Walking on the Moon

The moon woke me. I was sleeping soundly in a remote wash tucked up a canyon in Death Valley, but when the moon rose to its zenith, full and fiery; I could no longer remain in my sleeping bag. I was compelled to rise and walk.  Actually, I had planned to take a night walk anyway, so I was relieved when the moon pulled me out of my sleep rather than me having to force myself awake. The rain had finally stopped and the icy wind had calmed itself to a breeze, so this was as good a time as any.

This was the third night of a four day vision fast. By this point, without the distractions of food and all the clutter that fills my life, time had really slowed down to a tortoises’ pace. Although I was wet, cold and hungry, it felt good to sink into the natural tempo of the desert. It is a state of being that my body knows intimately. This simple act of sleeping on the ground and rising to the light of the moon reminds me of my evolutionary origins, which at times can feel as comforting as the warm breath of a lover. And yet, it is an aspect of myself that I can so easily belittle as sluggish, primitive, and unconscious.

So, my intention for this fast was to find a new connection to the moon and to a consciousness that needn’t rely on such bright clarity; one that could withstand the ambiguities of nature, love, and creativity.  True or not, I consider myself a highly rational person having spent the last ten years of my life in institutional academia. I am also dependable, responsible, and even tempered; all qualities that I admire. But lately, this rational side has left me feeling depleted and sterile, and frankly, resentful toward life.  More than once, I actually caught myself fantasizing about personal catastrophes in the hopes of shaking things up a bit and to provide myself with an excuse to be a little crazy (which makes me speculate that maybe our culture’s current fascination with apocalyptic imagery is actually a grotesque expression for a desire to connect with the “crazy” unconscious). There has got to be a better way. I look to the moon.

But the moon is crazy! The moon is nuts. Lunacy. Fickle and erratic. Light and dark. Helpful and menacing. Intelligent and absurd. Ask any woman (or any man, for that matter) how entering into the moon cycle, or confronting the lunar snub of menopause, can make one feel insane.  Nevertheless, on this night, I followed her light along the path to the rocky mesa…until, that is, she forsook me for the clouds and all became dark. I felt shaken and disoriented.  I could not find my way. I stumbled along, walking in circles, getting nowhere. And it occurred to me, “This is what it is like to walk in the realm of the unconscious”.

And then I remembered him. I won’t say his name, but he is my inner guide. He came to me years ago. He is kind and smart and has a hearty laugh.  An alchemist of old. Just saying his name invited a feeling of lightness. Soon after, I arrived at my destination. I said my prayers and made offerings. The rest of the story is secret, except I will say the sun did come up, quite unexpectedly, and it felt like Christmas.

This I now know. The moon is fine.  The feminine is fine too. She is my nature. She is nature. But without the discriminating light of the guide, in this case the helpful masculine, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to find connection to her.  As Helen Luke writes, “when the feminine soil of which she is working refuses to come to life…she has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illumined and come to its fruition”.

But, to me, it is all best said through poetry.

Moon Poem #4

She takes my scorched hair
with slim hands of soft light
she combs through forgotten fields
of unwanted land, dry and harsh
brushing aside the cinders,
all that is consumed with ash.
In the brightness of her grace
even the old creosote
casts a shadow in this place

How the liquid of the moon
bleeds from beneath the shadows
to erase these hard lines of
barbed wire and rusted tin,
How her waters round out the valleys
like an old bear’s hip
and softens the edges
with mugwort and sage.

Moon, Moon
your name rests upon my tongue
colors my lips
drips down my jaw
onto belly and toes
dreams edge from the deep comfort of sleep
a drop of water falls
a perfectly smooth bead
awakening the tortoise

who moves slowly
not by clocks, or fancy thoughts
but by inner rhythms
of trees and of seasons
to the place of beginnings
of birth, and death, and where
the expectant earth,
waits without time
for the rain,

for the moon

illuminating

the stone

Tears and Tectonics

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live, you must suffer. – Buddhist teaching.

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. – Thomas Merton

This blog has been thin. Not that I don’t think about writing. It is just that I haven’t given myself the time to drop down far enough below the surface of my thinking to retrieve anything worth writing about. And it distresses me when I realize just how quickly time can pass when living on the surface; especially on the flat surface of a computer screen. The distress intensifies along with the awareness that just outside my office window, along the garden wall, the shadows are lengthening, creeping over the day lilies, zinnias, marguerites, and finally darkening the Buddha sculpture that sits at the west end of the backyard. After a day of sitting in front of my computer, I step outside and feel the chill of the setting sun. Before I even discern the beauty of it, the day is gone.

