I just returned from leading a weekend workshop on Alchemical Acupuncture at Sugar Ridge, a retreat center in a cedar grove in Midland, Ontario. I will never forget the two-and-a-half days I spent with the graduating students of the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Toronto and Mona Bolton, the visionary Director of the program. The night fire, the morning walk, the grace, warmth and devotion to the healing process that I experienced with the students has energized and inspired me.
But there is another image from my journey that I will not soon forget – the gray carpeted room with the blue industrial chairs lined up against gray walls that met me at the U.S. – Canada border crossing. Standing in line with other travelers, waiting to show my passport to the uniformed customs official sitting beyond the shatterproof glass wall of his cubicle, I reflected on this space that felt so completely different from the spaces that Benjamin and I create to support our work, and the space I was to discover at the retreat in Midland. Here in this pass-through place, nothing but blank drab walls. No windows. No easy conversation, no laughter, no eye contact, no touch.
Why in these immigration limbo zones, the border lands we pass through as we move from one country to another, does it always feel like this? As if the air has been sucked out of the space and we are left holding our breath, inhaling meager sips of automated oxygen pumped in through ceiling vents until we pass through the EXIT door with a gasp of relief.
As I waited in line, nervous despite the fact that I had nothing to hide, it occurred to me that in alchemical traditions, the border zone – the betwixt and between space – is held as sacred. The “in between” is the space of transformation where old structures die and new possibilities are born. This zone constellates whenever opposites approach – whether the opposites are heaven and earth, night and day, waking and sleep, two partners, or two nations. These transitional lands were recognized as potentially dangerous, inhabited by bandits, renegades, wizards and spirits, but also filled with magic. The “in between” is the domain of that mysterious third thing alchemists recognized as the soul.
In ancient traditions, it was understood that wise travelers traversed the lands between with the help of a psychopomp or soul guide. The guide could take the form of a raven, an owl, a dog or coyote, but these animal spirits were, one and all, the god Mercurius, the wily shape-shifter of alchemy, in disguise. Mercurius played tricks on the travelers, filling the air with mists, music and shimmering lights (think 42nd Street, mid-summer dream, the songs of the lotus eaters and Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship). Mercurius merges real and unreal and shakes us out of our old ideas about who we are. But ultimately, the trickster provides safe passage between the realm of the conscious or every-day world and the wonder world of the unconscious, of possibilities not yet known or imagined.
In the deepest parts of ourselves, we know that this kind of discovery is the true purpose of travel. We continue the search in cars, buses, trains and airplanes as we wildly catapult ourselves about our planet in our daylight wanderings of business trips and vacations, and the night-time reveries of our dreams. The bleak grey chambers that have come to define this transitional domain cannot completely eradicate the excitement, the mystery of travel.
The uniformed guard studies our passport. “Where are you going? Where will you stay? How long will you be gone?” he asks.
And we sincerely assure him that this passage is just another trip, that our itinerary is fixed, that we will not change during our time away and that we will return home soon with nothing precious hidden in our suitcase.
And yet, deep down we know another truth. Despite all official attempts to control the border lands, there is a wild god waiting for us there.