Dreaming

Autumn_BerriesPosted this evening in solidarity with The People’s Climate Mobilization, Sept. 20/21 a Global Day of Action

This week folks around the world will gather to call for real and pervasive action to address climate change. This post honors all who hold the vision of a just, kind, and healed world.

The weather has turned damp and chilly, with the temperature only in the mid-fifties. A couple of days ago the first Titmouse of the season landed on the garden fence and looked into our window with that classic  “Why is the feeder empty?” look. Fall has certainly arrived!

A few nights ago I dreamt about prophesy. In my dreams I longed to heal the world, to stop our country’s headlong dash towards Darkness. Then, near the time I awoke, my vision turned inward and I saw my own inner suffering and turmoil. In the dream I was shown that I have limited influence on the larger world, but I might have great influence in my inner domain.

The Dream world spoke of prophesy, the ancient teachings that speak of the fall of the colonial world. The power of those who favor wealth over kindness, self over community, is rising, a great Darkness that threatens to engulf the world. With their ascent, we witness sharp increases in poverty, racism, and misogyny, and a growing disdain for the young, old, and those with disabilities. Many of the young people I meet speak of a profound sense of desperation and a deep fear for the their future.

These things arise because we have failed to address the wrongs of the past and the challenges of the present. As a result, the violence of our country’s past haunts our collective consciousness and shapes our social world. The European project in the Americas and the South Pacific was one of slavery and genocide as avenues to wealth, and the oppression of the many for the economic gain of a few continues to be the centerpiece of our social order.

I grew up in evangelical churches, places where prophesy was alive. These were not wealthy mega-congregations. Rather they were the refuges of working class men and women, often new immigrants from farm to city. Their faith was immediate, as was their walk with the Creator as they understood Her/Him. In those small churches prophesy was lived experience.

Native American history, the great expanse of it, cutting across many hundreds of tribes and languages, and thousands of years, speaks to the power and truth of prophesy. The great seers were given visions of that which was to come, from the everyday to the earth shattering. Visions still come to The People. Often these visions are shared by our Medicine people and elders, although all to frequently the larger culture refuses to listen.

Still, the Creator speaks to all who will hear, encouraging us to be kind to ourselves and one another, to strengthen our communities, and work with Pachamama to heal our world. This healing is as much about the suffering in or hearts and spirits as that of the natural and social worlds. The tugging or breaking of our hearts in the presence of pain, ours and that of others, is the voice of the Creator, and the call of prophesy.

Prophetic vision may be vast or intimate, and addresses the condition of our internal or external worlds; in the end, perhaps there is no difference. Our realms of individual influence may be small, yet we can do our best to care for those whose lives we touch, including ourselves. We may keep in mind the awareness that vision that lacks compassion leads to tyranny while true kindness heals self and other, and we can allow that knowledge to guide our actions. Is that not the purpose of prophesy, to change and guide? May we each grow more kind, and more skillful at listening to the prophetic voice within us.

Post Script: This morning I attended service at our local UU church, in part because Jennie was singing in the choir, and because the congregation was gathering to bless the 100 or so members who are going to the Climate March in NYC next weekend. (The congregation is only 500 strong!) The minister reminded us that prophesy is action in the face of great odds, and that action takes courage and a soft heart. She then reflected on the place of joy in Dark times, on the necessity of a glad heart. It was good to gather with others who care deeply for the world, and  who put that caring into action.

May those who travel to NYC for The March, and all who do their best to heal the deep wounds of our world, find joy, companionship, and renewed hope.

– Michael Watson

© 2014, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World

Tidal-Marsh I came of age with Eliot Porter. Not literally of course. Rather, my adolescence and young adulthood were accompanied by his books and photos. He taught me how to look. Even now, his photographs influence my writing and visual work.

A few weeks ago we were in Downeast Maine, north of Bar Harbor. Every few days we drove south, down Penobscot County way. Eliot Porter spent much time in the Penobscot region, as well as out West. Out West, his photos were panoramic. Downeast, they were more intimate, capturing a brook, leaf, or pod of berries. If memory serves me, his iconic book and homage to Thoreau, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the Earth, drew heavily from his Penobscot experience.

People tend to think of wilderness as vast tracks of untouched ecosystems. Yet in ourWater_Striders time, there are few such places. Climate change and other forms of pollution reach the farthermost corners of the earth. Here, in North America, fossil fuel mining takes place in the midst of former wildlands. Our population has grown so large that we fill the back country with people on many weekends.

The elders taught me to treasure wilderness, and to remember there is another wilderness, the one that lies within each of us. Those vast spaces can be imposing, even terrible, in their beauty and harshness. I was taught there is another danger in focusing on the wilderness inside us: we may ignore the needs of the Planet that supports us, and the innumerable beings that accompany us. To successfully journey into wilderness requires forethought and balance.

For many, the inner wilderness seems most inaccessible, even dangerous. There are daemons within, and sea monsters, waiting to devour us. As shamans everywhere have long known, there is also the ever present threat of madness. Yet there is also the promise of renewal.

Mossy_LogShamans journey into this wilderness to seek aid for others, to return souls to their owners, and to accompany the dead to the other world. They travel for visions of the future, to learn where game will be tomorrow, and to correct imbalances in the world, imbalances most often created by people. Sometimes shamans travel and fail to return home; this is a always a risk.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought imbalance to our people in the form of illness, alcohol, and social chaos. Faced with this, the shamans and Medicine people sought cures in the inner and the everyday worlds. They were resourceful and connected to the spirits of things, and were often successful in finding ways to heal those afflicted. Yet, eventually, the sheer volume on illness overwhelmed many of our cultures, killing great numbers of healers as they cared for others. Much knowledge was lost in those dark days.

Downeast, Eliot Porter focused on the small, the everyday. He reminded us that wilderness is a matter P1080565of scale and attention, that we can find wilderness wherever we are. We can, in turn, look closely at the minutia of the world around us, journey deep into the forest, or turn inward. Sometimes we do all these, simultaneously. Such moments form a sort of vision quest.

Eliot Porter taught me that as we look through the camera’s lens, we sharpen our attention, and open to the magic of the unexpected. Perhaps, for just a moment, we discover ourselves reflected in the world around us, and are returned to primal wholeness and balance. In such moments we may know that we are the salmon swimming home to reproduce and die, the leaves settling into the litter, preparing to nurture the next generation, or the eagle that flies above the world, capturing visions of wholeness. Then we may understand that wilderness is indeed the preservation of the world, and of the soul.

Buch_Berries

– Michael Watson

© 2014, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

An Old Story

Summer_sunsetWe are a Jewish-Native household and events in the Middle-East have deep resonance for us. For the past two weeks we have watched and thought about the fighting in Gaza, our sadness, and sense of helplessness, growing daily.

Of course, it is impossible to know, with any certainty, the truth of things. Propaganda is unleashed by both sides. Still, there is something terribly familiar about the one-sided nature of the conflict. The history of the U.S., like that of Palestine, is usually told from the view of the dominant power. From our Indian perspective, the story is vastly different from that told in most history books.

