Braiding Sweetgrass: Beginnings with Aha! Moments

One of my book discussion groups, the one internal to AODA members (all are welcome to join!!), is reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Not having heard of it before we started, I was not prepared for how incredibly thoughtful it is, both from a nature spirituality aspect as well as related to its intentionality related to expressing things that have been lost, and continue to be lost, with the active and subtle erosion of indigenous cultures in the continental United States.

Unlike reading most books after the first chapter section (this one being 59 pages long), I am really not sure where or how Kimmerer’s book is developing, so I cannot provide an overview of the book or the meaning I will make of it. However, I am more surprised in the smaller chunks than I ever expected, and find myself gasping at times due to how the author has a way of challenging conventionality through animistic spirituality common in indigenous, native cultures in ways that are surprising, eye-opening, invigorating, and thought-provoking.

I will share four aha! moments I experienced along the way thus far. These are not intended to stand alone and are all within various contexts of the author’s life and meaning-making as she reflects upon her own scientific progress (career) while trying to grok how her indigenous roots present new opportunities for understanding the world around her.

I feel her pain when facing the supposed objective approach contemporary science takes to the study of things, a (post)positive one that allows only for its own ways of making sense of the world to the exclusion of others:

In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of conversation was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge- making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak. The potentials for plants were seen purely through the lens of animal capacity (p. 19).

Who am I to pretend I have the owner’s manual to the earth and how all living things on it live and interact with complex networks?

Likewise, when we start to realize that meaning making and reality can happen in ways beyond my own understanding, not everything can (or should) be owned. Private property is important in many ways, though that often happens within the context of power relations. True, it is often intended in a way to protect individual freedoms, it is helpful to notice that the notion of individual is something that implications far beyond my wanting to keep my stuff for myself.

“These berries belong to me,” she said, “not to you. I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.” I knew the difference: In the fields behind my house, the berries belongs to themselves. At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart (p. 25).

When we develop land, we often see it as a commodity to be exploited, rather than a home to many living things, many aspects of an ecosystem that happily lived in harmony of sorts since before humans came and carved up things as mine or yours. Why doesn’t the deer or owl or tree have rights to live in that forest when we determine something more to our liking should be there instead, regardless of the impact of that small, human decision?

It follows, in a logic thrown upside down, that:

The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you?” but “What is it?” No one asked plants “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?” The botany I was taught was reductionist, mechanistic, and strictly objective. Plants were reduced to objects; they were no longer subjects. The way botany was conceived and taught didn’t seem to leave much room for a person who thought the way I did. The only way I could make sense of it was to conclude that the things I had always believed about plants must not be true after all (p. 42).

It makes me think that those who own the truth or the ability to name things and their characteristics are defaulted a very great power indeed.

That is the opposite of many indigenous or native traditions, ones that seek to live in networks with the world in a way that some sense of balance was accepted and encouraged.

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you” (p. 59).

What has happened to our notion of living with, something that descended into a more confrontational pull and take with the world (people, animals, plants, and the natural world itself) around us?

Aging and Changing

Chapter 4 of Ram Dass’s Polishing the Mirror was about aging, and while this is a topic that has always seemed so far away — so old — that it was a distant and potentially distinct future. Often for someone else. While we all get older every day, something that is readily forgotten as lost in our daily routines, this is not quite what Dass is talking about. No, not at all.

Indeed, when he said, “Until I was about fifty, I thought of myself as a teenager” (p 61) I stopped cold. You see, I am nearing that threshold and have always thought that about myself. The teenager, that is, the one with nearly unlimited potential and future and energy.

What do I want to do next?

I can do that! Who needs sleep, anyway?

Sure, let’s go. We can fit it in!

Why take a cab, let’s carry the bags of groceries and walk!

Alas, my first tip-off was that my coveted pattern of traveling with a maximum legal size carry-on backpack for any trip of any duration was  increasingly a challenge. While I still travel with one bag and a small personal backpack, I just cannot do it on my back any longer.

To be fair, I can still lift it and carry it all, but it is no longer a comfortable way to travel. I love the freedom of a one-bag backpack, but the downside is not really worth the benefits. Since I do travel for work from time to time, my physical needs are now altering how I travel, and this is related to . . . aging.

“Much of the suffering of aging comes from holding onto those memories of who we used to be” (p. 62). We hold onto a past that no longer exists, right? Comfortable. Familiar. Youthful. Energetic. Or perhaps the glossy-eyed past really did not exist as neatly as we may recall it, and in so thinking about it, I think we have selective memories of the good ol’days. Alas, I know I do, though Dass has a manner of waking us from a reality that exists only within our own eyes, and in many ways invites us to see what some of those implications mean.

With the only real rite of passage (aging) being Medicare (still a while away, but still…), I am thinking about how the Indian traditions that guided much of his life has those of us in the 40-60 age range as time or inclination to study philosophy or engage in spiritual practices, it is no wonder why I, at my age and with already a couple of university degrees under my belt, has chosen to expand this via my studies at Cherry Hill Seminary. Where else would I have had this provocation to read Dass and consider how aging is like the natural cycles in nature, similar to the Wheel of the Year, where we are the wheel?

Yes, aging may be somewhat disorienting or disconcerting, and I choose to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. I prefer to reframe things in positive ways rather than dwelling on the negatives or lack of future orientation. To this point, “conscious aging has to do with letting go, which allows you to come into the present moment — into spirit” (p. 72). Perhaps, though the present moment can be grokked by anybody, yet doing it in a way that recognizes limitations and through them opportunities may be a step toward wisdom.

