Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Miraculous Quality of the Mundane

One of my earliest memories - I think I was seven - is of riding in a truck cab with my father, listening to the radio. Quite suddenly I was struck and overwhelmed by the vast, complex and intricate network of people, skills, interaction, cooperation and efforts that made radio possible. It wasn't just that someone had invented the radio itself but that there were people who paid for advertising products, which generated income which allow allowed other people to make music and play it over the radio so that others would listen to their music, and the advertising, and perhaps even purchase the products advertised, thus completing the cycle. I don't know how long it lasted, but I was pretty stunned by the complexity of it all. 

Quite a few years ago, when I was twenty something and was meditating for hours a day, I once went for a walk and realized I could feel the sidewalk humming. I saw that even the sidewalk, made of crushed sand and grit, was still alive - that everything was filled with Chi. This realization left me quite blissed out for hours afterwards. Since then I have always tried to keep in mind that the whole of the world is alive and conscious at some level. Not just the trees and animals but the stones and even the dixie cups. 

Yesterday, in the shower, I found myself looking at my twin bladed razor and thinking "this too is alive." It was tempting to laugh it off - seeing myself as ridiculous. But it's true - and miraculous. Consider the miracle of the razor: Not only is it an item that could not be produced by our bare hands. Not even a skilled blacksmith with a complete set of modern tools could craft this simple product. It takes the completely (apparently) unconscious and unskilled attentions of a robot factory fed on the remains of long dead monsters that once roamed the earth, to slap together a construction of plastic and steel that would not even exist if not for the current trends in human society to 1) be clean shaven, 2) compete with each other for resources, 3) constantly strive to find and meet previously unrealized needs in order to more effectively compete with other monkeys for
  increasingly scarce resources....and it occurs to me that sometimes miracles are not things emerging from puffs of green smoke but instead arising from the fog of the everyday trance - that even awakening from that trance, even for a moment. That is a miracle. We humans - building trash heaps of wasted resources on which we sacrifice the future of our unborn generations in the vague hope of another moment of unknowing - and suddenly acting out of compassion we transform everything - with a single smile we change the world. It is worthwhile - valuable - beautiful. . . and never to be encompassed by mere words. This magical, ecstatic Mystery that we are. What grand visions we mistake for mundane refuse. 


Monday, June 16, 2008


Shamanism is one of those things you can read about in every book in the world and still not really grasp. This is because words live in one world and the roots and reach of the shaman lie in others. Access to these other worlds is not defined by intellectual understanding, but by direct experience - experiences that we call initiation. An initiation is a doorway opening into these other worlds. It might take many forms in this world, but if it is an effective initiation, it will have the impact of opening your awareness to the worlds of the shaman. 

It could be something as simple as a life threatening illness that shoves you out of your body and into an "hallucinatory" state in which you encounter beings or information that change your life. I could be something more specific, like a ceremony in which your physical body is ritually dismembered and your organs replaced with glowing gems. 

Initiations generally take one of two paths. Either they occur naturally - illness, car accident, lightning strike - or they are planned and orchestrated by those who have already encountered these doorways and know how to acquaint you with them in a safe and relatively non-traumatic way. If you have the choice, I encourage you to seek the later. They are much easier. Still terrifying and overwhelming, but much easier than the initiations that spirits provide you with if they feel you are not responding to their calls.

Those initiations that are encountered haphazardly in life seem to be sent by spirits that have decided they have a use for you. It would help if we lived in a culture that recognized such encounters for what they are and responded appropriately. Instead, what often happens is that the spirits get frustrated when we don't respond and so they knock louder. Eventually we either wake up or we don't survive. 

I don't mean to say that every car wreck, epileptic seizure or coma is a call from the spirits. This is another way in which words to not begin to express the nature of what it. There is a unique quality to an experience that is an attempt by spirit to wake you up. You may experience this quality in the disorientation of your consciousness and the sudden awareness of things that you didn't know before, but suddenly realize to be true. It can all be quite confusing - and there is little difference between someone called to be a shaman and a madman.

Of course, as indicated by another meaning of the word, initiation is only the beginning. 

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Keeping the Ancestors Happy

It's not often in this culture that we stop to consider the ones on whose shoulders we stand - that long line of ancestors, without which we would not be here today. Shamanic teachings talk about the three souls humans have, and one of those souls comes from - and returns to - the ancestors. So we owe them our gratitude and our continued appreciation. We've lost this - most of us anyway. Grandparents and those before them might get a photo or two, a place in the family album, but they rarely have a real presence in our lives. 

When I think about how ancestors are respected and honored in tribal culture, it occurs to me that this might be one reason why we've lost so many other good parts of that culture as well. For instance, there is a sense of ingrained generosity in tribal people that I just don't see in moderns. Not that the people I know in our culture aren't generous, but that there is a difference. (And if there's someone who grew up in a tribal culture who would care to speak to this - please feel free.) There seems to me an unconscious sense of obligation to and openness of spirit and heart to fellow members of your tribe that we have lost. And this sense of generosity extends to the ancestors as well. Often there are rituals around the feeding and care of the ancestors - holding a place for them at meals - passing a plate for them. 

I try to rediscover this myself by having an altar for my ancestors and giving them daily offerings - speaking to them - asking for their continued blessings - asking for their guidance and support. All of us like to be listened to and to be of use - apparently this applies to the ancestors as well. The occasional offering of Irish whisky seems to make some of them particularly happy. 

As much as we might have lost of our tribal ways, it's important to realize that we can only reclaim these pieces from where we are now - not by taking on the trappings of a tribal culture; not by wearing another tribe's tradition like a costume. We must rediscover what has meaning for us and for our ancestors. When we do this; when we stand with our ancestors and remember we are not alone on this earth, we begin to remember what it is to be more fully human.