We watched as the colonial powers invited landless Europeans to emigrate, and forced criminals and others who were disenfranchised to do so. Thus, they created an ever-growing hunger for land, a tidal wave that would eventually sweep over us.  We were under constant pressure to move West, and to relinquish our ancestral lands. The colonists made promises and gave us land that would be ours “forever”. Then they brought in settlers who lived in enclaves, always encroaching on our land. When our people attempted to defend the land the colonial powers had seeded to us, the colonial government made war against us. They killed our children and elders, and raped and murdered our women. They sought to destroy our cultures by stealing the land, our traditional knowledge and life-ways, and our children. Because we hold this knowledge, many of us remember, and observe remembrance of, the Shoah, the Holocaust, and acknowledge our kinship with those who were the victims of that genocide.

Let us remember that, like the Jews who made their way to the Holy Land, many of those early emigrants to our lands were the dispossessed. The British attempted to depopulate Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. They used war, famine, and desperation to drive people from their traditional lands. They employed “Acts of Enclosure” to force their own people to flee to the cities, hungry and destitute; many families eventually found their way to our lands.  Because they understood colonialism and genocide, because they understood trauma, many of these early immigrants married Native people. But soon, propaganda, hunger, greed, and the rising tide of immigration overwhelmed us.

Although they had killed ninety-nine percent of our people, forcing us to live on tiny reserves, starving and desperate, they continued their attack. They banned hunting, and our drums and our ceremonies, the heart of our cultures. This is not ancient history, it continues, as governments grab what little land we retain and willy-nilly destroy our sacred sites. It continues as Non-Natives rape and murder our women, and jail our young people, in vastly disproportionate numbers. When I see destruction of olive groves in Palestine, and hear reports of the rape of women and the murder of children, I am reminded of this. When I see the Bedouins forced into reservations, their traditional nomadic life forbidden to them, my heart breaks in recognition.

This is an old story. Those with superior numbers and weapons take land from people who have lived in a place for untold centuries. They use resistance to their domination as an excuse to make war on the people. As they do so, they often target children, women, and elders. Too frequently, women are raped and/or killed, children are murdered or traumatized, the land that feeds the stomachs and culture of the people is stolen. Thus the future of the people is threatened. These are acts of genocide. We cannot remain silent when we witness them. Our ancestors lived through this. They remember and whisper their experience in our minds. They are always with us, and they do not forget.

This post was originally shown on Dreaming the World.

– Michael Watson

© 2014, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

A Brief Meditation on Grace and Comfort

GardensAfter a cool, damp week the sun is out! June is in full bloom, our perennial gardens bursting with color. In the the kitchen garden rows of tender plants have appeared in the raised beds, and we are eating mesclun. Lovely!

Here in Vermont the trees are a dense, lush green. Plants need to take full advantage of our four to five months of warm weather, and go about the tasks of reproducing and storing energy with vigor. In just a few weeks, by late July, the foliage will begin to thin, already preparing for the autumn to come.

We have stopped filling the feeders as the birds have other food sources available to them. Now that the feeders are empty we will likely take them down and store them until October. Come the first chilly days of autumn the birds will remind us to bring out the food; we have a good working relationship!

I recently read a post on Australis Incognita, an interview with an Australian Aboriginal elder, Uncle Paul Chapman. The essence of the conversation is that we learn who we are in the world by paying attention to the landscape and Nature. There is an ancient Indigenous knowing that we can’t figure it out by turning totally inward, as that is out of balance. We learn from bridging the worlds of inner an outer, self and landscape.

Reading Uncle Paul’s words reminded me we are of the landscapes we inhabit; we even have our own internal seasons. I often suggest to students that after we watch for a while we may begin to notice that sometimes the inside and outside worlds are in sync, other times not. Lately I have found myself diving deeply into the interior, even as I engage the Natural world as it bursts into furious activity.

Lately, I seem able to stand with a foot in each world, shifting between them as need be, and am rewarded by moments of grace. Grace reminds me to be grateful for my life, family and friends, and the Beauty surrounding me, even as I feel disappointed and angry with much that is unfurling in the world. Grace encourages me to be concerned for my grandchildren, and curious as to how we humans will manage the road ahead.

In dark, difficult, times it is easy to forget that summer invariably follows winter, and life sprouts anew when given any opportunity. This will be so as long as there is life on our precious blue-green planet. May we take refuge and comfort in that.

Evening-Sky The sun has broken through and the sky is a brilliant blue. Over the lake a layer of clouds, white and bubbly, hangs. Trees and gardens are  abloom, and the scent of lily-of-the-valley and lilac saturates the air. The day is beautiful. May we walk through this day in Beauty, together.

– Michael Watson

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Walking In Beauty

Lake-ChamplainThe fog is lifting, revealing a lovely spring day.

There is a Navaho word, Harzo, which can be translated as a life in Balance and Beauty. Balance and Beauty are complex concepts, changing as they move across tribes and cultures. I’m not Navaho and only understand Harzo as it has been explained to me by friends and colleagues. My felt sense of Harzo comes from living in the mountains of New Mexico as a grad student. There one is surrounded by Beauty and Vastness, and reminded of the insignificance of one’s self. It is not that we are unimportant, rather, we are simply part of the unimaginable Vastness of Nature.

One of the challenges many urban folks face is no longer recognizing our place in Beauty. We are drawn to the picturesque, yet so often we are unable to experience ourselves as part of the Beauty of Nature. Perhaps this difficult is rooted in our use of English. I am told by those who speak our tribal languages that most Indigenous languages in North America are verb based. The landscape and the living beings who live there are understood to be complex, evolving processes, rather than things. One is simply a process within a context of other and greater processes.

Walking in Beauty encourages us to recognize our relatedness to one another and All-That-Is. It is a good road that teaches empathy and reciprocity. As we live we begin to understand there is Beauty before, behind, and all around us. We also learn that we are unimaginably complex, filled, as is the world, with nuances of light and dark, and that, too, is beautiful.Trillium

Beauty exists even in the darkest of times and the most violent of places. Walking in Beauty implies remaining open to its presence and influence even when we are afraid or suffering. This can be a difficult task. My Navajo friends families’ held stories of The Long Walk, a trail of misery and suffering, a time when the Beauty of the Navajo homelands was lost, although the memory of Beauty and home was not. Eventually the Navajo went Home to their land bordered by the four sacred mountains, the place of Beauty. Sadly, that place remains under siege.

I imagine most of us have stories about the loss of Beauty, about exile and suffering, and about the journey Home. As I write this, a development project threats the natural beauty of our neighborhood, and perhaps the cohesiveness of the community itself. It is an old story: greed and avarice distract a few powerful people from the Beauty of place. So often, development is simply a code word for the further acquisition of power and the endless search for more wealth. Perhaps greed is simply a part of human nature, sometimes held in check by a collective focus on the good of the whole, and other times freed to wreck havoc on the world. It can only exist when we forget we are totally and irrevocably interconnected, when attachment and empathy fail, and when culture condones placing one’s desires over the good of the whole.

