Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Storytelling and its healing potential in modern society

Humans and nature: two things which many modern societies see as separate, in spite of the fact that we clearly remain very much a part of, and connected to, the natural environment around us. Just because you may not immediately sense the vast swampy wilderness beneath the city concrete under your feet, or smell the sweet, fresh tang of the mountains and wildflowers beyond the more immediate exhaust fumes and smog, it doesn’t mean that they are not there. The web of life is all around us and wild nature calls to us from within our own hearts if we just listen.

Our unique cultural advantage

Much of our modern society can be seen as far from perfect, and there are many aspects of our disconnection from nature which may be causing unbalance and therefore lack (or perceived lack) of abundance in our local ecosystems. Our ancestors rejoiced in the gifts of the wild forest and danced in the footprints of the animals whom they revered, adored and devoured; when compared to our own version, our fluorescent pre-packaged experience of food-gathering may sometimes seem a poor substitution.

Yet there are some things we have which are unique to our culture and which, if we use them in a considered way, we can use to help us to re-strengthen our connection to the natural world and all its abundant wonders.

Adventures and shamans

Communing with the ‘more-than-human world’ (1), finding balance and harmony within to strengthen the balance and harmony without, and healing yourself and your community as part of a wider healing, are all traditional roles of those members of ancient societies who have been termed ‘shamans’ by modern anthropologists, although what they call themselves differs from culture to culture. All of these things can be seen as of huge importance in today’s world to help us to gain the balance and harmony which we can achieve within our ecosystems if we are attuned to it. Yet ‘shamans’, even in their own societies, are not generally seen as ‘normal’; the role is not one which everyone partook in, and probably not everyone would want to. Many of the things which ‘shamans’ did may well be seen be much of modern society as signs of ‘madness’ (see for example 2).

Are we all then mad?

However, one thing to bear in mind about shamanic tools is that the vast majority of people in modern society, regardless of how little interest they have in ancient cultures, are very skilled at using some of them, and if these words are creating sounds of sense within your head at this moment then you are one of those people.

What I mean is, with the skills of reading and writing which many of us may take for granted we can engage in powerful creative practices, the likes of which the ‘shamans’ of less literate cultures would have had to ingest strong entheogenic medicines, deprive themselves of food or sleep, or engage in repetitive activities for many hours to achieve.

As Serge King, author of Urban Shaman (3), puts it,

” We are part of a unique society that has already, though
unknowingly, prepared us well…Ever since you started reading about Dick and Jane and Spot you were in training to be a shaman. Radio, television,
and movies have all helped to reinforce your skill. The development
of intentional inner vision took a long time in
traditional societies, because it wasn’t reinforced by the
whole society. Exceptional people like poets, storytellers, and
shamans seemed to be using magic when they evoked waking
visions in the minds of listeners to their tales, legends,
and inner experiences.” (3)

Weaving our own magic

It is this magic which we can use to help us to create what we imagine, and to give special attention to particular things, people, places or events which can help us to respect and honour them. Perhaps you do not believe in magic and that is fine, since, as King would say, “the world is what you think it is” (3). It may be worth considering, however, that our connection of literacy and magic is present even in our modern language – when we speak about how to write a word we talk of the “spell” needed to create it.

King says,

You, now, have the skill of reading, a rare skill in the history of mankind, which trains you to focus your attention and evoke internal experience on your own at will” (3).

What took a gifted few years of practice, dedication, meditation and art to achieve is now accessible much more easily to huge numbers of us because of this skill. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to learn how to use our imaginations wisely. We do, and this in itself, with the self-reflection and realisation that may come with it, may lead to what feels like madness, especially when considered from a societal point of view.

Treading the labyrinth

It is when we start to walk the path consciously that we may be most in need of stories to help to guide us. Luckily, such stories already exist in their thousands and many are freely available through that great storyweaving machine, the internet. The stories which we choose to resonate as part of our lives can help to sustain us and to heal our own psyches, thus enabling us to heal the outer world as well.  From this perspective even our most grotesque and seemingly destructive human creations can be seen to be a part of the web of life.

Big wheels and little wheels

How can we start on this path? How can we, as Joseph Campbell put it, pick up the golden thread left behind us by the storytellers of the past, and use it to help us find the way through the labyrinth? How can we step beyond the seeming comfort of a life half-lived and step onto the sword-edge of the path to our own bliss?

Perhaps a simple way to start is to consider what stories you wish to resonate with about the cycles of time in your own life. The moon and the sun are things which all humans have experience of, and in Europe the cycle of the sun was in the past by many and is by a few even now, closely followed and celebrated, with each stage having its own story and meaning, so that people could attune and resonate with the seasons and the unique gifts they bring. This ‘big cycle’ of the year, with its eight ‘feasts’ of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Bealtaine, Litha, Lammas, Mabon and Samhain, during which time the daylight present in the day goes from very little to a lot and then around again, is reflected on a monthly scale by the cycle of the moon, which is also noted and celebrated.

Sun is come

The ‘Wheel Year’ is celebrated now in Britain mainly by people who have picked up the threads of the old stories rather than as part of an unbroken tradition. This means that the stories are always evolving and reflecting our changing ways, and we can interpret them however seems fit to us. You may not care about the upcoming Litha or Summer Solstice, which is happening in the Northern Hemisphere tomorrow. Many people do, and in England hundreds shall gather at Stonehenge, in spite of the newly-introduced parking fees there, which were put into place even though they were fought in court by none other than King Arthur Pendragon (4). Those who wish to mark the Solstice by going to a special place but who do not want to ‘pay to pray’ (or who may find the crowds at Stonehenge not their cup of tea) may well choose to celebrate at any of the many other stone circles and ancient sacred sites around Britain.

All over Spain even nowadays, Midsummer’s Night is celebrated by jumping over fires, into rivers, springs or the sea, or in some places both. You may not be so interested in such revelry, but it may still be helpful to you in your own personal storytelling to acknowledge this shortest night of the year and reflect on its symbolism. What that symbolism could be is up to you; our pagan British ancestors probably (according to some sources (5)) associated the Summer Solstice with Ura or heather (ericaceae spp), a plant which needs fire for the seeds to germinate, so reminding us perhaps of the fire which gives us life, the sun which shines the longest on this day for the whole wheel year. In Spain and other parts of Europe the celebration is associated with St. John and his flower, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum) whose yellow petals and red juice can also remind us of the fire of the sun. It is also a traditional symbol of protection and of strengthening energy, perhaps reflective of the long days reminding us to gather strength ready for the darker colder times ahead.

Stories and spells

Whether you choose to acknowledge the Solstice tomorrow or not, you will surely continue to tell stories of your own, as well as being exposed to many others. How you choose to tell your stories is up to you, but as King would say, just by reading story books and watching films you have already started on a path which can aid you in healing, imaginative creation and gaining stronger connections to yourself and your world.

Your own way is yours to follow and your call will be unique. May you go with sunshine.

References

1. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-than-Human World.  Vintage: New York City, USA

2. Logan, K, 2017. ‘A Shaman’s View of Mental Illness’. Forever Conscious, 2017. http://foreverconscious.com/a-shamans-view-of-mental-illness

3. King, S, 1990. Urban Shaman: A Handbook for Personal and Planetary Transformation Based on the Hawaiian Way of the Adventurer. Simon & Schuster: New York City, USA.

