionally alter their consciousness when they meet their guides. I use breathwork, drumming, and journeying to get myself in a receptive state. Perhaps the conditions of Francis’ imprisonment mimicked some of those practices, in the way that the initiation rites for shamans in some cultures did. Was St. Francis a shaman?

In one of his writings, Francis called his many illnesses “sisters,” which I interpret as acknowledging them as companions on his spiritual journey. I believe Francis understood that his illnesses created altered states which allowed him to hear messages from God, who was the spiritual guide of his understanding. While I suspect the Church would object to classifying St. Francis as such, in my mind he will always be a shaman.

Helping Spirit Troubles: Get Lost, Bluebird (Part 2)

In my last post, I shared the challenges I encountered while trying to shamanically connect with the bluebird helping spirit I had been gifted. I did not give up and leave the Shamanic Reiki Master Practitioner training at Omega Institute and, as a result, I learned not to limit my shamanic experiences to journeys.

After the frustrating morning session and needing something to distract me from my funk, I visited Omega’s bookstore during our lunch break. The shopkeepers routinely gathered books into a featured section based on the programs that were happening that week, and they had grouped books about shamanism and animal totems on shelves near the front. I scanned through the spines but did not see anything of interest.

Then I looked up.

On top of the bookcase on a display rack was a book called Bird Medicine. Curious, I flipped it open to a page in the middle, one of a set of glossy pages of pictures. There, on the page that I had opened to, was a photograph of a bluebird, sitting on a branch. Like my helping spirit, it had only a crescent-shaped stripe of orange on the top of its chest.

I read the caption. It was a western bluebird. The full orange chest of the angry bluebird meme was an eastern bluebird. Living my whole life on the east coast of the United States, I would have had no opportunity to see a western bluebird. The same was true of my partner, yet it was the western bluebird that came in her journey for me.

I decided to buy the book so I could read the bluebird legend and other information after our afternoon session. I returned the display copy and looked through the shelves for the rest of them. There were no others. The copy I had held and opened to the photograph of my bluebird guide was the only copy in the store.

I purchased the book and got back to learning how to be a Shamanic Reiki Master Practitioner.

Since that day I have journeyed with my bluebird guide countless times. Bluebird is rarely invited; instead he shows up when I am trying to force my scattered mind to focus. When bluebird is hopping around in my journey space, I know it is a signal that I am not in the right frame of mind to journey. The best thing I can do is let it go, and instead tune in to my intuition as I move through very earthly pursuits for whatever messages I need to find.

Perhaps I will again find guidance while shopping.

The Pilgrimage of Turtles

A recent study conducted in my state found that turtles in wetlands surrounded by busy roads were more likely to be males. This finding only confirmed what I and other turtle rehabilitators already knew – during the late spring, many female turtles are hit by cars during their annual pilgrimage to lay their eggs.

A pilgrimage is a journey, usually a long one, to a place that is sacred. Often the journey itself results in transformation of the traveler. People have been making pilgrimages since ancient times, such as on The Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusina, Greece. The famous Camino de Santiago, which leads to the tomb of St. James in northwest Spain, is walked by hundreds of thousands of people every year.

empty turtle eggs next to a hole in grass are the result of a turtle pilgimage

An old turtle nest with empty egg shells found on a recent hike in a protected wetland gives me hope there are some babies out there.

The turtle’s pilgrimage is shorter, by Camino de Santiago standards, but no less sacred. The destination is an ideal nesting spot, where she will bury her eggs, the hope for another generation of turtles.

As female turtles disappear, that hope is diminished.

For humans, travel has become easy. Most will hop in a car and drive more miles to pick up a pizza than a turtle will walk to her nest site. Roads crisscross the habitats of almost every species. Cars are faster than ever and filled with distractions. Relatively few of us will make a long journey to a sacred place, especially not by foot. Perhaps our lack of experience with sacred journeys is why we cannot see the turtle’s trip as an act of devotion.

If you asked me to explain divinity, I would tell you that what is divine is the impulse that keeps life “life-ing.” The turtles, and all other non-human beings, are devoted to life. It is innate, and probably is in humans too, and available if we can drop the religious constructs that squash our animal selves.

Most humans fail to see the turtle’s journey as sacred and, as a result, value pizza over her pilgrimage. That can cost the turtle her life.

