The Choices That Do Not Betray

The buzzing of honey bees halted me as I walked. On my early morning stroll through the desert neighbourhood nestled at the feet of arid, sun-bleached mountains, out early for some exercise before the summer heat grew too intense (already 80F/27C shortly after 6:00 am, and projected to be 103F/39C by noon), pausing occasionally to admire some vivid blooms or blossoming cactus, I heard the bees before I located them. That familiar contented drone is a much missed sound to this former beekeeper, and I immediately looked about for its nearby source.

A silver-grey Smoke Tree, a wispy desert native often found in dry washes, still enrobed with deep purple flowers, was the object of their affection. I lingered a few minutes with head upturned, a smile on my face and in my beating heart, listening to the collective tone, observing a legion of amber-winged insects crawling delicately over the vivid inflorescence as they gathered pollen and nectar. A turquoise sky framed the background while the sonorous hum held me in a sort of trance, a mild relaxation, eclipsing the other morning voices I heard: the cooing of collared doves, warble of songbirds, some guttural laughing of ebony ravens, the zoom of an emerald hummingbird, along with the litany in my head of morning prayers while I ambled, silently offering my daily gratitude and intentions.

I walked on again feeling quietly blessed, gazing up at the aloof palm trees, wishing, as I often do, that the day will soon come when I can welcome a colony or two of honey bees back into my life. Several of my early posts of the Soul Artist Journal focused on these marvelous creatures—nature’s golden alchemists—as I deepened into relationship with them high on the slopes of Haleakalā on Maui. Working in an organic, respectful manner with bees (as opposed to most commercial bee farming) offers its own meditation; it requires a quietude of mind, energy, and spirit, and is a mindful exchange with the ‘other-than-human’ world that I profoundly enjoy.

tree with purple flowers
A desert Smoke Tree in vivid bloom

That day is drawing nearer, I feel it. Especially with our move of house to Central Oregon, to the booming town of Bend on the chilly Deschutes River. True, our initial landing spot in a genteel neighbourhood isn’t ideal for beekeeping (or at the least the neighbours might not think so, nor my dogs), but I’m getting closer—much closer than I’ve been in these past years as a gypsy nomad.

At this moment of writing, my domestic world is once again piled high with cartons and boxes in preparation for transporting our worldly goods north to a new chapter of life. Truly, what could be more mundane and disruptive than moving house? Regrettably, I am something of an expert at packing up and starting over, again and again, having relocated more than twenty times in the last twenty five years with my mate. We joke that if only we actually had one of those painted gypsy caravans, this roaming life would be so much easier. That said, I am entirely and truly ready to park that virtual wagon somewhere beneath a noble tree with outstretched arms, letting the wheels rot off as I sink roots into some rich soil of place and community, where I feel at home and energetically congruent.

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As a wild soul, it’s rare that I enjoy walking in town. I would far prefer to be following some trail amid fragrant conifers, savouring the sensuousness of a non-domesticated landscape. Wild places call me. Power places. Locales where I come home to myself once more, especially the so called ‘thin places’ where realms touch and magic bleeds through, suffusing the air with a faint shimmer and sending a shiver up the spine. The sort of haunts where shamans ‘recharge’, distanced from the noise and clamour of the daily world, and spirits wink in and out.

Grow where you are planted, River. Do your best.

Add to this that I’ve never been a particularly athletic type (high school swim team was ages ago and doesn’t count), and I’m not overly fond of walking simply for exercise at a pace that keeps my heart rate elevated for x-number of minutes or miles. I’d rather move more like a deer or some other wild creature, even a honey bee, perhaps, casually moving from one alluring flower or thing to another, content my own reverie, opening senses and heart wide to the beauty that surrounds and enfolds.

Admittedly, it would be far easier and more comfortable to stay in bed, attempting to sleep in (though I wake early). Instead here I am, encircling this grid-like enclave of tidy mid-century homes (once upon a time called ‘modern’), making a loop before breakfast while the day is relatively cool, before the thought of being outdoors in the baking heat seems insane.

