Violence, Healing and the Need for Tribalism
I can't stand it, I want to run, to get some fresh air. I have to escape him. Why is he here? Anyone but him, with his backwoods dialect and his brutish, scarred face. My mind is racing. I am dizzy with fear and hate and panic. I heard he killed someone. "Open your heart," I silently chant," You should be past this...come on! You're a therapist!"
Before us, in the center, hot, melon-sized rocks pulse with an almost imperceptible glow. Water is thrown onto them and the steam and heat force me to drop to the cool earth. My shadow bends forward as well, his arm leaning against my flank. The heat is overwhelming. It is breaking us. My judgment and fear subsides into the immediate threat of suffocating heat. The heat becomes the enemy, and we all psychically band together against it in order to survive.
The man hacks and then sighs a low moan. My heart finally cracks open, and I feel the connection to him and everyone else in the lodge, as we all sweat, heave and wrestle with our inner demons. The sound he utters builds into a pitiful, mournful wail. My thoughts suspend and I listen...no, I hear. He sounds so lonely. "Momma, I'm so sorry....Mommy?" He sobs like a child; his shoulders curl forward and heave. My anger falls away, and the fountain of my own isolated sorrow rises. My breath catches with an animal wail, and I join in a harmonizing cry.
In a tribe, even this temporary one comprised within a sweat lodge, the shadow cannot be "othered" by turning it into an enemy or scapegoat but rather must be faced and worked, turned like a grit of sand in the oyster turned over and over until it is polished into a pearl. In a small tribe, the population density doesn't allow one to push the shadow out of one's awareness. He shows up at the campfire night after night. The shadow as I experienced it had a physical form -- Joshua, a convicted murderer and gang member on the path to rehabilitation. The sweat lodge maintains an ancient tradition deeply relevant to the healing of alienation and disintegration.
In the sweat lodge, we all cook in the womb and own up to the parts of ourselves that are ex-cons and murderers. The lawyer talks about his secret cocaine addiction, the CFO admits being raped as a boy. The midwife, two Native American elders, and homemaker all reveal their personal torments. But these shadows are not labels; they are verbs, events that happened to these heroes along the way. And we are all in the process of changing, unfolding along our paths and discovering meaning along the way. We all suffer and hate, love, hurt, connect, withdraw, and grow.
We need tribe. We need to belong. This is hard-wired into us. And in modern life, there is a disconnect. We live in little fenced-in square shelters, not only isolated from the collective shadow -- the murderers and rapists, but also the desirable parts of community -- the sense of tribe, belonging and a collective purpose. The more docile among us attempt to satiate this need to belong by staying in and locking our houses and communing with our television alone, watching episodes of Seinfeld and Friends. Or maybe we keep up with the latest Hollywood love trysts as if Angelinia Jolie is our B.F.F.
I'm finding that many of us have been on a long quest to find and co-create a deep community -- a tribe -- somewhere to belong. The modern experience tends toward isolation and loneliness. Alone in offices, we peer through windows of pixels to connect to one another via Facebook. We drop our kids off at daycare to drive to work alone in a metal box. Then we work in that cubicle for eight to ten hours a day, come home, flop on the couch and crank the volume on the TV. We glean meaning from sitcoms and myth systems from film. We are desperate for meaning -- and tribe.
Our desire for tribe has been hijacked by Hollywood and I've often wondered if we would be less apathetic and more involved with local community if TV had never been invented. Worse than that isolation, perhaps, are the generations born into this isolation, latchkey kids so desperate to feel alive, and to fill that essential need for rights of passage and belonging to tribe, that they join violent gangs and act out their projected rage upon one another and the neighborhoods where they live..
Many primordial languages in the Americas had no words for guilt or shame. For example, the Apaches say those words were developed by white men to control one another. Actions that we think of as unforgivable actions were considered by many native cultures as mistakes which created opportunities to discover more about themselves and growth toward deeper wisdom.
The belief that we create our lives (as masters of our own fate) rather than being the victims of events which happen to us involves overcoming guilt and shame and speaking our own truth. The meaning, and therefore our reality, created by us through our actions fills us with a sense of purpose and self-actualization. But creating reality from within a framework of shame or guilt stunts growth. Shame combined with lack of opportunity can lead to social apathy at best and violence at worst. We are social, story-telling organisms, propelled by an archetypal drive to create tribes and community. Tribes are bonded through a sense of meaning.
When living close to nature, everything is in a constant flux of change. Nothing stays good or bad forever. Judgment and expectation get us in trouble. They become shorthand for a dead-end label that some thing or some one is good or bad.
Like most, I have a deep fear of murderers and rapists. Whenever I am in the presence of someone I know has committed a violent act, I am engulfed by fear. In most sectors of my life, I avoid these situations, but when my therapy practice brings me in contact with such people, it seems street-smart to maintain cold detachment and distrust.
A few years ago, I volunteered to teach art classes at a lock-down center for homeless drug addicts in mandatory rehabilitation. I entered the position with a gung-ho, hopeful attitude. I thought I could go in, roll up my sleeves and genuinely connect with each of them, providing the love and mirroring they never had. I believed this would somehow immunize me from dipping down into their dirty world.
I was eaten alive.
They were wise to my naiveté, and my blind enthusiasm enraged them. On the second day of class, I trembled as a huge, toothless gangster named Chola hurled herself toward me and screamed three inches from my face, "Don't you be dis-re-specting ME! I aint your dog, your f*cking project! You can leave.... self-righteous BITCH! I can't!" Her spit sprayed my face. I started to cry. She flopped back into her chair with a nonchalant grunt. I stood there, not knowing what to do. I desperately wanted to disconnect from the situation. I wanted to defend and save myself from the visceral reality she had articulated.
