By Ross Bishop
I wrote a few weeks ago that maybe I could shorten these pieces when I figured out which words were God’s and which one’s were mine. Without consciously thinking about it, I touched on something far deeper than just these writings. Several of you wrote me about that thought and we began a dialogue about the role of spirituality in contemporary life.
You see, in the old days, just about everything was done for very different reasons than it is today. People lived close to the spirits of nature and all of life was a spiritual experience. The plants were honored for their healing powers and gift of food and the animals were respected for their unique and powerful qualities.
Illness was seen as a disharmony between the person and the gods that needed attention. Gratitude was given to the gods for good harvests, loving friends and daily meals. By our standards these people were superstitious and ignorant. They would see our world as narcissistic, superficial and in serious need of healing.
The shaman stood at the center of the old world, a lynchpin between the people and the world of the spirits or gods. Shaman did ceremony to honor the spiritual beings and to encourage their help. The shamanic journey was a powerful ceremony that opened the door to healing. A shaman’s song and his drumming brought healing. The shaman knew the plants and animal spirits and could call upon their power for healing.
Dancing and ceremony was done to rebalance that which human hubris had set asunder and to help in dealing with a sickness or injury. Shaman drew or carved images of the gods to honor them, and imbued these images with special healing properties. A person in need of healing might be given a stone or jewel talisman with special properties to ward off disruptive spirits. These objects were valued by the community for their mystical properties. Sometimes they would be loaned to other villages to provide needed help.
Somewhere along the line, a shaman learned to set special healing stones in gold or silver, perhaps because it was a very special stone or as a special token to a tribal elder or chief. Other dancers, storytellers, and makers of sacred images became specialized and prized for their work. The pieces they created took on a meaning beyond their spiritual significance.
Some of these objects began to be traded as their spiritual value made them valuable. But as they traveled further from home, the spiritual significance of these items diminished with the loss of connection to their native culture, but their uniqueness and art held special value of its own. As time progressed, the “art” began to take on a life separate from its mystical roots.
As the world became commercial, value was created in these things for their craft. Music, dance, literature, theater, poetry, carving and painting all became forms unto themselves and took on profane value and would only occasionally look back to their spiritual origins.
“Exotic” things from far away lands became curios for wealthy merchants and princes. Gems and stones were valued for their beauty and priced for their rarity, not for their healing power. Craft and the arts became businesses – art for art’s sake and for entertainment, developing their own culture and values.
Living in town allowed people to specialize their skills and trade for what they needed, separating them further from nature. When food was purchased in the market, there was more reason to thank the farmer than to thank God. New religions tended to destroy the practices of older, competing nature-based faiths in order to eliminate the competition. In the “New World” for example, the Spaniards built Catholic churches on the foundations of the Aztec and Inca temples they destroyed.
Also about this time, science began to explain the mechanics of the world and removed much of the mystery and magic from life. It offered itself as a substitute for God, proclaiming that, “God is dead.” Science offered explanations for how things worked but for all its many accomplishments, was never intended to explain why things were as they are. And, when medicine comes in a bottle or capsule, we tend to thank the pharmacist, not its Maker.
Also, the spiritual institutions of the time had become incredibly corrupt. They had totally lost touch with the needs of the people. As science and commerce threatened their dominance over society, the various faiths tightened their control, creating forms of religious rigidity (the Inquisition, Puritanism) previously unknown except in cult situations. This rigidity ultimately alienated the populace and hastened the demise of these fundamentalist faiths, or drove people further into fundamentalist rigidity.
The Industrial Revolution with its focus on capitalism and materialistic values drove a stake into society’s spiritual heart. Any remaining spiritual significance was forced out of life or turned into a ritualistic shell. God went out of daily life and was no longer found at home or in the fields, forests and meadows. So we stopped saying grace at dinner and thanking God for our lives. Besides, when God vanishes from nature, it is easier to cut down trees or pollute the streams and oceans.
And so today we have arrived at a place that is almost completely opposite from our beginnings. Commerce and the desire for power drives modern society. Heart and healing are left for charities. We seek to dominate and control nature. We no longer thank God for our existence and have removed spirituality – ceremony and ritual – from our daily lives. The modern global corporation is the most spiritually empty and heartless institution ever created by man.
Today, largely outside the West, a great rebirth of spirituality is underway all over the planet. People are beginning to seek alternatives to economic life. As much a protest against Western capitalism as a religious movement, Islam is attracting millions of new followers. Catholicism has blossomed all throughout Africa and in the 3rd and 4th worlds. There has even been serious talk that the next Pope could come from Africa.
Just about all you hear on the radio in the Caribbean these days is religious or spiritual music. It may not be your brand of spirituality, but fundamentalist Christians swung the recent American presidential election. Today in Kansas fundamentalists are arguing that children should be taught that there is an order and consciousness to the universe that precedes scientific explanations like evolution.
Change of this kind gathers energy quietly, almost silently, amongst millions of individuals and then with seeming suddenness, bursts to the surface like the great tsunami. It is an unkempt and messy process, that makes strange bedfellows of people with diverse beliefs, but it comes with an unstoppable force.
