Tag Archives: indigenous

Existential Wounds

vol-13-1-coverExistential wounds seem to occur more often for those of us with multi-cultural, immigrant, and colonial heritage. When we are (or our ancestors were) forcibly moved, forced to adopt unfamiliar cultural practices of spiritual worship, live in homes and wear clothes of unfamiliar materials, eat foods unfamiliar to our bodies, or were abused or enslaved in some way, we experienced trauma. This trauma often took the form of existential wounding where the very core of our identities, ways of being, and understandings of the world are shaken. It can take many generations and much work to heal such wounds. I recently had an article about indigenous trauma healing published if you want to dive more deeply into that. (Ignore the abstract; they used the wrong one.)

Through generations of carrying existential wounds, we feel ashamed that what our ancestors taught us about the right ways to live and what we learned to honour has been desecrated. We become ungrounded and disoriented and struggle to trans-form and re-form ourselves and our cultures in new places. We feel lied to and know in our bones that something is wrong. We wonder if we’re crazy, if something is wrong with us; we get angry with our families or society and struggle with mountains of conflicts. (This is structural change; re-claiming the body/mind/spirit as one where we are now.) If you are reading this, chances are you feel a calling to do that work! As an example, I always felt disoriented in the Northern Hemisphere. I struggled to orientate and make sense of directions, and when I got my PhD I had the definitive feeling that I was moving backwards, spiralling inwards to the core so I could get to the essence of the existential wound, go through a spiritual death and be reborn again. Moving to the Southern Hemisphere has helped me feel like my life is finally correctly oriented. Yet at the same time, native foods of Australia are unfamiliar to my body. So I gather lily pillies to make jam, eat native figs off of big ficuses when I walk by, and cook up warrigal greens (See images below). I’ve noticed that native foods are unfamiliar to most people here, though, and eating European meats and veggies seems to keep people’s psyches more tied to places across the planet and help them be more willing to mine indigenous land in their own country! (Images from here and here.)

I believe that decolonisation has profoundly positive effects on healing of existential wounds as it helps us feel more whole. While listening to the Mythic Medicine podcast recently I realised a simple way to heal some of our existential wounds is to name and honour the landforms and elementals that raised us, and support us where we now live. Here is mine for where I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia:

I was raised on the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (earth), hilly land with red clay soil and loads of spindly pine trees. The water (water) that I drank and bathed in came from Lake Lanier, a dammed portion of the Chattahoochee River. The winds (air) were unnamed but predominantly flowed from the southwest towards the northeast. Power (fire) came predominantly from a hydroelectric plant that dammed the river. The main spiritual practice (heart) there was Protestant Christian, and in particular Southern Baptist. The largest landform was Stone Mountain, a granite outcropping that extends underground into five states and has a Confederate Memorial carved into it which is the largest bas relief sculpture in the world. Other memorable landforms are the network of manmade highways, including a circle around the city with an X of two highways that meet at the centre, and incredibly messy interchanges such as one called Spaghetti Junction that looms large in my memory (see below). A local park called Henderson Lake was a safe space for me, and I walked there regularly (see below). The Creek and Cherokee nations existed on the land before English colonists, and before that were nations of mound-builders which we know little about. (Images from here and here.)

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Exercise: I invite you to download this My Ancestry Exercise that came together when preparing for an ancestral healing workshop a couple months ago. I have my answers on there as an example. It will give you a reflection of what you know about where you come from, and your intuition may answer some questions you didn’t realise you knew! You can add to this exercise an honouring of landforms and elementals exemplified above for the land(s) that raised you, and the land that now supports you!

Healing & Cultural Appropriation

In the previous post I wrote about how complex it is to honour multiple cultural identities, ground ourselves where we are now and honour the ancestors of the land, forgive our ancestors’ mistakes and decolonise our everyday lives. This post is a step further, because cultural appropriation is different in the context of spiritual healing. I have learned through experience what cultural appropriation in a healing context is, and the destructiveness it brings. I have also gained valuable insight, lessons, and tools when some cultural appropriation was being done that added a layer of destruction to the person’s offering. We are human, and our healing work is inherently imperfect. (Image from here.)

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In my experience, once we are out of crisis, healing within a market economy context is limited. There are different power dynamics, feelings and experience when meeting in a therapist’s office for 50 minutes for $100, and when with meeting a caring community member in a home, or while walking and talking with a friend in a park. As I wrote in a previous post, please RUN AWAY FROM people who say they are fully healed or ascended masters or anything like that unless you want to join a cult, because delusions of grandeur and beliefs around exceptionalism and/or superiority are not conducive to healing. Also from a previous post, keep in mind that:

“A common mistake when examining myths of other cultures is to interpret them with symbols and values of our own culture” (Gleiser, 2012). Common values of the dominant Western cosmology such as competition, hierarchy, individualism, and the primacy of the nuclear family greatly limit our ability to embody indigenous wisdom (Thibodeau & Nixon, 2013). When this happens, ceremonies can “become empty of their power” (Rael, 1998). 

