On Indigenous Consciousness
The Sylvan City
Equatorial rainforests ring this planet like a pearled chain of evolutionary heat. Direct overhead solar radiation, unvarying climates, and high rainfall, create a hothouse environment crowded with life forms. The forests grow as stars in a galaxy of terrestrial creation, creating constellations of life that influence all earthly inhabitants. Within this verdant world, the fertility circuits hum with activity, giving voice to the inhabitants in many frequencies of sound, taste, smell, color, form, texture, and feeling. Conversations run thru chemical signals networked in the matted roots and mycorrhizal fungi of the forest floor, the color patterns of frogs and butterflies, the heady fragrances of flowers and the rotting smells of dead animals, hum of insects, the chattering of birds, and songs of humans.
These sensory dialogues are manifestations of deeper forces that maintain and evolve the balance of existence in the forest. They are expressions of collective organizing intelligences, webs of energetic connections that allow the forest’s high population density, that facilitate traffic in sunlight, air, water, and soil, govern behaviors, and negotiate the boundaries of species domains. The life of the forest is thereby ‘voiced’ into being, and carried on as a great multi-dimensional conversation. This articulates the workings of a sylvan society, and in its largest sense, a culture of Nature.
We can see the workings of this culture, variations of which extend over the entire planet, and beyond, in a number of ways. For example, the mechanics of ecological relations can be understood thru the study of pollinators, niche construction, weather patterns, soil analysis, and in larger times frames, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, climate changes, co-evolution, and so on. In this way it can be can be observed by materialist science. That is, the paints that color the canvas of Nature can be isolated and named, the brush strokes mapped and compared.
This culture can be also appreciated thru the aesthetics of the natural world. It appears in the moving sculpture of clouds and river sand, in the songs of birds and insects, the play of sunlight thru a forest canopy, and in the cleansing calm that follows a storm; it also appears in the ravages of disease, compost and rot, predation and combat, and catastrophic habitat change. The composition of the painting that is Nature is then felt on the sensory level, and one gains some resonance with the intent of the creator.
On a still deeper level, by moving more fully into the present moment and more completely into the feeling body – the body as feeling – one can become conscious of the Source currents of energy which give rise to physical existence. One then understands the canvas of Nature as Divine art. One becomes co-creative with the painter, both existing as and apart from the canvas, an inseparable member of the society of Nature, yet a self-conscious individual.
This way of knowing holds both the material and the spiritual perspectives simultaneously and, paradoxically, without conflict. When the two are in balanced, free-flowing relations, the unconscious is allowed to become conscious, and one is integrated into a wider spectrum of reality. This reveals an invisible universe within the visible one, a world of causes within the world of effects, the tree within the seed, the forest within the tree. In this way the culture of Nature includes the spiritual relations that underlie the world of surface appearances, the two being as inseparable as light is from its source.
These multi-dimensional ecologies are woven together with the threads of mythic time, revealing ancestors close at hand, and extends our heritage to all manner of elements and species. Sky and earth, over- and underworlds, life and death, are unified, and all beings can pass from one to another. Just as a rainforest fog can be thought to carry elements of earth life up to the sky and across rivers, so rain can carry sky and river life to the earth. Likewise, stars become the ‘dangling roots’ of a another world, a path of stars, or long dark clouds streaking across the sky, become high rivers, and fireflies, or the sparkles of powdered herbs thrown on hot rocks, appear as earthbound stars.
Human dialogue with the natural world, with the tribes of creation, opens space for its invisible ordering intelligences to gain expression through human society. These evolutionary energies fire up and animate the mythic imagination, which allow them to ‘speak’ human cultures into existence. In this way humans become acculturated to their environment.
Our common definition of culture, or at least the one taught in universities, is that it is a unique human capacity to create a body of learned behaviors that is then taught (socially transmitted) to others. This definition was developed with the founding of the modern social sciences. Previous to that time, the word was used to differentiate social classes. ‘High culture’ was practiced via the refinements of the leisure class, and ‘low’ or ‘vulgar culture’ by those surviving on the bottom tiers of feudal society.
In the late 19th century, the conceptual world was carved up into intellectual turfs and institutionalized (claimed) into university departments, much like the contemporary land grab of Euro-American imperialism. Anthropologists staked their claim on the word ‘culture’, and used it to define their discipline. It became a tool of comparison to analyze the many human societies unearthed as Euro-American influence spread around the globe. Contrary to scientific claims of objectivity, it was biased by the prevailing colonialist rationales that guided the anthropology of the time. These were based on a social evolutionist notion, a derivative of Darwins’ ideas, that the fittest society is one that can overpower another, thus doing humanity a favor by eliminating a weak social gene from the collective. This justification of conquest was built upon a deeper chauvinism native to modern Western civilization, one which places humans at the pinnacle of a great pyramid of being, the lord of our surroundings, surveyor of a soulless nature.
