Journeying to Standing Rock

When I named this blog SoulPaths/the journey, I had no idea of the literal journeys that would be involved in this particular soul’s path. In the past two years, Ecuador, Findhorn…and this week, a pilgrimage of support to Standing Rock, ND.

Why am I going there? I’ve written of the resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to the Dakota Access Pipeline that is slated to run across the reservation land, crossing the Oglala Aquifer and – many times over – the Missouri River. I touched on how they are being joined by a virtual United Nations of supporters from Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures from around the world. And I’ve touched on my gradual progress from timorous waffling to starting a group for subtle activism, to a drive for donations.

It didn’t end there…while I was raising awareness online and at Friends Meeting, I was also wrestling with a heart-response to a calling to come to Standing Rock. It seemed purely out of the question at first – an action for brave activist sorts, or groups to go out together – but as the awareness of approaching winter grew, I felt a growing urgency: if I did not go, NOW, and help in whatever way I could, I would always regret my inaction. The parable of the talents haunted me: how in these days am I using my talents for the greater good? Clicktivism and Facebook consciousness-raising were nowhere near enough.

It all came to a head three weeks ago, when I was out in the garden, clearing away spent morning glory vines from the fence and hedge: an inner voice was saying insistently, I am dying.

Wha-at? I asked who was talking – the morning glory vines were certainly giving up the ghost. Was that it? No – that could not explain the edge of gut-wrenching grief that accompanied the words. It viscerally recalled my husband’s last spoken words – Let me go – as he lay swaddled in burn-medicated wrappings after losing 85% of his skin to a reaction against the antibiotics he’d received following the implantation of an experimental device intended to keep his heart functioning until a transplant was found. It was Christmas Day; in an effort to bring holiday spirit and some level of sanity and family tradition to an unthinkable situation the kids and I had decorated his Intensive Care room with ornaments, lights, and a tiny tree the day before…but he was so deeply sedated that he could only rouse himself to voice those three words when we gathered around his bed.

I could not bear to think of the ultimate meaning of his request: the doctors were saying that this horrific, extreme situation was just a bump in the road to his ultimate healing!  Fighting my instinctive knowing, the shock and grief at my core, I started asking him for clarity – am I holding your hand too tightly? Are the bandages hurting you? I have no idea how I could find any other meaning than the obvious, but somehow I did – I kept asking, but there was no response; he’d spent his energy and was unconscious. Fighting tears, I turned to the nurse: this is what he said, but he couldn’t clarify…what do I do? She responded: unless you’re absolutely certain that he wanted you to pull the plug, you can’t do it. He can recover from this; if you ended it now, you’d be haunted by the doubt forever.

They called at 1:30 a.m. the next morning: he was having a respiratory crisis and they needed to do a tracheotomy: would I give permission? And so those three words were his last. The doctors told me a month later that the antibiotic cocktails were achieving no more than chemical reactions; effectively, he was already gone. They pulled the plug on January 28, 2006.

As I stood in the garden ten years later with dead leaves in my hair and spent vines in my hand and I am dying echoing in my mind, I balanced on a similar edge of denial. Am I dying? I asked – I had no knowledge of having any life-threatening medical condition! The knowledge came: you are replicating your father’s denial of life as you work in your house behind your computer screen. If you do not get out into the world and take real-time action, yes, you will die inwardly. But no, that is not what is meant here.

I knew the answer, of course: it is the biosphere that is dying of human’s unceasing assaults: deforestation, oil spills, the Tar Sands, the pumping of the aquifers and poisoning of the waters, pesticides killing the pollinators – all the litany of rape and destruction of our planet. Ecosystems are collapsing, climate change ramping up, a sixth great extinction taking place…yes,  I am dying was the voice of life on Earth.

The grief doubled me over: hanging onto a fence post in the yellowing garden, I wept, screaming soundlessly.

Once the worst of the pain had passed, there was a clear realization: the time for hiding behind a computer screen was over. I needed to show up and take personal action to support the causes I valued. And there was no doubt about the cause that took precedence: the water protectors of Standing Rock.

The connection went beyond their historic stand – the union among nations – the support across cultures and causes and spiritual traditions.

More than 20 years earlier, my husband had been a Sun Dancer, first on Rosebud Reservation, then at Santee, Nebraska. For two of the four years he’d Danced, I went along to support him, and witnessed …I can only call it a different reality. Here were men and women so heartfelt in their prayers that they were willing to dance without food or water for four days under the blazing sun, some of them following Spirit’s guidance to undertake extreme physical ordeals that lent power and urgency to their prayers. At the close of the ceremony, they channeled the Divine grace they had received as healing for the community, and received the community’s honor and gratitude in return.

