Updated: Mar 27, 2020
I remember the night before my first dance.
Though I had been preparing mentally for nearly a year, I knew that there was nothing that could prepare me for the next day. For months I had been thinking about what it would be like, how I would do during four days with no food, no water. Four days on my feet in the sun, putting one foot in front of the other, praying.
Praying for Life. Praying for the people. Praying for my family. Praying for me.
In that way, the concentric rings moved from biggest to smallest. Honoring first what must come first, the continuation of life, living. So that other beings may have the blessed awareness of what it is like to experience this beautiful, blessed Earth.
They say that back in the day, initiations happened at the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. Somewhere in the realm of 12 to 14 years old for young men. That for women it was different, but I have no words to speak of the mysteries of women becoming women.
But for men, well, I know a vast many that have not yet become them. And largely, I’ve been told, it is because of this absence of initiation. So I sought mine out. In my mind that’s what I thought I would face the next day, as I lay on the ground in my sleeping bag the night before the dance, down there near the arbor.
I knew what I had known since I was a little kid. See, this dance had spoken to me since the first time I flipped through a Time Life book titled The Spirit World when I was about eleven years old. In it, there was a buckskin picture of a man dancing, his head held back, looking up at a sapling in the center of a circle. A rope tied to the sapling was held taught across the dance area, secured to two bleeding pins that were pierced through the dancer’s chest.
“One day, I’ll do that.”
I remember thinking that as a kid, and it scared the shit out of me then, just as it did twenty-seven years later as I lay there on the forest floor, beneath that cedar tree and wondered who I would be after the next day was done.
I went looking for it. And prayer and the deviations of life only took me twenty-seven years to get there. To be waiting for the next day. Wondering if I would be able to get pierced without screaming. Wondering if I would be able to dance at the end of my rope, tethered to the tree, for four days without falling. Wondering if I would be able to make it without my body shutting down. My knees buckling. My life somehow fluttering off in the summer wind.
All I know is that you never know what it’s going to be like until you’re there. And then it’s gone and you’ve done it.
When I got pierced that first time it was like the thundering tears and cries and howls of courage and laughter and joy and unshed sorrows of my ancestors came pouring through my body.
As I was led out to the end of my rope I leaned back into it, and felt the searing pain of the just torn flesh as the rope pulled taught and tugged at my chest. I felt the breeze catch my rope and yank it gently, sending a neural fire through my chest down into my hands and feet like a blue flame of lightening. And a grin that could barely be contained on my face spread from ear to ear.
Through a mix of tears and hysterical laughter I felt my heart expand in a way that words couldn’t possibly be worthy of describing. My entire being was flooded with an immense gratitude. And joy. And love. And for once the awareness that I was and am and have always been held by the spirits of those that came before me. In that moment of offering my body and my blood to the Earth I knew that I am a doorway through which life pours into this world. At that moment, I was the doorway through which all of my ancestors walked through. And embraced me. And I was, for once in my life, home.
For a moment I just stood there. And swayed. Felt the breeze tugging at the piercings in my chest, and smiled. My gaze steady on the prayer flags and prayer ties wrapped around the crown of our Sundance tree. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. It was the crowning moment of my walking on this Earth.
Now, I can’t tell you what happened next. Mostly because to put it into words is just not what you do. Not for days when you and your brothers poured your hearts out and gave everything you had to offer to the Spirit in gratitude for the abundance and never-ceasing gift of Life. Not when you pushed yourself beyond the limitations of anything you’ve been told is physically possible by the medical establishment that has been professing your death and peddling you its denial since you were a child. This world has little to do with such things.
But when all of that was done and the last drumbeat echoed across that arbor, through those woods, up to the peak and down into the valleys below, I was a different person.
I have seen and done many things in my life. But nothing was quite like that. If, against my better judgment, I attempted to speak of even a sideline detail of what it was like to someone close to me, I stopped just as soon as I noticed their attempt to normalize that unequivocally life-changing and utterly mind-blowing ceremony. Some people don’t understand the language of what is sacred.
That is because some people have never experienced initiations.
Not the true ones. The ones where death is your dance partner and you are aware of it. The ones where you know that your life, the one that hangs by the tiniest thread every moment of every day, can be swept up and away from you just as easily as a dandelion head in a strong wind.
