Native American consciousness as modern survival paradigm
“There are two ways to be fooled: one is to believe what isn’t so, the other is to refuse to believe what is so.”
“Not obeying the rules handed down from the beginning of time by the ancestors can bring sickness.” –Kierkegaard
The Sacred p. 129
Long before there was a United States there was Turtle Island. It was perceived as feminine by the diverse groups of indigenous people occupying her territory. These first inhabitants of Turtle Island treated her with respect, attuning their lives to the rhythms of her being. Daily interactions with the natural world were made sacred in appreciation of Turtle Island’s gifts of food, shelter, clothing, medicine and beauty.
Today, many years later, the majority of the land’s current inhabitants no longer walk with respect upon her body. Modern Americans are not attuned to the natural forces dwelling within their own bodies, nor with those beneath them in the larger body they live upon. Increasing mechanization and stress characterize 20th century society. Prevailing attitudes emphasizing the supremacy of material reality and of human life over animal life and non-material realities, perpetuate alienation from the world of nature within and around us. Increasing incidence of stress-related illness and environmental pollution are manifestation of disharmony between our bodies, minds, feelings, spirit and physical world. We suffer from a perspective lacking effective methodologies with which to bring these seemingly disparate realities into a balanced whole. We focus well on separate bits and pieces of life, but too often miss the synergistic workings of the “whole show.”
Yet the “whole show of evolution” moves on, whether we attune to it or not. Advances in physics, genetics and medical technology bring new perspectives at an accelerated rate. The proliferating nuclear threat and its extension into outer space necessitates attitudinal and geopolitical change to counterbalance the threat of misused technology. One harbinger of hope is the increasing clinical and research data in the fields of psychosomatic medicine, biofeedback work, pscho-immunotherapy and scientific explorations in consciousness studies which indicate cultural acceptance of a radical underestimation of our power to impact our inner physiological being, as well as the physical world around us. We desperately need survival paradigms that teach us to work wisely and harmoniously with the issues of power facing us at this time in history. Thomas W Wilson, in his paper, ‘Changing Perceptions of National Security” presents the challenge clearly: “in the real world today the national interests of the separate states converge in the need to defend and sustain the living systems of planet earth and that includes us.”
One model for defending and sustaining the “living systems of planet earth “can be found in the “old ways” of the first inhabitants of Turtle Island. “Rules for living” were passed on by the elders of Native American tribal groups throughout the Americas. They affirmed that all the manifestations and forces of creation are inter-dependent with one another in an integrated whole. There was a recognition of life as power, as a mysterious, ubiquitous, concentrated form of non-material energy, of something loose about the world and contained in a more or less condensed degree by every object.” Native American beliefs emphasized pragmatic knowledge with which to live in harmony and balance with this “non-material energy, and with the great mystery underlying it all. “Wakan Tanka”, translated from the Oglala Sioux language means literally, sacred, or Great Mystery.
The shaman and medicine man/woman helped tribal members maintain, or restore when needed, this sacred balance through their healing rituals, rites and ceremonies. Vital to this process was the relationship to the land they lived on, For Native people there was no concept of ownership or possession of land. They believed their role was caretaker: they were to live on Turtle Island with love, respect and appreciation for her generous gifts without which they could not survive. This perception of their role as caretakers produced behavioral patterns congruent with this belief. They were to care for their “mother” who in turn was the bearer of life itself. There was no word for religion; there was simply living out their beliefs in their daily lives. A primary dynamic of their caring role, was reciprocal interaction with the land and all her creatures. Reciprocity was sacred because it maintained the balance between giving and taking, the “good medicine” responsible for health and well-being. Failure to act within the dictates of reciprocity could lead to illness, misfortune and even death.
Vision Quest, the seeking of direct contact with the Great Mystery to obtain guidance and medicine power for one’s life, was a dynamic rite of passage for many Native American people. The quest consisted of time spent alone in nature praying for a vision. The questor would neither eat nor drink and in some cases would stay awake at night as well. It might go on longer, but two to four days and nights was a frequent duration. The fasting, isolation and solitude, sleep deprivation and emotionally charged prayer rituals accompanying the sacred quest, acted in synergistic fashion to produce an alteration of consciousness.
