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Sojourns of the Soul
One Woman's Journey around the World and into Her Truth
By Dana Micucci
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2011 Dana Micucci
All rights reserved.
INTO THE OUTBACK
Under a vast starry sky, deep in the wild bush of Arnhem Land in northern Australia, a region known as the Outback, I am squirming in my tent, unable to fall asleep. Despite the late night chill, I'm on fire; it's as though I'm walking across an endless bed of hot coals. I am exhausted and sweating profusely, and my desperate hope for rest is further compromised by the fact that my ankle is badly sprained, thanks to the clumsy fall I took while boarding the plane in New York days ago—not good considering that two weeks of rigorous hiking lie ahead. My body remains on heightened alert amidst a cacophony of screeching owls, chattering crickets, and howling dingoes. However, hanging thick behind this enchanting night music—laced with the clean, fresh scent of eucalyptus from the eponymous trees so common to the Australian bush—is an unfathomable silence that both delights and disarms me.
It is only because of the silence that there can be noise, so I must be aware of my body being so hot because I know what it feels like to be cold. This is how it is with all pairs of opposites that define our existence—between which we often swing from one extreme to the other without any true contentment or satisfaction. In my early thirties, I'm trying to reconcile the seemingly contradictory poles of my own life—love and work, being and doing, high ideals and humble necessities—while staying balanced and centered without expectations. Easier said than done.
I'm here in the Outback on an assignment to write about Aboriginal art, and I suspect that the Aborigines, the oldest known human culture dating back more than one hundred thousand years, will have much to teach me.
When I began to feel called to delve deeply within, to search for truth and wisdom that has consumed legions of idealists for eons, I thought I could trim a few years off the arduous effort by reading H. H. the Dalai Lama's The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective; surely His Holiness would sum it all up! In my twenties, I passionately adopted Virginia Woolf's dictum to view one's life as a creative act, as though it were a work of art. I took to heart Janet Flanner's belief that "to burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is life's greatest challenge." And, of course, there was Joseph Campbell's inspiring imperative to "follow your bliss" whatever the consequences, as well as his conclusion in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: "Where we had thought to travel outward, we will have come to the center of our existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world."
So, opting for adventurous uncertainty over routine security, I decided that I would travel the world as a journalist, choosing first my destinations, then my stories. And art, with its many layers of inspiration, would be my vehicle. If I was going to walk the precarious financial edge of freelancing for a living, I might as well be as free as possible. To my delight (and propelled by a lot of hair-raising hard work), my plan succeeded. But, as usual, there were the opposites: my innate optimism is chronically tempered by my self-manufactured discomfort.
A loud thumping calls me back to the Outback.
"What is that?!" I shout. The earth is so alive I can feel it pulsating in my body.
"Kangaroo!" my tent-mate Trish, a native Australian, announces gleefully. "Have you never heard a kangaroo?" She fixes her bright blue eyes on me with such intensity that I feel as though she can see directly into my soul. Beyond her worldliness and aesthetic inclinations—Trish has been a Vogue editor and now works as an interior designer—she is possessed of a deep inner knowing that I have rarely encountered. This, combined with her earthy good humor, generosity, and ebullient personality, makes her a magnetic force.
"Of course not! Are they dangerous? How close do they come to humans?!" The fact that I am frozen with fear does not faze Trish, who begins laughing with abandon. "Oh, great! And now, I have to go to the bathroom," I yell and race from the tent to the outhouse, swearing as I trip through the tall bush in the dense darkness, hoping desperately to avoid the kangaroo.
When I crawl back into my sleeping bag, I hear Trish's muffled giggles. We are staying many miles away from civilization at a remote camp owned by bush legend Percy Trezise. It is our home base for excursions to the sprawling sandstone plateau of western Arnhem Land and its thousands of galleries of spectacular, millennia-old Aboriginal paintings, which are among the oldest and richest concentrations of rock art in the world. Our delightful Australian guide, Kate, a tall, elegant blonde with a natural grace and the gentlest of hearts, peeps into our tent.
"You two!" She smiles, shaking her head. "Get some sleep now. We have a big day tomorrow!" A longtime expert in Aboriginal art, Kate has organized a tour of the continent's major Aboriginal art centers for our small group of four. My participation is the result of an unexpected twist of fate. I happened to walk into Kate's gallery in Manhattan one summer afternoon and, captivated by her charm and extensive knowledge, decided that I needed to investigate this incredibly rich artistic tradition, which first expressed itself as early as sixty thousand years ago in numerous rock engravings and paintings throughout Australia.
In the morning we awake to the plangent calls of cockatoos and scramble to get ready for the long day's trek. Hardly a haven of comfort, the camp has crude outdoor shower stalls and a tiny cracked mirror hanging above a tin sink, before which I struggle to apply my red lipstick.
