A few months ago, I attended a ritual right in my neighborhood at Malcolm X park. The ritual was to give thanks to the earth. At its conclusion, a friend picked up a piece of glossy, charcoalish, volcanic rock and held it in her hand as she walked about giving additional offerings to her spirits. A few minutes later she returned with the rock and gave it to me saying simply, “I think this is for you.”
I thanked her and took the rock home, curious. Not knowing what to do with it, I placed it on the mantle over the fireplace. Sometime later I had the idea to place it on my ancestor shrine.
Actually, it was more like I received the idea to put the rock there. Whenever I receive an idea, as oppose to grasp at it, I try to just do it, the received idea, without question. Learning to tell the difference between the two kinds of thoughts has taken me a long time and I often still mess it up.
My teacher, Ken, gave me a tool to help sift through ideas that he got from another student. He said that if you’re not sure about an idea, throw it back in the river. If it comes back to the surface three times, then do it. And no, he doesn’t mean that literally.
Getting past literal-ness is another hurdle when it comes to sifting ideas from those that are fearfully grasped at to those that are received. Our minds are really caught up in duality, things being black and white, things being exactly the word that represents them. It’s hard in our modern world to drop that because, well, literal thinking is like a rampant virus that has bitten us all in a delicate, secret place.
Literal thinking shows up a lot in my dance classes. What I mean is that, more and more, students want a very direct answer for how to get from point A to point B. They imagine their improvement to simply be a matter of following the correct steps. They imagine dancing to be another commodity that they can acquire. It’s hard for them to embrace mystery. They also tend to expect immediate results.
I see this as a result of us being able to access information instantaneously. So when the young people encounter something, such as ballet, that they can’t “click” on, they don’t know what to do. For example, I might get a question like, how do you lift your leg up higher? Then, I will go into a story about how I “found” my extension, a story that spans years of work and includes a lot of stretching and pain. But talking about a process that took years of dedication sounds like a myth to them, whereas when I was their age, I never would have asked such a question in the first place. It was understood that no one was going to find it for you. It was understood that the ones who could already lift their legs very high did not have a formula or a blueprint that they could sell or teach. That is not to say that there aren’t certain practical steps one can take to achieving such things. There are. But those things, those exercises are not a guarantee. They are just exercises, not the thing itself.
What makes someone commit to something long enough to achieve a real transformation is not something that can be bought or easily transferred in any way. Getting modern young people to understand that in our economically, literally driven society is often a challenge I face.
How do I meet that challenge? Well, I try to meet it by telling them stories. By giving them full answers instead of direct ones. I try to provide a place where literal and poetic thought can play together. I encourage them to use their imaginations and to visualize. I try to let them know that the blueprint they are seeking is already inside them and to encourage them to follow their inner knowing, especially when what they know or see does not correspond to what they are taught to want. I try to encourage them to nurture their inner knowing instead of forcing it to emerge as they want it to, which often leads to extreme unhappiness. I know this from my own life.
So, today, I took a bath with my rock on the ledge beside me. The rock was ready to “speak” to me. It opened up my memory. I “met” my maternal great-grandparents: Blanche, after whom my mother is named and Wilfred. I also “met” my Chinese ancestors and my paternal Spanish grandparents: Felica and Jesus. My African ancestors, I’d met earlier, on another occasion. I was led to them by the music of Ali Farka Toure’s In the Heart of the Moon.
They were all tearful reunions. I was able to recognize some of my ghosts. In many indigenous cultures, ancestors that have not been properly mourned with rivers of tears cannot journey to the realm of the ancestors, their rightful place after death. Their lost souls greatly affect the lives of those they’ve left behind. Pain gets handed down from generation to generation until the relationship between the living and the dead is healed. You can probably see evidence of inherited pain in your own life through such things as illness, depression, anger, alcoholism and sexual abuse.
The sexual problems are a real no-no for our culture. We don’t know how to talk about them. We drag those ghosts around and lay them on our children. But by remembering our ancestors, we initiate tremendous healing. In my own case, with the help of the rock, I was able to see my ghosts, my inherited pain, and the light of my awareness brought compassion to that energy, which is deeply healing.
I can imagine some of you reading this and thinking I’ve lost my mind. Others, for whom this resonates might get into their literal head and wonder how does one do this? Don’t worry. I won’t try to sell you anything. Why should I sell you something you already have?
So I will tell you a short story: in the beginning, I approached my ancestors literally, because literacy was the only tool I thought I had. I just started talking, but I tried to feel into them with my heart. Did I feel stupid talking to a mound of dirt (my ancestor shrine)? You betcha. But I tried to let my heart speak through my feelings of inadequacy and doubt.
Start where you are. Connect with others that are supportive of your intentions and similarly driven. Open up to the idea that you can love yourself. Don’t be afraid to sing. Start where you are.