Many years ago, I had the good fortune to visit a Zen garden in Japan. As I stood contemplating the beautiful patterns of boulders, plants, and sand, trying to enter a meditative state, a troop of Japanese school children entered the garden talking and laughing boisterously. At first I felt a flush of frustration and anger--how could they mar my deep silence and contemplation. Then I realized my own perspective was flawed. Most earth-based and indigenous cultures make no great separation between the sacred and the secular; it's all of a piece. The world is holy and everything is part of its sacred reality.
The experience in the Japanese garden reminded me of a lecture by an anthropologist who had studied the !Kung. He was describing one of their two-day trance dances and remarked that as one of the men danced, several members of the tribe made obscene jokes about his private parts. The anthropologist was startled at first, but then observed that their fellow tribesmen neither considered the remarks in bad taste nor viewed them as a disruption of the sacred ceremony.
The Earth-based traditions--those religions that are based not in scripture but in seasonal celebrations and customs of peoples, have never understood our odd Western dichotomies: how we split play and seriousness, mind and body, light and dark, earth and sky, black and white, spirit and matter. These religions have always understood that matter and spirit both partake of the sacredness and vitality of life. One of the great lessons of the Earth traditions is that the world is something to embrace, not to escape from. This land, this earth, this place of joys and sadness where we live out our days is where the sacred lives.
I once watched Vicky Noble, the author of the Motherpeace Tarot, among other works, lead a group of women in song. It was a simple and beautiful chant, one that she asked the women to sing for one hour without stopping. For those of us living hectic lives, an hour can seem like an eternity. But anyone who has watched tribal rituals go on for a day--or several days--knows that 60 minutes is not a long time at all. Chanting non-stop for an hour was a powerful lesson. By singing the same verse over and over, we left our workaday selves behind and allowed time to stop. We no longer noticed the passing of seconds and minutes. Our internal thoughts became still, and we entered a peaceful, meditative and healing moment.
Another lesson that the Earth traditions give us is a recognition of our roots. No matter what our religious background, our holidays are often superficial and, in fact, superstitious. The word "superstition" comes from a word that means "remains." So our secular celebrations of Christmas with trees, wreaths, and mistletoe are but the "remains" of deeper practices from ancient festivals that understood the passage of the seasons, the traditions of ancestors.
But of all the things that prevent us from encountering the sacred, it is the split between spirit and matter that seems most problematic. Remember Plato's cave--the notion that we human beings are prisoners who only see shadows of the real, that matter is nothing, and that mind and spirit are the only realities. This idea, which some have called the most poisonous gift we have received from the ancient Greeks, divorces us from our body, from the earth, and from an understanding of the wholeness of creation.
One of the quotations I have struggled with is the one on religion by Karl Marx: "Religion is the opiate of the people." Most of us think of Marx as militantly anti-religion, a total materialist. But very few people in America are familiar with the whole passage, fewer have spent any time pondering its meaning. Marx wrote: