Thursday, December 29, 2016

Turning weakness into strength

Ever wonder how to turn a weakness into a strength? This story of turning weakness into strength is about the making of a new frame drum from Journey Oracle.

The blacktail deer hide came from a old hunter here on Cortes Island, whose eyesight and steady hands are failing.  The skin had a number of fleshing cuts but as these did not go through the hide, I took a chance calculated on experience that the finished drum would be alright.

The drum made up beautifully--the skin laying just right on the frame, which did not warp .  Yet after the drum dried these two stretch marks appeared in the drum rim.

I had tied an interlacement pattern in the back of this drum that represents the 8-fold path of the Buddha's teaching: a way to gain enlightenment through right effort, mindfulness and concentration.
So here was the drum's first teaching about strength and weakness.  The weakness in the drum rim has its balancing strength built right in: strengthen weakness with mindful attention.  The person who will own this drum will have to pay attention to keeping the drum away from extremes in temperature so the stretch marks do not become tears.  And in spiritual practice and life--sustained attention is strength.

I decided to paint this shamanic drum and began looking for who was looking back at me.  Soon I saw this remarkable bird.  At first I thought it was an eagle but it became what Martin Prechtel would call "a never before seen thing."  The shaman bird.

When I paint a drum I look for a story.  Only rarely does a single creature or person appear without being in relationship.  And so I kept looking.

I saw a figure of an old woman.  This is the drum's second teaching about strength and weakness. Most of us think that being old is being susceptible to weakness. But she is holding a smoking bowl in her hand.  Making an offering.  Offering the wisdom of experience is a strength, yet stories from elders, how they make or do something, can seem sometimes as wispy as smoke.


But look who is coming to listen.  See what the offering of wisdom through the experience of mindful attention can bring.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Celebrating Winter Solstice

Celebrate the birth of the undying Sun with a glowing fire.

Unseal your door and let the wandering Sun in, out of the falling snow.

Feed the Holy in all its many guises.

Make Spirits joyful with golden lights.

Eat of all the good things.

Light a candle that the Sun may live again. 

Offer a prayer that the world may rejoice in its diversity, rather than hate its differences.

Happy Solstice from the Journey Oracle.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What is a shamanic journey?

In my experience, a shamanic journey begins with intention. I travel within an altered state and attempt to directly experience the Mysteries.  I may seek aid from the invisible realms, receive learning first hand, and return with knowing.

Shamanic intention is rooted in knowing that everything that is, is alive.  Everything alive has meaning.  All things bring a message and are a sign.

Creating an intention for a shamanic journey flows from understanding that all natural phenomena exist in both the physical and spiritual dimensions. All of nature has both visible and invisible form.
All of nature can be talked with.

I use a journey drum to gain access to the spiritual dimension.  I understand that access to spirit is through the physical.  The spiritual realm is this world with the veils removed.  I experience the lifting of the veils as an altered state of trance: a sparkle of light beyond my eye's comprehending; an awareness of meaning beyond conscious thought; an awareness of form as a glimmering.

I am gifted with direct experience of the Mysteries while on a shamanic journey because I know that what I receive as knowledge, awareness and experience cannot be explained. When I explain what I experience, to myself or others, I am speaking from doubt instead of inner certainty.  And nature has no tolerance for doubt.

Whether I ask directly or not, I receive aid from the invisible realms in the form of balance.  I feel my alignment to the elements as these move within and about me, I sense a mother's love in the penpoint gunnels that guard their eggs in a cast off oyster shell,  I see the friendship of trees that  put on their heaviest branches away from their close-by companions so as to not take away the light.  Seeing my nature in balance with nature is the root of my well-being.

All the images in this description of a shamanic journey are from the Journey Oracle cards.  The creation of these oracle cards has been my greatest training from nature.The story of their completion traces the tracks and trails of many years of going on shamanic journeys.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Reading an artwork is like reading an oracle card

Reading an artwork is like reading an oracle card.  I learned this art criticism technique from Edmund Burke Feldman while teaching art education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.  While teaching others to read the oracle cards I created for my Journey Oracle deck, I realized that this method is a good way to understand the meaning of both art and oracle cards. 

I begin with description: saying only what I see without any statements of judgement or feelings of preference. 