Culture defined as a solely human attribute furthered this position of isolation. It allowed us to pull rank over the lesser life forms, those who were thought to have little more than the hardwiring of instincts, and later, genetic programming, to teach them anything. The scientific use of the term culture to categorize the human tribe came to serve the same hierarchical function as its feudal definition once did to divide social classes. Thus it came to be that societies with more unified human-nature relations were called primitive, savage, or barbaric, and those most divorced from the natural world (thought to have risen above, improved, or conquered nature) were known as modern, progressive, and advanced. This root assumption, and its consequent fears of what one is alienated from, is woven deep into the collective consciousness of much of humanity. It hovers as a spell over the world, casting a shadow of dis-ease, one that has proliferated into the many ills of modernity.
These ills are founded on loss of familial connection with the greater community, the earth clan, and with it loss of guidance, identity, and purpose. Questioning the separation itself has been long taboo as it questions the very foundations of modernity, the myth of progress and the superiority complex built upon it. Solutions have been sought elsewhere. Like an orphaned child, we search thru the fossil fragments for our original parents, or argue theology to understand an elusive Adam and Eve. To affirm our worth, we attempt to date the dawn of culture, or ascribe culture to a single stage of hominization.
However much we search to define ourselves apart from and above the rest of Nature, the boundaries remained blurred. Many animals use tools, and their progeny observe and learn to do so as well. Is this not culture? Can learning ever stay within the bounds of one species? Can science ever be truly objective, fully free of social conventions? Can our social conventions ever be truly independent of the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the earth that turns and orbits around the sun?
The Culture of Nature
The fiction that supports the culture-nature separation is rapidly failing under the weight of its own inconsistencies. It is becoming obvious that what we do to nature we do to ourselves, what we do to ourselves we do to nature. As our environment deteriorates, modern appearances of individual and social health become increasingly illusory. Instead of nourishing ourselves by dealing with the root of our imbalance, the prevailing approach has been denial. Much of our economy – ranging from prozac to porn, botox to bodice-rippers, steroids to serial dogmatism, fashion obsessions to fear pimping – has been built on formulating increasingly sophisticated make-up to mask ills of depletion, alienation, over-indulgence, feeling narcosis, and self-destruction.
However, the balancing forces of Creation will not be denied. More are awakening with the eyes to see thru the glamour bardo wrought by the myth of progress. As rebirth follows death, so the times are spiraling round to a renewed understanding of culture, one that gives it a scope beyond the human-centered world. A more inclusive understanding of culture both addresses the uniqueness of each tribe of creation, and the complex interplay between the tribes, each contributing to a unifying culture of Nature.
In this way we can see a cultural intelligence at work in the mating dances of Japanese cranes, the unfurling of a hibiscus flower, and the growth of a quartz crystal. In this way we see a larger culture of Nature at work in the common principles by which healthy natural ecosystems sustain themselves; principles which evolve thru the ages and turn thru the seasons, that architect the fragrance of a spring breeze, the progression of a summer thunderstorm, the ripening fruits and grains of autumn, and the frozen quiet of a moonlit winter night.
These understandings can be approached by the modern sciences, such as evolutionary biology, yet only to the extent they are freed from their separatist origins. To this end, evidence is building in the sciences that the overriding theme of evolution on the earth is greater cooperation. The Darwinian struggle is necessary to preserve the self-interest of an organism, to ensure that the most workable possibilities persist, but it must exist in dynamic tension with the greater need for organizational harmony. This preserves the larger living systems upon which the organism depends. Cooperation is how multi-cellular creatures came into existence, and continue to sustain themselves. It is how multi-creatured forests evolved, and continue to sustain themselves. It is how the earth has grown to become a blue-green jewel of the cosmos.
We find this dance between self-interest and cooperation at work among the oldest life forms on earth, the bacteria. Evidence of giant communities of bacteria dating back over 3 billion years are preserved in fossils called stromatolites. Today the vast majority of bacteria live communally in what scientists call biofilms or mucilages. These grow wherever they can take hold: compost piles, human teeth (plaque), kitchen drains, and wetlands. Viewed microscopically, an architecture of sugar molecules constructs turrets and channels in which different strains live and specialize in different facets of communal life: food production, energy storage, waste disposal, communication, transportation, and so on. In this way they are slime ‘cities,’ with a culture, an organizing intelligence, that works for the good of the many. Bacteria communities can be also viewed as an organism, to which the same cultural principles apply: self-interest balanced with cooperation, specialization, circulation of information, food, wastes, and so on.
