Tag Archives: mythology

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

 

 

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/

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).

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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

 

 

Tuning Into Nature

It seems increasingly clear that much our action as humans is detrimental to the world around as, not to mention to our own species. News reports abound in tales of lack of earth care with companies ripping out the soil to extract minerals and oil (see for example 1), lack of people care with those fleeing from disaster or conflict are met with guard towers, barbed wire fences and a demand for the right papers (see for example 2), and lack of equal distribution of resources when we see how much food we produce in the world, and how much of that is thrown away (see for example 3).

 

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Our human-made creations are beautiful, but only as part of a whole which includes non-humans as well. Photo by David Ashwanden

 

Oh No!?

All of these lacks seem indicative of a number of trends within our human culture. The first one to note and which it is useful to be keenly aware of is what could be called the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon. This is the tendency of people, from the level of global media down to individuals you may meet on the street, to focus on the negative side of whatever is going on. The reasons for the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon are many, varied and have been developing for a number of years.

What seems important now is to realise that, though there may be things going on in the world which are creating unbalance, upset and disharmony, there are also many things which are helping to create positive, balanced and harmonious situations. If we always focus on the negative side we are giving energy to it and therefore helping to manifest more of whatever it is we supposedly do not want.

…OK…

It is perhaps not as simple as if we see a problem we should just ignore it and it goes away. What exists, exists, so there is not really any point in denying it. If we want to truly live, we must also accept dying and the idea of death around us. This idea is explored in many works of art, and indeed it has been noted that the job of the artist is to show how close we are to death in order to appreciate life (see for example 4).

Firmly rooted in this acceptance we can look at the lack of harmony and balance in the world, accept it, and move towards a more positive-seeming future. What appears to be key to assisting this movement is our own attitudes, as human beings, towards the other beings which inhabit this planet along with us. David Abram (5) suggests that we can trace back our lack of care for the world around us exactly to the time when we first developed phonetic language and with it the ability to construct abstract ideas and concepts. Abram and others have pointed out that with this ability we can create the illusion of being ‘abstracted’ from the rest of the world, as we can separate ourselves in our minds from other animals, plants, rocks, indeed all the living, breathing, more-than-human world (5). The problem with this is that it is a false idea, since we are still connected in a very fundamental way to this world, regardless of how many abstract ideas and virtual realities we bring into it.

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Animals – connected to us through the physical realm, however disconnected we may seem. Photo by David Ashwanden

How can we then bring back our understanding of ourselves in line with our physical connection to the rest of the world? One way is to be aware that there is more than one type of language. You may be able to speak English, Italian, Spanish, French, German – you may even think in a number of different human languages, and your mind be open to new perspectives from the subtle differences of thought which exist between them. Yet you can be as polylingual as any UN translator and still miss the languages which are perhaps more important to learn, especially now. These are the older, half-forgotten languages of the earth and sky, of the plants as they grow and as they die, and even the rocks and minerals underground. Opening ourselves up to sense these languages is maybe one of the most fundamental steps we can take towards creating positive change in our world.

I use the term ‘language’ to describe this way in which we can communicate with the more-than-human world around us, though you can interpret it how you like. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of the first phenomenologists, calls the process of being alive ‘reciprocal participation’ (5) as we are constantly not only perceiving the things around us but also being perceived by them, in an interaction which we in our modern cultures are perhaps forgetting.

…Oh Yes!

Re-connecting with these languages is surprisingly simple, and you have probably already experienced it in life. The process is a constant communication, what could be called a ‘tuning in’ to nature and to all of the life which is surrounding you.

You may not necessarily agree with the way in which I am framing this connection; it may not fit with your world view to think of rocks as alive, or to see the way in which the trees whisper in the first rising wind of a summer storm as anything to do with a communication to you. What is important is not the words which I am using but what lies beyond them; deeper than the words is the blood which links all of us, the steady beat of your heart which drums in rhythm with all the world, if only you can tune into it.

 

Many cultures place music and dancing as highly important aspects not only as enjoyment but as physical connection to the music of the environment. Tuning into nature is about becoming aware of your own body and how you dance as much as it is about becoming aware of the rest of the world. Dance is a powerful and very immediate way of communicating, where words are both unnecessary and superfluous.

So if you’ve read this far, forget the words. Words are useful to convey ideas, but unless we also connect to the deep and fundamental family of all the living beings of the world the words are empty, useless, and potentially dangerous in their false promises of separation. So forget these words. Forget all the words which may be rolling around in your head, demanding your attention and your time, and for just a moment, give time to your breath instead. Try following your feelings. Go outside under the full moon; stand in a field and watch a lightning storm; jump into the sea without resisting her cold, welcoming touch; run around in the rain and listen to the changes in sound, in scent, in texture of the world becoming wet; sit still in the forest and come to that place where words no longer matter.

However your rhythm goes you can connect it to the greater rhythm of life around you. Give it a try; you never know…It may even be a joyous experience.

