Embodied Spirituality: The Legacy of Being

Charles Lawrence

in conversation with Joseph Jastrab

Anyone who’s ever met Charles Lawrence knows that you don’t just meet him; you enter into an experience of him. I rarely encounter anyone who speaks as if each word were his last. Such was the case in my recent conversation with Charles, which precipitated a sense of immediacy, a call to attention, which remained with me for days following our talk. 

His initial callings led him into the fields of psychology, theatre and business until a series of “initiatory strikes” opened a whole new course at age 40; summoning him to world travel to meet with indigenous elders and shamans from Mongolia, Siberia, Australia to the jungles, deserts and mountains of Peru, Australia, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere. His journey eventually led him to Hotevilla where he was adopted by Hopi elders, and has remained in close contact, for over 30 years.

I caught up with Charles, by phone, at his New York City apartment in between a recent return from Utah, participating in the 26th anniversary of a specialized version of the Shoshone Ghost Dance, and an upcoming journey to Finland to help celebrate the anniversary of a community he helped birth 20 years ago. I suggested we begin our talk with an invocation, having nothing in particular in mind. Charles immediately began singing – a chant inspired by the vision of Black Elk . . .

Joseph: Carried on the winds of that chant, Charles, I welcome the Spirit that wants to speak through us this morning to do so, as we dedicate ourselves to stay open to being surprised…

Charles: That chant, to me, Joseph, calls attention to my whole being that Source, Creator, is always waiting our acknowledgement of its presence. Let’s go for it!

There’s much I could ask about your personal history, perhaps for another time. Let’s start with what may lay at the foundation of all of that… I’ve heard you say that you feel yourself to be “spirited,” more so than “spiritual”. What does that mean to you?

I’m going to quote Deepak Chopra for a moment to begin to respond to that. I’m very kinetic, I’m a feeler, and for a number of years I kept feeling that a lot of people who are so-called “spiritual” were disassociated, that they were not in their bodies. A few years back Deepak Chopra talked about how a mistake had been made years ago in India and in the entire world, when people learned to so-called “transcend” out of the body and go to some other realm. He said this had created a whole pattern, a technology pattern of disassociation, and that we needed to learn to become embodied again.

To me being Spirited is being embodied — in the body fully, dynamic, fully present. And Joe Campbell talks about the people, the individuals, who are living some kind of an idealized structure and you can hear it in the tone of their voices. Whereas for the individual whose heart is in the moment and whose body is engaged in the dance, in the dynamism of what is happening—that individual is more spirited, more embodied, and you can feel that resonating in their voice. That make sense?

It does. Your mention of embodied Spirit serves as a useful doorway into the subject of legacy, which I’d like to explore with you. What you speak of here brings me to imagine legacy—or, at least one way of viewing it—to be an expression of embodied spirituality. In that we might dedicate our life passage to bringing forth some aspect of the values and generosity of our “spirited nature” into embodied expression, here on earth, so that something of benefit is left behind.

In contemporary western culture we used to thinking of legacy as something that’s saved for the end of one’s life, but it seems to me, as I listen to the teachings of native peoples, that legacy is something that is practiced continually throughout life rather than something saved for end-time consideration. Is that view consistent with the way you’ve witnessed your tribal elders given to understand and express it?

Totally, Joseph, totally. I have a dear friend, Debra Sparrow, of the Musqueam Band, Coast Salish Nation, BC, Canada, who has become a highly recognized weaver who constantly quotes her grandpa because this is how the teachings are passed on. She would say that by knowing who we are, and where we are, and where we came from, that this is the way of carrying on legacy. And that’s also part of the struggle these days with the youth—the young ones who are being pulled away more and more.

On the Hopi, I remember Fermina Banyacya talking about the very young ones being pulled away from their parent’s arms by army soldiers and put into the “Indian Schools.” They had lost all that which they would have absorbed growing up walking in the fields, walking in the villages, growing in the whole space of their ancestors that were alive there with them. And for the Hopi, it’s notable that there is no future and past tense in their languaging. There is a continuous spectrum of now-ness and the legacy, therefore, is living. It’s a vital legacy of being.

That’s a heartbreaking description: a young person being literally uprooted from the familiar ancestral ground of their tradition, and with that comes the loss, or certainly the disruption, of any legacy connection.

Yes, yes, yes… the human suffering this genocidal government has acted on peoples around the Globe.