Show me the shape of your heart

It’s a repeated choice I make only partly for exercise; more so, it’s taking action to move my bodysoul in a mostly pleasant fashion (noisy leaf blowers and city rumble aside), while drawing into conscious relationship with the landscape, its denizens, and beauty—yes, even here in the Southern California desert. A morning walk offers the chance to cast prayers to the firmament, to align with my intentions for the day and send them forth on a warm breeze; it’s a deliberate, sensory immersion in the suprasomatic sentience of life, pausing when drawn by some tree, blossom, or other object—like the giant, handcrafted heart outside a nearby house—and to steep in gratitude for the ongoing grace and mystery of life.

There is no separation between the material and spiritual world, nor has there ever been. Yet in our modern, increasingly secular existence, the sacred is mostly absent from our lives unless we invite it—cultivate it—with action, practices, and ritual.

My ongoing assertion is that, even for the spiritually inclined, living a mystical life doesn’t simply happen of its own accord, not even on a remote mountainside. It’s an ongoing series of choices, a path of devotion and, dare I say it, discipline. At least until the path has so narrowed and carried us far enough that there IS no other choice or alternate way; there exists then only the God-choice, which is always our highest good.

What are the rituals we hold dear, those ones that maintain our vessel upright amid shifting and sometimes turbulent currents of life, or that anchor us into deep, dreaming waters of the soul? How is that we tend and cultivate the ordinary sacred in our daily hours—living a mystical life while simultaneously navigating the mundane?”

As a healer, it is clear to me that the essential, daily business of our existence is to loosen our attachments, expand rather than restrict, and to practice self-love—which, I say, translates into making choices that don’t betray oneself but nourish, instead.” (excerpted from “A Mountain Path: Coming Home,” TendingSacred  2018)

I also hold that the underlying malady for everyone, in one form or another, is self-hatred. And self-love, always the antidote, requires a surprising amount of training and re-wiring, even after we become aware of our clever, self-sabotaging patterns. For just like self-care or a spiritual path, self-love—being in integrity with thought, word, energy, and action—is a practice; a repeated choice to make time for the things that nourish. Enacting the very rituals and habits that, conveniently, also keep us moored to a mystical or enlightened life amid the humdrum and prosaic. 

Here is the essence of being conscious and ‘awake’, I say. In the daily, ongoing opportunity of transformation, following a path of heart and soul towards some unknown destiny, in every moment we have the freedom to make the choices that do not betray.

What will we choose? And, as I so often ask, to what will we give the precious gift of our attention… or intention?

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Organic matcha, almond milk latte in Sisters, Oregon

Just as a spiritual experience or revelation does not necessarily imply a spiritual life, a metaphysical path doesn’t signify a physically healthy existence. Too often the body is viewed as merely mechanical, something to be transcended.

True health is something more than simply an absence of symptoms; it is a vibrant interplay of bodily processes, emotions and mood, mental clarity, and lightness of spirit. Such balance, particularly as we age, arises directly from the diligence we put into our well being; a wellness practice hand-in-hand with an embodied, spiritual pursuit.

After more than two decades in the healing arts focusing upon embodiment, and now as one who works with sacred plant medicines, I tell you that we do not get to ignore the physical body in higher or soulful pursuits. Further, inhabiting the bodysoul fully—mindfully, ecstatically, sensually, powerfully—is part of an upward spiral that elevates us in a daily spiritual existence.

Self-love—integrity in thought, word, and action—includes how we nurture ourselves in the physical realm with self-care: nourishing food and diet, exercise, work, hygiene, rest, meditation and reflection, personal challenge, pleasure, home as sanctuary, natural clothing, and maintaining the integrity of the human biofield.

In my various works and ramblings these past years, I’ve written numerous times that what we eat matters on many levels: how our food was raised, produced, and processed; the integrity of our fare and whether it honours the earth (organic, biodynamic, etc.); the distance it has traveled; how we prepare and consume it; and ultimately, what it does for our bodysoul. Hopefully, at the very least, we consume with gratitude and appreciation.

Learning to eat what is right for us is a truly individual process; there is no “one size fits all.” In a world of conflicting studies and food industry propaganda, fad diets and misinformation, in a culture gone neurotic over calories (carbs, fats, protein, sugar, et al.) while most people grow fatter and more unhealthy, finding one’s optimal diet can feel bewildering. Frankly, there is no other way than trial and error, a continual tinkering, and listening to our own body.

