I believe it is important to have a spiritual practice that brings you into contact with nature. But I’ve felt for some time that it is also important to come into relationship with the modern aspects of our lives. Like Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I decided to work on cars in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then my back permanently went out and my days working on cars were over. But cars had become too complicated to work on in any case. Automobiles are an example of how difficult it is to stay in relationship with modern technology. Continual changes and advancements make personal involvement on a nuts and bolts level increasingly difficult.
Without some degree of personal involvement, the horse could bolt (so to speak). We need to find a way to honor all of our lives, including the technology we use. To begin, perhaps we can trace technology back to the elemental driving force: electricity. Electricity is the modern correlate to fire. But one difficulty in honoring electricity is that it is so convenient. Electricity is as automatic as the flip of a switch. Fire requires skill — a ritual of building, maintaining, and putting the fire to rest. My favorite part of fire building was breathing life into the initial flame. With electricity there is no intrinsic ritual connection. We tend to take it for granted. How do we grant relevance?
Traditional societies recognized the deities of Nature to put human life in perspective. Can we do the same with electricity? As a deity or force of nature, electricity has traditionally garnered awe or even fear. Consider the deities: Thor with his hammer, Zeus and Indra wielding a lightning bolt. As a nature spirit lightning is both mercurial and shocking. Elemental nature spirits, such as the Asian dragon, may be more appropriate representations. They may even, on occasion, become spirit allies (an ally demanding the utmost respect). Without a connection or interface, deities can become concrete and literal to the mind and are not useful.
We don’t need deities to make electricity personal. Like Whitman, we can sing the body electric. Electricity is a literal miracle of the body. And we can look to nature, the animals that harness electricity as both weapon and bioluminescence. Electricity is a universal force of varying magnitudes on which life depends.
By utilizing the power of electricity it may seem like we’ve put it in a harness, like oxen of the field. Not so. Electricity is still a wildcat, running your computer with no more involvement than the charge of an electric eel — simply operating under the rules of God and physics. It is we who pay the price of poor management, not electrons.
When coming into relationship, how do we avoid becoming enmeshed or addicted? Every healthy relationship involves give and take, periods of coming together and absence. Here’s an example from my life. For 28 years I had an isolated retreat near the boundary waters in Northern Minnesota. All I had was a roof over my head, a wood-burning stove (no insulation), and an outhouse. I hauled in water and burned a variety of oil or gas lamps. Life was very basic. Intrinsic in this example is spending time in nature. This may be the most important way to separate from commercial, energy hungry streams of perception. But there may be other ways of making a boundary with technology, such as exercising, educating, recreating, honoring Spirit, or settling in with a good book. The point is that the absence of electricity and modern conveniences provide deeper gratitude for them on return. It helps to sort out what is needed to live a good life.
Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When I lived in Saul St. Paul we had regular and sometimes extended power outages (6 to 10 hours) when the house grew dark, silent, and peaceful. The recent Earth Hour 2013, 8:30 to 9:30 PM on 3/22/13, seems to be a more conscious gesture. Folks were requested to turn off all their lights for one hour. Earth Hour has the right idea, but once a year is not enough. Energy/technology breaks should either be a regular feature of a spiritual practice, or unnecessary because one works mindfully with technology — living with an ongoing awareness of energy consumption most of the time. By coming into awareness with what is sacred and important, one can prioritize their life and cut out what is not needed.
Then there’s the task of making personally owned items more sacred. Shortly after I began my path in core shamanism in 1985, I chose to make a study of anthropological literature. Here’s an interesting discovery: indigenous tribes of the North American plains had a custom of making everyday objects sacred. For example, the pipe was both secular and sacred. Literally everything they owned had the potential of becoming a sacred item when held in the right hands. Every item, from shields to root diggers, had the potential of being made sacred. I thought: “Why can’t we do this with our modern culture?” Part of the answer is that we have too much stuff to make everything sacred all the time. Perhaps we should consider that if we cannot mindfully own property we may own too much (or become owned by too much).
To the degree possible, the things in our personal environment should support and reflect the nature and purpose of our lives. All of our possessions should speak to us in some way, even if that communication is limited to: “Please don’t throw me away, someday you’ll have a specific use for me.” To the extent possible, our living environments should reflect our personal soul, our inner self. And that doesn’t mean stained glass windows and golden statues. Simple and sparse can work as well as artful or elegant. Something in our environment should breathe, and you with it. If we think of our bodies as the temple of our spirit, a home can also become a temple for our bodies. And making sacred is not just about making peace with things. It is also projecting the emotional qualities of love and contentment.
As we increase our awareness and interaction with modern living, individual perception can accumulate into a critical mass of behavior and belief. By coming into personal relationship, we become part of a growing “virtual” community that transforms the ways a society uses its resources — honoring a more harmonious means of harvesting the bounty.
Photo from Facebook page: Weather Photography Australia
Next Post: Part II is a transcript of a conversation I had with my shamanic Teacher.