Consider the difference between participating in a plant medicine ceremony in the jungles of Peru with a shaman who spent decades apprenticing with a teacher and working with plants and spirits of the jungle deeply connected with the land and its ancestors, versus participating in a plant medicine ceremony in an apartment in a Western city facilitated by someone who got the medicine from such a shaman and perhaps studied with the shaman for a short period of time.

I don’t mean to say we should never participate in a ceremony in an apartment with a medicine from a foreign culture and land. But if we do, let’s do it with awareness and help it be as safe as possible. I ask for my own guidance in a form that resonates with me (either prayer or meditation usually). I acknowledge the limitations of the healing work I am considering participating in and ask if it is right for me. If I get signs and insight to move forward, then I ask what I need to do so that it is in balance. For example, when I offered an ancestral trauma healing workshop earlier this year on land with which I have limited cultural connection, I received guidance to donate participants’ gift economy offerings to an Aboriginal advocacy organisation. I also verbally thanked the ancestors of the land during the workshop for supporting our lives and the healing work.

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I will share the following story to offer a contrast of an experience of cultural appropriation with a man who called himself a shaman and worked with indigenous people in the Amazon, Mexico, and the Southwestern U.S. He quit his day job to do healing work full time and did so within a gift economy and invited me to participate in a group healing ceremony supported by the tribe in the Amazon. He gave us all a protocol of how to prepare for for three weeks, which I followed. Two days before the ceremony, he said he had new information and changed some things, which I found strange. My husband said he had a bad feeling, but I still trusted the man. I got a sign there was danger ahead, and I felt shaken but kept going. The ceremony changed again the night it took place. At one point, the so-called shaman stood over me menacingly while I was laying on the floor, yelled at me and called me names. I told him I found the behaviour abusive, but I never heard from him again and did not see him after that. When I wrote the couple running a school for shamans in the Southwestern U.S. who recommended him on their website, they said that he had lost his mind, that he was threatening them and they were scared of him, and that putting his information on their website was not an endorsement. I later realised that the tribe was split in their support for his doing that ceremony within their lineage, with their healing tools, away from their land and culture, and that my own cultural heritage was so filled with conflict that I was able to provide the group with a reflection of this problem he was denying. What a messy, valuable lesson he gave me. Here are some less extreme examples of cultural appropriation I have experienced:

  • People charging money for community healing ceremonies traditionally offered within a gift economy or by donation, and/or facilitating ceremonies without integrity:
    • e.g. for a sweat lodge: charging a fixed fee, failing to configure the fire and lodge correctly, failing to honour the land and lineage ancestors, failing to clear the space and clean up the lodge before doing another ceremony
    • e.g. calling oneself a spiritual counsellor in a modern city and charging $100/hour without any formal counselling training or supervision from another counsellor
  • People of mixed cultural heritage identifying with only one ancestral blood lineage,  denying their own complex wholeness, then projecting that dissociation onto others whom they are supposedly offering healing to:
    • e.g. studying curanderoismo healing with someone from rural Mexico and identifying as an indigenous Aztec healer when the person did not know one of their birth parents, grew up in one U.S. state, and lived in another U.S. state.
    • e.g. identifying only as an oppressed African-American, indigenous or Jewish person without acknowledging other blood lineages and cultural heritages

heartheal.jpegI have a lot of compassion for the messiness of embodying Earth Ethos in modern multicultural cities. This is my life! And it is hard, messy work. It’s important to give ourselves and each other grace and trust that we all do our best. For a beautiful story from someone of mixed cultural heritage about honouring all of her complex heritage, read this by Lyla June. (Image from here.)

Since I have learned much of this stuff the hard way, I offer you the following suggestions of what to consider when seeking spiritual healing:

  • Intention & Identity
    • How do YOU see your role and identity in healing work done within the context of a human relationship? Are you looking for practical tools? Emotional support? Plant medicine? Ceremonial healing? A spiritual elder? Escapism? Adventure? Gratification of curiousity about an ‘other’ culture?
    • How does the other person see their role? Do they call themselves a healer or shaman? Do they say they are healing you? Channeling healing energy? Facilitating healing? Holding space? Offering medicine? Helping you connect with your inner higher self? How does the other person identify themself?
  • Cosmology & Culture
    • What cosmology/cosmologies do you embody? What perspectives and beliefs do you want to learn more about and bring into your life? To let go of? How do you relate safely to people with different cosmologies and/or cultures?
    • Is the other person’s cosmology related to (a) specific culture(s) or lineage(s)? How do you relate to the other person’s cosmology? What ancestry does the person have?
  • Place & Form
    • What physical place supports your healing (e.g. a sweat lodge, therapist’s office, church pew, a home, etc.)? Is the place relevant to the culture or lineage on which the work is based, or has it been adapted to your context in some way? What form supports your healing (e.g. talking and listening, music, dance, energy work, laying of hands, artistic expression, etc.)?
    • Where is the person willing to meet with you, and what forms of support are available? How does the person honour multiculturalism, modern places and forms? What cultural and place-based relationships does the person bring? If the person is working within a specific cultural context, how has the person received those teachings?