Evening-Sky The sun has broken through and the sky is a brilliant blue. Over the lake a layer of clouds, white and bubbly, hangs. Trees and gardens are  abloom, and the scent of lily-of-the-valley and lilac saturates the air. The day is beautiful. May we walk through this day in Beauty, together.

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Still Here: Blogging Against Disabilism

Lone-CyprusToday is Blogging Against Disabilism Day. Disabilism is a Gimp term for the ideology and practice of discriminating against people with disabilities. Discriminatory practices of all forms appear to be on the rise in North America. In the U.S., where all programs that protect minorities are under attack, there has been a growing chorus of calls for the dismantling of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Contrary to much of the Disabilist propaganda, life remains very difficult for most people with disabilities. Much architectural infrastructure remains inaccessible, and the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is double the rate of the non-disabled. It is likely most people with severe disabilities have given up looking for employment and are thus not counted amongst the unemployed.

The 90’s were, throughout the Western World, a time of disability activism. In the U.S., many of the activists were Polio survivors. At the time, the everyday world was, far much of the disabled community, simply inaccessible. If one used a wheelchair, one simply could not get on a bus! (The playwright and disability theorist, Kaite O’Reilly recently discussed both the disability civil rights movement in the U.K. and the workings of Disabilism in a marvelous lecture. I encourage you to watch.)

Until our civil rights movement, people with disabilities were largely invisible. When I am in a wheelchair in a crowded space, say a museum, I remain invisible, as people literally trip over me. When I am in India, I am a very visible anomaly: a professional person navigating the world on crutches. (An Indian colleague recently told me that disability cannot be discussed at the moment in India. It is too hot a topic.) Most disabled people in India stay home.

Back in the early 90’s Bill T. Jones, the MacArthur Award winning choreographer, created a piece entitled, Still Here.  The dance gives expression to the lived experience of persons with life threatening conditions, including disabilities. It created a furor! In 1997, Bill Moyers interviewed Bill T. Jones about Still Here. It is one of my favorite hours of t.v.. Not long ago I wrote a post about Still Here and its continued resonance for Native people and folks with Disability. The sad thing is that there are a great many people in North America who would like us Gimps and Natives to be gone, or to at least stay home and out of the way.

Beyond the idea of Disability as label or stigma, is Disability as lived experience. I have spent much of the past few months addressing Polio related issues. Working with a Polio knowledgeable therapist has helped me revisit the illness and its aftermath, understand some of the new challenges I, and other Polios, face, and acknowledge some of the losses associated with Polio. The therapist has given me information to read and poked sore areas of my psyche with skill and kindness.

I am deeply appreciative of the resources, kindness, and training she, and other Polio clinicians have showered on me. I am also grateful to all those who helped me understand the ways the trauma of Polio, and the able-bodied gaze, have shaped my thinking and life. At times. I find myself both relieved and filled with sadness and grief; there are so many losses.

There was a time when I was able, a before and after Polio, although that was many decades ago. My therapist likes to remind me that those without disabling conditions are temporarily abled; disability is always possible. Perhaps that possibility keeps many anxious and avoidant of persons who are clearly disabled. One may pass but probably one cannot hide from one’s disability or from the losses it brings to life. Nor can one hide from Disability itself; Disability stalks everyone.

Oddly, I have the sense of Polio as present and immediate, even in a world where it is thought, like winter’s snow, to have melted away almost to extinction. Polio is a virus, a piece of RNA that infects cells, reproduces itself in enormous quantities, and leaves the cells weakened or dead. It can present as little more than a stomach upset, or leave a person paralyzed or dead.Whether we acknowledge it or not, Polio remains an active presence in our world, especially in the lives of survivors and their families.

As I write, a flock of geese flies over, headed north, and the radio news announces a polio outbreak in Afghanistan in which at least 25 persons have been made ill. I have been rereading Anne Finger’s Elegy for A Disease, and the book lies open on the sofa. It is both a personal and a social history of the disease, an illness with a long history of influencing human lives. I have the sense Polio is sitting with me as I write and ponder, an alive, thoughtful presence, vibrant and well in spite of our efforts to eradicate it. Polio doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

We Gimps are Still Here as well. We, too, are not going anywhere.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In acknowledging of this day, its importance, and of the challenges disability bring to the lives of the disabled and their families, we are opening Mister Linky for you to share links with us and with readers to your own posts on disability or to a post you’ve read that has moved you to a greater understanding. These do not have to be recent posts. As an alternative, please feel free to leave a link in the comments section.

© 2013, essay (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Trauma, Story, and Healing

Evening-Sky

He sat on the sofa, pulled deeply into himself, almost disappearing before my eyes, as he told me about his dad’s violence. I wondered whether he knew I was in the room with him. “I feel terribly fragmented; I don’t know who I am,” he explained. “I can’t remember ever being like everyone else; they seem so at home in themselves.”

One of my teachers, a Psychoanalytically oriented clinician, always said the real problem is the second trauma. Her view was the first trauma one encounters sets the stage for PTSD and related problems; the second trauma triggers the cascade. Repeated traumas in childhood physically alter the function of the developing brain, leaving one more vulnerable to new trauma. Even if only one trauma occurs in early childhood the person may remain susceptible to PTSD via a second trauma as an adult.

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PTSD and the Healing Journey

Evening-WoodsThe other night I had dinner with friends. After a traditional ceremonial meal, we watched Skins. I have read about the film, heard others talk about, and planned to watch it, for a long while. The film follows a few months in the life of a tribal police officer on a fictional reservation much like Pine Ridge, and weaves together myth and contemporary experience, violence and healing. Early in the story we are reminded that although humans like to think they are in charge, the spirits shape everything.

Earlier that day I had sat in a local bakery with a couple of medicine women, discussing a Medicine Wheel ceremony we are to hold next month as part of a conference honoring aging. As we come from different traditions and teachings it seemed important to all get on the same page. It turned out we were already in agreement, so the planning went smoothly.

Later, as I thought about the film and my delightful hour at the bakery I decided PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) might well live in the North, the place of night and winter. Fortunately, the North is the home of the Ancestors and the place we seek vision; in winter there is little haze and one can see clearly for a long way. The North is often a place where the spirits seem more immediate and accessible.

As the police officer in Skins discovers, healing from PTSD takes patience and courage, and may involve the workings of mythic beings. When we seek a healing for PTSD, we can request guidance from both our unconscious and the spirit world, asking them to give us manageable amounts of information regarding our traumatic experiences, and to aid us find new, more life nurturing, meaning in those experiences. Healing PTSD may become a vision quest, very like going alone to ask the ancestors and spirits to aid us and our communities, to bring us a vision we may live by.

Of course, we are not truly alone. Whether we are challenging the domination of PTSD in our lives, or praying for a vision, there are others, human and spirit, supporting us. We are blessed by the knowledge and caring of those who walk with, and pray for, us, and we benefit from their experience and companionship. Still, they cannot  make the journey for us; we must each walk the healing road for ourselves.