Let me get this straight. I don’t want to appear as another “wanna be” writer, writing about writer’s block. Nor, do I want to drag my readers into my own dark hole of self-loathing. How boring is that? But, the best way I know how to make sense of this crazy life is to write about it; by pulling out the shards from the pit of these ambiguous feelings and piecing them together. It is a painful alchemical process of creating meaning out of chaos. And, for me, it doesn’t always come easy.

Thankfully, I’m not expected to do this on my own. When it looks as if that there is nothing left to piece together, when my libido has run dry as a desert wash, gracefully and auspiciously, a dream pays me a visit.

But in this case, the dream is horrifying and sad.  It is about dolphins.  In my “day life”, I often see dolphins off the coast of Ventura or on my frequent trips to and from Catalina Island. Their playfulness always makes me smile. But, the dolphins in the dream are not playing or swimming; rather, they are suffocating, crammed tightly into a small stone pool of water. And to make matters more tragic, right outside the pool is the endless ocean. Freedom so near, yet so unattainable.

Suddenly, in the dream, I hear a cacophony of cries and high-pitched screams followed by the sound of gun shots. I look down at the pool and see a few men with rifles killing off a number of dolphins in firing squad fashion. The pool darkens with blood. The sound and images of murder send warning signals up my spine setting off an instinctual fear that I rarely encounter. Later, I am told that the killing is necessary. Some of the dolphins are diseased and the only way to control contamination is to kill off the sick. But I know the disease is caused by the fact that there are too many dolphins crammed in too tight a space. Overcrowding and confinement foster disease.

So, I spend time with this dream. I hate it. I hate everything that it reminds me of: Over population, global warming, the devastation of our forests, the polluting of our water and the overwhelming daily bombardment of newly listed endangered and extinct species.  Not to mention my own feelings of suffocation as I crawl my way through the demands of daily life.

How do I piece these shards together? How do I create something whole out of something so utterly broken?

Any solution that might mitigate the dream’s tragic ending feels ridiculously superficial. The dream does not indicate my need to free myself of psychological oppression or inner disease. No.  Rather the dream invites me to participate in every image and aspect of the story: To cry with the dolphins as well as to partake in the shooting.  Both sides deserve attention. Both sides suffer the split. It is a matter of psychological tectonics.

And as far as I can tell, nothing brings about wholeness more than the tears that flow from the streambed of suffering this split. As Robert Romanyshyn recently mentioned during his presentation on Antarctica, perhaps the one saving grace of global warming is that it is melting our hearts and opening us to the awareness of our suffering. Tears add moisture to those dried up pieces of broken shard, making them malleable.

A few days after the dream, perhaps serendipitously, I found a small dog on the road that had been hit by a car. I had just spent an hour in some nasty, finger flipping rush hour traffic when I came across the helpless creature, bloody and limp. It was after dark so I took the dog to a 24 hour emergency vet where I was told it would cost over $800 just to determine if the dog should be euthanized or not.  No go. The vet then directed me to the local shelter where they would do the diagnostics for free. Once I arrived at the shelter and found my way through the night security gates, I handed the dog over to what would most likely be its death. I sucked it up and gave the dog to the receptionists who carried him away before I could even say goodbye. OK.  I am a death dealer.

Soon enough, the sobs blew open like an uncontrollable geyser. For once, I could not minimize my feelings. “It is just a small and nameless dog”, I told myself.  Yet, the tears could not be contained and, at last, the dolphins swam freely.

Swallowed Up

“If he withdrew into the wilderness and listened to his inner life in solitude, he might perhaps hear what the voice has to say” – C.G. Jung

Last summer Joe and I packed up the truck and headed to Montana. Having never been there, we were inspired to visit Glacier National Park and see that big sky country. What we saw instead was a flurry of tourists, many having traveled from the eastern regions of the world to witness this mythic western landscape. I imagine that most of them, like us, were hoping to spot a grizzly bear; that image of the west that is now more legendary than real. Or maybe they just wanted to get a taste of the “Holy Other” that this part of the world imparts; the sense that there is something much bigger, more powerful, and more awesome than oneself.

