A rude awakening
In the spring of 1994 I found myself in a small rural community on the east coast of Vancouver Island huddled in a First Nations’ sweat lodge and gasping for air. I was there on a mission with a cadre of idealistic young activists trying to build an alliance with local Indigenous land defenders. We were passionate about protecting old growth forests and also somewhat clueless about what we were entering into.
As the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw medicine man poured water over a large pile of red hot stones in the center of the lodge, hot steam reverberated off the low ceiling and onto my bare back, creating a sensation of being filleted alive. The traditional 4 rounds stretched out over many hours and the stones piled up, 75 in total. It became clear that this relationship needed to be earned.
By the end of the ceremony I was overwhelmed with heat exhaustion. I could barely breathe as I laid face down on the cedar bows covering the ground. When I emerged from the lodge and was hosed off I noticed that my sense of self was altered in some unnamable way. The usual cynical mind chatter I spent years in therapy trying to deal with was for the moment at least, absent. It was my first experience of real peace.
After a few days this powerful spiritual experience faded into memory and I sunk back into a familiar depression about the state of the world and my place in it. I had grown weary of the ideological subterfuge of my generation that was poisoning me with self doubt, but it was the only raison d’etre I knew.
I longed to return to the sweet lodge and find a more permanent peace.
One fateful night a year later the same group of activists and I were preparing to set up a tree platform in a valley of old growth slated to be logged. This was a common tactic in the ‘war in the woods’ to prevent road building into the cut block. Despite a total lack of experience and skills I foolishly volunteered to hitch up my harness and scrambled a hundred feet up into the canopy of a giant Douglas fir to anchor the platform.
As we raised the heavy wooden platform it became entangled in some lower branches. By now it was well past midnight and we fumbled around in the dark trying to free the structure. As my friends pulled vigorously on the rope bellow suddenly it broke at the pulley next to my face, throwing me backwards into the night sky.
Fortunately my harness was properly secured to the tree, but after a few dazed moments I adjusted my headlamp and quickly deduced that I had lost vision in my right eye. I managed to repel out of the tree and with assistance I walked out of the cut block to get medical help. As we drove into town the shock of this traumatic event consumed me with emotion.
I knew the direction of my life had been altered in some fundamental way.
By some miracle I eventually regained sight in my eye, but the injury left a deep imprint on my psyche. Not long after the accident I also developed a mysterious neurological and inflammatory condition that paralyzed the muscles of both eyes. Chronically swollen and red, my vision became obscured, making it hard to connect with the outside world.
At the time I felt I had been dealt a great injustice, but now I see the gift in my misfortune. The injury and chronic pain brought into focus a deep loneliness I had held in secret most of my life. I rediscovered parts of myself that were exiled long ago.
The nature of loneliness is mysterious, it is like trying to understand the Godhead in our subjective experience. For some people loneliness is a simple longing for company or a romantic partner. This kind of loneliness is transient, it comes and goes, but life goes on.
However, under the surface of pedestrian desires resides something more personal and all pervasive. The deepest longing I believe is to be free of the dualism that animates out self absorption and insufferable thoughts of separateness.
We are rarely aware of this subtle longing, there are too many distraction in the modern world competing for our attention. It takes a rude awakening to bring the dualistic barrier into focus.
The great awakening
Everyday the news confirms what we intuitively know to be true, that we are living in a time like no other in recent human memory. Revolution is in the air.
Fires, floods, social unrest and geopolitical brinkmanship are emblematic of a bigger struggle to reconcile with a way of life that estranges us from the natural world and each other.
Behind every crisis is a series of broken relationships that we can no longer afford to ignore. I don’t consider myself an expert on relationships, but I do know something about the human condition of loneliness. I believes we heal in relationship. This is why I started Awake In Relationship.
A more magical, connected world is possible (no internet connection required), when we open and bravely step forward, one awake relationship at a time.