May 16, 2014

The Snake Bite & Burning Man. ~ Toby Pritchard


During the last days of August, there was a tepee.

A circular space large enough for about 20 people to enter and sit inside. Surrounding it were structures just like it, brimming with hundreds of people coming in from all directions and flying away on their merry way. You see, this bustling encampment was just one ‘block’ inside of many others, all with a different purpose and theme.

If you float into the sky and look down from a birds eye view, you’ll see an enormous sundial forming 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock with the centre circle called ‘The Playa’, maybe a mile in diameter. Branching out from ‘The Playa,’ the ‘blocks’ go about 13 deep (using letters). Sweep across the curvature of the sundial and somewhere in this iridescent metropolis, our little tepee stood amongst kindred clusters known collectively as the Shaman Dome.

Yes, we’re at Burning Man.

The scorched earth surrounding us is located deep inside the Salt Flats of northern Nevada, known as Black Rock Desert. At it’s height, 68,000 people gathered here in 2013 for the ongoing experiment of ‘radical self expression and reliance.’

A temporary city. Nothing here grows from the ground—only sun, moon, earth and us to create and reinvent.

Inside the tepee, it’s late morning and the baking oven is gently wafting hot air under the tarpaulin into the calm space of gathered seekers and veteran practitioners. To my left is Kyla, from Canada—a real gem.

Burning Man Author Photo

We crossed paths rock climbing in Utah during the winter of 2012 and has been a spiritual counterpart ever since. At the time of our meeting, the tendrils of winter began to spread it’s frost over the valley bottom of Indian Creek and an exodus for warmer temps began.

Our tribe ended up flying south to Mexico (See previous post; Running out of Time) and a crazy and joyful exploit it ’twas. When the time eventually came to grab contact details, she mentioned her Facebook was named after her shamanic power animal, the Eagle. A spark of curiosity came into being right there and six months later, it’s time for Spirit Connection.

The shaman starts by blessing us all with incense. Feathers and animal bones are placed in the centre. He explains that a drum will beat in a consistent bum-bam-bum, bum-bam-bum for 10 minutes, followed by a short breather, then another 10 minutes. Sit up in the classic meditation pose, eyes closed.

He begins by asking us to think of somewhere we went as a child, that was a place of trust and safety. I remembered the woods above my mothers house, the lush countryside of Britain. Memories of walking our family dog, climbing trees, crawling through the undergrowth, the rich palette of flowers in bloom during the spring.

The inner sanctum.

“Look for a door,” he says. A muddy hole under my favourite oak tree appears and a staircase leading down into the void. Your subconscious?

I can’t tell if it’s imagination that will appear or that I’ll have to try and make sense of an endless flow of shapes and symbols swimming through me like a river of thoughts. All I know is to relax and be open. The one question radiating; “Are you out there?”

10 minutes is up with nothing. We listen to people’s parables of what they experienced during this time. Some of them are vivid and I marvel at what they claim to have seen and felt. Some say they also didn’t find anything.

The drum starts again.

Time to give it another try. Sanctuary, calm, open. I fight the thoughts of frustration and stay relaxed. The subsequent minute or so was the most mind bending thing I’ve ever witnessed.

How can I put it? Think of the geometric framework that we as humans have created in terms of mapping an environment, structure, anything really. From right to left, an image projecting onto the back of my eye lids with this structure was an Eagle swooping down to land exactly where Kyla was sitting on my left.

This released whatever shreds of doubt I was harbouring. It’s real.

Subsequently, scales materialise, ebb and flow like a reptile is draped across my eyes. Upon notice, the scales move away with fluidity in an arc and come around to face me. The Snake.

We acknowledge each other butI don’t do anything, i don’t want to. I’m in awe. It opens its jaws slowly and purposefully before swallowing me whole.

Boom. The session ends with smooth synchronicity but I’m a little lost for words…stunned actually. It didn’t feel hostile at all…but what did that mean?

The shaman explains that it was a good sign. A message of welcome and total embrace. I wanted to reciprocate fully. The two of us together, united in essence. To fully ‘grok’ each other as Valentine Michael Smith puts it. In what way i wonder.

The next day at ‘Sacred Spaces’ I was admiring some art work on consciousness inspired by the brilliant artist Alex Grey.

Under the multi coloured awning of the atrium, a group was congregating next to a sign posted ‘Discover your Inner Being.’ Naturally I was drawn to participate.

It ended up being pretty simple. Again, a circle was formed. “Do any of you guys know each other?” The lovely woman leading the session asked.

