Coffee and Me

OK you probably won’t believe this, but I haven’t had a cup of coffee for 40 years, until this morning. This odd achievement, if you want to call it that, wasn’t out of some high moral ground or sense of nutritional superiority. It’s just that when I had my first cup of coffee in college it must have been pretty awful percolated stuff and it made me quite sick. Shortly after that I was introduced to the gentle art of Chinese tea and I just never looked back. I have an impressive collection of Yi Xing teapots, gaiwans, and assorted rare oolongs to show for it.

Maybe it’s because of the Snake year, or just the shift in perspective that comes with age (yes, I’m in my early 60’s,) but I just got very curious about this coffee experience. I have always loved the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, so I decided to have a little coffee adventure. I would make one exquisite cup, in the morning of course after a good breakfast, and see what happened. My version of bungy jumping.

First I had to buy some. I thought this would be easy. Wrong. I stood in front of the coffee section at my local health food store for 20 minutes in utter confusion and embarrassment. All those different roasts, all those different types of beans. How the heck to figure it out. And then, how to work the machine that grinds it. I finally swallowed my pride and confessed to the store clerk that I was trying coffee for the first time and needed a little help. Turns out he was a coffee enthusiast and was delighted to have a newby to teach. I came home with a bag of freshly ground Guatamalan dark. Less acid, less caffeine, but a full rich taste.

The next morning I had to figure out how to brew the stuff. I had inherited a filter apparatus from a previous room mate, along with some of those brown filter papers. I googled “coffee, perfect brewing,” and came up with a dazzling assortment of opinions on the matter. But after settling on what looked like a reasonable approach, I went to work. I added a good sized dollop of organic half and half to the resulting brew, sat down at my sunny kitchen table, and savored my triumphant entry into the coffee world. It tasted pretty good.

I waited. I expected the shakes, heart palpitations, nausea, stomach pain. Nothing happened. I went to my desk and opened my email. Still nothing; no buzzy feeling, no jitters, nothing. But, and here’s the amazing thing, I romped happily and easily through hours of office work–the stuff I normally groan and complain about and have to drag myself through–all this I just danced through, calmly and efficiently. I think I was even humming a little tune. After an hour of this clear, focused work I dusted off my hands and said “ok, what’s next?”

Then it hit me. Oh, THIS is why people drink coffee! I could get used to this. But of course the true test would come that night. I’m normally a good sound sleeper, and there’s nothing that I let interfere with my precious sleep. I was wary of the effects of this single cup of java, even ten hours later. But alas, I slept like a baby that night.

Now, I can’t say coffee will ever replace my enchantment with the world of tea. However, my friend just sent me a recipe for a morning brew made with organic dark roast coffee, a little raw cream, a dash of honey, salt, raw butter, and gelatin. A warming, metabolism boosting nutritional drink.  I can’t wait to try this tomorrow morning. And think of the work I’ll get done!


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Carrying your Oar Inland: An Astrology Lesson from Odysseus

In the Chinese astrology I practice,  called Zi Wei Dou Shu, there is a little used feature of the chart called the Ming Ruler and the Shen Ruler. The only instruction I’ve ever found about this is that the Ming Ruler is the star (or influence) that reveals the potential of the first half of your life, and the Shen Ruler the potential of the second half of life. That’s it. And since these stars are usually different from those found in the actual Ming and Shen boxes, I have often wondered how much significance to give them.

If you are a follower of astrology, either Chinese or Western, you know that every life chart is a synthesis of many factors. It’s the whole soup you’re looking at, not a list of ingredients. So knowing how to integrate this Ming and Shen information, understanding where it fits and how it influences the total pattern described in the chart, is important.

Recently I revisited the myth of Odysseus while reading a book about second half of life tasks. (Stay with me. You’ll see how this relates to the Ming/Shen question in a minute.) Here’s the part of the story that most people gloss over: when Odysseus returns home to Ithaca after his famous hero’s journey, he is given a second task. He is told to take his oar and walk it inland. He is to go on and on, until he gets to a place where nobody has ever seen the sea or knows what an oar is used for. When he meets someone who tells him his oar looks like a winnowing shovel, he is to stick the oar in the ground and make appropriate sacrifices.

This bit always seemed to me to be a crucial part of the myth. But what does it have to do with astrology and the discernment of your life path? The Ming Ruler is a guiding influence for the first half of life. While the whole chart describes our life curriculum, this particular star tells us how we go about our first half of life journey. This part of the journey is often about the outer world tasks we must undertake–things like relationships, work and career, how to make money, education, family raising, etc. But in the second half of life we are required to journey inward. Like Oddyseus, we must carry our oar, the thing that most symbolizes our accomplishments, to a place far inland. When we find ourselves in completely strange territory, where the gods don’t even recognize this thing we’ve done all our lives that we think is so solid and worthy, that is where we are asked to plant our oar and make appropriate sacrifices.

