Speaking to the shadow Is what one does when travelling alone Treasure the voice For it gives sound to the thoughts otherwise dormant.
— from Lele Kawa: The rituals of Pele by Taupouri Tangaro
This is the beginning of my effort to bring some sense to what has happened to me since I stood on the rim of Kiluea in June shortly after the summer solstice in a week during which a large part of myself was opened up. In the six months since then, the northern season’s long crawl to darkness, I have changed in my outlook, I have been transformed by working with women, I have become sensitive to the dynamics and faint echoes that lurk in many layers of context that hold us. As we move in the next seven days towards the full moon of the winter solstice I want to explore a few of these changes and insights here in public.
This transformative journey for me reached its pinnacle in June but it was a couple of years in the making when I was introduced to Luana Busby-Neff, a friend and colleague from Hawai’i who is a beautiful singer and practitioner of hula and a stunning guardian of her lineage and world view. Luana and I were brought together to work on the Beyond Sustainability gathering in Hawai’i in June and, joined by Tim Merry, we co-hosted a gathering of 50 powerful, pregressive and conscious people from around the United States. We were seeking to answer the question, what would it take to create a community of leadership built on a platform of reverence? What can the world learn from the pure and deep application of indigenous wisdom as a form and mode of profound systems thinking that can propose new views with respect to humanity’s relationship to the earth and which can underlie the search for what lies beyond the notion of “sustainability?” Our gathering was founded on a few simple principles: that ceremony was the methodology, that without deep personal transformation, collective transformation was not possible, that such transformation was facilitated by fostering a powerful connection to the world itself and that cultivating a state of reverence from which action – the building of community and the wise decisions that put power to use – can happen for the benefit of all was crucial to the future of our species. These were audacious places from which to work, but we tackled the challenge, brought some very impressive thought leaders together and created some effect. You can read more about the gathering at the Beyond Sustainability website.
What I want to share is my personal experience of that gathering. It is a story I have told several times now but I have yet to write it down anywhere. I think I’m finally able to put it in writing and see where it takes me.
For me, this gathering was the most challenging facilitation of my life. The moment I agreed to take on the initiative every bone in my body screamed in protest. I met deamons right away – issues of self-esteem, confusion, confidence in my own abilities to deliver, fragility in the face of massive expectations – you name it. For two years I went in and out of a love/hate relationship with this project. There were times when I felt that I wasn’t “indigenous” enough to host the gathering, and other times when I felt that I wasn’t plugged into the mainstream culture enough. There were other times when I felt like I was the only one who knew what was possible and times when I felt that I was the only one who had lost the plot. I chose early on to work closely with Luana and Tim, two people in whose hands I would trust my own beating heart. But even with these two in a triangle, I could never cure myself of the weight of this project.
In retrospect I think I knew that there was no way I was going to carry off this work without a profound shift moving within me. That was scary because everything I was was called upon to host this gathering and yet I knew that if a large part of me fell away during the gathering, I had no idea what would be left.
Basically I was scared. My body, my spirit perhaps, knew that I was heading into waters that were going to change me, loosen up things and frighten me.
It was not my job to be frightened. It was my job to assure the people who had put a lot of money into this gathering that it would be the best thing that ever happened to them. And I was being called on to be all kinds of things that I was and was not…to be myself but also to be a projection for others, a person of mixed ancestry that was so comfortable in his skin that he could lead us through the process of negotiating the spaces between worldviews. That somehow I would understand where everyone in the room was coming from, that I would have fluency with them all. Most of the time I felt very lonely, and very incompetent, with momentary flashes of knowing what I was doing.
We were gathered at an old military camp on the rim of the Kilauea volcano on the big island of Hawai’i. We were hosted there by first of all Pele herself, the goddess of pure unbounded creative spirit, and by her through the keepers of the hula lineage that honours her. Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, Luana Busby-Neff and a group of women called the Hi’iaka Wahine who were holding the physical and spiritual and ceremonial field for us. A gathering of indigenous wisdom keepers happened in teh days before our gathering, during which time Elders spoke to one another about what they could share with the Americans gathering on top of the volcano. Some of the Elders from that gathering attended ours, arriving at the end of the first day of our own time together.
