It is at least 130
degrees, muggy, pitch black, and so crowded I am touching the strangers around
me. In this absolute darkness, I smell the sage smoke and wet soil, and the
stink of the repulsive man seated behind me — he is my shadow. Feeling the
humidity of the sweat dripping from his meaty body, I vigilantly listen for his
movement, to sense where he is in this tiny, crowded space. I can't stand it, I
want to run, to get some fresh air. I have to escape him. Why is he here?
Anyone but him, with his backwoods dialect and his brutish, scarred face. My
mind is racing. I am dizzy with fear and hate and panic. I heard he killed
someone. "Open your heart," I silently chant," You should be past this…come on!
You're a therapist!"
Before us, in the
center, hot, melon-sized rocks pulse with an almost imperceptible glow. Water
is thrown onto them and the steam and heat force me to drop to the cool earth.
My shadow bends forward as well, his arm leaning against my flank. The heat is
overwhelming. It is breaking us. My judgment and fear subsides into the
immediate threat of suffocating heat. The heat becomes the enemy, and we all
psychically band together against it in order to survive. The man hacks and
then sighs a low moan. My heart finally cracks open, and I feel the connection
to him and everyone else in the lodge, as we all sweat, heave and wrestle with
our inner demons. The sound he utters builds into a pitiful, mournful wail. My
thoughts suspend and I listen…no, I hear. He sounds so lonely. "Momma, I'm so
sorry….Mommy?" He sobs like a child; his shoulders curl forward and heave. My
anger falls away, and the fountain of my own isolated sorrow rises. My breath
catches with an animal wail, and I join in a harmonizing cry.
In a tribe, even
this temporary one comprised within a sweat lodge, the shadow cannot be
"othered" by turning it into an enemy or scapegoat but rather must be faced and
worked, turned like a grit of sand in the oyster turned over and over until it
is polished into a pearl. In a small tribe, the population density doesn't
allow one to push the shadow out of one's awareness. He shows up at the
campfire night after night. The shadow as I experienced it had a physical
form — Joshua, a convicted murderer and gang member on the path to
rehabilitation. The sweat lodge maintains an ancient tradition deeply relevant
to the healing of alienation and disintegration.
In the sweat lodge, we all cook in
the womb and own up to the parts of ourselves that are ex-cons and murderers.
The lawyer talks about his secret cocaine addiction, the CFO admits being raped
as a boy. The midwife, two Native American elders, and homemaker all reveal
their personal torments. But these shadows are not labels; they are verbs,
events that happened to these heroes along the way. And we are all in the
process of changing, unfolding along our paths and discovering meaning along
the way. We all suffer and hate, love, hurt, connect, withdraw, and grow.
We need tribe. We
need to belong. This is hard-wired into us. And in modern life, there is a
disconnect. We live in little fenced-in square shelters, not only isolated from
the collective shadow — the murderers and rapists, but also the desirable parts
of community — the sense of tribe, belonging and a collective purpose. The more
docile among us attempt to satiate this need to belong by staying in and
locking our houses and communing with our television alone, watching episodes
of Seinfeld and Friends. Or maybe we keep up with the latest Hollywood love trysts
as if Angelinia Jolie is our B.F.F.
I'm finding that
many of us have been on a long quest to find and co-create a deep community — a
tribe — somewhere to belong. The modern experience tends toward isolation and
loneliness. Alone in offices, we peer through windows of pixels to connect to
one another via Facebook. We drop our kids off at daycare to drive to work
alone in a metal box. Then we work in that cubicle for eight to ten hours a day,
come home, flop on the couch and crank the volume on the TV. We glean meaning
from sitcoms and myth systems from film. We are desperate for meaning — and
Our desire for tribe has been hijacked
by Hollywood and I've often wondered if we would be less apathetic and more
involved with local community if TV had never been invented. Worse than that
isolation, perhaps, are the generations born into this isolation, latchkey kids
so desperate to feel alive, and to fill that essential need for rights of
passage and belonging to tribe, that they join violent gangs and act out their
projected rage upon one another and the neighborhoods where they live..
languages in the Americas had no words for guilt
or shame. For example, the Apaches
say those words were developed by white men to control one another. Actions
that we think of as unforgivable actions were considered by many native
cultures as mistakes which created opportunities to discover more about
themselves and growth toward deeper wisdom.
