by Shaun Dempsey
Growing up in a vigorously catholic household had its benefits and challenges. On the one hand I was introduced to prayer and ritual – staple disciplines of my life today even if they take on a very different appearance to what they did when I was a child. On the other hand I was denied access to a whole range of thoughts and feelings that my soul was looking for to make itself whole.
So I limped through childhood, willed myself through early adulthood and by the time I was in my 40’s I’d had enough stumbles on the road of life – a complete change of career, one failed marriage, some chronic health problems – to have landed safely inside my mothership of a supportive second marriage with one beautiful wife and two beautiful children. This gave me time to think, and at the age of 50, I arranged to go to the US to engage in a conscious eldering retreat in the hope that I would be able to unlock some of the secrets that I knew lay inside me.
Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is a serene retreat location in the high desert surrounded by red rock country and yellow mesas. The purity of sunlight there encouraged the regular pilgrimage of the much beloved artist Georgia O’Keeffe who made it her home and studio for 40 years. The ideal place for retreat and ritual. And so I invested time to create prayers and a ritual to allow me to imbue three wooden sticks that had been resting on my altar back home prior to the retreat for a quarter of a year, with some long terms qualities I wanted to transform – shame, naivety, and powerlessness. When I burned the sticks on the retreat, I underwent an internal transformation replacing those qualities with courage, discernment and visibility respectively. It felt important to not reject these long term qualities outright, but to recognise how they had literally kept me alive for many years. My prayer to transform shame went like this:
I want to express my deepest gratitude to that part of me that felt shame for such a long time. If it wasn’t for that part I think I would have been so much more visible and vulnerable and been exposed to so much more negative attention from my mother, or just people in general. Shame kept me small, unseen and safe.
But now in my life I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by my family who constantly allow me to feel safe and who consistently provide an environment in which I can be appropriately vulnerable without fear of criticism or shaming. So, I’m releasing that part of me that tends to feel shame solely to provide a sense of safety and I’m going to ask that part of me if it will focus instead on feeling courageous enough to feel secure in my worth. It’s the same part and the same energy but instead of feeling ashamed about who I am, it will help me to be courageous, quietly confident, and stand securely in the world knowing I have something worthy to offer. I think this will serve me better as I turn 50 years old and grow into my elderhood.
Similar prayers were created for the qualities of naivety and powerlessness. The burning of my shame, naivety and powerlessness sticks in the fire that evening during the retreat, preceded a day of silence spent in solitude and out in nature. So the next morning I made my way out to the location I’d chosen and set up my space. But it wasn’t long before the effects of another disrupted night’s sleep kicked in and I found myself a soft sandy place in which to lie down. The morning was just the right temperature and I was able to take off my grey hoodie so I could use it as a pillow. I had my soft black hat over my face and eyes and I was lying on my right-hand side and feeling very comfortable. The clouds were present, but themorning sun was trying to break through and I felt myself drifting into a different level of consciousness. Suddenly, even with my eyes closed, I became aware that the sun did break through the clouds with its full force as if accompanied by a clap of thunder. And literally at the same moment I felt it hit my cheek, I also had a visual flash of lights in my closed eyes – exactly the same as I do when I’m drifting off to sleep and there’s a sudden noise. Aware that something had changed, I allowed myself to drift into a place of magic.
I was warming up nicely and felt very heavy and dense – but because I had all day to spend in this location, I knew I had as much time as I wanted and I was able to fully relax into the sensation of heaviness and warmth. There was no urgency and no time frames and no responsibility. All I had to do was lie there and soak up this feeling. It was almost as if I couldn’t get up. Suddenly I was struck with the thought that I was a cold-blooded snake and the sun was warming me up after a cold night, or even after hibernating through the winter. And by the grace of magic, in that moment I actually was a snake! I felt sluggish and heavy and I was just soaking up the sun and all the ‘snake’ energy through the ground. There was a real connection between being on the ground and soaking up ‘snake’ energy, and feeling the sun coming down at me from the sky. It also occurred to me at this time that the moment I felt the sun break through the clouds above me, and heard the thunderclap, and saw the flashes was the same moment the snake energy pierced me upward like a broadsword through the earth. Sun and snake. Snake and sun. I felt myself surrendering totally to this experience and lay fully immersed in my new identity.
For as long as I can remember I have worshipped the Sun and sun symbols – particularly Celtic spirals. And in that moment on the ground, I also became aware of my recent exposure to snakes: my beloved 12 year old dog had been killed months before by a snake in the back yard; a client brought in his pet snake several weeks prior and entwined it gently around my neck and arms; and internally I had become aware of a benevolent, serpentine, protective part inside me that had kept me safe for decades. These two elements of sun and snake mingled together as I lay on the ground, and in that moment, understanding tumbled down and collapsed on my crown. St Patrick did not banish the snakes from Ireland. In fact there never were any snakes in Ireland. The ‘snakes’ he was alleged to have driven out of Ireland were actually the pagan Druid priests who had tattoos of serpents on their forearms. The reference to the snakes is a metaphor for St Patrick driving the Druids out of Ireland – driving the pagan magicians out of Ireland. I became acutely aware of my second name being Patrick and the role that my catholic upbringing had in banishing my own snakes, my own Druids, my own inherent spiritual, magical, earthy connections. But now, the sun, snakes and understanding had come flooding back in. Penetrating me through some cosmic hole in the ground at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico where I had been laying down to warm up.
Some hours later, as I finally left the earth and stood up, vertical, but still aware of my snake energy, I felt my old skin drop away and hit the ground at Ghost Ranch. My understanding is that it remains there – having decomposed into the dirt. But of course, I moved on. A few days later I took the flight back home to Australia and touched down into Sydney airport. When I arrived back onto home soil, like the good pagan I am, I thanked the spirits of the North, East, South and West for my safe journey and then commenced the two connecting flights home to my regional town in North Queensland. After nearly 48 hours in time and 12,000km in space from having left the US, my wife picked me up at the airport and as we drove the final few kilometres home – not 50 metres from the front door as we were slowing down to enter the driveway, a snake crossed the road in front of us. We slowed down to let it slither off safely into the bush – gone but not forgotten.
Shaun Dempsey is a psychotherapist in Queensland, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org