It’s About Relationship

By the time I was born (1951), 90% of my environment was composed of things gleaned from information, not nature. (Maybe 99%, I grew up in Brooklyn!) As such, the vast majority of my decisions have been based on what my head thinks, rather than what my heart knows.

My ancestors, for example, were indigenous to a place unknown, became named in Spain, moved to Italy at the time of the Inquisition and then on to North America in the 20th Century. I can muse, in broad strokes, on the process of how the shift from heart-based consciousness to head-based consciousness may have occurred in my kin.

Once the connection was broken with their immediate environment, they had to “learn the ropes” of new environments through history related by others as much as immediate experience. Information started to become a keynote of survival as well as response to the immediate environment. As time went on, each succeeding generation of my ancestors had to digest and assimilate more and more “head-based” information the further they strayed from “home” in time and place, and the more clearly they developed what we call civilization.

When the Machine age hit, the amount of information to digest increased exponentially, and now, in the Information Age, exponentially once again. The consciousness of the heart has progressively taken a back seat to reliance on the brain. It might be useful to note that this all seems like a natural progression, as opposed to something that was imposed or forced or even chosen in opposition to heart-consciousness. We are learning who we are.

And who we are, at our core, are creatures who spent most of our development time having no other way to look at things except within the context of relationship to our environment. We simply had not altered our environment or affected it enough to be able to see the difference between us and anything else. We moved with the seasons, traveled with the game, and depended on and followed the rhythms of the earth we inhabited. The key word here is inhabited, for what we do now, and have done for only a few hundreds of years, is dominate.

It took me a good 30 years after my childhood to re-connect with my heart. I was blessed with being able to live with a Lakota medicine family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They are full-bloods and descendants of Woptura, Crazy Horse’s medicine man. I would spend perhaps four hours on some days just sitting with Charles, the eldest brother, in silence at the edge of the prairie. Filled with questions, I’d ask one and then be told, “Shhh!”

At first, it was like agony. Much to my initial dismay, when it came to actually being “taught” by any of the Traditionals I was with, I was sorely disappointed. For months I just mimicked, and then, something started to seep in.

I learned of the mechanics of tending fire for Inipi, the sacred sweat lodge. After a while, I could sit up at night and run through the sequence of “stacking” the fire in my mind – not a simple exercise because for ceremonial fires, there is a very precise way to do things.

I took a certain amount of solace in finding that I was getting better and better in knowing what to do. Yet, as each day went by and I became more automatic in doing each step, I found that there was something else going on. Something not about what was done but about how it was done.

My logical mind noted what Richard, my mentor, did; how he physically balanced the pile of stones. At first, I’d study which he chose, trying to figure out his logic. I would meticulously order and stack my own pile, and invariably, half way up, they’d collapse in a heap and I’d have to begin again and again and again. My head seemed to have nothing to grasp on to; I checked the shapes and “saw” where each would fit. But they wouldn’t cooperate. Wouldn’t cooperate? That flied in the face of anything I knew!

Then, one day while I was working with the stones, I picked one up from the pile and something strange happened. To my immense surprise, in the center of my chest I felt resistance. I put the stone down, like “Whoa! Sorry,” and then picked up another. This registered “I want to go!” I was stunned, but had learned not to argue, so it went.

I kept moving in that way in my choices, realizing (in the center of my chest) it wasn’t about *my* choice anymore, but that it was about relationship. Then, when it came to “stacking” the stones, one after another they took their place on the tipi shaped cone. They took their place.

For the first time in my experience as a firetender, all of them interlocked and held their balance on the pile without my having to juggle or change a thing. And in those moments, my brain found the words to describe what my heart already knew, “Stone People.”