 

Guest Post: Colonial Disconnection

My partner Luke Ringland posted the following on Facebook, and with his permission I am re-posting it here, because his words paint a clear and powerful picture of modern city life. Those of us who have disconnected from our land(s) of origin have much loss to grieve, and much joy to gain by re-integrating with the lands and indigenous wisdom of where we now live.

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One of the many MANY things about my life and worldview that has changed since I’ve known my wife Cloud Clearer has been seeing things more clearly from an indigenous perspective. And in this I don’t mean indigenous Australians. A lifetime of my best effort at open hearted learning would be nowhere near enough to truly know their suffering. And I certainly don’t mean nativism, which so often takes the form of destructive, oppressive tribal occupation.

I’m talking about indigenous in the form of a deep, dare I say spiritual, connection to place. A felt and emergent sense of belonging in which one’s existence is symbiotic with, dependent on, and unshakeably connected to the Earth. A oneness that means all that happens to earth, happens to a person, and what happens to a person is also happening to the Earth. This is opposed an egoic mind, floating in desperation and disconnectedness on top of the earth, plotting the ways in which all other things around it can be exploited for its survival, as though one were necessary for the other. An indigenous worldview, or Earth Ethos, understands that the exploitation of the land is ultimately a self-destructive act.

I spent the day driving around Western Sydney today, and it hit me so hard how disconnected, and therefore desperate, we are. Billboards, trucking supply chains, retail superstores, and development. Everything a commodity. And I don’t mean to pick on the West. The older areas of our colonial civilisation are just pretty scars, made so long ago it’s easy to see them as somehow natural, as though European energy has somehow always been here. And herein lies one of many white Australian delusions: It is not that there isn’t something wrong in a felt sense about the tens of thousands of newcomers setting up mini colonies in our big cities. I believe there is. I feel it. But the delusion is that we were, or indeed are, any different. Just ask any indigenous person.

(Images are the first two found for the google search ‘colonialism’, from here and here.)

Exercise: What is one way you can support indigenous well-being? Consider learning which indigenous people have lived where you now call home and how to honour them, such as donating to a non-profit like this, or a local one like this in Australia. Consider integrating Earth Ethos ceremony into your everyday life to feel more deeply what is happening in your body and with Mother Earth. You might try beginning and ending each day with intention through prayer, mindful movement, breath-work, sound, or spiritual reading.

Cultural Shadows & Reflections

Our lives are an endless series of resolving tensions, or reconciling polarities. We navigate this process based on stories, beliefs, and spiritual tools we’ve learned, which differ by culture. Culture arises from the Earth below, and for the majority of us who come from immigrant, slave, refugee, or forced migration lineages, our sense of culture has been disconnected from land(s) of origin. This creates cultural shadows and reflections, which are different things.

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Think about a reflection from a lake: if the surface of the water is clear and still, the reflection maintains its form and colour, but size may be distorted by angle of perspective, uneven water surface, if we are bigger than the body of water reflecting us is able to show., and by warmth of the water – just look at the difference of the reflection of the trees from water and ice.

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Now think about a shadow: it distorts form, colour, and size. So it is a rather messy reflection of blocked light. The way shadows work, the closer we are to the source of the light, the larger the shadow appears. Placement and perspective have a huge influence on us, from how we see ourselves to how we survive in different environments.

Survival is primitive, root chakra, grounded energy. All Earth environments have a unique nature, which is why I agree with the perspective that Australia always was and always will be Aboriginal land. This is nature; we all know that Earth environments and human cultures are diverse. We would aboriginalland.jpegnever expect someone from Northern Europe to have the same culture as someone from Australia. But when a bunch of people with Northern European ancestry move here (many unwillingly), what does that mean for the culture of the people and place now living on land we call Australia?

