Friday, December 25, 2015

The Gifts We Are: What to Bring to Personal Epiphanies


At Christmastime each year here in the United States we will often see nativity scenes, especially in people’s front lawns and in churchyards. They range from simple scenes depicting only Jesus, Mary and Joseph to elaborate dioramas including a full cast of characters. In these larger versions, in addition to the shepherds, angels and animals, we may also see three other figures, often in decidedly more colorful dress, who are intended to represent those called The Three Wise Men, the Magi, or the Three Kings from the East. We are told in the Bible that the Magi navigated by means of a star, got a piece of intelligence from King Herod along the way, and arrived at the scene bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Although I’m not much of a churchgoer, I have long been fascinated by the element in the story of the Magi traveling at some risk and expense to see a manifestation of divine light and love, and I’ve wondered about the gifts they deemed appropriate for the occasion.

In some traditions, the arrival of the Magi is celebrated as Epiphany, which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘appearance.’ And the first thing I notice is that we all have our own epiphanies: times when things are illuminated for us and appear in a new light, sometimes even showing up where there had been no light at all. Such moments glow like an inner crèche, and by virtue of the newness and possibility inherent in them, they often seem to gather their own assembly of witnesses, both within us and beyond.

So move a little closer in, angels, shepherds, and magi: this little epiphany is mine. I see in the gifts of the Magi a good indicator, poetically speaking, of the gifts to bear with us as we approach any epiphany, place of emergence, or illuminated way of being in the world.

Let’s start with myrrh and frankincense. In origin, these are the dried sap of trees. Sap is the mobile, fluid element that flows up from the roots clasping the Earth and down from the leaves outstretched to gather light from the nearest star. Moving between these polarities, tree sap draws qualities from both as it runs in its daily circuit between the two. Interrupt this movement by wounding the trees’ bark and the resinous sap emerges. In their primary use, myrrh and frankincense are vaporized in fire—their fragrances are said to raise the vibration and sanctify a space, hence their use in ceremony.

The sap of trees is literally their lifeblood, the active, connecting element that bridges every apparent polarity and in doing so supports the life of the tree in all its dimensions. The ability of a tree to hold the land is funded by its capacity to reach for the sun and air, and the ability of a tree to reach for the sun and air is funded by its ability to hold the land. The sap is the transporter of these energies and resources. Likewise, the unity of the trunk is supported by the multiplicity of roots and branches. The flexibility and the exposure of the leaves is supported by the more rigid and protected quality of the wood, and again vice versa. The dried sap of these trees thus embodies the essence of this active process of living, growing and yes, even being wounded in a world of chance and change.

Likewise, we humans do much the same thing in our growth as we actively span and unify many dimensions and qualities of our existence. Consider: our capacity for thought is affected by whether or not we ate breakfast and what it was, and the development of our high arts and skills grows from our passion and animal ferocity. Our craziest dreams, subtlest reasoning, and most finely attuned feelings are needed by turns to find balance in our awareness amidst the tumult of our experience. We balance within and without, left and right brain, action and contemplation, work and play, sleeping and waking, the changing seasons, and all of the the contingencies and conditions of our lives. And, as we dynamically unify and draw energy from our often rough-and-tumble living and weathering of various kinds of storms, we create a flow with unique qualities within us, just as trees do. We gain character.

To complete the metaphor here, the distilled essence of our lives in the world—what we learn, how we grow, how it shapes us and even how it hurts us—is central to the gifts we bear on the way to our personal epiphanies. Recognizing the value of living amidst all these opposing forces, ups and downs, bumps, bruises, paradoxes and contradictions, is key to carrying our troubles as gifts. Remember that the myrrh tree oozes that sweetness from its wounds, standing out in the sun on the Horn of Africa.

The counterpoint to all the dynamism we see in the production of myrrh and frankincense, of course, is gold. If myrrh and frankincense embody the essence of a present-tense life astraddle numerous polarities, a temporal world of contingency and risk, gold could be said to represent the state in which there never was a polarity to unify: the eternal, the unchanging, the untarnishable spirit. Gold is chemically inert, unaffected, and unchanging. This is why it can sit at the bottom of the sea in the wreckage of a Spanish galleon for 500 years and still have value. As the most malleable metal, pure gold can be hammered into endless changes in outward form, yet inwardly it remains the same.

