By Michael Dunning © 2012
Original version edited by Tom Cowan
This is a corrected version of an article that first appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Volume 6, Issue 1 Spring 2013
It may seem strange that a tree could heal a human being. But what about a tree that is older than the pyramids and regarded as the living symbol of an unbroken ‘bloodline’ from the original Tree of Life? There is such a tree, the Yew, and curiously it has worked its way into a couple of popular movies. In Avatar it is portrayed as Eywa, the Tree of Life, and in Star Wars it is the shrunken, wizened figure of ‘Joda.’ Eya is an early known name for the Yew tree, and the word conveys the idea of eternity or more literally, ‘to be touched by eternity’ (1). It is an old Hittite word for Yew that dates back to 1750 BC and refers to the tree god of Eridu who is also known as Ea, the god of the waters. Ea gradually became Yah or Iah and eventually Yahweh, which can be translated as Yew. The name Joda is derived from an old word for Yew, Iodha. The Yew tree is the oldest and yet paradoxically the most youthful tree on earth.
I encountered the Yew tree for this first time in the early 1990’s in my native Scotland. I was extremely ill and spent over nine years under the tree. Yew shamanism represents the outcome of those nine years. It is a constantly evolving and essentially non-journeying shamanic healing and perceptual practice.
My Initiatory Experience: The Sulfur Spirit
Within a year of graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1986, I realized that the life of an artist would not be as easy or as romantic as I had envisaged! I decided to take a job as a seasonal tree–planter near Thurso, (Thor’s River) which is about as far north as you can reach on the Scottish mainland. At that time the entire area was dominated by the presence of the Dounreay nuclear reprocessing plant. Radioactive particles had been discovered on the local beaches, many of which are still out of bounds. The plant has since been decommissioned. The Russian Chernobyl disaster of the previous year gave me cause for concern but at the time money was a higher priority than health.
Less than two-weeks later however, I was wakened violently in my caravan by an intense burning and choking sensation. I clutched and clawed at my throat in desperation but was unable to breathe. There was a distinct and awful smell of sulfur. I made an attempt to pull myself from my sleeping bag but the space within the caravan had become dense and pushed me down. An intense burning pain spread through my throat and lungs as the fluid sulfur began to penetrate inward. It was as if I were being dissolved.
In a blind panic I came to the awful conclusion that there had been a radioactive leak at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl. It was at that moment I sensed a presence outside the caravan. The presence was aware and it was observing me. It circled slowly around the caravan. I could feel the surging and settling of its breath in the space all around me as though it had gained control of the entire atmosphere. Finally I managed to drag myself slowly, inch by inch toward the door to escape and lay there on the floor peering blindly out through the open door into the night.
The presence, which I have come to call the Sulfur Spirit, seemed able to read my thoughts, and as if in response, drew itself back like a coiled serpent ready to strike. The pressure was enormous and the earth under the caravan began to shudder. I felt physically compressed and at the same time drawn out and away from my body into peripheral space. I began to lose consciousness I sensed that I would die. Suddenly and with an extremely loud ‘bang’ the Spirit was gone and I felt my spirit drop back and down into the body that lay on the dirty caravan floor. The internal burning sensation dissipated immediately and within moments I felt a breath of air enter my lungs. I was able to crawl slowly back into my sleeping bag. The following morning I searched the area outside the caravan for traces of the being but found nothing.
I returned south to Edinburgh after my encounter in Thurso, but I was unable to move on with my life. I felt different, more sensitive and certainly more vulnerable than before. My muscles had become very weak. I could not shake the presence of the Sulfur Spirit, and although much fainter, it remained as a feeling of pressure within my body. I was constantly dizzy and disoriented and began to lose interest in other people and in life in general.
Then around 1990 I had an experience that at first seemed like I had been hit by lightning. I was struck in the left temple by a burning flash of light and thrown out of my chair. I was with friends who helped me up from the floor and took me home. My entire body smelled like burning electrical wires and my hair began to fall out in large clumps. A short time later my skin turned yellow and I lost a great deal of muscle mass. I became profoundly fatigued and could walk only a few short feet before reaching exhaustion.
