What I Believe and Why, Part 5

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Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

When I was a boy who needed to be in nearly continuous motion on long summer days, lest I become bored and try to rappel off the porch using a clothesline, or hitch the family dog to my bicycle so we could pretend we lived in a Jack London novel, I went (briefly) to a summer camp about thirty miles east of Birmingham. I was dropped off at the YMCA and a beat-up yellow bus scooped us up and took us out to the country. I always thought there was nothing at that exit except for this camp and its bad pimento cheese sandwiches, but it turned out there was a church on a hill, and down the street and around the corner, a ranch style house where a decade and change later I’d sit around a fire and listen to a Native American elder give teachings.

I don’t remember too many of the stories now, but I do remember some of this elder’s hanbleceya (vision quest) stories, one when a rattlesnake came shortly after he was put up and laid just at the edge of his prayer ties (the boundary of his site) until just before his mentor came to pick him up (several days later), when it slithered away. Another when, after nearly five days without food or water, when he was weakened and slipping away, prayers were made in camp that lifted him back to his feet. There were stories of being taken places and shown things, of receiving gifts and visions that mattered not only to the individual, but to the community. The most important aspect of the event was the feeling it engendered within me: the sensation that this person was in some sort of relationship with the world, with what he described as “the spirits”, with the Creator, and the Earth. I knew nothing about these things but felt a hunger for this call and response with the unknown. Jesus clearly had this, in the stories that were told of his life, and I was excited to find a living example of this type of connection, in the present, and not just in historical accounts.

A few years later I ended up in this elder’s camp up in Maine, where several people were doing hanbleceya, and a year or two later, after being in camp and tending fire and participating in a support role, my heart got the better of me, and I jumped in the frying pan, too. My first experiences in ceremony in general, and with hanbleceya in particular, were intensely difficult. It is impossible, I think, to explain the way that ceremony works, but it is a little like putting your life beneath a magnifying glass. You hardly realize it is happening. What you experience is a heightening of all your inner conditions, a graceful unfolding of your being. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and this process of being peeled open remains in many ways the most “real” thing I ever experienced. It was completely invisible, and yet, it was a subtle accentuation of my desires, withholdings, doubts and dreams that lifted them to the fore where they could be seen consciously and examined.

Instead of being greeted by affirming mystical experiences of the type I’d heard others having, or that I’d read about, my initial encounters were marked by tremendous uncertainty and doubt. By silence. I felt my own cowardice. At times I felt shattered—confused and incapable. While my heart was profoundly committed, my mind couldn’t make sense of it. I had these ideas of Jesus, of Buddhism, of ceremony, of things that felt good and true, and of myself all swirling around. But they didn’t quite align in my head, and I didn’t know, intellectually, if I could give complete trust to the process.

There were a lot of traditions in the hanbleceya ceremony that I initially resisted, and there were some experiences people shared I really couldn’t square with. They felt a little too self-aggrandizing, or fantastic. But there were also people who were close to me that shared beautiful experiences that nearly overwhelmed me with their grace. One person, who was not raised Christian, had a couple of encounters with Jesus while doing vision quest that echoed profoundly in his life. Jesus didn’t want this person to become a Christian; he wanted to help him care for his son while he navigated a difficult divorce. He wanted him to live a little easier, a little fuller, a little less afraid.

Each year that I participated in ceremony the distinctions between the sorts of experiences and encounters that sacred space could hold and those of the world to which I returned afterwards, became increasingly stark. Returning home was literally like moving from a world of color to black-and-white, and the feeling lasted sometimes for several weeks. It was marked by grief, by a strange idleness, by intense dreams, until the doorway closed and the day-to-day returned to prominence. All the most intense dreams of my life that I remember came while this doorway was open.

While I participated in ceremony there was this tension between giving myself as fully as possible, and trying to remain in control of things. What happened is the tension would build to almost a fever pitch prior to the time of ceremony, and then once you were in it you had no choice but to surrender. It was only then that the beauty and love imbued in the entire process would step forward to carry you. Eventually I realized it was there the entire time, every moment of every day, but prior to the moment of complete surrender my mind had this tremendous power to paint over the top of it. That is our daily life for the most part—a mental encrustation, a self-spun narrative overlaid upon what is really active within us. It is really difficult to assess this on our own. I’m not sure we can assess this on our own, really. Not that we need another person necessarily, or a guru or anything, but we need the relationship of heart and mind together. We need what comes through the doorway of commitment and surrender, through a genuine desire to know, and a willingness to be taught. It emerges in its own way, but we must be listening.

