Leslie Scheuler (Eastern Kentucky University, USA)
Like a lot of people who are drawn to mystical experience, I was a strange and restless child. My mother said my problems with scary dreams and insomnia began when I was three; I’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night, terrified of something my parents couldn’t see. Neither one of them could comfort me, and I’d be awake for hours before I was soothed back into sleep.
I don’t remember these experiences, although I do have memories from other events that no doubt troubled a sensitive child. For example, my sister (I was the oldest) was born on my third birthday, on the third of October, and I remember waking up to an empty apartment: no smell of coffee or fried eggs from the kitchen, my parents’ bed already made, no radio crackling with the day’s news and weather. The neighbor who was supposed to be watching me had stepped out for some unknown reason. When the guy walked back in through the front door, in his black suit and skinny tie, he told me the news: my parents were at the hospital with a newborn baby, and I’d be spending my birthday with his wife and daughter.
This was a terrible indignity for me, who the day before had been an only child to my two young parents. I actively disliked the neighbor’s daughter, who was older and bigger and teased me mercilessly. I even unleashed my anger once by biting her on the wrist, something that horrified her mother—although my own mom said the little brat had deserved it.
I eventually grew out of my night terrors, but an endless struggle with sleep continued. There was nothing worse than lying in the darkness staring at walls and ceilings. Their blankness took me from boredom, to frustration, to the imaginings of shadowy faces and mysterious voices. I grew to accept the shadows as a usual part of my usual experience, but would fall into a deep loneliness during which I wondered if I was the only hopeless person in the world awake at that hour. I didn’t know how to find my way back through the darkness to the path of rest.
My mother tried soothing me in many ways—warm baths, cheerful bedtime stories, backrubs, and cups of milk, but nothing worked. As I grew, I read books to myself, counted sheep, even prayed the Roman Catholic rosary with its 53 Hail Marys, six Our Fathers, and the same number of Glory Bes. As the shadow of sleeplessness followed me into adulthood, it darkened into a depression I did not understand.
Not being able to sleep took a toll on both my physical and mental health; while well-meaning doctors, psychotherapists, and prescriptions for antidepressants enabled me to function in my college years, they were not enough. When I got my first job with decent pay, I moved on to acupuncture, yoga, special diets, long and frequent hikes in the out-of-doors, meditation classes, and herbal formulas. Still the insomnia dogged me.
When I got married in my late 30s, my partner wasn’t sure he understood why I was determined to understand the mystery behind my problem: didn’t my meds help me get enough sleep to be successful at work and have a relatively normal life? What was wrong with losing a few hours of sleep now and then? We had a child together—my pregnancy and breastfeeding an infant took an even heavier toll not only on my ability to sleep but also my emotional well-being. I eventually lost all interest in sex, in any kind of physical relationship, and began questioning my sexual identity. Was I gay? Bisexual? Sharing these doubts out loud helped lead to the end of my 14-year marriage.
As a working, single woman with a young son, more than ever, I needed to be strong and well. Even though Nick’s father remained a dedicated parent, I felt the need to prove to myself and others that I could overcome both insomnia and depression to be the kind of mother I wanted to be. But I had tried everything and was running out of options. So I decided to go the final step: I decided to see a shaman.
I knew the basics of shamanism. While inaccurate, the word “shaman” typically conjured up stereotypical images of strange people dressed in loin cloths and headdresses, their faces painted, performing mysterious rituals in a state akin to spiritual possession. But I had a long interest in alternatives to traditional religion and knew the realities of shamanism were more complex and multi-faceted than the stereotypes. For example, actual practices depended on the geographies and the unique cultures of the communities in which shamans lived and served their people. When I heard from some friends at a Friday night Native American drumming circle about a Celtic shaman who hosted weekend retreats in rural Missouri (the US state in which I lived), I was curious. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Celtic shaman, which I learned to be a traditional healer with origins in the Celtic regions of Scotland and Ireland. I decided to sign up and learn some more.
As I drove my old Subaru down Interstate 44 from the city of St. Louis to a little place I’d never heard of (“Grubville”), I wondered what I was getting myself into. My camping gear was stuffed in the back, along with a couple changes of clothes and a few other odds and ends the shaman had asked us to bring—a bandana, a journal, a flashlight, and a blanket. I didn’t know anyone else who would be there, and as I turned off the interstate and onto a county road, I started to get nervous. I thought of my son back home watching TV with his dad, and wished I was back home too.
