The Power of Place

Down EastThe past few weeks have witness a massive gathering of Native people from many tribes, and their allies, to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. The gathering, which mainstream media have labeled “a protest,” is an attempt to protect both sacred lands and the planet. It is the latest example of a clash of cultures and worldviews that constitutes an immense divide between worlds. One one side are Indigenous people, and their allies, who understand the land to be alive and attentive; on the other side are governments and industries who deny the land has any consciousness, and who place short term economic gain above the value of treaties or the welfare of the planet.

As I thought about this post, I found myself thinking back to reading the early books of Carlos Castaneda. I first read Castaneda in my early twenties, and was captivated less by his use of psychedelics than by Don Juan’s insistence that places are holy and powerful. I was also fascinated by Castaneda’s total inability to understand place; I’ve wondered since whether Carlos was playing with us, making fun of the dominant European culture’s refusal to grant place awareness, choice, or power.

A while back I found myself in conversation about Castaneda, who remains a highly controversial figure. While he is revered by many, others perceive him as a charlatan, or worse, as a violent cult leader. I am reminded that Barbara Myerhoff, one of the most respected anthropologists of her generation, and a friend of Castaneda, firmly insisted he had indeed trained with a shaman. She also laughed when Castaneda appropriated her stories of shamanic training for use in his books; Carlos, she thought, was the consummate trickster. Unfortunately, Myerhoff died of breast cancer young, and was not around to witness, and comment on, Castaneda’s later writing and behavior.

I was raised to understand that places have the capacity to heal us. They may also hold us, offering safety and comfort, and, as Don Juan famously said, power. In our age of placelessness, this may seem an odd idea indeed, yet it is the knowledge given by my teachers, and my life experiences. I was taught  that we may journey to sacred places, in body or spirit, and ask for aid for self or others, and that seemingly insignificant locales can hold immense power, which they can choose to share, or not.

Without rootedness in place, we cannot understand the true nature of the world, nor our belonging within it. Yet, those who are driven by greed would prefer us to be placeless, to be without spirit or connection, and thus be good consumers of that which does us harm. They take umbrage when we resist their invitations to see the world as lifeless. We are, it would seem, engaged in a battle for our very souls.

It no longer matters to me that some dismiss our understanding of place as mere superstition. In the end experience is the great teacher, showing us what is of value in our lives. Through living I have come to understand that places are good to visit and to build relationships with. In life, we may return to place, offer gratitude, and find renewal; at death, we may revisit beloved places, and say farewell before we head off to whatever adventures await. Without place, we are indeed lost.


15 thoughts on “The Power of Place

  1. The diverse opinions about Castaneda reminded me of the contrasting claims I’ve read recently about the newly Sainted Mother Teresa. It reminds me that we never truly know these notable figures, people take positions and we aren’t in a place to judge.
    I have, incidentally, met a friend of Mother Teresa a few years back when in Rome.

    1. Andy, a young woman once wrote about how Mother Teresa saved her life by telling her to remain an actress, artist, and writer. Mother T said North America needs artists to revive our collective soul. She was no doubt correct….. I have also heard about Mother T’s dark side. We humans sure are complex!

  2. Hi

    “It no longer matters to me that some dismiss our understanding of place as mere superstition.”

    for what its worth…
    Those same folk live in their head, in theory. Theories about self, about ‘I,’ about thought, about science; a whole range of accepted beliefs.
    You cant think your way to connectedness of place.
    You feel.
    When there is a slowing down or cessation of the internal chatter, we are filled with ‘feeling’. The connection becomes apparent.

    As to Castaneda being a charlatan, show me any shaman, healer, psychologist, or even doctor who isn’t also part charlatan. Healing is a very mysterious process beyond the comprehension of thought. No matter what modality a healer uses, there is some degree of assumption (and thus – even if it is inadvertent – ‘trickery’) involved.

    1. Thank you. I believe the problem folks have with Castaneda is the destructive elements of his practice. There are a good many people out there who take his writing literally! As to place, yes, we need to slow down and just be. The passing of time in place helps a lot!

  3. Michael, you write so well about the sanctity of Place. Are you planning to put this piece in the Sept. BeZine on Environmental Justice? Or something else? I know you have a lot to contribute, and I’m eager to see what you’ll offer. 🙂

    1. We are still trying to settle into something approaching a rhythm. I like the idea of using this piece for September! Given everything, perhaps that makes the most sense. Thank you!

      Sent from my iPad

  4. I think, that we have a need to feel peace different places in our world. Not that we exactly need to live in these places, but some of them to visit and others to visit more regularly. I feel more home here, where I live now, than many, and there are really many places, where I have lived through this life. I have a special nature very close and a beach, where I use to do my meditation in the morning. This is a great start of my day.
    Some places feel more attractive and friendly than others, maybe caused their energies and what we might need in that stage of this life.
    Very interesting Michael 🙂

  5. Hi Michael. I linked this post and quoted a couple lines in a post I did today. Thank you for the inspiration or maybe some added meaning to what I had been thinking about in reference to healing and place.

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