Time Out January 31, 2017
My son brings Izzy, his four year-old golden retriever, to our house. We will dog sit until his family returns from their winter vacation. She’ll be with us for five days. I love this dog, but she’s not easy. She’s big, rambunctious, needy, demanding of attention. Will the time and attention I’m willing to spare be enough for her? I hope so.
We take a little walk. She sniffs around, does her business. Good. We return to the house so I can work and she can rest.
It’s evening. I feed her and leave for my ukulele lesson. When I return home Fred says our daughter has invited us to join them for dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. We are delighted. Izzy will be fine alone for a while. She’s been here many times. I give her a treat, tell her we’ll go for a walk when I get home, say goodbye.
Over dinner our granddaughters recount last week’s accomplishments. A perfect score on a difficult and important math test. A thrilling promotion from the junior varsity to varsity softball team. Does anything feel better than this time out with them?
Back home, Izzy wakes up from her nap on the kitchen floor. She looks up at me, tail thumping, waiting to see what’s next. I wrap her leash around my shoulders, stuff a green doggy-waste-bag in the pocket of my blue jeans, and we step out the front door. Our little neighborhood is small and secluded so the leash is just a back-up plan in case we run into cars or other late-night dog-and-human-walkers.
I love being outdoors at night. The fresh cool breeze off the nearby lake. The quiet. The shadows. The open space. The peace. No people to talk to. No cars to avoid. A few pale street lights…just enough to keep Izzy in sight. The pleasure of giving her this time out, knowing she’s enjoying it, feeling confident and secure because I’m there with her.
She stops in the middle of the road, sniffing road kill. It’s too dark and the creature’s too long gone to tell what it is. Was. Osprey, raccoon, opossum, squirrel? I look at the stars, happy to wait, enjoying her pleasure. She glances back at me. I step forward, so does she. We move on to the next olfactory infusion. She stops, transfixed. I stop, transfixed. Does she remember I’m here, or is this new smell her entire universe in this moment?
We walk on. She sniffs something else, looks back, reads my body language. “It’s okay. You’re okay,” my body says. She understands and moves on. I’m still her lighthouse. I follow her lead. Knowing we’re connected as surely as if she were on a leash. Gratified that we trust one another so much that she doesn’t have to be tied physically to me. Pleased that she’s free to follow her nose. Humbled that we’re so acutely aware of the significance of each other.
We approach a crossroad. She looks back at me. Looks to the left. Looks to the right. Starts off to the right. No, I think. Left toward the lake is better. No traffic that way. She’ll be safer. I whistle one note. She freezes. Glances back. I point to the left. Just a slight movement of my arm and index finger. She turns around and goes left.
I feel a surge of joy. This moment. This connection with Nature, this utterly delicious intuitive knowing. This trust between two animals who have such different languages and ways of processing life.
So different, and yet….we see each other. We know each other. In some invisible way we are touching each other, our minds sharing the same time and space. It feels magical. Miraculous. We’re part of a mystery so vast my mind can’t encompass it.
But, oh! I can enjoy it. This night under a starry sky. This dog who trusts me, who I trust. This connection to the unknown. I’m filled to bursting with gratitude and love. Does anything feel better than this time out?
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.
Why Do I Meditate? April 5, 2016
I’m at my desk reading the Goethe quote on my coffee mug: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” I feel the truth of this deeply, but wonder if I really understand it or can express it adequately. I want to try.
I close my eyes to feel the life in my body and follow my breath. Tiny tinglings everywhere…chest and belly rising and falling…the air conditioner fan whirring away to my left, an airplane humming overhead…the solid floor beneath my feet…the warmth of my clasped hands…the softness of my velvet robe.
I open my eyes and look out the window at the stand of bald cypress with their knotty brown trunks and newly green foliage. I watch the soft sway of their gray Spanish moss beards. I wait…for what I don’t know. I smile. It’s a relief not to need to know. A love bug lands on the window at eye level. No, wait; it’s two love bugs! My smile expands. My heart seems to expand too. I’m enjoying this tiny reminder of love. Fluttering leaves sparkle. Some show their paler sides; others are a deeper green. A dragonfly flits by. Cottony clouds with dove gray undersides sink slowly below the cypress canopy.
I rise and step outside to see if the great blue heron is still fishing across the creek. S/he’s gone, but a pair of black-feathered, yellow-legged, red-billed birds (young coots?) fly past, then abruptly make a U-turn and hurry back in the opposite direction.
I remember the brilliant cardinal that kept dropping by one day last week to peck at the picture window, either flirting with his image or trying to pass through the sky’s reflection. I Googled the symbolism of cardinals and found this: [The cardinal] “reminds us to hold ourselves with pride – not ego pride. Rather, the cardinal asks us to stand a little taller, be a bit more regal, step into our natural confidence as if we were born to lead with grace and nobility.” Good advice. But that was a few days ago. I return to this moment.
