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Lately, I’ve been contemplating wholeness. I know that wholeness is something to be desired, but what is wholeness, really? Wholeness is one of those abstract words we carelessly toss around – similar to ego or self – but when asked, it is difficult to come up with a clear definition. When I Googled the question “What is wholeness?” this is the first thing I found:

“Wholeness is a concept that has many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer as to what wholeness really is”.

Perhaps, it is easier to describe wholeness by what it is not – via negativa – for I can easily identify the moments in my life when I have felt anything but whole; times when I felt alienated from others, periods of self-doubt and humiliation, and those many instances when I wasn’t understood or when my feelings were denied or devalued. It is times like these that my body and mind fall out of sync, scouring against each other like two opposing sides of a fault-line.

We do know from trauma studies that dissociation, or psychic splitting, takes place when an unbearable event such as child abuse or a natural disaster occurs in the life of an individual or community. Dissociation is a psychological maneuver that fragments the psyche into various compartments where the painful material can remain safely tucked away, enabling one to continue living without having to bear the full weight of the trauma. Thus, dissociation is a helpful survival mechanism, but not without great sacrifice. Whereas a traumatized person may be able to function in the external world of work, friends, and family, the inner world may be beset with a host of tormenting symptoms which cramp down on their ability to express themselves and move comfortably through the world. If they were Elk or Caribou, it would be like having fences erected around their migratory paths.

Unfortunately, too many of us know the impact of trauma in one form or another. Yet, within mainstream psychology, little attention is given to the pervasive trauma of global warming, the loss of habitat, or the destruction of wild places. And yet, the wounding impact of these events is palpable to anyone who has ever had connection to place. Each time I travel to my mom’s house in the Coachella Valley, for instance, I become disoriented, uncomfortably altered, and despairing as I watch more and more of my favorite desert places swallowed up by Home Depots, golf courses, and mobile home parks. And what makes this worse is that very few people understand or recognize these feelings. My guess is that this is due to the fact that environmental devastation is so all-encompassing and out of control that it is just too disturbing to give it words. How can I possibly ever be whole when the places I love are disappearing? My best memories live in these places. Where will my memories go when these places are gone?

And, of course, this profound loss is nothing new for those who have lived here long before the era of Manifest Destiny when rapid expansionism buried the ancient teachings and storylines under the rubbish of ignorance and greed. I can only trust that if we pay attention long enough and allow ourselves to listen intensely; we’ll discern the stories that still live deep in the belly of the earth, waiting in dark silence…

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Although my ancestors are not native to this continent, I feel a responsibility to live as if I am, and to walk lightly so as to not harm the old stories that live in the land. And eventually, as I continue to walk, my own memories of trauma and loss find refuge in the stones, washes, and trees and a new story begins to take form. Something instinctively within me wants to continue the migration toward wholeness and all the living pieces are slowly making their way across the land. Memories gathering into a story. By our stories we are healed.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

And now it occurs to me that wholeness is no different than wildness and wildness is the ability to move freely through this world. In the past, I imagined wholeness to be like a hardboiled egg in which all things are held together tightly in place, but now I understand wholeness as that which is boundless and unrestrained, yet orderly within its own natural system. A plant that is wild is self-propagating, free to flourish according to its own unique endowments. An animal that is wild freely moves according to its own internal patterns. And, a human who is wild tells their story without fear or intimidation.

Speaking of wholeness in this way, Gary Snyder writes,

Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order….To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive” (The Practice of the Wild, p. 12).

It is thus no mystery why the work we do at The School of Lost Borders is so healing. Not healing in a fix it kind of way, but in an expanding, opening way. It is so simple. People gather together, go out alone onto the land, create ceremony, and then come back to the group with a story. It is healing because it reconnects us with our own wild system, knocking down fences, breaking apart dams, removing the barriers of shame and silence. This is our Practice of the Wild. This is our Practice of Wholeness. 

The only cure
I know
Is a good ceremony
That’s what she said

–          Leslie Marmon Silko


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Tears and Tectonics

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live, you must suffer. – Buddhist teaching.

