On 24 April 2014, Dr Angeles Arrien passed away. Angeles was a cultural anthropologist, whose research into the symbols, myths and practices of indigenous people drew attention to the high degree of commonality between the values and beliefs of cultures around the world.
Her book, The Four-Fold Way, distils elements of the spiritual wisdom of these cultures and presents it in a form that is relevant and inspiring to contemporary society. Angeles invites us to find strength and balance by walking in the ways of the Warrior, Visionary, Healer and Teacher – ways that are grounded in the four cardinal directions and informed by Nature’s cycles.
Relating to nature
There are many ways of viewing and relating to Nature. For centuries the dominant Western view of Nature has been a mechanistic one. Just as a machine can be assembled from smaller components, so the natural world is made up of interconnecting parts.
We have learnt much about ‘how the world works’ by subjecting Nature to the analytical gaze of Science, which has uncovered many of her secrets and increasingly enabled humanity to harness and benefit from her bounty. A shadow of this particular way of viewing the world, however, is that it tends to turn Nature into an object or resource to be analysed, controlled and exploited.
People have not always viewed Nature in this way. Indigenous and agrarian cultures lived much closer to Nature’s presence, unlike we who spend most of our lives indoors contemplating screens.
Nature and culture were interwoven, with the natural elements, cycles, directions and creatures being integral to the activities, ceremonies, stories and rites of passage of our ancestors. Experiencing both her bounty and her terror, communities viewed Nature as god-like, responding with rituals of gratitude and appeasement. A sense of the sacred infused the sense of place.
It was the works of Angeles Arrien that helped me to start retrieving a sense of Nature as sacred. Her writings helped me to find a different way of entering Nature – with humility, a sense of not-knowing, and a curiosity to learn ‘from’ rather than ‘about’ the natural world. In honour of Angeles, I dedicated one of my weekly nature solos to her.
I set off with no particular destination in mind. It is a grey day with intermittent drizzle, and I find myself drawn to our local arboretum. Taking an unfamiliar path, I come upon a magnificent dead tree with five thick branches forming a powerful gesture of gratitude – a central branch cupped by four others. This is the place.
A circle of branches at the foot of the tree marks the honouring response of previous visitors. I remove my shoes. Circling the tree, I pause at each of the four directions to reflect upon the impact of a life … of Angeles, of this tree, of each of us who lives and one day will die.
Approaching from the West, the place of the Teacher, I give thanks for Angeles and her gift of Wisdom. She gathered, processed and shared a lifetime of learning, and was respected around the world as a wise elder. Her diary may now be quiet but, like this tree, her presence is undiminished.
In the North, the place of the Warrior, the rough flank of the tree has been drilled by beetles and carpenter bees seeking shelter for their young.
I have heard that the difference between the warrior and the soldier is that the warrior must have loved deeply and known compassion. This towering, warrior-like tree, offering hospitality to soft grubs, is being consumed and transmuted into hundreds of tiny winged creatures. In time they will inject their eggs into other trees, eternally weaving the spirit of this tree into the evolving forest. Similarly, what Angeles taught has become an integral part of millions of lives, inspiring us to stand in our power and act with compassion.
A century of sunrises
In the East, the place of the Visionary, I marvel that this tree witnessed more than a century of sunrises. Those dawns represented so many new beginnings, so many hopeful hearts: the oppressed longing for freedom, the woman waiting for her lover to return from the war, the activist believing in a just and sustainable world.
Angeles taught that to walk in the Way of the Visionary requires that we tell the truth without blame or judgment. Let me therefore not dissipate my energy in blame or judgment, but trust the inevitability of change and live each day as an expression of my vision.
Finally I reach the South, the place of the Healer. What strikes me about this dark side of the tree is a cascade of tiny orange mushrooms – and where the bark has been stripped away, the white threads of their mycelium coat the sapwood. The gift of the South is Love. In death, the tree continues its generous work of nourishing the forest community. Eventually, having given life to a myriad of other creatures, it will slowly soften into soil.
Angeles is no longer with us, but her writings will continue to nourish generations with the ancient wisdom of the four-fold way. This powerful, visionary, loving, wise elder will continue to encourage us to develop into the fullness of our own natures through the re-enchantment of our relationship with Nature.
To learn more about Angeles Arrien, click here.
By Alice Ashwell