Can not human-dominated cities, with their buildings growing out of the ground, traffic rushing as red and white blood cells thru capillaries, and office building lights blinking off and on like neurons, also be understood as organisms? Can in turn the forest be seen as a sylvan city, with an urbanity that works philosophies of reciprocity, art forms of diversity, and languages of interspecies dialogue, all necessary to maintain a fine-tuned ecological balance? If so, the earth can be understood as a great metropolis of carbon-based life. And in turn again, the earth can be perceived as a great life-form, a spherical organism evolving thru its life cycle.
By trading metaphors across the great human-Nature divide, by humanizing Nature and organicizing humanity, we can do much to break down our legacy of separation. One significant step in this direction is to recognize what the vast majority of humanity has known thru the ages: that the entire planet, and in fact all the cosmos, is alive, is conscious. Consciousness is pure feeling, and it is the drive to feel to infinity that powers evolution. All the elements are engaged in alchemizing themselves into more complex forms of awareness, more novel forms of feeling resonance with the Divine. This has created a self-regulating, self-aware, consciously evolving planet earth. Its life is intentional, directed by a purpose, and lived towards an end (teleology). On its journey of maturation it goes thru periods of health and illness, crisis and transformation, as do we. In fact we are elementally inseparable from the earth. The human body and the earth are the same, of the same substance, of the same molecules.
Like humans, the planetary body has a metabolism, traits that absorb, assimilate, and release energy, that promote its flow and balance. From this perspective, the culture of Nature is simply a description of the planetary metabolism and the conditions of its healthy functioning. This metabolism is in turn the material expression of an ecology of spiritual forces. When applied to human life, it becomes a teaching, a dharma. This can be essentialized into a Gaian dharma (teachings of the planet; its law of being). To the extent a human or human society cultivates the ability to listen to and act on this dharma, it is manifested into the human sphere.
The Gaian dharma can be summarized as follows:
This emphasizes the importance of communication between all beings. This includes cross-species and cross-dimensional communications between inhabitants of the “horizontal” world of physical existence and “vertical” world of spirit. This is made possible by the fabric of Spirit that unites all souls and the material world into which they emerge. The 3-D world can thereby be ‘read’ to discover the frozen harmonic, the soul speech, that underlies its creation. Though different modes of communication mark borders between beings – the shape and color of a plant, the activity of animals, the changes in the night sky – this soul speech is the mother tongue of the tribes of creation. It is often known as the ‘old’ language of many indigenous peoples. Specific to plants, it is known in herbalism as the ‘doctrine of signatures’.
We can learn this language by training the body-mind as an instrument of perception. By practicing our existence in the subtleties of thoughts, emotions, sights, sounds, temperatures, smells, tastes and so on, we become familiar with the finer bodies that interpenetrate the physical. We can then shift awareness to them, and learn of the deeper stratas of this world. Prayer gives strong intentionality to this tuning, and ceremonies give it form, direction, and continuity. As we move into more sensitive feeling states, the dialogue experience becomes dreamlike and visionary, intuitive and synchronous.
To open to the higher, more unifying frequencies of spiritual existence, is to engage the imaginal, mythic worlds native to them. Here, in this realm of the soul, all beings speak the same language, all intelligences operate as charismas, magnetized fractals of attraction engaged in intricate dances of be-coming that trace anatomies of individuation across the mind’s sky. It is a communication of merging and differentiating, transforming and shapeshifting, of knowing something by becoming it.
To converse in the language of soul speech allows us great intimacy with the tribes of creation. It feeds our hunger for deeper expression of feeling, for union with another. It makes it easier for us to ‘walk in the sacred’, and gain the strength and wisdom of this path. By doing so we bridge the dimensions, and facilitate traffic between the worlds. When we know that the natural world can feel and respond to our attentions, we can attune and give expression to the feeling tone of trees and birds, or a particular waterfall or star. From the swell of the ocean of nonverbal awareness we can raise waves of dance and song, art and technologies. By conducting the world alive, we embody the stories of our ancestors, and give them further expression in our lives and culture.
This teaching is of the importance of diversity, that it is essential to the creative potential of any community. Natural ecosystems are composed on many scales, including gene pools, communities of species, and the biological, climatic, and geologic “ingredients” of a particular area. These webs can best protect their themselves by having the greatest number of resources to draw upon in times of a disruption; it can best weave its evolution if new threads continue to appear, making possible new and more complex combinations and adventures.
Diversity adds fuel to the fires of creation, stimulating and challenging the whole to effect transformations. Greater diversity, paradoxically, stimulates greater unity. This follows a law of dualism that anything pushed to its extreme becomes its opposite. Extreme cold feels hot, extreme hate moves closer to love, winning at any cost turns to losing. The great challenges of cooperation presented by diversity forces the parts to draw deeply into the wellsprings of the only thing that brings about truly harmonious relations, the gravity of the Divine.