So consider the contrast here: Gold is a metal forged in the heart of a dying star billions of years ago; myrrh and frankincense, on the other hand, are the dried sap that oozes from cuts in the bark of trees living on the surface of planet earth today. In most uses, gold is endlessly recyclable. Myrrh and frankincense go up in smoke and vanish.

Each of these gifts embodies its own kind of preciousness and energetic signature. We all have a place within us that is golden, unchanging and eternal. Everyone also has that distilled essence of character arrived at by bearing our gold into a world filled with dynamic and ever-changing polarities. Taken together, appreciated and honored each in their own ways, these gifts make for an ideal combination to bring to any epiphany or point of illumination in our lives. In fact, to bear these gifts in full recognition of their value tends to draw us onward toward these epiphanies.

Yet there seems to be a tendency to separate them. It’s strange to consider it, but do we really think the Magi would have been better advised to leave the myrrh and frankincense at home and just bring some extra gold? Would this have improved the gift?  I don’t think so. And neither do we value ourselves rightly if we only consider the quality of soul within us, leaving out our connection to life’s flow and the character we have gained by it, or on the other hand to only offer what we’ve gained by living and not that pure and untarnishable element we brought with us into life.

The Bible story tells us that Joseph was told in a dream to flee into Egypt. Hearing this, the reasoning mind might suggest that maybe the family could have used that extra gold! But that’s not how these stories work. For 2000 years we’ve read about myrrh, frankincense, and gold. The translators found words for these things in other languages and apparently saw nothing in these words to threaten the power structures that employed them. So the inner message stood unchanged.

I’ve often felt that this part of the Bible story was underappreciated, because it says so much about how to approach an illuminated way of being. We absolutely must bring our inner gold with us, our assurance of something eternal, that steady and sure place deep within us that knows our value and our everlasting place in the order of things. By means of this silent, weighty ballast, we right ourselves time and again as the winds of change blow. The security that this kind of gold offers also strengthens our ability to offer it up to these golden moments in the certainty that we will ultimately be enriched instead of diminished by the encounter. However, an equally precious and worthy offering is our unique harvest of living in the world, and the beauty we have wrought from this encounter: our lessons, our scars, our character, our history, and the essential tone, feel and fragrance that belong to our unique lives.

Fundamentally, in any epiphany, we can only offer what we are, and, we are all of this: We are the eternal enriched by the temporal, and we are perfection itself somehow perfecting itself .

In a way, then, since this is what we are, we bring this gift to every life encounter. Further, since we are part of the cosmos becoming aware of itself, our appreciation for all of the gifts we bring catalyzes their reception even when the “recipient” to which we are offering ourselves is a relationship, a place, a moment -- in short, to any personal epiphany or illuminated encounter in the world. If we are to follow the example of the Magi as we navigate toward these epiphanies, we must value our offering: loving ourselves as golden eternal souls who never lost connection with the divine, and in full appreciation for all our quirky eccentricities, our foibles and talents, errors and inspirations, and in both our misbegotten motivations and our nobility in word and deed. Loving ourselves in this comprehensive way primes the universe to receive us in kind, or perhaps it would be better to say that doing so aligns us with the cosmos and its unfolding and magnificent YES! And we can carry these gifts into any illuminated moment, be it a crowded bus, a thought or feeling that comes at the end of a long day, a walk down a forest path leading to a waterfall, or an encounter in a barn in an obscure little Middle Eastern town.

To every moment we make an offering. Aware that we are in an encounter with the divine, we can come as the Magi did: in adoration, and bearing gifts. We then behold and thus participate in the miracle.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Necessity of Joy in Permaculture

Some years ago I had a weekend workshop experience with an Andean shaman from Ecuador.  After lunch on Saturday, the shaman instructed us, speaking through a translator, to sit absolutely motionless – he emphasized several times the importance of not moving a muscle – and then started singing to us in his native language.  He’d sing for a while and then stop and let out a drawn-out sibilant sound like a combination of a hiss and a silencing Shhhh…  Then he would begin singing or chanting again.