Other random thoughts intrude and I invite them to pass on so I can stay present. I realize I’m hoping to close these musings with some sort of sign or synchronicity I can share to prove how rewarding just appreciating this day can be! But nothing is showing up and I’m running out of writing space.
Wait. Something is showing up. (As I write these words a cardinal darts by…is it my cardinal?… but that isn’t what I mean.) What shows up after I’ve written the previous paragraph is an awareness of my ego’s influence over my thoughts and writing. My ego wants a sign it can use to be impressive, but my soul just wants to be! And just as I was thinking this the cardinal passed by. I guess I did receive a sign after all: ego pride! I smile and let it be. Self-knowledge is healing but self-criticism erodes my confidence and robs me of this moment. Simply being aware of everything, including my baser tendencies, is the true value of this day.
Why do I meditate? Because it slows down my monkey mind and makes me more mindful of my body. Because when I’m mindful of my body, I experience this fleeting miracle of being. Because experiencing the miracle of being—being alive, being me, having this body, this day, this comfortable place to live, my health, people who love me—fills me with love and gratitude. And when I remember love and gratitude, I remember to choose love more often that day, no matter what’s happening in my outer world. For me, that’s reason enough.
Photo Credits: Google Images
Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are also at Amazon as well as Kobo, Barnes And Noble, and Smashwords.
Learning From Our Lady of the Beasts March 8, 2016
“The Earth Mother is…the eternally fruitful source of everything…. Each separate being is a manifestation of her; all things share in her life through an eternal cycle of birth and rebirth….Her animals….embody the deity herself, defining her personality and exemplifying her power.” Buffie Johnson, Our Lady of the Beasts, Inner Traditions
The successful wielding of power to enhance our soul’s development is a primary concern of the feminine archetypes. For them, power is not about controlling otherness, but about loving and learning from otherness so that our souls are empowered to become what they were created to be. If this is to happen, our energies need to be redirected away from pursuits aimed at acquiring external, historical power toward those that bring internal, natural power. By natural power I mean the soul’s power to act from its rich, authentic core, unencumbered by the chains of fear, ignorance, and conformity. One way of loosening these chains is to learn from Earth Mother’s manifestations in nature.
The farther removed we are from nature, the less apt we are to hear Sophia’s voice or learn from her natural guidance. One night after an eventful weekend at our mountain home I recorded five valuable insights I had acquired, all of them necessary to my empowerment, and none of which I would have learned had I stayed indoors. Through my adult interactions with nature I am rediscovering something I knew as a child but never had the words for: staying close to nature brings me closer to my truest self.
A major step in my own return to nature began when, in my fifties, I fulfilled a childhood dream of buying my own horse to train: a two-and-a-half-year old gray thoroughbred I called Honey’s Shadow Dancer — gray to symbolize the union of the opposites of black and white for which I strive, Honey for his sweetness, Shadow to signify my desire to be always mindful of my own shadow, and Dancer to honor the ever-changing dance of life. For me, the physical care I lavished on him and our efforts to understand and trust one another were spiritual practices that were every bit as meaningful as my earlier, more cerebral ones.
Native teachers and healers Jamie Sams and David Carson tell us that for many native peoples Horse represents both physical and unearthly power, and that the impact of Horse’s domestication was akin to the discovery of fire. “Before Horse, humans were earthbound, heavy-laden, and slow creatures indeed. Once humans climbed on Horse’s back, they were as free and fleet as the wind. Through their special relationship with Horse, humans altered their self-concept beyond measure. Horse was the first animal medicine of civilization.”
The term animal medicine refers to life lessons learned from animals whose characteristics and habits demonstrate how to walk on our physical Earth Mother in harmony with the universe. Like Buffie Johnson, I think of the aspect of Earth Mother that conveys lessons through wild creatures and beloved animal companions as Our Lady of the Beasts.
What animal teachers has Our Lady of the Beasts sent to you?
Image Credit: Google Images
Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Kobo, Barnes And Noble, and Smashwords.
Animal Medicine: Seeing Hidden Emotions March 1, 2016
As one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, my horse Shadow ranks right up there with Jung and my dreams. Horses, like dreams, are Nature: they do not lie. People can cover their true feelings with masks, but horses do not know how to make masks. As animals of prey that have survived by being intensely alert and wary, they are easily unsettled by subtle signs of incongruence in people’s behavior. The tiniest gesture—a tentativeness in our stride, a sideways glance, a sudden intake of breath—can trigger prehistoric horsey images of predatory wolves clad in sheep’s clothing and cause them to spook.