Synergy, the magic of sums becoming greater, or different, than their parts, comes of tapping into the inherent wholeness of the universe, while retaining an individuated existence. In the terminology of love, synergy comes of the parts ‘caring’ for the whole and the whole ‘caring’ for the parts, because neither could exist without the other. In a conscious universe, sodium and chloride care to create salt, just as algae and the fungus care to create a lichen together, and a couple care enough to create a good marriage. Synergistic relations are another way to express spirituality; in both one does not so much act as is acted upon by something greater, is to a degree possessed by a unitive experience.
Playing music provides a good example. One needs to listen to be able to play harmoniously with others. However, one also needs to maintain one’s own uniqueness so that it all doesn’t sound the same. Sustaining this balance between cooperation and self expression eventually leads to a higher order of integration, great music! For this to happen it is often necessary for the old order to break down into dissonance, chaos, and even madness under the impulse of something greater wanting to emerge. And when it does, one synergizes into a new groove, and with it come feelings of elevation, freedom, and at oneness.
It is important to recognize the existence of life force, or vitality, as fundamental to animate existence. Vitality causes all things to be and persist; it is the growing force of life. It gives pattern and form to lava fields, snow crystals, and the human body. It gives purpose and direction, urging embryos to grow into adulthood, and roots to stretch into the earth and branches towards the sky. Its dynamic is flow and balance, which defines the health or illness of any system. It is strengthened by intention and dissipated by inattention. Variously calledchi, prana, mana, or orenda, it is understood to have power, bestow the ability to heal, and validate positions of authority. It unites resonance cosmologies, those that operate by the dictum ‘as above so below’. The same life force that flows thru the stars, forests, and oceans flows thru humans. All participants in this flow have a regulatory influence on the other, all are united by it. Life force provides the rationale for geomancy (e.g. feng shui), energetic medicines (e.g. ayurveda), various agricultural practices (e.g. biodynamic), the ‘internal’ martial arts (e.g. aikido), and immaterial beings (e.g. those of the devic realm).
Well developed concepts of life force attended the early years of Western civilization, but have been largely exorcised by the relentless rationalism of modernity. For example, the words, “A good tree brings forth good fruit, an evil tree brings forth evil fruit” (Matthew 7.17) were originally spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, a language in which the word for “good” primarily meant “ripe,” and the word for “evil” primarily meant “unripe.” By translating the vitalistic implications out of this lesson, it opened the way for externally imposed standards of morality to be projected onto the world.
In ancient Greece, pneuma, had a vitalistic meaning – long since depleted from its modern meaning of simply ‘air’ in English – and was responsible for the Greek school of medicine, thePneumatists. Later appearances of vitalistic medicines in the West, with such names as ‘anima’, ‘nervous force’, ‘magnetism’, and ‘orgone’ were marginalized by orthodox medicine, and never gained widespread acceptance. Consequently, the emerging modern awareness of life force in the West is attended by borrowed terms, such as chi and prana, or imprecise ones, such as ‘vibes’ or ‘energy’.
Vitality can mature in humans, from the intensity of youth to a pervasive aliveness, a knowing twinkle in the eyes seen in well-aged elders. This comes of connecting the diversity of oneself into alignment, into an ecological flow of balanced attention on life. Thoughts, feelings, and the body become experienced as a whole, allowing a deep calmness and inner strength, a being at peace with one’s form.
This is the recognition that reciprocity must be effected between those accessing the vitality or “fertility circuit” that flows thru the various life worlds; this is in order to equitably share in, manage, and conserve its use. The fertility circuit manifests in the water, rock, and carbon cycles of the earth, as well as in the circulation of blood, lymphatic fluids, and oxygen within our own body. This circuit is a closed system, as there is only so much of whatever is circulating – sunlight, air, water, soil, blood, and so on – to go around.
It is therefore important to master the exchange of this energy, to understand that something taken from one place, or realm, is compensated by something taken from another, to give back in measure to what is received. To this end, the fertility circuit gives rise to traditions which understand individual and social change, health, and illness, in terms of flow, balance, excess, or deficiency in life force. This is the rationale for hunting, fishing, and plant harvesting taboos in many cultures. The understanding is that excessive or inappropriate harvesting could visit death upon a human child, or spread misfortune in a village, as a way to restrike a balance. Healing then is a mediation, a skill in harmonizing relationships between those partaking of the generic vitality. By this same logic, careful resource management is a form of preventive medicine. In this view those who take and do not give back are the true ‘savages’, those who amass great wealth at the expense of others are the true ‘barbarians’.
This is evidenced in an old story from the British Isles about a white cow, a magic cow, and she would give enough milk to take care of all the people. However, they must never take too much. So then when a witch comes with a bucket with holes in it and keeps milking the cow and takes too much. This results in the cow going away, and leaving the people hungry.
