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Essays by James Lawer

Saturday
Feb092013

Describing Brain Functions for Our Work

[Prefacing Note:  This is a somewhat crafted dialogue to serve the purpose of information.  It is not, however, fiction.  Some of the dialogue is actual reporting of discussions with a live person—I mean, on this side of the veil—a clinical researcher who reviewed the article for scientific accuracy.  Some of it is this writer’s internal dialogue with teachings familiar to all of us at the Cuyamugue Institute.  And some of it is this writer’s internal dialogue with an actual research article originally published in October, 2012, by the Oxford University Press on behalf of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.  I believe this to be a highly important article for our work.  The original article referenced is titled “Functional Connectivity Measures After Psilocybin Inform a Novel Hypothesis of Early Psychosis,” by 10 contributing authors, with the research centered at the Imperial College London, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology.]

In the past, we have talked about different types of mental functioning in terms of a left-brain and right-brain dichotomy.  This model, offered by neurologist Michael Gazzaniga in the 1980s, has been a simple, descriptive way of creating a sense of anatomical distinction for different modes of thought: linear and computational versus intuitive and imaginative.  In addition, this has become a common descriptor in the culture, with “right brain/left brain” becoming a shorthand for this important distinction in describing consciousness.  More recent research into brain function, however, suggests an alternative model that can serve us as a more descriptive (and anatomically accurate) basis for understanding ways that brain and mind relate to one another.

Researchers today now talk about DMN (Default Mode Network) and TPN (Task Positive Network).  These modalities are not split between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  Instead, there are networks of regions on both sides of the brain that underlie both types of cognitive function.  The DMN and TPN each are composed of multiple sites in the brain, sites that connect to one another in a predictable and stable manner.  It is one of the marvels of our brains that these networks coordinate to create two distinct functional networks that tend to show reciprocal inhibition.  In other words, when one is active the other is quiet or dormant. Thus, in ordinary circumstances, we are not “split-brain” but “whole-brain” people.

In some ways DMN and TPN seem something like the former "right brain - left brain" description, but the differences, I believe, actually help us describe our work as a whole brain-whole body experience and thus can guide further discoveries.  

The "default mode network" represents the anatomical basis of our sense of self, our experience of having an identity or self, and our capacity for introspection.  It is active (as evidenced by increased blood flow and oxygen utilization) when we are contemplating such questions as who we are, how we perceive ourselves, how we experience our inner worlds, including reverie, daydreaming and imagination; i.e., when we are totally into ourselves.  

The "task-positive network" is just what it sounds like—it is active when we attend to things in the external world (the “other”).  It is in gear when we have externally focused attention, when we get wrapped up in getting something done and relatively forget about ourselves in the process.  

These two functions are located in discrete circuits that are scattered throughout the brain.  They are not split between the right and left hemispheres.  Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that when the rattling/drumming starts that the left-brain deactivates while the right brain becomes more active.  This newer model suggests that DMN and TPN are continually in balance with one another, rather like a 4-dimensional complex of evolving sets of X's:  one can slide between task-positive and introspection (and vice-a-versa) fluidly under normal circumstances. 

The left-brain/right-brain model, however, is similar in one way. 

Background:  The DMN is a network of regions (dare I name them?: including the posterior cingulate cortex; the medial prefrontal cortex; the lateral inferior parietal cortex) that show greater activity during internally oriented cognition than externally focused attention.  In other words, those regions actually receive more blood flow and consume more energy than other brain regions.  This is also the network of the brain that has undergone significant evolutionary expansion.  It serves as an important convergence zone or “connector hub” in the cortex.  The DMN is activated during high-level thinking, such as predicting the future, making personal, social and moral judgments, and contemplating the past.  There is some speculation that the evolutionary development of the DMN is the biological basis for our psychological sense of “self” or “ego.”

Here’s the similarity:  when we are engaged in external, task-positive, focused-attention activities (TPN), the DMN deactivates, receiving less blood and energy.  When we are engaged in introspection (DMN), the TPN deactivates.  That is, we are regulating blood flow and energy consumption between different parts of the brain depending on what type of consciousness we are using.  Furthermore, these two modes of consciousness do not, in ordinary waking consciousness, become activated simultaneously.  These two networks exist side-by-side and in a somewhat competitive relationship, each becoming active when the need arises, even though they can alternate with extraordinary rapidity.

