The Dancing Bears – My Story of Shame and Redemption

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“The Dancing Bears – My Story of Shame and Redemption” – By Frank Jay Leonard – March 14, 2020

I am seventy three years of age.  Never in my life had I had a psychedelic experience.  It has been on my bucket list for the past several years, as an experience I wanted to have before I die.  I wanted to see the dancing bears.

Two traumatic events happened in this past year and a half of my life.  The first one came eighteen months ago, and shattered the identity I had built over the past fifteen years of being a photographer who had grown and matured into creating a beautiful body of work that I call “The Nude As Nature.”  The trauma occurred during a three day photography workshop which I attended.  On the last morning of that workshop a nationally and internationally known print reviewer asked each participant to bring forward two of their favorite images for review.  One of the two I brought up to share with her and the other attendees is one of which I am most proud, “Grandeur.”

I think the expression goes, “She ripped me a new hole.”  First the print reviewer asked me, “Why is she naked?,” and then she went on to say that as a male I did not have the right to interpret the beauty of the female body, asked me why I didn’t turn the camera on myself or on my wife, and added that 65% of the female print reviewers in this country would no longer even consider female figure photography done by a male.  I could say that she publicly shamed me, but as I look back I would rather say, “I allowed her to shame me.”

The ramifications of that morning continued to play out in my local photographers’ group, where another woman who had attended the workshop expressed being uncomfortable with my images as well.  What ensued, from the leadership of our group, was an attempt, without my knowledge, to draft guidelines for what photographs would be acceptable to bring to our group meetings.  It was an untenable situation for me and I resigned the group.

I have always been a very positive person, not prone to depression, but for a month I literally sat on our couch here at home, depressed and not knowing what to do with myself.  I had built an identity for myself of being a good photographer, who was incredibly respectful of the models with whom I worked, collaborating with them to create beautiful images of the naked female form in nature.  And I allowed that identity to be blown to smithereens on that morning with the print reviewer and the subsequent actions of my local group.

Slowly I rehabilitated myself off that couch, but still had no motivation to do much of anything, photographically or otherwise.  I was a ship without a rudder.

Then, eight months ago, came the second traumatic event.  This one is harder to write about, for this time I kicked myself in the teeth.  It had to do with alcohol and it eventuated in behaviors of which I am not proud, culminating in crashing my vehicle into a gate, something I don’t remember even happening.

In the words of Mary Oliver, “It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.”  After succeeding in keeping my life in a manageable, happy place for decades of living, I had hit bottom.  There was no pretending to be done any longer, no denial possible.  I was lost.

I slowly picked myself back up once again, swearing off alcohol and pot entirely, but my spirit and motivation were gone, for much of anything.  I could function, but I could not thrive.  I could do, but I could not find inspiration.  I had lost faith in myself.  This time I had shamed myself.

And then, about five months ago, came the opportunity to engage in some counseling and consciousness medicine therapy.  Here was an opportunity to fulfill that bucket list item of having a psychedelic experience in my lifetime, but, as I would come to learn, this was to be no recreational experience.  The two medicines that were employed, when used in conjunction with a gifted counselor and guide, are coming to be understood and appreciated once again as powerful tools in therapy and healing work.  They are being used to treat addictions and PTSD’s (which I had after hitting the gate with my vehicle, and having a man chase me down on a motorcycle and scream in my face, all the while filming me.

With the first medicine, I was in a darkened room, with a cover over my eyes, where the only place to go, rather than to the outside world of people and sights and colors and sounds, was the only place left to go, into the core of my psyche and being.  It was an amazing journey, and in the process I literally learned, for really the first time in my life, to have compassion for myself, to love myself.  I have always been a giver and a lover of connecting with other people, of being in service to others, first as a minister, then as a school teacher, and then as a school counselor.  My whole life could be characterized as one of giving.  There were experiences however, like leaving the ministry, the church, and my first marriage, that unbeknownst to me, placed barriers around my heart, protecting me from feeling the pain I had brought to others.  Those barriers, I discovered in my first medicine journey, were still there, keeping me from feeling the full depths of compassion and connection with others.  It was during this first medicine journey that I was able to turn compassion around and finally give it to myself.  I came to love myself, like I probably have never loved myself before.  In the process, those barriers fell away and I came out of it with a deep sense of compassion and love for everyone in my life, past and present.  I wrote letters or I invited to lunch those significant people with whom I needed to reconnect, connecting with them in love and compassion.  I forgave myself and in the process was able to bring compassion and love to others as well.