I Meet the Yew Tree
About three years later I was rescued by a friend who brought me to her small cottage southeast of Edinburgh near the sea. She quickly demanded that I seek medical help. The nurse at the nearby hospital began my medical exam by weighing me. She looked closely at the reading four or five times in disbelief and muttered to herself as she bumped the old scale to check that it was working. Nothing conclusive emerged from the tests and after a few months of hospital visits, the nurses, doctors and infectious disease specialists gave up on me. To this day my ‘condition’ has not been diagnosed.
Then I began to notice that my perception of the space around me was changing. I could no longer determine where the ground was located in relation to my feet and I would feel myself fall into ‘gaps’ in space that would appear randomly to my side or in front of me. I seemed to be experiencing a sort of dualistic existence where I was being drawn in two or more directions at once. I suffered extreme panic attacks and became convinced that I was dying.
It was during the first few weeks living at the cottage that I first met the East Lothian Yew tree.
The tree has the appearance of a gigantic evergreen bush whose outer branches swoop to the ground in long and graceful arcs to form a seemingly impenetrable and dense circle of thick growth. On closer inspection a dark and tiny entrance reveals a 40-foot long tunnel of jagged branches. The narrow tunnel gradually rises up and finally opens into a large and enclosed central chamber of living wood! Through a process called branch-layering the Yew boughs, over a period of some thousands of years, gradually descend from the main trunk back down into the earth to create what appear to be new trees - in fact they are part of the original parent tree. The circular chamber is approximately 15 feet wide and reaches about 12 feet in height nearest the trunk. It is simply magnificent to behold! When I first entered the living chamber of the Yew I knew that I was in the presence of a great and ancient spiritual being. It was as if I had come home but I could not explain this feeling. On my second visit to the tree I fell I into a violent fit not unlike an epileptic seizure. These painful seizures were to continue unabated for 3 years.
In Scotland there are three ancient yews. The famous Fortingall Yew is rumored to have been the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, and where Jesus himself was supposedly tutored by Druids. Then there is the Ormiston Yew in Midlothian not far from Rosslyn Chapel. The third is the East Lothian Yew where I spent nine years. It is my belief, based on my experiences under the Yew and through my own research and that of others, that the three Scottish yews are related to the original Five Sacred Trees of Ireland planted in very ancient times by an ancestral figure named Fintan who received and planted the five trees of Ireland from a branch bearing three different fruits given to him by a divine being. If this fact is true then these three trees may have a divine origin.
Other evidence points to the importance of the Yew tree in European history. A myriad of towns and places throughout Europe, especially in the British Isles, are named after the Yew. Clearly the Yew was once widespread. What happened to these yews? The medieval English war machine required the Yew for its deadly longbow. By the 16th century the Yew populations across central Europe were exhausted. They have yet to recover. It seems that the three yews in Scotland were deliberately excluded from the destruction, possibly because they are thought to have had a divine origin in ancient Celtic lore.
There is ample well-researched evidence to suggest that the Yew was the original Tree of Life. The Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, was a Yew, and Heimdallr—whose name means World Tree—the Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, was born of nine mothers who were Yew trees. Beyond the Norse we have the ancient Mesopotamian Mes tree that has recently been traced conclusively to the Yew. It has been proposed by Ralph Ellis that the original Egyptian Tree of Life was a Yew. It has also been suggested that the original cross of Jesus was a living Yew, (2)
Faced with the plethora of published and well–researched material now available about the Yew and its significance, there is little doubt that the Yew was regarded as the original Tree of Life. If so, the Yew trees that exist today are the sentient carriers of an unbroken Tree of Life ‘bloodline’ stretching back to ancient times.
