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She is Many: Complete, Assured and At Home in a Numinous Universe

From the Undivided Spiritual Realm to the Physical Symbol: Recognizing Depth and Resonance Through Robert S. McPherson's Dinéjí Na `Nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History


For the Navajo, the world and all being are first conceived and created in the spiritual realm. According to author Robert S. McPherson who has studied the Diné for over thirty years, listening to their lives and stories, the gods first “formed the earth spiritually . . . before it was made physically” (4). The physical realm conceived by these “holy people” is then an expression of that original, constant and real metaphysical expanse that continually operates as the universe. To them, these holy people are present with only a slight separation. What is known physically is a literal expression of their divine scheme.  This is a different way of perceiving the world in that instead of being anthropocentric, where humans are the most important center making the choices, its atmosphere and core is the numinous, alive and intelligent universe inherent in all things. The spiritual is made physical, for example, in the four elements: fire, wind, earth and water; the four cardinal directions, which all speak, and all the plants and animals that were created before humans. This spiritual-before-the-physical places emphasis on the spiritual realm as a way of life, as the center of life. Knowing how to live is knowing how the universe operates. Instead of humans as the center, and deciding how they will live and all else is extraneous and subject to human will, humans are the ones who must comply in order to be in harmony. Otherwise, the humans experience internal and external chaos. There is no concept of “dominion over” life or the earth. To understand this vibrant and alive natural, spiritual realm requires deep imagery that can communicate the resonance, depth and complexities of its consummate harmony, dynamism and completeness and the way in which it operates. The images, which are real and experienceable, in the language of the Navajo, then, are of natural values that express the presence of the spiritual universe, for example, with the four different-colored Big Winds (16).  The traditional Navajo teachings are how to be in harmony with this supernal but physically realized, cohesive and active expanse.

Of great importance to see is that with this different world view that is based in the spiritual and natural world, the language is made up of and is dependent upon natural metaphors—which are literal—since they literally express the spiritual realm in visible form to communicate the complexities without dividing down into a separated way of thinking where the literal loses its spiritual, natural, and complex realities as it does in Anglo American culture.  In other words, their modes of expression are metaphors which are natural, spiritual, and literally known and this gives them more recognized being. Everything is alive and nothing is assumed to be valueless. If both language and object stop with the concrete in the perceived world view, all other qualities and dynamics are eliminated.  All things become objects.

"There is only one way of seeing things, and that is seeing the whole of them."  John Ruskin

For Anglo American culture, whose language is "binary" (based on the existence of only one) (Clayton 40) and whose thought and actions are not based primarily on the natural world for imagery and metaphor--does not by nature evoke another level other than the measurable, absolute and concrete symbol and regards everything as separate and not an aggregate of multiple levels, layers or complexities—or as having vitality. It does not carry a connotation of further perceived existence or values—and they therefore do not exist.  The body is perceived as an object. The soul is perceived as a different object. There is not a spiritual existence behind or connected to the perceived:  what ones see is what there is.  A tree is a tree. God is separate. In this world view, then, you can do what you want with the tree, as it is just an object. It may be viewed by most as having been created by a god, but it is still just a tree. The significance of the tree being a manifestation of the spiritual realm gives it qualities not recognized in the current dominant world view. Taking this further, it becomes apparent that there are qualities in everything that are not translating in our binary language and that are more able to be articulated through natural imagery and metaphor.

One of the most imperative realizations about the English language, then, is that female and race do not even translate to anything but a physical "difference" from the male, which is understood as maleness being the centric force. His world view is expressed in his construct of language. He has complexities—which are his ways of thinking and operating--in the language, and nothing else does. His world view begins in his language. (It is one of the first acts of creation). All of the words are his and operate around him as the center.  Therefore what exists in the mind—our thoughts being limited to language--is limited to what is defined and given to us in language in this manner.  In this way, the act of creation has been taken away from both the female and other races. To lose participation in this way and to lose one's power of creation is to be taken out of the flow of life.