This was the ethos that undergirded the water protectors, I knew: an ethos of radical self-giving for the ongoing life of the Earth and the People – i.e., all beings, all the peoples of every race, nation, creed, species, and sort – animal, vegetable and mineral. An ethos grounded in conscious connection with the Earth as a living, sentient, sacred being, an embodiment of the Divine. A way of being centered not on consumption of the planet’s resources, but on conscious interaction within the web of life.

When my husband was in his last two years of Dancing, the Intercessor was closing that particular ceremony to non-Natives: they could finish their four-year cycles, but they could not return. The American Indian Movement was a strong influence on the Dance in the two years I attended, and as a very obviously non-Native-looking woman I fielded my share of questions: who are your elders? Where are your holy places? At the same time their questions led me to question my own presence there, even as a Dancer’s wife and supporter, they also sent me on a search for the shamanic roots of my own heritage: a search that led to the Baltic pagan tradition Romuva and the Graeco-Roman ritual dance tradition of Tarantelle. After my husband’s passing, I went on a lengthy path of self-rediscovery and reinvention, staying away from any appearance of cultural appropriation.

That all changed this summer when the world began flocking to Standing Rock. I’d been feeling angry, out of step, and deeply alone in this culture – longing to do more than marketing restorative businesses, practicing animal Reiki, and raising consciousness online, but not knowing what to do. The public invitation from Standing Rock spokespeople – to come and witness and support the Earth-nurturing ways being demonstrated in the support camp of Oceti Sakowin, and for those who felt called, to take nonviolent direct action in the Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp – hit with a direct appeal t0 my heart. And that was even before the spokeswoman with whom I was corresponding told me that she remembered my husband from his last two years of Sundancing.

So – with support and prayers from Patapsco Friends Meeting, financial donations from family and friends, and bags upon bags of donated clothing, blankets, and other items for the water protectors as they prepare the camps for the brutal North Dakota winters, I set out yesterday on yet another journey: to Oceti Sakowin, to spend three days helping in whatever way I can. I’m writing this post from an AirBnb host’s guest bedroom midway across the continent, just before geting back on the road.

The journey continues.

An Ecosystem of Support for the Water Protectors

EcoWatch reported the heartbreaking verdict just the other day:

“A federal judge in Washington, DC declined Tuesday to order the halt of all construction on a portion of the contentious Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) route that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had recently identified as sacred tribal burial ground, a site that was bulldozed over the Labor Day weekend by pipeline construction crews….

The tribe has been locked in a legal fight against Dakota Access and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a pipeline that would cross sacred sites and potentially affect water that the tribe depends on. The DAPL pipeline’s full path extends across North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois….

The tribe had filed an emergency motion on Sunday, Sept. 4 for the temporary restraining order to prevent further destruction of sacred sites….

Tuesday’s order isn’t the end of these legal battles. Federal Judge James Boasberg is expected to rule on Friday on an injunction that would halt all pipeline-related construction near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

I have been following this story for a month now, thanks to the Facebook updates by environmental lawyer Carolyn Raffensberger,  executive director of the Science & Environmental Health Network and leading expert on the Precautionary Principle, and ecologist/activist Linda Black Elk, both taking part in the peaceful prayer actions.

And the words have been piling up in my mind, escaping through click-shared news articles, finally through a Facebook call for concentrated energy-sending on Sunday, September 4 – the day the bulldozers plowed through the burial ground while dogs tore through the unarmed men, women and children. The call touched a chord, connecting a number of us who are watching and grieving from the outside.

Carolyn Raffensberger wrote on her public FB feed after the verdict:

This morning it is unbearable to know that Dakota Access will continue forcing its pipeline into the Earth, through waters, through the lands of Indigenous peoples.
The judge yesterday said he didn’t have jurisdiction to stop the pipeline from destroying sacred sites. When one of the most powerful voices in government says he doesn’t have power to stop evil, you know we have created a systemic monster.
Rachel Carson said we have lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. We will end by destroying the Earth. Carson
was partially right, we can foresee the destruction. What we have really lost is the ability to forestall. We built a system by and for capitalism and now the Black Snake is loose and devouring the future.”

I have been crying, sitting with this, asking: what can be done? The water protectors – the largest gathering of  Native American tribes in the past 100 years, supported by civil-rights activists, environmentalists, celebrities, and representatives of churches, covens, mosques, and representatives of Indigenous peoples from as far away as Australia, Ecuador, and Scandinavia – have been putting their bodies on the line, bolstered by multifaith prayers and ceremonies from the U.S. and abroad, world-class attorneys in the courts, even censure by the U.N. against the Obama administration for its silence.

