There was a great lost world to be rediscovered and rebuilt, not in the Kalahari, but in the wasteland of our spirit where we had driven the first things of life, as we had driven the little Bushmen into the desert of Southern Africa. There was indeed a cruelly denied and neglected first child of life, a Bushman in each of us.
- Laurens van der Post, The Heart of the Hunter
What has been lost in our understanding of what it means to be a human being with the eradication of indigenous peoples, their languages, their myths, and their spirituality? What might we regain by rediscovering or “remembering” indigenous wisdom? What lessons from their balanced, ecological relationship to all of creation can we apply to the spiritual and environmental crises of modern times – and to our work as vision fast guides?
In this age of fearing “cultural misappropriation,” I speak not about usurping the religious practices of native cultures but of identifying how, in our basic humanity, we carry an indigenous soul that innately knows oneness with the natural world, that understands the need for ritual to sustain both individual and community, and that is intimately connected to spiritual realms for healing and wholeness. Indigenous peoples around the world lived – and in some cases, still live - harmonious, sustainable, spiritually-nourishing, communally-rich lives thoroughly embedded in the matrix of the natural – as well as supernatural – world. These wise ways reflect a supreme degree of reverence for all beings, human and nonhuman; an active and conscious cultivation of relationship to Spirit by each individual for the health of both the individual and the whole community; an allegiance to special creation stories and myths which provide a unified world view; and an unshakable belief in both belonging to and being seen by the land and natural forces around them. Moreover, out of this unity of matter and spirit came healing, magic, and a devotion to the transcendent elements of life.
My vision of what wilderness rites of passage have to offer people today is sourced in recognizing what I call an “indigenous soul” which passage rites call forth in each of us. We have an opportunity to remember and reclaim our deepest unity with the natural and spiritual worlds. This sense of being an essential part of the fabric of the universe, part of the family of creation, attuned to and in constant communication with nature in all its forms, is the foundation of vision fasting work for me.
Rites of passage are part of this path back to a “primordial dialogue” with nature. Through its three ceremonial stages of severance (from daily life, from old ways of being, from what is most familiar), threshold (three or four days and nights of solitude and fasting in the wilderness), and reincorporation (return from the solo and return to one’s life), we remember the art of communing with the natural world, to listen as well as to speak. This capacity for full conversation with nature is in our bones and is our ancient inheritance which enables us to dwell in our most “ecological self,” fully connected, fully embedded in the cosmos.
A high school senior on solo yearns to break free from the confines of family and school but is fearful of taking any step to break the bonds that hold her in old patterns of pleasing others. Her solo spot is in a square of very large boulders. When she awakes on the morning of return, she finds that spiders have woven their webs between all the boulders – and the only way out, to freedom, is to break them.
What happens when we lose touch with our indigenous soul? In Testament to the Bushman, Laurens van der Post writes about a strong link with the first man in us and a subsequent rejected pattern of being. “How fatally divided against themselves the processes of civilization have been, and how horrific the consequences in the human spirit” (p. 154). We have lost our own instinctive sense for the meaning of life. Through exploring the “vision” or ecological wisdom of indigenous peoples, we may find guidance and the path back.
Relationship to nature
The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are the remnant of a group of people who once lived all over southern Africa as early as 25,000 years ago and no later than 10,000 years ago. Nomadic, with few possessions, they hunted and gathered plants in small tribes of usually less than 100, with little or no friction among other bands roaming the vast area. Until fairly recently, their simple way of life remained unchanged for thousands of years due to their isolation. Throughout his life, beginning in early childhood, van der Post was fascinated with the Bushmen and made it part of his life work to study the Bushmen and help gain protection for them. It is in great measure due to van der Post that we have Bushmen stories and an understanding of how they sustained a way of life over thousands of years in an environment that most would consider harsh and inhospitable.
Van der Post (Taylor & van der Post, 1984) observes, “The essence of his being, I believe, was his sense of belonging, belonging to nature, the universe, life and his own humanity. He had committed himself utterly to nature as a fish to the sea” (p. 150). Moreover, “Life and nature owned all and he accepted without question that, provided he was obedient to the urge of the world within him, the world without, which was not separate in his spirit, would provide” (p. 150).
Nature and the self were inseparable. It was a two-way process of creation. Who the Bushman was could not be distinguished from the earth, stars, plants, animals, wind, and all of creation in which he lived. “This sense of being known, of universal kinship was so great that he could speak of the stars as members of his family” (Van der Post, 1961, p. 212).
Even today, the Lakota Sioux of the west and mid-west regions of the United States speak of the Black Hills in South Dakota as more than ancestral lands. In a centuries-old struggle to reclaim the Black Hills, the Lakota have continued to refuse a U. S. government payment of over $400 million, because their homeland is sacred and not to be sold. “If we lose the Black Hills, we cease to exist as a people” (Russell Means, 1994, Paha Sapa).
