Image SwimmingSwimming is DAY 5 of 60
Image Swimming is a term I invented for a series of literary meditations inspired by visual work — in this case, the work of Deborah Koff Chapin, creator of Soulcards. I’m using the cards from Deck 2. Please visit https://touchdrawing.com/ for more on this transformative process.
In the spring of 1997, I was in the last throes of a dramatic legal battle with my ex over money. We had divorced in 1994, but there remained a big conflict to resolve. It was a brutal time, and I did what I do during such times…I found a way to ritualize my way through it.
I signed up for a vision quest held in Eastern Washington. I bought all my gear: stainless steel water bottle, tent, rain gear, whistle, everything on the list. I prepared to eat very sparingly for three days. I brought with me a ziplock sandwich bag of almonds soaking in water which would serve as my source of nourishment.
The day finally came, and I left my home for this five-day adventure. Once we arrived at our base camp (the drive, the bus, and the hike took around twelve hours), we checked in with one another around the fire, shared our intentions, and then we enjoyed what would be our last normal meal for the next three days before going to sleep. Except I didn’t really sleep. There were rocks poking up into my back and I alternated between being too cold then too hot, all night long. I thought to myself, “This was a terrible idea.”
Morning came and, grumpy as I was, I had to admit how wonderful it was to inhale the crystal clean, sage-scented air. Our leader reminded us what we were there for and laid out the parameters. We could come back to base camp any time we wanted, but we were encouraged to sit with whatever came up. Wisdom comes not from caving in to our unconscious reactions, but from anchoring ourselves in stillness when the emotional winds blow. Pay attention. If we did get into trouble, however, we could always blow the whistle and she’d come find us. We tested our whistles.
And then, one by one, we were nudged out of the nest to each go find a solitary place that would serve as our home for three days. We would be all alone with our roiling thoughts and mother nature.
It was hot. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t expected to be walking around in a soul-draining cauldron. I learned later that during the five days we were there, Eastern Washington had the worst heatwave in its history. Average temperature: 105 degrees. Fortunately, I have angels — angels! — looking after me and I found a perfect little spot by a stream, with a fair amount of shade.
I set up my tent and promptly fell down in it, my T-shirt plastered to me with sweat. “I’ll never survive this,” was my first thought. “This is bullshit. What am I trying to prove?” I hate the heat.
Well, it didn’t take me long to discover the unspeakable joy of lowering myself, fully clothed and gasping, shoes and all, into that freezing cold stream of water. When I got back out, squishing around in my cold, wet shoes, I realized my damp clothes kept me blissfully cool. When they dried off, I’d get right back in, and start the whole process over again. That was the most delicious air conditioning I’ve ever experienced.
The first big challenge presented itself when I first got into the water. There were tiny little fish darting around. I could feel them bump up against, even nipping at my legs, and it was startling and weird. I’m not a big outdoorsy girl, so, EW! But I made myself just be there, realizing that it was actually me intruding on their property. I mentally asked their permission to share that blessed cold, fresh water. It worked for fleeting moments here and there. But I never got completely used to it.
The first day went reasonably well. Surprisingly well, actually. I was astounded at how little I needed to eat. Four or five almonds and I was set. I drank the water they were stored in. I spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy placing my sleeping back, strategizing around the pokey rocks issue. That first night I was on high alert. But eventually, I was fell into the sleep of the dead.
On the second day, I started scanning for something to do. I went in search of little sprigs of sage to make a smudge stick with. There was sagebrush all around me, so I gathered to my heart’s content. With the bouquet of it in my right hand and my little sewing kit in the other, I was all but skipping back to my little camp, so happy, so lost in the moment. That’s when I heard it.
To this day, it remains one of the most sacred sounds I’ve ever heard in my life. First of all, it was loud, as though amplified. Second, it was in SurroundSound. I literally heard it to the left and the right of me, above and below me. Like there were speakers in ten places emitting the sound. And third, the quality of it, the specificity of it. High-pitched and fluid and fine and dry and smooth…a sound that was both sand and velvet, that produced both terror and reverence.
It was a sound that paralyzed me immediately. I stopped dead in my tracks, saw the snake about fifteen feet in front of me, coiled under a partially fallen log, one end of which lay at the edge of the stream. I hyperventilated, exhaling the words, “Ok, ok, ok, ok. I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m ok. Ok.” Over and over.
Eventually, that moment completed itself, but I didn’t know what to do next. I was afraid to move for the longest time. I didn’t want to blow my whistle, fearful that it would startle my friend into a hostile course of action. So I stood like a statue for I have no idea how long. Five minutes? Fifty? There’s no way of knowing. I just kept my eyes on the snake and tried to calm down.
Eventually, I got really tired. No doubt, keeping very still in a fearful state for a long time is a serious strain on the muscles of the body. I started moving imperceptibly slowly. I mean Noh Theatre slow. I would let thirty seconds elapse for one step, check the snake. Still there? Still in the same position, looped lazily over himself a couple times? Ok. One more step. I moved like this, one step and one long hypervigilant pause after another, walking a wide swath around him until I reached my destination.
Once there, I checked again and he still hadn’t moved. I’d been squeezing the sage so hard my hands would smell of it for days. My initial terror had subsided to a steady, high-grade anxiety, but it was manageable. I went to work, winding thread around and around my little tortured fistful of sage. Check on my friend. Still there? Yes. Ok. Resume working with the sage. Check again. Yeah? Yes. I got so where it was almost easy to be in his presence — him where he was, me where I was. We became comfortable with one another.
Eventually, I forgot all about him. Engrossed in my work, I suddenly realized it had been a while since I checked on him. I looked up. No snake.
(This is where the real scary music drops down into the lower registers.) Where is he? Now that I couldn’t find him, I had to know. What if he slithered into my tent later? What if he was there already? I was afraid to lose him, afraid to find him, afraid to look for him. Paralyzed all over again.
Fear. It shut my mind down. I was so much more present when I could see the snake. I could practice being in relationship to it while tending to my own mental state. But when he disappeared, I realized I had only acclimated myself to his presence, which is different than facing my fear head-on.
In the end, I went back to the base camp to talk it over with our guide. She assured me that the last thing the poor creature would want to do would be to crawl into my tent with me. He had no doubt gone his way, tending to his own purposes.
I don’t remember whether I went back to finish my solo quest, or broke camp a day early. I think I went back. I think I just thought to myself melodramatically, “It is a good day to die,” and fulfilled my three-day solo, sleeping in my tent with all three eyes open that night. But I don’t know.
Either way, it’s an experience that woke me up to three things: 1) my respect for a rattlesnake, 2) my reverence for his sound, and 3) my ramshackle meditation practice — how quickly it fell apart because of an animal that was only minding its own business, being alive in the same area where I was alive. It was humbling.
The first part of this whole encounter with the snake was ok. I didn’t lose it like I thought I might. I managed to calm myself, so much so that I eventually forgot he was there. But the second part, when the snake left and I felt even more terrified — that showed me that my fears, my mind, the stories I tell myself and then believe, were still completely in the driver’s seat and I still had a very long way to go before I could peacefully coexist with a rattlesnake ten feet away from me.
This is why I practice every day. To calm the mind, to watch what I’m believing, what I’m mistaking for ‘reality’. So I can recognize that I’m dreaming when I’m dreaming.
And maybe, just maybe, so I can someday wake up for real.