References

  1. Good, K, 2015. ‘How Drilling the Earth for Natural Gas is Fracking up Human Lives Across America’. One Green Planet, 27/2/2015. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/impact-of-fracking-on-human-health/
  2. Tomlinson, C, 2016. 5000 Migrants Turned Away As Macedonia No Longer Recognises Afghans As ‘Refugees’. Breitbart, 23/2/2016. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/02/23/5000-migrants-turned-away-as-macedonia-no-longer-recognises-afghans-as-refugees/
  3. Institution of Mechanical Engineers. ‘Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not’. Imeche: London. Available as a PDF here: https://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/global-food—waste-not-want-not.pdf?sfvrsn=0
  4. Campbell, J, quoted in ‘Mythos: Vol III, Episode 3.5 Into the Well of Myth.’ PBS: Arlington, Virginia.
  5. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

Celebrations of Spring and the Sacred

This weekend marks an important festival in many traditions, called by various names and celebrated in different ways. The exact method of celebration varies depending on where you are; however, it seems clear to me that many celebrations have a similar resonance and perhaps even stem from the same archetypal ideas (see for example 1) – that now, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the beginning of Spring, the revolution of the seasons when the world begins to come to life anew.

Here in Italy the celebration is known to the majority Catholic population as ‘Pascua’ – a word which stems from the same root as the word for ‘Passover’ (see for example 2), showing the  links between the different Abrahamic faiths. The traditions of Passover differ from those of Pascua and the celebrations are different depending where you are. Here in Salento one tradition is of the ‘sepolcro’ or ‘tomb’. Following the story of Jesus Christ and his death, on Good Friday, the day every year when Jesus ‘dies’, every church dedicates one section as the ‘tomb’ and is open all night for people to visit to meditate on the death. The tombs vary in imagery but all have flowers and many which I visited had not a human being in the centre but a golden sunshine.

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To me this suggests the recognition of the metaphor which Jesus Christ represents as the sunshine returning to the earth after the ‘death’ of winter. In English, ‘Pascua’ is known as ‘Easter’, a word which stems from the ancient Germano-British Goddess of the spring, Ostara or Eostre (3). Every year, she brings the sunshine back after the death of winter, and life can continue another round. In many myths it is said that Ostara’s gifts of the golden lights of dawn are carried by bounding rabbits or hares (see for example 4), which could otherwise be known as Ostara bunnies (Easter bunnies?)

Ostara is a very old Goddess who has been compared to as the equivalent of Persephone, who in the Ancient Greek tradition descends into the underworld every winter to be reborn in Spring (see for example 5, 6). Many modern practising pagans celebrate her return to the Earth as part of the Wiccan calendar (7), placing the time of celebration around the time of the Spring Equinox.

Another notable celebration which happens at the time of the Equinox is the Feast of San Giuseppe. In Salento and possibly elsewhere in South Italy there is a legend that San Giuseppe once averted a famine (as far as I can tell the legend stems from Sicily) (8). This could be the roots of the Feast. Whatever the reason for it, it is clear that the people of Salento know how to celebrate this important time. In churches and community centres all over the region, offerings are made for San Giuseppe and other saints (I suppose he’s a generous guy and wants to share) in sumptuous arrangements which are quite breathtaking to regard.

 

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The Feast is not only for the Saints, however. Huge amounts of food are cooked and served to all who come to visit the offerings, regardless of faith or of anything else. The important thing is sharing the meal. Such recognition of the importance and sacredness of this often overlooked substance – the food that we eat – is quite moving.

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The Equinox is the day when, for the first time since before the winter, the hours of darkness and light are of equal length and the world begins tipping towards one or the other. Whatever your faith or beliefs, this changing of the light is directly observable with the senses. In the Northern Hemisphere it means the return of light and life to the Earth. You may not believe in Jesus, Ostara, Perspehone or anyone else, but if you believe in yourself you could use the evidence of your senses to celebrate the coming warmth and life.

As Joseph Campbell has said, “People ask me sometimes ‘what rituals can we have?’ You’ve got the rituals only you’re not meditating on them. When you eat a meal that’s a ritual, just realise what you’re doing. When you consort with your friends that’s a ritual, just think what you’re doing. When you beget a child or give birth to a child – what more do you want?!” (6)

We have opportunities to celebrate the abundance of life all the time. The coming of spring can be seen as a fantastic reason to gather together, eat, drink and be merry. So happy sacred spring time, wherever you are and whatever you prefer to do!

References

  1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
  2.  Living Language, 2014. ‘Easter and Passover: Different holidays with a shared etymology’. Living Language, 15/4/14. http://www.livinglanguage.com/blog/2014/04/15/easter-and-passover-different-holidays-with-a-shared-etymology/
  3. Watkins 2006 [2000]: 2021.
  4. Elton (1882:408)
  5. Theoi Project, 2016. ‘Persephone’. http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Persephone.html
  6. Joseph Campbell, 1996, quoted in ‘The Mystical Life’. Mythos Series, Episode 5. Athena Studios: San Francisco, USA.
  7. Cusack, Carole M. (2008). “The Return of the Goddess: Mythology, Witchcraft and Feminist Spirituality” as published in Pizza, Murphy. Lewis, James R. (Editors). Handbook of Contemporary Paganism. Brill Publishers: Netherlands
  8.  Caffety, K, 2003. St Joseph Altars. Pelican: Louisiana, USA.

 

 

 

Using our Language-Shadows

We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.

Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).

Power of words

Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.

From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.

As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.

We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.

Walls of Words

Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?

Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.

Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,

“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.

That is insanity.

What is, is.

There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)

When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.

Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.

Darkness and Light

The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;

“Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)

Acceptance and Action

In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.

In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.

Magic words

Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.

Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.

References

  1. Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
  2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
  3. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
  4. Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
  6. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.