Snake Medicine

Snake Medicine

I had a very special encounter today… a blue-eyed serpent friend and I stopped each other in the garden!

Snake medicine is about healing and evolution. These unique beings remind us that we must outgrow ourselves repeatedly, shedding our old skin and emerging as a fresh and raw new version of us.

The blue eyes on my visitor indicate that he or she is actually beginning the shedding process right now. At this stage she is mostly blind and so quite a bit more vulnerable than usual.

Sightless eyes in folklore are often associated with a different kind of seeing… with heightened awareness of other senses, awareness of spirit, or of seeing with the third eye. And yes, snakes have a pineal gland.

I was creating quite a rumble dragging an orchard ladder along the ground when I spotted her. We were both very still for a few minutes. Once the snake felt safe enough to continue toward cover I curled my finger under her belly and her muscles contracted their way over me. She paused for a moment… the heat must have been a stark contrast, and then carried on.

So how do you work with animal messengers? How do you know what the message is? How do you know when they have a message for you versus all those times they are just minding their own business? Having an existing relationship with the land is a good start. Dropping out of your thinking, judging, clinging mind is also helpful. Once we listen to the heart and gut we can usually get a sense of it… it might FEEL like a visit. Is it a surprise? Is it announced by birds or others in some way? Is the visitor taking an extra moment to hold your attention or making eye contact?I have worked with this particular land for more than 4 years now and have never once seen a snake. (Nevermind a blind snake!) So I wish her (or him) courage and protection while she sheds, and for myself, the same!

(Photo by Liz Mackney)

Self-Care and Honoring Winter Solstice

Self-Care and Honoring Winter Solstice

On this, the longest night of the year, I want to thank you for your support over the past year. My purpose here is to invite more serenity, vitality, depth, intuition, and ancient wisdom into my life, your life, and the lives of everyone else who is realizing there’s something more to this existence than simply existing.

I write this thank-you today because it was the winter solstice that first opened my eyes to a deeper reality than the one I was living.

I have long struggled with these short daylight hours and long, cold nights. I wrote about that here: Seasonal Depression & Autumn Magic. As I talked about in that post, the more meaning and purpose I discover, the easier it is for me to not just tolerate the darkness, but to embrace it and use it in my life the way my ancestors did.

One of the turning points for me happened a number of years ago while I was out spending some quiet time with my equine soulmate, my Norwegian Fjord Horse Charae. It was 5 pm and already dark, and it was a couple days after the Winter Solstice. As I ran my fingers through her thick winter haircoat I realized she was starting to shed. Just days earlier I was doing the same thing and barely a hair was willing to let go; now I was getting fistfuls of it. How was it that in mid-December, with the worst of the winter still to come, her shedding cycle suddenly changed? I pondered what it could be that was the ultimate trigger for such a force of nature (this horse can shed enough hair to clothe three of her hot-blooded kin!) and realized that winter solstice had just passed. That was it, that was the trigger. It was one of those moments where my mind swirled and my perspective zoomed way, way out. How does she know?! The reality is I can almost set my clock to her shedding cycle and, I realized, there were probably many other cues available in Nature to which I wasn’t paying any attention.

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It was then that it really hit home for me… the calendar I was raised in, with Christmas still a couple days away, was a man-made creation that did not honour the natural rhythms of Nature. I knew that various cultures around the world followed different calendars, but which was “correct”? Who can say which one is true? My horse can.

It’s a rather silly and insignificant story for an important turning point… me standing in the dark and cold with a fistful of horse hair, but this began my journey in earnest to educate myself about the natural rhythms of the world that I had been blind to, and to figure out when and why my people lost touch.

