Man’s Interdependence

One of the key concepts in Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness is the idea of nonduality, the sense that we are an integral part of the whole. It is this sense of nonduality that she has discovered through her study of Buddhism, shamanism, and deep ecology.

We go into the darkness, we seek initiation, in order to know directly how the roots of all beings are tied together: how we are related to all things, how this relationship expresses itself in terms of interdependence, and finally how all phenomena abide within one another. Yes, the roots of all living things are tied together. Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace. This understanding is expressed in the term nonduality. If we look deeply, we find that we do not have a separate self-identity, a self that does not include sun and wind, earth and water, creatures and plants, and one another. We cannot exist without the presence and support of the interconnecting circles of creation— the geosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the sphere of our sun. All are related to us; we depend on each of these spheres for our very existence.

My original love of nature came from a childhood on Puget Sound spent fishing and hiking. It didn’t take long to discover that America’s predominant culture didn’t have the same love for nature that I did. I could never reconcile my view of nature with the Old Testament idea that man was giving dominion over the earth to use it for his own needs however he wished. Perhaps that is why later I was drawn to shamanism, ecology, Taoism, and, eventually, Buddhism.

In a world that seems increasingly mechanical and increasingly alienated, perhaps Halifax is right when she suggests that

The wisdom of the peoples of elder cultures can make an important contribution to the postmodern world, one that we must begin to accept as the crisis of self, society, and the environment deepens. This wisdom cannot be told, but it is to be found by each of us in the direct experience of silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, ceremony, and vision.

The deep ecologists Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, and John Seed write about the ecological self, the experience of our interconnectedness with all of creation. They know as well as I do that these words are intellectual concepts until this self is directly experienced. This is understood in Buddhism, where experience or “direct practice realization” is contrasted with conceptual knowledge. Buddhism as well as tribal traditions emphasize direct learning. In the tribal world, and I dare say in ours, Truth is not easily made real in our everyday lives, nor is it easily described.

Though I see few signs that society is ready to accept such wisdom, there are at least signs that society is beginning to pay more attention to ecologists and other scientists who warn about the abuse of the environment and the effects that has on people’s lives. Perhaps a realization that we cannot continue to plunder the environment without consequences will help people to realize just how much we are a part of the ecosystem. At the very least we can hope so while doing our best to promote that view.

The Way of Language and Stories

Naturally, I also easily related to the two chapters entitled the “Way of Language” and “The Way of Stories.” In fact, Halifax took me back to one of my earliest loves in literature, mythology, particularly Indian mythology, especially the stories of the Pacific Northwest Indians, though I don’t think I ever consciously saw them in the same light she discusses them.

She even quotes a favorite author in support of her interpretation, one of many times that she does so.

Thomas Berry, in The Dream of the Earth, has said that most of us suffer from a kind of autism when it comes to communicating with anything other than our own kind. The Holy Wind has been stilled within our lives, and we live in a cultural atmosphere that does not confirm the mutuality of creation. Even when we recognize our kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence, we remain mute before them. Their language has been forgotten. We are enclosed in a psychocultural cocoon; the outer world no longer flows into our being. Those voices remain unheard, and we are unable to speak in response. The winds of communication with creation are dying. Yet Earth and language meet and metabolize in the zones of dream and visions, in story, poetry, song, and prayer, and in direct communion with untamed beings. These zones comprise the boundary lands where cultural constraints and social habits are overridden, where tribal folk, shamans, and children, the mad and inspired, are caught in the holy wind of creation.

Being a city boy I have felt “ kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence,” but have seldom felt capable of communicating with them. The closest I’ve come to this kind of communication is with the many dogs I’ve had throughout my life, but the longer I bird the closer I come to thinking I can actually understand some birds. I talk to all the birds, if only to say hello, but at times I think I even understand their calls, particularly the crows who live in my neighborhood.

Halifax argues that until we are able to share our story with other species that we are cut off from our world and from our true selves.

The true language of these worlds opens from the heart of a story that is being shared between species. For us to be restored to the fabric of this Earth, we are bidden to enter this tale once again through its many modes of telling, to listen through the ears of others to the mystery of creation, with its continually changing patterns, and to take part once again in the integral weave of the narrative. Might we not hear our true names if we learn to listen through the ears of Others? Through language, one can exchange one’s self with other beings and in this way establish an ever-widening circle of existence.

Shamans can help restore us “to the fabric of the earth.” Since they live closer to the earth than we do, it seems to go without saying that they would have a better understanding of nature and its creatures than we would. If we want to restore our bonds to the earth, what better place to look?

In the next chapter, “The Way of the Story,” Halifax suggests that the best way to reconnect is through the stories of shamans and native peoples.

