“Dreaming Awake” collage by Doug Van Houten
Something inside of me has reached to the place where the world is breathing.
Days each week, I go walking in the woods with a story in my pocket. It’s winter now, and the landscape is a mass of tawny leaves, twigs and branches. I pass trunks sprouting delicate scallops of pale fungi and fallen logs green with moss. My boots rustle through the brown leaves, crisp with cold, and thunk in the mud along the creek banks. A flash of red and a harsh call announces the pileated hurtling through the gray trees. The rest of the forest is quiet.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the couple sheets of paper with an old story written on them. Reading the words, I let their cadence and the images they carry fall into my soul. At least that’s what it feels like: the characters and the world they inhabit come to rest somewhere between my mind and heart. I begin to speak the words aloud, summoning the story’s creatures and gods. It feels natural to be doing this. They belong here in this wild forest.
Poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” I believe that the strong warp threads of that universal fabric are the ancient stories and old tales from cultures around the world. These are what secretly hold everything together. The great storykeepers, cantadoras, bards, would say that the telling and listening to these stories is an essential spiritual practice, as necessary to life as water, food, and relationship. Further, the practice is sacramental: by the very speaking of the story, the greater forces of wisdom, generosity, courage, love are called into being in the world.
The day world, the place we inhabit most of the time, is awash in stories of another sort. Ricocheting off the disruptions caused by climate change and the collapse of civil life and wellbeing, these stories evoke fear, dismay, and division. They are strident and incessant. It is impossible not to hear them. They unleash a cacophony of gibberish that rattles the self within.
So I walk along, telling an old story to the trees and a squirrel and the icy brook. Naysayers from the narrow realm of the verifiable dismiss such tales as myth. Yet these old stories speak of things that are invisible and real, the bedrock of accumulated wisdom and collective experience. “Myth uses things that cannot be proven in order to prove the things that really exist,” is how Michael Meade describes it. Myth speaks a deeply coherent, universal, and understood language, “the imaginal, symbolic, and mysterious territory that the human soul is naturally attuned to and that the modern world is way out of tune with.”
This is why the old stories resonate and why drinking them in from time to time is medicine for the soul. They are the ingredients of a potion that saturates the world with meaning and restores the Earth to her animate, whole self. With an old story in my pocket, I can round the bend in the soggy trail down by the river on a winter day and catch sight of an eagle lifting off a sycamore, wings unfolding with majestic power. Stopped in my tracks, I see her rise high in the cold air and am suddenly awake to the mystery that the world is full of soaring things with penetrating sight.
In the 15th century, the poet Kabir told of reaching the place at the center of things, where the world is breathing. Myths, the old stories, have a way of catapulting me to that place and grounding me there for a time. So I walk through the woods listening for and learning those stories, the ones copied from anthologies and those echoing back to me from the tangled vines and mottled trunks of trees. They find their way into retreats and evenings by a fire, as invisible as air, necessary and luminous emissaries from the center of things.