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"Ecospiritualism" is a form of spirituality that embraces, and takes responsibility for, the natural world we live in. One of the most practical, enjoyable, and simple ways of reclaiming our ...
"Ecospiritualism" is a form of spirituality that embraces, and takes responsibility for, the natural world we live in. One of the most practical, enjoyable, and simple ways of reclaiming our ecospirtual connection with Mother Earth is journeying with the spirits of animals just as our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Animals, most intimately connected with the Earth, are the perfect guides to the ancient wisdom we have lost. Mole, eagle, badger, wolf, bear, mountain lion-each animal has its place on the sacred medicine wheel; each has knowledge vital to the future of our Earth and to rediscovering our rightful place in it.
In Spirit Animals, author Hal Zina Bennett offers an accessible form of "spiritual orienteering" in which personal power animals are the guides and teachers, and shamanism is the means by which we work with and learn from them.
An Ecospiritual Journey into Space
There's so much for us to learn about spirituality, about loving the Earth, about choosing ecstasy over materialism, about ourselves, about oneness. The indigenous people have a great deal to teach us.
—John Perkins (Ausubel, 1997)
July of 1969 marked a turning point in human history. That year Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. Visiting the Moon was clearly a stunning technological achievement. But something even more momentous happened during that and subsequent trips outside the Earth's atmosphere. For the first time we viewed our home planet from outer space and, as astronaut Rusty Schweickart would put it, it "made a difference in that relationship between you and that planet and you and all those other forms of life on that planet ... (O'Leary 1989)" Our journeys to the stars turned us back to inner space and forced us to look more carefully at how we treat our planet and fellow inhabitants.
This may seem like an odd way to begin a book titled Spirit Animals and The Wheel of Life. But in fact, given our place in history it just might be a perfect start. It is no coincidence that soon after our penetration of space, we saw an upsurge of interest in ancient cultures, particularly the nature-based cultures that preceded modern technology by tens of thousands of years. Their teachings beckoned to us because nothing else promised to show us the way into the mysteries unsealed by our trip to the stars. Our outer journeys reconnected us with that first creature on Earth who gazed up at the heavens and was filled with wonder.
The view of the whole planet Earth from space symbolizes a birth of consciousness. As the astronauts gazed down on our seemingly colored marble in the black sea, they were transformed. The spectacular photographs they brought back ... remind us poignantly that we have one very beautiful fragile planet to love and preserve. Our experience is unity.
Books like those of Carlos Castaneda, which explore the world of modern day sorcery, became enormously popular, as did the books about medicine people such as Black Elk and John Lame Deer. Around the same time we saw an upsurge of interest in contemporary shamansim through the writings of Joan Halifax, Michael Harner, Sun Bear, Lynn Andrews, and others.
So what is the link between these events—on the one hand this paradigm-shattering technological achievement, and on the other turning back to the teachings of indigenous peoples? I'm convinced that the return to these earliest spiritual teachings has been instinctive, something reawakened in us by our view of our planet from outer space. Never before had we received visual proof of our interdependence with our planet. I say "interdependence" because never before has it been so clear that the way we treat Her will determine whether or not She continues to support us. Never before have we seen the oneness of all earthly life in quite the way we now do. We have instinctively turned to the ancient teachings because it is here that we might discover the mystical link between our beautiful blue planet, the Universe in which it rests, and ourselves.
The events which occurred that day we went to the Moon were not a surprise for everyone. Five hundred years before, Hopi elders had predicted that the white man would one day travel to the stars, and when he did the world would change dramatically—not necessarily for the better. When it happened there would be those who would recognize that something more than setting a technological benchmark had occurred. Some would see truths that reflected on human behavior, and on what our choices were doing to the planet. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell perhaps said it best when he reflected: "The crew of spacecraft Earth is in virtual mutiny to the order of the Universe." Is it possible to turn the mutineers around?
New scientific findings are beginning to support beliefs of cultures thousands of years old, showing that our individual psyches are, in the last analysis, a manifestation of cosmic consciousness and intelligence that flows through all of existence. We never completely lose contact with this cosmic consciousness because we are never fully separated from it.
The Hopi prophets, as well as elders such as Black Elk from other indigenous cultures, predicted that soon after the white man pene trated space, Mother Earth would send warnings. The order of the Universe had been disrupted, and there would be those who would feel this acutely. Some people would seek help from the teachings of indigenous peoples, and there would be those from every ethnic back-ground and race who would recognize the wisdom of the Hopi elders and would seek out their teachings and be bound to disseminating them.
The pollution of air, water, and farmland, global warming—to say nothing of the nuclear threat—all put us on the alert that maybe the Hopi elders were right. It is impossible to ignore the increased numbers of floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famines, and devastating storms striking major populations worldwide. Surely it is time to change our vision, from domination to reverence, and from exploitation to recognition of the mystery of life itself.