The power of the hanbleceya experience for me was the cure it provided to this inner conflict. You can’t really bring yourself to spend two, three, four days at a time, alone in a fixed location in the woods without food or water, if you’re heart isn’t in it. What I discovered was that I instinctively found myself making the time a devotion to everything, to everyone. It was the only approach that felt pure and unselfish in any way, and I needed that purity to summon complete commitment. I think at some level the prayer that is for everything and everyone at once is the only true prayer there is. There are certainly personal prayers, but I found the most fluid encounters with Love, with giving and receiving, came from letting go of everything. In a way I set my life aside for that time; in other ways I never felt more alive than when I did so. When you give of yourself completely, the suffering just fades. You are met with your response. You are carried.

The first year I was put up, it was for one day and one night. It should have been easy, but it was the most difficult of the years that I participated in this ceremony. I had a lot of big ideas for myself. When I came back into camp, utterly defeated and a little shell-shocked, I knew there was no way I would be able to keep my commitment and come back the next three years, building up to four days and four nights of fasting. I knew there were conflicts within myself I didn’t know how to resolve. There were fears and doubts and difficulties I couldn’t see through on my own, and that I wouldn’t be able to endure for such durations. I could hardly stand being alone with myself for more than a few seconds at a time as it was. It was a little like being haunted by my own ghost, by this daunting corona of falsehood that encumbered my persona. In some ways it would be fair to say I hated myself, for getting myself into this pickle in the first place, for not living up to some ideal, for not having taken my foot off the damn gas and just surfed along the top of life with a little lighter touch.

A month later I was in a bookstore and I picked up A Course in Miracles. I recognized immediately the sort of wisdom that would allow my mind to embrace this new experience, and to align with my heart, though I wouldn’t have used such words at the time. Our minds are not wrong in their quest for order and for logic, but without the heart they cannot discern the true from the false. Every perception seems equivalent when weighed by the intellect alone, including those that lead to darkness and isolation. A Course in Miracles was about observing the attachments, meanings and perceptions that we overlay on things, and how they block our ability to connect with the presence of Love.

So for the next three or four years I practiced the teachings of the Course almost daily, and somehow they merged effortlessly with my experiences in the sacred space of ceremony. I discovered a holiness vast enough to hold all of the ideas I’d encountered along the way. It was as if all the technicalities of the various paths or teachings simply lost their attraction, and the purity of each one emerged together. I’m not sure this can be accomplished intellectually; it was more of a melting down in the root of experience that occurred. Much of the mind’s difficulty is with definition, with taxonomy and concepts. These entangle us.

Intellectually I found the principles of the Course held up effortlessly with what I had briefly experienced of Buddhism, and with my ideas of Jesus as a loving being with a non-judgmental and all-embracing view of humanity, and with the Native American teachings into which I’d immersed myself. I felt I had something real in my hands, in my heart, in my mind. Something that could answer any question. But at the same time it was something nearly incommunicable. It’s like you discover a great treasure, but it has no liquidity.

In the closing piece of this series I want to talk about the one core idea that I think puts each of our journeys into perspective, and also gives a rational doorway, or point of entry, into the possibility that Love is real. (I may even say what I believe! Ha!)

26 Comments

  1. Hi Michael,
    I am really glad I “stumbled” onto this piece today. I have not been a very conscientious bloggette of late, meaning I have not been able to keep up with all the blogs I follow and love.

    While I do not have the words handy to express exactly how or why this resonates, it simply does. The Course was a game changer for me as well, along with a few other practices and teachings. I am so glad it found you , along with your love of Jesus and the native ways.

    Looking forward to learning how it all “turns out.”

    much love and peace,
    Linda

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Linda,

      Well thank you very much for reading the extended version this time… Much appreciated. Yes finding the Course at just the right time was tremendously helpful. You may recall the Course talking about “saving time” and in my case that was almost palpable to me. I don’t think I could have navigated some of the things I had to navigate without that sort of clarion anchor at the heart of things. And I’m glad this piece resonated… Makes it all worthwhile!

