I Think I’ll Just Let the Mystery Be

This is part two of my post on Beyond Native American Appropriation: Cultivating a Personal, Nature-Based Spirituality

October 14, 2013: Felt a strong urge to look up as I was getting into my car. Our neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk bursts into the air from the top of our house and alights on the school next door.

October 15: At Patricia’s Green with Fern. Felt the urge to look up to my left. Red Shouldered Hawk on a low lamp post. Spots a mouse in the planter box. Dives in, is gone for 30 seconds. Erupts out of the tall plants with prey in claw, flies off to the north-east. Man sitting 3 feet away notices nothing.

October 16: Two hawks circling over Arguello and Clement St, 2 blocks from me.

October 17: Light-Morph Red Tailed Hawk at Inspiration Point in old Monterey Cypress. American Kestrel right next to path in lichen covered tree. Spots prey and swoops down, with success.

October 18: Same American Kestrel at Inspiration Point.

October 19: Multiple hawks flying over the Mission before and after making sugar skulls at Galeria de la Raza.

October 20: Red Shouldered Hawk on lamp post driving down to Off the Grid in the Presidio for picnic Sunday. Red Tailed Hawk in tree where we park. Same Red Tailed an hour later, on the lawn as we walked back.

October 21: Hawk being chased by crows. Seen while looking out over the city from our sunroom window.

It’s an every day occurrence and yet beyond feeling blessed, I still don’t know.

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I was in my early 20s when I was first introduced to Jamie Sams Animal Medicine Cards. A friend had recently gotten this tarot deck, based on “The Wolf Clan Teachings” of the Seneca nation and Jamie’s claim of being of Cherokee and French descent. I remember being initially confused by the term “medicine”, but as I read through the book and “worked” with the teachings, I began to understand “medicine” as the interplay between the self and the greater natural world. I wasn’t quite sure how it worked, but somehow the way I was being in the world would “attract” certain lessons to me, that could often show up in the form of an animal…an animal that held certain teachings based on its own way of being in the world. Like attracts like, and the law of similars were all somewhat vague terms to me at that time, but having experienced significant animal encounters throughout my whole life, it was easy for me to latch on to this idea of animal “medicine”. I don’t know why I didn’t question the validity of Sams as a Native person, except that she seemed legit and I was relieved to have an explanation for phenomena in my life that had seemed extraordinary. I was grateful to finally have some guidelines for a spiritual process that had at times been lonely, isolating and even frightening. My early adult life unfolded in a series of unfortunate events that involved the death and rebirth of my psyche and soul, and I desperately sought a framework beyond feeling crazy.

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In the 90s, when I first started going to women’s spirituality circles, I was uneasy with what appeared to be white women “playing native”. They would show up for the ceremony with their shaman drums, their rattles and sage, and speak loftily about the teachings of Sun Bear, Hyemeyohsts Storm, and Lynn V. Andrews. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me so much. Why should I care? Ultimately, they were trying to connect with the earth and they at least gave lip service to embracing the feminine. Although I had previously initiated myself as a teenage goth witch (this was in 1988…give me some props, yo.), as I passed the legal age, I gave Lynn Andrews and Castenada a whirl. I was intrigued, and I wondered if my repulsion was just closed-mindedness. Was I jealous of these spiritual cliques? Was I still smarting from the time an old Navajo woman came up to me at a gas station in Colorado, pointed to my t-shirt and began to cackle? (I was 9 and my t-shirt said, in iron-on transfer sparkly letters, Country Girl).

Eventually I read articles that revealed Andrews and Castaneda to be frauds, but it was easy to cut my losses. By this time I had gone to university in Humboldt County, where I had immersed myself in Dianic Wicca (goddess and feminist based and equally questionable), and I was learning to connect the rhythms of my body with the seasonal wheel of the year. Still, I was groping about in the dark. After a few years, I realized I was growing away from this style of pagan religion, like a relationship that had grown cold. I loosely cobbled together beliefs from “legit” teachers like Sams, picking up teachings like the feathers I would find on my walks. If I was married to anything, it began to become clear it was The Mystery, and learning to listen to that “small, still voice” within.

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In my mid to late 20s, I stumbled across the concept of core shamanism and thought I had struck gold. It was based on the study of not one, but “multiple indigenous cultures”, and the use of non-ordinary states of consciousness* to communicate with, and seek help from, the spirit world. Through my own study, I had realized that central to the belief systems of the world’s biggest religions was the same thing…namely compassion, so the idea of a “core shamanism” dove tailed right into my own thinking. Best of all, central to the experience of the shamanic journey was connection to multiple animal “spirit guides”. Even though I had now been living in San Francisco for a few years, unusual experiences with animals continued to be a hallmark of my life, especially in how they coincided with times of intense personal growth.

