Time for the Shark God
He is on a field of battle, facing a host of freakish ogres like the orcs in Lord of the Rings. His strength is failing. He can never slay all of these monsters.
He wakes in terror, his body wracked with pain. He takes more of the pills the doctors have given him. They make him groggy and foggy without taking away the pain.
He forces his stooped and twisted body out onto the deck and collapses into a lounger. Out here, on the edge of summer in Calistoga, California, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds carry the smell of burning, the smell of ash. Like the ash that is killing him. After thirty years of cigarette smoking, he has developed lung cancer. When they found the cancer – after misdiagnosing pneumonia – the doctors told him the cancer had metastasized. It was in his bones, in his liver, in his marrow.
“How much time?” he asked them. They did not want to say. “How much time?” he insisted. “I have to know.” They told him, “one or two months.”
When he closes his eyes, out there in the burning wind, he sees the monstrous legions again. Mindless and unstoppable, their sole purpose to eat him alive.
In the midst of a coughing fit that makes his lungs ache and bends him double, he calls for help. He has the impression, in the horrific scene that is still playing out in his mind, that he has an ally. A friend has entered the field. He cannot make out the shape or features of his ally, but the sense is strong enough to give him a breath of hope, a patch of fresh air on the smoking lip of the volcano.
His name was Peter. He had been a professional actor on Broadway, and nearly made it onto the marquees, until his wife left him and he could not stand to live in New York any more, without her. He had earned good money, met glamorous people and lived the good life as a master sommelier in California wine country. He had always worked out and taken good care of his body, except for the cigarettes. And he was just 54.
I had never heard his name until I received a call for help near midnight on Friday, May 11, 2007, one week after Peter’s dream of the evil hosts on the field of battle.
The man who called was Peter’s cousin, a friend who knew I had done some imaginal healing with cancer patients. He wondered if I could do anything for Peter. Peter was on the other side of the country, in Calistoga. But maybe I could call him and talk to him on the phone.
I tend to avoid the phone, and rarely do work with people who are previously unknown to me. But twin synchronicities came into play now, and I allowed them to guide me. I had just sent a friend an email mentioning Calistoga – a place I had never visited – because of a dream about a petrified forest (there’s a famous one just outside Calistoga CA). Next, and irresistible for me: when the phone rang, I was reading a book called The Shark God. The book is a Pacific travelogue; the title refers to an encounter with an island saltwater shaman who works with the shark spirit.
What’s the connection here?
The shark does not get cancer.
The idea of the shark can help people who are challenged by the disease. I have found, many times over the years, that the shark can be a powerful imaginal ally in these waters. If you can picture the shark swimming through your body devouring the cells of your disease, you can do yourself some real good. The more strongly you can see and feel and believe that the shark is with you and inside you, the more good you can do.
You can start by pretending. Do that well enough, and you may move beyond make-believe to the belief that can change everything. Call the shark inside you, and you may find that what has come is more than a picture. The greatest challenges call the greatest allies. If your need – and your courage – are great enough, you may even find you have called a shark god.
“Let me dream on this,” I told the midnight caller.
The Hawaiians say the night is the time of the gods. I would let the night reveal what was possible for Peter.
The warrior giant is dripping as if he has just stepped out of the ocean. He is magnificent, naked except for the tattoos on his cheeks. He rears in front of me, snorting and grunting. His eyes roll back, and for a moment I can see only the whites in place of the shiny, jet-black pupils. He goes down on his haunches, grunting and panting, and sticks his tongue out until the pointy tip curls under his chin.
He produces something that looks like an ax, except it is carved from hardwood. The end flares out, making the shape of a triangular ax-head. Beneath it, points protrude like shark’s teeth.
The giant brandishes his war club in a series of rapid and complex motions, slicing and chopping, hacking and sweeping. He wants me to see something beyond the motions. What is it? He is cutting dark things out of my energy field. Shadowy, stringy things. Dead energies, rotting cords of attachment.
He bellows and hurls his club at me. I manage to catch it by the shaft. Its weight and velocity have me staggering back a few steps.
I grasp the giant’s intention. He wants me to reproduce his movements. This takes several trials. When he seems satisfied, I move to return the war club. This is not what he wants. What am I to do with this club, fanged with shark’s teeth?
I know now. I am to store it inside my solar plexus. The power will live in my body now, and will be available to others.
Who are you? I want to know.