      Peace and Love
      Michael

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a beautiful post and sharing of your journey Michael. I can relate to the struggle and confusion in facing your own mind, desires, inner turmoil in silence and sacred ceremony. I’m grateful the CIM became the touchstone that guided and distilled all paths for you. When I tried to read it, it didn’t resonate, except for the simple distillation of our journey from fear to love. I hope to reach a place where each day is a devotion to life and love and feeling the love of connection to something bigger than myself. blessings, Brad

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s all that matters, Brad. I see the Course as probably resonating with a particular slice of folks because of the way it was written. But it says quite clearly it is really just one version of a universal curriculum, and the forms are plentiful. Reaching a place of peace and connection is possible for all of us I believe, and the routes are probably as many and as unique as the people that walk them. The thing about it that I see is that we each have to find our own way, really. I can share some things in hopes it may help or point in a direction for someone else who may be looking, but at the end of the day the inner choices for forgiveness and non-judgment and acceptance must be our own. We can’t copy someone else’s paper! This was so hard for me, too, actually, at times. There are times when the mind gets in the way, and times when the mind things it solved the puzzle and it deserves something really nice… Ha! Don’t let anyone tell you we’re not all crazy…

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 4 people

      • Thanks for the kind and wise encouragement Michael. I’ve learned that I must find my own way, and it’s often elusive, or at least my mind thinks it is. Whether we’re crazy to even pursue spiritual growth is a much longer conversation. Sometimes I think personal growth is a giant sinkhole of time and energy. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Now you make me want to pull that back out and finish reading it and practicing it. Your soul has been on such a journey my friend and I know you’re not done yet. We learn daily if we are open to it, I think that’s why I love your pieces so much, they resonate and bring me joy and the wisdom to know that I’m not the only crazy out there 🙂 ha, joke there Michael, just a joke. Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out but with the way our minds evolve, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many more chapters play out in the coming years 🙂 peace and blessings and enjoying the ride,
    Kim

    Liked by 3 people

    • No, Kim. We’re all equally crazy. No winners and losers in that department! Ha! Well I would read the Course if you find it helpful and if not, no matter. As I said above, it really is one of countless ways, and I felt especially well-positioned for the sort of wisdom that it had to offer by my experiences that first year. I could see clearly the nature of the difficulties I faced, and truly comprehended that as a single being they were likely insurmountable. The Course I see as a partnership between Jesus and Helen Schucman, who was a pscyhologist, so it has a fairly in-depth psychological treatise aspect to it almost. I found the laborious logic and repetition of it to be supremely helpful, but it is by no means an easy read!

      Keep on keepin’ on, Kim. You are a jewel here on this planet.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 3 people

      • You always know he right words to say, and I’m a gem….oooh, now I’m all shining and excited😊yes, I intend to revisit it in entirety this time and start the course in love too while I’m at it. I figure if I get up an hour earlier each day, I shall find time to get all of my play/writing/working/painting/and pinball wizardry in….okay, just kidding about the pinball part, but that would be cool too I think. Perhaps hula hooping instead, I’ve got one I’m trying to turn into a dream catcher with spider webs and dust….it’s working out quite splendidly too😃🕷🕷thank you for being you, all wild and crazy like me🙏🏻☮🕉
        Peace, blessings and pin ball gizzies 😊 Kim

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I am moved by your story Michael, as it urges me to remember my own journey and how far I’ve come instead of always thinking there’s more/better I need to learn/be/embody. I like your description of the mind as a mental encrustation over the truth of who/what we really are, and what’s really active here now. Finally, it reminded me of being at a week long gathering of the clans outside of Whitehorse, back in 1995. During that week I attended many ceremonies, including three stints in the sweat lodge. I remember getting back home and sobbing with the deepest grief that that week could not be my real life, and that now I had to once again face “reality”.
    Alison

    Liked by 4 people

    • So you know this feeling then, Alison! It’s hard to explain really, but it just kind of sneaks up on you as your values and boundaries temporarily shift, and awareness heightens, alongside of others. I never had this type of experience going to Church, but I feel like it would be possible, if it was less of an institution and more of a shared way of being. The vulnerability that we must allow to be in ceremony is also an important element I think. And ceremonies are inherently small. You don’t pack two hundred people into a sweat lodge. I have to stop or I’ll begin remembering and rambling…

      Your opening sentence is beautiful in itself: this needing to be more/better seems always to obscure what we already are and have alive within us.

      Much Love
      Michael

      Liked by 3 people

  5. You sure have been on a fascinating journey, though this does not surprise me. I am intrigued by this: “Jesus didn’t want this person to become a Christian.” I understand the part about: He wanted to help him care for his son while he navigated a difficult divorce. He wanted him to live a little easier, a little fuller, a little less afraid.” It fits with Jesus having and “all-embracing” view of humanity. Lately I’ve begun to explore the difference between being a “Christian” and a follower of Jesus. I guess Jesus never really said he wanted anyone to be a “Christian.” I’d love to know your perspective on this. Perhaps it will show up when you write about what you believe. 😉

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi JoAnna,

      In some ways perhaps I should be more careful about the use of this term Christian. I have a hard time using it because it comes with a lot of baggage (for me). There are many types of philosophical orientations and types of persons who can be called, or would call themselves, Christian, and many of them have beliefs that don’t resonate for me. So it’s sort of a loaded word for me, and in general I don’t think Jesus is interested in human institutions. I think he is interested in people (and all Creation).

