It's an early Friday evening, and anticipation of a night out to see friends after a long week brings a lightness to the air.
Yet, I'm lying in yoga clothes on my carpet in the middle of my living room. The smell of sage still wafts over me and I wait until it's time to call in for my appointment with a shamanic practitioner that evening.
Curiously enough, just a few years ago my Friday plans would have looked extremely different. I used to welcome the weekend by making a mental checklist of the different parties I needed to attend to combat my feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Then, I'd drink just enough to convince myself I was having a good time.
But after a few notable mushroom trips, explorations in lucid dreams, and forays into daily meditation, I started to become more and more curious about what else could be possible in this world.
Shamanism, to me, was an abstract concept I studied as an anthropology. It evoked images of half-naked men masked with face paint chanting in foreign languages and communing with otherworldly spirits. So at a Women's Wilderness event in the Colorado mountains, I was surprised to discover the unlikely Kris Abrams — a former Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate who is now a psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner.
She taught me that shamanism is deeply rooted in nature — the belief that nature is alive, that natural objects have souls and can communicate wise life lessons if we take the time to listen.
Kris asked me, "Have you ever spent time in nature and suddenly felt connected to something bigger than you? Have you sensed that trees are wise? Or that wild animals might have something to communicate to you?"
A shamanic journey is an intentional time in which a person seeks the advice or wisdom of spirit helpers such as plants, animals, ancestors, or other natural beings. The concept is not unlike prayer, a way of communicating with the sacred or divine.
My shamanic practitioner and I had a preliminary phone call to discuss why I was interested in shamanism, and I explained my curiosity in exploring the unknown, my past dalliances with psychedelics as medicine, and a desire to figure out how I could continue to incorporate more writing into my life (read: how I could become a full-time writer).
Kris explained that no drugs were involved in her process. In fact, a common misconception with shamanism is that plant medicine or psychedelics must be involved. Kris prefers to help individuals reach a state of being where the rational mind fades into the background, allowing the heart and intuition to step into the foreground. I prepared for the session in a quiet, calm space, with my headphones in and a journal out for notes.
I had no idea what to expect: How could one reach a transcendent state or make contact with a "spirit helper" completely sober and awake?
Before we begin the formal journey, I talk through some trivial annoyances in my life. I mostly want to address the issue of becoming a real writer, but before I know it, we drop into the shamanic space. My breath is steady and my spirit helper appears quickly: Kris describes to me a female wolf and then in my mind, the details come alive.
She has thick white fur that turns gray at the tips and golden eyes. My shamanic practitioner describes to scene to me: She is howling loudly, exposing her vulnerable neck and then we are simply staring at each other, quiet. Her open neck is a signal of trust, and we gaze upon each other as equals. I can feel my analytical mind attempt to pull back from what is happening, and in that moment the wolf places my forearm in her mouth, as if to say gently, "Stay with me."
At this point, Kris asks me to describe how I feel, but I can't come up with the right words. All I can formulate is an incredible lightness of being, a joy and immense gratitude for all the memories that I already have and a desire to share them with the world through my writing.
The wolf scoffed at this idea, disdainful of the publishing world that is ultimately driven by consumerism, an ideology contrary to my beliefs. The wolf is telling me to let go of my ego, to let go of the idea that once my name is in print at McNally Jackson or the Strand in New York City is when I will have become a writer. I am told to let go of wanting to prove myself to my old friends who so value prestige in long-standing institutions.
We start walking in the woods. It's a cold, crisp night and my hands go slightly numb, but my legs are warm from moving on the soft snow beneath my feet. There are words imprinted in the distant sky, and I realize that I have been striving for success defined by others, defined by demand and consumerism. These words are so far removed from what I really want to write and are not authentic to what I believe. And as that happens, words being streaming out of my chest, words that are unadulterated and true to my heart, and the wolf begins to howl again.
The session ended after about an hour and a half, and I felt completely relieved of my self-imposed pressure and deadline to print something, to print anything even if it wasn't exactly what I wanted.
Was my shamanic journey imaginary or real? I realize now, more than ever, that it is difficult to draw that distinction. After all, when we dream, it feels as real as real life. And the first step to making anything a reality is to imagine it.
In my mind, the journey was an interesting form of therapy that allowed me to exercise my imagination and to really sit with and interpret what my feelings meant.
That me from a few years back on a Friday night would be mortified to so openly write about my anxieties, loneliness, and deepest desires. But if the shamanic journey taught me anything, it is to be more vulnerable and authentic, especially in my writing.