I am the brother of Fire. I am Pele’s older brother.
This was the return of an old vision, weaving together on the loom of night with newer ones. I had danced into the original vision nine years earlier, while fumbling hula steps in a circle of dancers under a thatched roof on the wild northern coast of Oahu in 1998.
The original vision was kinesthetic, as much as visual. It infused me with a surging sense of power, firmly seated in my body. I did not know – at first – that I had met Pele’s brother.
I talked about my vision later that day with friends from the mainland, strolling through the lobby of the Turtle Bay Hilton. I noticed some war clubs for sale in the gift shop, and went in to see if any of the clubs resembled the one from my vision. I was impressed by the quality of the objects on display. Though presumably made for the tourist trade, and scaled down in size, they looked like authentic, even museum-quality replicas. But there was nothing on the wall resembling my vision club.
I stopped at the counter and asked a mountainous, friendly Polynesian woman about what I had seen. She asked me to draw the club from my vision. When she looked at the sketch, she grinned broadly, reached down below the counter and produced a hardwood war-club that was an exact copy of the one in my vision, except that it was scaled down to half-size. “My nephew carved this,” the woman told me. “He brought it in just today. This one is used to cut a pathway between the worlds.”
When I purchased the club, she cautioned me, “Now a spirit of Hawaii will always be inside you, and you will come back to us.”
I went back a year later. Lying on white sand on a deserted beach soon after sunrise, I watched a silver shark nose in close to the shore. At the moment it seemed about to slide out of the water, it became a graceful, silvery woman. She lay with me, there on the white sand. She was quite lovely, but her eyes were those of the shark. The encounter was so vividly real, there on the sand in the morning light, that I scanned the beach and the nearby houses to check if anyone was watching us. I knew – without words, as just-so knowing – that after this the shark would always be close to me.
During that same trip, I drove the zigzag road – 10,000 feet straight up from sea level – to the crater of the dormant volcano on Maui. I found I needed to walk that landscape with great reverence; I was moving on the sleeping body of a goddess. Noticing my care, a young Hawaiian woman, a park ranger, struck up a conversation. She told me I must not leave the island without a copy of Martha Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology. “She was a Victorian gentlewoman, pure Seven Sisters – went to school at Mount Holyoke, taught at Smith – but she tended and translated the stories of my people like no other. Our kahunas read her.” I found a copy of the book, first published in 1940, and saw it was full of stories of the shark god, in his many forms.
On my return to the mainland, I was called on to help a number of people who were challenged by cancer. Again and again, I found myself encouraging them to visualize a shark swimming through their bodies, devouring the cells of their disease and excreting the sickness cleanly. In many cases, the people who were able to receive the shark fully – as a vivid image in their mind and their inner senses – were able to mobilize tremendous powers for self-healing.
Then a woman friend who often assisted me in healing work had a dream of her own.
She saw a magnificent Polynesian warrior figure brandishing a war-club studded with shark’s teeth. He told her he was Pele’s brother.
She was vaguely aware that Pele was a fierce fire goddess of Hawaii, associated with a volcano, but knew nothing about a brother of Pele. I got out the Beckwith book and quickly confirmed that not only does Pele have a brother, but he is one of the most important avatars of the shark god. His name is Kamohoali’i. There are many places in the islands that are sacred to him, including a cliff just above the crater of Kilauea, the fiery, smoking volcano on the Big Island. Thanks to his sister, the smoke of the volcano never touches his sanctuary on the high cliff.
He owns a secret land deep beneath the ocean where the regenerative power of the Water of Life can be sought by those who have the courage and the stamina to go deep enough.
The morning after the midnight call, I took down the war club I had brought back from Oahu. It usually hangs on a wall near the desk where I write.
Without thinking, I found myself reproducing the motions the warrior giant had shown me, cutting and stripping, combing and sweeping. I added new movements, rasping the carved shark’s teeth across the nape of my neck, beating the flat of the triangular head across my shoulder blades.
A story was growing in me, deeper and stronger, with these body movements. Who knew what this story might accomplish if it could live in another man’s body, adapted to his life, his tastes and his needs?
I knew what to do.
I phoned Peter.
We established some common ground. He knew the power of story. He agreed that the body believes in images. He had been an actor on Broadway, and had embodied some big dramas. He did not wish to die the way he had been told he would die. “I want to live and I am ready to fight.”
