Every Breath a Prayer

drum and fireAbout a year ago I blogged about the possibilities of living to breathe rather than breathing to live. The idea is that when we can truly take a deep breath, we connect ourselves to each other and to the plants, animals, and all of our ancestors. We take in the oxygen made by the plants and in return give them the carbon monoxide that they need. And the inert argon molecule is one that has existed on the planet since life began, going in and out of different lungs constantly throughout time, linking us with all ancestors human and non-human who have ever lived and breathed.oak and view

Every breath becomes a prayer when we are conscious of that breath connecting us to all beings, past, present and future ones as we infuse the out breath with love and take in the wisdom of the ages. Being able to breathe in deep peace, relaxing ourselves as we breathe, gives us a kind of resilience we can get no other way. We calm ourselves and gain access to realms of greater wisdom and resources.

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Sunset at a Spiral Gathering

I recently attended a Spiral Gathering in Jenner, CA. There eight women gathered to enter the world of the Between, (the space between us) through collaborative art and ritual. We have no prior agenda, though anyone who wants to can contribute art supplies and we may or may not use them. We usually let our dreams lead us into explorations through poetry, visual art, improv, music, and movement. We have found over the years that the more we breathe deeply and allow ourselves to be led, rather than impose our will on the gathering, the more magic we encounter that weaves us into a form not previously imagined.

The spirits of the Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped appeared in our circle and with them came a lot of pain associated with the devaluation of women over the centuries. (this gathering took place before the shooting rampage in Isla Vista this week enacted by a young man who evidently believed that if he wanted a woman, he should by rights have her as he would have any other “thing” that he wanted.)

Imagining what the Nigerian girls might need, we collaboratively made them objects out of clay and infused them with resourcefulness and resilience.

Because at times the pain of these girls (combined with centuries of violence against women) became overwhelming, we decided that we needed a ritual at the sea to release the pain so that we could approach such issues and not have to be frightened that the pain will overwhelm us.

But I couldn’t walk to the ocean because of a foot injury. After discussing how important it was to get to the ocean, I found myself saying, “Well, I am not opposed to crawling…”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe found a place where the parking lot was closest to the sea and then all those who could, crawled across the dunes with me to the sea. With all of us doing it together, it felt somehow evolutionary, like we were evolving back to the sea. There was a humility, a closeness to the earth, a different perspective on the sand and on the journey itself. This resourcefulness was what we had in mind for the girls. It involved being open to possibilities and transforming obstacles into opportunities.

Breathing in, we open to wisdom and assistance from the invisibles; Breathing out, we embrace the present circumstances.

We completed the ritual using material from dreams some of us had had and released it into the sea in a clay boat.

Healing and creativity are inextricably intertwined. Both are so much more accessible when we can release fear and our own agendas, take that deep prayerful breath and see what comes.

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collaborative mask made at a Spiral Gathering a few years ago

 

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Not Yet Out of Breath

Yesterday I heard the Del Sol String Quartet with special guest didgeridoo player Stephen Kent play a piece called String Quartet #14 composed by Australian Peter Sculthorpe for string quartet and didgeridoo.* The score was based on a legend that Tasmanian colonial government soldiers once drove a tribe of Aboriginals to a forbidding mountainous bluff where they had the choice of being shot or jumping to their deaths. They chose to jump and as they did, they yelled, “Quamby, quamby” which means “save me, save me.”

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Stephen Kent, master didgeridoo player, host of world music show on KPFA (Thursdays at 11:00 am)

The piece had four movements: Prelude, In the Valley, On High Hills and At Quamby Bluff. For me, when the didgeridoo entered he song, I felt a great sense of relief, of being held by forces unseen, as if instead of people jumping to their deaths, the earth came up to meet them and carry them home. It felt almost as if the strings were the human mind telling this gruesome story and the didgeridoo heralded a larger, ancient planetary story that is not yet ended.

