Spider pulls magic out of her belly—sticky silk threads she’ll cast into the wind. When one latches onto something solid—a branch or a reed—her work begins. Securing her first thread at both ends, so that it becomes a bridge, she drops a slack line below that and anchors this with a centered vertical thread. Then she starts building her loom in the air—first the framing lines, next, the spokes going out from the center. Through these she may weave a spiral pattern, deftly varying sticky and non-sticking threads, so that she can catch her meals without herself getting caught.
Spiders were among our first magicians. Long ago they learned how to pluck abundance from the air using only their remarkable silk—its tensile strength equal to that of alloy steel. With a little thread and ingenious weaving, spiders tamed their world. They learned how to hook and trap food, wrap prey, protect eggs, hide entrances, and carry or store anything precious. Webs let spiders extend their senses beyond their bodies. When the web moves, it tells them things. From its vibration alone spiders can distinguish a fallen leaf from a doomed insect or a tasty treat from something poisonous. Webs may be orbed and spiraled or tangled like cobwebs. Some are designed as clever funnels, fans, and tubes. One spider makes a silk diving bell that lets her breathe underwater.
It’s no wonder that so many indigenous myths describe the world’s origin as the weaving of a spider. Our creation storytellers—the scientists—prefer to say that the universe was a gift from an invisible field that gave mass to identical particles in such a way that these diversified into the building blocks of life. In this ancients and moderns agree: something drew us out of the void into the cornucopia of our universe. Particle physicists call it the Higgs Field. Indigenous cultures honored this something as the Great Mother, painted on ancient walls and pottery shards across the earth as a great spider or an old woman spinning.
Likely at least once in your life you’ve been arrested by the sight of a spider building its web. Caught—you were silenced and for however briefly you let yourself remain—you entered a timeless world, humbled, and full of awe. This is how the body stands before something it acknowledges as sacred. Spiders at work are one of many natural triggers that can awaken in humans an altered state.
It’s a terma. I borrow this word from the Tibetan Buddhists, for whom it means “hidden treasure.” Termas are sacred teachings planted by spiritual masters (most famously Guru Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal) for future discovery by adepts known as tertons. The treasure might be an object—like a vajra, bell, or phurpa—hiding in a temple or a tree. It could be a text that reveals itself in fragments. The adept may hear a sound or see a painted symbol suddenly appear and disappear on a rock. Whole paragraphs might write themselves in mysterious script across the sky. The outer treasure serves to release the inner one: the real teaching awakens in the mind-stream of the terton, where the guru planted it long ago.
Termas preserve a lineage during dark times when its lines of oral transmission may be ruptured—allowing the sacred texts to return at more auspicious moments. Hidden treasures can also keep growing a tradition’s wisdom. Great masters are visionaries who can prepare teachings for future times. In the 8th Century, Guru Padmasambhava foresaw that when Iron Birds fly in the sky and Iron Horses run on the roads on wheels, the Tibetan people would scatter like ants and Buddhism would come to the West. This is an accurate enough description of the last half of the 20th Century, with airplanes, trains, and cars, and after China’s 1959 invasion of Tibet, the Tibetan diaspora and the Dalai Lama’s rise in global popularity.
Termas are magical and risky business. Any fool can say a dakini whispered in her ear and now she’s blessed with teachings. It’s hard to sit in a Tibetan temple without noticing that vast invisible forces are stirring. Hanging above my own altar is a 21st Century post card of a sacred Padmasambhava statue—it was advertising some workshop or retreat. It hardly qualifies as a terma, yet whenever I look into the Guru’s arched eyes, I feel like some deep and playful conversation is taking place below my hearing. So that’s why there are rules. Whenever a genuine terma is concealed, a prophecy is made about exactly when, where, and who will find it. None tell of a Western woman standing in her kitchen.
Yet with natural termas it’s quite the opposite, as these are scattered throughout the landscape, available to anyone passing by. If we had the ability to spot all those hiding just within our immediate view—we’d find ourselves standing in a jeweled world. But our capacity to notice them flickers. We need to be in the right place in the right mind.
Termas aren’t signs. Omens and signs are messages. Like when my friend—who had hired a detective and was searching for her drug-addicted son for months without success—entered her small apartment one day and found a bird sitting on the windowsill. Signs get our attention by being slightly odd. My friend watched as the bird circled the room, then went for the fireplace, standing among the ashes; as it flew out from there, she heard herself thinking “Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.” It was then the mother in her knew that she’d find her son two states over, in Phoenix, Arizona, which some weeks later she did. As a sign, the bird had particular news for a particular person. Ordinary termas don’t work like that.
