In my video on this blog called “Embracing Gaia Two” I mention a day at Schumacher College in Devon, UK. when I went for a long walk alone on the Dartington Estate. It lies on the edge of Dartmoor and the river Dart flows through it. For the first time in my life I got seriously lost and also had a strange meeting. I was spending 2 weeks at the college doing a course called “Soul in Nature” (May 2012) with Jonathan Horwitz when I decided to take a day out and spend some time alone. One of the tasks Jonathan had given us was to make contact with a “spirit guide” or “power animal”. Michael Harner calls it a “guardian spirit” in “The Way of the Shaman” (Harper Row, 1980, paperback 1990) Chapter 4. In the books by Carlos Castaneda (See: “The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way of knowledge.” (University of California Press 1968, recently Penguin 2004) Castaneda speaks of an “ally” which may be a similar concept. Some of the details of my journey in the wood are contained in the above video but the incident of meeting my power animal was mentioned only in passing so I thought I would talk about it here particularly as it deals with a meditation easy to perform when out in nature.
Like the story of the Magi who journey to Bethlehem, having found what you set out to discover, the return journey can never be simply a retracing of ones steps: the way back is totally different and unknown. This is obvious in a way but when the person making the return trip has changed in some way it is particularly so. After an hour of walking on my outward journey I decided to sit and rest in a clearing that somehow attracted me: the sun spilled into it through the thick foliage of early summer and there seemed to be a tree where I could sit and keep my back straight against its large smooth trunk. I took off my backpack and settled down cross legged in a yoga “easy pose”, I closed my eyes placing my hands on my knees, my index finger in contact with my thumb, the other three fingers extended, in a “Mudra” known as “Gyan Mudra”. Gyan Mudra symbolises, I am told, the union of Self and the Universe.
To calm my thoughts and become a little grounded I repeated a mantra I sometimes use in meditation, asking for the Spirit to enter me. I don’t use this all the time, as a verbal repetition in my head seems to only increase my busy intellect from ruminating. For many people I know the reverse is true but it is this way for me and it is important to find practices that suit your particular personality. Letting the mantra go I started simply to listen: first to sounds close by: the movement of leaves above me, the breeze as it disturbed them, bird song, maybe a squirrel moving about. Then I let my listening spread out to more distant sounds, to the sounds that the closer sounds mask or obscure. In the distance, I think I could just hear the river, distant bird calls, the wind far away and of course if you listen intently you hear that strange silence, an absence of all sound, the silence that exists above and beyond the immediate invasive perception of the here and now focus. It is an expansion of listening that lets go of the immediate close-by noises and reaches out into a distant soundscape: it is rather like altering ones focus, looking at the leaf or flower or map even, to opening up the pupil to take in the mountains or the wide plain that stretches to the horizon. And this simple alteration of perception also alters your consciousness too.
After a time spent in this way I opened my eyes. I do this often to avoid becoming lost in an inner world of “my experience” somewhere in my head and not reaching out to participate in all that is around me: remember the “Gyan Mudra” suggests a union of self and Universe. Jorge Ferrer calls this negative interior experience “Integrative Arrestment” in his book “Revisioning Transpersonal Theory” (2002) page 36. I have also heard it called “holy floating”. Ferrer suggests that our approach should be to encourage a “participatory encounter” with nature, an expansion into the everyday world around us. As I opened my eyes I noticed a slight movement just in front of me in touching distance. For me this was an opportunity to become conscious of my participation with the animal world of Nature.
A small green beetle with attractive black spots was climbing along a blade of grass. I allowed my perception to totally engage with this beetle. Watching it carefully. This is perhaps a kind of “mindfulness”: at least it is one that I approve of because the minding is external and out-going not introspective and limiting. I wondered if in any sense the beetle was aware of me and like a native American I tried to think of this beetle not as “this beetle” but Beetle, the representative of its entire species. I had invited “spirit” in and asked for a helper and here was one of the oldest species on the planet: beetles have existed for around 200 million years while we have been here for just about 200 thousand. While I am thinking all this I am watching beetle perform the most amazing acrobatics on a blade of grass, using a couple of inches of grass like a high wire acrobat, almost showing off I thought or at least enjoying what it was doing. I watched for nearly ten minutes and began talking to beetle about my need for a guide and power animal. I didn’t know much about the biology of beetles and didn’t realise they had wing cases and could fly away: suddenly I lost beetle and I think he flew away.
My task now was to remember him, or was it her, (I think an archetype is probably hermaphrodite) and bring beetle into my imagination whenever i needed beetle guidance. As I did when, after walking a little further, I decided to return to the college only to discover that the signs I had assiduously left to guide me back were mostly ambiguous and uninterpretable. I have described this in the video and a similar experience in “On being Lost” a poem on this blog you might like. Suffice to say here that my awareness and way of looking and listening to the wood was different and even a little disconcerting and new. I had to find a very new sense of trust in knowing which path to take and which way led home.
I foolishly asked Jonathan what I should call the beetle and stupidly suggested a name. He shook his head and said with a smile, “I should ask your beetle for his name”. His name was of course Beetle.