"Hey, isn't there an outlet somewhere around here?!" I scan the premises with frustration, blow dryer in hand.
"We are in the Outback," Trish howls. "You're just like that journalist in the film Crocodile Dundee! She shakes her head. "Those designer jeans won't last long either."
After a bacon-and-egg breakfast at the long picnic table under the dining tent—during which Trezise, a hearty, charismatic character, recounts his colorful wilderness adventures—Trish and I collect our backpacks and water bottles and venture into the bush with Kate and our other travel companions, Michael and Susan, a kindly, reserved professorial couple from North Carolina. I pick up a fallen eucalyptus branch to use as a walking stick. Though I have wrapped my ankle with a gauze support bandage from Kate's first-aid kit, I'm still limping, and I brace myself for what will likely be an ongoing physical challenge. "Of all times," I mutter, displeased at having to lag behind as Kate, who is beaming and brimming with energy, guides us with the swift, surefooted dexterity of someone who knows this land intimately. Trish's brown leather cowboy hat bobs as a marker in the distance.
The golden sunlight warms the earth and our bodies as we traipse through grassy hills and valleys and dense eucalyptus forests toward the rocky cliff ledges that are our destination. My typically high-octane energy is noticeably drained, and I'm careful to keep myself hydrated. Conscious of my condition, Kate makes an effort to stop and rest now and then. By the time we reach a massive rock face several hours later, my T-shirt and bandana are soaked and my ankle is throbbing. I sit on a boulder, my head between my knees, breathing heavily.
"You okay?" Trish asks.
"Don't worry, I'll be fine."
She reaches into her backpack and offers me some crackers and Vegemite, a salty black yeast paste in a jar to which Australians, who spread it on everything from toast to vegetables, are apparently addicted.
"No, thanks." I grimace.
We proceed further into the sandstone escarpments, stepping precariously along cliff edges, beyond which stretches a magnificent vista of arid, rocky plateau, sinuous rivers, and sweeping grasslands. I try to stay focused on our immediate surroundings, terrified of the abyss below. Even a glimpse downward makes me dizzy. The trek is more arduous than I had imagined. I rarely take physical risks, but I must admit to a secret thrill from the adrenaline rush of imminent danger. Kate leads us into a huge cave, where a stunning gallery of rock art displays simple, elegant, X-ray-like images of animal, human, and spirit forms from Aboriginal mythology. Here are creator-ancestors such as the Rainbow Serpent and Namarrkon the Lightning Man, as well as animals like the kangaroo, long-necked turtle, and barramundi fish that have long functioned both as totems and food sources for the Aborigines. (A totem is usually an animal or other nature-based figure that spiritually represents a group of related people.) I inspect the images more closely, awed that the bold red, black, and white earth pigments have survived for so long. The delicate figures appear to be floating, emanating a curious power. There are concentric circles, too.
The coiling Rainbow Serpent, in particular, captures my attention. It symbolizes the underlying creative energy of the Dreamtime—a period in the distant past when the Aborigines' ancestor gods dreamt, sang, named, and created the Earth and all living things from a void of limitless potential. On an energetic level, the androgynous Rainbow Serpent manifests as a wave-like (or serpentine) rainbow of visible light, comprising both the active masculine and receptive female principles from which all earthly forms arise. The Aborigines believe that this life-giving force also brings the rainy season and thus fertility to the land.
"The hunter-gatherer Australian Aborigines see the body of the nourishing spirit as a serpent energy that connects the earth with the celestial realms," Robert Lawlor wrote in Voices of the First Day. The activities of the mythic ancestors "still resonate in the shapes and energies that bathe the earth and all life processes. These energies are often referred to symbolically as the Rainbow Serpent, which ... exists as a spectrum of various colors, frequencies, or powers.... The electromagnetic spectrum, like the Rainbow Serpent, is a profound metaphor for the unity that exists between the tangible and the invisible worlds."
Aboriginal art, too, forms a link between the earthly and spiritual worlds, as well as the present and past and the people and their land. Because the Aborigines have no written language, they have always used art to tell stories that would educate future generations about their culture, Kate explains, shining a flashlight on the rock art images. Most of these stories are based on Dreamtime myths, which for millennia have inspired ceremonial rock, body, and ground paintings as well as more contemporary art forms like the eucalyptus bark paintings that Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land are making today. The Dreamtime myths describe the origins of the land, whose flora, fauna, and topographical features were laid down as dreaming tracks, or "songlines," by the spiritual ancestors, who sang their way across Australia in a dreaming state.
"Each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints," Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines. "There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung." Each feature of the landscape, therefore, has its own story about how it came into existence, depending on which ancestor, whether Kangaroo, Lizard, or Rainbow Serpent, for example, walked that way.