When I described to a clinical researcher what we do at the Cuyamungue Institute, he said that there was no room in this model for the involvement of a third network, a sort of third line interacting with the other two, a third “capacity” representing our relationship to Spirit-world reality.  To which, honestly, I had to say that the newer model might use some revision because of experiences of the reality of the Spirit world, a world perceivable by our minds, and went on to describe what happens in our work.

I proposed to him that what was needed was a third, intersecting line—rather like a 3-dimensional X with fluid, non-fixed intersections.  (I can't draw that on this computer program.)  This third line represents what happens when the Spirit world, as an external and genuine reality, interacts as an “other” influencing both of our brain networks.  I described ways in which our self-perception (DMN) changes when we have an expanded (or deeper) sense of ourselves in the universe.  What is typical of what is reported by individuals undergoing psychedelic experiences in a  research context is, "That journey was the most meaningful spiritual experience I've ever had."  This has also been reported to me by people who experience a rattling-trance session.  

The comparison to people who are study subjects in psychedelic research is not accidental.  Brain studies after psilocybin (a commonly studied psychedelic medicine) show an increasingly fluid interaction between DMN and TPN.  That is, the ordinary, competitive separation of brain activities breaks down, and they become increasingly interactive with each other.  Introspection and focused daily tasks start to become united activities occurring simultaneously, mutually influencing each other.  I would like to suggest that rattling/trance induction sessions evoke similar effects, and the startling, profound effects reported after psychedelic experiences have marked parallel with reports from individuals undergoing sessions with me in rattling work.  

After work with the Cuyamungue Method, people consistently report changes in their behaviors or other ways they go about living their lives (their TPM—externally focused actions) with new, internal awareness (DMN).  I am suggesting that the introduction of the third, spiritual stream  changes and unifies both networks of brain function.  The Cuyamungue Method may function by altering brain function by softening the ordinary, competitive boundaries between the DMN and the TPN.  The Cuyamungue Method is, I would agree, an intentionally structured fusion of states—in which the Method induces a planned ambiguity—that looks, in some ways, like early stages of a psychotic episode.

[Observations from the practice of Cuyamungue rhythmic trance induction work:

It is my perception that, once the ritual Posture begins, people enter a zone of ambiguity, within which they let go of ordinary reality as a prelude to entering into the altered state.  It appears that moving successfully through this “grey barrens” is necessary for the trance state to happen.  It’s my own 7th Step to the Cuyamungue Method, and one I watch very, very carefully when observing participants.  My belief is that experienced practitioners maneuver this zone more easily, because the fears associated with “letting go” are more easily released with practice:  they know that they will return from the trance into ordinary reality.  Shamanic death, in other words, involves a profound complement of developed trust.  When the rattling stops, the body naturally and normally returns to ordinary functioning, but the trust factor that this will reliably occur is cumulative.]

To continue the conversation, I can agree with this newer model of the brain. I must also argue for the third intersecting network for a more complete description of how the brain functions within spiritual reality.  This belief is based on actual experience in working with spiritual seekers over nearly five decades, utilizing many different types of spiritual practices.

Therefore, it is an inadequate model that describes the brain as independent of the rest of the world. In fact, the biological functioning of the brain is more accurately understood within a context of “mind,” and as such, is situated in an authentic relationship with spiritual reality. It is only upon engaging true relationship between all three networks (DMN, TPN and Spirit) that the narrative of our deepest, human capacities can begin to be discovered.

The current research being done by, or being supported by, the Cuyamungue Institute, is strongly persuasive that the literal reality of the Spirit world is in fact not "merely" metaphorical, but it is also literally descriptive of the way our bodies are designed to experience and understand the world: continually deepening, continually expanding and growing in wisdom.

Therefore, a more useful and accurate brain model will not only include a third, intersecting line, but will also be far more descriptive when it includes the Spirit.  In this context, Spirit is an authentic reality to which we can pay attention as if it were an external, focused activity.  Additionally, it is in constant, internal relationship with us.  The doors to this authentic relationship are opened via rattling or drumming as taught by the Cuyamungue Institute.  This practice, as an expression of a unique aspect  of the human organism, may offer researchers a context through which to expand their own awareness of brain description and function.  In other words, the brain is not exactly the context for perceiving the Spirit world, but rather the Spirit world is the context for understanding brain functioning.

