Native American Universal Teachings
Mitakuye O’Yasin! That’s a Lakota expression, a greeting that means, “All my relations.” The deeper meaning is that everyone and everything is part of the interconnected web of life. We have much to learn from the wisdom of Native Americans, whose path is known as the Red Path.
The greatest treasure we can attain is peace of mind. We believe that if we get rich, find the right romantic partner, or the perfect job, that we will be peaceful. It is true that having enough money makes the process of attaining peace of mind easier. As much as many people want to believe it, being a multimillionaire does not add to one’s peace of mind.
One Large Tribe
In America, when we talk about “peace of mind,” we’re almost always talking about ourselves as if we exist in a vacuum. We don’t see that our tranquility is not just a matter of solving our personal problems, resolving our personal childhood and life traumas, or healing our unique health issue. By spending time in other countries, in other cultures, we’re able to develop a new perspective on our American life. In general, Native Americans consider the welfare of their tribe, their people, to be key to attaining peace of mind. This idea is not unlike a Buddhist spiritual goal, which says, “As long as there is human suffering anywhere, I will work and pray for the benefit of all humanity, and will keep reincarnating until that ultimate peace is attained.” This peace is selfless.
Focusing entirely on the struggles of one individual, in order to bring peace of mind, does not work, for it denies a fundamental reality. It is difficult in the Western World to experience a profound sense of interconnectedness.
Oglala Sioux medicine man, Nicholas Black Elk said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
What follows is a true story about a Southwest Native Indian tribe that had been going through a long drought. They brought in a healer, a shaman, who arrived in the village, set up his own teepee, and stayed inside nearly 100% of the time for weeks. The people began to approach his teepee, wondering when he was going to come out and start “doing something.” Finally, the rain started pouring, bringing the needed relief. The people asked the shaman what he had done to bring the rain. He replied, “I did not do anything at all. Your village has lived with great disharmony and discord for a long time, and your discord is the reason for the drought. While I sat in my teepee, you, the people, came together, prayed together, and without knowing it — restored your unity. All things are connected. We are connected to Nature, and your renewed harmony is responsible for bringing the rain.” His “job” was done, and he left the village.
Years ago I ran across this Native American quote, which is probably Navajo. “White man’s speech is a great windmill machine.” Naturally, a windmill of speech is the expression of a restless mind that endlessly spins, and never stops. That description of our windmill mind says a lot. It tells me that Native Americans generally live with a quiet, still mind—a peaceful mind—White man—plundered the Red Nation, killing between 10 million and 114 million people, along with taking their land. In the early 1900s, Native American families were split up, children taken away, raised in white man’s school, and “reeducated” about the one “true religion.” Native American wisdom lives on, but many Native Americans have lost touch with their roots, due to their Americanization. Many or our original indigenous people are now working hard to rediscover what was taken away from their ancestors. By understanding some key beliefs and practices of Native Americans, we can grow richer in character, connected on all levels, and closer to the prize of tranquility.
For a long time I’ve had an interest in Native American life. For all the Indian books written by Anglos, for all the articles I read, my grasp of the Red Path was pretty hollow. So, in 2003 I headed to New Mexico on my own quest. I started in Santa Fe, having about two weeks to find what I was looking for. Of course, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. Apart from having dinner with friends one evening, the rest of my time was wide open. Nothing planned. After a few days in Santa Fe, I drove to Taos. When I reached Taos, I had no idea where I would start. I pulled into a mini-mall, got out of the car, and put some coins in the parking meter. It was only then that I looked up to see where I had “landed.” I was right in front of a metaphysical bookstore called “Synchronicity.”
I met with a fellow in the store, Alan, an Anglo who had lived close to the Taos Pueblo for 30 years. We spoke for quite awhile, and then he began to sum things up, starting with these words. “You’ve got lots of gold, sparkly activity around your head, so I know your higher functions are very well handled, but you have nothing going on around your feet.” This was a new kind of conversation for me.
I replied, “Okay, so do you see people with sparkly activity around their feet?” He continued, “Yes, I see it frequently, but you have none, because your feet are never in prolonged contact with Mother Earth. If you want to “be part of the Red Path, you need to get your feet into/onto Mother Earth as much as you possibly can. Right now, you do not have an Earth connection!” Quite correct.
