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  • Martha Engeman

What Do We Do Now?

I recently read an article in the NY Times about the Ojibwe Big Drum, a large healing ceremony that the Ojibwe Indians use to promote peace and to heal grief and trauma. The ceremony includes singing, dancing, eating, speaking and ritual. If people in the community are experiencing grief, they are seated close to the drum and have their faces washed and their hair combed and braided by former warriors who know the trauma of killing and death. This is to help cleanse away deep grief.

What most intrigued me about the ceremony is how it started. There were ongoing violent skirmishes

between the Dakota and the Ojibwe that the Ojibwe had initiated. After about 100 years of this, the Dakota came to the Ojibwe with the offering of a big drum and a peace ceremony meant to heal the years of mutual bloodshed. The drum was to be kept and used by warriors to help heal those who have experienced the effects of war and trauma. The hope was that over time, there would be no more warriors left to man the drum.

Trauma begets trauma. War begets war. It takes deep courage and forgiveness to choose another path. That’s what the Dakota chose to do. That’s a choice that each of us can make at any time in our lives. It is time. It is time for us to let go of that warrior energy. It is time for us to heal ourselves enough that when we have an angry impulse, we are able to move it through our bodies and minds without using violence. It is time for peace.

The images of refugees and Americans waiting to board planes to get out of Afghanistan, brought back memories of the fall of Saigon and helicopters lifting off from the roof of the US embassy with hordes of people screaming and frantic to get on. I was young then, but the impact was shocking and saddening. I can still see it vividly in my mind all these years later.

This past week, I was still reeling from everything that happened in Afghanistan. I awoke one morning feeling sad, hopeless, distraught and disappointed. My mind was swirling with no relief in sight. On my morning walk, I realized that I needed to do something different. I knew I had to get back to the present moment.

I started by noticing and naming aloud everything that I could see and feel. “My feet are walking on the pavement. I see my dog Arty trotting through the grass. I feel the wind cooling me. I hear the cicadas and the rustling of the trees. I see the clouds in the sky and the sun starting to rise.” The words that came to me were, “In this moment, I am okay.” I said those over and over to myself as I continued to just notice.

My mind calmed down. I came back into the moment. I realized that I am one person and that as Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” The small thing that I am doing is the practice of Tonglen, the meditation practice of reducing suffering. I connect to the pain in the world (for me right now that is those who are in or have been affiliated with Afghanistan) inhale the pain and suffering and transmute it exhaling peace, love and compassion. I practice this for a few minutes in my daily meditation.

I believe that the most powerful thing that we can do for ourselves, for our families and friends, and for the world is to be present. When we are present, we are able to deal with what is in front of us and act. When we are present, we are not in a swirl of emotion, so we can see more clearly. When we are present, we are able to genuinely be there for others.

It takes great presence and compassion to hold grief and transmute it as the keepers of the Ojibwe drum do in their ceremonies. When we cultivate that presence and compassion in ourselves, we are able to share it with others. Bit by bit, person by person, we start to heal.


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