According to neurologist Leonard Shlain, the development of the brain’s left hemisphere and ego consciousness “resulted in humans creating a distinction between me-in-here and world-out-there.” This detached subject/object split enhanced the skills of hunters who needed to separate themselves from the hunted and strengthened their ability to remain motionless while focusing on a single task, but this occurred at the expense of attributes like holistic awareness and emotional depth. As Shlain says, “The dispassion inherent in dualism, a viewpoint indispensable for killing, is the opposite of a mother’s binding love for her child.” Eventually, a sense of alienation from our fuller selves became the norm in most “highly civilized” Western societies.
But many indigenous cultures, for example, the Toltecs of Mexico and the Taoists of China, never discarded what William Horden calls the “magic world of the unconscious dreamtime.” Knowing that Ultimate Being consists of a unity-totality, they envisioned a new kind of spirit warrior who unites all opposites within him/herself. Five days ago I witnessed a living example of this ancient wisdom as my husband and I drove through the American southwest.
After visiting the magnificent Monument Valley National Tribal Park in Arizona, we were driving toward the Grand Canyon when we stopped at a roadside stand on the Navajo reservation. I was examining a necklace made by the lovely young woman running the stand when I heard the strange, high-pitched mewling of a predatory cat coming from somewhere behind me. Turning, I saw a man about ten yards away leading a brown and white pinto across the red clay desert dotted with silvery-gray sagebrush shrubs. Huddled in the saddle on the horse’s back was a little girl who appeared to be around two or three years old.
In an instant this idyllic scene was transformed into a life and death drama. Perhaps the child was frightened, or maybe she was just tired, but when she made the mewling sound again, the horse, which by now must have been convinced it had a bobcat on its back, erupted into frenzied bucking. I watched in horror as, enveloped in a rising dust cloud, the child was thrown off the horse’s back and the father thudded to the ground clinging to one thin leather rein.
This is where wisdom enters the picture. The father did not cry out in fright or anger. He did not let go of the rein, his only connection to the terrified animal that so easily could have trampled the tiny child. He did not jerk the rein or lash out at the horse. Rather, in slow and graceful motion, he stood, gathered up both reins, and looped them over his left shoulder as he walked calmly toward his daughter. The horse, which seconds before had been a hysterical beast, followed like a docile puppy as he led the girl to a rock and sat with her, murmuring quietly and caressing her face and long black hair with infinite tenderness. Moments later, father and daughter walked away hand in hand, the horse following peacefully, connected to them only by two thin strips of leather casually looped over the man’s left shoulder.
As I watched the father model the wisdom of the ages to his daughter and horse, memories of humans who were the irrational, emotionally overwhelmed beasts ran through my mind. In stark contrast to them, this man understood his unconscious, instinctual self. In taming and befriending it, he had replaced fear, anxiety, anger, and compulsiveness with trust, peace, compassion, and consciousness. These are his infinitely precious gifts to his family, his horse, and the world. His gift to me was the honor of standing in the presence of a spirit warrior.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave