We move in and out of balance, we fall in and out of connection with others and ourselves. And that’s OK, since life is a constant process of ebb and flow. But to assist the shift back into balance we all need a practice that will nourish and support our soul, the deepest part of ourselves.

In the modern world we can pick and mix from a smorgasbord of spiritual paths and practices that can lead us back. But the array of choice can be too confusing, too glib, too clichéd. So we often stay where we are, possibly lost without a map, perhaps cold and hungry, not sure how or why or whether to take the first step.

When we align too closely with the dictates and constraints of culture, when we live in brightly lit, consensual, literal reality, we lose something valuable; we lose access to our wild, natural self.

To access our deepest self we need a nature-based map of wholeness. This is because modern culture is thin and brittle, and not enamoured of depth. The way of nature is an old, well-worn path, made smooth by many ancient feet. The basis for this map is the four elements; earth, air, fire, and water, in their physical and metaphoric sense.

There are many four-fold maps for understanding the human soul. The most comprehensive and inspiring nature-based map of the human psyche that I have encountered is from Bill Plotkin.

What follows is a short description of the four elements, so you can work out what is going on in your own life by asking some questions: Which element is strongest in my life, which is weakest? Which element encouragingly speaks to me? Which do I avoid?

Air – is the element of new beginnings, light, mind and intellect, ascent, expansion, and connection to spirit. Air is life, the breath of the living earth, constantly moving.

Fire – is the element of growth, energy, playfulness and spontaneity, of raw emotion. It is a place where we can move into a state of wonder. Fire can be healing (or it can burn), as our lives get tempered in the fire of life.

Water – is the element of descent, movement, emotions, flow, and the power of dreams and imagination. In water, we dive deep into the energies of the unconscious, as ego gives way to soul and shadow. Water knows its destination, and moves with grace and power to get to where it is going.

Earth – is the element of stillness. It is where we learn endurance and courage. It also represents community, teaching, responsibility and eldership.

An authentic life depends on movement. Any choice we make can in time become a prison so if we understand where and how we are positioned in relation to each of the elements we can choose when and how to move. We can recharge the water of life if it has become stagnant. We can become winged and fly to new horizons or to safety. We can move into stillness and the warm dark soil by connecting to earth. We can bask in the sun and allow a charge to enter our life. The elements weave a spell of magic around each other.

Our deep instinctual self understands the moves required to bring balance in our life. And sometimes the move is to stay exactly where we already are so we can fully experience that place!

What creatures are we tonight
half-lost under starlight
barely knowing the way
footpad after footpad
over the long dry grasses
undulations of flank, or thigh?

from Lost Poem by David Brooks

One of the greatest conceits of humans is that consciousness does not exist past our fingertips. We have become so self-referential and self-enclosed that it seems we believe we are not part of the land, not part of the earth. How else can you explain the maniacal damage we are causing to our one and only home?

If we could develop the capacity to listen deeply to the very earth beneath our feet we may still hear the voices of the world. Or we may realise that we are still animals with vast souls that still reach out to the world around us. As David Brooks writes above, we could travel to other places, not physically, but psychically, to become animals again, to become of “flank, or thigh”, as we move through the long grasses. We could listen to our dreams, and the images and voices they contain. We could become entranced by mythical stories that contain knowledge in a form that can move us. We can remember our magical selves.

The current climate scientific debate shows us the inadequacy of rationalist science to move people. It has as much appeal as a wet, thick brown blanket, weighing us down with facts, figures and graphs. Perhaps we would do better with storytellers and a mythical intelligence to help us construct new ideas, and a new story of our place in this world – a story that can hold us in these difficult times.

Martin Shaw, mythologist and storyteller, has written “we could develop some manners to the world. Manners to the earth, stars and animal powers.” Isn’t that a radical concept? To do this, we would need to allow for consciousness to exist in the non-human world, and we would need to become attuned to story, magic, and myth.

It seems we are living in dark times. And so we need to craft a dark wisdom, and become familiar with soil, depth and dark places. This is the necessary work of soul by allowing authenticity to grow from deep within us, and from the earth. As we approach autumn (fall) in the southern hemisphere it seems appropriate to venture into the realm of dark and shadow. Light can only come from a dark place.

Who are you? And how do you define yourself?

In our highly industrialised and mechanised culture, it’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, not to be influenced, colonised even, by the foundational beliefs of contemporary Western culture. These beliefs include our hyper-individualised sense of self, the privileged status of reason, the devalued position of feelings and emotion, and the belief that nature is inert and lifeless.