When humans carry out their exchange relations with the intention of effecting balance, with respect, and ceremonial attention on the harvest or the hunt, it has a revitalizing effect on the entire circuit. This is done by first carrying out the task on the spiritual plane, thru ritualized preparation, purification, and divination. For example, dance rituals and tobacco offerings directed towards the spirits of particular plants or animals are considered a form of nourishment, of sustenance to these spirits. They in turn give themselves as food in exchange.
The focus then is not on the physical skills of the hunter or harvester, but on influencing the volition of the plant or animal, of seducing the food source into wanting to give its life in exchange for gestures of appreciation. In this way it is more a relationship between a lover and the beloved, than its physical appearance of the killer and the killed. And as between lovers, reproduction is facilitated, as killing for food (re)cycles souls to allow the generation of new life. It follows that if some species are not taken in this way, are merely left alone, bereft of human attention and the revitalizing dance of death, they actually suffer lower populations and more disease.
Acknowledgment of the fertility circuit provides a pervasive ethic for human behavior, a “law of appreciation”, which is a foundation of nature-based spirituality.
Respect and Reverence
This emphasizes the importance of respect in dealing with all members of the natural world. The development of this trait reveals the presence and well-being of others as self-evident to a healthy existence. It recognizes that all life forms have their domains, the fish have the flooded forests and rivers, the bats and owls the night sky, the monkeys and birds the trees. When the boundaries between life forms are transgressed, when the integrity of a community abused, there can be no balanced exchange, and human survival is threatened.
The respect that peoples with more unified human-Nature relations visit upon their environment is inherent in their culture. Whether or not individuals choose to act this way, it is nevertheless a norm expressed in the festivals and ceremonies, origin stories and daily rituals, which work to involve people emotionally in their relationship to the natural world. Respect is lived as a way of life, rather than held as an occasional feeling or attitude.
As the experience of modernity is separation, many of us now have to re-member to respect the lives of the animals we eat, the purity of the rivers from which we drink, and the fertility of the soil. We must be re-minded of such things. This makes us increasingly conscious of these relationships, aware of the well-being of the world that supports us. For having felt the pain of separation from Nature, from ourselves, from the Divine, we feel the pull towards union with that much more clarity, experience the rebound effect that much more strongly. Just as distilled water seeks to make itself whole again by pulling minerals into itself, as rain water becomes spring water, so we seek to make our self whole when we awaken to the deeper causes of our suffering.
The greater the pain from which our awakening arises, the easier respect flowers into reverence, into a life lived as ceremony. From heart-felt longing to be again with the Divine family of creation, new spiritual traditions sprout as fields of green appear after a long drought, as new growth appears after a forest fire. This renews and redefines the culture of Nature. Nature evolves rapidly through the crucible of human purification. The great suffering currently on the planet portends a great shift in planetary consciousness, as the chaos clears the way for a new thrust in evolution.
It should be clear that the teachings of the Gaian dharma vary only on the surface. Beneath the world of dualism they are like stalks of a many flowered lotus that entwine to a common root, that of a perennial spirituality. It is perennial in that it speaks to the condition of the human form as consciousness expands thru it – its dangerous tendencies, as well as its great potentials. It is found in all spiritual traditions in various forms and stages, degrees of acceptance or denial. It recognizes that a realm of spirit exists a priori to the material world, that we participate in this realm (whether we realize it or not), and that we are not only capable of knowing this realm, but are structurally destined to do so. Its elements include:
1) The pull towards greater unification, increasing connectivity, and the necessity to surrender to something greater than ourselves to accommodate it. From this comes the realization that thy neighbor is thyself, and to treat thy neighbor well is to treat thyself well. Conscious participation in the culture of Nature extends this Golden Rule to include all that is other-than-human as thy neighbor.
2) The meaning given to all life on the planet thru participation in the impulses and patterns of evolution, including the journey of the Divine mind to recognize itself thru human self-awareness. By this we gain a security born of knowing our innate Divinity and intrinsic worth in a universe in which we feel we belong, which gives us purpose.
3) The sense of identity as a spiritual being brought about by the expansion of consciousness. This breaks the egoic hold on the one-body one-mind delusion of earthly experience, and opens us up to a spiritual life. We then seek wisdom beyond knowledge, ethics beyond moralism, Divine love beyond romantic love, service beyond selfishness. This identity can extend into the continuity of a spiritual tradition, and one’s responsibility towards such a lineage. Ultimately, the whole concept of identity is dropped, and we abide in no-self.
4) The value given to prayer, ceremony, and service as means of communion. This includes the arts, such as dance and music, that embody and manifest the sacred, and themes of blessing, purification, and attunement to expanded consciousness, and the culture it supports.
