Experiencing the Dark

To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall…

-Denise Levertov, from To Speak

Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting different snippets of Epic happenings in preparation for writing this column. While there are many songs, rituals and ceremonies emerging to celebrate the Epic, many of the events also include mourning and grief rituals to acknowledge the sorrow that we feel at the passing of so much of the beauty of the Earth, and the Cosmos.

To fully experience the Epic of Evolution means to embrace both the creative and destructive tendencies of the Universe in our rituals and cermonies, poetry and storytelling and so on. Afterall, "The Story of the universe is a story of majesty and beauty as well as of violence and disruption, a drama filled with both elegance and ruin." (Universe Story, p.47). Galactic clouds self implode, primal stars are born, hydrogen and helium collide and interact.

In the Universe Story, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme show their deep understanding of this movement from creation to destruction and back again as seen in this passage describing the movement from shining star to black cinder and on again to new life forms.

"Eventually, in a million years or in several billion years, each star’s resources against the collapse are all used up. If the mass of a star at this point is large enough, its gravitational pressures will destroy the star. The remaining materials will rush toward each other. Nothing in the Universe can now stop them. All remaining structure is destroyed as the star implodes to a pulsar – a super-dense mass of neutrons – or collapses all the way down to a naught entity, a singularity of space and time, a black hole. This stellar being that burned brightly for billions of years, that may have showered sentient creatures with radiant energy that they transformed into their living bodies and into cathedrals that rose in wheat fields, has gone, only a black cinder left."

With the destruction of the old stellar world, a new star forms, new planets form and new life forms. Birth and resurrection are ancient themes of the Universe.

Those of us in the developed world live in a society that sanctions an ongoing state of denial of the ecological and social havoc that we are wreaking upon the Earth and the many species with whom we cohabitate. It is this very fear and denial of the dark that keeps us from healing both ourselves and the world we live in.

As EES Board member and international rainforest activist John Seed says,

"The denial of our desperate situation is the very glue that holds the whole sorry mess together. By denying our feelings, the cerebral cortex usurps the function of intelligence and masquerades as the whole of our intelligence rather than it's servant.

Yet our feelings ARE intelligent, they have stood the test of time. It was the acuity and intelligence of our feelings that selected whose children would survive to reproduce and whose would fail for a hundred million years of our mammalian existence. What evidence do we have that thinking can replace them?

So ... celebration? Yes! Wholeheartedly yes! But can we trust celebration that is built on a bedrock of denial? Not at all. Such rejoicing rings hollow and fails to convince ourselves let alone others. For this reason, in our Deep Time workshops, Ruth and I always invite ourselves and the participants into rituals of despair so that the full horror and fear and anguish may be given voice. Then and only then may we trust the joy that pours forth spontaneously and with innocence."

Epic’er Roger Davies, further attests to the need for feelings to be a part of celebratory rituals:

"I myself have felt sorrow over Earth's distress to the point that some of the celebratory stuff I have participated in in the past has felt "head-in-the-sand-y" and sort of new agey, yet again there is a re-newal and return. Mostly I am striving to relate with compassion to life, human and other-than-human, and to be in/with the natural world. As with all human endeavor particularly of the obvious ritual sort, the actions can become dis-spirited, this is true whether Thanksgiving Day in North America, Catholic Mass, or Epic Ritual."

Or as Spencer Marx says in a posting to the Cosmogen listserv, "The despair and empowerment work should be figured directly into the characters of the epic. I'm all for joy and celebration as an attractor, but it should come forth out of some encounter with the actual darkfield of the tale. Confronting the shadow must be included, or we end up with spun sugar."

As a society, we are caught between a sense of impending apocalypse and the fear of acknowledging it. How do we find ways to express our fear and grief about the many species that are being lost to extinction each day? Our horror at the loss or rainforests and coral reefs? Our dismay at the spread of development into rural lands? Our pain at the wars raging all across the globe? Our sorrow about the number of children starving and homeless?

As artist Tom Rockwell says, "The trauma is real. Only the most naive pro-science advocate would deny the many cultural, environmental shifts wrought by not only technological change but also scientific, cosmological change. Besides the ungrounding and disorienting changes wrought by electricity, automobiles and atomic science, new cosmology has also asked us to give up our centrality in the universe, evict God from the stars, and accept our place in a family tree that includes bacteria and apes. Such a traumatic shift, happening over few centuries as it did, demands a process of grieving for the old in order to move onto the new.