There are things that can be done to make road crossings safer for turtles and other wildlife, such as green bridges and tunnels. Humans seem to lack an appetite, however, for spending money on those who will never be able to reciprocate.

When I recognized the turtle’s nesting walk as an act of sacred devotion, I made a pledge to help them. I even started a nonprofit organization to save turtles and their wetland habitats. But the needed work is really helping others to connect with what is sacred, so they will want to help too.

On July 19, 2021, Lori Ferry’, my HEARTH project co-director, and I will be guiding an online HEARTH Circle shamanic experience with the theme “The Sacred Way.” The online HEARTHs benefit the Olympic Mountain EarthWisdom Circle, an educational 501(c)(3) that promotes a sacred and responsible relationship with the Earth. For a small donation you can oin us live or listen to the replay afterwards. The HEARTH Circle is an opportunity to connect with the sacred and experience a shamanic pilgrimage.

When I Dance With Bear in Journeys

In my shamanic journey world, there is a large cave. The entrance looks like a crack in a cliff wall until I walk close. It is at the edge of the meadow where I find an old, twisting, and wise tree.

The interior of the cave is wide and round. The ceiling domes but I can easily stand tall, even near the walls. The rough rock walls of the cave provide shelves of a sort, and alcoves, where I find books and trinkets, some left by me during earlier journeys, some appearing as if gifted by an unknown benefactor. There are bundles of drying herbs hanging from the lower parts of the ceiling, and torches burn at regular intervals to provide light.

In the center of the cave floor, there is a fire. I never have to tend it; the fire is always burning brightly when I arrive. Soft rugs, furs, and cushions ring the fire, inviting me to sit and feel the warmth of the flames. The fire has a sweet or spicy smell, depending on the herbs that have been added.

I encourage everyone whose journeys I guide to find their cave, because I have found that within my cave I receive the most potent messages from my helping spirits. The cave is a place of comfort, of knowledge, and of healing, and around the fire is where I find my council.

brown bear

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

My council is the collective of helping spirits with whom I have been cultivating a relationship during my years of shamanic practice. The members present during a journey change depending on the questions I have or the advice I am seeking, but two are almost always waiting for me at the fire. One is an old woman dressed in the remains of a dress of blues and greys that brings the ocean to mind. The other is a dancing bear.

While other guides meet me elsewhere, I have never seen the large brown bear outside of the cave. I have also never seen him sit. When I arrive at the fire he is standing on his back legs, and usually already lost in a rhythmic dance with the beat of the journey drum. He wears a red belt with long fringe that makes me think of a Native American powwow belt but isn’t quite that.

Often, Bear will continue to dance as I sit in council with other guides that are present, being a somewhat silly distraction from the messages I am trying to make sense of. Every so often, however, Bear will stop and open his front legs wide, inviting me into a hug, then holding me so I have to join the dance.

Bear has never said a word during our times at the fire in the cave. Instead of giving me direction, he is my emotional support helping spirit. The offering of a hug comes when I brought my emotions into the journey space, and I might bury my face in his fur and cry. The embrace is gentle, warm, and soothing.

Dancing with Bear is a different kind of emotional release. Bear holds my back with one paw and my hand with the other, and shakes his hips side to side as we circle the fire together. The wiggling hips always make me giggle. I’ve noticed Bear asks me to dance when I am being overly serious, or impatient with my guides.

When I dance with Bear, I feel I have been reset. When I leave the cave and make my way back to the mundane world, I remember the feeling of being held, hugged, and danced around the fire, and I smile.

Sign up for my newsletter and join me for journeys every new and full moon. Contact me for more information.

Breathing with Trees

Breathing with trees in the AdirondacksI ventured out, alone, in my snowshoes, on a quiet trail through the woods. We had had the first substantial snowfall of winter a few days before, and I came to a part of the trail that had not been broken since the storm. I’m not experienced on snowshoes and it was only my second time out this season, but it was quiet and beautiful so I decided to push on.

Once my body started complaining, I stopped and turned back. It had begun to snow again, which was lovely to look at but made the trail more challenging. I caught myself getting short of breath as my heart rate came up and I took a break.

There was a time when I would have been frightened out in the woods, all alone, with no cell signal, my heart pounding in my chest, but now I have a relationship with the trees. Through my shamanic work I have become aware of the life energy that flows through the trees. I have seen them “lit up” with that energy. It is the same energy that flows through you and me.

