The Torchwood Nemeton
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; Wildcrafted Spirituality in the Desert Southwest By Kenneth Proefrock NMD
Originally presented in June 2017 at the Good Medicine Confluence in Durango, CO
Mysticism is a universal and ancient human activity. It is a practice that, at its best, allows a broader inquiry into life circumstances and the potential for the establishment of a sense of greater “meaning” and “purpose” through connection with some Divine source of understanding. Wildcrafted Spirituality is a type of nature based mystical practice that reinforces a sense of continuity between the immediate physically manifest world of an individual and the spiritual world of potential that constantly surrounds us. The relationship between such experiential spirituality and healing might even be able to be seen as the crossroads of a body and a mind, of ethereal consciousness and the solidity of embodiment. It is also a practice that requires some degree of suspension of disbelief for modern people who might have more rigidly held perspectives on what is “real” and what is “imaginary,” not to imply that either perspective is more or less relevant as they may pertain to faith and spirituality. Wildcrafted Nature Mysticism is a spiritual perspective that is fundamentally concerned with acquiring information from supernatural sources via direct interaction with the Natural world. Even though the modern scientific perspective has historically rejected the legitimacy of such sources, there is a growing body of compelling evidence that suggests that, at least in the realm of health and healing, this type of inquiry can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in bringing a person to a sense of wholeness and restore one to a healthful condition. It is my hope through the course of this discussion to explore some of the more interesting aspects of spiritual practice as they pertain to historic and modern conceptions of embodiment, causes of illness, possibilities for healing, and congruency within communities. We discuss the topics of Spiritual Ecology, spiritual techniques for connecting to the world around us, the practices of oneiromancy, altered states of consciousness and meditation with the plants that connect us to our Revered Ancestors, to the High Ones and the Spirits of Place.
I want to emphasize that a great part of this work is to explore some ideas of what it means to be simultaneously spiritually connected to the ancestors and spirits of the places where we live and work, being allied to one's personal ancestors while being estranged from an ancestral homeland. We may need to talk about how to go about cultivating a sense of spiritual connection to the spirits of place that inhabit the land where we currently reside, while brushing up against issues of cultural appropriation, exploitation and cultural domination perpetrated by our cultural predecessors. I live and work on lands that were historically Hohokam territory, and more recently—until the 1850’s or so, inhabited by the Yavapai people.
The Hohokam people are believed to have migrated up to the Arizona portion of the Sonoran Desert somewhere between 5,000 and 2,000 years ago. They were sophisticated desert farmers who built ball courts, platform mounds and the largest system of irrigation canals in Pre-Columbian North America. Current theory proposes that they were a Uto-Aztecan people who originally migrated north from central Mexico and their modern living descendants are believed to be the Tohono O'Odham and the Akimel O'Odham (Pima) people who still reside in the SouthCentral area of Arizona. The Hohokam were desert agricultural experts and came to depend on a certain core group of desert plants for their survival, many of which they purposely cultivated as they migrated into new and unfamiliar territory. Their time here is marked by petroglyphs on the canyon walls, canals that still divert rainwater runoff in the foothills and the descendants of that original core group of plants that now find themselves much further north than might have been possible without human co-operation.
It is worth noting that in remarkable instances like the Hohokam, humans have been directly responsible for the worldwide success of many species of plants. In addition to the Tohono O’Odham and Akimel O’Odham people, the modern Comcaac or Seri people who live along the coast of Sonora, Mexico, are also Uto-Aztecan descendants, they live in one of the driest landscapes on the continent. The Seri have never cultivated domestic plants or raised domestic animals, except dogs, but they do carry certain species of wild plants and animals with them as they migrate across the desert and the sea, thereby encouraging a continued broadening of the “natural” range for these organisms. Living in a harsh and unforgiving environment often imparts a conservational effect on indigenous culture—when survival is difficult, those measures that have worked in the past are adhered to—including abstractions like cosmological contexts and spiritual orientations intertwined with the practicality of traditional migration routes. There exists a wide variety of cultural practices the world over for people to experience a reverent and spiritual interaction with the world around them. The turning of the wheel of the year with traditional planting and harvesting times, seasonal migration routes with familiar landmarks, even greeting card holidays that invoke childhood memories can all serve as cultural markers of certain spiritually significant events. Likewise, societies the world over utilize a number of different methods for producing religious experiences, including, but not limited to, praying, fasting, singing, dancing, drumming, chanting, physical austerities, and mind altering sacred medicines. Some cultures seek profound spiritual experiences as a part of every person’s life, while others reserve such experiences to those few who dedicate their lives to such spiritual service.
