The Meeting of Worlds: Attending the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering

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Bear Dancer

This weekend I was privileged enough to attend the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering at the invitation of a friend who has attended for the last several years. I and several members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance (SSSEA) headed up to Lillooet, British Columbia for what promised to be a weekend of inspiring speeches, authentic ceremony and my first ever sweat lodge ritual.

The gathering which is now in its 8th (and apparently final) year took place with the permission of the St’át’imc Chiefs’ Council on Xaxl’ip, or Fountain Indian Band, territory. The St’át’imc entered treaty negotiation with the Province in the mid-1990s but in 2001 withdrew over a rising hope for greater sovereignty among First Nations peoples. The area thus continues to be unceded territory to which the people retain traditional claims. The Coalition is also working aggressively to protect and restore critical habitat for salmon, deer and grizzly bears using a synthesis of Western ecological science and traditional science and knowledge.

This year’s gathering preceded the annual Sun Dance which is held near the Summer Solstice, and seven Sun Dancers were fasting in the mountains in preparation for the dance. Upon arrival the host was explicit: No photographs of the Sundance tree, no drugs or alcohol, attend all the ceremonies. The Sun Dance tree was a large (dead) aspen tree tied with dozens of colorful prayer flags surrounded by an improvised wooden arbor to mark the dancing grounds.

The Gathering’s ceremony space was made up of a similar arbor with a small altar in the middle. Marking the four direction were black, yellow, white and red flags symbolizing the four races of humanity as described within Native teachings. From Thursday afternoon to Saturday evening, I observed about a dozen speakers discuss local ecology, climate change, reconciliation efforts, the effects of colonialism on native peoples, and the broadening movement to reclaim First Nations’ traditional territories.

The speakers continually invoked the importance of the land as sacred. One speaker stated that his people’s history was not written in books but on the land. He pointed with pride to the nearby mountain where several generations of Sun Dancers had fasted. Another speaker encouraged people to pray outside, under trees, because with their branches extended, trees are always praying, and thus they teach us to pray. One speaker reminisced to the time when their people arrived in the area and the mountains, plants and animals began to speak to them. Not in a metaphorical way, but actually speaking to them with their bodies and lives.

Internationally renowned activist Chief Phil Lane Jr. presented his International Treaty to Protect and Restore Mother Earth which was read during the Paris Climate Change meetings on Earth Day of this year. Our reading took place before a beautiful pipe ceremony that included four pipes at each of the cardinal directions, and in which the entire audience was invited to participate.

As part of the proceedings, the community was hosting several sweat lodge ceremonies led by authorized guides. At first I was hesitant to participate because of reports that they can feel claustrophobic and overwhelming. I was also cautious as a white person of participating in the sacred ceremonies of Native people. But since we were invited to participate I decided to join. I attended an early morning sweat and arrived to find the lodge, a small makeshift timber frame with blankets and tarps over it, oriented toward the east where a sacred fire was kindled outside. We were instructed to walk in clockwise fashion both around the fire and once we entered the lodge. I was nervous as I entered the lodge with about 30 other people, some native and some non-Native, mostly white. We sat cross-legged in smart rows and waited for the attendants to close the door flap. The ceremony was divided into four parts with short breaks in between. Each of the four parts was guided by prayer, drumming and song. As the guide poured water onto the stones in the pitch black lodge, I began to feel the waves of humid heat settle over me and tinges of anxiety fleck my sides and neck. I began to see colors flashing in the darkness. Within a few minutes a woman who was feeling claustrophobic yelled out to be let out of the lodge. I tucked my head down and focused on my breath. I began to mouth the sounds of the Native chants that were being sung. Sweat dripped down my head, neck and back. I came close to leaving. But as we proceeded, and I continued to pray and focus on my body, the anxiety slowly dissipated and I relaxed into the rhythm of the lodge. At each of the four intervals, the attendant brought in more stones. With each load, the guide shouted, “grandfather coming in.” This protocol was repeated for each stone that entered the lodge, and in the second session, we invoked the ancestor spirits to join us in the lodge. Looking at the glowing rocks the literalness of this statement struck me. Stones are the bones of the earth from which we are made. They came before us, and will be here long after us.