But an understanding of the forces arrayed against the people, the land and the water is beginning to take shape, thanks to indefatigable coverage by Democracy Now: a new investigation has revealed that more than two dozen major banks and financial institutions are helping finance the Dakota Access pipeline. And the DeSmogBlog has revealed that Continental Resources — the company founded and led by CEO Harold Hamm, energy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and potential U.S. Secretary of Energy under a Trump presidency — has announced to investors that oil it obtains via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin is destined for transport through the hotly-contested Dakota Access pipeline.

There is a part of me that wants to wail and cry, dive under the covers and hide from the monsters destroying the world. Every morning after my quiet meditation/journaling time, I sit inwardly shaking and protesting against leaving that safe and sacred space to read the daily news. Every morning I breathe and quiet the terrified, grieving child at my core…the one who first experienced All That Is as alive, aware, and interconnected when I was 10…who still takes pleasure in checking in with the energies surrounding me as I walk the woods. Who, as my mother once did, grieves on seeing woods clear-cut, hears the screaming of a tree when it is dismembered and logged. Who dissolves in total overwhelm at the thought of the indigenous people who have held the land and water sacred from the beginning are savaged by dogs and their sacred places bulldozed to make way for a pipeline that will almost certainly poison the nation’s largest aquifer and last remaining clear tributary system.

I shared these feelings at Friends Meeting on Sunday, breaking down in tears as I spoke. A Friend came up to me afterward and said – I hear you, and I am grieving with you. And it is your light and love and connection to Spirit that will make the difference. Your depression and anger can paralyze you. Stay connected to the Light and act from the Light. 

It took me a long time to hear his message.

So I continued asking: What can be done? And the inner answers begin to arise: the sending of prayers, meditation, energy, magic, ceremony/ritual –  subtle activism  by a critical mass of people, can help to turn the tide: concentrated prayers, energy, meditation, ceremony/ritual. So I created a FB group, Subtle Activism for Standing Rock, as a gathering place for news posts and sharing among those who hold this issue at heart. And people are responding.

What does it mean? Maybe nothing, my 21st-century skeptical self says. Maybe the people who join the group – due to busy-ness or emotional overwhelm – can offer only good thoughts in this direction.

But even if they are, we all start somewhere.

I am receiving the nudging again and again: the more prayers, energy, focused ceremony/ritual, magic – and good wishes – are put out into the ether, the more awareness is raised, the better supported the water protectors will be. As Starhawk told me – every action has many levels of participants: those who take the front lines; those who support them directly with press releases, food, legal representation; those who pet- and house-sit while they are in action, those who run GoFundMes and petitions and other online support campaigns; and those who send gifts, whether material, financial, or energetic.

It is all part of an ecosystem of support; everybody plays a part; and some move from one level of support to another as they gain inward strength and conviction. The more we can give or do, of course, the better – but we all start somewhere.

I remember going to Lakota Sundances at Rosebud and Santee, supporting my husband: how a tent city of hundreds of people gathered to support the Dancers and the ceremony: running supply errands, cooking, building the arbor, pouring for sweatlodges, doing security, fetching sacred herbs from the surrounding plains….and dancing under the arbor, making prayers for the men and women doing giveaway under the blazing sun. Everyone had a way to serve, no matter how small.

We are all related. We share one heart.

Quoting Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Original Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nation of the Sioux:

“Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. Did you think the Creator would create unnecessary people in a time of such terrible danger?
Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Believe that! Understand both the blessing and the burden of that.
You yourself are desperately needed to save the soul of this World. Did you think you were put here for something less?”

If you want to support the action against the Dakota Access Pipeline, here are some things you can do:



Findhorn Nature Outing: Sitting in the Basket of the Trees

By Tuesday of Experience Week, our little group had gained somewhat of a feel for the grounds of Cluny Hill and Findhorn Park. It was time for our focalizers Craig and Pat to introduce us to the wider bioregion. We pIMG_20160419_095436671iled into the shuttle bus and rode past fields of grazing sheep, through glorious birch, holly and spruce forest, to the Findhorn River. We parked at a trailhead above the spectacular crags of Randolph’s Leap … a spot that clairvoyant/metaphysician R. Ogilvie Crombie (“ROC” for short), a guiding light for the growing community, had identified as particularly powerful and watched over by benevolent nature spirits. Here, Craig and Pat invited us to find a spot, settle in, and meditate, consciously reaching out to the awarenesses of the wood.

With some minimal experience of communicating with nature spirits, I was praying hard for connection here. With all my senses awake, I chose a trail that sloped gently downhill, reaching for the tingle that would tell me I’d found the right spot. Singing a Libana chant as invocation as I walked, I felt into the energy of the wood: where was the best place for me to seek connection?

