The Most Important Thing

.. and how to remember it

Yesterday we visited friends in Borrego Springs. One of them has spent a lifetime collecting ceremonial art from two or three remote areas in the world where traditional ways of life still exists. For many years he had traded sculptures, artifacts, canoes, bows and arrows for metal axes, awls, pots and pans.

You walk into their place, filled with magical objects, and sometimes one of those pieces of ceremonial art starts talking to you, out of the blue, as if you were a long lost friend. They have a powerful presence, these visitors from a world entirely remote from our own. It’s not like Buddhist art, which we know fairly well, and can place in a context of history and culture, and which have become banal and secularized. Perhaps that’s why it feels like we’re striking up a real conversation. We don’t know who these strangers are yet, and they are infused with mystery and unknown power.

Do you imagine that all this is purely imaginary, fanciful, impossible, crazy? In our world, we accept things as they are, and when a five-foot sculpture greets us, we greet it back.

It is a wood carving from the upper Sepic river valley in Northwestern Papua New Guinea.  It depicts the spirit-bird  –Subat – protector of women, perched on the feet of an inverted woman whose legs are spread open. The tip of its long beak touches her vagina, like a hummingbird touching a flower. The inverted woman’s head rests in turn on the head of another protective spirit.

This is how the conversation goes:

“Stop judging yourself and other people! Stop comparing! Stop regretting what might have been, and imagining what never was or can be. Step right into your life, here and now.

“The most important thing, the only thing .. is to remember that you are alive, ALIVE!, and how you feel, how you actually experience your life, is totally up to you. How good you feel is not about a temporary high. It’s not a diversion. It’s your state – your state of being and your state of feeling. It’s a sacred charge, given to you. By your acceptance of this simple responsibility you fuel everything that you are and do.

“How good can you allow yourself to feel? How much pleasure can you let into your life, now, today? It doesn’t matter how many things you have chosen to worry about, or feel bad about. How you arrange the priority of your focus is entirely your choice.”

“Wendell Berry famously suggested, ‘Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.’ ”

“Yet there are other ‘facts’ besides those dark facts that Wendell Berry was referring to? Let’s say this ..  You never expected to be born. It’s all a big surprise. A mysterious unlikelihood. Four and a quarter billion years after the planet came into existence, and suddenly, here you are. Against all odds. Uniquely you. All the past present and future suddenly embodied in your human consciousness. What are you going to do now that anything is possible?”

“Some people say, ‘What’s the use of all that? It’s too abstract. What about the practicality of living?’ ”

“We say, “Nothing could be more practical. Once you get the big picture, and remember it, and stay tuned to the textures and details of your soul’s calling, the world, as if by a miracle, takes care of your needs.”

“How to remember this ..  ?”

“Ask yourself. Keep asking how. Keep honing the question.”

“Trust the answers. Keep asking.”

We sit in candlelight in the dark adobe training-room at Manzanita Village absorbing the presence of this stranger who has taken up residence here.