Perennial spirituality manifests thru the Gaian dharma and into earth-centered spiritual traditions. These hold no distinctions between the sacred and profane, the spirited and spiritless, as all the world is considered a bridge to the Divine and all the world sacred because of it. These traditions maintain the intimacy of our original relations with the tribes of creation, keep us attuned to earth wisdom, and allow us re-membrance of how to behave in the world. Human spiritual awareness and the life and culture that stems from it were all birthed from these original relations. Subsequent spiritual teaching that stray from the Gaian dharma risk corruption, for without attending to the foundations of incarnational existence, no edifice of spiritual knowledge can have any stability. Conversely, all adherents to spiritual traditions can gain renewal and clarity by devotional time spent in the embrace of the natural world.
The Mythic World
The Gaian dharma is spoken to humans thru origin stories, tales of never-ending events. These arise as dreams of the earth, as paths of creation. They are native to the world of spirit enstoried as myth, to the Dreamtime which architects, visions, and speaks the surface world into existence. The mythic is the actual world behind the real world, the ‘actuality’ that generates ‘reality’. It is looked to to perceive the reasons behind forms, impulses behind lives, and causes behind cultures.
The many tribes of creation play instructive parts in these stories. The stability of the turtle may offer itself as an island, the mercurial intelligence of coyotes or pink river dolphins can act as a trickster, the carrion-eating life of condors gives lessons in recycling, the mind-expansion qualities of peyote revealed itself as a sage, and the flow of rivers may be the streaming tears of a forlorn woman, carrying away sorrow. The mythical dimensions of these plants, animals and elements are the virtues, the power, or the ‘medicine’ of their physical form.
These stories are told by analogies, parables, poetics and song. They comprise a science of similarities, one that follows the inherent gravity of all things to unify. This sacred science effects change by bringing things together, just as reductionist science effects change by taking things apart. For example, in song healing two strands of an analogy can be brought together to make them one. A woman’s reluctant menstruation can be brought on by forging a vision between it and a blood-red sunset. By singing of this daily event and holding the image of its outcome, the menstruation is tied to the inevitability of the sun sinking below the horizon. In such ways metaphors fertilize union, and so aid in bridging the worlds.
Humans are driven to replicate, as closely as possible, the templates and processes governing the unseen realms of consciousness, i.e. to realize archetype in the physical world, to bring spirit to form, to create heaven on earth. Contrary to the conventional Christian understanding that the earth is some kind of lounge where we wait until we are granted entry to a paradisiacal afterlife, this view sees the earth as itself paradise, though still embryonic of what it can be. Human purpose is to transform ourselves, and in so doing transform the world.
Archetypal Mythic Complexes
We can find the Gaian dharma enstoried in mythic complexes common to indigenous peoples world-wide, as all people who open to the culture of Nature receive the same fundamental teachings. These are in turn expressed thru human culture in different styles and versions, just as the planet expresses its life processes in a diversity of bioregions. For example, there a story from many regions of the world of three brothers given a task to complete. The first one uses considerable brawn, and fails, the second, his clever brain, and likewise fails, and the third, usually the simpleton, uses his heart and suceeds. Such stories can seem strange or familiar to us, depending on our personality and degree of Self-forgetfulness. Among the mythic themes I consider most in need of re-membering, most applicable to the current times, are the following:
The Dismembered Deity
The decisive act of this myth is that a god/dess is slain and dismembered, and from the scattered portions of his/her body something new and wonderful arises. This is often an agricultural deity as it replicates how tubers, such as taro or sweet potatoes, are cultivated from cuttings. The ritualized killing serves to remind humans of primeval events that order the growth, death, and rebirth processes of Nature. The dismemberment event is initiatory. It can inaugurate human history and give shape to the human condition. It ultimately forges human spiritual maturity by teaching that only by facing fear is one released from its stranglehold; only by dying is one freed from the fear of dying, and only then can one be fully alive. The scattered parts are thereby transmuted, recast into a higher form. And so a new order emerges out of chaos.
Themes of sacrifice, dismemberment, and resurrection are found in the stories of the Dema deity of New Guinea, the Orphic Mysteries, the Green Knight of Arthurian legend, Osiris, Attis, and many others. These acts are often amplified by festivals designed to help sentient life force (spirit) move smoothly through the planes and forms of existence necessary for it to bestow fertility on the people and the earth. The annual death and resurrection of Jesus celebrated at Easter can also be understood in this way.
The Mother of Plants
This is the understanding that plants have their own spirit, often thought of as a ‘mother’. The plant-mother is an oversoul, a spiritual intelligence that sustains the species. Each individual plant is considered her offspring, or ‘issue’ into physical reality. Plant-mothers possess special knowledge and power, as they carry wisdom of the life-cycles of their species, and the secrets of a plant’s usefulness to humankind. However, the plant mother only teaches those who show love and respect. This can be shown in many ways, including offerings of corn meal or tobacco to a plant before harvesting it, or singing songs to raise up a crop. Likewise, it is to the plant-mother that one talks to when gathering and administering a medicinal plant to gain the highest benefit from it. It is with the help of the plant-mothers, or higher aspects of spirit available thru her, that the most profound healing work with plants is accomplished.