My heart sank when I saw the cars and Winnebagos lined up outside the park’s entrance. I wanted to turn around immediately and make tracks to some lesser known and less loved place like Battle Mountain, NV or maybe even Trona, CA. I wanted to start a campaign that would outlaw RVs larger than tanker ships, flood lights that can penetrate the thickest of brains, and all cell phone transmitters dressed up as trees. What happened to the West? Is there any wilderness left beyond the boundaries of consumerism and convenience?

My lamentation is not new. Many folks for many years have bemoaned the end to what at first appeared infinite: land, buffalo, gold, oil, and opportunity.  Ever since white man stepped foot west of the hundredth meridian something deeply archetypal, attached to enormous greed and fear, must have been triggered in the western human psyche. Some might suggest that expansionism is driven by evolutionary biology similar to an infestation of a non-native species. Simply put, we are weeds gone ballistic.

But I don’t think that weeds fall in love with a place, or experience the immense sense of wonder that is evoked by landscapes such as Glacier National Park. Weeds don’t write poetry about mountains and rivers or sing songs to the prairies. Nor do weeds experience the range of emotions that belong to us humans. I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it.

When I was a young girl, my father took me to nearly every national park in the southwest. I was deeply affected by the wildness of these places and I always left wanting more. I can vividly remember standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon during a typical summer monsoon and being so overwhelmed by my senses that I had to restrain myself from jumping over the edge and into the great mouth of the canyon. I so badly wanted to be swallowed up by it all. In retrospect, there was something absolutely essential about being overwhelmed and taken beyond myself. It instilled in me a religious sensibility that has remained throughout my life.

Just a few days ago, on the winter solstice, the moon was also swallowed up. It was raining here in Ventura so I didn’t get to watch the full lunar eclipse, but I could imagine Luna being stripped of her dim consciousness by the cold shadow of the earth. In her book, Alchemy, Marie-Louise Von Franz compares the eclipse to the coniunctio, an event that occurs when the opposites merge in the underworld of the psyche; in our darkest and most desolate night of the soul. It is a swallowing up that can either make us go insane, or in the best case, bring about the birth of a new personality.

She writes, “If we take the coniunctio on a purely inner level, it can be said that when the conscious and unconscious personalities approach each other, then there are two possibilities: either the unconscious swallows consciousness, when there is a psychosis, or the conscious destroys the unconscious with its theories, which means a conscious inflation. The latter generally also happens when there is a latent psychosis, and then people get out of it by saying the unconscious is ‘nothing but…,’ thereby crushing the unconscious and its living mystery, or pushing it aside” (p. 164).

In other words, following an awe-inspiring moment such as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or being shaken up by a dream, we might just go crazy, but more likely we’ll convince ourselves it was “nothing but” a dream…or an impulse…or even a bad case of indigestion.  The ego regains its superior position as soon as the eclipse is over.

“In the old days people knew how to dream. They did not have to go to sleep first” wrote Nietzsche.  Western society has lost its capacity for dreaming; for listening to the voices of the ancestors and the whisperings of the spirits of the land. The desire to be swallowed up, to loosen the ego’s grip, is still strong, but not as strong as the need to fight against it. Maybe this is the driving force behind our enthrallment with wild landscapes along with the counter-reaction to control them. The wildness of such places is so vast, overwhelming, and threatening that if we don’t retain some sense of supremacy, we fear we could lose ourselves completely.

Nevertheless, I say go to Montana, or wherever, and allow oneself to be swallowed up by all the gloriousness this wild land still has to offer to our weary and dried up souls. But while doing so, make offerings to the ancestors. Listen to the stories in the land. Pay attention to dreams. Walk humbly with the dead.

Wilderness. The word itself is music. Wilderness, wilderness…We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination” – Edward Abbey (From Home Ground, edited. by Barry Lopez).

Receptive Devotion

The water of life flows between the opposites. – Marie Louise von Franz

Today, I want a river. I want to temper this desert heat with the coolness of moving water. I want to soothe myself with the sound of river music. Like a crazed emigrant having just crossed the waterless desert, let me fling myself into the sweet liquid and drink deeply.

I’ve been exhausted – drained, listless. My blood feels like it is thick as mud, while my brain is in a brown paper bag somewhere, left out to roast in the sun.  And, I know that my hormones, those messengers of good news, have lost their way as they migrate across the cellular territory. I can imagine them now, those little critters frantically moving from one cell to the next, tired and thirsty, and finding that is no room at the inn.

