by S Alexander Alich
We live in an interesting time, a time of magic and mystery, a time of discovery and going beyond what we thought was possible in our work and in our healing. With any time of change that affects us personally and globally comes confusion, doubt, and for many people chaos. Chaos in our lives and work, and in our families and relationships. Why does this happen? We can begin our spiritual work with good intentions. For some it may be the first time they have done something like this for themselves and then–chaos. Why?
At this special time of history we have access to almost any path or discipline that interests us, and this is a new circumstance. Looking back 24 years when I started to study in the field of Native American Shamanism, there were no books, no visible teachers, no guideposts. It may be difficult to remember a time without new age bookstores full of spiritual texts and crystal shops offering hope of healing, but I assure many new students that those times were not too long ago. Still it is easy to search and find more questions than answers and, unfortunately, more chaos. Finding our way through a spiritual path can be difficult, and remembering day-to-day that we chose to do this work can be even more so. Did you choose this work? Maybe you remember doing so. Or did this work choose you?
In this article we will look at these choices and at two different forms of chaos that will present themselves on any spiritual path you may undertake. More important, we will look at how to move through and past these challenging times. I will also share with you a map that you can apply to any spiritual path, whether this is new to you or you have been at your work a long time. As you read this article, please follow the illustration, which is a wheel. Actually it is a spiral, and that will become obvious later. Most native cultures teach with wheels, and this can be a challenge to our western minds, which were trained to think in straight lines. This wheel is from the Sufi, the shamanic culture of the Middle East. Like any teaching or Medicine wheel, it has different points, and at each point are special qualities of a cycle. We will look at nine points on this wheel as we explore the road through chaos.
My teachers often began with a story, and I will share this one with you. The Zen Master Thich Naht Hahn sat down in front of many students one evening and asked them a simple question. He asked, “How many of you are here seeking enlightenment? “ Everyone raised their hands. Then he suddenly said, “Leave, go home, go get your money back!” Of course, stunned, no one moved. After a long pause the Zen master began again. “Better not to begin this work. But, if you begin, better to finish it!” This is the story and this is the challenge ahead of you.
It is important to begin your spiritual work at some point, no matter what form it may take. It is important not only for your personal growth but also for your overall health. Finishing our work or path is an entirely different matter. Can you ever finish? I would think that our lives would become quite dull if we did, but we can complete cycles or turns of the wheel. I think this was the Zen master’s point. In spiritual work it can be easy to get stuck and maybe not even realize it. As you look at this teaching, I hope you will find where you are in this cycle and what is ahead.
9. Transformation of the Human Being–The Journey of the Soul
Now the first question you might ask is why are we starting at point nine and not at point one? This form of teaching wheel begins and ends with nine. Point nine is important because it sets the intent and the direction of the wheel or cycle. As you can see by the lines crossing this wheel, this point is also connected to and affects all the other points on it. Here you form your intent and that, very simply, is your engine. Without intent you would have no direction to move toward. It would be like getting into your car and driving just to see what might happen–maybe good things and maybe not. Luckily the journey your soul began at birth set you in a direction that would be best for your growth. Staying in alignment with that direction is a challenge we must all face.
1. The Shamanic Crisis
This is the first place in the wheel that can really get your attention. A shamanic crisis rarely goes by without being noticed. Unfortunately, it can be misunderstood partly because it can take so many different forms. Classically the shamanic crisis took the form of a death or near-death experience in which the shaman-initiate temporarily came directly in contact with other realms or worlds of consciousness. Today, although the near-death experience still happens for some, shamanic crisis can take place through illness, accidents, or any other experience that stretches us greatly beyond what we thought to be true and certainly beyond what we are comfortable with. Although every shamanic crisis is different, what they all share is a knowing that the world suddenly got a lot bigger. Remembering what started us in this work can be important. I often ask my students to write down when and why they began, because it can be good to refer to this when things are difficult.
2. The Calling to the Work
You are now pulled toward something you might not be able to define or even talk about. It can be almost impossible to see what is ahead. The world is bigger. Maybe your priorities have changed and now you have an overwhelming sense that there is something important to do. But what is it? Although this can be frustrating, it can also be an exciting time when you gather information, read books, take classes, and talk to friends about their experiences. The world has opened up, and there is a lot to explore and learn. What is ahead here is what my teachers called “the work,” the lifelong journey of growth and healing. This can be a good time to try different approaches to spiritual work so you can find what your heart is called to. Be careful not to get stuck between being in crisis and knowing that you need to do something. If you find yourself here for too long, you will also find that the chaos in your life is growing as well.
3. Commitment to a Path Bigger than Yourself
Okay, let’s say that you have explored a lot of paths, gone to different teachers, read a large stack of books, and now what do you do? The work has been pulling on you, but you are still not sure what is next. This can be one of the most difficult places on any path. One sure way to move forward can be something that scares us most–commitment. Before I talk about that, it is important to look at some of the creative ways that we can keep ourselves from making commitments. My teachers called these spiritual traps, and the list is long. Here are a few that I have seen and experienced most in my work and practice:
– a. You think about it and talk about it, but you don’t put anything into action.
