Thoughts on gratitude

img_4959I am glad to be alive today.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with 15 family and friends — and since our house is tiny, we hosted it at our art gallery. What fun! It was an experience I hope everyone there remembers. Thanks everybody.

I am grateful to have had all the experiences of my life, every single moment. Even moments of despair, grief or anger. Gratitude is big enough to hold every thing. Connection. Loneliness. Delight. Full belly. Music.

It begins by being deeply present in each moment. Too often I forget to be present. Then somehow we orchestrate a day like today and I’ve made up for those times I forgot to notice the preciousness. The fleeting sweetness. My treasured family and friends. Remembering is gratitude.


Look at all of this before us: your eyes and smiles around the table! The bounty of our beautiful earth and of our labors! The beauty and artistry on the walls, on the table, in our bodies. Take it in- the laughter and dancing and goofing and helping and eating and washing and sharing. The sharing!

Thanksgiving 2016 – post feast dancing from Maureen Shaughnessy on Vimeo.

I appreciate you all. Each one. I have no regrets for the difficulties and hard times, though I am sorry if I ever hurt you. We are who we are because of all that. We are who we are because of who loves us and who we love and who has been vulnerable with us and who we have shown our hearts to. And. What we do about it.

Gratitude demands that we do something to bring the emotion to life! That we create a ripple in the surface — simply because we are aware, thankful, changed. That we take some kind of action. So I ask myself tonight, “What do I do, to honor what I love, to advance what I value, to create more of what I long for?”

Bow deeply to the sacred in each person you meet.

My New Favorite Season: Spring Near Yellowstone

Elk cow and her calf

Hearing robins singing has always been my first sign of Spring.

River with Birch Leaf

We’ve tried to arrange for our shamanic study group to meet in Montana, our home-ground, for almost 20 years. Well, they came this spring! Yay!  And I kinda think everybody pretty much fell in love with Montana’s beauty and wildness. Yellowstone Park, the Yellowstone River and Paradise Valley to be specific.

It’s been a long time since I have visited Paradise Valley and Yellowstone Park in springtime. Starting when my sons were little, we camped in Yellowstone but usually after school was out for the summer, or in the fall. I’d always heard about the incredible spring surge of baby wild mammals and birds there, but I’d never experienced that awesomeness until this retreat. Fall was always my favorite Montana season. I’ve changed my mind, though.

My new favorite season? Spring-near-Yellowstone. Yes. That is a season. Springtime-near-Yellowstone. Not just plain old Spring.

In early May, Mother Earth is waking up in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Waking up in a big way:

  • Her trees sure woke up — fast! In just a couple of days, before our eyes, the aspens and cottonwoods dressed their bare branches in mists of green, then fully clothed themselves in designer-leaf-garments.

Spring Aspen by Matt Lavin

As spring days grow warmer, Earth’s sacred waters awaken. Snow melts. Soft rains come. Rivers swell and fill their banks. The water covers sand bars, willow thickets and ancient boulders. Listen to the sound of a small stream feeding a big river and notice the beauty filling your heart:

Afternoon River Reflections

During the night the land sleeps. Mists cover the bottom of Emigrant Peak in the Absaroka range. With sunrise, the clouds lift to reveal a snowy shawl on the mountain’s shoulders and, as the day warms, her shawl unravels into rivulets that feed the swollen river. Earth’s sacred waters take many forms.


Mother Earth is waking up with babies. Every kind of wild-fertile-life-explosion-of-exuberance baby: bison calves, wolf cubs, fox kits, fawns, elk calves, gopher kits. Eaglets, goslings, osprey chicks and kildeer chiclets. A hatch of mayflies and a hatch of trout fry, bunnies, ducklings, loonlets and grebelets.

Elk Cow and Calf

Birds mate, nest and raise a brood. Or they just pass through, feeding all around us – energy for the journey.

