An open letter to the seriously curious.
Somehow, as they say, you arrived here.
So the first question is: "Did you come of your own free will, or by compunction?" That's a question that gets asked by Baba Yaga in some of the old European myths. Of course, you don't want to answer one way or the other—that's when she takes off your head, and the skulls go up around her hut in the forest on the fence posts. There's lots of skulls there already.
Of course, you DECIDED to come.
AND—of course you HAD to come—your curiosity (or desperation, or determination, or whatever) forced you! So that is a first thing to reflect on: are we driven only by our human impulses, or is there something else present as well?
The big title says "Apprenticeship? Not for the faint of heart." It is going to require some of the dashing, but not rushing, just step by step—it is a steeping process as well as an alchemical one.
In the myth, the traveller has to ignore the question that Baba Yaga asks. It is just a distraction at that moment. You say something like: "Grandmother, isn't it still a custom in these parts to give a lost traveller a meal?" And then she is happy, she doesn't necessarily like cutting off all of those heads, it's just her job.
So the meals you will get fed in this apprenticeship follow a similar idea. First order of business is nourishment. And that means stories, teachings, traditions.
It is likely that a fire needs to be made. That is a metaphor for practice. One of my teachers, Danny Deardorff, who has now joined the ancestors, said: "Every time you make a fire, you get stronger." It was kind of an in joke, because we were required to make the spark with a piece of flint and a striker. Everyone became very convinced that making fire made you stronger—if you consider becoming a patient person to be a stronger one! So practice is involved.
The ideal thing is apparently what was possible when everyone was not dispersed, they were in the same tribe. They lived together, on-the-job training if you will. But conditions aren't ideal for that today, On the other hand, apparently conditions were never ideal anyway. We'll continue forward, with just a little bit of boldness mixed into the natural humility that comes with encountering big things like myth, healing, ritual, the elements, traditions.
Leadership in ritual ends up being about service. When I worked with teenagers, the one who was practicing leadership that day was the last one in the food line up. It's like that.
On the other hand, it definitely requires a confidence in following the channel of communication that you have with spirit. To make it confusing, people get that in diverse ways—seeming to hear an idea, get an image, and then again, someone else seems to hear a voice, another type actually seems to "see," which was the old Irish idea of "the sight." Yet another kind of person can get a message in a dream. The ways of communicating are diverse, getting into that space is a sensitivity, a practice, and it requires a strong ringmaster to hold the thread between the two worlds. We don't want anyone getting lost in there, so there needs to be quite a bit of time spent on maps.
Yes, the map is not the territory, and eventually, a lot of maps are floating around in your mind, but that is the essence of knowing your way around. Being able to be a guide for others, you are expected to be both a map carrier and interpreter, and have good field improvisation skills at your fingertips.
That's my not-so-secret plan, helping guides come alive. The world needs, more than ever perhaps, specialists who know the technologies and wisdom traditions behind ritual. Us humans need to be back in our traditional partnership with nature, with spirit, aware of energies that won't die from previous generations. We need to have a coherent understanding of what holistic healing might actually mean. We need to recreate the sense of sacred reciprocity that is the only thing that can make the system of inequitable economics wither away. Marx missed that.
Well, once you make the claim that you are intending to stake territory against both capitalism and Marx, it is probably time to mention something about grandiosity. What you will find here is not a fantasy system of positive thinking. That kind of hopefulness could be called the view of spirit, the upward direction. And if you literally go up in a spaceship, that is what you see! Hey! We all live on the same rock! So it looks like things like unity, oneness, sameness are not only true, but good, from that perspective. It has a place, that kind of understanding, but it has the danger of grandiosity.
The other view could be called the view of soul. That is like travelling in the downward direction—toward the old, the worn in, the imperfect. Think of your old favourite sweater. When you get down to the ground, there is diversity, difference, unique expressions of life. And there is the struggle for life, and death is part of this world as well. It is a messy situation. There are conflicts. Humans seem quite able to get involved with life on this level. We have a predilection for confusion.
But despite the trouble of diversity, it is important to keep soul qualities alive if life is to be worth living. So we are not looking for the perfection of unity. That is the modern idea that wants to have a franchise on every corner, and, as Joni Mitchel said, "Pave paradise and put up a parking lot."
