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Finding Our Way Home

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My son, Mateo, recently turned three years old. It is impossible for me to witness his growth and the growth of so many other children in our community and around the world without wondering what kind of planet we will be leaving them? Sometimes it feels as though when I cast my gaze out upon the world, I am witnessing, in slow motion, a shattering. From one perspective something is breaking, from another something is being born.

Many writers have offered names to this place in time. Degrowth philosopher, activist, and writer Charles Eisenstein refers to it as the space between stories. Buddhist scholar and systems theorist Joanna Macy has called it the Great Turning, in which we move from an industrial growth society into a life-sustaining one.

For those embedded in the modern western worldview, the shift into a new story would require a different way of seeing ourselves in relationship with others and the natural world. Economist David Korten believes that such a view, what he calls the living universe worldview, must take into account the interconnectedness of our living systems. According to ecologist and theologian Thomas Berry, such a view acknowledges the universe as a “communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.”[1] This view was underscored in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 Christmas Eve sermon when he stated:

In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the inter-related structure of reality.[2]

As I stare out across the social and environmental landscape of our time, I am reminded of a quote by Dr. Bob Moorehead, pastor and author of Words Aptly Spoken:

The paradox of our age is that we have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness; we’ve been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the neighbor. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever but have less communication; we have become long on quantity, and short on quality. These are the times of fast foods but slow digestion; tall man but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.

This quote speaks to how we in the modern world have lost ourselves in the dream of progress. In the desire for ever more comfort and things, we seem to have forgotten something essential to our very existence: Life itself is a miracle; and such a miracle can only be fully expressed through the practice of living in right relationship to ourselves, our communities, the natural world, and the cosmos itself.

Of course, for many, there is much to celebrate in the modern world’s notions of progress. Through its understandings, we have received the wonders of technology and medicine and the values of individual freedom and democracy. However, it has also come to us at a cost, some of which the above quote speaks to. As with any wound, it must be acknowledged and healed in order to grow into a fuller expression of our collective human potential. The social and environmental ruptures we witness today are symptoms of the untreated wounds of progress and its unacknowledged shadow. 

Displacement and the Great Forgetting

One aspect of the shadow of modernity and its notion of progress is displacement and its effects on one’s sense of self in relationship to the larger world. Few groups within the human family have not suffered from displacement over the past five hundred years due to the rising demands of modern power and its expressions through the evolving forms of colonialism, industry, capitalism, globalization, and now, gentrification.

As Helene Shulman and Mary Watkins explored in their seminal book Towards Psychologies of Liberation, forced displacement of any kind is a type of violence that often accompanies or is preceded by other forms of violence: physical, social, economic, and environmental. Displacement disrupts an individual’s connection to the larger socio-cultural and ecological life systems of which they are a part. Often such disruption carries with it trauma that can surface in many different forms such as forgetfulness, depression, anxiety, despair, and a kind of cultural amnesia. This amnesia acts as a psychic defense covering up the trauma present in the mind, heart, body, and soul. Additionally, we know now, that the chronic presence of such trauma can be passed down generationally.

Displacement serves the growth of modernity in two primary ways. It allows for the acquisition of both the physical and imaginal resources of a people to be extracted and utilized to fuel further “growth,” which, from an alternative perspective, could be called destruction. Through the erasure of a people’s storied connection to place and culture, sense of self and identity is lost. They become orphans, in a sense. In the wake of this loss, the dominant culture is free to force its own narratives and values. In the case of the modern worldview, the marching orders are simple: Pursue short-term, individual desires through the acquisition of power and material goods. Do this and the void you feel will be filled. You will feel “happy.” You will feel whole. The consumption and acceptance of such a narrative acts as a short-term anesthetic. It soothes and buries the trauma of displacement and further engrains the act of forgetting.

Re-membering as an Act of Resistance and Resilience

In this time of forgetting, as systems seem to be crumbling all around us, it is hard to know what to do and where to place one’s efforts for effective action. I am often reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now” and feel the need to do all I can in each and every moment to limit the suffering of others that is being caused by our failing systems. Additionally, I am reminded of the Buddhist precept of non-attachment. In holding the tension of these two perspectives in myself, I seek a third way: a way through the amnesia of the modern dream, a way out of forgetting and into re-membering.

In the process of re-membering we are not just recollecting, we are re-establishing membership with the larger living systems of which we are a part. This is an inherently political act. It shatters the illusion of the separate self and re-stories (restores) it back into the broader context of community, place, space, time, and history. This re-storing creates a more substantial and healthier (more connected) sense of self; this is essential for the emergence of a more mature understanding of responsibility that takes into account the health and wellbeing of the larger living systems of which the individual is a part.