      Beliefs that don’t resonate with me include the idea that we are imperfect in some way at the time of our Creation or birth, the idea that God punishes anyone, the idea that hell is anything other than the moment in which we are feeling afraid or trapped or isolated, the idea that God cares about our sexual orientation, the idea that goodness is somehow rewarded with wealth, the idea that Christians are chosen in some way for some future goodness and others are not, the idea that sin is real in the sense of it being possible to commit a human act that in any way jeopardizes the ultimate nature of any of God’s creations, the notion that holiness and guiltiness are somehow dance partners, the idea that God is or does anything whatsoever besides extend Loving presence to all Creation, and the idea that the Bible is more relevant than works I believe Jesus has inspired in the present time, such as A Course in Miracles, A Course of Love, Dialogues on Awakening (by Tom Carpenter), the Way of Mastery, and others probably I don’t know about. And really lastly, while a Church community can be a wonderful and beautiful thing, and if it is for anyone I would encourage them to continue, the idea that only those who attend church can know Jesus in their heart and life also does not resonate. (I do recognize a church can be a place of very real fellowship, companionship, and of miracles, so please don’t mistake me. Each place and moment is unique I think.)

      So when you take all that away, I’m not sure what’s left is Christian or not. And the experience of Jesus in my heart is not of a presence that wishes anyone would take on these beliefs on his behalf. In that sense I don’t see Jesus as being concerned about whether any of us are Christian, if the above ideas are included in what it means to be Christian. In fact, perhaps the opposite. Since many of these ideas make it more difficult to recognize and receive the presence of Love in our lives, I don’t think Jesus wants any of us to embrace them. So Jesus wasn’t interested in these things. He was interested in speaking to the heart of a man, and a brother, and providing some bit of wisdom or support.

      But let me also say that I do think Jesus gave every last bit of himself, in a profoundly beautiful way for all humanity, and that words don’t really do it justice. I think in the unfolding of Creation human minds did undergo a particularly difficult transformation, or transition, as life unfolded, and that someone had to make the choice to reunite the human and the divine, the mind and the heart, to forge that bridge, and that Jesus did that. But I’m not sure of exactly what it was that occurred. I just think its obvious that Jesus was wrapped up in a moment we really don’t understand, any of us, that has made a new form of Creation possible. And maybe that moment was like it was described in the Bible and maybe it wasn’t, but the particulars don’t really matter (to me). I’m not sure they matter at all. Love is available and our lives and our world can be transformed, and somehow if we can lay aside the details and the differences, we might come to a deeper understanding of this I think. Through our own lives. So if being Christian means accepting Jesus as a brother, a friend, a companion, as him somehow being the very beating of my heart, then I’m in. But I don’t think anyone needs to check the Christianity box on a white score card to be welcomed into the heart of God, or into the experience of eternal Love. At the same time I think anyone with sincere wisdom and compassion in their heart, with the desire to help all beings, is somehow a brother or sister to Jesus. They’re all on the same team, at any rate.

      I rambled I know. It’s tough to describe. When I say the name Jesus I sense the stillest point of my heart, and I know it is me there, and you, and everyone. The Lakota would say Mitakuye Oyasin–meaning we are all related or “all my relations”–and this is what the presence of Jesus calls into being within me. Some sense of the relatedness of everything, the root heart of Creation in which we all share.

      I hope that answers the question JoAnna.
      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you for taking the time to share these beliefs. I struggle with those things you mentioned associated with Christianity, but I’m encouraged by relatively quiet movements of “progressive Christians” and people like Rob Bell who question the existence of hell. I like how you describe having a relationship with Jesus. That is more important to me than checking the “Christian” box.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ” I don’t think Jesus is interested in human institutions. I think he is interested in people (and all Creation).” Mind if I quote you on that?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. More intriguing candour from your exotic past, dear Michael, for which many thanks. I know nothing of hanbleceya, so your post inspired me to go and read a lengthy academic article on it. Looking forward to the culmination of this interesting series, along with the rest of your readership, no doubt. H ❤

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hariod, I must say I’ve no idea what an academic article on hanbleceya even is! The concept of it scares me to be perfectly frank. It reminds me of this story: we had two Lakota gentlemen staying with us once, and we had a day to ourselves prior to a gathering. I discovered the Peabody Museum at Harvard University had some sort of Lakota exhibit and they agreed it might be interesting to see. The place was virtually empty, and these two were looking at various items in their glass cases and hung on the wall and remarking about their similarity, or not, to the way this or that person back home might have made them, or might make them today. It was kind of like they were intrigued by the way Lakota 100 years ago made a certain type of staff, since today they would do it very differently. But also there was an intimacy with it all, a connection that traveled through things. And names were coming up, and stories, and then the video screen on the wall started up fresh at the top of the hour and this white anthropologist appeared, walking through a field of high grass, discussing Lakota culture. I said to one of the gentlemen, why do they have that guy talking? You guys are standing right here. You’re right… here. They laughed. Yeah, they said. Waved their hands at the guy… Whatever.