4. BBC News, 2017. ‘King Arthur Pendragon loses Stonehenge ‘pay to pray’ court challenge’. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-40033998

5. Sentier, E, 2013. Trees of the Goddess. Moon Books: Hants, UK

 

 

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Elemental Depths and ideas for how to dive into them

Explorations into our Relationship with Water

All photos by David Ashwanden

It’s all around us, flowing beneath our feet even if we do not see it and condensing far above our heads, weaving its way through our lives in our every daily task and cycling ceaselessly as part of our bodies, refreshing, revitalising, rehydrating.

Our ancestors praised this most basic of elements – the one we are grown within before we are born, and which comprises around 60% of our beings (1). Many cultures around the world still celebrate water and use it in an effective and regenerative way. Yet somehow a lot of current activities, both on a large and small scale, seem to be ignoring or misusing water, which results in a cutting-off from the flow and thus from an important part of ourselves.

How are we disconnecting from our relationship with water and how can we reconnect?

Why does it matter what stories we tell ourselves about water?

And what actions can we take to address the imbalance caused by those interfering with flow?

This article will attempt to answer some of these questions, with an in-depth look at the specific case of the Mekong River, though it is by no means a complete answer. Think of it more as a flowing stream to which you can add if you wish.

How we relate to water

Throughout history, and in many current resilient societies, water has been and continues to be revered. Our human cultures show countless variations on the personification of water as a deity, from Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the Celestial Ocean, who rides upon the Makara, a kind of magical crocodile (2), to the Aztec “jade-skirted” Chalchiuhtlicue, serpent-goddess of rain, purification floods and childbirth, to the Inuit Sedna, fish-tailed goddess of the ocean and the underworld (3), to the Chinese Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (4).

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A Naga guards the entrance to a temple next to the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Many societies throughout the world still celebrate and worship water and water deities, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who celebrate Oshun, the goddess of sensuality, sweet waters and the moon, with an annual festival on the river which bears her name (5). Throughout South-East Asia there are various festivals dedicated to the Naga, which are serpent-formed water guardian spirits of Hindu origin (see for example 6). Many of these festivals have since been appropriated by the Buddhist religion yet the Naga still play an important part in the folklore of the region (see for example 7).

In Kerala, South India, the Naga are also remembered with the creation of “sarpakkavu” (8), sacred groves of trees dedicated to these spirits, while in the North of the country the goddess Ganga is remembered on a daily basis all along the river which bears her name, in particular in the holy city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come from all over the country to drink and bathe in the sacred waters, and into which the cremated bodies of the dead are also cast in order to be purified (see for example 9). In modern-day Mexico live the Wixarika people, known to Spanish-speakers as ‘Huicholes’, who follow one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (see for example 10). Though they now live many thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands they still make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts which produce the Hikuri cactus plants which form the centre of their mythology, on the way paying homage the serpent-goddess Nacawé (11) at a number of sacred springs in which they bathe (12).

From 'The Dao Oracle'.

From ‘The Dao Oracle’ by Ma Deva Padma.

When it comes to tracing the origins of my own ancestral myths it can be a little more difficult as the pagan origins of my European culture are to a great extent broken, especially in England, the country of my birth. Many water-deities which were once venerated in Europe are now simply stories, such as that of Coventina, naked lily-bearing British goddess of abundance, wells and springs (13), or Danu, the fertility river-goddess and mother of the ‘Tuatha da Danaan’ or fairy people, whose name, some believe, is the origin of the major European rivers Danube, Dniestr, Don and Dniper (14).   Interestingly, Dewi Danu is also the name of the serpent-riding water-goddess of the Balinese Hindus (15).

 

What Are We Doing with Water and Why?

Water is so much a part of our lives that it may be sometimes easy to take it for granted. One thing which seems of paramount importance to remember is that water represents, both physically and metaphorically, the principle of flow. All water is constantly cycling throughout the world, from the clouds to the ground, to the ocean… and back again. As we are made up largely of water, we literally embody this principle and so it may be worth bearing it in mind next time you consider yourself stuck in any type of situation.

As water is constantly flowing, it can be seen as an infinitely renewable resource. Up until around 100 years ago, the way in which we used water reflected and supported this. Water would fall from the sky, and we would collect it, use it, and re-cycle it. Water flowed from the ground, and we would care for the spring, tend it and ensure that it helped to nourish the land around as well as ourselves. However, when we started using more groundwater, this balance began tipping.

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Groundwater is easier to pump up all in one place and to distribute in measurable amounts so it has become a favourite source for cities worldwide (16). The problem with this is that groundwater can only be replenished by rainwater filtering down through the land, which is currently happening in many places at a slower rate than we are pumping the groundwater up. groundwater also contains more minerals than rainwater so if it is the primary source for crop irrigation, it ends up in causing mineral saturation of the soil, which means you need even more water in order to flush through the salts so that the soil can stay fertile (16). At the same time, we design our buildings and communities to deal with rainwater, the fruits of the sky which we could easily be harvesting, not by catching it but by directing it away. Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, calls this modern phenomenon a move from the “path of abundance” to the “path of scarcity” (16).

Mekong Case Study: Controlling the sacred flow

A key example of people following this “scarcity” path is the case of the Mekong river. This giant, the longest in South-East Asia (17), starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, then snakes its way through Myanmar and Laos, forming part of the Thai-Laos border (17), before entering Cambodia where it joins the Tonle Sap river, which it causes, once a year, to flow backwards, thus filling the Tonle Sap Lake (18). After this it passes through Vietnam where it splits into many parts at the Mekong Delta, a richly biodiverse area of around 39,000 square kilometres, whose fingers reach eventually into the South China Sea (19).

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Looking from Laos to Thailand across the Mekong.

The river is estimated to be around 4350 km long and is regarded as the 12th longest in the world (17). It is home to many water-species, and the source of livelihood as well as life to millions of animals and humans who inhabit the banks along its length. The humans are not as yet endangered, though many endangered species live here, including the Irrawady River Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, the Laotian Rock Rat  and the Indochinese Tiger (20). Because of its huge biodiversity new species are often discovered here, with the WWF reporting more than 2,216 newly discovered species since 1997,

“including a color-changing frog, a zombie-making “dementor” wasp, and the second-longest insect in the world”(20).

The name for the Mekong comes partly from the Thai or Burmese word for river, “meh-nam” (Thai: แม่น้ำ) which literally means “water-mother”, and it is along this river that the Naga water spirits are often celebrated, in particular on the night of Loy Krathong (7). This would seem to indicate that the people who live along the river have still some vestige of respect for the river and recognition of it as a giver of life. However, enough people in this region are following the “path of scarcity” that the Laos government has agreed to embark upon the Mekong river dam project, which involves building 11 dams along the entire length of the river. In the Chinese portion, there are already 5 dams which have severely disrupted the water flow throughout the rest of the river, causing drought and imbalance (21). Last year, construction began on the Xayaburi Dam (22), funded by Bangkok-based engineering company CH. Karnchang (23), and on the Don-Sahong Dam, a “joint venture of Malaysian company Major First and the Laotian government”(22). Both dams have been embarked upon without the permission of the Mekong River Commission, an international coalition set up to try to protect the river (22).

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Sunset over the Mekong

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,(21) according to Maureen Harris of International Rivers (24).

The construction of the dams has been severely impeded by NGOs and other actors who would prefer the river to stay fertile and to continue sustaining life. There are so many factors involved with why the Mekong is being treated like this that there is no one simple solution to the problem, however, it seems important to look at some key ways in which the river is viewed in order to understand how to solve it.