Ross said that primordial languages often center on the use of verbs rather
than nouns. Native Americans for example, tend not to label individuals, but
look at people as a process rather than a static thing. Ross says, "When we
apply such labels to real people, however, they tend to stick. And when they
stick, they cause us to start denying the complexity and wholeness of the human
beings we are speaking of."
The belief that we
create our lives (as masters of our own fate) rather than being the victims of
events which happen to us involves overcoming guilt and shame and speaking our
own truth. The meaning, and therefore our reality, created by us through our
actions fills us with a sense of purpose and self-actualization. But creating
reality from within a framework of shame or guilt stunts growth. Shame combined
with lack of opportunity can lead to social apathy at best and violence at
worst. We are social, story-telling organisms, propelled by an archetypal drive
to create tribes and community. Tribes are bonded through a sense of meaning.
When living close
to nature, everything is in a constant flux of change. Nothing stays good or
bad forever. Judgment and expectation get us in trouble. They become shorthand
for a dead-end label that some thing or some one is good or bad.
most, I have a deep fear of murderers and rapists. Whenever I am in the
presence of someone I know has committed a violent act, I am engulfed by fear.
In most sectors of my life, I avoid these situations, but when my therapy
practice brings me in contact with such people, it seems street-smart to
maintain cold detachment and distrust.
A few years ago, I
volunteered to teach art classes at a lock-down center for homeless drug
addicts in mandatory rehabilitation. I entered the position with a gung-ho,
hopeful attitude. I thought I
could go in, roll up my sleeves and genuinely connect with each of them,
providing the love and mirroring they never had. I believed this would somehow
immunize me from dipping down into their dirty world.
I was eaten alive.
They were wise to
my naiveté, and my blind enthusiasm enraged them. On the second day of class, I
trembled as a huge, toothless gangster named Chola hurled herself toward me and
screamed three inches from my face, "Don't you be dis-re-specting ME! I aint
your dog, your f*cking project! You can leave…. self-righteous BITCH! I can't!"
Her spit sprayed my face. I started to cry. She flopped back into her chair
with a nonchalant grunt. I stood there, not knowing what to do. I desperately
wanted to disconnect from the situation. I wanted to defend and save myself
from the visceral reality she had articulated.
that, I was much more cynical and careful. I had a new kind of respect. But I
remained determined to stay real with these people. And within all the
crazy-making drama, darkness, and defeat, some shining moments sparkle in my
memory. One night, the women were all working on a large mosaic together. The
scene rekindled a feeling of the tribe within me. A southern woman started in
her low, gospel voice, singing, "Lean On Me." One by one, the entire group
joined in. Once again I cried, this time for the beauty and tenacity of the
human spirit. She sang the song of community, of tribe, of connection.
of us individually struggles with the paradox of good and evil within, but a
tribe creates a container that holds these disparate elements. Tribalism is a
perennial archetype that re-emerges whenever it is absent in the dominant
culture. In our decidedly non-tribal culture, the archetype may appear as
belonging to a gang, being a Dead-Head, or talking about what Jerry Seinfeld
did in last night's episode with the coworker in the next cubicle. In all these
cases, the tribe creates a feeling of belonging through unified meaning. This
meaning, implicit or explicit, becomes the group's mission statement and raison d'etre. And the mission statement
can be anywhere along a spectrum of possibilities. They can be syntropic,
healthy, and positive or destructive, dystopic and entropic.
Gangs are tribes.
It is not tribalism which creates the problem of gang violence, nor is violence
inherent to gangs. It is using violence to create meaning which is the problem.
This raises the question, why would anyone choose violence as a source of
Violence is the
lowest common denominator. Perhaps it's a rite of passage spun out of the web
of projected rage these isolated kids have toward our alienating society.
What do we do with
those whose drive for meaning is based around risk and violence? Rather than
taking away all opportunity for growth and change, such as school suspensions,
denying voting rights, and refusing to employ ex-cons and recovering addicts,
our society would benefit to help establish a positive meaning for gang members
that creates syntropy rather than entropy.
