Joan Halifax’s “World Wound”

Near the end of her Preface, Joan Halifax presents a rather concise summary of the elements of The Fruitful Darkness that most interested me:

The Fruitful Darkness is in part the story of the journey that took me through an encounter between the body of Buddhist practice and the body of tribal wisdom, especially shamanism. “Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with Truth,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a description of such an experiment. It is grounded in direct experience, practice, and intuition. My personal experiences are the main source for the text; the information and inspiration in this book are rooted in my life. This is inevitable, for neither Buddhism nor shamanism are “revealed” teachings. Both emphasize direct experience and personal realization over doctrine. In my years of practicing, working, and living with these traditions, I have discovered the profound value of truth that is directly known, directly understood, directly realized.

The book is also about the practice of ecology, an ecology of mind and spirit in relation to the Earth, an ecology that sees initiation as a way of reconciling self and other, an ecology that confirms the yield of the darkness, the fruit of suffering, an ecology of compassion.

Like Buddhism and shamanism, deep ecology is centered on questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation. All three of these practices— Buddhism, shamanism, and deep ecology— are based on the experience of engagement and the mystery of participation. Rooted in the practice and art of compassion, they move from speculation to revelation through the body of actual experience. There are many roads into the territory of non-duality. I have chosen to reflect on those that I have traveled. What follows are observations, notes, stories, and realizations that point to pathways that link self and other— ways that often take one through the Valley of Darkness. I also suggest that the fruits of understanding and compassion grow in this Valley.

Perhaps the key line for me was “Like Buddhism and shamanism, deep ecology is centered on questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” though I would be hard pressed to define any of those terms. It’s obvious, though, that Joan and I arrived at these interests from quite different directions.

Though I hadn’t heard of the term “deep ecology” until very recently, I think I’ve had a sense of “deep ecology” throughout my life, beginning with the hours spent fishing in the Puget Sound. Despite being raised a city boy, I’ve always felt more at home in nature, and that’s where I go to refresh myself.

That, in turn, led me to my “Indian” period. My first attempt at artwork was doing Indian beadwork on an inexpensive loom, something I’m starting to do again. In other words, I have been interested in Indian art and Indian culture for most of my life. It’s impossible for me to separate life here on the Puget Sound from the magnificent Northwest Indian art that evolved here.

I was introduced to Buddhism through the haiku poets, who I originally viewed just as “nature poets.” That literary introduction, in turn, led me to a further study of Taoism and Buddhism. If I believed in reincarnation, I would suspect that I must have been Buddhist in a previous life because as I’ve read I’ve discovered that I’ve been leading most of my life according to some Buddhists’ values. Of course, others might argue that I’ve devoted much of my life to living some Christians’ values, too.

In the opening chapter entitled “The World Wound” I also discovered that my sense of the state of our world was very close to Halifax’s view:

The World Wound is a collective wound that we suffer simply by being born. Buddhist practice and my study of shamanism have helped me see that we are one node in a vast web of life. As such, we are connected to each thing, and all things abide in us. Our psychological and physical afflictions are part of the stream of that being-ness. On my second day in the desert, as I was walking in the late afternoon, I recalled the years of mental and physical sickness I have suffered. I asked myself then, Whose sickness is this anyway?

From one point of view, the suffering was my suffering. From another point of view, it was rooted in social, cultural, environmental, and psychological factors that were far beyond the local definition of who I am. My suffering is not unique but arises out of the ground of my culture. It arises out of the global culture and environment as well. I am part of the World’s Body. If part of this body is suffering, then the world suffers.

Recognizing the World Wound also turns us away from a sense of exclusiveness. If we work to heal the wound in ourselves and other beings, then this part of the body of the world is also healed. Each of us carries or has carried suffering. This suffering is personal. But where is it that we end and the rest of creation begins? As part of the continuum of creation, our personal suffering is also the world’s suffering. Its causes are more complex and ramified than the local self.

I also believe “we are one node in a vast web of life,” that my suffering and your suffering “arises out of the ground of [our] culture,” and that if we are ever going to alleviate that suffering we all have to work to do so, first by trying to solve our own suffering.

The questions Halifax attempts to answer in the rest of her book are vital ones for most of us.

As the environmental aspects of our alienation from the ground of life become increasingly apparent, the social, physical, mental, and spiritual correlates rise into view. We all suffer in one way or another. Consciously or unconsciously, we wish to be liberated from this suffering. Some of us will attempt to transcend suffering. Some of us will be overwhelmed and imprisoned by it. Some of us in our attempts to rid ourselves of suffering will create more pain. In the way of shamans and Buddhists, we are encouraged to face fully whatever form our suffering takes, to confirm it, and, finally, to let it ignite our compassion and wisdom. We ask, How can we work with this suffering, this “World Wound”? How can our experience of this wound connect us to the web of creation? And how can this wound be a door to compassion and compassionate action?

Most of us hope that confronting our suffering, “This World Wound,” will help us to feel less pain, but few of us think of it as a “positive” experience, one that can “be a door to compassion and compassionate action.” Fewer of us know how “our experience of this wound [can] connect us to the web of creation” and “be a door to compassion and compassionate action.” It’s a journey well worth taking with Joan.