photo by wil stewart
In front of a sweatlodge, a man speaks. Half to himself, half to the flames licking the stones. Many ears strain to follow the laconic US drawl over the crackle of burning wood. While we wait for the rocks to gather heat, stories pour out of him like a river.
“Word is Crazy Horse had a vision in captivity, one he didn’t understand. He saw his people doing the Sun Dance, their most sacred ceremony – but there were many others there too. People of many different colours.” He chuckles to himself. “And here we are. Fulfilling prophecies”.
Andrew is a Lakota Indian. His conversation with the fire takes place in the French countryside, at a gathering of a hundred and fifty shamans, healers, wise men and women from all over the planet. We are at the Shamanism Festival (Festival du Chamanisme), close to the sacred fire lit by people from all continents. It will burn for four days, standing in the centre of a vast field of tents, yurts, teepees and natures shrines.
This is the second time I attend the festival. Last time, I asked people with no interest in healing why they came every year : “There’s so much love here, it’s just… warm, you know? Like getting high with hundreds of people, with no drugs. There’s no other place like this. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Maybe the sack of grain at the entrance can serve as a good metaphor. Someone left a bag, holding a dozen kilos of grain, with a note : “This is good, organic wheat. The world needs more of it. Help yourself, and plant it far and wide.”
This is a temporary refuge from the monoculture on many levels. As I sip chai under the shelter of a huge Bedouin tent, one of my greatest dreams is coming true – the one where I could travel to meet the great diversity of human culture, in a time before the far-reaching influence of TV, blue jeans and Hollywood chewing gum. Here the queues to a hot cup of tea boast embroidered kimonos, feathered headdresses, facepaints of red, white and yellow, braided hair with bells, felt snakes and straw, great dyed cloaks of silk or sheepskin. People wave to each other and cry out greetings of “Hauch!” and “Namaste!”.
Each day is packed with enticing invitations to dance with the Maori, the Kimuntu, to take part in group meditations, ceremonies, conferences, to clown and sing and get individual healing sessions. Freak coincidences crop up like mushrooms and tongues loosen : in the buzz of food truck chit chat, I hear people giddily confess to healing hands and alien abductions, to randomly entering a rift in space and time. I’m French, and I have yet to visit a country more suspicious of all things spiritual and magical. Glee and relief shines from the faces of those who find sympathetic ears and “Me too!”’s to their long-kept secrets.
The soundtrack of the event is unmistakeable. I close my eyes, and hear Pygmy chants, drums, songs and wordless cries, stomps, the twang of mouth harps and citar strings, and so much laughter. Our spirits everywhere teach that laughter is the first medecine, and we are welcomed to each ceremony and workshop with twinkling eyes.
Documentaries may have shown us these faces before, but now they have punctured the silver screen (and this is, by the way, a phone-free event). They bring us samples of their worlds, eased out with our questions.
“So how do you cure Parkinson’s and gluten intolerance in your jungle?” A puzzled blink replies : “We have no such things in our jungle.” Some find it hard to believe that a famous Shuar healer will simply takes ayahuasca, listens to the messages spoken to him, and follow whatever cure the spirits counsel. I learn that every single detail of the gorgeous embroidery and paintings bought by the Mexican Wixarikas are just so many symbols of the sacred peyote. I learn that on each full moon, the young Haka Pygmies gather to dance together a fertility dance, then scatter from the light of the village fire to make love under the stars. I meet an Australian clever man who seems to walk in a dark cloud – because he practised his ancestral ceremonies, three of his children were taken away by the government. Many have suffered exile, persecution, death threats, but still they come to share. They have acquired the globalized weapons of university diplomas, and carry on what they have practised for years, bearing the titles of music therapists, ethno-pharmacists, conservationists, linguists, anthropologists.
Among countless others, a family of Yezidi refugees share their story. They are part of an ethnic minority in Iraq, with a culture rooted in the land long before the arrival of Islam. “We are a persecuted people. Four years ago, we survived a genocide, and had to flee. We have never truly felt at home since then – until today.” Many tears are shed during this great family reunion of the human race. Fairytales will tell you that tears are the necessary water to mourn our loss, wash our wounds, and bless our strengthened resolve. They create a halo of protection where we can be vulnerable.
During these four days, it is not uncommon to bump into people standing ankle-deep in mud, staring into each other’s eyes in speechless wonder for half an hour at a time. I watch people receiving healing with instruments, fire, voice, an outstretched palm. The great modern disease of loneliness dissolves in our connection to each other, to our many ancestors, to the elements hailed as teachers, neighbours and parts of ourselves. The four directions, the winds and moon are called upon for blessing and guidance. We sing to our great tribe of our elders, their differences melted in the cauldron of time, who fought to give us life, and passed down their sacred teachings. Our barriers are blasted away by the insistent, relentless message of love and care that throngs the air, whispered in dozens of dialects.
In the dark belly of the sweatlodge, Andrew’s voice softly repeats : “At the end of the day, all we have is each other.”
I think a lot about the role of language during my time here. The festival is entirely run by volunteers, including the interpreters. This key role often falls into the lap of travelers, who have spent some time with our guests in their home country. Many are overwhelmed by the formidable task of instantly translating words they frequently don’t fully hear or understand, standing on a stage to an audience of several hundred people. Of the languages I speak fluently, I note that only about 30% of what is spoken accurately reaches those on the other side of the language barrier.
Part of me feels like this is a tragic missed opportunity – and at times a dangerous fault. Miscommunication about the risks of taking ayahuasca with weak kidneys springs to mind. Another part of me feels that life will intervene when it feels like it. Instead I spend hours contemplating the beautiful flow of non-verbal communication :
Are you okay?
Oh wow, that was unexpected!
This is incredible!
And Thank You. A thousand ways of saying Thank You. Of saying I See You. I Love You.
The festival was a great example of cooperation and respect.
An opportunity to remember all the old ways in which we have always said : We Are One.