Episode #111 Earth Alchemy, Ceremonies and Soul Journeys with shamanic teacher Isla Macleod
What is the nature of being and belonging in the current world? How can we honour the rite of passage that is happening, and let go of the old ways, let them die to the past, live in the liminal space of unknowing, and step into a future that emerges from the best of who we are? Isla Macleod, celebrant, healer, ritualist and shamanic teacher unfolds her journey and her wisdom for the coming year.
Isla is a celebrant, ritualist, walker-between-the-worlds and deep connector to spirit. She says of herself: “I am a creator of ceremonies, ritual designer, transformational healer and companion at the thresholds. Inspired by nature, forged by my longing, devoted to remembering. Lover of moss, mushrooms, trees, wild swimming and moonlight.
It is my deepest wish to inspire and support a remembrance of what is sacred in our lives and guide people back home to the natural world. To create and hold space for others to journey within and recognise their innate creativity, wisdom and the unique medicine they bring to life. Through offering a container for transformation, held with the deepest love and respect, I hope to help others access those forgotten treasures that are their gifts to share with the world.”
In this episode, we explore her journey through depression and addiction, to deep, grounded earth-connection – to a place where she holds rituals for others, ushering in new love and new life, or helping people to die with meaning and connection. She unfolds the peaks and troughs of a journey that has seen her spent a year in a Buddhist retreat, two years in a yurt connecting with the cycles of the seasons and the lunar months, and now, working with and on the land, to help usher in the new emergent reality.
This is a deeply connected, connecting episode. If you’re exploring the ways you can connect with the Web of Life in a way that feels meaningful, Isla’s journey is rich with experience and insight.
Manda: My guest this week is Isla Macleod. She says of herself: “I am a creator of ceremonies, a ritual designer, a transformational healer and companion at the thresholds. Inspired by nature, forged by my longing, devoted to remembering. Lover of moss, mushrooms, trees, wild swimming and moonlight”. She says, “we are alive at an extraordinary time when the future of this Earth rests in our hands and the potential for change is ripe and beckoning. We are being called back to the natural world. We are being called home. I would love to walk beside you, fellow human, on this journey home”. And that’s exactly what we did, as if we were sitting in a round house across the fire. We explored what Isla does and how she is and how she got there and where she sees us all going. It was a very beautiful, firelit, rich conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. People of the podcast. Please welcome Isla Macleod.
Manda: So Isla Macleod, welcome to Accidental Gods podcast on this distressingly warm January morning. We don’t seem to have had winter, and we moved straight to a kind of cloudy version of May, which is quite worrying, for me anyway. How are you and where are you? I forgot to ask that. Are you in Devon? Do I remember?
Manda: Somerset? Not even close. Well, kind of next to Devon.
Isla: Yes, near the river Brue and a place actually not far from where Five Rivers all start just up the hill.
Manda: Yeah. Kind of near Glastonbury? This is my English geography falling apart..
Isla: In the realm of Avalon
Manda: Magical part of England, if not the whole of Britain. So in your description of yourself on your website, you are a celebrant, amongst other things, a lot of other things. And before we look at what is most alive for you, just now, can you give us a brief background of how you came to be all those other things and a celebrant?
Isla: Yeah, thank you, Manda. Well, I think from early on, I was introduced to some very different cultures by being brought up partly in Lagos, Nigeria, partly in Japan and also going to boarding school in England. But having my doors open to these very alive, rich cultures. The Igbo and Yoruba traditions in Nigeria and particularly Shinto Buddhism, I think helped me to see that there was this way of honouring spiritual life in the everyday that was really absent in our culture. And then, starting boarding school at eight was obviously a big part of my story, just acknowledging that separation from family, but also from a sense of home or really understanding my roots or a sense of belonging. So that led to this kind of messy adolescence and then through to university coming out at 21 and moving to London, depressed and addicted in various ways and completely lost. Feeling like there was just no meaning in what I was being presented as like a path forward as an adult in this culture. So the first few years after university were very deep in partly hedonism and then on my own, going deep into enquiry of just asking, you know, why am I here? And thankfully, through a sort of winding path, I ended up going to a meditation retreat centre in Devon, The Barn, and had an amazing opportunity to meet with a travelling, beautiful monk there called Sheng Yen. And he just opened something in me, a part of me, that was able to remember that there was this whole other way of seeing life imbued with the sense of the sacred, and that we all have this purpose that we are here to bring to life, that we have gifts to offer.
Isla: And so I changed my life very intentionally then, and I said, I’m not going to be a part of this system. I want to devote myself to spiritual service, but I didn’t really know how that looked and didn’t have any elders. So through actually then going and spending a year at that retreat and working as a volunteer. And that meant, you know, stepping out of all of the ways of distraction that I had come to, to try to avoid that pain that I was feeling and the disconnection. And having to really face it. And through that, it kind of led on a lovely winding journey of then falling in love and then experiencing heartbreak, which plunged me into this intentional exploration of the darkness. Which having really benefited from the Buddhist teachings, I felt that there was a lot around transcendence and escaping our human condition; when my body, my wild animal body, wanted to know how to be in ecstasy, in love with life in this form. And so I found myself actually going to live in some woods on my own in Sussex. And I lived in a yurt and devoted myself to, well, it was partly unlearning and unravelling from my culture and also then remembering and bringing back together all those parts of myself that I had felt cut off from in our culture.