My painting is a realistic underwater view of stones, sea plants and creatures, and a piece of rusted metal. I look through bands of light patterns and distortions to see these objects. 

This oracle card is a spiral design of reds, purples, and yellow on a white ground.  A portion of the left side outer rim is patterned with black X shapes  There is a figure that is also a face on the right side of the oracle card.

I next use a more formal analysis next to see deeply into the composition of the artwork, and to understand my experience of the oracle card.


Acrylic used as watercolor is painted over the surface of the paper.  The rhythm of the darks and lights create a sensation of movement.  Forms are indicated using patterns of alignment between shapes and colors.  There is an experience of "overallness" to the work, as if all the parts are joined into a larger whole.  

As I gaze at the oracle card, I experience the black X marks as figures joyfully dancing. There is a lightness to the image because of the soft brushwork and scattering of dots of ink.  This feels like an easy path to be on. 

Next I use interpretation to try and understand what I the artist is saying.  In the oracle card this interpretation becomes insight about the change that is coming to the situation which prompted me to read the oracle cards. 

This painting is titled "Tinfoil."  The image of the rusted metal is the only place where red is used, which causes the painted form to jump into my awareness.  The tin doesn't fit with the rest of the undersea life.  Because of the title of the artwork, and what I know of how metal eventually rusts away in seawater, I understand the artist is saying "man made objects won't last in the forces of nature."

In the oracle card, it is the right hand side of the image that calls my attention for interpretation.  As I look at the detail I see a white face in profile, and then suddenly, another face appears slightly behind the first.  This one looks African  The name of this oracle card is "Path."  I interpret this to mean there are many paths to take toward joy.

Last, I allow my judgement to enter into the reading of the artwork and the oracle card. 

The patterns of light and distortion both include and absorb the small piece of metal, just as the ocean will absorb this human cast off.  So yes, the physical rendering of the artwork and my artist's message enhance each other. 

The oracle card offers a resolution to my query, which allows me to judge my situation differently than when I first started the oracle card reading.  The faces become a dancer.   Hair and hands raised in joy.  Perhaps she is holding a heart, the only touch of red.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What is synchronicity?

Oracle cards use synchronicity rather than statements of logic or reason to create meaning.  But what is synchronicity?  Oracle card interpretation is a knowing that comes from links between apparently unrelated ideas, events and objects.

Here is an example.  I am thinking of a situation for which I want some advice.  I have agreed to a project and now that it is underway, I think I am not really qualified. I feel inadequate to do the personal contact required.  So I draw this Journey oracle card.

The image immediately draws my attention because of the person's thoughtful, awake expression. When I look up this oracle card in the Journey Oracle book, I suddenly have an insight.  This oracle card asks me this question: "Will you listen?"  I connect my anxiety about not knowing to the sensation I feel from this question--which says to me it is better to just listen, than to begin a conversation as an authority.

When working with synchronicity, it is always good to resist conclusions and judgments.  How synchronicity works eludes explanation, and cannot be understood using cause and reason.

So I draw another oracle card to understand how I approach the other people in the project who are counting on me to continue.  I see a bear in this oracle card.  There is dignity and calmness in its expression.  The message of this oracle card is "More wisdom."  Immediately I relate this to the situation I am experiencing.  My strengths and vulnerabilities can be the beginning of a new awareness.  Instead of struggle, I can look deeper and see that the power to create change may be as simple as breathing.

Try this for yourself.  Go to and click on the free interactive reading.  Think of a situation for which you would like some advice, follow the prompts to choose an oracle card, then choose a page of insights about how your situation came to be this way, or what to do about it.

Understanding a Journey Oracle card is like solving a riddle or grasping a dream--meaning is hidden in plain sight, and its discovery brings a lightning strike of revelation.  And that lightning strike is the feeling of synchronicity.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The magic and wonder of air travel

There isn't a flight goes by when I don't stare out of the window 
and thank my stars for what I'm seeing and feeling.

— Richard Branson, pilot and founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic. In his book Reach For The Skies, 2011

This quote found on is exactly my reaction to air travel.  I recently flew to Edmonton to meet my Journey Oracle students.  I know many air travelers complain about the crowds and the expense and the uncomfortable seating, but really?   To be in the free air.  To be without signposts and limitations. To be in the kingdom of the sky.  How is it possible to be anything but amazed.