Seems that what the western industrialized mindset has done to the native peoples of this land is inflicted on us as well. Much of my early schooling felt like an uprooting from what I instinctually drew life from: nature, play—“engaged in the dance,” as you say. And many of us have to work hard to experience an authentic and alive legacy connection to our own familial or natural heritage. I’m thinking that when elders are no longer respected, the gifts of their lives have no place to land. And what is offered is no longer recognized as valuable, as a gift.

Yes, Joseph, I have witnessed the truth of those words and I have wondered at what point, in the braiding or the weaving of Western culture, did this disassociation begin? Some say it began with the industrial revolution when people were taken out of the fields, taken away and put into factories. I’m thinking also of a wonderful conversation I once had with an old man in Lima who was talking about how his children had left the jungle, they left the pharmacopeia of the medicine of the jungle, they moved into the cities, and then they became at the affect of the corner drugstore, the corner market. They had lived in that exquisite paradise of all the medicines and all the foods—where all that they required was there surrounding them. And they had lived for decades, centuries, in that way and that way was now being lost. He said his own grandchildren don’t know how to go out, pick a leaf to brew tea, or to pick this or that to address an illness.

It seems like the entire world is in a state of being “between worlds”

Yes, yes… between this and that. Do you know the work of Robert Pirsig? He wrote a book called Lila. He explores the necessary dynamic tension between stasis and innovation, between this and that, and the natural propensity for evolution at a very deep molecular level in nature. It’s an evolution toward beauty, refined order. And then, as the Hopi term Koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”) states, something happened and we flipped into hurry-up time. We flipped into a chaotic, self-destroying mindset that did not consider consequences like the “seventh generation” we speak of. The consideration of consequence has been nearly obliterated in the western mind. Might that be a byproduct of English itself—the language and structure of English? I have no definitive answer for that. But the native folks used to say that we lost quality and real sacred duty. They said that we’ve traded true art for plastic and the world of cheap, cheap, cheap, which is evidently destroying the very planet we call home.

This mindset, the one that does not consider consequences, is continually revealed to us in the daily news these days and as troubling as this is, it does reveal the true consequences of our thinking patterns—and it is true that language is created out of thinking patterns, and must remain faithful to them until a new imagining comes along. Could you say more about the “seventh generation” view, how you understand that to be articulated from a native perspective, as this is central to our cultural re-imaging of legacy.

I’ll do the best I can, Joseph, in that I came to this view sort of late in my life, in my 40th year, when all this started. The languaging of other cultures is so different than English. English is a problematic language. When it comes to Indigenous languages, they are by construct widely inclusive in form. Nature is an essential factor needing to be included in all decision-making. I learned from the Hopi there was a time when signs in nature were saying that the People needed to come together to make some decisions because of the evolution of things. There were dry weather patterns and then there were wet seasons. Things were changing. The elders and the old people seemed to sense this and they would come together to consider that it was time to make some new decisions. It was time to look at the culture in a different way, to look at legacies in a different way.

But they would take the time to ask, “When I decide this, how is it going impact things? How is that going to impact the generation following me? What does this do for the year? What does this do for resources?” And they developed, over the eons of their evolutionary process, a way to extend this decision-making into this generation and that generation and that generation. And as we understand that now, on the brain level, we’re opening frontal lobes. We’re opening up the brain to a capacity to invite even the unseen into our consideration of outcomes. And they always looked at how this is going to affect that! That’s why learning their languaging helped me understand that when they went into the Kivas (and they would deliberate for hours), they were activating something within themselves, and that activated an inbuilt function that would help them contribute to whatever they were creating next—whatever they were choosing next.

What you say about the Hopi language not imposing the clear delineation of past-present-future tense that English does, such that they aren’t able to impose such a rigid temporal framework on human life, earth life, universal life, on any aspect of creation—I’m wondering how this might affect the perspective they hold toward legacy, then? Is there not an expression, from the Hopi, of a realm that is here now that they call the “Before Place?”

Oh yes, oh my god, yes! That just opened up a whole new door there.

The Before Place is a very literal place for the Hopi. It’s called the Sipapu. It’s an underworld series of caverns in a hillock that sits at the juncture where the Little Colorado joins the Big Colorado River. One of the descriptions of Before Place that I got from grandma Carolyn is that at the end of a lifetime when one’s soul has completed the journey of this incarnation one returns to the Before Place, a place of expanded consciousness and awareness, where one reflects on the journey that has been taken. A person would reflect on what their purpose was for going there and the results of that journey. And one of the tenants of looking at the journey, one of the questions considered in the reflecting was/is (and again we have to watch that terminology of falling into tensing) how many people are happier that you were born?

Did your presence truly bring a contribution to the people? How was the medicine of who you are, your gifts and the abilities that you were innately born with, shared beautifully with the people?

