Book review – Natural Born Shamans

naturalbornshamansLLast November I attended the Gatekeepers Trust Conference that’s held in Pewsey annually. As always there were wonderful speakers over the two days, including Peter Knight, my geomancy teacher Patrick MacManawey, authors of ‘The Spine of Albion’ Gary Biltcliffe, poet Jay Ramsey, traditional traveller folk-song collector Sam Lee and others. One of the others was the shamanic practitioner Imelda Almqvist, who I knew from social media and publicity and advance notice of book releases sent to me by the publisher Moon Books.

Imelda’s subject was “Gods of Portals, Life Transitions and Liminal Spaces”, where she explored (quoting from the Gatekeeper Trust website):

‘Liminal places are where ancient gods await and human beings are touched by the Divine. What is the function of such places in the landscape and how can we open sacred space intentionally to facilitate healing, rites of passage and to breathe new life into the teachings of the ancient mystery schools.’

The talk was wonderful and was accompanied by samples of her spellbinding and amazing artwork. It was without doubt one of the highlights of the entire weekend.

By coincidence, later that day I found myself sitting next to Imelda and we spoke for a while, including a short discussion about her recent book ‘Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages.’ I had to confess I hadn’t read the book as it seemed that it wasn’t something that I would find useful. After having listened to her talk and  our later conversation I was inspired to go out and buy a copy to see what wisdom there was within.

The book is written from the point of view of a shamanic practitioner and a mother of three boys, whose experiences in bringing them up led her to insightful practices that resulted in her forming the group called ‘Time Travellers’. She writes:

‘The notion of teaching shamanism to young children and teenagers seemed overwhelming (where to start?!), but I created The Time Travellers programme in London, UK, and it is still running four years later.’

Eventually, with much prodding from her own spirit guides, as well as other parents and shamanic practitioners working in the same field, Imelda came to realisation that there was a need to share her work, and so allow others to benefit from her experiences in working with her own group. Again, to quote from the book:

‘I have received many emails from colleagues asking about my shamanic work with children and teenagers. They have referred many people based all over the world to me: parents, grandparents, teachers and professionals in other fields. People tell me that they need pointers, ideas, tried and tested session plans. I gradually realised that I perhaps I was sitting on material and experiences that could be helpful for others.’

The book is set out in three distinct parts; the first covers the foundations of the work she is covering – subjects such as:

  • what is shamanic parenting
  • shamanic basics
  • working with children – fears and prejudices
  • parental consent

and so on.  Here there is much wisdom to be found, and the wealth of Imelda’s experiences shines through, giving those who may enter this area of teaching some confidence that they are learning from someone who has ‘been there and done it’. Refreshingly there are parts where she lets us know where the best laid plans can go wrong, and so we learn from those mistakes without having to discover the pitfalls ourselves.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a section which will teach you to be a shamanic practitioner – it assumes some considerable depth of understanding, knowledge and training in the practice of shamanism, so if you are looking for a book covering those aspects, this isn’t the one for you.

In part two we are offered a detailed array of practical session plans that can be used and adapted for use once you set up your own group work with children and teenagers. It defines each session in some detail, giving guidance on from and structure, what to say, where to hold the work and how to follow up each session. There is an introduction to the subject of each session, followed by teaching notes, preparation guidelines, the session itself, and where appropriate further notes that may be useful.  The topics are wide and varied, covering from the playful to deeper work around subjects such as bullying and death. While these sessions are aimed at a range of ages, from the relatively young to those in transition between childhood to adulthood, they are a wonderful inspiration for those who may hold regular shamanic sessions with older individuals, and with a little adaptation could well be used to bring out the childlike innocence that many adults have lost. Play and laughter and plain and simple fun are wonderful tonic to the soul and spirit whatever our age!

Part three is entitled ‘Rites of Passage’ and gives a detailed and experiential view of the way ritual and ceremony can be incorporated into the lives of children and teenagers. It covers just about any aspect of transition that we are likely to come across, and doesn’t shy away from the ‘difficult’ areas which modern society attempts to hide away in the shadows. As a ceremonialist as well as a shamanic practitioner, I found this section really enlightening and useful and once again, with a little work, everything here could be adapted for other age groups. We as a culture ignore ceremony too often, and to re-awaken the need for ceremony within our own communities can be a wonderful gift of service; for that alone this book is worth buying.