We’re in a moment where peoples’ awareness of these things is about to change.
So if it's not time to speak of it now, then I don't know there will ever be a when.
The other morning I woke up well before the sunrise. Echoes of this fear that is gripping the land tugging at my awareness and bringing me quickly out of sleep and into my already hyperalert body. In my mind and in my feet was the rhythm of the dance. The drums reverberating in my bones. The scars in my chest itching, as if hungry for the pins and the pull of the rope.
I got up and came downstairs. And this whirlwind of specters danced around me as I clicked on the lights in one room after the next.
I realized that what we are going through is not something we could have planned for. That, like that night before the dance, as I lay on the ground beneath that big beautiful cedar, we have no idea what comes next. Regardless of the stories we have made up in our minds of preparing for apocalyptic scenarios. Regardless of the types of false security that we have clung to all of these years. Hiding behind masks of competence and comfort.
This is an initiation. And it will sweep through the land in layers. It will sweep through the people just like the great winds that sweep through the arbor during the dance. Each bringing with it a different spirit. All of them powerful beyond imagining. All of them very real. All of them capable of sweeping through a crowd and making it dance to their tune like so many marionettes.
In the dance there are helpers. Those that have been there before. That have been there, ideally, the longest. Those that know what unseen forces take hold of individuals and tear at their souls and use them to tear at the souls and lives of others. I honor these men and women. I offer them my undying gratitude. I pray that many blessings fall upon them and their loved ones now and always. I pray that we may find such people in our lives on the road ahead.
Those that have been there before. That have been there, ideally, the longest. Those that survived initiation and returned with that gaze from the otherworld.
That morning, as I walked through the full empty rooms of this chilly Spanish house, where I am hoping to weather this storm, it came to me that this virus that is the initiation that has come. Not for one, but for all of us as a species. Whether it was manmade or orchestrated or not is beside the point, because its effects are only beginning to be felt. And there are those that want to find some certainty to cling to. Some sense of assurance that life is and will be the same on the other side of this. But there is none of that to be had.
This initiation will transform all of us in ways that we can not possibly imagine. But we won’t know until we’re on the other end of it. And, like all initiations, IF we make it to the other end of it. Because life never is, nor has it ever been, guaranteed. It is a blessing. A gift. Not an entitlement. And it is fleeting.
As we move through this there are many things that will arise in all of us that will challenge us to our core. We will see the deepest fears in us arise over and over again. We will be confronted with aspects of ourselves that we do not like. And we will project those aspects onto others. We will want to make others responsible for the lack of certainty, comfort, and security that we feel. In this process all of our core wounds will be activated. Which means that everything that you have not yet healed in yourself will come out of the dark nooks and crannies where it hides. And we all have so much that has not yet healed, because this is our task here. To find and honor and witness and heal and learn.
But there is the other side, too.
I remember the moment where I hit the wall that first dance. Where my body hit a point that said ‘that’s it, there’s no more to give.’ As I stood there in the sun, days without food or water, tearing chunks from my lips every time I licked them with my parched tongue, I looked up at that sacred tree and, leaning back against that rope that had become my best friend, gave it all over to Spirit. I surrendered. I let it all go, and said to the spirits that my body and mind could do no more, but I was there to be a vessel for them. To honor those that walked before me. To honor those that walk with me. To honor those that will walk after. To honor Life.
And then my feet started moving. One foot. Then the next. Then the next.
Then I became the thundering hooves of wild horses. And herds of thousands and thousands of buffalo. Stretching for miles and miles. And the clawed and powerful paws of the Grizzly bear. Devouring entire mountainsides underfoot. And the soaring wings of eagles.
And the blessing of being alive as a vessel for life was bestowed upon me.
And somewhere, in this dance that we are in, so shall it be. For you. For me. For all of us that lay our prayers and offer our lives up to Spirit before the great Tree of Life. May we be the thundering vessels through which all life speaks. May your ancestors find their way through your thoughts and words and deeds. May we be the unstoppable force through which all life continues to be. May it be so.
Image: George Catlin. Sioux Religious Ceremony. The Spirit World. Time Life Books. 1992.