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)

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Not Another Step

???????????  For about a week, I have been on crutches, unable to put weight on my left ankle/foot. This situation has caused a forced shut down of my activities. I had been trying to get back to normal after a series of journeys this summer and fall, when my ankle began to hurt and then got steadily worse. The pain started after the ten day National Parks trip and before I went to Tennessee to assist my mother in her recovery from back surgery which was right before a week’s trip to the ocean.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that all of this is about the mother, writ large and small. At the Bay Area Daré (a monthly gathering for healing and peace-making) on Sunday, I asked for healing work for myself. When asked to tell the story of this ankle/foot, I began with the silent retreat I attended at Mt. Tamalpais in August. The retreat, including sitting and walking meditation, took place outdoors among the redwood trees. Since I was born with a neuro-muscular disorder that affects the shape of my feet and thereby my balance, walking meditation has always been extra-challenging for me. It is only in recent years that I have attempted the walking meditation and this year found myself deriving a great deal of joy and satisfaction from it. My high arches make it so that not much of my foot touches the ground when I walk normally. But in the deliberateness of the walking meditation, I found that my feet were given time to spread out and touch more of the ground.  Each step became an offering to the earth and the earth seemed to be reciprocating. Image

At times it was as if I were dancing with the earth as I walked, a kind of one, two, three, waltz rhythm. I remember that rhythm following me into lunch where I continued to sway to that beat as I ate my food. Time flew by as my consciousness was invited into my feet where it so seldom lives. Feet kissing the earth, dancing with its rhythms, my mind quiet.

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Wupatki

I started the story there because it feels as if that shifting in my relationship with the earth mother was a watershed event. The next thing I knew I was on the National Parks trip for ten days and walking on sacred ground in the footsteps of ancestors who have honored that earth for hundreds of years—in Yosemite, Mono Lake, Bristle Cone Pine Forest, Death Valley, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Sunset Crater and Wupatki.

Upon my return, my foot/ankle began to hurt but I managed it and continued on.

Then suddenly I am in Tennessee with my mother helping her in her recovery from back surgery. This interlude did not put a lot of stress on my feet but demonstrated a way to give back to the mother who has given me so much. The back is the primary support system for the body as well as a primary nerve center. Feeling. Reciprocity.

Then to the ocean at Sea Ranch and to a Spiral Gathering and ritual there for the oceans and especially for healing the fallout from the Fukishima disaster that goes on and on and does not stop at any country’s borders. And walking the sands of that place, entering sea caves and playing didgeridoo for the rocks, the sea, the seaweed and the seals.elise in cave

And then suddenly, I cannot take another step, there is so much pain. Perhaps my feet are taking in the pain of the Mother Earth or I have absorbed so much from these places where I have stepped that I must stop until I can integrate all of that energy into this small human body and learn the lessons I am meant to learn and tell the stories I am meant to tell.

After I told my story at Daré, and after I lay flat on my back and was held by a circle of lovely people and their ancestors and after they had walked around me in a reverent and joyful slow meditative walk, I felt relieved of something that had been too much for one individual to hold. They were taking some of the weight as well.

The pain is gone now and I am gradually putting a little weight on my foot. And I am telling the stories here and will continue them in the next blogs. Now you, too, help me carry that joy and that load. We can all begin to walk again in a different way, sharing the pain and the joy of the earth mother, one foot after the other, giving and receiving.????????????????????

Fear Less

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Steep Ravine

My intention is to create a series of blogs that have to do with creating space in our lives through the awareness of the breath.

The longer I teach didgeridoo (Australian Aboriginal instrument that creates a drone) , the more I learn that this instrument is truly an instrument of peace and spaciousness (see Sound Rivers.net). On one level it is merely a physical act of blowing through a tube to make a sound; on another, it is an act that brings one fully and consciously into the moment.

Last night I went to a dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley http://www.insightberkeley.org (Bancroft near Martin Luther King Jr. Way) where Donald Rothberg was the guest dharma teacher. His topic was fear. Overactive fear has long been a damaging feature on the landscape of this country. Since 9-11 that feature has become even more pronounced in our government and in the individuals living here. Take the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and our acquiescence to surveillance by our own government as recent evidence of the fear we walk around holding.

