Posted in Culture/History, Essay, Mental Health, Michael Watson, Nature, Shamanism, Spiritual Practice

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.

Posted in Buddhism, Fiction, Michael Watson, Shamanism

A Force of Nature

Winooski RiverThe waters are rising. We have had many days of rain the past couple of months and the rivers are running high, many in flood. Here on the western flank of Vermont rain falls in the mountains and tumbles through rocky streams to the rivers, then into the lake. We are told the water is too cold, high, and fast for swimming, yet people, refusing to honor the Nature of the torrent, go swimming, often creating unhappy outcomes.

We are each a force of Nature, although we tend to forget this, individually and collectively. We seem to easily lose connection with the great powers that lie embodied within us, ignoring the joys and dangers they offer. It is so very easy to identify with mind or brawn, money and might, missing the deep connection implicit in recognizing one’s own Nature. Or perhaps we lose any connection to the force of our Nature, imagining we are powerless or fearful of the energies we intuit within us.

Power is a loaded word, drenched in the abuses ingrained in our various forms of governance, education, and sadly, even family and community. Too often power is power over rather than power with or through. Yet the shamans have always taught that we are each, like the raging river, a force to be honored and reckoned with. Shamanism, like zen, opens doorways to the realization of one’s true Nature. Dare we walk through?

© 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.

Posted in Essay, Michael Watson, Peace & Justice, Uncategorized

Life in the Bardo

Waterbury, VT, ParadeI just returned from purchasing a new computer monitor. Last night, my two-year-old monitor suddenly malfunctioned. When I went to the store this morning, the associate with whom I spoke said she thought the life expectancy of new monitors might be about a year. Expensive and time-consuming.

Last week a colleague attended a national conference in Seattle. This gathering of psychotherapists moves about the country from year to year. The Seattle conference was immense, forming a forum for many hundreds of therapists. It also took place in a part of the country with a large and obvious Native presence, yet seemingly made no attempt to include, or even acknowledge, Seattle’s diverse Native community.

During a workshop towards the end of the conference my colleague spoke to the absence of a Native presence at the conference. After the workshop, a woman came up and thanked her for speaking up, explaining she was Native and had been deeply disturbed by the notable absence of her community. (Tibetan monks had been invited to build a sand painting during the conference.) She was also aware of her light skin color,and fearful her whiteness might disqualify her from speaking, at least in the eyes of her fellow conference participants.

Also, last week the latest film version of The Lone Ranger came out. As you may know, Johnny Depp stars as a very wise Tonto, who just happens to wear a stuffed bird on his hat, an oblique reference to the imagined Native. A couple of day’s ago a panel gathered to chat about the film on NPR’s On Point. A young Native woman who blogs at Native Appropriations was also invited on briefly critique the film. Sadly, the non-Native reviewers, even with a bit of Native guidance, simply failed to understand why the film might be offensive. I invite you to read Adrienne K.’s comments at Native Appropriations for a detailed critique of the stereotyping and racism inherent in the film.

Finally, Thursday was the Fourth of July. For me there are three highly problematic holidays in the U.S. calendar: July Fourth, Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving. Each celebrates, in some way, the theft of our land and the genocide, physical and cultural, against our people. On the Fourth our family usually attends a small town parade, and always we look forward to the evening fireworks. Small town celebrations are all about the local, although even here in Progressive Vermont, there may be no mention of the several Native tribes that lived here prior to the arrival of Europeans, descendents of who still call Vermont home. I guess acknowledging Native people opens up to many uncomfortable questions concerning genocide, appropriation, and land claims.

As a light-skinned Native person I wrestle with questions of identity. I also, in my elderhood, am likely to speak my mind about issues anyway, although most of the time no one seems to be truly listening. One of my friends, an aged Cree medicine woman who stands just about five feet tall, sometimes wanders around carrying a large hunting rifle, “To get people’s attention.” Sometimes I despair.

Locally we have developed what amounts to a Buddhist/Native dialog. We’ve discovered we agree about most things. For instance, there is a lovely idea in Pure Land Buddhism and in some Native thought that we are already in Paradise and simply don’t recognize it or act accordingly. Rather, we seem to be caught up in the Bardo, spinning endless fantasies derived from fear, greed, and anger.