Rather than panicking out in the woods, I sat in the snow with my back to a tree. I tuned into that energy. And I began to breathe with the tree. Plants and animals are the two halves of the beautiful life-sustaining oxygen cycle. Trees breathe out oxygen, we breathe it in. We breath out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe it in.

Sitting against the tree, I became conscious of breathing in what the tree was releasing. It was as if I could draw the breath right out of the tree into my back. Then I breathed out and felt the tree draw in my out-breath. Back and forth, the tree and I breathed together, until my heart rate slowed and I felt safe and held. I walked calmly out of the woods.

This simple but powerful practice draws my awareness to the interconnected web of life. While the woods are a wonderful place to experience it, I find the same sense of connection and peace when I breathe with the trees in my backyard or even my houseplants. I leave a small offering in gratitude for the breath when I can, and I always speak my thanks. I know I am heard.

In the Season of Hope

A couple of days ago, Americans acknowledged the festival of Imbolc (or Candlemas) by practicing the art of weather divination. In other words, some folks woke up a groundhog and, because the groundhog saw his shadow, declared there will be six more weeks of winter bleakness.

For the most part, I don’t mind winter and enjoy the snow, but sometimes it does seem to drag on and on. I suspect the Celts thought so, too, since they chose to celebrate the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s kind of an “over the hump” thing – the Wednesday of winter.

The temperatures this season have bounced between “too warm for winter” and “too cold for my liking,” and rain has alternated with snow leaving a thick layer of ice on places like my front steps. The political and social climate in the United States has been equally inconsistent and icy.

Yet, here we are at the middle of winter, and there is reason to hope. Can you feel into that?

We may be gathering in protest rather than in celebration, but we are gathering. We are leaving our homes, risking icy steps and, for some, arrest, to declare that we still have hope. After all, if we didn’t believe good things are still possible, why would we bother?

This is the spirit of Imbolc. It is a time to shake off the winter doldrums and cultural apathy and joyfully declare, “I know that spring is coming. We can get through this dark time.”

During our last Goddess Circle, the women who gathered took part in a simple ritual for Imbolc – burning the greens to show our faith that the green of spring would return. We had some boughs from my Yule tree on the altar, and took turns pinching off some of the green needles and dropping them on a lit tealight in a cast iron cauldron. As her pinch of greens burned, the woman spoke of something she hoped for the future. There was lots of hope in our circle that night.

You can do this ritual on your own or in your circle. If you don’t have a cauldron, anything fire proof will do. A terra cotta pot works well. You could also throw your greens into a bonfire or fire pit if you’d prefer to be outside. You can be creative with the ritual. It’s the intention that is important.

In this season of hope, what are you hoping for?

Animal spirits: totems for sacral chakra work

A couple of months ago I started a new exploration of the Chakra system by linking chakra energy into the interconnected web of life through the spirits of animals who embody that energy. Now that I am pretty grounded in Muladhara’s energy, I’ve begun to look at the second chakra.

Svadhishthana is the center of watery, flowing movement and creation. The animals that share the energy of the sacral chakra have a relationship with water and the creative process.

nile-crocodile_643_600x450The crocodile governs the second chakra. He easily transitions from water to land and back again, but it is in the water that this chakra’s work happens. Crocodile goes deep into the emotional world, then resurfaces with new creativity.


dolphin-kristian-sekulic-ispWith playful grace, the dolphin embodies freedom. Although living fully in the water, dolphins must surface to breathe air like a land mammal, representative of the duality of nature. It time they surface is a renewal of sorts. Dolphins seem to have an intuitive understanding of and a feminine friendliness towards us humans.

green_frogThe life-cycle of a frog has made it a symbol of transformation across many cultures. In Native American traditions, frog medicine is cleansing and healing, and associated with life-bringing rain. Frog’s cleansing takes place on the emotional level, where true healing begins.


beaverThe busy beaver is the builder of dreams. Ever creative, the beaver works hard to manifest all it desires. Yet there is a sense of balance with beavers. They work when it is time to work, eat when it is time to eat, and play when it is time to play. Beavers have strong family relationships and often work as a team. In the group, each is honored for its contribution to the whole, bringing beaver close to the source of oneness – the original creative energy of existence. Beavers’ work transforms their environment in a harmonious way, so each place they leave behind is reborn in their wake.