When we look at the universality of mystical experience, the cross-cultural manifestations seem to contain a subjective core experience of a sense of ‘oneness’ that transcends both one’s senses and intellect. There is most often the perception of experiencing some ultimate truth or reality, and the sense that the experience is ineffable (unable to be adequately expressed in words or other means of communication), a sense of the sacredness is inherent to the experience, and it evokes profoundly positive emotions like joy and bliss. Looking deeper, we see two basic types of universal mystical experience: introvertive and extrovertive. During an extrovertive mystical experience, a person remains aware of the world around them while simultaneously perceiving the oneness and the unity of the universe, in connection with everything. The introvertive mystical experience allows a transcendence of all present sensations of the world and conceptual frameworks, including the sense of place, self, time, and space, and provides a state of consciousness that is totally beyond the person’s normal comprehension. A continuum of these experiences has been identified where the extrovertive experience may lead to the introvertive, and then both experiences provide an impetus toward a more continual state of mystical consciousness.
This universal nature of this spiritual drive has some fundamental similarities cross-culturally and seems inherent to the human condition, it appears to be rooted in our collective biology. When we question the role such an impulse may have played in the evolution of our ancestors, the survival advantage of such activities may not be immediately obvious but modern research suggests that they may include enhanced integration of a social unit, collective and personal emotional release, a greater ability to integrate information, improved synchronization of brain activities, as well as better conceptualization of personal and social dynamics. The ‘bio-cultural’ perspective in anthropology holds the central tenet that humans are hard-wired for spiritual experience and that such is based in components of our biology, our mental hardware, and represent fundamental aspects of all human consciousness. There are three orienting principles for this bio-cultural perspective on spiritual experience:
there are different types of spiritual experience
there are phenomenological or experiential similarities in religious experiences in different cultures
in order to understand why religious experiences occur at all, we need to step back from the interpretations or explanations that any particular tradition provides for these experiences
Are these mystical experiences simply constructions of the mind or do they offer a perception of something real, a different but legitimate understanding of the nature of the universe and life? If fundamentally similar spiritual experiences occur across cultures and time, then they are not completely arbitrary constructions of the mind. These cross-cultural similarities suggest that our biology is partially responsible for producing these experiences, while our culture, our cosmology, and our religion provide us the means for achieving them and ways of interpreting them.
