It was another fun drive up the slopes of Mount Tamalpais last Saturday, February 28th, to reach the assigned location for our fourth Shinrin-Yoku session. After taking you through lovely Mill Valley, the road mutates into a roller coaster that winds around grassy hills and through redwood groves, while offering glorious vistas to the ocean.
I left home a bit irritated with myself for being late. Well, not late for the scheduled time, but late for the time I had scheduled for myself, which, ever hopeful, was for at least one hour earlier to take advantage of softer light and longer shadows. I am talking photography, of course.
Come on! Is it too much to ask that I sleep through the night when I have to get up early in the morning? After all, I do that every other night! Does this happen to you, too? Are we all like excited little children going on vacation for the first time? Because whenever this happens to me, what flashes through my mind are images of my brothers and I scampering around at five in the morning after a night of expectant sleeplessness in order to leave early for a long drive to the seaside. I may have to try tapping (EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique) on that, or possibly get myself hypnotized to de-hypnotize myself.
Anyway, that was what I left home with, and even though, faced with so much natural beauty, I couldn’t help but let go of most of it, the residue of that is what I placed in my stone to release into the Earth at the beginning of our session.
The group met at Rock Springs parking area, on the northwest facing slopes of Mount Tamalpais. There were eight of us this time, and I was very happy to see that three of our members, who had been missing the week before had rejoined the ranks. We headed in the direction my camera was itching for, following a foot path up one of those rounded mounds towards our first base camp, which offered the stunning scenery you see in the images above and below.
The energy couldn’t have been more different than than on our other walks, two in the soft forest canopy of Sugar Loaf Ridge, and one at the gently structured Quarryhill Botanical Garden. This part of powerful and mystical Mount Tam is all about open vistas, wind swept grassy mounds, rocks rich in personality and small copses of strong, dark green trees. Add to that the Mana (power, life force) of the ocean and the stark white and grey of the clouds that threatened rain at regular intervals. Expansion, aperture, clarity of vision and edges seemed the themes fostered by this place. I can still feel all this power now, almost a week later, sitting here at my computer. Even my writing feels both edgier and more expansive at the same time, with a different rhythm. I am also in this moment realizing that my week has been one of refreshed clarity and decisiveness.
After letting the rocks choose us, we circled up for the customary moment of mindful connection with the place both within and outside ourselves. Just like the previous Saturday at the botanical garden, I felt as if we were entering our own dimensional bubble. A few hikers passed us by, some young men even made comments about us, first giggling and then with a more serious “Are they praying?”. But it did not matter, we had stepped out of all that and into our slower, deeper, lighter world.
Our first invitation was the customary one to slowly meander, observe, smell, touch; basically bathe in the nature around us, while moving towards the copse on the next mound. We stepped into our homing circle of stones and as we stepped out we were on our way, in silence, together but separate. We are all aware of each other during our meanders, stretching that bubble as far as needed, yet we give each other space to have the experience each is needing in the moment.
I set off, camera in hand as usual, but whether I have my camera or not, looking at things from a camera perspective has become an embedded part of me. I am always looking for the light and how it plays with the environment, from the smaller to the larger organism. When the path split, I chose the steeper uphill one, which was the shortest route and where most of us were headed. As I looked up, for some reason images of the Camino de Santiago flashed through my mind. It is interesting because I am planning to walk The Way, but have not yet done that; not in this life anyway. The two images below are the view that triggered this. I simply acknowledged the images and the reminder.
We walked around the copse, which felt to many of us like a place for fairies, and converged again at a grassy area on the other side, protected by the trees. We sat in a circle and, using a pretty heart shaped stone Jenny had brought as a speaking piece, we shared our impressions. For me it was mostly about the beauty and power of the place, and particularly the rocks I had seen, each one like a fortress of sorts with very strong personalities. Someone mentioned how Native Americans used to live in places like this and do what we were doing as a regular part of their daily lives, while we have to make a point of cutting out some time from our modern routines in order to reconnect with the wild.