Here are a few things you may not know about the calendar that most of the world now follows:

  1. It was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, replacing the Julian calendar (which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC). The Gregorian calendar was originally introduced to change the date of Easter. Because the Julian calendar miscalculated the solar year, it had fallen out of sync with the seasons and Easter was moving further and further away from the spring Equinox (Nature’s calendar).
  2. Although September, October, November and December are the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months of the year, the name September comes from the word “septem” which means 7, October comes from “octo” meaning 8, November from “novem” meaning 9, and December from “decem” meaning 10. This is a carryover from the Roman calendar which had 10 months total, so the names of the months reflected when they occurred in the year.
  3. The Gregorian calendar differs from the solar year by 26 seconds per year. So this means that our current system is still off by 26 seconds. As a result, in the years since Gregory introduced his calendar in 1582, a discrepancy of several hours has arisen. By the year 4909, the Gregorian calendar will be a full day ahead of the solar year.

As I learn about the history of our most widely accepted calendar I can’t help but envision a mess of duct tape and glue. It’s no wonder the horses, despite having been domesticated for thousands of years, will have nothing to do with it. Before all of these slightly inaccurate mathematical calculations we followed Nature’s calendar. We checked the position of the sun and the stars and we took a look at the plants and animals.

And we’ve lost something else along the way.

We’ve lost the wisdom of the ancients that taught us how to live in the winter, and in the summer. We’ve lost knowledge of the sacred masculine and sacred feminine and the way the balance of these served as a guiding light for how to be in the world. It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle with seasonal depression and feeling a little lost in the world.

With that I want to share one of my favorite blog posts: The story of the spirit of Mother Christmas. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I do.

And I want to leave you with a practice or two that you might try this evening or this week, as we rest in the womb of the Winter Solstice:

Self-Care and Practices for Honoring Winter Solstice:

  1. Spend a little time outdoors, even though it’s cold or the weather may be poor. Get out there anyway and take a slow, reflective walk. Notice the plants and trees of the season, notice the birds and other wildlife of the season. Breathe deeply the winter air and notice the way it smells.
  2. Allow for quiet time and darkness. Turn off some of the artificial lights, light some candles, and allow your body to settle in to the quiet and dark of the season. Allow your melatonin production to synchronize with the shorter days. Spend some time reflecting on your year past. I like to light a small candle that will burn away all that I want to release, making room for all that I am inviting into my life for the coming year. I let it burn until finished, rather than putting it out.
  3. Set some intentions for the coming year. These aren’t goals exactly, they are simply intentions for who and how you would like to be this year. Maybe you’d like to spend more time connecting with people, to drop your agenda and listen, to speak your truth more often, or to express your love more openly. Whatever it is for you, hold it in your mind, heart, and body. And then allow yourself some extra rest!

Solstice Blessings

8 Steps to a Better Sleep

8 Steps to a Better Sleep

How’s your sleep these days? It’s a question I almost always ask my clients early in the therapeutic process. Sleep, while sometimes undervalued in our high-performance ‘busy’-glorifying society, could not be more vital to our well-being. When we sleep our brain files away the day’s events and memories and our body repairs and replenishes. Waste matter in the brain is processed and removed instead of being allowed to build up. Muscles repair and rebuild. Blood pressure eases. Cuts heal. Our organs take a much-needed rest. For example breathing slows, the heart pumps more slowly, and the liver takes a break from detoxifying the rest of the body to instead repair itself. We get a break from harmful stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And our hunger-regulating hormones are balanced during sleep making us less likely to crave sugary, empty calorie foods.

For some people sleep comes easily and reliably. But I am well aware that many people are having more and more trouble with sleep. Perhaps this is close to home for you. You may be thinking “I really really want to sleep… I just can’t!” New moms, women in general, men and women who suffer from anxiety, there are so many who aren’t sleeping well. Especially in our over-caffeinated and over-scheduled lives, I would say that most of my clients have some difficulty sleeping.