The Yew and the Sulfur Spirit
Although my health problems may appear to have been of an entirely destructive and chaotic nature, they were in fact extremely orderly and followed a definite sequence. There are clear links between the function of the Sulfur Spirit and the Yew. Both are ancient beings that were already in existence when the earth was in a more fluidic and less stable state than it is today. I have learned that the deeper function of sulfur is to shift one’s being out of the dominant state of consciousness and into a more ‘metabolic’ state of being. By ‘metabolic’ I mean a state where consciousness becomes more fluidic and less attached to thought and the external senses—essentially a state that is not organized by the sensory-nervous system. This ‘metabolic’ state, which I call the Tree in the Sea, has become a key component of Yewshamanism and is essential to the healing process in that work. In Yewshamanism, consciousness must be loosened and essentially freed from the sensory nervous system in order to enter the spiritual world where the forces of healing originate. The Yew functions as a sealed cosmic space or ‘womb’ where the loosened consciousness can be reshaped outside of the influence of the sensory nervous system.
The Sulfur Spirit and the Yew are polar opposites in their function. The power of the Sulfur Spirit, which is an ancient Earth spirit, is oriented in a centripetal direction, or basically inward. It draws organic/mineral substance down into the earth and by so doing causes the soul to withdraw from organic matter. To a human being who relies on the physical senses this experience would effectively extinguish day- consciousness. A modern human being would therefore be thrust into a state of suspension resembling death. As an evergreen tree, the Yew is largely independent of the seasons, perhaps existing, like all evergreens, before the earth began to express itself in the rhythm of the seasons. The Yew is therefore also an ancient Earth being. However all trees are also etheric beings. Think of the branches of a tree as extending out toward the cosmos. And so the Yew, oriented to cosmic forces, extends outward or centrifugally in its growth like other trees but then turns inward to create an inner space. No other tree achieves this to the extent that the Yew does.
The Yew demonstrates a gesture that is called ‘branch-layering’ where it creates clones of itself that re-root into the earth to form what look like new trees. The East Lothian Yew has an outer circumference of over 400 ft. The inner chamber stretches about 15 feet from the trunk in an almost perfect circle and reaches about 12 feet in height. The East Lothian Yew forms a true inner space similar to the embryological processes of animal development. However its powers of regeneration are beyond those of any animal or human. Within its inner space it constantly dies to itself so that new growth can be induced. This is the secret of its eternal nature. It is the Tree of Life but also the Tree of Death. It holds the balance of opposites within its very gestures of growth and decay.
I like to compare the growth gestures of the Yew to the early stages of early human embryological development. I have come to understand that the process of my initiation followed an orderly pattern that resembles embryological development in the critical stages where the embryo must die to its former self to reach the next stage in its development. Ultimately none of us are finished beings. The spiritual forces that create us are loosened after birth and into early adulthood to be used for higher consciousness and further development. Cleary this does not often occur in humans! However we can learn to refocus these forces to regain their potent embryonic nature and in so doing we can accelerate and enhance the healing process and raise our level of consciousness.
Further Stages of Initiation
During the first three years spent under the tree I felt as though I were being quite literally turned inside–out. There was a very clear pattern beginning with convulsions followed by a kind of incubatory sleep where I would experience vivid dreams. Lesser convulsions ensued after waking and as they subsided I would catch glimpses of whirling tendrils of light that wound around the tree and that finally, over a period of months, entered into my body. The light tendrils seemed to function as sensory organs for the Yew tree, as if the tree was able to use the tendrils to communicate with me. The tendrils moved like a fluid around the tree and took on shapes and forms that seemed organic. I began to see a sort of language in these forms as if the tendrils were imitating the shape of my organs and fluids in the space beneath the tree. I began to see ‘myself’ pictured by the tendrils. They were like organic drawings in light. It was as if the space under the tree was filled with my extended body.