It is only by facing such losses and the resultant fear and anger, that we can come to feel at home in the new cosmology. If evolution is truly to become a part of a new foundational myth, then that myth must also tell the story of what we lost when evolution came on the scene."

To help us to face the dark and invite it into us, Joanna Macy, deep ecologist, founded a body of work called Despair and Empowerment. In her book, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Joanna lays a strong foundation for understanding our feelings of pain for the world. She points out that these feelings are normal and healthy. When we unblock repressed feelings, we release energy that is tied up, our mind becomes clear, and we reconnect with the larger web of life. This book is highly recommended for those wishing to guide grief and mourning rituals. There are also a number of good exercises including Open Sentences, Telling Our Nuclear Stories, and Imaging with Colors or Clay,

Joanna Macy’s and Molly Brown’s recent book, Coming Back to Life, describes other processes for despair work and what we are doing to our brother-sister species.

The Bestiary – In a circle, several people voice a solemn reading of Joanna Macy’s poem, the Bestiary, which includes a list of endangered animals. After the naming of each species, a clacker is struck or a drum is sounded in one beat. At the end of the reading, members of the group are invited to add other things that are disappearing from our world. See http://rainforestinfo.org.audeep-eco/Bestiar.htm.

The Truth Mandala - I use this ritual every chance I get. It’s fantastically ritualized and elicits great depth of emotion. Participants sit in a circle which has been divided in quadrants. In each section lies an object that will be used to express emotions of fear (rock), sorrow (dead leaves), rage (stick) and sense of deprivation and need (empty bowl). After an opening "om", participants step into the circle and express their feelings followed by strong affirmation by those in the circle who say "I hear you." See http://rainforestinfo.org.audeep-eco/truthm.htm.

The Cairn of Mourning – Usually made out of doors, participants are invited to wander outside alone, reflecting on their love for the natural world and that which has been lost to them or which they are currently losing. They are to find an object – a rock, a leaf, a flower – that represents that which they mourn and bring this back to the circle. One by one, people come to the centre of the circle and place their object into a cairn, speaking if they wish as they do so. At the end, the group often holds hands, chants or sings together.

Here’s how Epic’ers Catherine Browning and Mark Steiner brought in time for mourning the losses that the world has suffered.

"Several years ago Mark Steiner and I created a weekend retreat entitled "Buffaloes, Blessings, and Beauty." The idea for the theme came to us as we were walking along the grounds of the retreat center and realized the land there was the site of a former buffalo trace.

During the weekend we presented the history of the buffalo in that area, spoke about the integral relationship of buffalo and Native American peoples, mourned the loss of the buffalo while listening to an old Buffie St. Marie song, celebrated the greatness of the buffalo through the invoking of animal noise, dance, and drumming around a bonfire, and examined our ecological commitment to preserve endangered species. We blew up pictures of buffaloes that we had collected and placed them on the walls throughout the room. The ambiance during the weekend was like that of a council of all buffalo and human beings.

The weekend was very powerful, and I know certainly changed my perspective on history. As a result of taking that time to contemplate the significant contributions and mourn the loss of that great animal to North America, I gained a heightened sense of interconnectedness with all of creation. For some, such simplistic, childlike endeavors may seem ludicrous, but for those who dare to remember and dare to feel the essence of the past, a more fulfilling present and sobering future awaits them."

Doing grief work is clearly only one side of the coin which is best conducted prior to celebratory events. And as Connie Barlow points out, this part of the work is not everybody’s cup of tea. For Connie, it is celebration that stirs her imagination as witnessed by her recent role in the Mammoth Memorial Service.

"…in my limited experience in leading group ritual pertaining to the Epic, I do think I have figured out what is most natural for me: wild and even outrageous celebration. I look to the Macy/Brown book for tools and insights, even though I cannot envision myself ever leading the sort of environmental grief work that the book is about. I shall leave that important and difficult task to others. But celebration is important, too!

This morning I put the finishing touches on my mask/headdress that I will don to play the part of Honey Locust, delivering a eulogy for mammoths at the Mammoth Memorial Service. The 20-inch curling red pods give me comic medusa sort of look. So be it! And so for me, I take to heart this sentence on p. 65 (Coming Back to Life, Macy): "Each of us has our own style of working, as distinctive as the ways we walk or laugh. Trust it. Our naturalness and genuineness in the work is our gift to workshop participants."

Next issue’s column will include examples of celebration rituals and ceremonies. If you would like to offer a piece for inclusion, please write to ruthr@ozemail.com.au or send to PO Box 368, Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia.