Next month I am due to run two workshops at The College of Psychic Studies in London. One is called Honouring the Animal and will work with making contact with the animal realms both materially and spiritually. The other is called Behind the Veil and focuses on making positive connections with our ancestors. I wanted to tell you two little anecdotes from my own experience to share why both of these realms are so potentially important and powerful.
A number of years ago I became a doctoral researcher tasked with writing a PhD on spirituality and wellbeing. Funded by a business school I found myself in what felt to me at the time like an almost wholly alien environment. The Head of Research was heavily focused on Fortune 100 companies and it was hard for me to imagine where her and I were going to find common ground. Shortly after arrival we were told we needed to have a mentor and as a pro-active adult I approached a member of the department I found inspiring and asked them to be my mentor for the duration of my research project. Shortly afterwards I was informed that this was not a suitable arrangement and I would be mentored by the Head of Research, if that was okay? It wasn’t okay but it seemed fairly clear that the question was rhetorical. My task now, being to accept something I experienced as an imposition.
Our first meeting didn’t go well. Part of the induction process was to drag us into large halls and threaten us with imminent expulsion if we didn’t “make the grade”. As a confident 40 something I was most concerned about witnessing the colour drain from the faces of the impressionable 20 somethings sat all around me. It just didn’t seem like a positive approach to the educative process and I said so during my first mentoring meeting. I was told that my mentor’s experience of people who make statements such as this is that they tended not to take personal responsibility for themselves. This would set the tone of meetings to come, which I came to dread. Over the next six months I found myself adopting more and more of a victim position in response to what I was experiencing as bullying.
As someone in the department who was there to make a contribution to the study of contemporary shamanism based partly on my lengthy relationship with shamanic tools and practices, there came a point when it was clearly time for me to “walk my talk” and find a way to shift myself out of the drama I was helping to create by allowing myself to feel so dominated and oppressed. I had also been told that my mentor had commented to another department member that someone like me had no place in a business school and whilst I didn’t know the specifics of what she meant, I can say that I have never felt so aboriginal in my entire life as in the moments this comment was repeated to me.
My trauma background as a working-class Scottish woman meant that it took six months of being insulted by a member of the English economic elite for me to remember that I am not a victim. One bright spring day just before a mentoring meeting I took myself for a wander in the grounds of the very beautiful campus. I sat on a bench and took myself into the lower world to ask for some assistance with my predicament. For anyone reading who doesn’t know, within traditional shamanism, the lower world is where we journey to seek the assistance of the animal beings. Much to my great surprise I was met by a whole pride of lions and was accompanied back to the shiny chrome and glass site of my meeting by an apex predator, the alpha lioness (she who does the hunting). By the time I reached my meeting I felt as though I was literally padding on all fours and I swear that my mentor’s response would not have been much different than if I had walked in the door with a real lioness. This was to herald a very tangible shift in the power dynamic between us and very strangely, shortly after, my mentor sustained an injury that meant that they were off work for six months, returning as a very different person. For my part, puzzled by the appearance of a lioness, it subsequently felt absolutely appropriate that I was sent a wild, savannah being to deal with the appropriated lion of the “British” establishment. I would even go so far as to say we ended our relationship on friendly terms. Such is the power of the other realms when we remember to ask for help, which then begins to move through many circles of influence. Give me that over the Fortune 100 any day. What’s the expression? You pay your money and you make your choice.
My second story involves the ancestral realms. As I’ve already intimated my most recent ancestry derives from both Scots and Irish lineages, both of which have had a tough time in terms of colonisation by the English. It’s not something we tend to talk about in polite society. And especially as an immigrant, where I learned twenty-five years ago, when I moved to England, that one of the entitlements of the victors in war is that they never have to acknowledge their privilege. It’s a complex subject and one which I have found great illumination for lately, through Thomas Hubl’s work on collective trauma. Indeed I suspect that much of our Western obsession with the glamour of what then often become “appropriated” culture forms originates in the fact that we still have not adequately processed our own historical trauma’s. Anyhow, like most of us, in one way, shape or form, my ancestors have included Irish peasants who fled to Scotland during the so-called potato famine, others subject to the Highland Clearances, as well as the last two women to be hung as witches in Bo’ness in Scotland.
In practical terms this has meant that my immediate inheritance from most of my family members has come down to me with huge suffering and trauma attached; including abandonment to the lure of America and Canada and several generations of alcoholism, with a fair dash of spousal abuse through in. The medicine name gifted to me a number of years ago now, is DeerHeart Clears the Way. It has not been an easy task. One of the consequences of this, is that finding myself in long ceremony some years ago in which I was looking for a more supportive line of women than I felt at the time I had experienced I found myself casting back and back down the lines of women, searching in longing for a loving acceptance and joy I couldn’t see at the time in the immediate generations past. It’s not always easy to translate what we see in the other realms but my sense at the time was that I was going a long way back. Suddenly a group of dancing women arrived, telling me they were from the Indus Valley which currently runs along the edge of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was overjoyed with gratitude and relief and when I finally came out of my trance state I found myself surrounded by several people in real time vigorously smudging me and supporting me as I danced. Clearly whatever had gone on had transmitted it’s power and importance sufficiently to attract support back in the embodied present of that moment.
Whilst I knew that something highly significant had taken place, my Western rational mind, which is, even after witnessing countless shamanic miracles, still a strong aspect of me, filed the experience as metaphor. Until that is, I had an actual DNA test done for my birthday last year. When much to my (Western rational aspect) immense surprise I discovered that within 10 generations I have 4% Pashtun DNA. The Pashtun people are from the Indus Valley. And like me they love to dance. The arrival of these very real ancestral women then began to pave the way for a healing forwards, up to and including an estrangement that had existed between my mother and myself. I am forever grateful. As my lovely husband likes to say “All is possible”.
That then is a flavour of what is possible when we make space to connect. The upside of my Western rational self is that I still always experience utter awe when such happenings emerge, though I have trained myself out of the trance inducing spelling I once used of “I don’t believe it”.
Dr Ali Young J
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Ali Young is both a published poet and academic, with book chapters in collections on
embodiment published by
Routledge, as well as a
variety of academic papers.