Songs of Mythic Renewal
This paper was presented at the 108th American Anthropological Association annual meeting, December 2-6, 2009, in Philadelphia, PA. It is very . . . anthropo-logical
This paper is descriptive of the culture that moves in the eco-festival circuit of the Pacific NW, aka ‘Cascadia’, from the perspective of the songs that circulate through these gatherings. This culture is an especially mobile and self-transformative dimension of a larger eco-conscious social movement in the NW. I also touch on the applied anthropology that went into creating a gathering specifically to bring the various song genres of this movement together. This gathering, of which there have now been several, provided the ethnographic material to follow.
This study is contextualized within the larger problem of the ecological crisis on the planet, and what to do about. During my earlier years as a budding social scientist devoted to this issue, I found that the philosophical foundations of my training was part of the problem I was trying to solve. This primarily because conventional science is based on the human / nature separation hard-wired into the self- identity and purpose of industrial-growth culture, with its consequent discontents.
I therefore found resonance with the classic theorists, the originators of the social sciences, such as K. Marx, E. Durkheim, and M. Weber, whose work of civic reform implied, and was often stated, that one’s role in this field is primarily that of a social physician. Such a one attends to the health of society; diagnoses, prescribes, and where necessary, becomes an activist in the healing process. As a social physician, I chose to look beyond scientific etiologies, to medical models that come from cultures with more unified human / nature relations, such as TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), Ayurvedic, and various folk medicines. The common theme in these traditions is that illness is caused by fragmentation of our ‘bodies’ – social, psychic, mental, emotional, physical, and so on – and that the cure is to reunite the pieces, to become more whole. For good reason, these are often referred to as holistic medicines. The fragmentation of industrial-growth cultures is obvious in the monoculturalist tendency to validate narrow spectrums of the human experience, the materialist, reductionist, mechanistic, consumerist, rationalist, patriarchal, and so on (Shiva 1989:30); the misplaced elevation of a research method to a worldview. Evidence that the pendulum began to swing back towards wholeness in the social collective became apparent in the latter half of the 1960s, with the rise of movements that advocated civil rights, gender equality, etc. At this time, back-to-the-land movements, Earth Day, bioregionalism, the ethic of environmentalism, the science of ecology, precursors of the Green Party, biological pest control, a recognition of animal rights, organic produce, and wide-spread alarm over environmental pollution, were all founded or grew in significance. While many factors contributed to this heightened ecological awareness, it can be understood as both a reaction against the increasingly obvious excesses of environmental destruction, and a gesture towards a vision of wholeness in the cultural milieu. It is this latter, generative response, that I have focused my attentions. Using the ‘as above so below’ approach of etiologies which harmonize the realms of humanity and nature, we can apply the cyclic processes of birth, growth, co-evolutionary adjustments, death, and rebirth (psychic or physical), that characterize the balancing and sustaining forces of the planetary ‘metabolism’, i.e. ecosystems at their many levels, into an understanding cultural stagnation and subsequent renewal. Such processes are internalized in a number of related anthropological models that consider transition of individuals, or whole societies, from one role, or situation, to another. These include Arnold Van Gennep’s analysis of rites of passage in three stages; Victor Turner’s narrative of the ‘social drama’ in four stages; and A.F.C. Wallace’s seven stage description of the trajectories of religious revitalization movements. As the ecological crisis is pushing much of humanity into the ‘death’ of its many assumptions of human separation from nature, it follows from these models that a rebirth of better adaptive life ways is in the works. As a survey of the world’s initiatory rites make obvious, death and rebirth happen most effectively within ceremonial, liminal space, wherein cultural conditioning is suspended. Such parameters of initiation, or ‘technologies of the sacred’, attended the sudden spike in ecological awareness in the 1960s, as we find an influx of eastern spiritual traditions to the West, as well as a growing awareness of the plants and their chemistries that evoke ASC (altered states of consciousness). Among these was resurgent interest in celebratory festivals. Such gatherings, in their most primordial functions, are rites of renewal, and the emergence of such spectacular examples as Woodstock vitalized this social form and helped send it back into service. Of the plethora of such gatherings that followed, those in the Pacific NW have taken on particularly strong themes of environmental awareness. This has likely contributed to their enduring relevance, as many are prospering well into their second generation of adherents (1). Diverse forms have evolved, including urban/rural permaculture convocations, barter faires, witch camps, rewilding and primitive skills gatherings, a Human-Fairy relations congress, and Nature-based arts festivals. The healing function of festivals depends on their ability to provide a safe container for people to exercise their existence outside the norms of consensus reality, one that allows an intrinsic altruistic character of humanity to reveal itself. A sort of invisible organizing intelligence takes over, the same one that allows schools of fish to turn in unison, flocks of birds to fly in formation, and herds of deer to collectively turn to the water hole, and people realize that they don’t really need authority figures, such as alpha males, to tell them what to do, and that bereft of a cultural script that tells them otherwise, people would much rather love and help each other than kill and cheat each other. This is a surprise for many people, an awakening.