This act of restoring is ultimately an indigenous practice for treating trauma. In Liberation Psychology as the Path Toward Healing Cultural Soul Wounds, indigenous psychologist and scholar Eduardo Duran and his co-authors Judith Firehammer and John Gonzalez defined the healing process for indigenous cultures as being, “primarily concerned with helping individuals learn how they fit into the overall cosmology.”[4] Additionally, war correspondent and author Sebastian Junger, psychotherapist Francis Weller, and Watkins and Shulman each refer to trauma as a psychic split or tear from the larger fabric of interrelated systems. Gary Barker, an anthropologist who founded the group Promundo, dedicated to understanding and preventing violence, also viewed trauma as a collective wound: “Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic… PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”[5] The indigenous traditional approach to healing, therefore, is about repairing this psychic tear in the individual and group through the use of community ceremony and ritual as tools to re-member and re-story (restore) the ruptured psyche back into the larger cosmic tapestry.

The question then becomes, for those of us lost in the modern dream of progress, how do we re-member and re-story ourselves back into a broader context of an interconnected sense of place, space, time, and history? I believe many tools can be used to help facilitate this healing process such as culturally appropriate ceremonies and rituals that include grief, rites of passage, calendar celebrations, song and community singing, storytelling, community-supported gardens, dance, service work, and pilgrimage. All are tools that, when facilitated correctly, create self-reflective containers (often somatic and creatively based) that allow for a non-analytical, experiential exploration of our relationship to self, Earth, community, and the numinous (mystery, grief, awe, beauty, wonder, the sacred).

Pilgrimage  

As mentioned above there are many tools that can be used as practices for re-membering. The one I wish to explore here is pilgrimage. Since the dawn of humanity trail systems have meandered through cultures, religions, mythologies, fables, and the dreamtime, leaving their mark upon the landscape of human experience. In Western, Eastern, and Indigenous cultures, specific paths connect humans to the sacred both within the self and as the sacred manifests in the world through such forms as cathedrals, mountain ranges, temples, or caves; the list is endless. Such journeys in the Western vernacular are known as pilgrimages. The trails taken are known as pilgrimage trails, and those that walk such paths are known as pilgrims or seekers. Pilgrimage creates a container through which the pilgrim (seeker) has the opportunity to experientially explore the faith or ideology the pilgrimage represents. Through an outward journey, the seeker falls into an inward exploration of self and belief.

Modern pilgrimage has evolved beyond just a tool for religious connection and spiritual development into a tool for socio-political awakening, transformation, and remembrance. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in what could be considered a pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery. In protest of the British occupation of India, Gandhi walked with thousands of people to the sea to make salt. 

There are also pilgrimages that honor and are dedicated to the larger living systems of which we are a part. In the late 1970s, John Francis walked across America while holding a vow of silence in protest of our country’s use of fossil fuels and the degradation this causes our climate and ecosystems. More recently an organization in California called Walking Water traced the Los Angeles watershed on foot from Owens Valley to the city of LA in order to draw attention to water rights issues in Southern California. In another part of California, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, led by Chief Caleen Sisk, organized the ongoing prayerful journey Run4Salmon, which started in 2018 as a three-hundred-mile trek following the historical journey of the salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem (McCloud River). The purpose of the project is to raise awareness about the policies threatening their waters, fish, and indigenous lifeways.[6]

Such journeys are not just for rural areas either. I am part of several groups in New York City exploring how we can use pilgrimage in the city to draw attention to the historical, social, and environmental ecology of the city. From my perspective, what ties all of these different types of pilgrimages together is the act of journeying with the intention of discovery, liberation, healing, and the creation of deeper connections, to oneself, one’s community, and one’s place within the larger web of life.

The Sacred Door Trail

I have used pilgrimage for three different purposes: as a tool for ancestral connection by backpacking through Northern Europe, as a community building tool and narrative development tool in southwestern Montana, and lastly as a tool to assist others in the re-membering of their relationship to self, Earth, community, and the numinous. 

The bulk of this work has occurred through the Sacred Door Trail (SDT). The SDT is a two hundred mile non-denominational pilgrimage trail that is made up of already existing national forest service trails, which circumnavigate the Big Hole Valley in southwestern Montana. The SDT is a celebration of the interdependent connection that exists between self, Earth, community, and the numinous.

The Big Hole Valley itself is a basin perched at six thousand feet surrounded by three mountain ranges: the Beaverheads, Pintlers, and Western Pioneers. The runoff from these three ranges gathers on the valley floor to create the Big Hole River, which winds for one hundred and fifty miles through the valley before it connects to the Jefferson River, a tributary of the Missouri.

