Reflections on the North:
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech l'cha — Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom's now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don't like leaving,
But God loves becoming.
by Rabbi Norman Hirsh
Stepping into the North is a choice. Whereas the North is about mystery, soul, unravelling and the shadow, in the North we are now beginning to build. In the North we find that notions of accountability, integrity, strength, responsibility and resilience carry more meaning. In the North we come face to face with real limitations and the importance of our choices.
When asked by St. Patrick how the Fianna has survived their hardships, Oisin gave an answer the epitomizes the spirit of the initiated adult of the North, "With the truth in our hearts, the strength of our arms and the promise of our lips."
The North is about Winter and, in winter, the sap goes to the roots of trees. It's a time where grounding is needed.
The North is the home of firm decisions, clarity of choice, claiming things instead of waffling, firm boundaries and the ability to say 'no'. Working towards a definite goal and making it happen. Creating space for what matters most.
In a healthy South, we want what we want and our needs are taken care of. We aren't even really aware we have needs. In the West we begin to see what our real needs are (the things that truly matter in life as we begin to lose them) but we also find our original self in the West but, until we are initiated, we may not find a vision of how we might best give ourself and our gifts to the community. In the West we become aware of our neediness but in the North it also comes into our consciousness that we are deeply needed. Life ceases to become about us and our own pleasure. We see what is needed in the community and are called into a much larger role which asks us to grow into something more than we were.
The North is where we learn to take care of ourselves first so that we can take care of others. In the modern world, it's where we put on our own oxygen mask before we help someone else to put on theirs.
In the North, we move into Kingship. We move into service to the community and family. A symbol of the King is the crown. The crown is often very heavy. And it's heavy because the responsibility can be heavy sometimes and it's there to remind us of that.
Kingship is about the most profound level of self care so we can be the most full expression of ourself. The King stays firmly in their own business and handles it impeccably. They leave other people's business to them and wastes no energy there.
The North is where we affirm what matters most to sustaining life and to affirming our commitment to those things in the community.
The North is also a place where vision becomes more important.
"May a good vision catch me May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me May a luminous vision inform me, enfold me. May I awaken into the story that surrounds, May I awaken into the beautiful story. May the wondrous story find me; May the wildness that makes beauty arise between two lovers arise beautifully between my body and the body of this land, between my flesh and the flesh of this earth, here and now, on this day, May I taste something sacred." ~ David Abram
The element of the North is the wind. And it makes me think of the North wind which blows so bitterly cold. To survive the North wind, we need to build structures that can protect us and withstand those winds. This is something that only the adults can do (and must do for the children and the elders).
The element of the East is fire and you can't keep a fire burning without protection from the wind and yet a fire also needs air and space to burn. So, in moving into adulthood, we are creating space for the sacred fires to burn and protecting them. Making sure they get the air they need to burn but that they are not blown out by the wind.
Bill Plotkin writes about how adulthood begins with learning our Survival Dance and then, once we have learned that, we begin to learn our Sacred Dance.
Initiation is the creation of an adult personality that is strong enough to hold spirit (a strong ego, not a big one). Only a personality capable of withstanding the cold realities of life is strong enough to receive the sacred fire of the East. If you can't protect that fire from the wind, it will be blown out. In the West, we discover the shape that the water of our soul wants to take and in the North we craft the vessel to hold it like that.
When people emerge from the West and try to skip the North to jump straight to the transcendental oneness of the East it would be like the roots of a tree trying to skip the trunk to get to the branches. Without the North, we lack the character and structure to receive spirit.
Cultures are like this too. Carefully erected structures to protect the heart of a culture from being blown out. It is why the leading cause of addiction is the loss of our indigenous culture which is what feeds and protects our indigenous souls. And it is why many of the most successful treatments of addiction in indigenous cultures is about reconnecting them with their cultures. Culture is the cure.
Winter is a lean time and it teaches us about survival. And survival can teach us to be generous. There's an old Gaelic seanfhacal (proverb) which says, "'Is ann an uair as gain' am biadh as còir a roinn." which translates as "Tis when food is scarcest it should be divided."