If this is you, I invite you to join me right now in taking a very careful look at your bedtime routine and sleep habits. In mental health we call it “sleep hygiene”. With time and persistence you can train yourself to sleep better. Here are eight of the most important factors in getting a good night’s sleep:

1. Stick to a routine

Using a tried and true method called ‘classical conditioning’ you can train yourself to sleep well by pairing certain activities with bedtime for a few weeks consistently. In other words, the more that you begin your bedtime routine by, let’s say, brushing your teeth, washing your face, doing your 10-minute meditation, and saying goodnight to your goldfish, the more that your body and mind will come to associate that routine with the next step: sleep! Doing the same (sleep-friendly) things before bed day-in and day-out will help to ensure that your brain and body get the message each night: it’s time to sleep.

2. Turn off all screens an hour before bed

Our modern self-lit devices: televisions, computer screens, tablets, and phones, illuminate using a rapidly flashing blue-toned light. Our eyes and brain compensate for this and we only see a solidly-lit screen when we’re viewing it, but in the meantime other parts of the brain are being highly stimulated by this light. It means that while we’re aware of feeling really tired, unconsciously we are activated and perhaps even agitated. So break the addiction and put away the phone, turn off the TV, and meditate, listen to music, or read by lamplight from a paperback book… give your eyes a break from all screens for at least an hour before you’re hoping to fall asleep.

3. Dim the lights

This one is simple and it relates to the point above. When our eyes are exposed to bright light our natural melatonin production is impacted. As recently as one hundred years ago or so, and for all our centuries on Earth prior to that, the sun would set and we would illuminate our lives for a few extra hours by candle, lantern, or fire. Quite a stark change from the florescent, incandescent, and electronic LED lights we use these days! These days we leave all the lights on right up until bedtime and then take a melatonin pill to help us sleep. Yes, I believe there is something wrong with this picture. Turn the lights down, turn some of them off, light a few candles, and trust nature to guide you to sleep.

4. Lower your temperature

Try having a warm (not too hot) bath with some Epsom salts (magnesium also helps us get sleepy) and then go to bed in a relatively cool bedroom without too many covers. As your body temperature drops gently you are more likely to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Studies on people with insomnia show that they tend to have warmer core temperatures at bedtime than the norm, so see if you can find a way to cool down comfortably.

5. Try a natural sleep aid

There are some things made by Nature that naturally help us to sleep. They tend not to have any harmful side effects or addictive qualities, and they often serve multiple purposes like calming anxiety as well. When I say “natural” I’m talking about things your great-grandmother would recognize such as chamomile tea or lemon balm tea. Valerian root also acts as a natural sedative. Magnesium supplements are another one that I swear by. And by the way, magnesium deficiency is also a culprit in anxiety and body aches. Please check with your doctor or naturopathic doctor first, but for me magnesium supplementation was a game-changer.

6. Cut out caffeine at least 6 hours before bed

The time it takes for the body to eliminate one half of the caffeine you consume is approximately 5.5 hours. That means that 12 hours after consuming caffeine you will still have about 25% of it in your system. It takes a full 24 hours to work its way out of your system. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some people can tolerate it better than others, so give yourself an honest appraisal of your own limits. Better yet, eliminate caffeine altogether. After the initial withdrawal discomfort you will notice, believe it or not, improved alertness and concentration as well as deeper sleep, and your adrenals will thank you! Again, trust mamma Nature!

7. Don’t lie awake in bed

Easier said than done, right? Don’t worry, you do have control over this. What I mean is that if you have been lying awake in bed for 20 minutes or so in full alertness it’s time to change things up. Get up, have a little walk around your place in the partial-dark, read something dull for 15 minutes by lamplight… the point is to train yourself that bed is a place for sleeping, not a place for lying awake in frustration or worry. If frustration and worry are winning the battle, get out of bed for a little while.

8. And the most important of all: The Anchor

The anchor of your sleep routine is your waking time. Your waking time is just as important as the things you do before bed. Setting an anchor for your sleep routine means getting up at the same time every day no matter how many hours you slept the night before, no matter whether it’s the week or weekend. It’s also important to stay awake throughout the day, no matter how tired you might feel. The next night, try your new healthy sleep routine again, and again get up at your anchor time no matter what. Repeat, repeat. (By the way, this doesn’t fully translate to new mamas. Caring for a newborn infant requires a whole other level of sacrifice… you can use these tips to get your sleep back on track later!)

