The Moment

twiggy brush flowers

In a sense, any spiritual path is largely a matter of misdirection, something meant to conceal an appalling and marvelous fact…
~ Henry Shukman

There is the traditional idea of a 4 day fast in the outdoors being a Vision Quest – something that young men and women would do to find their direction, their animal, their medicine, their place in the world. But it’s something that can be done many times in a lifetime, separating oneself from the demands of everyday life and reconnecting with the Earth, with Spirit, with whatever Questions have arisen in ones life.
I went into the one last weekend with a desire to break down my ego, my identity, my idea of myself as I have constructed it thus far, and see what lay deep in my heart of hearts – to forget for a while who I think I am as a film industry person, kind of smart, cynical, jaded, or as a sole-support parent, strong, determined, or all the confused stories with men – a mid-life kind of Question.
But of course it was not all particularly pleasant – the ego resists.
The first stumbling block was on Saturday, when, having only been fasting for some 18 hours or so, we were required to stand in a semi-circle in the afternoon sun to receive Teachings before we went into the sweat lodge. As we stood there, listening, the sun beating down on our heads (I’d forgotten a hat), I saw the black begin to encroach on my peripheral vision and I fainted.
The ground was soft, the grass cool – somehow I didn’t fully lose consciousness as I usually do when this happens – and I lay there for a moment enjoying the moist cool grass until I was rested enough to get back up again.
Remarkably, no one noticed. We all crawled into the sweat and went through rounds of hot rocks and steam and drumming and song and were cleansed.
Later that evening, one of the helpers came by and asked how I was feeling. When I mentioned having fainted, there was a little flurry of activity and finally it was decided I should sleep on the couch in the house just in case, and do a modified version of the fast, eating a little when necessary.
I was pissed.
This was not the way it was supposed to go. This was not what I wanted, sleeping on the couch like a wuss. I wasn’t even especially hungry.
In the morning I went out around 5 to my tent and began the day, looking at the sky and listening to the birds and beginning the rounds of smudging and prayer and meditation, attempting to silence the chattering monkey mind.
water rushingAlready I could see the hint of a lesson, already I could see that the thwarting of my willfulness, the denial of my ego’s determination to maintain an image of strength and self-sufficiency was something I would have to absorb as part of the process.
And the modifications didn’t really interrupt much – still the long hours of the days were spent on the land in silence, contemplating the water, the song of the birds, the shifts in the weather. I prayed and prayed for strong dreams, or for a visit from an animal, for some kind of moment, some special epiphany or revelation that would make coherent cohesive sense to the quest.
Sunday night I had a dream. But it was not the dream I was hoping for – there were no eagles or tigers or goddesses of light with magical purple stones and songs I would wake up singing… No. Just some jumbled stuff about hanging onto some crappy thin old futon mattresses, about not letting go of junk that it would really be best to let go of.
Dang.
Out in the tent again, lighting my smudge, my thumb was getting calloused and burnt from the lighter, the sage and tobacco had almost run out. I was cleaning up my little area of paraphernalia when I noticed a small ball on the floor of the tent. Mud maybe? No, it had a smooth shape to it. I looked again – it was a curled up slug.
Ewww. A slug in my tent.
I looked at him for a moment and thought, well, slugs are kind of like snails but without the shell, and snails can be pretty, so…
So I found a little twig and let him crawl onto it and put him outside my tent door.
dew dropsOnce out in the wet dewy grass, the slug unfurled himself and began to crawl up a blade, slithering and swaying with a slow sensuous movement, with what looked like such delight in the wet, in the green, in his element. His antennae waved and contracted in the soft sunlight, his body swayed happily in the morning breeze. It was suddenly a moment of such great beauty, of such a tremendous simple joy in life itself, that I burst into tears.
That’s it, I thought. This is my creature-teacher. This is who has come to show me what I need to see about the universe, about life, about myself.
This is the lesson in humility, but also in the direct immediate sensuous pleasure in life itself.
Now, back at home again, I remind myself: I am a slug.
yellow snail

