Saturday, November 18, 2017


The Cicada, the Witch, and the White Bear

Several years ago, an idealistic ecologist from a New Age church in Asheville sparked my interest in their "Earth Team." His leading was to move beyond a group of religious liberals always planning their next action to grounding the work in serious prayer about our complicity in the web. He invited me in. Next thing I knew, he had moved to New England. Shortly later, I had this dream. I'm at the beach, going into a kind of amusement house. I approach an oracular figure, Orpheus in half-lotus, head bowed under a canvas or light blanket covering. He is tall - Bob, my Earth Team mentor. Recognizing the figure, I joke about his paradoxical nature, and he answers in effect "Since you got it, now it's your turn to be Orpheus." I am shown the seat and take it. The blanket, this mantle, falls over me, and I instantly feel the strange energy of entering an alien being.

I was the anointed, the dream seemed to say. Strange energy, alien being...the teacher-scholar would now try on the cloak of activism. Joseph Campbell once told a wonderful story about a king, exiled in remote mountains, tortured by a whirring machine on his head. A traveler comes up and says, “What's that whirling machine on your head?” The device immediately leaps to the inquirer's head, and the king is freed. The new bearer of this dubious crown will keep it until another unwitting soul makes the same inquiry.

Trying on the “cloak of activism...” I wrote these words over a decade ago, when I was indeed awakened to the need for my contemplative self to rise up out of his den and into the streets. But the dream image does not necessarily say that. If Orpheus is Bob (dream irony works here, since that is also my name), then the primary image is of a Green Man who was not given to reflexive action, but wanted all responses to be grounded in group prayer. My acts of civil disobedience, attending hearings and mass marches, were all the product of the deep searching which led me to quit the ivory tower. I also facilitated workshops and preached the climate word, ending with a deep depression a year and a half ago. I was leading a series of retreats called, after Carolyn Baker, “Collapsing Consciously,” and ended up collapsing myself. Physician, heal thyself. Learn to swim before you throw others into the tempest.

Healing. On the last day of the Southeastern Permaculture Gathering this summer, an annual event hosted by Arthur Morgan School, folks were beginning to strike their tents for the journey home. My friend Crone Patricia showed a few of us a moulting cicada, attached to an auto tire. As we looked we noticed other cicadas attached to other tires in the same way – a couple of dozen. The shell was already that rigid form one sees cast everywhere, but he was patiently straining against it, arching body green as a young spring leaf, gleaming wet, small, intensely red eyes. The old dangling shell curled forward in a permanent dowager's hump. After watching for 10-15 minutes, it seemed to still be at the same place in its moulting. It reminded me of a woman in labor, having the baby without pushing, just patiently waiting for the baby itself to come forward.

I realized in a flash, “that's me.” I was unexpectedly moulting. This was a metamorphosis, a new green life in a 71 year-old body, casting off the dross of an outworn depression, a garment still clinging by habit. This didn't happen through my practice of inquiry, but by witnessing a humble little messenger right before me though a sudden, epiphenomenal opening of soul.

Over the next month or so, I had other encounters with animal messengers. A red admiral butterfly flew up to me, hovered, and moved on. I collected butterflies as a young camper in these mountains in the Fifties, and saw many of them then. I had only seen one here since then, as lepidoptera is one of the orders hard-hit by the Sixth Extinction. When I looked up the butterfly's symbology, the meaning was not clear – perhaps a warning. The point was that this was a visitation.

One night after an exhausting day, I went out on the deck and spread my arms in supplication for peace. A hoot owl answered, hooting three times, and I was healed. I was paying close attention, day by day, finding deer jaw bones on my walks, hawks swooping down, trident-shaped buckeyes budding in fall. I was no longer in my head, fearful of the rapidly changing climate and the madness in Washington, certainly not when I was out walking in the woods.

And my dream-life, richly active in midlife, has intensified. Inviting soul in from the natural world has opened the doors to the inner world, as well. I have recorded dreams since age 19, and learned to dialogue with dream-figures during a period when I entertained becoming a Jungian analyst. Jung called this process “active imagination.” Over the years, I have used it periodically, especially when I was down or uncentered. Now, I use it more frequently, and it keeps me in touch with an imaginal, mythic reality that feels far deeper and more satisfying than following geopolitics and geoclimate events.

