The Healing Task of the Modern Shaman: Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart #BookReview and #AuthorInterview
Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart is a mesmerizing memoir by Ya’Acov Darling Khan that recounts his initiation as an “Everyday Shaman.”
The title comes from how he learned to blend the raw power of the jaguar with the parts of him that were quieter and more sensitive, like a butterfly.
He learned what shamans have always known: all things are connected. A basic practice that he says everyone can follow is the simple act of noticing these connections.
Khan’s story is one in which he struggled to balance the parts of himself that wanted to fit in and be acceptable to his parents and society, while having the existential need to stay in touch with the magical world of pure spirit.
From the time he was a young boy, he had visions and dreams that foretold the future. Working with numerous teachers, including Gabrielle Roth, indigenous shamans of the Amazon, as well as shamans from Mexico and the Antarctic, he and his wife created Movement Medicine, which invites us to stand up and do all that we can to bring our visions and dreams to Earth as an act of gratitude for the great mystery that gives us life.
“I have learned that we weren’t given this Earth to do with as we pleased, but we came out of it and we are part of it.”
What is a shaman? A shaman is traditionally the medicine man of a tribe, able to connect with the powers of nature and the spirit world. How does one become a shaman?
“A shaman is called into being by their own predilection for matters of the spirit, a journey interspersed with healing crises through the shadowlands of their own psyche and, finally, by their community and elders.”
What is the healing task for shamans of our time? Khan believes it is changing the debilitating mantra that is doing so much to destroy the fabric of life on Earth: “I am not enough. I don’t have enough. I need more.”
Today, the essence of Kahn’s Movement Medicine is the Long Dance ceremony, a contemporary ritual that is open to anyone, that has the power of indigenous ceremony, and raises money for amazing causes, like saving the Amazon rainforest.
Getting to where he is today, Khan went through the magical world of ritual, working with shaman teachers around the world. His story is a fascinating one that gives us an inside look into what shamanism is and isn’t. Through his journey, we learn more about the roots of shamanism.
Khan believes everyone can rise from the ashes of their suffering and create a new story… one that gives you purpose and dignity and, in this way, become an Everyday Shaman.
In this crucial time for the Earth and its inhabitants, Ya’Acov Darling Khan explains the path of the shaman. His story is a beautiful one, an empowering one, an important one.
Here, he answers my questions about writing Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart:
What message would you like readers to take away from this book?
Sad to say, our modern world is dominated by the story that the only thing that matters is having as much stuff as possible and impressing as many people as possible. More than that, we are constantly being told how to do that. We must have the latest gadgets. Our bodies must be a particular shape. We must wear the right labels, eat the right food, be seen in the right places and we are told that those that follow the modality of the time will be the happy ones. Our screens are full of images of apparently happy people doing the apparently right things. And don’t worry if you haven’t got there yet. If you keep trying, you too can join the ever-growing elite circle of those who have given their lives to this never-ending chase to reach a constantly moving target that is almost entirely devoid of soul.
The loneliness, the disconnection from a genuine self, from each other and from our environment and all that we share it with that is so apparent on the faces of so many of the people I meet reflects the crisis of our times. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of civilization, he replied that he thought “it would be a good idea.” A shaman’s job is to help us to remember the health, creativity and unbroken force of life that surges through us with every beat of the heart, reminding us what matters to us and what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.
At the same time, the shamans I have worked with have constantly reminded me of my responsibilities as a human being who is part of a complex, delicate and massively intelligent web of life upon which we all depend for our survival. I have walked a road for the past three decades dedicated to discovering who I am, finding out what matters most to me and making that into my offering. I am so way beyond grateful for where that has brought me. I’ve been touched and inspired by many people’s stories on my journey and so I decided to share my own with the intention that it will remind you of that golden thread inside you that whispers to you in dreams and in sunsets and through the eyes of the ones you love.
Given all this, here’s the essence of the message I’m bringing: Learn who you are.
