Solstice, Shamans & Christmas Trees

The weather is wet. Dark clouds hang low in the sky as a wane sun goes down on a day of days that grow ever shorter as we approach the solstice. Sitting in front of the fire my thoughts drift to the time of year and how nature marks the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

We haven’t put the Christmas tree up yet, even though that potted fir is in the garden waiting to play its festive role for a fourth year running. I remember that the practice has its origin with European pagans, who decorated their homes with evergreen branches to mark the approaching solstice, as did Romans who decorated their temples with evergreens for their festival of Saturnalia. Decorating with firs, and evergreens like mistletoe and holly that flower in winter, symbolise a revolt against the darkness of winter and herald the renewal of life, new cycles of fertility and the eventual spring that lies ahead.

I started thinking about change and the need to let go in order to achieve renewal in our lives. Without that renewal our lives can become stale and stagnant, like water that doesn’t flow.

I thought about our resistance to change and our fear of the unknown, which we sometimes try and overcome with well-intended New Year’s resolutions that too often fail to stick.

Breaking my reverie, my wife Lalita walked into the room. I looked up and asked, “how do nomads deal with constant change?” Her quizzical expression told me I had failed to bring her into my internal dialogue. She shrugged and left me to ponder further.

“Do nomads have an easier time with change? What gives them a centre for their lives?”, I asked myself.

I did some reading and discovered that their peripatetic lives give them an advantage over ‘sedentists’ (people who stay put). Psychologists report that nomads have heightened levels of perception, greater cognitive discernment and are generally more self-reliant, independent and self-confident – traits which are cultivated in their childhood through a culture of encouragement, play, and creativity – without the imposition of any form of harsh treatment.

“Is our modern fear of change rooted in our cultural emphasis on conformity and sameness?”, I wondered.

I read further and discovered that nomads find their centre with the help of shamans, who guide them to connect with their inner spirit world and the natural spirit world around them. “Is their practice of shamanism one reason why they are so comfortable with constant change?”, I asked myself.
Lalita poked her head in the door, this time holding out my mobile phone. “It’s Tim. He wants a word.”
We met Tim, who works for an NGO in Peru, at a recent Cranmore Foundation wisdom conference.
“Hi Tim. What’s up?”
“I thought you might like to know that Mercedes is in town. I thought the two of you should meet up.”
Tim had previously mentioned Mercedes, a Peruvian shaman who lives close to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu where his NGO is based. I couldn’t ignore the synchronicity between his call and my question about shamans and so called Mercedes straight away to arrange a meeting and an interview for my work at Cranmore Foundation. We met the following day.

Mercedes is a Quechua woman born in Cusco. She is a Q’ero altomesayoq shaman who works with mountain spirits. I told her about my interest in how we all deal with change and my curiosity about the role that shamans play with change. Here are excerpts of my conversation with her:

“How does your tradition view the role of change in our lives? How do shamans help people manage change?” I asked.

“We are here to be reborn, again and again… to gradually discover our true inner spirit and our place in the world. To do this we have to be open to receive and adapt. We have to be ready to let go of the ways that don’t serve us well anymore. To move forward we have to accept change, willingly, with an open heart, with the mood of a warrior, with courage and with humility.”

“And the shamans’ role in helping with that?”

“Shamans act as a bridge to the spirit world. They help us reunite our inner spirit with the great spirit. They help create order out of chaos. They guide us to the invisible reality and show us other possibilities. Shamans help us drop the falsehoods that we mistake for who we are. Shamans travel with us, to support us in dealing with change that is healthy and rejuvenating. Shamans can light a fire of courage in our hearts.”

I had to take a moment to let all that sink in. I fell silent and busied myself taking notes.
“Sometimes change is forced on us. Sometimes we seek it out. Is there a difference?” I asked.
“Change comes of its own accord. When we are internally ready, we seek it out. When we are stubborn and attached, it is sometimes forced on us. But change keeps us vital. It wakes us up from the slumber of our own convenience and comfort.”

“Tim told me about the shock of your initiation into your role as a medicine-woman — how you were hit by lightning!”

