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spiritualityA few years ago, my husband and I prepared to meet other family members and friends at the Pacific Bay Resort, a vacation retreat located in northwest Panama. Since then, we have been yearly visitors, and in October, 2013, we’ll be returning once again to host a transformational workshop there.

The island resort, built and operated by an old family friend is set on 140 pristine acres, most of them undeveloped, at the tip of Punta Bejuco in the province of Chiriqui. Three beaches, jungle, a spattering of bungalows, abundant wildlife, vegetation and a deliberate return to simpler, more natural ways of living: this is what defines Pacific Bay Resort for me.

Owner Frank and my sister Jessica, a fellow healer, had extended an invitation to a select group to participate in a week-long retreat with Don Jose Campos, a respected shaman/herbalist in the Peruvian Amazonian Mestizo tradition. Most attendees, skilled in navigating the inner spheres, offered their talents to the group, whether it was leading holotropic breathwork, performing intuitive healing, playing sacred music or practicing yoga.

We shared meals, group activities, and three amazing sessions under the stars with Don Jose. That’s where the romance and the pink-cloud idea surrounding words like “transformational work,” “shaman,” and “healing arts” come to a screeching halt. And I mean screeching.

Whenever I tell people that I am traveling to do transformational work or lead workshops, some think it sounds fun and they say, a little enviously, that they wish they were coming along. Shaman just kind of rolls off the tongue. It’s a pleasant word.

The truth is, it’s like learning how to die with the help of a deeply experienced, deeply seasoned spiritual warrior.

The work that I have done with Don Jose qualifies as some of the most difficult, and some of the most profound, I have ever done in my life. Still, there is nothing easy or fun about exploring the shadow side of the self, removing the debris to get to the beauty and the truth of my being, the one that is not primped, or glib or pretty. It is grueling work, really, just like intense meditation, or any other deep psycho-spiritual experience that challenges your comfort zones, core beliefs and established reality.

In indigenous healing traditions around the world and since the dawn of time, personal growth comes only after you’ve been yanked out of the everyday, thrown off the cliff of the unknown, and watched the exit doors close. Here, one must surrender to whatever it is that arises. Can we simply learn to be with ourselves and get comfortable with how things are, even when what arises is our worst nightmare?

One year ago, I experienced what I have since come to refer to as a near-death experience. To contemplate my physical demise, my emotional and intellectual mortality, to feel that I would have to hand back the keys, the body I have used these many years, or, far more painful still, say goodbye to the people I love with a passion that defies words, this was just overwhelming.

I found myself bartering shamelessly.

I asked for more time. Much more time. I needed, wanted, begged to stick around till the very end, the very end of ‘me,’ of ‘my life,’ whatever that meant. I knew that I felt too young to go, too young, much too young. I was too young to be benched. Pulled out of the game.

In the experience with Don Jose, not unlike the film Benjamin Button, I saw myself transform into an old person, watched my body desiccate, my life energy ebb away. To feel decrepit, useless, and fragile was painful, and I knew this must be what so many elderly people around the world experience. Like the elderly, I could feel with my mortal passing how the world would keep turning, turning without me. And I felt a sadness that I cannot describe.

That is when a voice somewhere deep within me spoke. Cackled, really. Here I was, in the throes of an existential funk, no exit in sight and no immediate end to cheer me, and I had a heckler in my audience. Great.

-So, you think that death is permanent, then? -Well, yes, I suppose I do.

-And why would it be any more permanent than anything else? Do you refuse the law of impermanence?

-Well, no…I just never thought, when it comes to my own death, that leaving would be so hard. -You are feeling sorry for yourself.

-Yes, I said, as my voice trailed off into a thicket of grief. – Come here, child. Look up.

As I did, I saw it. I saw an amazingly starry sky and more beauty than my breath could hold. I saw the life that I have been a part of , I saw the world, and how it was constantly unfolding. This becoming, this every breath, a becoming, and me, my life and my death, and your life and your death, our coming and going, our infinite transitions, it all made sense. My heart broke with the gratitude and the love I felt for life.

I gasped in awe. Tears washed down my face.

And then it is when I was granted my spiritual gifts: the ability to recognize my voice wherever I am, and, a new backbone. A beautiful, gleaming, strong and powerful new backbone. Looking around, I saw with gratitude my fellow initiates, all returning from their voyages into the unknown, equally moved, equally thankful, equally awed.

When confronted by the evidence of reality, the nature of what is, all arguments, all chatter, all nonsense ceases. It is replaced, engulfed by a silence of such magnitude that the ego, like a dog, lays down to rest peacefully and happily at the feet of its master.

But before the calm, you have to get through the storm. You have to slay the inner enemy. You have to still the mind. That is where the test lies. Out in deep water.

It makes me think about a line that Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in a letter she published shortly after Sept 11, more than 10 years ago.

“When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.”

When I undertake this soulful work, I do not know what I will find. I do not know, not fully, anyway, what tests, what storms await me. I only know that my work is not done, and that to be an effective healer and leader, I must constantly accept to understand and heal my own wounds, my own mind, my own heart. I must go to the places that scare me, so that I can stand peacefully and lovingly by your side when you go to the places that scare you.

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