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, 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 was 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 an 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 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.
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. 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 carryier 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 the lame goat is in the lead, the others are following it! 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, it is 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. It is the subject of my studio workshop series "Step into the Water." 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 and 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 generalism. That will require some work, experiments, practice in each area. In the second year, that is a time to focus on one to work with for an extension.
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 second year 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 then 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 to a park, and tell them that you are doing this course, and are supposed to try and tell a story, that will work ok. It is a start.
There will also be some reading and writing. It will take some effort, you will have to schedule some time for all of these things and be disciplined, but the main purpose of the writing is for me to be able to get a good feel for every person's ongoing journey, see their strengths, blind spots, genius, quirkiness. It is some combination of scholarship, creative writing, fun, discipline, and no doubt a moment of struggle or two.
That is the first year. In the second, I'll encourage you to be doing something in your community once a month, and charging for it, though not full price yet if you are new to this, you are still in the journeyman stage. If you are experienced in leading, by all means, use these skills integrated with your current practice.
We are going to work within a term system of eight 13 week periods. The first four (Year 1) is a more intensive time of assigned reading, writing, and exercises. You should be in a position to devote about 6 hours a week to the work, and can take a break in pace over the December Christmas holiday time. Expect the Skype calls to be 90 minutes, Reading about an hour, writing about an hour, and your practical exercises could take an hour or more, but you might have to travel a bit for certain ones of them. It is driven by your own initiative. We will have 9 Skype calls and then a 4 week "Reading Break" to do any needed catch up and that will be the pace for the first three semesters.
During the fourth semester, (which will start with the Christmas Break), I'll spend time on personal and individual calls helping coach you with your "term project." And there will be some work to organize it. Again, this is meant to be driven by your own initiative and will be different for each one. I will also encourage you to begin a (small!) website to articulate your work if you don't have one.
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, we will have a different series of Skype calls with visiting experts. These will be people who are working in the field with a ritual approach to events, some well known, some lesser known. We will also have a few visits from some sharp business advisor types who specialize in helping people who run unique healing services. You will get one on one time with me, and coaching to refine the work that you are planning to do in your community. I will be firm in supporting you, 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 that you thought they had the least in common with is the one individual who is carrying a particular medicine that is like a life saving infusion. 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 tribe of sorts, and like all tribes, 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.
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.