Holy water and its powers

Firstly, as mentioned, many Mekong people still celebrate its abundant waters. Why is this important? Just because a group of people believe that the river is home to the snake-formed gods of the water, doesn’t mean it will stay protected…Does it?

All of our human action comes ultimately from our beliefs and values, and these are grown out of our cultural stories and mythologies. Therefore, if we want to change the actions of people, perhaps we have to first look at the stories they are telling themselves, and if the stories are not effective, help them to change them.

It is clear that those involved in the dam are following stories of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough water and so it needs to be hoarded. This can very swiftly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and indeed can already be seen to have done so in Yunnan: the dams there have created water shortages downstream, thus justifying the dam-builders’ fears of water shortage. This type of story can be seen as a negative cycle of erosion which can ultimately cause severe damage to all who tell it. Of course the water shortage is in fact caused by the dam’s blocking of the water’s natural flow, and so if we wish to regain this flow we need to encourage travelling outwards from the cycle of erosion into a new cycle of abundance.

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Many of the water deities throughout history and around the world share characteristics- they are symbolic of fertility, of life, and of the joyous act of procreation. This can be seen in the fact that so many water deities from diverse and supposedly separate cultures are somehow associated with snakes or snake-like creatures, the snake being, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (25) would put it, an archetypal symbol of sexuality and procreation. Perhaps one way we can help to protect the rivers is to remember this symbology and recognise water as the basis of life, which cannot be contained in one place, lest it will become stagnant and sterile.

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Modern myths

Yet it is not enough to just tell stories. We need to be really living this idea of water as abundance, that is, really feeling our connection to water as a sacred and constantly cycling force. How we do this is up to us. Our ancestors did it by personifying the elements and associating them with particular animals, places or trees which we can protect as part of our reverence. That doesn’t mean that we literally think the rivers or rocks are home to spirits, but the spirits, whatever shape they are, can be a useful metaphor to help us to remember the holistic nature of life and how we can help to protect and regenerate the things which in turn protect and regenerate us.

An example of a much more literal stance is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, four days ago, was granted the same legal status as a human being (26). This has been heralded as a ‘victory’ for the Maori tribes to whom the river is sacred (26), yet it seems to be missing the point somewhat. If the river has the same legal rights as a human, this means it has the right, to some extent, to be protected. But humans are also subject to laws which mean they can be locked up or have their lands taken away from them. Granting the river legal rights may help in the short term to protect it but throws up questions of the legal rights of all humans, and how they can be contravened. The Whanganui has always been sacred to Whanganui iwi tribe, who recognise it as a living entity. But enshrining this recognition in law must throw up questions about our relationship to all living entities, in an age where humans, animals and plants alike are locked in tiny boxes, killed en masse, exiled from their homelands, separated by barriers of earth and water, subjected to poisoning of all kinds, for reasons as varied as ‘farming’, ‘economic progress’, ‘doing a 9-to-5 job’, or ‘immigration’.

Part of our understanding of this relationship has to come from our understanding of our cultural and personal stories. Perhaps changing your own story is going to be easy, like moving one pebble to release a huge portion of flow. Or perhaps it will take a more careful and considered dive into your life-stream. Whatever it takes, it seems clear that this is an essential part of revitalising our relationship with water around the world, and hopefully restoring the balance and abundance which can so easily be a part of our daily lives.

For more practical ideas about how we can work with flow you can check out my Water Farming article (27) and be sure to check back for the second parts of both articles…

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Sources

1. Helmenstine, A.M (Phd), 2017. ‘How Much of Your Body is Water?’. ThoughtCo, 1/3/17. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-of-your-body-is-water-609406 

2. Naylor, S. T, 1997. ‘Varuna’.http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/varuna.html

3. Miller, M.E, Taube, K.A, 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson: New York, USA.

4. Condon, R.G, Ogina, J, Holman Elders, 1996. The Northern Copper Inuit: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

5. Werner, E.T.C, 1922. Myths and Legends of China. Chapter VII: ‘The Myths of the Waters’. available as an e-text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc09.htm

6. Elgood, H, 2000. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Cassell: London, UK.

7. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. Travelfish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

8. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Saparkkavu – Nature Groves in Keralan Homes’. KarmaKerala, 31/1/10. http://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

9.  Varanasi Temples, 2017. ‘Importance of the River Ganga’. http://varanasi-temples.com/category/importance-of-river-ganga/

10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abudnance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

11. Austin, A.L, 1997. Tamoachan, Tlamocan: Places of Mist. University of Colorado Press: Colorado, USA.

12.  Allen, B, 2015. ‘Last of the Medicine Men: Peyote’. Our Amazing World, 2015. available in parts on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bb_YC8pmCI

13. The White Goddess, 2017. ‘Coventina’. http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/divinity_of_the_day/celtic/coventina.asp

14. Read Legends and Myths, 2017. ‘Danu’. http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/danu.html

15. Lansing, S, 2006. Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali. Chris Baldwin (Director), Should High Productions.

16. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).   

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. ‘Mekong River’. https://global.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River

18. Mekong Flows, 2017. ‘Tonle Sap Ecosystem’. http://mekongriver.info/tonle-sap

19. WWF, 2017. ‘Greater Mekong’. https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong

20. WWF, 2017. ‘Wildlife of the Greater Mekong’. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

21. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. http://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

22. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

23. CH. Karnang, 2017. ‘About Us’. http://www.ch-karnchang.co.th/en/#/about/us

24. International Rivers, 2017. ‘About Us’. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/about-international-rivers-3679

25. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

26. Roy, E. A, 2016. ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’.The Guardian, 16/3/17.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

27. Haworth, C, 2017. ‘Water Farming Part 1: How and Why Can We Start Farming Water?’. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/20/water-farming-part-1-can-start-farming-water/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Way to Say…

…How Stories Affect Our Minds, Culture and Relationships

Today’s world is full of issues, headlines which seem to demand our attention, problems which seem to call for us to solve them, all of the international confluence of human activity which seems to clash, sometimes messily, with our own unfocused day-to-day affairs.

Most of it seems unrelated: people want to build dams along the Mekong and different people to cross ‘sacred land’ with an oil pipeline; somewhere forests are being cut down and in many more places land is being slowly degraded with the blight of monoculture farming.  All of these and more global issues do actually have something in common, though. They are all part of our human culture, and as such, if we wish to change them the first thing we need to do is change the stories which are, whether we realise it consciously or not, the basis for much of our current action.

What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

“It would not be too much to say”, said Joseph Campbell,

“That myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (1)

All of our conceptions of how to relate to each other – “Religions, philosophies, arts…prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” (1)

Our “myths” – the stories of our culture, both conscious and subconscious – make up who we are: our personalities and our means of communicating with the rest of the world.  When they are helpful they can help us to express more of who we want to be, to “follow our bliss”. When they are not helpful they can underlie all of our problems and distort our perception of reality to the point where we are not even sure what is real anymore. In modern industrialised culture which is based on phonetic language we managed to create abstract concepts and thus artificially extract ourselves from the world around us. Are you still living that story? Do you really think it’s helpful to cut yourself away from the “potentized field of intelligence” (2) of all living things?

