I used to think it all began the night I dreamed of the goddess Isis. In the dream I was walking the land around my house; there are thick, drystone walls everywhere and hidden inside one of these I found a tiny statue of Isis. It was pure white, very simple in design and beautiful. I brought it back to the house where a huge vat of water was waiting. I placed it in the water and Isis grew to full size and floated to the top. This dream felt so real that the next day I actually went looking for the statue. I didn’t find it but it may well be there. Here, in the south west of France, in the land of Cathars and Templars, the black Madonnas are still to be seen and many believe that originally they were representations of this Egyptian goddess of rebirth. The next night, I again dreamed of a goddess. This time I saw a beautiful woman standing in a doorway. She was dressed in a hooded velvet cloak of the most stunning blue. Having been raised a Roman Catholic I sensed a Marian resonance from her. The third night, I had a shamanic dream. This time I was in a bookshop and stretched across its length, was a colossal anaconda. At the head of the snake was a jaguar, the two animals were engaged in a struggle. The next day, after this holy trinity of dreams, kundalini came and life was never the same again.
There is a beautiful word in the Gaelic language, ‘cumha’. In Scottish Gaelic it denotes a lament and is used as a prefix in many of the ancient harp and pipes tunes written to honour the deaths of notable individuals such as clan chieftains. In Irish the meaning is subtler, rather than death, a sense of separation is implied. A Gaelic scholar once described it to me in the following way;
‘when the immigrants sailed for America leaving behind forever their families and the land of their birth, this was cumha. When the mare is parted from her foal, this is cumha.’
I found myself, like so many in the western world today, in a state of cumha. Separated from nature and disconnected from source. I anesthetized myself with alcohol and told my ego endless stories. It became clear to me that I was lost. This is the story of my journey home, from cumha, to reconnection.
I had in fact been sensing cumha since childhood. Although I was born in England, my father was Irish and that was our primary cultural influence. We were Irish Roman Catholics in a protestant country and it was quite clear that ‘home’ was somewhere else. Considering that the English saw me as Irish, and that the Irish saw me as English, I felt myself to be, like the shaman, between worlds from the earliest time.
At the tender age of nine I was introduced to the practice of yoga, a very strange world, which seemed to me, to be completely normal. Every few weeks, with some family friends, I would attend a small yoga retreat centre. Here we did a traditional yoga based on the teaching of an obscure swami. This yoga was quite different from the sanitised commercial versions that predominate today in the West and some of the practices, particularly the yogic purifications, were very advanced. Of these, sutra neti was considered the most important. I was strongly encouraged to do this because I suffered from asthma and chronic rhinitis. Sutra neti involves pushing a rubber catheter up your nostril and through the nasal passage until it emerges at the back of the throat. It is then pulled out with the fingers so that one end is sticking out of the nose and the other the mouth. The nasal passage is then cleared and massaged by pulling the tube back and forth.
To learn this, an ancient yogi took me into a small bathroom. We sat in front of the mirror and I inserted the tube into my nostril. This involved a great deal of sneezing and watering of the eyes until eventually I managed to get the tube to exit at the back of my throat. The next bit is tricky, you have to grip the tube behind the uvula with your first and middle fingers and pull it out of your mouth. You must not pull too much as a length of tube must remain extending out of the nostril and there is a huge gag reflex. I failed miserably at this and eventually the yogi did it for me. I soon became very proficient at sutra neti performing it every day for about three years. Its benefits extend far beyond merely clearing out the nasal passages. Swatramana described the practice of sutra neti in the second chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradapika where it is called the Neti Karma. He says it is the cleaner of the brain and giver of divine sight.
This yogic experience was further enhanced by my wonderfully exotic and eccentric Irish aunt, Mary Brighid, a woman named after two goddesses. She lived in the USA where she had become heavily involved in siddha yoga. When I was eleven, she returned to visit us and was amazed to find a vegetarian nephew with a knowledge of yoga. She then proceeded to give me dozens of books on yoga, shamanism and general spirituality, which I read avidly. The result was that by the age of twelve, I was quite experienced, both practically and theoretically, in yoga with also a passing knowledge of shamanism and the occult. What are the chances that these opportunities would come to child born into an Irish family, living in an industrial and cultural wasteland, in the nineteen seventies.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is asked what befalls the yogi that fails to reach completion and Krishna says that the uncompleted yogi will once again be born into circumstances favourable to continuing where they left off on the spiritual path. Looking back at the presence of yoga in my childhood, this indeed would appear to have been the case with me. A yogi once told me that kundalini had come so easily to me in this life as a result of yoga in past incarnations. In a dream of a past life I found myself in a cemetery, the gravestones of my ancestors were all around me. I was guided to a wall covered in family photographs and a voice said, look, that’s you. In the photograph was a little boy from India. I said, that’s not me and the voice said emphatically, it IS you.
When I was eleven, I fell in love with Irish traditional music, first learning the tin whistle and then progressing to the uilleann pipes. My passion for this music eclipsed all other areas of my life and it was to become my profession in adulthood. Gradually, I forgot my yoga and entered into a sort of spiritual amnesia. I do feel though, that I was given this spiritual education in early life to prepare me for what was to come later on.
In my early twenties my sense of cumha was strong and I went ‘home’ to Ireland, where I studied for an M.A. in music and met my wife Michèle. It was whilst living in the wildness of the Kerry Mountains, that I received the great dreams often indicative of the shamanic calling. In the first one I found myself standing on an iceberg surrounded by cold clear water. Standing next to me was a polar bear, we dived in and swam together.
This was my first contact with the polar bear as an initiatory animal. All living polar bears are directly descended from ancient Irish bears so the connection makes sense and the polar bear would return to me in the coming years. In the second dream I was standing next to a moonlit pond, an eagle flew down and pulled a serpent out the water. In retrospect, this was clearly about kundalini and higher consciousness, but of course I didn’t understand any of this at the time.
Eventually, a culmination of various factors caused us to leave our beloved Ireland, including increasing levels of corruption, rampant materialism and child abuse scandals. The Ireland of myths, legends and heroes, pipers, harpers and fairies was disappearing as surely as the Firbolg in the wake of the Tuatha De Danaan. With heavy hearts we left Ireland for France.
I had had some moderate success as a musician in Ireland but found myself increasingly out of my comfort zone in France, drinking more and living on past glories and memories. I became increasingly disenchanted with the music I was playing, there was a music deep within me wanting to express itself but it just wasn’t possible on the pipes. To this end I acquired an Irish harp and began to reclaim my musical soul. Matching up to its magical reputation in the ancient legends, the harp proved to be much more than just a musical instrument. It acted as a spiritual catalyst, reconnecting me to possibilities I had forgotten, I began to play for the divine instead of for my ego.
But it was on the magical island of Bali, that I received clear messages that a spiritual awakening was imminent, although I didn’t recognise this at the time. We were staying at an eco-friendly hotel set in tropical forest and one day I asked the barman if there were there many snakes on the island. He assured me in the strongest possible terms that there were absolutely no snakes in Bali. I said that was a shame as I was most interested in snakes. He went off to prepare my drink and I could see he was thinking. When he came back he said, well, there was one time… He went on to relate how every morning in the hotel a duck would go missing. Eventually, after a stakeout the mystery was solved, they discovered that a reticulated python was the culprit responsible. Not only is the reticulated python one of the world’s largest snakes but this was also one of the largest ever captured. He told me that it could be viewed at the local reptile zoo. As I walked back to my room a small multi-coloured snake whisked across the path in front of me, which made me smile. So much for no snakes in Bali!
As a symbol of kundalini, the snake is intimately connected to yoga and it seems to me that it was no coincidence that this snake appeared on the very day I was to take my first yoga lesson in twenty-five years. The hotel had advertised a class in kundalini yoga and I felt compelled to attend, the word kundalini resonated very strongly with me, even though I had no idea what it was. That afternoon in the class, all of my childhood yoga came flooding back, it was like a homecoming.
The next day we went to see the python, which was indeed most impressive. In another enclosure I was very excited to find a Komodo dragon, as I had always wanted to see such a magnificent animal. The keeper said it was a female and that she was shedding her skin. He went into the enclosure pulled off a piece and gave it to me. I was very happy with this of course but didn’t read anything deep into it. Now I realise it was the divine feminine as a dragon, telling me to shed my old skin, to leave behind old ways that were not serving me and become something new. A deeply shamanic communication from the universe, I still have the skin, it is tied to my drum. So, armed with the skin of a dragon and a remembrance of Yoga, I returned to Europe where the unseen forces of the universe would begin to wake me up.