IMG_20160419_102041149And there it was: a dropoff past a towering Scottish Pine, past ferns and bracken to a sandbar below. Warned by Craig and Pat of the river’s potential for flash floods, I didn’t want to go close to the water…but where to sit? Perching precariously on an outcropping of the slope, I looked to the exposed roots of the Pine, and saw that they intertwined with the roots of a neighboring Beech to form a natural nest. Feeling like a child climbing a jungle gym, surprised at my own temerity (and blessing the deep treads of my galoshes), I clambered over and hauled myself up and in.

The roots on which I rested were covered in moss, swathed in ferns and lilies growing in the dirt accumulated over countless floods.  Facing the river, the trees stood proudly on their exposed, mossy roots like Louisiana Cypresses, with their hidden path-side roots no doubt holding up the hill. I couldn’t imagine the force of floods that would sweep away earth this high – easily 25 feet up from the riverbank. But the trees stood strong, their roots and branches intertwined, IMG_20160419_102012230evergreen and deciduous.

I settled my tush, crossed legs to meditate. Just in front of me a Beech root snaked lithely over a Pine root, both disappearing down into the hillside. I felt the trees embracing in a long partnership. You are at a bridging place, a connection point, I heard in my mind. That is your work: helping to build connections between humans and the natural world. It was the beginning of a long conversation: my trepidation was met with reassurance and guidance; affirmation that despite my self-doubts I had a job to do; even floundering as I have been, a good start had been made, my good intentions were recognized. I sang, laughed, cried…felt a flood of love and connection with these Standing Beings and the micro-ecosystem they supported.

We had 90 minutes in which to do our walk, meditation, and return. I don’t know how long I sat there, cradled; it seemed far longer. As the conversation drew to its end, I saw a discarded juice box half-hidden, caught in the roots of the Beech. It summed up the culture from which I’d come: disconnected from the natural world, focused on immediate gratification, careless of the cost or consequences of its consumption. Yes, exactly, came the response. I wanted to remove it, as a token of service in gratitude, but  I could see it wouldn’t be easy – the box was well lodged, out of reach and slightly down the hill, outside my nest. I looked and found a pointed stick ready to hand, and with diligent poking, maneuvering, and prayers for balance, I edged it out and up to my hand. Yes! 

With that, it was time to go. I offered my gratitude to the trees, and asking their help in getting back to the path, found roots fanning upward like a ready-made flight of steps. A short scramble and I was on level ground, bowing to the trees, the river, the spirits of the land, and walking back to the meeting point with the juice box in my hand.





Escaping the Good Daughter

I’m flexing my wings for another journey this spring…this time to Findhorn, a destination I’ve wanted to visit for years. There’s an Experience Week happening, and with it the opportunity to step into a landscape where the green beings are awake and aware and working with their human stewards. It’s a trip I’ve dreamed of taking for years. 

The challenge is going to be getting there. I’ve learned from experience that each step forward is met with equal inner pushback…call it inertia, call it resistance…and this is no exception. Far from it.

For example, there was the challenge of escaping the strictures of the Good Daughter…

While shopping for my plane tickets to Inverness, I found one of those “flexible dates” offers – a walloping difference in price if I left two days early. How could I resist…it would add free time to the trip, independent time with which I could do as I chose. I’d be crazy to pass it up….

With the purchase made, and 24 hours’ freedom to reconsider, I reconsidered. I could do as I’ve salisbury-crags
always done in past travels – arrive at the site of the workshop, spend all my time in the area, attend the event, turn around and go home….or I could allow some space to be a solitary tourist in a bucket-list land, change my landing point from Inverness to Edinburgh, spend a day sightseeing, and mosey up to my destination by scenic train through the Scottish Highlands.

How was this even a question? It would be the trip of a lifetime! I swapped out my tickets for a (nonrefundable) arrival in Edinburgh, and commenced to plan….

…And awoke at 3:00 that morning, submerged in terror. The plane would go down, Edinburgh would be attacked, the train would derail – my imagination was conjuring up no end of horrors.

After fighting through the cold sweat, nausea, and metallic taste of panic, I finally realized: this was the lifelong conditioning of the Good Daughter, the internalized message thundering through my nervous system like a voice of God, delivered via my cautious, Depression-raised parents: “Thou shalt not stray from the approved path…thou shalt not waste time and money on needless curiosity…thou shalt not add needless expense to thy already unnecessary and excessive vacation…thou shalt not….”

By going to a different and distant landing point and traveling on public transport through wild terrain to my ultimate destination, I was breaching the circle of safety I’d allowed for the specific purpose of the workshop. Like Little Red Riding Hood, I was frolicking away from the narrow path I had allowed myself; and I was ripe for the picking by any predator. And, my conditioned conviction insisted, I would most certainly be picked. Red Riding Hood couldn’t have been any more doomed.

