One of the main pastimes of shamanist folks is to read signs from the spirit world—to try to understand what Spirit(s) is saying to them, and what Spirit wants from them. We read coincidences, we link disparate events together into a narrative, we try to spot the unusual occurrence and discern what Spirit is telling us through it. We interpret reality against the backdrop of our own mythic structure. An eagle flies overhead and circles a far off rock across the water. It wants us to follow. Or it wants us to stay away. Or it wants us to see the face in the patterns off the rocks. Or it wants to tell us it approves of our actions. Or disapproves. Or a hundred other things. And on it goes.
Bible waving yahoos spend their time looking for signs too. So if you are a dedicated shamanist, don’t let yourself believe for a minute that you are all that different from Jack Van Impe and his perfectly coifed wife, Rexella, who operate the Bible Prophecy Portal of the Internet (http://www.jvim.com/) and whose weekly TV show is a masterful and hypnotic hour-long Ferris wheel ride through this week’s news stories as interpreted through bible passages taken out of context. Every show proves that we are in the last days and Jesus is coming very soon, and this makes Jack and Rexella giddy. By the way, Jack is living proof of that old adage “the nicer the hair, the holier the evangelist” and he also shows that holiness is directly proportional to how fast you speak. Lovely Rexella is the calm in the storm, the perfect foil for Jack. Her wide, blank eyes wobble with renewed amazement at each fulfilled prophecy Jack explains to his electronic flock.
So to be religious is to, in some way or shape, look for signs.
And in our mainstream American religion which we call psychotherapy, we look for signs too: patterns in our behavior or sudden anomalies, memories and feelings that burst forth, images that spontaneously flare either in waking or dreaming. As I have said before so many times, the only difference, between religion and psychology is where you locate the “one who generates the signs.” If you locate the progenitor outside of human consciousness you are religious; if you locate it inside the human mind, you are a devotee of psychology. But they work the same mysterious magic and we communicate with either with the same ritualistic structures.
Spirit never seems to speak clearly, and this is one of the enduring mysteries of the spiritual life. Prayers never seem to be answered in the language in which they are uttered. Once I was graced with a dream: A spirit being came to me and handed me a tin can. I could see that the tin can was attached to a long white cotton thread that stretched up into the night sky, away, presumably to the ends of the universe. The spirit being motioned for me to put the tin can to my ear, presumably so that I could hear God speak to me. I warily drew the can up to my ear, and yes! I could hear the voice of the Creator speaking. The creator said to me: “Mrrmphallopenoffennnbobbleontkinginy. Dopplinglywhooffert. Obeerinddyloppingloggnommnotemevvverboooovvv.”
There are countless examples in traditions of the divine speaking in riddles, in absurd logic, in truncated blurps, in non-verbal events or unfamiliar languages, the voice from the fog. Why is it that the less clear God is, the more authentic God seems to be? And the reverse is true as well; when in a scripture or story God speaks clearly with no nuance and no chance for misinterpretation, we tend to see the human hand of the priest or the editor at work, and we trust less in the revelation.
I don’t know why it works like this, but I have two guesses. One is this: Spirit is speaking in perfect clarity, but our human minds and senses are too narrow to understand it. That narrowness comes from being young, or distracted, or in pain, or egoistic, or undisciplined or frightened or a hundred other things. Each religion picks a reason why we are limited and cannot understand what Spirit is saying and then offers ways to move around or through these human limits. Sometimes the solution is obedience to an authority, submission to a teacher or orthodoxy, or a certain kind of discipline, or it’s dancing naked, or reading, or it’s silence or chanting, or working in community or working alone. The solution is going to the wilderness, or the solution is not having sex, or the solution is Olympic-level sexuality, or artwork or a refraining from images, or it’s a time for one and not the other and soon it will be a time for the other and not this one. On and on the Ferris wheel goes. For some reason the drum has been a pretty good solution for me to work with my multiple and severe human limits to hearing Spirit speak. Perhaps the drum is a solution for you right now, too, and that is why you are drawn to the drumming group.
The other guess is this: What Spirit(s) wants most for us is to awaken our sense of beauty. Beauty is not a static objective state, but an ephemeral human skill that must be learned. We have to learn how to see beauty, how to perceive it with more than our eyes, how to hold it and enter into it and how to live in it. The primary skill involved is the ability to hold more than one meaning at a time, to put away our fear of ambivalence, and to resist the temptation to slice away and burn what we don’t understand. Spirit wants us to learn beauty, and so it teaches us through ambivalence and nuance and images that carry more than one meaning. The purpose of our life is to walk in beauty. That lovely sentimental phrase is loaded with intense theology. If you agree with this, this is why you feel like an alien in this culture, which systematically violates all the preconditions for walking in beauty.
So on we go looking for signs, and listening for the garbled rumblings through the tin can.
This week’s drum will focus on this idea of signs. Of course we will renew our ears and eyes with 90 minutes or so of drummin’ thrummin’ tum-tum-tummin’ fun. Then we’ll move into a ceremonial environment where we will seek signs from that Original Voice at the end of the string.