I sat across from the doctor and his words, "Mr. Swinney, after evaluating
your tests I must tell you that you're quite likely to be dead within three
years," put me into shock. My mother had died quite young of
heart and circulatory problems but I was strong, an ex-collegiate athlete
and still active, at least on the golf course.
I had started professional life as an engineer trained primarily in chemistry,
physics and mathematics. My rites of passage had been drinking twenty
one bottles of beer on my twenty first birthday and owning my first car.
My training had led me to be objective and removed from all human process
except logical and intellect so that I might better manipulate the world
about me. This training and these pursuits occupied most of my life
and had led to my considerable success as an engineer and executive.
I had become a divisional manager for a large sporting goods manufacturing
company while in my mid-to-late twenties and was well on my way to even
But in 1971, however, the year of the doctor's warning, I was forced to
consider that the consequences of my preoccupation with success, science
and technology had become a threat to my life. To succeed, I had
given up my natural humanness and had forget myself into a detached, objective
machine which had severely impacted my ability to live. Since I was
out of touch with it, my body had badly deteriorated; hypertension, a weakening
heart, a developing ulcer and hypoglycemia were among the more imminent
I was scared, so scared that I dropped out and got very interested in health
and healing. By 1975 I had completed training as a psychotherapist,
and in my personal therapy had dealt with my type A personality and worked
out most of the emotional issues that had kept me trapped in it.
I got so busy having fun I forgot I was supposed to die but in rare moments
of deep self honesty and appraisal, admitted that - while improving - my
health and life still left much to be desired.
There was also another discomfort tugging at me, a vague sense of unease.
There was an incompleteness with the psychologies and the healing I was
learning. I studied most classical and contemporary theories and
many obscure ones - from Freud and Reich to Radical Psychiatry and Gestalt.
I used a wide and eclectic variety in my practice and was considered a
good therapist but something was missing and somehow didn't really address
the full human condition in either my clients or myself.
I was also considering the deeper issue of my personal survival, not my
desire to survive, having already dealt with that by changing my high stress
lifeless style. But the question was whether or not I believed I
could survive in the chaotic worked of the seventies. I was more
than half convinced of the imminent demise of civilization through either
economic breakdown, nuclear was or ecological disaster. But even
more at issue was, deep within me, a core of insecurity, a frightened self
who was not sure of my ability to survive if left to my own wits and efforts.
To control my insecurity, I decided to put myself into an alien environment,
one where I'd have only myself, my wits and - I hoped - a dormant
survival instinct to get me through. A drastic measure, to be sure,
but to go on as I was, would be to continue life based in fear and self
doubt. Thus, in late July of 1976, I found myself alone in my canoe
about three days from the last sign of civilization on my way to James
Bay in the wilderness of northern Ontario. I had with me basic survival
tools, but no food; I had decided to rely mainly on my wits to provide
for myself. Three days distant from the nearest civilization, I wasn't
in very good shape.
It is dark, I am camped on a peninsula on a small lake. I have never
felt so utterly alone in my entire existence and am terrified. A
simple sprained ankle and I might very well die alone in this wilderness.
A loon pierces the night with water demon and spirit voices and pale flickering
light from my fire pushes at the edges of the haunted forest, barely keeping
the dark at bay.
I huddle in this precarious island of safety, so terrified that for the
past two days I have been unable to keep the half raw fish and berries
that I have foraged in my stomach. Cold writhing snakes slither and
push at the pit of my abdomen and from time to time sink their fangs into
its walls, sending tremors of pain shooting through my groin. My
neck and shoulders have petrified past pain into numb rocks and tears force
past my tightly clenched eyes to tangle in my beard. Although I have
been an atheist for the past twenty years, I now sob, "Oh God, please,
please help me."
"Breathe deeply and slowly," the psychotherapist in me says. I do
so and close my eyes. "Focus on the breath and relax." And
eventually I relax into fear and eventually sleep claims me. In my
I am pursued through the clinging woods by predators; they are gaining
on me and I can only run in slow motion. Finally as I feel the damp
heat of their breath, and their sharp fangs closing on the back of my calves,
As my eyes open, cold shivers slither down my skin and I focus first on
the smoldering red coals of my fire. Beyond, in the shadow of the
forest is a deeper shadow and two yellow-green eyes within it trap mine
and pierce through into my soul. Simultaneously, I stare into the
eyes of a wolf as I stare back into the eyes of the human. Fear melts
into surrender and I flow in a circle that phases birth into life, into
death, into unknowable yet comforting chaos, into once again, birth.
The snakes in my abdomen transform into a warm almost wet pool of deep
red power and energy. It is like the letting go of an orgasm and
it takes me to a sense of boundless self. We are all one, related,
brother and sisters...the trees and forest beings, the creatures of the
woods, even the humans far to the south. The glow in my abdomen fills
with a swirling kaleidoscope of memories, knowledge and wisdom; an infinite
storehouse to be drawn on when needed. I am no longer alone and afraid.
I stare into the eyes of a wolf as I stare back into the eyes of the human.
Fear melts into surrender and I flow in a circle that phases birth into
life, into death, into unknowable yet comforting chaos into once again,
The eyes of the wolf bring me to this consciousness and hold me there.