Moreover, some discipline is required to eschew choices that don’t elevate our health; similarly with a commitment to take time and prepare snacks and meals that are healthy rather than merely convenient (read, simple carbohydrates, sugar, and packaged foods). Or to undertake a cleanse or fasting when needed, perhaps repeatedly.

It’s true that we cannot eat our way to God or enlightenment, but we can alter and evolve our bodies, energy, and consciousness through what we take in—partly by shifting the microbiome and raising our overall vibration with high integrity, nutrient-dense foods. We might even consider such as spiritual nutrition. (Read “Soul, Biochemistry, and the Song of the World,” TendingSacred, 2017)

Lunch: fresh greens, raw probiotic kraut, sugar-free smoked salmon, toasted pumpkin seeds

Yes, it is a slow course. I’ve spent the past two decades becoming ever more sensitive to what and how I eat, making adjustments as necessary when I feel somehow out of balance. Rebuilding and nourishing the gut microbiome. Adapting to changes in season or locale (observing Ayurvedic principles for currently dominant dosha); adding more protein or less; increasing or decreasing my intake of raw, living foods; eliminating alcohol, coffee, sugar, grains, and inflammatory foods; emphasizing alkalizing rather than acidifying. Respecting and aligning with the preferences of Mother Ayahuasca. My diet is a daily practice of making choices that nourish, rather than fleetingly satisfy in their taste.

I do not share any of this to be self-righteous, but simply to guide and hopefully inspire. For I will tell you firsthand that feeling light, energized, clear, height-weight proportionate, and joyful is its own reward, and we can achieve such states through our food choices, regardless of spiritual path. What is more, when we combine the two—an optimal diet that generates health and a practice for higher consciousness—our lives utterly transform.

The famed mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “In loving the spiritual you cannot despise the earthly.” Certainly there are a dozen ways his words might be applied, and I think one such interpretation is the relationship with our physical bodies—the daily mundane while seeking the more elevated, nonmaterial realms of life.

Love your body. Celebrate it. Nurture it. Find a way to move that you enjoy, like dance or even Tai Chi/Qigong, to unblock your energy and awaken the “places of forgetting.” If you don’t like the way you look or feel, then work to change. Remember that pain or discomfort is a signal that something is wrong or out of balance. And if you need help decoding those messages or finding a new way, then seek out a wellness guide to assist you. Ultimately, however, everything still comes back to a daily practice and path.

Wholeness isn’t about perfection. 

The body is as much the ordinary sacred as ‘nature’—we are a part of nature, never apart from—and your bodysoul is the amazing, conscious vessel for the journey through this lifetime. Being in good relationship (listening, balance, receptivity, compromise) with our physicality is an intrinsic element of making room for the sacred in our lives. On the path of healing and wholeness, in living a spiritual/soulful life, deliberately caring for ourselves is practicing self-love… which is healing.

Affixed to our fridge amid the cards, photos, and accoutrements, is a yellow Post-it note with my handwritten words: What did you do for your health today?

Go out and walk. Take the time to prepare a beautiful meal from fresh, local ingredients, and then sit down to savour it. Slowly, inevitably, you will shift your biochemistry and find yourself with more energy to engage the things that matter.

Amid the mundane, practice gratitude for everything, even your challenges (health, included)—especially those, for they are often our greatest teachers. And remember that gratitude may be the most powerful spiritual practice of all.

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Mexican Bird of Paradise

Arriving back at the house after the morning walk, my body warm and perspiring, I paused to admire up close a Mexican Bird of Paradise, drawn by its vivid red orange plumage, the ruffles of flame atop a tall green stalk. Surely this lanky bloom is the queen of the desert in summer (for it only unfurls in the intense heat of summer months). An amber honey bee caressed the inner folds, making her way from one cluster to the next, and I found myself recalling a quote from Rachel Carson, pioneering American environmentalist and biologist, the author of Silent Spring:

Those who dwell… among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.”

How deeply I resonate with her words, and how often the beauties and mysteries of earth have brought solace and joy to my life. Every day, truly. I make it a practice that for each living thing I stop to admire, whether on a walk or in my own garden (all those dear potted plants that are somehow coming with me on this upcoming relocation), I thank it for its life and singular grace.

