Monday, October 22, 2007

Enjoy Every Sandwich: An Account of a Personal Shamanic Journey Through Breathwork

This is the very personal and courageous story of one man's journey through a day long Shamanic Breathwork that recently took place here in Seattle with our Shamanic Breathwork Group, which meets approximately once a month. I offer it here with the author's permission with no comment, except for this powerful process, and the journeyer, who asked not to be identified, to speak for itself. - Gary

Today I attended a shamanic breathwork workshop at Gary Stamper’s house, facilitated by Jeff Burger. The first thing Jeff did as we were gathering for the workshop was to invite each of us to pick a tarot card from where he had them spread out in a circle. One card was directly in front of me, a corner pointing directly at me, so I picked it – The Knight of Wands. This was from the Crowley Tarot and the knight was on a horse rampant, facing left. His cloak spread out behind the horse to where it looked like flames under and behind the horse. In his left hand he was thrusting forward with a wand that was a burning firebrand.

Jeff had a way of explaining the Tarot that was so much more clear and intelligible than anything I’ve read and I wish I could remember everything he said about the Knight of Wands. What I do remember: The wands are creative, masculine, fire energy and the knight of wands is the manifestation of the mature masculine. He has come through the fire and is now able to take that creative fire energy out into the world and wield it for good – or something to that effect. This spoke to me of wisdom, skillful means and the ability to manifest my passion in the "real world" in a creative and meaningful way and I said, “Well that’s certainly where I’d like to be!”

The breathwork technique is pretty simply, deep, belly breathing at a slightly rapid rate that induces a bit of hyperventilation. I started out breathing deeply and felt my hands starting to tingle and sweat. At some point I was working at it and thought, “this is too much work, why is nothing happening?” At that thought I backed off and just went on breathing more normally. This did not produce any “results” so I started breathing deeply again thinking, “I’m not quitting, I’m not giving up on this.” I kept going but still nothing was happening and I began feeling a little disappointment. I remember thinking that if nothing happened I certainly would not be coming back for any more of these workshops. I backed off yet again and started breathing more normally, then gathered my resolve once more and began breathing the technique again.

As I kept up the breathing I started feeling really hungry, to the point of distraction, and had a vision of the pastrami on rye sandwich I’d brought for my lunch. I became completely preoccupied with this and found myself wishing this whole thing were done so that I could eat my sandwich. I felt frustration that I was preoccupied with eating lunch and then it struck me as really odd that I had come here for this experience and the only thing I wanted was to quit and go eat my pastrami on rye sandwich.

At that point my hands were getting numb and were cramping from the hyperventilation. This didn’t bother me as I knew what it was and I knew it would go away on its own. I had a sense that I was experiencing the torticollis in my hands rather than in my neck and I was able to kind of “play” with this feeling. I realized at that moment that my neck was not bothering me at all, it had transitioned to my hands, and I felt tickled by this, I chuckled just a bit. The sandwich was still in my mind however and I began to see a dark tunnel before my vision, the shamanic tunnel to the underworld, but there was this giant, luminous pastrami on rye sandwich hovering just inside the entrance to the tunnel. This again struck me as both odd, and frustrating. I knew without a doubt that I was on the very verge of slipping into the altered state of consciousness and launching into the shamanic journey I had come here fore, but I was still preoccupied with this damned pastrami on rye sandwich. And then something switched on in my mind and I realized I was “there.” I wasn’t distracted by the pastrami on rye, the pastrami on rye was the message – or more precisely, the symbol of the message, and I suddenly had this expansive sense of both the grand humor and comedic irony of life. I began to laugh. I laughed and laughed, a deep belly laugh. And that part of me in the back of my mind that stayed conscious realized that this was the trigger and I was now fully into the journey.

Then as I was laughing, still seeing this pastrami on rye sandwich hovering within the tunnel to the underworld, the words came to me; “Eat every sandwich,” and I instantly had this sense of both grief and admiration for Warren Zevon and all of those who, like him, had died a heroic death;* that, and by implication the loss of all loved ones, and shining stars; but also of the loss of life one experiences, and more precisely that I have experienced, when we go through life not “eating every sandwich,” not living life fully. And then I began to cry. I cried for a long time, cried deeply, and that kind of general, all inclusive grief turned to very specific grief for the loss of my Dad twenty years ago now, and I began crying even deeper. I remember feeling like I was reaching into the tunnel, which was still present, like I was trying to reach across the threshold and embrace my Dad. Pull him back. I kept half sobbing his name, but I was still self-conscious enough not to do so completely out loud (unfortunately)

There was a profound sense of the loss of my Dad and a feeling of, “I’m not ready for this.” I’m not ready for dad to be gone, I’m not ready for the responsibility, I’m not ready to be a man, I’m not ready to be a father, a husband, a (profession deleted), etc., etc. And there was a sense of having never fully lived up to all of these responsibilities because of my lack of ability to “Enjoy every sandwich” to be fully present and comfortable in my own skin at any given moment in time. And I cried for a long time, and even when the crying was done and I lay there relaxed and spent, I still dwelt in this space and kept these things in mind. This was a gift. I remembered what Mac Hall had told me in preparation for the Native American Church ceremony he had invited me too so many years ago, “At some point during the night the medicine [Peyote] will speak to you” – and he was right. Here I felt the same thing; The medicine had spoken to me, given me a gift. The gift was the message, certainly, but more profoundly, it was the experiencing of having, for the very first time in my life, reached down and touched that place of deep grief which I have known for long that I must open up, but have never known how to get there.

Hmmm, I wonder what would have transpired if I hadn’t stopped into the Safeway in the morning and bought that Pastrami on rye.

* I recalled the quote here as “Eat every sandwich”, but the actual quote was “Enjoy every sandwich.” This was Warren Zevon’s response when David Letterman asked him what advice he had for folks as he, Zevon, was facing immanent death from terminal cancer. “Enjoy every sandwich” was Zevon’s irreverent way of saying live life fully so that there will be no reason for regret at the end. Despite my “misquote” during the breathwork, it was the meaning of the quote that affected me regardless.

After not having visited a doctor in 20 years, Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable mesothelioma in 2002. Rather than wallow in self pity, Zevon boldly took responsibility for the hard “rock and roll” life he had lived; booze, drugs, smoking, etc., and accepted his impending death openly. Zevon chose to eschew treatment for the cancer so that he could record a final album with many of his friends; knowing all the while that the treatment may have extended his life, but would otherwise be incapacitating and would have negatively affected his ability to complete his final project. On September 7th, 2003, Warren Zevon died in his sleep shortly after laying down to take a nap. I had been a fan of Zevon’s work for many years and the manner in which he faced his death is a great inspiration to me and makes him, in my eyes, a giant among men – a true hero.

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