As we walk sun-wise around the Medicine Wheel we discover that when we stand in the North the path before us faces East. East  is the place of birth and rebirth, the home of insight and understanding. It is also the place, in the view of many Indigenous cultures of the Northeastern U.S., where we pass into the spirit world. Sometimes facing long-held trauma brings us an intense fear of death; indeed, the  journey from the North to the East is fraught with both danger and promise.

When we go alone to seek  a vision, or begin the journey of healing from PTSD, we benefit from telling our families and friends, asking them to pray for us, help us prepare, and honor our return. For many, requesting support when healing from PTSD seems shaming; often asking for aid requires as much courage as does confronting PTSD itself. Yet healing seldom happens in a vacuum; we each need the support of others in our lives and on our healing journeys. Let us honor the courage of those who ask for our aid.

Healing PTSD, like any vision quest, is not for the faint of heart.  On the journey we need courage, perseverance, and compassion for ourselves and others. It is a good journey, holding the promise of healing, renewal, and vision, for Self, family, friends, and community.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part Two

community-seatingThe Olympics have come to a close; the Paralympics follow. Saturday evening Jennie and I watched a Gimp DVD. She is planning to show it to her Expressive Therapies class, along with some material from Bill T. Jones. Its been a while since we last saw Gimp in performance so revisiting their work was a revelation.

The Paralympics is a much-needed, if under-reported competition for athletes who happen to be disabled. The Gimp Project is a collective of dancers, able-bodied and disabled. The Paralypics is a contest; Gimp is a collaboration exploring the world of disability experience.  The first seeks perfection, the latter revels in the beauty of imperfection. The Paralympics pursue inclusion, abet separate and unequal; Gimp tells stories, often casting light on the processes that marginalize and exclude.

There is a remarkable invisibility surrounding these processes, although many activists, academics, and artists have sought to illumine them. It matters little whether these forces  exclude persons on the basis of ethnicity, race, disability, or other difference, the effect is consistent. The systems are pervasive and largely invisible; they are also profoundly human.

The Medicine Wheel holds all of human experience, offering us a view of life as a whole. There is a place on the Wheel for everything that can be encountered, even a space for our collective fear of otherness and contagion. The Wheel reminds us that we will each encounter all that is, whether directly or through the experiences of others. Our fates are inexorably woven together; the fate of each is that of all.

As we meditate on the Wheel we are encouraged to consider that while they seem real, both safety and isolation are illusory, transitory states. The last few months I have found myself wandering the wilderness that is part of the Post Polio experience. Recent health concerns continue to bring up ancient unresolved feelings, along with worries about the future. I have been repeatedly thrown back to the fear and pain of the acute illness and post-illness recovery, and the social isolation imposed on me as a Polio. I am also reminded the effects of the virus continues to impact my life and thus the lives of those I hold dear.

I’ve been exploring the experience of Post Polio through the wisdom of the Wheel. For me, now, Post Polio lies in the North, the place of aging, teaching, and eventually, making preparations to return to the Spirit World. (The North is also the place of preparation for rebirth!) The journey is complicated as I find myself trying to make sense of my nearly lifelong disability from a place on the Wheel where it is also my task to embrace a declining body.

Part of the task is to acknowledge my fear of erasure. We live in an epoch in which Polio was eradicated; we are, for most purposes, a Post-Polio world. I was taught I had survived the virus and should get on with life, ignoring, as much as possible, the devastation to my body and psyche. Yet the path of forgetting and ignoring is fraught with difficulties; the way of assimilation or “passing” is thorny. The normative prescription offers the possibility of inclusion, yet to follow that road is to participate in a collective act of erasure, to become invisible, and thus lose Self.

Every human being comes to a place where s/he is vulnerable; each of us eventually faces the treat of erasure and the powerful emotions that accompany that threat. In a culture addicted to perfection, and dismissive of difference and need, such moments carry added fear and shame. How odd such an essentially human experience is marginalized, leaving so many to face the North filled with loneliness and dread.

As a society we increasingly relegate the task of accompanying folks on the journey through the North to the health care profession and the clergy. As a result, we have marginalized the insight and wisdom that may accompany disability, experiences of trauma, and aging.  In doing so we create great suffering for the very young we profess to idolize, for we deny them context. How are they, in the face of ceaseless messages about the centrality of competition and perfection, to know they are all loveable, all sacred, beautiful, and desirable in their humanness and imperfections?

Our collective focus on perfection sells products and drives our economy, yet blinds us to the fate of our neighbors and the world. Our deeply held collective desire for safety encourages us to abandon our elders, young people, and children, threatens our very being as a species, and steals our Souls. Still, as prophesy insists, we have options. We can risk relearning the wisdom of the elders, symbolized by the Medicine Wheel, accept the complexity and terror of being human, and journey together into a Sixth World. There are, if we make it so, seats for all at the table.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part One

Snowy-MorningEditor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part piece on Perfectionism originally posted on Dreaming the World. Part II will post here tomorrow.

I am an elder, and as such I am given the task of teaching and supporting the young. On the Medicine Wheel of this lifetime I am in the Northwest, the place of honoring the challenges of my life, understanding them as best as I am able, and sharing what I have learned with others. Perhaps you will share your thoughts about the experiences I share below; I would greatly value that.

We, along with many others, spent a good deal of time during the past two weeks watching the Olympics. Over time we noticed, especially from NBC’s coverage, that the commentators seem to believe winning and perfection were all important. This is a sad thing. One does not have to watch much before one becomes aware the announcers are ceaselessly pointing out errors and failures. Rather than empathy for the competitors, one is barraged with demands for perfection and minute details about failure to achieve such.  There is very little celebration of the athletes who fail to meet the announcers’ or judges’ criteria.

This hits home on two fronts. The first is cultural. I was raised to appreciate the efforts of all. Winning is fun, but should not shame others. Nor should anyone be left behind after the games are over. Further, perfection was considered suspect. One was advised to build imperfection into one’s art and welcome it in one’s life. After all, we are not the Creator although we are aspects of His/Her creation. Only the Creator can be perfect, and it is likely even S/He makes mistakes; as we are reflective of the Creator this suggests that even mistakes can be good and holy. The unbridled pursuit of perfection endangers the individual and the culture, the community and the ecosystem.

The second part is I am a survivor of Bulbar Polio. My phsysiatrist says I am “a walking quad”; rather than disparaging, this is a simple statement of truth. I have severe neurological injuries; Polio destroyed motor neurons all over my body. My arms and hands have considerably diminished capacity; my legs and feet lack strength and mobility; breathing can be a challenge. I am not perfect by the dominant culture’s standards.

Add to this my Native American heritage and the soup becomes thick indeed. I once heard a man, who understandably thought he was with other Europeans, say something like,  “There is nothing more pathetic than a disabled Indian.”  What are we to do with that? Indeed, what are we to do with NBC’s virtual silence on the topic of the Para-Olympics?

Herein lies the difficulty. One one hand I was encouraged to accept  and honor imperfections. On the other, as a Polio survivor I was taught to do my level best to pass as normal, to overcome limitations, and to forget my illness and its  aftermath. Additionally, as a child in a Native family that was actively passing, I was taught to be invisible, a lesson that surely applied to Polio as well.