It is a magnetic attraction and we communicate, without words or sounds,
open and vulnerable to one another. We seem to exist in an endless
moment beyond time and space. Eventually I notice that the wolf shadow
and eyes are gone but wolf-ness lingers in my mind. I AM WOLF!
And then it is dawn and I know I will survive.
I'm not too clear about the time that followed but I survived and it was
the essence of wolf that empowered and carried me through; I lived in a
timeless state, foraging and somehow intuitively finding roots, berries
and other plants to supplement the fish I caught. Eventually I returned
to civilization, about four weeks later by the calendar but an eternity
later in subjective time. And that is when things really began to
Back in my rational, ordered, civilized world the wolf experience took
on scary overtones. We are often drawn into the psychotherapy professions
our of a need to help ourselves; this was certainly true for me.
Moreover we are often drawn or attracted to specialize in the area of our
own pathology. I had specialized to a large degree in schizophrenia
and my mind now seemed split in two, wolf and man. Schizophrenia
is derived from two Greek words: schizen (to split) and phren (the mind).
Were my problems deeper than I had originally thought? Had a latent
schizophrenia surfaced in me?
The wolf experience had all the signs of hallucination and I had certainly
suffered from what my rational psychotherapist self termed "thought
disorders, reality and sensory distortions." Lycanthropy describes
a delusion and melancholy in which a person believes himself or herself
to be a wolf but retains human form. At the very least I could assume
that diagnosis. I knew that within the Native American culture, experiences
such as mine were common and acceptable but that didn't diminish my fears
or still my trepidations. "Has my insecurity yielded to an underlying
and deeper insanity?" asked the pedantic psychotherapist part of me.
Fearing the answer, I attempted to suppress the experience, to blot it
from my mind, deny it. On rare occasions, with a few trusted and
intimate friends, I shared it, discussing it intellectually - or as an
unusual experience - but I avoided as much as I could and with great passion
the reality of the wolf within. Perhaps that was because whenever
I relaxed, images of wolf eyes filled my mind: "clearly a compulsion"
diagnosed my inner critic. Gray Wolf had helped me to survive in
the wilderness but of what possible benefit or use could he be in my civilized,
rational life? Why did he keep bothering me?
The answer came slowly as wolf consciousness began snaking into my therapy
sessions, often giving me visions and insights that defied all explanations
of my rational therapist's mind. I would return to the timeless moments
of wolf-ness in the wilderness and this state of consciousness would lead
to strange intuitive images which, when shared with my clients, often seemed
to trigger quantum therapeutic leaps. Graywolf's intrusions and timing
were impeccable and eventually I was forced to admit that this wolf therapist
in me far outshone the rest of my abilities.
In other areas of my life, I began to explore "wolf," both reading books
and through deep inner searching; I found solace, support and confirmation
for the very deepest and often secret levels of my being; aspects of shadow
self that I had previously thrust away in shame became valued and transformed
as wolf. A natural unprogrammed self began to emerge and self esteem
and empowerment gently began to replace insecurity and self judgment.
My quest to the wilderness was being answered; my inner shadow transformed
It took four years, but finally in 1980 at a Humanistic Psychology conference
in Snowmass, Colorado, I found courage to share my wilderness wolf experience
and took the name Graywolf before a large group of the very peers who I
had once feared would judge me insane. I found both acceptance and
encouragement, if not a little envy, from many of them. Later that
night at an outdoor Paul Winter concert, the siren howls of "Wolf Eyes"
resounded off the surrounding mountains seemed at last to welcome Graywolf
into the world. The vision lived on and grew.
This recognition - or was it acquiescence to an inevitable process? - accelerated
the changes in my life. For the first time, I formed a deep and meaningful
relationship with a woman, one that still endures. Within a year,
I once again dropped out, left my practice and with my new life mate and
family, took to the road to follow the wolf's instinct. Through the
years since then we've done many things, made many decisions and taken
turns that to outsiders seemed strange. But when guided by vision
and intuition, that's often true.
My brief encounter in the wilderness with Graywolf was a pivotal point
about which my life evolved: a never ending source of empowerment and inspiration
that helped me on the often rocky path. I now live a life based in
inner freedom, creativity and ongoing evolution, not fear and constriction.
The wolf taught me this. The split has healed and wolf and man exist
in harmony and I am at last at ease.
The wilderness experience, although challenging, was just the opening of
a door. In the days of the mid-seventies, a vision or wilderness
quest was a thing of the future for our culture. There were few,
if any guides and I was lost in my vision when I re-entered civilization
and didn't really know how to integrate its power into my life. Without
a guide or a mythos to validate my experiences, I feared for my sanity.
Bringing the vision back with me, actualizing it into my life was difficult,
much more difficult than the actual quest. It doesn't end when you
leave the wilderness with a vision; it really only begins there.
Out there the vision comes to you, begins to transform you...but to actualize
this new self into the civilized world takes commitment, and faith in your
dream. The support of a guide to help you re-enter the civilized
world and the existence of cultural myths can help but the vision itself
is the power within you that will take you through the changes. And
the benefits derived will reflect your faith and commitment in your
So before you seek vision in the wilderness, be sure, because you will
get what you need (not necessarily what you want), and have to deal with
it at the very deepest levels of your being. It will change your
life and in spite of what you may think now, that might be the most difficult
part of all to handle.