One of my teachers once shared a story about spending time in Peru with elders. He took copious notes about everything, pages and pages of quotes, descriptions and things to remember. One day, his mentor picked up his notebook and flipped through it. “Oh,” he said, “That’s all very interesting.” Then he threw it in the fire.
I laughed when I first heard this story, but mostly out of nervous horror. You see, I’m a nerd. A shamanism nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. So the notion of having all my notes burned away… <shudder> Man, I thought, it’s a good thing I have a great memory to mitigate that kind of disaster.
A few years later, when I was in Peru, I kept a journal. I wrote down everything that had happened during the course of a day. I didn’t write down every one of my incessant thoughts because a girl’s gotta eat, but I had to give myself extra time at night before bed to make sure I created a permanent record of The Important Things.
(I bet you know where this going…)
I got mugged, and the journal went with the camera and passport into the ethers. Here, it seemed, was my own version of burning the notebook.
The Western way (which we could also call the white, European, masculine way) of learning and processing tends to be head-first. We mentalize, inquire, articulate, read, write, and analyze. All good, useful stuff; many of us really excel at thinking and reasoning and it serves us well.
But there is another way of being and learning, one that often involves circuitous stories, symbols, and intuition, where timing isn’t linear and schedules are suggestions. Even language is peripheral to direct experience and its effects. I can’t call this way of being a different mindset, because that places the emphasis in the head again. It’s really a separate paradigm in which understanding becomes embodied.
It’s easy to wax romantic here about this polarity, but it’s not that the indigenous have everything right and everybody else has it wrong. Ultimately, that kind of value judgment becomes self-defeating; I gain nothing by putting one on a pedestal and neglecting the wisdom of the other. What’s important is noticing the contrast within myself, the habit of constantly and exclusively taking my mind too seriously. I find that laughing at myself is the best cure for over-rationalizing, and my teachers have often laughed with (at?) me. We practice remembering to draw that mental energy down into heart and body. When it’s time to teach, write, or arrange business, I know my trusty brain is up to the task— but I’m learning that it doesn’t have to work so hard ad infinitum.
And I’ve had lots of chances to practice. There are many reminders, in my own experiences and those of other travelers. A couple of them happened this month alone.
Don Francisco and Dona Juana, the elders I had met in Peru, were in New York. I got to spend a little time with them, as did a friend who’s been studying with the Q’ero for years. When I caught up with him about his experience, he commented that many people kept asking for translations of the prayers that were being said during a ceremony. “I tried to tell them it’s not about that,” my friend said. “This is a completely different way of being and it’s not meant to be a workshop or a show or whatever people thought they were going to get. This is an indigenous ceremony –they’re here to do what they do.”
Then, at a Solstice event last week, I had the good fortune of sharing the circle with a mara’kame, an elder from the Huichol tradition. I was only able to pick up about every fourth word he said, but that didn’t matter. What I learned came from his presence and the way he did his work, how he facilitated with directness, simplicity, and kindness. I knew I wouldn’t need notes to remember that.
And that thing about humor? Super important. A dear friend of mine enjoys Indian art and went to a lecture at a gallery. The main speaker was a world-renowned academic, and the room was full of people who, as she said, were “wearing black and taking notes.” Slide after slide of temple dancers, sexual imagery, and lingams (look it up) and my friend finally couldn’t contain herself. She looked at the slide, looked at the earnest scribblers, and heard the word “lingam” one too many times. She burst out laughing and had to leave the room for fear of shouting “It’s a COCK” to shake people out of their intellects.
Cock, people. It’s not really meant to be rationalized.
The Western, compulsive way of learning and recording is not unlike taking a hundred photos during a party: you can’t possibly make eye contact or enjoy the experience fully with a camera in front of your face. And if you won’t put the camera down voluntarily, the battery will die or the computer eat your photos or some other incident happens as the Universe tells you to stop and actually talk to people next time.
The times along the way when I’ve gotten frustrated, when things didn’t happen “on schedule” or in the order I thought they should, are precisely the times I was led deeper into my own felt-sense, intuition, and presence. Those times are the reminders to slow down and surrender, to witness and participate without my hands —and head— full.
Practicing this was uncomfortable at first, and I’m not gonna lie: sometimes it still is. But more and more often, it’s liberating. I don’t need to dig for a pen that works because I know I have a heart that works. I’ve felt it. The more time I spend walking this path, the more chances I have to burn the notebook— voluntarily—and love the fire it makes.