“If dogs run free, why not we?” some line from a Bob Dylan song that was a popular graffiti at my college. Indeed, why not we? Perhaps it’s because the free-running dog of our Spirit often gets chained to our dogma and we lay a beaten creature in the yard, able to roam only as far as the chain allows.
This on my mind as I began the day at church again (twice in two weeks!) to witness the baptism of Kofi’s younger daughter Nunya. Happy to support the occasion, but so restless with the service and remembering why church never spoke to my spirit. Found myself waiting for the two most welcome syllables of the hour—“Amen.” It works for other people and Amen to that, but even with some drums and upbeat songs, I often find more spirit in a good Orff class than a thousand church services. Spirit without the chain of dogma, running freely through the children or the adults in the workshop. With the freshness of newly created little rituals instead of the stale repetition of thousand-year old structures that can put people to sleep instead of wake them up. Again, this just me. For those who find comfort and uplift in them and leave church more alert and awake and alive and connected, again, Amen to that.
A morning of spirited classes and then off to the Togo border to dip our toes in the ocean and marvel at the edgy energy of being at the edge of the country, in company with smugglers and crafty thieves and watchful guards. All this fuss for a line some generals in Europe drew on a map all those years back that has nothing to do with the cultures or watersheds or bioregions. In fact, like Berlin, it divided a town in half so half speak English on the Ghana side and French on the Togo side, but both are Ewes who share the same culture. The beach was not Hawaii, but fun to just be out on a trip. The water, experienced through cautious standing at its edge, was warm.
From there out into the countryside for a magic show, Ewe-style. Musicians on the side playing the usual mix of drums, bells and rattles and a figure inside of a full-sized raffia-streaming cone came out dancing in front of us and then another. Then people brought a third out over their head showing us the hollow inside and set it down. They performed some little ritual motions around it and suddenly it came to life and started to dance! From there, the music playing full-throttle the whole time, came a host of seemingly impossible tricks. An empty box shown to us and locked and then later opened with live crabs inside. A charcoal fire over here and bowl over there with a banana stalk cut and thrown into it and covered and later opened with hot, steaming cooked yams. One coconut cut open with the usual coconut water inside, another cut open with cooked rice. The point seemed to be that the material world is not always what it appears to be and the spirit world has remarkable powers that challenge our notion of reality.
Kofi, who has great respect for the unexplainable, finally shook his head and said, “Let’s go. I am not impressed!” and driving in the car, proceeded to explain how each trick was done, some of the explanations the same or similar to the ones my own skeptical rational mind was leaning toward. For example, a compartment inside the cone where a small body could tuck itself into. He saw the whole thing as an art form, not a religious ceremony and mostly well-done, but all explainable. This led into some interesting discussions when we gathered at night to de-brief.
One topic was how Kofi could balance his upbringing as a Catholic with traditional religious practices. His clear answer is that he takes the good from whatever direction it comes and rejects the bad within any traditions. As Joseph Campbell (himself brought up as an Irish Catholic) suggested years ago, all religions offer a doorway into Spirit, but get stuck when they claim it’s the only door to heaven and that all its stories are literally true rather than metaphorically true. You can take part in any religion’s rites and enjoy its stories as fingers pointing to the God within you and within all of us. While you may choose this church over that, this temple over this mosque, this shamanic practice over that pagan one, either from upbringing or temperament, it will serve you best if you recognize that there are 10,000 doorways to Spirit and all are true if you come to it with the truth of your own experience. And having experienced your truth, you needn’t convert others. You can invite and entice others and let them see for themselves, but the moment you claim yours as THE truth, you have dishonored Spirit.
What if all the magic we saw really came from the spirit world? How would that change anything? Of course, we’re fascinated by that thought and we make a big fuss about the Virgin of Guadalupe or Jesus walking on water or Moses parting the Red Sea or Buddha standing up right after birth and speaking, but so what? I care less about Jesus taking a stroll on water and more about his life of love and healing. I don’t need Buddha to amaze us as a newborn to consider his practice of awakening to the spiritual nature we all share and leading us into a practice that can awaken us. Ultimately, all the fuss about miracles is a distraction. The real miracle is that we are here now, alive and breathing and co-participating in a world of great magic and mystery. The magic is much closer to us that we think and we often overlook it— a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, birds flocking as one entity, a child’s remarkable idea, how Bach could do what he did.
And music is a big part of that. I shared the thought that the reason we 30 teachers came to the course is that we recognized a spirit running through this remarkable music that uplifted us and gave us something we need. We don’t have to confuse the matter with mumbo-jumbo or see xylophones walking on their own or hear drums play themselves or other occult happenings to recognize it as authentic. There is an energy coming from a source beyond our usual routines that allows the musicians and dancers we’ve seen to go on for three or four hours as if they’re just warming up, faces smiling so openly, bodies so alive and alert and vibrating with Spirit. A Spirit without dogma, without a cosmic story that must be literally believed. Just direct connection from vibration to vibration.
From my point of view, that’s the best religion of all. Setting us free as naturally as dogs running on the beach. Woof, woof!
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