The Myths We Carry

We are all walking parts of myth, whether we realise it or not. Our psyches carry the stories of our ancestors and play the out in our own lives – creating situations we do not want, if we do not take control. Though many modern societies are now secular they are still based on Judeo-Christian mythology, much of which, as Campbell says, confuses a tribal god-figure with a world saviour. In the Bible, humans live in Eden until they are banished for committing original sin and even if we do not follow a faith based on this story we may still carry the feelings associated with it. These feelings could be guilt or shame about our bodies and natural impulses, or an idea that we do not belong in paradise, so anytime we find a pristine natural place, we need to change it in order to live in it. As I pointed out in my article Language and Permaculture part 2, (3)

“Some people think the word “Eden” comes from the Urgaritic base meaning “place that is well-watered throughout” (4). Toby Hemenway explores how the great deserts of what we now know as the Middle East used to be some of the most fertile places on Earth and it was only with the development of agriculture that the soil began eroding and water loss began to occur (5). In this sense the Garden of Eden story can be seen as an excuse for the development of agriculture and the subsequent effects of agriculture on the land being not something which we can control or are responsible for, but which are simply the punishments put on us by a vengeful tribal God-idea (1)”.

On a more physical level, the stories of our childhood and even of our time in our mothers’ womb are held within our bodies. This means that  if there are beliefs we want to change it may be as simple as moving or holding ourselves in a different way.

Why Are You Where You Are?

Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair Project (5) in Portland, Oregon, USA, tells this story:

“An indigenous man once said to me, he said,

Ha! You think that we are the ones that’ve been hurt, you’ve taken our land and we’ve been devastated‘ and he’s like  ‘Yeah it’s true we have a lot of problems but at least we know who we are, and you do not know your own story.

He said,

You don’t know what brought you to this place you’re at right now, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you say you wanna help the world but you don’t even know your own story within the continuum of all of these challenges…

He said, ‘So until you know where you’ve come from, the story of yourself in relation to your family, you don’t know what you’re capable of or even what your challenge is‘.” (7)

Starting Where We Are

My own roots are in the roots of the yarrow, the oak and rowan and birch, though my family now is scattered throughout many different types of ecosystem. The traditions of storytelling and generosity have been passed down to me from my mother, a giver, connector, and fun-lover. Skills and passion for designing systems have come from my father; healing and plant wisdom from my ancestors.

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The concrete and tarmac of the city was my cradle and within it the green spaces which first started to call to us, my sister and I, that there is something more out there. My story is that of a refugee in their homeland and of a native in all parts of the world. Of learning to be sensitive to the feelings of my body and to come home into it more and more. Of trying to connect the deep compassion I felt for the humans, plants and animals ‘out there’ who I perceived as needing help with the raging silence within of my own disconnection between body, soul and energy; of experiencing the deep psychological fissures within the landscape of my soul first as mental illness, through a painful sensation to be numbed and buried, to a wrenching hallucination and out, as it were, the other side of the labyrinth seeing them now as scars of power, aids to my healing work.

I come from a family of explorers; father, mother, sister and I living on 4 different continents. Mixing our fractured cultureless culture with the cultures of those we find around us; nourishing our own sense of who we are as a comparison to others. For me, remembering our roots is as important as learning from the new people and environments we find ourselves in and my sister helps me with this, as well as helping my deep, unshakeable sense of the world as being nowhere near as serious as people make out, and of life as something to be enjoyed. My sister, space-holder for people’s creative expression, fun-lover, giver and receiver of wisdom.

So many people have helped me on my journey to where I am now and one of my best guides has been and continues to be my true love and fellow adventurer, the sound healer, entheogenic escort, language magician, midnight explorer, uncompromiser, relentless clown, player of games and facilitator of sacred spaces within and without. Through him I have become connected to a whole new family, also communicators and storytellers, healers and space-holders, like my sister-in-law, constant reminder of the joy of playing, connector, healer, relisher of the drama of life.

I carry all of these stories within me, and I cannot change where I come from. What I can change is how I perceive my place in my family and in the wider ecosystem, as well as how I weave my own stories together. Only by doing this can I hope to improve any other part of the world.

As Lakeman put it,

“Any planetary repair has to be predicated on local action.” (7)

The way our global human society interacts now, it is not enough to submit to local myths. We are part of a new “creative mythology” as Joseph Campbell put it (1); a culture where every individual’s experience and their own personal quest is respected within the wider acknowledgement of our connection to the animals and plants around us and the cosmos as a whole. Where the mystical experience of our own joyous reality is not a fairytale to be forgotten or a status to be passed down by an authority figure, but an intimately self-discoverable sensation.

If we have the courage to start, then

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.

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And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (1)

References

1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

3. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture Part 2: Practical Ideas for How We Use Terminology’. Permaculture News, 22/12/16. http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/22/language-permaculture-part-2-practical-ideas-use-terminology/

4. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2016. ‘Eden’. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Eden

5. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/

6. City Repair Project, 2017. ‘Mission’. http://www.cityrepair.org/mission/

7. Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. Available on Films for Action here: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/city-repair-permaculture-for-urban-spaces/

Psychedelic Times: Some Ideas for how we can regain our Sacred Medicines

The need to be entranced; to alter the normal state of consciousness to something totally other, to transcend the walls of ‘everyday’ and discover something more. Many have theorised that such a need is a fundamental part of human existence, quite as important as our need to eat and drink in terms of how we relate to ourselves and each other in society. But how are we doing this in today’s world? And is there a coherent emerging culture which encourages these transcendent states, regardless of what the law may say?

Intoxi-culture

Many writers talk of how substances which can cause altered mental states, such as alcohol and psilocybin, have been a key part of human culture for thousands of years. Some place more or less emphasis on different substances; R. Gordon Wasson (see for example 1) spoke highly of mushrooms, as did Terrence McKenna (2), developing this to place mushrooms at the centre of human evolution and possibly even as the cause of it. Richard Rudgely takes a broader view, looking at many different psychoactive plants (3); while Stuart Walton writes in more favour of caffeine and alcohol (4).  The latter three all also criticise modern society for not recognising this important role played by psychoactive medicines and call for a more widely-recognised field of ‘intoxicant’ or ‘psychedelic’ studies; or ‘intoxicology’ as Walton puts it (4).

Such a field of studies may well help us to understand our culture on a deeper level and thus be better able to improve it. However, it seems that in order to make our explorations with psychoactive substances truly effective we need to take into consideration two more things. Firstly, although plants and chemicals can help us to reach altered states of consciousness, they are not the only way to do this. It is also possible through meditation or meditative practises such as yoga, through wordless singing or chanting, or simpler things such as staring at a blank wall for a number of minutes. Indigenous societies all over the globe and throughout history have devised means by which altered states are induced, either with or without plant-based help. For example, many tribal rituals involve doing one energetic thing, such as drumming or dancing, repetitively for hours or sometimes days, at the end of which a whole new mental realm is reached (see for example 5).

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Circle Dance. Photo by Tianna.

This brings us to the second point. We don’t use these substances in isolation – or at least that’s not how, historically, our relationship with them has developed. By many accounts our cultures evolved with plants and other medicines as a part of a rich tapestry of storytelling, metaphorical images and implied significance on the natural world around us (5, 6). In this sense the substances which are currently demonised by modern ‘drug’ laws in many countries should actually be in the same realm as the other foods and medicines which we consume. That is not to say they are not treated as special; rather, that all of the things we consume can be seen as special, and even sacred.

Psychedelic Artists

Joseph Campbell, taking this into account, also considers the sacred role of art in society as something which can point to something beyond our normal reality, thus welcoming all of those of us who are still stuck to the mundane to open up and take a look at the infinite landscapes beyond. For him, all ‘true’ art- that is, art which has not been made to sell something or to teach something, but which simply exists as a beautiful thing – is created by going outside the realms of ‘normal’ thinking, and the artist is a brave adventurer who brings back treasures from these unknown places to give to their fellow humans.

