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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Buffalo Heart

I drove with friends Pedro and Layna, Kayla Jo and her new boyfriend Dan, to the Gaian Mind Festival in South Central Pennsylvania at a place called Four Quarters which is owned and run by a mysterious Quaker man named Orin, who wears a straw hat.

My head is still swimming from the experience, a pagan inter-faith tribal gathering, a Dionysian riot, a dance, a forum of future thinkers and psychedelics, popping ecstatic entheogens, an artistic, Eros-suffused, trance-infused Native American be-in. Pan was there along with Soma, so was Athena in her cloak of wisdom, and Artemis darting through magnificent pines and hemlocks. Of course Venus was there too in all her beauty and Mars, to find Venus. Raven flew overhead, dropping his wing and pointing the way, and Quetzalcoatl's green tail could be seen slithering through the tree branches. Buddha and Ganesha meditated at a concert of Drums, while Shiva danced, and Krishna made love. I talked with them all, walking around, they displayed their identities in costumes of every hue and song from every land. A thousand Irises wove dandelions in their hair, and sylvan bosomy Goddesses from every state laid down in fields of nettles to make love. Of course the mushroom was there too, networking everyone and making the knowledge of things conveniently known before they happen, but the energy at the place was the energy of a tribe, people who I'm sure I've known all my life.

Shri Peyote was there too, and Sandoz's marvelous creation in abundant tabs that spread invisibly through needy hands stretched across on the dance floor. Ecstasy ebbed and flowed through skin and fingers and lips of ten thousand supplicants of some being that had yet to reveal her true identity, perhaps life herself.

Electronic trance thumped continuously through the groves of conifers, At night the music and lights bored a mind-altering beat into the cerebral cortex, adding to the whatever unintended effects came from peyote, psilocybin, acid, ecstasy, or if you were uncool, uppers, downers, coke, or God help you, booze. The festival was supposed to be for psychedelic worshipers, dedicated to a transcendental fusion of nature with psychedelic bliss, an embrace of Gaia brought on by altered trance state, intensified by percussive beat loud enough to shake the earth, and audible to farmers over a mile away.

Of course you had to get there by car, and leave by car, and it lasted only three days. One or two left by ambulance. There was a young Russian who began gyrating wildly beneath the strobes, then lost his balance and fell, and began convulsing. I applied alms, took him out of the lights, gave him water, cooled him off - he had a fever. Two sober paramedics from the local hospital arrived in yellow raincoats and bore him away.

A crowd from Philadelphia began mixing pills with other drugs. The old-timers were confused. This was supposed to be about knowing what you are doing!, they said.

Three days is a long time to dance without a break, so after the second night of hip opening gyrations under the stars, I repaired under a bleak sky to some blankets and a tent that were somewhat dry, though not level, and slept until early dawn.

The roar of music, thunder and lightning woke me to a scene reminiscent of "War of the Worlds". It did seem that aliens had invaded during the night. Poseidon had decided to soak the place thoroughly, and Poison Ivy had sprouted in the place of Laurel. Aside from the electronic beat, which played to a near desolate trance-scape, by early light a few Celtic fairies with purple hair and nose-rings wove ghostly threads through the megalithic stones that circled the wet pine-needled trance floor. They were oblivious to the inclement conditions, obedient in their solitary paean to a God, who must yet still be asleep.

Even Zeus showed up and whacked the place a few times after dawn for good effect, putting the fear of death into weekend campers. A few scurried out to their cars. The land we camped upon was vertiginous, and spilled water down and around all eight thousand sleeping bags and tents to a siliceous muddy stream populated with hemlocks and oaks. Where was the energy of the weekend headed? Clearly it was headed for the River.

So I headed for the river and saw that John the Baptist was there too, incarnated as a Native American healer, named Buffalo Heart, who was running a sweat lodge ceremony down by the water.

He is exactly the kind of person his name implies, powerful, warm, healing. He invited me to share tobacco with him and advised that I do the sweat lodge four times. I've had bad experiences with tobacco the few times I've tried it, nauseous vomiting, a feeling of being poisoned. I was afraid of that, and I told him. I am aware that tobacco is a sacred herb, and that the tobacco that is used by people today does not do for them the good things it did for our native people.

But the way Buffalo Heart mixed his tobacco had a ritual to it that I knew was long in the making. He worked only with his right hand and drew at least seven kinds of tobacco from different pouches and rolled this massive cigarette for me to smoke. After I inhaled a bit he told me to put it away and take it home with me. After that we smoked from a pipe. . . a long one with a big round bowl at the end.

Artemisia, Coltsfoot, Bearberry.

He looked like a Brahman in his posture, the way he put the tobacco down with his right hand. He repeated phrases and blessings in his language and told me what they meant.

Buffalo Heart told me about the first time he smoked, with a Hopi shaman that gave him his name.

"He had a pipe with a bowl the size of a melon, and he took handfuls of tobacco from his pouches which were big as handbags, and pushed them in one after another, tamping them down and adding more and more. Then he drew a flaming log from the fire and lit it and shoved it into my mouth and commanded that I breathe. He made me draw lungful after lungful of smoke so thick that tar was pouring down my face covering my chest and making me completely unable to cough or think. I took breath after breath. The tar was coming out of my mouth out my nose, my eyes bled, and I was black from the smoke. My heart raced and was on fire and he commanded me to take more, take more. Then I sat in the lodge with him four times and felt the tobacco leave me in the sweat.