Isla: And that journey enabled me to devote myself to nature as an apprentice. And particularly through the portal of the seasons and the cycles come back into this way of living cyclically and also through the elements. Finding these keys of how I could understand myself as completely embedded with, connected with the natural world. And just through exploration in that time, with ceremony and ritual, I came to see it as this tool for connecting with the sacred, with the invisible realms. Also, during that time, enjoying this amazing experience of connecting with the trees for the first time, intentionally working with a different tree each lunar cycle and finding that I could learn from the medicine that the trees offered and embody more of this wisdom that they reflect for us as humans. So the trees have become very dear teachers to me, and I devoted myself to an initiation with the Yew Tree, during that time around my Saturn returns. And that opened up this amazing path of connecting with my ancestors. And that in itself became part of my purpose for being here; of how to remember and honour those who came before, creating bridges to the invisible realms and helping others find ways that are authentic for them to connect with the sacred and cultivate a spiritual path that’s relevant and authentic and rooted in the natural world.
Manda: So there is so much in all of that, and I definitely want to get to how you’re working now. Because it’s absolutely aligned with what we’re doing with Accidental Gods, and it will perhaps give people a new view into that and and help people to learn through what you’re doing. But I’d like to take a step back because I think a lot of people are where you were when you were 21 and just out of university. Not that they’d necessarily been through boarding school. I’m kind of impressed that you got through boarding school and were able to do the journey that you have done, because it seems… Maybe it’s just Eton… But the boys boarding schools definitely seem to be very deliberate inhibitors of empathy and the capacity for self-reflection. They turn out people who are psychopaths from the moment they leave, and that’s a very structured path to get there. And maybe you were just the lucky one who escaped, because there are a few. It might be interesting to look at that, but to go more deeply into the sense of alienation. It seems increasingly to me that people are becoming aware of their need for being and belonging and a sense of the beyond. And that you were able to feel that with enough self-awareness to step back and go to the barn and I guess end up working there. Was that because you already had a Buddhist background? Or was it that you needed mentorship and it was being offered there? And and to be fair, I think within the spiritual traditions of this Land that you are now working in, there’s very little actual mentorship that one could trust. So let’s head back into London and can you tell us a little bit more of the experience of waking up out of the modern dream? Does that make sense as a question?
Isla: Do you mean so once I had made the decision to leave?
Manda: No, I mean the process of getting to that.
Isla: So I felt like the time I spent in London was the necessary breakdown of the ideal that I was presented with in our culture of how to live. Which was: get a good education, go to university and get a job, earn well, settle down. None of those things spoke to me on a soul level. And yet this was the only options that I saw before me. And whether that’s because I just didn’t have enough people in my life that had walked alternative paths. And certainly, yeah, my peers were all in a similar boat. But I found that, I’d done well throughout school, I got a first at university in history, and I had these ideas of possible career paths in human rights. But actually being on the dole in East London in grey, dreary winter and feeling every morning like I didn’t really want to wake up and I just wanted to stay in bed. And then managing to and experiencing whether it was going out and then just really losing myself with alcohol, with drugs to not feel anymore, to feel like I could just pretend and put on this mask that everything was OK. And I’ll just try and fit in and make do, because I’m very privileged in many ways and I’ve got these opportunities.
Isla: But actually, it was very hard to get a job. I couldn’t find work what I wanted to do, and I decided to do a year’s photography training because I loved photography and thought maybe being creative would provide a slightly alternative path. But actually, that just continued to play out this story of I’m not good enough, and it was always trying to compete with other people, never feeling like I could find my place in a way that was meaningful or soulful. It was just another cog in this machine. And I started reading a few more spiritual books like Eckhart Tolle and things that came my way. But Buddhism had been certainly something that was in my awareness from living in Japan, and I had a Buddha from aged eight that I still have and I love. And I think there was something in that image that really spoke to me of what was possible. Of this peacefulness and this contentment that exudes from this Buddha’s face, of like, we’re missing something here like this. It doesn’t have to be this way. And I was always innately quite rebellious. So I think there was this feeling of, well, I’ve done my best, I’ve given it a few years of trying to fit into this machine, but I felt I was just dwindling and losing all sense of who I was. And it was actually a chance meeting with somebody that spoke about meditation that I just found myself looking for a retreat centre. And it happened, you know, quite beautifully synchronistic that Sheng Yen was there. And it presented me with this quite radical way of almost like an incubation period to step away from the system and unlearn a lot of what I had been taught through education and just through our culture. But it provided me with a year of really just sitting with myself, we meditated two hours a day, and we had lots of silent periods and enquiry. So using that time as a way of coming home to myself and what did I really value? What did I hold as sacred and how do I wish to live my life? Which I am so thankful for because when you’re still having to pay rent and you’re still having to meet these demands that we have, it’s very hard to find that space to really, well, unravel oneself and enquire more deeply.
