The sight before me was all too familiar. I had seen it years ago, before I had begun my shamanic studies. The head sliced from the body, attached only by a narrow piece of skin, the mouth opening and closing, gasping for air, eyes staring, seeking but not comprehending. Only a thin connection remained to what was left of the snake’s life, a single thread tenuously grasping on to what it knew just moments before. I watched as the unscathed and beautiful body stilled. I stood stunned, knowing I could never reverse the fatal damage I had inflicted.
The horror I felt was overwhelming, images flashing of the first time I had been witness to this ghastly scene of running over a snake with a mower. I felt queasy as a wave of nauseating energy swept through my body. It was as if my own throat had been cut, my own body dismembered, dying, with so much life left unlived. The pain, sorrow, and guilt that surfaced caused my body to tense, my mind to reel.
I ran from the scene, no longer able to bear the passing of life. Overwhelmed by emotion, I cried to the spirits, “Why?” An innocent life, ended so brutally. What kind of universe is it that something so cruel can happen, not once, but twice in my life? I was dizzy with anger, frustration, sadness, and disbelief. I stumbled to the front yard, dazed and confused, filled with rage and sorrow, so many unanswered questions swirling in my mind. What more could happen? What other challenges would I have to face before the seemingly unending series of failures that had happened in my life would stop?
I sat down on the bench overlooking the river in front of the Lodge and stared, unseeing, at the beautiful scene in front of me, a stark contrast to the death I had just witnessed. And as if in a movie where all the scenes pass on the screen at breakneck speed, images of my life’s struggles, the obstacles I had faced, the mistakes I had made, the choices I wished I could undo, swept through my mind. So many things had brought me to this point.
I took a deep breath, and my mind slowed. “It was a snake,” I said to myself. “I used to hate snakes. Why does its death feel so significant? What message am I supposed to be getting?” Then, very gently, a voice whispered in my ear. “There is a reason for everything. Remember what you asked for. Now is the time to live it.”
What I asked for? This was it? I couldn’t see the connection. I thought back to last year, as I was preparing for my fourth vision quest practicum, the last direction of the Medicine Wheel. North, the place of insight and wisdom – and perseverance. The final quest was to be a culmination of a journey, bringing together all that I had learned in the previous three years of seeking and understanding my path in the world.
I had asked for grace so that I would have a clear understanding of what I was writing about in my book, Stumbling Through Fear, Falling Into Grace. Be careful what you ask for. At the time of the snake’s death, I had just experienced my most heart-wrenching, difficult, and challenging year of my life. Time after time, I had been reminded to walk with grace as I faced each obstacle and loss.
As I sat wondering what the spirits were trying to show me by the severing of the snake’s head, I suddenly realized that being in grace meant accepting the unwanted, of dealing with pain with understanding and significance, to honor those things that were showing me the way, no matter how challenging or unwanted.
Gathering a candle and a few altar items, I went back to the snake in the back yard and helped its spirit pass to the light. I sat there for hours crying, letting my emotions spill out until there was nothing left.
And in that empty space, I heard another message: “You must die to the past. How you have been choosing no longer serves you. It is necessary to change all that is holding you back.”
Then I remembered one of the first Shamanic Journeys I had ever done years ago. It was a dismemberment journey, where my power animal, the snake, came to me and disassembled me to help me “re-member” my true self. The snake came directly to me and without any fanfare proceeded to bite off my head. Nothing else, just my head. He chewed it up and spit it out into a fire. From the fire, a whirlwind of the pieces formed a tornado, the force of the energy reforming my head into a bright light of iridescent colors. He then carefully replaced it onto my body.
At the time, I took the meaning to be of getting out of my head and back into my heart. As I sat there mourning the loss of the snake in my back yard, I realized that I hadn’t really done that. I was still letting my head lead the way, allowing fear to influence all of my choices. The snake’s death culminating a year of setbacks seemed to be amplifying the message. How I had been operating in the world wasn’t working. It took the severing of my power animal’s head to show me that.
That night, the summer breezes blew through my bedroom windows, gently rocking me into a deep sleep. The emotions of the day had exhausted me. In the middle of the night I heard my cats playing in the room. When I got up to use the bathroom and switched on the light, I saw that they had captured and killed a bat that had apparently flown in through the screen-less window.
Two deaths in a day. I felt horrible that it was taking the lives of these animals to show me life lessons. I immediately went to the Medicine Power book by Jamie Sams to read about the medicine of the bat.
What I found was that the bat symbolizes rebirth. How appropriate. The cycle must continue, first death to the old, then rebirth. The passage continued that the bat reflected the Shaman’s Death. In some cultures, the Shaman is put through a ritual so demeaning and difficult that some do not come through with their sanity intact. In order to heal and know what others are experiencing, the Shaman must know the shadow side as well as the light. The rituals they endure are called the Shaman’s Death.
I realized that I had been experiencing the Shaman’s Death for some time, in particular the past year. The choice I had was to fight it and continue to experience more of the same, or to embrace what the spirits were showing me and truly die to my old self, the self of fear; of making choices based on an external, egoic view; of worry and regret; of patterns and habits that were harmful. It was time to step into a new me, or rather, the true expression of me that has always been there, but hidden behind self-created masks and beliefs.
That day was a turning point. I saw a new fork on my path. I could choose to continue the patterns that had gotten me to this point, or I could begin to let go of what no longer served me, no matter how deep I needed to go to unravel their hold on me.
As I fell back to sleep, I felt a sense of relief and release. I thanked the spirits of the snake and bat for their sacrifice to help me see my path more clearly, and fell back into a deep, dreamless sleep.