“The ancient shamanic art of shape-shifting is essentially the bioenergetic practice of attuning the rhythm of one’s own shape to the rhythm of something in the natural world so that we may share its consciousness…This is not supernaturalism; rather, it is naturalism…Through the art of shape-shifting, and through various visionary and meditative techniques, we also begin to understand more fully the spiritual reality that every one of us has a reserved place within the great shape of things.”
– Frank McKeown, from The Mist-Filled Path
Many shamans are known to shapeshift from time to time, but it’s not a practice that I engaged in on purpose. Recently, though, it seems that particular “somethings” from the natural world have sought me out to share their experiences. I’m so grateful they did.
The first such spontaneous shift happened a few weeks ago. I’ve taken to occasional late-night yoga practices as a ritual to help move restless energy through my body and into the earth, so it’s often me, my mat, and a candle or two around midnight. One particularly potent night, the energy of one of my predator allies came and joined me. I began to move as she moves, feeling the suppleness and strength of her muscles, the delicate precision of whiskers, the ferocity of teeth and claws. Every twitch was fully expressed in my body. And then the hunt began. I journeyed with her into the wilderness and ran with her as she took down her prey. Part of me wanted to leave and come back to “normal” life as a funky little human, clumsy and almost numb by comparison, but I also knew I was about to receive a great gift and teaching.
There was a pounce, the sensation of teeth piercing flesh. The whimper, tremor, and exhalation of the prey. There was an understanding in that moment of the relationship between hunter and hunted: the “food chain” as we call it is really an exchange of energy. Those at the top of the chain are not as powerful as we have been led to believe, because in fact, they rely entirely on the generosity of those lower down. Whatever strength they might possess is a direct result of their relationships with those they hunt. I, as predator, didn’t feel an ego trip in that moment of killing, but rather understood the sacredness of it. I was able to take into me the life force of another creature, one that had agreed on some level to sustain me. I felt immense gratitude for the life of the creature I was about to consume and the sanctity of that relationship. As I began to eat, I offered prayers of humble reverence with every bite, wasting nothing.
As I finished my meal, my ally left me and I was back on my mat again. Now, the blessings I offer my food each day have a new depth. I cannot look at meat without seeing the potency of life force within it, and I honor the beings that make my life possible by relinquishing theirs.
The second shift happened during a drum journey with another apex predator. This one allowed me to inhabit her on a clear, cold, and snowy night. I felt her athleticism, her deep fur, the ways that she was perfectly suited for this environment. She thrives here. My lungs full of crisp air, I felt each of my senses attuned and almost hypersensitive (if you’ve ever worn glasses too strong for your prescription, you may have some idea of this acuity).
Then suddenly, a whiff of animal on the air, hot, musky, and fur-smelling. Every cell in my body tracked that smell, until I ran hard into the forest. Again, the sensation of teeth and flesh, the overwhelming carnal experience. Sounds of crunching bones, taste of blood and fat, the weight of a meal filling the belly. No judgments about gore or mess: simply the meeting of a need. No regret, no apology: just the joy of satiety.
After eating my fill, I walked to a hilltop and stared at the Moon, which was huge and full and brighter than I’d ever seen it with human eyes. A howl arose. It was an expression of the delight of being alive, the rightness and beauty of having a physical body capable of such feeling. The energy of the howl itself moved through me, clearing and tuning me as it rose out into the night. It was a purposeful and joyful sound, met by another howl in the distance, a brother or sister across the valley celebrating with me.
Coming home to my own body again as the journey ended, I was filled with wonder. What a gift, to be given such complete permission to express and revel in my body, to have my needs met and experience true satisfaction.
These two unbidden experiences with shapeshifting taught me about my own animal nature (what a bad rap that phrase has gotten these past few centuries!). I am not so very different from my allies. I can walk in my human life with their reverence, strength, and joy. I can learn so much from the ways that they interact with their surroundings and the relationships they cultivate. I didn’t seek out these lessons, but I am so grateful to the allies who brought them, and I praise with wonder the great shape of things.