Tag Archives: Thailand

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Magic Circle

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