By modern societal thinking, this basically equates to the idea that in order to create art you have to be mad. Campbell quotes from the Upanishads (which he translated from the Sanskrit):

A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,

A difficult path is this—poets declare!” (7)

The artist is the one who can continue along the razor; who “stepped on [the] path of sacred art and stuck it out through thick and thin” (8) – yet to recognise this would also be to recognise that different mental states to the considered norm are of some use or value to society. By contrast, much of modern culture disregards these mental states as ‘illnesses’and only by becoming ‘better’ can those experiencing them achieve worthwhile lives.

Where are we now?

The role of many psychedelic substances as medicines is becoming more and more widely accepted. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) (9), founded in 1986 in California by Rick Doblin, have funded many studies into the use of psychoactives as possible tools to help with so-called mental health problems. Most recently they have been studying the use of +3.4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more widely known as MDMA, to treat “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “anxiety in autistic adults” (10). To this end they are currently training mental health therapists to use MDMA in their work (11) which they hope will be approved in the USA by 2021. They also sponsor the Psychedelic Science conference (12), the next edition of which will happen in Oakland, California in April 2017.

Psychedelic Science is co-hosted by UK think-tank The Beckley Foundation (13), founded in 1998 by Amanda Feilding, who are similar to MAPS in that they fund scientific studies and clinical trials. However, they also have a broader agenda of advocating change in policy (14) and in that their studies (15) into things which alter perception include research into how meditation affects the brain (16). The Foundation also sponsors a biannual conference in the UK, Breaking Convention (17), the first of which occurred in 2011 and the next is coming up from 30th June to 2nd July 2017 (thanks Jon Atkinson for confirmation of the dates).

Healing and feeling

Psychedelic studies are becoming more and more developed worldwide with the growth of events such as Breaking Convention and Psychedelic Science. However, if we are to truly begin using psychedelic and other methods to benefit our well-being we need to take them out of the laboratory. If we want to assist in the evolution of human culture as Mckenna suggests then we need to recognise that psychedelics are not an isolated part of it. The ancient cultures used psychoactive plants as integral part of their rituals; they were woven into their stories. The spirit of the peyote is ‘Mescalito’; a playful figure who appears sometimes as a man, sometimes as a fly or inhabiting the body of a dog, sometimes as a terrifying entity or, if he likes you, as a ray of pure light (18). Or how about a seasonal example with the Amanita Muscaria, who are guarded by a small chubby man with a big beard who can fly around giving out their gifts if you’re ready to receive them or their punishments if you are not (19).

We are no longer the same as our ancient tribal counterparts. For whatever reason, ritual use of medicinal substances has been being systematically discouraged for probably around 10,000 years, since about the time agriculture started developing – for more of my theories on this see my Language and Permaculture article here (20). It is probably not useful for us to revive the old rituals and stories because we are new people. But what it seems essential for us to do if we truly wish to use these sacred medicines as part of our culture, and not just as a fringe aspect of it confined to uncertain swallowings of unknown substances in a field somewhere or (perhaps worse) to the cold unfeeling subjugations of the clinic, then we have to weave them into a new culture which recognises their benefits not as isolated chemicals but as tools to help us enrich our lives. Key to this is that we need to also be enriching our lives in other ways. Psychedelics, after all, only show us an amplified reflection of our own mental landscapes, so it seems to make sense to be tending these landscapes regularly if we wish to have meaningful or useful experiences with them.

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Time to start tending our landscapes. Photo by David Ashwanden

Experiencing the Experience

There do already exist groups aiming at something more than simply clinical research or drug policy reform. For example, last month also saw the launch of the Psychedelic Society of Brighton (21) in the UK with their ‘Psychedelic Healing’ event (22). The event featured speakers who talked not only about scientific research but about the role of education and ritual in psychedelic culture. The Psychedelic Society UK also runs ‘Psychedelic Experience Weekends’ (23) in the Netherlands where one can go and engage in a group ‘experience’ facilitated by ‘sitters’, in a safe, comfortable and legal (they use psilocybin-containing truffles, which are legal in the Netherlands) environment.

Experiences such as these are what we can be encouraging, if we really wish psychedelic culture to evolve. One example of an environment possibly conducive to emerging psychedelic culture is certain types of festivals.  The experience of people taking psychedelics at festivals can be greatly enhanced by the presence of groups like Kosmicare UK (24).

Our encouragement of experience involves a reconsideration of many aspects of our society, such as our definition of mental illness, our loss of ritual and how we can regain it, and our sense of reverence for the world around us. At the root is our relationship with our inner selves. If we can adventure through the “inner reaches of outer space” (25) and return we can be ready to be a part of the new creative mythology of our times.

This ‘mythology’ can include sacred medicines but also needs to include so much more.

Are you ready?

References

1. Wasson, R. G, 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. McGraw-Hill: New York City, USA

2. McKenna, T, 1993. Food of The Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam: New York City, USA

3. Rudgely, R, 2015. Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants in Society. Thistle Publishing: London, UK

4. Walton, S, 2001. Out of It. Penguin: London, UK

5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City, USA

6. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA

7. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p21. Pantheon Books: New York City, USA

8. Gogol Bordello, 2005. ‘Undestructable’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhu7ux4whs – retrieved 17/12/16

9. MAPS, 2016. ‘About’. http://www.maps.org/about – retrieved 17/12/16

10. MAPS, 2016. ‘Featured MDMA Research’. http://www.maps.org/resources/papers – retrieved 17/12/16

11. MAPS, 2016. ‘MDMA Therapist Training Program’. http://www.maps.org/participate/therapist-training-program  – retrieved 17/12/16

12. Psychedelic Science, 2016. ‘Conference’. http://psychedelicscience.org/conference  – retrieved 17/12/16

13. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘About’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/about/ – retrieved 17/12/16

14. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Policy Reports and Briefing Papers’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/policy/reports-briefing-papers/ – retrieved 17/12/16

15. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Substances and Methods’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/science/substances-methods/

16. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Meditation’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/science/substances-methods/meditation/

17. Breaking Convention, 2015. ‘The Conference’. http://2015.breakingconvention.co.uk/participate/ – retrieved 17/12/16

18. Castaneda, C, 1985. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Washington Square Press: New York City, USA

19. McKenna, C, 2013. ‘When Santa was a Mushroom: Amanita Muscaria and the origins of christmas’.Entheology, 1/10/13. http://entheology.com/research/when-santa-was-a-mushroom-amanita-muscaria-and-the-origins-of-christmas/ – retrieved 17/12/16

20. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture part 1: Why we need to focus on terminology to take permaculture to the next level’. Permaculture News, 14/12/16. http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/15/language-permaculture-part-1-need-focus-terminology-take-permaculture-next-level/ – retrieved 17/12/16

21. Facebook, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Society of Brighton’. https://web.facebook.com/psychedelicsocietybrighton/?_rdr

22. Facebook, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Society of Brighton Launch: Psychedelic Healing’. https://web.facebook.com/events/1825383351076287/ – retrieved 17/12/16

23. Psychedelic Society UK, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Experience Weekends’. http://psychedelicsociety.org.uk/experience-weekends – retrieved 17/12/16

24. Kosmicare UK, 2016. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/ – retrieved 17/12/16

25. Campbell, J, 2012. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and Religion. New World Library: New York City, USA

Sacred Dance to Reawaken our Truth

With thanks, love and appreciation to David Ashwanden and to all my fellow space-holders.