Learn to listen to who you are and find out what really matters most to you. Follow your dreams. Not anyone else’s. Do it now. While your heart still beats. Dedicate everything you’ve got to this quest for self-discovery. And don’t do it in a cave. Do it by thoroughly engaging with your life. With your friends, with finding out who and what you love and giving yourself to serving that. Do it through your work, through what you contribute to this world. Recognize that though you are absolutely unique, you are part of a vast intelligent web of life that deserves your utmost respect and care.
What if life were a spectacular gift, a magnificent mystery? What if you realized that though you cannot decide how life happens, you are always free to dance with whatever life brings? I had to learn that it’s simply not possible to dance my dance if I don’t give time to discovering who I am. And more than that, there was no way to discover who I am by following other people’s ideas about who I should be. It has not all been a joy ride. I have faced my fair share of demons along the way but I can say this… There is no greater adventure on this earth than to discover your own medicine, your own gifts and there is no greater satisfaction than finding the way to share them. Holding back our medicine is a dead-end street and my heart tells me that now is the time for us all to step up to the plate and give ourselves totally to the creative project of bringing what we dream to this earth.
Can you tell us a little something of the roots of shamanism and why people are gravitating to it so much in today’s world?
There are a growing number of human beings in this world who are awakening to the recognition that we need a new story if we are to survive our adolescence as a human race. And they are working in a huge variety of ways to put this understanding into practice. What was once seen as outlandish and irrelevant is now becoming much more central as we see where our human story has led us and the effect it has had on the many other forms of life we share this planet with. In order to survive, we need to evolve. As we recognize the deep unhappiness that our way of life engenders, we have to seek new ways. When the rich and varied landscape of our connection to inner and outer nature becomes a desert, both inside us, outside us and between us, our suffering leads us to want to find new answers. Shamanism in its many forms is a very effective way of mending our connection with ourselves, each other, our environment, the spirits (including our ancestors and descendants), and the Great Spirit. Maybe that’s why it’s becoming popular again.
There are so many shamanic traditions around the world but there are some universal principles that I have met again and again in the different shamanic cultures I have been lucky enough to meet. Shamanism is about the soul of any individual life form and its connection to the system it is part of. It is about maintaining connection and balance between the physical and the non-physical world. It is about the living recognition in an everyday lived sense that far from owning the web of life, we are part of it and we depend on it. It is about recognizing the importance of the health of all parts of the system as it is a common understanding that there is only one system of life on this planet that, once again, we depend on.
Shamanism recognizes that what we dream is what we create. In other words, the power of our imagination or the power of the story we tell directly effects our perception of life, our experience of it, and therefore, the actions we take and the outcomes we create.
What we call “Engaged Shamanism” is one set of practices, alongside many others, that invites us to take responsibility for how powerfully creative we are and to be more conscious about how we use this power. In my own life, I got fed up with telling the story that other people and external circumstances were responsible for my unhappiness. I got fed up with the never-ending spiral of not feeling good enough, not feeling I had enough and basically feeling victimized by life. I was tired of my own disempowerment. So I went in search of my power. And though this journey is always at the beginning of a new chapter, I discovered it. I think my experience is typical of the times we live in.
Can you describe your relationship to spirit and what it feels like?
It is my experience that spirit is everywhere at all times, everywhere and everything, always present. I come and go. But this invitation to be in connection, it’s sometimes so overwhelming, terrifying even. But when I pluck up the courage to open and feel this awe, this force of spirit that is present even in times of suffering, and I give myself to it, then in those sweet moments, everything makes sense again and I remember who I am and what I love and what I’m choosing to do with the life I’m given.