After a couple of hours, I drove through Grubville, which looked like a ghost town: a three-block main street with an abandoned feed store, empty houses, and a liquor store with a flickering Budweiser sign in a smoky window. I followed the directions that Pat Tuhega (the name I’ve given to respect her privacy) had emailed to help in finding her farm, 20 acres in the midst of woods and prairie. The road wound up disintegrating into a rocky path filled with giant potholes, cattle behind barbed wire on either sides.
It was hot for September, and dusty. I wondered if I should turn around. Maybe I’d drive back up the interstate and go camping at a nice state park instead.
But before I acted on my doubts, I was driving up a smoother, grassier path that led to a graying barn, the end of the line. Two smiling Labradors ran from the barn to meet me, their tails thumping happily. I had found the shaman’s farm.
As I parked and got out of the car, the dogs nosing at my legs for attention, Pat came out to greet me. She wasn’t wearing a loin cloth or strange clothing of any kind, but a modest yellow tank top, denim shorts that ended at her tanned knees, and loosely laced hiking boots.
“Welcome,” she said simply, and helped me unload my gear. Pat was taller than me (about 5 foot 5), with no makeup or jewelry, her short hair neatly trimmed. I guessed she was in her mid-40s, her skin weathered by the Midwestern sun. Her face was relaxed and warm, though she smiled more with her eyes than her mouth. Between the welcoming dogs and Pat’s easy demeanor, I began to relax.
Others arrived, about 12 of us in all, a few more from St. Louis (like me) and others from neighboring towns. After we found places around the farm to set up our tents, we met back at the barn to prepare a simple meal together—vegetable soup and salad. Although the barn looked old from the outside, it had been renovated to include a brick floor, a kitchen with a large, complicated, wood-burning stove, and faucets that ran with well water. The loft had been turned into a meeting space, a crude set of slatted steps leading up to it.
It was late in September, and the daylight was running out. As we cleared the picnic tables from dinner, Pat told us to be sure to have our bandanas, blankets, journals, and flashlights in hand. We would meet back in the loft for an evening of drumming and journeying. As I walked back to my tent, I asked another woman walking in the same direction what “journeying” was. She laughed a little and said that journeying was like being in a different state of consciousness, but that everyone experienced it in her or his own way. “You’ll have to wait and see,” she said cryptically.
Hmm. I wondered if I wanted to go through with it. It sounded like it could get weird.
As we gathered in the barn’s loft, Pat told us to spread our blankets on the floor and to fetch one of the flattened pillows that were stacked around the room’s perimeter. She lit a large, ivory-colored candle that added to the glow of kerosene lanterns, setting the shadows to dance around the walls. Pat picked up her drum and sat on a wooden stool at the front. The aroma of burning sage mingled with the smell of weathered wood from the barn and the tomato-y remnants of our vegetable soup. I was ready for whatever would happen to start.
Pat began to drum softly. I had taken a close look at the instrument earlier in the day, with its round frame of light wood, the color of pine or birch, and a similarly colored skin stretched upon it. Tendon-like laces crisscrossed the drum’s underside and held the skin tightly in place. It was similar to ones that Nick and I liked to play at home, only bigger. The drum’s stick, about a foot and a half long, had a sturdy stem and an irregularly shaped, suede-covered pad at the end. Drum and stick made a round, warm sound, and as Pat played, she said it was time for our journeys.
Still skeptical, but willing to go along, I lay down on my scratchy blanket, folded twice over, with the pillow beneath my head; others did the same. Pat’s voice told us to tie our bandanas around our eyes. She said that sage was clearing the space of unwanted energies, that it was time to let go and free ourselves from the cares of the day.
Pat had a soothing voice, warm and liquid, and since I couldn’t see anything but the red of my bandana, the voice began to take on its own smooth and disembodied presence.
Let’s start by checking in with your body. Feel your weight sinking into the floor.
Drop your shoulders. Relax your jaw. Uncrease your brow and forehead.
Feel yourself getting heavier… and heavier… and heavier.
The floor was hard beneath me, in spite of the blanket. I wondered how long this was going to take, but I welcomed the opportunity to relax to the pleasant sound. Pat repeated similar lines, taking us through more steps to full relaxation, then started drumming more loudly. After a few minutes, the drum softened and the voice began again.
Picture yourself in a beautiful field.
Look around you. What do you see?
The hypnotic heartbeat of the drum, the relaxation exercises, and the smell of sage had had their intended effects. In spite of my initial skepticism, I was suddenly feeling loose and trusting, and eased into what the voice instructed with little hesitation. The field I saw around me was golden, with long stalks of supple grass that stirred slightly in the breeze.