I’ve been told by doctors that I should take pills. Friends encourage me to stand my ground and say “no” to western medicine, claiming the truth lies in supplements and herbs. Or maybe the cure is to be found in juicing, Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, colon therapy, or other treatments that I cannot even name. This list is long and tiresome. All I really want is a river.

Just thinking about it makes me feel better.

Oddly, until recently, I’ve never seriously considered my physical body to be an essential aspect of my being. I know this may sound outrageous, but, like many of us who were raised in the Judeo-Christian paradigm, I have viewed my body – that which eats, sleeps, walks – as only a tool for achieving nobler intellectual and spiritual goals. But, when things no longer function as they should, I am reminded that my body is more than just a vessel that contains feelings and ideas. Rather, it is the very landscape on which I live.

I am made of earth. My skin is the dirt, my hair the sagebrush, and my blood is the river that incessantly gravitates downward, toward the great and mysterious sea. Even these thoughts that I now type onto my computer are small drops of dew that appear in the early morning, soon to be forgotten.  In times of extremity, the myth of separation quickly melts away.

The valley is hot today; an oppressive 106 degrees. Here in the rain shadow any moisture is welcome. I glance down at my feet and notice the small stream that works its way through the garden. It wasn’t long ago that this one finger of life didn’t exist. In the early 1900s, after William Mulholland and his crew completed the Los Angeles aqueduct, almost all the free flowing water in Big Pine and the nearby towns was captured and redirected to the southern metropolis. While the San Fernando Valley spouted new growth, the Owens Valley shriveled up like an overcooked zucchini.  Through recent and numerous lawsuits, and the hard work of local volunteers, water flows again in Big Pine. It’s not enough to revive the valley, but the hum and tranquility of moving water adds flesh to dry bones.

I look up to the Sierra and redirect my attention to the water’s source.  Blue-grey ribbons taper down the mountains, leading up to a Glacier known as the Palisades. The Palisades Glacier is the lowest and largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada and it is melting fast under the summer sun. That is where I want to go. No question about it. Cursing the heat that sits on my head like a hot cast iron skillet, I decide it’s time to climb, to follow the cool path of water, to move closer to the source.

Bernard Devoto writes, “What is the source of a river? Snow becomes water and (this is a natural law of which nearly everyone is ignorant, especially Westerners) water runs downhill. Contour levels bring trickles together, other trickles join them, and at some point enough of them have joined so that they may be designated by any of several nouns ending in – let”.

Well enough. But, standing beneath this enormous glacier, I see few trickles or anything small enough to be considered a “-let”. The river here is almost immediate. A few hundred feet down it becomes forceful, uninhibited, and indifferent to my presence. It will not stop on my account. If I carelessly step in, I will be swept away without mercy. And best of all, it is wild, unconstrained by aqueducts, free to follow its own course.

The river overcomes me. Something is jogged loose and broken open. I cannot see it, but I can feel the released blood gushing through my veins. I can feel each cell in my body swell up like a Beavertail Cactus after a summer rain. Whereas in the desert I survive, here I take in with no regrets.  This is what the I Ching refers to as “Receptive devotion”.  I am devoted to receiving.

The alchemists call the eternal water – the aqua permanens – divine wisdom or intervention. Always bestowed at the crucial moment of defeat and despair, when there is nothing left to give or do except surrender, the water comes and coolness sweeps across the desert valley.  It is none other than a moment of grace, this receiving. Like water, it moves that which is hard and permanent.  It softens a rigid mind, erodes stone, and brings forth new life. It cannot be earned, learned, or bargained for.  It is given freely. It just is.

The Earth’s condition is receptive devotion.
Perfect Indeed is the sublimity of the Receptive.
All beings owe their birth to it because it
receives the heavenly with devotion.

–  The I Ching

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

Stuck in the Mud

The ground of the soul is dark”. –  Meister Eckhart

For much of my later adult life, I’ve been plagued with an underlying sense of guilt. It’s a neurotic guilt that has no basis in reality, meaning I haven’t really done anything wrong.  I don’t intentionally hurt other people. I don’t yell at my neighbors. I let others pass on the freeway. I regularly visit my mother. I’ve been told by an unsympathetic friend that have a “guilt complex” and that I should just “get over it”. Yeah, right. As if I wouldn’t just love to effortlessly toss off all these dark and uncomfortable feelings.

I take comfort in the fact that I know others who share similar feelings of guilt, and that they also know there is never any “getting over it”.  You can shake it and shake it and shake it, but it sticks like heavy mud on the bottom of one’s boots.