The discipline required here isn’t easy, especially when you’re sleep-deprived and feeling desperate, but getting your sleep back on track in a natural and sustainable way is so very worth it. If this isn’t happening for you, see if you can simplify rather than complicate. What would your ancestors do? What does Nature suggest? Nature has designed you to sleep well and wake up feeling rested and restored, at least most of the time. Trust in that.

Seasonal Depression & Autumn Magic

Seasonal Depression & Autumn Magic

The Northern hemisphere is well past Equinox and moving toward the shortest day of the year.

I have long struggled with this time of year. Although the brightly colored leaves are beautiful and everyone becomes more grateful for the sunny days, I always have a sense of sadness and foreboding… here comes the darkness. Cold, wet, depressing darkness. Some of you will understand well what I’m talking about.

Being a mental health therapist I am well aware of the impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), when depression becomes an even more common and debilitating issue. To combat SAD some people begin antidepressant medications, some seek the support of a counselor, and many simply become amotivated and unproductive, wiling away the hours watching Netflix and sleeping. In years past I have tried all of these in all combinations. But I could never rid myself of that sense of sadness and dysfunction. The medication came with too many side-effects, the counseling didn’t make a lasting difference, and trudging around feeling sorry for myself definitely didn’t do me any good. If all my training in psychology and resources in the mental health system couldn’t help me, what hope is there? What was I neglecting?

Nature. What if we could turn to Nature for help? What if we could deepen our understanding of this time of year and find meaning in it? Understand where we come from and what our ancestors knew about this time of year. What if we could bring spiritual health into the mix?

For me this healing process began with learning. Learning what fall is for. Learning about the natural and ancient purpose that winter serves. Learning about the symbolic as well as practical applications of these seasons in the life of a human. I learned about my personal connection to winter and darkness. In my death-denying culture nobody had ever taught me that there is purpose and beauty in it. This is the time of year when the tree releases its leaves and acorns, and the acorn is embedded and incubated under a blanket of snow, a necessary process in order for the seeds contained inside to germinate next spring. I began to see the application of this in my own life.

In this culture of busy, productive, consumption nobody ever taught me the importance and irreplaceable value of resting. I think you’ll agree most of us are taught to take extra vitamins, get a bigger coffee with an extra shot of espresso, and in various other ways try our best to ‘cure’ our need for rest. But there is no avoiding it. We are Nature and we still cycle with the seasons and the Earth no matter what expectations are placed upon us. When we strip away the shame, the impatience, and the expectations and accept our need for rest as something whole and right and good, we change our relationship with the darkness and, for me at least, layers of sadness and sickness fell away.

This time of year is for gathering together in the darkness, remembering our ancestors, and putting faith in the wisdom of Nature and the feminine energies for renewal. It is about understanding that rebirth begins with death. It is about understanding that the sprouting seed of Spring began much earlier, with the dark incubation of winter.

Fall is about letting go of whatever no longer serves us. It is a time of transition. It is a time to slow down, to deepen into ourselves. Fall is a time for preparation. The seeds of what you are creating can be incubated over winter, as if in the womb. Your work at this time of year is to be intentional about what you will leave under that blanket of snow and what you will rake away during this transitional season. In letting go and clearing, trust that things you don’t need right now will be available to you when you do. You don’t have to hang on to everything. Where are your big YES’s and NO’s right now? “Maybe” can feel like a safe option but it’s just an excuse to cling to everything… with “maybe” we sacrifice depth and opportunities for growth and healing. Wield your scythe bravely and let your YES’s and NO’s be known.

There is room at this time of year for sadness, letting go, and grieving, without the need to label it as a disorder. As I learned (and continue to learn) about the beauty, purpose, and wisdom of this season and the winter to come I began to feel, for the first time in my life, at peace with the darkening days and the long frosty nights. It’s easier now to allow myself to slow down, turn inward, light a little fire in the dark and welcome the stillness… without worrying that there must be something wrong with me. My hope is to share this with you.

