Spiritual High in the High Desert

by Duane Marcus

For five days I lived on a high desert ridge between 2 forks of the Rio Tesuque in the broad valley guarded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the Jemez Mountains to the west. New Mexico lived up to its name as the land of enchantment during the week I spent at the Cuyamungue: The Felicitas D. Goodman Institute participating in ecstatic rituals and communing with the spirits of the desert in liminal space between what most of us know as reality and what is called by some the alternate reality or the realm of the spirits.

Cuyamungue is a Tewa word meaning “the hill where the stones are slipping”, a fitting name for this rugged land. Hills of multicolored stone are dotted with dark green juniper and other tenacious plant life. Between the hills are washes and arroyos where torrents of water scour the sides of the hills during the infrequent and often violent thunderstorms that rise up over the mountains and slowly drift across the valley. Up until 3 weeks before my arrival no rain had fallen for over 3 months. The landscape appeared barren and parched as I surveyed it the first day I was there. I was fascinated by this unfamiliar world and determined to make some sense of it. In many ways it was as much an alternate reality for me as the ones I was to experience when we began to do our ecstatic rituals the following day. What did the rabbits I saw out of the corner of my eye eat in this brown, dry world? What were all these hummingbirds doing here? Why did that bull snake slither up out of the wash and greet me as if I were a long lost friend? These were questions I sought to answer as I trekked across the hills and through the washes looking for clues.

Each day I got up before the dawn and walked up to the ridge where all of us would gather to greet the rising sun. Institute founder Felicitas Goodman started this tradition many years ago. The Directors of the land have continued it to this day. While the others were waking up I walked the land looking for clues that would help me answer my questions. On my second night there were a few brief hours of life-giving rain and the desert began to wake up from its temporary slumber. After several days I began to notice fresh green sprouts emerging from the tufts of brown grass. Other plants began to respond to the recent rains as well. Each day the desert became very subtly greener, more alive. Each morning the energy of the landscape was stronger. Plants have to be opportunists to survive in this harsh reality. When I walked down the wash below the new Thunderbird hogan on my last morning there, I saw several species had taken advantage of the gift of rain to produce flowers and, hopefully, seeds that will allow them to reproduce themselves yet again. These flowers provide nectar for the hummingbirds and the few butterflies and other insects flitting about. The butterflies and insects become food for other birds and lizards. The future seeds will sustain rodents and yet other birds upon whom snakes and raptors prey. The cycle of life in the desert occurs in fits and starts, at the whim of the spirits of the rain, and thunder and wind.

Nothing is wasted here. I noticed fresh scat on the dirt track that intersects the wash where it meets the river. As I followed the track I saw older dried piles of scat. Whomever produced it passed this way frequently. I walked a little further and came upon a pile that was shaking up and down. Given my experiences in alternate reality by this time this did not surprise me at all. I knew right away a colony of dung beetles had set up shop under the pile to harvest it for feeding their young. As I watched in fascination I noticed that the contents of the scat indicated the producer was an omnivore. There were juniper seeds and a tiny section of the jaw of a lizard or small rodent lined with little sharp teeth. Such is life in the desert.

The Workshop Experience

When I wasn’t wandering alone in the desert pondering life’s deepest secrets I was participating in a workshop titled “From Spirit through Art: Express Your Creative Genius”. 8 of us gathered together in the kiva to perform rituals using rhythmic rattling while in specific body postures. The combination of the postures and the rattling within the sacred space of the kiva allowed us to go into ecstatic trances in which we communicated with the spirits, receiving healing, teachings and guidance from them. We went into the kiva and performed 6 different rituals over 4 days.

Each ritual posture was chosen for a specific purpose. The first afternoon we did the Bear Spirit posture. Grandfather Bear is known in many cultures throughout the world as a great healer. The Bear Spirit pose was a great choice to set the stage for what was to follow. Entering the kiva for the first time was magical. I could feel the energy of the many people who had come before me to meet the spirits of the alternate reality. Above our heads the many masks created for masked trance dances watched over us as we performed our first ecstatic ritual.

The following morning after our sun greeting ceremony and a nice communal breakfast we returned to the kiva to do the South American Underworld posture. This was the first ritual posture I ever used after reading about it in Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman. I have used this pose many times. It is my posture of choice whenever I need to connect with the spirit world for advice and guidance. This was the first time I had done this ritual with other people. I remarked when it was my turn to share my experience with the others that I was beginning to feel the presence of their energy while were in the alternate reality. One of the many benefits of ecstatic rituals is the energetic connections one makes with those with whom one is sharing the experience. The depth of the trance is magnified by the collective energy of those present and those who came before. Being in the sacred space of the kiva enhanced the power of the experience even more.