During the next few years of my initiation I began to encounter specific spirit beings. One of the most significant of these beings was the Bird Shaman. One of the Bird Shaman’s principal methods of healing involved working directly with the light tendrils of the Yew. Over the next three years he (and several other spirits) began to instruct me in how to unite my perception and my hands with the language of the Yew in its light tendrils. The organic light forms would constantly change shape and expand and contract in a sort of breathing process. I could see my hands in space touching and directly working with these light forms and yet at the same time I could feel the forms that my hands touched as my own body was stretched out into peripheral space. This was an incredible experience and, although at times painful, it was the beginning of a process of healing initiated by the Yew.
During the further stages of initiation and especially over the following years, I came to a much deeper understanding of the function of the light tendrils. I began to experience them as not only the sensory organs of the Yew and a language of healing described by Bird-Shaman but as an aspect of my own spiritual form. Gradually I began to learn to differentiate between the various levels of their manifestation and finally came to the realization that the light tendrils were outlining the existence of a second body, a spiritual body that is involved in maintaining health both spiritually and physically. This second body, which I call the Dragon Body is not genetically constituted nor is it in any way controlled by the sensory nervous system or by the ego. In my healing work over the last twelve years I have come to realize that each human being has such a body, a perspective that was greatly supported by my work in the field of biodynamic craniosacral and in my studies of human embryology.
The Three Healing Practices of the Yew
On a practical level the Yew's teachings stay very close to the main outlines of my initiation and the sequence given by the Yew. The teachings also reflect aspects of what at first appear to be myth, but that in fact represent important healing and wisdom practices derived from the lineage of the Yew.
Remarkably, the lineage of the Yew involved principles that sought to emulate the early stages of human development which hold the power of healing and development in a fluid and unfixed state. Ultimately this has led me to the study of human embryology from an occult perspective as a language that can support these discoveries. Occult -Embryology refers to a method of approaching early embryological development from an experiential and spiritual perspective. This method was practiced in ancient India and China and it is referred to in Rosicrucian and Theosophical writings. The language of occult-embryology is the closest language to my experiences of healing and initiation under the yew. The second body, the Dragon Body can be discovered and worked with as healing force in oneself and with others through training consciousness to free itself from its attachment to the sensory nervous system.
The healing practices that I learned from the Yew can be viewed as three streams – Blood, Origin, and Sensing. The stream of Blood refers to the vital presence of the Tree of Life within and beyond our metabolic ocean, which I referred to earlier as the Tree in the Sea. This stream involves a series of deep perceptual practices where we learn to access the living blood-breath of the Tree of Life as a force of self-healing. Here we meet our most ancient consciousness, or Dragon Body, as it breathes in the present as a force of healing and as an absolutely necessary bridge to the spirit world.
The second stream refers to our spiritual Origin and involves direct ‘mirroring’ work (a form of meditation) through the use of specific initiatory gestures given by the Yew. It enables us to coach our consciousness out of its dependence on the unstable rhythms of the autonomic and central nervous systems.
The third stream, Sensing, involves the direct use of our enhanced perception as it relates to ways we can train our hands for healing work.
Each stream takes time to master, but they gradually merge into an experience of singularity. There are many benefits to this work. For example, it trains our perception (as well as the perception of our clients, if we are practitioners) to reconstitute itself around realms of consciousness that are not locked into a human nervous system that is becoming increasingly over-specialized, fearful and brittle. I have witnessed various inflammatory and sclerotic conditions resolve or greatly stabilize, as well as a reduction in seizure activity and even the overnight disappearance of a serious brain hemorrhage in an infant.
Learning to work with the metabolic ocean of the Tree in the Sea and with the ancient intelligence of the Dragon Body reclaims a bridge to the spirit world that enhances our ability to support healing and ‘journey work’ without having to rely on, or default to, a nervous system that surreptitiously needs to be in control. By coupling our consciousness to the wisdom of the Dragon Body that is directly involved in our incarnation and embryological development, our souls become free to respond to impulses that illuminate the way forward in our personal, and hopefully, collective spiritual evolution.