Restored to a greater trust in humanity and the world, social defenses and conditionings can more easily drop away. This then allows primordial creative forces to rise in their place (2). Eco-festivals are particularly rich in recovering lost treasures of the imagination, for the context of Nature communion evokes deities and archetypes long forgotten or exiled from the modernist worldview. These include Goddesses of all sorts, Nature devas and fairies, oversouls of plants, animals, and minerals, as well as the midwife, kitchen gardner, intuitive healer, yogi, shaman, diviner, peaceful warrior, and bard. In eco-festival contexts, these rise in power surges of creativity, for they carry with them the force of a system returning to wholeness, the momentum of Nature rebalancing itself. Such gatherings are therefore significant incubators for new (or renewed) cultural forms.
The social figures mentioned tend to be associated with indigenous cultures, and spiritual traditions. Hence it appears that eco-festivals foster an upwelling of an innate indigenous consciousness, an inherent spiritual awareness. The restoration of these faculties allows us to rejoin an ‘imaginal commons’, a bandwidth of mythic resonance shared by all beings, by the many ‘tribes of creation’. To rejoin the imaginal commons is to regain a source of primary guidance, often called ‘the original instructions’, which has inspired and counseled humanity since our inception as a species. My interests have focused specifically on the lyrical expression of these inspirations in songs, as they are found in the Pacific NW. These include, a) those that have been received through the recent reconnection to this commons, as typified in the eco-festival circuit, and, b) those from other cultures and past eras that have made their way into the community that circulates through these gatherings.
Singing Alive In service to the applied anthropological credo to ‘assess and solve contemporary problems’, I created a situation that would bring these songs, and the people that carry them, together; to allow the songs to be easily shared, recorded, learned, and enjoyed in ceremonial circumstance, often involving song circles. I and (originally) a partner, founded an eco-festival devoted specifically to these purposes, a three to four day gathering called ‘Singing Alive’. The stated theme of the event was, and remains: ‘a gathering of the songtribes in circular devotion to the regeneration of humanity and the earth’.
To facilitate a spiritual ecology of devotional songs and Nature communion, it was located in a remote enclave of riparian woodland (SW WA). There we set up a number of altars, and fire circles. The price of admission was kept low, bartering was encouraged over vending, and we set up a community kitchen that prepared mostly donated garden harvests, and allowed us to eat our meals together. Everyone was asked to volunteer to help the ‘village’ run smoothly. We sought to deconstruct the performer / audience convention and replace it with a participatory one, in which all were encouraged to sing together. A guiding message was that despite the tendency of consumerist cultures to professionalize inborn human abilities into job descriptions with rules of inclusion and exclusion, we are a singing species, for as the African proverb goes, ‘if you can talk, you can sing’. The attendance at the three annual (2007 – 09) Singing Alives rose each year from 90, to 120, to 160 people. Most of each event was recorded, and after editing, they collectively yielded approximately 250 songs, discounting those that are repeated. The songs, many in the forms of chants, mantras, and prayers, come from ancient sacred traditions within larger cultures, including Vedic, Biblical, Sufi, and Essene; from tribal peoples worldwide, especially the Americas and Africa; the contemporary expression of such lineages, such as the Amazonian Santo Daime church, African-American Gospel choirs, the Rainbow Family movement, devotees of Self-realized figures, such as Osho and Amma; and eclectic amalgations of these traditions. The functions of these songs serve to purify, bless, celebrate, move with devotion, call into Creation, disperse or metabolize negative energies, honor and invoke all manner of helpful Beings, give guidance, and give thanks. I was interested in the thematic unity of these songs, in the collective voice of renewal. I approached this by grouping the songs into subthemes, which I then loosely plotted on the models of individual and cultural transition mentioned above. This allowed me to see the pattern of a creation-story, a path of re-entry into, and even beyond, the imaginal commons. The elements of this narrative, and some of the lyrics that speak, or more correctly, sing it, can be summed up as follows.
