Moments of clarity and joy can happen anywhere, without warning. The experience is not soon forgotten, and can sometimes transform a person’s life.
When a number of people share that moment, they become something greater than the sum of their ego-bound personalities. They become one, at least for a short while. Sharif Abdullah and a group of high school students experienced such a moment, and Sharif sent us this description.
Sharif is director of The Forum for Community Transformation, PO Box 12541, Portland OR 97212 503/281-1813. [An interview with Sharif appeared in IN CONTEXT #33.]
As part of the program of the Oregon Governor’s School for Citizen Leadership, I, along with a staff of 20, took 50 high school students on a 10-mile hike up Whetstone Mountain, located in the Cascade Mountains of western Oregon. The students all had attended classes on wisdom and leadership, which I co-taught with Calvin Hecocta. Calvin, a counsellor at the Chinatown Indian School, is also an ancient forest activist and a man steeped in Native American spirituality.
At dawn, we began the ascent up the mountain. Travel was difficult since many in the group had little or no hiking experience, and several were in poor physical condition.
Many were also mentally unprepared; some of the students bickered and snapped at each other, and others grumbled under their breath. Several minor falls and scrapes occurred when hikers failed to warn each other of hidden roots and logs, or swinging branches.
The group’s pace was uneven with frequent shouts of "slow down!" or "speed up!" piercing the mountain air. We stopped frequently to patch up scrapes, eat, and rest. The ascent was frustrating for most of the group. Still, the arrival at the summit was rewarding, especially for those who did not know that they could accomplish such a goal. We didn’t know it then, but another peak – a spiritual one – would be attained on the way back down.
During the descent, Calvin announced he planned to split off from the group to visit an ancient "vision quest" site located nearby. There was some controversy generated by this decision. Ten students wanted to go with Calvin (the trek was too dangerous for the entire group), but the director of the school decided that the students should stay together. Calvin, along with two of the staff, turned to hike to the vision quest site.
At first I had every intention of accompanying Calvin. I also intended to override the director’s orders and take the 10 students with me. However, a strange energy came over me, and I realized that I was, for some reason, not to leave the group. With head bent, I resumed my place with the rest of the hikers.
I was very unhappy. It was hard for me to turn away from Calvin and continue down the trail with the larger group. But my intuition on this was strong, and I rarely ignore my intuition.
For a quarter mile or so, I puzzled over my reasons for sticking with the group. Several times, students tried to engage me in conversation and I cut them off, lost in my thoughts.
A short time later, from our vantage point on the trail, we were able to see the vision quest site: a bare, rocky bluff, a triangular point of rock floating above an emerald green forest. My heart did a flip-flop, and I felt the site drawing me like a magnet. After taking a picture, I reluctantly continued down the trail.
After another 15 minutes of hiking, we again took one of our many breaks. The students were shouting at each other and otherwise creating a ruckus when I heard what at first sounded like someone crying for help. Instantly alert, I bellowed, "Be quiet! I hear someone crying!"
In the quiet, I could hear Calvin singing a song from the vision quest site, now a half-mile away. The canyon was filled with his presence. Although the song was in the Paiute language, its message was readily understandable by the heart. It mourned the damage done by those who don’t care and don’t see, and it praised and welcomed the spirits that were present and protecting the area.
The effect of Calvin’s song on the group was astonishing. One of the students near me said in a hushed tone, "It’s Calvin." Everyone listened. I stood there, entranced by the powerful return of the Native American spirit to the land.
The song went on for several minutes. No one moved. Even after Calvin stopped singing, no one moved or talked; everyone remained transfixed by the moment.
After a few minutes, I gave a hand sign that we should move forward. Everyone immediately picked up their gear and walked in total silence down the mountain.
For the next two miles, the group made its best time of the entire trek, and did so in total silence and with no injuries. Our pace was brisk; our thoughts were with Calvin, miles away. Spiritually, mentally, and physically, we were one.
There was an amazing degree of cooperation between people who just before had been bickering. Even after the students began once again to talk and sing, their attitudes toward each other were changed, and for the better.