"Way of the Warrior"
In 1984, I participated in a month long experiential workshop held at the Ojai Foundation called “Way of the Warrior.” This personal growth seminar was a classic smorgasbord of new age teachers and disciplines. The colorful and extensive cast of characters composing this rainbow event ranged from healers, shamans, and martial arts experts to well-known and respected anthropologists and scientists. Joan Halifax, R.D. Laing, Francis Huxley, Robert Sheldrake, and Wallace Black Elk, to name just a few, were all in attendance. It was the perfect opportunity to explore the different spiritual traditions and scientific systems that govern our lives. While living at the Ojai Foundation that month, I met a man who would change forever my understanding and philosophy of life. His name was Elie Hein, and he was one of the few who truly knew how to walk his talk and live the life of a spiritual warrior.
Elie was a shaman and healer from Burkino Faso, a small country located in the Western hump of Africa. A small, muscular man with jet black skin and piercing eyes,
Elie was big in heart, as well as presence. His gentle, smiling face comforted all those who had the pleasure and honor of knowing him. He was indeed one of those rare, honest individuals who radiate true charisma and integrity with every breath they take.
I had heard him lecture several times but had talked with him only briefly, when late one afternoon, news arrived that a wildfire was heading for our camp. Southern California is known for devastating wildfires and that year had been particularly dry. Joan Halifax dispatched Elie, two others, and myself to a nearby ridge to assess the speed and direction of the fast approaching wildfire. Elie strode confidently to the crest of the ridge and deftly climbed to the top of a tree. The fire line was only a mile or so away, and with the wind pushing it rapidly in our direction, it was clear we were all in immediate danger. As I was heading back down the hill to advise everyone to jump in their cars and drive for their lives, Elie calmly descended the tree and announced to us. “No problem.” I shook my head and thought to myself, “Is this guy crazy or what?
We’re going to be toasty critters if we don’t get out of here now!!!” Elie just sat down calmly and started to chant and pray. I watched him and cried to myself,
”My God! What is this man doing? Some kind of death chant?”
To my amazement, slowly at first, then with increasing force, the direction of the wind reversed itself and blew back upon the fire line, stopping the fire dead in its tracks. My mouth dropped open upon witnessing this powerful magic. Elie put his arm around my shoulders, grinned broadly and gently guided me down the hill. As I came to my senses on the walk back, I kiddingly asked him why he had taken so long to turn the wind around. He gazed at me with a somber expression and said, ”I was praying for all the living creatures both great and small who died in the fire.” I was beginning to realize that there was more to this diminutive man than met the eye.
I got to know Elie better one week later when he conducted a special, one night Africqn style vision quest. In his country of Burkino Faso, the tradition is that all warriors
(men over the age of 13 who have passed the initiation rites) go out annually for a 3 day vision quest to help them see the path clearly for the coming year. They select a special sacred spot, a place of significance for them, and then are buried up to their neck for three days. They must stay in the hole for the entire three days keeping silence the whole time. This is one ancient way of connecting the participants to Mother Earth and sending them into the dream.
Those who wished to try this style of vision quest went with Elie and his assistant to the Los Padres National Park http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Padres_National_Forest
which was located nearby. There were 7 volunteers in all, including yours truly.
It had been decided that the easiest way to facilitate this vision quest was to dig our respective holes next to the river bank where the sand would be softer and thus easier to dig to the depth necessary to bury a man whole. We set out with enthusiasm to dig our own hole. Soon final instructions were given, and Elie shared with us several complicated techniques which would help send us into the spirit world. Prayers were made to the spirits, and we were all then buried at sunset within 10 feet or so of each other, strung out just like beads on a string. We were close to the river and facing east, ready for the first rays of dawn.
