Sunday, 27 May 2007

The Sacred in Motion: A Bahá'í encounter with Lakota spirituality

This reflection was born from a moving and fascinating exchange with Paula Bidwell, a Lakota Bahá'í, and medicine woman, on the subject of spiritual motion, one of the most crucial, and most subtle, spiritual concepts in the Bahá'í Writings, which in Lakota spirituality is associated to the term seminal term "Skan". For me, encountering Paula was a beautiful moment of light, someone from whom I learned much, and who touched my heart. A sign and ambassador of the promise that 'Abdu'l-Bahá beheld in the nobility and spiritual capacity of Native Americans.


The most critical concept in Paula's words is the notion of Skan. As she writes in her initial message:

"The foundation to everything I have to say revolves around the Lakota concept of "skan" (movement). In a medicine or holy context this means themovement of the universe including everything in it, the seen and unseen."

Skan represents movement, not only physical but also, primarily,metaphysical movement. It would be more accurate perhaps in this context to capitalise the word Movement, as in the Dakota tradition Skan is not only aconcept, but a facet of Divinity, indeed, traditionally, a god.

The notion of many gods, common to many belief systems, seems to me to belargely compatible, under a specific lens, with the Bahá'í approach to the Names and Attributes of God. God's essence, unknowable, inaccessible, ismanifested through His Names and Attributes. Bahá'u'lláh links specific cosmogonical and metaphysical events to specific Names of God, so that HisName, the Creator, is the source of all creation; His name, the Fashioner, of the arts and sciences; His name, the Merciful, transmutes sin and revives mankind. He specifically states that each name is accompanied by a like manifestation of power and calls on God to bestow blessings through a multitude of Names, among which the Most Great Name stands transcendent and supreme. This is strongly reminiscent of the function and description of the various gods in so-called "polytheistic" religious systems. Bahá'u'lláh goes further in "concretising" the names and attributes of God, in onefamous instance describing a visitation by Trustworthiness, in the form of a maiden in a pillar of light speaking to its devotees. This is as close as it gets to the language of many gods. It provides a valuable bridge to the language of native american traditions, which likewise have a layered, dynamic relationship to such concepts, often coexisting with a monotheistic vision in a manner reminiscent of the monotheistic vision that suffuses the polytheistic language of many Upanishads in Hinduism.

But to return to Skan. Skan, or Motion, I suggest, is an attribute of God, and a mighty attribute indeed, whence existence springs and of which existence inherently partakes. The absence of movement, the absence ofSkan, is the absence of existence. All creation is an expression ofSkan/Motion. This emphasis is not the one most Baha'is typically stress inrelation to their Faith, yet a survey of the writings shows that it is entirely appropriate. Bahá'u'lláh writes:"He. Who is both Stillness and Motion, is now manifest before your eyes. Behold how, in this Day, out of Stillness Motion hath been engendered." GWB168

From His stillness, then, He has manifested Himself in motion. All motion proceeds from Him, and in that sense, God is in all things, in His name, the Mover.

"For He, the Mover of all beings, that glorified Countenance, is the source of such potencies as neither this wronged One can reveal, nor this unworthy people comprehend. Immensely exalted is He above men's praise of His sovereignty; glorified is He beyond that which they attribute unto Him!" (KIp.124)

"Know thou moreover that all else besides Him have been created through thepotency of a word from His presence, while of themselves they have no motion nor stillness, except at His bidding and by His leave." (GWB p.109-110).

All motion, then, is His motion, all skan His Skan, though not all direction is His direction nor all purpose His purpose. As we prostrate ourselves in prayer, in the dust of worship, Bahá'u'lláh's sublime words rise from our lips:

"Say: O my Lord, my Best-Beloved, the Mover of my actions, the Lode Star ofmy soul, the Voice that crieth in mine inmost being, the Object of mine heart's adoration!"

"my Aim and the Aim of all things, my Mover and theMover of all things"

"Thou art He Who from everlasting hath been the King ofthe entire creation and its Prime Mover" (GWB p.310, PM p.59, PM p.262)

God's attribute, "the Mover", is so sublime, His motion, His skan, takes place in such an exalted sphere, that we are powerless to extol, much less comprehend it:

"How can, then, such a man succeed in befittingly extolling the One through a motion of Whose finger all the names and their kingdom were called into being, and all the attributes and their dominion were created, and Who, through yet another motion of that same finger, hath united the letters B and E (Be) and knit them together, manifesting thereby what the highest thoughts of Thy chosen ones who enjoy near access to Thee are unable to grasp" (PM p303)