Our hyper-individualised self, self-contained, and independent, makes us see ourselves as not related, or influenced, by those around us. Nature is viewed as devoid of aliveness (and magic), and is seen as the backdrop to the really important life of the city and business, rather than very thing upon which our lives depend.

When we think of who we are, we believe that while we can affect (and take freely from) the world, the world can’t affect who we are, a very one-sided view of reality! How different it would be if we believed that when we look out at the world, at say a tree, we sense the tree is actually looking back at us. Or if we touch something (or somebody), that we are also touched in a reciprocal way. Any other way of being is a dominating (rather than a participatory) mode of existence.

Our modern culture also creates a radical discontinuity between humans and nature. We have a sense of being apart from nature, rather than being a part of it. This conception runs deep within the western ideal, where the degree of separation from nature and animal determines the attribution of value. It gives rise to a false sense of our own character, and results in the delusion that humans live in culture and non-humans in nature.

We seem to be always seeking to be someone else, or be someplace else; mobility seems to be the defining characteristic of modern culture. This mobility also applies to the self, where we seek to make ourselves “better”, taking on the idea of self as project, free to roam the world in search of experiences, to take on any aspect of the world as self. We become chameleons, rather than seek our deepest essence, our soul.

The question “who are you?” may be one of the oldest questions in the ancient search to understand who we are. It is a question to ponder. It is a question to sit with. It is a question that deserves our full attention. It is not a question to be quickly answered.

avatar_movie_promo_screenshotI have watched Avatar twice now, and both times I have felt deeply sad at the callous destruction of the forest peoples home. Sure, the plot is a bit weak at times, but as this article points out, it is closer to current reality than most people think. The history of colonialism and destruction of indigenous peoples is far more violent, far more aggressive, than we see in this movie. Survival international, a group working to protect tribal peoples and their lands, has also written about how this destruction of nature-based peoples continues unabated today. In our region, the Penan of Sarawak are losing their home to palm oil plantations and logging.

At the heart of the movie is the way in which the dominant culture treats indigenous and nature-based peoples. Why is it that our western culture (now dominating the world) continues to act in this way? Perhaps the foundational beliefs of western society need to be more carefully and critically examined.

Val Plumwood has written that we have constructed a western human ideal that maximises difference and distance from the animal, the primitive and the natural. She says that the traits thought distinctively human and valued as a result, are not only those associated with certain kinds of masculinity but also unshared with animals. These traits are usually taken to be mental characteristics. We deny the naturalness in others, and even in ourselves. In our busyness, in our frantic search for something else, in our tight and stressed lives, we have forgotten what it means to be natural.

Our culture backgrounds those who provide for the necessities of life, and constructs virtue and privilege in terms of distance from them. We deny our dependency on nature, on women, on those who provide us with food. We create virtue out of abstractions, business, concepts, science and rational thought. We deny other ways of knowing, we trivialise knowing through our senses, our bodies, our own inner wisdom.

The modern global economy is devouring the world that supports us, a world that nurtures our existence. The rational economy denies space and place to living things, beings who move to their own rhythms, to people who live close to the earth. This is not rational!

We need to understand nature as the irreplaceable other on which all life depends.

The year is fast coming to an end. Well, time never really ends does it?

Perhaps we need to challenge a linear, progressive sense of time, and remember when all was aligned with the seasons and rhythms of nature. A time when the circle or spiral was the dominant form of existence, when we weren’t dominated by tick-tock time, and things, events and people, cycled through space and time, in increasing levels of maturity, richness and creativity.

But this is the last post for 2009, so some things do come to an end!

In 2010 imaginal will commence a series of nature-inspired events and workshops, with local and international teachers, inspired by the themes of nature~circle~soul. More to be announed early next year.

………………………………………

Below you will find a collection of small pieces from me (unreferenced) and other inspiring people. Bite-sized easy to read pieces for the holidays! Trust you enjoy them.

Only people who don’t honour the ancestors say there is no past. Only people who don’t have dreams say there is no future. The past becomes the future with the uniqueness of now.

We Moderns long ago traded our ability to live squarely on the earth for the coddled comfort of the uninitiated.

An angel told me the only way to walk through fire without getting burned is to become fire. (Drew Dellinger)

Can we re-awaken the old, non-dualistic animism that has been dormat for so long? And recover our own lost indigenous soul, calling us back to life? How do we re-member ourselves? How do we remember what we have forgotten?

