School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

Back to contents

Issue: May 2008
Feathers and Ashes, Transformation’s Twins

by Ya'Acov
I’m just back from three wonderful days and nights on Dartmoor on Vision Quest. I had wondered about the title of the ceremony since I wasn’t really looking for more visions. My intention was to build a medicine wheel based on our sigil and spend three days and nights sitting at the centre, fasting, meditating, praying, and listening. I found the perfect spot with a beautiful old ‘tree of life’ and rocks-a-plenty to represent all the manifold essences of the Movement Medicine wheel. I planted four flowering trees in the four directions, set up a simple shelter, arranged my ceremonial paraphanalia and promptly fell asleep for the longest and deepest sleep I can remember!


It was the kind of ceremony where for a lot of the time, it seemed as if very little was going on. I had my moments of fear, sadness, and most of all, deep encounters with the manifest face of spirit that nature is. But most of the time had been quiet, peaceful and nourishing. And yet, on the afternoon when I returned home and started to write down my story, I didn’t stop writing for more than an hour and ended up with more than 5 pages of bullet points describing the journey. I was really astonished.


I had returned to the world of daily affairs earlier that day to be welcomed by a ritual fire, the quest leader, Jeremy Thres, and the beautiful Susannah, dressed in white with flowers in her hair, holding an exquisite steaming arrangement of porridge and berries. I said I wasn’t really looking for more visions but, what a vision this was!


It doesn’t matter how many times I do this, I’m always surprised that if I speak to spirit through nature, spirit speaks back. I suppose it’s years of growing up in a culture where I had been taught that nature was inanimate and unconscious. Indeed, the sense of disconnection that I suffered from for all those years was the veil that all my study, healing and journeying was focused on lifting. I have written before about shamanism being for me, the heart of environmental awareness. Around the world and at all times, people have revered the natural world as sacred. Our loss of this connection is relatively recent in the story of human evolution. The idea that a healthy economy is in constant growth for instance is only one that could arise out of a culture that has lost connection with the cycles of nature as we move through the seasons. There is a time for growth, and there is a time for decay. There is a time for planting, harvesting and allowing the land to rest and be still. Constant growth doesn’t happen in nature, and since we are all made up of the same elements as nature, it’s probably not meant to happen for us either.


At the centre of our medicine wheel is the tree of life and in its branches sits the phoenix. The phoenix represents the circular nature of life and death and it represents the importance of ‘spending time in the ashes’ as well as rising from them. Loss, disappointment, the deep vulnerability of realising our mortality, the failure of a dream materialising, all these are opportunities to do our ashes work. The less we allow this part of the natural cycle of evolution to have its space, the more the colours of our feathers will fade until it may be impossible to tell the difference between the dullness of our feathers and the pile of ashes that will inevitably take their place. If we stop being willing to be challenged by life’s offerings, and stop the process of being fascinated by the downs as well as the ups, we are on a dangerous and deluded road.


This is one of the prime reasons that I continue to choose to go out on these kinds of ceremonies and actively engage with the dance of the phoenix. Fasting and letting the world go for a few days is one way to get an absolute reality check on where we are at.


I began each day, as I always do, with the process of the 21 gratitudes which helps to give an accurate context that honours the many blessings of my life. Ritual and ceremony that challenges our normal perceptions takes us beyond our everyday defence systems and ‘default mode’ and opens the door to witnessing our lives from a higher perspective. In ceremony, in the unknown, we face ourselves away from the distractions of everyday life. A friend recently joked that he was far more afraid of facing himself than he was of facing any number of myriad beasts and wild things he may encounter in nature. I remember that feeling too. My recent journey on Dartmoor was my fourth vision quest, the first being in the Gog Magog woods outside Cambridge not long after I’d met Susannah, the second, a couple of nights in Epping Forest, and the third being a five day solo affair on Dartmoor in 1990.


All the previous times, I had felt so alone, insignificant and even bored. With no-one to talk to but the squirrels and the strange forest community and assorted forest and Dartmoor beasts, I felt truly alone for possibly the first time in my llfe. My internal dialogue drowned out the sounds of nature and all the unsettled and undigested experiences of my life came to the fore. I remember feeling how important it was that I had a significant vision and how much pressure I put myself under to achieve that. I used everything I knew. I prayed and danced. The prayers were from a culture far from my home and my dance was a fledgling affair which consisted mostly of the dance of trying to get it right. Who for? God knows since there was no-one within miles but it’s amazing how my mind was capable of conjuring up a crazy collaged audience of critics, pushers, and deperados who succeeded in arranging me into all sorts of distorted shapes and expressions. There were moments when from the pile of ashes I had quickly become, a bright spark of connection and inspiration threatened to turn my black and white nightmare into a colourscape of hope and possibility. Like a damp piece of charcoal, I spluttered into light for an original moment and my wings opened and I could smell the scent of freedom. Maybe you remember too how one moment of freedom is all the soul needs to take hold of the reins of life and re-direct your priorities towards accessing that state and indeed living from it on a more day-to-day basis. Those moments of connection and rebirth were enough for me to commit myself to the trail. I knew there was a phoenix in there somewhere and I was willing to cry and shout and take part in numerous ceremonies which my inner voices assured me were beyond ridiculous.


And so I continued my search and slowly, I have re-membered a language of prayer which comes from the deepest place within me that I have so far touched. The reality of my connection through the elements to the natural world has developed profoundly since those early attempts at re-finding the innocence I had in the spontaneous rituals and ceremonies of my childhood. I cannot find the words to express my gratitude enough to the Great Choreographer who has heard my cry and given me a life that dances from one ceremony to the next. These last few days on Dartmoor were such a joy. I visited all the elemental powers, sang my songs to the four directions and learned so much about our medicine from sitting, dancing, and dreaming in its centre. I enjoyed my own company and the quietness and peace inside me and the blessing I felt from my mother beneath and my father above. The wind whispered: “Yes Ya’Acov, you have done all you can. You and Susannah and your work and the intent that drives it are in integrity. You have ignited and burned from the fire within and the work that has come through you both is truly itself and truly born from your experience.” As I looked up into the sunlight streaming through the newborn leaves of the tree of life, I saw the Phoenix, serene and calm and bright, singing its song to the four directions and I knew that I had never been alone. I admired its beautiful feathers and it seemed to sing directly into my heart something of the beautiful paradox of being human: “Yes, I too, and you too, and all of this too, will return to the ashes soon enough.


I’m now in Mondsee in Austria to present our work at the 7th International Congress of Shamans and Healers and tonight, we start with dinner and then ceremony ‘in full ceremonial regalia’ I am told. May the next adventure begin……


There are still spaces available on Ya’Acov’s next Ritual ongoing group beginning in September in Orval, Belgium. The group is focused on learning tools for making ritual a practical and integral part of your life. It is an in-depth study of the anatomy of the sacred.  Contact Susanne for more details:


Here are a few words from one of this year’s participants to wet your appetite:


“The 21 gratitudes meditation allows me to slow down and to be more and more in the present, to be in time. It gives me the choice of being anchored and grounded. I can take it or leave it. This act of choosing sets me free and gives me a calm feeling of being independent, not needy. At the same time I realize on all levels, bodily, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, that I am woven into the net of humanity with my specific responsibility and duty. This also makes me free. It sounds contradictory but it is not. The more I let it happen, my rooting process by dropping my weight, the more I feel light and flexible.”  Katharina Fellman.


Back to contents

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.