Many people have written about the various themes which underlie all of human society and culture, regardless of how far back in history you go or how far-flung from each other the societies are.  Among the things which unite us all as humans we have myths and stories (1), transcultural symbols (2) and even intoxicants, which have been used in one form or other by the vast majority of societies in human history (3).

As fundamental as all of these is our need to express ourselves with our bodies, an expression which comes out in dance. Having been following this need as a professional artistic pursuit for the past three years (as well as a social enjoyment activity for much longer!) I decided to take it further by doing some kind of training. But what kind? I am not really interested in learning formal steps or a particular style, but more in the free expression. And there are plenty of dance courses which encourage this out there, from 5 Rhythms (4) to Biodanza (5). Such styles seem interesting, if a little prescriptive, yet I did not feel drawn to actually training in them. Perhaps because as important as the free expression is the recognition that dance is a form of healing, an integral part of human enjoyment and therefore as such can be recognised as a sacred act.

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Dancing as a Sacred Act. Photo by Catherine Brogan.

Maybe it was too much to hope for to find a training which combined all these things: healing, enjoyment and recognition of the sacred. Yet find it I did when I discovered Daisy Kaye’s  5 Element Dance Teacher Training (7) – a training which focuses on using cacao as a key part of the ritual and ceremony in order to enhance the experience. This meant I got the added bonus of being able to practise and expand my love and knowledge of herbalism. Oh, and the course was being held on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. Somehow, it just had to happen.

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Arrival on the island. Photo by David Ashwanden

And it did. And I got out of it a sense of healing and reconnection with my body, renewed enjoyment of dancing, and many more tools for welcoming the sacred into my everyday life, as well as much more knowledge of different medicinal plants from around the world.

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Some of the herbal medicines we were learning about, including, of course, cacao. Photo by David Ashwanden

However, I also got more even than all of this. Because part of what the course helped me and the other participants to gain was a sense of deeper truth. What do I mean by this? Read on to find out…

Dancing Alchemy – Mixing Up the New Human Culture 

Though the course was a teacher training which eventually gave us the tools to run our own ceremonial dance meditations, the first week was simply an introduction to Daisy’s Five Elements dance, which uses a system of symbols to understand the relationships between things in the world, including our bodies. These are used in various ways by different cultures globally, though one of the interesting aspects of Daisy’s style is that she does not focus on one system only. While she is very experienced in and influenced by Chinese medicine, Taoism and Qi Gong, ‘her’ Five Elements are not based exclusively on the Chinese interpretation but also use Ayurvedic, Native American and Daisy’s own ideas.

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Connecting with the Fire element. Photo by David Ashwanden

Indeed, this amalgamation of ideas from different cultures was a recurring theme throughout the course and was one of the most beautiful aspects of it to me. Though much of the actual action we were engaging in can be seen as an ancient practise – breathing and breathwork, gathering together, sitting in circles, sharing herbal intoxicating brews and of course dancing – the fact that Daisy was bringing together traditions from many cultures across the world meant that this course was encouraging the development of an entirely new practise. Importantly, as Daisy puts it, her ideas are not fixed and we are all encouraged to create our own personalised versions. Thus we are engaging not in a rigid system but in the growth of a transglobal new human culture.

Listening to Our Bodies

Five Elements dancing is not just a dance, it is a “manifestational movement meditation” (8). By dancing to clear our minds, we become clear about what it is we actually want. By sharing this with others in a circle we help to crystallise it and make it even clearer. Then we dance through the five elements: grounding with the Earth, flowing with Water, enlivening with Fire, soaring with Air and connecting with Ether. This has the effect not only of helping us to achieve a meditational state but also with helping us connect deeply with our bodies. And when we do this, perhaps surprisingly for some, our bodies usually have some messages for us.

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Listening for the messages. Photo by David Ashwanden

As I’ve quoted before (9),

“We may never have been conscious of our life energy, but our bodies can feel it. We may never have been conscious of our suffering in childhood, but our bodies can remember. We may never have been conscious of the suffering of our parents, but our bodies received it in the womb and carry it. We may never have been conscious of the pollution of the planet but our bodies feel it and manifest the effects…

So if we inhabit our bodies and let them speak to us, we can become aware of transpersonal energy, and in welcoming it, we heal not only ourselves, but our families, our communities and our planet” (Hayes, 2007) (10)

This ‘inhabiting’ is a practise which is often so overlooked in modern culture that it can be a bit of a shock to begin doing it once more. The Five Elements seem a very effective way for helping to tune to what our bodies are telling us, as each element connects us to different emotions, so any emotions which our bodies “remember” can be released. However, we do not dwell on any element in particular, so the emotions can also be let go of.

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Holding space is a key part of helping make a place sacred. It can help to create your own sacred space like this Magic Circle, though the first sacred space to create and recognise is within you. Photo by David Ashwanden

Mind-Truth and Body-Truth

In the circle we are encouraged to speak the truth and part of the art which the course helped me to learn was holding space in a way which facilitates and fosters this. However, sometimes our minds may get in the way of what we’re saying so that even we are not sure if it’s really true.

The dance meditation connecting us to our bodies, encouraging us to be “at home in our bones” brings out a kind of truth which is even deeper, more subtle and perhaps more difficult to define – the truth our bodies and senses are sharing with us. It seems as though once we connect to this the whole way in which we speak takes on a different significance, as well as the way in which we act and move around in our lives.

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Circle Dance. Photo by Tianna.

Because one thing which the course helped with was in making it easier to connect to our  deeper truths – to be honest with ourselves. The radiating effect of this is that it’s less easy to lie about anything in life, whether it’s participating in an activity that you do not really enjoy or agree with, or speaking your mind about something.

Bringing the dance out

In the sacred dancing circle we are all human beings, fresh personalities poised and ready to listen to our guiding desires and to begin the delicious journey of manifesting them.

Outside the circle, we may pick up different characters here and there to help us in our journeys. One of the main teachings of the course for me was being able to tell which of these characters are beneficial to us and which help us to develop healthily in body, mind and spirit. The dancing meditation makes it easy to differentiate – but once we go back into the world, it may also be easy to forget. The fact that the course was on a secluded beach on a tropical island meant that it felt very much like a holiday. Many of the other course participants defined themselves as living double or triple lives and seemed unhappy with the lack of integrity this seemed to be giving them.

Hopefully by the end of the training they were more sure about where their integrity lies, and strong enough to follow it: why leave holiday behind when we can embody it as part of our lifestyle?

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Creation of altars – one way of making a space sacred. Photo by Tianna.

Tune in now

You don’t need to participate in one of Daisy’s courses in order to connect to your deeper truth or help you to make every day sacred, though it has certainly aided me in re-finding my path. There are so many ways to do it: maybe you find it through yoga, qi gong, mindful walking; from practising circus skills or martial arts; by learning about the Tao, the Chinese medicine system or Buddhism, or simply by standing still and focusing on your breath. None of these things are exclusive and the most important thing in practising them is probably your own enjoyment.  Sacred spaces are all around us, and the sacred dance is within us all the time. We can let it out however we like…

Just remember to keep dancing…

Notes

If you are interested in reading more about the course, feel free to check out my fellow participant Debbie Bird’s experiences here: Bird is Travelling.