To even then be able to articulate something other than maleness, to express the female, for example, it becomes necessary to comprehend a different means of expression, even a basis of a different world view and realize the necessity of a language with freedoms from these inherent thought and language restrictions that therefore play out into our perceived realities. We must turn the world view upside down to look at the other side, move from an anthropocentric viewpoint to seeing the completeness of the universe—BOTH views, perceiving the whole instead of a part, and thus alter our own realities. French feminist theorists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray suggest that there must be a "search for an alternative discourse" that goes back to before language and starts in the being—what they describe as a "forelanguage" (Clayton 38-39). This would have to come from consciousness or the spiritual realm and be articulated into the beauty of what can be realized.

If one uses his symbolic system of language, one is then tied to it, in service to it and above all, limited to it. There is an automatic frustration with being limited to something that one is not. To be a "not" by definition negates life. What this calls for is a language free from the binary, which will be a poetic language and therefore poetically conceived world which opens perception and completes the whole. Opening is key because it removes limitations. Consequently, with an opening up to perceiving more of what is natural and real, it will also be a more alive, present and spiritual existence because one begins to acknowledge and see the cohesiveness and animation that before was blocked out of perception as non-existent. 

This calls for an act of creation that through its representation is created a new way of experiencing identity and the physical universe beyond its surface representation. It is to be given life in this way. It is to be given soul. So let us begin with the act of creation in a combining, reversing the separation in the Garden. Because in his language she is "not-him," she is a second being beyond him, she is therefore two. She always signifies two (or more).  First and foremost, she does not eliminate one and she, by her very existence, proves the existence of two and therefore thought cannot remain binary at this point. Her existence makes "just one" not true. She is naturally not limited to one. And so the creation of her expression begins here and one can find that she indeed best represents what is not only one, but always more than one.  Furthermore, the creation of understanding her then, is a process of perceiving the ways in which she is more than one: her combinations.  This is an exciting way to begin to come to understand her possibilities for there is immense wealth in discovering that with her comes many and that the combinations are endless.  What comes with her first is the completing of the creation of her.  She automatically must come with a new and different understanding and a way to express it.  These French feminist theorists emphasize the long necessity of a "confluence of language and the feminine" (Clayton 39). This means she naturally comes with the necessity of a language.  The act of creation is that she must have a way to express herself: she must begin to create in order to be.

And so, a poetic and metaphorical language is necessary. Her natural qualities are best expressed by her commonality with the unlimited and the visible natural and spiritual universe.  Because she was a surface object before, she is now liminal—on the threshold—both a manifestation of the natural world and its articulation in the world of society. She is the expression of both worlds. She is the spiritual into the physical and in her equation, nothing is eliminated.

She is an "also."  She is "this" and she is also "that."  She is him and her. She is a natural unifier.  She is an "and". In discussing cultures, then, she is an act of combining. In order to stop segregating our thoughts (and therefore people and ways of being), she causes an addition to happen: opening to a new culture and discovering an entirely different world view that heals our own.  In return, the degradation faced by that natural culture ends. It is given back life.

One comes to know her, then, through her combinations. Because she brings in the concept of other, she brings with her all other.  She cannot ever be reduced down again to merely physical.  In a continuance from perceived metaphor into its realization in reality, as an object, she has been subject to rape.  In this instance, now if one rapes her, one rapes all the world.  One rapes the whole universe.

The recognition of a "fore-language" can express a natural and spiritual realm to which she is naturally an expression of, moving beyond how she and her qualities did not translate and were not fully understood on a purely physical plane.

If she's not just a body, what is she? 

While Anglo American language is binary, in Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that our thoughts and actions are based on metaphor (3)—which are based on two. Metaphors, being the combination of two seemingly unalike things, open a new understanding that was not seen before. The power of metaphor is not only a new means of expression, but also a way of opening thought. Metaphors that speak become thought and action. Metaphors that are literal, as they are in the Navajo world, open these new realities. This is how females, who are by their very nature creators—in body by being able to conceive life, give birth, and in the mind and spirit nurture and guide creations into new life—are given means of existence, expression and their natural roles. By coming into the natural world she can come to know this nature of her existence and move beyond the former negated state of being. She then has the capability of not only bridging worlds, but also cultures. She can give place to the Navajo's deep respect and understanding for the natural and spiritual universe. She makes the path one in which there is more than one way of expressing, honoring and being a part of the universe. By being literal metaphor herself, she reveals the seemingly unalike commonality.