To cut a long story short, I'd say I have learned about soul business (and ultimately how it fits into ritual) from five diverse teachers and traditions that had a major influence. This all happened beginning more than thirty years ago, more or less around the same time, except for the first one, which was just a little before that.
I met Michael Meade at a workshop, and he works with myth, if you didn't know. I had already read his first book, but seeing him tell a story in person made it come alive in a new way. Reading his book, I felt, "I have never seen so much truth together in the same place before this in my entire life." And one of the quips about myth is the idea that a myth is a thing that tells the truth without the use of facts.
This kind of myth is not moral-of-the-story spirit ideology, where one interpretation gets canonized as the ultimate truth. It reveals diversity. It shows different angles. It affirms complexity. It requires individuality at the same time that it links us together. So that is a whole body of knowledge.
Mostly, I work with European myth, some Russian. It could be a speciality on its own! It is a rich tradition, and a lot is still around, thankfully it has survived. The first thing that needs to be corrected is the slightly over popularized idea that Joseph Campbell is the last word on myth. To be unfair, though concise, here is the problem:
Comparative Mythology can remain just that, an intellectual exercise, not embodied. The term Associative Mythology has been suggested as denoting the idea that myth and ritual go hand in hand, refer to each other, bring the myth alive, feed it for a moment in this world, incorporate some of its vast storehouse of riches into human affairs. So that is a completely different thing than story telling. I've settled for now on using the idea of story carrying to indicate that alliance with the philosophy of Associative Mythology.
What is implied by this is that storytelling from a story carrier is an initiatory ritual process all on its own. You ask people how the story affected them. You consider what kind of ritual has to be done now that the veil between the myth world and the human world has temporarily been lifted and revealed some illness, incongruity, some lack of integration. The energies in stories are real energies. As Daniel Deardorff once humorously said: "When I find myself in the kitchen after finishing telling a story and realize that it is Baba Yaga, not my wife, that is doing dishes, it is time to put a bowl of goat's milk outside the front door!"
These energies interact with the world, and the story carrier is supposed to be trained in dealing with them, has to have a relationship with them, to do the job properly. The goat also shows up in one of Rumi's poems. It turns out that the lame one is the star of the group at the end of the day, because the tables are turned . . . now, on the return journey home, the lame goat is in the lead, the others are following! Modern allopathic healing is a heroic venture and a machine repair process. Indigenous healing takes the intelligent view that the lameness is not purposeless, it is useful, dignified—there is a deeper intelligence about complexity and ecology at work from that viewpoint.
The next spring, I met Dagara shamans Malidoma and Sobonfu Somé. They are from Burkina Fasso, in West Africa, from the tribe known as the Dagara. The oral tradition of the Dagara says that they went inland and avoided the worst excesses of colonization and slavery. Their traditions were strong enough that the indigenous knowledge was kept alive— a deep and wild treasure trove of it.
Eventually Elders decided that Malidoma (and later, Sobonfu, who is now an ancestor) had to travel to the west to share the knowledge of the tribe. Obviously the west needed it. And there was a self-preservation aspect to the plan—modernity was already appearing seductive to the youth, and what better way to show that indigenous ways had value than if modern people showed an interest? So this is far from cultural appropriation, it is a relationship between brothers and sisters.
I have a moment in my mind that is still crystal clear these decades later. Malidoma was speaking, and I suddenly realized that we could not continue only doing this thing that another teacher of soul business, Stephen Jenkinson, calls "Eating the Teachers." There can be a tendency to think that someone else, something else, some other culture, some other anything as the real and only legitimate connection with the Other World.
The clarity of that memory revolves around my realization that what could be a true appreciation of this wild knowledge and wisdom shared so generously could only be the beginning of a trek in the opposite direction, that is, from modernity back toward indigenousity. It is overstating the benefits and comforts of such a road to mention that it is not yet paved! But you know, there is this old saying that says "The well paved road is unlikely to be leading toward healing." We are after finding our own indigenous soul again, but there are friends to help.
Around the same time I met David MacMurray Smith, a veteran teacher of movement and performance who had recently opened his own studio. We met up for a coffee, and I explained that I loved dancing. In fact, I had already taken various classes in Jazz and African dance , perhaps somehow the drumming I heard as a child in Africa had gotten into my blood. But, David explained, there is no music, what he was working with was not "dance."