Manda: Thank you. Yes, isn’t it? Which is why we need to shift the system. Working on that as we speak. So you met Sheng Yen and you had the year there in community and fell in love and heartbreak, which I guess is one of the big rites of passage still in our culture. And then if I’ve understood you correctly, was the impetus then for three years in a yurt. Which is… So you’ve gone from living in community, experiencing the nature of community, to what feels to me like quite a lot of isolation. And I’m really interested in a little bit more of that experience, it sounds glorious and you connected with the seasons as you do and the weather and everything that we lose when we live in centrally heated brick built houses. Can you talk a little bit more about that transition? Because living in a Buddhist monastery to living in a yurt is not an obvious path. How did that unfold?
Isla: So when I finished that year at the barn, I had this relationship that came about and then ended. And because I’d spent this year without needing to play any part of the game, I wasn’t thinking about money or accommodation or work. I had love as this wonderful distraction that presented this possibility of world travel and all kinds of things. But I actually, yeah, well, I had a ceremony which was at that stage, I hadn’t done much of that kind of exploration, but something came through to honour or actually invoke the darkness so that I could intentionally work with the darkness because I felt I had been up in the more etheric states of wanting to transcend, talked about in Buddhism. And the next day, this partner broke up with me very unexpectedly. So I realised that I had very much brought that about and had made this choice, that I wanted to enter into this unknown, slightly scary realm of the darkness. And then was able to spend three months solitary on Dartmoor, actually, before I moved into the yurt, which was this time of intentional retreat. And the intention was to explore the darkness for three months. It allowed my edges to unfurl and start to explore these things, which I hadn’t I hadn’t wanted to engage with because I was afraid, I think on some level of the power within them and the potential of also bringing about real change and the responsibility in that, once we start to work with the darkness, intentionally.
Manda: What nature of darkness are we talking about? Are we talking our own inner shadow or the darkness of the world or the darkness of night or the darkness of winter or all of those? Before we get into that I would like to unpick a little bit more about transcendence, because you’ve spoken of it two or three times and for people without a Buddhist background, it’s a word without meaning. Other than we’re just given it a polarity opposite to darkness. So can you unpick what transcendence means for you first? And then let’s dive into darkness and find out more about it and why it might be scary, but also the potential that you found in there?
Isla: Yes. Yeah. For me, transcendence was this ideal in Buddhism, particularly of enlightenment and awakening, whereby you step off the wheel of suffering. And to do that, you awaken to your innate Buddha nature to reach that state. In my understanding, there is a necessary detachment from the body, from our emotions and that polarisation, that feeling of there is this invisible part of me, the spirit self that can awaken and leave this body. And then this deep affection and knowing and care for what this temple is that I am inhabiting in this lifetime. And I wasn’t happy with this idea of trying to escape this gift of life in that way, of it feeling like it was like this, this skin that I had to shed for me to really embody an awakened state of being. For me and I think it’s something to do with also that sort of feminine wisdom of really wanting to awaken in this body; to feel that there is a union between that. The spirit and matter actually together can, I don’t want to say cross the threshold, but together can rejoice in that place of wholeness and belonging and love. So although there’s such beauty and richness in the teachings and the ideal of that, it missed something for me and it felt often in meditation that I would be experiencing things and just being like, ‘This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself’. And there was just this sort of bypassing of what actually was a necessary processing of a lot of trauma that I had suppressed, and I didn’t know what to do with that. So I think when I thought about the darkness, it certainly included the darkness within myself, all those places that I hadn’t seen or acknowledged or that I intentionally suppressed. As well as that reflected in the whole. So what is the shadow aspect of humans as a collective? But I definitely include to hold all of that, the idea of darkness within the Earth within winter. This unknown place where it’s full of potential of creativity, of silence and stillness. So I don’t know if I fully understood then when I was calling forth this journey with the darkness that I really knew what I was getting myself into. But there was a call and I really wanted to honour that call.
Manda: Yeah. Yes. I think a lot of my experience of the spiritual path is if we knew where we were going, we would be too scared to go there. But we only ever see a few steps on the way and that’s enough to get going. But that otherwise the change would feel terrifying, I think. I’m very curious to know, before we move on, did your partner know that you had asked for this darkness at the point when they the next day separated?
Isla: No, no. He was out of the country, actually. I had a very interesting ritual involving a mask on these hills up in the Peak District, and it was wild and I kind of look back at this, as that as an actual night of initiation for the whole of this next phase of my life. And it just happened for me. I think the lessons came so strongly through the experience of heartbreak.