And so, our origin and the origin of all things, the origin, even, of all names, begins in motion, and existence itself consists of the motion traced by those sublime fingers, uniting the letters B and E in one. This concept, of the inseparability of motion and existence, which is the axis of Paula's post, was one which 'Abdu'l-Baha was at pains to convey toHis Western audiences, both while imprisoned in Palestine and in His heroicjourneys in both Europe and America. This emphasis gives the impression of His trying to impart an insight which the West particularly needed to grasp. To Laura Clifford Barney He explained:"Know that nothing which exists remains in a state of repose--that is tosay, all things are in motion . Everything is either growing or declining;all things are either coming from nonexistence into being, or going fromexistence into nonexistence." (SAQ p.233)And in Paris He devoted an entire talk to the subject, saying that:"Absolute repose does not exist in nature. All things either make progress or lose ground. Everything moves forward or backward, nothing is without motion . From his birth, a man progresses physically until he reaches maturity, then, having arrived at the prime of his life, he begins to decline, the strength and powers of his body decrease, and he gradually arrives at the hour of death. Now let us consider the soul. We have seen that movement is essential to existence; nothing that has life is without motion . All creation, whether of the mineral, vegetable or animal kingdom,is compelled to obey the law of motion; it must either ascend or descend.But with the human soul, there is no decline. Its only movement is towards perfection; growth and progress alone constitute the motion of the soul. In the world of spirit there is no retrogression. The world of mortality is a world of contradictions, of opposites; motion being compulsory everything must either go forward or retreat. In the realm of spirit there is no retreat possible, all movement is bound to be towards a perfect state.`Progress' is the expression of spirit in the world of matter." (PTpp.88-90)

He returned to the subject several times, sometimes in extenso, in the United States. In one particularly significant statement, He articulated concepts that could have emmanated from Paula's reflections on Skan."Creation is the expression of motion. Motion is life. A moving object is aliving object, whereas that which is motionless and inert is as dead. Allcreated forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence,under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy isdynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena orin the inner world of intellect" ( PUP p.140) Likewise in His tablet of the Universe, 'Abdu'l-Baha states:"Divine and all-encompassing Wisdom hath ordained that motion be an inseparable concomitant of existence, whether inherently or accidentally, spiritually or materially." (p.1)

And returning to the theme of Bahá'u'lláh's meditations, 'Abdu'l-Baha states that "Motion without a mover or cause of motion is inconceivable." (PUP p.307). The very same concept formed a foundation of His divine response to the eminent Swiss scientist August Forel.Thus the Mover who originates the motion of existence and Who is Himself Motion as well as Stillness, generates creation, and invests it with His motion. Creation itself is the expression of motion, which leads us back in an ascending arc towards the motion of His pen, towards the ultimate stillness of the Unknowable, through His name, the Mover. Towards skan. And as the embodiment of all His names and attributes, we have seen that Him Who is both Stillness and Motion, Him Who is both Stillness and Skan, is at last manifest in Baha'u'llah. And the Bab while imprisoned in Adhirbayjan, proclaims the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy which He cites in a powerful tablet, from that fount of mystic knowledge, the Imam Baqir. The prophecy also establishes the response expected:"What must needs befall us in Ádhirbayján is inevitable and withoutparallel. When this happeneth, rest ye in your homes and remain patient aswe have remained patient. As soon as the Mover moveth make ye haste to attain unto Him, even though ye have to crawl over the snow.' " (SWB 17)

And so we have the Manifestation of God as the supreme embodiment of Skan, the Mover Who moveth. And by our own responsive motion or inertness we determine the quality of our spiritual life. Salvation is motion towards Him, perdition immobility, which is nothing less than drifting away from Him, for nothing is still. And when we move towards the Mover, even if crawling through snow, we warm and vitalise the entire universe, so that Bahá'u'lláh admonishes: "Be thou as a throbbing artery, pulsating in the body of the entire creation, that through the heat generated by this motion there may appear that which will quicken the hearts of those who hesitate." (TB p.142) And so, it is for us to become pure vehicles for skan. And as hearts quicken, hesitation vanishes. And motion, skan, quickens even history, sot hat perhaps the 20th century, in spite of all its shadows, will come to be regarded as the Century of Light precisely on account of the unprecedented motion it engendered, as joyously proclaimed by 'Abdu'l-Baha: "This is the century of motion , divine stimulus and accomplishment, the century of human solidarity and altruistic service, the century of universal peace and the reality of the divine Kingdom." (PUP p.143) Perhaps the motion, skan, towards peace, altruism and solidarity, however long it takes to reach fruition, will be seen to have been generated in this twentieth century, and to this very skan, this same motion, will our eventual maturation be traced. And so our generation is the last to have experienced the tumultuous trials and victories of this Century of Light, this Century of Motion, this Century of Skan.

May we become embodiments of skan, letting His skan, move us toward Him, Who is both Stillness and Skan, and who is manifest in this Great Day. May skan lead us to Him, even should we crawl over the melting snow to reach Him.

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