WEEK EIGHT OF "INITIATION INTO A LIVING EARTH: AN ESSAY JOURNEY"
BY SHANTE' SOJOURN ZENITH
In this time of intense survival energy and pressure to be “functional,” slowing down and allowing space for rest becomes a radical practice. Our deep listening to the rhythms of our bodies creates the conditions for transformation to occur.
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At the very end, when there was no hope left, when we’d dug ourselves in so deeply that there was no way out—we began to wander out into the wild, to the edges of rivers and the roots of trees, to listen. To listen without hope of an answer, no expectation of a continuance. To listen to the sound of the earth weeping.
Some of us went off to distant canyons or deep into dark forests. Some walked for days without company, refusing even the crust of bread in their pack, stopping in a desolate patch of scrubland, pressing their ear against the surface of the earth. Some sat down right where they were, on the concrete, and looked at nothing until they saw the tender green shoots poking through the cracks in the sidewalk. Some laid themselves down in trash heaps or sat next to rusting cars in vacant parking lots.
And here, we rested. We rested for hours, days, weeks. We rested because there was nothing to lose anymore. And slowly, imperceptibly, the world around us changed. The Earth mattered onwards. Rusting and decomposing and becoming. The terror and desperation no longer seemed real. We allowed the exhaustion to catch up with us, memories composting at our feet. Deep time swallowed us up, we found ourselves held by something vaster than our own designs.
When we returned home from our wandering, the people welcomed us with great expectation, asking what grand strategy or innovation we had learned to save this way of life. But we said nothing and everyone was disappointed.
After we returned, the old ways didn't seem to hold us anymore. One of us began singing to trees, another collapsed weeping in embarrassingly public places. One devoted his life to tending compost, spreading layers of green plants between decomposing refuse. One sat at the feet of children to remember how to play.
Things got worse, infrastructure disintegrated, the systems crumbled, the collapse took place. With less to be busy about, soon the people began to experience boredom.
Slowly, they became fascinated with our strange preoccupations. Soon other people were singing to the trees. More and more people gathered around the woman crying in the street, spontaneous public grief rituals took place, people held each other and made ugly noises without shame. People began to tend the compost, watching the dying decompose into rich soil to feed life. They danced with the children, their playfulness calling down rain to quench the parched landscape.
There are many possibilities for what happened next, after the hope was gone, when we began to live for beauty alone. When we realized that, if we move slow enough, someday we’ll become our own ancestors.
The work of an initiated human being is to take the wounds, losses, and sorrows and transmute them into something medicinal for culture. —Francis Weller, The Alchemy of Initiation 1
We live in a thin culture, lacking the robustness and support of earth beneath our feet, the lack of true adults and elders to witness our inner worlds, the lack of a functioning society. In the absence of containers to experience the breadth of our emotion, we often can disappear into patterns of numbing, displaced from our bodies, from the fierce sacredness of the present. Even the landscapes around us have become thin, for those of us living in cement-covered, grid-laid out urban areas or rural areas industrialized into rows of corn, we lack a daily experience of the texture and dimensionality of intact ecosystems. In the absence of a thick village, of a culture indigenous to place, how do we turn to our body’s rhythms as the teacher, as the first embodiment of our aliveness?
In my own body, I have experienced this thinness as a kind of exhaustion, a chronic fatigue and lack of motivation limiting my capacity for full expression, my body rebelling against the frenetic pace of the culture, the desperation. I have walked through the world with a bone deep exhaustion, grieving the loss of agency, the loss of desire to connect. The feeling of tired eats at my identity, a deep, encompassing fatigue making it impossible to motivate myself to perform within the image of this culture.
In this culture, this bone deep fatigue has been defined as depression, a kind of “mental illness” to be modified so we return to functionality. Growing up, I believed the story that the depression was solely an imbalance in neurotransmitters, a purely physiological problem easily remedied through pharmaceuticals. But the situation is more nuanced than that—many tentacles of tiredness exist in different aspects of my “long body”— a complex constellation of longings, societal absences, numbings, narrowings, woundings obscured through the consolidation into the phrase “mental illness.” The culture places such immense pressure on functionality, modifying our body ecology to suppress symptoms so that the current arrangement can be maintained. But how long can our bodies tolerate industrial-scale standardization of emotion and perception without rebelling into exhaustion? Are the “modifications” that make our body ecology more functional here narrowing our ability to perceive and connect, or diverting our bodies energy away from the innate wisdom that we have to heal?