Lovers of air travel find it exhilarating to hang poised 
between the illusion of immortality and the fact of death.
— Alexander Chase, Perspectives, 1966

Because of my shamanic practice and study for many years, I (quietly) call out to the skygods as the plane takes off, and also as it lands, both asking permission and thanking them for being allowed to pass through their territory.  I apologize for and delight in the human chutzpah that has allowed me to be in their home terrain.   I also thank the elements of the plane--its metal and fabric and formed plastic--that holds me so startlingly aloft.

Don't let the fear of falling keep you from knowing the joy of flight.

— Lane Wallace, Flying magazine, January 2001

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Painting pictures of nature

Here is a beautiful picture of nature.  Autumn leaves amid birch trees in Nova Scotia. Something about this image compelled me to paint it, but how?

 I use acrylic like watercolour on paper and so I anchored a large sheet of Arches watercolour paper to a board and began painting leaves.  How disappointing and frustrating!  My attempts looked amateurish and so I cut off the top several inches of the paper and began again.  Again with the disappointment and frustration.  More cutting.

On my third attempt I  asked myself, "What am I really seeing?"  What a discovery--I am not seeing a leaf at all but a brown shape with this slightly darker area near the lower edge. And so I painted that. No attempt to name the shape, or render what my mind was saying this was--just paint the brown shape.

And suddenly the leaves appeared in all their usual magic.

The lichen on the tree trunks came alive with shadow and shine.

A complexity emerged without my emotional engagement.  Indeed, it emerged because I was't emotionally entangled in "getting it right."  I was just painting what I saw.

This painting is titled "The day I learned to read."   I remember that day more than 60 years ago.  I was sitting in bed on a Sunday morning with my Mom and Dad, insisting  that I could read the funnies by myself.  And as a little kid I was quite insistent.  I think to humour me Dad propped the paper in front of me...and I could do it!  The black squiggles in the balloons made words.  I didn't get every word right, but suddenly something clicked and I was reading.

This ability has extended  into all my art.  My paintings on the frame drums I make emerge from the patterns in the skin, and not from my imposition.  The oracle cards images I painted for my Journey Oracle deck were seen in fossil shells, dried rawhide, and slices of agate.

Perhaps in this way everything seen is given the respect of being able to name itself.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

drum the cycle of birth and death

I do not often tie this 8-fold path interlacement pattern into the back of a shamanic frame drum since the thongs that anchor the ring must be pulled out of alignment to make the design.

Feels risky to unbalance something in order to bring it into balance.  Yet I understand the Buddha said that following the 8-fold path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration was like swimming upstream.  A path for those who want little from the world, not for those who want much.

I sold this drum to a collector of my work whose drums carry some of my best paintings. So I wasn't surprised when she said, "Please paint this."  But I had a moment of failing courage when she added,  "I have been dreaming about this drum and I am not going to tell you what I saw.  I want to know what you see."

When I begin to paint a drum I do nothing.  I sit, sometimes for days, just gazing into the drum's face--looking for something to be looking back at me.  And there she was. this old lady in the blue cloak of that world trimmed with the red material of this world.   Can you begin to see her in the lower left portion of the unpainted drum face?

Next I saw the rim of a tea cup in her lap.  A quite large tea cup that had a baby sitting inside.

So the images of birth and death have appeared.  Yet for my drum paintings to "click" they have to tell a story.  Or rather, I need to see the story the drum wants to tell me.  Like seeing the whole picture of a Journey Oracle card instead of just a corner view.

I looked for a long time before this creature appeared.

Here is the whole story.  Birth and death are riding on Turtle.  This creature represents the indigenous view that creation is resting on the back of a turtle.  And this creation, in Buddhist terms, is Samsara, the wheel of endless rebirth.  But why the tea cup?  Because the tea cup is a particular kind of container.  Its use is framed by rules and rituals. We are each born into a particular lived world that is framed by rules and rituals.  And believing in those rules and rituals creates delusion, which can lead to suffering.

So one side of this drum is an image of our lived suffering and joy, the cycles of birth and death.  The other side of the drum is a path for liberation from suffering.

But of course, the thing about a path is that it doesn't take you anywhere unless you follow it.