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The Oosumich of Open Form: Writing as Vision Quest

The Oosumich of Open Form: Writing as Vision Quest

Poetry can be a mode of deepening one’s consciousness – this I know from personal experience and from stories of how others lives were turned around by a self-guided exploration of the tradition and practice of poetry. The case of Jimmy Santiago Baca, who taught himself to read and write in prison and used his imagination to help overcome being abandoned by his mother and the abuse of an alcoholic father, is one of the more remarkable cases. At one point in prison when he was about to commit murder, a voice in his head with the words of poets was reinforcing –  or even becoming his conscience at one point – giving him the strength to choose a different option. This is one particularly vivid example of the power of poetry to aid in the process of aiding the development of consciousness. Noted poet and translator Sam Hamill, who had a similar experience with poetry, refers to the wisdom tradition the ancient Chinese and Japanese, especially, have taught him.

Yet the word “consciousness” is a difficult word to use without some perspective. Robert Ornstein in his seminal book The Psychology of Consciousness points out that textbook definitions are problematic, that consciousness is experiential. He does provide an interesting chart he calls “The Two Modes of Consciousness: A Tentative Dichotomy.” One mode can be described as intellectual and active, while the second is sensuous and receptive. The first is, in his words, “lineal” and the second “nonlineal and intuitive.” (Ornstein 67).

More recently, John Upledger, whose studies of consciousness have been in the experiential mode with the healing modality he pioneered known as Craniosacral Therapy, writes: “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to fit an understanding of consciousness into a provable model that would be considered scientifically acceptable – a model that could fit into our concept of an investigation that obeys the rules of experimental design, and that is able to be duplicated by others” (Upledger 36).

Interestingly, the American public seems to be more open to more holistic approaches when confronted with chronic medical conditions such as back problems, anxiety, depression, and headaches. According to a study cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1990 and 1997 there was a 47.3% increase in total visits to alternative medicine practitioners, from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997, thereby exceeding total visits to all U.S. primary care physicians. These folks were paying out-of-pocket, which makes the results all the more telling (Eisenberg et al. 1).

We see the stirrings of holism in the mechanistic American public through this and countless other examples, yet models for a holistic paradigm are ancient. Of those indigenous to North America, the worldview of the Nuu-chah-nulth people of British Columbia has been expertly laid out by Umeek, also known as Dr. E. Richard Atleo, a hereditary Chief of the Ahousat people. An indigenous scientific research modality in the Nuu-chah-nulth tradition is known as Oosumich. This modality is similar to what many cultures refer to as the Vision Quest. In an interview conducted by the author, Umeek discussed his Grandfather Keesta, who was known as the last of the original whalers and his process of preparation for the whale hunt:

Keesta himself as a whaler would practice what we’ve called Oosumich…that is a method to acquire knowledge. A method to access knowledge from the spiritual realm. And so for that purpose he would isolate himself for long periods of time and fast, and pray, and deny himself the physical pleasure of the world in order to focus on the spiritual concerns that he had, assuming that the spiritual dimension had power, had knowledge, had treasures that he could access through a correct methodology. Now the fundamental requirement in successful scientific experimentation, the classical form was neutrality. Scientists attempted to be neutral in their observations so as not to bias the information that (was gathered in the experiment. Objectivity.) …Now this has been challenged by feminist theory, and rightly so. However, there’s a lot of credence to the classical form of research (which) created this form of technology…It has served classical science and scientific methodology very legitimately. Oosumich is also a methodology. When it’s practiced, the critical stance, according to our origin stories, is …humility. Objectivity is the proper stance in science. If we merge the two together, and make a more complete knowledge acquisition system, scientists will have to buy in to the humility aspect, because without humility, there is no seeing in the spiritual realm… The word Oosumich has in it the root Oo which means “be careful” and so it’s based on the view of reality that perceives it as along a spectrum which might be divided in two. On the one side, we might call it the dark, evil, destructive aspect of reality and the other side, the beautiful, the creative, the glorious, the harmonious, the balance. All of those things that can describe Qua-ootz – Owner of Reality…We create ceremonies and we create teachings to manage this reality as we perceive it through Oosumich. We cannot perceive this reality with our physical eyes, but more with our spiritual eyes through Oosumich. Physical eyes will corroborate what we see through the spiritual realm, but the spiritual realm will give you a greater kind of certainty about the nature of reality… (Atleo)