Yes. And I imagine that the definition of “happiness” goes beyond the “have a nice day” kind of happiness.

Right on. To me it’s a generative enthusiasm, a state of well being, connectedness or resonance within your people.

Well, this leads me to perhaps an interesting application of what you’re saying: as I’m interested in exploring what my legacy is, in its becoming, it might be useful to draw on the power of the imagination to travel to my Before Place, right now… to sit there and hold council with these questions you’ve brought forth. What a helpful meditation this may be?

Mmmmm, thank you…yes, oh my god yes! And also helpful to pause before making any decision. At some point, I began to put that practice into my life whether in the city or in the jungle. Wherever I was, I would say, “Before I take this step I ask for direction.” I am very intuitive and I would ask intuition to guide me instead of my rational mind. I used to have a list of things, the shopping list, in my life to do. But I was living on linear time. And I began to understand there was another level, another quality of time and existence that was there, potent, waiting—that which was always there waiting to be addressed, to be invited. That was a practice of being in the Before Place—a place where all the nerve endings were relaxed. It wasn’t a state of so-called peace. (That doesn’t interest me. Peace doesn’t interest me.) It is that state of aliveness, that state of tranquility and serenity, which I find in nature all around me, whose existence informs me. And when the stream is bubbling and flowing effortlessly from the pond or the creek, all the way down to the lake and finally to the ocean, I find an alive tranquility in that. No effort, but flowing, effortlessly.

And that brings in another piece, I think most people in this western culture are basically unseen. You’re expected to fall into this role and follow that command—NO! The elders looked at me and asked: “You came at this time now. What did you bring with you? Who are you and how are you showing up? Grandma Carolyn helped me learn from the Zuni’s that the elders were instructing the young parents to see the child. This being has come here now for a reason. It’s their responsibility to help that reason flower and to become clear!

I’d like to touch back on your recognition that being in nature helps reflect a state of aliveness—I think you used the term “generative enthusiasm”—daffothat can help us recover something vital within each of us. I know when I sit among the trees and old rock formations and I feel their elderhood, I feel them as elders, they’re essentially asking the same questions as you’re posing here: “Joseph, how are you showing up now, what do you bring…? Questions not to be answered, but questions to wake me up.

That’s what drew me into the forest at an early age… it’s like I could feel the nobility of my young personhood reflected there in a way that was hard for me to feel in my human community, at home, at school… a felt an invitation for me to be me. And the older people who did offer this mirroring to me (I didn’t label them as “elders” at the time, but they certainly were) they have had a lasting effect in helping me trust that there was something of value in what I was interested in. I had to learn to be faithful to my own interests.

I am remembering a remarkable Navajo elder, Roberta Blackgoat, who I’ve loved dearly. She was part of the triumvirate of Hopi and Navajo Grandmothers who went to Geneva to address the Human Rights Subcommittee sessions. These amazing elders were so clearly communicating that each person recognize they have a responsibility to be who they really are and to find out why they are here, etc. One day as we were sitting in a circle with a lot of Wasichus (Lakota) and other folks who were still shy and new to these Indigenous ways, Roberta asked, “Tell me, have you have ever, ever seen a shy daffodil?”

There is no shyness here! Everything in life and nature and creation, everything knows its place. Everything in nature is in its correct place—and in being clear, being present in myself, what is there but joy? What is there but love? What is there but this natural propensity for expansion?

And just as there is no shyness, right, there is also no need to stand out…


…we stand with one another.

Ah, yes!

And it strikes me that if we want to reflect on our legacy; perhaps the best place to do so would be by a stream, an ancient rock, or next to a quietly confident daffodil!

Well, Joseph, as I hear you say that, what comes to my mind is a questioning of my own legacy. With the brush of near death a couple of years ago, which altered my consciousness—that initiation put my whole life into another frame. I arrived at a very clear threshold and I knew that I couldn’t cross over it yet. There were things I had to accomplish and part of that was knowing what to leave behind. And so I questioned my own issue about legacy. Who is my tribe? Who are my real people? How have I passed on the teachings of these elders? Because we are in this way of believing that, when I can say “I learned this from Wallace Black Elk, or Vince Stogan, or the Hopi,” I am keeping their Spirits alive.

I learned that there was no hurrying time to prove something. The slower and the deeper that I went—that would prove to the elders the quality of my listening inside. It’s about being in relationship. I’m thinking about the old Hopi drum makers. When you were working with the master drum maker and one morning you might come for a meeting and you’d be handed a drum and the teacher would say, “Well, I put five songs in this drum. Don’t come back until you find them.” They didn’t care if it took 25 years! There was no hurry up. They understood that, as time went by, the molecular structure of the individual would be coming into more and more resonance with the gift there, becoming more and more resonant with nature.