Until the third day of four the gathering proceeded pleasantly. We were engaged in good conversation about the challenge facing us, but much of it was in the realm of the mind and head and ran the risk of becoming redundant to many similar conversations going on all over the world. We had some powerful teachings from Hawai’ian teachers like Auntie Pua and Ramsey Taum which introduced us cognatively to the Hawai’ian worldview that was in play – Malama Ola: taking care of life. The third day of the gathering featured time on the land, picking seeds and pulling invasive species invited to be in conscious collaboration with the land, the sky, the volcano, the plants, the birds and the sea far below us. It was while I was picking seeds that I began to open. Working on a lava bed far above my colleagues, I began to hum a tune, a seed picking chant that came to me from a single note. It arose in my voice, and by speaking it I was able to help it come into being, a little wordless song that accompanied my work, expressed my gratitude for all that was around me, and focused my mind on the task of picking seeds and walking across sharp and treacherous ground. I returned that afternoon calm and grounded and extremely sensitive. I was able to notice little things in myself and in the group, was aware of the subtle energies in the room, of things people were enjoying or not liking, of the way the rain and fierce cold wind kept washing over us even as higher up on the mountain, the sun blazed hot. All of the elements of life were presenting themselves to us and inviting us to be in deep and reverential relationship with them, to work with them, to work with the tools of life itself.
On the morning of the fourth day I rose early and went with my friends and colleagues to the lookout over the crater where we held a morning sunrise every day. About 30 of us huddled in the sharp wind and rain and awaited the rising sun. As the time approached, Luana began her chanting in her beautiful sonorous voice, wavering in the cold morning air, as if calling the sun to it’s place in the sky. It strikes me that everyday, somewhere in the world, every sunrise is welcomed in ceremony by people. Doing it in Hawai’i we were the last people on earth to welcome June 25. A nearly full moon set, and the sun rose, and my world cracked open.
As Luana chanted, something came up in me. It was a strong and powerful feeling that rose inside my body, from my belly to my throat, where it got stuck. I started crying a little at first and then completely broke down in sobs. I was shaking in whole body sobs, out of my mind with grief. I had two powerful thoughts: one was of people in Aboriginal communities committing suicide and the other was the thought of shame. The image was haunting: it was as if everything we had tried to do was a failure and we were out of options. It was my biggest fear that this work, with good-hearted conscious people was not enough. It was not enough for any of us and it was not doing anything to change the fate of Aboriginal communities. We were none of playing at the level of real need, real fear, real darkness. We were rich and privileged people pushing around the discretionary bits of our lives. So from that place I felt tremendous shame. Shame that I couldn’t do this, that I was an impostor, that I was not who I or anyone else needed me to be. Shame that my indulgence was costing something.
At the same time as I was feeling this, a young Samoan man, Tuvalu, who was with us uncovered his body in front of Pele in a powerful coming of age ceremony for himself that was witnessed by all who were there, except me who was blinded by tears and sobs that were so powerful, my core muscles were beginning to ache. To this day I have the strong sense that my shame and his lack of it were connected.
I stood for a long time at the edge of the crater as the ceremony ended accompanied by two friends, Tim and Belvie Rooks, who just held me and witnessed. I began to walk back with them, unable to talk with a huge lump in my throat and a deep pain in my heart. I had a strong sense that fear had penetrated some wall I had erected over my heart and I felt as if it was going to burst. We headed back to the camp for breakfast and our pre-gathering meeting with our team.
