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Spirituality: Mato Paha, a Fork in the Road

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Mato Paha: A Fork in the Road


Throughout my professional life I have struggled to reconcile the rational and spiritual sides of my being. I grew up in a highly religious home. My mother a staunch Catholic. From the age of 8 to 17 I was an Altar Boy, and thought for a while that I might have a vocation for the priesthood. As I grew older and more widely experienced I began to realise that the Catholic Church was not the benign institution that I had imagined, but that it had been the source of unimaginable pain and cruelty across the centuries - much of it directed at the world's "savage" and "heathen" indigenous peoples.I then eschewed Catholicism and Christianity and began to search more wiodely for belief systems that I could more readily accept. Buddhism ranked high in my explorations. But chief among those spiritual systems that appealed to me was that of the Lakota or Sioux as we have come to know tham. Theirs was and is a spirituality that knows no longing for either church, power or material wealth, but that considers each and every human being a sovereign entity in a cosmos populated by equals of all species, animate and inanimate. Theirs was a philosophy that resonated with my own finer sensibilities around issues of ecology, sustainability and planetary stewardship - what the Maori call Kaitiakitanga. As I delved deeper into the history and practice of Lakota spirituality I became increasingly convinced of its rightness for me. But this seemed to stand in contrast to my evolving critical awareness and my political activism. These two poles of my being have been in a continuing and oscillating state of tension. For the most part, the rational side of my being has prevailed. But occasionally I have been privileged to be allowed a glimpse behind the curtain that separates the material and metaphysical realities of our day to day existence, and those brief glimpses have left a deep impression in me. I have been privileged to be several times invited by Lakota friends to participate in an Inipi (Sweatlodge) Ceremony, and each time I have come away humbled, cleansed and reborn to myself. In my life I have taken a variety of mind-altering substances in an attempt to gain a deeper insight into the meaning oi existence and I consider tham all to have been valuable and worthwhile. As Aldoux Huxley once famously said, they "opened the doors of perception" for me - doors that would thereafter never completely close. I consider the Inipi to exceed them all in its power and ability to connect the mind to a different, cosmic reality - to be the most powerful tool imaginable for accessing the unconscious mind, and for realising both the simultaneous power and personal insignificance of our connectedness to all things. The Lakota incantation Aho Mitakuye Oyasin! (All my relations!) expresses this impeccably. I have never attended a Wiwanyag Wachipi (Sundance), nor have I ever been privileged to carry out a Hanblecheyapi (Vision Quest), but below is the true and (for me) revealing story of my own life-transforming experience at Mato Paha, Bear Butte, in South Dakota - the spiritual centre of the Lakota world and a very sacred place.

Besides the recounting of my early (1990) experiences there, I have also updated the account following my visit in 2009, en route to Oxford, Ohio. As you will read, this latter visit was sadder and more depressing than the hopefull encounter some twenty years (to the day) earlier. It seemed to signify for me the great distance that we have all travelled into the darkness since that time and the bleak prospects that we, our children and all of our relations face in the coming years.

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin!

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For a related essay click here to download Indigenous Cosmologies and technical rationality


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