So, I go hiking instead. It’s the best medicine I know.

This time it is on a lovely trail above the Ojai Valley in California. It has rained a lot this winter and I’m excited to see the spring flowers – shooting stars, lupine, and the early stages of California poppies. The hillsides are swathed in an unusual, almost cartoonish, florescent green.  And the trail is really muddy. Dark, gooey, mushy mud.

Walking up the trail is not easy. The mud is slippery and it quickly fills my boot treads, causing loss of traction. There are a couple of slips. By the time I reach the top, my boots have garnered at least five pounds of mud and my hands and butt are covered with it.

It’s easy to imagine mud as a symbol for the dark and “inferior part of the personality” that Carl Jung refers to as the “shadow”.  No matter how good or enlightened we think ourselves to be, the shadow is always attached to the personality, albeit unconsciously. It sticks to us like mud. The shadow can be experienced as dirty, uncivilized, and instinctual. We prefer to reject it, but unexpectedly, it makes us slip and fall.

But I love the mud. As a child, I would often come home after a rain covered head to foot in cool, smooth mud. Even today, I will stick my nose into the moist dirt to smell its richness. It exhilarates me. It triggers my instincts and makes me feel wildly alive.

The shadow offers a similar life-giving potential.  No doubt, to integrate the shadow is one of the most difficult tasks we face in the pursuit of wholeness.  It challenges our entire being, along with our perceptions and prejudices. Yet, without some awareness of the shadow, we are dry and hard, like an infertile landscape. We might be functional but, ultimately, we are dead real estate.

Guilt, I see now, is not an aspect of the shadow, but a response to it. As Jung writes, “The first step in individuation is tragic guilt” (CW 18, par. 1094).  To recognize and integrate the shadow is met with guilt because the shadow is slippery and subversive. It trespasses into consciousness. It jumps walls and crawls under fences. It requires certain acts of unlawfulness.

And, it involves getting dirty, inside and out.

“One realizes, first of all, that one cannot project one’s shadow on to others, and next that there is no advantage in insisting on their guilt, as it is so much more important to know and possess one’s own, because it is part of one’s own self and a necessary factor without which nothing in this sublunary world can be realized” (C.G. Jung, CW 14, par 203).

Cutting Edges (or not)

Why not go into the forest for a time, literally? Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in books. – Carl Jung

I am entirely out of my league writing anything intelligent about this tropical forested landscape. I only know the names of a few of its plants, birds, and reptiles. I have barely experienced one of its seasons.  I have few stories to tell.  And so, despite the not too distant mega resorts with their Macarena playing juke boxes, for me, this small section of jungle in which I sit is exotic.  The jungle hums with life; a deep sounding buzz mixed with high pitched “beeps” mysteriously rises from beneath the thick grasses and succulent leaves. Neon butterflies – red, yellow, blue –quietly busy themselves among the orchids and hibiscus.

And then, ruckus breaks out in a nearby fruit tree when a family of six Chachalacas precariously perch themselves on one flimsy branch. Although arboreal by nature, these tree chickens can barely fly without smashing into one thing or another. Maybe they are hanging on for dear life. Or maybe it is a case of sibling rivalry.  Avian acrobatics for hysterical birds? Nor can these birds sing for squat but rather they cackle and screech like old rusty machinery. Only in a place like this, I think, would one find such a glitch in evolution.  I am grateful that nature has a sense of humor.

The thatched roofed casita that Joe and I rented for the week is located in this jungle covered hillside overlooking Playa Carricitos in Mexico. While friends and family back in the States are weather stripping and sand bagging their homes, I sit on the patio, nearly naked, watching humpback whales toss about in pale blue water.  I find comfort in the horizon.

As a lover of wide open spaces, the density of the forest unnerves me. It plays tricks on my mind. There are no landmarks from which to guide. No distinct rocks or trees. Only a tangled mass of green. “The forest, dark and impenetrable to the eye, like deep water and the sea, is the container of the unknown and the mysterious”, writes Jung.  This reminds me of the masa confusa – or, the undifferentiated state of chaos – as some alchemists might have called it. To them, this primordial chaos was the formless and shapeless matter from which all creation originated. In today’s psychological expression, it is the unconscious; that aspect of psyche which also buzzes and beeps from the undergrowth of our lives, the breathing roots of our consciousness.  Without it, we would remain cold and detached.