It is a profound challenge to resist the limiting messages of our families and the dehumanizing ones of the dominant culture. I have done my best, yet I have also spent much of my life seeking to achieve others’ views of perfection, even though not even normalcy was not an option.This has been painful.

I don’t know whether you have ever thought about the Wounded Healer.  In Traditional cultures ill youngsters are often expected, should they recover, to become healers. I use the term “recovery” loosely. Youngsters who face and survive catastrophic illness may not have the same physical capacities as their normative friends. Yet their illness may also give them abilities and insights not readily available to others. When the child is ill the healers do their best to aid. They also seek to discern the nature of the illness; often such illness are understood to be calls from the spirits, initiations into the realm of healers. When there is a spirit call, training in the healing arts accompanies recovery. The illness frequently leaves a footprint in the life and work of the survivor; he or she becomes a wounded healer, knowledgeable about many of the territories and challenges that accompany illness.

This is a different model than the academic learning focus of the West. Of course, the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may intersect, even overlap at times. Both address the needs of the body. Some Western trained healers have adopted the Indigenous understanding that the soul and psyche must also be attended to.  (Milton Erickson, although not to my knowledge Indian, comes to mind as someone who walked both roads well.)

I have come to this point on the Medicine Wheel by living my life from within this severely injured body. This is a sharp contrast to the physically perfection of elite Olympic athletes, or the health and wealth gurus we see on PBS and on innumerable infomercials. The television sages convey the message to us that illness, poverty, loneliness, and all other forms of suffering are moral failures. They do not speak this directly, rather they hold up their carefully managed perfection as a mirror to our human frailties. They offer advice, even salvation; for a fee we can be just like them. But I, and many others, cannot.  The very lifestyles they espouse harm us, and endanger our precious planetary ecosystem and all that lives therein. Where, I wonder is their wisdom and compassion?

We approach the Spring, the East in the Abenaki view of the Medicine Wheel, the place of rebirth and awakening. I am curious how my changing understanding of this beloved, traumatized body will blossom in the coming year.  I wonder whether our culture can set aside the deeply held values of independence, competition, and perfectionism that shaped the  our country (the very ones espoused by those television commentators). Can we own our imperfections, and acknowledge the harm we have inflicted on ourselves and so many others, inside and outside our country? Can we embrace those who suffer illness, poverty, displacement, abuse, or isolation?

As we follow the journey of the sun into the East, we are invited to begin again, to open our eyes and practice compassion and understanding. May we  find the courage to do so.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2014, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Edge of America

Winter-TwilightThe days are lengthening; the intense cold of the winter thus far has receded for the time being. Overnight a light snow fell, fluffy and bright, the form of snow that arrives with temperatures in the upper 20’s.

Yesterday a Six Nations friend dropped by with a film, Edge of America. I’ve been stuck at home for the past week, following some surgery, and I was beginning to feel a touch of cabin fever. I had managed to go the the university library for 45 minutes and out for a quick cup of coffee earlier in the week, but mostly I have been sleeping and reading.

I had missed the film when it played in the theaters here briefly several years ago. Then, as has been my habit for a number of years, I never got around to borrowing a copy. The plot is pretty basic. A Black man arrives to teach English on the Res, revives the high school women’s’ basketball team (they have not won a game in years), finds a home, and creates the conditions for a good deal of much needed healing. On the road to redemption he tramples all over his team, his friends, the local medicine woman, and his spirit. I sure could relate!

Watching the film I was carried back to my middle school days in rural Illinois where the world turns around basketball and agriculture. I was the manager of the basketball team; when I was in eight grade we won the state tourney in double overtime. The women of our film lose in the state finals (in double overtime) to a team that is racist and represented the very worst of the dominant culture. None-the-less, our heroines are greeted on their return home by the entire Res community. The view of people and vehicles lining the highway brought a flood of memories. (Somewhere I have a memorial book that includes photos of the victory parade. The other team had one, too.)

Just before the team arrives home they have a conversation about winning and losing. They are bitterly disappointed, working hard to resist recriminations. They have lost sight of just how much they have accomplished. The community, however, remembers and reminds them. They are winners.

They are also women. Most of our Indian cultures are women centered; healing arises from the strength and wisdom of women, just as life arose from the sacrifices of Falling Woman. We men are definitely the weaker gender. (Then there are the two-spirits but that is another story.)

Edge of America addresses the hard parts of life on and off the Res: alcohol, violence, poverty, and crushing racism, drawing connections between Indian and Black experience. It also explores the inevitable tension between the healer’s need to remain traditional while nurturing the future. And yes, there is a strong undercurrent of good old Indian spirituality. (There is a priceless scene in which the medicine woman (whose daughter plays for the team) and her friends, are listening to the women’s game on their transistor radio, in a beautiful, spacious, hogan far from anywhere. One of the players has been “witched”, has required a healing ceremony, and now must make crucial free throws. The healer switches from rambunctious fan to medicine person, does what is needed, and returns to fandom, all in maybe 20 seconds.)

So there we sat, two light skinned male Indians who have never lived anywhere close to the Res. We are well in to our sixties, reasonably affluent, over-educated urban professionals. We’re laughing, crying, and hooting for the good guys. (I remember as a kid wanting to be a cowboy so I could win occasionally.) We are also noting the racism and just plain viciousness coming from all the guys: Indian, White, and Black. No holds barred there. At the film’s conclusion I am choked with emotion.

I believe that at the very heart of human experience lies story. Sitting in my living room, wrapped in my electric blanket, gazing at the TV screen, I was blessed to be told a remarkably good story. In the process I was reminded that together a good friend, a community, and a great tale can be remarkably healing. Last night my dreams carried that notion forward. In my dreams the spirits and Ancestors came to remind me that these things are good to live and good to think about. They are indeed profoundly healing.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Beyond Godot

Winter TreeI first encountered Kandinski’s Concerning The Spiritual In Art while in college. While I did not necessarily experience his sense of the mystical nature of line and color, I did share, in my way, his passionate hope that art could be a vehicle for spirituality and social change. Over the years those ideas have informed my visual and performance work.

Although I no longer perform often, I continue to think about issues of theatre and performance. At the center of my theorizing, aesthetics meets concerns about ethnicity, race, class, gender and disability. In all my years of university training (BFA, two MA’s, and a Ph.D.) discussions of the power relationships inherent in aesthetic standards rarely arose. I venture to say that they never arose in my arts courses. Even those anthropology and psychology courses devoted to consideration of race, class, or gender largely ignored aesthetics as culturally mediated. Now I routinely explore the cultural construction of aesthetics with students in my courses, although they are not always comfortable with the material.

Recently I have been engaged in discussions about the societal and political dimensions of aesthetics with a variety of performance practitioners. These folks tend to land in one of three groups: teacher/artists, performance venue administrators, or performer/directors. Clearly, these categories frequently overlap, yet they remain useful. When in conversations with performer/directors I find we can usually comfortably discuss integrating persons of diverse races/ethnicities and genders into troupes, as long as the performers share an aesthetic. Perhaps not surprisingly in our present economic climate, they seem more concerned with audience than inclusion. Often, this means that performers are excluded based on disability or class. (Interestingly, some performance space administrators seem more interested in the narrative and performative power of pieces, and book innovative, inclusive companies, seek out audiences.)