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Eventually in my 30’s, desperate to find a way to deal with an ever aggravated mind and debilitating anxiety, I followed a trail of crumbs left by Pema Chodron and found myself studying Vajrayana Buddhism with the SF chapter of Shambhala International. I took the vow of refuge and found my own wellspring of pure joy, while learning to keep my seat when the storms of my emotional experience would rage. I am ever humbled and grateful for the way buddhism disassembled me, teaching me to walk through mid air on the tight rope of mindfulness. Still, I would sit in meditation in the shrine room, looking at the thin fog blowing across the sky in the Sunset district, and I could hear the wild calling me. Once, during an evening sit, I glanced over at the sliding glass door to see a raccoon peering in at me from the center’s rooftop garden. My body and heart belonged outside and I needed dirt under my feet during walking meditation, to be in relationship to the energy of the land I sat on, not to the Thankas of eastern symbols that arose from the soil of a country far away.

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Leaving Shambhala, while I still held the vow of refuge close to my heart, was an experience in letting everything go. My “spirituality” became best described as “eclectic” or “animistic” to outside ears, and as for myself, I stopped trying to define it. Extraordinary events, unfolding within and without me, became secrets without words. I no longer felt the need to “make time to be spiritual” or to concoct elaborate rituals. Every moment, mundane or fantastic, was part of the tapestry. Wherever I walked, that was my meditation. I often thought of a favorite song by Iris Dement, and decided to just let the mystery be. Ultimately, it was an act of trust towards myself and the greater world, no longer looking for validation from anywhere but from within.

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It was during this “letting go” period that I stumbled across the information that Jamie Sams was a fraud, a New Ager from Waco, Texas with a previous history of being a channeler. I delved deeper and discovered that she is considered a persona non grata in the native community that is vocal re: plastic shamans. She was “taught” by Grandmother Twylah, who claimed to be part of The Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge, an organization earmarked as fraudulent. I was chagrinned and embarrassed. How could I not have known? As I researched the plastic shaman issue, I also discovered that Michael and Sandra Harner, the folks who brought us Core Shamanism, were also on the list of appropriators. It was as if someone had flipped on a light in a dim room. In a way, I wasn’t surprised…I think some part of me had always known. It had been the hopes of a younger woman, who thought that perhaps there were lucky white people out there who had been indoctrinated into the native secret society. That sentence is amusing, but this is how our psyches work…one thing builds upon another, even when something holding up the whole pile of blocks is a naive assumption, younger than the person we are now. The pile of blocks came tumbling down, and rather than feel dismayed, I felt concerned. Wait…this shit was all pervasive in the New Age community, in my grad school and even amongst my colleagues. What did this mean for me and for my professional field?

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For me, it meant a reckoning and turning to that inner knowing. Were my spiritual experiences with animals valid if the frame of reference I had been using was based in fraud? I felt similar to something a friend said years later, when she found out about Sams. “Don’t tell me it isn’t true…I’ve had real experiences with those cards!”

The cards and their “teachings”, when used for inquiry into personal process and as a meditation aid, can lead to very real and deep experiences. The “journeying” technique in “core shamanism” is a wonderful healing technique of guided visualization. The problem arises when Sams or any other self-proclaimed authoritative voice is used as validation for one’s own experience, especially if the primary reason it feels valid is because of supposed ties to “native” wisdom. Lumping together native beliefs is not only disrespectful to individual tribal beliefs, but it is also technically impossible, since there is no “one way” of native spirituality. Labeling each animal as a symbol, representative of a particular teaching, not only limits the development of one’s own inner wisdom, but also diminishes the wholeness of The Other…of that animal individual, an individual with a scope of being we will never comprehend, since it is beyond our human knowing and a free will independent of our spiritual process. I have had many animals show up in my life, to the point of redundancy, and yet I now resist putting a specific meaning on our relationship.

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IT IS a relationship, and healthy relationships between allies demands a respect for the individual wildness of the other. Instead of using my connection with hawks as proof that I “own” hawk “medicine”, like it’s a rabbit foot I can hang off my belt, I greet their appearance in my life with wonderment and a beginner’s mind. Researching the interpretations of other spiritual seekers in regards to the “meaning” of an animal presence in our lives can be informative. A quick Google search will also show you how many different interpretations there are, all with the vague claim of being “Native American”. As long as we allow ourselves to take it all with a grain of salt, investigating what certain animals have meant to different people all over the world can be intellectually stimulating. However, I would suggest letting the relationship be fully alive in all its complexity, completely unfathomable in its greatest depth, without elevating it through exoticizing Native America. Too often, I hear folks use their medicine or “totem” as a way to prove how special, advanced or powerful they are, like a new age boy scout badge. This makes me sad. It denigrates not only the animal but the human individual too.

