Tuesday, 9 September 2014

On Practice

It's been good to be able to cross-post to the KW Forest School blog for the past few weeks, but I'm looking forward to settling back into a longer train of thought here on A Wizard of Earth. The Forest School blog will continue to be updated weekly, likely on Mondays or Tuesdays, so keep checking back there if you're curious to see how things unfold. My desire here is to continue to engage with bigger questions in light of the work I do, and to open a forum for discussion of those questions. My thanks go out to those who comment here regularly, along with an open invitation to those whose presence is reflected only in the stats Blogger collects on my behalf. You too have deep utterances waiting in your minds and fingers, and they would make this blog so much better.

Today's subject is practice- not just the practice of wizardry, but the practice of nature, or as Gary Snyder names it in an outstanding collection of essays on the subject, "The Practice of the Wild". (That's the title of the book; the essays are reflections on a lifetime learning and living in the forests of the West Coast and in Buddhist monasteries in Japan). These are the practices that make a person more in tune with the natural world; more aware of oneself, of others, of the interconnectedness between living things; practices which enable us to become gentler, deeper, nobler beings.

The word 'practice' has the wonderful property of being both a noun and a verb. When we say 'practice' we imply both a set of repeated actions that can be talked about and considered as a thing in its own right, as well as the doing of those actions. What are you practicing? one might inquire of a novice wizard, to which he could cheerfully reply, Why, my practice, of course! (A typical wizard's answer.) The word also has the virtue of implying something that you don't get right on the first try, or even on the hundredth try. One doesn't practice in order to be perfect, despite the aphorism; one practices in order to get better.

I have a daily practice that goes something like this: I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and get ready for the day, and then go out to a place near my building where buckthorn and black walnut trees shade a small bit of wild forest in the midst of downtown Kitchener. It's a miraculous place, and though I'm reluctant to share its exact location, it's the source of the pictures in last week's post and of several ideas and anecdotes in previous posts. I go there to practice, and what I practice can best be described as... being. That's a verb that doesn't really describe an action at all, but an attitude. You could say that I'm observing, that I'm sitting mindfully, even that I'm meditating, but all those verbs sound like more of an effort than what I'm trying to do.

Or at least, you'd think those things would involve more effort. But it's surprisingly difficult to just... do... nothing. Maddeningly difficult, in fact. To be completely honest, my daily practice occurs far less often than the name would imply, because for me it is work! I like to think I have a disability when it comes to practicing being, because as you may have gathered from the foregoing, I'm a person who experiences the world primarily through words. Other people sense things in their stomachs, in their spines, in their hearts or even their brains, but for me the world takes shape between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. When I read silently or work through an idea, I can feel the shape of my thoughts as impressions on my tongue, which may even be flexing or moving silently if I'm making a real effort. As I mentioned in passing in the final line of last week's post, words and thoughts fill my mind even when I'm striving for stillness- especially when I'm striving for stillness.

So why do I do it? There are several reasons. The naturalist mentors from whom I've been lucky enough to learn teach that a regular practice of sitting quietly in nature is one of the common threads that link all traditional land-based cultures around the world. In every place and time where close awareness of nature has meant the difference between vibrant living and meagre subsistence, children and youth are encouraged to find a spot where they can go to sit alone in all seasons and kinds of weather, simply soaking up the world and learning to read the meanings of what they observe. Curiously, this kind of practiced patient awareness has a lot in common with the mindfulness meditation heavily promoted by mental health professionals. Curiously, it also has a lot in common with the historical practice of magic, which, according to one of the most influential wizards now living, can be loosely defined as: "the traditional craft of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will".

Stillness as a basis for changes in consciousness- that's what I'm talking about. Gary Snyder apprenticed in a similar craft through his Buddhist studies, and every hunter who has ever lived has learned the art of quieting their own self in order to let the forest come alive in their inner senses. And this is what I've been practicing, with less than colossal success. At times my thoughts run wild and take me completely away from the living world around me. At other times I become aware of a deep, slow sadness underneath my thought and breath, as though I were floating delicately on an ocean yet unfathomed. But I remind myself each time that it's okay, it's okay. I'm only practicing. A great boon for me as a word-wielder apprenticing in silence was coming across a casual reference in The Practice of the Wild, to a novel by an author I already admired highly: Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, "truly a teaching text", in Snyder's words.

And it is. Always Coming Home is not really a novel, but a loose anthropological survey of a people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." It's a collection of short stories, plays, poems, songs, maps, and diagrams exploring the lives of the Kesh, a far-future human culture who inhabit nine villages in a place called the Valley, near the Pacific coast. The narratives are about everyday matters: who fell in love with whom, and how that turned out, which family feuds dragged on unnecessarily and why, where so-and-so traveled as a child and what they saw there, how one is to honour the dead and dying in the Valley.

The stories almost never concern themselves with climate change, sea level rise, peak energy, or industrial pollution, but evidence of vanished Civilisation is silently present, revealed by a narrator's casual gesture or an unremarkable feature of the landscape. The California coastline is further inland than it was in our day. Completely poisoned areas exist in lands adjacent to the Valley. A neighbouring people decorate some of their buildings with tiny balls of fumo, which an author's note explains to be "concretions, usually whitish or yellowish, of ancient industrial origin, of nearly the same specific gravity as ice." Le Guin's mastery in Always Coming Home isn't a finely imagined historical sense of how it all fell out in the Kesh's collective past; instead, she completely draws the reader into the attitudes and assumptions of a people who survived and transcended that past.

History as we understand it doesn't preoccupy them, or the deeds of heroes, or the advancement of society toward some collective goal. Awareness of time and of individual achievements is simply not as important to them as awareness of place and of balancing the various needs of the Valley people. They take it for granted that rocks, plants, birds, and animals are people as much as humans are, and they assign no special place to 'human people' in the grand scheme of things. They possess some sophisticated technologies, but aren't enthralled by them as they are by the absorbing rhythms of cultivating land, craftsmanship, and human relationships. Some of them make exploratory journeys over the mountains. Others make small wars, just for fun. But these pursuits are secondary to the ritual life of the community, expressed in song, dance, and contemplation.

At one point a Kesh Archivist responds to the insistent questions of Le Guin's anthropologist-narrator persona concerning her people's history:

"Listen, you'll find or make what you need, if you need it. But consider it; be mindful; be careful. What is history?"

To which Le Guin's persona replies: "A great historian of my people said: the study of Man in Time."

There is a silence.

"You aren't Man and you don't live in Time," I say bitterly. "You live in the Dream Time."

"Always," says the Archivist of Wakwaha. "Right through Civilisation, we have lived in the Dream Time." And her voice is not bitter, but full of grief, bitter grief.

In this exchange I hear Le Guin the author saying, 'It's okay. It's okay that you don't know how things will happen. What matters is that you stay alive to the Dream Time, even in the midst of the nightmare all around you.' The culture of the Kesh runs counter to ours in a way I think is worth emulating. And few things are more counter-cultural than just...doing...nothing. So in between my daily work of treasuring and carrying forward the good from past and present Civilisations, I practice making time to do nothing, in honour of that which is not yet.

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