Similar to psychedelic experience precipitated by psychoactive drugs, psychological set and setting were important determinants in the results of this altered state. The setting for the quest was constant; a wilderness environment, usually atop a mountain or high butte. The set, or cognitive repertoire of attitudes, beliefs, feelings and philosophy, inculcated into the Native youth since early childhood, emphasized the presence of the Great Mystery in all of creation. If the questors sufficiently prepared themselves through the rites of fasting and purification, and if they truly humbled themselves before the Mystery and waited in patience, their prayers would usually be answered. This was the expectation and in a self-fulfilling manner, frequently resulted in a peak experience of mystical union and oneness between creator, creation and perceiving self. The quest experience encouraged and empowered what philosopher Jacob Needleman refers to as a “first-hand sense of identity.” The expansion of awareness, shifted the identity focus from ego to the transpersonal. The quest experientially validated the cultural belief in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life, thereby reinforcing the importance of reciprocal interactions with every manifestation of the Great Mystery.
The returning youth was typically welcomed back into the tribe with elaborate rites of incorporation. Often a new name was bestowed, based on their visions, which in turn reinforced the spiritual nature of their identity. Their clothing, dwelling, personal belongings, songs and prayers from this point on, and for the duration of their lives, were physical embodiment of their guiding vision from adolescence, the foundation for their medicine power. A strong sense of purpose and commitment to act as a “warrior” and integrate their vision into their lives characterized the post-quest experience.
In my doctoral dissertation, published by Free Person Press as A Quest For Vision, I describe my own quest for vision and subsequent development of a successful adaptation for treating heroin addiction in the early 1970′s. Since that time I have offered this program through workshops and classes to people in all walks of life throughout the country. Participants discover helpful guidance, insight and empowerment to challenge unresolved difficulties impairing their current existence. Might there be a linkage of some sort between the “old ways” of the aboriginals of Turtle Island, ways that helped them obtain the survival wisdom necessary for their times, and our need today for “survival wisdom” on the same land? Rupert Sheldrake speculates that there might be “a subtle but pervasive property of nature which organizes and stores information just as the gravitational field organizes matter and stores energy.” “Morphic resonance” is the flow of information between elements of the field. Does Turtle Island still speak to modern questors through this “morphic resonance”, as it has for millennia to those who would listen?
The model I use in teaching the quest for vision consists of four stages. The initial one is of preparation Native youth had the entire web of their culture preparing them for their outing. Ongoing validation for the importance of vision motivated them to seek their own when the timing was right and to do so in a sacred way with the helpful guidance of knowledgeable elders. Today’s prevailing paradigm of reality emphasizing the material world, and rationality and logic as the dominant means to ‘know the world”, lacks positive models of encouragement and instruction for those seeking vision on different levels of awareness. Thus modern questors need supportive preparation to develop both a conceptual framework and physical and self-regulatory awareness skills with which to capitalize on the potential of the quest experience. Preparation focuses on exploring the dynamics of sacredness in reciprocity, the meaning and source of medicine power, and how to open and attune to “mystery” within and around us for guidance and direction. We work with dreams, myth and symbols using guided fantasy, movement, sound and music. We attune to feelings and intuition and utilize centering exercises, meditation and prayer to quiet our rational ego-centered minds. We strive to enhance awareness and sensitivity to the deeper psyche and to the animals, trees, rocks, weather, etc., of the natural world around us. Dreams are an especially important focus, bridging the personal unconscious with the collective unconscious, the waking st-ate to the altered state during sleep, and the rational to the “wilderness” of the deeper mind. Attunement to intuition and feelings in addressing problematic situations that come up in preparation, helps balance overdependence on rational modes of problem solving which western education teaches us to rely on. Emphasis is on introspection, entering the “looks-within place” to listen for guidance from the “mystery” within.
The intent of these exercises is not to have participants try to-’become Indians. I myself am not of Native American descent. I have, however, spent the past fifteen years exploring Native American and shamanistic belief systems, rituals and ceremonies through direct experience with shamans and medicine people; through seeking my own visions and through attempting to integrate the findings of these explorations into my clinical work as a psychologist, a consultant and teacher. My intent is to use these “old wisdom ways” as a vehicle to expand perceptual models on the nature of reality. The “old ways” open the doors of perception to a larger vista of awareness in which the wisdom of relationships based on reciprocity, harmony and balance become self-evident as survival necessities.
