Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest

Recently, I played tourist and went to the Point-à-Callière Museum in Old Montreal to see the exhibit on Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest. I am always drawn to exhibits about South America and spent almost a year in Brazil in the late 1970s. In fact, I landed in Manaus and travelled by boat for four serene days along the Amazon River as it snaked its way to Belem.  I say serene because the scenery hardly changed, continuous river with dense green jungle on both sides.

The rubber ‘crash’ saw the Amazon Theatre close its regular operations in 1924.Below is the late 19th century Manaus opera house, built with the wealth generated by the rubber barons. It closed with the crash in the early 20th century, but reopened in 1997 and now has its own philharmonic symphony.

Since my first visit, I have travelled extensively in Latin America and feel a deep, mysterious affinity for it, so I was excited about seeing the Amazonia exhibition.

On the first floor of the exhibit, many exquisitely beautiful artifacts were on display. Pictured below are a mask and two diadems made from bird feathers.

The photo is from the museum’s website.

The artistry of some of the huge earthenware pots was also impressive. I am reminded of a comment made by a colleague years ago. I was at a conference in Rome, one of the great cultural centres of the western world, and she asked me if I was going anywhere else that summer. When I replied that I was going to visit a friend in New Mexico, she laughed at the contrast, saying there was no history there. Now that’s a good example of western hegemony at work because there are many traces of ancient history in the Southwest. Below is a photo of the ancient cliff dwellings in the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation.

There are also a distinct cultures.  At the recent Chagall exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts there was a Zuni Katchina doll on display to show the diverse sources that Chagall drew upon for inspiration for the modern ballet costumes he designed.

Just this past winter I read the fascinating The Lost City of Z, written by David Grann, who also writes for The New Yorker. The book was recently adapted into a film and marketed as an Indiana Jones type adventure story, but it is based on an actual explorer, Perry Fawcett, who was convinced there was an ancient civilization buried within the Amazon rainforest. Well, in the twenty-first century he has finally been proven correct. Wikipedia, in their article, note that the pottery methods used by the ancient tribes are nearly identical to those used today.

However, what drew me to the Amazonia exhibition was the emphasis on Shamanism, which has always fascinated me. I think the subtitle of the exhibition expresses the capacity of the shaman well. Through rituals and the ingestion of mind-altering natural substances, the shaman becomes one with the forest. It is a merging of consciousness. In a special issue of the magazine Tribal Art, Boris Wastiau, the Director of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, explains that the forest is “a conscious ecosystem from which [the shamans] are ontologically inseparable.” For those who have never felt the essential presence or consciousness of the natural world, this may seem strange, yet it is our alienation from the natural world that is leading to our demise. This is a tragedy that could be avoided.

The Amazonia exhibit also had much to say about the precarious state of the rainforest. Oil spills by companies such as Exxon and Chevron have devastated parts of the region. Gold diggers, who use mercury to extract the gold, are poisoning the rivers. Logging is also a major problem. On 25 August, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reported that the Brazilian president, Michel Temer, is

abolishing a vast reserve of tropical rain forest in what conservationists are calling the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years, the move ending protections for the Renca Reserve, a swath of rainforest the size of Denmark, paving the way for road building, mining, and logging.

Indigenous tribes in the Amazon are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of the planet. In terms of its size and biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest if the largest in the world. It is vital to our survival as it supplies 20% of the world’s oxygen.

While I wrote this, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Hopefully more people will wake up to the reality of climate change and what is at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

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East Meets West

 

Earlier this month, I attended a meditation and teaching weekend at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in downtown Montreal. When I arrived, it struck me as incongruous that the event was taking place in the Salle Jean Béliveau, named after a hockey star who played for the Montreal Canadiens. But on second thought, it occurred to me that Montreal’s multicultural environment actually lent itself to the mix of Canadian popular culture and Tibetan Buddhism. As it turned out, the teachings of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master, merge aspects of Western and Eastern philosophyan.

As described on his website, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Emotional Rescue, Rebel Buddha, and other books. A lover of music, art and urban culture, Rinpoche is a poet, photographer, accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, as well as a prolific author. Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers.

The title and theme of Rinpoche’s talk was “Seizing Every Opportunity.” First of all, he clarified that opportunity and opportunism are not the same: opportunity is something that can benefit ourselves and others. In order to seize opportunity, one must be prepared — the key is preparation. Once prepared, the moment to seize opportunity has arrived. If you find there is no opportunity, create one. However, you may be the block.

Inner development is required. It’s not all out there in the external world. We must develop our minds, our inner world. We need to tame our minds, and this requires discipline. By way of example, Rinpoche commented on how much time we spend on our cell phones and checking our email. (According to a recent New York Times Wellness section, on average we check our cells 47 times a day!) Instead, we should spend more time cultivating and connecting with our minds. In order to do this, we need to learn to meditate so that we can become mindful. Then we can create opportunity. So you see, Rinpoche presented a blend of western material culture pep talk and Buddhism teaching.