Animal spirits: totems for root chakra work

I am a Chakra junkie. I love exploring the energy of the Chakra system, and I am always looking for new ways to connect with and experience that energy. Lately I have been seeking to link chakra energy into the interconnected web of life by invoking the spirits of animals who embody that energy into my chakra work.

The first, or root, chakra – Muladhara – is the center of earthy, stable energy. The animals that bring that energy are solid and heavy, with one exception.

african_bush_elephant_big_animalDespite weighing 10,000 pounds, elephants walk softly on the earth. Nurturing elephants fare well in their often harsh natural environments, and demonstrate a strong commitment to their group’s protection and survival. As a symbol of safety and strength, elephants can be called on to support first chakra explorations. In addition, the gentle eyes of the huge elephant are full of ancient wisdom. The elephant is a worthwhile companion for your grounding practice.

highlandbOx represents strength, endurance, stamina, prosperity and productivity. These characteristics reflect the energy of the first chakra. Consider a pair of oxen as your guardians while you settle into a deep, rooting meditation.


bullThe bull is the Earth Lord, embodying abundance and contentment when calm. When running, the bull’s thundering hooves make the earth quake. Call on bull to bring power to a deficient first chakra.


shutterstock_mole.jpg.CROP.original-originalMole is neither heavy nor strong, yet offers a strong connection to the earth. Moles represent the ultimate in groundedness. Ask mole to teach you about eating right, an important first chakra lesson, by sharing her knowledge of herbs and roots.

To connect to the spirit of these first chakra animals, you can simply meditate on them or their qualities. You might also try imagining yourself in the body of the animal. What would it feel like to move like an elephant, an ox, a bull or a mole? You can also call on them as guardians during any root chakra work.

Can you think of any other animals with first chakra spirit?


An Earth Day meditation: connecting to your animal guide

I wrote this guided meditation for an Earth Hour ritual and thought it would be good to share it today in honor of Earth Day. Enjoy the recording, or borrow the script and share the experience with your nature-loving tribe.

Guided Meditation for Earth Hour

Close your eyes and allow your breath to flow naturally. With each breath, feel your body become more relaxed.

Imagine you are standing on a gravel road at the edge of a forest. In front of you are five stone steps down to a path that leads into the trees. You start down the steps. At the first step your body becomes completely relaxed. At the second step your mind quiets. On the third step you feel peace flowing through you. At the fourth step you know you are in a safe place. As you step onto the fifth and final step your vision becomes sharp and clear and the light seems brighter and the colors more vivid.

You follow the path into the trees, fully taking in everything that you see. You notice each subtle hue of the green leaves and the brown dirt. Here and there a yellow leaf left over from the fall catches your eye. The light filters through the treetops and dapples the path in front of you. You look up and see bits of blue sky between the tall trees. You see the varying textures of the tree bark, some smooth and some gnarled, knotted and rough. You notice tiny flowers on delicate stalks nestled against the root of one tree and you wonder how they came to grow there. Twigs and pebbles crunch under your feet. You feel a slight, cool breeze that rustles the leaves. You become aware of mossy smells and the singing of birds high above you and the buzzing of insects around you. You can feel life here.

You continue down the path, stepping carefully to avoid the small green plants which have sprung up between rocks. As you move deeper into the forest the light fades and the air becomes damp and musty. The path becomes softer beneath your feet. Moving on, you notice the sound of running water ahead and walk down the path toward the sound. Suddenly you step into brighter light and find yourself on the bank of a wide stream. You can see the sun overhead here and the sunlight reflects on the water. The stream is rocky and the water tumbles over the worn stones in a series of small waterfalls. The spring sun is melting snow at higher elevations and the water runs quickly by, carrying leaves, small twigs and a few water bugs over the rocks.

You sit on the damp, cool moss on the bank and watch the water flow by. As you watch, a small green lizard scampers onto a rock, then you move slightly and he disappears between the rocks. The sun is warm despite the breeze. You are filled with peace just being in this place.