One of the most amazing…and frustrating…things about horses is that they naturally mirror our emotions. If we are afraid, they will be afraid. If, beneath a calm exterior, we are irritable or angry, intense, anxious, sad or excitable, they will behave in accordance with the deeper reality. Shadow was especially good at this. And since I’ve always been especially good at ignoring my uncomfortable feelings, together we were a Jungian analyst’s dream and a horse trainer’s nightmare!
The first time Shadow and I took a dressage test, I was vaguely aware of feeling a tad nervous; but because I didn’t like the way that felt, I ignored it. Thirty minutes before my test was to take place, Liz, my trainer, told me to exercise him in the round pen. This is a technique where you stand in the center of the pen and ask the horse to walk, trot, and canter around you in wide circles. This warms him up, reminds him of cues, bonds him with his trainer, consumes excess energy, and gives the trainer an opportunity to monitor his mood and correct inappropriate behavior.
I’d done this many times in the smaller pen at the stable where he lived, but he was a very young, high-strung thoroughbred and I still wasn’t very confident about his trustworthiness or my ability to handle him. Moreover, I’d never ridden him in a horse show before. An added stressor was that we were both in a strange new setting and I was very aware that people were watching us out of curiosity. In short, I was still a rank amateur in horse training, and here I was on stage. I had every right to feel anxious, but I simply refused to admit it.
When Shadow started moving along the fence he couldn’t have looked more anxious; his movements were tentative and irregular and his eyes darted wildly from side to side as he looked over the fence to scan the horizon for danger. When I asked him to canter he raced around in the thick sand so quickly and recklessly that I was afraid he would fall and hurt himself.
Worried, I yelled “Whoa” louder and louder, but this only got him more stirred up. I tried rushing to the side of the pen with outstretched arms to stop him, but that only made him turn around and gallop away in the opposite direction. Then suddenly the veil dropped from my eyes and I saw the full extent of my anxiety in his behavior. Praying this would work, I stopped dead still in the center of the ring, closed my eyes, and began to breathe as slowly and deeply from my belly as I could.
As I calmed myself, his response was immediate and dramatic. Within two turns around the ring his wild pace slowed to a canter. Two more and he was trotting. A minute later he walked calmly toward me, stopped behind me, and touched his nose to my left shoulder. Whereas before my behavior had convinced him there was something to worry about, now he was equally convinced everything was fine.
This lesson affected me profoundly. Fifteen minutes with Shadow in that pen brought home something I had not mastered after years of meditation: recognizing my negative emotional states and rendering them harmless by returning to my quiet center. This skill is crucial to conflict resolution in everyday relationships, yet how many of us have acquired it? Can you imagine how different the world would be if everyone involved in international relations had a Shadow to show them their shadow?
What lessons has Our Lady of the Beasts taught you through your animal friends?
Image Credit: Top: Google Images. Bottom: My photograph.
Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Kobo, Barnes And Noble, and Smashwords.
Last week I wrote about an encounter with a rattlesnake on our forested mountain property. The day before that I found a skeleton of the head of something that looked like a baby alligator. Friends later confirmed that it was another snake. A bigger one. I had my third wild animal encounter in as many days the day after the live rattler appeared. This time it was a very large, very alive black bear! I had just arrived at a friend’s house to meet with my Jungian summer study group and it walked into her garden, knocked over a bird feeder she had filled only fifteen minutes earlier, and sat down to enjoy the feast. It wasn’t 30 feet away from her porch.
Humankind has always found significance in threeness. Three fairy tale brothers set out to win a princess, a wolf terrorizes three little pigs, a little girl explores the forest home of three bears, a hero receives three wishes. Christianity has its trinity and its three wise men. If two movie stars or old friends died within a few weeks of each other, my mother always waited for the third.
We also attach spiritual meaning to animals. Native American warriors were visited by their power animals on vision quests and in dreams. A stray dog appears out of nowhere to bring comfort and companionship to a grieving widower. A widow whose husband loved hummingbirds has never seen a hummingbird in her garden until one taps on her kitchen window the afternoon of his funeral. When Lawrence Anthony—a legend in South Africa who bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human atrocities—died on March 7, 2012, 31 wild elephants showed up at his home two days later to pay their respects.
So I ask myself, what meaning is there for me in these three “truly numinous encounter(s) with Other-ness?” as Jungian therapist Melissa LaFlamme said about the rattlesnake. She continues, “Very auspicious…. [snakes] come as Teachers of the ancients.” Writer Elaine Mansfield agrees, “Wow, Jean. A visitation. Respect and caution needed, but what a gift to mine.”