There is a large portion of the human population now seeking new ways of relating to our planet and each other, and we are finding these methods in the ancient past. As with technology, new solutions will have to come from with-in, but this time from our hearts rather than just our heads—and from a universal rather than selfish perspective. Health and balance for the twenty-first century must be ecospiritual—integrating body, mind, and spirit, along with Earth.
In the heat of unprecedented technological break-throughs it is easy to think that we are invincible, like gods who would rule the world. But none of us need be reminded that the future of our planet is being held hostage by our own cleverness, with nuclear physics, chemistry, agribusiness, mineral exploration, and bioengineering threatening our biosphere in ways we could never have imagined even twenty years ago.
At a Bioneers Conference in 1995, author-lecturer Paul Hawken asked the audience to remember the final scenes in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the Earth scientists first made contact with the extraterrestrials: While the scientists played tones to communicate with several small space craft hovering around the area, excitement mounted. Then, the mother ship rose from out of nowhere, unbelievably massive, a titanic structure in the sky that was a world unto itself.
In recalling this scene, Paul Hawken likened the mother ship to the omnipotence of nature and the biological world. It hovers there, inconceivably large, and we become aware that it is not an insensate chunk of stuff that we can selfishly exploit or attempt to control—at least not with out great consequence. Lacking a spiritual connection with it, we are doomed.
This sacred journey—understanding ourselves as a collective species in balance with the larger circle of vibrant life—allows us to reinvent ourselves in harmony with the majestic web of life.
We need a new vision. We need to learn ways to live more in tune with nature's rhythms rather than attempting to impose our own. I like John Perkins' appeal, that we must "create a vision of a renewed society in tune with the natural world, imbued with spirit and devoted to the reenchantment of the Earth (Ausubel 1997)."
Our response to this planetary challenge thus far has been to turn to technology, and to the very mindsets that brought us to this point. We look at how we are abusing nature and seek technological ways to change what we've been doing. We invent less toxic pesticides, formulate less polluting fuels, design more efficient power plants, and begin recycling waste in our homes. While these things are important, we must ultimately see that our long term solutions are not primarily technological but ecospiritual, and based on awe, reverence, and conservation, rather than domination, exploitation, and control.
Luckily, we don't need to start from scratch in our quest for ecospiritual values to guide us. Systems of ecospirituality have been around far longer than the technological solutions we have employed so far—in fact, about 25,000 years longer. Nature-based societies began with the premise that Creation itself was an impenetrable mystery, and they were held in awe of it. Throughout the world, archaeologists have discovered petroglyphs and other art that provide us with clues about how ancient people experienced their lives, and what they did to honor the mystery. Drawings etched into rock walls with a crystal show that the shamans consulted the spirits of the animals, and apparently received vital guidance from them.
Those who recognize and honor our true kinship [with animals] begin to make very different kinds of choices, opting not to do things that would hurt the Earth or the creatures upon it, and instead choosing to live in harmony with all. This harmony extends to everything we do; from how we relate to each other to how we relate to great ecosystems such as the deserts or wetlands near our homes, to the distant Amazon rain forests, or the great oceans that lie between our continents.
About a year before I began writing this book, a feature article about shamanistic petroglyphs found in the Mojave Desert and dating back to at least 10,000 years before Christ appeared on the front pages of the New York Times (see: Graham 1998). At a meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, Larry Loendorf, a scholar of rock art from the New Mexico State University, confirmed that the recent Mojave Desert findings were consistent with spiritual practices at least 25,000 years old. As the earliest form of religion, these shamanistic practices drew inspiration from observing animals in nature.
Evidence of these early shamanistic religions has been found through out the world, and each finding provides us with direction for integrating the mysteries of life on our planet with the practical challenges of everyday life. In the next chapter, I discuss the artwork found at the Lascaux caves in the south of France, a magnificent treasure trove of shamanistic art that dates back to Cro-Magnon times. Without going into too much detail here, suffice it to say that in these petroglyphs, we begin to find clues about how we might—12,000 years later—find the path to living with greater attunement to nature through looking to the animals as our teachers.
Whether we look to the Mojave Desert petroglyphs or to the paleolithic caves of Western Europe, it is clear that early peoples turned to animals as their teachers. Animals tutored them in everything from gathering in numbers against their adversaries to hunting. But even more than this, they found in the animals a conduit to Creation, to a power greater than themselves, greater than everything they beheld with their physical senses. This connection with higher truths gave their lives direction and purpose.
