By Sarah Thomas Gulden, "Winged Serpent Sings" Bigu Peak 2019
There’s an Indian tradition that a human’s body is upright and vertical, unlike most other animals that crawl closer to the earth or fly in the sky, because our sacred role is to serve as the bridge or conduit connecting Heaven (at the crown of our head), and Earth (underneath our feet). I often say this to my students as I help them lengthen their spine in the yoga classes I teach. But in my personal life I have tended to feel more like I’m actually being torn apart in a tug-a-war between these Heaven/Earth polarities. Body/mind, dark/light, pain/joy… one could get a sore neck watching me bounce back and forth between extremes throughout my life. My East Coast hippy/nature/community childhood had positives and negatives, but I was taught as a small flower child to focus only on “positive thinking” and ignore dark feelings. This eventually sent a rebellious and pain-filled teen-me barreling towards the darkness of the “Goth” subculture, New York City, and a bunch of self-destructive behaviors. When finally I edged too close to the dark extreme of that pole in my later 20s, I escaped by bouncing back towards where I now thought the light must be—I moved to the suburbs, got married and a “regular” job and had kids.
But after over a decade of trying America’s typical answer for happiness, something in me still wasn’t being nourished, and the pain was still deep. My family moved to Topanga, CA a few years ago and the power of the natural world and community there created another seismic shift in my story. Talking with a friend about my struggling marriage, she cut me to the core saying it was “like you’re dead inside.” And my marriage died that very moment.
My once-dead heart burst open and I fell head over heels for an extraordinary, beautiful man. But the years of pent-up longing for life caused me to leap and grab with the graceless ineptitude of a toddler trying to catch a songbird and he immediately flew out of reach, at once completely shattering my newly opened heart.
Without intending to, however, my “bird” and my life crisis led me straight to my Vision Quest. And every experience in the whole six-month journey was like alchemical magic from the moment I started. At first it was magic brushes with birds… an owl leaving a perfect ghost shadow in body oil on my window... Finding a perfect wing of a hawk just up along the side of a highway…and once a friendly yellow bird hopped right up to give me a significant look as I sat out on my deck, the next day I found the same bird deeply injured and I ended up holding him in my hands as breathed his last. Birds to me represent spirit, our highest angelic natures, and our connection to heaven and sky.
I also starting getting a strong taste of snake medicine…seeing a striped racer rise on its foot like a jungle vine writhing up into an old oak tree. A coiled black rattlesnake in front of a tombstone-shaped rock…was it sleeping or was looking at me with one eye? And a vivid nightmare of my family getting me cornered, and then bitten by a rattlesnake and of having to push myself ahead in ER, causing me to wake up in a sweat. Snakes have always held an occult fascination for me, through their transformational quality of sheading skins, or circling and spiraling into life’s infinity symbols. By slithering on their bellies across the ground they are very much creatures of Earth energy, and yogi’s connect snakes with Kundalini energy rising up our spines.
At the start of my individual fast on Bigu Peak, I was squatting on the side of the mountain (to pee) with my face close to the higher ground of the hillside and was startled to find myself nearly eye-to-eye with an adorable little black snake face with round eyes. In fact, it seemed so improbable to me that I convinced myself it must have actually been just a very snake-like stick. I was confident enough in this revised opinion that I reached out to grab the “stick” but instead it had disappeared without a trace! I was left thinking that it must have been a snake after all, that ran away, like the opposite end of a Yoga story of mistaken perception, imagining a rope to be a snake in the dark
On my second day, I was wandering on a hillside and then noticed an amazing rock promontory jutting out of the mountain like a big gangplank off a pirate ship. I was overcome by a strong desire to be sitting on the end of that point and take in what must be a truly stellar view! But the land between my goal and me was an extreme vertical cliff, encased by a thick layer of slippery pine needles on the ground. I remembered being told clearly not to attempt anything physically sketchy while on my fast. But then I looked longingly again at what appeared to be the most phenomenal spot ever. The sun was not even near noon yet and since I had so much time before dark, I could really ease into this process. I vowed that I would just take it crazy slow and carefully and not take one single “sketchy” step to cross along that steep and slick mountainside, even taking all day if I needed to. My journey across was actually terrifying and it was painfully, extremely slow and slippery movement. But I kept to my word, mindfully enacting each careful sideways step, one by one, and eventually, safely, reached the part of the mountain that opened onto the “gangplank.” Then it was just a simple flat, horizontal walk, like any sidewalk, out to the point. But it was only maybe fifteen or so feet across, and that was actually completely terrifying too to be so very high up and unprotected. “Sensible me” judged that, though quite breezy, the wind was not nearly strong enough to blow me over and off, and since I wasn’t going to just throw myself off, walking across it had to actually be safe and so “Emotional me” meekly ventured out. The view was indeed breathtaking and everything I hoped it would be, with near a 360’ vista. I made a new goal to just sit at this edge at least until the nervous hollow in my stomach eased! Beautiful, soaring, black and white swifts danced in the wind all around me and I felt like I had accomplished a true hero’s task. As I started to finish my day and finally head towards my camp later that evening, a single blue-black feather stuck upright in the pine needles on the ground in front of me like someone had deliberately dug it the ground and placed it there for me.
My quieter third afternoon was in a meadow enjoying the extraordinary pop of red penstemons and some yellow and purple wildflowers, surrounded by a thousand fluttering and buzzing butterflies and bees. I realized I had stumbled into one of Nature’s orgies, and the amount of love and pleasure, beauty and joy was overwhelming. These winged creatures of delight were showing me that love doesn’t have to be heavy, grabbing, holding, attaching, gaining or owning, but instead a lighthearted dance of bliss and freedom.
And finally it was time to prepare my place of power for my final evening. Overwhelmingly, it had been mountaintops that had continuously called to me on this journey. Fasting had left me feeling a little depleted physically and so although I realized that using the very top of Bigu Peak as my spot would require more exertion and planning on my part to bring the various things I wanted for my ceremony up and down the big boulders, I didn’t feel I actually had a choice. On one of my many up and down trips, I momentarily spied an almost psychedelic spark of light blue in a crevice between the rocks I was climbing. For a flash, it appeared to me that a small, electric blue snake had just made an infinity symbol with its body. It disappeared as quickly as it had appeared so I had no way to verify this uncanny apparition.
And then I spent my night up in the stars, singing.
My medicine name is Winged Serpent Sings. Cultures as varied as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Vikings to the Mayans and Aztecs have had winged or feathered snakes/serpents or dragons in their mythology, and often it represents the magic, alchemical blend of the earth and sky polarities. But like how the butterflies had to remind me to lighten the intensity of my touch, singing is my way to bring joy to this transformation, like the Cosmic Dancer Shiva who lithely dances the universe.
Nearly nine months after initiation and how am I incorporating my gift? It is harder than I thought. I had hoped the Vision Quest would rid me of my attachments (especially to my “lost bird”), but perhaps even the concept of “ridding” is too extreme or polarized. I still have to ride the pangs of longing and loss. But the lightness of song is moving in and I no longer sink as low nor am I attached to the idea of escaping “attachment” anymore. My practice of meditation, which increases, balances my upward sky polarity, and my time in nature (which I also continue to increase and refine) balances my serpent nature. Like in a healthy heart monitor EKG machine that should neither oscillate too wildly, nor “flat-line,” I’m slowly settling into a gentler rhythm of life.