  • A grebe mother floats by with a brood of grebelets on her back. Two of them are just behind, tucked up against her tail as close as they can be, in the wild, rising waters.
  • Yellow-headed blackbirds sing their water-in-the-throat-joy
  • Dusk brings the chortling call of sandhill cranes, their color that of deer, goose and fallow field
  • Canada geese stand on a snag midstream, high water all around them, calling their distress in not-quite-unison
  • White pelicans glide downriver — a silent line on invisible rolling air-hills
  • Mama eagle brings home a snake, then a rabbit, a duck, a fish — she’s a good provider
  • Nuthatch, woodpecker, chickadee, siskin, finch —  the timbre of bird-song in a meadow swells to a symphony of beats, noise and vibrant texture
  • The cottonwood grove where we met around a fire, is alive with aspen-catkin-fluff dancing in the air to the rhythm of bird-song
  • Above our heads, baby gracklets (made-up-word-warning) strain their wobbly necks from a hole high in an old snag. Their begging calls must fill the parent birds with urgency — bring more bugs! Bring more bugs!
  • A red tailed hawk screams hoarsely from across the flooding river — an osprey answers at dusk

YellowHeaded Blackbird

Our Earth is sacred. There are some places on Earth I can more easily feel and experience that sacredness. The Yellowstone ecosystem is one of those places for me. It is holy ground.

Just for fun, I found some recordings of some of the birds we saw and heard during our retreat. Listen here:

Sandhill Crane

Pine Siskin

Osprey on Nest

Mountain Bluebird

Yellow-headed Blackbird



  • The River ©Eddie McHugh
  • Recording of American Robin from Slater Museum
  • Aspen Catkins photo ©Matt Lavin
  • River Reflection ©Maureen Shaughnessy (me)
  • Snow Clouds Cloak Emigrant Peak ©Maureen Shaughnessy
  • Elk Cow and Calf ©Maureen Shaughnessy
  • Yellow-Headed Blackbird ©Michelle Lamberson
  • Bird Calls are from
  • Recording of Pole Creek is by Maureen Shaughnessy

Huichol Shamanism in the Desert

red sandstone rock formations in Zion Park

Canyon in Zion ©Maureen Shaughnessy 2006

It’s about time I wrote about my spiritual journey. This is not something I talk about or write about very often, though if asked, I will tell you whatever you want to know.  But my spiritual beliefs are so intertwined with being an artist that I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor that part of me here. This is a beginning…

I was raised Catholic, went through a period of studying Zen Buddhism in college, and now consider myself to be a Huichol.  I have been studying Huichol Shamanism since 1985, when I met Brant Secunda at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana. Somewhere in there, I attended a Methodist Church where I found a nurturing community who helped me raise my two sons as a single mother. I am still connected to the friends I made along the way and thank everyone whose lives I have shared and still do share.

The Huichol say we are created from the elements of the natural world — fire, air, water and earth. Because of this, each of us is a miniature universe, a mirror of both the natural and the spiritual worlds. All the knowledge and secrets of these two worlds are inside of us and everything is perfectly arranged. Shamanism teaches us to tap into that arrangement, to understand and to live in harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds. –Brant Secunda, Dance of the Deer Foundation

Connecting to the spiritual world is part of my daily life. It’s not something I do on Sundays. It’s everyday all day. It’s in breathing. In cooking healthy whole foods. It’s in the way I greet the day or say hello to friends and strangers. It’s in writing, painting, taking photos, walking with Charlie, stroking our cat’s sleek black fur.  It’s in having coffee with a friend, doing housework, laughing with Tim or planting the garden. It is being plugged in, charged up with the power of Nature, no matter where I am: in the city or in a red sandstone canyon. It is remembering that I am not separate from the rest of Creation. That everything is sacred and everything is inside me.

Three times a year, my husband and I have a special opportunity to get really charged up, with our ongoing shamanic study group in different places around the world.

For eight days this April, we stayed on a high plateau just outside of Zion National Park. This year was our seventh year near Zion, and we were able to complete five years of pilgrimages to many beautiful and powerful places inside and outside the park. I hope these photos and excerpts from some of my writings (and those of one of my favorite authors, Ellen Meloy) give you an idea of how I connect with nature — and how you can, too.


In May, 2005 and again May, 2008 I photographed a few of the places we visited after our time with our group. Here is what I wrote when I posted those photos five years ago:

The Utah desert is filled with firey colors, textural canyons, ephemeral pools that reflect the shadows and light. In springtime everything bursts with a kind of soulful joy at being alive! Although I cannot do justice to the beauty of this magical place on our planet, I tried to record how I felt while we were there … There are other photographers who have succeeded in capturing the desert’s beauty far better than I have. But for me, this was and still is a personal exercise in connection with this harsh, yet peaceful and totally alive place on Earth.

The second year our group spent in Utah, Tim and I went into the park at dawn one morning to see if we could find an unmarked canyon trail I remembered from a time I hiked it in 1988.  We did find it, and it was even more lovely than I remembered.  I hiked in bare feet so I could feel the skin of Mother Earth.

red sandstone rock formations in Zion Park
Dawn in Many Pools Canyon in Zion National Park

Dawn in “my” little canyon …  we catch the first rays of sun making firey glow on sandstone beauty, the day still cool from the tattered darkness … sand cool on my bare toes and birdsong reflecting on the cliff faces in torrents of colorful notes. Everything is as still as the most peaceful place on Earth can be. Not a single other soul around except Tim and me.

