Letter 4

Dear Friends:

Wednesday December 16, 1998
Regarding Councils of Elders
Including a message from the Kogi People of the Sierras in Columbia

I have waited a long time to write this letter because the words have not been coming. The Ojai Foundation and Jack Zimmerman generously called a first Council of Elders on July 4th weekend of this year. Since then I have been ruminating on what occurred. In this brief time, the jeopardy of the life of the planet and all its creatures has seriously magnified. I will spare you the articulation of the signs and my personal litany of grief. What is hopeful to me is the heartbreak that people are expressing and their increasing willingness to consider changing their lives. I have also been reassured by the response I have received to these letters. Still I have been unable to respond to you who asked, “How do we proceed?” It has been an exceedingly difficult four months – looking for guidance – seeking council — listening for the words. Perhaps what will appear here on the page will serve us now; it is my deepest prayer.

The Council at Ojai focused the need for people to ready themselves to step forth as Elders. When we came together, it was apparent that all of us were not ready to take on the mantle. It was necessary to engage in the difficult labor of preparing people for the responsibilities of these times but this was not what we had come together to do and we did not have enough time. In retrospect, I am not surprised by this situation and recognize that this will occur again and is a dilemma we will all be called to face.

We were naïve. We didn’t know that the work had to begin long before the actual council by seeking out those we recognize as wisdom holders, by preparing ourselves to meet with them, by readying ourselves for the responsibility of living and acting according to our own wisdom. Whatever the mysterious transition is between seeking wisdom and becoming wise, we needed to undertake it.

The implication is that this work will have to proceed on different levels. Some of you can take on the task of preparing people, of calling them forth to be elders. Others can search out those who are elders to ask them to step forward. Others who recognize yourselves as ready and able to take on the mantle of being an elder must do so. It’s time for those of us who see what ís occurring to step forth, to search each other out; in concert our hearts and minds may discover what is essential for these times.

Lack of preparedness was not the only obstacle at Ojai. Some of those who came, and many who wanted to but could not come, are clearly elders already involved in so many essential activities that they do not have the time or means necessary to meet in council. One face of our common tragedy is how besieged we are by responsibilities and the distractions and complexity of modern life. I wish I had an answer other than turning even this dilemma over to council.

Each of us must walk our own path in doing the greater work on behalf of the planet. Diversity and deep respect for our different ways of knowing is the very essence of the council process and is at the very heart of what needs to be preserved. But, it’s possible that we may be acting without knowing what to do because we have not consulted each other or those peoples who might inform us in these times.

It has been a continuous and terrible irony that many of the most despised, threatened and decimated peoples carry the old wisdom and remain deeply connected with spirit, despite all the onslaughts against them, despite ridicule and diminishment, despite impoverishment, exile from one’s land and ways of life, despite the insidious effects of modern and urban life. Perhaps these agonized circumstances are a source of wisdom. Perhaps we are being called to these peoples not only to help sustain their traditions, ways of life and natural habitats, but, as importantly, to ally with us, to sit in council with us, to advise us1, so that we can, together, discern how we may all survive and preserve what must be preserved.

I have not been idle during these months without language. I’ve been called back to working with and living among those who are suffering life-threatening illnesses, cancer, auto-immune diseases etc. The question I am relentlessly asking is: What heals? It is one of the questions I hope these councils will address. And, like the councils, it requires a unwavering eye, the relentless scrutiny of oneself and the world one has created and within which one lives.

If as a culture we were willing to face the proliferation of such western illnesses among indigenous or rural peoples whose terrain is being industrialized, logged or mined, we would know something about what is going on in our own lives. I began to write about this twenty years ago when I first understood the relationships between physical illnesses and social, political, economic, environmental and spiritual conditions, but my concerns now are graver and more far reaching than they were then.

My husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, joins me in my concern as he is both a healer and a nurse working at one of the most prestigious university hospitals in the country. We are aware that people in this country – we do not know about the other “developed” countries – are suffering from plagues of illnesses that have not been recognized as plagues so that millions of people are isolated in their own private hell, shocked by the premature onslaught of disease and as beleaguered by the treatments available as by the illness itself.

Some of what we have come to understand is this: Healing from these diseases by conventional means is virtually impossible because the metaphysical as well as physical ground upon which our ways of life stand are highly toxic and become increasingly so with each day. Many of those who are ill have traced the illness to societal efforts designed to ease, preserve, enhance or extend our lives. Often the consequences of these efforts cannot be avoided even when we are aware. One may be cured or ones’ condition may be modified but one is re-infected, in one form or another, unless the individual has the luxury or privilege of being able to change his or her life. But, as our ways of life entrench themselves such changes become virtually impossible; there is no where to go to escape. Medicine itself, has become such a handmaiden of the culture, so infected by its ways, that it itself is responsible for much of the illness we are suffering and the deaths which ensue. The fourth leading cause of death in the United States may well be from adverse drug reactions properly prescribed and administered.2

The deepest advice I have had to give those who are suffering grave illness is this: Heal the life so the life can heal you. The one who is ill may have access to perceiving the personal, physical, social, even spiritual coordinates of the illness and, accordingly, to the sacred knowledge of what healing might be for him or her and so for us.

I mention this as an example of the kinds of scourges and afflictions that surround us and why I do not see any solutions that are less than changing our lives in profound and essential ways. I do not think that any of us, particularly those of us from the western world, know how to do this. What can we do then but sit in council and, hopefully with some of those who are, somewhat at least, outside of the epistemology which governs us.

Even though it is obvious that those we may seek out have been as helpless in the face of the dominance of our culture as we are, they may still have the perspective of outsiders which when combined with the perspectives of insiders may create possibilities. If anything is possible, it will only, I deeply believe, occur if we make an alliance with those least like ourselves and call forth each other’s deepest and most unencumbered wisdom.

What we think, what our opinions are, what our training and affiliations have been, what degrees we have, what knowledge we have supposedly mastered, all of this is irrelevant at this time. Maybe even counter productive – maybe even dangerous. If ever beginner’s mind is called for, it is now.

Having said this, these are the ideas and questions that have been with me since meeting with other elders at Ojai.

Can we bring ourselves to do whatever personal work is necessary to set aside our narcissism, our obsessions with our own wounds, our personal struggles, our insistence that our personal, national, economic development and security take precedence, our endless search for happiness in order to step forth as Elders who take responsibility for what is occurring and live and act differently on behalf of the planet?

Can we dedicate ourselves to creating councils that remain dynamic, spontaneous, non-hierarchical? Can we hold the recognition that most of the ideas or interests to which we have allegiance are currently inadequate to the task? Can we remember to seek out those whose minds and fates have been formed by circumstances different from our own, to yield to each other’s wisdom and the wisdom of the circle? Or, can we, as Tsehai Farrell cautioned after the Ojai Council, “remain silent until one is certain that it isn’t oneself speaking.”

In response to many letters of concern, which seem to put the cart way before the horse, it seems increasingly inappropriate and self-defeating to be preoccupied with the forms of these councils, with the ways they will organize themselves and communicate with each other, with technologies which might assist them, with raising money to support them or with associations to sustain them. The form of an activity influences its outcome; it behooves us to avoid inadvertently influencing the conclusions.

In the same spirit, I think it is essential to look each other in the eye. That this is difficult does not mean that it can be avoided. Many have suggested the Internet and the Web as alternatives but there is no jeopardy involved in such interactions; they can’t substitute for the depth and challenge of face to face encounters and, ironically, they reinforce the distance between peoples they are presuming to redress. Furthermore, we are not seeking information from each other; we are seeking to be profoundly altered. Difficult as it may be without a sponsoring organization, I humbly believe something essentially healing will emerge if we take it upon ourselves to create such intimate councils. Doesn’t it seem possible that our longing and determination will ultimately matter?