In his book Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community Malidoma Some (1993) articulates the Dagara tribal views on what he calls “the instinct of community” which all human beings feel yet few live by today. “The community is where we draw the strength needed to effect changes inside us…the individual can finally discover within the community something to relate to because deep down inside each of us is a craving for an honoring of our individualism” (p. 68). “What people crave [is] the realization of innate gifts and to have these gifts approved, acknowledged, and confirmed…our own confirmation of ourselves is not enough” (Some, 1998, p. 27).
Such honoring and affirming of an individual’s gifts is absolutely an essential aspect of rites of passage when fasters return from the solo and share their stories. Part of vision in this work includes the sacred task of mirroring back to participants their gifts and talents, to affirm their value to the larger community. Even if we do not live a tribal life, we create an experience of supportive community where each member is honored and recognized for his or her unique gifts and place in that community. The power of the mirroring comes in part from knowing in our bones that we do have a place in community, we matter, and our unique gifts are essential to the health of the community.
Thus, the indigenous community extends beyond the personal to include the transpersonal dimensions of life through reverence for the ancestors and a lineage in past time that totally influences and is connected to present time. It is through ritual that these vital connections are maintained for personal and group health. Some (1993) explains: “For the Dagara, ritual is, above all else, the yardstick by which people measure their state of connection with the hidden ancestral realm, with which the entire community is genetically connected. In a way, the Dagara think of themselves as a projection of the spirit world” (p. 28).
Again, connection to seen and unseen forces and maintaining balance are key elements of indigenous wisdom. In order to create harmony, indigenous peoples call upon all of nature and the ancestral realm, a world of spirit, in which a fundamental trust has been obscured by modern scientific ways of thinking. Ritual and invoking the spirits are entirely normal for indigenous peoples, and as a result, their resources and help for living include dimensions of existence that have been excluded today.
During the vision fast ceremony, these seen and unseen forces are evoked for the safety and healing of participants. How do we as guides create space for participants to find their own relationship to these forces?
Stories and unifying myths
It was through storytelling, myths, and dreams that indigenous peoples expressed their cosmology and identified their place in creation. Toward these myths they showed their utmost dedication. “Indeed, the primitive world regarded the preservation of first spirit as the greatest, most urgent of all its tasks. It designed elaborate ritual, ceaselessly fashioned myths, legends, stories and music to contain the meaning and feed the fire of the creative soul” (Van der Post, 1961, p. 141).
When fasters return from the threshold time, they bring a story that carries their deepest yearnings and truest understanding of who they and what their gifts are. It is in our stories, shared and unshared, that we find our aliveness and our core truths. We have lost our true guiding stories in modern times, ones that we hold with devotion in our hearts, that guide our relationship with the cosmos and all of life, ones filled with inward vision and potency of meaning. The tragedy of this cannot be underestimated in terms of a rich and healthy evolution of human consciousness. Van der Post (1984) recalls a conversation with Carl Jung on the importance of story:
…in a discussion I had with Jung about Bushman stories and my belief that whole civilizations had been destroyed because their stories had been taken away from them by the intrusion of a physically powerful and alien culture…[Jung] nodded his fine white head…to tell me at great length, how his work as a healer did not take wing – the metaphor is mine – until he realized that the key to the human personality was its story. Every human being at core, he held, had a unique story and no man could discover his greatest meaning unless he lived and, as it were, grew his own story. Should he lose his story or fail to live it, he lost his meaning, became disorientated, the collective fodder of tyrants and despots, or ended up, as so many did, alienated and out of their own minds….(p. 138)
Can there be any more accurate a description of modern Western culture? Hence, we have the growing call for paradigm change, a new vision, by which we may guide and sensibly sustain life on this planet.
Reclaiming our indigenous soul
The essential nature of the human being is based on 25,000 years of human existence and not on the “distortion” of the last 2,000 years (LaChapelle, 1988, p. 10). Indigenous peoples and the ethnosphere – the sum total of dreams, myths, thoughts, ideas, and intuitions brought into consciousness since the dawn of the human being – are a vital resource for our world today. We are all primitive men and women at the core of our being. We need spirit-nourishing stories; communities that allow us to be seen and offer an arena for our gifts; healing rituals that keep us in healthy relationship to the unseen forces and to the transcendent realms of existence; and a sense of belonging and being witnessed by nature that we accept without question and follow as a way of life.
Wilderness rites of passage are an important service offering to help us find our way home to our co-creative dance with all of life. They provide a vital link with this first man/first woman in us, our innate indigenous soul, and our instinctive sense for the meaning of life and our place in it.
LaChapelle, D. (1988). Sacred land, sacred sex. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.
Lawrence, M. (Producer). (1994). Paha Sapa: The struggle for the Black Hills. [video recording]. New York, NY: Mystic Fire Video.
Some, M. (1993). Ritual: Power, healing and community. Portland, OR: Swan Raven & Company.
Some, M. (1998). The healing wisdom of Africa. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Taylor, J. & van der Post, L. (1984). Testament to the Bushmen. New York, NY: Viking.
Van der Post, L. (1961). The heart of the hunter. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.