The directions to the Reverend Shaman’s hogan sounded like an old, well-worn joke: “Drive to the well-marked road and turn left, go past four telephone poles to the not-well-marked road and turn right.”
I was already kicking myself for having made the appointment and these ridiculous directions weren’t helping. I wasn’t even sure what I thought I was doing–her website claimed that spiritual cleansing could heal “supernatural illness,” which had wide-ranging and vague symptoms like “loss of energy” and “feeling powerless.” Those weren’t symptoms of supernatural illness, I thought with a cynicism that was probably inappropriate to my thirty-one years of age, but symptoms of depression… or maybe just symptoms of life.
I had grown up without faith, raised by an atheist and an agnostic, and I had never been particularly spiritual. It is easier to choose science over mysticism, facts over possibilities. But I had made this appointment anyway, had chosen possibilities over facts, because something had to change.
I was not okay.
Now is the Age of Anxiety
If you had asked me a year ago if I were an anxious person, I’d have laughed in your face. I pride myself on not sitting around wringing my hands when things go south, but on doing something as a response. I certainly wasn’t happy, but I had made damn sure the past twelve months had been change-packed: I ended my first long-term relationship, I moved to a new town, I got a promotion to what I had long described as my dream job, I spent almost every other weekend traveling… and I still felt like something was wrong.
My world was closing in. Was this a mid-life crisis ten years early? To be forced into inaction despite an overwhelming sense of discontent? I could feel the universe narrowing around me, the interesting paths that had once been open to me slowly closing, growing over with ennui and trips to the dry cleaner. I felt suffocated, the good days as traumatic as bad days, because if everything is “good,” there’s nothing to change… and I could see nothing I could do to make myself feel happy.
I was trapped.
When I got a huge raise at work, I went home and cried, overwhelmed by fear. Fear of “this” being it, fear of my life never being satisfying, fear of the regret I thought I would feel on my deathbed. And this loop of fear was on constant replay in my head from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep.
When I finally learned about the symptoms of anxiety attacks–which I had always associated with ineffective, useless people–I was horrified to realize I had been suffering from them for years. The racing heart, the sense of doom, the hiding from the world. Changing my life had made no difference. Changing the things around you doesn’t change what’s inside you.
And so I went to New Mexico, searching for a way to make the world open up to me again. And so I went to a shaman for spiritual cleansing.
(Wo)man’s Search for Meaning
The Shaman greeted me with a hug, the long and sustained holding of someone who has missed you while you’ve been gone. She was at least six inches shorter than me so that I had to stoop to receive the gesture. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, perhaps more mystery than this smiling woman presented, but I planned to reserve judgment. She wore a light blue sundress, and she kicked off her sandals when she entered the hogan, inviting me to do the same.
Native American musical instruments and paintings hung on the walls of the little octagonal building, and I glanced somewhat nervously at the massage table that stood in the very center of the room, candles nestled in a shallow dish of sand on the floor beneath it. I asked for something to drink, thirsty from the desert and the altitude, and she handed me a cup of water she had prepared before I arrived.
I sipped, startled to find she had added lavender oil to the water, wondered idly if she had added anything else. Though I doubted very much she would roofie me, I could see someone who wants to provide a spiritual experience maybe considering a dose of LSD. Such chemical assistance seemed like it would be too much of a legal liability, however, and I finished the water.
“So what brings you here?” the Shaman asked after I signed a waiver. I had listed my mother as my emergency contact, always a jagged experience for a woman in her thirties. The Shaman’s eyes were crinkled into a permanent expression of smiling, and she would reach out occasionally to place a comforting hand on my leg or arm.
I took a deep breath. “I just… I’m looking for clarity of thought,” I said, repeating the words I had prepared on the drive over. “Clarity of purpose, maybe. I’m looking for more than I have, but I don’t even know where I should start.”