There are cultural boundaries to keep her from the natural world.  There are gateways that say, "You are not allowed to be." Beyond language, these too come from controlling metaphors that are already securely in place in Anglo American culture—controlling thought and action—to keep one from moving into being. A heroine knows there are going to be these gateways, these controls. She knows she has already been negated from existence. She also knows, because of her knowledge of her inner spirit which has not yet been expressed, there will be inherent beauty in coming to know. The barriers indeed look dangerous and insurmountable. These controlling metaphors prove to be the gateway.

The first metaphor (as creator of thought and action) stops the female from moving towards both nature and knowledge.  It begins with eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The metaphor compares the apple, a symbol of nature, with coming to know, and the knowledge of what is natural is downfall and separation she and the snake have caused. What is now understood is that nature and female are evil and that knowledge is painful and off-limits.  In this line of thinking, separation is now the reality.

Instead, however, where there was only one before, now there is the knowledge of the existence of two. Once she knows this, she knows there are two different paths. It looks as if the system of being the only one is threatened, when it is that she now knows about her own existence. The snake, who has been vilified, in ancient cultures is a sign of new life¹, change and transformation, as it must shed its skin in cycles, like the moon, like her body. She knows now she is different. She must follow the lonely path of discovering what it means to be this difference for which she has been punished. The barriers of thought tell her that her nature and knowledge are bad and that now she is to be excluded.  Left out of culture over many centuries, her state is equated in many stories and myths as going to sleep after eating this "poison apple."

In her sleep, however, she has dreamed of existence. It is as she begins to realize her own depth, her own nature, as she starts to awake that is the problem.

Someone saw her waking.

From her nightmare she has realized the whole universe, of which she is an expression, her whole natural existence has been there all along. She has realized that all along she has been both nothing and everything. She sees her own reflection in "other." She no longer has to strive to be just "one." The nightmare of not knowing is over.

She knows she has to give expression to it.  This is her awakening. This is how she comes into existence—by her creation.

The one who saw her waking now knows that there is something far more beautiful.  This observer, who is still limited to the binary system, is desperate to be seen as this depth of beauty and creative power. She also knows her powers do not go there. She is desperate to have that beauty of consciousness and expression to create for herself.  Being only in the service of self, she must try to imitate this with her words and her actions. She spends all her energy trying desperately to remain the only "one" by this imitation.

The secret is the poison apple. 

Using her measures of imitation and deceit, she must keep everyone asleep. She must keep them thinking SHE is the definition of beauty and creativity. She must keep them all from waking. She desperately wants to be "the fairest in the land." Eat the red apple she gives and one stays asleep. Everything stays separate.

She makes the red look delightful, innocent and sweet. 

While the deceit looks like the point, the poison apple is actually the signal that there is further to go, that there is something far more beautiful to know.

Further is being able to create something new, create new worlds.

"The door is wide and open, don't go back to sleep." Rumi

The apple not poisoned and from nature—with no illicit intent—reveals the gift of a universe where "other" does not have to fight to belong.  This existence, beauty, and depth just "is." It is the natural state of the female, complete and whole and one with all that is. Knowing what her true nature is, she does not need to negate. She is and gives expression.

By opening to the Navajo world, which must remain distinct but open, an affinity and harmony with the natural and spiritual world begins to show the path of understanding a complete and natural universe which can be realized as alive with further dimensions of inherent values, resonance, depth and complexities. It is discovering the wonder of being a part of the immeasurable, boundless universe that speaks. 

Life, then, takes on these new spiritual dimensions and can be known in a completely different manner. Simply put, it is exploring a depth to being that is already naturally at work. With ego dissolved, the universe is alive. One discovers that there is a natural order and it does indeed speak.