Homesickness Any gesture towards cultural renewal must begin with a dissatisfaction with the status quo. The songs at Singing Alive often expressed this as a longing for what has been lost or forgotten, and prophetic visions of a better future~ My soul is sick, my heart is sore, now I’m coming home; Lord, bring our lost and lonely home again as you bring forth the spring from winter’s stony hand.
This understands the ecological crisis as essentially a spiritual crisis, as a great homesickness for ourselves as whole, interconnected beings. As much of humanity has been lulled into a feeling narcosis by the distractions which purport to cure our discontents, the disconnect has become largely unconscious. This is a root source of malaise in the human collective, one that more than occasionally erupts into newsworthy acts of violence.
Singing from the heart connects us to an innate bodily intelligence (which, in the eco-cosmology revealed by the songs, is inseparable from Gaian intelligence) that can break through habits of denial, surface the wound, and clear it from the system~ Looking within to find my way home, now I am free, there is no place like home is where the heart is; Flowing, gliding, moving on, everlasting, ever strong, Ganga Ma you carry me back home. Take me with you on your way, purifying each new day.
This then re-actives the feeling body, long suppressed by the historical ascendancy of the rational intellect, and with it more conscious communication with the greater ‘society of Nature’~ He’s a flower of a man, he’s a rainbow who can sing, who can sing, who can sing.With this communication comes more instruction on our life’s purpose and direction~ Oh jewel within this flower of light, oh guide us home into your light; May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way home; Oh my Lord I’m a bumbling bee, oh my Lord guide me home to thee.
The Inbody Experience The ‘inbody experience’ recognizes that the human body and the earth are the same, and that to engage the life processes in one is to engage those in the other~ We turn with the cycles of the fertile earth; Gaia’s alive within us, birthing new ways to be.
This identification with the body as an extension of the earth, or the greater cosmos, includes: a) the elements themselves~ Oh Great Spirit, earth, sun, sky, and sea, you are inside, and all around me; b) attributes of elements that correspond to human traits~ When the fire in my soul, burns with longing for the goal; and c) the fertility circuit, cycles and seasons, that these elements move in~ And the water below gives a gift to the sky, and the clouds give back every time they cry.
The inbody experience puts us in touch with our genetic and karmic lineages~ When barefooted people dance on the earth, the souls of the ancestors sing; and the other-than-human, accessible through shapeshifting: Fly away on the wings of the moment, seeking, becoming, the butterfly people.
Cultivating the inbody experience allows us to be more fully embodied, which opens easier access to ecstatic states of consciousness. The ecstatic body is a vehicle for expanding consciousness, and this is reflected in the many songs at Singing Alive from ecstatic and trance traditions, such as those that accompany Dervish dancing, and Vedic mantra chanting.
Initiation The expansion of self necessitates a shedding of previous, outworn identities. This brings us to the importance of rites of passage, occasions which – ideally in a held space of trust – allow identity fixations to soften, become fluid, to allow new self-perceptions to emerge into form and function.
The genre of ‘medicine songs’ is specifically created to work with the ASC that attend such transitions. These songs, which come from a variety of sacred plant and fungus traditions, work with the catalytic effects of such ‘medicines’, to help midwife consciousness through its contractions and releases~ I have a calling deep within me(us), when I listen in, it activates me. Santo Maria, Santo Daime, Santo Pedro, Santo Peyote.
The journey of initiation includes, a) the importance of letting go of attachments~ Let go to the earth, lets forgive and forget; b) the engagement with the shadow~ Never be afraid to face the dark, for if you are you’ll never let the healing start; and, c) the tempering of the soul through crisis~ Walking thru the holy fire, raising the vibration,
Soul Gain The natural connectivity that asserts itself when the ego defenses relax has a tribalizing effect~ We are the old people , we are new people, we are the same people, wiser than before; and renews our identity as spiritual beings~ Love is the key, Turn it and see, Holy Spirit Almighty is right there inside you.
This re-membering of the many possible constituents of self can result in a kind of ‘soul gain’~ We shine with the power of a million stars; itself the opposite of the ‘soul loss’ that marks the fragmented self.