Now I am going to take a chance and say things that might jeopardize everything in this letter, might make you think I am a mad woman. But as this is not a unique fate, I am compelled to say the following:

We must find ways to sit in council with the animals and the natural world, with those other intelligences who are so deeply threatened by imprisonment, slavery, consumption and extinction. Joanna Macy and John Seed have been calling us to related work in the past years. Many non-western peoples have been guided by and informed by the wisdom of the animals and some of these who have so far survived extinction may be willing to guide us.

I must humbly say that the animals have been coming to me. This speaks to a situation which I do not understand although I can find eloquent and authoritative words to describe or even explain it. I have scrutinized this possibility for several years now, challenging it with my very well trained western mind, but, all the evidence points to its reality, and my responsibility, therefore, to make this statement. I cannot speak of this within the world view of an American or westerner. I do recognize from within myself how difficult it is to see what one is blind to. But, I have tried to open my mind to other ways of knowing and what have occurred have been events comprehensible only through those other sensibilities. That is, the events are verifiable in Western terms but the occurrences are not comprehensible within western epistemology; they are fully comprehensible only within the understanding and insight of various aboriginal or native peoples. This leads me to the inarguable conclusion that dazzling as western thought may be in its scientific and technological accomplishment, it is also dangerously narrow. This may account for the crises we are in; we act in ways which are oblivious to other essential realities and dimensions creating untenable situations which we are equally unable to address or remedy. These are the reasons that I believe that the western way of thinking is perilously insufficient for these times and why I repeatedly ask us to yield to other ways of knowing.

To move in such a direction will break our minds — open. For I am not suggesting that we speak for the animals but that we attempt to speak with them or listen for the ways they may communicate thoughts into our minds and hearts. We may be able to receive such communications or transmissions if we are quiet, sincere and trustworthy enough. If we are willing to consider that we may not be the most intelligent species upon the planet and that we have been warring against some of the most remarkable and awesome creatures. That our technical intelligence has given us the wrongful means but not the right to impose our will and appetites on the natural world. That we are not and never were designated as custodians or guardians, that we were not given and should not have dominion. It is still possible that we might be informed once again by the natural world and its species, if we are willing to hazard all our assumptions so that we might re-enter the natural cycles which sustain the planet.


This being said, here are some questions we addressed or intended to address at the Ojai Foundation Council. They may serve as a foundation of inquiry. Needless to say, a small group of people might well spend some weeks or months upon any one of these questions, thinking about them deeply, speaking from one’s heart, listening very hard to each other. As I find these questions useful, I offer them to you in that spirit:

What is the nature of the grief you are carrying for the world? What is it that you see that breaks your heart open? What vision has been given to you to carry?
What is the nature of the wound that you have been given to carry in this world? What is the nature of your greatest suffering? What happens when you think of yourself as one of many who are suffering this condition or affliction? What is the wisdom in this wound? What does it teach you about its origins and consequences? What deep knowledge comes to you from it? What does this wisdom prepare you to offer to the world?
As you listen to each other’s grief and pain, what ideas emerge regarding the deeper, underlying causes of this needless suffering? What might be the nature of the forces which act against all of you? What ideas, values or assumptions might be at the root of the distress we suffer commonly? From what systems or ways of thinking and acting do these situations arise?
How have you become subsumed into these systems which create so much useless suffering? How are you forced to abide or participate in what you recognize as dangerous or destructive to yourself, your family, your community or the world? What are the ways in which you unwillingly collude with those circumstances which are also breaking your heart.
How might you help each other to imagine bypassing, or stepping away from, or undermining what is so oppressive to us all? How, practically, might we each begin to live lives that have more integrity while allowing us to fulfill our responsibilities? What might we, individually, begin to change for ourselves without imposing our ideas on others? What systemic changes seem necessary? How might we, then, as a private matter, each, withdraw from participating in those parts of the system which we individually believe to be pernicious?
What wisdom and experience comes to us from our ancestors? How did our ancestors confront similar situations in their lives? What did they say when they sat in such councils? What might they say to us today?
What wisdom and experience comes to us from our traditions? What do our traditions teach us about the systems which oppress us or the circumstances which afflict us?
What comes to us from meditation and contemplation? What do we understand more deeply when we sit in meditation with each other?
How does Spirit inform each of us and what do we learn together when we each, in our individual ways, invoke Spirit for the sake of each other and the planet?
What wisdom and understanding are we gaining from being with each other? What do the others see or know that we are incapable of knowing? How can we continue to teach and inform each other?
What are the difficulties and the resistance we encounter inside ourselves when trying to yield to each otherís wisdom?
How can we support and sustain each other as we carry these burdens?
What practical and expedient solutions must be abandoned for the sake of the larger picture and the greater wisdom?


