Within the domain of each individual’s idiosyncratic dreamscape, reality and fiction intermingle, giving birth to chimeras both wondrous and horrific. As images, thoughts, and occurrences of the day and week blend together in one’s sleep, Imagination takes hold, weaving the various strands of thought into a tapestry of one’s subconscious. Alas, for this week, my imagination decided to weave nightmarish scenes instead of pleasant ones – just visualise the presentation of the Bayeux Tapestry – a fascinating historical artifact, except viewed from the standpoint of the vanquished Harald Hardrada instead of the victorious William the Conqueror.
Over a four-day period, I experienced nightmares on three nights; in each, beings both celestial and terrestrial were hellbent on persecuting the dreamer, who was alternately cast in the figure of the winged demon, the enemy spy, and the hallucinating paranoiac. I would wake up deeply perturbed by the experiences – having nails, stakes, bullets perforate one’s body while witnessing visions of burning people tend to be disconcerting, if not downright harrowing.
Troubled by such vivid journeys into my subconscious, I asked the most knowledgeable practitioner of Chinese tradition – my mother. I turn to her, because her understanding of the myriad aspects of my ancestral traditions has enabled her to harmoniously apply certain traditional practices of Chinese incense and tea to the contemporary context. Instead of slavish imitation, she infuses her everyday life with the essence of Chinese incense and tea, thereby imbuing each gesture and detail with meaning. Rituals are only rituals when they not only serve a purpose, but are endowed with significance that exceeds the merely functional. The communion of the individual with the environment, that is, Heaven and Earth, is not a connection that can be established by rote ritualistic performances. Sincerity and genuine appreciation are a must when it comes to the embodiment of ritual. The former arises from the abnegation of ostentation, while the latter arises from understanding.
So how did Chinese incense become an important mediator of troubled psyche? According to ancient Chinese beliefs (which, in this context I admittedly have very scant understanding of), burning incense can harmonise the energy of a particular space (氣場/气场, qì chǎng). Like protective wards and/or amulets in ancient cultures – like the Egyptians and Celts, for instance – burning incense can pacify troubled and malevolent spirits and reaffirm the harmonious bond between the corporeal and spiritual realms. In my particular case, it refocussed my psyche on the positive experiences that I had over the past few weeks, as opposed to the negative ones. Instead of dreaming of dogged persecutors, I dreamt about moments in which I was engaged in the act of helping another being. Instead of being a passive object who was relentlessly harangued, I became a subject with some degree of volition and agencité.*
The beauty of many ancestral traditions lies in their intimate bond with nature, a simple bond untainted by human vices, a bond of communion with nature. Humanity has had many names for nature – Heaven and Earth, Earth Mother, Gaea, to name a few – and in these names there is an acknowledgement of the sacredness and sanctity of nature, of its bounty and generosity, of its adaptability and volatility, of its inscrutability and knowability, of its fragility and intimacy.
As we continue with the “prescribed steps” of economic/industrial development, are we merely repeating the rituals of our not-so-distant predecessors, which we perform in ignorance, or worse, in disdain, of the wisdom of our distant ancestors?
Why, in our search for agencité, have we deprived others of the same?
Earth has given us so much; what have we given Earth?
*Agencité is the French word for agency, the ability of the individual to be an active actor with influence over his/her circumstances. Agencité differs from agence, which is the French word for more commonly used meaning of agency today – an administrative unit of a government.