My correspondent and I agree that current research suggests a model for understanding the Cuyamungue Method: that it perhaps leads to increased DMN-TPN coupling, and that an aspect of its safety lies in the technique’s ability to provide a clear entrance and a clear ending to the experience.  This increased coupling of the two ordinary networks (of the DMN and the TPN) has been found in experienced meditators, particularly those who practice “nondual awareness,” which specifically promotes a unitary state of awareness. 

Well, I said, the brain studies that I know of demonstrate that brain wave patterns are different in meditation from trance state.  Perhaps what we are exploring in common is a more fluid understanding, a kind of heightened plasticity of consciousness, to which the Cuyamungue Method contributes some significant and specific methodology.  One of the central features of our Method is that we do not want people to try to empty out their minds in order to achieve a “nondual awareness.”  Instead, we want physiological arousal to remain conscious, intact, preserved, excited even, so that while our inner thought processes and our external focus become blurred (the DMN-TPN merger), we are more fully present while interacting with the Spirit world.  The Spirit world, then, is not at all separate from us but instead is the Greater Mind within which we can be active participants.

Thus, I believe, we are fundamentally altered by what happens in our trance sessions.

I, at least, now follow this line of reasoning when describing what we do. 

Copyright @ 2013 James Lawer

(This essay was first published in the Cuyamungue Institute February 2013 Newsletter)

Monday
Sep102012

Nature: Horizons of My Soul

In the musical “The King and I,” the King exclaims, “It’s a puzzlement!”

That phrase slithers across my memory like a fer-de-lance as I consider the perplexing, shake-my-head in disbelieving grief at how often people say they are disconnected from nature but then avoid the very thing that would amend their distress.  Nature wants to share its wisdom with us, and when we walk into it, a thousand thousand voices invite us to listen, one at a time.

So, it’s a puzzlement how we do not consciously reconnect with nature on a daily basis.  The perceptual framework of reality that makes a pagan a “pagan” would seem to begin with understanding that without “this” there is no “that.”   No trees:  no oxygen:  no breath.  No vitalizing chloroformation:  no life:  no Awen.  It would appear to be simple economics:  no this, no that.  In different terms:  no ritual, no true honor.

What I like is beginning with the simplest origins of ritual—getting out into the mud, tasting the sounds, brushing against the rough texture of tree trunks, sitting in wet moss, walking in synch with the rhythm of the ocean, and listening with an open heart.  I like knowing that we are the same multiverse, and that to speak “to” nature is to speak to ourselves.  “That that thou art I am.”  And if we are feeling disconnected, what are we really saying? 

The entire planet is our nemeton, not just whatever magical circles we draw around us on a special occasion.  The nature connection is our absolute fundament, whether it’s seasonal snow, Pacific winds, forests, trickling streams or raging rivers after mountain storms.  Not attending to our divine-nature-connection on a regular basis is very much like building a house on shifting sand.  And creating a vision ritual without anchoring into the foundation of nature is like attaching a kite to a tattered string and thrusting it into a strong wind.

I should be fair and tell you why this comes up at this time.

Recently, I spent all five weekdays at a retreat in upper Maine.  It was led by a man who was flown in from the West Coast, and paid handsomely, to lead the 20 of us in medicine retreats based on his decades of training with his own indigenous Peruvian elders.  My having been in Peru to work with several indigenous shamans there, and having worked with other indigenous medicine workers in this country—never minding the other indigenous spiritual leaders we have all experienced—I had familiarity with some possibilities.  In all of those earlier experiences, a trained spiritual leader walks the boundary between this and the spirit-ancestor worlds.  It is shamanic training to bring the edges together for intentional purposes that benefit the entire complex of creation.  My expectations were high.

But this guy brought a paper bag full of “medicines,” and talked on and on and on about his view of things, including a diagram, and then dispensed various consciousness altering substances.  While we were all still in the midst of journeying, he left to go to bed somewhere else, taking his girlfriend with him…., oh, yes, and his driver, the white guy who concocted the chemical intoxicants (empathogens and hallucinogens).