Culture

fire cu 2
Just back from a 4-day fast at a lodge – The Lodge of the Sacred Fire of the Thunder – out at Six Nations.
The parameters: no food, no water, no electronic devices, no talking, no books. Only a tent, a sleeping bag, a journal, the necessary clothing, whatever spiritual paraphernalia – rattles and smudge essentials and the like – and the time and space to be at one with Mother Earth.
The first morning I woke up well before dawn, cold and stiff but thrilled at the cacophony of birdsong that surrounded me. Just outside the door of my tent lay a sea of sprinkles of frost, each blade of grass with a tiny little droplet at its tip.
dew drop
It was so beautiful, of course I wanted to photograph it, but had no camera, no camera-phone even. All I could do was be in it, and marvel at its beauty. And the longer I was there, mute and helpless in the face of its perfection, the more I fell in love.
This is the heart of the teaching.
Hours and days were spent wandering the land, gazing out at the Grand River, watching the shifts in the weather, the shapes of the clouds, listening to the rain, the call and answer of all the different birds, observing the strange movements of the animals, the insects, becoming acquainted with the dried husks of last year’s blossoming, seeing the small buds of the new season begin.
This is culture when its center is the Earth, the Sky, the Waters, the Fire.
dried qal shapes
Back at home, I commune with my camera, my computer, my phone. 
I do love them too, but not quite as much.

Ceremony

blur river_mrkd

We arrived late the first night, stumbling into the lodge in the dark, into ceremony in process. Burning sweetgrass was offered from the fire to cleanse ourselves. We found seats along the outside ring of the circle.

Cindy, the master of ceremonies and Contrary leading the event was speaking.  She was dressed in a kind of shredded brown burlap sack.  A hood with the eyes cut out and a long cloth nose attached was thrown back over her head while she spoke, but brought down over her face when she began the active ceremony.

We sat with tobacco in our hands, as offerings of thanks to be burned in the fire. Cindy would come around to each of us, singing and shaking her turtle rattle inches in front of us, the eagle wing resting on our heads.

In the dark of the lodge, lit only by the big fire in the center and a few lanterns, I’d steal glimpses of her standing so close – the piercing strength of her voice and the trancelike power of the drum, the rattle, made her feel like a huge powerful brown presence in front of me.  Among the necklaces around her neck was a very large claw.  I asked her later – grizzly bear claw, she said.  Of course!  That was what she felt like standing there – a massive grizzly bear.

blurred claw_mrkd

Bears are known as powerful healers, and healing was the purpose of the ceremony – four phases of it.  First the mind is cleared, restored to the Good Mind to allow the healing of the spirit, source of vision, that which should lead.  Next the heart and finally the body.

Cindy spoke about trauma – said we carry it in our DNA.  That we carry all the heartaches of our own personal lives, but also the agonies of our ancestors – that it weakens the body.

She spoke of releasing the hurts we’ve received from others – of being able to see them as lost souls stumbling and hurting in the dark just as we are – to take pity on them, to allow our hearts to soften.

She said the heart that heals from grief and hurt becomes a place of great generous love.  Reminded me of Hiawatha and the Condolence Ceremony, how his life was moved from a place of deep grief to one of healing others.

The second night I had a vivid image of an eagle coming at me, talons forward, grabbing a loop of the barbed wire from around my heart like some kitsch Mexican art and flying away with it, yards of it ripping out of my heart until I thought of Eustace in the Narnia series, when he’s turned into a dragon and one night has the layers and layers of dragon skin peeled away from him by the lion with deep painful gashes until a fresh-skinned boy steps out of the leathery husks.

blurred heart_mrkd

Air and expansion rushed in to the newfound space.

And a sensation began of an animal inside my skin about to burst out like the Hulk bursts out of his clothes – the sensation of fur and claws and ferocity coursing through me so overpowering I thought I might spontaneously shape-shift and slink away into the night.

blurred stars, tree_mrkd

More rounds of the drum, the tobacco.

Later a feast was held in the kitchen.  New friends were made.

blurry trees, sky_mrkd