Each year when we go back to this canyon, I welcome the sight of the wildflowers and the sound of the spadefoot toads. The pools remind me of a necklace of jewels connected by a thread carved in the sandstone. And each time we go, the canyon is different.

Pool carved by spring runoff in the sandstone canyon
A Jewel in the Canyon’s Necklace

The ephemeral pools of Zion’s canyons are home to a delicately balanced community of inhabitants. The most obvious of these are the desert toads Edward Abbey described so beautifully in his book, “Desert Solitaire.” The pools fill with warm water after a rainstorm, and the tiny toads “wake” from their sleep-state to sing out in a loud chorus full of desire and need. They mate quickly, surrounded by the calls of thousands like them. The toads lay their eggs in sandstone pools like this one and the eggs hatch into tiny immature toads — tadpoles. Tadpoles must metamophose quickly into their adult form before the pools evaporate. Then they begin their cycle of estivation/ awakening/ singing/ mating/ hatching and transforming all over again.

The shape of this pool (above) looks to me, like one of the tadpoles wriggling around in the water.

Pool in Canyon with Reflection
Canyon Pool at Dawn

The mesas creak and strain in the frigid air, audible only if I lay my ear to them. The colors in their flanks-terra cotta, blood-red, salmon, vermilion-bear the temperament of iron. Against the steel-blue sky of a summer monsoon, the ridge bleaches to white. Moonlight blues it, and bright sun turns it pale cream or, if you are making love atop it, blush pink. — From “The Anthropology of Turquoise” by Ellen Meloy

Prickly Pear and Indian Paintbrush in Zion
Prickly Pear and Indian Paintbrush in Zion

Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures. They convey every sensation from lust to distress. Flowers use colors ruthlessly for sex. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. A cactus spine glows red-gold in the angle of sun, like an electrocuted aura — Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise

I will close with another of Ellen’s amazingly poetic observations:

… perhaps this is all that a person can try to put into her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty.

"Singlet" a desert flower at dawn
“Singlet” a desert flower at dawn

Contemplative Art in the Garden

Closeup of wing-like leaf

A garden is a peaceful place to connect with every part of creation . . .

Buddha Statue in Garden
Resting Among the Ten Thousand Things ©Maureen Shaughnessy 2008

I have worked with my son, Gabe and his best friend Jack, on spring garden cleanup for some of my design clients. I love hanging out in these gardens! For me, that is one way I know I have succeeded in a garden design. Another sign of a successful design is that my clients are happy in and with their own gardens, even years after the first installation.

The almost life-size Buddha (above) rests among the “ten thousand things” in a Contemplative Garden we have installed over the last two summers. “Ten thousand things” is a Buddhist expression representing the interconnection and simultaneous unity and diversity of everything in the universe.

Each one of us is here for a reason and the world would be incomplete without us.


In the Huichol spiritual tradition my husband and I follow, there is a similar concept, that each of us has all of creation inside our hearts:

Huichols say we are all joyous beings of light. We were created out of love, from all the elements of the natural world — fire, air, water, and earth. Because of this, each of us is a miniature universe, a mirror of the natural world outside of ourselves, and also a mirror of the spirit world. All the knowledge and secrets of those two worlds are also inside of us, and everything is perfectly arranged. Our job is to tap into that arrangement, to understand it and to live in harmony with it.” — Brant Secunda, Huichol Shaman and Healer

If we strive to deeply understand and perceive our world as inseparable from ourselves, then we will have empathy for every part of creation. We are an integral part of everything. Every one of the ten thousand things is, in the true sense, part of us. And everything is perfectly arranged!

This — whether we paint, draw, sing, pray, dance, cook,write code or write poetry — this empathy makes every one of us an artist and a spiritual being.

So, today, go out into a “Garden,” no matter where it is and see your connection to nature as a work of art and as an act of prayer: in a wildlife refuge, in your back yard, on your balcony, in a city park, in a plant nursery or just in a clay pot on your kitchen windowsill.

Find your connection with nature: watch the unfolding of leaf buds and see not just a “plant” but also freedom, flight, wings, wind, the lightness of a heart. Can you see your own life in the artistry of the natural sculpture in the photo below?