By Richard Wagamese
There is a medicine bowl in the living room. These mornings when the sun eases across the top of the mountain above the lake are medicine times. They are a clarion call to consciousness and a part of you responds to the feel of the energy of the earth awakening. It’s an older part, older even than the self you feel these mornings, fifty some and climbing.
There is tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar mixed together in that bowl for prayer and blessings. With the flame of the match smoke climbs and billows around you and there’s a moment when you close your eyes to pass it over your body that time folds in upon itself, transports you to a time beyond time when all was legend, Teaching Moons and ceremony.
The Indian in you knows that time, remembers it like a recurring dream. There’s comfort there, an ease, a refinement that’s like nothing in this physical world. Instead, it’s a knowing, soft and old and healing, that tells you on mornings like this, that everything is energy, everything is moving and the smoke of this bowl joins you to it, a ceremony at once old and new again.
Some days I can’t remember when I lived without it, this easy ceremony. Except I know that there was a time, a period, in my life when there was nothing that had the power to elevate me, lift me into being. Oh, there were fragments of things that stuck for a while but nothing that I could cling to for this feeling of union with all that is.
I went to the Salvation Army when I was a kid. Sunday school seemed to fit for me and I remember waiting to return to it every week. The stories were magical and I remember that I loved to sing. We learned all the big beat hymns like Jesus Loves You, This Little Light of Mine and If I Had a Hammer. There was something in that music that called to me and I responded.
But life has a meter all its own and when I was adopted and moved away I was peeled away from that influence. I learned Presbyterian hymns after that, all staid and proper and stern and I felt lonely for the lilt of the Army tunes. The Presbyterian canon was all discipline and in the home where I lived it meant a strict regimentation in study, work and decorum. There was no room for choral glee.
When I was a teenager living on the streets I went to an evangelical church for a short time. There was a program called Teen Challenge that worked with kids like me, all dispossessed and lonely. They took me in and introduced me to their doctrine but it was all handclapping jubilation, talking in tongues and a severe discipleship. I lasted a few weeks and ran back to my concrete world.
A friend introduced me to the Jesus Freaks in the early 70s. I liked the long hair and the remnants of the Flower Power mentality they lived with but there was something missing in all the post-Psychedelia that made me sad more than anything and I left.
There was scientology when it was big in the early 70s. Then came the teachings of Ram Dass, Krishnamurti and the poetry of Kahlil Gibran. After that was the huge swell of life affirming therapies. I practiced Transactional Analysis, tried to learn Gestalt therapy, read Born to Win, B.F Skinner, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Leo Buscaglia, I’m Okay, You’re Okay and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Everywhere I went there was someone into something and I veered sharply toward anything that smacked of an answer.
Back then I didn’t know the answer I was looking for. All I knew was that I felt hollow and there was nothing that seemed capable of filling me, sketching me out, giving me detail. I learned a lot of things about a lot of varied and intriguing processes but I couldn’t find the sense of ease and comfort that I craved.
Then came Albert Lightning. He was a Cree traditional teacher and elder and had been a political leader at one time. When I met him he was leading a workshop at the Indian Ecumenical Conference in Morley, Alberta. I talked to him for a long time one night and told him about my search, about being displaced from my people and the hollowness in my life and in my chest.
He taught me about ceremony that night. He took the same tobacco, sweetgrass, sage and cedar and told me about their properties and how they were meant to be used. He taught me about the principles they represented and how living by those principles was the Indian way, the true Indian way. He led me through the ceremony of the medicine bowl and taught me how to pray in gratitude, to ask for nothing, only to be thankful for all that was present in my life right then and there.
Then he told me to go out from that small ceremony and take the spirit of it into the world with me. It’s taken a long time but I’m beginning to understand what he meant back then.
Anyone can be spiritual in a quiet room. But out in the world is where the challenge takes place. If you can learn to take the humility, gratitude and quietness you find in the medicine bowl ceremony out into the world, you can learn to live a principled life. When you learn to live a principled life you can learn to live spiritually. When you can learn to live spiritually you can find harmony with people.
When you can learn to find harmony with people life itself becomes a ceremony and that, in the end, is what it’s all about, this Indian way, this journey.
These mountain mornings remind me of that and when we smudge ourselves, my woman and I, we join ourselves to the great spiritual wheel of energy that exists all around us. And I am filled.