Desert Sun Spirit Mandala
After lunch, board member and artist Cynthia Devlin introduced us to the process of creating a mandala or sacred circle as a way of expressing our experiences. I was reluctant to participate at first but once I did, I found the process to be very liberating and revealing. So much so that for the past week after the workshop I have continued to create mandalas each morning upon first wakening. I have found that I wake up with the idea for the mandala already in my mind waiting for me to manifest it in physical form. I am pleased to have a way to continue the journey I began in the enchanted desert.

The Lady of Cholula ritual was the next one we performed. It is known as a divination ritual, a way to see into the future some say. The Lady is described as the wise old grandmother who will either gently set you straight or scold when necessary to get her point across. This posture was new to me so I was excited to do it with these experienced seekers of truth. All but 1 of the other participants were institute board members and most had been doing this work for 20 years or more. I entered the trance and The Lady began to express herself to me very forcefully. Afterward I felt invigorated, powerful. Once a trance ends I usually write out a description of what I experienced in the pose. This time I felt that words could not adequately describe what I “saw” so I decided to draw pictures instead. Before we started the ritual, Rae remarked that the ancients communicated to each other, and to us, through visual images such as cave paintings, sculptures, petroglyphs and the like. I realized I was following the lead of the ancestors. What I experienced in this pose was rather bizarre even for me. While I was telling the story of my journey I looked over at Jackie, who was one of the workshop organizers and the note taker. She had put her pen down and was staring at me open-mouthed. I kind of chuckled at this because on several occasions people have told me that my journeys sound like LSD trips to them. Having taken LSD many times I would disagree, however I do understand what they were trying to convey. I have no idea at this point what the Lady was trying to tell me and I am ok with that. Often the meaning becomes apparent at future time when the information is needed.

When I arrived the day before the workshop was to start, Paul, the board president, and Dave, marine biologist turned carpenter, were working to complete the roof of the new structure they had started a few weeks before so we could use the space for the workshop. The next morning I pitched in to help them get the roof done and the site cleaned up before the workshop was to start that evening. While we were working a snake slithered up out of the wash right towards me. I thought it might have been a rattler but Dave said it was a bull snake. The snake looked directly at me, its forked tongue poking in and out. It slid along the base of the foundation perhaps looking for a opening so it could go underneath to take a cool nap. There was no opening to be found so Dave grabbed its tail and dragged it away from the building. It crawled back down the hill never to be seen again. Or so I thought.

While we were working Paul Robear  told me the story of how the building came to be known as the Thunderbird hogan. He and Dave were trying to figure out how the 2 of them were going to install the rafters by themselves. They devised a plan to put 2 rafters in the support ring and use a rope and pulley to lift it up. Then Paul would climb up and install more rafters into the ring. Their plan worked and while Paul was bolting in more rafters a thunderstorm drifted towards them. With just a few more rafters left to install the storm moved over them. Paul worked madly to get the last rafter bolted in before the bottom dropped out. Later he and Dave were talking about how similar structures had rafters with decorative designs carved on the ends. Paul said it came to him that they should cut the ends of the rafters in the shape of a Thunderbird in honor of the storm. So that is how the place acquired the spirit of the Thunderbird.
Thunderbird Hogan
The evening after the first full workshop day we decided to have a dedication ceremony in the . After dinner we all gathered more drums and rattles and went out to the hogan to raise a major ruckus. We drummed and chanted and danced around the room for a very long time. Exhausted, we said our goodnights and retired to our various sleeping quarters. About 2 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. It rained for several hours that night providing the life-giving moisture for the desert beings that we cohabited with. The next morning we congratulated ourselves on entertaining the rain spirits in such a way as to be rewarded with the gift of rain.

The Return of the Snake
We walked up to the ridgetop and did our sun greeting ceremony then returned to the kiva for the next ritual posture, Ishtar. I knew nothing about this pose at all. We were told that it was an initiation posture which “marks a passing – from one phase of life to the next” – (Belinda Gore in Ecstatic Body Postures). Since it was the day I began my 7th decade I thought it would be an appropriate way to begin. We entered the pose and the rattling began.

The first thing I saw was an eye that turned into a monkey with a mean white face who began clawing at my face. I told it to leave and it did. Next I saw molten eruptions from the core of the earth, venting from a hole in the surface. Then I saw another eye which became the eye of an eagle up close. Mother eagle has been my teacher for a while now. She has been teaching me how to survive on my own. Perhaps she thinks I have learned all I need to know. The molten lava returned, now erupting from the cone of a volcano. I am getting the message of a birth of something new, like an island in the ocean. Next, below the volcano 2 snakes came from opposite sides and slithered back and forth below the volcano before intertwining into a double helix formation. Finally they broke apart and formed a double ouroboros which is also the infinity sign. The rattling ended and I came out of my trance state.

