Entering the Shamanic Underground of Port Townsend

My introduction to the shamanic underground of Port Townsend began one summer weekend in 2019.

Daily Morning Yoga

Every morning I went to a yoga class at the Madrona MindBody Institute in a converted-for-the-community military building at Fort Worden State Park. The class helped me stay positive while taking care of my mom in Port Townsend – a town not too far away from Seattle, Washington. 

Photo by author

One day after class as I was putting on my shoes I noticed a flier for a Summer Transformation Workshop. The image of Heather Gatto half-hugging a tree with a bit of mischief in her eyes made me want to learn from her. 

Breakfast at Aldrich’s Market

Photo by Peninsula Daily News

After class I take a short drive to Aldrich’s Market in uptown. Sitting outside in a wooden chair in the morning summer sun I thought about the workshop over a cinnamon roll and a cup of black coffee

I was surprised because the workshop combined yoga and shamanism. I had no idea what shamanism was. I had a memory of a black and white photograph of someone sitting on the ground wearing animal skins playing the drum with their eyes rolled back in their head. I would be jumping into something with no idea of what I was getting into – exactly how I had started yoga.

I talked with my mom about it and her curiosity and enthusiasm helped confirm my initial spark of interest. 

“You have always seen the world in a different way since you were a child. You want to do it and that is enough. You do not have to justify your dreams,” my mom said.

I nod my head.

“Do not worry about what others think. Some people live such narrow lives and then they die with regrets,” she continues.

Maybe I have been raised by a shaman? Or is this just the wisdom of old age?

Workshop Day One Morning

Photo by author

I arrived at the institute on a Saturday – a two-story Victorian house with polished wooden floors – with only my yoga mat, a journal, and a bottle of water. We are downstairs in a large room that once served as a pharmacy and a dancehall for the soldiers. The workshop opens with us arranged in a circle on our mats to learn a song. We sing several rounds.

I feel grounded in familiarity as we shift into the asana movement of yoga. 

After some yogic breathwork, experiential shamanism began. We laid down on our yoga mats and closed our eyes. Heather explained that we would journey to the lower world to meet an animal guide while she played her drum. I felt a sense of being outside of time in some eternal space as I listened to the rhythmic beat. All thoughts of “will this even work?” had vanished. I found myself on a beach greeting a playful raccoon who was excited to be my friend and guide. 

Lunch at Reveille Café

Photo by Joel Fitch from USA Restaurants

We all walked over to the Reveille Café for lunch, a cozy room with a dozen tables. Over soup, salad, sandwiches, and tea we got to know each other a bit. I had no idea that close friendships would form with those sitting at that table.

Poetry at Copper Canyon Press

Photo by bookshop.org

After lunch we moved outside and sat on the grass in a circle. My view from the circle faced Copper Canyon Press which has published poetry since 1972. I had already visited and picked up a collection of thousand-year-old Chinese poetry by Cold Mountain – a hermit sage who felt like a shaman to me. I also had a broadside of The Snow and The Plum by Lu Mei-P’o written down 800 years ago. Before today this was just a beautiful poem. Now it is a magical incantation by a poet turned shaman inviting us to celebrate our intimate connection to nature.

Photo by author

Workshop Day One Afternoon

Heather read us a passage by Angeles Arrien, who was one of her teachers, from the book Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life.

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”

Gabrielle Roth

This foreshadows what will be coming for the rest of the workshop: singing, movement, storytelling, and silent contemplation.

More practices followed that first afternoon under a clear blue sky. 

We opened our journals and filled in the blank for receiving is… with our non-dominant hand and then switched to our other hand to write giving is…

Photo by author

My responses to the prompts end up being open-ended pointers to further reflection. Some are direct opposites of each other. I have no idea why I wrote “Receiving is a spiral” but it hints at something hidden to explore.

The woods surround the institute on two sides. Through the woods are cliffs that are met by the Puget Sound. Port Townsend is on a peninsula. We are asked to take an oracle walk

Photo by author

Holding a question in my heart I set off on a path into the woods. There are so many kinds of trees – I do not know the names of them all. I heard crows and warblers and see butterflies and ants. I recorded my observations instead of writing them down. I walked past a direction sign for Memory’s Vault and I imagined all the stories the plants have inside of them. I came out of the woods and my eyes were drawn to the horizon where water meets the sky. All during the walk, I said thanks to everything I met. 

Back on the lawn I strung the phrases from my observations into an oracle – an answer to my question.

The circle reformed and we spoke about our oracle walks focusing on gratitude. This leads to identifying four teachers in our lives and writing a physical letter of gratitude to each one. As we wrote in silence, two hawks and an eagle flew overhead.

Dinner at Hanazono Asian Noodle

Photo by Lawrence Marcus

After the workshop, I had dinner with my brother downtown at Hanazono Asian Noodle. I thanked him for taking care of mom. My brother and I have lived separate lives and so it is nice to share a meal together. Caring for the family has brought us together.