The importance of these concepts for our work cannot be overstated. The American way of life has become one of perpetual cultural appropriation. Most of us are immigrants who have lost touch with our own spiritual heritage, this melting pot of diversity is wonderful in so many ways, however, it has also made it easy to pick and choose aspects of other cultures to be incorporated into our personal lives as easily as choosing Chinese food on Monday, Indian food on Tuesday and burgers on Wednesday. It becomes inherently disrespectful of another spiritual tradition that has been the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution to dissect it and adopt those aspects that are fashionable at the moment; it also may hinder the depths to which such practices will allow one to plumb in their quest for spiritual insight. We are in a relatively unique position; the secular nature of a capitalistic, free market system is that spirituality yields no immediate profit motive and so is not an honored part of the culture at large. We have lost some of our innate impetus toward spiritual expression as a society, and we have progressively lost momentum in that direction. Certainly, people participate in their religious groups, they go to church, they fellowship with like minded people; be they Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc. Here we invoke Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, who described two avenues by which religion and spirituality play important roles in our lives, authentically vs legitimately. A socio-culturally legitimate path is one in which many other people within your community share your perspective, you are Lutheran, Buddhist, Catholic, etc. As such, it is really a social distinction for you as an individual that may not be authentically “spiritual” because an authentic spiritual path is one that allows for the opportunity for transformation…if going to church 1-3 times per week changes you in some fundamental way, helps you be a better person, allows you first hand mystical experiences that serve to offer you the opportunity to dis-identify with your ego centered self, then it is, by definition, an authentic spiritual path. On the other hand, if you meditate with a cave bear skull and have a mystical experience that you feel compelled to share with your community, they are less apt to hear what you have to say because, although your experience was authentically spiritual, it was not socio-culturally legitimized, you aren’t a member of their church, you didn’t do it the way they would have done it. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony that Christ, Mohammed, Buddha and many other founders of todays religious paths established those paths from mystical, authentic spiritual experiences that were not, at the time, at all socio-culturally legitimate…Here is where many make the distinction between religion as a social path and spirituality as a personal path. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of mystical experience, as we understand how and why other cultures do what they do, then we can either reconstruct those aspects of our spiritual heritage to accommodate those needs, or we can convert wholesale to an effective faith for us, assuming that we are not born into or raised in a faith that serves us that way. To partially appropriate mystical activities from this group and that group as it suits us risks conforming to fashion trends, disrespecting the ancestors and deities of that walk, and selling ourselves short with one of the arenas of our lives that may be the most important for us not to sell ourselves short.
To better clarify what we are talking about as a uniquely spiritual experience, we may need to create another distinction between ordinary everyday consciousness and altered states of consciousness. The word ‘consciousness’ is derived from the Latin word conscious, meaning “knowing with others, participating in knowledge, aware of” and implies a sharing of some type of knowledge. It is related to the world scire, which means, ‘to know’ and is the root of our word ‘science’. The scientifically oriented “productive theory of consciousness” holds the assumption that consciousness is a by-product (or epiphenomenon) of the brain and cannot persist independently of it. The “transmissive theory of consciousness” holds that consciousness is inherent in the cosmos and is independent of our physical senses, although is mediated by them in everyday life. So the brain and the psyche can be thought of acting as a lens through which consciousness is experienced in the body. This forms the basis of the transpersonal perspective, which received its initial articulation by thinkers and scholars in the field of psychology, William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Ken Wilber and Stanislav Grof amongst others. They recognized the limitations of the field of psychology and sought insights and teachings from the spiritual traditions and certain philosophical schools of the east. The term ‘transpersonal’ is used here to refer to psychological categories that transcend the normal features of ordinary ego-functioning, that is, stages of psychological growth, or consciousness, that move beyond the rational and precede the mystical. At the root of the transpersonal perspective is the idea that there is a deep level of subjectivity or pure spirit that infuses all matter and every event. A common metaphor throughout the spiritual wisdom traditions refers to this consciousness, or living spirit, (be it called Brahman, Buddha-Mind, Tao, or The Word) as having been breathed into all being at the moment of creation as a manifestation of divine nature. It is necessary for sentient life, because experience and awareness are possible only through the activating power that flows from this Source. The transpersonal nature of consciousness is a large subject that we only touch on here, it is clearly a broadly dynamic process with deeply forged patterns and tendencies in the interactions between our brains and our minds that remind us that spiritual experiences can be correlated with, if not outright caused by, specific subsystems of brain processing.
Hindu literature contains, arguably, one of the most eloquent and complete corpus of mystical writings ever created by humans; the Upanishads are among the most sacred of these Hindu writings for those who follow a Vedantic path. They contain hundreds to thousands of year’s worth of accumulated wisdom on the nature of Reality as subjectively experienced and recorded by numerous Hindu Saints. The Mandukya Upanishad, from the Atharveda texts, is attributed to the revelation of the great Hindu sage, Manduka, and contains twelve Mantras, which comprise a concise summary of the whole wisdom and knowledge of the Upanishads. The text discusses the syllable Om, presents the theory of four states of consciousness, and asserts the existence and nature of Atman (Soul, Self). It is said that for the liberation of the seeker, the Mandukya alone is enough; and if you are able to understand the true meaning of this single writing, there may not be a necessity to study any other Upanishad. The intention of this sacred verse is to directly approach the depths of human interaction with the field of reality through the four different stages of consciousness. Interestingly, western science and many other mystical and philosophical traditions agree with its division of the four basic modes of consciousness, waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a transpersonal mode. The Mandukya Upanishad is summarized by the word OM (AUM), a four sound syllable—aah, ooh, mmm and the silence that surrounds everything—the first sound aah is representative of the level of waking consciousness, ooh is the level of dream consciousness, mmm represents deep dreamless sleep, and the surrounding silence is symbolic of the transpersonal and ground state of being out of which the world comes and into which it goes.
