Updated: May 12, 2019
WEEK FIVE OF "INITIATION INTO A LIVING EARTH: AN ESSAY JOURNEY"
BY SHANTE' SOJOURN ZENITH
The reclaiming of our soul medicine is often catalyzed by a dark night of the soul, an initiation into the mature cultivation of our own relationship with the sacred. This initiation is based on the gate of grief that calls home "The Parts that Have Not Known Love.” 1 It is an invitation to "Mature into Adulthood.” 2 This is also the place in which we heal from the wounds of "disconnection from meaningful work" and from our "disconnection from status and respect.”3
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The Young Woman and the Moon
There was once a child who was no longer a child. She had outgrown her teachers, because they were no longer growing. The fire that had been burning inside her was dying as she stayed in the sameness of her arrangement. She yearned for a sustenance her teachers could no longer provide and so she retreated into herself, the fire waning inside her until the passion turned to ash and she could no longer stay at home.
And so the girl left the place in which she felt safe to set out in search of deep waters. But she didn’t know if she could swim. And she was terrified of submerging herself without someone on the shore to tell her when she needed to come up for breath. Inside her, a vast ocean swept up the ashes, she mourned the loss of her home, her certainties dissolved, she no longer knew where she was going or why.
The girl arrived at an unfamiliar shore and found her way into a gathering. The entire time she was preoccupied with the question of teachers. She thought if she could only find a teacher, the fire in her belly would return and she would feel her purpose again. And whenever she met a person who she wanted to become, whose slow steady flame made their eyes sparkle like stars, whose breath caused the embers of her chest to flare, her mind would begin to run fast, in the way of an antelope chased by a lion, she would panickly attempt to weave the threads that bound that person’s life to hers. And yet part of her stood back from this panicked search for connection. And so her insides were at war.
And in this fighting of opposites, she sat by the fire in the gathering as the darkness fell around her and a battle waged within. Then a clear voice by her left shoulder asked the star woman how she herself had found the stars in her eyes? Who were her teachers? "The land teaches me, the ancestors teach me. And what I create with my own hands is my teacher, I have no external guide besides the wild.”
That night, the girl ran out on to the moors in a rage. Throwing herself down at the edge of a stream, she looked down at the water and started to wail. Not even crying, bigger than crying, she was wailing, keening, mourning a loss so vast it needed the ocean to contain it. Darkness falling around her, she screamed her anguish into the wilderness: “it’s not fair! I don’t want to be my own teacher! I don’t want to do this alone!”
Then, at the peak of her suffering as she howled into the sky, the moon came to find her. Suddenly the moon appeared, luminous and almost completely round, staring down at the girl with a brilliance so vast it took her breath away. And the moon was so beautiful that it wasn’t fair. So the girl yelled at the moon. She yelled at the moon until she had run out of things to yell. And the moon listened. And was not repelled by the force of her anger and despair. The moon beheld the girl until she quieted, until she stood, neck bent back, staring up at the sky. The girl wanted to give something back to the moon but she had nothing inside her. Song died on her lips. So she stood under the gaze of the moon and presented herself to be devoured.
And in that moment something in her widened, and a space was made for holding the opposites. For the first time teacher and no teacher coexisted. The young woman followed the moon for many nights until slowly the moon started waning. The radiance dimmed until only a sliver remained and then the moon was gone. The young woman collapsed in the darkness, surrendering herself to the earth. She waited for her death to arrive.
She waited in the darkest of places, branches rustling above her, the whisper of dry leaves on her skin, the iron hint of soil in her nostrils. And this was the moment she began to hear the song. A sound so faint that— did she imagine it? In deep exhaustion, she listened for the song, the slightest of threads vibrating deep in her center, a faint memory of roots.