Rothberg spoke of the way fear can enter our bodies and lodge there so that when it arises, there may be no story attached at all, just intensely uncomfortable body sensation. Our minds might then create a story to account for the sensation, perhaps we find an enemy to go after to alleviate that horrible sensation. One way that he has found to deal with irrational fear is to send out metta or lovingkindness, thus transforming the energies of fear. Fear cannot exist in the midst of lovingkindness.

Yes and let’s find more ways as well to work with the body, not just the mind. I have found that on at least two levels the didgeridoo works with these very energies and transforms them into deep peace and a feeling of at easeness with the universe. The low drone itself surrounds and holds the body, allowing it to relax. And circular breathing requires diaphragmatic breathing that cannot co-exist with anxiety.

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Elise playing agave didgeridoo

When we breathe shallowly, using just the upper lungs, we are straining to try to control the universe and how much of it we will let in. Most people in western culture routinely breathe in a shallow way that keeps the breath out of our deepest selves. It is a kind of breath that says to the universe, “mind your own business; I’ve got things under control here.” When we have the wherewithal to let that breath in deeply, the anxious need for control vanishes. Then a way to connect with whatever situation is at hand arises in the now, not in a fear-based story about the future.

The in-breath is a gift from the universe, the out-breath what we offer back to the universe. By taking the breath fully into our deepest places through a process of letting go, we give the breath a chance to transform us so that what we offer is not just our own agenda, but a conduit for harmony.

Deep breathing goes to the place where we connect with other humans, with our place in the ecosystem, with other creatures, and with our ancestors. It is a cornucopia of resources. And yet how often do we get there? Some of us, only in our dreams (making dreams even more crucial to our lives).

Why is sleep apnea so prevalent in this culture? Could it be because we are so unused to allowing breath to ful/fill us that even in sleep we find ways to shut it down? Perhaps this is why the only cure for sleep apnea that is known is circular breathing and why it is so difficult for many to learn it. Circular breathing is not just a technique, it is a deep letting go of fear.

The Best Season of Your Life

Snail on persimmon leaf in fall

If your mind isn’t clouded

by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.

                              –Wumen

Last week I heard a discussion by Bernie Krause who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra. To say that he brings to light how visual this culture is and how much we leave the auditory in the back seat is to prove his point that our metaphors are mostly visual. I search for one that is not.  Maybe he amplifies the auditory. One of the most memorable things in his talk was that he played for us a soundscape of a forest recorded both before and after it was selectively logged. The logging company assured everyone that selective logging would have virtually no impact on the ecosystem. Even though the eye couldn’t see the changes, our ears told us how much the ecosystem had deteriorated after the logging. He said, “A soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”

I have at the same time been reading a book called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo. I loved the title and bought it not knowing anything else about it. It has been a wonderful accompaniment to both the Bernie Krause information and teaching the didgeridoo and studying Aboriginal philosophy.

Nepo says, “One of the purposes of listening is to break our self-reference. Listening beyond our own silhouette, each thing we encounter is alive—be it a stone, a dragonfly, a symphony, or a peach.” (p.121) This reminds me of what Jon Young  says about 360 degree listening—that you cannot carry on the same story that may have been repeating itself inside your head when you listen so completely to the world. It takes you out of your own silhouette. The Aboriginals of Australia believe that everything on earth is alive and that we can learn from listening not just to humans but to the rest of the natural world. Teachers abound if only we could stop endlessly listening exclusively to our own stories, take that step out of our minds (clear the clouds) and enter into deep listening.

One of the things that we did at the Didgeridoo Dreaming for Women weekend a few weeks ago at Sea Ranch was to listen until we heard a call and then play to respond to the call. When music comes, not to fill up empty space but is drawn out of the silence, it becomes in essence a dialogue with the world.

Nepo says, “In this way listening becomes a partnership by which we listen and converse with everything. And this conversation with everything—yes through words, but more through presence and attention—becomes the partnership by which we keep everything joined.” (p. 121)

So when our minds are not clouded by unnecessary things, and we can truly listen to what is calling us, we enter into the best season of our lives.