Each morning I get up and head out the back door to the Hermitage, a rustic mini-cabin I built of recycled materials from the Habitat ReStore. I gather some dry sage, my grandfather’s old Zippo lighter and walk to the center of my backyard to do a four directions prayer.
For a guy who tends to be overwhelmed each morning with anxious, racing thoughts of everything that needs to be done, it is a wonderful way to start the day. Before the shower. Before breakfast. Before the newspaper. Before the radio goes on. And don’t even mention turning on cable television news for that big morning dose of global suffering. Just get out of the house, away from all that trance-inducing negativity, and into the outdoors. Its amazing how that first breath of outdoor air and the wet grass under foot instantly grounds me, and reorients my inner compass to true north.
I first stand facing East, where my red bud tree, the holly and bittersweet vines hide the alley, my neighbor’s chain link fence and her three to five large dogs lurking quiet in the shadows. I light the sage, blow out the orange flame and watch the sweet, white smoke arise, envelop my head and almost immediately carry me down out of my restless thoughts and into the realm of my body, my senses, the earth. The northerly breeze carries the ghostly braid of aroma southward, across the yard and over my neighbor Palmer’s backyard fence. He must wonder what I’m doing. Each of the four directions- east, south, west and north- gets my daily attention and a short prayer for assistance. But these fall days, it is the direction of the West that dominates the medicine wheel.
The west is the direction of the setting sun, and the approach of darkness. It is opposite of the rising-sun east, with its innocence, illumination, vision and springtime of new life. The west is the season of fall, the harvest, the culmination of the life of the plants. We thank the spirits of the West for the great growth and abundance that grew over the summer season (the south), and we now gather the fruit of the harvest. In the west, we separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the desirable from the undesirable, the productive from the nonproductive parts of our lives. We give thanks to the spirits of the west for the great blessings we have been given, and pray for the discernment to know what exactly the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means in our lives, how to tell the difference. The west is the direction of adulthood, which requires the wisdom to see the good, and the courage to part with the unhelpful and unnecessary. It is the season for simplifying our cluttered lives. Understanding the difference between what we want, and what we need.
The west is thus about the inner spiritual task of discernment, contemplation, introspection. It is the going-within place. We need the practice of stillness and contemplation to have a mature and balanced life, to walk the path of the heart effectively.
This intentional going-within is not an area that we are drawn to in our culture: Americans are people of action, doing, thinking, creating, helping, moving, fixing. And talking! As poet Andre Codrescu writes, “America is a nation of engineers, not artists.” We are not particularly comfortable, as a nation, with solitude: being alone with ourselves. Being quiet. Being with our inner life. With contemplation, darkness, mystery. With the unknown. With uncertainty.
In the days and weeks immediately following 9/11, American temperament was very impatient with the minority of voices that counseled calm, extended national reflection and discernment over what had happened. Such voices were considered unpatriotic, passive and weak. We were in great pain, and somebody was going to have to pay for that.
My inner city neighborhood needs the the balance provided by the spirit of the west. It is often a place dominated by the spirited, restless, adolescent energy of the south, of summer. It is a neighborhood of adolescent social energies: loud, boastful, moving, shouting, preening, strutting, littering, celebrating. Full of passion, anger, joy, fighting, socializing, sensuality, clannish bigotries and wandering clusters of teenage tribes. Not so inclined to reflection or considering consequences. Not so aware of the bigger picture, of the needs of neighbors, nature or concern for the surrounding environment.
The spirit animals the represent the west are the cave bear and the turtle, both animals that retreat, hibernate or pull within regularly for safety, rest and reflection. They are comfortable withdrawing, and do so easily and naturally as we each must to have a balanced life that is not just movement, action, projects, noise, eating, emotion and socializing. We balance our lives with the energies of the west: moving from head to heart, from thinking to contemplation, from high energies to slowing groundedness. Preparation for the winter.
The west is also the direction of the Thunder Beings: the great climatic power, lightning, rain and winds that usually come from the west. When we walk the path of the heart, we can integrate and be grateful for ‘bad’ weather, for the rain, for the winds. These natural aspects of nature are not seen as just another face of mother earth. The wind is the breath of the great spirit, the respiration of the land which always blows in and out. Sometimes barely noticeable, at other times able to topple and cull the weak and dying trees around us. The rain is not seen as a problem but a blessing, when we have experienced the true lack of rain and drought.
I climb up on the big dirt berm next to the shed that allows me to see a bit more of the sky and horizon, and lift up the smoldering sage toward the west. Thank you, spirits of the west, for your gifts of harvest abundance, discernment and contemplation. Thank you thunder beings for the wind, the breath of mother Earth that glides down from Canada, across the plains, into my city, through my neighborhood and into my back yard. She carries the white smoke of this sage up and through my awareness, cleansing, grounding and balancing my mind and heart. May this blessing continue on, drifting across the backyards, down the alleys, into the open windows, kitchens and bedrooms, up the streets, and bless all my neighbors. May it bless the birds, the animals, and all the crickets hiding in my yard that sang all night and continue during these beautiful early fall mornings. Aho.
I close my eyes, and listen to the hypnotic rhythm of the late summer crickets. For a long moment, I could easily forget that I was standing in an inner city neighborhood. I might be out in a meadow, or a South Dakota prairie. All around me, the heart of nature sings joyfully: What a wonderful summer it has been! The joy of fall is coming!
You won’t find that message in the morning paper.