Today is February ninth. On this morning bright with sunlight off the snow, I put on my boots and coat and carried my wooden turtle out to the woods behind the house I live in now. I walked over the narrow, handmade bridge over the creek, my feet elevated a foot and a half above the deck on hard-packed old snow, and sat down on one of the stumps that serve for steps on the far side. Sitting there and looking north, there’s nothing to see but woods. I set the turtle down in the snow on the bridge, and took off its shell. Inside in a couple little compartments were matches and a mussel shell with the four medicines—sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco.
I lit the medicines and wafted them to each of the four directions, and then sat down and meditated. Since November I’ve been practicing something called “discursive meditation”. The familiar, Buddhist-American style of meditation seeks to dissolve the mind’s attachment to its random stream of thoughts by training the practitioner to stop focusing on all those thoughts—the “monkey mind” that constantly jumps from one idea to another barely connected one—and instead empty the mind of contents. Discursive meditation has a similar goal, but once you’ve wrested your attention away from all these monkey-mind thoughts, instead of focusing on nothing at all, you focus on following one and only one train of thought, constantly returning to it if you go astray. It’s a style of meditation that was much in favor with monks and nuns in the Middle Ages, used for contemplation of the depths of truth to be found in the Bible: choose one phrase—say, John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…”—and follow your thoughts about it wherever they can take you. It’s been out of fashion for some centuries, but I discovered it by way of old-ideas enthusiast John Michael Greer.1 He points out that it can be used to great advantage with any spiritual system; he uses it himself as a pillar of his modern Druidic practice (which is, in fact, a real thing, as are modern Heathenry, Wicca, and Hellenism).
Before I started, hints had been accumulating in my life for a while that I would probably get a lot out of a meditation routine, but I’d been only half-inspired by Buddhist-style meditation. That, and I kept remembering something Brandon told me he’d once been told by a Dakota eacher of his: “Don’t cross the pipes.” That is, if you’re going to learn a spiritual tradition, learn a spiritual tradition, not two or three at once. Spiritual practice is all depth. Depth is of course abhorrent to Americans, especially in the age of Google and Wikipedia, but it’s the only way to learn any spiritual tradition. Because what such a tradition amounts to, after all, is a way to understand things you will never fully understand. Shallow dilettantism is not rewarded in that pursuit. That gets you things like a hippie-dippie celebration I attended once, in a very white middle-class part of Minneapolis, that featured a disgusting mixed salad of spiritualesque empty gestures. There was a singing bowl meditation led by a Mexican guy who said, “I am… from the Mayans,” and then proceeded to use exclusively Sanskrit jargon (pranayama, kundalini) to narrate his charade. They had “sound healing” with tuning forks tuned to the orbits of the planets. Also a big circle where everyone was expected to go to the center and say what makes them “enter their divine place”, while chanting women sang something irrelevant about Mother Earth. Nothing real was learned by anyone that night, except that I learned very vividly what you get when you cross the pipes and think grabbing the grooviest bits of eight different traditions constitutes a useful system of practice.
In this regard it was interesting to me that, although no one had described a specifially Ojibwe style of meditation to me, discursive meditation sounded somewhat like how Pebaamibines had described his morning routine, and even more like how Richard Wagamese described his in Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations:
When the tea is ready, I cradle the cup in my palms and inhale the scent of lavender. I place the cup on the living room table. Then I rise to retrieve the bundle that holds the sacred articles of my ceremonial life. I open it and remove my smudging bowl, my eagle wing fan, my rattle and the four sacred medicines of my people—sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. I put small pinches of each together in the smudging bowl, which I set upon the table. I close my eyes and breathe for a few moments. Then I light the medicines, using a wooden match, and waft the smoke around and over my head and heart and body with the eagle wing fan. When I am finished, I set the fan on the table, too.
There are certain spiritually oriented books I read from each morning. I lift the books from the couch beside me and read from them in turn. Then I place the books on the table as well. I close my eyes and consider what the readings have to tell me that day. When I’m ready, I settle deeper into the burgeoning pool of quietude, and when I feel calm and centred and at peace, I say a prayer of gratitude for all the blessings that are present in my life….2
Since I started meditating, I’ve been working my way through some of the lessons of the Medicine Wheel. It’s a simple shape: a circle divided into four quarters of four different colors, usually yellow, black, red, and white. But Pebaamibines once condensed an entire dissertation on Ojibwe thought into a somewhat elaborated version of it. Much of Ojibwe spiritual tradition can be keyed to the Medicine Wheel in one way or another. I’ve gone around it twice now, dedicating a few days’ meditations to each direction in turn, but today was the first day I meditated outside. I had reached the North, which is naturally also the quarter of Winter, and I had been planning since I started in the East this time to supplement my four days of indoor discursion on the North with some days actually sitting outside in the Winter.