I wish to end this letter with a dream I had and an abridged version of a letter I wrote to the Mamas, the elders of the Kogi people in the Sierras in Columbia.

A few years ago the Kogi broke a many hundred year isolation to speak as Elder Brothers to us, the Younger Brothers, about the ways we are destroying the earth. The BBC film, “Heart of the World,” was directed by Alan Ereira. The Elder Brothers is the book he wrote from it. Since then, the signs which the Kogi were reading have increased in seriousness. As Victor Perera reported in his article, “Voices of Ancient Wisdom Rise to Save the Planet from Pollution,” in the Los Angeles Times of April 19 1998:

“One reason the Kogis are alarmed at what they see happening around is that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s compactness and biodiveristy make their home especially vulnerable to global warming and its associated ravages. The Sierra appears to be drying up from the top down: the snow-covered plateaus and glacial lagoons that birth and feed the lowland rivers are fast disappearing. Meanwhile, industrial loggers and slash-and-burn colonists encroach ever higher into their Sierra home, wasting hardwood forests; drug traffickers cultivate marijuana and heroin poppies in its hidden valleys and bands of leftist guerrillas use it as a safe haven.”

I most respectfully address this letter to the Mamas and the Elder Brothers of the Kogi people:

I received you in a dream at 6:30 am on December 28th 1997. My husband and I were in a hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa on our way to spend two weeks with Augustine Kandemwa, a Shona holy man, a spiritual teacher and native healer, [nganga] in Zimbabwe.

Johannesburg was just a stop over between planes. My husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, and I had been awake for about 48 hours and I had just fallen into a restless sleep.

The phone rang and I answered it. No one was there. It rang again. Again no one was there. The third time, I heard a man’s voice. He asked if I was Deena Metzger.

As I answered, I was astonished that anyone would know that I was in this hotel in Johannesburg found for us by a taxi driver. Stranger yet, though I was in Africa, the deep voice seemed to belong to an indigenous man from South America.

“Who knows me in Johannesburg?” Ignoring my question, the man confronted me immediately with his question: Would I carry the book made from the film ‘The Heart of the World,’ and would I teach the pattern? “We have identified the pattern,” he said, “and we have used it and it is effective.”

“What is the pattern?” I asked, wondering if he was referring to something more than the establishment of harmonious relationships between people and the natural world. I wanted to ask him all kinds of questions and I also wanted to describe the pattern as I imagined it, but I couldnít find the exact words.

Then I said, “A friend of mine is with the Kogi.” Victor Perera, my friend of forty years, had recently told me he would soon visit the Kogi. I was mystified.

I spoke out of nervousness or confusion. The man, remained silent, disinterested in both my responses and my questions. Wondering if he was still on the telephone, I quieted myself.

He spoke. “There is little time. If this contact is right, I will get the book to you tomorrow, Friday.”

Still troubled by details, I began to review my plans for the next day then realized that my plans were meaningless in the face of this possibility.

Finally, I was still. The man asked me what I would pay for the book.

“Pay?” It seemed an absurd question. “What do you want?” I asked, “a measly $30? If it is what you say it is, I will give my entire life to it.”