But, of course, this isn't all just esoteric. The North is where we learn and master the very practical skills of survival - how to feed and shelter ourselves, how to get our needs met and help others meet their needs. In modern culture, this shows up as how to get and keep a job, make money and start a business. In a more traditional culture, it might be how to hunt, garden, preserve foods and more.
In the West, we become overwhelmed with our feelings. But in the North, we see that our feelings are like the weather. They come and they go. They change all the time. But we still do what we need to do to take care of the children.
Again, the true self is born in the cocoon of the West. But it isn't fully born until it comes out of the cocoon in the North. The North is the birthplace of our true self in the world. And it is a decision we must make.
The North is about survival. Part of this is about protecting ourselves and others from our own worst personal demons. The attitude in the North is one of profound humility and acknowledgment of the profound amount of support that we need and how interconnected we all are. In the North, we are vulnerable in a new way and see our own limitations much more clearly. We admit to being a mess when and where we are - but we also claim our power where we have it and don't pretend to be powerless or without knowledge.
Whereas the West is a time of solitude and reflection (even if we are being held by a community) the North calls for collaboration with others and for the acknowledgement of the depth of our dependency on everything.
"We are dependent on help for everything. Our trillions of cells all need to do their thing to keep us alive. The world needs to keep producing oxygen, and rain, and all the things that keep the crops growing and us breathing. There's nothing we can truly do alone, and asking for help is really just acknowledging what is already true: we're not independent in any way whatsoever." - Mark Silver
"Nothing naturally occurring in this world depends on human beings for its life. Humans are not a mandatory part of the natural order's health or ways. On the other hand, our capacity to live at all requires the interdependence of all those other things, and so our debt to what gives us life is greater than that borne by any other living thing. Human life means what it means because of how life is, of which humans are a small and deeply indebted, dependant part. We are the heirs to the meaning of life and not its creators, from an indigenous perspective." ~ Stephen Jenkinson
In the North, we parent our own inner child so that the community doesn't need to bear the burden of our own neglectful parenting. Others may help out, but it is still our child. If we feel incomplete inside ourselves, we don't seek to make it complete by taking something from the outside world, from others as a child would. We hold that child. When we feel lonely and empty, we tend to it directly instead of acting from it. We ask for help and support respectfully, instead of trying to take what we need stealthfully.
In the North, we begin to notice the things the weaken us or cause us fear or shame and thus make us vulnerable to things that could harm us and step back from doing them. We not only take responsibility for what we do, but the way we set situations up that make it more likely we would do things that are harmful to us or the community. If we know we are prone to snacking on cake late at night, we don't have cake in our homes. If we know we are prone to addictions, we steer clear of situations where might find those substances.
In the North, we not only become better at cleaning up messes and making amends but in ceasing to make messes in the first place.
In the South, as Virginia Satir put it, "the child wants what they want when they want it" but, in the North the adult, "wants what they want... but they're willing to wait".
In the South, and even into the West, we are vulnerable. In the North, we now protect the vulnerable.
In the West, we seek to find our edginess in risky behaviour but in the North we feel into how badass it is to know and have decided who we are. In the North, there's a healthy balance between knowing the importance of protecting our reputation and an, "I don't give a fuck what you think of me." The solidness people feel from an initiated adult is that they are done experimenting with who they are at their core - they have now decided and claimed it. It is hard to let go of the West but the beauty of it is, we get to choose how we want to be an adult. It doesn't have to be dull or boring (unless that is what we want). In the West there's so much angst, but in a healthy initiated North, we have decided and settled into it - we radiate a deep comfort in our own skin. An initiated adult has a strong sense of presence, appreciation, wholeness, and play.
Adding the North doesn't take anything away from the West, it just adds another important layer. We never say goodbye to the West, we only stop living there. Just as we never need to say goodbye to the South, we just stop living there.