Then, last month, with much love and compassion in my heart, but still with no real sense of direction or purpose in my life, still not knowing what to “do” with my life, I engaged in more counseling and was introduced to my second consciousness medicine.  Again I was in a darkened room with a cover over my eyes, once again not being sent outside of myself, but within.  And it was not easy.  I am not eagerly waiting to get a chance to do it again.  It was very frightening to let go, to surrender, and to drop into my deepest fears and shame.  Two or three times I tried to climb out, only to be encouraged by my guide to go back in, relax, breathe, and surrender.  And surrender I finally did.  It was unbelievable.  I was taught not to interpret what I saw or experienced, to stay out of my head, and to just let it unfold, to let the medicine do its work in rearranging me.  Interpretation and understanding would come later.  And, oh my, how they have come later.

I am now almost a month past that second medicine day.  From day one I have not been the same person I was before.  Some of the changes in my life are subtle, some are dramatic.  None of them have meant doing anything other than what feels natural and organic to who I now see and feel myself to be.  Compulsions, obsessions, and the shames of the past are gone.  There is nothing to fight inside myself any longer.  At the end of my journey, as I was coming back out, I felt my left hand move across my chest and place itself on top of my right hand, with a compassion and a love and a tenderness as deep as any I have ever experienced.  The war with myself was over.  The belittling of myself was over.  The shaming of myself was over.  I was at peace.

And out of that peace with myself the changes have naturally unfolded, and continue to unfold.  Here is a partial list of the changes in my life, in no particular order.

1)  I dress completely differently.  I have been a jeans and t-shirt (muted colors) guy my entire life.  Now I joke, you give me one psychedelic experience and I become a hippie  :o)

These clothes, the likes of which I attempted to wear several times in my past life, never lasted more than a day.  They felt phony and did not reflect anything on the inside of me.  Now it is different.  My clothes are loose fitting and free and flowing, as I feel free and flowing.  Some of them have rich colors that I would have been too self conscious to wear previously.  Not anymore.  Crazy!

2)  Dropped caffeine (since writing this article I have returned to one cup of coffee per day)

3)  Loss of compulsion, obsession to pot

4)  Loss of compulsion, obsession to alcohol

5)  Loss of compulsion, obsession to pornography

6)  Have energy, waking up 5:30ish each morning, ready to start the day

7)  Ability to sit with things before acting, speaking

8)  Loss of need to “fix” things for others

9)  Daily hour of meditation/self care/body work/Reiki

10)  2.4 miles of walking each day

11)  Depression gone

12)  Daily journaling

13)  Calm inside, meditate at the very beginnings of tension

14)  Motivated to get tasks done that need to be done

15)  Hate even the beginnings of adrenaline, meditate to calm

16)  Better listener

17)  A spiritual person once again

19)  No more shame, I like and love myself

20)  A growing even closer to my beloved wife

21)  Unselfconscious

22)  Extreme patience with myself and others

23)  Discernment, yes and no are clear, not muddled

24)  Losing weight and getting trim

25)  Self confidence without ego or arrogance

26)  Ability to face and walk into conversations that are needed to bring understanding or closure with others

27)  Compassion for myself and others

28)  Not leaning forward or pushing anything along before its natural unfolding in time

29)  Forgiveness of myself for all that is past

30)  No sense of time running out or not having enough of it to accomplish my life’s purpose, living this day in presence and compassion and connection is what matters, truly if I die tomorrow, I will die knowing who I truly am.

31)  I am happy

32)  I am not so damn serious

33)  I am not driven from one activity to the next to the next any longer

34)  My life is in balance

And there you have my story of shame and redemption, which will now become the foundation for everything else that will find it’s way into these pages of sharing and self healing.  I will continue to offer resources and writings that come out of this journey of leaving shame.  And there are images, indelibly etched in my head from my second medicine journey, which will also find themselves taking form in photographic images which I am now editing and creating.  It will take courage to publish these images as a new and unprecedented body of work, but it took courage to embark upon this new life of mine, it took courage to be vulnerable and share this story with you, and it will take courage to continue walking deeper and deeper into this new world.

“But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do – determined to save the only life you could save.”                        – Mary Oliver

I have found those dancing bears, and those dancing bears are me.

Love, Frank.