An embarrassingly long time ago I crossed paths with Mayan elder Don Alejandro. For some reason I felt compelled to tell him my father’s story and he was kind enough to listen. What he told me when I finished has stayed with me ever since. Of course, decades old memories are suspect, but what I remembered him saying was roughly people are like trees and that my father was sick, in pain, and died the way he did because he was a single tree in the wastelands of western civilization when people need a forest to thrive. Village communities as forests are a recurrent theme in indigenous communities and the World Tree is a recurrent theme in shamanism so I was delighted to find this video and see that the Tree teachings are taking root in western academia:
Resilience and interdependence are key to community, and fungi are key to the resilience and interdependence of life in the forest. And indeed one of the lesser known Norse heroes, Svipdagr, turns to his spiritual guide and grandmother, Groa, who resides among the dirt and duff of the forest floor for help in finding his right place in his community. Even now, in the springtime the fertile feminine principle in Germanic countries is expressed as various forms of jolly red-capped grannies and candies astonishingly reminiscent of the red capped Amanita Muscaria mushroom. This mushroom has proved near impossible to grow as a domestic crop. Symbiotic with a variety of coniferous and deciduous trees, it requires a full forest community to thrive and fruit. It is also psychoactive, altering human conscious to be more aware of the invisible and nonverbal realms. Who could be better than Groa, the red-capped granny fungus of the forest, to teach us humans how to live?
Unfortunately, not only do foresters ignore the symbiotic nature of the mundane forest, neo-shamanism in most of its varied forms ignores the symbiotic inter-related nature of the World Tree. The World Tree is treated rather like a porta potty, a self-contained toilet to dump our psychic wastes with no thought to what happens to them when we walk away. I find this distressing and in general have avoided joining neo-shamanic groups or enduring what passes for certification, but there is one group I am involved with by friend and family, the Cuyemungue Institute founded by Dr. Felicitas Goodman who earned her PhD Emeritus researching religious altered states of consciousness.
As often happens when a pivotal person dies, Felicitas has become a revered idealized icon for those wishing to promote themselves through her work. For me, she was a granny-figure, my sister’s namesake who liked to embarrass me as an adult by mentioning how she knew me when I was so little I was running about diaperless and sucking on a bottle. She was also a very complex and damaged individual. Born in 1914 at the beginning of WWI, she was living in Berlin when WWII started. She once told me that her father was an abusive, alcoholic, factory manager, and her mother had at least a dozen abortions as that was her only available form of birth control, and that she herself found refuge in her studies with the nuns in the Catholic girls school as a child. That refuge vanished when the Nazi party came into power and she was forced to join the Hitler Youth organization.
Understandably, she had serious issues with men, violence, sexuality, and organized belief systems. One of the most vivid memories I have of her was watching the Beatles land on television with my father. Granted that was 1964 and I was a mere five years old, but her reaction to the sight of thousands of young women screaming for their idols still resonates in my bones. Once my father turned off the TV and got her calmed down she explained the scene was exactly the same experience she had at the Hitler rallies she was forced to attend as a teenager, that obsessive female hysteria was the energy that put and kept Hitler in power. This left me struggling with the question of why would people idolize and act on such bizarre violent preachings, and I eventually came to understand that when people are drowning in their own psychic sewage, their behavior can get desperately out of alignment with anything resembling reason or compassion.
At this time my father was apprenticed to the Casique or religious leader of one of the nearby Pueblos. When my father became his student in the 1950’s, there was no interest among the tribal members in continuing the old teachings. So the two men bonded over a mutual desire to heal their own spiritual wounds and those of their community. My godfather was sure that the only way to heal the destructive drive of Western Civilization was for people to renew their connection to and understanding of their own ancestral shamanic realms and responsibilities. His own people had enough trouble keeping their own ways alive, so his prayers were for all of us to find our own way back home. Felicitas’ desperate plea for refuge from the insanity and violence of her war experiences was soon answered by a dream of the Pueblo grandfathers, singing and drumming, beckoning her to come join in that quest for transformation here in Northern New Mexico.
That dream was her motivation for coming to New Mexico, and those Grandfathers were her guides and support in her research. Felicitas told me once that she and her students found the trance experience to be one of safety and security, healing and renewal, a romp in a children’s playground. In my experience, it is the responsibility of the elders to hold that field for the newcomers. Their experiences were positive, and the playground was clean because, as ubiquitous and invisible as the forest fungi, my godfather and father were willing to nurture the tender sprouts of those looking to renew their spiritual Trees until they were hardy enough to stand on their own.
While the Beatles took the energy focused on them and turned it into creative social change; my sorrow, at this 100th anniversary of Felicitas’ birth, is that her followers practice remains infantile (click here). We don’t expect infants and toddlers to clean up after themselves, but there does come a time and an age when pooping your pants, even metaphorically, is an indication that something is seriously wrong.