But this trip was for precisely that purpose: making my choices, stepping outside the comfort zone, defining my own experience. Escaping the conditioned straitjacket of the Good Daughter to live my own life, now that I was free to do so. Defining my purpose for the extra time and giving myself my own approval. Indulging the impulsive, curious, adventuresome Younger-Self who regularly hopped off the MTA bus a mile or more from my destinations for the sheer joy of walking and seeing the neighborhoods.

The memory arose: receiving tickets for the commencement ceremony for my Master’s degree, knowing that no one from my family would be attending. At the university bookstore, ordering the frame for the diploma, I saw a magnet: Make Yourself Proud. That became my impetus: I hadn’t spent seven years pursuing the degree, devoting doctoral effort for each 3-credit independent study (my advisor said), for my father’s pride or my family’s approval. I had done it to reinvent and reclaim my life and purpose.

This was another step on that autonomous journey. The work of overcoming my Good Daughter fears was the prerequisite for the work of my stay in Findhorn.

So refusing to be turned aside, I pushed back. Set up my B&Bs, identified the sights that called irresistibly to be seen. Set up the train trip through the Highlands to the beachside town of Nairn, and from there to Findhorn. Experienced a warm online welcome from the people who would be hosting me.

And step by step (picturing my mother cheering me on as I broke out of her inherited reclusiveness), the nightmare scenes of disaster were replaced by the images of historic, mystical, Earth-power sites. The fear was replaced by anticipation and a solid sense of rightness.

Yes, as a fifty-something middle-aged woman, I might be breaking out of the Good Daughter mold absurdly late. But better claim my life, my autonomy, my purpose, my fun, my adventure, late than not at all.


Let Indigenous Voices be Heard at the Paris Talks!

For thousands of years, civilizations have seen: when the forests are clearcut, the climate changes. The temperature rises, rainfall decreases, catastrophic weather events increase, deserts spread across the land.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon know this – and they are fighting to save their sacred lands, not only for the sake of their cultures but also for the sake of life on Earth. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples protects them in theory from forcible relocation, but this protection is being overridden with coerced, sham agreements, military evictions, and the kidnapping, torture, and assassination of their activists. And the destruction of the rainforest continues.

A climate conference without the voice of these indigenous peoples – the people who intimately know the forest and the natural balance from millennia of personal interaction – a climate conference that doesn’t make a priority of protecting the Amazon and all its lives and cultures – can not succeed in averting climate chaos.

Be a climate leader and defender of indigenous rights! Join Amazon Watch to ensure Amazonian leaders’ meaningful participation at the 21st session of the UN Climate Talks in Paris this Winter. Help me support Amazon Watch by making a contribution.

The process is fast, easy, and secure and it benefits a great cause.

If you can’t make a donation right now, help me reach my goal by sharing this page on Facebook and Twitter! Or, even better, email your family and friends you think might be interested in contributing and include a link to my page!

Thanks so much for your generosity!

But What Does the Earth Have to Say?


(A review of Joanna Macy’s Coming Back to Life)

There are wise, multicultural, insightful books…books that urge profound strategies of awakening to change our culture’s current course. And there are books among these that have – I believe – miss a vital piece of the picture.

Joanna Macy’s Coming Back to Life[1], I believe, is such a book. Detailing experiential workshop processes that Macy and others have been using since the 1980s, the book aims to awaken the ecologically unaware to a connection with nature, other species, and their fellow humans. Reading it as our world stands at the tipping point of global warming and climatic disaster, however, I simply felt frustration?… irritation?…annoyance? Call it what it is – anger – at what I saw as fruitless emotionalizing.

As I read the book while tending to my mother in her last weeks and days, Macy’s approach seemed tantamount to moaning and wailing over Mom’s impending death and the loss that our family would experience, blaming ourselves for all that was failing in her body…all the words ever spoken in anger, all the telephone calls never made…all the emotional blows that her heart had taken through the forty years she had spent fighting her genetic inheritance of coronary disease. To clarify: not standing at her bedside, engaging in the painful yet comforting interactions of mutual apology, forgiveness and blessing, but retreating to another room to stage cathartic psycho-performances focused on her worsening physical condition and our own self-blame.

What a horrible, futile way to spend the precious last days that were ticking remorselessly on.

Instead, our family chose to spend her last days in appreciation – after all the medical measures had been tried and had failed, simply to spend the time as lovingly and caringly as humanly possible, enjoying and appreciating our time together in the face of death. When we had our last deep conversation, she turned aside my apologies for actions not taken, and instead affirmed her love and blessing for my path…which was so vastly different from the spiritual tradition she had espoused all her life. I have felt her spirit reaffirm this blessing many times since her death.