Speaking of our primate legacy, Paul Shepard writes, “It was not possible to see the forest while in it. Once out, we acknowledge the bond by remaining near its edge, cutting it back to the right distance or planting forest-edge growth near us”.

So, I sit at the edge, watching. Steadily, I join up with the whales and dive down into the depths. I sink into the crystal diamond ocean. I lose myself. And, upon return, I dissolve into the clouds and fall back again into the forest, different and new.

Slippery Solstice

She contains in her darkness the sun of “masculine” consciousness, which rises as a child out of the nocturnal sea of the unconscious, and as an old man sinks into it again. She adds the dark to the light, symbolizes the hierogamy of opposites, and reconciles nature with spirit” (Jung, CW 11, par. 711).

Today is December 21st, the Winter Solstice. While many, I suppose, are preparing their ceremonial fire circles and dusting off their drums, I decide to take a morning bike ride along the coast. The waves are smooth and well shaped, and the melacon is abuzz with antsy surfers. I feel elated as I slip through the salty air, effortlessly dodging surf boards and dog walkers. At this moment, there is no other place I would rather be.

The world solstice comes from the Latin and means “sun stand still”.  This is due to the perception that during the days preceding and following the solstice, the sun becomes fixed along its southerly route. If the sun gets trapped, or refuses to turn around, we would be doomed to short days and long nights. Or, worse yet, the sun just might disappear altogether and we would be seduced into an endless sleep.   Frankly, this might not be so bad. Sleep is easy. Being awake takes much more effort.

Which brings me to another dream that came a few days ago. In this dream, I am driving along the Southern California coast between Ventura and Santa Monica. Along the way, I spot an old wooden outhouse and decide to stop and relieve myself. I get out of my car and step into the small box-like structure and, as if walking through the Narnian wardrobe; it magically opens up into a beautiful cavern. The earthen ceiling is circular and high and the walls are covered with multicolored Tibetan mandalas.  The beauty is so overwhelming that my knees buckle beneath me and I cannot move. I want to stay here forever. After some undetermined amount of time, the minister of this place, a woman, looks over her balcony and says to me, “Betsy, it is time to leave”. I tell her I don’t want to leave. And in a stern, but loving voice, she says “It’s time”.  I make a few feeble attempts to free my legs from their frozen position, and eventually manage to head back to the old wooden door with its crescent moon carved into the center (what is behind these moons on outhouse doors, anyway?).

The cavern, turned cathedral, propelled me into a state of ecstasy, and like the solstice sun, I stood still. I did not want to turn around and reenter the light of day. I did not want to go back into the world. I needed some help.

For the ancients, the winter solstice represents a moment of rebirth; the sun having descended into the underworld, the land of the dead, now makes its way back to the realm of the living to revive crops and regenerate livestock. It is a hopeful time, indeed, and one to be celebrated. But, the old ones must have also known the risks involved. The Chumash, for instance, stayed indoors while their shamans summoned the sun back to life. They knew that the sun’s strength could consume them.

In my sideways view of things, I kind of wish the sun would remain in its cushy state of unconsciousness. I could follow the sun as it dives even deeper into that ocean of bliss, never to return.  I could sleep my life away.

But I’ve left the Cathedral. I’ve turned the corner. Ready to start the day more than ever.

Cheers!

Channel Crossings

Catalina IslandOver the last few weeks I have been suffering from two things: chronic migraines and persistent homesickness. Both of these symptoms were preceded by a dream in which I am sitting on a beach looking up at a tremendous 300 foot tidal wave, which is just about to fall upon my head.  I can already feel the ocean spray on my face, droplets of sea water falling into my eyes.  It’s a dream that comes to me often, but has never caused me any disturbance that I can remember.  By mid-morning the dream and the waves usually recede into the background of my day world. But, this time is different. With the help of migraines the dream has, almost literally, stuck to my consciousness.

But why homesickness?

It comes in cycles. When I first left home for college in 1980, I have struggled with a dual existence: one that is Islander and another that is Mainlander. The Islander is free spirited and playful. The Mainlander serious and hardworking. Two sides of the channel.  Puer and Senex.

And so, about every ten years I begin to think about moving back home, to Catalina Island. And sometimes I do. This time I won’t. But I’ll respect the fantasy, nonetheless. I will indulge in my homesickness, slipping and sliding backwards down the slope toward puerile impulses.  I will waste time. I will become withdrawn and moody. I will embarrass myself.