Most of us today are experiencing such a cultural transition. We are reconciling polarities of disorientation and loss as we let go of what does not serve us anymore, and trying to ground ourselves where we are. The lived experiences of our ancestors, the myths and teaching stories our elders have passed down, and collective wisdom that has allowed our lineages and tribes to survive has reached limits. Coming from cultures that are disconnected from the Earth where we live now, unpack a lot of shadows. Some of us fret about sustainability yet cling to old cultural stories and ways of being, while others seek to adapt and grow by learning through diversity, taking risks and trying new things. We seek new cultural forms to ensure the survival of our lineages and tribes, which requires sacrifice and risk. (Image from here.)

shadowbookWe literally become bridges between the land and cultures of our ancestors and a new land and culture. Our wild and crazy human journeys allow landforms like mountains and lakes, and trees that have been grounded in one place for centuries to travel vicariously through our reflections and learn what we’ve seen and experienced. What rich gifts we bring when we allow ourselves ground in a new environment. (Image from here.)

What drives us onward through the pain? What makes us want to endure the challenges of reconciling such vast polarities of energies in order to survive? It’s an innate, profound joy and gratitude that we are alive and embodied. And if we are open and humble enough, we can learn a lot about how to survive in our current environments from indigenous elders in person and in spirit. See if you can allow the Aboriginal elder’s joy in the video below to spark a memory of never feeling lonely because you are so connected with your environment and nourished by Mother Earth. 

If we remain shut down, overwhelmed, and closed to connecting with our new environments, we miss opportunities to ground polarities and transform ourselves, and instead become stories of fallen civilisations or evolutionary dead ends.

The Red Road

The concept of the Red Road comes from Westerner’s attempting to understand the way indigenous cultures of North America structure their lives and see the world, though I havehopiroadoflife heard people who identify with a North American tribe use the term too. (If you are not familiar with the concept of a medicine wheel, read this post first.) Consider the example of the Red Road from the Hopi who live in the Southwestern U.S. Look at the medicine wheel is in the centre alongside da Vinci’s re-drawing of the Vitruvian man. The belly down to the feet maps onto the lower world coloured in black which represents Mother Earth, the sacred feminine. I estimate the proportion of the Red Road in this lower world is about 80%. This means focusing 80% of our time and energy on standing up for our values, exploring the mystical side of life, and nourishing and expressing our creative energies. 

vitruvian.pngLiterally, this means keeping our hips open, our legs strong, and our bare or grounded feet firmly planted on the Earth. We talk about having our carbon footprints, but what about our physical ones? I practice walking so respectfully and gently that I imagine my feet are kissing Mother Earth with gratitude with each step. My respect is shown through wearing flat, primarily leather-soled shoes, as well as through the act of stepping. Consider how to walk silently and softly with fox walking, and compare those movements with how you normally walk through the world. (Here’s another video to help you practice fox walking.) Aside from yoga or pilates classes, I find most of us pay very little attention to how we physically move through the world. To be honest, I cringe when I see people walk in stiletto-like heels because it looks to me like they are stabbing Mother Earth. I also feel pain when people are very heavy-footed, because it looks like they are punching Mother Earth with each step.

Metaphorically, as one indigenous scholar describes it:

Walking the Red Road is a determined act of living within the Creator’s instructions.  Basically, it is living a life of truth, humbleness, respect, friendship, and spiritually. Those on this road are by no means walking a perfect path, but are in search of self-discovery and instructions.

The path of the Red Road is mostly felt and sensed, and includes the mystery, magic, and miracles that arise through following signs and seeking synchronicities. It is more bottom-up than top-down, more grassroots than executive-led. Someone who walks the Red Road is more likely to be described as determined than headstrong. It reminds me of the Lakota morning prayer ‘Today is a good day to die”, which embodies living fully in the moment. In such a state, we harbour no regrets and are able to even let go into physical death if that is what is asked. It is being so attuned that there’s little to think through, life magically and consistently emerges and we are so allowing that living is like watching beautiful flowers blossom over and over again.Indigenous-Flag-RS.jpg

 

There is wisdom in the colour red, with some universal meanings present across cultures, such as: primal and sexual energy, blood and ancestry, fire and passion, and physical earth or clay. I am reminded of the colours of the Australian Aboriginal flag, with red representing Mother Earth, black representing Aboriginal people walking on Her, and the sun representing the creative life-giving energy connecting the people and the land. (Image from here.) I am similarly reminded of a current affairs story in Canada of an indigenous minister who resigned due to unethical political pressure from the prime minister, and another minister who resigned in solidarity. I find it apt these women chose to dress in black and red together as they took this historical stand. (Article about it and image from here.)

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Exercise: Regret is a grief about something left undone. When we are em-bodied there is nothing to re-member because we are living in the moment on the Red Road. Think of a regret. Is that dream still viable and important to you? If so, can you take a step towards fulfilling it and make a commitment to continuing on that path? If not, can you make time to grieve the loss of the dream and let it go, perhaps through some sort of ritual, so you can move on and allow new creative energy to flow?

