Migrating toward Wholeness

Lately, I’ve been contemplating wholeness. I know that wholeness is something to be desired, but what is wholeness, really? Wholeness is one of those abstract words we carelessly toss around – similar to ego or self – but when asked, it is difficult to come up with a clear definition. When I Googled the question “What is wholeness?” this is the first thing I found:

“Wholeness is a concept that has many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer as to what wholeness really is”.

Perhaps, it is easier to describe wholeness by what it is not – via negativa – for I can easily identify the moments in my life when I have felt anything but whole; times when I felt alienated from others, periods of self-doubt and humiliation, and those many instances when I wasn’t understood or when my feelings were denied or devalued. It is times like these that my body and mind fall out of sync, scouring against each other like two opposing sides of a fault-line.

We do know from trauma studies that dissociation, or psychic splitting, takes place when an unbearable event such as child abuse or a natural disaster occurs in the life of an individual or community. Dissociation is a psychological maneuver that fragments the psyche into various compartments where the painful material can remain safely tucked away, enabling one to continue living without having to bear the full weight of the trauma. Thus, dissociation is a helpful survival mechanism, but not without great sacrifice. Whereas a traumatized person may be able to function in the external world of work, friends, and family, the inner world may be beset with a host of tormenting symptoms which cramp down on their ability to express themselves and move comfortably through the world. If they were Elk or Caribou, it would be like having fences erected around their migratory paths.

Unfortunately, too many of us know the impact of trauma in one form or another. Yet, within mainstream psychology, little attention is given to the pervasive trauma of global warming, the loss of habitat, or the destruction of wild places. And yet, the wounding impact of these events is palpable to anyone who has ever had connection to place. Each time I travel to my mom’s house in the Coachella Valley, for instance, I become disoriented, uncomfortably altered, and despairing as I watch more and more of my favorite desert places swallowed up by Home Depots, golf courses, and mobile home parks. And what makes this worse is that very few people understand or recognize these feelings. My guess is that this is due to the fact that environmental devastation is so all-encompassing and out of control that it is just too disturbing to give it words. How can I possibly ever be whole when the places I love are disappearing? My best memories live in these places. Where will my memories go when these places are gone?

And, of course, this profound loss is nothing new for those who have lived here long before the era of Manifest Destiny when rapid expansionism buried the ancient teachings and storylines under the rubbish of ignorance and greed. I can only trust that if we pay attention long enough and allow ourselves to listen intensely; we’ll discern the stories that still live deep in the belly of the earth, waiting in dark silence…

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Although my ancestors are not native to this continent, I feel a responsibility to live as if I am, and to walk lightly so as to not harm the old stories that live in the land. And eventually, as I continue to walk, my own memories of trauma and loss find refuge in the stones, washes, and trees and a new story begins to take form. Something instinctively within me wants to continue the migration toward wholeness and all the living pieces are slowly making their way across the land. Memories gathering into a story. By our stories we are healed.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

And now it occurs to me that wholeness is no different than wildness and wildness is the ability to move freely through this world. In the past, I imagined wholeness to be like a hardboiled egg in which all things are held together tightly in place, but now I understand wholeness as that which is boundless and unrestrained, yet orderly within its own natural system. A plant that is wild is self-propagating, free to flourish according to its own unique endowments. An animal that is wild freely moves according to its own internal patterns. And, a human who is wild tells their story without fear or intimidation.

Speaking of wholeness in this way, Gary Snyder writes,

Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order….To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive” (The Practice of the Wild, p. 12).

It is thus no mystery why the work we do at The School of Lost Borders is so healing. Not healing in a fix it kind of way, but in an expanding, opening way. It is so simple. People gather together, go out alone onto the land, create ceremony, and then come back to the group with a story. It is healing because it reconnects us with our own wild system, knocking down fences, breaking apart dams, removing the barriers of shame and silence. This is our Practice of the Wild. This is our Practice of Wholeness. 

The only cure
I know
Is a good ceremony
That’s what she said

–          Leslie Marmon Silko

The Secret of the Golden Flowers

“When occupations come to us, we must accept them; when things come to us, we must understand them from the ground up” – Master Lu-tsu, The Secret of the Golden Flower

“Contemplate the earth now, for it is from the earth that the ultimate solution will come.” – C.G. Jung

This has been a season of exuberance. In spite of my tendency to gravitate toward the dark, I cannot resist the mirth of spring. It’s true! Since the first patches of shooting stars appeared on the grassy hillsides near my home, I’ve been light hearted.  Later, when the lupine and poppies came up, I could barely contain my joy.  The sight of of sunflowers, goldfields, and tidy tips has made me childish with glee.

To stay indoors these days is a foolish proposition. To go into the office seems ridiculous. Laundry is absurd.  What used to feel so important – work, meetings, appointments – has slipped into the background of nature’s parade.  Certainly, if I am not careful these flowers are going to lead me to the madhouse.

But even amid spring’s laughter there remains a thread of darkness below the surface, a dim tell-tale that not all things can remain light and cheery. Because Nature, herself, is dark.

The life of a wildflower is simply too short. Even as I write this, the hillsides, once moist and verdant, are turning into an ordinary brown. I seek higher elevations hoping to find more, but here too the ground is already drying up and the foxtails assault my socks. It’s hot and I am aware of snakes.  Eventually, the extroversion of summer will dominate the flowers and they will be gone.

The flower’s purpose is to reproduce itself, over and over.  Usually a hermaphrodite, each flower contains its own seeds and semen, ovules and pollen. From the tip of the stamen the quivering anthers release their pollen into the tiny ovules – the future seeds and the anticipation of another spring.  The color and fragrance of flowers attract insects and birds, further spreading the nectar of life. One could say the flower is complete unto itself, needing no one except the passing admirer of her beauty.

Harlotry, indeed. These painted ladies possess the gift of seduction.  Irresistibly, they turn our gaze from the lofty heights and draw us down to earth. They spellbind us, hypnotize us, make us drunk on their splendor.  And, like Persephone, they bring us closer to the clutches of Hades and to the land of the dead.

Why are we so attracted to that which is so short-lived? What draws us to that which we cannot possess?

Impermanence fertilizes our yearning. Yearning creates suffering.  And, as much as I hate to admit it, the suffering of unfulfilled yearning is soulful. No wonder, although many of us love the light, we return to the dark.  In the dark soil of suffering we crack open to our own crazy shit.  In our yearning we can no longer be so painstakingly sane, rational, and controlled. We can no longer lie to ourselves about who we are and what we desire most.

“The longing of the darkness for light is fulfilled only when the light can no longer be rationally explained”, writes Jung.

And on one miraculous day, and with all the force of the world, we push ourselves up from beneath the hard, impermeable ground only to realize that we are not the flower, but rather, the flower is us.

Flowers come and go so readily. By their very nature they will not be grasped, imitated, or understood. Nor will the self. Nor will god.

Act and you ruin it.
Grasp and you lose it.
Therefore the Sage
Does not act
Wu wei
And so does not ruin
Ku wu pai
Does not grasp
And so does not lose.

– Tao Te Ching