The bloody and painful battle to end slavery and create racial equality (the Civil War, the civil rights movement, etc.) and the more recent struggle for sexual equality reorder social values. They ultimately bring us closer together, and push us to appreciate each other more. The world changed after WW II and America changed because of the conflict over Viet Nam. We still have a ways to go.
Our present difficulties with Black lives matter, gay rights and animal rights will bring us even closer, not just as people but also as species. These "difficulties" will be followed by global struggles for racial, ethnic and gender equality. Eventually they will lead to a massive struggle for global economic equality. These struggles are never easy and sometimes bloody, but they do serve to join our hearts.
The recent tsunamis in Southeast Asia that came in seconds with the power of many, many nuclear weapons, reminds us of the frailty of human life and the falseness of our belief in human dominance over nature. Global warming and the tsunamis are just a small few first steps in a process that will disturb the security created by false economic gods. There will be more.
People ask me why I became a shaman. Truthfully, I didn't have much choice. You see, God and I have not been on good terms for much of my life. My early years were pretty rough and I used to blame God when things went “wrong.” And, as some of you know, you can milk that anger for a long time.
It allows you to hold your negative beliefs about yourself, not look at why your life isn’t working and to not have to change. You’re not very happy, life is a pain and you rationalize and compromise everything you do, but you don't have to face that awful self that you are sure is inside. As Carlos Rey wrote, "Our dreams are what we are meant to be. Our life is what we settled for."
Interestingly, at the same time all this painful stuff was happening in my life, there was a deep spiritual connection within me that I could not deny. It kept pushing me into a series of experiences that forced me into conflict with the beliefs I held about myself. I didn't always understand what was happening, because as is so often true in life, you only really see by hindsight.
Grudgingly I began to give up my old refuge of hurt and pain. So there I was, being pulled like a moth into a flame in spite of my anger and resistance. It felt pretty schizophrenic sometimes, and I certainly didn’t like it! Eventually, as life is wont to do, I got thrown into a series of crises that “encouraged” me to give up my old ways of being and thinking in favor of a more enlightened perspective.
I’d love to be able to say that I saw the light and chose this path because I knew it was for my higher good. I didn’t. Much of the time, at least in the early stages, I got dragged through the mud by the nose and only changed because I didn’t want to have to do that again! Today it is a much different story, but I paid a price to get here.
I have remained a shaman because it is the best way I could find to get close to God. And, after giving up my struggles, it has become the most important thing in my life. I can’t paint or draw worth a darn. I love music but I’ve never been able to get past figuring out scales on sheet music. I couldn’t find God in any of the organized religions, but I can shaman right up there with the best in the world, so once I was led onto this path, I took it.
I know that many of you are going through your own version of what I experienced. The task I have set for myself is to help you avoid some of the rocks and pitfalls I fell into, and to help you find a more gentle way to come home. And it is possible. I know that now. And, the Universe is changing to more readily facilitate your process. Many of you have told me that you feel this already happening.
We are being asked to find spiritual direction in our lives. Each of the global forces of which I speak is going to push you to open the places where your heart is closed. Much of this will focus on your lack of love for yourself. You are also going to be asked in a hundred different ways to “re-find” your connection to the Creator.
The result looks like putting spirituality back in life (note that I said spirituality, not religion). You are going to be asked (ever more forcefully) to move from your present beliefs and feelings of unworthiness to a place of compassion. T.S. Eliot wrote, We must not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began, and to know it for the first time.
Today you have the luxury of working at your own pace. That isn’t going to last a great deal longer. Take my word for it, start now, start today. It is a lot easier if you do it now instead of waiting until you don’t have a choice. Make your spiritual growth the most important thing in your life. If you don't do it today, circumstances will demand it of you tomorrow.
So, what should you do? It’s really rather simple. Just open your heart to the next person you come into contact with. Then do the same with the next person and the one after that, and so on. Do this especially if you are irritated or have issues with them. Watch where you hold back, where you are uncomfortable or fear being embarrassed, or otherwise hold back.
Call up six people you care about and tell them that you are glad that they are in your life. Give a bunch of people an extra warm greeting or maybe even a hug. Later, when you realize that you have been pulled off track and forgot about being compassionate, just stop and start over. The wonderful thing about life is that each moment is disconnected from the next. At any point you can change what you have been doing and start new.
The goal is to practice loving others until you can hold that space with every waking moment. And, when you have made good progress toward loving others, then start to work on loving yourself.
Somewhere in this process you will begin to bump up against the fears and beliefs that keep you from loving freely and openly, and that is when the work really begins. The first thing to do is to not deny that you've hit a bump. Don't blame them, don't blame circumstances or life. It's your bump. Otherwise you wouldn't be hurting, you'd be an observer.
What you are up against is old conditioning that created beliefs like: "You can be hurt." "You are not lovable." "You are not good enough," etc., etc. These are the things that keep you from being compassionate. Untangling those old feelings can take a little time and it's a painful process, but:
"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly." Richard Bach
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