My heart is still singing from the four-day retreat I and 35 other colleagues spent in the redwood forests of Ben Lomond this summer solstice. We met at Sequoia Retreat Center, a truly sacred place. It was my eighth year participating. Each time the experience deepens.
The energy in this year’s gathering went up an octave—perhaps because of the crises in confidence the world now faces, perhaps because a core group of us has stepped across a threshold of withholding into true ceremony, perhaps because of forces we cannot explain. But these two weeks after returning have been filled with reflections about all that happened, and especially the evening of Medicine Wheel dancing that is the turning point of the experience. I felt that our community reclaimed something deep and fundamental. We experienced true ceremony.
During one of my reflective times I drew this pen and chalk drawing of the dance, without thought of sharing, just so I could relive the experience. The image has come alive for me. There is something about the energy of line and patterns that re-evokes some of the magic. I have no idea if it will do that for you, but I feel called to try and bring it alive a bit in words. Something happened this time that all of us need more of.
Origins of the Solstice Gathering
The Summer Solstice event began eight years ago as a concluding retreat for the two Pathfinder groups Marilyn and Bill Veltrop convened. These circles met in dialogue all day, once a month, for, in our case, nine months. We explored what it might mean to hold an intention of increasing our contribution to the world ten-fold. Our group of ten was so moved by our experience we continued, and have been meeting a day a month for all this time, now calling ourselves the Pathwalkers. We have no leaders. We have no bylaws. Our new intention is to experience what it means to be guided by spirit, individually and collectively. And that is how we let the dialogue unfold. We are fiercely ecumenical.
Of course patterns and structures have emerged. Two years after beginning, Pele Rouge and FireHawk Hulin joined our circle. They had graduated from the first Pathfinder group and wanted to continue meeting. But they were also co-conveners of the Heartland Circle’s Thought Leader Network, begun by Craig and Patricia Neal back in Minnesota, and brought to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s. They have been meeting since then, and have gathered a group of 40-50 who also meet in deep dialogue—four hours every other month.. Thought Leaders began coming to the Summer Solstice event six years ago.
This year of the 35 there were 13 coming for the first time. So a core group of 23 had been to many, and carried a core discipline of deep dialogue, and increasing familiarity with the medicine teachings being brought forward by Pelel and Firehawk. We’ve all experienced what can happen when a group moves to a frequency of love and acceptance of each other, ALL of each other, shadow sides and light, for prolonged periods of time. In that kind of spacious field our deeper selves flourish, as do our connections with each other and spirit. It feels like the spiritual equivalent of the slow foods movement.
The Medicine Wheel Holds Our Intention
Our intention for the Solstice Gathering is to connect with and renew our personal commitments for, as we say, “the next cycle of the sun.” Our practice is to explore this within the loose structure of a traditional vision quest – first separating from ordinary reality, then entering the sacred space of the great mystery—the unknown—and then coming back with medicine gifts for our people.
Pele and Firehawk spent ten years learning traditional wisdom from two traditional elders, Wind Eagle and Rainbow Hawk. It is a path called the Teachings of the Delicate Lodge, and is supported by an organization called Ehama. Their teaching is a tradition reaching back to the Toltecs, carried forward by Native Americans in North America and most recently by a growing international network of people, aligned in a feeling that it is time to bring back some of this Earth Wisdom as a guide for the great healing and transformation that either will or won’t take place on our planet. If we as a diverse Solstice Gathering have an aligned agreement, it is that we as a larger culture are in the birth canal of something very big and very new, and none of us know what will emerge but believe something will and want to help midwife it appropriately. Most of us are far enough along in our careers to feel the call of service and giving back.
So the structure of the four days creates a safe, spacious container for reflection and sharing, reflection and sharing, good food, laughter, music, stories, and coming to our commitments. It isn’t rushed. It isn’t overplanned. But it has a pattern.
The beating heart of this event is a day of reaching back to old, old indigenous practices of calling on spirit rather than intellect to provide guidance. It is, as I said before, in the form of the vision quest, which sets up the conditions for entering the void and calling for vision, and then returning with gifts from the great mystery.
We come to this work from many different traditional practices and traditions. One couple practices Hassidic Judaism. Others are Buddhists. Many are Christian. Some are practicing Vedanta. For some it is following the Course in Miracles. Yet we need one form, one container and structure to hold our gathering, and have all agree to sit within the great Medicine Wheel as an integrating construct.
