Shaman Diaries: The (Snake!) Adventure, Pt. 3

Photo: Sarah Kunst

Are you scared of snakes? I am. Big time. But I’ve always said I’ll try anything once and the Get Go has pushed my comfort zone further than it’s ever been. So when Colleen McCann, the spiritual guide who’s been the inspiration for this Shaman Diaries series, suggested an “adventure” while I was last in Los Angeles, I didn’t hesitate.

“There’s an insider, invite-only snake circle I want you to experience in Venice,” she said in a no-big-deal kind of way.

It’s not surprising that the spiritual adventure GPS directed me to Venice, a beachside city that’s home to both the fringe and frontier, struggling artists and millionaire tech moguls alike. It’s a Mecca and a metaphor for new wellness and spiritual practices that are both old and new.

“Yes, I’m up for an adventure,” I responded. “What on earth is snake circle? I hate snakes!”

Spoiler alert: Here’s where everything gets weird. It’s going to stay weird until the very end. This is why it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll stay with me.

Snakes have long been believed to hold mystical powers from the Greeks and Egyptians to Lilith in Jewish mythology and the Garden of Eden in the Bible. But the ritual that Colleen introduced me to is a new practice, developed by Londin Angel Winters, a former TV news producer turned intimacy and female empowerment guru. In this age of start-ups, it’s a radical idea. Who’s to say one can’t be a spiritual entrepreneur?

In addition to the mystical, it layers on a therapeutic model. Like equine therapy (which has found application to troubled youths and celebrities at luxury spas alike), the snake ritual also aims to center subjects and connect with an animal without words. The only way to connect is through presence, energy and physical movement and gesture. It strips us down to the basics. (And, importantly, the snakes, I clarified are not poisonous. They’re domestic, bred snakes, not feral ones captured in the wild. Readers, DO NOT try this at home or in your backyard!)

Why Colleen wanted me to go: “I want to get you out of your head. You’re an overthinker. I want to get you more into your body. So that you feel joy through every inch of you. Snake dancing is deep embodiment work. It gets you out of your head and into your body. You’ll see. It’s powerful, it makes you feel like a goddess!”

My thought process: I don’t know what embodiment work is and I’m not into divine Goddess stuff. I believe in God but I don’t worship anything. I believe that spirituality, religious or otherwise, should be a personal tool. Use it to help you make sense of what you need. For me, the ritual was an opportunity to overcome an irrational fear. Conquer one and you can conquer any. I’m terrified of snakes, as so many people are. Snakes are among people’s top fears. But why? Snakes creep us out, even when they are not a threat, on TV or in a magazine. Even saying the word snake could send a shiver down my spine. The fear was real, but why should it be?

THE GURU

Fear can be irrational, powerful and physical. When I went to Londin’s home for the snake ritual, she opened her front gate and greeted me with a small baby boa constrictor around her neck. I almost peed my pants on the spot. Literally. I hadn’t felt a fear response like that in years. Uncontrollable, instinctual, unshakeable.

Despite her unconventional professional path, Londin was remarkably down to earth and warm. She didn’t emanate woo-woo energy. She was matter-of-fact about her snakes, her tantric lifestyle and her metaphysical beliefs. Neither an evangelist nor an apologist. I’d never met someone so matter-of-fact about topics that were so not-matter-of-fact.

THE CEREMONY

The guesthouse where the ceremony was held was dim. The sounds of lawnmowers and suburban life buzzed in the background. It was weird but also normal. Venice, in a nutshell.

First, we chatted. She reassured me that the snakes weren’t poisonous. She explained her experience with them over the years and how she’s integrated them into her workshops. I was upfront about my disinterest in divine goddnessness. My interest was in confronting fears, snakes as a proxy for any and all. She didn’t press any agenda, open and welcoming of all intentions.

“We get what we give to the experience.”

Londin continued, “The more you give, the more they’ll [snakes] give back to you.”

We sat on the floor. She introduced me to the snakes. The baby boa, Primo. Snakelton, a yellow albino. Vincent, a large female jaguar python named after the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. With each reveal, I felt a fresh wave of fear/wanting to pee my pants. Like a primal fight or flight or pee sensation.