Disability becomes an issue when performers bring physical or cognitive challenges to theatre. Performance making requires the creation of narrative structure if the piece is to convey meaning. The director shapes the narrative, and in so doing privileges some aesthetic choices over others. (The performance space can also shape the narrative; many stages are inaccessible!) The result is either more, or less, inclusive of both performers and audience members. (One may argue that the history of the Avante Guard, in which I was trained and participate, is one of theorizing inclusion while establishing ever more restrictive cultural elites.) Generally, directors seem to feel more comfortable making accommodations for performers who contribute to the director’s formal choices, rather than building performance around the considerable skills of the disabled, or other performers who demonstrate difference. This is understandable, yet problematic. After all, performance is about storytelling, and aesthetic choices inevitably convey the subtext for the director’s (and often the culture’s/society’s) preferred narrative. Exclusion is inevitable and it matters.

An example of  the exclusionary capacities of aesthetics took place in New Orleans a couple of years ago when a famous director from the Northeast brought his version of Waiting for Godot to town, ostensibly to make a statement about the plight of local people immediately following Katrina. Godot is a centerpiece of the Western theatre cannon, and the play in question was greeted with much critical applause. Yet the commentary about the play largely ignored the conditions of the performances. One of my acquaintances, a theatre person from the Big Easy, critiqued the play thus (my paraphrase) : “The piece sold out the Dome, but there were almost no people of color inside. Many people of color and local theater and performance artists were in the lobby trying to purchase tickets. It was embarrassing. On top of that, the play is about doing nothing, about futility. Here in New Orleans people were active after the storm, trying to help one another. We still are. Neither the media nor the play showed that. Local theatre people here have made a lot of performances showing the bravery and generosity of the people here during and after the storm, but those performances get little attention in the national media. Yet the production of Godot was in all the national media.”

Clearly the Avante Guard’s use of social engagement can be highly problematic, especially when performance is done for (some say “to”) culturally specific audiences, for instance, the New Orleans experience of Godot. Or consider a group of non-disabled actors creating and performing a show with disability themes to an audience of disabled persons. Let’s say many of  the stories utilized to create the performance had been gleaned from persons who were now in the audience. When asked why there are no disabled performers, the director responds, “We could find no disabled performers who could this physically demanding piece.” The performance may have been visually stunning and spiritually uplifting, but also conveyed a strong message of inaccessibility. The medium is, ultimately, the message. (Interestingly, in the Eighties, Bill T. Jones was harshly criticized for including persons with life threatening illnesses in his performances of Still Here, even thought those participants publicly praised Bill and spoke about the work as life changing.)

I’ve been exploring spirituality in the arts, and issues of inclusion and aesthetics since the 1960’s. There are now many people of color, disabled artists, and folks across a diversity of classes, ethnicities, and genders thinking, speaking, and writing about cultural coding in performance. That’s good; we need those voices. Many of those folks are making art that arises out of their thoughtful exploration of these issues. Often, these works are filled with spirit. I like to think we are, like the good folks of New Orleans, no longer waiting for Monsieur Godot.

Next time you attend a theatre or other performance event, consider paying attention to the cultural codes being enacted. What are the values implicit and explicit in the piece? Whose on stage and who isn’t? What description of reality is given preference? Are you invited to drink deeply from the well of Spirit? I hope you’ll let me know what you discover.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Emergent Universe Oratorio Blues

Breeding Barn, Shelburne at FarmsRecently we traveled down to Shelburne Farms for the world premiere of the Emergent Universe Oratorio, composed by Sam Guarnaccia.  The Oratorio is a work that re-imagines the dominant culture’s physics-based creation narrative, and seeks to universalize the story. Before the Oratorio we were treated to the soulful playing of Eugene Friesen, of Paul Winter Consort fame. New Paintings, created for the event,by our friend, the marvelous artist, Cameron Davis, graced the walls in the remarkable, “cathedral-like” Breeding Barn.

Just prior to the performance, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, Co-Directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, and whose film of the same title was the inspiration for the oratorio, spoke. They acknowledged, and expressed appreciation for, Indigenous friends and adopted family. (No Indigenous people spoke.) They then spoke about a vision they hold, in which all of the Earth’s people have one creation story, a story that leads us to an Earthly paradise.

The Oratorio draws on texts from many Western traditions, but appears to include no Indigenous authors. This is problematic and, unfortunately, common in the Deep Ecology world. ( I have been reviewing Ecopsychology texts in preparation for teaching and have noticed a paucity of Indigenous voices, even in texts published this year.)

Of more concern is the notion that any narrative should be the ONLY narrative. This is an idea Indigenous people know well, whether presented in the guise of religious or economic dogma. The very idea of a universal point of view is imperial and colonizing, and alien to Native American cultures. We have many creation stories, each loved and valued.

I was feeling rather blue as I read the text and listened to the lovely melodies of the oratorio. I imagined myself to be the only one in the audience of hundreds who was discomforted. Then intermission came and others stopped by to share their concerns. As so often happens following such events, the concert has remained a topic of conversation at our house.

A few days ago I was having coffee with a Six Nations friend. Out of the blue he looked me in the eye and said, “I am so appreciative of time with you. It’s such a relief to not have to explain myself.” When I asked what he meant, he replied that I understood his struggles and, although we are from different tribal backgrounds, we share a similar ethos. Sometimes I forget how wide the divide between cultures can be in one geographically defined country. To be reminded, as I was at the concert, of the chasm we cross daily can be painful indeed.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Simply Ceremony

We have been working on the Fall calendar for JourneyWorks, and ceremony has a prime place in the schedule. A couple of days ago Jennie noted that we have been a bit lax in doing ceremony since our experience with the crow.  Last week I found myself in discussions with different folks about what constitutes ceremony. Maybe the persistent presence of ceremony in our conversations explains why I awoke this morning thinking about it.

Maine mushroomsWe all have ideas about ceremony. A couple of years ago a couple attended our Day of the Dead ceremony. At the end of the evening they said, “We didn’t expect the evening to be so Indian.” I don’t really know what they meant; perhaps they were expecting something more Latin. Other people have asked me about sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, neither of which I am trained to do. I’ve noticed many folks seem to equate ceremony with the ceremonial traditions of Plains and Southwestern peoples. That makes sense as those are very powerful traditions that are well documented.

We do ceremony that arises from shamanic training. Usually it is pretty straightforward. We light a fire, acknowledge the Directions, and request the presence of the Creator, Ancestors and spirits. We offer food, water, and tobacco, and light sage. Often we drum and journey. We give thanks for our lives and the bounty of the land, ask for healing for those who wish it, and close the altar, expressing gratitude to all who have participated. The altar is simple: a crystal or two, a few stones, flowers, and the other offerings. After the ceremony those present share food, stories, and dreams. It’s simple.