We were told we sat inside the womb of Mother Earth, and that the ritual was a kind of rebirthing ritual set to the steady heartbeat of all of life made manifest through drumming. Though I could not understand the words of the chants, their aesthetic impact was sharp as a knife. As I understand it, the sweat lodge ceremony is often meant for healing, and this is no coincidence considering the deep historical and cultural traumas suffered by First Peoples. I did not feel like I had anything comparable to heal from but offered up my own uncertainties and my prayer that things would get better for native peoples all over the globe, whose lands are still under attack.

Sitting with my head between my legs, sweating into the dust and fir boughs that lined the ground, I thought of the ritual of baptism in which Christians become new persons in Christ. The sweat lodge felt like the ritual enactment of taking this power to be reborn upon ourselves and heal through engaging the body in a kind of ascetic test of endurance, combining both the rebirth by fire and water of which Jesus cryptically spoke.

Though I am not Native and do not plan on attending Native ceremony without an invitation, it was an honor to be able to participate in a gathering of this scope and authenticity. It certainly increased my appreciation for my own tradition.

The Eagle and the Condor: Reflections on the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering

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Eagle and Condor with Serpent and Jaguar by Peruvian Visionary Artist Juan Carlos Taminchi

Maria Trujillo
Master of Community and Regional Planning (MCRP)
University of British Columbia

This weekend some SSSEA folks attended the 8th annual Indigenous Leadership Gathering hosted by the Xaxli’p First Nation from June 2nd to June 5th near Lillooet, BC. Chief Darrell Bob of Xaxli’p First Nation reminded us that the first gathering was held to protect the sacred and took place in 2009. The gathering is open to everyone from all over the world. Three meals a day were generously provided. We had tasty moose and deer cooked by volunteers. I had fun volunteering in the kitchen for the first day.

Being at the gathering reminded me of my journey of seeking to know my spirit and the sacred. I have been exploring what it means to be in touch with my spirit for some years now. It is a bumpy road of push and pull where diving into my heart more deeply has uncovered both gifts and many uncomfortable truths. And where sometimes I have tried to run away from the difficulties in my heart only to be pulled back to what seems to me to be more authentic within myself, the spirit in me: the eternal beauty that embraces the pain so tenderly.

At the gathering, one of the speakers, Phil Lane Jr. spoke about the prophecy of the eagle and the condor, where these two birds come together. These two birds do not typically migrate, they stay in their respective continents (specifically true for the condor, but depending on the eagle, some species migrate). The speaker mentioned that the condor, native of South America, is symbolic of the heart, and the eagle, native of North America, is symbolic of the mind. Right now, there is an opportunity for these two energies to meet and come into union. A union that could benefit mankind immensely, and that perhaps could unite the energies within us too. According to the Pachamama Alliance,

The Eagle and the Condor is an ancient Amazon prophecy that speaks of human societies splitting into two paths – that of the Eagle, and that of the Condor. The path of the Condor is the path of heart, of intuition, and of the feminine. The path of the Eagle is the path of the mind, of the industrial, and of the masculine. The prophecy says that the 1490s would begin a 500 year period during during which the Eagle people would become so powerful that they would virtually drive the Condor people out of existence. This can be seen in the conquering of the Americas and the killing and oppressing of the indigenous peoples in the subsequent 500 years – up to and including today. The prophecy says that during the next 500-year period, beginning in 1990, the potential would arise for the Eagle and the Condor to come together, to fly in the same sky, and to create a new level of consciousness for humanity. The prophecy only speaks of the potential, so it’s up to us to activate this potential and ensure that a new consciousness is allowed to arise.”

The last few months I have been meditating on this union within myself. I decided to explore both the feminine and the masculine in myself in order to understand what the flow of these two energies would feel like if they were not blocked. What I found was that for a while I had refused to accept the masculine in myself because of the social construction of what it entailed to be masculine. I was searching for a healthy masculine, one that does not seek to control, judge, nor block off, but one that is protective of my fluid nature and speaks truth when truth is needed. I was finding that my unhealthy masculine sought and seeks to sometimes control what is around me in order for me to feel safe.

The feminine in me is fluid, like water, but often times seeks to flow uncontrollably. She is sensation-based, she seeks pleasure, and she wants to indulge in ultimate feeling. Yet, I also do not have a clear idea of what a healthy feminine in me looks like, because again socially I have been led to believe that the free feminine is the social construction of the current masculine: independent, and head-driven. (Just to be clear, these are energetic conceptualizations, and they are by no means prescriptions of naturalized femininity or masculinity as pertaining to gender. Some men can have more feminine energy or vice-versa.)