In precolonial times the valley served as a buffer of sorts between the lands of the Blackfeet, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and Costal Salish Indian tribes. In the winter, the valley was uninhabitable due to its high elevation, and during the summer it operated as a shared hunting, trade, and travel corridor for the surrounding tribes.

In 2012 a statewide, national, and international coalition of faith-based and indigenous leaders, accompanied by locals from the Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman areas, gathered together to bless the land in their own traditions to establish it as a shared sacred space. The trail is not about connecting the seeker to one particular belief system; instead, it is about offering an intentional space through which the hiker can remember and restore through exposure to and guidance from the natural world.

In the summer of 2016 author and backpacker Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan wrote an article about her experience hiking the SDT, which was later published in Backpacker Magazine. She described her experience as follows:

I’ll be damned. I actually think I’ll finish this pilgrimage a happier person than when I started. Part of it is the wilderness itself: Out here, there’s nowhere to hide from your demons. Part of it is the physical hiking. By giving my body something to do, my mind could go free. But a large part of it, I must admit, is the spiritual intention: setting aside a dedicated time to pick through the thorniest corners of my heart. However you parse it, for the first time in more than a year, my anger is draining away.[7]

Casey Karr, another pilgrim and a participant in Inner Wild’s summer program, which circumnavigates the SDT, described her experience in the following way:

On paper it is a 200-mile trek… But in experience it is a profound rite of passage during which I was unmade and reawakened—again and again. Each day with my feet on raw earth and each night sleeping under an infinite expanse of stars, my heart learned to beat in the truest rhythm of this breathing body, while my mind learned more about listening than my gongs have ever taught me. I still haven’t been able to fully describe it, maybe because it resides in my being primarily in the places beyond words, and cause the innumerable lessons—sacred and profane—continue to unfold.

In its five years of existence, the Sacred Door Trail has been hiked by around thirty individuals in its entirety and many more have explored it for weekend and day hikes.

In my understanding of pilgrimage, regardless of the purpose, it ultimately is an expression of healthy power. Power that derives its source from embodiment: from the body of the earth, the body of the journeyer, the body of the group, and from the body of soul—the larger than human force that connects us to the cosmos and in turn to beauty, awe, wonder, and, most importantly, magic. In this embodiment, we find healing. In this embodiment, we are restor(y)ed, re-membered and re-imagined. In this embodiment, we are given the seeds of our future self to take home and water through our work, relationships, and lives. In this sense, the end of the pilgrimage is really only the beginning of a much longer conversation and journey.

Shared Sacred Spaces

It’s important to note that the Sacred Door Trail is not meant to be a destination hike; instead, it’s intended to serve as an example of what people can create through partnerships in their own communities. Whether on the sidewalks of a city or through the park in a small town or on the trails that meander through woods and down coastlines, all you need to create a pilgrimage is intention, imagination, and a sense of partnership and shared vision in the endeavor. Additionally, a cause to rally behind and journey for can also help give a pilgrimage shape, form, and spirit. Ultimately, you don’t even need a pathway or a cause, creating shared sacred spaces that connect us to the environment, each other, and to beauty, in one form or another, is the only requirements for the creation of healing containers that allow for the process of re-membering to unfold.

Such containers are liminal spaces that weave together the exterior and interior, the individual and the collective, the past, present, and future in ways that revitalize, heal, and reconnect. On an exterior level they can be nurtured in physical spaces such as inclusive community centers, fire pits, community gardens, art studios, parks, trails, temples, churches, meadows, and classrooms. On an interpersonal level such containers are essentially communities of practice, which through reflective, creative, critical, and embodied practices invite us into deeper understandings of our relationship to ourselves, our communities, the planet, and the numinous. The tools for such spaces and practices of re-membering can be found in dance, theatre, creative activism, ritual and ceremony, music, song, and storytelling; contemplative, creative action that anchors us back home into our bodies, landscapes, imaginations, and communities.

One example that embodies the use of such spaces and practices is Healing Circles Langley located on Whidbey Island in Washington. The multi-floor community space is entirely devoted to what is referred to as circle work or healing circles. Healing Circles are community-based circles that are free to attend and that meet regularly. They are a circle-based methodology, which utilizes mindfulness, reflective dialogue, and expressive arts, and has proven to be not just supportive but transformational to many who participate. 

