When I was little, one of my favorite picture books told the story of Urashima Taro…
This is an old Shinto story that tells of a kingdom of serpent people under the sea, where the Dragon King, Ryu-wo, ruled in a spectacular palace of crystal and coral. He was said to have a human body, and a serpent entwined in his crown. Known for his nobility and wisdom, Ryu-wo was a guardian of the Shinto faith. People who had fallen into the sea were said to have lived on forever in the kingdom of Ryu-wo. In the story, Urashima Taro goes to live at the bottom of the sea with the Dragon Princess, and while there he experiences perfect balance, wellness, harmony, and a timeless, ageless space. To me this undersea kingdom is a great metaphor for the Reiki space—a space beyond all boundaries—boundaries of species, boundaries of life and death… a place where all is one and we can open to all possibilities.
As a child, something about the snakes and dragons in this story fascinated me. I would look at the photos again and again, and still the artwork is imprinted on my memory. Little did I know that certain elements of this story (and in fact the book itself!) would come back to me again in my 40s. Snakes and dragons would reappear in my life, as agents for healing, when I needed them the most.
In June of 2011, at the age of 42, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer in my left breast. Because of my age and the appearance of the scan, they feared the worst—that I had an aggressive form of cancer and would need extensive surgery and follow up treatment to pull through. Amazingly and luckily for me, I was also able to receive some local Reiki treatments just a week or so after I was diagnosed. The treatments I received from during this time were very powerful and produced some incredible visions.
During one of the treatments, I suddenly saw myself in a large open field, lying down, surrounded in a circle by standing samurai in full armor and helmets. This circle extended out and out, ring upon ring, as far as the eye could see. The samurai were numberless. Clouds were forming, dark angry clouds. Then it began to rain and the wind began to blow violently. I looked into the sky and saw many dragons coming from far away, flying and swirling in the dark storm clouds. Soon they were just above me swirling and turning. And at that moment, lightning began to strike, into my tumor, over and over again. It felt so real, it was as if heat and electricity were shocking me, and my body moved with the power of it.
Soon the weather began to calm and the vision faded, and I “came to” so to speak, feeling exhausted by the experience. I felt very, very calm. I felt something important had been healed.
After this experience, I began to feel dragons coming to me regularly in my meditations. I would meditate and do Reiki a few hours every day to get through everything—all the appointments and scans were extremely stressful. The dragons gave me so much strength, so much calm. It was as if the dragons mirrored strength inside myself that I never realized I had, and yet now that I had to learn to access in order to survive the health crisis I was facing. Sometimes during my Reiki meditations I could feel them around me, coiled and swirling. Sometimes it felt as if I became the dragon. Sometimes it was just the lightning that came. In the night, I began to have dreams where I would call in the lightning and stand under it while it struck me over and over again. All of these experiences felt very purifying and healing, not only for my physical body, but also for my mental and spiritual states, supporting me to go inward and rally all my inner resources for the journey of healing ahead.
A few weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove the cancer, and the pathology report showed that there was only one tumor (they had initially seen 2 in the CT scan) and the lymph nodes showed that it had not spread (although the CT scan had suggested otherwise). In other words, the pathology report was far more positive than the CT scan I had just a couple of weeks before surgery. I knew it was that all the Reiki and self-healing I had done! Further genetic testing on the tumor showed that because of the low likelihood of recurrence, chemo and radiation were not recommended. I had much to be grateful for, and could just focus on healing after the surgery, with the best prognosis possible!
Just a few months later I found myself at my teacher’s Reiki retreat, doing some pretty amazing and deep meditations together with a group of about 30 people. For one meditation we stood outside in a beautiful meadow surrounded by redwood trees, and were encouraged to simply stand and “be” in the energy—if we felt like moving, to just move where the energy took us. After several calm minutes of being still, I suddenly began to feel the power of the dragon coming over me. This time it was much stronger that it had ever been: I found myself breathing very audibly and deeply and moving slowly like a snake, or perhaps, a dragon. It was an incredible experience. Just after this meditation, as I walked back to the classroom, lo and behold, a coral bellied ring-necked snake about two feet long crossed right in front of my path.
Several months of Reiki, acupuncture, meditation and physical therapy followed, along with a second reconstructive surgery. Finally I had regained most of the use of my left arm and looked pretty normal in clothes again (what a relief!). As soon as I was strong enough, I scheduled a Reiki 3 class in Florida, at the CARE Foundation, an exotic animal sanctuary. It was to be the first class I had taught since my surgery. I could hardly wait to go again and be reunited with the special animals I had met the previous year.
Two nights before I was to leave, I had a very strong dream. I dreamt I was walking on a path, when up ahead I saw a snake, its body lying across the path. I stopped and knelt before it. It raised its head like a cobra. Its body was dark red in color. All at once, its cobra head morphed into the head of a ram, complete with curved horns and all. Once it had metamorphosized, it continued to slither across the path and out of sight.
When I awoke in the morning, the dream was still so strong in my mind that I immediately went online to discover perhaps what this dream could mean. At first I was going to just look for the symbolic significance of “ram” and “snake,” but then I had a thought—I wonder if there are any ram-headed snakes anywhere? And the crazy thing is, there WERE! I could hardly believe it as I read it!