As we quietly sat and became part of the place, another presence made itself known: a woodpecker was tap-tap-tap-tapping into one of the trees. I made a mental note to look up the meaning of woodpecker in my Animal Speak book by Ted Andrews. Except my copy is packed up in a box, somewhere in one of my two storage units with ninety-five percent of my stuff. Luckily, after an appeal on Facebook, some friends came to the rescue and sent me the information.
Woodpecker: The Power of Rhythm and Discrimination. Cycle of Power: Summer.
“In various European folk traditions, the woodpecker was often considered a weather prophet, its drumming indication of forthcoming changes.”
This is interesting as stormy clouds kept coming and going, even though they spared us the rain and thunder forecasted and dropped it on the East Bay instead.
“In the Native American tradition, the woodpecker is connected to the heartbeat of the Earth itself. This drumming has many mystical connections, from new life rhythms to applications of shapeshifting. Many shamans learn to ride drumbeats into other dimensions.”
There are, of course, various types of woodpeckers, but since we could only hear it and not see it, we could not be sure of which type it was. However, all “woodpeckers drum and peck holes in trees and wood to get at grubs and other insects. This digging in, especially with the head, reflects increasing analysis.”
“If a woodpecker has drummed out a song for you, then you should ask yourself some specific questions. Are you looking at aspects of your life rationally? Are others around you not discriminating in their activities? Are you? Are you or others in your life just jumping into situations with little or no analysis?”
“Sometimes the woodpecker will show up just to stimulate new rhythms. Rhythm is a powerful means of affecting the physical energies. Sometimes it is easy to get so wrapped up in our daily mental and spiritual activities that we neglect the physical. This can be when the woodpecker shows up. It may also reflect a need to drum some new changes and rhythms into your life.”
“The woodpecker has a peculiar up and down flight. It will fly, coast down, fly and then coast down. It flies in a manner and rhythm unique to itself. All of this serves to emphasize the fact that it will become increasingly important for you to follow your own unique rhythms and flight. Do what works of you in the manner best for you. When woodpecker comes into your life, it indicates that the foundation is there. It is now safe to follow your own rhythms.”
I shared all of the above because I feel that the symbology is very much in line with our experience of the day, at least it was for me, and maybe also for some of the others who were, after all, also being visited by Woodpecker. Not that there weren’t other critters at that or our other locations, but woodpecker stood out to all of us.
At our first pow-wow is when Amos, our guide, introduced something he had mentioned the previous week, when we had all noticed how our group was connecting at a deeper level, both with the nature and each other: council. And if this brings to mind Native Americans sitting in a circle and talking things over, you would not be far off track, adapted to the circumstances of course. Amos explained the parameters to us, which – within our Shinrin-Yoku element – would mean a topic or question we were all to mull over and respond to. This could be a specific one brought up by one of us, maybe to help resolve something, or a generic one. We were to return to this after our next invitation, which was to slowly meander again, heading wherever we were drawn to the most, but with “edges” as our focus, whether physical ones in nature or our own personal ones, likely one mirroring the other.
As I go on my camera-explorations I don’t really think, not consciously anyway. I just observe and absorb, letting my subconscious do the work. Whatever happens within will then yield results over the following days, sometimes weeks, through added clarity, insights, events, dreams, sudden flashes of imagery, new ideas, and sometimes even what I call healing crises. Which is why, in a way, I can go much deeper into my personal experience now, as I write a week later, than in the moment. I used to be disappointed to be the only one in a workshop of, say, twenty people, that didn’t have any clear visions or insights to offer immediately after the exercise. Then I learned that it doesn’t matter, the results come all the same, even if a little later, and I have come to accept this as my modus operandi.
