They stand like twisted contemporary dancers in the hot baked flat terrain. Dust rises and the fires look to find the fuel for burning. They burst into flames.
I drove past these trees along the highway towards the Mohave desert. This Feburary was the beginning of a strange shift in the world. There they were. The Joshua trees. Oddly shaped, Dr. Seuss looking, worshipping the sun and silent as myself and others whizzed by them back a forth along the road.
The first time I had ever heard of them was when the band U2 made there album and use the trees as a symbol for there their mysterious and musical expression. The trees seemed other worldly. It would be many years later that I would find myself among these strange trees. In awe and mystified by their presence. They added to the round boulders and other geographies of the California desert.
I was at the time looking for the mystery. Looking for the ecstatic experience and expression of the universe. I was on the road for work and to heal my emotional wounds. I wanted to find some justification for the pain in my heart. I wanted the beauty of this earth to somehow heal me. It did. In it’s own time….
This place of the Joshua trees touched me. The ecology of the land. It fueled all my curiosity. These trees were beautiful. A year later after my first visit, vandalism took some of the trees I passed back though to see them. I felt a connection to them.
Today these trees are burning as the wild fires in California rage. They are rare, fragile and symbiotic in an age that is fighting itself for deeper understanding and to get a footing in how to make a better world.
After 2 and a half years of traveling coast to coast eight times. My life consumed approximately 110,000 miles of roads and experiences. The road ended in a park and ride in Connecticut in March. My 6 months of plans, workshops and work evaporated in about 72 hours. I had to quarantine. All the places I would have stayed at during my travels were locked down. I found my large view and experience of the world reduce to sleeping in my car, trying to get a shower once a week, figuring out how to make enough money to eat….and pay my bills… working hard to find the motivation not to give up. The world was in chaos and shut down… no places to go… I was ground to a halt.
I’m not going to say it was easy or that it was fun. That I had some great epiphanies that open my soul. I was vulnerable, scared, angry, frustrated and often struggling just to keep a basic routine for a sense of sanity the first couple of months.
I come from strong stock. Giving up is not an option. My will to survive is probably stronger than most. If I set my mind on it don’t get in my way. No matter what the obstacles, the emotional or physical pain…. push through it. Don’t give up. Focus on the task at hand… the next right thing…. ask for help yet don’t have expectations.
This period of time was a kind of feral existence. It resides in the thin edges and shadows of what we call civil society. I lived in a way that I could function and if you didn’t know I was homeless you probably wouldn’t have guessed. I changed my clothes every day. I washed up as best I could between showers. Did laundry at the local laundromat. I walked every day. Engaged in my practice of photography. The social isolation helped to keep up appearances.
I was aware that we all were struggling with the disruption of Covid-19. Despite my situation I felt I was doing ok…. counted my gratitudes. I wasn’t sick. I had a car to sleep in. I have enough to eat. I was getting some money coming. The active structure of my life keep the darker thoughts at bay most days. Writing and drawing helped prevent a complete mental break down.
Being reduced to a survival experience and having a overly active mind is challenging. My brain works like this: I over think everything. I want the big picture. I explore all the connections and nuances… my brain explodes… there are insights and ideas…. things to try… and the paralysis of too much. I have 30 years of skills in alternative and complimentary therapies, meditation…. etc… I got to test them all. Drag them through their paces and tossed out the ones that failed.
As grim as this all might sound, there was a lot of good over the last few months. There was progress. There was a tremendous amount of love and support. I finally found places to temporarily stay… work started to come in. Redirected my business model. Became very clear about what I wanted to do as the world changed.
I titled this blog post Standing Still. It comes from a Buddhist practice I learned many years ago. You visualize that you are a post in the ocean and the tides come in and out, sometimes the waves are still, somedays the waves rage in storms… all this happens and the post stays still witnessing and being a post. So, these past few months have pushed me to find that post in me. To practice that stillness as the world rages nowadays. This is not a detachment as much as it is the ability to not be knocked around by the experience and the emotions that are stimulated. It is the practice of learning to respond and decern. To know when to act. The experience has freed some of my mind and has given me clarity about how to approach and apply my services. I am grateful for that.
Learning to draw and paint trains the eye and mind to recognize patterns. The dance across the page, the vertical lines and relationships between shadows and light… the movement of attraction and attention to a scene as it unfolds on the paper….
My formal training for all it’s worth was to see. Look at things. Observe. Take note. This is dovetailed with the decernment of focusing in on the smallest of details and pulling so far back as to see the patch work patterns of larger connections and textures like the view from an airplane window. These perspectives are like the dream worlds created with vivid imagination yet they are also what is real and presented in every unfolding moment of the day. The eyes take them in as tiny inputs and impulses that are gathered and synthesized to become the conscious and subconscious motivations of risk and assessment.