      It’s like, you know you’re conquered or something if you’re finding sacred pieces of art in glass boxes in another culture’s museum. It was surreal. And worrisome. So I’ve no idea what an academic paper would say, but I do know some universities have outreach programs and might in fact have quite good material. And I also know that some of what occurs in traditional culture is still probably not exactly readily available to visiting academics…

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • It was written by this chap, Michael:

        David Martínez (Akimel O’odham, Hia Ced O’odham, Mexican) is the author of ‘Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought’ (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009) and editor of ‘The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972’ (Cornell University Press, 2011). He has also published articles in the American Indian Quarterly, the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Studies in American Indian Literatures, and Journal of the Southwest. His areas of concentration are American Indian intellectual and political history, contemporary American Indian art and aesthetics, and O’odham culture and history. Currently, he is a co-PI for the NEH funded project, ‘Digital Archives of Huhugam Archaeology’ (DAHA), in collaboration with the Archaeology program (SHESC) and the Center for Digital Antiquities (tDAR). Also, he recently completed a book manuscript on Standing Rock Sioux activist-intellectual Vine Deloria Jr, which is presently under review at the University of Nebraska Press.

        This was the piece, which I thought was interesting:

        http://www.academia.edu/3803591/The_Soul_of_the_Indian_Lakota_Philosophy_and_the_Vision_Quest

        Much love, Hariod.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you for sharing that, Hariod. I enjoyed it. I don’t have much to say about it but do feel he touched on some of the common elements of the experience and the process. I think one of the ideas he captured quite well was the freedom that seems to exist within a particular structure, and the way there is a melding of the universal and the personal. The experience itself is specific to the individual, and simply cannot be predicted, and yet it is undertaken in the context of certain traditions or practices that remain consistent over many, many years and places. This is the mark of a living relationship, in my opinion, between an individual, at one level, and an entire community at another, and the heart of existence, or Wakan Tanka. This real time induction into deep relatedness lies at the heart of this experience, at least it did for me, with my very puny glimpse into it, and was why it was so important to me at the time. I tend to lose the ability to put things into words when I reflect on this, but if you can imagine a process no one can own or broker or control, that somehow unearths what is most genuine, most real and most true about a person, in the context of a greater family or community, you will have some sense of it.

          Peace
          Michael

          Liked by 2 people

  7. inspiring following along
    on details of how
    you persisted
    mainly with support
    from your own heart,
    to find your Michael
    spiritual, cobblestone path 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Your experience of vision quest is powerful Michael. I was also inspired to look out my copy of ACIM … and found that the language and the Bible course and rules format is too much for my mind to get around. I find I have to delete words and rephrase to make it digestible. Such is the legacy of childhood religious education and the stains of dogma.
    I am moved by your response to JoAnna though.
    Thank you for your authentic being and sharing here. 🙏

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think ACIM is tough-sledding in many ways. You are likely to find A Course of Love much more palatable I think. There are so many footholds and handholds offered to us, in all sorts of forms and tones and manners, and we each find those that work best for us. And I think if we follow our hearts we end up finding the most difficult questions within us, and when we do, we find the answers are nearby. I think ACIM is ironic in some ways–it reads to some like a Bible course, but many adherents of the Bible find ACIM to be an abomination. It is just one of those things… I also think there is a fair amount of misinterpretation of ACIM, and I think my reading of it depended strongly on the other ideas and commitments at work within me. I think you could learn most everything you need to learn by watching movies… Sounds crazy, I suppose, but when we are hungry for answers, and we are listening to our hearts, then little moments speak to us in deep ways…

      Thank you for being here, too, Val. It is deeply appreciated.
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says

    I love this Michael. I love the piece and I love all the comments from people and your heartfelt responses. Such a journey we are all on together, into our hearts.Your process is a beautiful one. Thank you so much for sharing it, and for sharing your loving heart.
    With love,
    Mary

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: What I Believe and Why, Part 6 – Embracing Forever

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