As my dear mentor and friend John Robbins put it, "I always think there’s a difference between childish behaviour and thinking, and childlike behaviour and thinking. Maybe it’s just semantics, but the distinction has helped me. “Childish” to me is indulgent, defiant, petulant, helpless and acquiescent. “Childlike” to me is playful, creative, spontaneous, happy, and connected in a positive way to the spirit world."
“My wish has always been to write my own story, to create a life that’s worth writing about.” - Charlotte Eriksson
The energy of the North is initially the energy of decision. We decide to become an adult and cut ourselves off from our childhood and old ways of being and doing things. The word decision comes from the Latin roots de and caedere which literally mean 'to cut off from'. This is supposed to be a scary process. You are killing off your old self.
But this doesn't have to just be a morbid experience full of loss. Your old and small self has to die - so give it a magnificent, lavish funeral. Your initiation isn't just about mourning. It's about celebrating and praising your old self for all it managed to accomplish. It's a time to feast on your regrets and shames and harvest the learnings that have come from them. Before you lay the old self down, honour it fully. Give thanks to all of it. In this way, your old self gets to do what none of us get to do at the end of our lives, your old self gets to attend its own funeral. There's the old admonishment, 'don't get bitter, get better'. If we remain stuck in the West, we become bitter. But if we move to the North, we have a chance to become better.
A fear of leaving the West is that we will lose our wildness. But, in truth, the stronger and deeper our sense of self is, the stronger a container we have for our wildness - we simply become less careless in our wildness and more authentic (which is the heart of what wildness is). Initiated wildness gives life. Uninitiated wildness destroys it.
A feral animal is not a wild animal. It is an animal that was domesticated and then released back into the wild (or one of its cubs). And they are dangerous. A wild cougar will kill only to eat. But a ferral animal will kill just to kill. The feral animal is the unitiated one. This is true of humans too.
The uninitiated North is always hiding its unresolved West - the shadow. So much effort goes into hiding these parts of us and we end up feeling totally alone and isolated. I think that some of the most important medicine here is to start telling the truth about our struggles; to stop posturing and pretending that everything is okay. Vulnerability and openness work much better than being sneaky and trying to get away with things (which is what a child does).
In the North we find our self love, self respect and self trust. And this is vital, we must trust ourselves if we are to survive. If you look at a bird sitting out on a very thin branch, you might wonder to yourself, 'how does it trust in the branch not to break?'. But, of course, that is the wrong question. Because it's not trusting in the branch. It's trusting in its wings.
"Many people misunderstand the concept of safety. They think they can gain it by protecting themselves from other people or choosing safe people. Safety actually occurs when we learn to trust our ability to take care of ourselves." - Mary MacKenzie
But, as much as we might come to trust ourselves, we come to accept that we may never truly know our whole selves. We know our heart is too vast to explore all of. And we've come to see that the point of life isn't the manic exploration of every possibility but about following the impulses and yearnings of the soul and trusting it will take us to the places inside of us and in the world that are truly worth exploring.
The element of the North is the wind. But it's not just the cold North wind we must survive, it's also the wind from our lungs that produces our voice which must be cultivated. The North is where we find and use our voice in the appreciation and celebration of life.
Medicine Needed in the North: The medicine most needed in the North is education and mentorship. We need maps and context about how the world really is.
"All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remember that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps." -- EF Schumacher
If we are to escape the pull of the West, we need the energy of the North. But to muster up the energy of the final pushes of the labour of our authentic selves, it is helpful to have trust in what's coming next. We need good maps because maps are, ultimately, about how to survive and thrive in the world. But children don't create maps. Initiated adults and elders do. They help us understand where we are in the world in relation to everything else and where we are going. The Medicine Wheel is a map. The seven chakras are a map. Old stories and myths are also maps.
To feed the North is someone, it is good to be very honest with them. To help ground them in reality. It's good to praise them for their contributions to the community and affirm that their gifts are needed. It's good to call for their gifts to be given.
The North is a time to learn and apprentice in the practical skills of survival in this world. It's a time we need to be mentored on our craft (until we become a mentor).
Whereas personal growth and professional development books can be toxic in the West, they can be tonic in the North.