Snakes are at home on the ground, in water, in trees. They shed their old skins (or old lives) and grow new ones to emerge reborn, transformed. Two snakes entwine the Rod of the god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. A similar image, the caduceus of the Greek god Hermes, is still a symbol for medicine and healing.
And what about bears? I’ve written about them many times in earlier posts: here, and here, here, here, and here. A symbol of spiritual introversion in Native American lore and of psychological transformation and rebirth in Jungian psychology—bears hibernate in the winter, as if dead, and emerge in the spring as if reborn, often with a cub or two—Bear has been one of my two animal totems (the other is Horse) ever since it asked to be included in my first book, The Bridge to Wholeness. When we remodeled our summer home in the Smoky Mountains, a large bronze bear was installed in a place of honor. Over the years I’ve had several Big dreams about serpents and bears, (Jung saw both as symbols of the Self), but this is the first time a live rattlesnake or bear has appeared in close proximitiy to me.
Three encounters with Snake and Bear in three days. Synchronicity. Fairy tales and myths. Vision quests—I’ve been on one since I was 17 through forest and mountain, both physical and spiritual. Jungian psychology. Animal Teachers. Writing. Healing. Teaching. Comfort. Dreams. Spiritual introversion. Psychological transformation. Growing respect and gratitude for the gift of physical life. Home. The Self. These are my primary associations with last week’s numinous visitations. They speak to the themes of my spiritual journey and connect my outer and inner worlds.
They say: You are on the journey you were meant to take: finding the meaning of your myth, living your passion, sharing what you have learned. You are a valuable part of the whole, sacred interconnected web of life. You are seen. You are known. You are loved.
And I am grateful.
Jean Raffa’s newest book, Healing the Sacred Divide, can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Diesel Ebooks
Keeping Score June 11, 2013
A BIG black spider crosses the porch toward me. What if it climbs up my leg while I’m absorbed in my book? My territory. I consider stepping on it. This feels harsh. Maybe I’ll just relocate it. I slide a piece of paper under it but it leaps onto the nearby wall and scuttles beneath a plank of cedar siding. I turn my rocking chair to watch. Why did it come here? Is it looking for food? A place to weave a web?
“When you have the experience, don’t miss the meaning.” John O’Donohue
This area of the Smoky Mountains is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, a culture rich with legends about animal helpers and teachers. In “Living Stories of the Cherokee” by Barbara R. Duncan, storyteller Kathi Smith Littlejohn tells about a time long ago when there was no fire and everything was dark and cold. The animals knew there was fire on the other side of the world so they decided to get some. Buzzard went first, but when he tried to carry hot coals back on the top of his head, he burned all the feathers off. The little black snake, who wasn’t black then, tried next, but the only place he could carry coals was on the back of his neck and it burned his body black all the way down. To this day he’s still black.
Then Grandmother Spider said, “I’ll get the fire.” Of course, the other animals laughed at her, but she said, “I may be small, but I’ll get it. You watch me.” So she went to the river and made a little pot of clay. She carried it on her back to the other side of the world, put some hot coals into the pot, and carried them back. That’s how she brought fire to this side of the world and gave the Cherokee people the idea of making pottery.
The mythological motif of the smallest one succeeding when others fail is universal. It teaches that when your intention is sincere and benevolent, fierce determination, careful observation, and creative thinking count more than size, age, gender or physical strength. Can I learn something from careful observation and creative thinking about this spider?
I watch her explorations until I lose her. What did I learn? I think back. I’ve been worrying that my preoccupation with writing dulls my appreciation for the life and beauty that surround me so I came out to the porch to get out of my Mind. One point for Nature. But I brought a book with me! One point for Mind.
My first instinct was to kill the spider. Instincts are Nature. Point. But when I recognized my instinctive response I decided to spare her. Choosing to override an instinct comes from the Mind. Point.
I reflected on this experience. Reflection is both Nature (according to Jung it’s a natural human instinct) and Mind (it requires a deliberate choice to use cognitive skills). Point. Point.
Three points each so far. But here’s the tie-breaker: I took notes! Then I turned the experience into another blog post. Darn! My writer animus is relentless! As usual, Mind trumps Matter.
I worry. Is this imbalance in my personality a bad thing? Just as taking action satisfied Grandmother Spider’s need to bring life-giving fire to her community, writing satisfies my need to understand myself and help others acquire self-knowledge. So what’s the difference between us? I worry about which aspects of my personality are dark, which are bright, and which side’s winning. She’s too busy doing her thing to worry. Here’s Grandmother Spider’s message to me: “Keeping score is more appropriate to gaming than living. Your job is not to perfect every aspect of your personality; it’s to do the work you are uniquely suited to.”