Joseph Anderson

The Boundaries of the Earth

As the next Soul Cartography class approaches (it starts three weeks from this coming Tuesday, on July 12) I have been thinking about the maps of our lives as they relate to maps of physical geography.

On our recent trip to Japan the first leg was a flight from Seattle to Taipei. The plane we were on had an on-board tracking system that beautifully represented the plane’s progress: up the coast of British Columbia, over Southwest Alaska, along the Aleutians, along Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, and over the Japanese archipelago to Taiwan.

I was reminded of an Arapahoe chant I learned when I first started studying shamanism. It has these words:

I circle around
I circle around
The boundaries of the earth
Wearing my long wing-feathers as I fly

It was thrilling to trace a journey over so many regions influenced by shamanism: the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Siberia; and Japan has its own shamanic traditions as well. Flying on that plane around the perimeter of the North Pacific, it certainly felt like “circling the boundaries of the earth.”

That initial journey was just the opening chapter in an three-week saga, living in a small house in a very old part of Kyoto. I found Japan utterly fascinating, and in fact enjoyed the experience much more than I thought I would. But (as is every traveler’s lot) we were outsiders: we had very limited Japanese language ability (and found that most of the Japanese people we encountered had very limited English ability) – a limitation made even more profound in the many circumstances where there was no signage or documentation in English. We were also continually reminded of the very deep social bonds that tie people together in Japanese society from an early age and through their entire lives. This was demonstrated most vividly by the many groups of uniformed schoolchildren who are everywhere in Kyoto – both those who live there and the huge number that come from all parts of Japan to connect with their heritage. And many of the places we went had surprisingly few non-Japanese people.

So as we explored the beautiful gardens and temples, fascinating streets and intriguing details of Japanese life, we remained on the outside, confronted continually with mysteries we couldn’t hope to penetrate. For example, there was the amazing lineup of arhat sculptures at Kennin-ji Zen temple (one is pictured here), among the first places we visited after we arrived. The “boundaries of the earth” indeed!

Moving to the edge: that’s a good place to be to do the kind of interior investigation that Soul Cartography work entails. Forging a stable, recognizable social identity takes effort and concentration – it’s how we all spend a lot of our time – but to reflect on deeper patterns and purposes it’s necessary to step back and disentangle from that daily task of self-definition and think more broadly.

What we learned in the last Soul Cartography class is that the process is equally useful for assimilating powerful recent experiences, and for uncovering the hidden coherence waiting in the chaos of earlier life memories.

On this recent trip, I thought perhaps some significant revelations would come to me while I was away – but what happened instead was the accumulation of many rich layers of experience that now (now that I’m back on home turf, with the familiar trees and smells and landscape I love so much) I can begin to process and integrate those potent new elements into the existing patterns of my life.  I’m excited that Soul Cartography is starting up again, so I can explore how Japan is percolating into my life as part of our work together. I’m so looking forward to that!