When Jackie shared her experience she said she got a message from the spirits that I should lead the group in a ritual and Laura should do something as well. The connection among the 8 of us was strengthening and our experiences in the spirit world were becoming intertwined. We discussed a tentative plan for the following morning when I would lead the final ritual using the Singing Shaman posture. I had led a group in that pose before so I was comfortable with that. We agreed that we would work out details for what else would take place as we moved through the day.

We ate some lunch and did another mandala. My previous mandala was very frenzied, almost chaotic which pretty well reflected my emotional state at that point. This one was very simple and relaxed, reflecting my current state of mind. By then I was totally connected to the land and the people. I felt a powerful calm in the core of my being. My whole experience now was an alternate reality. There was little difference for me between my time in the kiva and my time roaming the landscape or working with the rest of the group.

That afternoon back in the kiva we discussed final plans for the following day. We would go into the kiva directly after the sun greeting ceremony and do the Singing Shaman pose. We would leave the kiva, dance around the plaza, then around the kiva, tracing the outline of the infinity sign I saw the day before and others had seen in their journeys as well. Finally we would dance out to the Thunderbird hogan around the drum, down to the dance court and back to the hogan, tracing another infinity sign.

That task completed, we prepared to do another pose unfamiliar to me, The Olmec Medicine Man. We were told this was a metamorphosis pose in which practitioners become animals or other spirit beings. Again we get in the pose and the rattling begins.

I become the snake right away. I shed my skin. I eat a baby bird. I nap in the shade of a rock. I eat a mouse. Then we all turn into snakes. Next we are in the hogan dancing around the powwow drum. When the dancing is over we all slither away in different directions.

After we shared our stories we prepared to leave. Paul and I went outside to rehearse our parts in the next day’s ceremony. As we ducked out we heard Cynthia tell the other women that the plans were incomplete. They gathered together to figure out their role in the ceremony. Later they told us about the discussion. Jackie had reported that the spirits had instructed her that Laura was to have a role in the ceremony as well as me. Cynthia asked Laura to recall what she had experienced in her journeys. She said they involved water and cleansing. They all agreed that water must be a part of the final ceremony. Where there is fire, water must follow. They spent the afternoon secretly planning and preparing their part in the closing ceremony. All would be revealed the next day as the ceremony unfolded.

We were all very excited as we had become a collective consciousness working together with trust and confidence in each other. It was an incredibly powerful feeling to be connected in such a way.

The Celebration
The next morning we all walked together to the ridge to greet the sun one last time. Deborah, another board member, had arrived the previous evening and joined us for the sun greeting. Jackie’s husband Ray was their as well photographing our final time together on that ridge. Deborah and Ray would not be participating in our final ritual, however they would be in the hogan drumming as we danced our final celebration. We walked back down the hill and entered the kiva for the last time. We prepared ourselves for the final ritual.The Singing Shaman is a celebratory ritual that, unlike the others, involves a vocalization. Each person enters the pose and begins to make an “ah” sound over and over. Most times the spirits will take over and utter different sounds using your voice. One hears growling, muttering, strange languages, animal cries. A great uproar ensues. I rattled with all my might and we created such a cacophony that it sounded like the roof of the kiva might blow right off into the cosmos.

We took a few minutes to collect our selves once the ritual ended then we snaked out of the kiva, me at the head and Paul at the tail with the women in between. Around round the plaza, around the kiva and back to the plaza we danced, chanted and rattled. We reversed directions and Paul led the snake procession out to the Thunderbird, the pounding of the big drum propelling us forward. We danced around the drum, and back out to the dance court. Around the dance court we went several times and then all the women burst into song! We sang and sang and sang then we returned to the hogan and circled round the drum. The women began another song. One by one they went to each of us and sang “Are you ready to receive?” to which we responded “Yes, I’m ready to receive” after which they gave us something special; a splash of water from Laura, a breath of essential oil from Hella, a big bear hug from Rae, a firm arm grip from Stephanie, a deep gaze from Jackie and a handful of M&M’s from Cynthia. We danced and sang and howled and roused the rabble for a while longer and then we were done.

Return from the Desert

It has been some time now since I returned home from the desert. I am still processing my experience there. I have created mandalas each morning since the workshop concluded. Doing so has helped me to assimilate my experience. Before I went to Cuyamungue I did 2 rituals to ask the spirits to guide me on my journey. Upon my return I did the Lady of Cholula posture again to ask the grandmother to help me interpret and integrate my visions. I went back to the accounts of the journeys I took before and found that they accurately predicted and/or guided my experiences in the desert. The Lady provided me with a summary account and recap of what I learned there.

This experience has been and continues to be profoundly transformational for me. I went there with no expectations, ready to receive whatever teachings, healings, gifts I was offered. I stood at the nexus open and vulnerable.

I returned home feeling wise and powerful, ready to share my wisdom and experience with whomever wishes to receive it. I expect my 7th decade to be the best yet.