Shaman’s Illness

Many indigenous cultures have a concept of a “shaman’s illness,” which is simultaneously a traumatic ego-death and initiation in the form of a spiritual crisis. Modern people experiencing shaman’s illness may have multiple traumatic (often near-death) experiences, which can be physical, mental, and/or psychological, as well as spiritual. Such experiences create opportunities for a person to see the world in a new way. A shaman’s illness brings intense experiences that destroys life as a person knows it and shatters previous identities and ways of being that the person was attached to. The gifts of such a brutal illness are an awakening of a huge amount of energy that can be redirected from being destructive or dissociated into being healing and empowering. As a person heals and allows a new identity to be created, the person rises like a phoenix from ashes of a fire and is reborn into carrying a wound as a medicine for others (Pendleton, 2014).

phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes.jpgI have witnessed many people experiencing a shaman’s illness. When people reject or resist it, they usually end up dissociating the destructive energy and becoming very challenging externalising personalities (like narcissists or sociopaths), or internalising the destructive energy and creating diseases such as quickly metastasising cancers. I have witnessed multiple people do both of these things. When people accept the calling of the illness, there are different speeds of doing so, which impacts the way the illness plays out in a person’s life. I have seen some people slowly accept that they are experiencing shaman’s illness over many years and bit by bit change their paths so that over time more aspects of their lives are working. Some (including myself) dive directly into the fire and allow our lives to become incredibly chaotic as our identities are re-forged and often become overwhelmed at the amount of emotion that needs to be processed and the whirlwind pace of life changes that occur. (Image from here.)

Seeing the world in ways that are outside one’s mainstream culture and being sensitive to feelings and experiences that others are blocking or numb to is a big responsibility and often triggers feelings of rejection, social/cultural alienation, doubt, confusion, fear, shame, deep grief, and anger. Learning to pace oneself is part of the journey, but if you are resisting the illness, your life will keep getting harder. What I see often is that the illness brings up such intense feelings of loss of control that people find it hard to “let go and let God” and are unwilling to allow their lives to flow into mess and chaos required for healing. I have received messages a few times that I will be kicked off the planet if I did not take make certain choices, and I have seen others similarly forced to face primal survival fears. The following are keys I’ve found to accepting a shaman’s illness:

  1. Faith in a guiding force/God/divine intelligence/Higher Power bigger than us;
  2. Trust that whatever comes into our lives is meant to help us;
  3. Willingness to experience death;
  4. Following signs, synchronicities, and symbols in dreams and everyday life; and
  5. Finding tools to ground intense energies and forms to express dark emotions.

angrylovingpeople.jpgIt is helpful, but not necessary, to seek support from someone who has been through similar things. Such people can give you compassion and empathy, guiding wisdom, and tools to process wounds and express energy. But it’s vitally important not to delude yourself that any human is a fully healed Jedi-master, all-knowing figure. If someone says they are, then RUN AWAY FROM THEM, because that person is dangerous and delusional and is on a path of becoming a cult leader or something else you don’t want to be involved with. It is important to think of illness and healing as processes, not finite endpoints. When someone says they have “healed” a wound as intense as sexual abuse or parental abandonment, I am suspicious; and when someone plays power games, disrespects, or in any way puts me down, then I know that person is ill and cannot support my healing anymore. I have no tolerance for these behaviours, even when people are unaware. I either change my boundary and create space or make someone aware of their transgression, and if they then don’t own it and work through it, I’m done with the relationship. (Image below from here.)

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I do this because I have learned through my own shaman’s illness that setting fierce boundaries shows that I value my life and my energy, and that I do not need to prove my worth by battling (e.g. convincing, power playing, manipulating, etc.) anybody. Most people who justify harmful and dangerous behaviours are carrying unprocessed primal survival fears. I rarely feel afraid of dying, though. In some ways it would be easier than being here and going through all the trauma my body is still carrying. Working with my shaman’s illness so that I become a medicine person instead of sick or dissociated is a journey of experiencing alchemy, of metaphorically turning dirt into gold as my darkest experiences become fertiliser for the growth of beautiful flowers in myself, others, and the environment. Mircea Eliade says a shaman is a “healed madman,” and Rumi says, “In their seeking, wisdom and madness are one and the same.” If you’re reading this, maybe like me, you can relate to these.

Calendars, Seasons & Cycles

There are four types of calendars:

  • A lunisolar calendar follows both the cycles of the moon and sun. Because the days, weeks and months are fixed, holy-days determined by the lunar cycle fall on different calendar days each year. (e.g. Hebrew, Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, and pre-Christian Germanic tribes)
  • solar calendar like the Gregorian and Julian ones we are most familiar with follows the cycle of the sun only. It tends to be used by agricultural cultures. (e.g. Christian, Berber, Tamil, Bengali, and the French Republican calendar)
  • mooncalendar.jpgA lunar calendar follows the cycle of the moon only and may have 12 or 13 months in honour of the number of moons in a year. (e.g. Islam, Igbo & Yoruba of Nigeria)
  • A seasonal calendar is based on elemental (earth, air, fire, water), floral (plant) and faunal (animal) patterns throughout a year. The number and types of seasons are dependent on specific places, so even tribes near each other may have different seasons if their land has a river that floods during a “wet” time, or if an animal migrates through their land at a specific time of year. (e.g. Aboriginal Australians)