My understanding of working with others, especially with children and teenagers, would have been the poorer had I not been inspired to buy and read this book, and I am deeply grateful that synchronicity brought me to that Conference and to find myself sitting next to Imelda. This is a wonderful book or anyone who regularly works with others in their shamanic practice, and particularly good for those who find themselves working with young people. I highly recommend it.

Almqvist, Imelda. Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using Shamanism Creatively with Young People of All Ages – John Hunt Publishing 2016

 

Small gods

Would that I were a storyteller and wordsmith; but I don’t fool myself. I’m not. My skills, such as they are lie in other areas; but that doesn’t mean I haven’t the deepest appreciation of those who can weave a tale into story and into modern myth. It’s a skill we desperately need so that we can, first of all, accept the fact that we are destroying the land because we have accepted the stories we have been sold and told; the stories that we have to have more, bigger, better. But we don’t. If we wake up, open our eyes, snap out of the trance we are collectively held in, then maybe, just maybe, we will change our perspective and understand that we need to once again listen to the land, and then to retell the stories she is telling us. I really believe it is the stories we can tell, the myths we share, that can change the direction we are travelling. Ah, if we would but stop and listen.
This essay by Dr Martin Shaw is long, but oh so worth making the time to read.

http://drmartinshaw.com/essays/

The Place of Belonging

So often the writing of Sharon Blackie touches my soul – this beautiful post from her blog resonates deeply with me.

The Art of Enchantment

A few years ago now, The Place of Belonging was the title of a book I was going to write. I never did; instead, I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, and some of what I’d intended to say about place and belonging went into that book, and some will go into The Enchanted Life, the book I’m working on now. Sometimes I think I’ll always be writing about it, because although the psychology of place and the myths and stories of place have been at the heart of my work for so long now, it seems that there is always something more to learn.

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Stepping down, moving on

For the last ten and a half years I have been honoured and privileged to lead and organise the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr; or to give it its more linguistically correct name, Gorsedd Côr y Cewri. Every solstice, both summer and winter, we have gathered at Stonehenge to honour the season and the spirits of place. Cor Gawr – as it is almost always abbreviated by everyone who knows it and attends – is, I think, unique. It requires no membership of any Order, Grove, or any other organisation you can think of; it requires no adherence to a particular spiritual path, or indeed to any path at all. The only restriction it has is on numbers, and that is set by English Heritage. Where Open Access is totally open in terms of numbers, the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr is only allowed a maximum of 100 folk at midsummer, and 80 at midwinter. Open Access is important and wonderful as a free celebration, secular or spiritual; but because of that English Heritage restriction on numbers the Gorsedd is able to offer a more focused and spiritual experience than otherwise would be the case. We meet at dawn on traditional Midsummers Day, a day celebrated still in many countries – and, no, it isn’t the same day as the solstice (confusing I know).

Cor Gawr also meets again on a date near the winter solstice, at dusk; which may well be much closer to the season and the time of day that was recognised and honoured at the Stones by our deep ancestors than some would imagine.

I was deeply honoured and not a little surprised to be asked to take over leading and organising Cor Gawr in 2005, by Emma Restall Orr, who was then the Head of The Druid Network. It was around Samhain that year when she asked if I would take on the responsibility and after a few days of deep consideration and contemplation, not to mention a few long talks with Emma, I accepted. Part of the agreement was that there would be a dedicated team of priests working alongside and with me, and that arrangement continues to this day. A few of the original team have left and a few have joined, but the team remains the backbone of the Gorsedd and the ceremonies that take place at each solstice. Without them I doubt there would still be a Cor Gawr.

Over the years things change and evolve. It’s said that one thing that never changes is there is always change; that is certainly the case with Cor Gawr. There have been considerable changes at English Heritage and relationships that had been built up over many years ended; the departure of Peter Carson from the management of Stonehenge was a huge blow to me personally. Others have quickly come and gone, though the Gorsedd has always managed to agree access on its traditional dates and times. Of course the move to the new visitor centre some mile and a half from the Temple proved a significant challenge as access is outside normal hours – pre dawn near to the summer solstice is early! Still, agreement was reached, and Cor Gawr continues to enjoy excellent relations with English Heritage.

Throughout the more than ten years I’ve been organising the Gorsedd I’ve really enjoyed my time leading Cor Gawr; there have been challenges and there have been a few (mostly minor) battles fought and won. But times change. I am now in my 66th year, and I confess to having one or two health issues; my energy levels are not what they were. 