The Medicine of Garlic Gardening

The Medicine of Garlic Gardening

It’s time to plant garlic. Approximately. This crop is oh-so forgiving.

Do you know how easy it is to grow your own garlic? Mine grows about 2 inches away from the cement of my front stoop, amongst a mini-rose and some coral bell plants. No veggie garden, no fencing, no special soil or unique conditions. Just a few inches of dirt, lots of sun, and regular water.

And here’s my favorite part: a few years ago I bought a big expensive head of organic purple ‘elephant garlic’ from the grocery store. I ate most of it, but decided to stick 2 cloves of it in the aforementioned dirt. I happened to do that in the fall. The rest is history. Every summer I pull two enormous, plump, purple heads of this special garlic out of my little front porch garden. They hang to dry for a couple weeks in the garden office (my counselling office). Every fall I put two little cloves of it back in the dirt. Rinse the dirt from fingernails and repeat!

Choosing to work with a resilient and forgiving plant ally such as garlic can be immensely therapeutic. Not only is garlic literally medicine (it is highly nutritious, boosts immune function, can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol, is a potent antioxidant which may help to prevent dementia, and can help to detoxify heavy metals in the body), but gardening with it brings another form of medicine…

Growing garlic teaches us to notice and work with the changing seasons. Our ‘fruit’ is hiding beneath the soil so we must learn to listen to the plant in order to know when to harvest. We will notice the intense heat of summer, the abundance of bees and butterflies, and we’ll watch her green spike leaves start to turn brown and die away. Another and another, browning and sagging. It’s time to dig her up, dust her off, and give her some air for a couple weeks. We’ll need to remember to go get her if she’s hanging in a potting shed or carport. We’ll snip off the plant stalk and the roots. Suddenly plant becomes food! Then, we’ll notice the days getting shorter, the nights cooler. The geese are yelling overhead. It’s time to break off a couple cloves of that treasure we unearthed and put them back in the dirt. I love that slightly unsettling feeling of putting food in the ground instead of in my mouth… suddenly food becomes plant again. Many months later, after the snow has come and gone, we’ll see her leaves emerging and growing up. As the season is warming and the baby birds are all leaving their nests we’ll notice her growing a slender flower stalk that begins upside-down and slowly curls upward toward the sky. Are you looking forward to enjoying that flower? You might not like what comes next.

Growing garlic for eating (and medicine) demands sacrifice. We must sacrifice the big beautiful spiked flower (we’ll never even get to see it) if we want to harvest a nice plump head of garlic. Left to her own devices the plant would put all her energy into creating that flower, attracting bees to pollinate, and reproducing. The bulb would be a skinny, depleted little thing if we allowed her to make a flower. So we trim that curious curling bud (called a ‘scape’) before it develops and ask her to devote her energy to the bulb instead. The good news is we can eat the scape too.

The plant knows. One minute she is directing all her energy to the flower, the next she is redirecting it all to the bulb.

Growing garlic can teach us about ancestors and lineage. The cloves I’ll be eating and planting soon are the direct descendants of that original head I bought years ago… whose lineage stretches much further back. In fact, somewhere within each of these big juicy bulbs is the original clove I planted last year. It can help us to appreciate the whole cycle of birth and death. It plays out through the seasons of the year, in the production of that garlic head, and in our own existence. And every part of it is necessary, and beautiful in it’s own way.

When I’m tending to the garlic, whatever stage it’s at, I am grounded and focused. My other anxieties and obligations fall away for the moment. For a brief time I am engaged in a sacred relationship with this  incredible plant ally and teacher. I can feel the presence of my own ancestors: women with brave hearts and dirt under their fingernails, at least some of the time. It’s in these moments that I can remember who I am and where I’m from. This depth of belonging is transformative.

Do you work with garlic medicine? Do you think you might give it a go? Please tell me your story, I would love to hear it!