The process creates a safe space to explore grief, joy, love, and loss in ways that connect participants to a deeper sense of community and self, which in turn opens the door to new insights and understandings that are often associated with various aspects of healing as well as community building and transformation. Such circles have been used to build communities of support and practice for cancer patients, general grief work, folks living with chronic illness, as well as newly arrived immigrants and refuges, people of color, youth, interfaith groups, environmental causes, intergenerational work, artistic exploration, and community mobilization.

Inspired by such work, my own organization, the Center for Relational Communities and Leadership is now offering circle trainings for individuals and groups who wish to create community-based circles that explore the topic of resilience and how it can be cultivated on personal, interpersonal, and structural levels. It’s my feeling that such spaces—based not on fear but on a preference for love, beauty, and right relationship—will play an integral role in catalyzing the necessary responses to climate change and the inevitable bumps that lie on the road ahead as we awaken from the dream of progress and find our way home to more rooted, place-based understandings of our role and responsibilities within the larger life systems. 

On one hand such spaces are safe-spaces and on the other they are brave spaces. They invite us into exploring our own shadows as well as the shadows and wounds of our families, ancestors, communities, countries, and cosmologies. They invite us into claiming both our gratitude and our grief, our triumphs and our errors; in such spaces we are called out and called in to deeper expressions of wholeness. These are spaces for truth-telling and reconciliation. These too are spaces of pilgrimage. We step into them in one place in ourselves and through the journey, by whatever means it may be; we emerge somehow transformed, renewed, changed, humbled, opened, and restored. 

Such spaces, ultimately, are sacred spaces; spaces of re-memberance, upheld, created, tended, and protected by community members who are unafraid to claim them as such. Not sacred by the modern western conception of sacred, which is often collapsed into solely religious interpretations as a way of attempting to discredit the concept, but in a new and ancient understanding of the word. One that derives its power from an embodied experience and corollary understanding of the interconnectedness of life and the deep sense of awe, wonderment, and mystery that frames the human experience and orients us toward humility, openness, respect, and reverence for ourselves, each other, planet, and the cosmos.

On a personal level, one of the things that moves me the most about the Sacred Door Trail is that it is a space where my great-great grandchildren will come to walk in the prayers of my footsteps and in turn lay down their own prayers for future generations. These types of spaces, shared sacred spaces, restore us and ground us in the beingness of our humanity, allowing for the re-membering of the great tree of life and the reclamation of the miracle that we have been given on this pilgrimage that we call life.

[1] Berry, T., Lonergan, A., Richards, C., & Baum, G. (1987). Thomas Berry and the new cosmology. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications; Berry, T. (2002). Thomas Berry. In D. Jensen (Ed.), Listening to the land: Conversations about nature, culture, and eros (pp.35-43). White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

[2] King, M, Jr. (1967). Para. 4. Retrieved from https://bsahely.com/2017/09/23/martin-   luther-king-jr-a-christmas-sermon-on-peace-1967/

[3] Moorehead, B. (1995). Words Aptly Spoken. Redmond, WA: Overlake Christian Bookstore.

[4] Duran E., Firehammer, J., & Gonzalez, J. (2008). Liberation psychology as the path toward healing cultural soul wounds. Journal of Counseling and Development, 86(3), 288–295.

[5] Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. New York, NY: Hatchet Book Group

[6] About Run4Salmon. (2019). Retrieved March 4, 2019, from http://www.run4salmon.org/about/

[7] Kwak-Herrman, E .(2017). Retrieved from https://www.backpacker.com/stories/hiking-the-sacred-door-trail

Other works referenced:

Center for Relational Communities and Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.cr-cl.org

Karr, C. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.cr-cl.org/testimonials

Duran, E., & Duran, B. (1995). Native American postcolonial psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Eisenstein, C. (2013). The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. 

Healing Circles. Retrieved from https://www.healingcircleslangley.org

Inner Wild Summer Program on the Sacred Door Trail. Retrieved from https://www.cr-cl.org/inner-wild

Korten, D. (2014). A new story for a new economy: To find our human place in a living universe. Yes Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/a-new-story-for-a-new-economy

Macy, J. (2019). Retrieved from https://workthatreconnects.org/the-global-context/

Watkins, M., & Shulman, H. (2008). Toward psychologies of liberation. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Weller, F. (2015). The wild edge of sorrow: Rituals for renewal and the sacred work of grief. Berkley California: North Atlantic Books.

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  • Weston Pew

    Weston Pew is a relationally based educator and facilitator who holds MAs in experiential education and depth psychology. Weston is the founder of the Sacred Door Trail, a two-hundred-mile non-denominational pilgrimage trail, located in southwestern Montana, which celebrates the interdependent relationship between self, Earth, and community. Weston is also the founder and director of the Center for Relational Communities and Leadership. 

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