Each one of us still retains this awe that our ancient ancestors felt thousands of years ago. Most of the time, it hides deep within our psyches, ignored like a vestigial tail, making itself known to us through a vague, undefined longing that rises up in our dreams. It gets awakened when we visit the seashore or walk in the woods, or when we hold a newborn human or other animal baby. We touch it in deep meditation and prayer, and in quiet moments, sometimes at two A.M., when the whole world seems to be sleeping. We may try to dull the pain of our disconnection with drugs, alcohol, sex, sensationalism, or by blotting it out with high adrenaline activities and entertainments. Unrecognized, our lack of connectedness can drive us to indifference and rage; recognized, it can teach us how to reenchant our lives.
Many indigenous cultures offer artifacts, rituals, and ways of thinking about and experiencing our lives which have their spiritual roots in nature and can serve as beacons, giving direction at a time when humanity is on the brink of extinction. There is a growing consciousness of the Earth's needs—that She is crying out for our attention, and it is time to give it to Her. In this respect, turning to the ancient teachings is not about romanticizing or emulating others' ways of life, but is about finding our way back to a nurturing relationship with the universal order.
Joseph Campbell believed that our "voyages into outer space turn us back to inner space," and that through these voyages we discover that "we live in the stars and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures." For many, this innerspace adventure takes us to a world where each individual soul at last feels its kinship with the higher power that nurtures us, and that created us. We recognize that we share this spiritual source with all of Creation—all plants, all animals, all beings, and the unfathomable plan manifest in the physical universe.
As I write these words I'm remembering a visit a few years ago from my friend Americo Yabar, who lives in Peru. We were sitting on my back porch talking, and he was watching my two small dogs romping around in the yard. Americo was not accustomed to pets like these. He beamed with delight as Cicely, the smaller dog, raced up to him, stood on her hind legs and licked his hand, begging him to pick her up.
Charmed by this behavior, Americo took the dog into his arms, hugging her to his chest. As he did so, he seemed to soften, to be transformed in a subtle way. Perhaps by embracing this tiny creature, my friend recalled his bonds with the wilderness of his home, thousands of miles to the south. I knew from previous conversations we'd had that when he visited my world of cement and manmade structures his heart ached for the bond he shared with the natural world of his beloved homeland.
Even very young children know that their world is populated by spirits—the mountain has a spirit, the river has a spirit, the tree has a spirit, the stone has a spirit.
Americo is a paq'o (spiritual teacher or shaman-priest) in the ancient Q'ero tradition, an indigenous people who make their home in the mountains high above Cuzco, Peru. It is said that they are descendants of the Inca holy men who escaped to the mountains when Pizarro routed their capital in 1533 in his search for gold.
As Americo held the dog in his arms, he began telling stories about the long, steep trails into the mountains where, for thousands of years, the Q'ero have maintained a spiritual tradition that draws its deepest lessons from the Earth. For them, our planet is the Pachamama, that is, "Cosmic Mother."
My friend spoke of two realities that the Q'ero people recognize: the panya (pah-nyah) and the yoqe (yo-kay). Panya is all that we associate with the everyday reality of the senses, which is all around us—the surface features and interactions of the physical world. Yoqe is all that we associate with the unseen reality, with the world we cannot perceive with our senses; it is the mystery that connects us with the subtle energies that are present in all beings. In the ancient tradition from which the Q'ero draw, the spiritual teachings grow out of our dance between yoqe and panya, that is, between the mystery of the subtle, invisible energies that animate all life and our manifestation as physical beings living on the Earth.
High in the Andes a Q'ero child learns at an early age to speak with the plants, with the stones, with the animals, with the trees and mountains. She basks in the mystery, in the yoqe. And it is out of this close association with non-ordinary reality that girl finds the primordial roots of spiritual guidance.
As they grow into adulthood, the Q'ero continue to receive their primary teachings from their deeply intimate relationship with the Pachamama. The shaman-priest may help to guide people back to Pachamama, to encourage them to find answers there, not from the mouths of the teacher. They do not personify the higher powers of the cosmos as entities separate from them and superior to them, with whom they must communicate through a teacher, rather, they speak of an energy that flows throughout the whole Universe, animating all and accessible to all.
Americo and I have had many conversations before and after that afternoon on my back porch. But there was something special about that day for me. In those few hours of our visit, occasionally interrupted by the romping dogs, questions I had been pondering for years moved closer to resolution. The core question, which first troubled me when I was still in my teens, had to do with the tug I felt from the Earth, from the way nature speaks to us, not with words but with a subtler language that unveils a reality beyond what our senses can detect.
Excerpted from SPIRIT ANIMALS AND THE WHEEL OF LIFE by HAL ZINA BENNETT, Angela Wenneke. Copyright © 2000 Hal Zina Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Posted July 4, 2014