The Master of Animals
This figure is regarded as the overoul of one species of animal, protector of game, or ruler of the forest in the traditions of many indigenous peoples. Much effort is put into cultivating good relations with the Master of Animals, and the related Mother of Plants, to ensure their charges are in ample supply, and that their use is beneficial to humans. The Master of Animals releases only a certain number of animals for food, and those killed must be treated with respect. For these reasons, rituals are enacted to gain the favors of the guardian deity. Hunting is therefore a sacred occupation, and a great teaching in reciprocity. In contrast, the sport killing of animals is tantamount to murder. The tenacity of this archetype is evident in the figure of Santa Claus. Dressed in the red and white colors of the vision-inducing Amanita muscaria mushroom, he is easily interpreted as the Master of the reindeer, complete with lessons on good or bad behavior and its consequences for exchange.
In the material world we can know the great variety of things by name, i.e., know things by separating them from others. In contrast, to know something thru an interactive relationship with it, we must work to establish a resonance between it and ourselves. For example, we can take the time to feel into the personality of the person living next door to us, and empathetically respond to traits we both share, or stop to thoroughly take in the smell of a flower, or to fully hear a clap of thunder.
In the inclusive society of myth this attunement is taken to another level. Resonance can become transformation when one type of being turns into another, or shapeshifts. Shapeshifting is a reciprocal exchange, as one can experience the world from the perspective of another, and vice versa. Again, one knows something by becoming it. For example, in Amazonian traditions, one who absorbs a plant remedy and complies with a strict diet is ritually transformed into a plant spirit. Such a person is released from the inhibitions and restrictions associated with the human conditions, and takes on the particular healing and empowering qualities of the plant.
When shapeshifting occurs in origin stories, a bad-tempered girl turns into the first crocodile, or a faithful wife into an evergreen tree. When enacted experientially, it serves to diversify, strengthen, and focus the transformer’s own properties of incarnation. This kind of radical intimacy can create working alliances, such as when the healed turns into a healer. A ‘bear doctor’ may then refer to someone who has gained their abilities thru a transformative relationship with a bear, just as many of the most powerful leaders, Diviners, sorcerers, and healers in tropical rainforest areas are thought to shapeshift with jungle cats, such as jaguars.
In the West, this idea has survived in the vegetative Greenman who appears in medieval cathedral statuary, the largely negative figures of the werewolf and vampire, and the sensationalized pop culture icons of comic-book heroes and their counterparts in film. It also plays an inspirational role in modern theater, e.g., distinguishing an actor (who acts) from a performer (who transforms).
Genealogy of Life
The mythic world provides an existential commons in which all manner of disincarnate beings live as equals, as ‘persons’: the crawling people, the swimming people, the flying people, and so on. It is the world of the ancestors, and describes a genealogy of the family of life. Here primordial agreements and relationships exist between the life tribes, understandings that became obscured, but still binding, as the world split into plants, animals, humans and so on. These explain the manifest world, including body decorations, gardening practices, animal behaviors, plant forms, the passage of heavenly bodies, the change of seasons, the origins of kinship, and so on. These myths generate and validate the social organization and mores of the people that adhere to them.
This genealogy flows in two directions. In one direction the natural world gives meaning, order, and diversity to human society. Examples include the Australian Dreamtime ancestors who created bundles – such as the plum tree, the grass seed, the lizards, the parakeet, or the rat – which became the forerunners of human clans; the ancestral taro plant which gave rise to the Hawaiian people; the inspiration that dolphins give to spiritual seekers, often to the point of where devotees of this species organize themselves into ‘pods’; or the kinship gained with a other-than-human ally during a personal vision quest. Such relations have been called totemism in anthropology.
The flow in the other direction organizes the natural world on the basis of human systems of social classification. Examples include the terms ‘brother sun, sister moon’ used by St. Francis of Assisi, the common reference to the Pleiades as the ‘seven sisters’, the naming of peyote as a ‘grandfather’, and referring to the rocks used in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies as a ‘people’. Such relations have been called animism by anthropologists.
As should be apparent, the phrase ‘culture of Nature’ is designed to reconfigure totemism and animism into a single, equitable, and accessible concept. Both these latter terms carry heavy loads from their origins in the colonialist discourses of anthropology. Animism, e.g., was coined to refer to a ‘religion of the lower races’ that embraced the ‘primordial mistake’ of attributing life, soul, or spirit to inanimate objects. It was placed in the lowest rung of an evolutionary ladder, a hierarchy of knowledge that traced the progress of man from magic to religion to the highest achievements of science. In this view, to assume that the elements of a landscape have an affective life is at its worst delusional, and at best a kind of inefficient proto-science.