As if she was extracting an essence from deep inside herself, the young woman felt into the faint song, beginning to form the sound in her mouth also. The sound carried her to her feet, and she began to walk once more, growing in power and confidence. The young woman found herself being remade by the song. Somehow formed into a fuller being of herself. She followed the thread of sound, allowing it to lead her through the forest until at last she emerged from the trees and found herself suddenly in the presence of the moon. Brighter than any fire, the moon filled the whole sky. And the moon was singing.
The woman stood in the presence of the moon, vast in her smallness. From her mouth, the song came also, until she could not be sure whether it was herself or the moon who was singing. She made many vows that night in the presence of the moon. And the moon made a gift to the woman in return. At the end of each night, the moon would came to rest inside the belly of the woman. And the woman would travel through many villages, containing within her this immensity that held all fires. Each person who looked upon her would feel inside themselves the igniting of a fire within them, a fire that kindled even after the woman had left. And each night, the woman would stand by the shore of a wide lake, turn her face to the sky, and sing the moon out from her insides.
The Initiation of Soul Medicine
Within this darkness, we become porous to another world. A crack or fissure appears in these times of sorrow, allowing us to touch other worlds, if only for a moment. We are granted a glimpse of a larger reality, far beyond the scope of our daily lives. For some, this is an entry into the sacred world, one filled with awe and wonder. For others, it is the confirmation of an intuition that there exists another world behind this world. Whatever the experience, grief offers a revelation: in the midst of great loss, we find ourselves in the presence of the sacred.
—Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow 4
I’ve always had a longing to be near people who have a luminosity to them, those with a generous presence and a fully expressed relationship to their creativity. I spent so much of my childhood hovering near those people, assisting them, wanting to be seen by them. I wanted to be like them, but I felt too young, too inexperienced to stand in my own identity as an artist. I was afraid of claiming my own power because I knew everything in my life would have to change to make space for my own vastness. I longed for teachers to provide me with a formal rite of passage from apprentice to medicine-carrier, giving me permission to cross the threshold into the giving of my gifts.
In England, in a workshop with the artist Carolyn Hillyer, I felt that longing for sustained relationship with a teacher who would fully see me and help me to learn to express my full power. I was tired of feeling lonely. My heart was tired of breaking each time the intimacy dissolved after a workshop and the “real world” asserted itself again. I was disappointed by the narrowness of the transactional relationship between teacher and student, a sharing of knowledge that doesn’t go beyond the time frame of tuition. I wanted to get beyond the first level interactions with people, I wanted to be known in all my messiness, all my uncomfortable contradictions. I wanted an ongoing relationship with an elder that could grow and mature.
On the last day of the workshop, as the class sat together comfortably squished into Carolyn's roundhouse on Dartmoor, one of the other students asked Carolyn how she had found her teachers. This was very question I had been struggling to articulate all day. Carolyn answered that the land was her teacher. The land had taught her to paint, had given her the visions she needed to create her own teachers by painting them into existence. She painted her elders, her teachers, and they taught her to sing. She listened to the land and the land taught her where the roundhouse should be and what rituals she should make inside it. “But what about human teachers?” I asked. “What about the people who taught you how to listen to the land?” She said she learned all this without human teachers. And my heart broke.
Returning home to Minnesota, I entered a dark night of the soul. Without mentors to witness my journey, I began to question if I was an artist at all. I committed a semester of my MFA to focus on mourning and deep soul work. This time of darkness affected my art practice at the roots. It was a tempering, a ripening that stripped away so many assumptions and beliefs, shattering all previous perceptions of my identity. I asked “Am I an artist? Why can’t I just exist without having to prove myself something? What does it mean to live the poem, to make life the work of art? What nourishes me? How do I replenish my soul waters when they run dry? Who am I serving? What does life want from me?” These were necessary questions, brought on by the gift of slowing down, of emptying out and releasing. My body screamed for me to ask them, resisting any attempts to bypass this messy darkness, calling me into a meeting with soul.