In the Zi Wei system, we can find guidance for this inward adventure from the star that is our Shen Ruler. What style of exploration does this star suggest? Do we take this quest on like a general or a warrior, with discipline and courage? Or is it more of quiet withdrawal, a gentle turning away like a trip to the mountain tea house? Do we do it in the company of friends, or will we be solitary sojourners? And what should we make of the requirement to sacrifice? In the Oddysey, our hero must make a sacrifice to Poseidon, the God of the Sea, who’s been dogging him with trouble throughout his ten year trip.
So what is the one issue you’ve been struggling with all your life? Who, or what, is your Poseidon? Our Shen Ruler tells us how to make peace with this, not through DOING something differently (that’s first half of life thinking,) but by turning inward, having the courage to go to a completely unknown place, and giving up our carefully constructed sense of self; in effect, letting it all go.

Sounds scary and difficult after all you’ve accomplished in life. But then you’ve got that star, that Shen Ruler, to guide your way. And you’ve got the whole second half of life to make the journey, to complete the return. Is it time to begin?

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2013, Year of the Water Snake

This year’s Chinese Lunar New Year arrives on February 10 and ushers in the year of the Water Snake. In Chinese astrology Snakes are introverted, mystical, sensual, cautious, observant, quietly ambitious, and don’t like to be in the limelight. They are masters of transformation, easily leaving behind what no longer serves their agenda. The key to successfully negotiating the terrain this year is planning.  Don’t do anything that hasn’t been carefully thought out. This will be easier for some of us than others. If your tendency is to be impulsive or reckless in any way, you may encounter the Snake’s infamous ability to strike unexpectedly.

The Snake is the yin side of the Dragon, so it’s appropriate to exhale now after the breathtaking ride of the 2012 Dragon Year. But keep your wits about you and proceed with caution. Examine the ground as you go. Watch for holes and hidden obstacles. Study philosophy or metaphysics, write a book, stay indoors and reflect on your life and your spiritual path. The potential for success in business, career, and finances is very good this year, as long as it’s an outgrowth of careful planning, not speculation.

And now, a few words of advice for each animal:

RAT–You must rachet down your expectations after the drama and grandiosity of the Dragon year. Focus on simple practical solutions and gather your resources in preparation for the coming Horse year, which is always your most challenging time. Your natural intelligence can sometimes make you overly critical and judgmental. Exercise caution with that attitude this year, as the Snake is capable of quietly taking off your head.

OX–If you made it through the Dragon year without total collapse, (some of you mistakenly thought you could manage the Dragon’s supernatural energy by simply working harder,) you now have the opportunity to march along plowing a nice straight furrow. Your work ethic will be appreciated and supported this year. Full steam ahead.

TIGER–You Tigers are probably exhausted and flummoxed. Your dazzling display of power just couldn’t hold up in the face of the Dragon’s magic.  The important thing now is to not misread the qi of the Snake Year. This apparent calm is not what it seems to be. Don’t be fooled and start bounding around flexing your muscles. Save all that for the Horse year. For now, stand down. Stay by the side of the river and switch your tail observantly. Gather your energy. Be ever so cautious and lay your plans for next year.

RABBIT— Rabbit is easily seduced by Snake’s mysterious and sensual nature.  But don’t be fooled. You must exercise caution this year in every endeavor. Snake qi may look peaceful, but it’s just not showing its hand. What looks like harmony to you may turn into a situation where you find yourself controlled and powerless. Examine every opportunity with an eagle eye and  heed your famous intuition.

DRAGON–If you can bear to get off the stage, you’ll find it quite nice to step back and survey all that you’ve accomplished. Major, even life changing, shifts have occurred. Now allow the transformation to complete itself in the quiet depths of your heart. This is yin power. Exhale.

SNAKE–Snakes are loners and introverts. The difficulty for you this year is noticing that you’re all of a sudden in the front row. This makes you feel exposed and on the spot. Don’t freak out. Just sink into your mysterious wise nature and refuse to be drawn out. Everyone will come to you, on your terms. You CAN be in charge, and without compromising your true nature. Consider teaming up with a Rooster who will gladly stand in the spotlight while you direct things from behind the scenes.

HORSE–The Snake is ushering in the Fire trio of animals, of which you are the special emissary. Think of it this way–you are standing at the end of the high dive, preparing to launch. All eyes are on you. The crowd goes silent as the board flexes. You love the speed and physicality of the dive. But how well it goes depends entirely on this quiet moment of centering and preparation–this moment when the board flexes under your weight and gathers the necessary spring for the perfect launch. This moment is the entire Snake year for you. Steady now. Don’t blow it by being overanxious.

SHEEP–This is likely a mixed year for you. On the one hand, your artistic sensibilities will find support and success. On the other hand you may find yourself baffled and scandalized by the Snake’s hidden agenda, especially since you will not be invited to manage any teams this year. Don’t take anything personally. Stick to your art projects, and be a supportive friend to a Pig who will need your excellent management skills to make it through the year.

MONKEY–You are basking in the glow of last year’s accomplishments and feeling like there’s no task too daunting for your formidable intelligence and resourcefulness. But now you must distinguish between magic, which was the order of the day during the Dragon year, and trickery which will get you nowhere in the Snake Year. The watchword this year is “restraint,” which is not your strong suit. But you must try, because upsetting the apple cart just to see what happens will only result in embarrassment, if not catastrophe.

ROOSTER–No one understands long range planning like you do. The Snake actually admires your ambition and responds by supporting your goals, all the while staying in the background so that you can enjoy the limelight. This is an excellent year for business and finances. Focus, planning, and strategy are as natural to you as the rising and setting of the sun. You’ll find the Snake qi harmonizes nicely with your “mission” view of life.

DOG–Well, anything’s better than last year right? Just think of this year as that barren patch of beach you’ve been tossed onto after being lost at sea and weathering a terrible storm. It’s not much but it looks like paradise right now. Use the year to gather yourself, do some repairs, and prepare for the Horse year ahead. Green pastures really are right over that hill.

PIG–Pigs get along so well most of the time that they really shouldn’t complain too much when a challenging year comes along. This is that year. It’s only a year and you’ve been here before, so try to remember what you did the last time (let’s see that would be twelve years ago.) Your chief weakness is also your greatest strength–your innocence and basic love of humanity. Dare I say you are sometimes a bit gullible. The Snake’s hidden agenda is just incomprehensible to you. It gets you every time. Here’s my prescription: Rent the movie “Harvey” starring James Stewart. Watch it regularly this year. You are Elwood P. Dowd, your best friend is a 6’3” rabbit named Harvey, and everyone thinks you’re crazy. Just remember to watch all the way through to the end. Simple good manners win every time, even in a Snake Year.

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Dispelling Some Common Myths About Shamanism

I just spoke to a student of mine who is very interested in pursuing further shamanic training. I’ve encouraged her, noting her natural talent for the work, and the rich rewards she has already experienced. Indeed, her own Helping Spirits have counseled her to pursue work as a healer. So this seems like a no brainer for her, right? Well actually, no. My client is reluctant because she is worried about what her family will think.

Shamanism still seems a little weird to many people with no experience of it. And I’m no stranger to these doubts myself. When I first became involved in shamanic practice a decade ago, I had already been a Licensed Acupuncturist with a private practice for many years. Believe me when I tell you that acupuncture is easily considered mainstream medicine now, relative to shamanic practices like soul retrieval, extraction, and journeying into non-ordinary reality. So in the early days, I kept this other work pretty quiet, only venturing into it with clients I knew would be receptive.

But now, years later, I enthusiastically share my shamanic healing and divination practice. This is partly because I’ve matured as a practitioner and no longer worry about what other people think of me; but also, and perhaps more importantly, because I’ve seen such powerful results on both a physical and spiritual level, that I am inspired by the need to restore a shamanic way of life to our culture. An important part of this process is to correct some of the misunderstandings that abound regarding shamanism.  Here are some that I often hear:

  1. “Shamanism is a religion, and I don’t think I believe in it.”

Shamanism is not a religion but a technique for spiritual exploration. It has no doctrines or creeds that must be accepted on faith. Any conclusions about the nature of Spirit, Spirits, or cosmology are arrived at through the practitioner’s direct experience. This process of exploration and validation through personal experience is crucial, and is one thing that distinguishes shamanism from religion.

In actuality, shamanism is compatible with all sorts of religions. I grew up a Quaker, and am still active in the Quaker community. I also have strong connections to Taoism through decades of involvement in Chinese medicine and martial arts, along with Celtic and pagan influences that come through my ancestry. All of this is entirely compatible with my shamanic practice.

2. “You have to be Native American (or from some other indigenous culture,) to practice shamanism.”

Not at all. Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice on the planet. It used to be the natural heritage of all human beings, not just the province of certain tribes.  All humans, no matter their ancestry, have an inherent right to reclaim this powerful visionary practice that can put them directly in touch with spiritual wisdom and restore their connection to Spirit and Nature. One of the reasons I teach Core Shamanism is that it utilizes techniques that are shared by all shamanic cultures. Individuals are encouraged to tailor their practice in response to the guidance offered by their Helping Spirits and in ways that are in alignment with their personal cultural traditions.

3. “Shamanism is scary, strange, and weird.”

Most people are surprised by how comfortable they feel with shamanic practice, once they know what to expect. There is now a growing community of shamanic practitioners who come from all walks of life. We’re a pretty normal bunch of people who hold down “regular” jobs and have families. Some have healing practices in a number of different modalities. Shamanism works with all of this. Shamanic healing and divination sessions typically take place in a context of grounded communication, respect, and professionalism.  Yes, there will probably be drumming, rattling, and maybe even some singing. But everything is explained and the client is always made to feel completely comfortable. I have never completed a session in which the client didn’t tell me afterward how relaxed and at ease they felt the whole time, even people with no previous experience of shamanic practice.

4. “Shamanic healing should be free since it’s not “real” medicine and indigenous shamans historically never took money.”

Wow. This one takes my breath away. Let me just say this: healing happens when there’s flow. The recipient of healing must be willing to give something meaningful in exchange for the work; this honors flow. In the old days the medium of exchange may have been different, but the principle was still honored. A patient often scraped up everything he or she possibly could, to give to the shaman in exchange for the work. Today’s equivalent is money. I have never turned a client away for lack of money. On the other hand, I make it clear that the work has immense value and requires a meaningful exchange to honor it. This is called integrity. Enough said.


Narrye Caldwell is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Classical Feng Shui consultant, Astrologer, and Shamanic Healer. She teaches core shamanism in Santa Cruz, and Qigong and Tai Chi at Five Branches University. She will be teaching Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman®, the Basic Workshop, in Soquel in November.  For more information see Classes at  

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The Listening of Trees

I grew up in a small East Coast town where neighbors kept an eye on all the kids. I rode my bike or roller skated everywhere (without a helmet,) and spent most of every day outside. Most of the time I just wandered around, dropping pebbles into streams, watching the cardinals who had built a nest in our back yard raise their young, and sitting in the comforting limbs of a great Copper Beech tree that presided over our front yard. This tree was my oldest and dearest friend. I told it everything. It listened patiently, generously, without judgement, to all of the tender outpourings of my eight year old heart.

My parents always said I was the “easy child,” the one who never gave them problems. While my older brother raged, acted out, and got into endless trouble, I remained calm. What the adults didn’t know was that I was beset by anxiety, confusion, sadness, and uncertainty. But the tree knew my every thought. And because the tree “got me,” I had an unshakeable faith that things would work out somehow. So in spite of a distant father, a critical mother, and a bullying brother, I grew up happy. I owe this to my tree.

In shamanic cultures all over the world this crucial relationship with trees is recognized and cultivated. In some villages of the Huichol Indians of Mexico, young men and women “wed” a tree for four years before they are considered ready for marriage. In this four year relationship, they pour out all their desires, their longings, their successes and failures, during regular visits to their tree. In this process of working out projections, they mature and are able to come to their human partnerships with a remarkable soulfulness and equanimity.

A few years ago I took a pilgrimage to Cornwall in the southwest of England, land of my ancestors, and rediscovered my Copper Beech. I was not expecting this, indeed hadn’t even thought of that tree for years, since I now live in California where this particular species doesn’t appear. But as I wandered through the ruined abbey of Glastonbury, there it was–enormous, serene, beckoning to me from atop the hill. I walked up to it and, much to my astonishment, burst into great sobs as I rested my head against its ancient trunk. I remembered it. Remembered how it took care of me as a child, listened to me, befriended me.

I spent several hours that day, sitting with my back against the trunk of the Copper Beech. I came home from that encounter having made a pact to help people reconnect with their own souls; restoring the lost connection with nature, and most especially, with trees.

In my shamanic training programs, the practice of listening to the spirits of nature is emphasized. And trees speak so much more slowly than we are used to. It takes patience to sit under a tree for hours, and listen to its wisdom. It takes time to pour out your heart to a tree. But what a world this would be if we could renew this ancient and precious relationship.

Narrye Caldwell’s in-depth eight month shamanic training program starts in November. Check the Events section of this website for details. Space is limited, so please apply early if you’re interested.

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New Fall shamanic divination group

Women at the Well

with Narrye Caldwell, L.Ac.