As I worked to balance these energies within me, so that my spirit is in alignment with what feels right to me, my intuition tells me to lift my masculine and ground my feminine. At the moment I find myself happily living in one or the other but I seek a balance of the two. For myself, these are of course just metaphors, metaphors that I use and perhaps others do to in order to navigate and accept myself and arrive to what feels like the most authentic expression of me.

I had the honour of being on my moontime at the gathering, and I was treated with so much kindness, love and reverence. At the ceremonial circle, there was a space for women on their moontime to sit. There were blankets, chocolate, and water for us to drink and an Elder that took care of us and answered questions. I was told that at night, there was also a women’s circle where women talked about how being on moontime is something to be honoured and not feel ashamed of (I did not participate but I was told by another women at the gathering about this).

At the women’s honouring circle we walked into the middle of the ceremony and were invited to sit in the middle while men sang in honour of women. Although the circle was for honouring women, I began to think about my father. I thought about my father and began to cry because I knew that in his heart he had been deprived of the ability to express his emotions fully. Patriarchy had dictated that he needed to behave a certain way and express his emotions a certain way or not at all. I cried because I knew in my heart that he loves me so much, even if sometimes he does not have the tools to express this love.

Back to ecology, to nature, the focus of this blog,and bringing this back full circle. A huge tug of war exists in my heart about development and the preservation of the environment. There is no such a thing as sustainable development, as Bill Reese proved through the ecological footprint, growth is inherently unsustainable. So what to do? To me, development is a very masculine, Yang-driven energy, it is an energy of doing, and growing, and achievement. Yet it is almost a hyper-masculine energy. Living in complete alignment with nature, and letting the flow take us, to me, seems hyper-feminine, at a time of extensive environmental destruction, climate change, we need warriors that will live in alignment to mother earth but which will use the mind and the heart to find ways to flow with the mother, while using the masculine energy to build new futures of togetherness and community. In the end, how do we achieve a unity that honours the unity that brought us here?

Perhaps it is indeed about the unity of these two energies, it is about the condor and the eagle finally arriving. Each energy with its gifts and pains if misused or taken to extremes can be dangerous. Unity with nature, I think ultimately entails a unity of these two energies in ourselves so that they are not out of balance.

To the condor and the eagle in all of us, may the north and south indeed unite…

The generosity at the gathering is a huge testament to the potential of the human spirit. Thank you to Xaxli’p First Nation for generously hosting us and for providing a space where the mind and heart are encouraged to meet.

 

Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

Deepening our Connection to Place through Spiritual Practice

During this year’s Convergence, we tried to connect two threads: The places we call home and the spiritual practices that ground us in those places. The purpose of spiritual practice, for many of the world’s religious traditions, is to facilitate a personal encounter with the Divine, with our True Selves, with the Absolute.

Place is not a bounded or static entity. It is a portal through which we are led. I like to think of it as one of those paintings you have to stare at for a while, before you can see what is hidden. A place becomes sacred when we begin to see what is really there. On our maps, there is often just a large monochromatic green patch for parks and protected areas. This is the hight of abstraction, and colonial hubris. Places are full of the memories and particularities of those who dwell and have dwelt in them. Spiritual practices can facilitate a deep connection to places, and thus to an ethic of care. During the Convergence, we learned to sit still in a place and listen.

What else can we do?

  • Mark the seasons, and solar cycles
  • Learn to ethically forage edible foods
  • Learn to meditate
  • Listen to First People’s stories of the land
  • Eat mindfully
  • Learn the names of plants and trees
  • Gardening
  • Yoga
  • Walk a labyrinth
  • Go hiking
  • Dance
  • Attend a worship service, or sit in a quiet church/temple/synagogue
  • Engage someone you don’t know
  • Find like minded people to talk with
  • Allow one’s self to grieve for loss

What other spiritual practice do you do to connect with place?

2015 Convergence Reflection

DSC_7733 (2)Last year we held a powerful conversation about ecology, cosmology and spirituality. The energy from that gathering turned into the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance when a handful of us gathered in small circles with mugs of spruce tip or nettle tea and told our stories, expressed our fears, and wondered what we could do to effect real change. We each took deep breaths of relief when we realized that we were not alone in yearning for deep connection to each other, the earth and the Divine. Most of us, but not all, had left conventional religion behind, and were doing what we could to fill the void left in our souls by one of humanity’s most ancient institutions.