The Celtic god of animals, Cernunnos, is often depicted wearing a ram-headed snake around his neck. In addition, in Native American folklore, the “horned snake” is a mythical figure associated with rain, lightning and thunder. Many experiences of my healing from cancer began to coalesce in my mind and make a strange kind of sense. It felt like things were all coming together. And I knew with certainty that the snakes at CARE were calling me.
My first snake teacher at CARE was named,“Caine”—he is a Canebrake Rattler, technically called a “Crotalus Horridus.” (Oh that name sounds so terrible doesn’t it?) Caine is a pretty big and wide rattlesnake, about 5 feet long, and as wide as my wrist. The first day I visited the “venomous snake room” at the CARE foundation, Caine was sleeping peacefully in his glass front enclosure. Somehow I felt called to stand in front of him. I placed my hands in gassho, and as I always do when I begin a Reiki treatment, invited the animal (this time a snake) to share the Reiki space with me, if he wishes, and if not that is fine too. I am always careful to let the animals be the ones to decide, and not push my own agenda. But more than that, this particular Reiki treatment, I also felt compelled to ask humbly of the snake, if he were willing, to please offer to me his medicine.
I closed my eyes and began to breathe into the hara (energy center below the navel) to center myself. Almost immediately I felt a pressure and heat in my hara, so intense that it took me off guard. It felt so strong it was painful and for a moment I thought I might run out of the room. But instead, I placed my hands over my hara and chanted the precept, “for today do not worry.” I gradually felt my fear replaced by gratitude to the snake for being open to connect, and in return opened myself back up to him. I felt myself going immediately into meditation, and closed my eyes. After a few moments, I felt as if someone were watching me so I opened my eyes. Sure enough, there was Caine, his head elevated from his body (which remained coiled) about 12 inches high, staring right at me through the glass, tongue flicking in interest.
As I met his eyes, he began to sway very slowly back and forth in front of the glass. Without meaning to do it, I found my left arm raising and swaying back and forth next to the glass to mirror his movements. It was as if my hand was his head, and my arm was his body, and indeed we were almost the same size. I began to feel very drowsy and mesmerized, and in a somewhat detached way had the thought, “Hmmm that is weird I don’t feel the need to blink…” My arm continued to sway in the rhythm of the snake, and I could feel energy flowing strongly through my entire body. The snake appeared calm and peaceful, but more than that, he was clearly connecting to me.
My attention focused inward more and more until I was only aware of the snake’s eyes and my arm’s movement. After about 20 minutes my awareness began to come back to me and as my circle of vision widened, I noticed that the snakes in the enclosures beside, above and below Caine had come to life. Each of them had remained coiled, except for their heads, which were swaying back and forth, keeping time with Caine and my movements… all in all there were two cobras, and a viper and boa joining us in the dance. As I realized the amazing nature of this moment, I whispered to my friend Leah, who had been standing behind me working w/the wall of snakes on the opposite side of the room, “Leah, you have to see this!” But I could feel as her gaze touched upon them, they all froze in mid air, and slowly, ever so slowly descended back to their coiled bodies and rested, as if asleep. As if to say, “This is for your eyes only, Kathleen.” Still, Leah had seen the descent of the heads and asked me, “What is going on over there?” And to tell the truth, I still have no idea. It took me a couple of hours to come back to my body and feel in this dimension again. It was truly an incredibly healing experience.
It was only later, after contemplating the experience and reading about the spiritual significance of snakes, that I realized after the snake experience that my left arm had been relieved of a lot of the residual pain I was still experiencing. Somehow that dance with the snakes had healed me physically, and I felt, much more deeply as well. I hope that the snakes also received some healing too in our connection, that any positive snake/human interaction is a wonderful thing in this world. It’s unfortunate, how snakes are usually viewed by human beings, how difficult our inter-species relationship is on this planet–really, it’s kill or be killed. It’s terrible and non-compassionate, and the opposite of how things should be—living in harmony and respect with all creatures…In reading more about snakes, I also learned that the spiritual gift of the snake is to be able to transmute poison into healing, and I realized that this also was an important message to me about my experience with cancer—I must find a way to turn the entire experience into a healing shift and transformation for me, rather than a cause for worry, sadness and feeling sorry for myself, or giving up.
I am so grateful to Caine and the other snakes that day–that they were open to connecting with me, and more than that, that they even offered healing to me. They were so generous. It was another reminder that in the space of Reiki, the deeper we go, the more we can realize that there is no snake, no human, no giver no receiver, simply a beautiful space of connection where all healing possibilities exist.
You know, funnily enough, recently my father found some of my old childhood books in a box in the garage, which he brought to me. And guess what one of the books happened to be–my well-worn, well-loved copy of Urashima Taro. I could hardly believe when I saw it, and eagerly shared it with my 5-yr-old daughter. She is fascinated with the magical story, and who knows, perhaps one day she too will experience the power of dragons and snakes to heal. I feel so blessed to be alive, healthy and strong again, and I owe so much of my strength and healing process to dragons and snakes! I truly believe that it is in the most challenging and difficult times that we can reach our deepest potential, and dragons and snakes helped me to uncover mine. Perhaps, had I not been facing cancer, I would have been unable to let go into that deeper space of “being” and receive profound healing from such unusual and unexpected sources. As we do our regular Reiki practice, if we can learn to meditate, listen, let go and surrender to the divine, I believe all things are possible.
Originally published in the International House of Reiki blog
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