Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
Cultural Anthropologist, Seeker
The phrase “public intellectual” gets tossed around regularly in Washington, DC and New York City to describe highly accomplished college professors who also get involved in politics and offer opinions on the issues of the day. One classic example is Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who in the 1940s became one of America’s leading historians, author of weighty tomes about the 19th century, meanwhile getting heavily involved in Democratic Party politics, becoming a top counselor to President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He knew the ivory tower but cheerfully came running down its steps and out into the hurly-burly of the real world.
We need a similar cross-disciplinary title to describe Angeles Arrien (1940-2014). Shall we say “public mystic”? Hmm…. Maybe a shade too ethereal. How about “public seeker”?
Arrien was a brilliant scholar, trained at UC-Berkeley as a cultural anthropologist and folklorist. She might easily have found a comfortable high-paying niche at a top university and confined her travels to the distance between her office and her classroom. Instead she chose to travel globally, sharing her ideas in workshops, retreats, and presentations. Her frenetic schedule helped her earn a living, no doubt, but more importantly for her, it allowed her to touch a lot of lives.
She liked the real world. She wrote and spoke about topics that actually matter to people—happiness, gratitude, the glory of creativity, the mystery of nature, and the power of sacred intention. She guided people on vision quests in the desert. She helped groups resolve conflicts. “It was a love-in just to be in her presence,” says Cavanaugh-Simmons. “A large group of people listening to her speak—there would be this amazing energy in the room, a sense of expansiveness and deep connection. You could feel the expansion of consciousness that was going on!”
The anthropologist Michael Harner says, “She was remarkably positive, kind, and possessed of a joyful and playful spirit.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons recalls that spirit well. “You lived for those moments, once you knew her, when she would channel this mischievous and fun-loving part of her nature, poke you in the ribs, and remind you of what really matters,” she says. “I once bumped into her on a flight back from a session and had a short conversation with her. She knew the most perfect thing to say—the thing I needed to hear: ‘You are enough,’ she told me, and that’s stayed with me to this day.”
The teacher and management consultant Patrick O’Neill writes, “Everyone was important to her. A young woman waiting on tables in a restaurant in Peterborough, New Hampshire, became the recipient of a scholarship to college; a homeless woman begging in Union Square found comfort and financial support from a new best friend; an unknown poet found an early champion and the encouragement to gain international acclaim. Angeles Arrien loved life and created everywhere she went. For forty years she impacted the world with joy, curiosity, insight, and compassion.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons first came in contact with Arrien in the 1980s through the Tarot, the playing cards used as divining tools. Cavanaugh-Simmons, ever-interested in expanding her grasp of how the world works, studied the Tarot with a group of friends in the ’80s, learned that Arrien had published a book titled “The Tarot Handbook,” read it with interest, and found out that Arrien lived in Sausalito, not too far from her. She began attending Arrien’s workshops.
In the 1990s, Cavanaugh-Simmons was influenced by Arrien’s “Signs of Life: The Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them,” one of the truly unusual and compelling psychology books of the last fifty years. Shapes, says Arrien, have deep meaning and profound relevance for human growth (in this, she finds congruence with Jung, Joseph Campbell, and many other scholars). The five shapes she writes about are the circle, the square, the triangle, the swirl, the equidistant cross (i.e., the plus sign)—these are archetypal, she says, deeply embedded in the collective unconscious, and people reveal themselves through their preferences among them. The shapes are “external symbols of internal psychic states.”
The subtitle of the shapes book is highly interesting—how to use them. Arrien was not content with unearthing cross-cultural knowledge about the five shapes—her larger goal was to encourage people to change their lives with the knowledge she presented.
Cavanaugh-Simmons attended a number of Arrien-led workshops and retreats over the years, had private counseling sessions with her, and brought Arrien as a speaker to a couple of events. “She really was a model for me in the way she bridged worlds—in the way she brought difficult-to-understand, hard-to-access concepts into a very practical, down-to-earth framework.”
Arrien became “the mother I really never had,” continues Cavanaugh-Simmons—a wise older woman who loved unconditionally: “Any time I spent with her, I was enriched by her understanding of the world in a way that I could apply. There are so many practices that I carry with me today that came from her guidance and have helped me walk a practical path with spiritual feet.”
Born in Spain of Basque heritage, Arrien moved with her family to the United States when she was seven years old. She grew up fascinated by folklore, myths, and fairy tales, including Basque mysticism.
Even as she fell in love with America, she preserved a strong feeling for her Basque roots. “Being bi-cultural gives you a broader perspective,” she said. “It makes you understand that there’s more than one way of looking at the same thing.”
Arrien was affiliated with some of today’s most forward-thinking institutions, including the California Institute of Integral Studies, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, the Fetzer Institute, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the Metta Institute.
Her best-known book is “The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary” (1993). Her 2011 book “Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life” offers a remarkable one-year plan for personal renewal. (Author Jean Houston imparts Arrien’s cross-disciplinary gift when she writes of this book, “Rarely has the art of gratitude been presented in so rich and evocative a manner. Brimming with story, spirit, science, culture, and prayer, Angeles Arrien brings her luminous wisdom to create a masterpiece of soulful living.”)
In 1994, Arrien released a fascinating two-CD recording titled “Gathering Medicine: Stories, Songs, and Methods for Soul Retrieval.” The website DailyOM.com writes of this production, “Maybe you’ve heard of, or read, cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, or maybe not. Regardless, to really experience what she has to offer, one must hear her, for she lectures on shamanistic storytelling via the methods of the shamans themselves; namely, the oral tradition of telling stories, making myths come alive in our minds using the power of the voice. With her quick mind, dry humor, and sharp instinct for pacing, you won’t be able to stop listening for a minute.”
Arrien frequently got asked Big Questions.
“There are only two purposes for human beings,” she answered, “to love and to create. That makes everything simple. Don’t forget.”