It’s a nice choice, since The Medicine Wheel of Native Americans is a very ancient form, and Native American spirituality has resisted condensation into dogma. It has associated meanings that differ, just like any tradition, but it draws its distinctions from the Earth itself, not a prophet or book, and relies on imagery that is very evocative. The East in the tradition of the Delicate Lodge, is associated with the rising sun, fire, new life, babies, creativity and freedom—the Heyokah Chiefs. Each direction’s perspective, in ceremony, is held by “Chiefs” who speak for the sensibility of that perspective. The South is connected with youthful passion and feeling, the water world– powerful and dangerous—the War Chiefs. The West is associated with the setting sun, the inner world of dreams and intuition, the adult place of maintenance and balance—the Women Chiefs. And the north is associated with the cold—a challenging place of the elder, the place needing action and clarity—The Hunger/Worker Chiefs. The in-between points have meaning too in this tradition, and Pele and Firehawk have been steadily educating us. We were invited to step into this ancient drama and open to the energy of each of these possibilities, which together represent the whole of the human condition.
The wheel itself is created each year in a big meadow at Sequoia Retreat Center, with banners, and gates for the eight directions, and helpful photographs and key words for the eight perspectives. That is what I drew a picture of in my journal. We are using the ancient tradition of having visuals and graphics to support our memory, just like the stations of the cross are marked in the great cathedrals of Europe, so we can more fully move beyond form to the energy of ceremony. This year most of us had learned the form. Like musicians who knew our music and our instruments we could focus on the intention and movement that wanted to emerge.
Separating from the World We Know
We spent an entire day in formal and informal dialogue the day before, reaching a crescendo during an evening of sharing about objects we brought that represented our human essence – the spirit beings that have chosen to manifest in each of us. We played and told stories, and laughed and danced. We painted our faces to mark leaving our regular personaes behind.
The next day, the day of the Medicine Wheel dance, we spent mostly in silence. We walked in the redwoods, sat in the lodge, moved to where ever we were called, and waited for something to come. I fell asleep in a wild place in the woods and dreamed. I journaled and meditated. Then we all came back to the Ayala Lodge for a silent dinner. Having talked for several days now, we shifted to just feeling the movement that each of us was undergoing without the words. We were already moving into sacred space.
Afterwards we gathered in the redwood grove where we had met on the first day, waiting silently until we were one, complete circle. Eagle Woman smudged us all with sage, and then we walked silently through the woods on the small winding trail to the meadow. It took a half hour. It’s enough time that the leaves and the shadows began to talk to us. It’s slow enough that bird sounds and footsteps became events. It was quiet enough we could feel ourselves as one community, moving through a portal, entering the mystery.
Entering the Mystery and the Dance
The meadow was in the last light of day. A slight breeze teased the long, blue banners flying high over the eight gates. In the middle of the wheel stood an Oklahoma redbud tree, the tree of life, and around its base tiers of candles dancing in their clear, glass chambers. Torches lit the perimeter, and the eight bamboo gates tied together with white stones and redwood branches were ringed with chairs outside.
The heart thumping sound of Singing Thunder, a big mother drum hand made by Chayim Barton’s Elder’s Circle, a network of vision questors of which I am a part, rang across the meadow. Her voice will carry the dancers all evening. Her beaters will experience the fierce focus of Pele and learn the dancing song. Her buffalo hides will bring the spirit of those ancient animals into our circle.
“For all our relations” we whisper as we enter the circle. We move to the gates we chose on the first day, with the directional buddies with whom we have shared talk and inquiry about our purpose and commitments. I’m in the Southwest, the place of awareness of present condition and appreciation, the place of the Peace Chiefs. It is, according to tradition, the gate the ancestors enter. It is the direction of the lover and the artist. It connects the East and the South, creative new life with youthful energy. It feels right for me this year.
Firehawk and Pele tell stories about the directions. They bring them to life with playful intensity. We call and they respond. They invite us to think about each direction as a perspective, a doorway of insight into our commitments, a way to go deeper as we dance.
We dance toward the tree of life holding feathers, one from a wild turkey, and another from a Macaw, carefully collected over years by one of the participants from her two dear bird “friends” who have died. As we dance toward the tree we give it our commitment, we think about our commitment from the perspective of the direction from which we dance, we ask for guidance from the Chiefs in that direction. And there at the tree we open to the wonder of life, and experience ourselves as a community of dancers, praising life. We then dance backwards to the edge, pulling the energy from the tree of life into our hearts, feeling the power of this ceremony moving each person deeper.