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. – Thomas Merton

This blog has been thin. Not that I don’t think about writing. It is just that I haven’t given myself the time to drop down far enough below the surface of my thinking to retrieve anything worth writing about. And it distresses me when I realize just how quickly time can pass when living on the surface; especially on the flat surface of a computer screen. The distress intensifies along with the awareness that just outside my office window, along the garden wall, the shadows are lengthening, creeping over the day lilies, zinnias, marguerites, and finally darkening the Buddha sculpture that sits at the west end of the backyard. After a day of sitting in front of my computer, I step outside and feel the chill of the setting sun. Before I even discern the beauty of it, the day is gone.

Let me get this straight. I don’t want to appear as another “wanna be” writer, writing about writer’s block. Nor, do I want to drag my readers into my own dark hole of self-loathing. How boring is that? But, the best way I know how to make sense of this crazy life is to write about it; by pulling out the shards from the pit of these ambiguous feelings and piecing them together. It is a painful alchemical process of creating meaning out of chaos. And, for me, it doesn’t always come easy.

Thankfully, I’m not expected to do this on my own. When it looks as if that there is nothing left to piece together, when my libido has run dry as a desert wash, gracefully and auspiciously, a dream pays me a visit.

But in this case, the dream is horrifying and sad.  It is about dolphins.  In my “day life”, I often see dolphins off the coast of Ventura or on my frequent trips to and from Catalina Island. Their playfulness always makes me smile. But, the dolphins in the dream are not playing or swimming; rather, they are suffocating, crammed tightly into a small stone pool of water. And to make matters more tragic, right outside the pool is the endless ocean. Freedom so near, yet so unattainable.

Suddenly, in the dream, I hear a cacophony of cries and high-pitched screams followed by the sound of gun shots. I look down at the pool and see a few men with rifles killing off a number of dolphins in firing squad fashion. The pool darkens with blood. The sound and images of murder send warning signals up my spine setting off an instinctual fear that I rarely encounter. Later, I am told that the killing is necessary. Some of the dolphins are diseased and the only way to control contamination is to kill off the sick. But I know the disease is caused by the fact that there are too many dolphins crammed in too tight a space. Overcrowding and confinement foster disease.

So, I spend time with this dream. I hate it. I hate everything that it reminds me of: Over population, global warming, the devastation of our forests, the polluting of our water and the overwhelming daily bombardment of newly listed endangered and extinct species.  Not to mention my own feelings of suffocation as I crawl my way through the demands of daily life.

How do I piece these shards together? How do I create something whole out of something so utterly broken?

Any solution that might mitigate the dream’s tragic ending feels ridiculously superficial. The dream does not indicate my need to free myself of psychological oppression or inner disease. No.  Rather the dream invites me to participate in every image and aspect of the story: To cry with the dolphins as well as to partake in the shooting.  Both sides deserve attention. Both sides suffer the split. It is a matter of psychological tectonics.

And as far as I can tell, nothing brings about wholeness more than the tears that flow from the streambed of suffering this split. As Robert Romanyshyn recently mentioned during his presentation on Antarctica, perhaps the one saving grace of global warming is that it is melting our hearts and opening us to the awareness of our suffering. Tears add moisture to those dried up pieces of broken shard, making them malleable.

A few days after the dream, perhaps serendipitously, I found a small dog on the road that had been hit by a car. I had just spent an hour in some nasty, finger flipping rush hour traffic when I came across the helpless creature, bloody and limp. It was after dark so I took the dog to a 24 hour emergency vet where I was told it would cost over $800 just to determine if the dog should be euthanized or not.  No go. The vet then directed me to the local shelter where they would do the diagnostics for free. Once I arrived at the shelter and found my way through the night security gates, I handed the dog over to what would most likely be its death. I sucked it up and gave the dog to the receptionists who carried him away before I could even say goodbye. OK.  I am a death dealer.

Soon enough, the sobs blew open like an uncontrollable geyser. For once, I could not minimize my feelings. “It is just a small and nameless dog”, I told myself.  Yet, the tears could not be contained and, at last, the dolphins swam freely.

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Jo came to my door one cold December night and decided to never leave. She loved to hike the hills of Catalina Island. She was feisty and funny.  An angel in disguise that, once again, broke open my heart.  – bp

 

The following poem by Robinson Jeffers captures so much of my sentiment toward Jo, or her’s toward me. Am I anthropomorphizing? Who cares?

 

The House Dog’s Grave 

 

I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

 

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

 

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

 

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read–and I fear often grieving for me–
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

 

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

 

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

 

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

 

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.


Robinson Jeffers, 1941

 

 

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