I am a bit obsessive about visual patterns. It’s kind of like an alphabet of images and information that in my mind lay out a cyclical story that keeps repeating. My eyes and mind are drawn to the news feed and the daily routines and interactions that are becoming the new normal. The political discourse at this time in this country is a repeating pattern. My mind recognizes the signs and shifts…. 1930s Germany, Tibet and China, Cambodia, Argentina, Guatemala… Egypt… just to name a few. The patterns of disruption, corruption, lies, guns and violence…. the erosion of liberties. The slow motion collision of people in disbelief being mangled by some thing so out of context to their lives that they stand stunned as it crushes then. Without any resistance or they have be distracted by a false outrage as the waves engulfs them and they drown in their blindness.
To balance this intense reality my mind seeks beauty. The rest of the world. The stuff between. The flowers, trees, the clouds, starry skies and moon… these things are the threads of a cosmic pattern. They weave dreams of a reality I only see small glimpses of during my brief consciousness time here. My awareness of it grandeur is not lost with the knowledge of a desperate political power struggle. Life is the messy and difficult journey. We are born into this to find meaning. The choice is not one thing over another. It is the awareness and action to respond to all that is presented with a commitment to make the world a better place.
The patterns show the interconnectedness of everything. There isn’t a vacuum that insulates one world, reality, dream or perspective…. All things condense and fold into the experience we have directly and independently…. what we control( if we can) is our responsibility and actions as things directly engage with us. A line across the page, we create what we draw and focus on.
Drawing is like unrveling a ball of yarn. The fibers and neurons of the frontal cortex loosen and the image impulses travel down the back of the neck, through the arm and then tranfer out in to the fingers that guide the pencil over the paper. The eyes fix on the unfolding image send reactions, and visual cues back to the brain for further responses.
A drawing emerges that tells the story of a person, place or thing. Drawing stitches the dream into the flat plane of dried fibers. The lines dance and interact to stretch the dimesions of time and form. Drawing is a dance. Drawing is the eststic moment of energy generating visual complexity and beauty.
The line is a passage… the pathway for energy falling out of a wand on to the infinite page…. line apon line entangle to create the universe.
In the summer of 1999 I met a Cambodian Buddhist monk. I was working at The Elements of Life bookstore on State Street in New Haven Connecticut. This was the typical metaphysical kind of place. Newage music, crystals, books, all manner of spiritual tchotchkes, Goddesses, Gods, jewelry, prayer beads, the amorphous scent of every incense rolled into one permeating through out the space…. there was a diverse clientele of seekers and the curious. Any day could be a social/retail mixture of unmedicated mental illness, the true confessions of personal experiences, ghosts, weird pictures of blurry things, revenge seekers & spell casters, pagans, Wiccans, and the occasional scholar looking for resources. I called my three years working there bootcamp for the woo. I heard every kind of weird, wacky, and unhinged concept and story on everything thing from aliens to doomsday. And just when I thought I had heard everything someone would walk through that door and enlighten me with some thing new and fantastic.
I enjoyed the retail environment of the place. It was a magnet for the fringy folks but it also was a hub for interesting conversations and meeting people who I might not have in another kind of setting. The environment disarmed people enough to feel comfortable and open up about their inner workings about “God” and mysterious things.
New Haven in the late 90s was going through a growth spurt. The East Rock area was a pleasant place to live. I rented a first floor apartment on corner of Orange a Bishop streets. The area had just about every thing one would want within walking distance. I live three blocks away from the Elements of Life Book store. I work there 3 days a week.
It was a July day when I was at the back of the store talking with my boss when door jingled and in came the current Abbot of the New Haven Zen center. I started to make my way to the front of the store to help him and as I came around the CD case I nearly bumped in to a strange looking man who had come in with the Abbot. He was wearing a florescent orange wool hat, wrapped in orange fabric. We smiled at each other and then he busied himself with finding small gifts to bring to Washington DC. This monk was in route to go see the Dali Lama speak. As he moved about the store I could not stop smiling. I felt this joy coming from him. It was infectious… this odd looking orange wrapped being was truly embodied with a sense of purpose and presence.
That my introduction to the venerable Maha Gosananda ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preah_Maha_Ghosananda ) He was the spiritual leader of Cambodia. After the fall of the Khemer Rouge government (1978) he when into the refugee camps and taught/ reintroduced Buddhism to his people.
I’m thinking about Maha Gosananda this morning because I wonder about this country and the traumas that are being inflicted on us by this current a government. What we are experiencing will make for a long recovery. The compassion needed for the grief and humanitarian repairs are going to be costly. Who will rise to the occasion? Who will have what is needed be needed to heal the inner emotions of loss this country will face once this is over.