At first, it was not too uncomfortable, but then the weight of the sand began to press down on my lungs, and breathing became a chore. It brought all of my consciousness down into my lungs, and claustrophobia set in. As they say, make friends with the pain….. hahaha …. “become one with the earth.” Nevertheless, even with my best efforts to relax and practice the techniques Elie had taught us, it became more and more difficult to breathe and my back began to ache. Soon jolts of pain began to shoot up my back. After that the urge to urinate became so strong as the night wore on that there was nothing to do but let it go and seep in it all night long. I was not alone in my struggle to conquer my fear and pain.
About 10:00 that night, Elie and his assistant returned to our campsite to retrieve some equipment. While they were gone, three young teenagers came walking along the river bank, just out for a late moonlit stroll. As they came around a curve in the river, however, there stretched out in front of them like abandoned soccer balls in the sand were the participants of our night time, African style vision quest. It must have been quite a sight, not to mention a frightening shock, to see these 7 heads resting on the beach next to the river under the eerie glow of the moon. Well, as you can imagine, they freaked out and ran back the way they came shouting and screaming as if the hounds of hell were hot on their trail. We, of course, burst into hysterical, maniacal laughter which only seemed to spur them on.
This episode seemed to relieve a lot of tension, but unfortunately the kids ran back to mom and dad who promptly called the park ranger to come and find out what the hell was going on at the river. The park ranger showed up and was completely bemused by the situation. It took a lot of “e’splaining” to make him understand the importance of what was happening and why we needed to continue the ceremony. Finally, he agreed, but only after warning Elie and his assistant to watch the perimeter so no more unsuspecting campers would stumble on our proceedings again. It was all very entertaining, and finally we were able to return to our vision quest.
The night was long and painful, but I did indeed have many visions before the night was through. Finally, in the morning, with some prayers, we were dug out and reborn into the world as we knew it. That was a fantastic feeling of relief and renewal. We each then had time to spend with Elie explaining what all we had experienced and seen that night. He helped us to interpret our visions and integrate some of the symbolism.
We had a hearty breakfast and returned to the Ojai Foundation.
As the workshop in Ojai began to wind down, an event occurred that shattered, galvanized, and healed the community al at the same time. R.D. Laing, a well known and respected Scottish psychiatrist, was one of the preeminent members of the staff for this month-long event. Ronnie was a true force in the field of psychology and perhaps best known for his work on schizophrenia and his subsequent “Double Bind” theory. Everyone who attended the seminar had really looked forward to the opportunity to meet and know this brilliant man. Imagine our shock, disappointment and disgust when Ronnie arrived on the premises blind drunk and proceeded to stay obnoxiously drunk the entire month.
Not only was he stinking drunk all day and all night, but with his brilliant, cruel wit, he continually verbally abused everyone within sight and shouting distance. His caustic, venomous mouth spewed forth the most outrageous and obscene comments from sunrise to sunset and deep into the night. Everyone suffered from his acidic harangues at one time or another. Despite several heated community meetings regarding what to do about him, his disruptive and destructive behavior continued, and no one, it seemed, was able to help him.
Finally, Elie, who was not impressed or intimidated with this icon in psychology, asked R.D. late one night if he was tired of all this craziness. Ronnie, admitted that yes, it was all growing a bit tiresome. Elie asked him,”Do you trust me?” Ronnie replied in the affirmative and agreed to the healing of Elie’s choice. Elie and one assistant then promptly headed out into the night with Laing in tow. Elie took only one thing with him- an old, old shovel.
To everyone’s surprise, Ronnie showed up the next morning for breakfast, bloody, cut, and bruised all over from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. His demeanor was calm, peaceful and respectful to all. He was quite frankly meek. Apparently, Elie had proceeded to beat the stuffing out of ole Ronnie the night before with his shovel while interspersing a medley of prayers. He had performed an African style exorcism
on Ronnie, and it had worked. Ronnie, to tell the truth, was very smoothed out. Although hurt, broken, and feeling pain in every inch of his body, he was very, very calm and clear.
