"Shape-shifting" is a tradition that exists in most native cultures. It's the metamorphosis of a person into an animal or other form. In many traditional cultures, it's still practiced today, and there's value in learning to do this for yourself.
One warm autumn afternoon, I sat by a river that flowed through the mountains of New Mexico with my friend and teacher, Dancing Feather. As we watched the meandering waters, he casually mentioned that sometimes he became a fox. He said his father and his grandfather could do it, too. Although I have Cherokee blood, being raised in a Western culture made me a bit skeptical, so I asked, "Dancing Feather, do you mean that you go into a trance and then imagine you're a fox?"
He looked at me and was quiet for a long time. Finally, he replied, "No, I actually become a fox."
I was taken aback. I knew that Dancing Feather always told the truth, yet my Western upbringing made me uncertain that one could actually turn into a fox. So many questions filled me. What actually happens during a shape-shifting experience? Why have so many people from the earliest times believed that a person could change shape? And what is the value of such a metamorphosis?
There are many theories about shape-shifting. Some scientists believe that there's a neurological basis for it in the mammalian brain that sits at the top of the spine. (We share this primitive core with other species, such as the ape and the prairie dog.) Some believe that this part of the brain conceals primal powers that our ancestors knew how to tap into, but we've long forgotten. Carl Jung postulated that there was a collective unconscious shared by all humans, a repository of all wisdom contained in archetypal images that also could explain shape-shifting.
I've met elders in native cultures who attest to the fact that shape-shifting is not just an exercise in creative visualization-it's an actual metamorphosis. There's reason to believe that they're right. In Western thinking, we believe that the reality we normally experience is the only reality. However, there are a multitude of equally real, equally viable realities surrounding us. The fact that we don't see them doesn't mean that they're not real. Here's an example that might help explain this: Imagine that you lived in an isolated area and had a radio that was locked onto one station, maybe only classical, country and western, or jazz.
If that's all you ever heard, you would tend to think that that was the only radio station there was. All the other stations are in the room; it's just that your radio is locked onto only one station. However, if you were able to turn the dial one way or another, you'd be privy to a vast number of stations. It's a rough example, but it can help you understand about different dimensions.
There is everyday value in employing these techniques, whether they are journeys in your imagination or you indeed enter into other realms. Every shape-shifting experience will bring richness to your life's experiences. When you imagine that you're an animal (or plant or stone), you can begin to experience your life from a different perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of a sparrow or even through the experience of a pebble will expand your boundaries, and this in turn allows you a wider worldview. When humans become myopic and can only see the world through the limited perspective of their own experience, they fall prey to prejudices and judgments, which can be as damaging to them as well as to the universe around them.
Exercise: How to Shape-Shift
1. Close your eyes and allow yourself to become deeply relaxed. As a suggestion, have a friend drum a very steady, continuous beat. (This is a traditional method to shape-shift.) Or play music designed for relaxation, which can help you enter into an altered state of consciousness.
2. Imagine that your body is metamorphosing into another form. It can be anything you choose. Take time to experience fully how that other being feels.
3. With your eyes closed, allow your body to move subtly, almost unperceptively while feeling yourself changing into another shape.
4. Really imagine that you've become that animal, plant, mineral, or even another person. Involve all your senses. Imagine what you would smell, taste, hear, and feel. For example, if you become a wolf, imagine having an acute ability to smell. If you become an eagle, imagine your eyesight to be very sharp and far-seeing.
5. Afterward, while it's still fresh in your memory, make notes about your experience.
When you can see the world through the experience of something else, it deepens your compassion profoundly. For example, if you've had a terrible argument with your spouse and you shape-shift to view things through his or her eyes, you might find that your anger subsides. Or if you're depressed because you were passed over for a job promotion, you might shape-shift to experience life through the eyes of a robin and ultimately realize that the universe is much more vast and wondrous than the arena of your job. Your depression pales in comparison to the joy of flight and the exhilaration of bursting into song.
Sometimes I imagine myself seeing through the eyes of another person. When I can see the world through his or her eyes, it allows me to have greater compassion and understanding. I've found this particularly helpful when I've been having a challenging time with others. When I view the world through their eyes, I'm usually less critical of them.
Activating the native spirit within you means that you recognize that we live in a mysterious, splendid universe. You know that Creation is filled with spirit beings, land spirits, little people, angels, and ancestors; and you know there are ways to travel into these realms through vision quests, storytelling, dreams, astral traveling, and shape-shifting.
Once you step into a native perception of reality, the universe becomes much richer and fuller. In a very practical way, this allows you to see the truth in life. Instead of believing what you hear and see, more often you believe and trust what you feel and know in your heart. You'll find yourself being aware of the deeper truths in life and making decisions accordingly. This can positively transform your life.
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