A few years ago, I had this dream: I climb up on the roof, where I see my mentor Elizabeth Sewell, a poet. I go and crouch by her, balancing on the pitch for my instruction. She points up to the peak and I see a huge white bear. He feels menacing, threatening, utterly other. Noticing my gaze, he slips over to the other side. I clamber up as fast as I am able. When I reach the top, I see him moving from roof to roof, over the gables of the city. Soon, he disappears. I go back to Elizabeth to report. She tells me it is my task to find this bear.

Now I read from Martin Shaw a fairy tale about a majestic white bear, a distinguished kingly figure pursued by a brave Inuit maiden, going through many trials until she breaks the barriers of her village life to unite with him. As I put the book down, my White Bear appears immediately. I think of the polar bear, doomed to extinction, and my teacher James Hillman's remark one evening in Dallas about the big cats going extinct, and our obligation to keep them alive forever in our imaginal lives, our souls.

I sit down for an active imagination session with the White Bear, and invite him in...
The White Bear climbs down from the roof, and looks in my window, curious now, not threatening. I greet him. He is outside the shed window. My place of retreat, unused now for over a decade.
(When you go into retreat, the Hill, the Shed, the White Bear appears, inviting you.) White Bear walks around to the front of the Shed, and up the walkway steps, waiting there. I roust myself, head for the door, no hesitation. He comes in and embraces me. I feel like a child in his embrace. He tightens it a bit to let me know this is not play, that he could easily crush me. But he is not malevolent. We sit down for coffee together at the write-desk, under Ramana's gaze.

Ramana. I have a photo of the sage over the shed writing desk, wearing his loincloth, holding a staff in one hand, a water-pot in the other. As a teen, he quickened when a relative mentioned Arunachala, the great primordial mountain at Tiruvanamalai where Siva manifested himself in mythic time. Within days, he left home to go to the mountain, which he called his Father, renouncing everything to find the Great Self. For those in the Advaita tradition he subsequently revived, place is of no consequence, and the world is a dream. Ramana affirmed the latter, but remained anchored the rest of his life at the foot of his Father, Arunachala. Was not this call, transmuted as it was by a powerful mystical tradition, not a shamanic one in some sense?

As this fall has progressed, I have found myself moving organically between the shamanic work and the vichara, moving from body through emotions through thoughts to the carrier of it all, the I-thought, arresting that inward movement to ask, Who am I? What do I designate as shamanic? Walking in the woods, ever alert for signs, watching the sun and moon rise and set, inviting in dream figures, animal totems and witches, for serious dialogue. In each of these, the ego is humbled, giving way to an Observer, who is within, and who is also without, as David Abram taught me years ago (come to a retreat and I'll show you what I mean!).

On my best days, this process happens naturally, and each practice supports the other. Just a couple of days ago, I had my third encounter with Cundrie, my favorite witch. She is a figure from Wolfram's Parzival, an old woman with a pig's face and a Parisian hat, riding on a mule. She appears in the Parzival saga whenever the knight is riding too high, and needs to be humbled. In my shamanic world, you could say she plays the role of Shiva (he of the buckeye trident), destroyer of the ego, as well as the mind-built world. When she visits me, I see her riding up my road, whipping that mule to go as fast as she can, dismounting and striding straight up the walk, in the door without knocking, up the stairs and into my study, bursting open the door to confront me. This last time, she followed this scenario until she reached my study door, where she slumped to the floor, just staring. She sat thus for two days, smoking her cigarette. When she finally came in, gently tapping me on the shoulder, and I greeted her, all the tempest of the last ten-day slide immediately calmed. I went directly into my deepest meditation in several weeks, a deep, dark peace that stayed with me for quite awhile. I did not have to repeat the sentence, who am I, for I was well beyond identification with any of the elements.

So yes, though these two paths seem very different to the analytic mind, in my own experience they can work together, even requiring each other. The integration which has eluded me so long is unfolding. I do not know where it will lead in terms of my efforts at this blog, or my work in the world. I will stay engaged with the new green cicada and my faithful Cundrie, and keep tending the soulfire, keeping my kindling dry. And I suspect that my future work will have more to do with midwifery than prophecy. Follow me here, and I will invite you into the patience of birthing without pushing.

Friday, November 17, 2017


The Shaman and the Inquirer

Two traditions have anchored my personal spiritual practice since laying down college teaching at the millennium, returning to Appalachia to work for the healing of the earth – and myself. The first set of practices clusters around enlarging my field of awareness to honor the entire earth system, Gaia, as a divine whole and in her particulars, both saying thanks for participation in the exquisite natural world in the Southern Highlands and grieving what we are losing here and elsewhere. This practice, which still feels like an apprenticeship after 15 years, grows out of my encounters and training with Joanna Macy (April 3 post) and her process of accepting the despair which we all carry for the earth, then moving through it to empowering us to help heal her.