Walk in beauty, say the Native Americans.

… when we open through our senses, we cultivate a deeper connection with soul. When we begin to pay attention on a sensory level, we make an important shift: from the mental and disembodied, to the somatic, present moment… with its softly gliding moods of light, fleeting scents, tempting tastes, and cascades of sensation in the bodymind. Through our senses we inhabit the moment differently. Fully.

When we are receptive and welcoming of beauty, our heart’s field expands also.

Long have I held that beauty inspires and nourishes us on an intrinsic level, and that as Soul Artists we must consciously create beauty in our environment. More than merely giving attention to our physical surroundings, we can create beauty in our actions towards others, as well—striving to embody kindness, generosity, compassion and forgiveness. True beauty is multifaceted and more than surface deep; it emanates from within and triggers a sense of harmony in the soul. Creating beauty is a moral high road, a conscious choice to rise above the mundane, dreary and habitual.

When our lives are devoid of beauty, our very spirit is degraded.” (excerpted from “Widening the View: Beauty and Inspiration,” The Soul Artist Journal, 2013)

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Moving house is tedious, yes. Apart from sorting, packing, transport, and unpacking, fixing up a new dwelling to make things right and then settling in, the general upheaval and disruption lasts at least a month—never mind the slow process of weaving new relationships and friendships, human and other. And there is always cleaning and some work to be done in our determination to leave each place better than we found it. I confess that sometimes I envy those who choose to stay put and grow roots, yet I embrace that life is change—a series of passages and transitions to navigate—and for some unfathomable mystery, my mate and I have repeatedly been led onward rather than staying put. And without fail, in each locale where we land, at some point things crystallize and I understand, ah, THIS is why we are here. 

In the main room, atop the carved wooden chest where sits a beautiful statue of Quan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, a recently acquired deck of divination cards (the Mystical Shaman Oracle) rests among the other small items waiting to be packed: pale blue ceramic incense burner, a Tibetan brass bowl on a black and gold silk cushion, a few homemade bundles of white sage, an antique brass candle snuffer. Passing by on my way to the kitchen, seeing the deck I paused, lifted and shuffled it, then held the cards against my heart. Silently, in my mind I posed an open-ended query, the sort best employed when using Tarot cards: help me understand the energy most present in my life right now. 

I lay the cards down, cut the deck in half, and turned over the one now on top:

Beauty Way.

From the Mystical Shaman Oracle divination deck

Isn’t this the heart of it, I smiled, the very manner I embrace for moving through the world as a fully embodied soul. My own way of feeding the World Soul in an ongoing devotional act of sacred reciprocity.

From the card’s description in the accompanying booklet: “The Beauty Way is both a path you travel on and a daily practice. The path is where you choose to perceive only beauty before you, behind you, and all around you as you journey through life. The practice is where you take action to bring beauty to every situation you are in. When things get ugly, you act to bring integrity and peace to the difficult encounter. When everyone else perceives only darkness, you point out the light and help uncover the hidden treasures.”

Friend, here’s hoping that in your own fashion, amid the challenges and mundane details of life, that you make the choice to walk in beauty. Further, to create beauty in your life and offer it forward as part of your gift to the more-than-human world—even if that is only a smile, a little song, or a sweet prayer of gratitude. Each day, may you decide to be in integrity in thought, word, and action—making the choices that don’t betray yourself—and in that alignment, you will automatically find yourself walking and living the Beauty Way.

Our rented house in the California desert is packed. By the time I post this column, we will have rolled on from this strange time of exile and alighted at an empty but welcoming home in Central Oregon—arriving on the summer solstice, which somehow feels auspicious. A new nest. A fresh, inspired beginning with wilderness nearly at the doorstep.

It is a place where the air carries the resinous perfume of juniper, and gentle deer nibble the roses in the front garden as they roam the quiet neighbourhood. I will sit on the deck with my requisite cup of tea, gazing out at towards distant buttes, feeling expansive in my soul and breathing deeply in gratitude for the strange mysteries that have called me onwards yet again, looking for home.

Live in beauty, friend, with your heart and senses wide open to the world, and always sharing the very best of what you have to offer.

Blessed be.

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For information on Skype sessions with River for soul-based coaching or shamanic integration sessions, visit his primary website: