This month a unique contemplative toolkit for the social and ecological needs of our time has been released, a multimedia e-book called, The Seven Pillars: Journey Toward Wisdom, produced by our friends at The Seven Pillars House of Wisdom. In today’s precarious and fast-changing world the tools for growth need to be dynamic. Journey Toward Wisdom contains text, video, an original musical score, 3D graphics, and the art of surrealist painter Cecil Collins. Just as the process taught in Julia Cameron’s popular book, The Artist’s Way, guided us to living an artist’s life, Journey Towards Wisdom guides the discovery of how we may be purposeful and active in the world today.
The project’s founder, Zia Inayat Khan once said that, “no person is too small to consider the whole world.” With this e-book, a way to consider the world is being offered. What may be gained is not contained inside the book’s pages. The words, images and sounds point to discoveries that are uniquely our own, they come to life within us. Read on for an excerpt from the e-book, which can be ordered on Amazon (Kindle) or Apple (iTunes).
Thanks to Apela Colorado, Paul Devereux, and Weston Pew for sharing their spirits and insights with us. The depth of their conversation is sure to inform and activate our own wisdom path.
Welcome Apela, Paul and Weston. Please share a short personal offering about your relationship with this Pillar, The Living Universe.
Apela Colorado: Yes, I want to begin by asking permission to enter Wisdom, with a chant. (Chants an Oneida song.) I’m Apela Colorado. I’m a professor, I’m an Oneida Indian, I’m also nearly half Gaul, or French. My life’s work has been remembering the indigenous mind, the indigenous consciousness, and I do that through an academic program called the Indigenous Mind Program. In this program we help people remember, recover, and renew the whole mind of their ancestors and ground it in today’s time so that we might find creative new solutions to the pressing problems of the Earth.
The second thing I do, and have done for more than thirty years, is to network indigenous practitioners, shamans, who are people coming from continuous lines and increasingly in more and more remote places. These are the survivors of the great knowledge or the great wisdom. Thank you.
Paul Devereux: Well, I’ve been involved with the study of ancient sites for about thirty to forty years. I’ve written many books; perhaps the most pertinent ones to this conversation would be Re-Visioning the Earth, Living Ancient Wisdom, and perhaps the latest, Sacred Geography.
My specific connection to this Pillar is that I was involved with the formation of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom almost at the very beginning, and I’ve lived through the many conversations and discussions where we tried to shape a definition of the Seven Pillars. Basically, to me, this Pillar, The Living Universe, relates to cosmology, and how consciousness arose in the universe, and our relationship to the Earth.
Weston Pew: A lot of my work has to do with rites of passage, pilgrimage work, work in the natural world, and creating self-reflective containers that allow people to look at their beliefs and step into some broader worldviews within themselves that can help them connect to this idea of the Living Universe. There’s a great quote from Thomas Berry that says, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” I think that quote really grabs at the quintessential quality of this time that we’re in collectively, moving from this worldview of separation into one of deep communion and relationship with the universe.
For me, growing up until my late twenties, I was very much in that worldview of separation. And I went through this unpeeling process, just through self-reflection and reconnecting with my relationship to nature, where I was able to begin to see these interdependent relationships between self, Earth, community, and the cosmos, and began to see that that’s where wisdom lies, that wisdom doesn’t come from knowledge, but from a deeper place of both experience and being. So by dropping into these deeper spaces of relationship with the Living Universe we then can activate and inform our own living wisdom within ourselves.
How do you conceive of the “living universe,” and what is the basis for that view—science, art, literature, religion?
Paul: Well, for me it’s really all four of those, and they’re not really separate things to me. If I’m talking about a living universe, I think of cosmology. And a cosmology is the story that any culture tells itself about the nature of the universe and its place in it. Cultures have come and gone, and they’ve all had their cosmological stories. We have our modern, scientific one, and I’m very interested in the way that our cosmology is very, very different to all the traditional ones that have gone before. I think it’s a fascinating cosmology, I think it’s wonderful, but I don’t think it’s complete, and I think it has serious problems.
Nevertheless, the idea of a singularity out of which space and time and gravity and all the rest of it emerged is a powerful image. The big difference, it seems to me, is the way that it loses us in space, whereas virtually all the traditional cosmologies center the human being in the universe and on the planet Earth. And it has a big effect on the way our culture develops, the fact that we do not have collectively, culturally, a centering cosmology. So science is the current cosmology, if you like, but art, literature, and religion very much come into the study and the understanding and the experience of the more traditional cosmological patterns.
Weston: I see the universe, in some ways, through the lens of what science tells us, through the theory of evolution, and moving from nothingness into these simple elements that began to complexify more and more to the point where we are now standing on the planet Earth, having this conversation reflecting on the unfolding aspects of existence and the universe. That, to me, is really a miracle in itself. I find a lot of beauty and spirituality in that. However, where science falls short is in addressing the interior or spiritual aspects of this unfolding story.
When I see the universe and how it unfolds in these more and more complex and beautiful ways, for me, that movement points towards a creative impulse that wants to express itself in more and more aligned and authentic ways. And when I look at science or art or literature, it again is unfolding in these ways that started off very rudimentary and simple but are evolving in more and more complex but also interrelated ways. So I think all these aspects of being reflect the evolutionary nature of the universe and its interconnectedness.
Apela: How I conceive of the Living Universe is through a conversation, through communication. I go back and forth between worlds, as an educated Western woman and as an educated cultural practitioner, and I have a strong background in ceremonies. And I also know the creation story of my Iroquois people that begins with a woman.
From the very moment that we perceive consciousness and life coming into being, we’re looking at a woman who comes from the sky, in this beautiful blue-white ball of light, towards a water-covered Earth that’s in darkness. And who’s waiting to receive her and help her are “animals that can be in the water. And they’re all thinking, “How can we help this woman? There’s no place for her to “stand, because in her sky world she had earth to walk on—we don’t have that here.”
A number of animals decide that they could help, and they dive down to the bottom of the ocean to see if they can get some earth to bring up for her. And each of the animals that tries, fails, including the beaver and so forth. And then the one least likely to succeed, the least beautiful animal, the little muskrat with a rat tail, dives down, and he succeeds to get mud in his paws, and just as he gets to the surface of the water, he dies. And the Sky Woman’s fall is broken by swans that rise to meet her and carry her down to the surface of the water. At this moment the gigantic turtle has come to the surface, and he says, “Well, she can stand on my back.” But of course the turtle’s back is not big enough to accommodate human life. So when the Sky Woman is placed on the turtle’s back, she reaches down and gets some earth from the little muskrat’s paws and places it on the turtle’s back and begins to do this power dance, moving counterclockwise. (She chants.) And as she dances, the turtle grows and becomes the North American continent.
From my cosmology as an Oneida woman, I’m connected because the Mother connects us all. And in pragmatic terms today, we each have a genealogy that comes through a mother, and we can reestablish our connections and conceive of the Living Universe through knowing that. But even though I live that, it amazes me how much my Western mind jumps in and doesn’t believe a thing. I don’t believe any of it. And then something happens and it all comes together, and I say, “Oh, well, of course!”
I think where we’re at today is there’s a conversation happening between the Western dissociative, objective mind, which has produced many profoundly powerful things for life—there’s an engagement with that mind, including its destructiveness—and the whole mind of our ancestors. And I think, because of that conversation between the two, that we will hopefully come into a deeper way of knowing and being, where the dualism is seen, the polarities are in place, but we’re in a deeper frame to accommodate them.
Can you flesh out the importance of story telling in cosmology and in understanding the Living Universe?
Apela: Well, in Western mind, we say that the story is a narrative. It’s circular, and a circle offers the advantage of requiring the least surface to contain the greatest mass. Traditional stories have all kinds of information encoded in them, but you can hear it on many, many different levels as well, and take what you’re ready to hear from that. Of course, in linear thinking, in scientific thinking, there’s the advantage that you can stack things, right? You can’t do that with circles.
For me, in my life’s work straddling the worlds, I had the challenge to try to bring my Oneida and my French or Gaul sides together if I wanted to survive. I didn’t have a conscious plan, but as I lived it, different things happened. I went to ceremonies, I went to sacred sites, and then something opened up. Then the next thing would open up. Then I would be out of balance and I would go to another ceremony and something else would open up. And it wasn’t until I was in my late fifties that I realized that in my search for my authentic, whole mind, I had retraced the great migration of humanity from out of Africa to Central Asia to Europe and also here to the Americas.
Traditional knowledge says that this is a time where humanity is facing the challenge of remembering our story. But in a way, it’s a new story, because we’re coming to the story not as people migrating from one place to another and settling the Earth in different ways, but we’re conscious that we’re people that have done that, and we’re returning to that creation story. And indigenous belief has it that when we remember that creation story, that spreads a blanket of clear fire of consciousness around the Earth and is transformative and healing. So that’s what comes to my mind about traditional stories and the importance of remembering our story as humanity right now.
Paul: I would agree with Apela on that. The Oneida story is one of many creation myths, and I’ve been intrigued, in my journeys around the world and dealing with indigenous peoples and many ancient sites, and in my literature research as well, to try and find what the basic principles of all the traditional cosmologies are, and also to look at the difference between those and the modern cosmological story.
I see the present cosmological story as having an effect on the way the culture behaves. We are all lost in space, but the idea of a traditional cosmology was to ground us.
There’s a sort of intellectual, scientific knowledge of where we are in the universe, and there’s the experiential knowledge of where we are in the universe, and they’re rather different, because the experiential knowledge or cosmology, if you like, is more local. It’s to do with the Earth on which we live. I’ve communicated with the land in nonverbal ways. On rare occasions this has even taken direct visual form—once, in a remote location in Ireland, both I and my wife, Charla, actually saw what might be called a spirit form—it was briefly objectively, three-dimensionally real. So we know that there are other ways of looking at the world around us, at nature, ways that challenge the mainstream scientific worldview. It isn’t that one is right and the other the wrong worldview, but rather that both co-exist in ways the modern mind has not yet fathomed.
In my cosmological teachings I try to share simple ways in which people can communicate with great time, and how their body image can relate to sacred geography, to the physical topography. All ancient and traditional cultures did that, and that’s why sometimes if you move a traditional culture out of its natural territory it loses a certain cultural, tribal memory. So it’s very important to understand that link between a cultural, tribal mind and the land in which it lives—very, very important.
There are multiple levels, but I’m particularly interested in the disparity between the intellectual, scientific cosmology by which our culture lives, and the more body-mind-human-centric images produced by the more traditional cosmologies. There are various principles underlying those cosmologies that you can trace across ancient and traditional cultures.
Weston: You know, stories have been used throughout the ages to connect us to place, as Paul was saying, and then these stories create a lens through which we see the world and through which we understand our relationship to place, to community, to self. But with the help of science, what we see within the Earth and then also within the universe has expanded to the level where we need a new story, one that honors the other stories that have been created as well. So I see this new Living Universe story as a story that can hold these different indigenous perspectives and can also be this overarching lens through which we are able to anchor ourselves as human beings, as brothers and sisters connected to this planet, rather than just connected to this river and this mountain range. We’re now creating this story that connects “us to this planet as a whole and through that to the greater universe.
These stories are kind of containers of beingness, and now we’re stretching beyond the old scientific lens and having to find this new story that can root us in space in a way that makes sense and that is also empowering to us. The mechanistic view of the universe, where everything is separate, creates isolation and depression and loneliness and hopelessness. But when we step into this bigger picture of the Living Universe, then all of a sudden we are independent free agents, but we’re also supported by this deeper web of relationship that makes us feel empowered. That can help to ease some of the afflictions our old story of separateness have created in us. With this new Living Universe story, we can heal these pathologies of isolation by feeling a certain level of support through those deeper underlying, interdependent, inter-being relationships.
Paul: Related to what Weston says, for me the problem with the modern scientific cosmology is its inability to place consciousness or mind in its system. It’s very important that we ask ourselves, where does consciousness start? In the modern cosmology “is its inability to place consciousness or mind in its system. It’s very important that we ask ourselves, where does consciousness start? In the modern cosmology it is regarded as a product of the complexity of the brain—it’s a mechanical explanation. While for me, consciousness arose along with space and gravity and the rest, at the singularity, whatever that was. It’s integral, so when you sit in a woodland, in a forest, and you feel a sentience there, it’s the mind in nature that you’re communicating with. That knowledge and experience that has filtered through into the traditional cosmologies is the very facet that is missing from the modern cosmology, and it’s causing all sorts of problems. The consciousness philosophers call it the hard problem, and it is for them. But it’s not really a hard problem because it is there, and we are within it.
To understand the mind in nature, you can visit sacred places; not all of them are to do with numinosity, but many are. And if you can experience the numinosity at the site, you are communicating or interacting or at least recognizing the mind that is in nature, that deep, deep intelligence that exists throughout the universe and that is the Living Universe.
Apela: Thank you. As I’m listening to your words, both of you, it just lifts my heart. You know, there are sacred sites that we’re talking about around the world. In my work with shamans, I find that what they’re saying now is that because of the damage that we human beings have done to the Earth, that the Earth is trying to talk with us. And many of these sacred sites that we’re talking about around the world. In my work with shamans, I find that what they’re saying now is that because of the damage that we human beings have done to the Earth, that the Earth is trying to talk with us. And many of these sacred sites are now pulsing with energy, energy that even can be measured in various ways scientifically. So going to sacred sites is one way of beginning to open ourselves to these kinds of conversations.
My understanding is that even though we may not have the capacity to change world politics or economics, I do have a way to connect myself with the forces of nature and align with them. Informed, engaged conversation with nature gives us the best chance to turn the forthcoming disasters around, and the closer we are to this conversation, the closer we are to the center, the least effort it takes to make powerful changes.
Because I go back and forth between my Western and indigenous minds, sometimes it’s hard for me to hear what other, more fully indigenous minds could pick up on easily. But because it is a Living Universe, there are moments, for example at petroglyph sites, when I’m looking at the writings on the rocks and nothing’s speaking to me—I’m trying to think it and I’m not getting anywhere—and then the information can come, serendipitously, it can come. And that’s the beauty of living in a Living Universe—that we’re not alone, and life will talk to us.
Paul: Yes, that can be literally true. I mean, some of the work we’ve been doing is understanding the sounds of places. There are rocks that will sound, that are musical. We just recently discovered that the bluestones of Stonehenge, for example, come from a soundscape, that they ring like bells and gongs and harps and so on. Everybody wondered why they took the bluestones a hundred and sixty miles from South Wales to Salisbury Plain where Stonehenge stands, and now we think there’s a sonic connection.
This is also true in the Paleolithic caves where you see the rock paintings on the walls, where if you touch some of the stalactites they will ring beautifully. Often just the touch of a fingernail can do it. So you can hear the sounds that people heard thousands of years ago, even tens of thousands of years ago. And of course, if you sit up on the rocky heights of some vision quest site, you’ll hear the wind, you’ll hear the birdsong, you’ll hear what people heard when they were there. And if you take certain mind-altering substances, or if you go without sleep and food for a few days, you will get your song as was traditionally the case in Native American tribes. As Apela would know, that’s where a lot of indigenous chants, that’s where a lot of indigenous chants come from—the songs, the visions of the quest at these places. And this is another form of communication with the mind in nature.
I do think it’s also important, as Weston was saying, that we bring out this indigenous knowledge—which is always localized, don’t forget, it relates to a tribe and its territory—and get the basic principles together, and use those “principles to fill out the missing elements of the great cosmic vision of our own scientific cosmological story.
