Spirituality and Rationality – the Liminal Space between Cultures

Carol A. Hand

 I don’t often speak about the liminal space I occupy between Euro-American and Ojibwe beliefs about religion and spirituality. It was especially challenging to live between (Euro-American) academic notions of rationality, objectivity, and individuality and Ojibwe traditions of spirituality, inter-dependency, and other ways of knowing. I don’t often speak of my experiences for several crucial reasons. Frist, my position on the margins as a Native American has meant that people have asked me for spiritual advice because of the romantic stereotypes they held. They expected me to be wise and saintly. I’m not under the illusion that I have any advice to offer anyone on that dimension. Second, Ojibwe cultural traditions strongly discourage sharing one’s spiritual experiences with others. This makes sense on a number of levels. Third, as a Native American woman who has worked in Euro-American institutions that openly pathologize other ways of knowing, I have kept my personal beliefs to myself as I carried out the professional, analytical and scientific tasks required of my positions. What I believe actually enhances how I do my work, but explaining this to people would be pointless at best.


Photo Credit: Blue Space Between Clouds

As I was reflecting this morning, I felt a sense of urgency about sharing a portion of a dream I had almost 40 years ago. But before I do, I need to explain why this is not something that is easy for me to do beyond what I have noted above.

Traditional Ojibwe beliefs emphasize the connection each individual has to Gitche Manitou, roughly translated as the Creator. It is the responsibility of each individual to seek his or her path through meditative rituals and live according to “pimadaziwin,” the good life (Hallowell, 1967, p. 360) or bimaadiziwin, “a healthy way of life” (Peacock & Wisuri, 2002, p. 9). Pimadaziwin represents “life in the fullest sense, life in the sense of health, longevity, and well-being, not only for oneself but for one’s family” (Hallowell, 1967, p. 360). In order to achieve pimadaziwin in the past, individuals, particularly males, were required to seek and obtain spiritual guidance through a “dream fast” as youth. Girls were also encouraged, but not required, to go through this sacred solitary ordeal, since, as life givers, their connection with the Creator was already direct (Johnston, 1976). Especially for males, the dream fast “was the foundation of all he was to be in the future. Every special aptitude, all his successes and failures, hinged upon the blessings of his supernatural helpers, rather than upon his own native or acquired endowments, or even the help of his fellow human beings” (Hallowell, 1967, p, 361).

The details of dreams or visions one had during one’s meditative ordeal were not to be shared with others (Johnston, 1976). This makes sense in small tight-knit communities where members could easily be divided by comparisons and jealousies that arose over who had visions and who did not, and competition over the most “important” or “powerful” visions. (One of my grandson’s favorite videos, Brother Bear, illustrates how important this practice is — competition among three brothers about who had the best spiritual “totem” resulted in fighting and death.) Keeping one’s visions silent also discourages the practice of judging others. If one does not know the details of another’s path, there is really no basis to judge them and deflect one’s attention away from the responsibility to follow one’s own path with integrity and fidelity for the sake of the community.

So why am I sharing this dream today, knowing I risk perpetuating stereotypes, appearing superstitious and naive, and awakening the potential for others to judge themselves as deficient because they haven’t been “blessed” with powerful dreams or superior because they’re more rational? Simply stated, I feel obligated given the state of the world today. And it’s not a dream about my path alone.

Imagine yourself standing in a huge cavernous space urged to move forward into the darkness. With each step you take, you relive each moment of your life, each thought, each action, and each failure to act. Each step, you see the effects of your thoughts and behaviors on others. Dispassionately, you weight these thoughts and actions against a universal framework of ethics. You judge your actions on the basis of the path of life you were given to follow. For each “right” choice, you feel a sense of joy and gratitude, and for each selfish or thoughtless choice, you feel the pain of those you harmed. When you finally reach the present moment, you can choose to walk the path toward light or darkness based on what you discovered about yourself. There is no room for illusions about who you have become because of your own thoughts and deeds.

cosmos 2

Photo Credit: Cosmos-2

What this dream taught me about living was to not waste my time comparing myself to others or judging them. This is not always an easy lesson for me to follow. When I realize that the temptation to judge and compete with others is becoming too strong to resist, I look at the context and forces around me. Often I find that it’s time for me to change course, to be honest about what is my responsibility to do, and to simplify and refocus my life on what really matters on my path. I have a responsibility to do what I can in my thoughts and actions to end and prevent harm.  I have a responsibility to judge actions and their consequences, but I cannot judge or demonize others whose paths I can never know.