I didn’t mention my feelings of isolation since my breakup, my sense of distance from everyone else in the world, my burgeoning certainty that I was wholly unsuited for real life the way other people seem to be. I figured clarity of thought was enough to ask for in one day.
She nodded. “That’s definitely something the Compassionate Ones can help you with.” She explained that the ceremony would involve drumming and rattling, which would be her way of calling upon Compassionate Spirits to guide her in healing medicine. “I’ll just be a bag of bones for them to work through,” she said, “but it’s not a trance.”
She invited me to lay on the massage table, placed a bolster under my knees, fussed with the pillow beneath my head. And then we began.
The Ritual as Ceremony
As soon as I lay down and my body adjusted to the difference of gravity, I discovered that I needed to pee. I had been drinking water for days to ward off altitude sickness… but the Shaman was already bustling around the small hogan lighting candles, and I didn’t want to interrupt a professional at work.
I’m sure it’ll be okay, I thought.
It wasn’t okay.
Though I would love to be able to say that the ceremony was a transcendental experience, it was more one of bewilderment and discomfort. I lay on the massage table for hours while she lit sage, drummed and rattled, tapped eagle feathers above me, and anointed various parts of my body with various types of oil I didn’t recognize–all while my bladder slowly began yelling at me. The yell became a yowl when she placed a heavy bowl of corn on my stomach, pressing firmly into the one spot I didn’t want pressed.
“Is that too heavy?” she whispered.
I grunted instead of answering and tugged at it slightly so my rib cage could take some of the weight. And then I focused on not focusing on the discomfort, never a successful endeavor in the best of conditions, but made significantly worse when, outside, rain started to pound the roof of the hogan and thunder rumbled its corresponding threat.
I tried to focus on “feeling” the energy of what the Shaman was doing as she tapped on my collar bone, made a sucking noise between her lips, and then blew into her hand and pressed it against my skin–but all I could think about was the storm blowing outside and the fact that I’d have to run through it to get to the Shaman’s house to use her bathroom.
Though the temperature had dropped in the hogan as we began and I had gotten chills every time the Shaman started drumming, I “felt” very little of the spiritual cleansing. When she took a tiny pendulum and swung it in a small circle above my face, it seemed as though she had pressed a coin to my forehead and left it there–but otherwise, nothing.
In retrospect, this shouldn’t have surprised me. I have cousins who grew up seeing spirits and talking to trees, but I’ve never been accused of being the intuitive one in our family. Intelligent and possibly over-educated, yes, but never intuitive. After all, it was this lack of intuition, this lack of connection to the universe, that had brought me here in the first place.
Listen to Your Heart
When the drumming ended and the Shaman replaced her tools, she came back to my side and stroked a gentle hand down my arm. “How are you feeling?” she asked quietly, as though I were waking from anesthesia.
I stretched and smiled, as that seemed to be what she was expecting. “I’m good,” I answered, figuring that yelling, “Move, lady, and where’s the bathroom?” wasn’t a dignified way to end our time together.
“You tend to live in your head a lot, don’t you?” she asked in a gentle tone.
I let out a surprised laugh, the sound echoing off the ceiling of the hogan above us. “I’ve been told I do, yes,” I said, not bothering to mention that I’m a champion brooder.
She nodded. “I had to do a lot of work up there,” she said, and I remembered a pendulum swinging over my face, a pressure on my forehead in response. “Your thoughts should be a lot clearer now. You need to live less up here,” she said, gesturing to my head, “and more here.” She pointed to my heart. “I put a lot of energy into your heart chakra, but you need to listen to your own intuition more.”
We were onto chakras already, I thought, skeptical and unsurprised.
“I also had to use a lot of corn medicine,” she went on, and I remembered clearly the heavy bowl pressing on my bladder. “It felt as though your reactions have been dulled somehow?”
Assuming she hadn’t been picking up my denial of my own need to urinate, I had to admit that this made sense at a deeper level. Once I had been forced to acknowledge my own anxiety, I had begun been reading self-help books that had convinced me that my very thought processes, my knee-jerk reactions to the world around me, were destructive and unhelpful.
