on existential belonging

“That’s a nice stick,” I told my neighbour Andrea, on my way to the forest. She was on her way back, wielding a lovely stick cloaked in lichen. It was Saturday evening, and we shared that feeling of being in the kitchen at a party. A sense of lucidity and detachment from the hedonistic carnage fuelled by various substances flowing through the village. The booze shelves in the co-op had been pillaged, music booming from cars and gardens, the streets replete with chatter and banter, inner lives that had been hidden within walls for months now spilling out on to the pavements. We were suspended in the same glow of Saturday evening sunset as everyone else, but Andrea and I shared a clear-eyed moment, bright and calm, quite a different reality from the one being created by the louder masses. A split of realities.

bluebell woods, Elmet Part of me takes joy in the carnage – a celebration of a long-awaited lifting of restrictions. Winter in Yorkshire is six months long, a slog of short days, tall shadows and terrible winds. Finally the breeze isn’t painful, the tulips are out, the sun is yellow. I understand, it’s been a tight contraction that is finally being allowed to thaw, both in terms of the weather and the random virus-related regulations. Everyone was bursting at the seams in anticipation of release from this mandated purgatory. And so all at once, an explosion. We were ill-equipped for such prolonged insulation, many of us stripped of the final threads of what served as support and coping mechanisms in a frantic world, and the effects of this lack of resources are beginning to surface more evidently now. There are as many points of view and ‘realities’ as there are people and moments. So I am just speaking about what I see here, now, in my village. Perhaps my observations will serve as a microcosm of ongoings elsewhere. I am aware that my readership literally spans the globe, which is cool, and feel the importance of acknowledging the subjective realities in our respective locations, and certain behaviours may be more prevalent here; others, there. What I see here is a big old swirl-pool of escapism, avoidance, and addiction. Perhaps this is testament to the multilayered bubble-wrap of my life until now, but I was shocked to find out just how many folk are on prescription methadone here in Bradford, seen as a ‘necessary’ way to assist heroin addicts come off the heroin – but there is no support in assisting them to come off the more synthetic version of the opiate, methadone, chemically addictive and chronically harmful, spiralling them into a life of non-purpose and numbing. Perhaps this pharmaceutical regulation is a way of curbing certain other social and physical effects of illegal heroin addiction, but ultimately it is a very poor non-solution for the root cause of why opiates riddle the humanscape here. Why is there pain so great that the only way to deal with it is to numb it? Why is there such a build-up of this pain? And why are we so ill-equipped to know what to do with it? Opiates may be an ‘extremity’ of all the substances we might be addicted to, but it doesn’t negate the truth that we are all in some way addicted to something, dependent upon for numbing, for a fleeting 'escape’ from the way reality has been framed for us; a capitalist society that admires non-dependence and commodifies everything from plants and dinosaur corpses to wisdom and bodies. Alcohol, caffeine and sugar might be some obvious substances many are dependent upon for escapism, but work, achievement, the accumulation of financial and material 'security', maintaining an image, and social media are perhaps darker forms of addiction made darker still by virtue of being not only socially acceptable but socially applauded, and yet they are evolutionarily unsustainable. Addiction is a result of our inherent need for connection not being met. Grief is generated in every separation from those connections that we need as humans – to parents, siblings, community, the land, the cycles of nature, our food. In losing those connections, we also lose the support and mechanisms to healthily alchemise that grief. It is a vicious cycle we are in the liminal tipping phase of now. For the sake of this letter, I want to frame connection as existential belonging - a sense of being allowed to exist for exactly who you are, unshackled by the appendages that modern society expects of us, accepted as a Being who is being, serving a unique purpose of your own within a vaster multilayered community. Ultimately, connection is a sense of safety, of validation for existing - and safety is the first precondition to healing. In modern society where everything is a competition and our lives compartmentalised, we attempt to substitute this need for safety with comfort, confusing and conflating the two, finding comfort in gin and tonics or custard doughnuts, but this is, needless to say, quite a far cry from the primal sense of belonging we actually yearn for. I was blessed to behold an expression of collective existential belonging through the onbashira festival that is held every seven years in Suwa, Nagano. It just so happened that I moved there in March 2016, the year of the Tiger, a month before the festival. I had just sort of gravitated there, after a year of wandering around farms, but apparently it was for good reason.

木落坂 kiotoshi slope (photo by coji_n) It was all over the news, on the lips of every old lady at the hot spring baths. One of my colleagues at the guesthouse I worked at was heavily involved and she seemed to have training and rehearsals every other day. There was a plethora of mini events, practices and rehearsals leading up to the main events. The festival characterised the town. The town existed thanks to the festival. The festival itself is a replacement of four pillars, each one a fir tree, around 18 metres tall and weighing 7.5 tons, in each corner of each of the four Suwa Taisha (shrines). Trees are often regarded as sacred in Japan, and these pillars represent the connection between heaven and earth, masculine and feminine, man and nature. They are replaced as a symbol of rebirth and renewal, in honour of the cyclicity of life; a common theme in Shinto. There was a team assigned to each shrine from the respective parts of the town, responsible for carrying out the rituals of sliding them down the mountain in late April (yamadashi 山出し) and dragging them through the village in May (satobiki 里曳き), climaxing in their erection in the four corners of the shrine grounds (fertility puns entirely intended). This ancient festival has been carried out since at least the 8th century, and possibly long before. Suwa itself is a fascinating area, said by some to be the belly button of Japan, nestled among the middle of the mountain range in the middle of the land mass of Japan. It is where the Koshu Kaido branches off from the Nakasendo, both roads leading to Tokyo, routes that were formalised during the Edo period, but which likely existed for aeons for simple topographic reasons, a gentle basin bubbling with healing waters from underground, likely marked first by deer and bear, followed by hunters, followed by traders and pilgrims, and now train lines and highways. Lake Suwa features in the Kojiki, the first written records of Japanese mythology, involving the kami Takeminakata. The Kojiki was written for purposes of political consolidation by the imperial family, however, and there is ample evidence to suggest that there was a far longer history of animist rituals since Jomon hunter-gatherer times, involving sacrifice of deer and boar, in offering to the Moreya kami, a less politicized animist deity. The tradition of sacrifice is echoed in the onbashira festival – up until the Nara period, there are suggestions that at each festival men would be sacrificed to the gods. And even today, it is not unusual for people to die during the rituals, some of which are obviously dangerous, including the 木落 kiotoshi – where the felled log is ridden by several dozen men down an extremely steep slope.


木落挨拶 kiotoshi aisatsu - greeting, 2016 (photo source) It is perhaps baffling and ridiculous to a modern Western observer – why would you put yourself at such risk for the sake of… what? The community? “Religion”? The gods? Someone did actually pass away in the festival in 2016 during the erection of one of the pillars, and my colleague had known him personally.(日下部幸宏 Yukihiro Kusakabe). As far as I recall, there was no big deal made out of his death in the community; respect, honour, and grief were the general responses, but no outrage, blame or despair. Not to make light of death, but if anything, in raw acceptance of the necessity of death for life. I felt moved by this complete reversal of modern society's deranged denial of death. It was understood that he had indeed sacrificed his life on behalf of the community and the gods - with no tangible material 'gain' to offset the sacrifice, but in a way uniting the community further, asserting the existential importance of this tradition.

photo by @coji_n In the days and weeks around the main festival, there was a profoundly grounded electricity in the air. It wasn’t just gossip for old ladies at the hot springs; it was a culmination of something that half the village had been working towards, in some way, for the previous six years. But not only that. Children will have seen their fathers and uncles preparing all year and would have dreams of being involved in the festivals to come, when they were six or twelve years older. It shifted my perspective of time, especially having never lived in one place any longer than four years – it was difficult to fathom preparing for an event six years in the future. The energy around this festival was something children could depend upon, a 'pillar' of identity and community to which to tether, a shared experience that everyone could understand and relate to. Imagine the sense of safety and grounding in that. Imagine. Imagine if you were from that village, that your grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents before them were all from that village. They had all been up the same mountains, travelled the same paths, sweated the same sweat, chanted the same kakegoe 掛け声, grew the same calluses, raised the same arms in the air in euphoria, felt that same rush of ecstasy as the pillars were finally erected after years of collective work to make it happen. A deep somatic experience of interconnection, both spatially and temporally, through the community and across generations. Memories carried through blood, a continuous pulse through the ages. I got to take part in the satobiki 里曳き, dragging the log from the foot of the forest through the village towards the shrine. There were literally hundreds of us dressed in 法被 happi coats, all evening, calling the kakegoe, burning our hands on the rope, receiving instructions to guide it left or right. People I knew, and people I didn’t. It made no difference; we were in this together. We eventually dragged it to the shrine, and the erection was the following week. Honestly, it was something. My ancestors are from far further north, and I do not hold the memory of this event in my DNA like the Suwa natives. And even so, it was something.