Two women smiled toward each other, one fully ordained in silver head garments that reminded me of a Buddhist deity with glitter sparkling up along her royal cheekbones and a mane of brown hair beautiful and long. Her friend was blond and fair with wooden bracelets, dream catchers, feathers and shimmering blue eyes. Both had kind faces and carried an air of a clairvoyance. They knew each other. No one else seemed to though.

So, we are instructed to take turns, one at a time, to sit in the middle for others to say what they see in that person’s face using brief adjectives. Various individuals eagerly take turns to convey their insights. Words like “playful” “nurturing” “sexual” and “introverted” start to fly around.

It’s been a fun hour.

Our guide has shown or reminded us rather, that we can make astute observations of each other if we can look past quick judgements based on our concepts of identity and the resulting prejudices. The ego and it’s projections. Expressing ourselves from the heart whilst welcoming from the heart.

The key, I suppose, is observing these initial impressions before letting it guide your subsequent thoughts, letting your sunshine burn through the gloomy cloud of cynicism.

Of course, there will always be an infinite amount of scenarios that say something different but it should be something encouraged nevertheless.

During the last 60 minutes I’ve been a little distracted though. Still smiling and participating yet retaining a minute here, a minute there to ponder and churn the events of the Shaman Dome over in my head. The water was still muddy from the disturbance and would take time to settle. Turning around, we notice the next group filtering in and the vibe says our session is coming to a close. I didn’t go but hey that’s okay.

“Yo, what about Toby? We haven’t seen him yet.”

Spinning back to the group, the clairvoyant duo’s eyes beam over in my direction with an inquisitive smile. Being the only one left from the group our guide ushers me into the middle. Plodding myself in the centre, in nothing but my jean shorts and scarf, I look around at the beautiful people we’ve been talking with this past hour.

A searching look over my companions saying: So, what do we have here? followed by a bashful glance at my hands. The calloused scars of crack climbing in Squamish still fresh and embedded in Playa dust like talcum powder. Again, the observations were astonishing. The preliminary comments like “thrill seeker” “playful,” “sexual,” “deep thinker,” “nomad not yet settled” and “self disciplined” were all kind and surprising especially when I heard “cute.”

Yet the home run came from the oracles in the front.

“I can see wisdom from past lives,” the woman with earth tones said. Interesting. “Hmm” continued the sparkling brunette “I can also see transmutation occurring in him, hmm yup, like a snake.”

We lock eyes and she smiles at the acknowledgement.

How? This happened yesterday?

Stepping back out onto the Playa with yet another dose of wonder, the sun begins to set. Gentle gusts of wind send clouds of dust into the expanse above, turning the sun into a tangerine orb. Thousands of people on their multi coloured glowing bicycles are roaming in all directions.

Trance and techno beats gently initiate their nocturnal ritual. The sun eventually dips behind the horizon and is met with hooting and hollering from the night owls. I think about this confirmed transmutation. Maybe I’m getting ready to settle in the United States?

I miss Diana with a pang. I wish i could share this with you, and start to think about what life would be like in the future with her, rope access work and climbing on the road. A dream for an idealist like me. It didn’t occur to me that knowing the path and walking the path is something different entirely.

The snake bite will manifest all.

The man burns in three days.

Seven months later, I’m lying down like a starfish on a raised plateau in between two big boulders feeling the heat of the day radiating into my aching frame. The air is still and doesn’t help to cool my body that’s glistening with sweat. It’s sunset once more but the temperature remains high around 38C.

It’s quiet too. Tranquil. A faint reverberation can be heard from the local evening drum circle higher up. Their daily salutation to the falling sun and an ode to the rising moon.

I could hear the vibrations peak and lull when I was climbing earlier. In my little snow globe, i imagined it as my tribal soundtrack as i explored the scattered sugar cubes of rock deployed all over the surrounding plateau. Alone, choosing established boulder problems that didn’t look too hard to climb was wonderful.

To feel your fingers latch those little crimps and crystals again, the dance of orientating yourself to the holds, the unique positions you find yourself in the middle of a rock face. Full body awareness. I will always be thankful for climbing because of that. The way it helped me take my first steps toward manifesting a more astute consciousness.

Sitting up, there is just beauty all around. The little creek below flows through the meandering valley, nurturing the thirsty palm trees and keeping the rice paddies lush and green. Leaning over top, jumbled heaps of bulging boulders stained in peach and orange sit silhouetted against the fading sky. Within this delightful palette of colours, something stirs in my soul.

It’s time to return to the ‘Healing Hexagon’ of Manju’s Guest house. I felt like sharing with the beautiful beings that have coalesced in this place.


Three weeks before this exceptional happening however, my head was reeling like a boomerang still in flight. Personal circumstance had not unfolded as i thought at all.

Three months of climbing and being on the road in California was bliss in the afterglow of Burning Man, especially when we returned to my favourite place in the United States. Joshua Tree. Four months in Southeast Asia after that, tapping into the wonderful world of the climbing community, mixed with bountiful blends of cuisine and architecture on our ‘cultural’ down days. Other times the big chill. Great fun in both Thailand and Laos.

But something happened when we crossed the Pacific—a shift I couldn’t put a finger on. It started subtle though but we felt it, Diana and I.

For me, it felt like a block of communication. With this resistance growing in strength I became angry on two fronts. Why can’t I articulate myself? Why was this happening now, resulting in a slow downward spiral into a self imposed prison? We did have amazing days though and those memories I shall cherish, but my inner self at the time? It was losing cabin pressure.

It was like riding waves. Leading an overhang without taking a fall, dancing on the beach or watching the sunset and discussing the mechanics of life were and are of course, fantastic.

But again, with one on one engagement, inter connectedness at an intimate level grew dimmer and hazy with time and space. My ego jumping and stomping in a tantrum, as my conceived notions of the future don’t go as I want or expect. Yup, we’re breaking down. Climbing becomes my only respite. I’m always psyched to move on the rock but it wasn’t enough. I had to fix something but I didn’t know what. Perpetual cycles, what a weight.

It’s dark by the time I stagger from the night into the light of the hexagon. The vibrations from the music and the people within the nest are perfectly in tune. Hanging lanterns of different shaded colours dance and sway in the gentle breeze. Harmony.

Many conversations are had. Track; Desert Raven by Jonathan Wilson.

Learning, sharing, having fun. At some point in the night i find myself sitting with Sam and Jackson in a state of such contentment that I found myself having some kind of revelation.

Two and a half weeks in India, where interaction with people is constant, nothing goes the way you think it will and really money is just a game when travelling on a shoestring. It all helps you to work on some core skills such as keeping a bag of tricks for bartering and being open in an honest and responsible way. And the latter, really worked a number on me.

Back in Chiang Mai, Diana’s about to catch the bus to Bangkok and take a flight back to the US. We figured that this parting would also serve as a metaphor for our relationship, as a ‘couple’ that is, good friends we shall remain.

What a year though. During that time we climbed the Incredible Hulk together with ‘that scramble’ down in hail and freezing rain, we had vehicle breakdowns on major highways, an episode with a black bear that ripped all our food apart, moon flooded nights in Joshua Tree, trekking the jungle in northern Laos, motorbike night rides from the crag, braved illness and my damned Ton Sai abscess.

There were unique experiences shared together.

Looking at her radiant face through misty eyes and quivering chin, I’m filled with a real sense of gratitude, betrayed however, by resignation and fleeting thoughts of what if.

Thai people mill around the truck, inhibiting what might have been an emotional scene. Fortunately, we had a chance earlier that day to talk. Ironically, its was one of the best dialogues we’d had in weeks.

The thing was, that during this Asia trip, I was often left at a loss for words. I couldn’t understand what I was feeling let alone express that to her. So many times I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that she was great just by being her. But I would also be absent minded and miss obvious chances to express that through actions instead of words because I was thinking and thinking about how and why our situation had changed; totally missing the present.

That morning however was different.

Upon separation, a weight was lifted and we started talking, recounting stories, laughing and crying. This was the most open communication we’d had in a while. Tremendously therapeutic.

A sign that all was not lost, i could still speak from the heart but the root of the problem was not solved. It was clear that i couldn’t move forward until I found the source of this disquiet.

With emotion somewhat purged ,I felt hollowed out but good—it felt right. She fades away with the traffic and that was it, she was gone. But not lost.

If you love somebody you have to be willing to set them free.

I will always love you Diana.

Inside the Hexagon, i feel my vibration increase. I close my eyes and sit for a while, focusing on awareness. The energy in here tonight is amazing. How eight inhabitants can create a flowing feeling of loving and healing, like a Burning Man cell is incredible and shows what each of us is capable of creating.

Conscious creators—It’s been a while since I’ve been in a state quite like this. My engrossed, albeit excited, mental chatter evaporates leaving fresh thoughts and sensory input to be viewed objectively. I notice these thoughts but i am not my thoughts. I am.

Next track; “The Sense I Am” by Mooji.

“Just the feeling I am, is present, but it’s not attached to any condition or any thought. If Spirituality or religion has any significance, its only such that when its sieved out, the feeling ‘I amness’ stops associating with other concepts and ideas and simply marinades in its own self and then great peace, great joy.” ~ Mooji

The gurus words emanate from the sound system. It feels like he’s talking directly to my consciousness. Synchronicity is met with a blissful smile. A warm sensation begins to glow in the centre of my chest.

On March 14th, I touch down in Kolkata with my ‘water brother’ Mona.

Yes, we’re here! Before we even leave the airport, it begins. “OK, so lets use the ATM so we can get into the city.” Only one machine is out of money, the other out of order and the currency exchange won’t accept anything under $30.

We meet Daniel, a Danish fellow in the same boat. The three of us converse with a cohort of attendants and eventually we are guided out of the airport, past the bus station to a tiny building near the airfield. Inside this dimly lit shack is a machine. Weird.

A little while later we are in a taxi heading to our booked hostel in Dum-Dum. Nowhere near the centre of the city. The rickety white tin box, bumbles along through tight lanes heaving with people, rickshaws, cows, blaring music, colourful buildings and rapid fire honks from every vehicle on the road. There’s traffic going in all directions, even sideways.

But it goes slow enough to let everything flow, which is amazing to witness. People definitely get knocked around if you’re not careful but for the most part it works. It feels like swimming with multiple interconnected shoals of fish.

Sensory overload. I loved it.

10 days later, a camel lumbers past laden with smiling Indians swaying this way and that. We are taking a last look at the aquatic expanse of the bay of Bengal from the beach in Puri. A lot hasn’t made sense to me up to this point.

Photo provided by author

Nothing happens the way you expect, people seem to eventually ask for money or act without any kind of forethought of their actions. Sacred cows eating in mountains of trash and the spectrum of poverty astonishing.
Almost every financial interaction ends with confusion for everyone involved and always scraps of paper with sums and division with individual taxes for every item included afterwards.

It took us days to leave Kolkata due to the Holi festival and had to pay a travel agent in Puri to wake up at four a.m. and get us tickets, as our entire day before at the ticket office and trying online ended in vain. It’s hard to be introverted and think. I just wanted to be in Hampi to climb with Liam and Mona.

We board the train the following day at dawn, drink some chai and let the next 25 hours float by. Hot drinks, Biryani, beggars, water. It keeps going.

Someone always has something sometime. I feel like this is the first time i can relax and just take everything in, apart from the transvestites who want money to leave you alone. Quite strange.

Looking over at Mona on the other side of the sleeper carriage, i’m met with her primrose perplexion smiling back at me, loving this place she had visited many times before. Knowing the process I’m going through getting to know this place too.

Hey, it’s not for everyone. You either love it or you find it frustrating. The sun rises and sets in the same day of our long journey and rises once more as we enter Hospet—a short distance from Hampi.

A few days later, we forgo our brief 5:30 morning ritual. It was fun, especially some of the cracked boulders, but lets face it. All too soon it’s too hot to climb. High’s of 42C is too much and leaves you immobilised. Surrender, it’s okay. Submit to the day with the solace that I can climb for an hour or two in the evening.

My philosophic counterpart, Liam, and I spend our days instead discussing in analytical cycles about India and the human condition with our pocket book scepticism. A time of council and meeting of minds. Wonderful of course but I still felt I wasn’t shining the light in the right direction.

Illumination had not occurred lately. A few days later, Liam must go North. This was good timing too. The hostel we are in is closing down due to domestic issues with the married owners. The latest argument could be heard from every corner of the place, almost personifying my own back and forth of late.

The next day, I bid my old friend farewell at the ‘ferry’ and move into Manju’s Guest House down the road. Bags are dumped into the new room. It’s quiet here, how refreshing. Time to walk over to the Hexagon and meet the others.

Next Track; “You are Awareness” by Mooji

“Both the ego and the consciousness refers to themselves as ‘I’. You see, God says ‘I’ and the Devil says ‘I’. You’ve fallen for it, you the consciousness has fallen for your own projection” ~ Mooji

Wind inflates my lungs as i take a slow deep breath and maintain the glowing embers i can feel in my chest. ‘Maya’ is a Sanskrit term for delusion and that was just it. I didn’t think it was possible but it had happened to me. What had caused this state of delusion?

The damn ego. And the reason for this? Lack of growth and imbalance.