The Navajo have for many centuries been living in harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds, and their ways show a gentle approach by the medicine people to seek help and guidance from the holy people, those with "an ability beyond what is considered normal human capacity" (11). Over many centuries the elders have passed on ways in which to communicate with this universe. In his book on the traditional teachings and history of the Navajo, Robert McPherson describes types of divination such as wind listening, star gazing and hand trembling. McPherson gives personal accounts from elders who lived in the early twentieth century, before the Navajo culture was radically altered by the dominant culture. The beauty of their teachings can be seen in their sensitivity to the spiritual world. McPherson gives insight into the culture by exploring their words, thoughts and expressions. He explains that a myth to the Navajo is "a sacred explanation as to how the holy people created an object, ceremony, and so on for the benefit of the People. The teachings derived from these explanations are driving forces within the culture that provide stability and coherence in an otherwise chaotic world" (10).  McPherson writes, "Like the winds, the sun, moon and stars are alive and have an ability to interact with " (19). There is a colorfulness and a vivacity to their alive worlds.  For example, the stars give a sense of permanence. "Stars and humans are closely related . . . 'the stars follow a special pattern every day of the year' . . . They are named in prayers, each has a Blessing Way song, and each has a special power to benefit people." The stars are believed to be given to help people "find their way . . . regain their faith and reestablish their balance and their direction" (21). The job of the diviners is to "be an observer of what the star telling you" (26). This sensitivity follows through plant and animal life and knowing that each has a role.

Their depth of understanding of the power inherent in the natural world lends itself to meaningful images and modes of expression. In one description McPherson writes, "The sun, a fiery disk made of turquoise and other elements, should not be confused with Sun Bearer, the deity who carries the object across the sky on thirty-two trails lying between the solstices.  Sun Bearer is a handsome deity, noted for his strength and amorous ability, who figures frequently in the mythology" (19). While an outsider may look at this as a "myth" that is untrue, the images chosen in the expression reveal characteristics of the beauty and strength of the sun "being brought" across the sky, the beloved beauty of the sun itself, and the capability of the entity involved to love. The metaphor that resonates on a new level is the dynamics of this gorgeous act of "bringing the sun." While Anglo culture may not be able to perceive turquoise being in the sky or relate to that being the metaphor, one can re-imagine what it means that the earth chose to rotate again, that the sun is indeed warm, visible and present, that it is all a gift that didn't have to happen. It is better than gold. This lends itself to not being preoccupied in such a way that there are things of greater importance or that it doesn't matter that the sun came up. Gold is very small when compared. 

Another description offers further insight.  McPherson writes, "Because the moon is 'the sign of the Anglo' there are no formal prayers to it as there are to the sun, the sign for the Navajo" (19). They take pride in its presence. 

One important resonance, for example, that is still lacking in Anglo world view is the spirituality connected to the sun rising. If one begins to perceive the order of the universe not just as a simple "order" but as a perfection, it takes on a different tone. For if there is perfection in the earth rotating to beauty of the sun, and not randomness, there is perfection to be perceived in more than this one thing. Since there is not randomness in the order of the sun and moon and stars, it can be seen that randomness is a perception being applied due to limited perception. One way to see the world differently would be to question its inherent rightness and its beauty. Why does it operate so perfectly? The Navajo see a perfect order and the humans as the ones who find that order. Perception is key and the Navajo work hard to understand the meaningfulness around them.

It is in their approach to prayers, songs and ceremonies that the Navajo come into closer participation with this order. Anglo American culture, on the other hand, has moved towards a freedom from religion and story, reducing the power of the didactic in their lives. The Navajo elders mourn this influence on their old ways and understandings. McPherson does address the changing metaphors. What stands out is that they do not find the operation of the natural world meaningless or empty. Even simple metaphors such as the fire poker in the home brings resonance to their existences, gives them understanding of more dimension and harmony.

In finding perfection in the natural world and perceiving its completeness and order, one can find that the expression of the female in bringing unity is a beautiful new order in itself, a new moon, new life, and the beginnings of expressing a new way of being in the world. McPherson writes that, "The Navajo elders are mourning that the younger generations have gone "crazy," that they have no identity and have lost themselves in a "blizzard of activity." In our own culture, being out of harmony is radically felt and assumed to be normal. A move towards knowing one is part of a grand scheme that has a perfect order inspires one to take the further step of participating in the co-creation of a new way of expressing it. One way the act of creation can come about is through the re-imagined metaphors exploring the many ways in which we are more than one.

1. "The power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again, as the moon its shadow to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again." Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Volume One. The Hero's Adventure. Prod. Bill Moyers. PBS, 1988. DVD.
Works Cited
Clayton, Barbara; Clayton, Barbara (2004-01-29).  A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey (Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson.  Metaphors We Live By.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003. Print.
McPherson, Robert S. Dinéjí Na `Nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2012. Print.