The spiritual rememberance is hiding somewhere inside all people, waiting like a bunch of patient red-eyed desert frogs dug deep into the earth in an endless drought, waiting for the storm of spiritual beauty whose moisture causes them to “re-member” the intactness of their loud magical voices back into life after digging out of the dusty humus of these untethered times. That takes a lot of work, courage, study, love, and a willingness to fail. (Martin Prechtel)

The voice of the natural human soul in relating to the world and other people cannot be abbreviated or made efficient. (Martin Prechtel)

Mythic imagination is a primordial resource of the human heart that combines heart-felt intelligence with a reverence for life in its myriad forms. When times become tragic and dark with uncertainty, what is missing is the touch of eternity and a mythic sense of being woven within the ongoing story of the world. (Michael Meade)

Our senses are meant to perceive the world. They developed with and from the world, not in isolation. Using them is the act that opens the door that is in Nature. (Stephen Buhner)

The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. (Diane DiPrima.)

How do we hear the words calling us back to life? How do we re-member ourselves? How do we remember what we have forgotten?

Why is it that we have beautiful metaphors for our heart (of joy, of love, of compassion), but the metaphors for the brain tend to be mechanical (super-computer, electronic signals)? Can I love you, taste you, with my brain?

Don’t want too much, the voices warned. No. Want. Want life. Want this fragile oasis to flourish. Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular array of creatures, this brilliant balance of need. Want it. Want it all. Desire. Welcome her raging power. May her strength course through us. Desire, she is life. Desire life. Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness so passionately, that we live for it. (Ellen Bass)

My experience has always been if you love something or someone passionately enough you will amplify your heart, eschew ancestral biases, open your mind, train your hands and go to any extent to learn the language of what you love, to comprehend and be comprehended, in order to converse with the Divine in the thing you love. (Martin Prechtel)

How do we fall in love, make love, with the world? We need to see the erotic impulse at the very heart of the earth, at our existence. Gravty, for example, is not only a force that keeps us on earth, but is also the erotic impuse at the heart of the universe, the energetic attraction between heavenly bodies, including us, that keeps everything in right relation.

We’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun. (Annie Leonard).

Be part of a bigger story. Everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change. (Adam Curtis)

Climate change is not about carbon, any more than deforestation is about trees or the emptying of the oceans is about fish. Climate change is about a species that is out of touch with the reality of our planet. A species that has failed to find a home on Gaia. A species that, for all of its intelligence, seems particularly dumb.

The magician’s task is to make sure that we humans always return something to the land so that there is a two-way flow, that the boundary between us — the human culture and the rest of nature — stays a porous boundary. (David Abram)

We’re made of plants … mostly.

Compassion means attending to all the aspects of our experience and consciously allowing each to unfold. Can we be compassionate to others? Ourselves?

Most people think listening to nature is a metaphor, which is why we’re in the mess where in.

Personal consciousness change (or enlightenment) is not sufficient to change the world.

We suffer from what can be called “premature evaluation” – the more rapidly we tag something, name it, categorise it, and try to understand it, the more quickly we short-change the deep transformation taking place. (Villoldo)

    We live in a world under threat. Almost everybody will agree with that. Our world is beset by crises unimaginable. What is the biggest threat to the world today? Many say climate change, some say population. Others will talk of injustice, water, soil. And these are all enormous problems, and probably beyond the scope of modern politics to solve.

    One major threat to our world, often not spoken about, is the war against the imagination, against dreaming, against the body and the senses, and against the emotions. The tools of this war are literalism, materialism, rationalism, concepts, abstractions, and the complete denial of what cannot be seen or measured.

    Most non-Western peoples espoused an animistic perspective, believing that the whole of nature is, in the words of Thomas Berry, “a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects”. Holistic scientist Stephan Harding says that for these peoples, “nature is truly alive, and every entity within it is endowed with agency, intelligence, and wisdom.” For traditional peoples, rocks are considered the elders of the Earth. There are tree people, and sky gods, in fact the gods were everywhere. And forests are living entities. All this wisdom, just outside the front door! Go and have a deep look, and feel inside if something out there looks back.

    But in the west we adopt a literalist view of things, making a distinction between matter and spirit, body and soul. We don’t believe that the things of the world can project upon us their ideas and demands. We don’t believe that phenomenon has the capacity to come alive and deeply inform us. We don’t believe that the world has a soul. We fail to participate in the world, and we become an orphan culture, never truly feeling at home. Reweaving our culture with deeper stories and a poetic understanding will help us come home.