In a moment of crystalline clarity, I suddenly realized that this probably had something to do with why I felt trapped in my own life, as though there were no decision I could safely make and no action I could safely take. “Yeah…” I said. “That’s been on purpose, actually.”
“Well, stop that,” she said with a laugh. “Your reactions are how you survive. You’re suffocating your fight-or-flight response.”
“But my first response is always flight,” I protested.
“That’s because you’re up here,” she said, again tapping my head, “when you need to be down here.” She pointed to my chest. “You need to trust yourself. Also, speaking of your heart,” she said, “the Compassionate Ones actually had me use frankincense oil, which is for creativity, between your heart chakra and your throat chakra. It must have had something to do with your heart and some kind of communication. Any idea what that would be for?”
I stared at her. “I’m a writer,” I said slowly, wondering how she could have possibly known that, knowing for a fact I hadn’t mentioned that beforehand. “But I haven’t written much in the last year.”
She nodded. “That’s going to change,” she said confidently, and I didn’t doubt it for a second.
I Took Care of That For You
If I thought she was finished with the revelations, however, I was mistaken.
“We did quite a bit of soul retrieval,” she said, explaining that the soul is a ball of energy peels off in layers after trauma, shrinking into itself. Soul retrieval gathers those layers back together and makes the soul whole again. “You’ve been through some heartache,” she said, “but I could tell it’s been recent. Something related to a romantic relationship, and only in the last year. It didn’t feel as though it went back further than that.”
She definitely had my attention now. “My boyfriend and I broke up a year ago.” In fact, it was a year before practically to the day. We had been together five years, again, practically to the day.
I will always remember the night of our fifth anniversary. It ended with me–never comfortable expressing negative emotion–staring at him from across a candlelit table as tears poured down my cheeks at an offhand comment he had made. His cynicism and tendency to view negativity as humorous had been one of the things that had always been different between us. Though I had started to suspect that our paths were heading in different directions, that night confirmed it, and I choked on sobs as we hurriedly paid the bill and fled from the restaurant. My raw intakes of breath and his frustrated apologies echoed in the empty streets outside.
My tears slowed on the drive home, and we went lay down together, clinging to each other and the idea of us. I had always loved how well our bodies fit together, how I could hook my foot under his and press my face into his neck, press my ragged edges iagainst his and pretend that our combined brokenness made a whole. That night, I put my head on his chest, listened to the slightly-erratic beat of his heart, and knew it would be one of the last times we would be together.
Somehow, the shaman had seen all of that. “I could tell it’s been hard,” she said quietly. “You’ve been struggling since then. But I took care of that for you.”
Her simple words, I took care of that for you, floored me. The idea of someone seeing the burden I was carrying–the pain and guilt and disappointment and loneliness–and lifting it from me without me even having to ask, was staggering. My throat constricted. Could it really be that easy?
It could be if I let it.
The Storm Inside My Head
The ceremony, which she had said would take two hours, ended up taking three and a half. When I finally timidly asked if I could use the restroom, she apologized and said we would have to walk to her house. When she opened the door, I blinked against the sunlight that poured into the darkened room and against the shock that accompanied it. The ground outside the hogan was dry, and though there were clouds in the sky, they were wispy light cotton that carry no rain. “I thought a storm rolled in,” I said, my brain struggling to process this. “Didn’t you hear thunder?”
She looked around, then shrugged carelessly. “Strange things happen here sometimes.”
I could think of nothing to say to this. Maybe the storm had been inside my head the whole time.
As I used the Shaman’s restroom, it felt as though everything within me finally released, as though the fogginess that had been shrouding my brain and the pain that had been clouding my heart left my body along with what seemed like gallons of water. The heartache and confusion I had carried in with me had been replaced by a profound sense of relief.
I was going to be okay.