Rarely do we ask whether it is desirable to remain culturally functional at all. On a radio show recently, the authors of the book Burnout were interviewed, describing ways to complete the stress response through simple activities like journaling or movement.2 So many women called into the show telling stories of intensely overwhelming lives— working multiple jobs, raising children, doing so many things. The stress and survival energy was palpable. Fear of loss of money, loss of respect from others, so much fear! One of the authors explained how when she was in graduate school, she would complete the stress response by imagining she was Godzilla stomping through her campus, destroying the administrators and teachers of the college she went to. Not once did anyone question whether, as well as completing the stress response, people would possibly get a benefit from leaving the situation they were in in the first place? How about as well as completing the stress response, also use the expanded imagination given by grounding in your self to feel into what you could let go of in your life too?
I feel like I’ve been in an apprenticeship to an ongoing process of disintegration, of learning to trust that the earth is a safe place, that I am held even in the midst of uncertainty. The past few months I have been in the midst of a health journey to find more holistic ways to tend my body ecology. My basic survival needs are met right now as my partner and I are currently staying with his parents while in a time of intense transition. This past month I prepared to taper off of an anti-depressant in the hopes of shifting my body ecology to a more healthy place where I could address my fatigue symptoms directly. My functional medicine doctor told me about a supplement called SAMe which supports the body’s methylation and metabolic processes. 3 The biggest lifestyle change I made to support my body was with nourishment, four months ago I stopped eating gluten and sugar, and now eat a mostly ketogenic diet of mainly meat, vegetables, and healthy fats. I’m also working with a therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, and herbalist.
Even with this amount of outside support, I felt such an internalized condemnation when I contemplated the possibility of not being “functional” after I came off the medication. The fear of not producing, not supporting myself, the shame of being lazy or falling apart, of not being clear enough to communicate or articulate my own sovereignty. Could I live with myself if I wasn’t functional—no longer able to be “competent” within the culture? I began to wonder about my fear of falling apart. Was it solely the lack of containment, the mistrust of the present being thick enough to support my experience of disintegration and rebirth? Was there an edge I was not looking towards, a place of emergent knowledge? Deep enough inside of tired, somewhere there were tears, somewhere there was something that wanted to flow.
While I was trying to decide whether to taper or not, I went to the clinic for a doctors appointment and saw a young girl crying and raging in the waiting room while everyone, including her mother, ignored her. I feel so much grief at being steeped in a culture of disconnection and emotional numbness in which "scenes" like this make the surrounding people uncomfortable and aren't an invitation into shared witnessing and connection. I feel some anger at myself for not walking over to the girl and somehow letting her know that her emotion was valid and welcome. But at least I broke through the uncomfortableness and didn't look away. I watched, I met her gaze as she cried, I at least gave her an affirmation that she was visible. Later that day, I bought SAMe from a health food store and began to taper. There was a part of myself that I needed to make visible also.
What I have been longing for is a systemic reorienting. In the chosen absence of an exterior structure, how do I honor energy by creating a structure that comes from within. There is such deep difficulty in this culture in trusting inner process, living process. There is definitely something deeply embedded there about progress and worthiness. But also deep knowledge around not wanting to stagnate, not wanting my time to be eaten by activities that do not nourish my soul. Time is a precious substance, a kind of food that can be nourishing or can be mindlessly consumed.
I see the resonance with the climate strikers, the young people missing school to protest climate change. This strike is also a kind of symptom suppression, a symbolic relieving of pressure that doesn’t locate the sovereignty to change within oneself. We know the current system isn’t working. We know something is fundamentally wrong at the core. But we keep looking to the system to fix itself. We keep looking outside of our own bodies for the answer. I want to ask the young climate strikers the rebellious question: “Why don’t you strike all the time? Why don’t you take your education into your own hands and tend to what you love, follow your curiosity, create space to tend your emotions, to learn the art of intimacy.” The difficult thing about the school strike is that it was condoned by adults because it is symbolic, because it continues to feed the same systems of power. Whereas kids who choose to miss school for their own reasons are still called truant. What about a children’s movement to actually leave school because of school—to protest the industrial standardization of knowledge and destruction of authentic curiosity and imagination?
Bayo Akomolafe invites us into a different rhythm of activism:
"If we beat the system at its own game, we’ve lost. It is no longer time to rush through the contested world blinded by fury and anger – however worthwhile these are. Now, we think, is the time to ‘retreat’ into the real work of reclamation, to re-member again our humanity through the intimacy of our relationships. The time is very urgent – we must slow down." 4
If we slow down enough, we sink into the imaginal, into our bodies and the earth. From this slowness, we can begin again to feel the sacredness of time, its spiral nature, those dilations into other worlds in which emergent knowledge comes in.
Francis Weller describes a practice in ancient Scandinavian cultures, in which people who had experienced a loss would spend a time in the ashes alongside “the fires that were aligned down the center of a longhouse.” 5 According to Martin Shaw, this was also a practice through which Scandinavian cultures would initiate their adolescents, giving them this time to descend into melancholy and a contemplation of mystery. 6 Weller explains:
"Little was expected of them during this time, which often lasted a year or more. The individual’s duty was to mourn, to live in the ashes of their loss, and to regard this time as holy. It was a brooding time, a deeply interior period of digesting and metabolizing the bitter tincture of loss. It was a time out of time, an underworld journey to the place of sorrow and emptying. Whoever came back from this sojourn came back changed and deepened by this work in the ashes. And indeed, any who undertake real mourning return with gravitas, wisdom gathered in the darkness. These women and men become our elders, the ones who can hold the village in times of great challenge." 7
Our culture needs a collective time in the ashes in which each of us can take the space and time we need to witness our grief. We need to invite in the transformative power of breakdown, of stopping, of refusing to continue the dance of fear and survival, and instead slow down to the rhythm of soul. There are openings and cracks in times of breakdown, windows into other worlds. Something happens to us when we sink into the darkness—something about the quality of the intention, the listening. Embracing the torso of a giant oak tree, the words come to me “all go underground to rise up.”
In his book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Soul and Sanity, Stephen Jenkinson invokes the process of germination:
"It would be a good thing if we thought a little about what we’re asking when we plant seeds, what we’re asking of the seed, what we’re doing to it. The seed catalogues won’t tell you this part, but it is true. First, it’s a little hard to tell if the seed is the youngest part of the plant or the oldest, or mysteriously both at once. Whatever it is, we make a hole in the dark earth and we bury it. We make as if it is dead, and we bury it...In the cool, dark ground, if all goes well, the seed breaks... I don’t know if that means it is willing to break, but breaking seems inherent in it being shaped that way. And it seems that it can’t break on its own, sitting in a jar on a shelf somewhere. Some subtle combination of things has to congeal, and then it can break. There seem to be thousands of ways those things can combine—lots of water or not much, cold or cool or warm temperatures, who knows what kind of soil nutrient combinations—but for all that it still seems a delicate, unguaranteed thing that against the odds happens anyway. It breaks, and then life comes. It has to be brought to the ground to break." 8
For deep transformation to be possible, there first has to be a stopping, a pausing, a going underground. And in the midst of the stopping, of turning inward, the broken places become apparent. When we finally surrender into rest, then we feel the heartbreak. There is deep grief here. Grief at how long we have spent running, living in a state of fear. In this slowness, we encounter the different qualities of despair and presence, how even in the depth of our sorrow we can still see the trees blossoming. We are reclaiming the capacity to be spacious, the sense of contradicting, simultaneous, expansive grief and beauty, the capacity to hold the vastness of context.
As we slow down, the way we inhabit time changes. As we crack open, we create adumbrations. An “adumbration” is the opposite of an echo...the invoking of a future resonance. Francis Weller looks to 200 years in the future, explaining that the process of creating an intact initiatory culture will take many generations:
"Right now we’re picking up the tattered threads of discarded practices, forgotten rituals, and trying to see if the cloth even has a semblance of meaning to it, and we have to be willing to risk and fail, we have to be willing to risk trying small gestures that might feed something that can build and build and build. We are starting without any solid ground beneath our feet, but what I do trust is that that ground is inside of us." 9
Weller explains that the rituals do not come from our conscious minds but from “the dreaming body of this earth.” As we slow down, we open towards the wisdom of a larger intelligence, the earth we are embedded in, the medicine we carry in our bones. Here we speak to the parts of us that still carry an ancestral memory of being indigenous, we speak to the expanded perception of being in relationship with a living earth. So our invitation in this time must be: How do we slow down enough to open ourselves, to let ourselves be dreamed?
1. In what ways could you practice slowing down as a radical act?
2. Where in your life can you open yourself to be dreamed?
3. How has this essay journey as a whole resonated with you? What new questions has it evoked?
1 Francis Weller, Baptized by Dark Waters, The Alchemy of Initiation, March 27, 2019, Cotati, CA. https://www.francisweller.net/the-alchemy-of-initiation-a-five-week-series.html
2 MPR news with Kerri Miller. April 9, 2019. https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2019/04/ whats-on-mpr-news-4-9-19/
3 https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/nekxpm/everything-you-need-to-know-about-using- same-for-depression
4 Akomolafe, Bayo. “The Times are Urgent.” Bayo Akomolafe. http://bayoakomolafe.net/ project/the-times-are-urgent-lets-slow-down/
5 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 16.
6 Shaw, Martin. Myth and Ecology: Wedding the Wild. Short Course at Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon, England, 2017.
7 Weller, ibid.
8 Jenkinson, Stephen. Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. North Atlantic Books, 2015. ibook. Page 894-896.
9 Francis Weller, Fire in the Voice, The Alchemy of Initiation, March 14, 2019, Cotati, CA. https://www.francisweller.net/the-alchemy-of-initiation-a-five-week-series.html