You may think that four seasons a year has been standard in European cultures, but the old Norse calendar had only two: summer began in mid-October, and winter in mid-April. The “Wheel of the Year” is a common calendar used by modern-day pagans of European ancestry and is based on the equinoxes and solstices, and the half-way moments between them to mark changes of a four-season calendar. The images below are of Heathen (modern-day Germanic and Norse pagan) and Celtic pagan calendars. If you are in the Southern hemisphere and wish to honour this calendar, Glenys of Pagaian Cosmology translates it so your celebrations are seasonally appropriate.

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There are many ways of acknowledging seasons and cycles because of the diversity of environments, traditions and beliefs that influence a culture. The term “pagan” may make you think of someone in pre-Christian Europe who worships multiple gods, but it actually refers to people who are “fixed or fastened” to the land, i.e. villagers and country folk. In other words, pagans are people who have not yet experienced cultural genocide and disconnection from their ancestral homelands and whose culture is indigenous to, or rooted in, a specific environment and place. Aboriginal Australians offer us a reminder of how all humans once lived “fastened” in sacred connection with our environments:

(Clip from here.)

Exercise: Wherever you live, consider how to describe a seasonal calendar in your area. You may want to use the image below as a blank canvas, and an Aboriginal seasonal calendar as an example. Consider how this may be different to the environment and seasonal calendar of your blood ancestors from another land. Consider how you might honour this knowledge in your life today. (Image from here.)

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Peace Circles

earthethospeacecircle“Stories are medicine…embedded with instructions” that guide us about how to live our lives (Estés, 1997). Practices of talking circles, or peace circles, have emerged within many cultures throughout known human history, though most modern Westerners don’t understand underlying cosmological foundations of these practices, which come from indigenous cultures. The talking circle is a metaphorical life tool of the medicine wheel. Being aware about what we are doing allows metaphor to bring ceremonies like talking circles to life (Rael, 1998). It is no mystery why, in Australia for example, when people with indigenous ancestry facilitate yarning circles, a type of talking circle, it feels different than when Westerners do. I learned why while working for a decade in the field of restorative justice. When we encouraged people to put altars in the middle of their circles, I had quite an aha moment when I saw what people were using to metaphorically represent the heart centre. “A common mistake when examining myths of other cultures is to interpret them with symbols and values of our own culture” (Gleiser, 2012). Common values of the dominant Western cosmology such as competition, hierarchy, individualism, and the primacy of the nuclear family greatly limit our ability to embody indigenous wisdom (Thibodeau & Nixon, 2013). When this happens, ceremonies can “become empty of their power” (Rael, 1998).a

Consider the difference between participating in a plant medicine ceremony in the jungles of Peru with a shaman who spent decades apprenticing with a teacher and working with plants and spirits of the jungle deeply connected with the land and its ancestors, versus participating in a plant medicine ceremony in an apartment in a Western city facilitated by someone who got the medicine from such a shaman and perhaps studied with the shaman for a short period of time. (Image is a screenshot from an online gallery of Amazonian-Andean artist Juan Carlos Taminchi of ayahuasca visions.)taminchiartThe depth of relationships, and the experiences, feel quite different to participants. Similarly, instead of peace circles as a tool to help control behaviour or improve the way people speak and listen to each other as is common in westernised restorative justice practices based on a Judeo-Christian worldview, an Earth Ethos peace circle is an opportunity for a communal spiritual experience based on an indigenous cultural cosmology. Because of the intentional use of metaphor, it ought to feel different to participants (and certainly does to me) than simply sitting in a circle (or around a table where we are blocked from connecting with each other physically) and passing around a talking piece. Many indigenous peoples use oral traditions to preserve cultural wisdom. Verbal repetition and physical embodiment of teachings keeps them pure (Rael, 2015). An important aspect of any medicine wheel ceremony, including a peace circle, is purification or cleansing, opening participants’ hearts for sharing wisdom as a community. Purification is often symbolised through the use of smoke, or smudging.