Nearly two years before, I had taken another approach with my husband as he lay drugged and unconscious, fighting massive sepsis two months following heroic heart surgery: I refused point-blank to believe at any time that death was a possibility. When the drugs could do no more, the doctors’ urging to turn off life support was like reaching a sheer drop-off at the end of an elevated expressway …I was still racing ahead, but with nothing beneath me…falling, instead, through open air. There could be no conversation, no exchange of forgiveness and blessing – only my repeated “I’m sorry” between sobs as I watched his heart monitor slow, then flatline. It took months to come to terms with the reality of his passing. I still struggle to connect at a deep level, inwardly bracing myself for loss yet again.

But these were the deaths of single human beings…not the death of massive numbers of individual humans, plants and animals, entire species, ecosystems, even potentially life as we know it on Earth.

How do the two connect? As I see it, faced with death, we have four basic options:

  • To despair, blaming self and others, wallowing in the expectation of loss
  • To relentlessly and remorselessly oppose the inevitability of any ending
  • To value life more highly and live more intensely, resisting death as long as possible while seeing it as the wise advisor who gives meaning to life[2]
  • To connect with a larger picture in which nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected, in which death may be the gateway through which an individual’s influence and impact transcend the body…as I came to see it was for my mother and husband.

It is easiest, least risky, least painful, to choose the first two, focusing on the patient as subject or victim, focusing on the external body, disease process, and overwhelming physical needs, imagining and projecting the patient’s experience (or distancing oneself with the platitude “I can’t imagine what you must be going through”), or worse, speaking of the patient as if s/he were an empty, unaware thing in the bed, rather interacting directly with the whole person as a total mind/body/spirit entity.

It is terrifying to engage with another human being as they stand with their toes curled at the brink of the unknown…hanging ten at the drop edge of yonder …how much more terrifying to engage directly with a planet whose compromised ecosystems are in similar condition…especially when this whole culture is based on the belief that the Earth is an unaware, unconscious object?

This is the problem I saw with Macy’s book: while she briefly references the third option of living life more intensely with death as the constant companion[3], by far the bulk of the book, I believe, is focused on the first, which she calls “despair work.” And enlightened as Macy’s intent is, while she recognizes the awareness of other beings, she appears still to be limited by the beliefs of this culture. There is a great deal of discussion around connecting with other humans about the Earth, but no actual direct connection with the awarenesses of the Earth.

The book presupposes that workshop participants already experience a level of despair for the destruction…that as beings of the Earth we inevitably feel pain for the Earth, and that “the problem…lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it. Our efforts to dodge or dull it surrender us to futility – or in systems terms, cut the feedback loop and block effective response.”[4] Macy lists the consequences of our repression: among them, fragmentation and alienation, avoidance of painful information, and sense of powerlessness[5].

She speaks of the Earth as a “presence in our consciousness, not unlike the presence of gods and goddesses in the lives of our early ancestors,” and writes with reverence of the “shamanic traditions of …indigenous peoples…(whose) voices find a hearing because they tell us – as the natives of the late Industrial Growth Society – what we want to know once again: that as kin to the animals and plants, rocks and airs of this sacred world, we can tap its powers, take part in its healing.”[6]

She presences this reverence by invoking the presence and wisdom of the ancestors and succeeding generations in one exercise[7]; invites participants to experience seeing themselves in natural objects in the Mirror Walk[8],  and in the Council of All Beings, invites participants to invoke the awareness of the being they portray[9]. But that is all she says about connection with the awarenesses of the Earth: the rest is focused on participants’ personal awareness, experience and projection.  The Earth, through most of the book, remains a subject to be defended, projected and acted upon, without consultation or invitation for input.

My experience: reading a hospice handbook on the dying process – even doing a guided visualization on death — is very different from standing at a loved one’s deathbed with eyes and heart open. Reading of a rainforest being slashed and burned is very different from sitting in sacred space and hearing a single tree being felled by loggers, or struggling through deep muddy tire tracks and crushed underbrush to touch the stumps and shreds of trees taken. Reading even the most heart-wrenchingly written fundraising letter on the death of our watersheds is very different from standing on the cracked earth of a dried-up streambed and bearing witness to its failing ecosystem.

The wisdom of the imagination is very different from the wisdom of the heart and spirit connecting to the wisdom of the Earth – in the moment, on the spot. Macy’s beautiful, profound, and poetic visualizations cannot – I say – replace the direct experience of the living Earth, the green, feathered, furred, finned, scaled, crawling, and two-legged beings, and the unseen energies and awarenesses of the Earth.  Offering a workshop of “practices to reconnect ourselves, our world” – that does not involve direct connection with the Earth – is like offering a kayaking practicum without the river.

What results from this distancing, I ask? Consciousness can be righteously raised in theory with no resulting actual action, personal cost or long-term outward effect.  How will these visualizations achieve real, lasting change in people who may never have personally experienced the wholeness of the Earth …or those who are only now beginning to awaken to the damage being done? What actions, if any, will result from use of these experiential exercises involving no direct experience – what kind of real change will ensue? What kind of change has ensued in participants of these workshops, six months, twelve months, five years down the road?