After that, I was much more cynical and careful. I had a new kind of respect. But I remained determined to stay real with these people. And within all the crazy-making drama, darkness, and defeat, some shining moments sparkle in my memory. One night, the women were all working on a large mosaic together. The scene rekindled a feeling of the tribe within me. A southern woman started in her low, gospel voice, singing, "Lean On Me." One by one, the entire group joined in. Once again I cried, this time for the beauty and tenacity of the human spirit. She sang the song of community, of tribe, of connection.
Each of us individually struggles with the paradox of good and evil within, but a tribe creates a container that holds these disparate elements. Tribalism is a perennial archetype that re-emerges whenever it is absent in the dominant culture. In our decidedly non-tribal culture, the archetype may appear as belonging to a gang, being a Dead-Head, or talking about what Jerry Seinfeld did in last night's episode with the coworker in the next cubicle. In all these cases, the tribe creates a feeling of belonging through unified meaning.
This meaning, implicit or explicit, becomes the group's mission statement and raison d'etre. And the mission statement can be anywhere along a spectrum of possibilities. They can be syntropic, healthy, and positive or destructive, dystopic and entropic.
Violence is the lowest common denominator. Perhaps it's a rite of passage spun out of the web of projected rage these isolated kids have toward our alienating society.
What do we do with those whose drive for meaning is based around risk and violence? Rather than taking away all opportunity for growth and change, such as school suspensions, denying voting rights, and refusing to employ ex-cons and recovering addicts, our society would benefit to help establish a positive meaning for gang members that creates syntropy rather than entropy.
For many former bad boys who are good men today, some sort of spiritual experience turned the direction of their lives. So in paying full homage to good parenting, education, counseling, real justice, community support, and economic opportunity, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the power of a spiritual community or teacher to restore a child's moral compass to working order.
In creating meaning, and thus reality, our internal compass of morality guides our choices, rather than an externally imposed didactic moral code.
To clarify this internal morality, we need to experience our edges. We need to be pushed in experiences and mirrored in that journey. This is why rites of passage like the sweat lodge or peyote vision quest are essential to realigning the compass of those who have lost their way -- whether in gang life, addiction, or just on the day-to-day journey of life in American culture. For ex-con Joshua, participating in sweat lodges, exploring rites of passage facilitated by a medicine man fills his need to belong to something with a higher purpose. He told me later that the sense of belonging he feels in the sweat lodge tribe creates a container for him to explore honesty, vulnerability, and personal responsibility.
As with tribes, rites of passage must be activated by a sense of meaning, and that meaning travels along a spectrum of possibilities. Childbirth and prison tattoos seem to have no similarities, but both are rites of passage. Getting jumped into a gang, peyote vision quests, running a marathon, Bar Mitzvahs -- these are all archetypal rites of passage. One primary rite of passage is the boy's journey into manhood. A medicine woman once explained it to me this way:
A woman's vision quest is always childbirth... there is no other vision quest for men or women as powerful as childbirth. But for men, it is different. The vision quest is the sacred sweat lodge. Vision quest is suffering. It brings you to your knees. No more lies. I don't care how old you are. You are not a man until you go on your vision quest.
The remaining essential factor in creating and sustaining a functional tribe is mirroring by elders. Without the witness of someone who has been on the path, the meaning and the importance of ritual are lost. The psyche acts out the rite of passage in endless repetition until it is witnessed. For example, in the rave, participants seek ritual ecstasy through ingesting "X" (Ecstasy or MDMA), which produces a cathartic merging and sense of belonging. This emulates a rite of passage, but often the meaning is lost when the psychedelic pilgrim sobers up because no shaman witnessed, digested and reflected the meaning for the seeker.
The same is true for gangs. Drive-by shootings, hazings, school yard bullying -- all these acts are repeated and escalated until someone takes notice. Elders and mentors are essential to de-escalating violence. For troubled youth one of the most important ways through which to receive that guidance and wisdom is a caring and capable adult. Many kids just need someone to guide their journey toward responsible manhood and illuminate them to the fact that each of them has a unique gift to give the world.
Racism, lack of opportunity, culture and socio-economic stress create a culture for inner city kids in which fathers are often absent or abusive. A strong, grounded and positive masculine hero maps the path for lost souls. Bad boys can see that another reality is achievable. Participating in a positive tribal community, building love and a sense of growth and possibility, can create a hopeful future.
I don't want to negate the very real concerns of serious psychological disorders and abuse which complicate rehabilitation for "bad boys." There are psychopaths and sociopaths, but in differing times and circumstances, people are people. All of us need to be witnessed in a space in which such labels can be set aside. Some part of the spirit remains unbent by circumstance and regret and yearns to connect, to shine in its own way and have its contribution acknowledged.
Creating intentional tribes and rites of passage can restore a sense of purpose, belonging, respect, and morality. Regardless of the method, the ultimate success depends on whether the tribal morality can inspire. Then it may be assimilated and accommodated into the psyche, to emanate from within to create a lasting frame of relevance for the individual's gifts. The tribal morality must be able to allow and integrate the intrinsic diversity of personalities and how they react to the stages and challenges of the life journey.
Joshua and I get something from the sweat lodge medicine that we can't find in mainstream culture. There is patience and a slower rhythm in the intentional witnessing. I left the lodge that day feeling that connection to a tribe and longing to cultivate that in my daily reality.
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