Yes, stories are also protectors. Like our immune systems, they defend us and the people against attacks of debilitating alienation. My good friend Steven Foster says that people erect symbolic stories around themselves like houses. These stories are “circles of protection and purpose that bodily carry our spirits all the way to the gates of death.” For stories and myths are the connective tissue between culture and nature, between self and other, between life and death that sew the worlds together in their telling. And in the protective and connective body of story the soul quickens. It comes alive.

I wish I’d read this quote while I was still teaching. I’m sure it is one of the reasons I majored in literature. There seems to be plenty of reason to be alienated by modern life, but contemporary literature does help to transcend, or at least ameliorate that alienation. I’d like to think that the nature poets I read help bridge the gap between city life and the natural world.

Though she cites a few modern authors like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, it’s really the stories of more primitive people that she suggests present the best chance of healing the rupture between modern people and nature:

Stories and their ceremonies weave our world together: the story of corn maiden and mother, of salmon’s death and rebirth, of bear’s human wife, of coyote’s foul tricks and lynx’s loneliness. These stories of ecological conscience are a council where the voices of all species may be heard. It is through these stories that the Earth can be restored, for these eco-narratives are an ilbal, a “seeing instrument.” Looking through the eyes of others as their ways are told, we may hear and understand the voices of our relatives.

It has been awhile since I’ve read these kind of native stories, but perhaps it’s time to go back and read some of the sources she cites in her book.

The Silence of the Mountains

I underlined so many passages in Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness that I didn’t realize how relatively short it is until I started to write about it (it didn’t help that I bought the Kindle edition, and I still can’t estimate length by the number of electrons in the book.) So, I’m hesitant to include too many passages in my discussion of it.

Halifax’s suggests there are many ways of “questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” many ways of coping with “The World Wound.” Her table of contents provides a concise view of the many ways she discusses in her book:

1 The World Wound
2 The Way of Silence
3 The Way of Traditions
4 The Way of the Mountain
5 The Way of Language
6 The Way of Story
7 The Way of Nonduality
8 The Way of Protectors
9 The Way of the Ancestors
10 The Way of Compassion

One of the ways I was most familiar with is “The Way of Silence.” In fact, this passage seemed particularly familiar, for obvious reasons:

The poet Kathleen Raine once suggested, “It is not that birds speak, but men learn silence.” I think that it is when we learn silence that the birds speak to us. Fertile silence is like a placenta nourishing us from both emptiness and its connectedness with the greater organism of creation. Indeed, one aspect of silence is emptiness, and yes, it is often lonely. In the presence of silence, the conditioned self rattles and scratches. It begins to crumble like old leaves or worn rock. If we have courage, we take silence as medicine to cure us from our social ills, the suffering of self-centered alienation. In silence, sacred silence, we stand naked like trees in winter, all our secrets visible under our skin. And like winter’s tree, we appear dead but are yet alive.

If you’ve been visiting long enough you might remember an entry where I called myself “He Who Talks to Small Birds” accompanied by a shot of the hummingbird that hung out in my front garden and talked to me every time I came out to take photographs. Strangely enough, I considered that moment a high point in my life only paralleled by the moment when the Grey Jay flew down to take a piece of trail bar out of my hand when I was cross-country skiing on Mt. Hood.

I also identified strongly with the Chapter entitled “The Way of the Mountain” on many levels. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve spent most of my time backpacking or hiking in the mountains, whether Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, or The Olympics. There’s always been something spiritual about spending a week alone or with a small group of people in the mountains, even more so than climbing mountains.

And, as I’ve noted before, it is the love of the mountains that drew me to many of the Chinese writers:

Before Dogen and after Dogen, in Tibet, China, and Japan, wilderness, and most particularly the greatness of mountains, has called rustic ascetics to their strength and stillness. The Chinese ideograph for hsien and Japanese sen is made up of two parts, one meaning person, the other meaning mountain. In Taoism and in Ch’an Buddhism, the hsien was a spiritual practitioner who used the mountain as a birth gate to awakening. Japan, like China, had a number of spiritual schools inspired by mountain mind. The tradition of Taoist naturalism and Esoteric Buddhist cosmology and rituals combined in the background of Shinto asceticism to give rise to Shugendo. The ascetic practitioners of the Shugendo sect are called yamabushi or “those who lie down in the mountains.”

I suspect that the silence I encountered on those hikes and backpacks was one of the main reasons I loved spending a large part of my summers there. I’ve never really identified hiking in the mountains with meditation and silence, but looking back it’s clear that most hikes in the mountain were a form of walking meditation.

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.