My family and I departed from our farm in Hawai'i in the summer of 1989. We took up residence in a suburb of San Diego for the next academic year while I served as a visiting lecturer in anthropology for the local branch of the University of California.
When our children entered school in the fall, my wife, Jill, joined an all-women team of doctors, nurses, and health-care professionals, working as a physical therapist. We juggled our schedules to meet the needs of our children, our days revolving around school dropoffs and pickups, teaching classes and commuting on freeways, shopping in supermarkets and visits to the zoo, professional seminars and PTA meetings. It seemed as if we were constantly rushing, never quite completing one responsibility before the next would be upon us.
I reacted to being back in California with strong feelings of foreboding. The prosperity of the Reagan years had abruptly come to an end, and millions of people were unemployed, with millions more caught in the crunch of escalating medical and property costs. The newspapers were filled with accounts of yesterday's disasters and stories of dishonesty, fiscal mismanagement, violent crime, and abuse. The population of southern California had grown exponentially. Formerly open expanses of countryside were now filled with subdivisions and shopping malls, and the traffic was stifling. It was quite a change from the quiet life on our farm in rural, upcountry Hawai'i.
In the midst of all this, the visionary adventures I had experienced in Kona were always there, right behind my eyes. In the evenings, with the children in bed and the next day's lectures prepared, much time was spent contemplating what I had learned.
First and foremost, I had discovered the presence of some sort of inner doorway within myself, one that opened periodically, giving me glimpses into levels of reality and experience I had not thought possible. The opening was usually accompanied by visual hallucinations, spots of light, labyrinthine lines, zigzags, vortexes, and grids that some cognitive investigators have called "phosphenes." There was almost always a buzzing, roaring rush of sound accompanied by overwhelming bodily sensations of force or power that rendered me paralyzed for the duration of the experience. The intensity of the experience could have been quite frightening were it not for its exquisite nature. I now understood why the word ecstasy is associated with religious trance.
Something else of note had happened during our time in Hawai'i. I had become the kahu, the honored caretaker, of a pohaku kupua, a "spirit stone" that I found in the waves below the tideline at Kealakekua Bay, where I swam daily with my family. On the day that I found it, I recognized it with shock, for I had seen it in a vision more than a year before in the possession of the chief of Nainoa's settlement. The stone took up residence in a rock garden near my front door, and in time I began to suspect that it was part of the causality for the connection between me and Nainoa, for the stone had been there, unseen among the other rocks at the interface of the beach and the bay, when my visionary connections with Nainoa had commenced. Toward the end of my days in Kona, I received a clear impression that it wished to accompany me to the mainland of Americaan intention in keeping with its formal name, Kapohaku'ki'ihele, the stone that travels.
When the shipping container containing our household goods arrived in San Diego, I located the crate containing the stone and unpacked it first. The dark boulder looked rather dry, and I wondered uneasily if it were still "alive" after its trip in the hold of a ship. It had always stood outside in our garden in Kona, so we placed it under a scraggly fig tree in the backyard of our rental, a postage-stamp-sized piece of sun-baked clay that had been neglected by the former tenants.
Interestingly, as soon as the stone was in place, the whole yard seemed to come to life. The grass staged a dramatic comeback, several untended clumps of Cape honeysuckle erupted into clouds of orange-red flowers, and a large dracaena burst into fragrant bloom. A stand of sickly-looking banana trees actually began to produce bananas. It was the fig tree, however, that underwent the greatest change. Once the stone was placed beneath it, the tree started to throw out leaves and fruit at a truly impressive rate that continued unabated even throughout the coldest part of the next winter, when the tree dropped its leaves and frost killed some of my bonsai. During the year and a half that the stone remained under the tree, the flow of figs never ceased.
Despite the stone's presence, I had no new altered-state experiences for almost a year, perhaps because I was so busy with ordinary reality concerns. I taught several anthropology classes at the university, including one focused on religion and magic in the lives of traditional peoples. My daily office hour continually lengthened as students dropped in to discuss aspects of this course, and I found myself listening to young people tell me their own stories of startling, life-changing experiences. Several had met the "shadow," the dark, monolithic spirit that both Nainoa and I had encountered at the onset of our visionary adventures. Many had had déjà vu experiences, clairvoyant or telepathic perceptions not regarded as valid or "real" by Western culture at large. When I counted up the number of individuals who had had some sort of mystic experience, I was amazed. More than 10 percent of the students fell into this category.
Many had also been badly damaged by life and were emotionally scarred. Within myself, I felt a growing sense of compassion, and I began to wonder how I could help them. Through my experiences in Hawai'i, I had become aware of the connection that exists between knowledge and power. However, it's one thing to teach a class about shamanism and magic. It's quite another to practice it.
In Western society, we tend to think of a magician as one who performs incredible illusions before amazed audiences. In tribal societies, magic involves accessing the realm of the sacred in order to persuade, control, or influence supernatural power to assist in manifesting something in the ordinary, everyday world. What is manifested is determined largely by the intentions and personality of the practitioner as well as the needs of the client or community. As I listened to my students, I was very much aware that I had no training, nor any tradition from which to operate in this capacity.
When the semester came to an end, I decided that part of the final examination would include ritual in which I would expose my students to the sound of the rattle for the first time. Many traditional people say that the rattle helps them connect with mystical power and that the sharp, dry sound is like a telephone call to the spirit world. But I knew this only from my reading when I gathered the class for the final meeting.
