When I was in undergrad, I had the privilege of participating in an experiment of sorts. The Dean of Students, Counselor, and Director of Student Activities at Lyon College invited Dr. Tom Balistrieri from Wochester Polytechnic Institute to come to our school over two years to introduce us to the wisdom of the Lakota Tribe–the particular indigenous community he had spent years studying with. Tom had developed a program called Passage that he piloted at WPI, working with the student body to nurture a greater sense of understanding and appreciation of the deeper meaning of human existence. He wanted to see if he could take the wisdom he had learned and translate it or embody it in an academic environment.
Our small group would meet out at Nelson Barnett’s family farm, on the outside of town, on weekends. They had an incredible cabin there! We spent time in silence, visiting with trees. We cared for plants, learning about responsibility. (I accidentally placed my kale plant too close to the fire on one visit…but at least I learned a lesson). We made soup together. We had our own vision quest initiation one night when we stayed up alone all night. It was one of the most important experiences of my life.
Tom led us through a manual he had compiled, introducing us to key concepts of Jungian psychology, dream work, symbols, metaphors, imagination, creativity. We learned to listen deeply to the voice of the divine underneath the noise that surrounded us. We learned to listen to our hearts. We learned the importance of attuning our hearts to the Heart of the Spirit. We learned about our deep connection to all life–and our urge to succumb to a sense of separation that supported our ego mind.
In all my work with the Christian contemplative tradition, my experience in undergrad has been a sort of “secret,” my first introduction to deep wisdom that has continued to transform my heart. I learned about the wisdom from our First Nations brothers and sisters before I ever read about a saint. Truth is truth.
Tom taught us what the Lakota elders taught him: Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relations, the truth that we are all connected, that the sense of separation that we feel is “real” the sense of otherness that perpetuates the greed, competition, grasping, and control–this is an illusion. It is a persistent illusion that seeks to pull us into its orbit like a black hole.
During my sabbatical time, I have been thinking about these conversations with Tom, and with Diane Ellis, our Counselor, and with Jennifer Novotny, the Director of Activities. And with our Dean Bruce Johnston, who took a chance to welcome these conversations. I have such gratitude for these teachers and elders who helped me begin to see what is possible–what is true.
Our conversations were important, and we talked about things that mattered–and matter still. I still have my Passage manual, with my notes scrawled in the margins on pages describing the archetypes of mature human development and the symbolic meaning of nature. Those early conversations have shaped me–and they shape me still.
So, I went looking for new insights into these truths of connection, images that challenge me to go deeper. I wanted to include some of these on this page for any who may be interested–and to keep them close at hand! Perhaps in times like these, when we feel such stress and anxiety over “the other,” the image of trees communicating can open our hearts a bit. Or, perhaps a reflection on how the molecules of iron in our blood can only come from exploding supernovae can expand our imaginations just enough. Just enough…that we relax into a deeper awareness of our inter-connection.