On the first evening of the Grass Valley Immersion event I attended this year, we placed our chairs around the fire circle. The sacredness of the place reflected the substance of the weekend to come. The fire tender’s expert movements belied his youthful appearance. I watched as he unwrapped a bundle, took out a flat stone, a small bow with string, a stick slightly charred on one end, and a flat piece of wood also singed from other fires. He looped the stick around the string, placed the rock in the palm of his left hand, and grasped one end of the bow with the other. Then, with one end of the stick against his palm and the other end pressed firmly on the flat wood lying on the ground, he moved the bow back and forth to test the turn of the stick as it spun first in one direction, then in the other. Satisfied that the spinning would serve its purpose, the man placed a handful of fine moss at the point of friction between woods, and pulled the bow back and forth again. Before long smoke came out of the clump of moss, and he picked it up and blew a few times on its embers. When the fire caught, he placed it carefully into the prepared nest of moss and shavings over which artfully spaced sticks brought ample air to feed the rising flames. Absent in my day to day existence, this fire building ritual gave me a hint of what spiritual experiences I would be part of at the event.
Calixto, whom I had met at last year’s gathering at Grass Valley, was principal. Grandfather Woableza, a Lakota/Dakota elder from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and an honored guest at the event. The substance of their messages was essentially to recognize the divine and spiritual in all things and actions. In so doing, they taught, the inner world where individuality lives is intimately connected with the outer world. We are not taught that connection in contemporary society. The common interpretation we share is that there is this internal me, and the rest of the cosmos outside of me is not me. The result of this thinking is our feeling separated.
How this intimate connection is made between two worlds is the essential driving force of many wisdom teachings through time. While Grandfather brought tribal songs and sang them in his soft native tongue, Calixto brought narratives, taught to him through decades of discipline by his Arhuaco elders and by the many global cultures he has visited on his travels. These narratives were stories, ritual blessings, and prayers which effectively gathered us together toward the group’s wished-for wholeness.
At one point during the evening, someone mentioned the power that fire has, and Calixto posed this question: Which is consumed, the fire or the wood? The question seemed odd to me, and yet upon reflection, I realized that fuel and fire consume each other; fire consumes the fuel until it is gone, then the fire goes out. Fuel has thus essentially consumed the fire. Is this an illogical play of ideas, or a perspective from a separated life? Is the question an invitation to consider how to think in a more connected way?
Early the next morning, after lighting the fire again and praying to the four corners and to Earth and sky, Calixto asked many of us individually to lead the group in blessing people experiencing misfortune. Grandfather was asked to contribute, and he sang a Lakota/Dakota hymn. One person was asked to pray for blessing sick and starving children, and another for the millions of immigrants displaced around the world, and yet another for the peace and well-being of the globe. Others, perhaps not accustomed to praying, let alone for others we did not know, were asked to lead in our own blessings. As participants prayed, their voices and feeling seemed to shift the space between us all into a peaceful, enveloping tone. With each prayer, the sounds were woven into a general mood of personal absorption and respect, and I felt a cloak of calm and wholeness settle among us.
Among the participants was also a Zapateco from Oaxaca who was invited to contribute remedies for healing. His medicine was the sound and sensations of musical devices including a large collection of wooden and clay mouth and nose flutes - most of which he had made himself. Among the instruments were drums and drum-like instruments, bells, whistles, and other sound-making devices, all which served to augment hymns and prayers, and were – on their own - medicine of blessings and gratitude.
At breakfast, we gathered in a circle and one member was asked to give blessings for the food. The cook and his helpers then described the ample and flavorful assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delectables laid out before us in the morning sun. This was done at each of the meals, and like the artisan of fire-making, the chef too was meticulous about his task. He described the simple but expertly prepared dishes; what spices were used and a brief run-down of the cooking procedures. As he spoke, his care with process was apparent. Onions, garlic, and diced peppers were sauteed in butter for added flavor before the rest of the dish was cooked. These steps revealed the caring he put into his food as well as his expertise as a chef. What we ate was grown locally, most on the very property where we were standing. Chickens and eggs were local too, as was the lamb served as a stew; these had been raised by friends and massaged for tenderness. Many hands and minds were involved with successfully and happily feeding the lot of us.
This caring meeting of hands and minds contributed to the return to wholeness toward which the weekend of immersion was aiming. As I reflected upon this, I thought that wholeness is not static but movement, an instant of living within a continuously moving process that doesn’t stop or end, as far as I can tell, after death. To become whole for every human is perhaps to continually experience purpose, to participate with the flow of thought, feeling, and activity as it continuously occurs, and make out of that what one can. When internal and external become integrated, as is experienced on occasions such as at the Grass Valley Immersion event and even sometimes without the assistance of dedicated weekends, integration of the two worlds of inner and outer self can occur. These moments can take the form of chance meetings, books read, and “accidents.” The process of movement toward wholeness is itself the whole. Conscious engagement with intentional and chance movement toward wholeness I’m talking about moves a person into an increasingly more alert, aware, and capable state of mind that allows one to confront and manage whatever comes up next for the good of one’s self, for the benefit of people around us, and for all and everything in the cosmos.