 

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The next day, Rinpoche continued to discuss and define opportunity. He began by stating that we have the power to create opportunity, that we are actually the seed that must be cultivated. Unfortunately, more people are interested in crisis, pain and death than in life — in how to live or to transform our consciousness. He reminded us that every form of crisis is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. This kind of thinking harks backs to the Greeks, the originators of western culture. According to the Greeks, a disaster, or crisis, presents a turning-point, a chance to do things differently and, thereby, offers an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to learn something but a space is opened up that provides an opportunity to create something new. Crisis is productive; it’s an opportunity for awakening, to encourage positivity, to help and be kind to others. Rinpoche urges us to use every moment in the best way you can. As he likes to say, “GoKind!”

Here is where meditation becomes important. It is a means of getting to know one’s mind. “Know thyself!”  Meditation leads to mindfulness, an awareness that the individual is connected to the collective. It is the path of the Bodhicitta. Being kind means becoming vulnerable, so one must also be fearless because the path will be difficult. One doesn’t know in advance what an opportunity will become; it requires a kind of blind faith.

So we must prepare and practice, developing not only our skills, but our mindfulness. Then we can seize the opportunity to make the world a better place.

City of Refuge

The sheer number of people suffering forced displacement today is staggering – the greatest flow of refugees since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Of those, 21.3 million are designated as refugees, and almost half of those people hail from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Five million have fled Syria alone, and more than 6 million are internally displaced there. Estimates put the death toll in Syria’s five-year civil war at more than 400,000. The destructive war in Yemen, meanwhile, has forced more than 3 million to flee their homes. The UNHCR predicts that 2016 will be the deadliest year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Daniel, a young French-Vietnamese man, lies dying in a Montreal hospital. Spurned by his family for contracting AIDS in Provincetown, Daniel spends his last months in despair. Only his cousin Mai stays by his side to record the darkest of family secrets. From French Indochina to present day North America, this novel follows three generations of a Vietnamese family as they endure their own folly and the whims of history.

 

 

 

 

The Promise of New Life

Three weeks ago, I flew home from Mexico at the end of a three month stay. It was a night flight, and because I fell asleep soon after take off, when I woke up six hours later to land in Montreal, I found myself entering a completely different world.

Although it was officially spring, the trees were still bare and patches of snow could be seen on the frozen ground. It is only now that the bluebells and apple blossoms are beginning to come out and the trees are finally budding.  If you allow yourself to feel attuned to the promise of new life after a long cold winter, there is something soft and soothing about the spring. Everyone loves a fresh start.

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In contrast, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Southern Mexico, the heat and the sunlight are intense, even during the winter months. The heat actually penetrates the body, so one becomes much more aware of one’s body and, consequently, feels that much more alive. In that particular part of the world, it’s as if the earth has an entirely different vibration and emits a kind of primal energy that can be empowering and intoxicating. Mexico does have its magic.

Image result for view from villa sol beach puerto escondido oaxaca coast mexicoAside from the beautiful beaches and the fresh food, in the early mornings, I enjoyed practicing yoga inside a palata. It’s the next best thing to being outdoors. Staring up at the thatched roof made from dried palm leaves and listening to the birds happily greeting the day became a source of inspiration. I felt I was in paradise.

One evening I attended a meditation session with live music, mostly bells and drums as well as chanting. After about an hour, the chanting became much deeper and the drumming intensified. I imagined these were the voices of the ancestors, lamenting what was happening to the earth. There was a sense of urgency in their cries, even anger, urging us to do something and soon. But what is to be done?

Shortly after getting home, I read a strange and fascinating book by the Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Alchemy of Light: Working with the Primal Energies of LifeAlchemy of Light Book CoverVaughn-Lee fears that we and our beautiful planet may lose our soul. He urges us to awaken to the spiritual dimension of life and to recognize that we are all one. For those of you who prefer a more scientific approach, the neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, has the very same message. He  is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.

It seems that more and more people are opening up to the scared dimension of life, the realization that we and every living being on the planet are connected. Yesterday I listened to a talk by Eckhart Tolle on the power of presence, by which he means learning to be present in our bodies. He mentioned that he had 150,000 people who had signed up to hear his talk. As far as he was concerned, this was good news and he suggested we pay less attention to the mainstream media, as it focuses almost entirely on those who remain unconscious. It is hard to imagine CNN announcing a new consciousness is emerging, isn’t it? But let’s not give up hope.

Well, I’ve resumed my yoga and am now taking a course in Yoga Qi Gong. It incorporates aspects of Tai Chi and much of the practice involves working with energies. The room where we practice is quite different from the palapa I came to love in Mexico; it’s the meeting room of a large and modern condominium. One side of the room consists of glass doors that stretch from the floor to the ceiling and provide a view of the grounds. I noticed yesterday that the grass has grown quite long and swayed in the wind. Perhaps when it gets warmer, we’ll be able to open the doors.

Namaste