Manda: Yes, yes. And one of the first, if there are any laws around the shamanic work that we do on the first ones that I was taught was be careful what you ask for. You might get it. But the second one is we can ask for what we want and what we get is what we need. And so it seems to me that whatever your concept at the time of what you were asking for, in the unfolding of that something that moved you in the steps on the way. So you go from Dartmoor. Just take a step back just for my own interest. You’ve had a year at the barn in Devon. Was that always only ever going to be a year or did you have an option if you’d want to stay indefinitely?
Isla: No, they’re year long postings.
Manda: Ok, so that was curtailed. It does sound like an amazing gift to be able to take a year out and not have to worry about earning money and being part of the rat race and just to simply sit. And I have met quite a lot of Buddhists who, exactly as you, have challenged that sense of needing to not be embodied. And to have a sense of climbing the ladder of Buddhism. But I have met others who have questioned it within the teaching. It seems to be quite a a schism within Buddhist teaching, but let’s not go there because that’s not really our thing. So you found a yurt. And I have a friend who’s living in a bender at the moment, who got home after the storm and it had basically dissolved. So I am guessing there were quite a lot of challenges of just the logistics of living in a yurt. And its off grid, I guess. Was this at a time when coming off all social media was a thing? Or was it before social media was really anchoring us or doing whatever it’s doing into the world?
Isla: Yeah, this was 2012, so it was before I had really engaged with any social media I didn’t really use a mobile, except for the odd text message. I didn’t have a laptop. So it felt quite simple then, it would be much more complicated now! But I was able to live on some land that belonged to a friend and his family, that was just beautiful wild and ancient woodland. So I was able to run water. That was the one thing that I was able to do from there water mains. But otherwise I was off grid. And this was two years that I spent in the woods and then five years in Somerset when I was pregnant with my son. So I was in a round for seven years, and I feel like life could be very different if we all lived in circles, actually. I think that’s something that happens in our shift of perspective when we start to live in accordance with the cycles and just embodying more of that cyclical nature that we are part of.
Manda: And just actually living in a circular space. I vividly remember one of the Native American teachers. I think it might have been Sun Bear, but possibly not, saying that the people who live in square houses will never understand the people who live in round houses. Because there’s a very different mental, emotional, spiritual, energetic space when you’re not in straight walls with corners. Can you just unpick a bit more for us about circles and cycles and what it feels like to inhabit the cycle of the year within a circular space.
Isla: Being in a yurt you’re obviously that much closer to the elements as well. So you’re really aware of the seasons as they change, and I was having to provide wood and prepare for the winter. So there’s a lot of effort that goes into being present with what’s required for the change in the seasons. And I was also growing a garden and a poly tunnel. So that enabled me to be present with the stages of the seeds and that growth cycle. But honouring each of the eight festivals associated with the wheel of the year became very important. Normally, with a fire and some kind of cleansing or purging ritual, or visiting a sacred site and intentionally crossing that threshold to welcome the spirit of that season. So really welcoming the spirit of winter into my body and making adjustments. Although it was easier then, just having coming through the winter now; that involves turning off artificial lights, you know, just returning to the more circadian rhythms so that we don’t have artificial lights in our day. We slowed down, except for the chopping wood and carrying water, but we slowed down otherwise and turn inwards. And then with spring really making that intention to give birth to and let emerge what has been incubating in that time over winter, noticing where we feel that energy, that emergent vital energy that’s rising up through us, and how do we want to direct that in our lives? And then through the summer, noticing the more outward energy and spending more time sitting outdoors, sitting in trees, gathering plants and herbs. So really living in relationship with the natural world and noticing when things grow and how the trees change through the seasons. The effect of the change in light on our own inner sense of self.
Isla: I used to get quite cyclically depressed through the winters around university and those years afterwards. So I would often fear the winter approaching because I thought that it was probably going to return. And that was a big part of wanting to face my fear of really ridding myself of the distractions that would used to be a way of numbing myself from feeling that pain or the fear. And being able to be still and present with it and notice where there are those feelings of… Often around disconnection, where I felt separate or shame grief. Those qualities that were allowed and given space to emerge, for me would often come through in the wintertime. So, yeah, and then being in the circle space provided a way of, I feel, becoming whole. So whereas we have these lines and corners in our room, it’s like where all this energy can get stuck and we forget things. You know, we all have the cupboard in the corner where we stuff everything that we don’t know how to deal with. But if you’re in a circle, then everything is there to view. Everything is balanced and in relationship with each other. And I felt that almost rewiring happening within myself from living in that space. Also, I think things like drinking wild water and washing in a bowl outdoors; just simplifying the way I lived certainly helped shed more of those ways of being in the world that I had learnt and thought were the only way. That actually it was really playful to start to explore how life could look, when we’re just really loving life and showing up for what’s been presented in that moment and what the invitation is from the natural world in terms of how we can engage.
Manda: Yes, beautiful. And you’re celebrating the the eight days of the year of what we have as our modern representation of what we believe was the ancient Celtic cycle of the year here. And that’s not a part of Buddhism. So you’d begun then to apprentice with some of the teachers in this Land, I guess.