One of my teachers used to say that all that is really needed to create an altar is a single leaf from a supportive tree. Maybe the more elaborate ceremonies we humans create are simply extensions of that elemental altar and the relationships with ALL That Is the altar represents. After all, the altar is just a simple, sacred map of our relatedness to all of Creation, a reminder that we belong.

A decade or so ago I found myself in a cave in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. My teachers had told us the cave had been a place of ceremony for 20,000 years. They lit a candle, started some incense sticks, invoked the Directions and spirits of place, sang a couple of songs, said a prayer, and we were done. The ceremony took maybe ten minutes, yet more than ten years have passed and I’m still thinking and writing about it.

Jennie and I also do ceremony reflective of her Jewish roots and Buddhist training, and my Christian upbringing. Most of those ceremonies are also brief, although there are a few that are not. I remember those same teachers expressing confusion when asked about the conflict between their shamanism and their Catholicism. They simply do not experience any discord or conflict between the two traditions, nor do they understand the traditions to differ. They would probably say that after 500 years of intermarriage, it’s all good.

As we prepare for our very active Fall schedule, it is pleasing to reflect on ceremony. Ceremony is, after all, at the core of healing, and central to the work we do. It is, indeed, good.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

The Equinox and the Medicine Wheel

Early Autumn color, Vermont

Editorial note: My apologies to readers and to Michael for not scheduling this in sooner. An oversight on my part. J.D.

This is a reblog of a recent post to Dreaming The World.

This week marks the Autumn Equinox. The Equinoxes and other aspects of the calendar round are markers made by people; we need markers to make sense of our lives, to place ourselves in relationship to All That Is. Sometimes we forget the markers are of our creation, and we imagine they hold intrinsic meaning, rather than the meanings we assign them. This is a dangerous assumption as it tempts us to believe there is only one story, and it is true for all people, everywhere. Such thinking always causes great suffering.

Next week, in class, our friend, Alicia Daniel, is leading us in the creation and exploration of a Medicine Wheel. Alecia allows participants to explore, and assign values to, the directions.Given the freedom to make meaning opens the students to Mystery and Wonder. Not surprisingly, the values discovered by students often resemble the attributes assigned the directions by the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years.

I usually teach the Medicine Wheel using attributes for the directions as I have been taught them by teachers from the Northeast, where we live. While there are small differences between tribal, even band, understandings of the directions, the general framework holds firm. As I understand it: The East is the place of birth and death, sunrise, spring, mentation, air, and all beings who fly. The South is home to fire, warm bloodeds, and the plants. It is the place of healing, noon time, and high summer. It is the direction of physicality, and in some traditions, sexuality. The West is home to water, dreaming, evening, and autumn. It is the place of responsibility and parenting, and of the Dream Time. The North is the home of the Ancestors and the rock people, the place of winter and night, the direction of clearly seeing the big picture, of vision. We journey sun-wise around the wheel, returning to the east to die and be reborn.

My Lakota kin likely say we are born and die in the West. That makes sense to them, where they live. The Medicine Wheel is a teaching about our locale and inner worlds, telling us much about local ecology, culture, and understanding of self. Wherever we are the Medicine Wheel speaks to us of our life journey, a road we share with the people and other beings who comprise the community in which we live.

In Western culture the wheel has a bad rap. Rather than a map for living a joyful, fulfilling life, it is often emblematic of being caged, or of soul killing work. In the East it may be something to be escaped. Yet, in Indigenous cultures around the world the wheel remains a powerful symbol for relationship, connection, and the good life.

This week we take a few minutes to acknowledge the Medicine Wheel that is our calendar year. We will express gratitude to Father Sun, and acknowledge Grandmother Water. Without them we would not have life. It is good to do this, and to have the opportunity to do so openly, for we remember the times, some quite recent, when we could not do so.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

The Crow

A few weeks ago we posted a Facebook video about a raven asking people for aid. The raven had encountered a porcupine and had quills embedded in its face. A couple of weeks later, we returned from our time in Maine to discover a severely injured a crow (close cousin to the Raven) in our back yard. Neighbors informed us the crow had slowly, with great intent, worked its way from the woods to our yard.

Beach Roses, MaineThe crow appeared to have a broken wing and was having difficulty standing. Upon closer inspection we discovered its foot was caught in a vine. The crow allowed me to release the trapped foot which appeared to help a little. We then offer the bird food and water, which it mostly ignored; it seemed to welcome a little gentle stroking. We then made phone calls. A former bird rehabilitator suggested we provide a box for shelter for the night as rain threatened. We then waited to hear from the crow specialist.

Yesterday morning the crow was still in our yard. Jennie took a neighbor’s advice and offered it some hard-boiled egg. The crow ate a very small portion. It seemed to be in pain so we talked over next steps, carefully weighing our options. Then the rehibilitator called; he could not make it to our house till evening, but suggested we place the crow in a cat carrier to keep it safe until he arrived. I carefully lifted the bird into the carrier and the crow fell on its side. We removed the bird briefly and placed some rags in the base of the carrier to offer some cushioning. When we returned the very large crow to the carrier we realized the bird, given the broken wing, was too large for it. We also realized the bird was not likely to survive, and after consulting the crow specialist, decided to take it to a vet to be put down.

I lifted it once more and placed it in a large recycling tub. As I was about to put the tub in the car, the crow looked me squarely in the eye, squawked loudly three times, and died. My strong impression was that the crow was expressing appreciation for our efforts, and probably chastising us a little for causing it pain. Anthropomorphizing? One had to be there.

We carefully buried the crow, performing ceremony for it. We had seen no other crows since our return, a strange absence given their frequenting of our yard and woods, and the presence of an injured member of the flock. We wondered whether the visiting crow had been ostracized by the flock. During the burial and ceremony I heard a solitary squawk from far away.

We were left with great sadness that we had, in our efforts to aid, caused the crow suffering, yet gratitude the crow had come to us. Today the sadness lingers. We are reminded of Crow’s large spirit, great intelligence and keen intent. We wish this crow a speedy and safe journey into the spirit world.

Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Lessons From The Seer of Lublin

Autumn Colors, Nova ScotiaLast night we went to the synagogue for a healing service and to recite selichot in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. During the service one of the Rabbis told a story about the Seer of Lublin, a Hasidic Master who lived from 1745 to 1815.

Briefly the tale is this. A Hasid travels some distance to see The Seer who looks at him and tells him that since he (the visitor) is to die that night, he should go to a hotel in a nearby village to do so. The Seer explains that as it is the Sabbath a dead body in his house would create enormous problems. The man dutifully sets off for the village, only to meet a cart filled with Hasidim on their way into Lublin to spend the Sabbath with The Seer. They ask him why he is going in the WRONG DIRECTION, and he explains that the Rabbi has sent him away to die. The Hasidim respond that if he is to die he should certainly come with them so as not to die alone. He climbs into the cart and they set off for the city. Soon the men ask our tired journeyer, seeing as he obviously has money, to buy spirits to keep them happy and warm on the trip. He complies and soon all are happily singing and swapping tales. As they travel towards the city our Hasid is heaped with praise, blessings, and hopes for a long a prosperous life. When finally the crew arrives back at the Rabbi’s house, the Rabbi looks at our traveler and says, “Oh, you are indeed lucky. The blessings of your fellows have warded off Death.” It is said the man lived well for several more years.