    In ancient worldviews our daily world of time and space was seen as a limited manifestation of the World behind the World, in the words of mythologist Michael Meade. The world behind everyday experience was considered the Real behind the real. Things in this world arose from the world of abundance, the eternal realm behind everything found in reality.

    Can we reawaken the old, non-dualistic animism that has been dormant for so long? And recover our own lost indigenous soul, calling us back to life? How do we re-member ourselves? How do we remember what we have forgotten?

    fertility-figure-oceaniaIn a recent discussion I had recently with a friend on food, eating and death (not your usual light-hearted chit chat) I made the comment that we need to understand that we are all food at some point.

    I expressed the view that I hope that one day my body will feed the soil and its many and varied life forms. To accept myself as food means that I accept myself as part of the food chain, and understand that life is about eating and being eaten. I also accept that I am part of a larger story, connected to those who came before me, and also in conversation with those who come after me. Death provides the material matrix for the new to emerge.

    Eco-philsopher Freya Mathews says in her book Reinhabiting Reality that success in the modern world is based on vanquishing discomfort, obscurity, shame, pain and ultimately death itself (as if we could do any of these things). She says: “This defiance of life refects the fact that in the modern era civilisation is no longer organised around the organic principle of fertility but rather the manufacturing one of production.”

    As much as we try, we just can’t escape the process of birth, death and regeneration, as much as modern society tries to do so. We prolong life, we spend millions of dollars extending life, without ever questioning what life is really for.

    Adopting the principle of fertility would generate a far different society, and take us in different directions. Freya says that at the heart of the notion of fertility are “reclamation, resurrection and renewal”. In a profoundly beautiful statement, she says that “the worship of fertility entails a practice of “recycling” at every level of life – the forgiveness of the degraded, the readoption of the rejected, the reclamation of the discarded.”

    The principle of fertility is also applicable to the inner life of the self. This would mean that we celebrate who we are, just as we are; we don’t aim for perfection, but embrace all our failures, defects and limitations. In the modern world, we try to remake ourselves in accordance with an abstract idea, presented to us by the dominant culture. We often consider ourselves some kind of project to be worked on, rather than a mystery that has emerged from the unmanifest realm.

    We also lack connection to a larger story, lost as we are in our individual stories. The principle of fertility offers the seeds of a new story, a richer story, a story that would enable a deeper understanding of our lives and what it means to be fully human. In life, and in death.

    dsc_8422-pelican-flying-3-nice-en-caI watch as the two pelicans soar high above the river, as they glide on unseen thermals and turn ever so gracefully. The wind is singing its boisterous song through the choir of trees around me. It feels wild, ever shifting, and I sense I have lost some solidity here on the banks of Myall Lakes. Perhaps it would be better to be like the trees and allow my whole being to sway and bend with the wind? Or be like the pelicans who just seem to be playing in and with the wind?

    This experience caused me to wonder about how the weather affects my moods and my experiences. And how we have constructed the weather as something to avoid, as we become increasingly an indoor species. When was the last time you danced in the rain, or felt the sensuous touch of wind on your body?

    I offered this question to Kali, a friend of mine, and she provided some extraordinary and beautiful insights into weather and how it affects her moods. During a particularly windy period, she said: “This particular wind has been lifting my spirit like a young woman’s dress for days now… I feel so fine and tell it regularly how much I love it. It seems to like that.”

    She added: “And then there was the invitation to get wet in the rain on Tuesday night. How could I possibly turn down such an arousing offer? And the soft warm earth through springy grass against bare rain dropped skin? Simply priceless! The elements tickle and tease me, an open invitation to play. And I sometimes run headlong into their embrace. Other times I smile and sigh as the allure proves greater than whatever human-constructed task I happen to be working on at the time. I surrender to the invitation to open myself to the very alive natural world. It’s all about what the elements do with me once I invite them in.”

    This is delicious writing and reflects a completely different worldview to that usually presented on news weather reports! It is a world alive and full of meaning. Kali fully embraces the elements of air and water (and I am sure she would also embrace the elements of earth and fire). She co-creates beauty out of the elements, and treats them like a lover beckoning her to come out and play (or dance or sing). Most moderns simply complain about the weather: it’s too hot, too cold, it’s never just right.

    The key question, as put by David Abram in Orion Magazine, is whether we are projecting our own interior mood upon the outer landscape. He answers this by posing this question: “What if our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various “interior” moods was borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself?” What a great question! He continues with an example: (What) if our emotional release has been fed not only by the flow of tears, but also by our experience of rainfall?