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back…”

— Rumi, “The Reed Flute’s Song”

view2Ben Weston 2

To grow up on an island is unusual and I can’t help but speculate that spending my earliest years on a 74 square mile of rock, surrounded by water, has tweaked my development in a substantial way.  For instance, I vividly remember a time in early childhood when my own consciousness was beginning to emerge. It was during first grade when my class was learning about the geology of the Channel Islands. Our teacher told us that a major portion of Catalina Island was created by volcanic activity, and that someday the island could re-erupt! Such a thought terrified me and that night I couldn’t sleep. I felt that it was my duty to keep watch so that I could warn my family when the mountain exploded. In many ways, the turbulence I felt that watchful night was the rising of my own internal island. It lives inside of me.

Despite the fear, the image of such earthly forces has always fascinated me.  What magnitude of strength and power could possibly push up this mound of rock? Furthermore, what lay beneath, within the greater regions of the surrounding waters?

Wallace Stegner writes, “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies”. Certainly, the island landscape of Catalina impressed me at my most “susceptible time”.  Its landmarks and characters never cease to appear in my dreams and fantasies.  And, the longer I am away, the more these island images crop up from this unconscious territory that I can only identify as the root of my existence.  The “ocean of divinity” as Jung calls it.

The longing to return may not just be a whim, but rather, if taken seriously (oh, Senex), a summons toward the collective psyche, the Mother of life, which haunts us with a never ending “nostalgia for the source from which we came” (CW 9ii, par 476). To the irrational and wild place where rocks explode and waters rise high. To the very moment that blew this world into existence, swallowed by a great sea, steaming and cooling, rumbling and rolling, as islands slowly rise from below the surface.  The source of all creativity.

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.

Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

— William Stafford, “Security”

Ben Weston Beach

Devil’s De-light

Sunset Middle Cowhorn

As I was cleaning out my office this week I came across a file containing a collection of letters, notes, and photos from my early years with the School of Lost Borders. While sorting through the pile, I realized that I participated in my first “vision fast” over twelve years ago and have been doing so each year ever since. I suppose this confirms that vision fasting has become a firm “practice” in my life. To go into the wilderness, alone and without food and shelter, may sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it serves as a sort of periscope for me; a means for traveling through the rich dark matter which lies beneath the surface.

There is something absolutely elemental about stripping oneself down in a wild landscape. To be exposed in nature, hungry and alone, arouses a remembering, both in body and dreams, of our primordial lineage – a connection to our wildness that can never be fully shed. As human ecologist, Paul Shepard, writes, even though we have become largely domesticated within our surroundings, “Wildness is a genetic state…”It is that genetic aspect of ourselves that spatially occupies every body and every cell”.  In other words, we cannot leave behind our wild nature. We can only suppress it. And, when we suppress it, it usually returns and bites us hard in the ass.

And thus, this September I find myself, once again, in the Inyo Mountains, hungry and alone and wondering why in God’s name would I do such a foolish thing.  Joe has joined me this time, although he is out of sight and earshot, situated on the ridge across the valley from where I have placed my tarp and sleeping bag.  Four days and four nights – right here. Not much to do except wait, watch, listen and try not to go insane.

Stone PileIt has become so painfully difficult for me to remain still. With my dad’s dying, in addition to a heavy workload, all I did last year was move from one location to another, back and forth, and at high speeds.  Although I hate it, I have become addicted to movement.  When I stop moving, the devil shows up.

Particularly on this fast, the devil appeared in the form of fear – fear of pain, loss, and death. Really, ultimately fear of the wild aspect of nature that I mentioned above because to be engaged with Nature is also to recognize that she both creates and destroys, gives life and freely takes it back. This terrifies me, but it is only in the presence of death that I can truly be wild. It is only by embracing death that nature is no longer tagged as evil. To find oneself calm and unwavering within this tremendous paradox is key to being at home on this planet.  This is the gift of consciousness that Earth gives us.

Shepard’s words are particularly interesting here. Speaking of those who have left the regions of the wild for a more sedentary life, he writes, “Those who fear death become politically and socially conservative and less tolerant of other species, other creed, and any deviation from their own mode of life”.

My guess is that all of our social and environmental ills can be traced to our personal and cultural fears of death. It seems essential, therefore, that we return to the place of darkness, into our own wildness, so that we may see the light.

I’ve got a long way to go…

2nd Lake Sunset