But perhaps most of all there are things I want to do while I still can, and there are times when I’ve been unable to do some of the, because of my commitment to Cor Gawr. My spiritual path continues to evolve, as our paths always do, and it no longer feels appropriate for me to act as the lead for Cor Gawr, or to continue as the organiser. The facts are that I am much more of an introvert than perhaps I may appear; I have never felt comfortable being in the public eye, and have tried to remain in the background as much as its possible to while leading a public ritual! While I’ve done one or two with journalists I admire and trust, I’ve declined many an interview and a number of opportunities to speak on radio and TV. That simply isn’t me. I have never been one to seek publicity, preferring what I do to speak for itself. So, it is time for others to step forward and take Cor Gawr on into the future with fresh vision and fresh ideas. For now the remaining priests will work as a collective, organising the Gorsedd, and they will decide what direction Côr y Cewri takes, how it evolves, and how it is run.

I have had a wonderful ten years, and I thank each and every person who has ever attended the Gorsedd while I have been organising it; I am deeply in your debt. For, as was once said in a Cor Gawr ceremony, without you there is no Gorsedd.

I wish you health and prosperity. May you all walk your onward paths in beauty, honour, love and peace.

A sudden storm

When the rain finally arrived it came with such force that the water in the small pool became a cascade of what seemed to be small fountains leaping upward in graceful silver parabolic curves, with each drop creating a balletic dance of nature and geometry. The sound on the bright green hawthorn was a steely crescendo that acted as a counterpoint to the booming thunder that had been rumbling in the skies to the south for some time; like shimmering cymbals amidst an uneven unpredictable rhythm of drums. It had been as if nature was giving me time to prepare for the small apocalypse that now fell upon me. Sparrows delved deeper into the burgeoning growth for shelter while bees continued their foraging for pollen amongst the rosemary as if nothing had changed even as huge droplets collided with a select few, their bodies sent careering momentarily in wild and unpredictable directions. Undeterred by the random and apparent violent force of such a chance encounter, the unfortunate victim simply returned to the prior task as if nothing of any importance at all had occurred.

Drenched by the storm, entranced by the magic of the moment I gazed upon this hypnotic scene as the parched earth became enriched and nourished by the torrent; the heady scent of rain on dry soil filled my senses with the sheer joy of being alive to witness and experience such miracles. Enchantment seemed to be palpable; all I needed to do was stretch out a hand to touch it.

As quickly as it arrived, the storm passed; moving ever north westward the rain came to an abrupt and unexpected end and the sounds of its passing began to quietly fade into the distance and memory. The sun reappeared where a few moments ago there had been dark clouds; the garden now steamed with the heat and humidity of the day as the calming gentle murmur of bees and birds returned. 

A Dreamscape

I awaken to find myself leaning against a trilithon in Stonehenge. I know instinctively exactly where I am though I can see nothing. The air is cool but not uncomfortable, and everything is silent.  It is pitch black though there are flickering stars above and I find to my total lack of surprise I am wearing a head torch! I turn it on and look to my right. I see a small brown bird with white flecks on its wings, a bit like a sparrow or starling but neither. It has huge soulful eyes that are looking deeply into me and I know somehow it is a little afraid of me. I move  my hand carefully towards the bird as a gesture of love and friendship, asking it not to be afraid, that I mean it no harm at all; but it backs away, and I see Lisa curled up asleep against the adjacent stone, robed all in black. The bird hops over Lisa’s knee and peers back at me with those soulful eyes. Lisa remains motionless, deeply asleep, curled up in the foetus position, inert yet quietly and visibly breathing.

Somehow I feel deeply hurt by the birds rejection and turn away, looking straight ahead into the enveloping darkness, darkness so deep I can almost touch it’s velvet texture; and as I turn back, in the light from my torch, an otter appears. Sleek and silky, showing no fear or concern whatsoever, it jumps into my lap and curls up there contentedly, mewing quietly as I stroke its beautiful sheen soft fur.

Suddenly it’s just before dawn – the sky the colour of deep lapis lazuli becoming a lighter blue with a pink glow to the thin cloud that streaks the north eastern horizon . I’m at some sort of gathering area with loads of folk waiting for me. I can’t see Harrier or Lisa and I know there are others waiting in a different place, but can’t find them.  I feel slightly breathless, out of my depth, though I don’t know why.