Isla: Yeah, I did start taking undertaking a shamanic training just as I moved into the yurt, with a couple in Glastonbury. And through that, I think one of the primary sort of maps that they presented me with was this lunar cycle. Which the 13 sacred trees of this Land each had a lunar cycle that they were connected with. So each month, I would focus working with that particular tree. And that provided an amazing another way of sort of 13 months of really deepening my relationship with, and just… I mean, I think trees are such an amazing reflections of our human potential. So just spending time with them and realising that they were alive, sentient beings with something to teach me was quite radical for my upbringing. It wasn’t something I was doing at school for instance. There did involve a lot of that of needing to reassure myself, I suppose, that things I was doing were OK, that I wasn’t completely losing my mind. There were times I felt I needed to actually quite intentionally push that, so that I was delving into the realms of what might be considered insanity, because I felt that was where there was a lot of potential that wasn’t being used.
Manda: So let’s really look into that. Because this is something that I find with the shamanic work a lot, is how to help people reach that threshold and yet be able to step back into an ability to function in consensus reality, without somebody turning up with lithium and a padded cell. Can you just, in whatever way feels good, explore more of how it feels to step off the edge and maybe even what the edges are? Because even having this conversation in certain parts of our consensus reality would already be over that threshold. So I think the threshold itself is quite expansile and mobile. Where was it for you? Whatever you can share of stepping off and then how did you anchor, so that it was possible to come back. Because I have met some people that certainly for me have crossed it and seemed to have no way back. I guess for them, the threshold is probably in a different place. But you are, as far as my sets of realities, well anchored in what I would consider grounding. And that, for me, grounding is the coherent part of or the necessary part of remaining sane and everything else then becomes fluid around it. So where is the boundary for you? What does it feel like to cross it and how do you come back?
Isla: Hmm. Well, at that stage, I think my boundary was fairly small in terms of just being raised in a culture that has a certain ideal of what normal is. I’d certainly, you know, played around a bit with creativity and, you know, festivals particularly, I’m thinking in my early 20s, had some great fun pushing a few boundaries in expressing myself and those kinds of realms. But when it came to being on my own and I think it started with thinking of like, am I really receiving this as an inspiration, as an idea, to carry out a ritual in a certain way, for instance. Or am I just making this up? Is this coming from somewhere beyond me? So there was a lot of self checking. I think that helps. I think if I was just following things off on a complete whim, I might have lost myself quite a while ago.
Manda: A brief interjection. How did you establish the answer to that question?
Isla: I don’t know if I have fully. I still certainly experience doubt. And I think this is what a big part of my work feels I would like to encourage in others, is placing more value on the invisible the imaginal realms. Because we’ve really lost the importance of how what we don’t see is just as integral and a part of our web of life. So it’s just really coming back to trusting and putting, you know, whether it’s embodying really a strong stance, feet on the ground, feeling my roots in and that alignment with the sky. And really honestly checking in with myself. Does this feel true for me now? And I think also coming through feeling like even if I am making this up, it’s still coming from somewhere and there’s still value in that. So follow it. So I think having a real playfulness and curiosity helps. To not… Also because I could be a bit serious too at these things. It must be right. I must be doing a good spiritual job here. And I think that just opening up a bit of humour and just saying, Oh, what happens if I do this? And what happens if what that tree just said is true? How does that make me feel? Where does that feel in my body? So listening. A deep listening practise, I suppose, is what helps more than anything. Of listening when there’s a resonant yes in my body or when there’s a contraction, when it feels like this isn’t coming from a place that feels aligned or rooted?
Manda: Beautiful. Yes. And that I think, for the people listening, because we have a lot of people who are playing with these edges. And it seems to me that that is the key. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how does it feel in the moment? And if I go along with this, where do I get to? And if I get to a good place, then where it came from really doesn’t matter. I think we have… Perhaps it’s a Judeo-Christian thing, perhaps it’s just normal in the human psyche… To have a sense that there is something out there that is going to give us absolutely accurate answers if we just learn to ask the right questions. And then everything will be fine and we don’t have to bear any responsibility or have any creativity, we just have to follow orders. And once in a while, I do get stuff in plain text that does say, Do this, this and this, and then this will, you know, and then wait to see what happens. But most of the time, that’s extremely rare, and most of the time it’s going with what feels right. So because this is very much where a lot of Accidental Gods members and I suspect listeners are at. Is finding that inner place of being sufficiently happy that we’re on the right track, that we can keep moving forward, without having the amazing capacity to spend two years in a yurt first.
Manda: So you’re now teaching other people. Do you have techniques that work, for helping people to find that inner Yes? In a way that most of the time allows them to move forward with inner balance? So have you got a way of helping people find their baselines?
Isla: Well, with all my work and I think what is required on a collective level is for this shift of our perception to include the awareness that we are all intimately connected with the web of life and are a part of nature. When we have that understanding as the foundation of all of our action, thinking, loving, living in the world. Then there is this opportunity for us to connect with forces beyond ourselves that might help us trust in a deeper way that isn’t just this limited sense of I. But actually, when I have for instance, if I’m doubting myself, I might call upon my benevolent ancestors. I need my ancient grandmother to come and just sit by me a minute, can we have a conversation and just help me check in with myself here? I need some advice. That might seem a bit far out. But Yeah. Ten years ago, I certainly wasn’t having conversations with the dead, but now it’s become something which is of such value, because it helps me remember that there are so many ways of knowing that are not just the rational left brain. I see that we can actually develop the capacity to really listen well to our body’s response. We have this amazing vessel that is through our senses, through these portals and through all of the ways that we feel, being able to give us the answers essentially.
Isla: If we ask a question and we’re really able to be present with what arises, we will be able to feel yes or a no response. But in our culture, and because we’ve become in a way, we’ve got this collective amnesia that we’ve just forgotten so much of this. We’re not connecting with that sense of embodied awareness. We’re also not connecting with those other beings that are a part of the web of life that can help show us the way. Help us remember. And so through my work, I often create sacred space and call upon the elements as a way of grounding us in this time and space, but also then helping that individual remember that their body is the Earth, that their blood are the waters of the Earth, that the air they breathe comes from all the other beings that are exhaling, and that the fire within them is this sense of purpose and meaning. This call to live, really, that warmth in our bodies that is fire, this creative energy. And just having that awareness, just plugging back into the mainframe as it were and remembering that all that we are is part of the whole is a vital way of just helping people remember their innate wholeness. And then through that, a lot of the work I do is, I hope, a way of creating experiences of the sacred for people so that they touch upon that mysterious, invisible quality that may be in their everyday life they don’t get to very much. And hopefully that would activate, awaken, some of the seeds within them. We all carry these seeds. None of us don’t have the seeds, that are our original instructions, if you will. Or you know, our unique gifts that can be activated and just through us remembering that we are carriers of life, that we actually have this opportunity to bring forth these gifts and help these seeds grow in our own little way. So empowering people to remember that. That they have a purpose and that their way of creating a spiritual life, however that might look, is completely dependent on all of the things that bring them inspiration; their background, maybe their culture and what they’ve inherited. That they can create a really unique and authentic spiritual life that can help them in those times of confusion when they don’t know how to listen inwards to that voice. That authentic, truthful voice. That we can pray, that we can listen in a way that is, I know pray might have a few connotations for people, but just in that space of silence asking for guidance. So there’s some of the ways I think that answers your question of helping people.
Manda: It does beautifully and brilliantly, and it opens so many doors. So I definitely want to talk more about elemental work. I also really want to find out more about what the Yew Tree taught you. But before we head into there, one of the things that stuck out for me is when we we’re doing the shamanic work our ancestor gate is the sixth year of 10. And it’s by invitation only, because I am deeply concerned by people who haven’t had a huge amount of experience, connecting with ancestors recently dead. Definitely people they may have known in life, but even ones three, four, five six generations back. Because one of the first things I was taught, was just because you die doesn’t mean you get to be wise. And my experience of watching people even a few decades dead and their impact on the living, if the living don’t understand how to discern carefully between those ancestors who’ve done whatever it is one does after life and are there actually to help, and those have their own agendas. And those agendas are not necessarily good or useful. Or they’re still working out stuff that was stuff in life that had never got worked through. And so I want people to be really clear that they understand and have sufficient help in the shamanic worlds not to get into trouble. And I’m really interested in that you clearly do ancestor work, you have a far distant ancestor that you ask for help, as I do, and they are incredible resources. How do you help people not get into trouble?
Isla: Something, just something aside, that I feel to say is that there is something about acknowledging absolutely the inherited trauma that we collectively have. And particularly those in power. It really helps me cultivate compassion when I acknowledge that those in power, particularly in this country, went to boarding school, for instance. That I know for myself is a very traumatic experience. That we can’t move forward unless we acknowledge that trauma and indeed working with the more recent ancestors has so many potentials for engaging with spirits that do not wish well for the living. Whether that’s because they haven’t crossed over fully or a number of reasons, we don’t want to be invoking them in ceremony. We don’t want to be working with them without a guide, someone that has that kind of expertise, and I don’t feel I do to do that kind of work. But what I do encourage is a connexion with an ancestral energy. For a retreat I held, we worked with the idea of the ancient grandmothers, and we created a council of ancient grandmothers with stones, actually, which I’m holding right here. And they are the seed carriers of your maternal lineage. So the first creator, if you like, of your lineage. And that might not even be in human form, it comes in different forms to people.
Isla: But connecting with that archetypal energy is one way that I work. But also in, for my own journey it was hugely healing for me to start to visit places that were significant to my ancestors and also sacred sites that have that ancestral energy present. So I went on a pilgrimage to the Isle of Lewis, where my paternal line come from. And I’ve been to places around the British Isles to honour those that came before me, and it can be as simple as that. It doesn’t need to be right I need to look at this relationship with my grandfather that was always really difficult and heal that. It can actually be about going to visit their graves and singing with them, making offerings and just creating an aliveness and a respect for all that they did for us to be here now. And just honouring of, also that I think in so many other cultures, those that I was brought up in, that relationship with the ancestors is a part of everyday life. It’s something that every day they’re checking in with them or they’re feeding them at the altar. And I feel like just that shift in our culture could be so huge if we were having more of that kind of dynamism and reciprocity with our ancestors.
Manda: Yes, interesting. We’ll head off into somewhere else in a minute, but I am just a very aware that for me, a lot of things opened up when I began with my morning ceremony, not only to connect to those who have been and to thank them and to share as much of the day as possible with them in ways that are safe that we won’t go into now, but also then to connect with the generations yet to come. And to acknowledge that I’m standing as the present representative of those who have been and those yet to come, human and nonhuman. And to ask for the wisdom of both to inform the present. And that that was a huge shift in my own work with the world, I think. And it happened in the middle of COVID, I suppose, because I was able to give morning ceremony hours instead of minutes and and other stuff arises when you do that. So, yeah, I love the idea of really connecting with the archetypal energies. You do hold ceremonies and you’re helping other people to find ceremony in their lives. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re working now? We spent a lot of time on how you got here. What’s happening for you now? And what are you doing that’s most alive?
Isla: Well, I’m available for any type of ceremony that people need support with, and I love that. I love just being in service to my community. So that might look like weddings or hand postings or blessing ways for pregnant mothers or namings for babies. But where I’m working more one to one with clients is to create a container for them through a process of transformation. So a lot of my work, and this is, I think, why we started talking about death initially was that I realised I felt a lot of my work was helping people prepare to die well. Through these opportunities in life, of having rites of passages where we experience a death of a part of ourselves, we can really begin to train and prepare for our actual death at the end of life. So I’m really interested in that space of sort of transformation and how to hold people through that in a way that is resonant for them. So not drawing on, you know, any spiritual tradition as such, very much rooted in the natural world, but finding images, archetypes, in ways that resonate to best support them through that process. So that could be ritual. It could be embodiment practises, breathing, pilgrimage. It never looks a certain way. But this winter, actually, I’ve been holding something called hearth craft sessions, and this has been a circle with women that was inspired by…my ancient grandmother kind of gave this one to me, some homework to do. Which was to gather women together, to weave with winter and to really honour the darkness as this portal of transformation. That we can intentionally create and use this energy, this time to be incubating and then weaving together what we wish to see birthed in life come spring. So we’ve spent each session working with a different plant or tree and making something, crafting something and sharing and singing and drumming. And it’s felt so nourishing to come together in that way. And remember that this was the ways that I feel women would have gathered in the round house around the fire in winter.
Manda: That sounds so amazing. And is that in person? Despite COVID, you’re actually meeting physical people in a physical space?
Isla: Yeah, with a fire, with a hearth.
Manda: Yay! And it doesn’t feel like another lockdown is coming. But famous last words, if it does, would you continue that virtually? Are you working virtually or is everything done in person?
Isla: I did quite a few virtual ceremonies and things online in the lockdown, and I have had a few people ask to do some more. So I’m thinking actually of doing an Imbolc online crafting ceremony, Braiding with Bridgid, and I will probably do an in-person pilgrimage as well because I love walking the Land at these seasonal cycles as well. But I’m not adverse to it online. It’s a bit different. If it’s possible to do in a round house or a yurt then I’ll take that, please.
Manda: So just for people listening who don’t know what Imbolc is, when would you do your Braiding with Bridgid? If they want it to?
Isla: I think it’s going to be on February the 1st in the evening.
Manda: Fantastic. People. That would be, that sounds…. I’d like to do it. I’m not sure what else I’m doing, but it sounds great. I’m really interested in our approach to death. It feels to me as if perhaps because of COVID, perhaps because the climate emergency is now so obviously an emergency, that as a culture death is feeling more imminent. And our capacity to deny it is also greater. We watched ‘Don’t Look Up’ on New Year’s Day. Which is an American satire. An asteroid is approaching. The scientist sees it a long way out and goes, You know, we’ve got six months and 14 days. We’re all going to die. And then everybody goes, ‘Oh no, we’re not’ or, ‘well, it’s not important. We’ve got the midterms, we’ll deal with it after that’ until it’s actually visible. And even then, the kind of Trump alike is going, ‘No, they’re telling you that’s there, because they want you to be afraid. Just don’t look up’. And then they’re going ‘but, it’s there. We can see it’. And it was a really interesting and quite scarily accurate evocation of our complete incapacity to deal with death as a reality. And yet I’m also in the process of reading a book called White Skin Black Fuel, I think. Can’t remember. It’s on my Kindle. Something like that. And it’s really looking at the particularly in America, the kind of cultural tendency of the radical white supremacist right, to move towards extinction rather than integration. It would be better to have apocalypse and be dead than to let everybody live an equitable life. And I think partly that’s because there are huge sections of the radical right where for the Christian radical right, Life begins at death. And they’ve got an entire narrative around that. So dying white and in charge is more important than living not in charge. And I’m wondering in your experience and your practise, has the attitude to death amongst your clients shifted in the last couple of years? And if so, how?