"Then at a gathering in Virginia where he was the medicine man, mostly of people who were Cherokee, he stood up and said, 'This is Buffalo Heart, he is now responsible for you all ' and then he died . . .

"I've been Buffalo Heart, doing sweat lodges ever since"

I told him I was interested in the story of Raven, and Rainbow, and then he took some tobacco of his and put it in a pouch and gave it to me and handed it to me in a way that I will never forget. The pouch had some crazy writing on it, and it was robins egg blue, and I still have it. Something attracted me about it, it seemed like it had Chinese characters written on it, but then I turned it on its side and saw that it was the image of the God Raven. I looked at the fellow and I realized that he saw me entirely and completely, my whole search for the meaning of these stories, and the pathways they symbolize. In the last two years I have had this experience myself many times, of seeing others completely, what lies in their hearts, what healing they seek, but I have not had someone see me in this way. I know I have had at times the limited ability to do good medicine with some others but not had it done to me in quite the same way. But then I realized that someone who can draw a pouch with the image of Raven on it out of nowhere has a strange power that comes from openness of heart and strength of mind.

In the lodge Buffalo Heart's brother sat as the singer with an eagle feather to balance the energies of the lodge. They both were incredibly funny. The first song they sang was ridiculous, drawn from an American cartoon series called "Sponge Bob". They said it was for the little kids who where there. I had no idea what they meant because there weren't any little kids in the lodge. I think he wanted to see who was sincere. Others songs were in Native American language and were subtle and strangely familiar sounding.

Each lodge was different from the last. In one he asked each person to sing a song, but interrupted the process before the entire group had finished. He seemed to know who needed to sing, who needed to pray, who needed what. A Ukrainian woman sang a haunting song in Russian.

The lodge was absolutely pitch black except for the glowing red stones which were tossed in one at a time, once all the initiates were seated around the fire pit. In one of the lodges there was barely enough room to sit upright and cross legged, in another there was enough space to lie on my back on the cool earth.

They counseled to let the heat come into the body, the same way one should let in the tobacco.

Despite the intense heat, I never felt I would need to leave early. Nevertheless people did, and he graciously let them exit, but asked they not do it in the middle of a song. They had two fire keepers working with them, both students of the ritual, and I watched for hours as he instructed them.

"You're the fire keeper. Keeping the fires clean and secure is your sacred duty. You are the one who welcomes everyone to the lodge. Keep them walking clockwise around the altar. Don't let them break the sacred line of power between the fire and the lodge. Hold the tobacco like this, two feet away. Hold the sage like this. You are the one doing the most work. You are the one learning the most and teaching the most."

One of his fire keepers helping him was this very confused looking fellow with long black hair and a huge belly who seemed like life had offered him a rebuttal at every turn, and that helping Buffalo Heart seemed the only way to make sense of what was and what wasn't and what he was for.

The other fellow was just as confused. He was a skinny guy who had decided to walk around naked, constantly and was smeared with dirt. These two were really at the beginning, of learning. I could tell their lives had brought them to this point, failures and setbacks, sadness and pain, hurt. They truly were miserable looking. You could read their hearts. He had selected two people who were at the end of their ropes, at the end of life, at the end of the possibilities that could be generated from within. They had reached out and Buffalo Heart and his brother were there to teach them. Why not try this?

There was a sincerity in the helper's work which impressed me as much as Buffalo Heart's subtle wisdom. This is what the Zen men call 'Beginner's Mind'. They both were extremely dedicated, and displayed complete concentration. Rock after rock they moved from the fire to the lodge and back, kneeling on the hard earth returning the glowing red stones through the door of the lodge, and back again, to bring the heat.

The long dark-haired helper sang very beautifully in the lodge, and Buffalo Heart remarked so afterward. He said, "Brother you sang and made me very happy", and made him some tobacco to smoke. The man's eyes moistened and turned red. Buffalo Heart seemed to have this ability to reach into the sacred fire within a person, and draw out the log that's making all the noise.

Buffalo Heart referred to things as "Good Medicine". He talked about the songs. He told me things about Rainbow and Raven that I wish I remembered better. My heart remembers them, but my head doesn't. Why is learning the way so hard? He talked about the sacred people on the mountain, that are there for us, and the Sacred Mother deep in the earth. He knew I was interested in his mythology and felt it, so he told it to me. It was as simple as that. I smoked tobacco, and the white light went into my head, and blew out and into my whole being like a giant cloud, and I told him what was happening to me.

Most of all he was this very normal very sane person. Between sweats he and his two helpers sat on beat up patio chairs in a lean to, like two mechanics chatting about whether to go back to work on a beat up old car. There was something incredibly sane and normal about it all.

No shortcuts were taken. Twenty people could be in a lodge waiting to sing and sweat, and Buffalo Heart would be quietly praying by his altar which consisted of his beads, his eyeglasses, some sacred pouches and stones, set on a small patch of earth that had some grass and moss growing out of it, right in front of the entrance to the lodge. He would be doing this and no one would be watching except for a few bemused tourist types, and meanwhile everyone inside the lodge, if they listened, would hear only a few noises that sounded like chants or grunts.

He did the work that made sense.

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