At home, my mom can tell from my smile I had a wonderful day. We sat together on the couch holding hands. Outside the sliding glass door was a full moon in the sky.

Breakfast at the Food Coop

I woke up excited on Sunday. The scene outside the window has been replaced by a mother deer and her fawns nibbling at the leaves of a giant hedge. My brother arrived and I headed out for the second day.

Down the hill from my mom’s condo is the Food Coop – a local establishment since 1972. I picked up a breakfast burrito and a cup of Crack ‘O Dawn coffee from local roasters Sunrise Coffee Company. I added a sandwich and juice for lunch into a cloth tote from the store. There will be a potluck dinner so I picked up everything needed to make a killer salad – mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cashews, an apple, and some lemons.

Workshop Day 2 Morning

Photo by author

The second day of the workshop, Sunday is outside of town at Heather’s home which is on several acres in the Cape George neighborhood which overlooks Discovery Bay.

Photo by author

We gathered in a space that looks out onto a flower garden. In both room and garden are stone sculptures Heather carved. Not only does she teach yoga and shamanism, but she is also an accomplished artist! There are hoop drums (I later learned she and her husband made) and masks hanging on the walls. There is an altar that holds sacred and meaningful items – bronze statues of Hindu gods, rattles, photos of her teachers.

The morning started with learning a new song with the line “spiraling into the center, the center of the wheel.” I reflected back to yesterday when I wrote with my non-dominant hand “receiving is a spiral.” The spiral has always been an important shape I am drawn to – showing up in labyrinths and spider webs. 

“The Spiral symbolizes the process of growth and evolution. It is a process of coming to the same point again and again, but at a different level, so that everything is seen in a new light. The result is a new perspective on issues, people and places… The life-renewing potential of the spiral appears in the spinning and weaving stories from all cultures.”

Angeles Arrien in Signs of Life

We flowed to a yoga routine and practiced more breathwork. I felt alert and relaxed.

We laid down for another shamanic journey. Both Heather and her husband Angelo drummed. We journeyed again to the lower world to be with our animal guide. Afterward we took a walk in nature. We were asked to reflect on what we received from the journey.

We sat together for lunch out on the patio overlooking the garden. We got to know each other more and talked about our experience in the workshop.

Workshop Day 2 Afternoon

The entire afternoon was an art workshop. We worked with colored pens, watercolors, and stacks of magazines to create our spirit animal. We all started with a circular piece of paper.

Photo by author

I dove into the magazines finding images of birds, masks, plates, scarab beetles, a suitcase, a branch, a couple dancing, and even one of my Zen teachers, angel Kyodo Williams. I am attracted to all of these images. I found a topographical map mixed in with the magazines.

I drew an outline of my raccoon and began gluing images to the paper. I added watercolors. I found a poem that resonates deeply, Lost by David Wagoner, which I wrote onto the collage.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

Early evening we placed the completed images in a circle. We moved around the circle using a pen to add a single word. The raccoon received: mystery, visionary, expressive, power, possibilities, messenger, challenge, awareness, and found.

Heather and Angelo, photo by author

The final event of the workshop before the potluck was a sweat lodge. Angelo had prepared a fire and heated the rocks. The lodge is only branches tied together in an inverted basket shape. Dressed in shorts and swimsuits we add blankets until the lodge is ready.

Before entering the lodge we were smudged with sage, the smoke brushed over our body by an eagle feather. Bowing to enter we arranged ourselves around the pit in the middle. Angelo asked if I will help with the heated stones. He passed them on the tines of a garden fork and I placed them in the pit with two deer antlers. Once completed Angelo entered and the door flap was closed.

We sang songs and offered prayers as sage and water were placed on the rocks. The steam from the rocks and our voices transformed the space.

I felt held and seen. I felt a connection with those in the lodge, my ancestors, and the earth.

Potluck Dinner

After wiping sweat off our bodies with towels we got dressed and made our way into the house for dinner. Casseroles were heated in the oven, two of us assembled salads, and we discovered many people had brought dessert – apple pie, berry pie, pecan pie, dried fruit, and fruit salad.

We enjoyed our time together eating and chatting. There was a cat who loved chasing a piece of yarn.

I drove home to my brother who is still with our mom. He took off to sleep and I helped my mom get to bed. The full moon was still in the sky. I sat up for a while watching the moon and enjoying the silence.

I had my first experience of shamanism – the drum journey, the oracle walk, the sweat lodge – integrated with other practices. I wanted to do more of this. Three domains mixed together I had seen as separate – yoga, shamanism, and art.

“The answer to having a better life is not about getting a better life, it’s just about changing how we see the one we have right now.”

angel Kyodo Williams

The Reverend angel’s words came to me as I looked at the collage I had made. Shamanism will not get me a better life, but it will help me get perspective. The spiral will help me get perspective. I am not lost. I am here. Here.

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