The Aborigines have always believed that the earth is both sacred and perfect, and should therefore be left untouched, as it was in the Dreamtime. Their spiritual connection to it and the gods stretches back to the time of creation, for each Aborigine belongs to a clan associated with a particular totemic species and its related metaphysical ancestor. "The man who went 'Walkabout' was making a ritual journey," Chatwin wrote. "He trod in the footprints of his Ancestor. He sang the Ancestor's stanzas without changing a word or note—and so recreated the Creation." In this sense, Aboriginal songs contain within them a "moral universe ... in which the structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees."
As an expression of this intricate web of connection, Aboriginal art likewise opens a door to a numinous, moral universe. Kate tells us that the word painting in many Aboriginal languages translates to "my country." As in ritual ceremonies, where Dreamtime myths are sung, enacted, and danced in heightened, hallucinatory states of awareness, Aboriginal artists often enter a trance-like state to "sing" their paintings into being, singing the dreaming stories that describe the creation of the land as they paint.
I think about how artistic endeavors in our culture can originate as much from an impulse to reveal and inspire as from one's own personal needs and ambitions. Our emphasis on individual achievement over communal continuity often breeds more isolation than connection, seducing us into a cultural trance of separation from each other, nature, and a higher spiritual order. By associating themselves with their ancestor gods, Aboriginal artists acknowledge and honor their own divinity. How often I have forgotten to do the same.
"One of the main purposes of an image still lies in the act of creation, which regenerates the powers of the ancestral beings and sacred totems," Kate says, explaining that much of the iconography of Aboriginal art is sacred, involving multiple layers of meaning associated with initiation and ceremony. I quickly jot notes. When I look up, I notice that Trish is pacing at a distance from the cave paintings. She appears nervous and distracted. What's going on?
"Secular themes such as female fertility, food gathering, and love magic are also depicted," Kate continues. She points to images on the rocks of a couple engaged in sexual intercourse and two women carrying dilly bags (sacks woven of vines or dried grasses that are worn around the neck) filled with grubs (small white worms that are a basic ingredient of the Aboriginal diet). Dilly bags and digging sticks are the implements used in food gathering, a primarily female activity in Aboriginal culture, which holds its women in great esteem.
"Traditional Aboriginal society is founded on the preeminence of the characteristics of the Universal Feminine, epitomized by its unwavering respect for Earth, which Aborigines refer to as 'the mother,'" K. Langloh Parker and Johanna Lambert wrote in Wise Women of the Dreamtime. "Their social order encourages, from infancy, empathetic concern and compassion toward all creatures of nature, as well as deep loyalties and responsibilities to their kin and the group as a whole.... Within the Universal Feminine qualities such as receptivity, mutability, inter-relatedness, and diffusion that are predominant in Aboriginal society, the creative Universal Masculine characteristics such as limitation, order, structure, and definition also find balanced expression."
The Aborigines, like other indigenous cultures, recognize that the dualities inherent in the natural world—such as male and female, light and darkness, life and death—are also forces within the human psyche that must be merged in order to experience a state of oneness with all that is. The longing for and painstaking cultivation of this mystical union is a major theme of Aboriginal myths, rituals, and art. So there is more to images like the intercourse couple and the Rainbow Serpent than first meets the eye. Because the Aborigines view "every creature and aspect of nature as a spiritual reflection of the great Ancestral Beings that brought the earth into existence," according to Lambert, all human relationships and interactions must also integrate both the physical and metaphysical dimensions.
I want very much to be able to live in this exquisite state of balance and wholeness and wonder whether I will be up to the task, which is obviously a lifetime undertaking.
I continue taking notes, as Kate explains the intricacies of Aboriginal art. Michael and Susan listen with rapt attention. I am thankful for their easygoing nature, particularly because we are such a small group. They and Kate, with their quiet, peaceful presence, are the perfect foil to Trish's passionate intensity and our garrulous, laugh-infected interchanges. With that thought, I turn to look for Trish. But she has mysteriously disappeared. As the others chat, I slip away and walk farther into the cave, which splinters into a series of small, dark chambers with a dense, musty smell. I feel suffocated and slightly nauseated, so I quickly leave. Outside in the welcoming sunlight, I notice Trish sitting on a boulder.
"Wooooooaaaaa!" she exclaims, as I approach her. "I am not going back in there!"
"What do you mean?" I sit down next to her.
"Crazy, strong energy." She scowls. "Felt like I was going to explode, couldn't get my bearings." She looks as though she hadn't slept for days. Then she erupts about the Aborigines, the land, and spirits, speaking at such a breathless pace that I have trouble keeping up. The sentences come in fragments, in a circular pattern that seems to lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
"Trish," I whisper nervously. "Trish!" I grab her by the shoulders. She stares at me blankly for a few moments and then calms down.
Excerpted from Sojourns of the Soul by Dana Micucci. Copyright © 2011 Dana Micucci. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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