How have I been able to share these ways with others? The question remains, “ What am I leaving behind? What is Charlie Lawrence leaving behind?”

And how do you respond to that question?

It’s living the question, Joseph… and not looking for an immediate answer. And part of this is understanding that wherever I am, in whatever situation—it’s the how I am responding to something, how I come to it, that is living the question.

I’ve been hit by lightning three times; I’ve been burned in the fire. Those unexpected initiatory strikes are part of what altered the course of my life. The African teacher, Malidoma Somé, helped me understand that in their way of divination, I’m a fire person. He said, “You are spirit, you cannot be a peacemaker, you are not water, you are not earth, you’re fire and you’re here to agitate. You’re here to excite and you are here to invite.”

Recently this was reflected in Utah at the Naraya (Ghost Dance). I was asked to ‘sit’ with the new comers, people who are sincerely looking to return to a deep connection with Life, Spirit, Earth, etc. I took this fire way to heart. Later, after the ‘Talking Stick’ sessions, several people inquired “How did you come to respond the way you did?” My intuition serves me, I look at people, I feel what’s inside, and sometimes it comes out a bit harshly because that’s where the answer is. It’s a dynamic, it’s breaking someone out of a trance they’re in, the trance of their old story, the trance of the victim or the ‘poor me’ story—penetrating—cutting through in such a way that the unconscious cannot go into defense. Landing that arrow of response, landing that arrow that gets through a chink in the person’s emotional or mental armor.

You’ve owned that medicine, allowed yourself to become a lightning strike.


Well I must say you have that affect on me and it ignites one more reflection on legacy that I’d like to run by you. Returning to the story you told of the Hopi drum master placing rhythms in the drum for the apprentice to look within to find… It strikes me, that is exactly what Spirit does with a human being. Spirit effectively says to the man or woman that arrives on Earth, “I’ve implanted some vital, select medicines in your bones… take your time, but listen deeply, and come back and tell me when you’ve found your medicine.” And so I might ask myself, “what life rhythms are living in my bones, awaiting my recognition, that I’ve come to offer?”

Is it offer or is it just to be? It’s a rhythm that we are. We are an essential rhythm, a vibration!

Well, I like the settling and relaxation that comes with the way you just phrased it.

What comes to me is the Saquasohuh, the Hopi Blue Star Katsina. Grandmother Carolyn was talking about how it comes every 26,000 years and it speaks of legacies. It says that when certain things happen there is a new downloading, a new encoding that descends throughout Creation from the heavens downward. And the molecules in our cells are encoded with this new possibility. And the elders are saying, “Maybe you are carrying something that was given 26,000 years ago or 52,000 years ago.” It’s our responsibility to wake up and find out what it is! And be it! By being it we offer it because, again, we don’t own it. It’s for all beings.

I’ve sat with the lions in South Africa, in their enclosures, and the lion keeper said that he had never in his life seen anybody who the lions just climbed all over. I didn’t know about these things, Joseph. I was totally ignorant and yet some abilities are inherent and that speaks again of living the question. We have so much and most people never ask the question, “Who else am I and what else is in here?”

Might one leave a lifetime with our legacy never fully known or being answered to the mind’s satisfaction? Perhaps I can find satisfaction in simply, and fully, living the question—waking up with that question each day, going to sleep with it each night?

As an arrow flies through the sky, there’s a wake. As a ship goes through the ocean there’s a wake. If others feel drawn, loved, beheld, witnessed, becoming more fully alive in the wake we are creating, we are living our legacy. The Elders guided me to experience not only their wake, but also the wake of their ancestors and so on, to enter the flow of that beyond-time dimension. And this took years but they waited, waited for me to return with this ancestral connection embodied in my being.

And I have this practice now, before I go to sleep, to sit and reflect on the day. And before I get out of the bed, I reflect on the last night’s journey. (I am very active in the dream world and the other worlds.) And I also then reflect on what is my real joy in this coming day. Am I eager for this day? Am I eager and ready to embrace the uncertainty, the unexpected, in this day? It could be my last.

And to me, I aim my arrow at living life with eagerness because I will never know everything.

And asking, “In whose wake am I flowing?”

Ah, yes….

Amy Vossbrinck

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1 Comment
John Sorensen

A profound question in which to end – “In whose wake am I flowing?” I’m enthralled right now, reflecting on your exchange and feeling both of your wakes, or maybe its their blending.
John S.

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