‘Place-based Activism and Spiritual Practice’ was not just the SSSEA’s next project, it was a labor of love gifted by countless hours of work by the organizers to its participants. I feel truly blessed to know each one of you. Thank you! Here are just a few thoughts in retrospect on the Convergence.

Starting on September 13, we embarked on a pilgrimage of body and soul. With our eyes to the sea, we accepted that the ocean is not always hospitable to our plans. Strong winds postponed our canoe trip. But gathered inside the Jericho Sailing Centre, we expressed our fears, ideas and possible solutions for the problems facing our oceans. It was difficult to acknowledge the pain without immediately jumping into fixing it. But we held the space. Douglas Tolchin shared a vision for a Bioregional Marine Sanctuary that would bring wild animals populations above 50% of historic levels. The room was buzzing with excitement. A livable future is within our grasp.

On September 20, we convened at Spanish Banks amidst the wind and rain that flapped our rented tents and tables and wandered in the woods. Workshops included foraging, forest ecology, forest play, meditation, yoga, storytelling, and building a forest defense campaign. At the end of the day, after much discussion and time in the beautiful Douglas fir forests of Pacific Spirit Park, we sat in a tight circle and talked about how the idea of nature had ironically further separated us from the world we live in. The sun finally decided to show up, and we craned our necks to absorb its light.

On September 26, we gathered at the UBC farm among new friends, rows and rows of kale, and intermittent clouds. Dawn Morrison challenged our assumptions about farms being the center of food systems, and we sat with the hard truth that colonial violence included agriculture; that food sovereignty meant restoring First Peoples rights to traditional food systems and practices such as gathering, fishing and hunting. We talked about the power of our food purchasing choices, and food as a locus for being an activist. We talked about our rituals surrounding food. We learned to slow down, to focus on each bite of food, to eat mindfully, to treat each meal as a kind of sacrament. We enjoyed a 6 course vegan meal prepared by local chefs from Maple Ridge. As the sun set, and we sat eating together, the bright almost full moon rose above the warm glow of the greenhouse. The night air was crisp with the coming fall. It was a perfect place to celebrate the changing of food into bodies.

DSC_8099 (2)On October 4, we gathered at Saint Paul Anglican Church’s labyrinth space. The labyrinth is modeled after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France. We set up an altar in the center, and as participants entered each with given a rock to help them focus their intention for the gathering. We walked the labyrinth in silence. It was powerful to see so many walking together. Like an intentional city street where the chaos feels like a symphony of bodies. Then we gathered in a large circle, ritually setting our intention and placing our rocks in a bowl of water. The water was blessed and then our officiants used cedar branches to bless each of us. For the next two hours we were led by amazing facilitators of intentional dance Alicia Graham and Loretta Laurin.

It is hard for me to describe the beauty of this time. When we started the music, we were to sit or lay down on the floor, we were to enact each of the five elements: water, fire, air, earth and spirit. As a very self-conscious dancer, I started sitting down with my eyes tightly shut. Hoping to avoid any disappointed glances. But as the time and music went on, and I settled into stillness, and saw just how accepting and loving the space was. I was able to bring myself to my feet and dance around the outside of the labyrinth, slowly and cautiously at first, and then with more confidence. We did a number of amazing exercises such as partner mirror dancing and trying to keep between two people while dancing. During one exercise, half of us were asked to dance while the other half observed. We were to practice seeing and being seen, and to express in our dance something like our fears for the state of the world or sadness, or loneliness. Having just gone through a very difficult break up and consistently feeling the weight of the problems we face, this moment broke me open and I fell to the ground pounding the floor in rhythm to the pulsing music. I cried not just for myself but for the world. I was surprised by how powerful my reaction was. Then I felt the soft hands of another dancer on my back, and I was filled with a soft wave of comfort. I was not alone in my pain, in my loneliness, or in facing the problems of the world. I got up and joined the other dancers in an awkward but joyous dance of gratitude.

The SSSEA set out to create a sacred container for building community and deepening our connections to the earth through spiritual practice, and as the evening was wrapping up, I felt a wave of pride and joy as we performed and expressed those very goals. Not through academic papers, or even words, but with our bodies.

Thank you all who participated! It was a pleasure meeting you, and we hope that you will join us for our next visioning session in the beginning of November. Take care of yourselves, and don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us for a listening ear, support of company.

Jason B.