References

  1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
  2. Corbett, L, 2012. Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality beyond Religion. Spring Journal Books: New Orleans
  3. Walton, S, 2003. Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication. Three Rivers Press: New York City
  4. 5 Rhythms, 2016. ‘Who We Are’. https://www.5rhythms.com/who-we-are/
  5. The Art of Biodanza, 2016. ‘About Biodanza’. http://theartofbiodanza.com/origins-of-biodanza/
  6. Daisy Kaye, 2016. ‘Live a Holiday Lifestyle’. http://www.liveaholidaylifestyle.com/
  7. The Sanctuary Thailand, 2016. ‘Sacred Cacao 5 Element Dance Teacher Training’. http://www.thesanctuarythailand.com/sacred-cacao-5-element-dance-ceremonies-teacher-training-with-daisy-kaye.html
  8. Daisy Kaye, 2016.
  9. Haworth, C, 2016. David Bowie: Helping us Dance to Heal. Abundance Garden, 4/2/16. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/david-bowie-helping-us-to-dance-to-heal/
  10. Hayes, J, 2007. Performing the Dreams of Your Body: Plays of Animation and Compassion. Archive Publishing: Chichester

Rising Phoenix: Magic and Art at Europe’s largest Fire Festival

All photos by David Ashwanden – for more see his Phoenix flickr album here

Last week I had the pleasure of joining the volunteer team at what is probably Europe’s largest gathering of fire performers, the Phoenix Fire Convention in Germany (1). Having worked as a fire performer and been involved in the circus community for the past few years I thought I kind of knew what I was getting into. Yet nothing could have prepared me for what I found at the Phoenix festival – magic, deep connection and lots of amazing skills.

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Setting up The Fire Space

What does fire mean?

It is all around us nowadays – from the man walking by you in the street lighting his cigarette to the somewhat tamed flames of the circuits sparking inside the machine on which you are reading these words – and sometimes it can be easy to forget the raw vitality of this most elementary power. Yet fire is today as dangerous to touch as it was for our Promethean ancestors, and though we may feel we have trained it to do our will, a visit to any dry country in the summertime could swiftly show you that we are by no means always in control.

 

What does Phoenix mean?

The legend of the phoenix originates in Ancient Greece, though as a mythological symbol it has counterparts in many cultures (2), as do many of our most profound societal symbols (3). It is generally described as a large, beautiful bird with lustrous red or purple feathers (etymologically, ‘phoenix’ stems from the Greek word for ‘purple’, a colour associated with fire and the sunrise) (4), which burns on the fire and dies but is re-born from the ashes of the same fire. As a symbol of a fire festival, then, it is pretty apt.  However, the fire-bird is more than a symbol – it is actually an integral part of the festival. Every night at dusk the Phoenix, a large metal sculpture, was ceremonially set alight. Only when it had burned completely did the fire space of the festival, a large carpeted area which at its capacity could safely host around 30 fire performers at a time, open.

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Setting the Phoenix Alight

The ritual nature of this helped to set a tone of respect and mutual appreciation. Many of us play with fire on a weekly or even daily basis and from watching some of the people in the fire space it was clear that more than a few feel totally at home when surrounded by flames.  This familiarity, however, perhaps makes it all the more important to remember what we are playing with and to accord it the respect it deserves.  The phoenix-burning ceremony was a beautiful way to represent this.

Sacred Space

Preparation of sacred space to show the importance of an activity is something which can help a lot in directing focus and attention on one’s actions, on the present moment and on appreciating what the world is giving to us. This by no means needs to be religious; but there are many aspects of modern Western culture which can be seen to be lacking this appreciation and sared-isation. Luckily, this lack means there is space for the creation of new ceremonies and placement of new importance on places and events. As a volunteer helping to set up the fire space at the Phoenix, I was part of a team of people who helped to turn a piece of dusty, stony ground into a smooth, carpeted dance-space. The care and attention going into this was emphasised by the fact that the festival hired a group dedicated to fire-space preparation to organise it, who are named very aptly The Fire Space (5).

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Setting up the Fire Space.

This is something I have actually done before though not on such a grand scale, and though not everyone may use the word ‘sacred’ to describe the activity, it was done with such care, attention and love that there doesn’t appear, to me, to be a difference (for more on my definitions of ‘sacred’ and on the importance of sacred space see my article here) (5).

Magic Circle

Feel like you don’t have your own ‘sacred space’? Maybe you can create one…Photo by David Ashwanden

What does convention mean?

Altogether there ended up being around 800 attendees at the convention: jugglers, spinners, sculptors, whippers, people who could move their bodies in ways I’d not dreamed possible before and of course, people bringing many many examples of fire-toys, from places as diverse as Denmark, Costa Rica, Canada, Australia, Spain and many others, even Wales.

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Fire swords in the pre-dawn light.

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LED toys in the ‘Blacklight Space’.

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Spinning with the gigantically impressive ‘Triplengs’.

Each day of the convention was filled with workshops so that we could learn more about the skills we already have or pick up an entirely new skill if we wanted. More importantly than these learnings, however, seems to be the gathering together of people who share the same passions, which seems to accelerate learning even if there is no formal teaching.

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The magic of gathering together.

The location of the festival was in the beautiful Thuringia hills, and it seems indicative of the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the conventioners that on the Saturday night, hundreds of local villagers came to see the Gala show and join in a little bit themselves.

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One of the Gala Show comperes: Pete the Witch Doctor.

Even the weather was appropriate, with burning hot sun every day of the festival, which finally broke into an awesome lightning storm on the evening of the final day, as the Phoenix was carefully cleared away.

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Even the sky was playing with fire.

Flames of Earth

Our human society is full of fire, you can even say it is built on fire. There are many aspects of the way in which we use fire which can be seen as massively destructive, even if they do seem to provide us with convenient things such as means of travel or communication. One reason why we may be causing so much self-destruction, as explored by Abram (7) and others, is our lack of connection to the beauty and power of fire and its symbolic equivalence within the burning of our own spirits. With this in mind it seems clear that a step towards responsible use of the earth’s resources is recognition of the sacred art which we can create with it, and which it always possible to create with it. That is not to say that fire performers are not using the Earth’s resources, but we are tapping into the raw energy of the fire in a way in which you may not consider when you, for example, take a ride on a bus. Is this recognition and love part of creating a re-considered use of resources? Perhaps.

One final tradition of the festival was that everyone who attended was given a tiny corked bottle on a string. Into this we put a small amount of the ashes from the burned phoenix. Next year, the phoenix can only rise again with the help of the returning festival-goers, who can contribute the ash it needs for the rebirth.

As if we needed another incentive to come back…

Do you enjoy these photos? For many more from the convention, check out David Ashwanden’s flickr album here.

References

  1. Phoenix Convention, 2016. ‘Homepage’. http://phoenix-convention.de/
  2. Garry, Jane; El-Shamy, Hasan, 2005. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature. ME Sharpe: New York City.
  3. Van der Broek, R, 1972. The Myth of the Phoenix. Seeger I trans. EJ Brill: Leidon/Boston/Tokyo.
  4. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Pantheon: New York City
  5. Fire Space, 2016. ‘Fire Space Project’. https://www.facebook.com/FireSpaceProject/?pnref=lhc
  6. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/2015. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/
  7. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

 

 

Intoxicating Words: Ideas for changes in language to promote positive evolution of humanity

With thanks to David Ashwanden

As explored elsewhere in this blog (1, 2), words are very powerful things. There are some which ignite such emotions and polarise opinions so greatly that it can be dangerous to use them in certain company. One example of this is the word ‘drug’. Such a small word, yet one which has been massively controversial for many decades. There are many so-called ‘drugs’ which have been deemed as inappropriate for general societal use by the lawmakers and which have subsequently gained huge amounts of support for legalisation. In particular, entheogenic or psychoactive substances such as, but not limited to, LSD, psilocybin and cannabis have been the subject of much debate.