The second stage, Purification begins as we ready ourselves for time on the land. We seek cleansing of our physical bodies, our minds and our spirits so as to “empty” ourselves for our quest. Each questor begins to fast. This helps clean out the body and open awareness and communicative capacities previously unavailable due to digestive and food-related activities. Fasting also helps the individual to clarify and focus on their goals for the quest. A sweat-lodge ceremony deepens this process.
The sweat-lodge is a dome shaped structure of branches with tarps and blankets thrown over it to completely seal out all light. Rocks are heated in an open fire-pit and then brought into the lodge when red-hot and placed in a hole at the center. Participants enter the lodge and form a circle , seated on the ground around the glowing rocks. Water is poured onto the rocks and hot steam blasts throughout the lodge cleansing all within.
Native American people view the sweat-lodge ceremony as a healing process, complete in itself, as well as part and parcel of other sacred rites such as the Vision Quest. They view the lodge as Jews and Christians would revere their synagogue or church. The sweat-lodge ceremony was a symbolic return to the womb of creation. Every act within this sacred setting of earth, air, fire and water held significance. Prayers were offered as bodies and spirits, minds and emotions opened and were cleansed. Many healings took place in the lodge. It is one of the most ancient of the old ways and considered very sacred and powerful. Disrespect or misuse can result in serious difficulty.
Modern questors find the sweat-lodge to be a powerful experience for them as well, expanding their understanding of purification to a psycho-spiritual level as well as the physical. A “Give-Away Ceremony” takes place after the sweat, with each member sharing with the group something of import to their quest. Afterwards we sleep next to one another in a circle, which symbolizes wholeness and the spiritual knowledge we seek from the teaching wheels of the universe.
We rise at dawn to greet the birthing new day in a Sunrise Ceremony, and to review dreams from the previous night. Then we say our goodbyes and each person walks off to an already designated “place of Power” to spend one to three days alone (depending on the length of the outing.)
This period of solitude and isolation in the natural world comprises the third stage of the quest. Modern seekers also experience an alteration of consciousness induced by the fasting, ceremony and ritual. Disassociation from their normal reality structure enhances this alteration as they explore their own nature in the midst of nature. Openness, attentiveness, appreciation and humility, attitudes stressed in the earlier preparation sessions, enable participants to go deeper into their experience. Solitude, especially in the darkness of a wilderness setting, activate fears and anxieties that ego defenses have successfully held in check in the person’s normal environment. Questions of “who am I?”, “where did I come from?”, “why am I here?”, “where am I going” are also activated and explored as each person enacts his/her quest. The cyclic, rhythmic forces of nature pulse in and around them, offering their wisdom-teachings to the perceptive and attentive student.
The group reunites at a central location upon completion of the agreed-upon time of solitude. A celebration of survival and togetherness initiates the fourth stage of the quest incorporation We reassemble our circle to hear each member’s experience. Each person is recognized as both teacher and student, a sacred Medicine Wheel or mirror, as they relate their story. This sharing serves as a rite of integration back into the social world from which we have ventured forth and to which we now return. A prayer of thanksgiving concludes our time in the wilderness. A final meeting one week later focuses on the significance of our quest discoveries for our post-quest lives.
“I found what I was looking for and it was me,” reports John B., an administrative executive from San Francisco, 44 years old. TI1 had no great mystery opened to me no spiritual visitor. My vision is that I’ve found my own spirit, the real me beneath my physical and psychological being. I see now that the rules I’ve lived by have kept me from the natural spirit that is within me. I’ve been an active churchgoer since college. I know the Christian concept of the soul, but I’ve always associated it with life after death, not as part of my present existence. The concept of spirit as a part of me never really fell into place. To me, my being was made up of my body and my mind. The idea of a third part of my being, a spirit, never really occurred to me. The rules of society and logic have kept me blinded. My search for my spot was a part of my vision. I learned to trust my feelings even though logic said otherwise.”
“The sweat-bath continued the vision. My rules said nudity was bad. But when it came time to decide whether to go into the bath it felt right to do it. So, I ignored the rule.”
“Our giveaway was a part of my vision. I learned that simple giving from the heart, not the size or the fineness of the gift, was what mattered. Joe’s gift was the greatest for me. My rules said it was not right for one man to embrace another. I found that Joe’s embrace was good and right.”
“As I thought of these things this morning, I realized these same rules were keeping me from Nature. Nature was willing and open but I kept myself out. My reasoning said I must fear Nature, that I must protect myself from it, So I kept the shield that separated me from it.”
“I know that I can’t cast aside all my rules but I know now that they’re there for me to cast aside when the time is right. I think I can hug my son when I feel it is right and not be guilty -thanks to Joe. I think I can be nude and not be ashamed when the time is right. Finally, I can go to the land and be a part of it, accepting its beauty, its signs, its being.”
“After I thought of these things I began to cry. It felt good to cry so I let the tears flow. I cried, I think, in happiness and thankfulness for my vision. Now that I’ve found my spirit, now that I know it is there, I can seek it out. I know the way.”
John’s account reflects a broader understanding of himself and greater flexibility in the options he now chooses for his life.
For Native people, as with John and other modern questors, lack of awareness in understanding the consequences of their actions, can lead to disharmony and imbalance. Illness and accidents can be a manifestation of this disharmony which might be internal, or interactional with their social, natural or spiritual environment, illness or misfortune were perceived by Native Americans as signs of disharmony. Intervention through physical means was one component of treatment. The more significant intervention was the realignment of the patient back into harmonious relationships with themselves and their environment, the basis of a true and lasting healing.
Modern questors return from the wilderness more perceptive of the disharmony and imbalance in their lives, and a clearer sense of the role they play in bringing this about. In touch with enhanced personal power, they can now act constructively on their insights to initiate positive transformation in their areas of distress. By spending time alone in the natural world, questors directly and intimately experience the cyclic, energy forces of nature and their interconnectedness to them. The medicine power of the shaman was directly related to their own intimate relationship with these forces. Anthropologist Michael Harner points out that the shamanistic system is in fact a “system of consciousness alteration with which to enter alternative realities which modern physics describes as existing all around us. The absence of medicine as we know it today, with its dependence on physical intervention, forced people to “develop the utmost potential of their minds in order to deal with critical matters that cannot be dealt with on a material basis. The shaman,” Harner continues, utilized intentional altered states of consciousness to accomplish a specific mission. “Their voyages into altered states, helped them to explore and develop mind potentials not usually addressed in current educational models.” Quest participants, through their own ASC utilize expanded vision to explore their own deeper mind states and potentials for being.
Numerous modern quest participants report transcendence of ordinary ego boundaries while in their altered state. Native American beliefs emphasize that Turtle Island and all who dwell upon her are conscious, living beings. For them, transpersonal relationships with non-human entities is an accepted part of life. It is assumed that each two-legged person has a specific totem animal/spirit that can help them in their lives and the Vision Quest is an opportunity to initiate this relationship if it has not already begun. Modern questors have powerful learning experiences both with physically present animals as well as with archetypal ones through dreams and visions. New perceptions and avenues of discovery not available in ordinary states of awareness, serve as rites of passage into deeper knowledge of self, which in turn provides information with which to walk in balance on the life path. This is the ancient empowerment heritage so badly needed today, passed on by generations of Turtle Island elders.
Ancient Hopi prophecy accurately predicts current conditions of pollution and nuclear threat. They state that we are at an important crossroad. Our actions now determine the severity of purification needed to heal our earth’s wounded body.
Perhaps we already experience this purification in the dramatic changes in weather patterns around the world and the havoc they have wrought. Solutions must begin within, for pollution begins in our pathological mis-perceptions of identity and relationship emphasizing myopic vision of separateness and short-term gain. There is, as ecologist Barry Commoner tell-s us, ‘no free lunch.”
“Modern society critically needs to strengthen its understanding of human, ecological and spiritual values to balance its runaway technological prowess,” declared Willis Harmon of the Institute of Noetic Science. Fred Polack in Image of the Future further asserts that “bold visionary thinking is a prerequisite for effective social change.” We have much to learn in seeking vision for effective social change from the old ways of Turtle Island If the Turtle Island concepts appear alien to our Judeo-Christian background, listen to another elder, also part of the “old ways” as he encourages us to “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee” It is Job in the Bible l2:7-10.
The job of seeking survival-based vision beckons us all. Our children’s children await our response.