Life in the Bardo is challenging. We seem to be sinking in a sea of expensive, poorly made, often essential, material goods that break all too often. We go about trying to find distraction or release and fail to notice or acknowledge the suffering created and continued by our actions and those of the folks who came before. In the process, we cause more harm even though we might wish otherwise. No wonder the Prophets from many traditions tell us to wake up. I imagine paying heed to our lives might in the end be less painful than the road we are collectively on now; maybe we could even create the conditions for fine lives and rebirths. Now that is a good Dreaming.

– 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.

Posted in Essay, Michael Watson

To Err is Human

Window ViewThis morning I was driving home from one of our favorite bakeries via a well trodden, quietly residential route, one I have walked and driven for more than thirty years. I was lost in thought and focused on the many speed bumps that inhabit that street. I was thinking that the latte had been suburb, and the new pastry way too sweet and most likely going to suppress my immune system for hours. Suddenly I was aware I had run a stop light; seemingly the light had sprung up overnight in the middle of a block.

The light is long overdue and should aid elementary school students cross the sometimes busy street in route to their school. Yet, motorists are not warned of a new light, and the light itself is partially obscured by overhanging branches. (Often the city puts up warning signs for motorists approaching new stop signs and lights.) The light seems an excellent example of a well conceived project inadequately implemented.

I missed the light, in part, because, as I drove down the empty street  I was thinking about writing a post for this blog. Familiarity with the way, and a downward sighted focus on the speed bumps added to the problem. Yet, ultimately, I was a distracted driver and I drove through a red light. Clearly, my responsibility.

I imagine that most of us are doing our best to be kind and attentive to the needs and demands of life. We imagine we have things under control, forgetting our attention is divided, and the ease with which mistakes occur. How often our attention fails and we miss whatever might be important in the moment. How frequently do we become angry with others for doing the same?

Here is a paradox: maybe we take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps we would be happier were we to substitute humor for anger, playful reconsideration for aggression. Humor and playfulness support our presence in the moment and encourage us to forgive one another and ourselves for our misses.  Yes, driving is crucial business, requiring all our facilities and best judgement. Many other tasks are also decidedly important, demanding seriousness of purpose and focus. Yet, we are going to err. Most of the time a bit of laughter is more supportive of learning than is self criticism. A light heart seems to aid the brain in becoming more skillful.

The fretful side of me wonders what other hazards lurk in the midst of well trodden, usually safe paths. Those voices urge focus and attention, reminding me of the real consequences of grave mistakes. Other voices remind me few mistakes are truly harmful. They encourage breath and play, humor as well as focus. Both points of view are important in a world of hazards. I’m wondering where the balance between them lies. What do you think?

– Michael Watson

© 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.

Posted in Essay, Michael Watson

Troubling the Post-Tribal

On hte BridgeRecently, I found myself in conversation with a diverse group of alternatively oriented, North American,  health care providers, some of whom integrate shamanic practices into their work. As often happens, talk turned to our various efforts to situate ourselves in the broader cultural framework. Inevitably, this proves a thorny conversation.

Identity issues cut deep, exposing the painful questions underlying the increasingly tenuous fabric of Self. When engaged in conversations about our fundamental beliefs about Self we may find ourselves asking: “Who am I? What claims may I make about my experience of Me-ness? In a world that appropriates and commodities everything, how do I understand and situate Self?”

Speaking with my colleagues I was reminded that conversations about traditional modes of living and healing generate additional anxiety. Ethical questions abound: “What constitutes appropriation? Given we learn to be adults through acts of appropriation, what may we respectfully borrow from others? Does our use of another’s knowledge diminish the other? “

My colleagues attempted to circumvent these raw issues by positioning themselves squarely in the “Post Tribal”. At that point I stopped talking and simply listened. While I see myself as situated in the uncomfortable potential space between tribal and urban, I identify strongly with my tribal heritage. From that point of reference it seems to me the idea of Post Tribal is fraught  with problems.  The greatest of these is that it effectively erases the sovereignty and authorship of the world’s thousands of active tribal cultures. In so doing it effectively dismisses any claim to ownership of knowledge, traditions, and practices these cultures may make. The idea of the Post Tribal threatens, once again, to leave tribal people behind and alone. It borrows freely and selectively from Indigenous understanding, and uses these decontextualized bits of knowledge to strengthen the very citadel  of individuality that tribal ways of knowing challenge.  This seems, at best, disrespectful, and at worst genocidal. Either way, such attitudes inflict great harm on the souls of tribal and non-tribal people alike. There must be more heart centered ways for us to negotiate these issues.