Having told the tale, the Rabbi spoke to the power of blessing. She assured us she was not convinced blessing another has power in itself, and express concern about magical thinking. She was more certain that gathering in community opens the door to healing. She also spoke about what she saw as shamanic elements in the story. I have long considered the best Hasidic Rebbes to be shamans. Indeed, in many texts The Seer is portrayed as a great shaman, as are many of the best Hasidic Rebbes. After all, he can see the future, determine whether something is fated, and utilize whatever wiggle room is available to aid the members of his extended community to a different fate.

Today I’ve been thinking about the story, as well as the service. It seems to me The Seer saw a way to awaken the Wise Healer within the traveler. Perhaps he knew the man would meet fellow Hasids on their way into town, as The Seer’s congregation was far-flung, yet united in the task of reaching the Rabbi’s home before darkness and the beginning of the Sabbath. Maybe he felt secure in the likelihood his congregants would never let a fellow Hasid die alone.  Maybe he, like the founder of Hasidism, The Baal Shen Tov, could, through the good graces of All That Is, intervene directly in the man’s fate. We do not know, and that, too, is part of the mystery and the story.

So this evening we begin the Jewish High Holy Days, the time of remembrance, atonement, and forgiveness, a time we are invited to thoughtfully consider our individual and communal lives. Although I am not Jewish, the rest of our household is, and over the years this time of year has become dear to me. Like the Rabbi I, too, have doubts about magical thinking. Yet, I also believe in the power of compassion, prayer, and joy to awaken the Healer Within persons and communities. Luckily, we have these stories, arising from many traditions, to remind us of our connection to the Creator, one another, and the larger world.

Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Accesibility and the Dharma or The Pitfalls of Cherry Floors

Vermont Zen CenterA few weeks ago we attended the 25th Anniversary Celebration at the our local zen center. The day was splendid, and the ceremonies moving.

I have had a rather rocky relationship with the Zen Center due to issues of accessibility. Sometimes the Center has been very accommodating, other times attending functions there has been a challenge. Visits go best when I remember to bring my own slippers. Unfortunately, on the day of the Anniversary Celebration my slippers were at the office and I forgot to stop and pick them up.

The Zen Center has beautiful, very slippery, cherry floors, and I do best there when I can keep my brace and shoes on. For the celebration the staff of the center provided surgical slippers to those of us who need to keep shoes on. Unfortunately, the surgical slippers proved to be very slippery, and I had difficulty keeping my balance even with crutches. After the formal ceremony we left the Center building to attend a Taiko performance outside. When others returned to the building to listen to a storytelling performance I chose to remain safely outside.

During lunch I spoke about accessibility issues with some of the Zen Center staff. The gist of the conversation was that the Zen Center policy places protecting the cherry floors above providing accessibility for disabled visitors and members. It also became clear the policy is a source of discomfort within the center.

Since the celebration I’ve been wondering about the tension between the lack of access at the center for us folks with mobility issues, and the Buddha’s insistence on making the Dharma and Sangha available to all. I also wonder how it could be that in a structure so lovingly designed and built there could be so little attention to accessibility.

Very much like the monks in one of my favorite zen stories, I’ve crossed that river but seem unable to put this one down.

Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Ceremony and the Raven

Evening, Lake ChamplainThis morning we put aside our frustration and despair and spoke with the land and spirits. The mosquitoes, which had been fierce, quieted their attack, and even the birds calling stopped to listen. We like to open the altar outside whenever the weather allows, but of late have not had the heart to do so. The last time we opened the altar was the only time all summer we have heard the calls of the Hermit Thrush.

We awoke feeling sad and angry. The news on the racial, social, and climate fronts has been heartbreaking. We’ve been feeling overwhelmed, unable to see how we might contribute significantly to much-needed change. We’ve also been asked to aid others who are thinking they should do more than they possibly can. We remind others to do only what they are able. As we do so we remind our many selves to do the same, even as some selves feel frightened and desperate for change.

In the brief ceremony we spoke to the Creator, Pachamama, and the spirits about our gratitude for our lives and our concerns for the present and future. We acknowledged we humans are not caring for the futures of our grandchildren, let alone those of all species who will follow us in seven generations. This is a great sadness.

After the ceremony we came in to respond to e-mail and do other tasks. Online, we discovered a brief video posted to Facebook. In the video, a wild raven, perched on a fence, allows a woman to remove porcupine quills from its face. After each quill is removed, the raven squawks and complains, then allows the woman to soothe it and remove the next quill. How familiar!   (Watch video.)

Watching the video, we were once again reminded that ravens are immensely intelligent creatures, that humans are not the only ones who seek aid from others, and that all life forms are profoundly interconnected, in life as in story. We were also reminded that small things, even removing quills from an injured animal, can be powerful ceremony, and profoundly healing to those in an ever-widening circle.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes portrait below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

Working With the Spirits

Shrine, Chennai, India

Eight years ago we purchased a dilapidated cottage, took it down to studs, and with the aid of a brilliant contractor, built a wonderful home. Since then we have developed much-loved gardens on our small plot of urban land.

As the late effects of Polio have become more challenging for me to manage, Jennie has become the tender of those beds. We both care deeply about the garden’s well-being, but much of my limited energy is needed for our healing and teaching work. I am grateful to Jennie for reminding me that healing and teaching are also forms of gardening, other ways of working with spirit.

In the seven years we have lived in our home we’ve been quietly working with the spirits of the land. This is a tad challenging as we live in a residential neighborhood and all ceremony is public. My teachers always said one should be polite, humble, and do ceremony anyway. This simple advice turns out to be remarkably complex in practice.

The spirits of the land are often profoundly responsive to gratitude and ceremony. One evening during our most recent Asia trip we were asked to do a simple traditional shamanic ceremony for a group of college students. This was to be a simple show-and-tell, yet, as sometimes happens, the ceremony took on a momentum of its own, becoming profoundly moving and healing for all present.

When we returned home to Vermont we told our friend and colleague, Julie Soquet, about the experience. Julie listened to our story, considered it for a moment, then said, “The spirits of the land must be really alive and receptive there.”  I was stunned by her naming of the missed obvious. Local gods and spirits are routinely honored in both India and Hong Kong, and Jennie and I had spoken after the ceremony about how we felt the presence, support, and appreciation of the spirits. (There was an active shrine directly across the street from where we were conducting the ceremony.)

The other night, in dream, I was reminded we are loaned our bodies for our stay here on Pachamama. Our bodies are sacred; they are Medicine bundles. At the end of our lives we give our bodies back to the Earth. Pachamama asks that we grow the spirit and power of these bundles, so that when we return them they benefit Her and all beings. In the dream I was asked simply to keep this in mind as I made my way through what remains of my walk here. There were no other instructions, no “shoulds”, no “musts”. Expressing gratitude to the myriad beings who make our lives possible is part of that way of walking and gardening. I wonder how these simple, profound truths will enter into our work.

Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes portrait below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.