For almost 35 years nature has been my sacred place. As an 8-year old, I started to pray to Mother Earth even though the protestant tradition in which I grew up only recognised ‘God the Father’. I went outside in my inflatable rowing boat to seek solitude (as an only child in a quiet family!) on a small island in the lake of our local park. I practised rowing and walking quietly to not break the sacred silence. I collected herbs to brew infusions in my little thermos flask with boiled water brought from home. I sung to the moon, and danced my love for all creation back through my moving body. Over the last 15 or so years, I spent many days and nights at Neolithic monuments, dreaming in ancestral burial mounds, time traveling in stone circles in Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, England, Ireland and Brittany. This nature-based practice evolved naturally, and later incorporated my training with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies and the School of Movement Medicine. Nature is where I reconnect most easily with the Sacred, and listen to the whispers on the great web of life in which all of nature is a great teacher. Nature, for me, is a strong place of prayer, solace, awe, reverence, gratitude, joy, guidance, reconnection, healing and transformation.
Yet I am confused. I am confused because although this way of connecting to the mystery feels the most natural and innocent thing in the world to me, my practice is criticised as “playing Indian” because I did not happen to be born into one of the indigenous traditions that kept nature-based (“shamanic”, for want of a better word) practices alive. Critique includes cultural appropriation in relation to colonialism and white privilege, as well as that any form of spirituality outside the five major religions is considered as empty, eclectic, post-modern consumerist product that lacks meaning and substance because of its diluted, selective ‘picking’ of traditions from other times and contemporary contexts.
I understand that many indigenous peoples call for “white” people to return to their own roots. In Europe much of our indigenous pre-Christian “pagan” traditions have been lost. Traditions that were apparently “Celtic” in origin (another problematic term) were either incorporated into Roman or Christian spirituality, or thoroughly annihilated during the Inquisition’s witch burnings. However, some seeds of wisdom survived. Roman conquerors described ‘druid’ practices they witnessed at the time of their arrival. Christian monks wrote down local stories handed down through oral tradition. Perversely, books like the Malleus Maleficarum, the book that the Inquisition used to capture witches, and subsequently through their recorded confessions, we glimpse what the North-Western nature-based practices might have involved. Also, some family craft has been successfully passed down through generations. These “seeds of evidence” show remarkably similar ingredients to contemporary “shamanic” practices, including ways to communicate with animist nature and the spirit world, relationship with power animals or familiars, the use of dancing, drumming and sometimes hallucinogenic plants to induce vision, and healing practices using the four elements water, earth, fire and air.
However, revitalising this traditional knowledge in movements such as wicca, druidry, or neo-shamanism (to mention a few) also receives criticism. After all, how can we really know what an oral tradition was like 2000 years ago, what is the value of descriptions by successful conquerors or indeed testimonials given under torture, and how genuine can a contemporary recreation of a “new (age) body” of spiritual lore really be? So we find ourselves in a paradoxical Catch-22 or double bind situation. I full heartedly agree that it is essential to return to our own indigenous roots, but what can we do if simultaneously any attempt to do so is ridiculed, criticized or dismissed? How can we revitalise pre-Christian pagan cultural heritage with integrity after two millennia of near-absence, a collective memory gap, and an equally a strong ‘hold’ of Christian views that do not favour nature, body or gender and sexual equality?
Although most anthropologists will not like this generalisation, I believe that existential questions are of all times and places. People will always search for ways to communicate with the mystery, even though subsequent cosmologies and practices will be context-dependent. I wonder if there is a place before cultural compartmentalisation, where a spiritual practice based on nature is one of the most self-evident developments, to connect to earth, moon, sun, and stars, to nature’s seasons and the cycles of life, to scented herbs, to embodied practices to celebrate and give thanks. It is this practice I naturally developed as a child, instinctually, without instruction, because the instruction I received, in my understanding and experience, only partially touched on the wonder of life.
What if reconnecting to (European) Indigenous Knowledge is not so much a matter of revitalising anything as much as it is of remembering ancient knowledge that lies dormant in our bones, in our very DNA? What if practices such as lighting a candle, sitting by a fire, being out in nature in solitude, working with plants and animals as teachers, do not belong to any culture in particular, but to all? What if no culture owns the stories of eagle, mouse, wolf, seal or butterfly, but if these other-than-human-beings “simply” empower us to remember the sacred nature of all of life, and of the power of transformation? What if no culture has the perfect answer to ‘right livelihood’ but together we learn what it is to be human and how we can take care of all life respectfully? What if we can honour our collective ancestors, who co-created such an incredibly rich tapestry of cosmologies and practices of which all the threads reverberate with and strengthen each other? What if we move beyond cultural boundaries and fears of misappropriation, towards the reverence of the mystery of beating hearts and shared humanity? What if no one owns access to the Sacred, and we are all responsible for honouring it together, in any way we can?
I would like to meet you there, in respect and gratitude for diversity, and from a deep longing for inclusivity rather than separation.
Eline Kieft has danced from a young age, including rigorous classical and contemporary training to become a professional dancer. She explored indigenous ways of knowing through her studies in Anthropology (BA, MA). During her PhD in Dance at Roehampton University, London, she looked at dance as a modality for healing and spirituality, including embodied epistemologies and shamanic techniques. Eline currently works at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) at Coventry University. She is a long-term shamanic practitioner and student of Jonathan Horwitz, as well as a Movement Medicine teacher, an approach for contemporary shamanic improvised dance. Finally, Eline is founder of Clover Trail, which offers soulful journeys to integrate the sacred into the everyday, and create your own meaningful and personalised art of living (mostly in France and UK). www.elinekieft.com and www.clover-trail.com.