Then we meditated to calm and ground ourselves in a sacred space. After, she turned on some rhythmic, chant-based music, and demonstrated how snake dancing works, placing Snakelton on her shoulders. Snakelton began to move around her body, and she followed the snake’s motions with her body. It was slow, strange, oddly hypnotic. It didn’t look like a dance per se, but like a slow unraveling of the body. Interpretive dance with a snake. (I should also mention, Londin was pregnant at age 47.  The snake coiling around her belly among other parts of her body added yet another layer of the inconceivable made manifest!) When the song was done, Londin had tears in her eyes.

“Every time is different and you never know what will come up,” she said. “Are you ready?”

SNAKELTON

She began to pass me Snakelton, tail-first. I reached out and touch its body. I immediately felt about-to-wet-my-pants fear again. My body locked up. Londin kept feeding the snake to me and I let it move up my arm and over my shoulder. Snakelton was dry to the touch, warm and muscular. I closed my eyes, mainly because I was too scared to look. It drew near my face. I could feel its tongue tickling me.

Londin turned on the music and told me to let go and just go with it.

Snakelton snaked around my body, my neck, my arms, down my back, around my leg. Wherever she went, I moved my body to follow. I couldn’t image what this might look like. Possibly like a slow motion version of the Elaine dance on Seinfeld. Snake dancing, after all, wasn’t intended for an audience, but for yourself.

By far the the most out-there experience I’ve ever had, but the word to describe what snake dancing actually felt like is strong. The snakes felt like strength. Like one big muscle wrapped around different parts of you. At some point, my fight/flight/pee instinct started to abate. I stopped fearing that this very muscular snake was going to strangle me.

I let go and experienced what pure strength felt like wrapped around me.

Eventually Snakelton worked her way down my leg, resting for awhile coiled around my calf and ankle like a snake ace bandage. I had injured myself in a dance class, I mentioned to Londin.

“They sense what you need,” she said. “Are you ready for Vincent?”

VINCENT

The newness and weirdness of the experience was electrifying. Fear heightened my senses. Even as the fear subsided, the adrenaline kept pumping.

Vincent was a big, brown, butch she-snake. She immediately began to wrap herself around my shoulders and neck. Like a muscular hug. Vincent and I danced less, it was more of a back and forth. I grew more confident and Londin encouraged me to adjust her, handle her. I had more presence, less fear. Vincent did her own thing too. We got to know each other. I looked at her little face with increasing wonder and affection, diminishing fear. Her little black eyes. Her darting tongue that tickled my skin. Strangely, Vincent started to look cute to me. Eventually, she would her way down my leg as well, resting again as Snakelton had, coiled around my injured calf and ankle. Another snake hug-booboo kiss.

Well over an hour passed in a blink of an eye. We sat again to talk about the process.

BABY PRIMO 

“Do you want to hold the baby?” she asked. “I can give you Primo.”

She handed me the baby boa, just a few months old. It curled itself around my left hand, the way human babies curl their fingers around adults. As Londin and I talked, it stayed holding my hand, wrapped around my finger. Its head was so tiny. I found myself holding him up to my face, baby-talking and laughing. The very snake that had been wrapped around Londin’s neck when she greeted me that had nearly made pee my pants upon arrival.

If you can laugh in the face of your fear, its power disappears.

I’m not saying everyone should run out and play with snakes. DO NOT pick up wild snakes. DO NOT try this at home. But also, why live in fear of things that have no intention or interest in harming you? Like Londin said, you get what you give. With snakes and in life.

Fear protects us. It’s a normal animal instinct. As my dad has told me in countless situations, They’re more afraid of you, than you are of them. The “they” would change, but the fear the same. But what if we lived in less fear? What would happen if we dropped our guards in situations where no harm is meant? (Most people, most of time!) What would happen if we explored our fears? Faced them? Laughed with them?Danced with them? Held hands with them? Let them rest their heads in our palm?

I think we’d find, in life as with snakes, they’d become a lot less scary.