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!)