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Animals (and nature) are not concepts. Claiming to have a relationship with dolphins when you’ve never met one in the wild is like claiming to be in relationship with a celebrity you’ve never met. I’ve loved celebrities…we all know my not so distant past with Viggo Mortensen. Once he began popping up for me in dreams, I decided to explore what he might represent for me as an archetype of The Perfect Man, or rather, my own inner masculine.

I think that spirit guides take on the form that communicates directly to our subconscious. It is absolutely valid for these guides to show up as animals, or plants, and for our transformational processes to be guided and protected by what appears to a non-human other. However, I think it is important to keep this personal and individual and not to project it onto an entire species, or an individual of that species that we encounter in nature (or captivity). Most importantly, the idea that an animal would be attracted to us to “teach us a lesson” is one I consider to be anthropocentric in the extreme. It takes away the free will of that animal, as if its only purpose in life is to be an empty vessel for a puppeteer god, or worse, for our own egomaniacal desires. The concept of an acausal connecting principle is far more compelling, and includes within its definition a spaciousness that allows the wind of mystery to blow through.

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Can we sit with the discomfort of not knowing? Can we resist the temptation to build ourselves up with claims of spiritual prowess? Can we be humble before nature and non-human others, bowing down before the cyanobacteria or the horseshoe crab, certainly our elders in terms of earthly arrival? If we discover a personal spiritual connection with earthworms, will we talk about it as reverently as we might the wolf, bear or eagle? Can we trust the knowing of our own heart and body over the intellectual knowing of the mind?

These are the important questions that arise for me in the quest to cultivate an individual, earth based spirituality. Starting on Friday and continuing through next week, I am jazzed to host some guest writers who illuminate the interweaving of the mundane and the magical. I will briefly offer my own insight into some of the ways their pieces illustrate the answers to those questions and then let their words do the talking.

Stay tuned!

Further reading and reference:

See my previous post for even more links.

Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality

Obituary for Jamie Sam’s mother

Jamie Sams past as a channeler as written in “Strange Weather” by Andrew Ross

NAFPS forum on Sams

Techniques for evaluating American Indian websites (a good tool when fishing around on the web for “totem” or “animal medicine” meanings)

Some Readings on Cultural Appropriations, Native America, and the New Age

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5 thoughts on “I Think I’ll Just Let the Mystery Be

  1. Mary, I am truly impressed by your thorough and lucid exploration of these questions. Without having followed any of these paths in a serious way myself, I was indeed drawn to what Native American spirituality, shamanism and animism had to offer, in terms of insights or awareness, in my own intuitive relationship with Nature as a whole, nurturing, guiding force.

    But it was mostly through reading Native american literature (Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Leslie Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Susan Power, Louis Owens), traditional tales from various Nations (compiled by Richard Erdoes for instance), and a few essays (mostly from Mary and Leonard Crow Dog) – not via an actual spiritual quest or practice.

    In parallel, Buddhism and part of my Christian heritage have similarly been useful voices in my understanding of compassion as being directly springing from the fact that we are not only one with Nature, but deeply connected to the rest of humanity. Each one of us.

    And I have often defined my own approach – to animals, events, coincidences, or fellow humans – in the very words that you use right here: “letting the relationship be fully alive in all its complexity, completely unfathomable in its greatest depth,” and “trust the knowing of our own heart and body over the intellectual knowing of the mind”.

    Thank you for elaborating so clearly on all this : o )

  2. mary, both these posts are so interesting. i’ve read a little bit about cultural appropriation but mostly it was aimed at mainstream media, fashion and costumes not the spiritual aspects, so this was quite eyeopening to me. i’ve never associated nature or nature/animal experiences with any particular religion or spirituality. to me they are simply blessings that i thank God for. i really enjoyed reading your journey through the years and how your spiritual life evolved. with this type of spirituality i can see why it would be so hard to navigate your way through it. to me, it seems it would be very confusing so i think it’s great that your writing about all this. i feel spirituality can be confusing no matter what type of faith you follow. in my church our beliefs are concrete but there are many types of spirituality within it. i have gone through many changes over the years and will for the rest of my life i imagine. i guess my thought is that you don’t have to be some shaman or wise individual to respect, love and cherish nature, animals and the experiences you have with both. but you already know that 🙂

    i look forward to more!

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