I try to get everyone together because I know we are late, and as I set off leading this procession I know others without tickets are joining from everywhere. I tell everyone they must have their ticket or they won’t get in. I’m met with blank stares, sad faces or the occasional incredulous looks. Some folk are in bright coloured clothes, others in deerskin robes with metal symbols I don’t recognise sewn into them; yet others are in heavy cloth cloaks. Some are wearing bizarre hats I can’t even begin to describe while some have the most outlandishly wonderful hairstyles. I find myself a little intimidated by so many individuals all watching me, following me, waiting in my every word.

We reach a heavy medieval looking door/gate in a massive old stone and flint wall. The thick oak door is studded with huge iron hinges, though the young attendant opens it without a word with a big smile on her face, as if expecting such a strange looking procession. I thank her and we walk through the entry.

Just beyond the wall I can see the last few figures of another procession being led into the stones and I know that it is being led by Harrier and Lisa. I try to catch up with them as they disappear into the ancient Temple, but the path seems to keep diverting me further and further away.  No matter how hard I try to follow them and make my way to the Stones I am unable to do so. The pathway seems alive, to have a mind of its own,  and I soon realise that have to see someone else before going to the stones. The sun is coming up, just beginning to break the horizon and I know the ceremony is beginning but I have to get some sort of permission from us unseen, unknown presence; and all the time more and more folk are arriving, joining the throng that is merrily following me.

Eventually I know I have been accepted, Continue reading

Book review: If Women Rose Rooted

I read blogs; I read lots of blogs. The ones I follow are those where the writers have something meaningful to share, something worthwhile to explore. Otherwise, why bother! Some of the authors I know personally, some I’ve never met; they are a diverse group of folk. Many of the blogs I come across are discovered by following random links from blog to blog, website to website, picking up nuggets of wisdom and deep insights that I would probably never have found otherwise.

That’s how I first came across the work of Sharon Blackie, through her blog, singingoverthebones.org – though the tangled path that led me to her I couldn’t possibly relate now, lost as it is in the mists and mysteries of serendipity. I don’t know Sharon personally, though I’d like to! And after reading her blog for some time, working through the archive of her writings, I have a good idea of who she is. And now having read If Women Rose Rooted I think I have an even clearer idea of her.

If Women Rose Rooted is a brave, wonderful, insightful and highly important work. It defies simple definitions – it is part biography, part storytelling, part poetry, part myth, part metaphor , part commentary on the ecological, environmental and social state of the world we live in. But more than all of that it is a desperately needed call for women to stand in their own strength to reimagine their relationship with the land and to act, to take up the path of the Heroine’s Journey.

Taking us on a journey through her life experiences of working in modern big business – which she describes as our modern Wasteland – with soul deep honesty, relating her story to both Celtic myth and landscape, recognising always that one is inseparable from the other, I found myself recognising so much of her story, and was particularly moved by that fact that she doesn’t gloss over her mistakes. Too often in books we can read about how to resolve our problems and work through our existential difficulties in some sort of formulaic way. Not so here. Mistakes are acknowledged and recognised for the life lessons they can teach us. Life isn’t linear, it’s a spiral, and sometimes that spiral leads us back to exactly where we started with lessons not yet learned. I recognised this deeply within my own experiences, just as I recognised that point where, just as Blackie does, I became sick and tired of being sick and tired – tired of the need to earn a big salary, competitive and to be part of the machine of modern life, of the Wasteland. 

Reading this book reminded me of my own deep roots in the Celtic world, of Ireland and long forgotten ancestors and their stories, and of how far I’ve come on my own journey and far I’ve how yet to go. It reminded me that our lives can and should be about reclaiming the wild spirit of nature within us, that we must nurture and care for the landscape wherever we may live, and that it is through relationship and community, one small step at a time, we can make a difference. Our stories, the stories of our ancestors and our land, are deeply relevant, and can still shape and inspire us. 

If Women Rose Rooted isn’t an easy read in places, and profoundly beautiful in others. There were moments when I gasped in recognition and found myself moved to tears by the beauty of her words; it is a book that I found deeply moving; reading it has taught me that we don’t need to follow the Heroes path, wielding a sword and shield while clad in shining steel; it showed me there is another path and reminded me that there is no time to lose in living full and authentic lives. 

If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie.