I don’t get writer’s block.
The origins of our holy day icons are significant, though it’s easy to get ensnared in what symbols you “should” honor, what they’re “supposed to mean,” who gets to claim them, and understanding what they really mean to you. For that reason, in this exploration of seasonal totems I offer the entire Internet for you to peruse and learn about the symbols that have the most meaning to you at this time of year. My hope is that through sharing the seasonal totems that mean the most to me, that others are encouraged to cull out the holiday symbols that move them, connect with their power and bring them more deeply into personal holiday celebrations.
Totems, for most shamanists, are largely revered as soul animal kindred, though those who know me recall that I work extensively with plant and elemental spirits. Bear in mind as I explore the possibilities of holiday power allies that when I refer to totems I include animals, plants, minerals and elements. Generally speaking, totems are complex symbols that move us in some way. For me, the power of totems extends through several layers. I greet them as archetypes — collective traits found through the particular species, as spirits of nature, as an energetic manifestation specifically visiting me, which some refer to as “Unverified Personal Gnosis” (UPG), and as creatures of the wild, drawing from study of the totem’s behavior, habitat and anatomy.
Popular holiday totems today are mostly of Western European origin and influence, such as mistletoe, fir tree, reindeer, the Yule log, doves, geese, holly, ivy. More recent imports are the Mexican poinsettia and Middle Eastern persimmons and pomegranates. Most of my holidays totems happen to be among the fairly well-known; however, my reasons for including them may be a bit lesser common. Also, a couple of them aren’t typical at all.
Reindeer. The mythology that they can fly is attractive, though I work with their energy this time of year for their stamina. Reindeer are known to be resourceful in extremely cold, almost unbearable conditions, and they work well in large groups. I call reindeer in to help me get through the social anxiety that can come with holiday gatherings, to remind me that I can survive anything, well.
Yule Tree. I regard the Yule Tree as the altar hosting the entire season, and as my indoor connection to the frigid, wild outdoors when I least want to weather it. If there is one totem that I can’t do without, it’s the Yule Tree, which is usually some variation of a fir. From its branches hang decades of holiday memories and virtually every other symbol of the season, making it the center of sacred space in my home. At its base I leave gifts for those I love most in my life; thus, I imbue the tree with gratitude that I am able to give them gifts, and I feel an excitement for sharing that is greater than any other time of the year. To the tree itself, I’m grateful for its evergreen inspiration to persevere through all things, for being a symbol of beginning and ending, both at once.
Yule Log. The symbol of fire is potent this time of year, largely because I’m always cold, and because I want to be reminded of light, of inspiration, of a reliable rotation of seasons. Somewhere in my honoring of the season is a lighted fire reminding me that the sun is returning. It is also where I burn my summary of the year — what I’ve accomplished, and what I do not wish to carry forward — blessed with flame. The ashes are then scattered through the garden, to build the life of the near year. Both the log and the fire are relevant to this act. While the fire transmutes the sacraments of my own wellbeing, the log reminds me that I don’t have to be my only vessel. I don’t have to carry everything by myself.
Snowman. Yep. The snowman is shamanic in essence because mythologically it is the direct result of a manifest human creation taking on its own life force. It’s the shamanic narrative of entering some magical space and shapeshifting with the elements to return some inspirational spirit to the world, and carrying on its teaching long after the ecstasy has melted–with a button nose and two eyes made out of coal. If we have snow, there will be a snowman in our yard. And if we don’t have enough precipitation for frozen art, through the spirit of the snowman I recall the power of the elements to mirror myself, to remind me that everything is alive and looking back at me, extending an opportunity for partnership.
Rosemary. Yes, the culinary herb. I grow most of the herbs used in my cooking and ceremonies, and my relationship to this particular plant spans about 12 years. Rosemary figures into my ritual work often as a smudging agent, clearing away mental, emotional and energetic clutter. Tying into evergreen life force, consuming rosemary at this time of year gives me a sense of inner purifying and connecting with that renewable stream of life force. It reminds me also that ultimately, I consume life.
As you decorate for this season, think about the totems that are important to you and the reason that they move you. Are they traditional to your family or religion? Have you discovered new totems as you explore personal meanings of the season? How do you incorporate totems into your ceremonies and observations? If you’re not sure where the totems of your holiday expression originate, look them up. Learning their history can help delineate their potency for you. And if you’re truly ready to embark on the spirit of the season, ask the totems of your holy days to speak their spirit of the season to you, themselves.
For a comprehensive study on totems and how to work with totems, check out Lupa’s Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic and DIY Totemism, and Peter Aziz’s Working with Tree Spirits in Shamanic Healing. Other great resources are Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak and Nature-Speak. These are great places to learn about totems and how to work with them, in general, and can significantly inform you of identifying new power allies for the holidays.
If you missed it Tuesday, myself and Christina Pratt discussed “The Tribe of the Modern Mystic, and how we explore the concept and application of shamanic community in the digital age on her show Why Shamanism Now. You can also download the show on iTunes.
I’d love to hear your reaction to the show, as well as your thoughts on digital community. What has been your experience? Do you participate in online sacred space? For someone who hasn’t, how would you explain it to them?
As always, I welcome your questions and insights, and heartily encourage subscribing to Christina’s show. Every episode is educational, insightful, and a wonderful expansion of our understanding of modern shamanism.
For years I thought I had reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I never felt particularly down in the gloom of winter, but in the overwhelming bright sunlight of summer. Funny acronym, SAD. I knew deep down, though, that’s not what it was. This time of year for me is a collusion of cycles ending and beginning, by which I specifically mean birthdays, anniversaries.
Just as there are the micro cycles we see and know throughout our lives all the time, also are bigger ones we aren’t so familiar with, until something happens, until something demands that we respect them.
However sad or appropriate it may be, the last time I was abused was the night before my 7th birthday, which is to say that I remember it vividly. There were candles, a pool party that wasn’t, rallying of troops, and a dire negotiation with the Multiverse–which for whatever reason worked out on my behalf. The juxtaposition of that event with my birthday, the most hallowed of holidays any of us can ever have–the opportunity to stand in the presence of the Multiverse and say, “I’m Still Here…” Well, let’s just say that for a very long time, I wasn’t convinced of that, and even when I was, it wasn’t easy.
I reached a point of quiet on that front some years ago, in my mid-thirties. The sting was gone, though a dull nothingness took up its place. Then something truly miraculous happened, again. On my birthday in 2001, I first held in my hands my memoir, Gift of the Dreamtime. The irony wasn’t lost on me, though I didn’t shrink to that. I realized as I thumbed through those crisp new pages that a new era was beginning. I had to bless the old, take up its weary bones, and let new being take form.
So it has. This year I celebrate my birthday, honor the child who brought me to it, and the support of people from around the world who first read about the crossroads of my birthday in Gift of the Dreamtime. It has become more than my memoir. In the true sense of the ancient healing story, it has inspired many others to listen to their own, to tell them, to share their truths.
This ninth year of its being, you can download the ebook from Amazon for free 28-29 June.
Thanks so much for giving it your blessing on its amazing journey around the world!
A component of shamanism that makes it different from other esoteric paths is servitude to a community. How one defines community can be as unique as the shamanist, herself. When I began my Masters work in 2010, learning what community I serve was a key focus. From my admissions essay through my thesis, I aligned my work with creating the Tribe of the Modern Mystic. I don’t know how it dawned on me, as I’d spent 12 years creating and sustaining The Saferoom Project, a peer support nonprofit for adult survivors of child sexual assault. I’d also devoted 12 years to deepening my shamanic path, personally and in working with others. I fully expected my formation of community to comprise some facet of assault survivors, though no matter how much I devoted to that work, I was pulled to mentoring intuitives in spiritual emergency. No matter how I put out the intention for working with survivors to be my community, the clients and students who darkened my doorway were budding seers and healers, every day people reeling from some experience of the wyrd that left them wholly changed and oppressively alone in their transition.
The first time I heard the phrase “spiritual emergency” was from my therapist in 1994. It had just been added as a diagnosis in the DSM-IV the year before. The day we met she told me that she could help me with symptoms of dis-ease in my life–depression, low self-confidence, PTSD, though she said flat out that she felt my distress was of a spiritual nature. She explained spiritual crisis as an awakening, in which the soul or consciousness is expanding more rapidly than the emotions or psyche can process. I can’t express what a unicorn she was, in the mental health care profession back then, able to make that statement with certainty. I spent just under 3 years working with her, experiencing great improvement of my symptoms, though the day we terminated, wholly affirmed that I was still experiencing spiritual crisis. Within two weeks of that last session I committed to deeper teaching on my shamanic path, had a soul retrieval, and felt relief from crisis for the first time in my life.
