Finding A Way Forward When You Are Feeling Stuck: A Simple Method
(art: The Bears Are Waking Up by me, prints and more here.)
My four kids were finally asleep by 7:30 pm. With Justin Bieber cranked to eleven, I sat in my basement with my BFF Suzi merrily trimming full color photocopies of vintage rabbits, whales and horses out of paper and gluing them onto old green bean cans to create decoupage vases for flowers. I added glitter and wrinkled hem binding tape in saturated colors like peacock and lush peach. I had no earthly idea why the hell this was so much damn fun. Despite being exhausted from my day job and kids, I had endless energy for it.
When I was a little kid, I had an ENORMOUS imagination. So big, I nearly drove my parents bananas. I could see possibilities everywhere and I wanted so badly to see what I could see in my mind’s eye become REAL. I was constantly wanting to do, as they say in the movie Step Brothers, “activities’ ‘!! Lemonade stands, rearranging my bedroom furniture, cooking recipes from my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook.
At seven, my imagination grabbed onto dollhouses. I was a dog with a bone. Pre-internet, of course, I got busy ordering mail order catalogs of wooden dollhouse kits, miniature furniture and (of course) the tiny families that were designed to inhabit these glorious tiny homes. I paged through and marked these catalogs with feverish madness. I could not rest until I brought the dream to life.
As I grew older, I learned that adults believed that imagination, while fantastic (in a magical Charlie in the Chocolate Factory/Roald Dahl way…) was not “realistic”. It was valuable only in the domain of story books and movies. Science was what was real according to my father who I loved dearly. Admiring my Dad, a third generation physician, and having a deep longing to relieve suffering in the world, I slowly abandoned my imagination for the “real” and, most importantly, proven world of science.
After twenty years of studying/practicing medicine myself, I began to understand, on a deeper level that even science was not necessarily anything you could tether your camel to. “Facts” that I learned in medical school about illness and health quickly became laughable by the time I wrapped up residency. Study any history of medicine and you’ll look back in horror…the “truth” is a slippery concept. I began to feel less enchanted by my role as a phsycician who hunted down disease so it could be erradicated. It wasn’t that science wasn’t reliable enough for me but I became curious about what made people well.
That’s when the decoupaging in the basement with the pop music epoch began. As I was gluing giraffes onto old tin trays, that I’d picked up at Goodwill for a quarter, I unknowingly reignited my imagination. She was a bit rusty, but doing art like a kid again (not to monetize it or impress anybody) got my cylinders firing. Not too much later, I stumbled into the idea of spirit animals.
Maybe it was all those 19th century illustrations of undersea creatures, hippos and bats I’d been collecting that opened the door of my imagination, but whatever it was, I am forever grateful. I began looking and listening to the animals in my daily life and night dreams for guidance, though it was not logical, it brought me so much peace. Like science, it wasn’t something to be taken on “faith”, but with much experimentation, I gained a trust in it.
You see, in shamanism, the imagination is not “false” or “childish” or “fake”. In fact, it’s the most powerful tool you have at your disposal. From the shamanic point of view, you are literally dreaming or imagining your life into being. Collectively, we are all contributing to this dream so it’s pretty wild and complex. And the shaman herself, is a scientist. She must experiment until she finds her own “proof”, or faith in the spirits.
One night in a plant medicine ceremony, I received a very powerful teaching about my imagination. As the ceremony began, I felt violently ill. In the three weeks prior to the ceremony I’d been on a long trip involving a lot of hotel food and my diet had not been good. At first, I thought that was the problem. Then, I suddenly realized that I was feeling extremely stuck in my creative and work life. As I sat in the stuck feeling, the plant spirit of ayahuasca, a masterful spirit teacher, showed me an image. I was comletely plastered to the bottom of a cosmic sort of sewer. Literally stuck in sh*t. Ha! It would have been funny if it hadn’t felt so awful. As I lay there, I experienced STUCKNESS like I had never felt before. “ How was I ever going to get out of this muck?”, I wondered to myself, helplessly.
Suddenly, the ceremonial music changed. It’s the singing (often called ”icaros”, songs that the shamans have learned from the plant spirits themselves) in a plant medicine ceremony that drives the visions and healings that occur. In my vision, Ayahuasca pulled one of those old ceiling pull-chain lights and a light illuminated where I was stuck and a door opened. She, this powerful feminine spirit being, explained that I needed to imagine my way forward whenever I was stuck.
I began to imagine different possibilities for my creative and work life. As I engaged my imagination, multiple different doors swung open in my vision. Each led to yet another brightly lit hallway and more lights being “pulled” on. It was the opposite of helpless. Suddenly I felt like anything was possible, all I had to do was dream!
Just like I had so many years ago with my dollhouse. I finally did get that dollhouse at age eleven and carefully wallpapered, tiled and decorated it until adolescence firmly arrived at thirteen when I somewhat reluctantly and voluntarily abandoned my imagination.
Today I use my imagination each and every day as I paint, cook, work with clients, follow my intuition, pray and spend time in the woods conversing with nature. Using my imagination puts me into stillness and flow, a divine state. We are, after all, created by the most masterful imaginator of all time, the Creator. When you use your imagination to innocently (without attachment) create something just for the joy of it, I think you’ll find you love whatever you created so much! And I’m convinced that’s how much we are loved by the one who dreamed us into being. The morning after that difficult ceremony (stuck in the cosmic sewer) I shared my experience with a new friend. He said, “Dude Ive been there!! It gets better!”. It really does!
Exercise: Imagining Your Way Forward
Look for a problem in your life or a place where you feel utterly stuck. The best issue for this exercise will be one where you have no idea how to improve the situation.
Go find a wild place (backyard, quiet place in a state park or a rooftop patio)
Make an offering to the spirit of this place ( a pinch of tobacco or a handful of flower petals) and ask for permission to be there and to ask for its help.
Sit in stillness and ask the spirit of this wild place to give you a teaching that can help you with this problem.
Then relax and open up all of your senses (hearing, taste, touch, seeing and “”) to listen for the answer.
Insights from spirit are usually exquisitely simple but powerful. Sometimes just one word or feeling is all that is received.
Apply the teaching to the problem and see what results you have (this is your “experiment”). If it is helpful then use this practice whenever you are feeling stuck.
If you’d like support on receiving such insight and nurturing yourself on your own path, I offer shamanic mentoring.