Western culture is still, as it were, driving the indigenous people off the cliff and yet their very breath, the breath needed to play the didgeridoo still circulates around this planet, surrounding humans with the knowledge that we are part of the earth, that we are all connected, no matter how many times we drive try to that wisdom over the cliff.

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Aboriginal style artwork

Last fall I visited an overlook at Canyon De Chelly in Arizona that reminded me of this Tasmanian story. In the 1800’s there were people living in the caves along the rim of Canyon De Chelly and a massacre took place. Some soldiers stood where we were standing and shot into a cave across the way and some soldiers made their way into the cave to kill the remaining people. The cave is called The Place Where Two Fell because one of the native women grabbed a soldier and took him over the cliff with her. I read the story before my traveling companion, Viviane, and I went to the overlook and I was reluctant to even go there. But we decided that for the sake of healing, we would go and I would play didgeridoo into the canyon.

When we arrived, we heard haunting Native American flute music drifting towards us. I not only played into the canyon from there, but I began to collaborate with the Native flute player, D’von Charley. We played for a long time with Viviane singing and Lu from Belgium dancing. The whole tableau was a prayer for healing.

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

The human race is not out of breath yet and neither are the indigenous peoples. A Navajo man that Viviane and I talked to near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico told us that in the Diné language, to say the word for “thank you” to someone, one must engage deep inside oneself at the diaphragm, taking a huge breath that penetrates one’s being. And one does not just thank the person, but the entire context in which that person arose, the ancestors, the plants, the animals, the land that supported that person’s life.

With the breath we make this healing music. With the circular breath of the didgeridoo, we acknowledge the circle of life that sustains us, the ancestors and plants and animals who came before us. We make a way for that breath that sustains all life. And we give thanks for that breath and for those who write and play such music. Thank you Del Sol String Quartet, Stephen Kent, composer Peter Sculthorpe and all those who  have lost their lives in this struggle to keep humans in right balance with the rest of the natural world.

(*the didgeridoo is an Aboriginal drone instrument made out of a eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites that is used for ceremony and hunting)

Serendipity

Many people have been asking how my husband Adam David Miller and I were able to go to Cuba without going in a group. The short answer is magic.

When I asked  Adam where he wanted to go to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, he said without hesitation, “To Cuba!”

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

He then said that he did not want to go illegally, and he did not want to go with a group. Even though I had been to Cuba with a group 15 years ago, I was a bit stumped as to how to do that with the idiotic travel restrictions the US government has placed on its citizens in relation to travel to Cuba. I started researching and trying to get in touch with Cuba sister city projects to see if we could go under the auspices of either the Berkeley or Richmond projects. But we kept running into road blocks—unanswered e-mails, locked doors when we showed up a meetings, etc. and it was looking iffy at best.

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Elise playing didgeridoo in Alameda at an Esoterica event

Then one day (you could say once upon a time…) I was visiting my friend Edie to play some music. And there was a woman there that Edie had recently met, Karen Lee Wald, who looked vaguely familiar to me. After we were introduced, she began talking about her connections to Cuba. At some point I realized that I had actually met her when I went to Cuba since she is a well-known journalist and expert on Cuba, and our group had met with her. I told her that Adam and I wanted to go there. I also explained that I thought maybe I could teach didgeridoo to people there because I am sure that they cannot afford C-PAP machines, the most common treatment for the disease. Since didgeridoo is a natural and cheap alternative that actually ameliorates sleep apnea and is also very good treatment for asthma, I thought it would be a perfect fit for Cuba. She was not only interested in that, but said that she herself used a C-PAP machine and would love to be weaned off of it. We started a trade where I taught her didgeridoo and she helped us set up our trip to Cuba.

