Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Surviving to Living: The Animistic Life-Way

Chief Seattle is said to have spoken these words in a speech to the United States Government:

"Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by the talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival."

I was always struck by the last line in this paragraph. Whether or not the old chief made these speeches (and there is a controversy there) means little to me; the words have powerful meaning. It comes home to me clearly that most people today- myself included, for the longest time- have a way of falling victim to a "slow burn" life which isn't really worthy of the term "life". We associate eating, sleeping, and making money directly with "living", and we associate the mere fact of respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure with "living" in the same way, but "life", for people who have seen more clearly, is more than survival; it's more than the accumulation of wealth or the prolonged operation of organs and brains.

"Life" in the truest and best sense of the word is firstly about knowledge. Knowing the truth about one's place in the world, knowing the truth of one's firm and unbreakable connectedness to all things, and celebrating this fact makes simple survival into true living. It is not enough to have some shallow ideas about some "biological" reality you share with other animals or with some nebulous term like "nature"; that is not what I mean by "knowledge of one's place".

Neither we human beings nor any other creature can be reduced to a few scientific-sounding "rules" or diagrams. It isn't what we "are" that joins us to other things, but what we do, how we participate in life. What joins us all are sacred processes- processes by which we seek out our own kind, share love, come into the world, grow, learn, take chances, feel passions, search the world, become wise, and die. Everything in its own way joins us in this way of life's unfolding. It's a high mystery and a most sacred thing. Even those parts of our experience that we have long ago written off as "inanimate"- such as rocks or mountains or rivers- join us in the great vision of interaction, and they are no less related to us and no less necessary to this world as any thing we call "animate" or "living".

When we encounter so-called "inanimate" things in the context of non-ordinary reality, such as in sacred moments of trance or vision, we see that they can be experienced as non-human persons in their own right, and if you believe like me, the non-ordinary context is far more important, when it comes to human understanding and behavior, than what we have come to call the "ordinary".

Our place is within the great web of life itself, with all its boundless activity, and our connectedness to things is obvious to those who have to do things like find water, grow food or hunt it, build fires to protect from the cold, rely on others for companionship or well-being, raise a child, learn from teachers, create art or crafts, encounter the wisdom and stories of the past, or suffer from the misdeeds of other people. There are many more examples of connectedness, but these few will suffice for now.

It isn't enough to intellectually know about our place in this great realm of powers we call "nature", nor to comprehend how inter-connected we all are only with our thoughts; if one does not actually feel the awe of it, feel the beauty and joy of it, then one has not experienced it in its fullness. When one does so, one celebrates the wonder of it all, the joy, the fear, and the mystery of it- and that raises us from the simple and well-worn "mundane" experience of our daily grind into real life.

In real life there is a sacred context there for any experience we may have- it is more than just a hunger pain or a drive for food; it is more than a tear or a laugh; it is part of the great mystery of things, sacred and inexhaustible. For people who understand the sacredness of experiences, their every breath is an awesome thing, an expression of the sacred. For those who do not understand, their every breath is a clock ticking down to the time when they breathe no more.

"Life" in the deeper sense of the word is also about wisdom- and what is wisdom? I've heard many fine definitions for the word, but "wisdom" for me flows from the special sort of knowledge I discussed above- when we know our place in things and our interconnections, then wisdom is born, and wisdom is nothing more (or less) than the internal guidance and voice that leads us to live well. Wisdom leads us to live as we should live- and living as we should, we find that the web of life- both the web of our own lives, and to an extent, the greater web that touches us, flourishes and becomes healthy.

What is wisdom's great guidance? How do the wise treat the world, themselves, and others? I have heard many fine answers to this question as well, but the best I have ever heard is this: "With respect". The wise live according to the idea of respect for the web of life and all its sacred powers, including oneself and other human beings. All are equal and sacred in the round of life; there is no first or last, no weak or strong. Wisdom leads us to wholeness and equality, but it only does so if we give ourselves to the idea of "respect" and give ourselves to it fully.

This is what it means to "live in a sacred manner". Whatever one must do, one does it respectfully and with full awareness. One lets their actions be guided by necessity and moderation, but always with respect in the forefront of their mind. One treats life- all life- with respect. Some wonder at how warriors in the old days (or now) can kill others, people or animals, if they believe in such a way; but death is not the evil that immortality-obsessed western societies often take it for; death is, in fact, unavoidable, and how we live- REALLY live- is far more important than our eventual deaths. That being said, when one must kill for one's survival or the survival of family and friends, one must never be cruel. That is respect, even in such a situation.

This same idea leads us to what "evil" really is- for humans, as well as for sentient non-human persons (such as spirits), evil is a lack of respect which is born in a selfish turning away from the truth of our inter-connectedness and the sacredness of things. Evil is not the self-existing opposite of some force called "good"; it is just a lack of respect; it is a poverty of goodness.

People's doubts about death have a way of fading swiftly if they can open their hearts to nature's simple teachings on the subject. We are an inseparable part of a system of sacred ecology, and no amount of ignoring this fact will ever change it. There is fear and pain in ignoring this fact, and joy and peace in accepting it. Accepting this means accepting our deaths every bit as much as we accept our lives, but as the old stories tell us, death is hardly the beast we've long considered it: the dead live on in other ways. The dead must live, for while the web of life includes events and occasions that we describe as "death", it always remains a web of life. What is good for us is to live well, and not think that we can control the outpouring of life's many processes and interactions, nor life's ends.

John Muir said:

"Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."

When a person touches such wisdom and when they let it lodge in their heart, they stop surviving from day to day and they begin living the way they should live. A joy of belonging settles on them, alongside a joy of fearlessness, and these joys transform survival into life. The powers of knowledge and wisdom awaken us from our dazed, drugged, or zombie-like stumbling of day to day survival, and they shake us awake into real participatory living, real sacred living.

This is why I have taken the slogan "The End of Survival and the Beginning of Living" as my personal motto; for too long I was sleepwalking through life, and just surviving. When I opened my heart to the sacredness of things and the connectedness of things, I felt the true life that was asleep in me awaken. With my own vocation of shamanic healing, I hope to impart this same idea to as many people as I can, because I believe that these very ideas are the heart of any successful healing, on any level.

I find that the process of "opening oneself" is not as simple as it sounds, and yet, it isn't really hard- it so happens that many of the "calcifying powers" that trap us in the modern day have a way of covering our bodies and minds with a weight, a dense darkness that can make us feel like our efforts to "open" are useless.

I have discovered that the only way to combat this dense feeling, this spiritual anesthesia, is to try to open yourself anyway, and believe in the goodness of things. Strive on, despite the initial lack of feeling or excitement, and you will see the light through the darkness; the greatness of life and the Great Mystery is far older and far more powerful than the comparatively recent negative changes in human society and the recent losses of wisdom that have created the cobwebbed nightmare of global materialism and greed that affects all of us so profoundly.

In that nightmarish world, people only survive. I want to live. I want you to live. Our real inheritance from this sacred world, along with the possibility of our greatest peace, is being wasted every moment that we forget about life and let ourselves be satisfied with survival.

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