What do you hear?
I heard birds calling. A meadowlark, a blue jay, some kind of chirping finch. I wanted to look around and see if the birds were actually sitting in or near the barn, but my eyes were covered by the scarf.
Now look in front of you. There’s a strong, tall tree in the distance. Run toward the tree.
Greet it like a frie nd… And as you embrace the tree, you become a part of it.
Slip down into its roots… Deeper and deeper into the earth.
I was with her voice at every syllable, every breath, every beat of the drum. As the drumming continued to get faster and louder, the words grew fewer and farther in between. I was slipping fully into another place and time.
When you’re deep inside the earth, you exit the tree’s roots into a cavern.
This cavern is a place of safety. Look around you and notice what this space is like.
I saw it immediately: my cave was small, about the size of a large bedroom, and lit with a green emerald glow. The walls were damp and the temperature cool.
There is a presence in the cave with you. A person, an animal, or some other type of being. This figure is here to be your teacher, your guide, someone you can trust.
Ask what it wants to tell you.
I was suddenly jarred by a strange sight inside my head. My guide appeared, a tall male, more than seven feet high, with brick-red skin, wearing a headdress of reeds and feathers that extended toward the ceiling. I got the sense that he was from somewhere far away, like South or Central America. His breastplate was also made of rows of short pieces of reed that clacked together as he approached. He looked like a drawing I’d once seen of Quetzlcóatl, a Mayan/Aztec god of death and resurrection. It wasn’t lost on me that, although Pat didn’t fit the stereotypical images of shamanism, this figure did. Had I conjured him from my imagination?
I was anxious at the sight of him. I asked him sheepishly what he wanted to teach me, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he began to rattle a large gold-colored gourd decorated with bells, beads and feathers. As he began to dance around me, I noticed a large bonfire off to the side. After he had circled me three times, my tension increased. And then he motioned for me to go toward the fire.
The shaman’s rattling and chanting was deafening as he continued to dance. I tried to ask him again what he wanted to tell me, but he wouldn’t listen. Afraid and not sure what else to do, I began dancing around the fire with this strange figure I was supposed to trust.
And then he stopped, dramatically, and pointed with his rattle to the fire. He motioned with his arm and his rattle for me to approach the flames. I danced closer, as close as I could without being burned, but his motions continued, intensified, and grew threatening.
And then I understood: he wanted to me to dance in the fire.
As I lay on that barn floor, my stomach muscles tensed; I clenched my jaw, my chest, my arms and fists beneath the scratchy blanket; I wanted to get up, rip the bandana off my face and run, but I could barely move.
Although I didn’t understand what was happening, only vaguely aware that this was all in my head, I suddenly wanted to be brave. Something important was at stake. I wanted to overcome the things in my life that were holding me back, the fears I’d suffered with since childhood. I wanted freedom from the insomnia and depression that had shadowed me for most of my life.
I wanted to live a better life.
So I jumped into the fire.
And then, as part of the vision, I was on the outside of myself, watching what was happening in the flames. I saw that my entire body was on fire. I could even feel the fire’s heat on my physical form as I lay on the barn floor with the bandana across my face. But in my mind’s eye, I watched myself shrivel, and shrivel, until I was nearly nothing, and what was left of me liquefied and gurgled in the orange-hot heart of the flames like melted Jello. What I saw was deeply disturbing, repulsive, horrifying. But instead of feeling terror, I felt like I was watching from a far distance. This seemed to be happening in another part of myself, and while I felt I had been lured into this experience by the drumming, I also had the sense that I had called it forth, that I had created it myself.
Meanwhile, the warrior’s rattling had stopped as he also watched the fire from the place where I had stood. Then, he gathered up his arms to cross his chest, and he blew upon the fire as hard as he was able. A powerful whoosh from his mouth and nose stirred the section of the flames where my body had been. And just as quickly as I had been destroyed, my body began re-forming. It took its shape from the red, wet clay of the earth beneath the fire. As the flames weakened and the clay continued to rise, I was back in flesh, my body firm but pliable. Soon, I felt myself strengthen and soar. Standing so tall my head nearly brushed the cavern’s roof, I marveled at my muscular arms, my flat red stomach, and powerful legs.
I had become a warrior, a being not unlike the guide who had led me to this place, who had blown into the fire so that I could become something new.
In my vision, I looked around for my guide, thinking that he would speak at that point, that he would tell me what had happened, but he had disappeared.
As if on cue, Pat’s voice and gentle drumming began to bring me back. Still immobile, I lay there as Pat said:
And now you see a light, a way out of the cave.
