Oriah Mountain Dreamer has authored six books, including The Invitation, The Dance, The Call, and Opening the Invitation. She has given countless talks, facilitated hundreds of workshops, raised two sons as a single mother, and overcome chronic fatigue syndrome. In her most recent book What We Ache For, she invites us to explore our relationship with creativity, drawing from the essence of who we are at a soul level.
Common Ground: I first heard you speak in Toronto in 1994 at a conference for women called Birthing the New Ancestors, hosted by Marion Woodman. You had already written Confessions of a Spiritual Thrillseeker about the years you spent studying an intertribal, shamanic spiritual path. Including your latest book What We Ache For, to what extent does Native spirituality inform your work today?
Oriah Mountain Dreamer: It is the basis of my own spiritual practice. I do a set of 22 prayers every day that I learned within that tradition, and I continue to spend time alone meditating and praying in the wilderness. It is really my primary spiritual path, and it dovetails with my writing. My writing has always been the way, first and foremost, that I stay connected to myself, so my daily practice includes those prayers and the writing. They often intertwine, so it is very much a part of my life, my personal life, even though I am not sharing those teachings at the moment.
CG: How long did you facilitate workshops and vision quests?
OMD: I actually facilitated my first workshop on opening awareness to the natural environment when I was 16. I taught workshops for 33 years, and I may go back to that, but at this point it just feels like I need to take a break from it and see what’s next. Some of that, I think, is about turning 50, and some of it is just trying to find the sustainable way for me to make an offering at this point in my life.
CG: What was most fulfilling about facilitating people’s journeys into self-growth and awareness?
OMD: There are two things. One is that it was the fastest way for me to learn. There’s nothing like having to teach something to really be aware of where the holes in your knowledge are. The other is that I have enormous faith in the ceremonial process. If we put ourselves in a place where we can show up completely, something larger will speak to us. What I loved, and continue to love, about Native and all Earth-based spirituality is that they do not separate spirit and matter. If you do a purification lodge [sweat lodge ceremony] or a vision quest, you don’t go up out of your body and forget about your body that’s being eaten by mosquitoes. It has a very grounded kind of impact, while at the same time opening to something larger and unseen.
CG: What is the origin of your name Oriah Mountain Dreamer?
OMD: The name Oriah was given to me in a dream by a group of old women I call the Grandmothers, who I had dreamed about for years and continue to dream about. They gave me the name when I was very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, 23 years ago. They said that it was part of my healing to change my name to Oriah. They also directed me to go to a shaman for healing, which I did, and he gave me the medicine name Mountain Dreamer, which he said meant someone who liked to find and push the edge. I learned that pushing the edge isn’t the same thing for everyone. For me, pushing the edge is about slowing down, not about speeding up.
CG: Chronic fatigue syndrome seems to be a condition that women are particularly susceptible to developing. Can you make any interpretation about the condition on a symbolic level?
OMD: I think it’s literal. I think we’re exhausted. I don’t think it’s symbolic at all. It’s chronic fatigue, a chronic lack of rest, of receiving that which nourishes us, of moving at a pace that’s truly sustainable. I think that’s why we’re out of synch with the Earth, which is a feminine body. I think that it’s true for men and for women. The push to speed is not a sustainable way of life emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or in any kind of way. On some level, I think the whole culture has chronic fatigue. If you take away coffee from most urban areas, it would be very interesting to see if anything could function. What caffeine does is help us move at a faster pace than our bodies and minds want to go.
CG: How did you discover that you had chronic fatigue syndrome?
OMD: I had a really specific moment when I crossed the line into chronic fatigue syndrome. It was about two days after the birth of my second son, who was large 12 pounds, 13 ounces. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had had a dream. I had the sensation of a fluorescent tube in the centre of my body and it broke in half. I sat up in bed and I said to my husband, “Something just broke.” And he said, “What?” and I said, “I don’t know,” and I started haemorrhaging.
CG: How did you heal?
OMD: It was a combination of things. I finally went to the shaman and he did a healing with me, a very simple 20-minute healing, talking to me and putting his hands over my body. Something really shifted for me, and I realized that part of what was at the root of my chronic fatigue was that I was living a perfectly lovely life, but it wasn’t really my life. I realized that my life needed to be centred in my spirituality, and it needed to be done in a very explicit way. That’s who I am.
CG: In your new book you talk about the myth of spontaneity. That intrigued me, as for years we’ve been admonished to live in the moment. How does the myth of spontaneity affect the creative process?
OMD: I talk about it for both lovemaking and for creativity. I talk about not separating our spirituality, sexuality, and creativity. Anybody who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that if you cling to the myth of spontaneity, thinking that if you’re really in love, you’ll just fall into each other’s arms spontaneously and make love, you’ll soon find that you’re not having much of a sex life, particularly if you have children.