I had been living, on and off, in Western Canada since ’09 and have been helped financially from my parents. Yes I worked during the winter to pay for the ski lift ticket and for rent but without that flow of aid, a lot would not have been possible. So because of this, although i am of course immensely grateful for their support and understanding, i am left with a sense of shame.

Shame that I’m not doing this completely off my own back. On the other hand, I’m pursuing traveling and climbing. The two vehicles that have introduced me to the mighty mountains, the supreme silence of the desert and people whom i love and would be strangers had i never jumped on that plane or never hitch hiked down that road. All of which have helped me to become more conscious but somewhere i faltered in that evolution.

Shining brighter. Yes, genuine reflection, finally. Alex Greys conceptual artwork of ‘Sacred Mirrors’ suddenly becomes a little more understood. We are different aspects of the same entity. What we see in other people reflects in us something we love or we hate (with various degrees in between).

Why couldn’t I express myself to Diana then? Because of ‘poor little me.’ That damn ego.

She is smart, capable and independent. Self sufficient. This highlighted a gap in my life and i knew I had left that gap unfilled and unfulfilled for too long and as a result used accomplishments in climbing to try to heal that rift.
I will always be thankful to climbing for forging my connection with this earth and creating my first ripples of awareness and it will remain a major part of my life but it can’t be everything.

When I tried, my sense of self, my identity crisis, is what caused layer upon layer until eventually the voice of the heart was dimmed and I began to stumble in the dark.

Not anymore.

It occurs to me how powerful perception is. Heaven and Hell is not some external world but right here right now. We are the creators of our own reality and if it’s run by the stroppy ‘poor little me’ primate ego constantly fearful and looking for validation we will get nowhere and live in these hateful perpetual cycles.

Like the Ying Yang, Vishnu & Shiva, Creation & Destruction, Love & Hate, Spring & Fall, they all go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other but i choose to step into the light. Renounce the ego. I felt a rejuvenation in me once more, like getting shoved back onto the path and saved from stumbling in the undergrowth.

The gravity of the Shaman Dome finally dawns on me. The snake bite had indeed poisoned me but it was necessary. I had to go through the delirium in order for that poison to be transmuted. I had finally shed my former self. Born again to to speak. Back to the feeling of simply being.

“I think now looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” ~ quote from Oliver Stone’s film Platoon.



The following morning, I take a stroll onto the grass and lie down next to Britta and Jackson playing the guitar. Bliss.

It felt like the garden of Eden in this sublime afterglow. Like a veil had been lifted. The birds are chirping and the sky deep blue. The various forms and shades of green all feel vitalising too. Growing things in what Taoism calls ‘Wu Tze.’ Orderly chaos. Perfection, forever changing forms. Breathe.

I share with the others what happened last night. When i spoke with Baba Sam before going catatonic he said:

“It makes sense and feels right because it’s a state of remembering something you already know, you just forgot. Now you’ve walked through that door again, you’re ready for anything.”

The ensuing week was full of little miracles, they happen all the time. Seb comes back from the market bearing gifts of necklaces. One in particular stands out to me which he notices and gives to me. It’s a diamond shaped stone that has the same coloured consistency of a reptiles scale. A big one. He had no knowledge of the ‘snake bite’ which i told him about soon after accepting the gift.

One night a man from London whips out a sidar and enters a musical trance. He plays like any brilliant artist who can use the instrument as an extension of his mind and delivers pure expression. During the second song, the owner of the place, Manju joins the beat with his mouth piece instrument (Morsing / Jew’s Harp) and plays so well that it isn’t just an accompany, it sounds like a layer of psy trance.

Electric and met with a round of applause when the song fades. He’s not finished though. He goes on to say how much he loves the group that has coalesced in this place, that his family including the two Nepalese chiefs have stayed open an extra week or so because they genuinely enjoys having us stay and knows how much we love this place and the people in it. It was heartwarming.

I would like to extend a most sincere thanks not only to Manju and the infinitely kind family but also to all those rays of light that gathered in the healing hexagon. You are all special people.

And of course to Mother India. I admit my initial motivation was escapism, which isn’t the best, but I wanted it be a spiritual experience nonetheless. Having said that, at the time i did not conceive how profoundly powerful that experience was going to be. You helped me to open up again just when I wanted to stay in my fractured little shell and for that I am eternally grateful.

Finally falling into the India’s rhythmic heartbeat, it was time to move on again. To each and every one of you, it will only be a matter of time until our next meeting. I take great comfort in that.

Peace & Love


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Apprentice Editor: Dana Gornall/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo Credit: Flickr/Andy Wright, other photos provided by author

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