The drummers cry out the dancing song and beat out the driving rhythm of the dance. Some tire and sit and support. Others join the drum. Most dance again. We go for hours. We are not talking and chatting. We are dancing our commitments to the next cycle of the sun.
In that time the stars appear as the puffy clouds evaporate. The grass dews. A cool breeze keeps us cool, and everyone who brought blankets gives thanks for them. We move to timeless time, to pure appreciation, to wonderous inquiry about our lives together. And our sense of commitment deepens.
Around midnight we dance our last round and move to the center of the wheel, to sit in silence around the tree of life, and just be with our commitments and our selves. And then we walk home along the little paths, still mostly quiet.
Integrating Our Medicines
It’s difficult to explain what happens on nights like these. It is cellular. It’s an experience that operates on all the levels at which human’s live. It has become ceremony because we are no longer tripping over what we are “supposed” to do, but are simply being—the dance, the beat, the candle light, the tree, our commitments. It is worship at it best, but without orthodoxy, or judgment, or exclusion. It becomes a sacred mirror of our deeper selves.
While the experience is liminal, deep, and in part inexpressible, the ceremony itself has form and discipline. This “dance” between freedom and constraint is integral to human experience and true ceremony. Without a container I don’t believe such experiences are possible at a group level. Humans are social beings. There is a “we” that is far bigger than our “I.” But how do we get to that feeling while sustaining full appreciation for differences? How do we hold the sacred without dragging it into language and pre-mature meaning. This is the role of form.
The intention of the Medicine Wheel form is to counter mind with mind, and direct it in ways that it will relax and let the deeper wisdom emerge. We sing songs that are sounds only. We dance dances without associations of anything but the Earth. And we come in trusting that there is more to life than clarity and information, tweets and contracts. These are important, but they are not enough. They are not the fire of intention and purpose. They are not the stories of how we are to move. So into the form must flow our intention and openness to possibility. Without these more subtle things the motions are just movement and noise.
The next morning after breakfast we all gathered back in the grove. There now was a large, circular wheel painted on canvas with pockets that hold our commitments from each cycle of the sun. It was brought down from the lodge where it had been presiding over our dialogue circles. It is our history “robe.” It is a graphic record of our community. At its center is a diamond of dark, a void, out of which shines one star, a spark of light. The rest is the color of hide. The pockets mirror the form of the Mayan 20 count. We are in the fifth cycle, the time of human beings. We stand in front of it and speak our commitments for the next cycle of the sun, and place them in the pocket for this year.
A mark of the energy unleashed this time was that many declared their intention to stay with this process until all 20 pockets are full. We are all consultants and change agents of one sort or another, people who feel the call to be in service in this time of need and want the kind of support for ourselves we are feeling here—the unconditional acceptance and support of people working to see the wholeness in our diversity.
We are reclaiming something we call ceremony. I feel like we are reclaiming life itself.
David Sibbet’s Commitment
My own commitment this cycle of the sun is to support growing an inner practice as strong as these times, and to begin EACH day orienting to the clear light of life that burns in all of us and the Earth and all its creatures. It’s the force that will balance the news, the loss, the chaos and the fear. Beginning my days this way I will look to BE the light for those I meet, to listen and look for the light in their eyes—for the fire of life burns in us all, and though dim at times, I believe it can always be seen if looked for.
For me this cycle of the sun is marked by the birth of two new grand daughters. One, Alice Opal Sibbet, is here already, breathing her own air. The second, yet unnamed, will come to our daughter Jerda in the middle of this month. So this cycle of the sun I am looking at what will serve and support my family. These are trying times for everyone, and that is when we elders must step forward with everything we have. I want my grand daughters to know that I am watching their backs. I wish the same for my grandsons. I’m grandfather to seven young beings now. Supporting them is my commitment.
And it is the cycle for holding the light in my communities, and my work. I feel it is, for me, not a time for “trying” but for yielding to who I really am deep inside. I sense this is the gift that people want, that my grandchildren want—the presence and counsel of an experienced elder, a humble and still curious elder, an elder who trusts the larger whole and knows how to craft the containers for its emergence, an elder who actually listens.
These are my commitments this cycle of the sun.
As we say in circle, “I have spoken.”