A number of spiritual traditions, particularly in the Americas, speak of a medicine wheel. These traditions seek to orient us to the four cardinal directions, the earth below, the heavens above, and the self connected to them all. (You can read more about this practice of orientation here.).
Different traditions will often also experience certain animals as totems or guardian figures of the four directions. A person may take a shamanic journey to any of the directions or to the totem animals, to meet them and be taught by them. In a journey one enters into a light trance state–the state that we experience often as a ‘twilight’ state, when we are neither fully asleep nor entirely awake. One then journeys, with an intent, and enters a non-ordinary set of experiences that offer us greater insight, harmony, inspiration, and healing. (Unless you’ve been called by a guardian figure and directly instructed in journeying, it’s best to learn a safe modality to journey from someone experienced in this art.)
One possible journey is to meet an oppositional figure in each of the directions. This oppositional totem animal is not an enemy, so much as one who brings us face to face with something we fear, are neglecting, or trying to suppress within ourself. The following piece is a description of a journey I took to the land of the South to meet my oppositional totem–in this case, the Spider-Lady–and what she taught me. It helps to know that the South is often seen as the realm of fire, summer, instinct, and healing.
I journey to the Lower World as usual, climbing down a hole next to the tree that I spent so many hours under as a little boy. I pass through a tunnel-like cave and come out in an Edenic paradise. I meet my guide and ask that he journey with me. I connect to my intention to meet my oppositional figure in the South.
We journey across open fields amidst scorching heat. I feel light and relaxed. At some point however I begin to feel the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up straight. It’s that feeling of heightened awareness right before a Midwestern summer thundershower. I can feel the storm coming.
Instantly, I see large, hairy legs, with incredibly sharp pincers, like swords. Before me stands an enormous frightening Spider. Before I have time to scream or run or even really ready myself for the inevitable, Spider rips me to shreds. I should have expected Mama Spider. I had seen smaller spiders upon my entrance to the cave, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them at the time. By now, it’s too late as I’m being dismembered.* The terror is washing over me; I feel like I’m dying though it’s strangely peaceful. My point of view shifts more to an observer, watching my body (or carcass I guess) be sliced and diced.
Strewn in pieces, Spider then begins to weave a web and puts me back together. I move from this state of peaceful but quasi-frozen terror above my body to an experience back within the flesh. I feel the sinews and the webbing linking me back up. I’m feel wave upon wave of extreme terror at this point.
When she is finishing recreating me, I stand up. Lady Spider simply looks at me through her numerous eyes. I force myself to stand there, to be able to take in the face that instinctually is so terrifying. My sense of her eyes changes. It’s not love that she’s communicating (definitely not that). But a kind of well wishing. Sorta good luck or something. It’s hard to communicate precisely what it is, but I can sense a change within me and a change in our relationship.
I ask her what gift she has given me, what I’m supposed to have learned from this experience. She leaves without answering. I’m left to explore the question and find the answer for myself.
I search for awhile, ask other characters around if they know, but none do. Or if they do know, they don’t share the answer with me. I eventually leave the Lower World and come back to The Middle World, moved by the experience but confused as to it’s meaning.
I take other journeys over the next few weeks to the Lower World. On each occasion, there’s a huge number of smaller spiders there to greet me upon my entrance into the cave. They don’t seem so thrilled to see me and move into attack mode, trying to bite me. At first I think I have to surrender again to them as I did to their Mother, but as they keep biting me it’s clear this doesn’t feel right and I need to put a stop to this. I create an energy field around myself to keep them out. This affords some initial protection but still seems like an incomplete or even wrong response.
I keep finding spiders only in the cave and sometimes just outside the cave–which is the transitional point from our normal waking consciousness in the Middle World to the Lower World proper.
Why are they only here? And why are they so hyped up? I find them very annoying and wish they’d just go away–this of course only riles them up further. I try conversing with them. I begin watching their movements and trying to imitate them. None of this works.
We’re weeks into this now and I’m feeling really frustrated, even angry at this point.
Finally, who knows how, the thought enters my mind when seeing them yet again:
These spiders are not outside your mind, they are your thoughts.
And now it all starts to make some sense. These spiders of my mind are only showing up at the transit point between my normal waking consciousness and the deeper portions of the altered trance state of the journey. I’ve been trying too hard to skip over this part of myself and immediately go from regular mental state to deeper trance state. I was impatiently attempting to bypass this middle zone of my mind. So these thoughts were “fighting back”. Just surrendering to them didn’t work because that was just creating more thoughts in my head. Trying to get rid of them by wishing them away didn’t work. Putting up the barriers temporarily cooled things off certainly but still left thought disowned…on the outside looking in.
It was at this point that I owned these spider-thoughts. I embraced them rather than letting them overrun me. But nor did I push them away.
I simply stated that as my thoughts I recognized and appreciated them but that also they were for the next little while to remain more quiet.
At that point, spontaneously the spiders relaxed. And they began to weave a web. The web was stunning in its intricacy and subtlety. Through this marvellous display the spiders taught me when the mind relaxes and is embraced then it will weave beautiful tapestries of thought.
Sometimes in my journeys to the Lower World the spiders return, sometimes not. When they do, they are reminding me of this lesson, to contemplate their stunning creations.
* Experiences of dis-memberment and re-memberment are common throughout the shamanic traditions. Something dies, so something new can be born.