I relaxed my body; I took a few minutes to steady my breathing. And then I considered where I was. Perhaps unwisely, I didn’t bring a specific phrase or image to this meditation; I’ve been finding that I can derive interesting lessons from meditation on even fairly vague themes, though I’m interested to use more specific ones in the future. Instead I looked out at the forest. The sun off the snow was blinding; I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. I thought about the Northern Lights, Manidoog Niimi’idiwag—the Dance of the Spirits—up in the sky. I thought about the little animals living burrowed under the snow all around me. I thought about the fires we keep burning through the winter in our houses, and the fires we keep going in our souls—coals glowing singly or together, spirits abiding in themselves and in contemplation through the season. My mind started out very much the monkey mind, from one vaguely wintry thought to another. But as I kept thinking, it relaxed into a calm focus, a state I’ve been able to reach only occasionally, but more and more often as I practice. And a little after it got there, my thoughts stopped forming themselves exclusively in words, and began taking shape into images. Like Jung’s symbols, those images suggested more than my mind could pin down in rational explications. Foremost of the images was one of a forest of great, snow-white conduits stretching from the ground to the sky—linking, it seemed, our spirits with the Earth’s spirits with the universe’s spirits. Not just an image, rather, but a sort of resonance, as if I had started vibrating at the same frequency as the forest, and that was making strange things happen. The air of the forest took on greater substance and color, and permeated through my mind and body. The borderline between me and the rest of the world became hazy. I was the world experiencing itself. Around me were other points of the world’s awareness, aware of me—as I, at last, was of them. The North ceased to feel like it was way off at the pole, a direction to be looked toward, and instead was right on top of me and around me, and part of me, alive with energy and meaning. I held on to the feeling for several minutes, and finally it faded and I opened my eyes and looked out into the day. It was the same day as when I sat down, but more so. It seemed from every angle fuller, more vivid.
When I fasted this May I hadn’t yet learned to meditate this way. I barely meditated at all, even in the Buddhist way, for the whole three rainy days; somehow I couldn’t get myself started. Instead I contemplated everything on the island rationally: the water beetles in the puddle, the windthrown tree roots. All evidence of evolution at its interesting work: pretty perhaps, but without any resonance in the question of the meaning of the world and the spiritual communion of all things, if those were even concepts that had meaning. Now, though, I’m finding that this year’s fast had another lesson to teach me: you get out what you put in. Waiting for spirits to strike your eyes open and give you a phantasmagorical vision with no effort on your part is unlikely to be rewarded. Communication with the spirits of the world is a two-way street, and requires exertion, contemplation, openness. Without all that, three days in the rain is three days in the rain.
The person I was ten years ago would be stunned to find out that I now believe it’s quite possible that I’ve communicated with spirits. Voices haven’t spoken to me inside my mind, telling me, “I am Jesus,” or, “I am Wenaboozhoo.” I haven’t had an all-enveloping psychedelic trip. Anything that has passed between me and them has been subtle, along the lines of what I experienced in today’s meditation.
I certainly don’t believe I understand what the spirits are. In fact I no longer believe anyone can answer that question; by all accounts it’s unanswerable. I think Basil Johnston gets it right when he says that the correct translation of manidoo isn’t ‘spirit’ but ‘mystery’.3 But I do think I can explain some of what the spirits do. When I look at the world with the assumption that it’s full of spirit, the forest in an intangible way fills out; the sky gains color without changing its color. A song somewhere turns from a precisely but meaninglessly arrayed series of notes into a jam that lifts me up off my feet to dance. I lose the feeling that I’m hunkered in a concrete room somewhere, watching a screen that displays the camera signal of a robot in the shape of my body, twiddling joysticks to move it through the world, and I emerge into an outdoors where I’m connected to everything on all sides of me. The birds aren’t just chirping, they’re speaking, and I can learn from them if I pay attention; the trees aren’t just green, they’re green in a way that means something to me. I’m not alone. What a lonely cosmos where the only intelligences are human. Though the road to understanding the manidoog, the mysteries, may be endless, the further down it I go, the more I feel like I’ve returned home, like I belong here on Earth with the rest of the life around me, from prokaryotes to Pando, and all the spirits they entail.
Does this mean that the religion I practice is now the obscure, animistic spirituality of a people I have no familial relation to, who I’ve known for only a few years? Yes and no, I suppose. It’s more true than saying I practice any other religion, at least. I’m trying to follow this path ‘in a good way’: weweni, a word I hear like a refrain during Ojibwe prayers.
