“When people come to me because of a sudden illness,” the shaman was telling me as he painstakingly mended a crack in a highly-prized ceremonial gourd, “the first thing I do is ask them, ‘Who recently asked for your help that you refused?'” The midday sun blistered the rocky soil of the patio. We sat in the shade of a thatched roof affixed to the wall of the adobe house, looking out over the red rock river. A horse whinnied into the wind from the high ground above the rancho. A burro answered from somewhere across the narrow valley. Time, such as it was, moved very slowly deep in the Copper Canyon of Mexico, where the Tarahumara still lived as they have for millennia.
The shaman dipped the gourd in a bucket of water and held it aloft. Not a drop leaked from the mended crack. He could have fashioned a new gourd in a tenth the time it’d taken him to repair the old one.
“My duty isn’t just to heal individuals,” he explained, taking a sip from the gourd and handing it to me, “but to heal the community.” Sipping the cool spring water, I looked over the rim of the gourd at my adopted father and realized he spoke with the absolute confidence of someone who had been trained since childhood in the art of holding a community together.
It was a small village far-removed from the twentieth century. No electricity or telephones, let alone a hospital or medical doctor. There, on the outskirts of civilization, there was no one to turn to in an emergency if not your neighbor: the individual could not hope to survive without the goodwill of the community–nor could the community hope to survive without the goodwill of each individual.
Far-removed from twentieth century civilization, yes. But the most civilized people I was ever to meet.
There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effects. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.Mahatma Gandhi
I think about Antoine de Saint-Euxupery, too. Not his beloved classic, The Little Prince, however. No, what calls him to mind these days is his lesser-known masterwork, Wisdom of the Sands. His posthumous work, it is the tale of the king of a desert kingdom who is trying to recapture the unifying spirit that bound the kingdom together during the reign of his father. Although never fully completed because Saint-Euxupery’s unarmed reconnaissance plane was shot down in WWII, the novel is a brilliant exploration of the mythological and symbolic thinking that strives to weld people into a whole that relies on neither nationalism nor religion for its cohesion. Story by story, the king looks back over the lessons his father taught him about human nature, all with an eye to understanding why his kingdom is losing its desire to feel itself part of a greater whole. It is this search for a greater meaning, rooted in a natural spirituality, that occupies the king’s attention. It ultimately eludes him. For the spirit of unity just slips through his grasp as the spirit of self-interest takes hold of the kingdom.
Hardly satisfying on the level of happy endings, perhaps. But extremely rewarding on the level of sitting with a kindred spirit who gives voice to your own longings to play a meaningful part in a meaningful whole.
When the practice of nonviolence becomes universal, God will reign on earth as he does in heaven.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Saint-Euxupery was a conscientious objector who took an active nonviolent stand against the Nazis. Gandhi was a lawyer and spiritual teacher who took an active nonviolent stand against British colonialism. Both lost their lives to acts of violence.
Gandhi argued against the modernization of India, preferring to maintain the authenticity of traditional village life and spirituality. Saint-Euxupery, who lived much of his life in nonindustrial locales in the Sahara and South America, disdained modern civilization, writing in a letter, “I hate this century with all my heart.”
The farmer-shaman, the guru-activist, and the mystic-poet: three great teachers occupying the sacred space of the shared heart.
There is no going back in time, of course, to a simpler world. The trend toward modernization on a global scale is irreversible. Yet, despite the degradation of the environment that it brings with it, it is at the same time a trend that exponentially increases our ability to communicate directly with one another. Even as it threatens to further alienate us from nature, in other words, it holds out the promise of a universal belonging together that transcends borders and ideologies–the promise that we can regain our desire to transcend cynicism and distrust in a collective effort of community-building on a global scale.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.Antoine de Saint-Euxupery
How do we authentically inspire ourselves to care so deeply about other people and our environment that our attitudes and behaviors are changed permanently?
I will give you an example, a story my adopted father told me–
My father once explained to me that he felt the profoundest guilt for having to kill other living things in order to survive, so much so that he never took more than he needed and he always apologized to the spirit of the animal or plant for cutting its life short. He always promised to use its life wisely and never waste it on trivial pursuits. In this way, he had come to hold sacred everything he encountered in life–and come to have a sense of his own sacredness. It took a while before I really began seeing everything the way he did, but now that is the view and those are the feelings that I carry with me all the time.
Hearing this story as a young man changed my life. I don’t mean immediately. Like my adopted father said, it took a while for all the implications to sink in. Looking back, I think it takes time because the new sensitivities this worldview evokes have to pass from thinking into feeling and then into physical sensations themselves.
What it’s about is this: honoring.
The big change, of course, was my realizing that I didn’t feel any remorse for having to eat animals and plants to live. It had never occurred to me to place myself–my life–on an equal footing with their own. It had just seemed natural until that moment to feel myself at the top of some pyramidal food chain, with all the lives “below” me there for the harvesting. It had never occurred to me to actually open my heart to the equality of all lives. This was a painful realization because it brought into sharp focus how I was keeping the needless suffering and deaths of so many other human beings at an emotional distance, as well, by thinking about feeling for them instead of actually opening my heart and feeling for them. By turning all this into an abstraction, I was walking through life with a feeling of specialness, of entitlement, as if it were simply my due to enjoy the privileges of inequality.
I don’t think there’s anything we do on a conscious level as much as eating food. It is, I think, on a quantitative level, our most personal connection to the world, to the universe, in which we live. On this level, it is our most personal relationship with the world. Which makes it–and I think this is the point of the story–symbolic of our relationship to the world as a whole. Our lives are equal because we are all equal in the eyes of death. I had been keeping the deaths of other living things at an emotional distance because I did not know how to deal with my own inevitable death with anything more than abstractions. The problem with that viewpoint, of course, was that if their deaths were meaningless, then so was mine. My adopted father’s story changed my life because it made everything so personal.
This isn’t about what we should eat. That’s a matter of personal conscience. What it’s about is this: Honoring. Honoring the lives of the animals and plants that die so that we can live. Opening our hearts to their lives grows outward to encompass the sacredness of the lives of all animals and plants. And from there it expands to take in the sacredness of all human life–and beyond that, to include the sacredness of my own life.
We are all waiting for–hoping for–someone to arrive on the scene who knows how to heal the community of humanity, to bring us together in a time of peace and prospering for all that transcends our differences even as it honors them.
We wait and we hope.
Until that person arrives to pull us up by our bootstraps, however, we have the choice of how to spend our time. Despite the many problems modernization brings with it, it is making good on its promise of establishing the Global Village. As we look around we can see ideas spreading at an unprecedented rate. Transcending borders and ideologies, the idea of the sacredness of everything is sinking into feeling the sacredness of everything. More and more, we as a species are turning our back on the impersonal lifeway of exploitation and embracing the personal lifeway of honoring all lives as equal–a lifeway that holds the greatest promise for solving the dilemmas of modernization. For there is no modern soul, it is as ancient as ever, its longings unchanging.
Who knows–maybe we are the shaman, the healer of the community we have been waiting for. Maybe it is as simple as the turning of the tides: We enter the age of peace and prospering for all simply because too many people have stepped into the sacred space of the shared heart of goodwill and nonviolence to keep it at bay any longer.
This article first appeared on March 10, 2010 in the Huffington Post.
William Douglas Horden is the co-author (with Martha Ramirez-Oropeza) of The Toltec I Ching, released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.