I didn’t want to walk back through that. To explore my capabilities in helping others assimilate spiritual crisis into soulful awakening required me to re-examine my rootless beginnings as an intuitive. It would force me to recall decades of knowing I was different in a way that defied vocabulary, the endless frustration and depression around feeling called to something that had no boundaries or guidelines, the loneliness of a solitary path, and the fear of many inexplicable phenomena that were part of my norm. I didn’t want to walk back through any of those things or the feelings they stirred. Yet in greeting the stories of others, mine re-emerged as a strong shamanic narrative, encouraging others to stay the course and affirming that they weren’t alone. Along with reviewing my history of spiritual emergency came unexpected emotional snarls tangling my abusive childhood once again with my spiritual path, even if only that both were occurring at the same time, that despite trauma from those different sources, the pain felt the same.
[learn_more state=”open”] An isolated hour with someone who utterly understands you can’t sustain next to weeks, months of inundation from others who don’t, and likely can’t. [/learn_more] I also began to see patterns of those struggling into awakened life coping with mental illness, separation from lifelong beliefs about self, religion, and cosmology, and a resounding lack of support from loved ones during this intensely jarring time. Their therapists didn’t understand, and neither their clergy, community, or other caregivers. I found myself at the center of a gathering of people who badly needed support in an area that, like it or not, I was providing. Yet, in those tenuous relationships, I realized they needed more, just as I needed more. They needed to hear it from someone besides me, more frequently than their routine trip to the local shaman, from a voice that could be engaged as needed, from others who understand what they were going through. An isolated hour with someone who utterly understands you can’t sustain next to weeks, months of inundation from others who don’t, and likely can’t. Most of them never spoke of the supernatural events in their lives to anyone but me. They entrusted me with their most precious secrets. How in the world would I create community when we had all been so ostracized in our personal lives that we couldn’t even speak our truths unless we thought only the Divine was listening?
In indigenous cultures, this dialogue would likely never happen. Not that they don’t experience spiritual emergency. They do–it’s called initiation. It’s called enlightenment, because they understand that enlightenment isn’t a sudden, dazzling solution to all of your problems. It cracks you open from the inside and requires you to rewire, start over, and do nothing the same. Shamanic cultures wouldn’t have this dialogue because they are born into their communities. They come into the world with the support system to witness, honor, bless, and grow their wild, intuitive selves from day 1. Such is not so clear in the west.
I’ve been on my healing path since I was six years old. From the age of seventeen I began my shamanic path. At twenty-seven I began working with others as a facilitator of healing. I realize now, as with all spiritual truths, the shaman doesn’t find the community, the community finds the shaman.
If you feel a need for such support not only of your experience, but in the development of your mystical life, learn more about the Tribe of the Modern Mystic. My life’s work, my heartsong, and my compassion welcome you.
For years, as we neared Samhain and The Dead Time I’ve shared my true encounters of the supernatural. Experiences from waking to deathwalks in the night to seeing apparitions in the middle of the day, you name it and I’ve brushed up against it, whether I meant to–or not so much.
In Real Wyrd – A Modern Shaman’s Roots in the Middle World I’ve compiled revised editions of all of the stories that appeared on my blog, along with never-before-published updates to those stories, and several recent encounters.
Not your usual bump-in-the-night true paranormal accounts, these trips into the Middle World aren’t always scary. Some are sweet, some are affirming. Regardless, some I’d like to never have again, yet all of them changed me in a way that I never looked at myself or Life the same, after.
As a lifelong intuitive and shaman by choice for two decades, not all of my experiences with the spirit world have had clear-cut direction, instruction, or even results. Every one of them, though, has had meaning. It’s not my way to just dabble in the supernatural for only the sake of stirring the mystical pot. Instead, I approach such as an opportunity to learn about life out of form, and be of some kind of service to spirits in need. Working with the other side of death equips me better this side of life.
There are many spiritual books on working with the dead and discarnate, though most of them only extol the wonder and awe of that work. They don’t talk about the toll it takes on their personal lives, or of perils they faced learning to be healthy conduits for spirits. Indeed this work is wonderful and awesome, but it can also be scary, disorienting, and uprooting. I share these accounts of paranormal exploration as part investigation, part curiosity, and part luck of the draw of being a human equally aware of her soul.
Recently the wonderful Michele Rosenthal interviewed me on the re-release of Gift of the Dreamtime. If you’re not familiar with her work, check out her radio show, blog, and book Before the World Intruded.
My friend, colleague and survivor-sister, Kelley Harrell, has a new book out entitled GIFT OF THE DREAMTIME (GOTD). It’s a terrific read and a very compelling look into one way that we can access healing potential.
I asked Kelley to answer some questions about the book so I could share it with you….