    How would your “interior mood” change if you perceived every weather event not as something to avoid, but as an invitation to play, to dance, to sing? And accepted the offer, and allowed that event to “tease and tickle you”?

    On the weekend at my place in Kangaroo Valley I was doing some work around my vegetable garden. The garden is covered in netting to protect the crops from local wildlife who are tempted by the joys of human grown food.

    As I pulled up the netting I saw a snake, a red-bellied black snake. I jumped back, startled. Then I looked more closely and realised that the snake was dead.

    This snake had been with me for years, and our paths had crossed occasionally when I wandered around my property. We were not what you would call the best of friends, but we were good neighbours. We shared the land together. We acknowledged each other’s presence. We allowed each other the space to live separate but connected lives. Now through my worthy intention of growing vegetables, this beautiful snake died.

    Looking at the snake, I knew she had to be cut out of her last torment. With scissors I gently cut away the netting, and handled her sensuous body for the first time. I felt the fullness of her weight, her black skin surprisingly soft to the touch, and her red (I thought it more pink) underside still bright. Her elegant head, her eyes wondering how life could end this way, suffocated by synthetic netting. I wondered how painful this would have been for her.

    I stood still and apologised to the snake, for taking her life, even it unintentionally. I felt enormous sorrow. She was an important part of the life of this land, and now she was gone. Did the land feel this loss also?

    I needed to ceremonially bury the snake. I dug a hole on a short rise, just in front of the bend of the creek that runs through my property. I placed her gently in her shallow grave. I placed some red sand over her body, the sand of the old dreaming country.

    Such sadness. Just one snake? How much more destruction goes on every day, in every place, by industrial civilisation. But I killed this snake with a veggie garden net! Death is still death, whether caused by a machine, or by carelessness. But this was not the death of just one snake; it was the death of another who lived on the land that I “own”, a fellow inhabitant.

    Living in the country one needs to get used to the presence of snakes. Through paying attention, and being fully aware, I was able to sense when the black snake was around, and take extra care. Better to develop a snake sense, I feel, than mowing the entire property, which some neighbours do to avoid snakes.

    That sensory awareness, that ability to feel into the presence of a wild other, was a gift I received. I’ll treasure that.

    Val Plumwood 1939-2008

    Val Plumwood 1939-2008

    The noted Australian eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood implored us to “re-imagine the world in richer terms that will allow us to find ourselves in dialogue with and limited by other species’ needs, other kinds of minds”.

    How could we imagine ourselves in dialogue with other species? How would we limit ourselves (such a radical concept today) as a result of the presence of other kinds of minds? What are these other kinds of non-human minds?

    One key and important step is to understand how contemporary societies have become out of touch with our ecological world, and with ourselves as ecological beings. We have constructed an extreme opposition between humans and the non-human order. This is what Val Plumwood called the “human-nature dualism”, which she describes as “a western-based cultural formation going back thousands of years that sees the essentially human as part of a radically separate order of reason, mind, or consciousness, set apart from the lower order that comprises the body, the woman, the animal, and the pre-human.”

    This human-nature dualism (falsely) conceives the human as not only superior to but different in kind from the non-human.

    We have set humans up as being mindful beings (within a  human-centred self-referential system), and non-humans (including nature) as dead matter, as spiritless, all mind and intelligence having being contracted to humans.

    A dualism is not just a simple dichotomy. A dualism has a hegemonic flavour, and allows the colonisation, domination and backgrounding of other peoples and the non-human world. By setting humans as above nature, we deny our embeddedness and dependency on nature. The driving force behind “progress” is the attempt to build a human society beyond the limits of nature (we just hate limits!). And just is case you didn’t realise it: This is actually impossible!

    Rather than constructing a dualism, or trying to transcend them, we can hold a creative tension between pairs of opposites. Tension between opposites can be healthy, allowing for the emergence of a creative holding of the pairing in its intrinsic pattern, beauty and rhythms, without domination of one over the other. There is a tension between night and day, between ocean and land, between breathing in and breathing out.

    We are often offered a false choice between saving nature or saving culture. Or we offered a choice that implies culture is more important than nature (it’s not). Don’t buy into this. We want both. We can’t have one without the other. We can’t just breathe in!

    Instead, take part in the radical project of re-imagining the world in richer terms. Allow others, non-human others, and places, to have a voice. The reality of nature is re-emerging now asking desperately to be heard.

    Pause. Listen carefully. The word is beckoning you, waiting for your participation.

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