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The World Wound
We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature.
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature
In the fall of 1990, I sat in a wash high above Owens Lake, now a desiccated pallet of pale, shifting color. Owens Valley stretches its long open body east of the Sierra Nevada in California. In its middle is the alkali floor of what was once an immense river-fed lake used by steamboats to transport salt from the Saline Valley and silver from the Inyos. Now great clouds of gray dust blow in the four directions from its basin, emptied in the early 1900s by the water lords of Los Angeles.
Close companions were fasting in the rugged canyons branching off from the rocky depression where we had made a base camp. These friends were taking refuge in silence and solitude. It was a time for them to separate themselves from their everyday lives, a time they had given to themselves to mark change in their lives, as people of many cultures have done, to renew their relationship with creation. Each spring for years, I too have gone into wilderness alone to fast, to empty and restore myself. Now, however, I was to "bear witness" for my friends. With teachers Steven Foster and Meredith Little, I would pray for these men and women as they went out, each one alone, without food or shelter, into this seemingly empty terrain.
Sitting in the rocky, windy land, my mind turned to Los Angeles, the vast city to the south that had sucked Owens Valley dry. Thousands of dead trees stand as silent witnesses to the destruction. The skies also witness this changing time with drought. Deer have retreated far into the higher reaches of the Sierra, and hunters complain. Old-timers around these parts say even the snakes are dying out for lack of water.
On our first afternoon in the south Inyo Mountains ("Dwelling Place of a Great Spirit") before people left for their fasts, the heavens were roaring with the sound of fighter planes training for our nation's most recent war. They were so close we could see the missiles clinging to their wings like dark lampreys. I wondered if the military would play war games all weekend, or would we have quiet instead, in this big, rugged commons? The human fingerprint is found today in every drop of rain. Is there any place on Earth where the voice of technology is not heard?
Early the next morning, my friends left in an unexpected rainstorm for their lonely vigils in the bare mountains just to the north. For most of the day and throughout the night rain raced in all directions. Usually, rain makes me smile. When I was growing up in Florida and North Carolina, bad weather meant rain. But I lived for twelve years in Southern California, and bad weather in California during the seventies and eighties meant no rain. I wondered what the rain would do for my fasting friends. How would it affect their internal weather?
I have always loved the smell of rain in the desert, with the bitter-fresh smell of ozone impregnating the atmosphere. The old, dry sage plants resurrect with rain. The rocks seem to give off a perfume as they show their true colors. The desert floor changes its contours before your very eyes. I still listen with interest to the voices of rain, sometimes harsh and driving, sometimes lyrical.
In the midst of this horizontal rain, I bedded down in the back of a covered pickup and listened till sleep came. At dawn, high and dry, I enjoyed the view of the drenched desert, waking up to light on the surface of each stone and pebble. After sunrise, a bright rainbow tied the world together. Then followed the silence of a cloudless day.
Silence makes the secretions of the mind visible. At first my "mental secretions" took the predictable form of an analysis of the "decline of the West" as well as everything else. East and West, North and South are a continuum, I reminded myself. The Paleolithic continuity, the world of tribal peoples, the wilderness they lived in, and dead Owens Lake are not separate and distinct from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By emptying myself when I fast, emptying myself in solitude, I might discover myself full — of history, wilderness, and society. And I can see my identity co-evolving with all of creation. I reminded myself as I watched the clouds collecting over the Sierra that we don't know the end of this story. The current state of events, however, had left little doubt in my mind about how pervasive suffering is in creation's continuum.
After these ruminations, I began to look around me at a rugged "unromantic" landscape — no flashy red rock twisted by the wind, no mushroom-shaped stones, no flower-filled meadows or lush forests, just scree, gray washes, and ragged mountains. This land would probably not induce visionary inflation in the fasters, I thought. Yet its beauty was subtle, with worn rock, bits of obsidian flakes from former inhabitants, a flash of pale pink in the cut or turn of a canyon. Yet most people would call this a wasteland.
When we first entered the area, I had to look hard to see where my friends might put themselves; there seemed to be nothing here. But on a second look, I could see the shadows of Earth where it turned upon itself, hiding places to take refuge from sun, wind, and rain. I was satisfied with this secretive environment; no one would bother to come here except a few hungry fools.
As a Western woman, whatever I have learned about the nature of the self, both the local and the extended self, has been by going inward and down into the fruitful darkness, the darkness of culture, the darkness of psyche, the darkness of nature. The most important secrets seem always to hide in the shadows. "The secret of life," say the Utes, "is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing."
I have entered this shadow world mostly unwillingly. Having found the gold of compassion in the dark stone of suffering, having tasted the fruit of sanity in the tangled grove of the self, I also willingly entered the Valley of the Shadow through solitude, silence, stillness, meditation, and prayer. In those quiet places I discovered a mindstream whose depths were luminous.