erection of the pillar (hashira) (photo by Yuhara Takayuki) I think a significant part of the potency was the fact that this collective effort was for something – in honour to the gods and the land, in respect to our ancestors, in gratitude for life. It was not ‘against’, as most collective efforts in modern society tend to be – either in competition (sports), war, or a virus. The only collective experience we currently share is confusion. All arguments, ideas, memes, media, both mass and social, only serve to pull our fragile sense of identity and morality in a million different directions, to fragment us within and divide us into camps of perceived ‘right’ and ‘wrong’-doers. We have been pulled apart by the myth of individualism, away from the truth and need for interdependence, allowed ourselves to believe that ‘what I do doesn’t affect them’ and vice versa, until it does, like for instance if someone wears a mask or not, and then we suddenly apparently have every right to condemn, criticise, and divide further. Community has been sacrificed for cultural narratives designed to divide, so we fall on to ‘sides’ which creates opposing sides, a form of tribal warfare with none of the innate balancing mechanisms that would have evolutionarily prevented the perpetuation of infinite battle. How do we come together now? What can we work collectively for rather than against? Part of me feels that there is a need for far smaller communities, a need to acknowledge the impossibility of a ‘global community’ in which we don’t actually experience the same realities.

Does the ‘collective’ even exist? What does it mean? How far can our sphere of ‘compassion’ radiate, how deeply can we truly be invested in the survival of someone we have never met? Ancestrally, that investment would have only reached the perimeters of our homes, perhaps the village, but likely not to the next village over. It would be naive, irresponsible and unrealistic to claim compassion for a 'global community’; it is evolutionarily impossible. Even in the same location, we can be living and creating totally different realities from one another – as Andrea and I did on Saturday evening. The medicine in each community will be different from another, so there is no ‘global’ cause to work ‘for’. This might precisely be the point: that we take the Land, the soft edges of our bodily experience as our teachers. That we take the very specific interactions with our neighbours, greengrocers, taxi drivers, outcasts and addicts, as our medicine; finding it in the ‘poison’. To accept our limitations as humans in bodies, and return to a 'cause' that arises spontaneously in each moment - just as the rituals around onbashira and deer offerings in Suwa will have developed spontaneously in response to animist calling. There is a conservative (small c) part of me that wants to just go back to these old ways of being, where we all share blood and roots with the same Land, where everyone knows one another's daughter, one another's son. Where everyone's birth is remembered. Where everyone has celebrated together, been drunk together, done injustice to one another, where everyone has a story of every turn of the path, every field, every threshold between seasons. But I sense that this yearning for the past is not enough now. Or rather, it is escapist - escaping the facts of the reality that I see here now. A greater calling, a massive healing is impending. Some deep darkness is surfacing, and it is terrifying to confront, because to acknowledge the fragmentation of our society and our existential loneliness requires us to let go of everything we are addicted to, all the familiar mechanisms of 'coping' which are actually perpetuating suffering.

Modern society is bereft of the safety implicit in Belonging. In the absence of safety, it takes great courage to awaken to darkness. I sense that if you are reading this newsletter, you carry that courage to awaken.

Perhaps what we have emerging now is a global support network, if not a ‘community’ in the old sense of the word. As I said, we are in a liminal tipping phase and it is difficult to ascertain what is happening and will happen from its midst. Part of the medicine is being okay with not-knowing, and riding the wave from an intuitive place. After all, this 'liminal phase' might last a few centuries. There is a futility in clinging to the idea that 'everything will be okay' 'one day', because everything already is, and this day here, is one day, too. While a return to the old ways may not be possible or even desirable, there is a new sort of magic being spun: a very real support network outside of our geographical locality, abating existential loneliness, and feeding us courage to do the work that we must in our respective real-life communities. Perhaps just experiencing that resonance that 'we are all in this together' helps us to feel safe. So this is my kakegoe to you – we are in this together. Things are crumbling, and so may we crumble together. What we’ve had was not sustainable. Your work is vital, and your work is seen. What you know with your bones is sacred, for it has been passed along bloodlines that stretch back to the Land herself. We are interconnected, and we may trust that, between us, we've got this. ~~~ a cohesion across continents transcending nation states cultures something more cellular a resonance, a tremor in the blood and the bones of our grandmothers' whispers clap, clap, bow palms meet, humility surrender with dignity ourselves from antiquity the subtleties of a Beingness long long long long forgotten still echo in our prayers in blood bearers of the Land. ~~~ Featured Artist In an attempt to repopulate the digital world with the work of those devoted to bringing spirit to the material, every newsletter I introduce an artist whose work inspires and moves me. This month, I introduce Sari of SUIGEN. She is based in Kunisaki and Okinawa, and concocts the most delicious mists from organic botanical materials in her localities. She distils the healing essence of these subtropical plants into magical mists for your room or as a fragrant perfume. You can also find her on Instagram @suigen.s Suigen Hydrosol with Okinawa cinnamon (karaki) ~~~ donations for this newsletter are received with deep gratitude via patreon.


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