The snake has a bad reputation. It’s often put in the same boat with villains, lending to devious descriptions such as “snake in the grass” and “sneaky as a snake”. In fact, serpents are dreaming creatures, and they have a lot to teach us about renewal.
They say that Alexander the Great once asked to be taken to the wisest of the Jewish teachers. He was brought deep into the desert to meet this contemplative sage who asked him: “What is your question?” Alexander asked: “What does a man have to do to truly live?” The wise old sage smiled, “To truly live, man must die.” (1)
What do we make of this cryptic response? Fortunately, we have the snake to help us out.
You see, the snake crawls along in life until its need for inner growth has become greater than its current outer way of being; until the patterns it is wearing are no longer what it wants to keep dragging around. Feeling constricted by this old, outer appearance, which is cramping its now inner knowing and desire to develop, the snake steps off the beaten path and finds a place to get really quiet so it can meditate, look within, and enter the dream time to get the new message, the new teaching. Physically, at this time of shedding their skin, snakes put a film over their eyes and become completely immobile, giving the appearance of being dead. It is completely impossible to disturb them at this time, so deeply are they within the dream and inner listening. Then, when given the signal only it can hear, the snake sloughs off this old outer skin with all its old, dull patterns, and emerges shiny, glistening, and totally new.
What we learn from the snake, then, is that for renewal to occur we have to be willing to drop our outer armor, slough off old patterns and ways of moving, and to die to old egos and identities, no matter how at odds that might be to the most-traveled road (“but you used to be green!”). It is with this that we continue our growth on our life path; because it dies, the snake emerges utterly alive.
Stepping off the beaten path is an important component in the renewal instruction manual. As long as we’re running around trying to keep up with the Jones’s and stay on top of the latest, knocking ourselves out to fit what we think is expected of us from family to co-workers, repeating the same things over and over again – even driving to work the same route – , and racing through every day with no moment of quiet reflection, we can’t receive the inner message of how to develop – we miss the dream of what is possible for us beyond the same, tired t-shirt and slogan we’ve been wearing the last twenty years.
“All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in the great solitudes and it can only be attained through suffering. Suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind of man to that which is hidden from his fellows.” – Caribou Eskimo man to Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, early 1900s (2)
Sometimes it’s no great picnic to step away and shed our skin. I’ve seen both snakes and humans do it – it’s itchy, it scratches, it’s uncomfortable, we wiggle and struggle to peel ourselves away from what has been so insidiously familiar. But Oh(!) what beauty emerges when we finally do.
Stepping away in order to find true wisdom is a prescription that carries across the great spiritual traditions. In the Jewish tradition, a young man named Jacob steps away – races, actually – deep into the desert, into the middle of nowhere. He left behind all that he knew and had grown up with, his family, even is belongings. He also left behind his father’s expectations for him, his mother’s wishes of how we would be, and sibling rivalry. Stepping away. Peace, solitude, turning in to find a much more expanded without. And what does he do there? He lays down, goes to sleep, and has the Great Dream of the ladder that tells him his destiny; Jacob, the third Patriarch.
“Every great story seems to begin with a snake.” Actor Nicolas Cage (3).
Your great story is waiting, and it begins with snake energy – stepping off the road you’ve been on, the road trampled down flat and smooth by all the others walking the same route, and daring to enter the solo, off-road adventure of cutting your own path. How do we do that in a modern world? Here are a few snake tricks:
1. Dreaming is a great way to start. Inherently, dreams throw us into the tangle of the uncontrollable wilderness of our deepest thoughts, our biggest nightmare monsters, and our greatest potentials. Paying attention to your dreams is to turn your outer viewing to inner discovery. Get a journal, write your dreams – even the most experienced dreamer can look anew at their dreams.
2. Cultivate stillness. Do you check your email last thing before going to bed? First thing upon waking? Make a buffer zone around your “connectivity” – turn off all electronics and communications for 2 hours before going to bed and the first two hours upon waking. These are great dream times as we transition from the outer, material way of being to a more inner, contemplative state. In that stillness, what do you discover? And if you are ready for the challenge version, go 24 hours electronics-free – I do it once a week. You’ll find that in that space a whole new universe of being can be found.
3. Play the Stop Game. The Stop Game, so named by my dream teacher Catherine, is about taking a pause from the habitual. What is it that you do “allthetime”? Used to going on Amazon to one-click order? Instead, go out, walk to the store, take a new street, find new neighborhoods to drive through. Or, better yet, don’t buy, and find out what can you do with that time and money instead. Do you jump for Google every time you have a question? Next time, pause – see if taking a moment to think about your question you can come up with a new solution or find an answer you forgot you already knew. About to repeat a same old story? For example, “I have to do that because if I don’t…” Catch yourself. Stop, breathe out. Write a new story.
So in fact, snakes are pretty tricky. Never stuck, always able to wiggle out of tight situations, courageous beings, they face change head on and give birth to new manifestations of themselves again and again. I’d say that’s a pretty good trick!
(1) My thank you to Rabbi Gershon Winkler for telling me the story of Alexander the Great.
(2) Quote from This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich. 2001. Pantheon Books.