It wasn’t what I was expecting from someone advertising himself as a shaman.  Furthermore, not once, and I do mean not once, did he reference the spirits of nature surrounding us at that coastal retreat, not the Atlantic Ocean, not the bay, not the trees, not the gravel or the grass, not any of the animals, nor any of the ancestral lineage of either human beings or of the attending plants, and certainly not the creepy crawlers and flying things that were biting our skin.  He didn’t mention them much less honor them, or much, much less seek to establish sacred-soul relationship, which ought never be assumed.  He referenced zero connection to anything outside whatever personal experience each individual might devise for herself and himself.  And isn’t that the problem:  assume disconnection, and then further actualize it by withdrawing even farther into sheer personal, atomized, individualized worlds.  He didn’t, in the course of the next three days before he finally said he was done and departed for good, acknowledge the obvious wounds that had arisen among and also between the people.  Nor did he step into the historical role of the shaman to address what was visible within the group.  Whatever his indigenous elders may have otherwise thought healing was, he walked away from it.

He was a drug pusher, pure and simple.

What is so different about that from people who push disconnecting rituals? 

That there was healing to be had happened in spite of him, not because of him.  It wasn’t until he left that people began the journey of authenticity towards healing.  But, even then, there was no reference to the spirits of place.  Not a one.

Well, except for this druid priest.  And I don’t boast of it.  I say it because of what I believe pagans ought to be doing.  Whether or not we call ourselves shamans is irrelevant, though I think we should forego the title and be happy with “priests of nature.”  It’s a generous enough and difficult enough journey to become priests of nature.  On the first night, I asked the “shaman” about the interwoven roles of ritual and plant medicines in his culture.  He blathered on about things familiar to any actor trained in improvisation, but said nothing about his cultural heritage.  On the second night, I felt the evening breeze like an indigo-colored wind come in through an open door door.  I turned to it and welcomed it.  The shaman did not notice.  He was in his blather.  The third night, I actively began healing work on other participants.  One of them even asked me specifically to tend to him.  In the midst of that, the “shaman” went away for good.

What mr. shaman missed:  the next day—our fourth day together—one of the members talked about his very first authentic encounter with a tree, how the bark seemed to dissolve and take him into its pith and sap.  He had never known a tree until then; he had never had a tree welcome him home like that.  He told the story several times.  That was a relationship he wanted honoring, and found it in the telling.

What’s the point?

Disconnection is endemic within our culture.  There are efforts in many places to awaken and restore us, but on the whole the culture is spiritually broken and violent towards nature.  It’s a pandemic that may affect any of us, because it is the context in which we live.  Restoration and healing, therefore, should be a foundation of our rituals.  This is more than resistance to our cultural climate.  It is the creation of consciousness and ethical behavior in the midst of nature’s and society’s normal cycles of change.   Perhaps we call it “listening to spirit.”  Perhaps we are more attuned to the spirit of plants or to a particular animal.  In fact, some of us are initiated into very particular kinds of medicine work based on who (in nature) is speaking to us.  We call them our allies.  They enter our dreams.  When we honor them, they establish relationship with us; they reach out to us.

The desire for healing the disconnection comes from both directions across the veil.  Both sides are listening, and both—in right relationship—are 100% responsible for their part of the deal.  It’s not a 50-50 spread.  It’s not 50% my responsibility and 50% [their] responsibility.  Of course they want to be heard!  Same with us.

So, before we tackle the thorny issues of how to create and maintain community, even “pagan” community, we should begin with restoring and honoring our sacred community with the land, the spirits of place, our blood ancestors—with everything that we welcome in from the far and near horizons.  They are our context.  They are the source of that to which we should listen.   In a way, they are the Mind within which each of us has mind.  They are the planetary nemeton stretching over geographies of time and space.  They are the community that already exists and within which—damaged though it may be—that we have our life.  That is the Consciousness who turns its attention to us and seeks to invoke our response.

Paganism, in other words, is an invocation from nature towards us.

By ritual, we pagans honor and invoke the sacred and conscious relationship.

From there, we may move on.

For me, this is the foundational work of pagans.  I have had numbers of students who want this, but then they don’t want to do the work.  They like the sound of the poetry; they like the attitude of calling themselves pagan in the face of organized religion; they like the mead; they like the thoughts and the ideation of inspiration that arises from riding the Awen; they like the hope of change for themselves; they like the costumery.  It’s the muddy work of making and sustaining sacred relationship that eludes them.  When I say that it’s daily work over a long time, most of them have eventually drifted away.  Some have said that they are frightened by the possibility that once you set out on this path, there is no turning back.   Alternately, the thrill seekers move on; they are spiritual surfers.  The ones with arts background, more familiar with the cycles of chaos and creation, are the most intrigued.  Each of them, nonetheless, takes something of value with him.

