Making Space for Conversation

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From Contributing Editor, Michael Watson

A lovely late winter morning, the light clear and vibrant on the snow and trees. The day is warm for late February; this entire week will likely be far above normal in temperature, a condition that increasingly seems normative in itself.

Early Saturday morning a crew arrived to install solar panels on our roof. In spite of our best efforts our steep driveway was dangerously icy which resulted in a confab as to whether the work could proceed. Fortunately, the temperature was rapidly rising and the application of more ice-melt soon remedied the situation. Sometime in the next few days the panels will be connected to the grid and our home will begin to generate relatively clean electricity.

Over the weekend my Facebook feed was filled with the idea of resistance. After a month of resistance I’ve decided that even more important than resistance, which remains crucial, is vision. We’ve had many years of resistance by one party or the other here in the US, resistance that has only managed to create ever more division and the very real possibility of massive physical violence. (I imagine people on all sides might agree they have experienced a prolonged period of emotional and spiritual violence.)

Also on the weekend, I got around to reading about a new project from Howlround and SpiderWebShow. Howlround wrote:

Across the much-discussed border, we are exchanging letters; Letters from Canadians and letters from Americans. CdnTimes will publish letters from Americans to hear what it’s like on the ground, now, for theatre artists working in the United States. Meanwhile, HowlRound will be publishing letters from Canadians about what’s affecting our work now. Artists from both countries share warnings, worries, strategies of resistance, generosity, and advocacy—messages of solidarity. What can we learn from each other? —Adrienne Wong and Laurel Green, co-editors at SpiderWebShow’s CdnTimes.

I’ve been wondering how I might bring diverse voices together in this difficult time, and as I read the first letters I became increasingly excited, wondering how the inspiration inherent in that project might be joined with and amplified. I’m still curious. What might those of us who are working for a more equitable, caring, responsive world share with one another that would be useful and mutually supportive? How might I provide an accessible forum for the thoughts and concerns of a diverse group of fellow travelers? What might happen were the conversation to be global!

I envision a gathering of folks in the arts, from around the world, where a conversation might be had about making art in this vexing time. I like the idea of letters as the are usually written, yet may contain photos and artwork. Letters can be thoughtful, personal, and engaging; they are by nature more than sound bites and talking points. Letters might also be created using video and integrating images, words, and sound. Hopefully the conversation would be inclusive, and those in education, the healing arts, and many other vocations would participate. If there is enough interest, I’ll put up a separate website to carry the conversation.

I invite you to share your preferred vision for the your life and the world, and how your work feeds that vision. You may leave your response here at The BeZine (I’ll read them) or on my site. My expectation is that write-ups here today would be thoughtful, personal, focused on your work, respectful of a wide range of views, and honoring the possibility of reconciliation and mutual care, far beyond North America. Please do let me know what you think of this idea, and whether you might be interested in participating in such a project. My hope is that should I go ahead with the project there would be letters from artists, and others, working in a wide range of disciplines and in many lands, and that conversations and collaborations might arise from the sharing.

© Michael Watson

Michael Watson
Michael Watson

MICHAEL WATSON, LCMHC (Dreaming the World) is a storyteller, artist, educator, Narrative therapist, polio survivor, Native/European, Ph.D., living in many worlds.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Introducing …

It is my pleasure to provide a formal introduction to two of the newer members of Bardo’s core creative team:

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, a psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. Michael tells us that in childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing. He shares his personal, professional, and shamanic experiences and insights at Dreaming the World, as well as here at Into the Bardo.

Michael lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, which is nestled snugly between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. (He says that most days he can see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake.) He teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College, where he was once Dean of Students. Recently he returned home from teaching in India and Hong Kong.

Michael is mixed blood*, which makes his genealogy “confounding at best.” His father’s father was Native American from the Black Hills (most probably Lakota). His mother was Native American from Indiana, possibly Shawnee. Periodically someone on the distaff side of the family “discovers” their grandmother’s actual tribal affiliation, but “those discoveries tend to morph.”

In attempting to discover family roots, Michael says there are many genealogical stone walls, as befits a family in hiding. His mother’s family identified as hailing from the British Isles, although there were rumors of more recent Cherokee ancestry. “My father said our family is Native on both sides. Mom was from Texas, and both families very aware of the racism Natives face in their respective states. Anyway, my family did not speak much about being Indian and we don’t have tribal affiliation. Identity politics are strong in the United States and being mixed blood teaches one much about living in between easily defined categories.”

9709-008In 2002, Michael’s teachers told him he must become more visible and teach. That was not a simple directive to fulfill. He had always been taught that one never calls oneself a shaman or medicine person: only the elders and teachers, and the people one aids, can speak to who is, or is not, a shaman. Traditionally, when asked about being a shaman the appropriate response is, ” My teachers, and my teachers’ teachers, were shamans”. In many native communities, persons who claim to be shamans are highly suspect. “I was taught to always run the other direction when confronted with someone claiming to be a shaman. Yet, the world has changed and I do not live in traditional culture. The time is near when the ancient teachings and healing practices of First Nations people will find their rightful place in the world. My teachers believe it is now important for visionary healers to stand true and straight, to acknowledge our training, and to share the teachings and practices we know.”

in the United States “mixed blood” usually indicates a mix of European and Native American, not Hispanic or Black.

webheadshotKAREN FAYETH (Oh Fair New Mexico)~ Writer, blogger, photographer, visual artist: these are all words that can be used to describe Karen Fayeth and her work. A native of New Mexico, Karen moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997 and was immediately inspired and engaged by the vibrant arts community, which is so woven into the local way of life. Karen blends the influences of the cultures where she grew up, including Hispanic, Native American, and the deep rural soul of the American West along with a newer city-sense acquired in places like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Boston, London, Singapore, and San Jose, Costa Rica.