Turn on, tune in…?

Right now, it could be argued, there has never been more reason to be interested in how things affect our minds, and how we can utilise them in a beneficial way. Although so-called ‘psychedelic’ or ‘mind-manifesting’ plant and fungi-based materials have been used by humans for thousands if not tens of thousands of years in order to enhance our human experience and connection to the world around us (see for example 3, 4), and it has been almost a century since LSD-25 was first isolated by Albert Hoffman (5), research into how LSD and similarly acting substances can affect the human mind was stifled for many decades (6) and has only recently gained a resurgence (7).

Much evidence suggests that as long as humans have had culture we have also had a deep and often sacred relationship with plants and fungi which can affect our minds in powerful ways (see for example 3, 4); yet today we are also actually gathering more and more scientific evidence on why this is so, and why such substances play a key part in our lives. This includes the latest studies at Imperial College London which show, using state-of-the-art scanning technology, what our brains look like when we ingest LSD (8), and also this past weekend saw the third edition of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in the Netherlands (9).

Many groups involved with the psychedelic resurgence are strongly advocating partial or total legalisation of such psychoactive substances as LSD and psilocybin (see for example 10). However, while such things are considered ‘drugs’ it does not seem particularly helpful for them to be legal or illegal. To keep calling them such, regardless of what the so-called decision-makers say, is to do a disservice to valuable allies to our health, and to the thousands of years of human culture when, by many accounts, our relationship to such substances was not as either a commodity to consume or as contraband to fear, but as a tool which could help to guide us through our own psyches and thus create better cultures for ourselves and those around us.

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But what is a ‘Substance’ anyway?

On Friday (26 May 2016), a new law came into force in the UK, which seems to be worded very strangely indeed. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances” which are defined as “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect” (UK government, 2016) (11)

“Psychoactive” simply means affecting the mind, so any “substance…capable of producing a psychoactive effect” includes all food and drink which we as humans consume. But don’t worry – you will not be arrested for eating a salad for dinner because the lettuce you’re eating has mildly narcotic, hypnotic and sedative effects (12); the Act covers the government’s back with this one by excluding from it “legitimate substances”, such as “food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products” (11).

Language and Medicine

Advocates of freedom of choice have argued that there are many things which one can ingest which have a medical effect, and which therefore we have the right to consume freely and without molestation from law enforcers, which could be one reason how marijuana has been classified as a medical substance in many states (13). This has probably helped thousands if not millions of people to peacefully ingest cannabis to aid them a a huge variety of ways. However, it also does not seem to address the root of the linguistic category in which our culture puts such substances.

Either they are ‘controlled’ and therefore, to speak in practical terms for a moment, if you buy them you have no idea of what you are getting, the only person’s word for what is inside the substance you will ingest is the person you buy it from, and availability is unreliable; or they are ‘products’, which seems to imply that they are a commodity to buy, sell and consume, to advertise and which has a stock market value tied to the world economy.

Does this really make any sense? Even if somehow the Psychoactive Substances Act was changed and pscychoactive substances were to receive legal blessings, for them to be treated as a ‘product’ seems to be missing the point almost as much as for them to be prohibited. Drugs, it seems, can either be condoned, sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and bars, enjoyed by the people and taxed by the state, or can be a complicated and wearisome world of underground dealings; yet the substances hinted at by the Act do not seem to me to fit into either of these categories. We have begun a resurgence of psychedelic research but it is important to remember that our heritage in such substances does not stem from the laboratory.

Which is more Psychoactive? The word or the substance?

That is not to say that such substances should not be treated with care. On the contrary, we probably need to be thinking more about what we are ingesting than ever before. But perhaps one reason why our modern society, so intent on categorising everything, has such trouble with psychoactive substances is that they can, when taken in a conducive context and with care, respect and love, encourage going beyond all categories and achieving perspectives which are higher, deeper, or altogether more novel than those usually prescribed.

As such, perhaps we need a totally new set of words to describe our relationship to these substances. This may seem like a small point, yet when we consider that much of our current society is built on words, we can begin to see how changing the definition can change our entire relationship. Indeed, as things which with nothing more than an expiration of breath and a small sounding of the vocal chords, or a couple of taps on a computer keyboard, have the power to alter the human mind radically, it seems that words are some of the most psychoactive things which we use, and it may be wise to consider how we use them.

Perhaps a more beneficial term to describe psychoactives would be ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’; for these terms imply a deep respect for what the substances can do and do not necessarily imply religion.  It could also be helpful to extend this definition to ourselves. If we consider our own beings with a deep respect and think about the effect of everything we are ingesting, as well as the word which we give out to the world, we can create a beautiful healthy ecosystem within our own bodies which goes far beyond simple consuming. The same idea can be extended outwards to the whole universe if you like.  

I am in no way condoning ingestion of any psychoactive substances – not even lettuce leaves – if you do not want to. But the power of the way in which we speak about the things which we ingest is deep and strong, and it seems that we can harness this power to help to create a better world; not simply an extension of an old paradigm but a reflection of all of the potential which we have inside us and a recognition of all of the tools which can help us to fulfill it.

References

  1. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Using Our Language-Shadows.’ Abundance Garden, 1/11/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/using-our-language-shadows/  
  2. Haworth, c, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 03/03/2015. – retrieved 7/6/16 https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/  
  3. Campbell, J, 1988. The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume II, Part 3. HarperCollins: New York City.
  4. McKenna, T, 1993. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution). Bantam: New York City
  5. Hoffman, Dr A, 1996. ‘LSD: Completely Personal’ – translated from the original German (LSD Ganz Persönlich) by J. Ott. from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 1996. Available online here: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v06n3/06346hof.html  – retrieved 7/6/16
  6. University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, 2007. ‘The Medical History of Psychedelic Drugs’. Available online as part of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): http://www.maps.org/images/pdf/history_of_psychedelics.pdf – retrieved 7/6/16
  7. Schiavenza, M, 2015. ‘Seeing Opportunity in Psychedelic Drugs’. The Atlantic, 8/3/15. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/a-psychedelic-revival/387193/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  8. Imperial College London, 2016. ‘Brain on LSD revealed: First scans show how the drug affects the brain’. Science Daily, 11/4/16. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160411153006.htm
  9. ICPR 2016, 2016. ‘About’. http://www.icpr2016.nl/about-icpr-2016/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  10. Psychedelic Society, 2016. ‘Arguments for Legislation’. http://www.psychedelicsociety.org.uk/arguments-for-legalisation – retrieved 7/6/16
  11. UK Government, 2016. ‘Psychoactive Substances Act 2016’. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/psychoactivesubstances.html
  12. Plants for a Future, 2016. ‘Lactuca Sativa Garden Lettuce – Medicinal Properties’. http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Lactuca+sativa
  13. Lethco, CW, 2006. ‘Worldwide laws on cannabis possession for medical purposes or cannabis-based medicene’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_and_medical_status_of_cannabis#/media/File:Legality_of_cannabis_for_medical_purposes_new.png