ent.jpgHealing of, and prevention of, dis-ease requires ceremony. Ceremony is an important human practice connecting the visible material/physical world with the invisible, spiritual world. Life feels empty and unsatisfying when we do not do enough ceremony, and ceremonies are most powerful done regularly and intentionally in community (Rael, 1998). Disease in indigenous thinking is caused by natural and supernatural forces, where natural forces include things like cold air, germs, or impurities in food and water, and supernatural forces include things like upset social relations between people, with ancestors, or other beings such as spirits of the traditional custodians of a place (Sussman, 2004). (Image is a depiction of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s land spirits called the Ent, a tree spirit) Western concepts of unconscious or subconscious drives are similar to indigenous concepts of such spiritual forces (Holliday, 2008). When we focus our energy on cultivating healthy invisible environments based on values such as acceptance, non-judgment, inclusivity, compassion and empathy, we help purify our own hearts and the collective unconscious, or the spiritual realm. Indigenous thinking teaches that our social reality is based on a fundamental understanding of life in which humans are interconnected with all of nature, and by participating in an Earth Ethos peace circle, we literally embody Mother Earth together by sitting in a circle with an altar at the centre honouring the interconnected web of life we are part of. If you’re in Sydney and want to join a monthly Earth Ethos peace circle, please contact me for more information.

Dignity & privilege

One of the basic premises of an Earth Ethos, and of indigenous teachings generally, is an innate worthiness of being. It does not depend on behaviour or social status or species; all beings on Earth are of worth. This is the foundation of dignity, whose root comes from Latin for “to accept, to take.” In the previous post I wrote about how acceptance keeps us in the present moment. And when we’re in the present moment in a state of worthiness, we are strong and we are dignified, even if behaviour of another person is not. Privilege, on the other

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hand, comes from the Latin words for “private” and “law,” indicating an advantage, right or priority over another person, group, or even species. In social justice circles there has been a lot of discussion in recent years of privilege related to race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, age, citizenship, and disability. I know there are real life impacts for many of us because of social privileges, but our focus on these inequities distracts us from the important work of ensuring that we stand in dignity and see others that way regardless of their behaviour or beliefs. It’s our responsibility to remember that regardless of the domination of certain social stories and world views, there is innate dignity in all ways of being. Stories are powerful because we feed them, even if we do so by fighting.

It does not matter if a person has a million dollar home or a high social status job, being in denial and numb to painful feelings is not a privilege, is it disembodiment, disconnection with self, others, and the present moment. It is a disabled and difficult way to navigate the world. I know this because after numerous efforts to ask for help and protect myself from sexual abuse as a child failed, I dissociated, and did not re-member those experiences until my mid-twenties. My life before that was really hard and confusing. It has taken many years and hard work to build a trusting relationship with myself. I have had to let go of and reform numerous unhealthy relationships including my entire family of origin; I have had to ride out decisions based on that denial and numbness and give myself grace in the process; and I have had to dig deep into my psyche to question foundational stories and beliefs that guided me for over 20 years, and replace them with ones that feel and work better. (Image from here. And like skill, you could rank by social privilege as well.)dignity-cartoon.png

Sometimes it feels like we have no choice, because everyone around us is on board; we feel forced to accept global stories like, for instance, capitalism, or countries and borders, or languages we communicate with. These big stories do privilege certain values and world-views. This is Christmas season. How many of us know that Jesus was not born on this day, and that the Catholic Church repurposed indigenous European celebrations for winter solstice over 400 years after Jesus’s death? (Even a Christian site called www.allaboutgod.com knows this. In fact, many of the so-called Christmas traditions have strange histories. It’s okay to celebrate something on another day, like when it’s your birthday on a Tuesday and you have a party the Saturday before, but it’s less powerful than if you celebrated the actual date. It’s the same with solstice. It would be a lot more powerful if we celebrated winter/summer solstice on the actual celestial days instead of the days chosen for Easter/Christmas depending which hemisphere you’re in.Consider connecting with the powerful celestial energy this solstice and doing something to celebrate our planet regardless of what else you celebrate. In the southern hemisphere, Christmas celebrations with fake snowmen, fake pine trees, fake garlands, and sweaty Santas in summer are farcical. (Image from here.)

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It is of course possible to be dignified in celebrating Christmas; it is meaningful to many people. It is also important to recognise, whether you celebrate it or not, that in society right now Christmas is privileged, and to consciously decide how you want to behave given that social reality. Most of us get time off of work for Christmas, and some of us have to use our vacation to celebrate days that are meaningful to us which are not socially privileged. If you have not taken the time to reflect on what the elements of the modern Christmas celebration mean to you and whether your participation aligns with your values and world view, I encourage you to. How could I get out of this if I wanted to?you might ask. Everyone buys presents, decorates houses and offices, makes certain foods, plays certain music, and expects me to join in. Didn’t anyone ever ask you as a kid if everyone was jumping off a cliff if you would too when you used that sort of logic? Christmas celebrations started to feel empty to me as my sex abuse memories were integrating. Christmas memories from childhood were joyful because my dad spent time doing creative things with me, not because there was deep meaning in the specific activities. I didn’t know why I was busily making and buying things, as I am not a dignityquote2.jpgmaterialist or a Christian, so I told people close to me I would focus on birthdays and important life events, and I stopped. I don’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of giving, but I don’t want to feel burdened receiving what is intended as a gift, so I told people close to me if they want to give me something, I prefer personal notes, meals, time together, and handmade art. I dislike expectations to behave a certain way on a day that is not especially meaningful to me, so Luke and I take short trips just the two of us over Christmas to enjoy Mother Nature instead. This all make it easier for me to stand in dignity because I am accepting me and not playing a victim by gracefully navigating a situation where my way of being is not socially privileged. Cultivating the discipline to deny ourselves that which brings us pain and suffering helps us stand in dignity and experience more joyful abundance.