All of this is framed by prayers of thanksgiving, both for what the earth gives us, and for the opportunity to speak and act on her behalf. Joanna Macy's training is in Tibetan Buddhism, which honors the natural world and a host of divinities who embody natural forces and characteristics. It incorporates elements of Himalayan shamanism as well as pre-Buddhist India, both Vedic and animistic. Though the modern term for this approach, following Arne Naess, is “Deep Ecology,” I name it as shamanistic: practices that awaken to and honor the divinity shot through all of creation, mirroring each aspect through our own consciousness and ritual.

The second set of practices grows out of Advaita Vedanta. Historical circumstance threw me into the midst of a religion that accepted and accommodated every practice in South Asia, including yoga, animism, as well as priestly brahmanism and polytheism. Though I was taken by everything about the Hindu culture in 1968, it was self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi that affected me most deeply. He took the ancient practice of the jnana yogi, neti, neti – which recognized the ineffable quality of the divine by saying [It's] “not this, not that” to every experience or formulation of God, and turned it into the simple inquiry, “Who am I?” For every experience, including the customary practice of dividing experience into body-mind (the “self”), the world, and god, is at root only the emanation of the Self, (Brahman), the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. The I thought is primary, and no other thought or image is possible without it. This primal thought itself arises as an epiphenomenal miracle from the Self, which is all that exists.

After a couple of years of intermittent practice as a young adult, I quit self-inquiry, frustrated with my lack of progress. Then, a few years ago, I discovered, virtually in my backyard, a community that trains folks in the Maharshi's method. It turns out that the practice which the ashram authorities forbade transmitting at Ramana's ashram in South India has been taught since 1978 in NC, first in Greensboro at a storefront, now at a rural ashram near Asheboro, home of the NC Zoo. The center calls itself AHAM (Association for the Happiness of All Mankind), and its training in self-inquiry is authentic, augmented by a highly supportive structure, which is modeled on Alcoholic Anonymous, for thoroughly incorporating the teaching in one's life.

Since re-encountering self-inquiry through the AHAM community, I have prioritized this practice. As the Maharshi said, one must always come to this in the end, no matter what practice one follows initially. But I sense that I am not sufficiently honoring the Tibetan-shamanistic practices I learned from Joanna. I am not moving through despair to an affirmation of the essential joy of our true creative nature that the Maharshi says is our natural state, and which I usually re-experience when I do the deep ecology exercises. Instead of using the sympathetic identification of shamanism, I merely glance outdoors and retire to my meditation cushion, where I struggle with the endless stream of thoughts. They occasionally cease long enough to dive within to the questions, who's experiencing, who's thinking, to the gateway question, “who am I?” There is rarely very much energy in the process (maybe I should do more yoga first, or pranayam {breathing exercises}, I ask myself). I struggle to get beyond a deadening apathy, stalked by despair over the state of the earth that I hold at bay long enough to engage in the effort at meditation.

Occasionally this works, throttling despair by letting it in, going through it, and simply cutting off the feeling by retracing the I-thought, undoing karma. Despair, and any other feeling or thought, is totally destroyed as soon as one asks, “who's thinking...who's feeling? But when the vichara is working, even with the eyes open, the world feels unreal, like an image, a mirage. When the shamanistic practice works, on the other hand, I enter into identification with the world as plant, creature or natural feature, and what starts to feel unreal is experiencing myself as a separate entity. The practice takes me outside of myself, beyond experiencing that self as encapsulated in my body, breaking down boundaries, rendering them more fluid. I expand my identity, beginning to experience what Naess called the ecological self - a process of expanding self-awareness into the biosphere.

So it feels like the two practices are moving in opposite directions. It is true that each of them moves beyond the ego, the little tyrant who converts everything to his dominion. Shamanism moves beyond the ego through identification with wider and wider circles of being. I am that too. Advaita, especially through the Maharshi's self-inquiry, moves beyond the ego by going through it more deeply within, moving into identity with the Self who creates the world, including Gaia in all her multifaceted being. The “I” disappears into its source, like waves into the ocean. I am only That.

I deeply honor both of these practices, and have had remarkable experiences using each method. Shamanism feels closer to my experience, because I am an embodied being. But Advaita feels fundamentally true, however fleetingly I experience its core: I am that I am. To choose one over the other feels fundamentally wrong. What has long eluded me is integrating them.

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