The AAH portion of OM is called Vaisvanara, it represents waking consciousness, the realm of the past. In the world of waking consciousness subject and object are not the same, I see you and you see me, we existed separately before this moment, and we are separate from one another now. The waking state is dependent on the past and is represented by the past. Consciousness in this state is turned outward and this is the domain of western science. As such, science cannot predict the new and novel, it can only predict that which has happened before. The objects of this realm are the gross objects of physical reality and they are established through the strong selective pressures of food, love, and danger. When we consider the enormous survival benefits of being able to pay attention to our environment, it seems outwardly unproductive that we should need so much sleep.
The OOH portion is called Taijasa and is associated with the dream state, REM sleep, this is the realm of the present; the observation of reality as it comes into being. We all realize that our dreams are nearer and closer to us than our experiences in waking life. They are the very intimate noise of our own existence. You see the dream and it may be a surprise to you but you created the dream, it is your own becoming. The mystery of life is what is on the level of dream. And it is right here on that dream level that waking consciousness and the consciousness of your own transpersonal being, meet. Dreams are self-luminous, they shine from themselves as Gods and Goddesses and stars do, like lightning, fire and the sun. They act as entrances or gates to the world beyond the gross world in which we live. Within the dream, subject and object seem to be different but they are the same, in the same way that you and your Deity seem to be different but you are the same, this Deity is not the one that you are told to have, it is the God or Goddess that you actually find in your own deep vision, through mystical experience. The passages from dream to vision from the Divine to you are all within you—all the Deities, their heavens and their hells are within you. These are not things that happened somewhere else along time ago; it is in you right now and has always been there. This is the realm that provides a means to healing, this is the realm that practices such as divination can have profound effect and miraculous things can happen. We will discuss these ideas further when we talk about the art of oneiromancy.
The MMM portion of OM is Prajna and represents the level of deep dreamless sleep; it is pure unadulterated consciousness of no specific thing, consciousness that is hidden in darkness. Physical brain wave activity is dormant in this mode of consciousness and information has actually ceased moving between different areas of the brain. Bodily muscles and eyes relax, blood pressure and heart rate decline, this mode of consciousness is representative of the future because the future can come from nowhere else but the energies of the psyche. All of our words refer to things and the relationships of things, things in the field of waking consciousness or things in the field of dream consciousness. Here we are one with the potential of the universe.
The silence that surrounds OM is transcendent of the other three states of consciousness and is also transcendent of time, it symbolizes the mystical, enlightened state of one-ness with all of the other states. It is the ultimate reality, not of things, but of sheer, uncommitted, undifferentiated consciousness, this is the realm of absolute possibility, the home of the Creative Force of the Universe. It is one of the goal's of yogic practice to learn to intentionally enter into this realm in an aware state, to be one with the ultimate Presence of the Universe. This stage of consciousness is identified with alpha and theta brain waves (6-8 and 3-6 Hz, respectively), and is typical of religious altered states of consciousness. The perfect night of sleep allows one to experience all these states of being, to provide a “remembering” of where we came from and who we really are on a daily basis.
Authentically transformative practices, by definition, allow us the opportunity to dis-identify with our temporal physical shell and re-identify with that universal and constant aspect of ourselves that transcends this place and this time. I think that we lose something when we allow such practices to remain passive. Actively participating in the exploration of a wilderness environment has provided me with just such an opportunity for dis-identification.