Speaking with Elephants




by Deena Metzger

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I never expected to enter into an alliance with elephants and it has only been a few years since I have begun to imagine what an alliance with an animal might mean. One cannot enter into such a relationship unless one’s entire world of assumptions and beliefs has changed radically. One does not seek this out. The task is rather to avoid refusing it when it is offered. Such experiences, which shatter the known world, are familiar to each of us even though, for the most part, we enter these ordeals alone carrying the burden of having to make private meaning of them.

Entering into an alliance with elephants, or with any other animal, was not what was difficult. Becoming the person who could engage with the natural world in such a way was another matter. It took place over a long period of time and only in retrospect do I recognize that this occurred: Now that I am here, how did I get here?

This story is about a meeting. An unexpected meeting. An unprecedented meeting. I had prepared for it and I had been prepared for it. But when the elephants entered my imagination and my life they called me forth to meet them in ways I do not yet fully understand. Some of what came before the meeting was part of the event, which cannot be limited to a single moment, and so will be told here briefly. I don’t intend this as either an apocalyptic text nor an exotic narrative about strange experiences, signs, omens and portents; I tell this story so that we may probe it together.

I traveled to Zimbabwe in December 1998, as I had the year before, to live within the community there, the daré, and to do mutual initiatory work with a renowned traditional healer, a nganga working in the ways of the Shona and Ndebele people, Augustine Kandemwa. My husband, Michael Ortiz Hill had first gone to Africa in 1996 where he had met and begun working alongside Augustine. Michael and I were traveling with Amanda Foulger, a shamanic practitioner and a Jungian therapist, Michele PapenDaniel.

Initiation, the core activity of spiritual healing work, is dishonored and trivialized in contemporary western culture. Rituals have become a social event, rarely pursued with the deep rigor and purpose required to prepare someone to meet sacred obligations. In more traditional societies, one purpose of initiation is to prepare individuals to live in direct contact with the spirits. Though some rites are communal, coming of age ceremonies, for example, like the Apache Sunrise ceremony recognizing the healing power of girls entering menarche, there are also moments when a particular person is spontaneously called by spirit to initiation. In such a situation, the consequences of refusing are dire. Other times one does not hear a call so much as one simply knows that it is time to step toward a spiritual life. Once initiated, one finds that the barriers and obstacles between self and spirit are removed and one may receive powers or abilities, which are to be used on behalf of the community. Accordingly, one must shape one’s life appropriately and devote oneself to suitable practices in order to walk with compassion in the world and to carry the responsibilities of healing and vision.

Daré, in Shona means Council. In this tradition, when people gather to seek each other’s counsel, they seek the counsel of the spirits as well. Native Americans and Buddhists are but two of many peoples who have traditions of gathering the elders or wise ones to meditate on issues of great concerns. For several years I had been thinking about Council as a means for all of us to examine and wrestle with the global issues that are so pressing now, urging individuals to meet with ëthe otherí, as diversity and deep respect for different ways of knowing are the very essence of the council process. Just before I left for Africa, I sent out the third in a series of Council of Elders letters advocating the formation of communities of diverse, intelligent and aware people willing to listen to and yield to each other’s wisdom in order to live and act in ways that are in the interest of the planet. In that letter, I had also written:

We must find ways to sit in council with the animals and the natural world, with those other intelligences who are so deeply threatened by imprisonment, slavery, consumption and extinction.

“What do you want from this trip to Africa?” my husband asked me as we landed in Bulawyao.
“I want to sit in council with Augustine and his people and I want to sit Council with the elephants.”
Is there anything else that I want? I asked myself. There was nothing else I wanted.
“How does one sit in council with elephants?” my husband asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I do not even know how to imagine it.”

Read a short or a long version of or an addendum to Speaking with Elephants or learn about the author, Deena Metzger.

Copyright ©2009 Deena Metzger

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