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Adam in Karen’s house in Havana reading from Ticket to a community activist

She wasn’t planning to be in Cuba when we wanted to go (January or February) so when she did go in November, 2013, she began making contacts for us, places to stay, drivers, and people to meet. She read Adam’s autobiography, Ticket to Exile and began thinking of many people in Cuba, especially poets and writers who would want to meet Adam. And she kept saying that it would be so much better if she were there when we were to make sure these meetings happened. Finally she wrote and offered to come with us if we would just pay her expenses. To save money, we could stay with her in her house in Havana. What an incredibly generous offer which we, of course, took her up on immediately.

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Film maker Gloria Rolando

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Adam and Pablo Armando Hernandez

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Adam, Elise and Poet Nancy Morales

Karen became our guardian angel, advising us on what to bring, how to document our trip so that we were sure to stay under the exemption to the travel restrictions. And she proceeded to take us under her wing, advise us to go through Cancun, whisk us around Cuba where we met famous poets, writers and artists including poet, Pablo Armando Hernandez; Esteban Morales (expert on race and racism in Cuba), Gloria Rolando (documentary film maker currently working on a project about Haitians in Cuba), poet Nancy Morales, and activist Yolanda Gonzales to name a few. She showed us a side of Cuba that could only be shown by someone who lived there (she raised her kids there starting in the late ‘60’s).

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Karen in the studio of Cuban community artist Fuster.

Talk about serendipity. That seems to have been our mode of transport. Thank you, Karen!

I feel a responsibility to tell the stories of Cuba now that I am back especially since we get such warped reporting here in the States. See the last blog and ones to come.

Living to Breathe

Mask created at a Spiral Gathering

Mask collaboratively created at a Spiral Gathering

While driving, I turned off the radio to let my mind open up to a topic that has been of interest to me lately, didgeridoo and breathing. What came floating into me was this: Many people in Western culture breathe to live instead of living to breathe. My first reaction was that this thought was too radical–what in the world would it mean to live to breathe?

Then the rationale started to come. When we are anxious (according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people), we breathe in a shallow way, taking in the minimum oxygen required to live. It is as if by controlling our breathing, we feel we are controlling the situation. And breathing becomes a means to stay alive, nothing more. We limit air’s entry into us, limiting what comes all the way into us.

But what if?  What if the act of breathing deeply, allowing air into the center of ourselves is actually what connects us with all things? Oxygen, of course, has been produced by the plants and trees and provides us with a connection to the plant world. And then there is the element called argon, an inert gas that we breathe in and out without absorbing. Argon has been around since the atmosphere was first formed and because it is inert, it has been in and out of the lungs of people and animals on this planet for millennium.

In his book The Sacred Balance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki says”Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.” And from the exhalations of dinosaurs, whales, and our grandmothers. Suzuki continues saying, “each breathe is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come… Air is a matrix that joins all life together, past and future as well as present. We inhale our ancestors and exhale into the lungs of our children.”  From the Green Interview–The Most Important Idea in the World – Sunday column, March 20, 2011 http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/most-important-idea-world-sunday-column-march-20-2011

My contribution to this conversation is that this air that we breathe, when we breathe deeply, can help to in-form us, to form us as connected beings. We then have access to the wisdom of the ages at our deepest core. Our culture is so visual that something like air which cannot be seen (unless it is so polluted that it has a color…), is over”looked” as an essential part of our being. But air is in our every cell. When we breathe deeply, we can feel that connection with the unseen that assists us in choosing right action in every moment. Anxiety’s shallow breathing tends to keep us from accessing that support, wisdom and, I might say, love.

When I am teaching didgeridoo and I demonstrate taking that deep breath that activates the diaphragm, I move into a place of great letting go and peace. I am not forcing the breath into my body, I am simply letting go to make space for breath to enter. That deep breath reminds me that I am not an isolated individual having to make it on my own, but am part of a huge matrix of past, present and future that is holding me, supporting me, keeping me from falling. When I take that breath, I know that I am held.

So living to breathe is not a far-fetched an idea; it is actually something to ease into that has the power to change how we stand in relation to this moment, this breath, this life, this planet and all that we encounter here. Try it on and let me know how it fits for you.