I am reminded of several things here, first of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle[1], which suggests that total objectivity in an experiment is not always possible. The researcher can have an effect on the outcome. Second, the application of an Open Form writing practice to the deepening of one’s consciousness. In one of the most comprehensive outlines of this writing stance, Charles Olson writes of the need to get “rid of the lyrical interference of the ego and also to achieving an humilitas sufficient to make him (the poet) of use” (Olson 247).

Like the vision quest described by Atleo, the poet working in Open Form is on a vision quest in the realm of the consciousness of a particular moment in time. This work may be rewarded through publications, occasional paid readings or workshops, but the poet who earns a living simply from poetry is rare, and is not usually of the caliber that stands the test of time. So the rewards of writing tend to be of the spiritual nature. Yet, like the Oosumich practitioner, one cannot use the linear, the rational/intellectual consciousness to access those deeper realms of existence. It is why Olson suggested a process which “engages speech where it is least careless – and least logical” (241). Perhaps it can be seen as a modality that could fill the vacuum created by the absence of ceremony in Western culture. Again, while the Oosumich practitioner uses the spiritual eyes the Open Form practitioner uses the spiritual EARS in a use of language that has more in common with music than with linear thought. And it is partly developing the trust in a process with its nonlinear gaps that allows the deepening of consciousness available to the Open Form practitioner. To trust the odd phrase because it sounds good and to have verification of the deeper meaning years later is an experience all writers should have. The experience of Eileen Myles in the composition of the poem Milk, written before the 9/11 terror attacks in the town she has called home for many years, is telling:


I flew into New York
and the season
a giant burr
something hot was moving
through the City
that I knew
so well. On the
plane though it was
white and stormy
I saw the sun
& remembered the warning
in the kitchen of all places
in which I was
informed my wax
would melt… (103)

These kinds of things (coincidences, synchronicities?) come from a stance deeper than Ornstein’s Phase One of consciousness. The Open Form practitioner, at best, is like that Oosumich practitioner, seeking to tap into knowledge that is mysterious and greater than him or herself. It is not subject to the rules of linear time. It is perhaps only in fleeting moments between medical appointments as in the case of William Carlos Williams, achieving a different kind of mind of which Krishnamurti knows: “A mind that listens with complete attention will never look for a result, because it is constantly unfolding; like a river, it is always in movement. Such a mind is totally unconscious of its own activity, in the sense that there is no perpetuation of a self, of a “me” that is seeking to achieve an end.” (Krishnamurti 2)

The proof that an Open Form practitioner uses this method to deepen his or her own consciousness may not be duplicatable in a traditional scientific methodological way, but to Krishnamurti  “…there is no arriving, there is only the movement of learning – and that is the beauty of life.” (Krishnamurti 2)

Atleo, E. Richard. “Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview.” Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Atleo, E. Richard. Personal interview.  March 25, 2005.

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “A Place to Stand.” New York: Grove Atlantic, 2001.

Eisenberg, David M., MD; Davis, Roger B., ScD; Ettner, Susan L., PhD; Appel, Appel, MS;
Wilkey, Sonja; Van Rompay, Maria; Kessler, Ronald C., PhD JAMA. 280 (1998); 1569-1575.

Krishnamurti, J. “Can Humanity Change?” Boston: Shambhala, 2003   (Excerpted in Foundation Focus, the Newsletter of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America and Oak Grove School,  3.1. (September 2005)).

Myles, Eileen. “Skies.” Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 2002.

Olson, Charles. “Collected Prose.” Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1997.

Ornstein, Robert. “The Psychology of Consciousness.” San Francisco: Freeman,1972.

Upledger, John. “Cell Talk: Talking to Your Cell(f).”  Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2003.