“I was so stubborn I needed lightning to wake me up!” she said with a mischievous grin and glint in her eye.

“Is there a gentler way for those of us unwilling to conduct high voltage shocks into our lives?”

“Yes, but there is always a healing crisis of some sort. It depends on the individual’s circumstances. The more we can willingly embrace change, the more chance the crisis will be less sharp.”

“So, there is no progress without discomfort?”
“How do shamans facilitate such a healing?”

“There are many ways and many traditions. You know them, I think. Inipi or sweat lodges, where you sit in circle with others and embrace the discomfort of the heat and dark in order to induce an inner shift with yourself. There are dietas, where you fast and take medicine from plants and trees in isolation from others to achieve an inner transformation. There are vision quests, where you go to the mountains or forest on your own, fasting from food and water, to quiet the mind and rediscover your inner voice. And there is shamanic breathwork, something akin to intense yogic pranayama, which is accompanied by drumbeats and chanting.”

“So, the essence of the shamanic way is to accept some discomfort to achieve change and transformation in our life?”

“Yes. And it can be done in lots of ways. Perhaps running a marathon is one way. Or setting out on a long lonely trek is another. What matters most is our intent… our motive… are we embracing sacrifice to arrive at a higher place within ourselves? The outcome is what matters most.”

We talked late into the night. I was grateful to have the chance to exchange with Mercedes. The following evening, she did a ceremony for me and Lalita, which was a special experience and gave us insight into the magic of the shamanic path. In turn, I was happy to consult Mercedes on her astrological chart, which indeed symbolised a real shaman sitting in front of me. As she was leaving, she requested that we “keep in touch on the spirit plane,” with a wink and that special grin of hers.


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  1. pauline

    It is 230am and I was very interested in this article.

    • Michael Geary

      It is an interesting subject. I am glad to hear that you liked it. Late night for you though!

  2. Lindsay Ambridge

    Hi Michael
    I really enjoyed reading about your meeting with Mercedes which feels very relevant to my inner healing and turmoil.It also but some context to my fears and questions that are cropping up in my life and thoughts .
    This discussion for me made sense on so many levels thank you for sharing this, sadly I can’t share this with anyone, apart from Katie and Sarah at the Acorn I am alone in this , I don’t know anyone else that would even read this without them thinking I had lost the plot…. I have actually all my life until now.

    • Michael Geary

      Hi Lyndsay,
      Katie and Sarah are the right people to share this with. We shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t understand the subject right away. It is a blessing when we are lucky to have even a couple of people who share an interest in it. Looking forward to seeing you at Acorn in the new year. Wishing you the best,

  3. Brajaprice


  4. Jules Cooper

    Morning Michael and a Happy New Year to you and Lalita

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I have been feeling the energy of change for over a year now, just a couple more weeks and I will step out into a new world.

    I could have stayed in a stagnant place but I chose change. I feel incredibly empowered. Everything Mercedes said resonated with me.

    The next time I’m in Aguas Calientes I may look her up!

    Sending you love,

    Jules x x x

  5. Raman Reti dasi

    Hare Krsna! I enjoyed reading this!

    I am in a unique situation of being an aspiring Vaishnavi married to someone who is trained by shamans to provide a plant medicine called Iboga (considered the plant of “truth”). I am fascinated about comparing shamanic wisdom with concepts of dharma.

    I’m curious about your thoughts about the use of shamanic plant medicine to assist in inner discovery. I believe in following the 4 regulative principles, but I’ve come to make a distinction between intoxication and medicine. Intoxication tends to be addictive and separates one from oneself, while certain plant medicine, when used correctly with shamanic guides, can cut out addictions & false beliefs and center in truth. I’m curious about your experience and thoughts on this. Can the practice of this kind of medicine still be aligned with the bath of bhakti-yoga?


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The solstice, Christmas and new year celebrations

The solstice, Christmas and new year celebrations offer us a time to go within, to hear our inner voice, to renew and prepare for new cycles of fertility and creativity in the year ahead. It is an ideal time to take stock and perhaps to reconnect with your Vedic chart to gain some insight and guidance on the year ahead.

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