The third morning in Owens Valley, Steven swore that something or someone had come to camp in the early hours. I walked around camp, checking the kitchen and vehicles, and all looked quite normal to me. Steven made coffee, and we settled into a good talk as we waited for Meredith to return from town.
A little after nine, she arrived. I could see from a distance that her face was tight with concern. Steven saw it as well, and he approached the car quietly. It was she who bore the news that my mother had died unexpectedly that morning.
The first thing that I could see was my mother's face, a face that had always turned away from her own suffering even as she faced the suffering of others. Her life had been one of service. As a tall and beautiful woman in her twenties, she had mastered the craft of making books for the blind. And I was to learn later that on the last day of her life, twelve hours before she died, she had delivered magazines to the sick in the very hospital in which she was to bleed to death.
My mother was dead. On hearing the news, I turned my back to my companions and awkwardly walked south of camp to stare at the dead open body of Owens Lake. As I took rough southward steps, I absently wondered why it was still called a lake. Stopping, confused and raw, I felt as though there were no skin between me and the wind. That morning, the sky had turned over and called my mother's name. Now she was gone. I then looked north at the rugged wall of mountains where my friends were fasting. The stones and mountains, the clouds and sun all looked empty. The sky looked empty. I looked at my right hand; it too was empty, and it also was something that belonged to my mother. It was then I remembered these words:
Here on this mountain I am not alone. For all the lives I used to be are with me. All the lives tell me now I have come home.
I went from her funeral to another California desert. As I entered Joshua Tree National Monument at midnight, lightning turned the landscape bone white. I went out into this second desert, intending to be alone and to fast to mark grief. As I wandered around among the rocks and crevasses for hours looking for a protected place, I realized that the protection I sought was her. The womb that had given birth to me was gone. That protection was gone, and my back was now naked. The body I had been written from was dead, and I was without authority. It was too much for me to handle so soon after her death; I returned to base camp and the fire, the hearth, another place where mother-comfort is found. There I watched her life in the fire.
That first night, I was afraid and so slept next to the fire as coyotes walked boldly through camp. After the moon set, I had the following dream: My mother is on an operating table. A friend, a surgeon in the dream, has his scalpel on her belly. I turn away in horror, but he reaches across her body to comfort me as he cuts into her. From the pool of blood in her abdomen rises a small human figure with its eyes wide and awake.
Coming out of the dream with a start, looking at the night sky and tasting the desert in my mouth, I decided to continue the journey of mourning for my mother. I also discovered I was grieving for Earth. At that moment the two, the Earth and my mother, were one body.
A short while later, I traveled to Nepal. I walked for a month in the mountains and internally carried my mother's body up and down the rugged trail. Grieving along the rivers and in the mountains, I for a time severed myself from family, friends, community, culture, and place of the familiar. I needed strange land and atmosphere in order to come to know her as an ancestor. Desert and mountains are old landscapes of space. It was in these places that her ancestral body was made, and it was to her that I offered prayer.
One evening along the trail, an old man with bright eyes and a large string of prayer beads passed through our camp. He was a dami, a local shaman who had come to a nearby village to heal a family. In the last light of a long, cold dusk, I asked him if I might attend the ceremony. Late that night, I and a few friends squeezed into the crowded, smoky Gurung house and watched the dami evoke gods of the region with drum and chant, dance their dances, handle fire, and suck out illness.
At three in the morning, I had a startling vision: My mother is wrapped up in black cobwebs; she is completely terrified and does not know what has happened or where she is. I was frozen with shock and could not move internally or externally. After a few minutes, she disappeared, and I realized with a sense of horrible regret that I had missed the opportunity of reaching through the veil that separated the living and the dead to help her. I was inconsolable.
Returning to Kathmandu, I told friends about this vision, and in compassion they arranged a Shitro ceremony in the humble Sherpa Buddhist monastery in Boudhanath. Fifteen monks and lamas with their long horns, cymbals, and offerings called my mother's "soul" back into an effigy, that she might be purified from the patterns that had caused her suffering and death. I repeatedly put my body down on the dark buttery floor as I prostrated in the gompa's shrine room, and thelamas worked their prayers and offerings in her behalf. At the end of the day, her effigy was cremated. That night I boarded a plane to California.
Two days later, in Ojai, the community gathered in the evening as a Zen priest conducted the final ceremony for my mother on the forty-ninth day of her journey through the Bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth. In that last night of the Bardo transit when we spoke to her across the threshold, an uncommon wind extinguished the candles on the altar, and our last words to her were punctuated with falling stars.
The journey in the Bardo of Death, according to Buddhism, is forty-nine days. During those days, I had traveled ceaselessly. My sorrow was not only for the loss of my biological mother, but also for the world. I saw the material wealth of America and its relative spiritual impoverishment. In the mountains of Nepal, I witnessed great joy in the midst of material simplicity. Meditating, fasting, living close to the Earth, walking day after day in the mountains as I worked out this sorrow, my mother's secret body was made. It was stitched together in the steps of the journey, a journey that was a rite of passage for both her and her daughter.
* * *
The journey doesn't end, nor do the questions. In the spring, nine months later, I fasted alone in Death Valley in eastern California asking, Which way from here? When I saw the barren landscape and walked in the rough, dusty wind to a small black cut in a wash, I thought, "This is going to be a hard one." But strangely, I felt at home and safe in this great old, dry valley. I settled into four days of deep quiet and peace. Wind, dust, sun, rain, star-filled skies, black lava rock, hearty creosote bushes, and the delicate desert five-spot were my companions. The first dawn, a small gray lizard walked up to my morning rock and sat with me. On the third morning, a lone crow flew overhead. Nine months since the death of my mother, it was time to take account.
The third evening, on seeing huge black clouds roll in from the southwest, I wrapped myself up in a tarp, feeling like a human burrito. Burrowing down into the sand, I counted the frequency of the rain drops. Any more drops per breath and I would have to move to avoid ending up as a bit of detritus at the bottom of the wash. This blue womb of plastic seemed a fitting place for my last night in the desert.
Late that night, I had an unusual dream: I am walking out to the end of an old pier to watch a school of little fish fleeing from some pursuer. Behind them comes a large creature that at first seems to be a shark. It is not a shark but a large, very old golden carp, something quite prehistoric. This great fish holds me in the gaze of its large brown left eye. He suddenly stops chasing the little fish and goes over to a piling that is holding up the pier. With his mouth, he grabs the piling and begins to shake the pier. I cannot take my eyes away from the eyes of the carp, and I begin to walk backwards rather quickly hoping to get off the pier before the whole thing collapses. Suddenly I begin to lose my eyesight, and at that moment I think, "That fish is not after the small fry; its after me!" I awaken as the pier breaks up and I sink into the water.
The past year had taught me much about yielding. I had discovered that there can only be a yield, a harvest, when one yields. The old golden fish of the depths breaks the past apart. Like the great prehistoric fish of my dream and the ocean that swallowed me, the old gold-and-black desert took me down and in. I did not resist. I reaped a harvest those four days in the desert as I accepted completely the presence of the elements. I did not have the desire to fight the sun, dust, and rain. I enjoyed the flex of the wind, the dark, rough stones, and the chill of wet nights. Fasting, I did not expend energy on grief. The losses were confirmed. Now I was just in the present, blue tarp and all. I needed to be full of care, keep my eyes open, and enjoy the reprieve from society that the wilderness provided. I had also come to complete, to give away, and to pray that my life from this day on would be lived worthily.
Sitting in this black volcanic rubble, I thanked my teachers, including the stones who had drawn sweat and prayer from me over the weeks of preparation when I purified in the Stone People Lodge (sweat lodge) for this time of solitude. The stones told me to quiet down, not move around so much, get still inside. "Endurance is a gift, not a trial. You'll be like us one day — giving yourself away as dust."
When I returned to base camp, I told my story, including the following dream, which I had on the first night back from the fast: I have entered a large hall filled with peoples from elder cultures. This is a crucial meeting about the protection of traditional ways and traditional lands. I am trying to get to my adopted father, the Lakota medicine man Grandfather Wallace Black Elk, who is sitting near the front of the room. After I enter the hall, I realize that I have to go to the toilet, and I leave the hall. When I am washing my hands, I look into the mirror and see that I have an open wound going from the corner of my right eye down my face all the way to my breastbone. I am able to look into this wound and see clearly all of the tissue structures: the blood vessels, muscles, fine ligaments, and bones. I am amazed. I had not realized that this wound was there. For a moment, I wonder who belongs to this face. Then I realize that I need to get back to the hall and see Grandfather. He is the only one who can heal this wound. On my way into the hall, I see that it is actually a doctor's office, and I know one of the young white doctors, whom I now ask to look at the wound. He communicates with his hands and in a code language to one of his partners about my condition. As this is going on, three dark heavy Indian women come to me and lay their hands on me to heal the wound. I think, "This is not enough; I must get to Grandfather." I then find myself outside the hall trying to get back in when three white nurses who have been sent by the doctor come to take me to surgery. I escape from them and make my way back into the hall and to Grandfather.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fruitful Darkness"
Copyright © 1993 Joan Halifax.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh,
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,