I am sharing the message of this dream now because so many people in the world are being oppressed and harmed and murdered for things that will not bring those who have harmed them any solace on their final self-judgment walk. It is my hope that at least some may listen and realize that the choice of how we live is ours to make. The choice can bring us peace and joy or pain and shame as we face our final life review.

Works Cited:

Hallowell, A. I, (1967). Culture and experience. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. [original work published in 1955]

Johnston, B. (1976). Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Peacock, T. & Wisuri, M. (2002). Ojibwe waasa inaabidaa: We look in all directions. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press.



35 thoughts on “Spirituality and Rationality – the Liminal Space between Cultures

  1. I enjoyed this post so much, Carol. It’s a breath of fresh air to realize that your tradition discourage proselytizing. I thing of how many problems among the beliefs could be avoided if they all followed that ideal. I made a friend many years in a college class. She was Native American and I recall she never had an ounce of judgement toward others. I wished I could have known her longer to learn more, but your post describes so much of what I think she was about. I also belonged to a Unitarian church for a brief time in Portland, Or a long time ago. There was a famous Native American poet, storyteller, Ed Edmo, who attended there and I was fascinated listening to him tell stories to the children–I think I remember Brother Bear! Your dream was definitely more than a dream. I think it was more of a “Go tell it on the mountain” instruction. Beautiful.


    1. Thank you for sharing your memories and thoughtful comments, Mandy. I wish I could say I succeed at being nonjudgmental like you friend in college, but sometimes I do. I appreciate your kindness a great deal.


  2. So many times what you right is like a Buddhist teaching, even this dream. And as my tradition is Tibetan, they are an indigenous people also. And as my teacher said, I was not entering a religion but a way of life. Thank you again for sharing your deepest experience and wisdom.


    1. Thank you, Skywalker. It’s hard to write and think about anything these days in the context of overwhelming heartlessness and cruelty in the world. There are moments of beauty and joy that are instantly eclipse by awareness of needless death and suffering. Yesterday all I could do was to share on a level that is difficult to me for so many reasons, making your thoughtful and affirming response especially meaningful. Chi Miigwetch.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Carol, thanks so much for sharing, even though it might be hard sometimes. I too think comparisons just aren’t helpful, and they place us on hierarchies, even our own created ones. It’s a lovely description of a path towards your own inner conscience, and a sense of living as an ethical person within the world. And I love the description of this as a journey as much as anything else. I’ve always thought that when we see ourselves as ‘enlightened’ or free, it means we’re having a rest, as far as the journey goes.

    Beautiful vision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kindness, Nicci. My heart is heavy these days because of all the mindless cruelty and violence in the world. It’s enough to evoke topics that I hesitate to speak or write about because it’s one of the few things I can do. How else can we try to heal divisions in a world gone mad?


      1. You know, Carol, I wonder about the process of awakening to care, or seeing in a different way, and how that process actually occurs. How do people learn, not through intellect, but through experience, observation and connection? This is what is interesting for me. I think emotional understanding of other people as fellow humans, and the value of non-human life at the same time, is what would make all of the difference.

        But I’m wondering what makes people see life as valuable? I’m starting to wonder whether our own shame and so scapegoating provides a barrier. And we live in a world which uses shame for marketing, consumerism, telling you to buy something that will never meet your needs, and then to keep trying…

        Just some thoughts.


        1. I love the questions you always raise, Nicci. I have no idea how people learn to care about others or what blocks them from learning. Why would people follow Milgrim’s commands to administer increasingly toxic shocks while the “victims” screamed and then grew silent? Is it how people are socialized, treated, educated? I remember when I worked for the infamous “Belchertown State School for the Mentally Retarded” — a prison-like institution. The aides and nurses would return the blows of residents who were acting out as an automatic response, and I would always wonder how they learned this as their consistent instantaneous reaction. It reminded me of cartoons like Road Runner or Bugs Bunny where violence was supposed to be funny. (I never found violent cartoons amusing or worth watching.) I wondered if video violence taught people automatic responses without ever passing through a cognitive or ethical screening process. Yet when I read The mountain people by Colin Turnbull that I’ve mentioned before, intra-community cruelty and violence seemed to be caused more by their forced imprisonment on a reservation where they were literally starved for generations. Kindness or any type of vulnerability in such settings mean inevitable early death. Based on Turnbull, does the lack of empathy stem from the lack of some essential deeper connection to a sense of shared “cultural traditions” and responsibility to the community as a whole?