It not about savior(s). It is more about leaders who can unite and guide us to not hate but find compassion. The ways to reconcile our understanding of self and the consequences of past/current actions. How to build from that knowledge as lessons for recovery and reconstruction that creates an inclusive environment for peace and quality of life for everyone.
It’s easy to think that shamanism is somehow about this wild and untamed, unkempt and estatic/hallucinagenic aspect of our human nature. When in fact shamanism is more about how we connect, communicate, and understand the mystery of the cosmos and the phenomena of the world around us. And that requires an embodied state of awareness. Be here now. Be aware. Be awake. Be in the unfolding present moment of the magic that is the gift of your physical life here on the planet. Almost all shamanic training ( I am referring to my training) focuses on not running but facing shadows, fears, emotions, inadequacies, all in the context of navigating this complex tricky world. Finding connections and doorways in order to find a state of belonging and purpose.
The world we live is full of magic… not just the magic of ideas and dreams but the crazy beautiful, elegance of stuff and substance… the tiny particles that dance and attract to make trees and sunlight. This physical expression of mystery and the desire to create itself drives this world and the larger cosmos forward.
On this planet we humans engage in the tasks of survival and evolution. Our success can be seen in the adaptation to a wide spectrum of climates, geographical locations and dietary patterns. One example of this is the human desire to articulate ideas and concepts which became the 7,000 plus languages that now are spoken across the globe. We can also see this in the diversity of arts, traditional clothing, folklore/mythologies, spirituality and social structures.
This planet evolves as it adjusts to the constant growth and destruction of its physical dynamics. Human evolutionary ecology has interfaced with this process. Forcing the early hominids to evolve in response to change which in turn pushed the physiology to grow a bigger frontal cortex in the brain. That in turn allowed for more complex processing of the environment and the synthesis of ideas. Problem solving became more nuanced and the journey to discover new technologies to improve life began. The desire to know and understand branches out in many directions: science, medicine, arts, agriculture, design, etc….
Life is not for the faint at heart… life requires the will to live in it.
Shamanism in it’s simplicity is the recognition of something called “anima” the spirit in all things. This anima can be addressed, communicated and negotiated with to create a more symbiotic relationship between all living things. It has been hypothesized this this is the earliest form of religious or spiritual ideas. The diversity of geography and social/cultural values and the needs to create a sustainable relationship to the environment further modifies the symbols and processes used to affect the awareness of anima and it’s relationship to a given group of people. That is why what we call Shamanism looks as diverse in the expression and the experience it offers all over the planet.
Over the last 10 to 15 years there has been a strong trend to narrow the definition of shamanism and its diversity to the use of psychoactive plants. Not only does this hurt traditions and practices it opens the door to a complete misunderstanding of how shamanism works.
These traditions of these plants and their use were regulated in their respective traditions by medicine people/healers who understood the importance of the plant and it’s potential to shift someone’s perception of the world to awaken greater understanding of consciousness/connection. Under the right circumstances these plants are affective in that capacity. Out of context and traditional use these plants and traditions become vulnerable to exploitation and for some species of plants eradication through over harvest and use.
Unfortunately, most people are only presented with the concept that shamanism is the use of hallucinations and psychoactive botanicals as the primary means to engage with the mystery or find meaning in the world. I had a teacher early on my training who basically said there are no short cuts… You train your mind. You practice. It’s not about having a drug induced experience it is about having an embodied experience. I have been grateful for those wise words because practice gives you the ability to develop skills to navigate inner awareness and responses to the environment you live in. For me that has opened the world to me in ways I never could have imaged.
There is risk and a danger especially in the environment of a more privileged society that is seeking spiritual identity to abuse these traditions and plants for selfish misguide experiences. This falls under the guise today of spiritual awakening. When in fact it is more in alignment with spirtual by- pass and recreational use… embodied as a sort of ethno spirtual tourism experience. People are encouraged to travel all over to the world to have an experience to add to their life list. Without considering the consequences or impacts on the people who hold these traditions, the economic, social and environments. The lack of suport to manage these plant medicines can lead to addictions to these plants in order to try and further sort out the experience. There is also a “black market” of groups and professed healers who promote and promise magical results from the plants here in the states. This has it own ecology of risk and danger.
I titled this blog “Sober Shamanism” to begin a dialogue about the direction that this ideology has taken. I have witnessed the abuse of these plants and the dark climate it is creating to divert the traditions of shamanism towards something it is not. I fully believe the world needs shamans as seers, scientists, artists and societal healers and commentators. To do that the path for education in this work has to be grounded in the practices and traditions that are sustainable. Their is a responsible sobriety that needs to be part of the evolution of shamanism in remaining relevant and an insightful contributor to the earth and where are going with humanity.