“It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

When I read this quote in what has become one of the most influential books of my life it took my breath away. I stopped reading, put the book on my chest, closed my eyes, and breathed into the glimmering, heartbreaking truth of Kimmerer’s wisdom.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to be banished from our sense of belonging, our purpose, our connection to ourselves and others, our birthright as human animals living in right relationship to all other sentient and non-sentient beings.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to be dangling on the cliff of our lives alone, without the anchors of rituals and prayers that helped our ancestors navigate this uncertain world, without the circle of community to guide us across the thresholds of transitions.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to lose touch with our gifts that connect us to our ability to serve, without which the air becomes stale and our lives lose the luster that comes from meaning.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to think only for oneself, to forget that we are all – every human and “more-than-human being”, as Kimmerer says – connected in ways that indigenous people and mystics have known for centuries and science is only now starting to “prove.”

When we’re banished from the web of reciprocity, gaps occur where there should have been wholeness. More and more, as I observe myself and the people around me, I see that healing depends on closing the gaps in all of our relationships:

  • with self
  • with others
  • with community
  • with the natural world
  • with our place in the order of things (purpose)
  • with our ancestral line and heritage

Let me explain what I mean by “closing the gaps”. Imagine that there’s an infinity loop that connects you to each of the above bullet points. We’re born with many of these infinity loops intact, but as we grow through life we experience breakdown and disconnect.

We disconnect from ourselves in the four realms of Self: we cut off from our physical body, we shut down our emotional life, we lose touch with the vibrancy and creativity of thoughts as our minds become full of chatter and intrusion, we ignore the needs of the soul until the inner well runs dry.

We disconnect from others as we develop an equation that says love = threat. If being “loved” means being hurt, steamrolled, enmeshed, neglected, abused, bullied then it’s safer to remain behind the barricade of the heart.

If community threatened our sense of self, agency, and autonomy – as is often the case in stringent religious environments and in school – we choose to cut off from community.

With the explosion of city life, we’re increasingly cut off from the natural world.

Many people are divorced from their sense of purpose, especially our mainstream parenting and education models encourage young people to abdicate their self-trust, ignore their natural rhythm, and shame their learning style, all of which result in straying further and further away from intrinsic gifts and passions.

When there’s a break anywhere in these infinity loops, anxiety in all of its manifestations rushes in to fill in the gaps. Energy will fill any void; if the spaces aren’t filled with nourishment and connection, they will fill with anxiety, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, and disconnect.

This is what I know about healing:

It depends on being in healthy, reciprocal relationship with self (body, mind, emotions, soul), others (finding your place of belonging both in terms of community and sacred service/purpose), and the divine (by which I mean something greater than ourselves). 

We are not only isolated electrons orbiting around a nucleus; we are also the nucleus itself, gathered together in one human nest.

We are not only individual raindrops; we are also the gathering of drops in a vast ocean.

Each of us are strands in a glistening web and the web itself, criss-crossing in invisible patterns of dew-laden strands across this globe.

There are some spiritual traditions and psychological modalities that encourage the seeker to become their own healer. And while there is certainly an aspect of healing that requires us to step into the role of loving inner parent as we accept that nobody is going to rescue us or do the work for us, there is also an aspect that recognizes that we heal in relationship.

To close the gaps, we must come back into relationship with ourselves, others, and the world beyond ourselves. We must recognize our shared humanity and our complete, beautiful dependence on the earth herself before. As Kimmerer writes of the Windigo monster that prowls the back woods in Anishinaabe legends:

“The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning ‘fat excess’ or ‘thinking only of oneself.’ Writer Steve Pitt states that “a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is not longer possible.

“No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices – addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more – as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, ‘any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.’ And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims – in human families as well as in the more-than-human world.”

We can see these destructive, indulgent patterns very much alive both in this country and inside our own selves. Any mindset that banishes one group of people from the web of reciprocity and deems them less worthy of basic human rights – as is being exposed in the Black Lives Matter movement – is a banishment that affects not only this racial group but every single of one of us. There is a dangerous failure to understand that unless we are all free, nobody is free; until my black brothers and sisters have the same sense of safety and access that I have, we all remain imprisoned.

For many of you who follow my work, you know the self-destruction that occurs when you indulge in the intrusive thoughts that barrel through your mind and hold you hostage. This, too, is Windigo, and indicates an urgent need to attend to the places internally and externally that are causing disconnect.

As you continue along your healing journey, ask yourself: “Where can I nurture more connection both within and with the world around me, both seen and unseen? When I read this post, what jumps out at me and alights my soul with knowing in terms where the gaps are?”

Is it in relationship to your gifts, your passion, your service to the world?

Is it in your relationship to the natural world or to your ancestral lineage that carries within it roadmaps and rituals that would help you anchor into your stillpoint daily and weekly?

Is it in your relationship to your mind and the ways in which you feed it images and content (news, social media scrolling, reality television) that leave you feeling empty, anxious, and alone?

We’re not meant for a life of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. We’re not meant to be stuck on the hamster wheels in our minds, endlessly spinning on the same track, endlessly attempting to answer unanswerable questions.

We’re meant to shine. We’re meant to step into the fullness of our being and offer our gifts to the world around us. We’re meant to experience a fullness of being that overflows from the inside and out so that we touch others with the truth of who we are, and in so doing, send into motion shimmering circles that ripple further and further into the world, like a sparkling gemstone tossed into a lake.

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