Every time we leave the confines of our homes and workplaces and head out into the woods we cross a threshold between 2 realms. We may consciously acknowledge that transition with a greeting, a gesture or ritual as we enter, or it may just be a feeling of relief, of loosening and softening the cords that bind, to fall into that gentle familiar embrace. Aaah! Home again.
The portal to the other world has been entered and I think part of the joy of being immersed in the deep wild forest is both the familiarity and the unpredictability – we don’t know who or what we may encounter on our way, including ourselves. If we can gently surrender to this unknown, to this as yet unveiled gift, we enter this inbetween land, a confluence of spirit and matter, and a meeting ground for mutual exchange. The threshold is represented both by a physical place, and by psychic space – stepping over is to accept the eternal invitation to the Divine dance.
Crossing the threshold can be a conscious or deliberate act of sublimation, a tentative immersion in the ‘more than human’ world, or sometimes we inexplicably fall into conversation with the imaginal realms – our half-whispered prayers and utterances heard from afar and answered when we least expect, we become some accidental Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole chasing an elusive mythical beast.
Sometimes sickness dissolves our psychic carapace, and we access these realms from our weakness and fragility, our sensitive vulnerability the perfect catalyst for en-trance. John O’Donoghue alludes to this: ‘Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced.’
Threshold is often this cosmic ‘black hole’, drawing us into a vortex and spinning us out into uncharted territories and the terra incognita of the soul. We never return the same from a trip to the forest, consciousness is permeable, we don’t own it, it inhabits us, we are merely borrowing a morsel or fractal of it while we are here from the great swirling dust-clouds of chaos unfolding.
Think of your selves as being liquid, only liquid; (we are 60% water after all) fluid beings absorbing the forest rasps, clicks, drips and rattles; the complex quantum continuum slowing but never ceasing. That delicate micro-electric circuitry of plant cell-mycelial-fungal matrix, invertebrate hum and weathersong, all pulsating through our saline streams, currents and tributaries, our neural pathways re-aligning to source.
It is this ancient exchange of intelligences that forms our symbiotic relationship with the Earth, what Thomas Berry describes as ‘a descent into our pre-rational instinctive’ self. He urges us to seek ‘inscendence’ – the impulse not to rise above the world (transcendence) but to climb into it, seek its core. Berry talks about how our culture has entered into a destructive pathology, and suggests we sensitise ourselves to the spontaneities that arise within us, ‘not with a naive simplicity, but with critical appreciation.’ This is the role of the shamanic personality, and it overlaps seamlessly with the higher role of the Forest Bathing or Forest Medicine guide.
This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures. In this context all our professions and institutions must be judged primarily by the extent to which they foster this mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.
…a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural word, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish.
–Thomas Berry, from “Dream of the Earth” (1988)
In a shamanic sense then we return to this notion of crossing between worlds, between 2 (or more) distinct energetic densities – matter as energy in different forms, moving from perceived solid to liquid and to ether. Consciousness as self-awareness within the corporeal form, and through our movements osmotically siphoning us from the density of concrete existence towards the lucid beauty of becoming the sacrament, not the priest, nor the recipient, but flesh offered as tender currency. Here we enter the language of ceremony, of ritual and rites of passage – of the initiate and the sacrifice of self we offer the woods.
The winter threshold is I feel, particularly potent. I am drawn towards the valleys and the trees, and the leafmulch, the arching branches bare against the hollow sky, the architecture lean, unadorned and honest, winter cuts all down to the bare bones of life, and I like that simplicity, that stark monochromatic stillness. Even the sun is watered down and wan. The liminal is somehow more accessible without the technicolour glamour of the other distracting seasons. Here we stand naked and alone with nowhere to hide, being seen and tasted and bewildered in the beckoning silence. Here too the mind is stripped of artifice, our thoughts laid bare without judgment in the ‘isness’.
At the midwinter Solstice, all life pivots on a point in space, there is a quality of silence in the woods, we come into a pregnant stillness, into nothingness, into the presence of the spirits of yore, of our pre-rational past, who bear witness to a potent, hidden transformation under the soil. O’Donoghue imagines this metaphor and threshold of winter in a similar way: –
‘Within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring. The grey perished landscape is shorn of colour. Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged. Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute. Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation; the cold is relenting; seeds are wakening up. Colours are beginning to imagine how they will return. Then, imperceptibly, somewhere one bud opens and the symphony of renewal is no longer reversible. From the black heart of winter a miraculous, breathing plenitude of colour emerges.’
Thresholds, Rites of Passage and liminal spaces have been popularised in both anthropology and psychology following the work of Arnold van Gennap and his successor Victor Turner, and also the work of William James on mystic experiences. Van Gennap acknowledges the seasonal thresholds:
“Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross: the threshold of summer and winter, of a season or a year, of a month, of a night; the thresholds of birth, adolescence, maturity and old age; the threshold of death and that of the afterlife — for those who believe in it.”
Part 2 of this article will appear in early January. Happy Mid-winter and Sun-return everyone. See you all in 2024. Lots of love from the team at Nature & Therapy Stefan and Primrose.