I was deeply unnerved as I hung up the phone.

Immediately I awakened as unnerved as I was in the dream. I could not believe it had been a dream. I didn’t know what it meant. I had seen the film “Heart of the World” some years ago but I did not know then that a book had been written about it.

It was our custom, when we were in Zimbabwe, to tell each other our dreams each morning. The second day we were there, I told Augustine this dream about the pattern and the Heart of the World.

I had from the beginning believed that Spirit had brought Augustine and my husband together and then had united the three of us in what we all hoped might be a healing alliance. It was remarkable to me that a American Jewish woman would find herself working alongside a black African healer. In the course of our time together — joined by Patricia Langer a healer from Toronto — we were in the company of other African healers, and we all worked with, alongside and upon each other. Under these remarkable circumstances, we learned to yield to each other’s wisdom and, in my husband’s words, we learned how to serve each other’s Spirits. This was one of the great privileges and honors of my life.

Augustine Kandemwa heard the dream very deeply. He also saw that it is essential to create global networks of those willing to come forth with the best of their wisdom in these desperate times, people, willing, through their alliances, to protect the planet and alter the very destructive behavior and consciousness of the ones the Kogi call The Younger Brothers. Augustine is a humble man, but he has had many dreams and visions instructing him to collaborate with other healers and to work with people across the globe. Augustine and Michael were further confirmed in this belief when casually turning on the one television channel in Zimbabwe, they saw an unusual if not unlikely documentary on Native American thinking about apocalypse that featured the Kogi.

After participating in mutual initiatory work with Augustine and Michael, Patricia and I traveled to South Africa where we were confirmed in our understanding that the creation of a net of healers and healing, the creation of alliances between the elders and wise ones among all peoples particularly those who carry original wisdom, is the crucial work of this time. But also, I was instructed, not for the first time, that alliances with the natural world are possible and essential. Needless to say, many aboriginal peoples have always known this.

Just when I returned to the United States, hostilities broke out between the USA and Iraq. These were followed most recently by the nuclear tension between India and Pakistan indicating most profoundly the danger of the nuclear politics the US and the other four ‘nuclear powers’ have been playing. I was and continue to be greatly alarmed. I began to propose councils of elders, that is, calling the wisest from all the traditions, to sit together, grieving, to yield to each other’s wisdom, to see the way the gods speak differently but profoundly through all of us, to take responsibility together until we receive wisdom sufficient to alter the violent, destructive and most greedy ways and consequences of The Younger Brothers. As I write this letter to you, I see that these councils of elders are one form of the pattern I was instructed to teach in the dream.

I thank you for the gift of your counsel….

***      I do not know if the Kogi have received this letter. The ways of communicating with them are complex and difficult. We do not share a common language and I deeply respect their need and desire to be isolated from us. Perhaps it is only important that the dream be told.

I thank you all for reading this letter in its entirety and for entering with me in this most essential work. I thank you also for opening your hearts in this time.

In my work, I have found that healing is infectious. If we each begin to do this work, something will come of it.

I send you my blessings and my deepest prayers for a rejuvenated planet, the restoration of the earth, and the return of the sacred everywhere.

Deena Metzger
P.O. Box 186, Topanga, CA 90290

Once again, please feel free to distribute this letter and those that preceded it to whomever you wish. There is a short form of the first letters which may be useful to you as it does outline the motivation for these letters and also, more importantly, the concept of being an elder and the ways of council. Please ask for the article that appeared in the Whole Life Times. If you have e-mail, we can send you letters which preceded this one.


Advise us.  I do not mean to contradict the idea of council by talking about us and them.  But only to be realistic.  It is western culture and its ideas which are dominating the world.  Those of us who hope to assist in transforming our circumstances would do well to be advised by those who are outside of our culture.  The best of our ideas no longer serve us.  I think we must recognize this and go to those whose ways of knowing and living are distinctly different from ours. Return from this footnote
Journal of the American Medical Association April 1998 Return from this footnote