I’m writing this in my garden. It’s an early autumn evening and the sun is still strong enough to warm me through. The wind is blowing strong and I can hear the stream nearby. My bare feet are on the uneven, grassy ground. Gold finches are perched on the feeder twittering away. There is plenty of food in the garden and it’s recently been mowed. Occasionally, a buzzard lazily floats by on a thermal before soaring and then sharply swooping for its dinner. I’m breathing slowly and deeply as I type these words. This is a good moment. I’m giving thanks. I recognize how fortunate I am. My body is well. I feel strong today. I’ve had some renewal time at home with my wife and we are preparing for a new season of travelling and teaching. I recognize the melancholy of the change of season. I can see the leaves on the oaks have turned. They’ll be taking their last flight soon and all being well, they’ll become compost for another season of growth in the spring. So it is. Seasons. Cycles. Who knows when it will be my time to take that flight? The way things are now, I’m making it known to the winds right now that if there’s any choice in the matter, I’d love a few more good decades to live and love and learn here. I love my life. Thank you!
For me, life is an ongoing ritual. There are so many opportunities every day to shatter the illusion of separateness and to remember and experience my connection to life all around me. A plate of food, when you look at it, is the result of so much work by so many people, by the earth and the sun and the waters and the air, and it’s being given to me right now. What a miracle!
Walking in the city, the ground under my feet, the fire burning in my trillion cells as I walk along the pavement. People around me and the hustle and bustle of the city, and the lights burning lighting my way, solar powered people, solar powered life. And this good earth, gravity and the same force of life that moves through me and you and through everything that lives. What a miracle!
You mention in your book how important it was to free yourself from the learned habits of the past. Can you share what this did for you?
When we are unconscious of the past, it asserts a force of habit on us that dictates our responses to what life is offering us in any given moment. In other words, we interpret what is happening through the lens of what has already happened. If I have suffered, then I have learned to expect suffering and usually, that is what I will experience.
Even more than that, our undigested childhood experiences are still playing out full force in our daily lives in the ways we relate to ourselves, each other and even our environment. Most of the human population are running around unconsciously trying to repeat what happened in the vain hope that this time they will vanquish the suffering of their childhoods. Do you recognize how the same patterns that made you leave your last relationship blaming the other person for being the cause of your problems are the same ones you run into again next time round?
But no matter how many times we enroll others to play the roles in our suffering, we cannot change what happened, only our relationship to it. Only by finding the courage to feel the pain we feel can we let it move through us and let it go. As Gabrielle Roth used to tell us as we sweated like crazy dancing so deep in her ecstatic dance classes, “the only way out is through.” Once we have found the courage to recognize the everyday suffering of coming into this world, felt it and let it move through us, we are able to see it for what it is. It happened. It was difficult, often horrific, but here we are, alive, breathing and capable of so much creativity. Through doing and continuing to do my own work on this level, I have come into the present. And in the present, so much more is possible. I have discovered that I am not defined by my past but inspired by it to make a difference in this world.
I have recognized that I am no longer a child who deserves love but an adult who has so much love to give. And the less I withhold myself from life, guess what, the more I receive. And the more I allow the creative force of life to move through me, the more there is to offer. From the vicious circle of repeating the pains of the past to the virtuous spiral of dancing in the unknown of the present moment and taking up life’s invitation to create. We all have this power within us. No matter how tragic the past has been. There are a growing number of spaces and methodologies where we can be heard and seen in the suffering of what was, acknowledge it, and move on. And this is so empowering and, more than that, this planet is crying out for human beings to step out from this cycle of suffering and take responsibility for what we are creating so that we can pass on a world to those that will follow that still supports life to flourish. It may be difficult, but the harvest of this kind of work is immense and, in my heart, it is what I hear life asking of me again and again. Turn your power not towards vainly attempting to vanquish the past but towards bravely creating the future.
How would you recommend a person start incorporating the ideas or practices of shamanism into their daily lives?
We are setting up an online learning community precisely with that intention in mind. There are so many opportunities every day to remember our connection with the web of life and to feel it. If you’re interested, please check out our new website: www.darlingkhan.com and take a look at the courses we are offering in engaged shamanism.
You can also connect with Khan on Facebook.
Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart is available on Amazon.com in both Kindle and paperback.