I had contacted him based on a small peculiar poster offering a course he called "Bodysense." We discussed it a bit, and he invited me to join the class, which turned out to be an extravaganza of introduction to foundational principles of movement and development of the ability to self-observe and navigate any of the various experiences of memory, emotion, imagination and how they interact with our physicality.
Over the next few years, I took several seminars totalling a few hundred hours including his course on adult clown. This tradition of clown is meant to work without the "fourth wall," the invisible wall of suspending belief and keeping the world of the presentation separate from the audience. Rather, the clown's revelation of self-aware human frailties, and the ability to share internal reactions is meant to create an intimacy of recognition of our shared humanity. The work was profoundly influential.
The impact of the work is now woven into my knowledge, and seasoned by the years passing. Introducing, emphasis on introducing, this vast body of work is the subject of the "Language of Movement" program found on the Water page. I see a connection between the clown, and the deep trickster traditions within indigenous cultures. In the Dagara cosmology, this energy would be most embodied by the Nature clan people. Nature is considered a home of transformation and reversals, and it is perhaps because of this that Nature clan people are particularly concerned with the issue of truth. It is a responsibility that the true trickster carries.
You can see the other information pages about what we are going to do in this apprenticeship program. But it is important to communicate to you in a way that reflects the actual style that I work in. It goes in the fashion of weaving a great tapestry—the picture emerges—the final result can not be explained purely as a mathematical process. Also, I don't think this is the only training, the ultimate training, the best training, or anything like that. It is ONE form of training.
I work with the Dagara cosmology of five elements. Somehow the ancestors marked me as an ambassador. But there is no doubt that there will be some influences and questions from other cosmologies, some discussion during the apprenticeship process. And that is fine, the language that the soul works best in is individual, and at the same time, it is good to be able to communicate across cultural traditions, translate, avoid pointless fights.
The Earth element revolves around the need for great healing and knowledge of the areas of abundance, welcoming, homecoming and belonging. Mineral, which could be called "stones and bones," is words, poetry, communication, story carrying, and in the Dagara imagination, the idea of an expertise around people's "calling" or "life purpose." Water is the realm of emotion, intimacy, reconciliation. Fire is the camp of the ones who have dreams, the gateway to the ancestors, visions. Nature, as I mentioned above, is the clan for those specializing in ritual, processes of transformation, comfort with ambiguity, ferocity in protecting the truth. Those kinds of people can work under circumstances that would baffle individuals from the other clans.
You can see right away that the modern time is a time where the fire clan energy is out of control—the powers that be literally think they can solve problems with "fire power," and at the same time, have no idea how to limit burning. It is uninitiated. There is a shortage of water knowledge. Trickster wisdom has been relegated to the margins under the burden of data worship. Meanwhile, actual data continues to be used to obscure truth, not defend it, by entities such as Facebook. Leadership betrays us with the false trickster energy and the idea of "alternative facts."
For those reasons, I expect everyone who graduates from the apprenticeship to have gained more than a passing familiarity with all of the clan medicines, even if it turns out not to be their specialty. That's my bias, toward (as Buckminster Fuller championed), the wisdom of the generalist. That will require some work, experiments, practice in each area.
I need also to mention something about the whole process from the angle of curriculum and education. This is a process of guidance and increasing diversity and unique expressions of application. It is not meant to create "mini-mes." The complexity of the work is expressly designed to undermine that possibility, by exposing apprenticeships to a variety of other teachers, other schools of thought.
So with that goal of diversification in mind, the whole thing also has to begin that way. David MacMurray Smith calls this "inquiry oriented, principle centred, curiosity driven" curriculum. There is room to move to follow and build on themes that emerge or themes you arrive with.
Having said that, it is not a free-for-all either, I will introduce a pretty big toolkit of skills and knowledge. In a traditional apprenticeship of this kind, there are lots of initiatory moments. The student gets told to what to do, without discussion. My teachers went through them, and I went through them as well. But in this setting, it is very important to discuss why that kind of thing can be legitimate and needed, and what the limits of it are. This is not a cult.
