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Published: December 3rd 2008
The Brecon Beacons mountains located in south-east Wales are not exactly known to be a hotbed of shamanism - at least not in this day and age. Or are they? Primarily, the beautiful and wild Brecon Beacons National Park is a revered hiker's paradise with an abundant range of outdoors activities. Yet, if you dig a little deeper you will find that the area has a long history with evidence of Neolithic habitation dating from about 5000 BCE. Throughout the most rural areas you can find piles of stones marking cairns or burial chambers, as well as standing stones. The Brecon Beacons themselves take their name from the ancient practice of lighting signal fires (beacons) on mountains to warn of attacks by the English. When we think of shamanism, it tends to conjure up images of enigmatic feather-clad men and women from the Himalayas, Siberia or South America. But there is a long history of shamanism in Britain, too - dating back to the ancient Celts, the Tuatha Dé peoples, the Druid shaman-priests. It's just that sometimes we forget the richness of our own cultures and have the tendency to look towards the East for spiritual growth.
In this spirit,
Photo by Tony Lane
interested to learn more about shamanism on familiar shores, I have travelled to the historical market town of Brecon to visit Sarah Howcroft-Lane, a woman who is firmly putting shamanism back on the map of South Wales. After some erring through the town's confusing one-way system, I arrive at the Victorian house Sarah shares with her photographer husband Tony and dog Megan at the edge of Brecon, bordering a large forest. Sarah is a shamanic practitioner, healer and artist, and I am intrigued by her and Tony's Shamanic Healing Body Art sessions, which are said to combine traditional shamanic healing methods with body paint and a photo shoot. Sarah describes these innovative sessions as 'Soul Medicine that address the issues that hold a person back from shining in their true colours'. I saw some photographic results of her work a while back and was so amazed that I wanted to try it.
After a welcome cup of tea, we enter the couple's spacious healing room, and discuss my reasons for embarking on this journey. Consequently, Sarah suggests a Soul Retrieval before the body painting session. Soul Retrieval is a powerful shamanic healing technique. Many shamanic cultures around the world
photo by Tony Lane
believe that illness is caused by the 'loss of soul'. It is assumed that whenever a person suffers an emotional or physical trauma, a part of the soul flees the body in order to survive the experience. 'Soul' here is interchangeable with life essence or life force, the energy that keeps us alive and flourishing. Soul losses that are common in our culture include physical, sexual or emotional abuse - sometimes to the extent that the person often can't remember the incident consciously, yet experiences emotional problems or lack of energy. Addiction, divorce, or war trauma are other examples where soul loss can occur. With the help of a shaman, these soul parts can be retrieved and integrated back into the body. In this ritual, the shaman will enter an altered state of consciousness and go on a vision quest to find out where the soul has 'gone' in the alternate realities, and return it to the body of the client by blowing the retrieved essence back into both head and heart. Shamans often access the altered state of consciousness necessary for journeying to the Otherworld through repetitive, monotonous drumming. This stimulates the brain into a 'theta' wave, a deep
In full paint
photo by Tony Lane
dreaming state which faciliates trance and, more importantly, opens our spiritual heart. Today, Tony is drumming for us, whilst Sarah prepares to undertake the journey on my behalf. I lie down on the floor, with Sarah sitting next to me holding my hand. 'Boom-boom-boom-boom', says the drum. I close my eyes and surrender to the sounds. Our shamanic journey has begun.
I can feel the drum rhythms as heat waves and vibrations in my body, and various images and vision start to appear in my mind's eye, alongside different states of emotion. The first thing I see is a big eagle's profile, watching something intently. A bit further on in the journey I see Kali, the Hindu Goddess of destruction, dancing fiercely on Shiva's body on the battlefield, angrily vomiting out green bile and poison. This image shifts into a vision of being in the Himalayas, where I see Lord Shiva, dressed in furs with a snake coiled around his neck, meditating with eyes closed on a high, snow-covered mountain. He asks me to come to him, and tells me that he is part of me and I am part of him, that we are one and the same
and inseparable. I approach him and we merge completely - which is an incredibly moving moment, a blissful feeling of coming home, of total union. I ask him to open his eyes so that I can look into them. He does so, and his eyes are infinite, and I can see the whole world in them, in a sea of unconditional love and eternity. My next vision is of Shakti, the divine feminine aspect, dancing in her voluptuous sensual body, asking me to join her. I am now in the embrace of the Divine Mother. When the drumming ceases and our journey is complete, Sarah has returned with four soul parts she retrieved on my behalf, which she blows into the top of my head and into my heart. All of them make sense and relate to incidents that happened in my early life. She also collected other significant information in her visions - Spirit tends to speak through symbols and archetypes, and it is then up to the client to relate these images to everyday life and events. When we share visions, we realize that we were emotionally in tune, too: my image of the fierce Kali ties up
with one of Sarah's soul retrievals of an incident that incensed me when I was five years old.
After a small break, we prepare for another shamanic journey - a vision quest to discover my soul's colours in their most vibrant expression. Again, Tony drums, whilst Sarah and I begin our journeys. I see the colours gold, green and red; Sarah returns with a detailed design involving fires and feathers: primarily peacock feathers. I laugh out loud - the peacock is one of Lord Krishna's beloved animals. Is this another one of his cosmic jokes? We have lunch and Sarah begins to sketch her vision on paper. I am amazed: my legs are to be covered entirely in peacock feathers, while two bright fires are to burn in my heart and in my belly. My back and arms and face are to transform into silver bird's feathers. Looking up from her sketch, Sarah remarks casually, 'The painting usually takes about five hours. Is this okay?' Crikey. Five hours of standing around naked being painted? I didn't think about that! Hmmm, I suppose so...
So we crank up the heat, put on some Arabic bellydancing music, I take off
my clothes and the painting begins. The first hour is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable indeed. I'm cold, shift around, change positions and glance at the clock. Only twenty minutes gone? How much longer is this going to take? Only half of my leg has been painted so far. After an hour, something shifts though. It's a bit like chanting mantras or meditation: the beginnning is often arduous, but suddenly we're in a different time dimension and state of awareness, and I am beginning to enjoy myself. The paintbrushes create a tickling sensation on my skin and it's really interesting to watch the growing transformation on my body. Sarah paints her elaborate designs tirelessly like a champion, in particular when Tony comes in and announces he has to go to work in the evening. Suddenly, we have a deadline. Sarah meets it almost effortlessly - just minutes after 7 pm, after five hours of non-stop painting, I behold a new version of myself in the mirror and gasp. Wow! There are feathers all over my legs, back and arms, my upper body is blue, fires burn brightly, and my face is covered with a mask. What a vibrant image! We rush into Tony's photographic studio for the photo session. At first it feels a bit weird to be photographed naked (albeit painted) by a strange man, but I soon get into it, and before long perform yogic postures in front of the camera. I am pleased with the colourful expression of my soul, and the natural paints all wash off nicely in the shower, too!
Yes, contemporary shamanism is well and alive in the Brecon Beacons. To find out more about Sarah and her work, please visit . For Tony Lane's photographic website and his work in Romania, please see
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