They’re teachings. Like their Buddhist counterparts, they’re sacred treasures designed to preserve wisdom through dark times. They have the power to unlock the universe in an instant, although (as with most Buddhist termas), the full teachings usually develop within a natural terton over time. I can’t say who plants these triggers, though it’s easy to imagine this is something a goddess or dakini might like doing. Perhaps one needs the luck of a forest witch or shaman in the ancestral lineage—some wise one who planted the languages of the wind, animals, roots, and trees in the family bloodstream. Or perhaps the world’s natural termas are the gift of a single teacher—an anonymous woman sitting in the shadow of Mount Kailash who enchanted the landscape because she foresaw a time like ours when humans would routinely bind their feet, fear exposure to the sun, and sit much of the day like statues, losing their conversation with nature, and treating their bodies ever more like the machines that rendered them idle.
Ordinary termas are perfect for a time like ours. They awaken in the body—not the mind. This is one way to know that you’ve genuinely found one: there is an absence of words. Your awareness sinks below the mind into the heart, where the body enters its own temple. It might be driven into a state of ecstasy, industry, awe, peace, or fear—whatever best suits the sudden or gradual revealing of its teaching. A natural trigger might be as singular as the spotted beetle crossing ahead of you sometime after noon next Tuesday—or universal, like rainbows, sunrises and sunsets, lightning bolts, and cloud displays. Universal termas often become cultural clichés—which is where these treasures hide when people live in their heads and no longer have the below-neck experience. Language holds onto them.
Poets are good natural tertons and Mary Oliver is one of my favorites. For the years I was dull to ordinary treasures, I read about hers. My body grew hungry for the great wonder she allowed herself to feel after dropping to her knees and observing the details of her local world. Her poem “Starfish” was more unsettling, but it brought perhaps a greater teaching. In this case, the terma was a tidepool—in water dense as blindness—a dark hole in the rocks where the starfish slid and gathered like sponges with active thumbs—their stubborn flesh lounging on my knuckles. The sensations scared her. But all summer she visited—crouched on the stone wall, while the sea poured its harsh song through the sluices—waiting for the gritty lightning of their touch. It never got easy. But (and here’s the teaching), the poet asks: What good does it do to lie all day in the sun loving what is easy? By lying on the rocks and reaching into the watery chasm of her fear, her body learned, little by little, how to calm itself down and fall more in love with its only world.
No other mammal’s body is as curious and adaptable as ours, having successfully made its home in every continent on earth. Its ability to love what it finds is certainly one of its secrets, discovered again and again, in our species’ long suckling at the sometimes generous, sometimes withered breast of Mother Africa. For millions of years this continent was our nursery—the home we shared with other upright-walkers until a critical 200,000 year period (about two million years ago), when the climate of the great African lake regions fluctuated wildly. Seven hundred years of lush fertility were followed by a thousand years of dust and drought; then the lakes would bloom again, and disappear. This stressed many of our cousins into extinction, but seemed to increase our ancestors’ capacities. Our brains grew bigger. Stone tools appeared. After correlating the DNA of hominin bone fragments with environmental fluctuations, many now believe that climate change is not just part of the human story—it’s what defines us. Our adaptations to it may explain why eventually homo sapiens alone survived after all the other bipeds disappeared.
Perhaps we just listened to the earth a little better. Geneticists tell us that small changes can make big differences. An aberrant eye sees new colors and a forest of new food sources appears, as was luckily what happened for the ancestor we share with gorillas and chimps. From the trees that made our fingers nimble, we followed nature into the grasslands, where we shed our hair for the advantages of cooling ourselves with sweat; our bones lengthened for long distance running, allowing us to outlast our exhausted prey in the noonday sun. Fertile valleys inspired our wanderlust, as we followed the gift of game along the riverbeds. When the grasslands withered, nature called us to the sea’s edge, the rocky coast where she played new songs, offered new proteins, versatile sea grasses, and teachings on the cycles of the tides and Moon. Others were called to Siberia—during the Ice Age—when it was hardly habitable. Yet our northernmost ancestors managed to make a lot from a little, mastering the judgments of snow, the biting cold, and forging a partnership with reindeer that allowed them to create a world out of its skin, bones, fat, and flesh.
