This is a revised version of the third and final reflection paper I wrote for an 18-month School of the Spirit program called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.” My application for this program is here. The first paper, Two Roads, starts here. The second paper, Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans, starts here.
Between Two Worlds
This paper explores the probability that we are a species poised between two worlds. It suggests that on the threshold between sea and land, inner and outer, heaven and earth, we receive liminal gifts from a mysterious Gift-giver. For this is what liminal means: on the threshold. Although the luminous offerings we find on such thresholds are not always easily received, they are the ultimate source of our charisma, our callings, and our special friendships.
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In the middle of the night I’m walking along a beach on the North Carolina coast. Bare feet on wet sand; the soothing sound of surf to my right; the long row of beach houses to my left. Some are dark. Others have a lamp or two still burning. A few are decked out with security lights.
“The inner light alone makes us feel secure,” I muse. “Security lights feed our fears.”
The mid-September night sky is clear. The waning gibbous moon behind me casts the distinct shadow of a walking man on the damp sand in front of me. It mimics me perfectly.
Sirius has climbed above the eastern horizon, faithfully following Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades. Moonlight plays across the surface of the receding waves. Looking more closely, I smile to see the faint reflection of Sirius there as well.
The waves keep breaking; I keep walking. Slowly I slough off the constraints and conceits of this present time. The beach houses, lights, and power lines fade away, leaving a solitary human doing what our species has done for thousands of generations – walking at night by the edge of an ocean, hearing the same sounds, seeing the same constellations, marking the same phases of the moon.
It’s an oddly comforting sensation to be in the presence of elemental forces that dwarf my personal sense of self into insignificance. For even as the ancient waves tease away most of what I know myself to be, I have seldom felt so unalone. There’s even a moon-shadow to keep me company.
With the return of daylight, my widened identity will constrict again, for expansion and contraction come with the turning of the wheel. Both are needful. Soon all the stars, save for our daystar, will disappear from the sky. Then I’ll be watching the pelicans and ospreys dive for their breakfast in the offshore fisheries.
* * *
We humans, too, are fisherfolk, finding metaphorical food on that threshold between land and sea. Each time we ease into the fertile stillness of meditation, or return from sleep blessed with dreams, or conjure beauty and meaning out of the Ineffable, we are receiving liminal gifts. We can almost feel the seawater singing in our veins. It’s as though some deep circadian rhythm keeps calling us home.
I will use three strong dreams to illustrate the themes presented in this paper. They’re from a special collection of dreams I have described elsewhere (here) as being strong medicine dreams. I also call them vigil dreams: numinous teaching stories I hope to remember on my deathbed.
The first of the three is by far the longest and perhaps the strongest. It’s a kaleidoscopic story about people who live between two worlds and solicit liminal gifts. The dream and its title arrived on the morning of February 4th, 2001. I will share a few brief associations after each of the dream’s five scenes.
Scene 1 I’m in a city in Australia, doing advocacy work with the indigenous people. This work has led me to seek advice from someone I’ve heard about but have never met. Phil is an aboriginal and also an activist. He’s also one of the few indigenous people who’ve been able to maintain their power, integrity, and authenticity within the urban environment of Australia.
I arrive at the trailer where Phil and several other activists live and knock on the door. The man who opens the door has just come out of a shower and is rubbing his hair dry with a towel.
“Come on in,” he says, then lays his towel over a chair.
By the way he’s present for me when he opens the door, and carefully takes care of his damp towel before interacting with me, I know that this is Phil. I also see that he has a lot to teach me. He’s fully focused in the present moment and has plenty of energy and awareness.
I show him some forms I’ve brought with me — a thick bundle of bureaucratic red tape — and ask him which ones are essential for the work I’m doing. He flips through them, then points to one in particular.
“This one,” he says. “This is what needs your attention.”
Later I ask him what it’s been like, having to adapt from the aboriginal way of life he grew up in to an urban environment. He says that staying in one place has been hard. The culture of his youth was nomadic: a wandering, walkabout way of life, never anchored to one place.
“To be tied down to a city job,” he says, “or to the obligations of farming a small plot of land, that’s been the challenge.”
[I have never been to Australia, other than in this one dream. It’s the “down under” continent on the other side of the globe. Going down into the underworld. / On my bookshelf sits Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming, by Robert Bosnak, the account of a Jungian dream-worker who visits an aboriginal dream-worker in Australia. / I followed a mostly nomadic life when I was in my 20’s. It eventually led me to Light Morning. Now I’ve been “anchored” to this one place for many decades, having taken on the “obligations of farming a small plot of land.” / I don’t want the preoccupations of a homesteading lifestyle to supersede the mythopoetic world of dreams. I need to remember, while busily immersed in the middle of my daily routines, that it’s the middle of the night (and dream time) in Australia. / I’m still drawn to emulate Phil’s ability to be “fully focused in the present moment, with plenty of energy and awareness.”]
* * *
Scene 2 Then Phil shifts gears. He tells me how power descends from the Unseen to reach the lives of the aboriginal people. As an activist, Phil is guided from beyond his personal volition by words of power. These words of power are in turn precipitated out of primal themes which are crafted at the deepest levels of awareness by theme-weavers.
Theme-weavers reach for the vital needs of the ever-changing present moment. Their sole focus is to help the aboriginal people stay within their sphere of grace. A sphere of grace – whether it’s personal, cultural, or the spirit of the times – is always in motion. So in order to remain within the protective confines of one’s sphere of grace, one must likewise be moving, changing, adapting.
Adaptation is aided by theme-weaving. For out of such weaving come words of power: the numinous dreams, evocative phrases, and sheltering prayers which the activists can then use to help themselves, their families, and their people stay within an ever-moving sphere of grace.
[A sphere of grace. Grace: a guiding, mitigating, integrating influence that comes from Elsewhere. Sphere — like an aura or radiance; like the halo shown around the head of a divine personnage. / Perhaps a state of grace is like one’s state of health. It can range from poor to normal to radiant, and can strengthen or weaken. / According to Phil, grace is always in motion. I can move away from it and it can move away from me. To remain within its protective sphere of influence, I must follow where it leads. / Liminal gifts come from the Ineffable, through theme-weavers, into words of power, then through activists to groups and individuals. Like a series of step-down transformers.]
* * *
Scene 3 Then I’m still in some other urban Australian setting. Several blocks down the street I see a young aboriginal kid in his late teens or early twenties climb out the top-floor window of a several story apartment building. He has tied one end of a piano wire around his neck and has fastened the other end to the center post of the window.
He has clearly succumbed to the soul-crushing despair that overwhelms so many indigenous people who have been colonized into the mainstream culture. He is far from his sphere of grace; unable to make the adaptive leap that Phil made.
He lowers himself down until he’s hanging by his hands from the window ledge. All he has to do is let go and he’ll hang himself.
“No! No!” I yell, running toward him.
But he’s too far away. He can’t hear me. I can’t reach him. Dread and impotence fill me as I run, knowing that this young boy’s hopelessness will momentarily take its course.
[Deeply painful associations to this scene. Two weeks before having this dream, I helped bury the 22-year-old son of close friends and next-door neighbors. Nate had hung himself. I’d known Nathan his entire life; had been there for his birth. Nobody saw it coming. His death devastated his family and friends. / Playing the black and white keys on a piano keyboard. Integrating, reconciling nighttime and daytime, dreaming and waking, heaven and earth. / The music of the spheres; the sphere of grace. / Both Nate and the young aboriginal were unable to do what Phil had somehow learned to do — move back and forth across the threshold between two worlds.]
* * *
Scene 4 The scene shifts again. I’m in an old white pickup truck. A young aboriginal guy is in the passenger’s seat. He’s about the same age as the boy who had climbed out the window. We have come to a gathering of the indigenous people, but we’re still sitting and talking in the cab of the truck.
Suddenly a redneck bully starts pounding on the doors and windows of the truck. He apparently has a strong grudge against aboriginals and anyone who’s helping them. The doors are locked and the windows are up, so he climbs onto the top of the cab and starts jumping up and down. The whole truck is shaking. The kid I’m with is terrified.
With no premeditation I get out of the truck and close the door behind me. The bully snarls, jumps off the roof of the cab, and comes at me. A spontaneous knowing of what to do flows through me. Despite my lack of any martial arts training, I intuitively duck behind the stocky man and put a restraining hold on him so he can’t move.
He’s enraged. But when he sees that he can’t fight me, can’t run away, and can’t even move, he becomes terrified. Waves of fear and shame wash over him. Shaking uncontrollably, he starts to scream. I hold on, not hurting him, but keeping him under restraint.
All at once the man goes limp. His entire body relaxes completely. I somehow know that this bully has been healed. So I release him. He looks at me – his eyes are clear – and then walks slowly away.
Later, at this same gathering, special treats are brought out. They have been prepared by our aboriginal hosts. Someone offers me a curved piece of bark full of what appears to be oatmeal and stewed raisins – one of my favorite childhood breakfasts and comfort foods.
Then I see that the “oatmeal” is crushed tubers that have been foraged, pounded, and cooked; and the “raisins” are dark grubs. The food has been offered to me with caring and respect, so I obviously have to eat it. But while it may be a special treat for them, it’s sure not the comfort food I saw when I first looked at it.
[Another painful association: the bully jumping up and down on the top of our pickup truck; Nate jumping off the top of his pickup truck to hang himself. / But this scene offers an alternate reality to the tragedy of Scene 3. And we’re in the back country (on the young aboriginal’s turf ), not in the city (on mine). / If all the characters in a dream play out unassimilated facets of the dreamer, then two of my complementary facets are getting to know each other. / This would also mean that I need to see the bully as me. Outwardly, my genetic ancestors forcibly colonized and exploited the indigenous peoples of North America and Australia. Inwardly, my practical, rational, secular tendencies too often overpower the softer voices of dreams and intuitions. / The bully finds healing: there are far too many associations to unfold here, and besides, the parable-like climax of this scene speaks for itself.]
* * *
Scene 5 The scene shifts one last time. It’s nighttime. I’m standing on a dock near the edge of a large lake. Above me is a wintry sky filled with stars. Gazing up at the stars and then down at the cold, dark water, I’m aware that I have come here to undergo an initiation.
A small oval of ice floats several feet away from the dock. It’s 16 or 18 inches in diameter and quite thin. I am to put first one foot and then the other onto that slender wafer of ice. Something so flimsy can’t support the weight of my physical body. So when I take that first step, I have to shift the focus of my identity from being a creature of flesh and blood to being an energy body, a body of light.
I must fully commit to making such a shift, though. For if I hesitate, indulge in doubt, or stop halfway, I will tumble into the icy blue-black water. I still feel somewhat queasy as I place my feet, one at a time, onto that small oval of ice.
Then I’m surprised by wonder, for the thin ice easily supports the subtle body I have been able to assume. I lean back, bending at the knees, until the rest of my body is parallel to the surface of the lake and I’m looking up into the night sky. It’s the same posture that Neo takes in The Matrix to dodge the bullets of an agent on the roof of a federal building.
Gazing at the stars from the perspective of this posture, I feel the oval of ice beginning to move. A circle is being defined. My upward-looking eyes are the center of this circle, while my feet, resting gently on the rotating wafer of thin ice, trace out the circumference. As the wheel turns, the constellations above me turn as well. One star directly overhead remains motionless, however. This axial star becomes the still center of the slowly turning firmament.
Then I know that this is how the theme-weavers work. This is how they become attuned to the comings and goings of the cycles and seasons. This is the loom on which new themes are woven. These themes gestate into words of power – numinous dreams, evocative phrases, sheltering prayers — which activists like Phil use to help themselves and others find and take refuge within the ever-shifting spheres of grace.
[That’s why Phil is so charismatic. For charism means both gift and power. Phil has devoted his life to accessing and disbursing liminal gifts, both for himself and for his people. / The setting for this final scene embodies the theme of living between two worlds in order to reconcile apparent disparities: darkness & light > starry night sky; substantial & insubstantial > energy body; stillness & motion > constellations revolving around axial star; solid & liquid > wafer of thin ice. / Here again, with wafer, we see the endless playfulness of dreams. Wafer > the Eucharist < eu-charisma, “good gifts”, liminal gifts. / Dreams themselves are liminal creatures — always in motion; underlying themes played out through ever-changing scenes; an unceasing choreography between transpersonal and personal, formlessness and form, heaven and earth.]
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Liminal Gifts will continue next week.