This kind of personal power comes from careful inspection and management of the self, of reclaiming our evolutionary heritage, and entrainment with Natural forces that ever move towards balance. It is in contrast to the power that comes of control over others, the ‘might makes right’ ethos of dominator cultures.. This difference is summed with a fire metaphor in this song~ And we can stop the fire of destruction, healing is the fire running through our veins.
Culture of Peace The re-ecologicalizing of the self generates synergistic forces. The effects of such forces, which come of deepening co-operation in relationships, are often described with the phrase, ‘the sum is greater than its parts’. The resulting ‘sum’ is called an ’emergent property’, (e.g., the beating action that begins when enough cells gather and organize to become an entire heart). The synergistic effects in humans can result in a unitive experience. One does not therefore possess the objective reality of increasing wholeness, but is possessed by a greater wholeness. This emergent property of life becoming more aware of itself through the human vehicle, is in essence – spirituality~ it’s the heartbeat of the universe, it’s the silence of the soul, it’s the joy that makes every moment new, It’s the bliss that we are whole. Om shanti.
Many songs tell of this emergence, often as an awakening~ The world awakens thru us, As we relearn to feel; or as a revealing, or increased radiance, of the sunlight of the heart~ O Mother, please shine in my heart, like the rising sun at dawn; I want to dance with you beloved, in the arms of the moon, with the sun in my heart, with the songs in my soul, spreading your light on the earth. The role of nature is often acknowledged for bestowing spiritual realizations~ The heart is real, the rest must fall. Love is real and I can hear your call. It’s the blessing of the forest. And the message is clear. Om shanti. Shanti om.
The equation of a loving heart, and a peaceful world is ubiquitous to the songs at Singing Alive~ May peace be born in our heart, and love show us the way, as one people let us pray; Father I open my heart to you, to bring peace among the nations. Mother I open my heart to you, to bring peace upon the earth.
This suggests a pro-active culture of peace that emerges from within, and then externalizes itself in the world. Such a peace cannot be sought outside of self-understanding. This contrasts with a more usual definition of peace as ‘negation of conflict’, a mere absence of war. A culture of peace teaches the ways of the heart. These appear to be universal in their principles, and at Singing Alive have multicultural expressions that range from the golden rule – e.g., Hareni Merkabel (in Hebrew), and Namaste (in Sanskrit); to the idea that love and peace are not something to be created, but to be revealed as inherent to our humanity by letting go of all that stands in the way of it. ~ live/be the peace that outshines samsara (appearance).
The ‘home’ analogy in song lyrics appears again in this context, no longer as a longing, or an asking of guidance, but as a reconciliation, a homecoming ~ Oh my celestial love, with your light you heal my pain, in your kingdom I feel I am home, and I don’t want to leave you again; Pachamama, I’m coming home, to the place where I belong; Welcome home, welcome home again, I hear your eternal song, you and I are one.
In the final analysis, the songs of Singing Alive reveal an interesting paradox. The gesture of opening our hearts in song to heal wounds and disharmonies, opens the possibility that we may create these same disorders in order to learn to open our hearts. This perspective allows a softening of the all to prevalent judgments concerning the ecological crisis and the forces that have created it. This creates space for forgiveness, crucial to any healing and subsequent regeneration.
The songs of Singing Alive also suggest there is one universal song beneath the many, just as there is one humanity beneath the external divisions. The cyclic loss and regain of this awareness seems to drive an individual, and collective dynamic of stagnation (death), and revitalization (birth), that has been ubiquitous, even defining, of the human condition. That the Pacific NW appears, at this time, to be a particularly potent regenerative aspect of this cycle, justifies further exploration of the larger eco-conscious social movement here, and what it can teach a humanity that teeters much like the drunkard in the following Rumi poem:
Sit, be still, and listen, because you”re drunk and we”re at the edge of the roof.
(1) Examples include the Oregon Country Faire (Venetia, OR; founded 1969) and Okanogan Barter Faire (Tonasket, WA; founded 1973)
(2) The historian of religion Mircea Eliade, in his book The Eternal Return, describes the importance of rites of renewal in maintaining cultural health. He views them as allowing mythic origins, sources of archeytpal power, to become co-temperous with current events, thus gving form, meaning, and vitality to these events.
Shiva, Vendana 1989 Staying Alive: women, ecology, and development. London: Zed Books.
Turner, Victor 1986 The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.
Wallace, A.F.C. 1956 Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist. 58:264-281.
Van Gennep, Arnold 1960 The Rites of Passage. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffe, trans. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.