As prehistoric spiders conjured their abundance from the air, so did homo sapiens pluck bounty from each changing gesture of the land. This magic is typically described as “human ingenuity”—but is this explanation enough? That we’ve always told our ancestral story in brain size and progressively more sophisticated tools may simply be because dirt preserves skulls and stones better than it does our songs. What goes on in the heart evaporates. When the geological record leaves us hanging, cultural anthropologists seek insights into the lives of early hunter-gatherers by studying the world’s few (and rapidly dwindling) indigenous tribes. Ethnobotanist and cultural explorer Wade Davis has lived among several. He notes their common tendency to view the world as something living, as a sacred being with whom our lives are intertwined, each seeming to dream the other into existence. It is possible that this was our species’ evolutionary edge—our sacred relationship with the Earth. For just as spider’s web speaks to her, so does the land tell us things.
Davis describes the chemically brilliant ayahuasca recipe of a rainforest shaman. It combines two unrelated psychotropic plants into a brew that delivers powerful hallucinogenic visions for healing and divination that are impossible to achieve from either plant alone. When Davis asked the shaman how, out of the thousands of rainforest flora, did they know to combine these two, “The plants told us,” the shaman replied. When Wade asked how they distinguish each of the 17 varieties of the ayahuasca vine (the differences are imperceptible to our eye), the man explained that on the night of the full moon, each sings in a different key.
Perhaps like me you’ve looked at a fruit or vegetable and occasionally wondered how the first human knew this was delicious and not poison. The usual answer is that we learned through trial and error: if somebody ate the kiwi and didn’t die, they told the group. But it’s not so hard to believe that more often nature revealed herself. Even in this digital age, my house plants still tell me when they’re thirsty. When I open the produce drawer of the fridge, one or more vegetables may announce with which ingredients it wants to collaborate for tonight’s dinner.
If it’s been a long time since your body has conversed with nature, walk along the coast for an hour. This is a potent universal terma. Lower the inner volume of your thoughts and raise the inner and outer volume of the sea. Drop into your heart—your physical heart, beating in your chest. Perhaps on the way to the coast it was tired. Maybe it’s held itself in for too long. But after some time walking along the shore, you notice that it’s awakening. Your breath deepens. Your lungs expand with the noisy salt air. If the shore is rocky, as the pulsing waves crash against it, your heart may feel excited, acrobatic, even a little scared. If the beach is a broad expanse of sand, your heart may sigh and gradually unwind, like an odalisque relaxing on pillows in the arms of her beloved.
You won’t get famous for locating ordinary treasures. No religious councils will be convened. The reward is the experience itself. Natural termas bring us into the foyer of the vast library of the body. Here lie the keys not only to our vitality and health, but to a rich storehouse of information and capacities, including secrets our ancestors knew, as well as the potential for new sorcery. In this, the geneticists are well ahead of today’s natural magicians. Looking forward, they’ve been mining the body’s blueprint to discover new cures for disease. Looking backward, they’ve recently discovered the truth of our origins. From DNA records, it turns out, we really are all one. Every human on earth came from the same small genetic family—a handful of homo sapien stragglers who stood between us and our species’ extinction. You and I share the same ancestral mother—“mitochondrial Eve”—a single woman from one to two hundred thousand years ago. Our father was younger—from just 60,000 years ago—another period of wild climate change.
Many suggest we’re on the brink again. Perhaps that’s why it’s such an auspicious hour for discovering natural termas. They put us on the fast track to awakening our body’s intelligence. Body wisdom can tell us the difference between good winds and bad, where the jaguar (or corporate jackal) is hiding, how to reach the highest and most delicious berries, and when to follow the call into unknown territory. Bodies also tell us simpler things—often forgotten in our age—like when to rest, what to eat, and how to love. Our bodies are an exquisite instrument. Termas help us to keep them in tune.
At the Moon Academy, ordinary termas are like the entry level “Charms” and “Potions” classes required in the freshman year at Hogwarts. They’re easier to learn than other things—but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. They’re foundational and could just be what saves us at the climax of our story. We can’t will termas to happen. We can only move through the world in such a way that we’re available when called—ready to lift our eyes or drop to our knees. Along with the absence of words, there’s one other sign that lets us know whether we’ve found the genuine thing. It’s that feeling we’ve been tracking in these first few Moon skills lessons. When you discover a real terma, you enter a state of unity. For that moment, even if you’re scared, you feel seen, held, and safe. You feel contained within the whole of a benevolent world.
You’ll find more on the Full Moon terma on my blog.
© 2015 Dana Gerhardt
At Mooncircles, we honor both the inner and outer Moons.
Each is a perfect way to explore the other.
To find out more about your inner and outer Moons, check out my Moon Workshop and/or my Moonprints report!