But still, the big problem for many is how to think inside the illusive “pagan” mindset.  After many years of teaching, I have come to believe that the sticky place is that moment most sought after, when you live from within that way, and succeed in doing it in a world that will do everything it can to stop that.  It’s very much like learning a language.  That moment when you start dreaming in the other language, a major shift has occurred.    

Ritual, for me, is the door that opens that perceptual framework.  Rituals of connection, of honoring, and of responding to nature’s invocation to us are doors that open into that sight.  It’s a hard, hard thing to try to do this alone.  The making of sacred community is a task for which we must “gird up our loins and set to the plow.”

If we shall have a vision-making for the Maine pagan communities, then let us take the necessary time to establish sacred-soul relationship with the land where we are, and then afterwards begin the journey of seeking, listening, and clarifying that which the earth asks of us, so that we may authentically be priests of nature.

Copyright © 2012 James Lawer

Monday
Sep102012

Reflections Looking Back on an Illness

An old saw has it that what is broken is revealed, that in order for something new to emerge, the old must die, as if death is a kind of brokenness, from which decay eventually and necessarily transitions into rebirth.  I say, “saw,” because of something I witnessed as a child.  It was at the Grange Hall where the hillside created its own local entertainment.  I once saw a dozen accordionists, all girls and women who had been blindfolded and who had cotton coverings over their keys, play “Lady of Spain” on the corner platform.  So we were now back with all the other neighbors in folding chairs made of wooden slats.  On the corner platform, a scruffy man rosined up a cello bow, then positioned the handle of a saw on his thigh, and by bending the metal extension of the saw in subtle ways began playing a melody, drawing the cello bow across the flat edge of the saw.  A familiar melody, I suppose.  The adults were in a keen state of adulation and were humming.  It was literally an old saw, refurbished.  It had once shivered planks of wood for barns, outhouses and garages; now it was making music.  It had broken living tissue, and now it had reemerged as an enchantress, and poured out from the old man some ache of his heart.  It must have hurt to produce such beauty.  I remember that when he was finished, the Grange Hall was mesmerized and silent.  Then he slowly rose and shuffled out of the building.

No one tells you in so many words that profound beauty will break your heart.  Or that the only worthy response is silence.  Except for perhaps the opera.  Highly civilized people go mad with beauty.  They cannot leave it alone.  Cities are crazy when it comes to rapture, and their hands sting from their generous applause.  But I was raised with country folk who didn’t know how to handle being made vulnerable by beauty.  The ride home was in silence.  My grandmother looked at her hands folded on her cotton dress, rubbing the flower print on top of her own thigh.  Of course, that was in the 1940s.  I say of course, because TV is now awash with compulsive disclosure:  many seem to think it crude if they are not told everyone else’s intimate details.  But is anyone actually broken?  We find out about all sorts of people, but in the end what do we know about them?  Where are the old men who shuffle off corner platforms having exposed their tenderness, the listeners driving home in silence and forgetting to say “good night” as they turn over into sleep?   Brokenness, like beauty, seems windowed in somnambulance, viewable for admission.  Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Perhaps I miss the innocence of old saws.  Perhaps descents down unswept stairs into an infinity of creativity actually are happening quietly in side places of the continent.  An old woman taps her knee while singing a cradle song; a baby reaches for a rattle; a teenager creates the most dense black ink possible and makes one extended brush stroke across a canvas and opens his mouth in order to breathe; someone in her apartment plays the opening measures of the Sibelius Violin Concerto as if the sound crept out of the wilderness with blinking eyes; and out of the fog a morning bird sings.  This and a million other moments of beauty recreate the old saw, “If you don’t sing your song, who will?”   I must be too harsh.  Brokenness and beauty are everywhere, if we can be still enough to notice.

And if we cannot be still enough, but yet it is a lesson to be learned, then the Universe steps in and aims its lesson at our foundations.  And it aims to dissolve our structures. 