Gift of the Dreamtime is about my experience of spiritual emergency, from childhood through young adulthood, until I sought the help of a shaman to release it. “Spiritual emergency” is a state in which consciousness is expanding at a rate or in a way that is not readily emotionally processed. It is a state of PTSD on a soul level.
At the time, I was just seeking healing for myself. I had held an animistic life perspective, connected with my spirit guides, and embraced shamanism as a way to heal myself, but I hadn’t planned to work as a shaman with others. The book describes how I moved through various levels of awareness of myself, to embrace facilitating healing for others.
2. What inspired you to write this story?
I always knew that I would write about my experiences as a survivor of childhood incest, though every time I sat down to write, it just never felt right. Approaching it in a dry, autobiographical way somehow flattened the experience. I didn’t know how to approach it in a way that wasn’t clichéd or sentimental.
In the spring of 2001 I had a dream, which occurs around Chapter Ten in the book, and that dream jarred my vision of how to write about my experience: from the inside. I realized I wasn’t to write about the experience of my life in the mundane, but in how I experienced the Dreamtime, or spirit worlds.
At that point in the industry, books on shamanism were very academic and anthropological. They described what I call “rearview shamanism,” as something only ancient or indigenous cultures did, not a practice actively growing in modern lives. As well, self-help books followed the same formula: memoir-interpretation-introspective questions for the reader. I didn’t want to write either of those styles, because they weren’t the way shamanism worked for me. I didn’t want to describe my experience to the reader, I wanted to offer an experiential invitation to the reader. Animism is the belief that all things have a soul. I didn’t want to write my life story; I wanted to write the story of my soul.
3. GOTD is your personal journey. How did writing it influence and/or affect your path?
Through the book I’ve gotten to meet people all over the world. As I never planned to work as a shaman, I also never planned to keep writing autobiographical works. Many of my clients met me through the book. After it came out, many opportunities opened to me to publish and sustain the momentum of writing my soul’s story. Primarily, I started my blog, Intentional Insights, which answers reader’s questions on shamanism, paranormal experiences, and modern spiritual paths. Gift of the Dreamtime has given me many opportunities, that I didn’t have before.
4. What do you think is most important to believe as one seeks to heal from trauma?
We have to remember our true selves, the part of us that no matter what happens, happened or will ever happen, is untouched and empowered. That’s a very charged, difficult to hold concept for someone who is experiencing PTSD, particularly when victimization is involved. Yet, there it is. Reconnecting with that core self is everything.
5. What do you think it’s most important to do in order to find your strongest inner guide?
The most important thing to do to connect with your authentic self is to remind yourself to do so. We forget that it’s there, or we think of it once then assume all’s well. This is where mindfulness and spiritual practice meet. This is the “practice” part of spirituality. We are responsible for reminding ourselves of our divinity, and through the power of our minds, we will start to remember. The reminding becomes easier, then does everything else. When we realize our connection to our true selves, hearing its voice behind everything we do becomes easier.
6. What do you hope readers will learn from GOTD?
I hope they will learn that they can rise from their ashes and be powerful. Our culture teaches us to be wounded, and talks about thriving in the wound. We have to move beyond the wound. We have to commit to finding our truths, even if that means letting go of beliefs or thoughts that don’t serve us. I hope that my book imparts insights for how to look beyond what we perceive ourselves to be and find something even greater.
To read an excerpt from GIFT OF THE DREAMTIME, click here.
Kelley Harrell is a neoshaman and author in North Carolina. She has been on a shamanic path since 1988, and since 2000 has served her local community and an international client base. Her book, Gift of the Dreamtime: Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma, chronicles her pivotal step into the role of modern shaman. To support her shamanic work, she draws on energy work, hypnotherapy, and flower essences. A modern Druid, Kelley is an ordained interfaith minister. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, and is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity. Kelley writes for several publications, including the Global Goddess Oracle and The Huffington Post, and has been published in many journals and anthologies. Her shamanic practice is Soul Intent Arts, and a major focus of her work is helping modern intuitives assimilate spiritual emergency through private sessions and mentorship in The Tribe of the Modern Mystic Mystery School. Click here to read more about Gift of the Dreamtime.
Originally published at Your Life After Trauma.
A lot of you already know that my 7th birthday is a pivotal event in my book, “Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma.” To celebrate my birthday Sunday, you can purchase the ebook from now until midnight Sunday for $1 when you enter the code: DU59V at SmashWords.
This memoir chronicles my transition from a childhood of PTSD and a young adulthood of confusion, to realizing my personal power and helping others do the same.