How is knowledge of the Living Universe important for personal growth and maturity?
Weston: Well, what comes up to me initially is that in Western culture we’re currently holding this mechanistic worldview of separation like we’ve been talking about. That is an important stage of development that I would relate to the teenage, adolescent years where one kind of breaks away from the family and has the experience of really being on one’s own. But then, in order to move that developmental level beyond the separate self and come into a fully embodied adulthood, one goes through a rite-of-passage experience where you recognize the interdependent relationship between self, Earth, and community, and you’re able to step into the broader “we.” That is really what the healthy adult perspective is, and it could be argued that our current cultural perspective is kind of lost in this stunted adolescent perspective that is growing a bit pathological because we are not addressing the problems that such views can create.
So I think that by bringing teenagers into the container that is nature “where that innate wisdom is, they’re able to connect to that deeper wisdom within themselves, that deeper guidance system that helps them to see what their own gifts are and how they can use those gifts to reconnect to and help the community. Then they can also see that by helping the community, they’re also helping themselves, because there’s that self-in-other perspective that starts to come on line when we tap into these deeper interdependent relationships.
Apela: I would also say that what blocks me from being in an engaged conversation with the Living Universe is often trauma. The history of humanity is filled with violence, and growing up in this dissociative world, in the separation and the competition, I’ve suffered many kinds of violence in my life. So the desire to be whole, in part, comes from just the pain and the suffering of being separated. As I work to face those things in myself, whether it’s through Western psychology, going to nature, or through indigenous ceremonies, the more those things are externalized and addressed, the closer I get to this engaged conversation. And at the same time, I’m becoming more completely individuated, and I’m individuated within this container of the Mother, of the womb.
In my work with students today, I ask them to know their genealogy, and this is something that’s typically difficult “for modern Western people to do because we all have so many things in our genealogy we don’t want to face. People say, “Well, what difference does it make where I come from? I’m American now.” There would never be a place or a time before this where people would say it doesn’t matter what my land is, it doesn’t matter where my ancestors are buried. But especially in the United States, we celebrate our dissociation and we think it’s even patriotic sometimes. So in my work with students I encourage them to retrace their genealogies and go back to a motherland. Of course the genealogies are going to run out eventually, because you come to the whole mind.
But as Malidoma Somé says, we do ritual so that something in a larger way can happen. And somehow retracing genealogies and owning that and facing the historic traumas that our people have suffered and also that our people have dished out to others, is one very strong way of standing the Western disconnect on its head. And in the Western world this disconnect has happened through the males for the last several hundred, maybe a thousand years. So as a woman participating in this conversation, I want to add that in; I want the Mother acknowledged as part of what we’re talking about.
Paul: I think the idea of people going down into their genealogy is terribly important, Apela. I remember when I first started giving talks in America in the end of the 1970s, early 1980s, somebody came up to me and said, “Look, I’m an American. Which sacred sites are mine? The ones that belong to the American Indians, or the ones in the land that my familial line comes from?” And it really made me think about the importance that people go back down into their roots.
We’re all at the pinnacle of a whole series of DNA chains that go back to the savannahs of Africa and beyond, ultimately, to the first spark of existence. We carry that within us, and it can be remembered, put back together again, to a degree. That linkage, that depth rooting, is incredibly important, yet what I see in the cultures today generally is a rootlessness—modern societies tend to be wide rather than deep. I always remember something Aldous Huxley said when he had to go and live in California because his eyesight was poor and he needed the bright light: “I go to America for the space, and I come back to Britain for the time.”
And what you’re saying, Weston, is really important also. A cosmology automatically impinges on the individual in a society, so a person’s growth and maturity is inextricably linked with the cosmology in which he or she is immersed. So young people need to have the direct experience of wild nature. All these things are really important to the proliferation of wisdom because without them, wisdom is a very slippery fish. It’s easy to talk about wisdom, but wisdom is hard to do.
Apela: Paul, what you said about slippery fish makes me smile, because if you’ve seen the old carvings from Mesopotamia you’ll see fish gods etched on the walls. In indigenous beliefs, and what I experienced in South Africa at the Cradle of Humankind, is this: that when we go back to our source through nature, including through our mother’s genealogy, and remember who we are, what do we find waiting there? Our own divinity, which is the Star People in my parlance, the first woman that came to the Earth in the blue ball of flames. Who is she but our own sacredness? There’s a lot of talk about recovering our divinity, but oh, there’s nothing like the experience of even a flash of it. And I feel that what you’re each saying is if we keep going, that’s where we’ll end up.
Weston: Just to jump on this idea of the importance of cultivating these deeper relationships and awareness of the interdependent nature of self, Earth, community, and cosmos—there is beautiful research coming out of Oberlin College right now with Cindy Frantz and her team on sustainability. She is a social psychologist whose research is pointing to this idea that the deeper our relationship to a nearby mountain range, or our community, the more likely we are to stand up and act on behalf of that relationship. When we create such relationship, a sense of ourself becomes imbued within it, and then we’re more likely to take action to not only nurture it but also stand up and protect it when it is being threatened. So when we have youth coming back into alignment with these deep relationships, what we’re also creating is action, where these youths are then activated around these relationships.
Paul: Yes, that’s true. For example, a pilgrimage is an outer gesture of an inner journey. It’s important that the mind in “nature and the mind in the human being coalesce at some point, and it can only happen experientially—it can’t happen any other way. But that core piece of reality somehow needs transporting into the greater world picture in which we live. We’re now living in a world that’s very dangerous, where our politicians are like somnambulists. And we somehow have to find a way to wake that level of consciousness up in our culture, or else the human story is on its way out. Some other story will take over, that thread of the mind in nature will still be there, it will never disappear. But as we know, there are so many cultures that are disappearing every year, and even the cultures that survive are getting heavily infected by Western ideas and influence, so you know, time is short.
Can you reflect on the way we perceive the universe and its relationship to the development of our inner landscape or soul?
Paul: I would just say two words: anima mundi. It’s the soul of the world, it’s the soul of the universe, and it is the human soul. They’re not different. It’s literally at the heart of our being.
Weston: To add to what Paul said, how I look at it is that the body is kind of the exterior representation or expression of the universe within our own lens of reality, and the soul holds the interior aspects of the universe—purpose, intention, consciousness, and our own unique gifts. To me, a key component of soul is purpose, so our body on this planet is kind of a conduit, a physical vessel that allows the soul to actualize its purpose, just as the intention of the greater universe expresses itself through matter. At the heart of this all is a desire for more complex and creative expressions, which in turn, evolve the larger life systems. So when we look at our own life, when we align ourselves with that bigger universal story, then we begin to find direction, each in our own ways. Through our own gifts we’re actualizing the purpose of our soul, which then supports the unfolding of the universe.
I want to thank you all for this really rich conversation. I do think that this is an emerging story, and we don’t completely know what it means or where it’s going. It’s being birthed into the collective right now, so it’s always an honor to be a part of these types of conversations. Every time we can get together and explore it, we create a little bit more space for it to be embodied in the world.
Apela: I’m going to use the word ‘she’ meaning ‘he and she’. In the morning, in a peyote ceremony, we’re up all night around a fire in a tipi, and it’s taxing on the body, and it’s also ecstatic. All night long you’re praying and you’re waiting for Venus, the morning star, to rise, and for the first ray of sunlight to come through the tipi. So after sitting up all night and praying for such a long, long, long time, that morning sun comes above the horizon, and the first ray of light shoots through the smoke hole in the tipi. And we sing this song: (chanting) “God said in the beginning, let there be light. / He meant it for you / heya na hey neyo weyah.” And ‘God’ and ‘he’ are English terms that can be ‘she’. God, Goddess, he, she, said, “Let there be light—it was meant for you.” Ho. Thank you.