A 3-month program of shamanic journeying, dream work, ritual, divination, poetry, and qigong, to help you tend your soul, gain clarity, and reclaim your original medicine.

Life is filled with challenges, difficult transitions, and murky places where we feel lost and unsure of the way ahead.  Whether it’s in the area of health, relationships, work, family, or life purpose, we wish we had a personal sage or wise counselor who could just tell us what to do. Continue reading

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Astrology, East and West; an interview with Narrye Caldwell

One late winter afternoon I sat in my kitchen with a good friend, downing multiple cups of oolong tea and discussing important things like life and fate. That conversation turned into an interview about the differences between Chinese and Western Astrology. Here is a summary.

How is Chinese Astrology different from Western Astrology?

Well, the first thing is that fate calculation in Chinese Astrology is largely numerological. A personal chart is not based on constellations or planetary movement, but on counting out cycles of heavenly and earthly influences. These cycles are called Stems and Branches. In Zi Wei Dou Shu, the system I use for personal charts, each person has certain “stars” that rule over various aspects of their life, based on the time and place of their birth. But the term “star” is really symbolic for what I would call “qi influence.” Continue reading

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2012, Year of the Water Dragon

The Chinese Year of the Water Dragon, which arrives on January 23, 2012, promises transformation and good fortune.  Of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the Dragon is the only one that is not encountered in “real” life. It is a mythical creature, considered to be the ruler of Heaven, mists, and rain, and is thus associated with the Emperor. It is also the guardian spirit of the East, a symbol of luck, power, and passion.  Continue reading

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How to Eat for Good Sleep

It’s all about breakfast, actually. I know, after an anxious night of tossing and turning, breakfast is probably the last thing on your mind. In fact, you’re often so tired, cranky, stressed, and late, that you only have time to grab coffee and a bagel on your way out the door. And therein lies the problem.

The quality of your sleep is very much affected by what you ate for breakfast 12 to 16 hours earlier. This is because your morning meal sets a cascade of hormones in motion that regulate your energy and biorhythms for the whole day. By evening, you’re still under the influence of these hormonal patterns.

For instance, a high carbohydrate breakfast (we’re talking pancakes, toast, muffins, pastries, cereal, and yes that old standard the bagel,) send your insulin levels sky high. This is true even for so called “healthy carbs” like oatmeal and fruit. The inevitable blood sugar crash that comes two hours later triggers a stress response from your adrenal glands, which then secrete high levels of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, your “fight or flight” hormone, can stay excessively high all day, and interfere with your sleep at night. You may feel exhausted but your body still thinks it’s being chased by a tiger; so you stay restless, anxious, and mostly sleepless, all night. Then you unwittingly repeat the same breakfast mistake the next morning.

Here’s how to do it differently: Your body is hardwired to digest protein and fat in the morning. So if you emphasize these foods for breakfast, you avoid insulin/cortisol spikes and benefit from more even energy throughout the day. My favorites breakfast foods are eggs, nitrate free sausage and bacon, raw cheeses, butter, full fat plain yogurt, well, you get the picture. And please stop worrying about fat and cholesterol. There is no evidence that cholesterol from eggs or fat from grass fed meat contributes to heart disease. I don’t have room here to go into that discussion, but there are articles on my blog about this. For now, we’re just talking about the effect of food on sleep. Eating protein and fat at breakfast sets the body clock up so that you have nice even energy flow all day, which tapers off gradually so you can relax and unwind at night.

And if you also refrain from sugary snacks during the day, which you probably won’t crave because you ate what your body needed in the morning, then your insulin levels will stay low, and your cortisol levels will settle down where they belong at night.

Of course there are many other tricks to getting a great night sleep. But this nutritional aspect is crucial. Give it a try, and call me in the morning.


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In honor of the UC Davis students

Today I’m supposed to be writing about some health topic or other. But just before starting, I glanced through my Facebook wall and caught a video of the brutal police action that took place yesterday against a group of peaceful student demonstrators at UC Davis. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The police just calmly and deliberately walked up to these people, who were sitting on the ground with arms linked, and fired pepper spray directly into their faces, over and over again. It was like watching torture. These courageous students continued sitting there–crying in pain, but still just sitting there, arms linked in solidarity. I started to cry and couldn’t stop for an hour.

I thought about how I spent my day yesterday while this was going on. I did good things, I think. I spent the whole day at my acupuncture clinic seeing patients. I hope I helped people. I came home tired. But I was relatively safe and comfortable all day. Now I think about these students, most of them probably younger than my own sons, and marvel at their courage and conviction. They put their bodies on the line and risked severe injury. They did this for all of us. They didn’t budge. And the world is a better place because of them.

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