Here is an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about. The new story carrier gets told, "Well, you can't just go and tell a story." Why is that? Because in working with the story, if it is done in the old ritual way, people expect that they are travelling into the other world, they are going to bring large psychic forces to life and then they will be there, in the room, looming larger than life. So the guide is supposed to have gone through this story very carefully, examining all the details to feel and understand the moments in their own life that could be reflected in the story. It is a lot of work. You should do it. You will be told to do it. Can people "tell a story for entertainment" without doing that initiatory process of wrangling with the story deeply? Yes, that happens. But that is not what we are doing.
We are making a modern . . . initiatory . . . process. The word initiation is a little too grand for advertising. The modern ear hears that syntax in a way that makes it seem as if initiation is another consumer product. Initiation comes as it is actually earned. The "initiatory" can be started today.
We will have calls, scheduled, with some breaks, almost like a university schedule. That is to get the contact time, be able to spend some time in a way that is similar to the oral tradition, but not limited by geography. There might be people from several geographic locations. The online format makes that a possibility.
There will be many practical assignments. Small ones to begin with, but not too small either, meal size, an hour or two, and likely a few selected ones, even in the first year, of sharing what you are learning with people local to you. Even if you can only invite a few friends, that will work ok. It is a start.
The main feasts are the actual program events, where we will physically be together a few times. Talking, and being together, will help me get a good feel for every person's ongoing journey, see their strengths, blind spots, genius, quirkiness. It is some combination of scholarship, creativity, fun, discipline, and no doubt a moment of struggle or two.
I expect that many people who are interested in this might have a current practice offering healing in their community. The skills are meant to be integrated with your current practice. And if you are fledgling, that is fine as well.
Expect the Zoom calls to be 120 minutes. Weekly reading, and your practical exercises could take an hour or two per week, but you might have to travel a bit for certain ones of them. You'll be involved in inviting people to the in-person programs, and helping to plan aspects of them. There will be breaks here and there.
There will be some challenging work to organize the events. This work helps subsidize the cost of the apprenticeship and no better training ground could be imagined for the wrangling of different stakeholder interests that want to show up at the conference table when a true ritual situation is announced. It will provide real value. The experience of this, and particular assignments, will be different for each apprentice.
You need to have enough stability in your life to keep up, and do the work even when it is not completely convenient. Some of it will be challenging, some of it will be an absolute joy.
The second year, I have ideas floating around in my mind for possibilities. It must be an emergent process. It is possible we might do a second year similar to the first. It might be quite different. We will have to see.
In any case, I will be firm in supporting you, honest about trouble, generous in praising your accomplishments.
Different kinds of people with probably vastly different kinds of life experience will be in the group. In fact, that will be one of the considerations in choosing applicants. You will meet some interesting characters, some of whom will become lifelong friends.
And there may be some conflict and confusion from time to time. It is part of life on the road to find the waters. You'll have to arrive at the beginning already able to handle some of that turbulence. We will have to cultivate both general kindness and ruthless kindness. We will have to let certain things go, and with other things, be willing to get into the honest argument while still remembering that we are all aimed at a common destination.
Eventually, if things go well, you will have a moment realizing that the exact person who you thought had the least in common with you is the very individual who is carrying a particular medicine that is like a life saving infusion for you. And you will be amazed at their generosity in sharing it. That is a magic moment of the activation of "village intelligence."
The cohort is a fellowship, and like all fellowshipss, it has extended connections. You are meant to have people around you in your geographical location that know what you are up to in this work, and have pledged to be a support. It is only at moments that you might feel a bit like the hermit in the hut in the forest, most of the time your charge is to be connected, to share the journey.
On the other hand, there is a necessary privacy and even secrecy to the activities and discussions that occur in the group. With so much abuse of power in modernity, and so many false secrets kept, there is a sense in which modern people are out of touch with an indigenous sensibility about carrying knowledge privately to keep its potency. There is no way to make "rules" about this that conveys the need for an initiatory understanding of what is held in confidence.
Thinking about applying? Put your intention and your attention together and do it justice with your heart and head in the game.
A good application should also be useful to clarify where you are to yourself. There is something wanting to emerge from your wild genius. The application is not to judge your worthiness—you are already worthy. It is to make sure that this is the right kind of medicine that can help you to refine your work, your gift, your genius.
It will be a process with stages, with chances to consider deeply whether this is right for you. This is not a sign-up-quick-and-get-a-discount situation. More the opposite really. Sign-up-with-deliberation-step-by-step.