We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.
With windswept plains of grey limestone and colorful explosions of wildflowers, the Burren in co. Clare, Ireland is an exceptional place of rugged and powerful beauty. Several years ago, as I walked through this stark landscape for the first time, I was absolutely convinced that at any moment something tremendous would happen. It was July but the weather was not what one might expect. It was cold and windy. Bursts of rain appeared and were gone again just as quickly as they came. Tendrils of mist rose from the patchwork ground and the sky remained clad in shifting ribbons of grey, with only an occasional brightening to betray the sun’s location.
The Poulnabrone Dolmen, impervious to the weather, stood before me, tirelessly witnessing the slow passage of the millennia. Excavations at the dolmen have shown that it likely was used over a long period of time as a burial place for many people, including children. With the desolation and lack of shelter, the Burren certainly seems to be a perfect place for a tomb. I stood there for a long while, confronting the wind and rain, imagining the stories of the people who had built the dolmen thousands of years ago. What immense dedication the people must have had to transport the stones to this place. Was it dedication to the dead? Was it dedication to the Gods? I wondered about the ritual that might have been performed as they laid the dead in this spot. Was it a somber one? Was it joyful? What were their views on life and death? Certainly they had felt the pain of loss?
I realized then that place is much more than what common usage of the term suggests. It is the numinous meeting place of the physical world and the broad range of our human perception, and thus transcends the meaning given to it in everyday language. It is so much more than a physical or geographical location. It is the mother of story. Emerging from the conversation between the inner and outer universe and our perception, story becomes the immediate narrative of our life, addressing not only what it means to be human but how we can most effectively engage that what. Stepping back from the common usage of the terms place and story, we easily see that they are the dynamic containers of all human experience. Whether perceived consciously or unconsciously, place presents itself as story through a coming together of the universe and human perception. It can be intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) experienced in a heightened state of awareness that is best described as an aesthetic experience. It is this aesthetic experience of place that is the womb of story.
We all experience place, both inner and outer, and the complex web of story that emerges from this grand narrative comprises the power that shapes the human experience of the world. When we realize this, our obligation to nurture a meaningful relationship to place and story becomes clear. In our relationships to place and story, we are both artist and observer; experiencing and shaping from within whatever place we find ourselves. Ritual is the expression of this numinous relationship, an engagement of the human spirit with its dynamic existence. In a mindful inhabiting of life as ritual, we can consciously nurture the development of our story through awareness of the relationship to the sacred nature of place, thereby benefiting ourselves, others, and the world.
The Burren is a liminal place, neither here nor there, but unequivocally announcing itself, making itself known as a birthing place of story. As I stood at the dolmen, the grey sky slowly retreated and allowed a pale blue to enter as the clouds left and the rain stopped. It was still colder than it should have been in July, and the wind still ran unchecked through the almost treeless landscape, but suddenly there was a different world in front of me. In the returning light of the newly liberated sun, the greens and yellows and reds of the foliage became more visible and I wondered how I had not noticed them before. After some time in the thoughts of ancient burials, the change in weather was almost inevitable and certainly welcome. Although I still wanted to spend time in my imaginings of how it might have been, I also wanted to experience the place as it was today, so I tried to quiet my mind and simply experience my experience of the Burren. I wanted to retain the memory of the shape of the dolmen in my heart – the supporting stones and the slanted capstone above. I wanted the day to be a part of my story, and stories are best experienced in the present moment, not in the past.
An archetypal geography emerged that always already encompasses place and story, and reveals the clear and reciprocal relationship between life and ritual – they are one and the same. Life is ritual. This implies, in turn, that life is sacred story, since ritual is an encounter with the sacred. This archetypal geography, this sacred story of life is found in the Sybille, as psychopomp, leading Aeneaus to his father in the underworld. It is seen in Maelduin and Bran and all of the Irish immrama to the otherworld. It is found in all myths, but it is also found, if we look, in every moment and every breath of our life.
Whatever the dedication of the dolmen builders might have been, their story is part of the collective departures-trials-returns of the Hero’s Journey; the inner story in which we all find ourselves questing for the always already within… It is a long psychospiritual journey of many places, of endings and beginnings, the one holding the seed of the other. It is a journey of human existence and expression unfolding within an existential and causal metaphysics of form and matter, archetype and archetypal image. By the very act of living, all of us are thrown into this journey of processual learning to form an authentic relationship to the inner and outer universe. The journey is the going inward to discover our life as it actually is, and from this, what it might become. On the journey, we come to truly know our own sacred nature, dedication, work, and passions. The journey is the ‘examined life’ that is worth living, the leaving of the cave and encountering sacred reality; the recognition and union with our deepest nature. It is the most profound spiritual and mystical experience to discover that the sacred always already dwells within us. This ushers in a new way of being with ourselves and others in the world. The story of the Hero’s Journey, individually and collectively, ultimately, is what gave birth to ritual, which is the enactment of myth. In fact, life is ritual – the Hero’s Journey is nothing more and nothing less than the joyous ritual of life. We are on the same journey as were the builders of the Poulnabrone Dolmen.
A main requirement for this realization to contribute to our Hero’s Journey is an attentive awareness of place, which is all too often neglected and taken for granted. While the ability for subsidiary awareness is an essential function of human survival, it is by raising the experience of place from subsidiary into conscious awareness that the archetypes of place can be brought out of the unconscious and engaged in the ritual of life. The archetypes of place are then to be engaged as any other archetypal images – they must be interpreted in the context of the situation and phase of development in which the individual finds himself or herself. Through this, we can become more aware of our essential and constant relationship to story and ritual.
As above, so below. Each of our stories are entwined in the larger story; form and matter, archetype and archetypal image. Although nothing of exterior note happened on that day in the Burren, such as a new species being born, or me being swept off to the otherworld, something tremendous did happen. I was invited to consciously become part of a re-construction ritual – awareness of my story as part of the story. My own death/rebirth story is a part of the collective story, as is the story of the dolmen builders, and indeed, the dolmen itself. I realized there at the dolmen that life and death, like the changing sky above me, are only parts of a cycle of comings and goings, only episodes in a long story. The countless stories of the universe are entwined with one another and part of a single Tradition, chapters of an immense story. My thoughts and imaginings that day were quite suddenly “speechless” and I could only stand there experiencing that Tradition through the dolmen and the Burren. It was a rare moment, and after some time, I silently thanked the dolmen builders and their people for having lived their story so I could today be a part of it and witness and honor their dedication, their work, their culture, and the expression of their passion.