“If you think you’re in trouble in this everyday, physical world, first get out of trouble in the spiritual world.”
~ Malidoma Somé
This message stays with me after a weekend retreat in the woods. At some level, everyone knows this: physical healing must be accompanied by spiritual healing. Our own Judeo-Christian traditions say much the same thing.
Having jettisoned the spiritual for being unverifiable with the tools of science, we are left only with physical healing. And so the logical progression through modern medicine to outpatient oncology mills, like the one where my mother spent her last couple of months getting radiation treatments to her brain. This trickle-down from the cutting-edge science at NIH labs and teaching hospitals to suburban strip malls has become the only apparent health-care delivery option for millions of sick people. And it works for just enough of them that all the rest must give it a go. They are simply unaware that it’s only half – or less – of the equation.
It’s not always stated overtly, but so-called “alternative” modalities, like acupuncture, are effective because they never veered away to the physical. The system is built on an understanding that we are spirit embodied, and therefore resonate with the entire living world. An ill person is out of tune, their body and spirit no longer in harmony within or without. The healer places needles the way a piano tuner uses his levers to adjust string tension.
Long ago, I ran across the story that in times past when someone in a village fell ill, the healer (or shaman) performed a ceremony to balance the entire community. They understood that illness is a sign that the whole is out of whack. By that token, our modern-day physical, psychological, and emotional illnesses point to and mirror imbalances in the world as a whole, and in our relationships. Anyone who reads the paper or watches the news knows this to be true on some level.
I was fascinated to see that, early in the ebola outbreak, some scientists pointed to an imbalance in the larger ecosystem. Development pressures were driving a particular kind of bat out of its native habitat, bringing it into closer contact with the domains of livestock and people. That this imbalance was so readily cited may be a turning point.
There does not, however, appear to be an upstream solution. It’s more a case of “creeping baseline syndrome,” also known as the phrase, “the new normal,” appended to an observation about the latest ecological, economic, or health-related collapse. The cat (or in this case, bat) is out of the bag now. I doubt whether an immediate restoration of bat habitat would help – if such a thing were even possible. We’ve made our bed, now we have to lie in it.
While that’s certainly an understandable perspective, I keep coming back to this idea of illness being both physical and spiritual. A friend who attended a recent watershed conference told me he listened to many interesting and hopeful presentations on what people were doing to heal damaged streams and waterways. Then, an activist rabbi from Baltimore got up and said, “We work way upstream. We work at the level of soul.”
This is an all-hands-on-deck time we live in. The inevitable questions arise: What is possible? What can I do? What use is a weekend of ritual and ceremony in the forest, to reconnect with the living world and honor our relationship with divine Mystery in its many wondrous manifestations? In a way, the very lack of an obvious outcome holds promise. It’s good practice to serve the longings of my heart, to spend a couple of days in the woods wandering and wondering. I see it as a form of living into better alignment with the wider community of life.
Another message has traveled home with me, installed in the cells of my heart by the forest herself. Anyone can receive this message. Simply start by walking on a path through the woods in autumn, crunching on the brown layers of previous years’ fallen leaves. Look across the open forest (understory gnawed to nothing by the over populous deer – but that’s another story of imbalance) and you’ll see the color is predominantly brown. But look down and you will notice, as I did, bright spots of color. I pick up a particularly garish leaf marked with greens, yellows, oranges and reds. Now I can’t not see them: buttery poplar leaves big as a man’s work glove, delicate maples glowing yellow and red.
The gems of color keep popping. Before long I’m holding a dozen, then two, as I walk. I am giddy with admiration, amazed at the variety on a single leaf, let alone among the batch I’m carrying. This rule that Nature has no two of anything alike – just think about it for a minute and let it blow your mind. Let it serve as a reminder that your uniqueness, and mine, are part of a grand scheme that we cannot possibly comprehend.
This thing we do, living our lives – dealing with illness, financial struggles, weird weather, crazy co-workers – is filled with uncertainty. Some events are so huge, all we can do is bear witness. Is it possible, in the face of this, to feel some measure of release or relief? We are off the hook; we can’t even pretend to have answers.
With dazzling diversity as the rule, who is to say that any and every action we take isn’t the right one? I can’t know for certain whether tending my soul will make any difference, but then again, I have to wonder where’s the practicality in splashing color differently across every leaf, every year. For that matter, remaking those leaves from scratch year after year. So much of what Nature cooks up is unknowable; maybe our self-important answers aren’t the point. Tending the questions and letting my senses revel in the autumn splendor may be enough for now.