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 the lamas 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.
I then am awakened when Dana Fonte, my niece, and Sally Hinds, a student of Jungian psychology, come into the room. I tell the dream to Sally, and she says, “Joan, this sounds like a dream about the ‘collective wound.’ This is your gift and your work.”
Later, when I told this dream in Council, I saw that each of us in our own way bears this World Wound. 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.
Suffering can also bear the fruit of compassion, the fruit of joy. I have gone into the darkness to harvest this fruit. Understanding the nature of suffering was why I practiced Buddhism, why I went into the wilds, why I worked with others. I wanted to know the roots of suffering. I also wanted to know the roots of joy, the place where we are liberated from the constraints of pain.
Going into the wound, we can see that the suffering of others is our suffering. It is not separate. We wear a common skin and have a common wound. The wound is on Earth as well as in heaven. It is in us and through us. Some of us will seek healing from those who have borne the wound more deeply than we have ourselves. That is why we go to a shaman, one who has suffered more than we have.
This wound that I bore in the dream went from the eye to the heart. It seemed to be a doorway that connected seeing and feeling. First, we have to see the wound and recognize that it is both a personal wound and a World Wound. It connects us to others and opens the eyes of compassion. Looking deeply, we can also discover that the wound is a fabrication of a history of relative causes. Suffering exists. And underneath the zones of alienation, suffering does not exist.
After the Council, four of us remained: a woman with burned hands, a woman with one breast, a woman with a long scar on her abdomen, and a woman with wounded eyes. As we looked at each other, I realized why we were there. The painter had exquisitely shaped hands; she sacrificed them to create. She said to me that my eyes were sacrificed to see. I said to the woman with one breast that the other was sacrificed that she could nourish the world. And the woman with the scarred stomach gave her guts away to know in a fearless way. Our suffering is a sacrifice, but often what we suffer from can be a gift of strength, like the shaman’s wound that becomes the source of his or her compassion.
The process of initiation can be likened to a “sacred catastrophe,” a holy failure that actually extinguishes our alienation, our loneliness, and reveals our true nature, our love. That is why we seek initiation: to heal old wounds by reentering them in order to transform our suffering into compassion. The Dutch cultural historian Arnold van Gennep described the three phases of the journey of initiation as separation, transition, incorporation: the Severance, the Threshold, and the Return. The first phase, the Severance, is a time of preparation for the ordeals and tests faced in a rite of initiation. The neophyte abandons or is severed from the familiar and begins to move into seclusion. The second phase, the Threshold, has been called “the fallow chaos.” It is a time when the limits of the self are recognized and a territory is entered where the boundaries of the self are tested and broken. Incorporation means the return to society, but in a new way, with a new body and a new life.
My mother’s sudden death—her abrupt severance from my life—immediately transformed the stream of routine into a river of sorrow. As she had been severed from me, I severed myself from my ordinary life. This led me to the Threshold, the second phase of a rite of passage, where I was beaten apart by grief in desert and mountain places—a grief, I discovered, that was not only for her but also for the world, for the Earth. This experience of weeds and ashes often moves one into the wilds, where the forces of the elements, as well as the presence of creatures, plants, land and water forms, the sky, and spirits conspire to break open the husk that has protected us from a deeper truth.
It is in this place of no restraint where silence and loneliness craft the soul. And then we return, purified by tears and the silence of questions that can never be answered. Poet and farmer Wendell Berry once wrote that this silence in the wilderness asks all the old answerless questions of origins and endings. It asks us who we think we are, what we think we are doing, and where we think we are going. In the silence, the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to us. The lives of water and trees and stars surround our life “and press their obscure demands. The experience of that silence must be basic to any religious feeling. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head, one must bear a greater burden of consciousness, and knowledge—one must change one’s life.”
Our lives can also undergo change when we face the wall in meditation practice or when we use “teacher plants,” dance, long and arduous runs, or pilgrimages to break open the husk around the psyche. At the Threshold, the gate to the unconscious, the unknown, once closed, is now open. As it opens, there appears a landscape inhabited by ancestral patterns. And in this interstice between self and other, the gods appear as forms of energy emanating from external and internal landscapes. When we are in this liminal state, we find the place where the worlds connect and flow together, where form and space, figure and ground are one.
In the Threshold we experience ourselves as a multiplex. We are both mortal and god, human and creature, wild and cultured, male and female, old and dying, and fresh and newborn. We are rough and unmade, not held together. The Threshold is where grain and chaff, beater and beaten are mixed. More explicitly, the Threshold is where we encounter death and can be renewed and restored through the unleashed primordial powers stored in the structures of the mind. These energies living in the imagination take the shapes of gods and demons, or phobias, compulsions, and madness, and become visible by our dwelling in the Thresh old space between worlds. Some people think that human beings are the ground where the gods dwell, but I am sure that it is not in us but in the interworld between us and sacred space that the gods finally arise.
The third phase of a rite of passage is the Return. But the Return is to a place we never left, although we did not know that we were there all along. In the womb, a physical umbilical cord attaches us to our mother. After we are born, we sustain a wound when this cord is cut and we are separated from the maternal organism. We also have a social umbilicus, which ties us to society. This cord is cut in the process of the wounding of initiation. But there is another umbilicus that cannot be cut. This cord, like a great lattice, ties us to each thing that dwells through us and in which we dwell. It is a life cord or net that connects us to the womb of creation. We live in and through the body of this latticelike cord just as we live in the Milky Way that stretches across the sky. This is what we return to, this life thread that sews together the fabric of our world. Here we can stitch together the robe of society with the stuff of creation to restore and renew the life of our peoples and help them see that culture only blossoms in the field of nature. Our lives awaken in the body of this invisible, pervasive, and subtle cord.
So I say, “Seek initiation.” When we enter the self by penetrating with our awareness the deeper zones of mind and body, we see that the wound that has opened in our psyches and on the body of Earth is a continuum of suffering. Self and relationships, self and setting are not separate. They are a “unity in process.”
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?
Rites of initiation are those great zones of darkness that make the unclear, the contradictory, the polluted, and the changeable the ground of renewal. They are the occasions of fruitful darkness. Marie-Louise von Franz says, “The first step is generally falling into the dark place, and usually appears in a dubious or negative form—falling into something, or being possessed by something.” The Shamans say that being a medicine man begins by falling into the power of the demons; the one who pulls out of the dark place becomes the medicine man, and the one who stays in it is the sick person. “You can take every psychological illness as an initiation. Even the worst things you fall into are an effort of initiation, for you are in something which belongs to you.”
Blessed are the men and women
who are planted on your earth, in yourgarden
who grow as your trees and flowers grow,
who transform their darkness to light.
Their roots plunge into darkness;
their faces turn toward the light.
—Song of Solomon, translated by Stephen Mitchell