Alan continued, “The Native American’s respect for the Earth is deep. If an Indian is walking along and spots a stone on the ground that he could use for a specific purpose, he’ll pick it up, and then express gratitude to the Earth, for he believes that everything in nature has its place and purpose. Indians may carry a small pouch containing cornmeal and tobacco, believed to be a gift to the Earth. After the Indian has taken the stone, he sprinkles some of the contents of that pouch onto the earth where the stone was. That circle is complete.”
“When most of us see a flower in nature that we’d like to take home, we usually cut the stem a few inches below the flower. What is left of that stem will die. The Indian will take out a knife and cut the stem at the base, so that the flower has a better chance of blooming again.”
Starting to Re-Connect
Alan continued, “Our connection to Nature is a big part of the Red Path. In order to develop a deep connection, it’s important to stop, smell the roses, and crank up your awareness of all your senses. When you walk out of your home, or are out-and-about anywhere, don’t just move quickly from point A to point B. Stop! Smell the air. What is there? Through your eyes, take in all the beauty of what you are seeing—or not seeing. Stop and listen. What do you hear? When you walk on the beach, and you really need to do that, be conscious of how the sand feels under your feet.”
I learned many more things during my brief quest, but I definitely had my work cut out for me. After I returned home, I began to implement what I had been taught. The first morning that I left home, I walked outside slowly, stopped and smelled the air. There was an intoxicating odor of something like jasmine. I walked next door, and noted that an orange tree was in full blossom, smelling heavenly. That same tree had been there for the 20 years I’d lived in that location. I’d never smelled the blossoms before. In my 7-minute drive to work, I observed trees, shrubs, flowers, the sky, clouds, and the ocean. It had become too easy to get in the car, turn on some music, observe nothing . . . and next thing I knew I arrived at my destination — mindlessly.
I began walking on the beach nearly every afternoon. Before heading out on a beach walk, I would stand, face the ocean, and slowly take in nature through four senses (nothing to taste there)! I watched the ocean, really watched as its surface changed in an infinite way every moment. I closed my eyes to hear the waves. Turning my head slowly, I began to hear much more than crashing waves. I heard how the waves were crashing a half-mile north. I heard the gentle tumbling of sand and pebbles as the waves rolled back out. I was beginning to hear the whole “ocean symphony.” The more aware and immersed I’ve become in Nature’s beauty, the more tranquil I’ve become.
Alan suggested I pay attention to the air and wind, and how they feel on my skin. I began a new practice whenever I arrived anywhere. Let’s say I was heading to a store. Once I arrived and got out of my car, I took a few steps, and then stopped. I’d smell the air, and in that setting, I’d usually smell French fries or barbequed chicken. I’d pay attention to the air, feel the breeze, note if it was a strong wind or not. I’d hold a hand up to determine the direction of the wind. I made a conscious decision to walk slowly, unless walking faster was called for. My connection to Nature grew deeper.
My exploration of the Red Path was not limited to my time with Alan. In 1978 I had met Madre Sarita, a world-renowned healer/shaman and mother of Don Miguel Ruiz. I became friends with her, watched her healing, and experienced her healing work on me. I didn’t consider the fact that I was learning through osmosis from Sarita. I just loved being in her presence. A third teacher for me was White Buffalo Medicine Heart, the great great granddaughter of Nicholas Black Elk. For more than a year we were in frequent contact, and she filled in many missing pieces. The fact was not lost on me that during a book tour in 1998, I spent some time sitting next to Wallace Black Elk at a book signing. He was an amazingly peaceful, loving, and funny man, and the ancestral/spiritual descendant of Nicholas Black Elk.
Red Path in Practice
It became clear to me pretty quickly that the sensory awareness I had learned was a big counterpart to Eastern Buddhist mindfulness meditation, which is a non-judgmental awareness of what is going on “inside.” It’s an awareness of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Mindfulness has made its way into progressive healthcare and preventive medicine around the country, backed by a great deal of research. Native American “outer awareness” is the other half of the big picture of “waking up.” It is so simple to begin cranking up our senses, to become much more aware of our world around us . . . and to reconnect to Nature.
Western man has become disconnected from Nature, natural breathing, other people, and barefoot contact with the Earth. Reconnecting on all levels is one of the important “medicines” of our time. As the world grows smaller and we are exposed to wisdom of other cultures, we can become more whole, happy, and peaceful by embracing long-held practices from other cultures. I continue to practice what I began learning in 2003, and have incorporated the wisdom and practices into my clinical work.
It is impossible to give a complete picture of an entire culture in one article. In spite of what I’ve learned, I make no pretension of being an Anglo expert about the Red Path, but I’m grateful to those who gave their time and energy to teach me these beginnings.