This process repeated multiple times. After a couple cycles, I noticed that as he sang I could feel myself being compressed somehow, as if being hugged from all sides. Then, when he made the sound like whooshing wind that followed, I felt release.  And with each release, I felt myself expand beyond my previous boundaries. 

I do not recall how many of these cycles we went through, but when the shaman felt complete with that process, he gave us our next instructions: Walk outdoors and find a piece of vegetation that you find attractive and bring it back in with you.  I smiled as I stood up.  I smiled as I watch the other participants walking a little unsteadily toward the doors.  I smiled as the floor beneath me felt a little spongy under my feet. I smiled as I emerged into the October sunshine and looked around, wondering where to go.

I found a piece of Asian bittersweet to bring back in. True, it’s a noxious invasive plant. But when I looked at it, I liked it.

About fifteen minutes later, after everyone was seated back inside the nature center headquarters, the shaman asked a very interesting question: “Look at the piece of the plant you brought in,” he said. “What gives it the form that you see? “

I looked down at the twig in my hands, bare but for tiny orange fruits dotting its terminations, and the answer to the shaman’s question was obvious. I didn’t have to think about it. It was literally staring me in the face:  The plant took this form because it enjoys being in this form. The form of the plant is an outward expression of its JOY!

As I’ve reflected back on this experience over the years, mostly what I’ve focused on is the amazing shamanic prowess that allowed our teacher to bring a group of distractible, half-crazy gringos into direct contact with the numinous layer of existence through the focused power of his voice and will alone. Lately, though, I’ve been focusing on the vision itself: what does it mean if joy is the maker of a living form? How can it affect my vision and my actions to see that the living world is a visible expression of joy?

I ask because this seems to be nearly universally unseen: from sassafras trees celebrating their sassafrasiness to curly docks curling luxuriantly in their own exuberance. Attempting permaculture as a survivor of a culture that sees form as something disconnected from joy (or any other aspect of subjectivity) will probably devolve into folly unless this error is corrected. Let’s take a look at how this affects our thinking, and assume that what’s true of plants is just as true of animals and possibly much else.

In this culture, when we see a plant growing or a chickadee flitting from twig to twig, we see it “doing” something:

Q: “What’s that bird doing?”  A: “It’s flitting from twig to twig.” 

But I doubt such a statement would make any sense from the interior of the chickadee’s experience. The chickadee is a part of the world, but it remains intimately connected with it. Each twig in each moment draws forth that bird for unfathomable reasons – perhaps partly the relative positioning of bird to branch, partly the need to spring up and take flight that is built into the chickadee’s physiology, partly the timing, but mostly the onrush of interweaving stimuli in which, as Jon Young says in his course, Advanced Bird Language, the bird is inextricably linked as both a signal responder and signal generator. So the short answer is that, like the plant, the bird is moved by the joy of chickadeeing around as a chickadee, in its chickadee way in its chickadee world. To put that bird in a cage without a branch to hop on, for example, would deprive it of its joy.

Photo courtesy Rick Scholz
“Nonsense!” says the ogre consciousness that seems to rule these days. “That bird can learn to trudge around on the floor of the cage the way sensible birds like chickens and turkeys doif I allow them to do so, that is, before I eat them.”

The result of this kind of thinking, if we can call it thinking, is that the songbird thus treated would most likely sicken and die. But even if it should live on somehow, this much is for sure: it would be less of a chickadee. Deprive a living being of the opportunity to inhabit its form with joy, in other words, and its form would begin to weaken and possibly dissolve altogether.

We have a habit in this culture of denying subjectivity and creating a picture of the world through a grammar that by its very structure misrepresents it. To its credit, Permaculture takes the dualities of noun and verb, actors and actions, people and landscapes, and tries to pull these into a better unity, its focus on relationships and dynamics replacing reductionistic cause and effect. But as a design science it’s going to fall short if it focuses merely on form and not on what fills it, even if it brings in the moral dimension as part of the design process.  What really distinguishes successful permaculturists is their joy in being part of this process, which is to say—in being. That joy is as much a part of their designs as is the joy within my sprig of bittersweet.