The two terms have not been rehabilitated and are still used in anthropology, though cautiously. They have meanwhile escaped into the wider parlance. Animism has become a catch-all word that commonly describes all nature-based spiritual traditions. As the terms have not fully shed their associations with pre-developed childish minds and immature cultures, ‘animistic’ societies are easily denigrated. They are likewise preyed upon by those seek to ‘save’ them, such as Christian missionaries. At a time of planet-wide ecological crisis, the words do no service to the development and maturation of nature-based spirituality and the cultural forms it supports.
The world as dreamed through the myths illuminating the Gaian dharma is a living, communicating, partnering, and ever-evolving Family of Being. This community passes thru cycles of incarnation, unifying and diversifying in a continuous ebb and flow, like timeless tides across the shores of the Divine mind. Its stories weave together eco-cosmologies, where all relations in natural ecologies are sacred. Eco-cosmologies are sustained by the continual expression of the tales that illuminate them. They are ‘thought’ and ‘socialized’ into the intellectual and community life of a people by their enactment in communal performances. The cosmic vision is thereby transformed into en-lightening, personal experiences. It becomes lived. The mythic becomes real. Actuality births reality, and with it a deep wisdom arises of how to act in the world.
This wisdom comes of rapport, of attending to relationships. It comes of acknowledging the phases of the moon and the movement of the stars; of allowing a river to flow unhindered to the sea to empty itself, and fish to swim unimpeded upriver to spawn; of leaving a few of the elders in the harvest of a community of plants, and spreading the seeds of what you do take; of respecting the rights of others to pursue their dreams, to flower in the world. Nature thereby becomes a sacred multiversity of indigenous consciousness. The curriculum is relationships, the myths are the living library, the tribes of creation are the teachers (with some specializing in this role), and the world we create is their application. It teachs us spiritual freedom, to become conscious of our evolutionary heritage and our process of becoming, so that we may take on the responsibilities of flowering the world into as yet unimagined acts of creation.
The land teaches that the best way to live on it is to live as it, to create an identity that is as encompassing as the land. In this way one becomes more whole, more completely human. One then entrains more fully with the planetary metabolism: the language of spirit that connects it all; the diversity that evolves it; the vitality that flows unhindered through cycles of growth, death, and rebirth (regeneration); the reciprocity that maintains it; and the aesthetics (beauty, gratitude, and sense of belonging) that radiates from it. This recognizes that the human body and the earth are the same, and that to engage the life processes in one is to engage those in the other. To learn the life of the body is to learn the life of the earth. To honor the body is to honor the earth, for it is thru the medium of the body that the land births spiritual traditions, ways to best relate to it.
This means that these traditions are not ‘owned’ by any human culture, but belong to the land, are native to the earth. In this view the various tribes or peoples who receive these ways – from sweat lodges to ayahuasca ceremonies, from didgeridoos to tai chi chuan, from vision quests to drumming circles – are solely caretakers of them, giving to them a unique style or characterization. Hence the legitimacy of such traditions inheres in the quality of the relations of a people to the land. These ways will lose potency and retreat back into the earth if not fed with sincerity and commitment. They will likewise spring up anew where-ever deep rapport is again sought with the land. In this way indigeneity is a verb, an act of devotion, a work of co-creation.
The conventional use of the word ‘indigenous’ is a colonialist legacy, a comparative term to differentiate the settlers or aliens to a region from those who were there before them. While this has political usefulness (‘the land belongs to us because we were here first’) to people who often have very little leverage otherwise, it says little about the relationship of a people to the land. The assumption is that the colonizers had about as much respect for the land as they did for those they subjugated, and that those colonized were in relative harmonious relations with their environment. To whatever extent this was true – and it wasn’t always – the descendants of these two groups inherit the legacy of these ascriptions. This has denied many easy access to earth-based spiritual traditions to which they maybe called, and allowed others to rest upon their heritage rather than their actions in identifying themselves as holders of these same traditions.
A more useful definition, one that can truly align itself with the culture of Nature, understands indigeneity as a function of relationship. As humans have evolved as part of the culture of Nature, we have had to internalize this culture within our own to maintain equilibrium with it. To the degree we have done so, we are indigenous to our environment. This relational indigeneity is a direct result of the observational and empathetic efforts necessary to learn from the society of nature and equitably participate with it. As much of this has been lost thru the course of modernity, it is the task of many of us to recover this relationship, to re-indigenize ourselves in ways appropriate to the times.
Relational indigeneity is pro-active. Though indigeneity is a birthright of everyone, it is up to everyone to claim. Those who claim it are indigenous by virtue of their intimacy to the land. Those who claim it are at home in the world.
©Morgan Brent 2004