The phenomenon of workshop addiction is recognized in psychological circles; I have experienced it myself as both an observer and addict. From years of experience in personal growth communities, I have witnessed that only a fraction of those who spend weekends examining their souls in workshop settings actually emerge with anything more than a brief emotional high or passing insight, soon to be overwritten with the day-to-day concerns of home and work. Only a fraction of those attenders will actually achieve deep behavioral changes over the long term, or sacrifice routine and convenience to strategically pursue a new workshop-generated mission. Laden by my own experience of workshop highs followed by quick-fading resolutions, I had burned out from process work years before, choosing other paths toward personal change.

There are those who say that the brain does not know the difference between reality and ritual (or process)…while this may be true for some, I have not experienced this beyond a very limited degree. A guided visualization or process, like divination – I say – is necessarily limited by the inward filters of the person visualizing…unless support is given to weaken those filters and facilitate an opening to new insights.

I remember my husband sharing stories of inconspicuously using Lodge medicines and prayers to invoke spiritual protection and support during the transformational workshops associated with the Lodge he served…how the processes supported in this way went deeper and achieved greater change than those that were not. And from staffing experience in workshops that did not use – that actively discouraged – -such forms of support in its workshops, I can vouch for the difference made by this absence.

My experience: where only human energies are specifically invited, only human energies, in all their limitations, will contribute.

I say – for Pity’s sake – stop asking participants to visualize from their memories and limiting filters, go out to the woods and the water, and invite the awarenesses of the Earth to speak for themselves in sacred space! To invoke the words of Chief Seattle, without experiencing the context of direct, sacred Earth-connection and Earth-communion from which those words arose, is to empty them of their soul.

By the time I reached the last chapter of Coming Back to Life, I had set the book aside several times in anger. To offer experiential trainings that include no direct experience, I told myself, is simply to feed a cultural workshop addiction and the easy belief that “well, I’ve attended a workshop on XYZ, I’ve had my emotional display and catharsis, I’ve produced a personal vision, therefore I am officially enlightened on the topic.” The certificate goes on the wall, the reference in the resume, and that’s the end of the matter.

There is no time now for such easy outs…any more than there was time for engaging in self-recriminations at my mother’s bedside. There is only time for action.

To be fair, Macy does address the question of action, and in the last chapter[10] provides a format to inspire participants to bless one another and move forward in acting on their insights. Earlier in the book, there is even a suggestion of ways to continue the bonds forged in the workshop. [11] But here again, there is no recognition of direct connection with the awareness of the Earth: the patient remains an object to be discussed but not engaged in interaction.

While I have noted the prevalence of the first possible response to the inevitability of death in the book, I believe the fourth possible response believe is what is needed at this time: To connect with a larger picture in which nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected, in which death may be the gateway through which an individual’s influence and impact transcend the body. To seek direct, humble and loving partnership with Earth Mother and the non-human beings of the Earth, seeking their answers to the destruction. I believe that this approach offers a healthy and effective means of moving through emotional pain to achieve inspired action to protect life on Earth.

[1]        Unless otherwise noted, all references are drawn from Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998).

[2] Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972) 34

[3] Page 187

[4] Page 27

[5] Pages 35-37

[6] Page 50

[7] Page 136

[8] Page 80

[9] Page 136

[10] Page 171 and following


Welcome to the Real World

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I knew of a physicist at the University of Chicago who was rather crazy, like some scientists, and the idea of the insolidity, the instability of the physical world, impressed him so much that he used to go around in enormous padded slippers for fear he should fall through the floor.

— Alan Watts, Nothingness

Most people would laugh at such a scientist. But as new science steadily addresses realities far beyond the reach of our so-called “common” sense –  I find myself wondering about the craziness of those padded slippers.

After all, what would you do if the theoretical science that formed the framework for your world view suddenly turned out to be visibly, tangibly verified by your everyday sensory experience? If, for example, instead of seeing a floor,  you saw a million swirling points of energy?

I suspect you might be just a little….well, freaked out.

Indigenous cultures have taught such concepts for millennia – for example, that we are all energy beings, and that we are all connected – but despite popular movies like What the Bleep and corroborating data from institutes such asHeartMath Research Center, modern society has a great deal of difficulty accepting the empirical reality of such concepts.

We’re deeply conditioned by our secular-materialist culture to believe that we are isolated individuals, that the boundaries of our minds do not extend past our skulls, that a solid floor is a solid floor, that…well, you get the idea. Even if we  subscribe to the belief that we are all connected, and that we can communicate energetically, a core of skepticism  may linger: without direct personal experience, how can we be sure? And we file the quantum concepts away in an agnostic cubbyhole.