We pushed the desks back against the wall and sat on the floor in a circle. I drew the shades, darkening the room, and lit a single candle in the cleared center, a minimalist ritual I remembered from a shamanic workshop I had attended years before with the anthropologist Michael Harner. The rattle I used was a commercial object made of plastic that belonged to my children, but it had a nice sharp sound. I instructed my students to close their eyes and listen to the sound of the rattle, to just let their conscious awareness follow it and pay attention to anything that might come up.
As the dry, rhythmic whisper filled the classroom, I followed the traditional custom of addressing the spirits of the four directions to ask for protection and supportfor myself and for all those gathered. I closed my eyes and felt my consciousness shift sideways as the familiar, dreamy state descended. Abruptly the feelings of power invaded my body, and I was momentarily staggered. As I wondered with some concern if I was going to go into a full, paralytic trance, the sensations stabilized at a level in which I could continue to rattle. I suddenly felt a familiar presence. I cracked open my eyes and got quite a shock.
There, against the darkness of the blackboard, a curious swirl of sparkling lights appeared. Within it, a cluster of spots took form and coalesced into a shape I knew well. It was my old ally the leopard man, an imaginary friend from childhood who had reentered my life during the Harner workshop. The leopard man had functioned as a spirit helper to both myself and Nainoa during my visionary episodes, and I suspected that he had played a pivotal role in bringing the two of us together.
I quickly glanced around the classroom to discern if anyone else could see him, but my students were all sitting quietly, their eyes closed, as I had instructed. I shot another look at my feline ally. He was standing bipedally, like a human, and seemed roughly as tall as me. His rosettes swirled with light as he alternately merged into and separated out of the darkness surrounding him. This was the first time I had seen him since leaving the islands, so I gathered my wits and offered a Buddhist bow while I endeavored to continue rattling.
I then mentally explained what I was doing and asked him for assistance. In response, he did something quite catlike. He closed his luminous eyes in that distinct squint that cats express when they are feeling good. His eyes closed, then opened slightly, then closed again, conveying ease. I glanced at his paws, or were they hands and feet? No, they were definitely paws, and his claws were retracted, a good sign.
As I walked around the circle, rattling above and around each student's head, the leopard man's eyes followed, witnessing the ritual, testifying to the beginning of my transformation from academic teacher in the Western sense into . . . what? I suddenly realized that a tribal person would say I was functioning as a medicine man.
As I concluded the ritual and the rattle subsided into silence, my awareness shifted, and the leopard man evaporated, dissolving into the swirl of light very much in the same way he had arrived. I sat down at my place in the circle feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Fortunately, the students then took over and made their final presentations. Throughout, the feelings of power remained, just below the surface. Both the scientist and the mystic within me were most impressed.
When the year's teaching was over, I suddenly found myself with large blocks of free time. In the mornings, with Jill at work and the children at school, I began to sit under the fig tree with the spirit stone whenever I paused to have a cup of tea, and my attention came to rest on my "field notes" from Hawai'i. One day I sat down at the computer and began to put together the first full-fledged version of Spiritwalker. Perhaps it was coincidence, but that night, an hour before dawn, something awakened me.
As I lay in bed in the darkness, I heard a coyote howl from the hillsides beyond the edges of the suburb. I looked out the window at the starry sky, and memories of the future moved through my mind. I felt quite awake, and as I watched the thoughts that flew through my mind like birds, I came to a decision. I formed a strongly focused intention to journey again to Nainoa.
I waited, but nothing unusual happened. I focused again. Nothing. After a while I decided to cancel the attempt. My attention shifted and I thought about the fact that I had failed to find a job for the coming year. I felt feelings of extreme disappointment mixed with fear. What was I to do? I had a family to support. Was I in the process of losing my profession as an anthropologist?
Long moments of soul searching followed, but no immediate solutions were apparent as I tossed and turned, unable to get back to sleep. Jill awoke and we talked in the dark until almost dawn and then made quick, intense love. Our lives were filled with work and responsibilities now, and rare were the moments we had alone together.
I felt very relaxed in passion's aftermath and looked out the window once again at the stars. I began to drop off to sleep when the sensations of power appeared abruptly within me, sweeping up my back and into my brain. I shut my eyes tightly, but the stars remained, points of light dancing in the dark. The exquisite paralysis commenced, accompanied by the familiar soaring feelings of bliss and the roaring rush of sound. I had been waiting for this for a year.
I formed an image in my mind of the spirit stone in the backyard and invoked its help. The sensations increased enormously. Flashes of light coalesced into bright spots that became lines as my eyes looked this way and that. As the brilliant grid took form within and around the lines, the transparent, flickering arc appeared and began to open, blinding me and flooding me with ecstatic force. As I struggled with the effort of breathing, feelings of outward movement began. The journey had begun.
There was no fear. This was familiar now, a known experience. I focused strongly upon my destination as my body shook and the roaring in my ears increased. I plummeted into the arc in a flash of fiery sensation; then the sound and the visuals abruptly diminished to nothing as the zone of darkness and silence was traversed. The smell of wood smoke and furs heralded the restoration of my sensory perception.
I had once again achieved contact with Nainoa. My excitement was immediately countered by an emotion I had not expected. I was flooded by a sense of deep and personal grief.