On September 11, 2001, I was teaching Celtic shamanism in Switzerland,
high in the Alps where the only disturbing sound (to me) was the incessant
clanging of Swiss cowbells. When we broke for dinner in the late afternoon,
about 11:00 a.m. eastern time in North America, we got the shocking news
about the attacks in New York and Washington. With millions of others, I
watched the videos that were shown around the world on CNN, dubbed in German
where I was and who knows how many languages in other places. I felt so far
from home. But almost immediately a kind woman in the group, sensing my
fear, handed me her phone card and told me to use it as much as I wanted over
the next days to call home.
As fate would have it, we had spent the day preparing for our evening’s
shamanic work, the Beheading Game, which is a Celtic version of the Tibetan
practice called the chod, in which the shaman consumes the sufferings,
toxins, illnesses, and sins of the community to transmute them through
personal dismemberment so they can be returned to the universe to do no harm.
When we gathered again after dinner, we knew where and how we would do our
work. I guess you could say we were among the “first shamanic responders” to
that awful suffering and fear that swept not only American cities but the
I remember saying to the group when we gathered that evening that I was,
naturally, worried and afraid for my loved ones and friends and country, but
also afraid of how my nation might respond. In the year and half since then
fear, hatred, violence, and suffering have escalated around the world, but so
too has the desire of millions of people to stand up against that violence
and not be intimidated by those who feed on fear.
On February 15 of this year, I stood in subfreezing weather a few blocks
north of the United Nations building in New York City with hundreds of
thousands of others, thrilling to the announcements that millions were also
standing and marching in the cold streets of London, Barcelona, Rome, and
countless other cities and towns around the world. Again the world was
focused on a single concern — this time: peace.
These are exciting times, for never before in history can so many people
from around the world work together so effectively. And as shamans and
practitioners of shamanism we have the opportunity on World Soul Retrieval
Day to come together to help restore the fragmented vitality of the Earth
herself. War, terror attacks, fear, hatred, and all manner of violence on
the part of human beings frustrate the natural vital essence of the World to
support life. World crises require world solutions, and we can contribute to
those solutions by doing what we do best: drumming, dancing, singing, making
prayers, healing ceremonies, and journeys to restore balance to the lost or
deadened places in the Soul of the Earth and her many communities of life.
For several days after September 11, I found solace in those cowbells.
Life went on. The Earth continued to provide the stuff of life for so many
living beings, no matter what we humans were doing to destroy that life. As
shamans we are here to stand up for the interests of the Earth, nature, the
world of Spirit. We can bring life back to places that know death, create joy
where there is sorrow, comfort where there is pain, hope for those who find
their world collapses beneath them. Shamans must “become nature” and serve as
adjuncts to those timeless cycles of life and death that make up our world.
Cows know what to do. The grass knows what to do.
Some months later I wrote this poem:
September 11, 2001
something collapses quickly
those watching wonder
what it was
how fast it fell
a raven reels
on the wind on a wing
rises avoiding vast red
above the rubble below
his smarting eye blinded by smoke
he wonders what it was
and returns to the river
across the wind to the ancient ways
his kind has kept
both before and now
and in the aftermath
of all the ages
On World Soul Retrieval Day (June 21, 2003) we will return to the ancient ways of our shamanic ancestors. We will know what to do.