– b. You keep your spiritual work in the future by saying that you will do your work when you have more money, more time, the kids are grown up, you find the right relationship, and so on. The smallest practice on a daily basis can help pull you through this.
– c. You compare yourself to stories in books or to other people. This is the saddest one for me to watch because other people’s experiences can usually look bigger and better than our own, but they seldom are. Although your experiences will look different, they are very important.
– d. You think you don’t need a teacher. We all need teachers throughout many aspects of our lives, and our spiritual work is no exception. A good teacher helps us create a solid foundation and a strong framework for experiences. The rest is up to us.
– e. You spend a lot of time searching for the perfect teacher and the perfect system. Although good judgment and discernment are important, you will never find the perfect teacher or system. The best we can do is find what is appropriate for us at that time and place in our lives.
– f. You think that you are done before you are. This may be the hardest one, but as you will see as you continue through this wheel, the work is just beginning.
Commitment in any form sets events into motion and can give you direction. It will also help you step out of the traps. Without commitment, over time we can lose a lot of our energy and even part of our spirit. I like to think of commitment in four parts and in this order:
1) To yourself and your work.
2) To Great Spirit and a path bigger than yourself.
3) To a particular spiritual path or form that calls to your heart.
4) To a teacher. Notice that teacher is last here; there is a reason. The most successful students I have worked with have made the first three parts of this commitment. I have found over the years, the people I cannot work with want to make a commitment only to me as a teacher and not to themselves. My personal rules about discernment and teachers are (1) a good teacher teaches you how to think, not what to think, and (2) in order for someone to guide you as a teacher, they need to have been all the way around this wheel. That way they can see where you are and draw from their experiences to best help you.
4. Changes Begin
What, there weren’t changes before? Of course there were, but with a commitment you can move deeper into your work. What may not have come to the surface before can now safely do so.
5. Chaos and Struggle
This is where your will can become involved. Real changes can bring forward a lot of fear and resistance. My teachers called this place “the dark night of the soul.” I would like to offer you a different way to look at chaos and struggle. Chaos is a part of every system and we need it to change. We shake up the old, it falls into chaos, then we have a chance for things to take a new form. When we think of struggle, it is easy to think of hard times, but consider this image. A seed is buried deep in the earth, when the conditions are right, the seed opens and the tiny plant begins its journey toward the surface. Now let’s say that there is a rock in the way. The plant has two choices: struggle to grow or give up. That is the good type of struggle in which we are challenged to grow, although it looks like the situation is impossible.
6. Death of the Habitual Self–Shamanic Death
Shamanic death can sound terrifying, and I don’t want to kid you about the experience being a trial, but shamanic death is rarely meant in a physical sense even though it can feel like it. So if it is not a physical death, what is it? Classic shamanic dreams and rituals enact being taken apart and put back together in a new way. The changes are usually quick and permanent. But what part of us dies? Our old habits and beliefs about ourselves, our work, and the world we are part of. Though this might not sound like much fun, and it isn’t when you are going through it, I assure my students during this time that this part of the wheel is not a mistake. It took them a lot of work to get here, and the best and only thing to do is to surrender to the process so you can go on. I also remind them to keep their sense of humor–always, but at this point it is especially important. If they can go all the way through, they are open, empty, and ready for the next step of their work.
7. Breaking Ground–Moving into New Realms
Now there is a possibility of entering new realms of being and understanding. It is also the time that their calling and possibly life work can become clear. Trying to figure out or understand this any sooner rarely works. Changes on a deep level have happened. Trust and patience are the best things to remember. Many students cannot imagine what might be ahead, and this is normal.
8. We Must Return: The Role of a Shaman–A Foot in Both Worlds
At the end of any good myth or story, our hero must return to his or her family or village to share the teachings and gifts of their journey, and we must return as well to our daily lives.
Some people define a Shaman as someone with a foot firmly in both worlds–the world of our everyday existence and the unseen realms sometimes referred to as the Dreamtime. My teachers defined a Shaman as someone in direct service to their community. It was never enough just to have extraordinary spiritual experiences. What was important is how you use those gifts and experiences. At this point on the wheel we have expanded our awareness and touched places few people have. Now the time has come to integrate and bring more of our spirit or who we truly are into form.
We never finish this wheel, even if we have been around it many times. It is a spiral with each layer adding to our growth and experience. Each layer challenges us with its own perfect traps to help us face ourselves. So we continue walking the spiral, taking what we have learned with us into the next turn. As more people dedicate themselves to spiritual work, they find that there is no one static goal and no one perfect place to reach. Remember the journey of life. You can never reach a final goal, and you probably wouldn’t want to. Personally, I find that comforting.