This violent, dramatic event threw everyone into turmoil. On one hand, we all had this peaceful, idealistic image of healing- namely that of loving and compassionate understanding applied with gentle ministrations. On the other hand, Elie did to R.D. Laing what we had all secretly been wanting to do for five weeks- literally beat the crap out of him. The difference being that Elie acted with a pure heart and a vision of understanding while our motives were filled with hatred and anger. It proved to be a most impressive but confusing lesson in the healing arts.
Later in 1985, Elie Hein came to live with my family for several months. During this time we came to know each other as both friends and brothers. It was the first opportunity I had had to really know an African man and shaman.
Elie was an excellent cook, and we invited people to come over for food, music, and conversation almost every night. Six of his friends from Africa would journey up from L.A. every weekend to hold drumming and dancing sessions long into the night. Those guys really knew how to drum, and it would literally take them a couple of hours to get really “warmed up.” The music, the beat and the vibe just kept building and building with the guests getting higher and higher. It literally lifted the roof off, and the music could be heard blocks and blocks away late into the night. Thank God, we had understanding neighbors! Everyone would dance in a trance till they dropped.
Elie conducted healing ceremonies in our backyard daily, and as word of his effectiveness spread, so did the number of his patients. I will never forget the first morning he went into the backyard to conduct his healings. Elie looked up at the low, cold, damp clouds that covered the sky, shook his head slowly, and murmured, ”This will not do for my children.” He promptly sat down on his bull skin blanket, prayed for a while, and then lo and behold, the dense fog rolled back until there were no clouds visible in the sky. He had visited at a time known in Southern California as “June Gloom” when the warm air and cool ocean temperatures collide to form dense morning fog from sunrise till noon every day. I mean every day! This was not an impediment for Elie, though as he faithfully cleared the skies early every morning for his people.
What was truly amazing about Elie, however, was not the seemingly magical control that he worked with the natural elements, but the depth of love, compassion, and understanding that flowed from his heart. His intuition and perceptions were always razor sharp and able to pinpoint your doubts, fears, and needs immediately. He cut gently to the heart of the matter and helped you to understand your own life and spiritual process. Like any true healer, he had an incredible touch. He could literally touch your heart with his hand and dissolve you to tears, thus releasing and cleansing all the pent-up frustration, anger, and disappointment of all your years. Day after day, I watched him sit under an old oak tree in the backyard and consult his spirit guides and toss his oracles, which were a strange collection of coins, crystals, and cowry shells. With each passing day, my admiration for him grew as I watched him handle a wide variety of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual problems. The depth of his wisdom never ceased to amaze me.
Late one night near the end of his stay with us, we were sitting on the patio enjoying the stars, fine weather, and good conversation. My seven-month old daughter, Brianna, who was sleeping inside started to fuss. As my wife went to check on her, I asked Elie about a problem we were having with my daughter. For the past several months, she had been restless while sleeping and had awakened several times each night. She should have been sleeping through the night, and Gayle and I were exhausted getting up to feed her. I asked him what he thought the problem was. He gazed at the stars and mused silently for several minutes, then replied,” She is fine, no problem at all.
In fact, just leave her alone, she is doing her duty.” “Her duty? I asked. What duty?”
He pointed over to a corner of the yard that contained our vegetable and herb garden. “You see,” he said, “She holds class there every night for all the babies “in utero” who are preparing to be born. Brianna is teaching them all about the birth experience. In one month she’ll be through with her duty and will sleep soundly once again.” Sure enough, in one month she began to sleep the deep sleep of the contented.
Elie has since returned to Paris. And though I have not talked with him for many years, I think of him quite often, and the good times we had so long ago. Sometimes when I am confused, fearful, or just feeling down, I cry out in the night, and then his smiling face comes to me so clearly. That joyful, serene face always reminds me so well what it means to live your life with heart and to walk the path of a spiritual warrior. I, too, can then rest easy and sleep the deep sleep of the contented.