The trick just may be on how to consider my own personal aging while also consider its implications for ministry and spiritual support of others….


This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!

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Starting to Read: The Five Rings

I am starting another book for my Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course at Cherry Hill Seminary, this one entitled The Five Rings by Shanddaramon.

This text addresses some of the issues I have been wondering about, namely what is Pagan ministry and to what extent does it meet some of the needs of my former notions of ministry in the Catholic tradition, of which I am more familiar.

The author first defines Paganism, and like many scholars in Pagan Studies, seeks to keep the definition open-ended and simple, though most people involved in Modern Paganism know few things about it are really simple. He then gets to the heart of the book, by addressing his conception of a Pagan Minister (p. 15):

A Pagan Minister, then, works to help fellow Pagans and others who are in need of spiritual, physical, mental, or emotional assistance in their lives. There are many specific ways in which a minister can provide this kind of help. He or she can be a counselor, a listener, an advisor, a spiritual guide, a leader of specialized rituals such as funerals and Handfastings. The Pagan Minister offers blessings and consolations; is a teacher, a mentor, a retreat leader, or a role model. Specifically, a Pagan minister seeks to aid people using an earth-centered theology.

It appears he will develop the five elements of Pagan Ministry–Caring, Sharing, Declaring, Preparing, and Repairing–through the remainder of the text. While the requirements of being a minister involve a calling, personal strength, training, and ordination (all of which are addressed in many ways at Cherry Hill Seminary), it is the notion of calling I find most intriguing.

As a former Catholic, the notion of calling always meant a felt sense of an external deity inviting or nudging one to serve in a ministry (or priesthood, something which is somewhat different from how it can be understood in ministering to others, that and being limited to men, too!!). Pagans and their relations to nature and the sacred and any gods or goddesses are so different from one another, though this is not an issue in Shanddaramon’s perspective, as he means “an inner calling–a deep yearning of the soul that asks you to do more with your life than focus on your own needs” (p. 19), especially in the service of others and community. I like this notion, as it allows for a certain individuality which embraces the experiences of the individual in relation to the wider world.

I think I like the simplicity of this text already, and while I wish it had more references to other sources for some of these ideas (the academic in me), I do find it useful in how it has been articulating its approach.

Polishing the Mirror (Chap 1-2) via Ram Dass

Next on my reading list for Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry is Ram Dass’ Polishing the Mirror. I have heard a lot about Ram Dass over the years, though never got around to reading him. Probably for the best, as I would not have really appreciated his work or approach before.

While 2 chapters into it, he has packed a lot into his book while simultaneously keeping it very simple. To this point, there are two things that have thus far stood out to me that I want to mention as I continue to process it.

Firstly, I thought his comment, ” And at that moment, I realized that people arrive at spiritual understanding through a much wider spectrum of experience than I ever anticipated” (p. 5). No surprise there, but it was in the context of somebody listening to one of his speeches who did not seem to fit in, yet who still profoundly got his message. I can relate to the not seeming to fit in, while still having much more occurring internally that may be externally present.

Secondly, when Dass was speaking about his experience swimming with a dolphin, he held onto one, Rosie, and had a profound experience. He commented, “The wild creature model of who I had thought she was had stopped working” (p. 20). Rosie became a combination of a teacher and a guru at that moment, helping him to experience a higher level of consciousness in a way he did not expect. It is through this image of learning and experiencing in more profound ways than we expect that I really started to appreciate the author, and in that way his message.

Lots more to still process in this text, though it is off to a good start.

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Musings on Spiritual Activism (Chap 1-3 by McIntosh and Carmichael)

As I shared in my last posting, I am starting to wake my blog up from a deep sleep and wanted to share a few initial thoughts related to the first 3 chapters from Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael’s Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service.

To be fair, I have only read the first 3 chapters, and am NOT planning to write this as a book review . . . far from it. I am using this space to maintain a running notebook of thoughts and ideas related to the readings for a course I am taking.

The first three chapters involve the notion of activism as related to community, spirituality, and transcendent or mystical states of consciousness. There are many personal examples and, woven throughout, are some references to support the authors’ conjectures. However, I am a bit at a loss to appreciate their flow. In our class this past week when we started to talk about our perspectives of the readings, I  characterized the book as one that needs a good editor, as I have trouble seeing how the paragraphs and sections connect to tell a coherent and clear story. In this way, I am not entirely sure if the text is a general musing on spirituality, an attempt to convince or persuade the reader to do or believe something, or something else entirely.

Remember learning about the different types of writing styles–Expository, Persuasive, Descriptive, or Narrative–some time way back in school? While I have not thought of this classification in some time as I never really had the need to, this book makes me wonder about it. The authors give various arguments for or against things they are seeking to demonstrate (such as should we consider mystical states as authentic aspects of human experiences or intellectual assaults on spirituality and how there may be logical reasons why this may not be defensible), yet they do not provide enough evidence to support their claims, many of which people have argued about for centuries without effectively being able to convince or persuade others. If anything, in raising the issues and not providing sufficient exploration into them, they appear a bit unsophisticated and unaware of who their audience may be or what it may know.

I will continue reading the text as it is a course requirement, and hope that my initial thoughts on it are incomplete and missing something. This has happened before, and I hope it may happen again.

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