Of course, it—the Universe—doesn’t violate our will.  That would be spiritual rape.  And the Universe is not cruel.  In fact, I don’t think the Universe cares much at all one way or the other if we are inconvenienced by its operations, whether or not we think things are cruel.  Volcanoes erupt; hurricanes smash coastal villages; rising seas make migrants out of whole island archipelagos; fires rage across thousands of acres and burn houses.  But does nature “care” as such?  No:  it is neither cruel, nor devastating nor capricious by being what it is.  It just is.  Lake Pontchartrain was not violating the good people of New Orleans when so many people drowned.  Water is as water does.  It doesn’t, in fact, care.  No matter what the newspapers say or how we react, it wasn’t a “tragedy.” 

So, when I woke up one morning and could not breathe, that was not a tragedy.  And it was no more morally beatific of me to have chosen on the next day to live.  My experience of “The Presence” is that It would have been at peace whichever way I went.  The implicit nature of The Presence seems as much to provide death as it does to shower our skin with the florescence of vital energy. 

But we can interfere.  Our personal will can trump the potency we call The Universe.  Somewhere in the recesses of our personal fundament there must be an aching question, a question or a request that must be there in order for The Presence to act as decisively as it did in my life.  Really, it’s not unusual.  If you ask for an utter transformation of how you live your life, it may eventually come to you.  Per your request.  Answered prayers.  On the other hand, no one tells you to be ready to accept the consequences of everything being taken away from you.  No one tells you about the night terrors, sleepless nights when you will wonder if you are truly insane.  I have heard such laudation for renewed lives:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  That phrase is not, however, followed up with the perfunctory business under the surface:  “but not so much as to have actually changed at all.” 

Suppose any of us said the social truth:  Oh, do stir the pot of my life and charge me with daily renewal.  But, then, oh do it such that I am the same person I recognized myself to be yesterday.  Continuity of personality, I mean, would you recognize me if I am changed utterly?  Would my name still be written across my forehead?   Oh, you whom I call Creator, do not do as creators do when they enjoy chaos, dissolving the former forms and then make something new.  Let me, O you Creating One, deny that you are fundamentally Creator.  I want to be recreated.  But do not let it be so.  Let me not admit your own nature, but let me build you churches and temples of glory and ritual circles and feasts, and put you there, so that I may visit you occasionally.  I pray to be broken, to become a hollow bone for your presence, so that as long as I keep asking this, I may join many organizations where many people desire this, and we shall become excited about the possibilities.  Forever.  And have biannual meetings to track the progress.

I need to clarify a theological point.  I say “The Presence,” because that is how it felt to me.  I shall not call it “god,” or “creator,” or “universe” or any other thing.  It was just there.  It wasn’t a belief.  And unlike the prevailing thought that The Presence is loving and caring, that was not my experience at all.  On the contrary, something else happened.  And what happened dissolved the pillars of my beliefs and began building something else entirely.   I am still in construction.

This is what happened.  On the second day of consciously having to pull in breath and consciously having to exhale it, which was the beginning of six such sleepless days and nights, I suddenly was in a place of an utter and endless darkness.  What kind of darkness could be that deep, that much deeper and more extensive than what is humanly imaginable?  When we dive deeply, how deep is that inky fog at the bottom of the ocean of our resources?  And past the fog, past the feeling of clear dark, into the bottomless eternity, what is the limit of deepness?  How far can any of us dive?  And are we ready to go there?  A dear friend in the Santeria tradition asked me that question, when my connection to Olokun was revealed.  Behind my struggle to breathe is the deity of profound depths who takes everything.  And behind him is the Dark Lady of the Druids, who in fact did take everything within a month of my commitment—home, lover, and soon enough my employment.  Behind that the six vivid dreams of grizzly bears destroying my entire home and work sites.  And behind that the shaman in Peru telling me I had a death wish.  And behind that the several times I tried to commit suicide, because I could not know what the foundation of my life was.  And behind that the constant brokenness of a family that moved me around, disrupted and moved me out of all possible, lasting friendships while I was being incested.  Can we ever experience all the things we have yet to imagine? 

