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The Big Chill: Mind, Modernism & Other Madness 

We live in very cold times, and the forecast is for an even chillier future. Certainly we have been blessed with some warm breaks in

We live in very cold times, and the forecast is for an even chillier future. Certainly we have been blessed with some warm breaks in our Central Oregon winter. And in the longer term, it appears that 21st-century consumption is driving up average global temperatures. Yet in a deeper sense, our way of life is increasingly frigid. Despite signs to the contrary, we live in an age which is characterized by a lack of fire-as in the energy of heart, connection, community and transformation. This kind of fire is at the core of most, if not all, spiritual traditions.

For many eons, our ancestors regularly gathered around the fire. Here they shared the big stories that gave life meaning. Around the fire, they laughed, danced and reaffirmed their bonds to one another. Here they encountered the Great Mystery. Through heart and fire, they found their connection to the deep wisdom of those who came before them. This state of grace is celebrated in the story of Genesis as the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

The great march of history from Eden to virtual reality is really a retreat from the warmth of the heart into the coldness of the mind. (Recall that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.) That descent from a felt connection to Divine has brought us dogmatic religion as well as the cool, detached rationalism that is so celebrated in modernism. We have gone from being a myriad of peoples, each honoring the Great Mystery in his or her own way, to a world in which ideas, both theological or scientific in nature, battle for primacy.

Not that the mind is without its utility. The fear-based energy of the mind keeps us out of trouble and is also good for planning a course of action. But whereas the heart feels its connection to all things and innately knows its eternal nature, the mind understands through distinction and separation; it frets about comfort and ultimately, about mortality. The mind seeks power, predictability and control. The heart is about connection, balance and surrender. Whereas the mind fears, the heart feels joy.

When indigenous peoples (at least those few who still have their traditions intact) look upon our Western culture, they recognize the cleverness of our science and technology. Yet they also see a great sickness in us, how we are driven by a gnawing hunger, a kind of emptiness that we try to fill by consuming more and more. This hunger is now bringing us to a crisis of global proportions. As cold as our world has become, there are signs of hope. More of us are talking about sustainability, community and a sense of well-being that goes beyond our aptly named "gross" national product. Many are being drawn to the wisdom traditions that help to bring mind and heart back into balance.

There is a kind of spiritual renaissance happening now, and it runs the gamut from the hybridized New Age groups on one side to religious fundamentalism of many stripes on the other. But also in the mix is a less apparent phenomenon: Spiritual traditions with a deep ancestral grounding are beginning to touch the lives of those who have had no conscious connection to these traditions. Often the "call" to these traditions comes in the midst of a major life crisis: A debilitating illness, the end of a marriage, the loss of a loved one, unemployment, etc. Individually-as well as collectively-we may need to hit "rock bottom" before we begin to open ourselves to the transformative energy of heart and fire.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, we won't be able to think our way out of the challenges to come. But as more of us connect with fire and the wisdom of the heart, as we gather in community and forge alliances across traditions, we will once again find our place in the Great Mystery. And with the help of the ancestors and the grace of the gods, we may just survive.

Lawrence Messerman is an initiated "marakame" or shaman in the Huichol tradition. He and his wife Jessica De la O recently moved to Bend, and host community fires along with their friend Beth Patterson. For more information on the local community fires, contact


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