        2. Hi Carol, I’m beginning to wonder whether cruelty arises out of a system of laws, obedience, collective perceptions of right and wrong, and the unobtainable or rigid definitions of humanity.

          Perhaps the patriarchal systems and the death of the goddesses in mainstream views of the world have left us feeling bad about what is very human emotion, such as jealousy, rage, anger, anxiety, frustrations and so on?

          I’m wondering whether not confronting or admitting these feelings means an inability to process them and accept them. If we can’t bear the pain we feel about how other people are treated, and the rage it produces in us, and we can’t manage the fears or anxieties or being blindly obedient, then we can’t question and intervene, no matter how much we want to.

          We have the concept of EQ or emotional intelligence, which casts out anger and anxiety as supposedly bad. But then how can we feel outrage at social injustice?

          Pills and potions which block emotion (which I think may help if emotion is so overwhelming that people can’t function) stops us questioning, or feeling angry and sad at injustice.

          The focus seems to be on happiness, rather than feeling emotion in connection to what is happening.

          I think partly, we scape goat people who do feel eg the myth/discourse of ‘black sexuality’ which has been very dangerous in the past. Repressing anything negative, and trying to live morally is different to living compassionately. I think there is a need to move on from patriarchal values, while maintaining the ethics.

          These are just some thoughts I’m exploring at the moment.

          I’m not sure how this fits in with Turnbull’s work though. And the ideas are just in an exploratory phase at the moment.

          But I think we’ve made a binary between individual and social world, and the sociological (and psychological) explanations sometimes exclude the importance of soul (as James Hillman explains) and process…eg reconciliation as a process rather than an event/obedience as something to be questioned by individual conscience, rather than a contextual phenomenon.

          Again, just developing ideas…

          I hope you are having a lovely weekend, Carol.


        3. Hi Nicci, I’m sorry for stepping out of our dialogue before responding to your important discussion – I was on “grandmother” time so my attention and ability to respond immediately were somewhat limited.

          Jeff’s comments helped me remember Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and whole-heartedness. You have probably seen her Ted Talks presentation, but just in case you haven’t, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o. What is most striking and relevant for this discussion is her hypothesis that shame limits self-acceptance and consequently, one’s ability to live whole-heartedly and to love ourselves and others. How can we care for others if we’re ashamed of who we are for any host of socially-constructed reasons? How can we trust that anyone else could like us or really could offer us authentic support or acceptance? When we feel threatened, we retreat or go into defense mode. I’m “just developing ideas” here, too 🙂


        4. Hi Carol, I have a book called Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, and I’ve looked at her concept on shame in that book. She looked at empathy as the great healer, and explained that connectedness helps to show us all how imperfect we are.

          It’s interesting, because Andy Fisher (in radical ecopsychology) explains that society needs a shame based culture in order to promote capitalist agendas. Only when we feel bad, and are taught that we can prove ourselves via ownership and consumerism (which he defines as buy then replace and update continually). But of course, this doesn’t meet our needs, and so we are taught to keep trying, keep frustrating ourselves, and keep failing. Being so shame based, we are not necessarily even sure what we need anyway, so we certainly won’t contradict the system.

          It’s interesting to link that with Rollo May and Stan Lifschitz, who explain that going beyond set theory and taught reality generates both creativity or imagination, and anxiety. Creativity naturally breeds anxiety because it unsettles the status quo, and yet we have a technocratic culture which encourages us not to be anxious.

          And so the system is set up to create pain, shame and withdrawal, repress this and try to meet our needs via transcending them…it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t question the status quo either.

          I think we need to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, pained our outraged by human rights abuses, but to be strong enough to do that, and not ashamed of our own humanity in the process, I think that’s why people go along with the status quo…

          I hope you had a wonderful time grandparenting, Carol!