For example, I’ve always held the belief that all beings, from stones to trees, from viruses to gorillas, from crickets to skunks, from krill to whales – and oh yes, also including humans – are sentient, thinking and feeling in their own unique way. These beliefs are woven into indigenous faith and practice around the world, in shamanic cultures from the Amazonian rainforest to the Siberian steppes.  And they’re core beliefs that I’ve held, and tried to act upon, since long before the days of my husband’s deep involvement in Traditional Native American practices.

But it wasn’t till this past weekend, when I was out doing homework for the Land Healing apprenticeship*  I’m now pursuing, that I received a firsthand experience of exactly what these beliefs mean in real life, outside the heady realm of cherished certitude. And I’ll admit – I was mind-boggled.

I was walking a path on sacred land near my home, and intentionally stopped to connect sensorially and at heart level with two trees along the way, as I’d been taught in the first class.  Connecting with each tree individually, I received very different impressions of personalities and attitudes toward humankind (or rather, human(un)kind in one case…passing two-leggeds had not been kind to that Standing One).

I responded politely to the input those trees were giving, and then stepped a little further down the path…and had the mind-boggling sense that every tree in the park was aware of me and assessing me – my intent, my attitude, my reasons for connecting and communicating with their two siblings.

Have you ever stood at a podium in front of a thousand psychics, all of them “reading” you? That’s roughly how this felt. I’d read old folk tales of people wandering into a forest and experiencing the spirit of the wood, panicking and fleeing – I’d never been able to understand such a reaction; forests had always felt like sanctuaries for me.

Now, however, I could understand. While the gaze of these uncountable trees was in no way hostile, it was wary, cautious, penetrating, evaluative…and overwhelming. I responded to the unspoken questions – “Who are you and what are you doing here? What do you want with us?” by explaining that I was a beginner trying to learn the right way of being in relationship with nonhuman beings, and asked them to ease up a little – they were scaring me! And they did. The contact broke, the sense of intense attention faded;  I could breathe again, and continued on my way.

I have been sitting with the aftershocks of that experience for the past week. Even though I’d hugged and talked (privately) to trees for years, even though I’d experienced individual trees as sentient beings in class as well as in the two conversations before the encounter with the entire forest, even though I’d had every reason to expect such a response from the forest as a whole,  the experience of trees en masse, as a crowd of individual personalities, was beyond any of my imaginings.

I remembered the response my husband used to give to such experiences:“Welcome to the Real World”....that is,  however much I believed in interbeing, the interconnection and sentience of all things, I couldn’t know this as reality until I stepped past my conditioning to experience it directly.

And the implications were staggering….

Imagine living in a world where energetic communication not just with other humans, but with every other being was not only possible, but also acknowledged fact…not a fantastical delusion to be treated with antipsychotic drugs, but the foundation of uncountable indigenous cultures. We know this to be the truth…and yet this real-world daily communication has been dismissed by this “enlightened” culture as pagan superstition.

Imagine living in a world in which plants, animals and humans consciouslycoexist in a delicate dance of balance that leaves their environment largely intact for millennia. We know that this also is true – it shows up in one account after another of intact indigenous cultures, even today.

Just sit with those images for a moment. Imagine being a consciously participating element of a living, communicating, mutually supportive environment, gaining wisdom from every other element.

Now picture our world, with humans isolated from all other beings by an assumption of superiority and dominion, exploiting or eradicating those other beings while we debate their level of sentience and dismiss what knowledge cannot be gleaned by instrumentation and metrics.

Is it any wonder that this culture is crazed and soul-starved? And what is there to be done about it?

I have only just completed my second lesson of the apprenticeship, so I am hardly the one to advise wholesale solutions. However, the old childhood rule for crossing the street does come to mind:

Stop.  Stop assuming, stop numbing out, stop objectifying…

Look. Try looking at everything around  you as a sentient being. What would it be like to get the perspective of an oak…a deer grazing in your garden…a polluted river?

Listen.  Next time you’re about to prune a tree, for example, tell the tree politely what you’re planning to do and why, then ask permission. And wait to see what you hear or sense inwardly.

If nothing else, ask – what if? Even if you already believe that we are all related and all beings are sentient in their own unique way, what if these trees, for example, are not simply standing passively in the earth, waiting to serve the purposes of humans, but are observing and participating in their environment in ways we can’t even imagine – and quite capable of communicating their perspective?

You may be familiar with the Gaia theory of a conscious, self-regulating planet. For many of us it ties in with the Earth-centered values we have carried for many years. Now take it a step further: what if that theory describes not only a living system of interacting organic and inorganic elements, but also a living system of interacting individual consciousnesses – consciousnesses with which we can communicate and interact to heal the wounds this world has suffered?

What if?