When you leave the cave, there will be a surprise for you outside, a gift to
help you understand what your teacher told you.
And now, still disoriented, I chuckled to myself in confusion. My teacher hadn’t told me anything. He told me to dance in a fire and now I was someone completely different. I wasn’t really sure that this was a good thing. But, still under the influence of Pat’s calming voice, I left the cave in my new body by swimming in a beautifully green stream that had extinguished the flames and flowed out through an opening in the rocky wall.
Outside the cave of my dream, a crudely-made raft was tied near the bank, waiting for me to board. Made from a line-up of logs, about seven feet square, bound together by the same types of sinewy straps that secured Pat’s drum, I wasn’t sure it would hold the weight of my new body. I didn’t know where the raft would take me, as the vision melde with reality and I wondered if I’d ever be able to return to my son back home. And yet the boat was so inviting, the water so clear, that I put aside my fear and jumped aboard. The raft began drifting downstream, and then I knew at some point I’d see my son to welcome him aboard.
In that moment, I was totally free.
Surrounded by the coolness of water, listening to the rustling trees on the banks at either side of me, seeing the birds that I heard before, and shaking my own golden rattle, I was free.
In that dream, or journey, or altered experience, or whatever else you want to call it, I had become a warrior. A strong, masculine figure with strength and power. The realization was so strange, so peculiar, so jarring, and yet it was also strangely comforting, even invigorating. I knew what I had experienced wasn’t real in the typical sense of the word, but yet, there was something true about it.
Around the candle in the barn, Pat told us to write everything we could remember into our journals, that it would be up to us to figure out what our experiences meant, what we needed to learn, how our lives needed to change going forward. I was relieved we weren’t asked to share our journeys aloud; I had to get used to what I had experienced and what it meant in terms of my self-awareness and identity. I was a mother, a strong and independent woman, someone who had been transformed—and the experience seemed to relate to my sexual identity as well.
The short ending to this story is that the journey I took that September evening helped me overcome the loneliness and self-doubt I’d felt since my childhood and since my divorce. After my ex-husband, I had not had any significant relationships and I hadn’t spoken to anyone else about the realization that I was more fluid in my sexuality than I’d thought. I wasn’t ready for a new relationship, but I knew my next partner could be a woman or a man, someone on the queer spectrum like me. I reclaimed my courage and felt brave enough to take risks in order to explore my sexuality and shadows in ways I could not face before.
Did the experience cure my lifelong insomnia? Not really, except that I was so exhausted after the retreat that I could have slept for a week. But I was not depressed or anxiety-ridden, even though I was facing a life-changing realization about my identity. I’d have to decide when and how to explain my sexuality to my son, Nick, and how I’d respond if he seemed disappointed or hurt by this change in how he had come to know me. However he reacted at first, I knew he would still love me, and this was what mattered the most.
After I’d been home for a week, I bought Nick and me two gold-colored rattles made from gourds at a local market. I did more reading on shamanism. I learned that visions like mine in the cave are known as “dismemberment dreams” and signify a kind of awakening or calling. Many shamans experience dismemberment dreams as children, calling them into a spiritual initiation, and, like mine, they can be frightening experiences. As opposed to all-out nightmares, however, shamanic dismemberment experiences are followed by “rememberment,” which involves “a re-idenitification with the physical body.”1
Was it possible—had I been called to be a shaman? I wasn’t sure; after all, I was just a pale-skinned Midwestern girl who’d been raised Roman Catholic. But the way my vision aligned with something ancient that had been experienced across cultures and communal practices fascinated and intrigued me. I wanted to learn more and go deeper. That first journey inspired me, over the next 10 years, to seek out other shamans and spiritual healers—from Brazil, Peru, India, the American Southwest, and the Pacific Coast—and even to participate in Peruvian forms of shamanic practice myself.
I’ll never know whether the night terrors I experienced as a child (and the insomnia that followed) were dismemberment dreams like the vision I had at Pat’s farm. But I do know that this experience and others like it helped me reclaim a stronger sense of self, a sense that I could explore and even embrace my shadows rather than being afraid of them. A conviction that the acceptance of my sexual identity made me a better mother and more complete as a human being. After that first journey, I was ready to do it again.
Leslie Scheuler is in her final year of the low-residency MFA program at The Bluegrass Writers Studio, based at Eastern Kentucky University U.S.), where she also serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the literary Journal Jelly Bucket. A resident of St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., Leslie is also an Associate Editor (Nonfiction) for december magazine.