Most of my teachers walked the “Soft Path,” the way of the Heart. On this path we are encouraged to balance mind and heart, and to be courageous warriors of the Spirit. We are advised to wrestle lovingly with difficult questions and the challenges of our time. Yet we are also to stand up to tyranny in all its forms. From the place of the Tribal Heart, we can understand that in a world of eight billion people most of us will not live on the land, in tribal communities. That must not stop us from acknowledging and honoring diverse knowledges and ways of living, no matter how easy it would be to do otherwise. Rather, I believe we must, if we are to survive as persons and as a species, tend the garden of diversity, protecting and nurturing the myriad forms of culture and biological life that make Earth home.

As we consider the way onward we may well ask ourselves:”How are we to hold on to the best of the traditions from which we spring? What might we ethically incorporate into our lives from the beliefs and practices of other cultures? What shared knowledge might be of real use in our turbulent times, might aid all of us in moving towards sustainable lifeways?”

The path ahead is challenging and the view is at times bleak. Yet, we do not know how that view, or the terrain, may change around the bend, or on the other side of the mountain. I imagine we are called simply do our best as we walk on. Approaching questions of Self and appropriation with deep thought and great kindness is good to practice  as we journey along together.

– Michael Watson, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC

© 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.

Posted in Buddhism, Michael Watson, Shamanism, Spiritual Practice

Spring, Ritual, and the Great Mystery

P1050397When I first began learning the ways of shamanism, more than thirty years ago, my Cherokee teacher used to speak to me about the similarities between Buddhism and Native American thinking. She was particularly fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism, and had traveled to Asia to meet with Tibetan teachers. I was intrigued, but not particularly interested in learning more. I was still trying to sort out my relationship to Native America. Adding Buddhism to the mix was quite simply beyond me.

Recently, I’ve been reading Bringing Zen Home, by Paula Kane Robinson Arai. The book is a marvelous piece of ethnographic writing examining the ways a group of Japanese women use domestic zen practices as healing tools. If one only read the early sections on ritual, the book would be a worthy purchase. Reading Arai’s words reminded me of my first teacher. I imagine she would love the book, especially the author’s focus on gratitude,  joy, kindness, and ritual as sources of connection to All That Is. She would also, I believe, deeply appreciate the discussion of Dogen, and his weaving together of form and formlessness.

This week Nature gave expression to the form/formlessness paradox. A few days ago there were buds on the trees, then in a single day, as if arising from nothing, innumerable umbrels of furled leaf and flower replaced them. The umbrels, in turn, transformed into flowers in full bloom, then immature seeds. Now the trees have largely leafed out; the entire process seemed to occur overnight, a green, fiery, big bang. Engaging Nature’s seasonal changes, we are reminded that the progression of the year is a ritual, encompassing and illuminating the patterns of Self as we unfurl, transform, and perhaps, seek rebirth. Our very lives enact, and reenact, the great patterns of the natural world.

I’ve also been reading Patrisia Gonzales’ Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing. In this volume Gonzales reminds us that human birth is another expression of the paradox. We know how pregnancy happens, yet the miracle of personhood challenges any simple reductionism. In quite a few Native traditions reincarnation is a given. One just expects those who pass on to be reborn to the family line, often announcing their intent by appearing to their prospective mother in a dream. Life and death are doors through which we pass, nothing more than state changes. Yet we do not know, ultimately, where we come from or whither we go; that remains a Great Mystery, of which we are all, innately, a part.

In their respective books Arai and Gonzales discuss ritual as serving to connect women to the Great Mystery, and in so doing, offering the possibility of an expanded perspective and healing. Their ideas echo those offered me by teachers in Native traditions from both North and South America, although rather than the term, “ritual”, my teachers often utilized “ceremony”.  As a mature practitioner, I encourage those who come to me for healing to create meaningful rituals in their daily lives, to “practice.” I also strongly advocate for ceremony. Like ritual, ceremony seeks to make evident the sacred nature of our lives, to encourage gratitude, and to embody participants in the experience of self as cosmos. When rituals and cerem0ny work, we are transported into an awareness of being part of, and supported by, All That Is. Of the two, perhaps ceremony is more social, often engaging communities in support of those seeking healing.

Reading the work of these thoughtful authors has reminded me of  my first teacher’s wisdom, insight, and clarity. Looking back those many years, I now see her efforts to broaden my perception in a new, more favorable light. I am grateful for her kindness and teachings.

– Michael Watson

© 2013, essay and all photographs include the 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.

Posted in Essay, Michael Watson

The Past Two Weeks: A View from New England

Grace Church, New Bedford, MAThis past weekend we were visiting family in southeastern Massachusetts, and decided to attend a concert by the virtuoso classical guitarist, Eliot Fisk and friends. The concert was staged in the magnificent Grace Episcopal Church in New Bedford. As we listened to music ranging over several centuries, I found my mind wandering far and wide.

Earlier in the day we had received a phone call from a woman who had run the Boston Marathon and now was preparing for another. She was feeling fearful and becoming increasingly hesitant to run. Could she come in and speak to one of us, maybe get some help sorting out her anxiety? We set a time to meet and went on with our day.

The prior couple of weeks had been quite difficult. We have family and adult children living, or going to school, in Boston. On the day of the Boston Marathon I went in to work as usual. Late in the day a client came in and told me his wife had called and said there had been a bombing at the Marathon. We turned on the office computer and looked at the news feed. At that point, there was a fire at the Kennedy Library as well as reports of possible new bomb blasts, and rumors that additional devices had been found. I explained to my client I have family in Boston, picked up the phone, and called home. Everyone was safe and accounted for. I then called my daughter who lives in the Midwest and reassured her we were all safe. Only then did we settle into the routine of our therapy session.

That session was unique in all my years of practice. I spoke about how surprised I was that I called home instead of forcing myself to wait til after the session. He spoke to feeling remorse at being the bearer of bad news. I expressed my gratitude to him for sharing the news and for being generous in allowing me to check on the safety of my family, and for simply being another human presence in a difficult moment. Together we shared our experience of living in a world where people harm one another in the service of ideology.

On Wednesday I got together with a group of old friends. Naturally, the conversation turned to the week’s events. I spoke about imagining I understood some small part of the anger and hopelessness of the two brothers accused of the bombings. I added I thought they were probably doing their best and we could detest their actions and still hold on to the brothers’ humanity. Perhaps we are all doing as we are able, and sharing, ultimately, a common bond and fate. None of this went over well.

Then came Friday, and New England was back in the middle of terror and chaos. We were hosting Bangladeshi friends who were visiting the U.S. for the first time. I was up early, turned on the radio, and was greeted by reports of shootouts and bombs, again in Boston. One of my stepsons posted to Facebook that his street was blocked off, police were everywhere, and the neighborhood was in lockdown. Once again we were on the phone to Boston and the Midwest; our family members were safe, at least for the moment.

When our Bangladeshi friends awoke and came downstairs (they had luxuriated in long, hot showers, so different from the cold showers available to them at home), we explained the situation to them. They spoke to their compassion for our plight, and told us about one day, a few years ago, when Bangladesh had suffered 400 separate blasts. By early afternoon it was apparent the situation in Boston was under relative control, so we drove up to the mountains where our friends met snow for the first time. They proceeded to frolic, build snow people, and have a snowball fight, all in near 80 degree weather. The next day was cold and windy and we built a fire in the wood stove…… Welcome to Vermont in April!

All this came back as I sat in the enormous vaulted church, surrounded by family and and friends, listening to a remarkable concert drawn from the Western canon. A reception P1050301followed the concert, but we went straight home. Although it was late (the concert lasted well over two hours), the Red Sox were still playing, and winning to boot! It was then, sitting in the family kitchen, surrounded by loved ones, drinking late night decaf cappuccinos, that I finally grasped the healing, normalizing power of baseball.

Sunday we drove home via Boston where we visited more family. The world was abloom, and the streets were filled with happy, playful people. Surprisingly we spoke very little about the events of the proceeding two weeks, other than brief recaps of how folks spent their time during the lockdowns, or decided not to attend the Marathon. Rather, we spoke about the tenacity and resilience of the people of Boston. I guess we should not have been surprised at their resiliency, given their decades of loving support of the Red Sox prior to 2004.

– Michael Watson

© 2013, essay and all photographs include the 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.