A rustling in the trees on the opposite bank catches your attention, and you look up to see an animal emerge from the trees. What kind of animal is it? Let it be whatever first comes to mind. It sees you and moves cautiously toward the stream. You catch its eyes and it stops, watching you. You know you are safe here and do not feel fear, just awe at being this close to this animal. You have a clear, unobstructed view and can see it in detail. You can see the shape of its body, muscle and bone. You can see the shape of its feet, its tail, its jaw. You know there is power in that body, the power it needs to survive in the forest. You notice its texture – fur or scales or feathers or skin. You imagine what it would feel like if you could touch the animal. You can see its colors – not just the body colors but the color of its eyes. And you look into those eyes and feel a connection, and know this animal has a message for you. What is it telling you? What would this animal have to say? Perhaps it is just a message of mutual respect, perhaps it is something else. Let the message come to you. Trust that whatever message you hear is the right one.

You repeat the message to yourself a few times, wanting to remember it. Then you look down, breaking eye contact, and the animal turns and wanders back into the trees. You watch it go, grateful for the opportunity to see it so close and for the message it shared with you. Knowing your time here is done, you stand, turn away from the stream and walk back along the forest path, through the darkness under the thick trees. A few more steps brings you back to the place where patches of light illuminate the path ahead and before long you can see the stone steps.

You walk to the steps, taking one last look at the trees behind you, then put your foot down on the first step and start to climb. On the next step you become aware of your breath. On the next step you feel your body. On the next step you become aware of the room. As you reach the top of the steps you are back in the present, bringing with you the animal’s message and the sense of peace you found in the forest. Take a few deep breaths before you move back into your day.

* * *

I’ve done this guided visualization a number of times and have noticed that I am drawn to certain animals during times of stress, other animals when I am feeling introspective or down, and still others when I am happy. What animal came to you? Did it’s message surprise you? I’d love it if you’d comment and share your experience.

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Turtles and Stardust: Experiencing a Shamanic Journey

Photo of a Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carol...

Photo of a Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri). Taken in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite my endless exploration of all things spiritual, I had not, as of last Saturday morning, experienced a shamanic journey. I’m not sure how I avoided it for so long, considering that I’ve been in the company of shamans a number of times. I really wasn’t trying to avoid the practice; there was just never a good time to try.

True North Yoga hosted a shamanic journeying workshop last weekend, so I finally got my chance. While being led on two journeys I experienced intense physical sensations, including floating, falling and dancing. And I saw turtles.

When I first got my Medicine Cards I pulled my seven totem animals. Turtle was the first card I pulled out of the deck, and is my totem in the East, or the guide to my spiritual challenges. But I haven’t seen the turtle card for quite awhile.

Turtle represents Mother Earth in the cards and in a number of cultures. Hindu and Chinese mythology (and Terry Prachett‘s Discworld series) describe the world as being supported by elephants standing on the back of a turtle. Native Americans call North America “Turtle Island.” I wasn’t surprised to find turtle in a vision in which I was guided to connect to the earth.

Besides representing earth, turtles might also represent the lunar cycle, protection, perseverance and longevity. Turtles have been around 200 million years or so. They are wise old souls.

In my vision, turtle was stepping deliberately, to the drumbeat, and stirring up stardust.

I’ve had a couple of days to consider what turtle means for me, besides the obvious earth connection. A few web authors suggested a need to slow down, to practice patience. Others point to turtle’s ability to withdraw, to hide in its protective shell. Both explanations are fitting, but neither feels complete.

Turtle pose adaptation.

Turtle pose adaptation.

This morning I led my yoga class into turtle pose (a preparatory adaptation of Kurmasana) and as we were holding the posture I thought about turtle’s ability to draw inward. It seemed to me it wasn’t so much about fear as withdrawing into perfect stillness, which sounds like Pratyahara, or the withdrawal of the senses, the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga. Perhaps this is something I’m being called to practice.

Sitting on my desk is a wax turtle, meant to be a candle but unlikely to ever be burned. It was sent to me by an internet newsgroup acquaintance, someone I never knew in real life. If you remember newsgroups, you know I’ve had this turtle candle a long time. (If you don’t remember newsgroups, just know that I accessed the newsgroup with a computer that had dual floppy drives to accommodate both sizes of floppy disks. If you don’t know what a floppy disk is, please don’t tell me. It makes me feel old.) I received this turtle because the person felt I should have it. It has represented earth on my personal altar many, many times. I don’t remember how the turtle candle came to be on my desk today, or how long it’s been sitting there, but I’ve decided it can stay. It seems to belong there now.

Now if I could just find some stardust…

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