And, if there is truth in my perception that the quality of joy infuses and gives form to the living world – from sassafras trees to chickadees – it follows that it would apply to people also. One logical consequence of this would be that those who most fully inhabit their joy are also most fully present on the planet, and the best in-formed. Conversely, those who are not in their joy are not fully present. Note that joy does not preclude suffering. In fact, what I’ve seen is that only those who connect most deeply with their joy have the strength to suffer, to overcome obstacles, and to feel most deeply into the troubles of this world in their search for new ways.

For all of these reasons, the connection between being in joy and being truly present would seem to be enormously consequential. It throws into the open and validates the deep desire of many of us for a way of being in the world that really works, one that feels good on the inside and which does not amount to a continuous assault on our sensibilities. As a culture, we ignore this desire, or worse, we get it backwards, and the forms we create are actively hostile to life.  But we won’t be able to design healthy systems unless we really show up, and we cannot really show up unless we find our joy, more fully inhabit our forms and thus better connect with the living world around us.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tossing and Turning: Our Disturbed Soils and Troubled Sleep

I’m sitting under a halogen light right now and staying up late to write about soil.

That probably doesn’t sound ironic to you. I think it should.

How I came to reflect on soil and sleep as functionally related and analogous in their processes is something of a mystery, though the sequence of events that led to the idea is clear enough. I recently spent a weekend learning about soil in a workshop that outlined some of the basic science. Weeks later, a person I spent time with at the workshop emailed me late one day wanting to connect about a soil-related project we’re working on together, but informing me that, at the moment, sleep was a higher priority. My response upon reading the email was that no person who is seriously interested in soil would dismiss the importance of sleep.

At first my response puzzled even me. As I thought about it, though, I realized that the work of the body in sleep and what I’d recently learned about the life activity of the soil are very much connected. Shrouded in layer upon layer of darkness and opacity, both the body in sleep and the soil beneath the surface teem with important goings-on. Interestingly, much of this activity has to do with the movement of nutrients through their respective systems, and the regenerative and growth processes that require these nutrients.

As we fall asleep at night, if everything is working correctly, we shift focus, our eyes and somatic sensibilities adjust to new surroundings, and we engage with these. We move in a different world. We awaken to our dreams. And these dreams, whether we acknowledge it or not, are absolutely essential to the functioning of our daily waking consciousness. Certain processes of the body wake up in sleep, and the body needs sleep the way the mind needs dreams.

Like our nightly sleep, the sleep of soil isn’t really sleep at all; I would argue that instead it’s a kind of awakening to a different level of being. The dreams of the soil when left undisturbed support the growth of plants into light, just as our own dreams support the growth and flowering of consciousness. These dark processes remain as guessable to those of us walking on the earth as are the dreams of a friend we see twitching in his sleep. Yet the visible, colorful expressions of plants above the soil surface and their capacity to metabolize light into food are directly dependent on their ability to gather from the sleep of soil the elements needed to accomplish this. What we find if we look into soil and follow its sublime, heroic dreams are exceedingly complex relationships, fine chains of mycorrhizal fungi and associated bacteria fed by plants in just the right way to help them to locate and channel these nutrients to the plant roots. Mycologist Paul Stamets calls the interconnected mycelial network of soil, "the neurological network of nature." 

At night, the plant’s energy and sap move down into the soil to support and feed this hidden activity. At night we likewise descend, in our own way, into the depths, and there make use of the nutrients we have taken in as food that were originally dredged up by plants in their own dreams. Thus, by linking our dreams to those of the soil through the mediumship of plants, we dream our bodies into being.

At some point, people discovered that they could get a temporary boost in productivity from the soil by inverting it, exposing its dreams to the light. As the plow inverts the earth, a vast and largely invisible conflagration ensues within the soil, a plume of CO2 rises from it, and from this waste and sudden death the enterprising food plant draws its life. Of course, all the other plants, including the weeds and grasses that had formerly held the soil and embraced and fed its microorganisms, are caught up in the maelstrom, and when they die the nutrients they had sequestered are at first liberated, then ultimately leached away. In time the food plants grown there cannot make it anymore. In traditional farming, the exhausted soil was either abandoned, kept exposed but on life support with manure or compost, or allowed to rest and regenerate during a fallow period. Like a sick and wounded soldier coming home from war, the land must sleep. Today’s methods of chemical agriculture seek to continually stimulate more productivity from the soil as it lies dying. There is no rest for the soils that produce most modern foods, and our widespread exhaustion follows.

