Feathers belong to birds. Any human, anywhere, who uses them in any way is using a gift that we appropriate, to which we assign human meanings. What do the birds have to say about it?
Lately, on social media, I’ve seen Indigenous thinkers and activists moving to take down a spate of New Age practitioners selling “Indigenous spiritual healing”. Plastic Shamans are nothing new, but they seem to come to public attention in waves. There are so many ways that their actions are problematic.
I cannot participate in attacking them.
Here’s the story:
I once worked with a woman to whom life had been so vicious that the only way she could reconcile herself to the fact that she was still alive in this place was to claim to be a space alien.
I was co-facilitating a workshop series on race relations. She was attending, and disrupting proceedings in various ways. She would speak over and for others, interrupt conversations with off-topic provocations, and abuse the limited time available for everyone to have their say by rambling on. Her categorical statements erupting into people’s thoughtful reflections on the matters at hand – how to reach across the various racial and cultural divides in our community and establish trust – repeatedly tested the goodwill and resolve of the participants who’d committed twelve weeks of long evening sessions to this exercise.
It fell to me to meet with her and try to get to the bottom of what was troubling her, then help her find ways to participate, because she obviously wanted to belong, and the other participants wanted her there, we were all just weary of her repeatedly derailing our sessions.
She and I sat over coffee, and I drew her out.
Believe this: by the time our conversation ended, I understood all too well why she might need to hold on to an idea as outlandish as being, just perhaps, from another world, where just maybe, she could be safe, and belong.
Everyone she ever trusted, everyone she thought she’d belonged to, had betrayed her. She was scarred, deeply, in all aspects of her being. Somehow, she was still alive, and still seeking. I am forever, despite everything, honoured that she was able to tell me her story.
And then I moved the conversation to ways in which she found strength, affirming that she is a brave and worthy person, because she was still among us, and beautiful.
People freak out when confronted with the prospect of our own beauty, scars and all.
She shared what she was reading for guidance, and it was one of the usual suspects among the New Age Self Help crap that flourished as the millenium approached – shallow, appropriative, racist, and (in some ways worst) poorly written. Wasn’t ___ marvellous? she declaimed, and began trying to convince me that I needed ____.
I looked at her, trying to see her truly. I saw what I thought I had to do. I might see that differently, now; but, that day, I began, as neutrally and kindly as I could, to dismantle the illusion. No, I replied, I find ___’s work ambivalent, at best.
Whereupon, we got into it.
I confess I was merciless in dismantling the illusion of that author’s works. In my defense, she argued with me.
I saw in her rising combativeness the same thing that had caused such disruption to our workshops. If, I thought, if I can break through this behaviour, we might get to a place where the whole group can work well with her. Unconstrained by the time limit of the workshops and the need to include everyone, I went for it.
If I could get her to see past the illusion, to let go of the need for it, and simply accept that this world is glorious and wonderful without any need for some professional saviour’s trite pronouncements, maybe she would reclaim her Earthling birthrite, and come back to the circle able to listen, breathe, laugh. I shredded her every defense of ____.
In my fervour, after a while, I cared more about that, the hunt, the righteous power of proving point by point the phoniness of the commercial drivel of ____.
I stripped her spiritually (of what I saw clearly as falsehood) and said, in effect, but trust me, you are beautiful as you are. We are all, really, really, just okay the way we are, and if we, and our imperfect wisdom, are all there is, so long as we can be kind to each other, it will be enough.
I was foolish enough to think I’d done her some good, reported back to my co-facilitator that things might actually be better now.
The thing is, the next night was our workshop, and she was there. She listened. She didn’t interrupt others. She performed like a character reformed. That is, until we got to the moment before the break, where we would go round our circle and offer reflections on the first half of the evening’s work.
Then, when the talking stick came round to her, she took a deep breath and denounced me, before them all, as a being of evil. Pure Evil, she declared, I was nothing but evil. I must be cast from the group! They must all join her in denouncing me!
The room was still, dumbfounded. My co-facilitator looked at me, signalled me to stay quiet, and spoke up, asking was there anything more she could add.
The woman grew hysterical, but no more specific in her accusations. She is evil! Why can you not all see it!? You must join me now in denouncing her!
The rest of the group each took it in turns to speak. Quietly, kindly, they said, no, I was not evil. Nor was she. They gently declared themselves unwilling to engage with her drama.
We held ourselves quiet. We steadfastly spoke our truth, that nobody needed to be other than as we are, imperfect, multi-faceted, strange creatures of many talents. We held a space for her.
You must choose! Her or me! cried the woman. This was mine to answer, and I did, as calmly as I could. No, friend, I said, there is no need to choose.
She could not be stopped. Her or me! She railed, glaring around the circle. We held the space open, and then we let her go. In the ringing silence, she grabbed her purse and stomped, cursing, into the night. I do not know where she went. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, and don’t wish she could have accepted our human company as solace enough, as enough reason to trust and accept, and, more importantly, let us accept her.
She couldn’t. She needed absolutes. If she were not an alien, why had humans destroyed her so? If I were not evil, she must be evil. The vicious illogic of it.
I did what I did. In that same position, I might do the same again. But I’d think longer and harder about it, because illusions and partial truth might be all that stands between some (how many?) of us and utter despair.
If I were not evil, she must be evil. Nobody could really love her, knowing what had been done to her, knowing she must have deserved it. Who was I to say she didn’t deserve it? If I were not evil, she must be evil.
Because of that woman, I can’t get behind crowing over taking down pathetic people.
We need to fight the real evil, disconnection, and if possible, make allies of people who don’t see what they’re doing as wrong, who are just trying to dig out of a hole. If it doesn’t prove possible, that’s no cause for celebration, friends, none at all.
I carry that memory, that poor woman, casting herself out of the group in anger. It was no victory for me, nor for the rest of the group, because we weren’t fighting against her, but for her. I love them forever, because they saw that, too; to a person, they acknowledged that the relief of not having to field her constant disruptions was less than the sadness that she could not accept the offer we were making, to come sit with us, just us, and be a person. They thanked me for trying my hardest and best to open the way, and consoled me in my failure. It wasn’t in my power to do, they pointed out.
We had no magic power; all we had was the goodwill that comes when we open up our hearts to each other. In that space, everything is holy and nothing is sacred. It’s a place of raucous laughter and deep solemnity. It’s a place of play so profoundly meditative that it can and does acknowledge its own buffoonery. We know when we are there.
In the spirit of that space, some closing (for now) thoughts:
- Spiritual guidance is, by its nature, in a different realm than the human, or else it’s just us telling each other stories; and if that’s the case, then own that, it is not unsubstantial. If it is beyond and bigger than us, then we can’t judge another’s access to it, ’cause size matters.
- No lineage of human has a monopoly on connection to the rest of the world.
- No lineage of human is exempt from the potential that we might connect reverently and well to the world, and be agents of bringing about any and all healings required.
- Maybe we are feeding sickness when we focus on sickness.
- If we want what is good, let us seek, find, name and claim the good in every thing. This is not, though some may try to dismiss it as such, a naive thing to state, nor is it simplistic. Really go down into that thought, and it is the most arduous of tasks. We shall not always succeed. It matters to try.
All My Relations