A storyteller at heart, Karen’s main medium is words and writing, but she recognizes that words don’t always tell the tale. Karen expanded her studies to the visual arts including paint, clay, papier-mache and photography. She’s learned to craft stories using a combination of both words and images.

Karen’s been blogging at Oh Fair New Mexico since March of 2007. Her writing is featured in publications including New Mexico Magazine, Wild Violet Literary Magazine, and Foliate Oak. Her photography is regularly displayed as a part of an annual Localvision photography show and she’s received special note for her photographs of well-known baseball players. (She’s an avid baseball fan.) Karen’s won awards for her writing, photography, and crafts. When she is not spinning a tale or clicking her Canon, she works as a senior level executive for a science and research organization. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and her cat, and she can sometimes be found entertaining friends, family, and colleagues with her endearing sense of humor and her San Mateo County Fair blue-ribbon green chile chicken enchiladas. Yes! She even won an award for her cooking.

– Jamie Dedes

© 2013, photographs, Michael Watson and Karen Fayeth respectively, All rights reserved

A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE

Early Azaleas

I am pleased to welcome my friend Michael Watson, a shaman and gifted healer to Into the Bardo.   He and I go back many years as friends, colleagues, and fellow therapists in Vermont. It is so nice to see that our minds continue to follow similar tracks.  Shared here with gratitude, Rob.

A World of Difference:

ON SEEING AND BEING SEEN

by

Michael Watson (Dreaming the World)

The cold returned this past week, and many trees and flowers seem to have taken a deep breath and halted their rush into Spring. Were the maple sugaring season ongoing, these would have been perfect sugaring days and the sugar houses would be boiling madly. (The warmth of a couple of weeks ago stopped the sugar season short.) Now, there is an air of expectancy in the natural world, a quickening and watchfulness, for we are in April, and returning warmth and renewing rains become daily more likely.

The seasonal round brings comfort and a sense of belonging. Maple sugaring gear is cleaned and put away. A few people have made it into their gardens, preparing for the warm season to come. Neighbors, yard and garden tools in hand,  wave to one another. “This sure is weird weather, ain’t it,” echoes down the block. A few daffodils have burst into bloom in south-facing flower gardens, some making their way indoors to adorn tables.  Throughout the neighborhood there is shared business and meaning.

Last week, in class, I showed the Bill Moyers interview with Bill T. JonesStill Here. The video, from 1994, follows the MacArthur Award winning choreographer as he morns the loss of his mate, faces mortality via an AIDS diagnosis, and creates his groundbreaking dance, Still/Here. The video addresses many topics our culture still finds difficult, and does so with refreshing directness: death, terminal illness, homosexuality, loss, and race, among others.

The real focus of the film is difference, a too-hot-to-handle concern in many cultures. Difference is a form of social glue, allowing us to identify ourselves in opposition to the other. It is also the source of creativity, innovation, and adventure, as well as some of our most threatening taboos. The tensions between these functions are played out daily in our cultures, our personal relationships, and our inner worlds. For many people around the world, accepting new technologies, no matter how socially disruptive, has become easier than accepting differences among human beings.

Of course, issues of difference demand attention in the therapy setting. Whether we sit with couples struggling with disagreements about how to manage daily life, young women critical of their body image, or youth and adults who carry labels of major mental illness and wrestle with unique experiences of the world, the underlying concerns are those of difference and acceptability. Always the questions held deep inside include, “Am I loveable as I am?” and “Am I safe?” These are not simple questions.

A walk in the forest offers the opportunity to see difference. No two plants of the same species are identical.  Life history and microecology play an enormous role in the development of each individual. From the point of view of the forest, each is perfect. Only through the gaze of other organisms do individual plants acquire differentiated value. When humans are involved, value is most likely culturally ascribed. Persons of diverse cultures may well read the worth of an individual plant differently from one another, as may individuals of separate species.

Ideally, psychotherapy offers persons the opportunity to challenge internalized or culturally enacted views of  difference in relationship to her or his life. In the process, it may place any number of subversive, liberatory tools at the disposal of those seeking help. Such therapy seeks to provide a space for the successful re-authoring of those stories that isolate and demean on the basis of rubrics of difference. In order to do so, patients are encouraged to challenge the authority of many voices, within and without. Yet, no one can successfully create a rewarding life alone; we each need others to witness and affirm our acts of courage and self authoring.  The therapist is a necessary, yet usually insufficient witness.

Would you share with us your healing stories of seeing, and of being seen by others?

Michael Watson ~ has been blogging (Dreaming the World) since September of 2009. He is a shamanic practitioner, psychotherapist, educator, and artist of First Nations* (Mixed Eastern Woodlands, Cherokee, and Lakota Sioux) and European (British Isles) descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont.

Michael’s teachers and his teachers teachers were shamans. His work is influenced by both the traditions of the First Nations* and contemporary Western traditions. It reflects a strong sense of “connection to the forces and processes of Nature.”  The greater objective of his work is to “support others in developing intimate, transformative relationships with both Self, and the natural world.”

* First Nations – the indigineous peoples of the North America.