But on the other hand, I will never be completely Ojibwe: even if I married an Ojibwe woman tomorrow and lived on the rez for the rest of my life, I would still have grown up in a foreign culture and been molded in inescapable ways by my summers in West Virginia and my Thanksgivings in Ohio in my own lifetime and the time I spent catching frogs in Warder Park. Ojibwe history is something I can learn about and from which I can take lessons small and great. But it isn’t a heritage for me in the same way it is for someone whose mother grew up in tribal housing, whose grandmother grew up grew up in a tarpaper shack in the woods, whose great-grandmother grew up making the family’s living by spearfishing and harvesting wild rice, whose generations further back sold beaver pelts to voyageurs and paddled birchbark canoes across entire Great Lakes and sat at the feet of elders every night of the winter to listen to stories of Wenaboozhoo and Nookomis and wiindigoog and memegwesiwag. Ceremonies that will wake something up in people with that family history might well stir something in me too, but it will usually be a different something. I can close some of that gap by listening to stories, learning the language, and spending time with the land and its spirits. But no matter how much effort I put into that pursuit, there will always be a gap.
Some of this is true even of some people who are Ojibwe by birth, like the U of M student whose fast last year was her first exposure to her birth parents’ culture. A person’s relation to the spirit world is unique and built on their entire lifetime of experiences. No two Ojibwe traditionalists practice exactly alike, and that diversity is reckoned a strength by people I’ve heard talk about it. In that way, I don’t think my relation to the spirit world is condemned to always be partial if I relate to it through an Ojibwe perspective. Rather it will be some sort of hybrid, formed of bits of my Ohio past, bits of my own self-created rebellion against that, and helpings of the stories I’ve picked up since moving to the part of the world where I feel at home.
Stranger things have happened. Before monotheism became so dominant as to be nearly the only game in the Western world, the question “What’s your religion?” would have been unimportant and possibly halfway incomprehensible. Not that religion wasn’t considered important, but distinctions between them weren’t drawn nearly so starkly. Greer notes, “A Greek traveler who went to Phoenicia on business, say, would likely participate in the worship of Melkarth and Astarte while there, and then sail back home and sacrifice a bullock to Poseidon in gratitude for calm seas and favorable winds, without anybody, human or divine, taking offense.”4 Not only that, but the distinction between one’s religion and one’s culture has likewise mostly been fuzzy or absent, even in monotheist cultures, until recently; it wasn’t so long ago that what we call a “first name” was habitually called a “Christian name”. And it’s always been a part of the immigrant experience to pick up some of the new culture while retaining some of the old. My ancestors were immigrants to Turtle Island (as North America was known before Amerigo Vespucci’s name got attached to it), and I continue to be an immigrant even hundreds of years later, since the culture built by the intervening generations of my ancestry has never grown up and rooted into the land. I’m doubly an immigrant, having left Ohio and come to an unfamiliar land to try to grow into it. I can use all the help I can get. Given a name, I’m now visible to the spirits here.
The Anishinaabeg have a prophecy of the Eighth Fire. The first seven fires were lit as the people followed a miigis shell that appeared in the sky, from one point to another along a centuries-long migration from the shores of the North Atlantic. We live now in the time of the Seventh Fire, a time marked by chaos and forgetting. As a people new to this land finds its confused way into a relationship with it, it leaves a trail of wreckage in its bootprints. Now we’re being asked to choose which path we’ll walk into the future. Down the wrong path lies destruction, death, and suffering. But if we walk the right one, the Eighth and final Fire will be lit, and the people from all the quarters of the Medicine Wheel—all the corners of the world—will come together and become a New People, the Oshkibimaadiziig, who will live in peace.[^1] There is no putting Pandora’s demons back in her box; the new people are here on Turtle Island and even if they could be sent back it wouldn’t undo the harm they’ve done. But being one of them, I can choose to walk the right path. If I’m to have any part in the beginning of the Oshkibimaadiziig, it seems to me I can’t stay holed up in the white quarter of the circle. I have to learn something about where I am, the people I’m here with. I have to learn how to be here in a good way.
I’ve started walking creeks again. Last week I traced the one behind the house upstream until it ran under a hundred-year-old logging railroad grade. Along the way I felt the world expand around me, starting from my small mind until it encompassed everything I could see and hear, and much that I couldn’t: the crows calling overhead, the wolves who left tracks there weeks ago, the young aspens at the edge of a field, the big warts of mushroom on a birch, the long-forgotten train engineer who helped loggers cut down this forest a century ago. I’ve always known there was magic out there along the creeks and around the forests. I had to take a long, twisting route to convince myself it was alright to believe it. But look where it’s brought me. Home, always home.
Greer, John Michael. “Discursive Meditation” (5-part series). Toward Ecosophy (blog). https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/65232.html (pt. 1), https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/66287.html (pt. 2), https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/67579.html (pt. 3), https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/68294.html (pt. 4), https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/69547.html (pt. 5). ↩
Wagamese, Richard. Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, p. 11. Madeira Park, B.C.: Douglas and McIntyre, 2016. ↩
Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Ceremonies, p. 30n. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. ↩
Greer, “Changing” op. cit. See also Deloria op. cit., p. xxiii. ↩