For many former
bad boys who are good men today, some sort of spiritual experience turned the
direction of their lives. So in paying full homage to good parenting,
education, counseling, real justice, community support, and economic
opportunity, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the power of a spiritual
community or teacher to restore a child's moral compass to working order.
meaning, and thus reality, our internal compass of morality guides our choices,
rather than an externally imposed didactic moral code.
To clarify this internal
morality, we need to experience our edges. We need to be pushed in experiences
and mirrored in that journey. This is why rites of passage like the sweat lodge
or peyote vision quest are essential to realigning the compass of those who
have lost their way — whether in gang life, addiction, or just on the day-to-day
journey of life in American culture.
For ex-con Joshua, participating in sweat lodges, exploring rites of
passage facilitated by a medicine man fills his need to belong to something
with a higher purpose. He told me later that the sense of belonging he feels in
the sweat lodge tribe creates a container for him to explore honesty,
vulnerability, and personal responsibility.
As with tribes,
rites of passage must be activated by a sense of meaning, and that meaning
travels along a spectrum of possibilities. Childbirth and prison tattoos seem
to have no similarities, but both are rites of passage. Getting jumped into a
gang, peyote vision quests, running a marathon, Bar Mitzvahs — these are all
archetypal rites of passage. One primary rite of passage is the boy's journey
into manhood. A medicine woman once explained it to me this way:
A woman's vision quest is always
childbirth… there is no other vision quest for men or women as powerful as
childbirth. But for men, it is different. The vision quest is the sacred sweat
lodge. Vision quest is suffering. It brings you to your knees. No more lies. I
don't care how old you are. You are not a man until you go on your vision
essential factor in creating and sustaining a functional tribe is mirroring by
elders. Without the witness of someone who has been on the path, the meaning
and the importance of ritual are lost. The psyche acts out the rite of passage
in endless repetition until it is witnessed. For example, in the rave,
participants seek ritual ecstasy through ingesting "X" (Ecstasy or MDMA), which
produces a cathartic merging and sense of belonging. This emulates a rite of
passage, but often the meaning is lost when the psychedelic pilgrim sobers up
because no shaman witnessed, digested and reflected the meaning for the seeker.
The same is true for gangs. Drive-by shootings, hazings, school yard
bullying — all these acts are repeated
and escalated until someone takes notice. Elders and mentors are essential to
de-escalating violence. For troubled youth one of the most important ways
through which to receive that guidance and wisdom is a caring and capable
adult. Many kids just need someone to guide their journey toward responsible
manhood and illuminate them to the fact that each of them has a unique gift to
give the world.
Racism, lack of opportunity, culture and
socio-economic stress create a culture for inner city kids in which fathers are
often absent or abusive. A strong, grounded and positive masculine hero maps
the path for lost souls. Bad boys can see that another reality is achievable.
Participating in a positive tribal community, building love and a sense of
growth and possibility, can create a hopeful future.
don't want to negate the very real concerns of serious psychological disorders and
abuse which complicate rehabilitation for "bad boys." There are psychopaths and
sociopaths, but in differing times
and circumstances, people are people.
All of us need to be witnessed in a space in which such labels can be
set aside. Some part of the spirit
remains unbent by circumstance and regret and yearns to connect, to shine in
its own way and have its contribution acknowledged.
intentional tribes and rites of passage can restore a sense of purpose,
belonging, respect, and morality. Regardless of the method, the ultimate
success depends on whether the tribal morality can inspire. Then it may be
assimilated and accommodated into the psyche, to emanate from within to create
a lasting frame of relevance for the individual's gifts. The tribal morality
must be able to allow and integrate the intrinsic diversity of personalities
and how they react to the stages and challenges of the life journey.
Joshua and I get
something from the sweat lodge medicine that we can't find in mainstream
culture. There is patience and a slower rhythm in the intentional witnessing. I left the lodge that day feeling that
connection to a tribe and longing to cultivate that in my daily reality.
Image by andrew_j_w courtesy of Creative Commons license.