With so many crises raging around the earth, we teeter on the brink of despair. Despair that there’s nothing we can do, or despair that things are not going to get better, or despair that the good things may be gone forever. I’d like to wallow in this despair for a few moments—aware that there are things we can do—and to step back from that sense of urgent action and reflect on the feeling of despair itself. The feeling of deep, if not total, helplessness and grief over what is being lost or changed forever.
I often wonder how ancient peoples—the very first peoples that we might call “human”—dealt with and understood the powers of the world over which they had no or very very little control. I like to think that they did not despair. Rather they developed (or already had) a worldview that saw themselves embedded in a huge Universe of living beings in which they were just another grouping. (Grouping may be the accurate word here, for they most likely did not have the strong sense of individuality that we modern people do.) They did not despair (so my fantasizing goes) but simply saw themselves as small. There was value in acknowledging their smallness in the face of the Great Universe on which they depended for life, for it was, after all, realistic. They may have talked or even prayed to that Universe, maybe saw it broken into various, distinct powers, may have even attributed spirit and consciousness to those powers. May have even called those powers “gods” or “God.” But even if they hadn’t, even if “religion” or “spirituality” as we know these terms had not evolved within them yet, they still knew that outside of their individual and collective selves, there was another immense Being, a Being outside of them with power that can only leave one awestruck.
It is good to be awestruck. I keep reminding myself of the poignant words of Matsuwa, a Huichol shaman:
The shaman’s path is unending. I am an old old man and still a baby, standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.
The mystery of the world is the power of the world, the Powers of the Universe. And we shouldfeel small in front of them. And so disasters like the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear explosions should bring up the difficult emotions for us: despair, helplessness, grief, sorrow, and smallness. Even warfare and violent rebellion in the Arab world triggers some deep feeling of life being out of control. If we were there, amidst the seething crowds of rebels and protestors, we might get pushed and shoved into feeling our essential smallness and helplessness.
We do not like to feel small, living as we do in a century where so much of the world is under human control, or at least strong human influence. We have grown accustomed to having our world—our food, shelter, clothing, necessities—at our fingertips, even one fingertip a mouse click way from whatever we need whenever we need it. We feel big in our current times, with our strong indivdual egos. But those of us in the shamanic communities, even while that small and helpless feeling rises in our guts, might also experience a kind of thrill. Not because it is thrilling to watch disasters and see people suffer and die, but because they lead us back to that primordial consciousness out of which shamanism emerged, that consciousness of being small before a grand and frightening universe before which we stand in awe.
I hope we do not despair. And certainly there are things to do to help, heal, relieve suffering, tend and rebuild the world. But I am grateful for moments when something awful in the Universe causes me to snap back into that humble feeling of smallness. Definitely not to wallow in it, but to acknowledge it as our essential relationship to the Universe. To remind ourselves that in some sense (maybe even many senses) we are as helpless as babies, standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.
How do we see ourselves fitting into the world? That may be the most basic religious or spiritual question we can ask. And we may not even need to assert that there are gods or a God. Just that there is Something Powerful Outside us. And maybe the way Matsuwa saw himself in relation to that Mystery—old approaching death, young emerging from birth—is the least despairing stance of all. I hope I can always and forever repeat Matsuwa’s words to myself, and really be filled with awe, no matter what events shake or destroy the world we know and love.