One of our group felt called back to the hypnotic sway of a swing she had discovered earlier. She shared later how, by sitting in two different directions and with her eyes closed, she had lost sense of which direction the swing was moving in, and how eery that had felt, and a little scary. As I explored, I saw her from my position above, noticing how the downhill gradient of the mound we were on made it look like she was hanging in the void – a place that can be scary, but also teeming with possibilities.
After focusing on the details of the copse, I turned and the vista opened up for me again. I observed an airplane take off from San Francisco International, climbing steadily into the blue, clearly heading west, to Hawai’i. I looked at it for quite some time, checking my watch to see if it were a flight I might be on, then scoped around inside to notice how I felt about it. I miss Hawai’i, very much, and I am planning to visit soon, but I also acknowledged that I was happy to be where I was in that moment: a place of beauty from which to explore more places of beauty, including Hawai’i. It was good to feel happy in the present without feeling that desperate yearning to be somewhere else that I had felt for most of my life. It is a new way of being for me, one that I am grateful to have finally found. Big sigh of relief.
There was no flute or bell calling us in this time, but we all naturally gathered back within the assigned time, sitting around our camp fire without a fire, and sharing from deep within ourselves in the safety of our circle. I remember most of what was shared, but three particular parts stuck with me. One was part of a commencement speech one of us had heard when graduating: “Our generation does not climb the mountain in order to enjoy the view, but in order to be seen.” I thought that was interesting and quite reflective of what is going on in the technology-rich world of today, especially with teens and younger adults. On a more mundane level I thought of the obsession with selfies and the desire for instant fame through reality TV and programs like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice and others.
At the other end of the spectrum, another one of us talked about her fear of “being out there”, of being seen and how that was affecting various areas of her life. This resonated strongly with me because, except for a few relatively short periods here and there, that is what I have been doing most of my life, flying under the radar, not really letting my light shine. This has been especially true for the past nine years, when I went into hiding after a traumatic marriage and divorce experience that triggered a seriously long dark night of the soul, aka a period of deep, painful, sometimes very scary, soul healing in which you face all your limits and fears one by one, peeling off all that you are not in order to reveal all that you are. There were times when I thought it would never end, times when I thought I might die, and times when I thought that might not be a bad thing after all. Even when things started lightening up a bit in the past couple of years, things would happen – or not happen – that showed me I was still not quite done. I had stated many times that I wanted to be free, on all levels, and was aware that the true freedom would be from my own limitations, but boy! That was a lot more intense than I could ever have imagined.
Then, just this past November, the final, and most painful, layer was released. I should say violently expelled, because it was as rough on an emotional level as giving birth to a baby is on a physical. And you know how they say that, with the joy of the baby, you forget all about the pain and are just grateful for the new life? Same here. You just let all the dark stuff go and revel in the joy of your newfound life.
If you are going through something like this, hang in there. I promise there is Light at the end of the tunnel, however long that tunnel might be, and the process is worth the rewards. I may not be fast in coming out of my burrow, as new thoughts need to be chosen and new habits formed a little every day, but I am not hiding anymore. Or I would not be writing so freely on a public blog like this.
Oh boy, now I am tearing up. Are you tearing up? But it’s in a good way, as I am so happy to be on this side of things. I am also grateful to have toughened it out and come through, as well as for the wonderful helpers I have had along the way. Because even if there is no way but to go this alone, you are not really doing it alone. Whether in a body or without one, helpers are always there. Sometimes, they even masquerade as the villains, without whose contrast we would not cough ourselves out of whatever is keeping us stuck.
I shared some of this with the group, but in a more succinct way for the reasons given above. I am able to share in more detail here because, well, it is just flowing out of me. It seems that this type of writing is another situation when I enter the zone.
Let me now return to our circle, and introduce an uplifting note after all this intensity. We were all happy to hear that the circle of Light we had done the previous Saturday for one of the group had been very powerful, not only because she had been able to reconnect with it and feel the energy supporting her whenever she felt anxious about the new medical tests, but because the tests themselves had yielded a positive result. Yeah for the Light!