        5. But marginal views can become mainstream discourse eventually. The feminists achieved that. So there is always hope. Another world is always possible. We have to believe it, otherwise we won’t keep trying.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. The honesty and vulnerability you demonstrate through your writings and now the sharing of a highly personal dream is something I honestly think our so called “leaders” are incapable of tapping into. It takes a certain narcissistic, highly entitled and possibly psychopathic personality to ascend to the higher tiers of the political realm as we know it. The wisdom of pursuing pimadaziwin in our daily lives is evident as societal and economic conditions continue to deteriorate for increasing numbers globally. Peace to you, Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jeff, thank you for your insightful comments. Recently I have been reflecting on how hard I struggled to write when I first began blogging just over a year ago (June 18, 2013). I had no idea what or how to write. I had never even read a blog before. But I wanted to find my voice and share it. I was lucky to find a blog partner who gave me really good advice based on Hemingway’s work – “begin every story with one true sentence.” I do try to be honest and ground theoretical ideas in real life examples. Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and whole-heartedness has also had a powerful influence on how I write. “Courage means to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” You have probably seen her Ted Talks presentation, but just in case you haven’t, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o . Blogging has helped me accept who I am with all my strengths and weaknesses and allow myself to be authentic. And your kindness and inclusion has been a major reason why I stayed with it even when I doubted that I had anything worthwhile to say. Thank you!

      And yes, being honest and vulnerable doesn’t fit well with people who view power as power-over, who see it as a status that signifies their superiority over others rather than a responsibility they carry to ensure the well-being and survival of a community, nation or world. I wouldn’t want to face their final self-judgment experiences.

      Peace to you as well, Jeff.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, you’ve certainly made up for lost time, Carol. 🙂

        Blogging and writing has helped me as well to find my voice. I had repressed it for so long that I almost forgot what it sounded like when I rediscovered it. It’s been a long process of learning I no longer need to seek validation from my captors and, consequently, that I do need to identify with my fellow captives at a deeper level.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, Carol, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a stirring piece on spirituality. Thank you for sharing your dream and your experiences. I love the Native American way of not trying to dictate someone’s spiritual path. I think European descendants feel threatened by other spiritual beliefs, for whatever reason. I was raised in a Christian church that believed peace would only be achieved if everyone was Christian. It took me nearly into my forties before I began to question that belief. I think we are all given certain experiences that lead us down a certain path, and we should honor that.


    1. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments, Dolphin. This was not an easy post to share, so I am grateful to know that you found the message “stirring.” I’m also glad to hear that you arrived at similar insights in your own way – as it should be 🙂


  6. I thank you for sharing these insights into the spiritual traditions of the Ojibwe people Carol. Like your other readers, I too am grateful for the decision to share your experiences in the dream state. We would all be well served to contemplate and apply the underlying message of the dream.

    I have long been fascinated by the matriarchal recognition displayed by indigenous cultures. The Ojibwe recognition of what we may term an “innate intuition” possessed by girls is a testament to this. Though by no means a ubiquitous characteristic, a common trait of colonized peoples across the globe seems to be the acknowledgement of women as the earthly manifestation of the womb of the universe. I compare this to the societies that have descended from the Abrahamic traditions where, only until very recently, women were relegated to the status of second class citizens. In the Christian religions for example, women were prevented from spiritual roles for centuries stemming from the blame for the “fall” of man. In the Book of Genesis, this is an edict of the god Yahweh who curses women with pains in childbirth and subject to the whims of their husbands as punishment for this “fall.”

    While feminism has advanced secular society somewhat, by no means has the gender gap been breached as the modification of perception via legislation is a painstakingly slow process. I feel that the loss of recognition for a woman’s inherent divinity is a fundamental failing of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its societal progeny. I also believe that a re-embracing of the Goddess archetype is necessary to advance humanity from the current patriarchal competitive paradigm to one grounded in mutual aid and cooperation.

    Keep well Carol.


  7. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, H3nry, and for your discussion about the Judeo-Christian traditions. I can’t help wondering if these traditions are really based on envy of women’s life-giving ability. Men try to replicate this with technological creations, but these products can never rival life, so life is repressed and life-givers vilified. Like Nicci, I’m just thinking here. 🙂


  8. This is a very powerful, insightful and relevant piece. I know that for me, there is sometimes this tug-of-war between the rational, material thought and the spiritual, particularly in this society. Thanks for so eloquently articulating this issue.


    1. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments, Shery. It is difficult a difficult balance in this society, yet what I have read of your poetry interweaves both in such a powerful and beautiful way.


  9. To share your knowledge is a correct thing, and thanks for such an interesting piece. “To pathologize other ways of knowing” seems to be the way of the world at present. Yes, we always stand before a cavernous space, and it is liberating to be aware of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for sharing your dream. It made me stop and consider my choices in life; something I have been doing a lot lately anyway, but the concept of self-judgment at the end when your lens of each choice was made clear and not covered with intentions or whatnot, wow, that’s powerful. I pray for forgiveness and better eyes now to start making the best choices—ones made out of love and not selfishness.

    Liked by 1 person

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