Francis Weller describes this kind of "ongoing ritual of shedding outworn skins, of being remade time and again," as part of the ancient process of initiation. He explains:
Every initiation brings one to the precipice of death. In fact, there is no genuine experience of initiation without an encounter with death. We are required to die to the old image of who we thought we were and step across the threshold into a radically altered sense of self. Loss and grief are an initiation into a changed landscape, reminding us that everything is passing. By dying before we die, we are able to accept this fact and embrace this amazing chance we have to be alive. 5
Mirroring the upheaval of my inner life, my outer life began to break apart too— friendships dissolving, personal life crisises abounded, I fell into a deep depression and existential questioning of whether I wanted to be on this planet. It was a great shattering, the removal of safety nets. The image of who I thought I wanted to be was not there anymore. This initiation was putting me in "the slippery crucible of paradox... neither Village or Forest, but some other, subtle thing. The world turned upside down." 6
My journey into the depths had made soul my intimate companion, but I was having trouble learning from it because in my darkness I had become isolated without external community to bring me spaciousness. In this dark place, slowly and painfully, I started to separate out the alchemical material of my inner world, to learn how to hold these shattered fragments with compassion, to create distance and spaciousness in my approach. I followed closely the resistances, and, at the prompting of my grad school advisor, asked myself whether the structures I had put in place to “produce art” were really serving me. I let myself experience failure, looking deeper to see what was really driving the resistance, what deeper movements were happening.
I remembered the Zen story of the teacher pointing at the moon while the student looks at the teacher's finger. It was time to cultivate my own relationship with the moon —the creative sacred presence, waxing and waning but always constant. I realized that if I believe my connection to imagination lies in the hands of somebody else, my entire life I'm going to be chasing after something that will never be still. My own connection with the moon is the relationship that will keep me grounded and present in my own power. Encountering teachers and mentors who are further along the path can rejuvenate and nourish me, but the only way that I can allow myself to be grounded as an artist, to be healthy as a human being, is to claim that connection, to say, "it starts with me."
Still lacking inspiration to engage in performance or writing, I explored hand
knowledge practices that took me out of my normal modes of creation. The first was a
mosaic project for the center of my ancestor alter, which began with an intuitive drawing of an ancestor figure and evolved as I filled in the glass. Looking at the completed mosaic, I was struck by its resemblance with the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, and the Norns who tend the tree by watering it from the Well of Urth. The Norns also write the fates of people on the roots of the tree, or, in some versions of the myth, weave the fates. 7
Weaving was my second hand knowledge practice. For several years I had used the word “weaving” as a metaphor for my artistic and research practices without an embodied experience of the actual craft. I made two looms, the first out of cardboard and the second out of wood and nail pegs. I loved the rhythm of the weaving, the certainty of the warp threads that make the structure, becoming invisible as the weft is woven around them. The gesture of passing the shuttle through the warp threads comforted me, as I pulled the weft down with a beater I could finally see the fabric coming together.
As my hands re-membered the rhythms of these ancient practices, I realized I was weaving myself back into my creativity. I began to hold my arms wider, being with the paradoxes, wondering how I could live with my heart wide open in the midst of all these wounds. I began to explore how to make space between the stimulus and the reactions that so often put me into survival mode, retaining a witnessing of my core self, rooted even as I swayed in the storm. I found myself living with more spaciousness. And I knew now, deep in the marrow of my bones, that if I wanted to be alive, I needed to be carrying my own medicine into the world and participating in my own conversation with my sources of nourishment.
1. How has the sacred found you in moments of despair?
2. In what ways has your identity disintegrated and expanded over time?
3. What is the soul nourishment that you need to give your medicine?
1 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 30.
2 Thomé, Azul Valérie. “Grief Composting Circles.” SOULand, https://www.souland.org/grief- composting.html.
3 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, Page 158-254.
4 Weller, Francis.The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
5 ibid, 123-124.
6 Shaw, Martin. A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness. White Cloud Press, 2011, Page 121.
7 Bauschatz, Paul C. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. Univ of Massachusetts Pr, 1982, Page 11-27.