As a gesture of gratitude, she had brought a beautiful poem she read for us. The poem, translated by David Wagoner, was from wisdom teachings by tribal elders of the Pacific Northwest in answer a question from their young ones when going off on a vision quest: “What do I do if I get lost in the forest?”
I asked her for a copy, so I could include it here, because it is just so beautiful.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made thi place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here,
No two trees are the same to Raven,
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
After our first round of sharing, Amos guides us back to the council. We had already experienced some naturally, but we were to now explore a different way of holding one: by introduced topic. As an example session, and influenced by our location, Amos introduced the topic of Mountains and what they meant to each of us. I instantly knew, because I had felt it on stepping out of my car and breathing the air, so I was the first to pick up the talking piece. I spoke of my father, whom I call the Marlboro Man because he loves being out in the wild and doing anything you can do on a mountain and in the forest: hiking, climbing, skiing, mushroom hunting (no hunting); anything just to be there. And yes, he smokes, too, unfortunately.
Our family would often spend summer vacations in the Italian or Swiss Alps, and my dad would get us hiking every day, drinking from pristine streams, avoiding cow pads in high pastures, picking edelweiss, pointing out to us grouse and other wild life in the forests. We would tag along behind him, doing our best to keep up pace with this experienced mountaineer, my mom usually bringing up the rear. When I asked him to draw something in a diary I had as a child, he drew the mountains and wrote “Only the pure of heart can elevate themselves to these peaks.” Darn! I’m tearing up again.
If you would like to meet my dad and my mom, you can either fly to Italy or, until then, content yourself with clicking here.
Each one in the council talked about their own connection with the Mountains, speaking organically as opposed to going around in a circle, while the others listened with focused intent to truly hear, be truly present, without disappearing within in an attempt to rehearse what we were going to say when our turn came. It is a very powerful exercise as we keep our attention in the present moment and on either what we are saying or what someone else is. It is already helpful to just share things like our mountain related experience, but I can feel how healing it would be were a council session to address a specific issue for one of its members or the group.
Earth Dreaming. I have to write it in here because it was mentioned and it suited that moment, even if now I do not remember the exact circumstance, or the conversation that followed. It just belongs here.
Then it was time for Amos to make tea, which he did using some yarrow and young fir tips he had gathered. He shared some young fir tips with us, encouraging us to taste them. They had a fresh taste, slightly acidic and very mildly sweet. They reminded me of a tall-stemmed grass we used to chew on as children, when playing in the tall grasses in the summer. We called it pappacciuga, but its proper name is Rumex Acetosella, also called sheep’s sorrel, red sorrel, sour weed and field sorrel.
We all enjoyed our tea, then shared some food while talking story. This brought our time to a close. The invitation for the following week was to allow ourselves hospitality for any new way of knowing and feeling that would come to us, to pay attention to our inner knowing and intuition, however small the nudges would be.
I have been doing this naturally for years now, and I have reached the point in which this is the way I live every day now. I am almost not even conscious of it, like all habits when they become automatic. Through trial and error I have learned that whenever I do not pay attention to the gentle whispers, I will have to put up with the screams. Also, each time I dismissed my deeper knowing in favor of logic, I have always, always made a mistake. I realize that there are no mistakes, just different paths to get to the same destination, but some paths are a lot more fun than others, and I would much rather be on one of those, thank you very much!
We quietly headed back to our starting point, stepped into our circle of stone, then stepped out into the real world again, exiting the Shinrin-Yoku bubble for the week. We put the stones back in their original place and headed for our cars. We would meet again in a week back at Sugar Loaf Ridge.
Until the next Shinrin-Yoku.
If you wish to learn more about the practice of Shinrin-Yoku, how to join a walk or become a guide, you can check out this website.
For another insightful blog post on this Shinrin-Yoku session from one of our group, you can click here.
Read about the other walks in this series by clicking on the links below:
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