I was not afraid.  And I was not alone.  “Something” was with me.  There in the endless dark, where no stars shone and in a vacuum of sound:  The Presence.   Unseen, but everywhere and next to me.  And The Presence did not, at that time, mimic a saying from The Torah, “I lay before you life and death; so, choose life that you may live.”  Instead, it simply “was” what my options were and “was” free choice.  Either way would have been okay.   Stop breathing or continue breathing.  I could have done either.  It wasn’t that The Presence cared at all, but only that it is an infinite regard for our own choice.  It fulfills life and death equally and unconditionally.  Nor did it feel like a well of salvation rising from the earth as a balm for my wounded spirit, which had happened in the spring of 1993 after emotional abuse from a christian congregation.   There in the asphalt parking lot in Riverside, CA, I was frozen midstep, transfixed, as the earth opened and sang into my soul.  But this was not that.  I was hunched over in a New York City apartment, down on hands and knees, my forehead to the floor.  I reviewed the situations of my children and grandchildren.  They would all be okay.  I knew that there might be grief, but it was transitory.  Healing is part of the life force.  Even so, my boyfriend later told me he had seen my life spirit start to leave my body several times.

I fought for every breath in and for every breath out.  And this is what I learned:

In the basement of our lives, when everything has been taken away, waits the hulking beast, eying us to answer the question of our fundament.

At the root of all lies the twin fetuses of the existential condition:  How can I live an unencumbered life?  and, I no longer can live my life the way I have up to this point.  Now what?

What followed is that I gave almost everything away.  My children received much of it.  My friends took most of the rest.  I kept a few things because they are still useful.  But that is not yet the deepest part of the journey.  That is only what The Presence required of me as a condition for my life.

This is what happened:

I discovered that underneath everything is devotion.  At first, I thought that it was prayer, but it wasn’t prayer in the sense that “I” am doing something towards Something Else.  Instead, and this is hard to describe, so forgive me my clumsiness in expression, instead I realized that the difference, the gap, between me and The Presence had been bridged by an ineffable action of imperturbable longing shaped into unending and spontaneous singing.  This motion could have been any form of art.  I am a dancer, a writer, and a musician.  In me the devotion became singing into The Presence, but as if It were singing through me into its own being.  And I was Its own channel.  But within the life of a dear friend, I see how The Presence shapes into painting, onto stretched paper, of faces emerging from thrilling landscapes.  And the color!  Oh, the astounding color of those paintings!  Just so, the singing includes a thrill on account of its own expression.  Just so, when I dance, there is a kinesthetic thrill that leaves me literally speechless, and I am often unable to talk until I become reacquainted with this world.  

Shortly after this devotion arose in me, I was sitting at a sweat lodge in Portland.  Suddenly The Presence was with me, and without thinking, my body began singing out loud. 

I discovered that the devotion is not fundamentally mine.  It is not exclusively the provinance of humanity at all, that it can be heard in the wind and the mist rising from the ocean, that every child unconsciously might hum it, and that it sings through our ancestors as well as through us who are on this side of the veil.  Everywhere present; everywhere in devotion; everywhere singing.

In retrospect, looking back to that time:  when all I had was one breath to the next; when everything else I had called “my life” seemed to have been erased; when for days all I had was the constant choosing to breathe in and to breathe out; when I could neither eat nor sleep on account of focusing down to simple breath; when my boyfriend was watching my spirit start to leave my body several times over that week, I know now that The Presence brings us to our knees, forehead to the floor, because it wants to sing through us back into Itself.  Even if we are being sung through into the world, such as I have experienced with monks in their sanctuaries, It is always singing into Itself.  The Presence is reaching out to experience its own beauty.  The world is Its own bodysong.  When we are brought into this rapturous expression, we become Its body.  In mythic terms, we become Christ.  It requires of us our brokenness, so that its Wholeness is felt, restored, expressed.  We become, in mystic and literal ways, priests of nature, our sensuous bodysouls given over.

What was revealed in my brokenness is the constant, sensual singing of The Presence, singing its own beauty, transfiguring us from mere blood and bones into Its own sacrament.  Sacred soul relationship becomes established, and the life force moves through us, even when our bodies cannot contain it and break on the arc of its melody.  We ride the energy as long as we can.  The singing goes on.

This is not a miracle.  How can it be, when it is a constant in creation?  The wonder is that we are able to resist it so fervently, defend ourselves against it by every means, while at the same time yearning to be within it.   How could we have ever thought we were separate from it, and allowed religion to teach that belief.  It’s a horror! The miracle, such as it is, is not against nature or other than nature from some place outside of the laws of nature.  The miracle, it seems, is diving in so deeply, so deeply until our foundations are relinquished, so deeply until all that remains is the essential fundament, the breath, the breath which we can no longer take for granted and for which we must take a perilous journey, until we wake up and become part of the song.

Copyright © 2012 James Lawer