Sleep always seems like a better option. What we find out is that we have to cultivate that energy between each other and intimacy. We have to cultivate that same kind of intimacy with our creative process and in spirituality too. In all three, if you really want to cultivate your spirituality, sexuality or creativity, you need to develop some kind of practice. A practice is a regular, structured method that allows us to enter the process whether we feel like it or not. The myth of spontaneity may really just be our resistance to doing it, period.
CG: You have written that doing creative work allows one a way to cultivate a life of making love to the world. What does that look like for Oriah?
OMD: I think that people get the best of who I am through my writing. It doesn’t mean that the writing doesn’t include many admissions of human failure, but I am able to both show up fully when I write and get my ego out of the way enough so that I can speak from a deeper place. At this point in my life, and this may change, the best of what I have to offer the world really is in my writing. The process of writing sustains me. I enjoy speaking, but travelling and speaking is not a sustainable way for me to work and live.
CG: There’s a significant element of risk-taking and honesty in your writing.
OMD: One of the things that I talk about in What We Ache For is that all creativity involves a level of risk and sacrifice. People say to me, “I want to write, but I feel this resistance. What is this resistance?” I think it’s legitimate. I think that the ego knows that if we participate fully and faithfully in the process of doing creative work, we will be changed because the truth changes us. The ego, the identity we have built and are attached to, will lose ground to a more essential self. It’s impossible for the ego to surrender, so the best you can do is to feel the resistance and keep going. That’s why a practice helps a lot. It is a way of going into the creative work even though you feel the resistance.
CG: I loved the image of you wrapping a copy of the first book that you published in a silk scarf and leaving it in a tree. I know that you still leave a copy of a new book at random locations.
OMD: I do. I don’t always leave it in a tree, but with every book, the first copy I get I’ve taken to writing “This one’s for you” in the front and signing it and leaving it somewhere at random. I do a kind of imaginary cutting of a sort of umbilical cord between the book and myself releasing it into the world. One of the things that stops a lot of people from sharing their work is that it feels like a piece of yourself that you’re putting out there and that feels very vulnerable. You feel like you are your painting; you are your book. I understand the feeling, but we’re wrong. I’m not my book. It’s a book. That process is to remind myself of that. If I separate a bit from the book, it helps me remember that other peoples’ responses to the book are really none of my business.
CG: What are you most proud of in your life?
OMD: The thing that’s been most important to me, important meaning the thing I knew that mattered most, was how I was as a mother. I am well aware, because it is so important, of the many, many mistakes I’ve made in mothering. So I couldn’t say that I feel that I have accomplished some stellar level of mothering.
CG: And it isn’t really about accomplishment, is it? It’s a feeling of pride, which isn’t always tied to an accomplishment.
OMD: When I think about that, if I trace the feeling, what I think about is The Call, which is a story about my going out to do a 40-day vision quest. I became very, very ill by day five, and by day seven I had to leave the bush. I went home, but I decided that I would live the remainder of those 40 days by staying completely in the present moment and following the impulse to move that came from that space, moving only when the impulse to move came from the deepest place in the centre of myself, and moving only as quickly as I could move maintaining that connection. And I did that for the rest of those 40 days. On the 40th day, my soon-to-be husband and I went for a drive and found our home that we bought that day. When I think about stopping doing the workshops, I realize that that 40 days was a template for how I want to live my life with that sense that the priority is doing whatever I need to do on any given day, including my practice and stay connected to that presence that is in all of us and in everything.
CG: What inspired the title of your newest book?
OMD: It really comes out of The Invitation because The Invitation starts with, “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for.” My own belief is that what we ache for at the deepest level is the same for all of us, and it is that connection to presence, to the truth, to what is most real, to the divine. Creativity is one of the ways to respond to that ache, to find that connection. And I think because our creativity tends to have generally been neglected, sometimes it’s an easier way into touching what we ache for.
CG: We are halfway through the first decade of the new millennium. Do you see a particular general consciousness developing that is different from that of the ‘90s?
OMD: I wish I could say there was some good news about this, but I’ve been spending a lot of time in the US and the level of fear and anger there is higher than I’ve ever seen it in my life. More than it was after September 11. After 9/11, that fear, which was based on something real, was also mixed with an incredible pulling together and taking care of each other. That has slowed down, and now what we have is a lot of residual fear and anger. I think that a lot of the fear is about economics, which is not unfounded. The middle class in America is shrinking rapidly. They’re in the process right now of eradicating Medicare, state by state, for people on welfare and for the working poor. They’re starting with Missouri. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I find the ever-increasing spiral of materialism sad. It makes me want to weep.
CG: Is there anything you are still aching to do that you haven’t yet done?
OMD: I want to write fiction, I think. One of the things about stopping for a while is that I’m not sure whether I really want to write fiction or I just like the idea of writing fiction. I’ll find out. Sometimes there are things we think we ache for and then we get there and that wasn’t it. The bottom line is that the only thing I really ache for is to keep within my consciousness that sense of connection to the sacred presence within everything. That’s what I ache for. Anything else is a means, in a sense, to that end. My life is an end in itself, but really the ache beneath all the rest of it is that ache to have a sense of that presence, the beloved, continuously.