By the time we met it was 7:30am and I was still sobbing, an hour an a half after it began. In our meeting there was some tension and one of the Hi’iaka Wahine exploded in anger over a small request I made of the group to help round up the people so we could begin in good time. Our schedule for the day was to have breakfast on the land with some teaching from the hula practitioner Taupouri Tangaro and then have everyone stay out there in a solo retreat before coming back to the meeting space for an Open Space about where our will would carry us to next. It was still raining and some of the non-Hawai’ians were grumbling a bit about the weather. The Hawai’ians were getting frustrated with the lack of appreciation for what it meant to be working in the rain. After three days of teaching about the powerful place of water in Hawai’ian culture, there was a sense that folks couldn’t get it, that we should abandon the ceremony and simply have a hula performance.
When I made my request my colleague snapped. She said it was not her place to do my bidding and that her role had been completely misinterpreted from the beginning. She asked me what happened to me in the morning ceremony and I started to tell her about the images that came to mind. She stopped me. “I don’t understand that” she snapped. “Don’t give me all this bullshit. What left you out there?”
I was so taken aback by the question that all I could say was “defense.” I felt as if something I had been carrying around with me my whole life, some protection around my heart, had dropped away. My friend scoffed at me and spat out some massively disapproving comment about being in my head. She gave up on me and then the rest of us with a tirade against the greed that men, and white men in particular exhibited. She railed against the hoarding of wealth of all kinds and she burst into tears as she pleaded with people to understand the place of giving. She said that no one in the history of humankind has the opportunity to experience giving like rich white men and she sobbed as she described the missed opportunity that that vast concentration of wealth represented.
After ten minutes or so of this, I finally looked up at her and said “I don’t know what to do, and I am afraid.” I meant it on every level. She looked at me tenderly and said “Thank you.”
I had no idea how the day was going to go, I had no idea how to deal with the tremendous schism on our team, with the nervous response of our white male benefactor who had received the tirade with grace but not without a wounding. I had no idea how anything was going to end, of what to do next, of whether we were doing anything important or just frittering around while the world died. I felt the truth of “I don’t know” through my whole being and at every scale, all the way thorough to the biggest questions of my life. I felt my expertise slipping away – what was being taken from me was my ground, my confidence and all of the false foundations for my privileged walk through life.
It seemed to take forver for anything to happen next. Finally the Hawai’ians drove out to the site where breakfast was scheduled and back again – a full hour round trip to check the weather. It was sunny up there so we all loaded into buses, well behind schedule and travelled to the forest.
When we got there Taupouri welcomed us with seven hula chants and dances and then an hour long teaching on accessing the feminine, authentic action, and the journey of a cultural practitioner. At the end of his talk one of the men from our group said “I think that in theis group we have trouble accessing the feminine, and I wonder if you have practices we can use to do that.” Taupouri was short with him: “Who is we? Why don’t you talk about yourself?” The man rephrased his question “I have trouble accessing the feminine. What practices can I use?” He seemed surprised by this authentic and more truthful rephrasing. Taupouri replied “Hum. Build a fire. Listen to a story.”
This response was as profound as it was simple. What struck me most was the call to take personal responsibility, to speak for oneself, to not use the word “we” to hide from the “I.” For the rest of the day when someone said “we” should do this or that, I asked them to rephrase it to claim it for themselves.
From this point on, my mind and heart returned to each other and we finished our gathering well, and with a number of commitments and actions to carry forward. All those seeking ooutcomes were somewhat satisfied, and I was left with an ache.
These events seem unremarkable on their own. What I can’t seem to capture in writing is the utter depth at which I felt them. With an unguarded heart each of these events took on a deep significance. I could feel a deep connection with context and a coherence between my actions and everything that was going on around me. For the first time in my life I had a felt sense of what it was going to take to recalibrate my relationship to the earth and to life itself. And it was going to take several months of discovering shadow, confronting the feminine, repositioning myself in my home place and extending this learning conversation in order to set my new path to rights.
So more on that this week. But at least now you know what hit me so deeply in June.