No, I did not need to hear his medical history, or his prognosis.
I wanted to hear his dreams.
He said, “In my dreams, I am facing a host of monsters, like the things in Lord of the Rings.”
“Are you ready to accept an ally?”
“I would love that.”
“Then I have a story for you. Would you like to hear it?”
“More than anything.”
I held the war club as I spoke. I started by taking him back to the place of terror he had dreamed.
“You are facing a host of monstrous beings. You are exhausted with the fight against terrible odds. Your enemies are unstoppable, and their only desire is to consume you.
“But now you realize you are not alone. Your ally has stepped into the field. Do you see him?”
“Oh, yes. Thank God.”
“He is a giant, and he is magnificent. He is built like a immense Polynesian warrior. Water streams from his skin as if he has just stepped out of the ocean. He is brandishing a great war-club. You notice the club is studded with shark’s teeth. Do you see it?”
“Yes. I’m there.”
“He is routing and devouring your adversaries. As he slashes through their ranks, swinging his club, you have the impression of tremendous snapping jaws. He is an impeccable killing machine. Your enemies have no chance against him.”
“I can see it. I’m there.”
“But now your ally – let’s call him the Shark Guy – is coming at you. He’s mad as hell, he’s pissed. He’s snarling, and coming at you with that damn club. He’s hacking and slicing. You hear the hiss as he beats the air around you. You feel the shark’s teeth rasping and ripping at your skin. You realize that with his blows, he is sweeping away dark strands in your energy field you had not noticed until now. These dark energy cords have connected you to dead things from your past – to old attachments that have been draining and confusing your energies. To old grief and guilt and shame. And to dead smokers who have inflicted their symptoms as well as their addictions on you.”
“Oh, God.” Peter was sobbing now. “This is big. This is tremendous.”
“Do you feel those dead connections – those dead smokers – being cut away?”
“Yes, yes! I feel it. It’s happening!”
“You are being released from all of that. Are you letting it go?”
He was crying his heart out. “Yes.”
He started thanking me, over and over.
“Peter, the Shark Guy isn’t done with you. He wants you to take the war club. Can you do that?”
“I’m taking it.”
“He wants you to make the same motions he did. He wants you to chop and hack and saw and sweep, and feel yourself getting all the crud off, and out.”
“Wait. I’m going outside.”
I waited as he dragged his body outside with the phone. Through a new bout of coughing, he gasped, “I’m outside in the same hot winds that were blowing when those – things – were trying to destroy. I’m chopping – HAH! – and scraping – aarrgh! – and I’m sweeping the crap away. And I’m breathing. Oh God, I’m breathing.”
He was taking the story into his body. I listened to him gasping and panting and grunting for a long time. When we were both satisfied he had done all that was required, I said firmly, “Peter, there’s more. The Shark Guy wants you to take that club into your body. Can you feel yourself taking it into your gut, into your solar plexus?”
“It’s already there.”
“Now something amazing is happening. That club is becoming a shark. The shark is swimming through all of your body – through all of your cell system – and he is snapping and chomping, eating up the cells of your disease. Are you feeling that?”
“Yes. It hurts like hell, but it also feels wonderful.”
“Okay. So let the shark go wherever he needs to go – and let him do this again, and again, later on.”
I might have ended the story here, at least for now, but the knowledge that this Shark Guy was the brother of Fire had gripped me with a fierce sense of further possibilities. I was going to dare Peter to seize them.
“I’m here. And the shark is inside me.”
“You are going to allow the shark into your lungs.”
Peter howled. It was hard to separate all the emotions – pain and fear and relief and wild hope – that might be riding on that scream.
“Is the shark there?
“Peter, this Shark Guy is the brother of Fire. We can talk later about what this means. For now, let him take you on a journey, starting from the place where you have been burned to another place of Fire. You are swimming with the shark – like the shark – across the ocean.”
“It feels fabulous to be streaming with the ocean. You feel the power of your muscles as you surge through the water. You are swimming with delight towards a far island. There is a volcano on the island. You rise up and now you are above the crater of the volcano. You are on a high cliff. You look down into the crater, which is smoking and steaming and bubbling with lava and you see – a colossal ashtray.”
Peter sounded like he was dry-retching. Choking, he said, “I’m there.”
“But where you are now, all that smoke and ash can no longer touch you. You stand strong on a high place, and the clean winds are blowing across your skin and streaming through your lungs. You can breathe. You are in a place where smoke and ash cannot touch you, because you are the brother of Fire. Can you claim this place?”
For the first time, a hesitancy. “I’m trying.”
“You will come here again. And we can see it from a different angle. For now, I want you to make one last journey. Are you game for that?”
“The Shark Guy is the owner of a hidden island. It is hidden deep beneath the ocean, at the sunrise end of the world. If you can get down there, you can drink the Water of Life and claim the power of regeneration. Are you willing to try?”
“Take me there. Please.”
“You are swimming again, like a shark, towards the rising light. Now you are plunging and diving down deep, deeper that you ever thought it was possible to go. Can you do that?”
“I’m trying. Give me a moment. I’m almost there.”
“You are plunging deeper and deeper, and you have no trouble breathing. It’s amazing, and beautiful.”
“You are going to drink the Water of Life, Peter. Its taste on your palate is finer than the finest wine you have ever drunk. Do you taste it yet?”
He moaned with pleasure.
“You feel the Water of Life – with all its potency for regeneration and rejuvenation – streaming through every fiber of your being. Do you accept its power?”
“With every part of me.”
Time to bring him back. I was awed by how far and how deep he had gone.
“You are gently returning to the surface – to your self – shining and strong, deliciously intoxicated, filled with delight. Everything will be different now.”
His breath, over the line, sounded like a prayer.
“So Peter, that is the story I wanted to give you. I invite you to take any part of it you want and make it fully your own.”
“I take all of it.”
“Then tell it back to yourself in your own way. You may want to record your own version in your own voice. You’ll want to go back inside each scene. You are a brilliant performer, and you’ll want to enter the role you have been given and make this the greatest performance of your life.”
“I will do all of that. I will claim the power of the Shark Guy. Whatever happens in my life and death, I will be stronger and better. This is the greatest gift I have ever received.”
Less than six weeks later, on June 22, I received extraordinary news. Peter’s cousin called to report that Peter had just been declared almost completely cancer-free. The disease was virtually gone from his liver, his bone cancer had vanished, and the spots on his lungs had shrunk until they were almost undetectable. “This is literally miracle-grade news,” I was told. “It looks like he’s going to be a survivor.”
His remission may have been the effect of chemotherapy and experimental drugs, as Peter’s doctors maintained. For his part, Peter told us that he believed that one of the great factors in his healing was that he had been gripped by the sense of a “big story” and a “big purpose.”
The big story helped to save him from cancer. Then he was called elsewhere. His immune system had been badly damaged by the disease and the chemicals, and a month after his doctors told him he had beaten the cancer, he succumbed to pneumonia.
I reopened The Shark God, the book that, through fine synchronicity, keyed me into what needed to be done the night Peter’s cousin reached to me for help. It is wonderfully well-written, by an adventurous Canadian called Charles Montgomery whose great-grandfather was a missionary in Melanesia.
The author has this to say about mythical thinking: “When you fall towards mythical thinking, when you rub up against the rough edges of it long enough, it can enter you like a virus, and the world changes. There is more danger, but there is more possibility. Events present themselves symbolically. They wrap themselves in magic…and their circumstances assume direction and purpose.”
All of us are living a story. If we don’t know what it is, it is likely to be a little story, a limiting one, woven from past disappointments and stitched tight by the people who are forever telling us who we are and what we can and cannot accomplish. If we fail to define ourselves, we let ourselves be defined by others. When we are seized by the big story, we step beyond limiting definitions and beliefs. Great healing becomes available because we can now draw on the immense energy that becomes available when we know we are serving a larger purpose.
True shamans have always known this, and one of their most effective modes of healing is to weave a story with mythic power around a sufferer, a story that can inhabit his body and mind and give him the courage and stamina to get through.
The death of the body is no defeat if we have found our bigger story. The terrible failure is to live and die bereft of that sense of a greater drama that fires us to brave up and give more than we thought possible.
In my native Australia, the Aborigines say that the big stories are hunting the right people to tell them, like predators stalking in the bush or sharks circling in the waters.
Peter rose beyond fear and pain when he let himself be seized by a bigger story. I like to think that its power travels with him on the immense journey on which he is now embarked. There is more danger, but more possibility.
© Robert Moss. All rights reserved. This essay first appeared in The Journal of Shamanic Practice vol. 1, issue 2, September, 2008.