Isla: Yeah, I feel like obviously we’ve all been going through this in a collective way. The experience of the pandemic and being isolated and the death of certain ways of being. But individually, we’ve all had our own experience, and I feel like we’re very much still in this liminal space whereby in any right of passage, we have the separation phase and then this liminal space in between, which is unknown, unfamiliar and we’re being remade. And I feel like we’re very much in that at the moment. We haven’t yet come back and been integrated by the community. So I feel like a lot of people I’m working with, are in this space of not knowing and there is fear. There certainly is the sense of what’s the point? I think that sort of feeling of things have become so depressing, we feel so disempowered. And so where my work hopefully takes them is, by working together, that we create these sort of mini experiences of how we can approach this collective initiation that we’re all a part of, in a way that is authentic for us, that is something that we can relate with directly. So whether that’s a feeling of for people that had to let go of their job or a relationship’s ended as well, because of things that’s happened since the pandemic. Where we’ve had to say goodbye to an old way of being. I’ve been creating ceremonies for people around that, to really support them in actively letting go of the old. And that’s something that we’re so attached to the physical, and we’re so attached to our beliefs and our sense, too. It’s kind of a paradox, because although we are afraid of death and we don’t like to look at it, we very much function in this finite sense of being a human. That we don’t remember that we are a part of these cycles of regeneration whereby death is not an ending, but it’s a portal of transformation. So hopefully bringing more of that awareness into the field for people, to start to remove more of the fear of death and actually engage in it in a way that’s more heart centred, curious and actually midwife ourselves through this time of transition. So that we can intentionally die to this old way of being that does not work anymore. An individual thing that we’re all being called to do. But collectively, we need to see where things are no longer working, where there needs to be an ending of certain ways of being, of relating of functioning. And really, either we need to grieve that which we’re letting go of, we need to forgive. And these qualities that come about naturally when at the end of life for people, when people are given that perspective, I suppose, of their life. More often than not, they experience these qualities of forgiveness, of compassion, of love. So how can we cultivate more of that towards others and towards ourselves across this threshold, rather than judgement, polarisation of opinions, fear. And actually realise that we’re all in this together, ultimately seeking the same things; that we all wish to be loved and to love.
Isla: Even though we’ve really lost our sense of that, I think quite deeply. That we all have these these same principles that we wish to experience and to embody more love in this life. So I think that the death space and intentionally living in a way that every day we acknowledge this could be our last day on Earth. How do I want to live now? How can I serve life and love life in a way that is really honouring of this gift that I’ve been given to be here? I feel quite emotional saying that. I feel like death really does provide us with this opportunity to live fully as awakened and mature human beings. I think if we really did see this, as this process of initiation that we’re going through, to become real, authentic, mature human beings. Then I know on a deep level that we have all this potential that we’re not using as human beings, and that we just need to die to this old way that we’ve become so familiar with. And let all these seeds that are stirring within grow and thrive and blossom into this beautiful Earth that I know is possible. But it just feels very far away from the reality we’re being presented with. So, yeah, I think. Midwifing our death in a way that’s really compassionate and also acknowledging that there are these cycles, rather than a linear way of seeing that we’ve got so used to in the West, can be really supportive for us through this time.
Manda: That’s so beautiful. That felt like such a profoundly beautiful and right and deep note to end on. Was there anything else that you wanted to say?
Isla: Well, I suppose I would just wish for everybody to allow these seeds within them to be their guideposts. So what is it that really wants to emerge at the moment when we push aside the fear? And we get away from the feeling of being limited and actually connect with this potential within us. What does that look like? What does that feel like? And yeah, through this time of winter, really cherishing that time to be present with and be in this place of receptivity, to allow inspiration to come forth. To allow what’s rumbling in the darkness, to start to take form and trust in that process. I really do believe it’s all going to be OK and I know I can only say that. But I know that the seeds that we carry are what we’ve inherited, and I know that our children will feed and be blessed by the seeds that we’re going to grow. So yeah, I just hope that we can all remember that.
Manda: Thank you. Thank you. That is so beautiful. So we will close on that. Isla MacLeod, thank you so much for coming onto the Accidental Gods podcast. And definitely we will come back for a podcast two, at some point, where we can look at Yew trees and everything else. Thank you.
Isla: Thank you, Manda.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Isla. For the depth of her thinking, for the journey that she’s travelled and for the integrity that she brings to her work. I very rarely spend so much of a conversation putting my thumb up and cheering silently in the background, as someone is describing how they see the world. How they live in the world, how they think the world could be. And Isla has a new book coming out on the 22nd of September: Rituals for Life, a guide for creating meaningful rituals inspired by nature. And so we just agreed that she will come back for podcast number two on the 21st of September, the Equinox, the day before that is released, so you can put it in your diary and get ready for it now. And meanwhile, we will be back next week with another conversation.
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