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The cynicism trap

If you’re reading this, chances are you are someone who walks willingly into uncomfortable feelings and values lessons gained through pain. Thank you. Your presence on the planet makes a difference when you walk such a path. I too have been on a hardcore heart-warrior journey for years with an understanding that energy is trans-form-able. I have trusted that being with and creatively expressing painful emotions is a valuable way to be of service. In some respects, this perception is misguided. Mary Shutan reminds us that certain primal energies related to survival are by their nature quite brutal. They are worthy of being with and expressing creatively, but they are not transformable. Most of us have witnessed a predatory animal stalk and eat its prey. Most of us have physically stood near an animal that humbled us and showed us our place in the food chain. (Who wants to swim near this guy?)

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Most of us have experienced forces of nature bigger than we are, such as tornadoes or flash floods. Some of us have faced homelessness or joblessness and been unsure how our basic physical needs will be met. Experiences like these challenge our individual survival and ask us to stand in faith. I define faith like Christina Pratt as “a liquid state of grace”, a free-fall, a letting go and allowing something bigger to steer us for a while.

seattleIn his famous speech Chief Seattle foretold that the way U.S. settlers were treating Mother Earth was moving us collectively into “The end of living and the beginning of survival.” I find it helpful to think of survival as more complex than fight, flight or freeze. One researcher suggests the following survival strategies: rescuing, attaching, adapting, asserting, fighting, fleeing, competing, and cooperating (Valent, 1995). Knowing that a small proportion of people are controlling physical resources, and that through various ways of looking at inequalities physical survival fears are very real, and that legal systems are maintaining many of these imbalances, I can see why some say that trauma-induced behaviours such as hyper-vigilance are actually evolutionary protective mechanisms to help us survive modern life (Silove, 2007). (Image from Wikipedia.)

Across the planet species are going extinct, human languages and cultures are dying, polar ice caps are melting, and lands are disappearing underwater. In an Earth Ethos, we are all interconnected, so if we didn’t feel pain with those things going on, we wouldn’t be living! I think it is important to accept we live in a time filled with survival struggle energy that it is brutal by nature and often seems to have incredibly unfair impact. Accepting this does not mean that we give up, lose hope, renounce faith, or fall into the cynicism trap by giving up on a healthy, balanced future vision for generations to come. While we may not be able to transform primal survival energy, we can transform cynicism and question ourselves when we or others get caught up serving survival strategies. I say “serving” because, years ago Tom Lake said to me there is a difference between “being of service” and “being a servant.” When we are guided by rigid stories in our minds, we are servants blindly acting them out. Consider the “good person” story. We feel the need to do certain actions and avoid others to prove we are “good,” then we judge others’ behaviour as “bad” and justify acting on our righteous anger by punishing them, which is the basis of our criminal justice system. I find this story incredibly destructive, and I agree with Sadhguru that there are no good or bad people, only miserable and joyful people.

imwithher.jpgWhen we are miserable we are rejecting or rebelling against reality, which is destructive and results in existential crisis. When we are accepting we remain in the present moment, however painful. Many of us understandably feel overwhelmed by the depth of pain on the planet right now, so we numb ourselves with substances such as sugar, caffeine or alcohol; run away to our heads to avoid certain feelings; and seek out “light work” or “positive psychology” to create bubbles of security around ourselves. This is so common that a famous social psychology study published in the 80s suggesting that “overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism…promote mental health” has yet to be refuted. So not only are we serving a story (like being a good or bad person) that doesn’t need to survive, we are avoiding the important responsibility creating a vision for future generations of a world we want them to live in, but the cynicism trap doesn’t even improving our mental health! The medicine I find works best when you catch yourself falling into the cynicism trap is to let go of that cynical vision and move into a graceful free-fall instead, living on faith for a while. The more I stand in faith, the more clearly I see that Mother Earth has a beautiful vision she’s desperately trying to communicate to us when we move through our survival fears and make space to listen and act on her guidance and wisdom. (Image from here.)

Exercise: What survival strategies do you most commonly use (rescuing, attaching, adapting, asserting, fighting, fleeing, competing, and cooperating)? Where are you serving a story that does not need to survive? What is preventing you from letting go of control and standing in faith?