Missing from our understanding is how the deep dreams of the soil ultimately nourish our own, and how our reckless pattern of disturbing our soils eventually disrupts our ability to sleep as well as the capacity of our sleeping bodies to dream themselves anew. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that in the natural course of things, each night we refocus on the place where we connect in the quiet womb of the Earth, and each morning we are born again. Going into that womb, we take with us the products of the communion of plant, sun and soil. We call it food. The human digestive system can be seen as an internalized placenta by which we draw nutrients from the mother. We are, in every way, still inside of her. These nutrients, the products of the teeming, active dreams of soil and sea, then meet with the imaginative processes of the body that regenerate us in our sleep.

Meanwhile, here I am still writing under the halogen light, following my culture’s habit of inverting things for temporary gains -- this time by using technology to put day in the place of night. As with inverting the soil, there is a short burst of heightened productivity associated with artificial light and the dreams it breaks up and postpones. There’s always a purchase price for such advantages, however. I can push my fallow period off for an hour or two, convinced that the most important work is happening when my eyes are open, but eventually I reach a point of diminishing returns. And it’s worth noting that from a biological point of view, a significant part of the price we pay for the stress we induce in this way is the loss of minerals…the very nutritional components that plants are accessing from the earth by feeding the microbes of their soils every night. Turning night to day leaches minerals from the body just as though we are soil being turned to face the sun.

So what are the ultimate consequences of all of this? Let’s put it all together: we diminish the fertility of the soil by disturbing it, gain fewer mineral nutrients needed to build our bodies, then degenerate and sleep badly. In the midst of this, we also focus on our waking consciousness and productive labor at the expense of sleep and productive dreaming. The net effect is that slowly but surely the aperture of human consciousness narrows. Most people will experience this clearly after even one sleepless night: we can feel how we start to move more robotically, how our thoughts tend to stay in their established channels like computer programs, and how irritation and reactivity supplant creative responses to the day’s events. Our experience thins out. Deprived of the depths of sleep for a night, we sense that we’re not fully living but just going through the superficial motions. And here’s something worth noticing: vitality, like soil, is a thing of depth. Yet, what happens if sleep and our capacity for it is incrementally eroded over time? What happens when soils continue to thin and degenerate, artificial light fiddles with our hormones, food plants are tricked into growing on chemicals, diseased plants protected by sprays, people are tricked into feeling ok with drugs, received images from the media take the place of active imagination in people’s minds, and stress takes the place of deep upwellings of primal energy?

If this change were gradual, would we even notice? And what if the perceptual systems by which we would notice such a change are among those that get damaged?

I’m not sure, but the questions are worth asking. What I am growing increasingly confident of is that most of the aisles of my local grocery store are filled with food that is unfit for human consumption. And I’m sorry to say this, but many people I see putting that same food into their shopping carts look like they’re sleepwalking in a bad dream — they seem startled and annoyed if anything should awaken them. Perhaps this is another cost of our ongoing inversions: We start living nightmares instead of occasionally just dreaming them.

So what’s the answer? I think we’ve tossed and turned and disturbed the sleep of our soils too long, and I’m guessing we need deeper nourishment than what most people are getting. With deeper nourishment comes the possibility of more productive sleep, with deeper sleep the possibility for deeper dreams, and the deeper the dreams, the deeper the capacity for consciousness.


This idea goes against much of our conditioning, which teaches us to extend our waking hours and work harder with our conscious minds. Yet as every toddler eventually figures out, the fastest and best way to get from one exciting day to the next is to let go of the one you’re in, that is: to go to sleep, and then wake to day again. Collectively, we seem to think we’ll arrive at that new day by turning our minds faster. What it looks like to me is that all we’ve managed to accomplish in this way is to more quickly generate correct answers to the wrong questions. But what if the world we live in heals fastest and best when moving at the infinite speed of rest?