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.
~Don Jose Matsuwa
I’ve been haunted by this statement from the renowned Huichol shaman Don Jose Matsuwa since I first read it back in the 1980s in Joan Halifax’s Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. (p. 249) I’m not sure what prompted him to utter these words or what effect he intended them to have, but I thank him for saying them because their significance has deepened and enriched my life over the last thirty-plus years. I can see three challenges here: to remain in awe before the mystery of the world, to preserve the outlook of a young child, and to continue to walk the shaman’s path with conscious attention.
The Mystery of the World
Matsuwa’s first challenge is the ideal of staying in awe of the world’s mysteries even into old age. I have always thought that if I could truthfully claim to be “standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe” when I die at some (hopefully) extreme old age, I would consider my life well-spent and well-ended. I have accepted this challenge as a worthy goal to live for, and I have tried to shape my shamanic life so that I never lose the sense that I live in a beautiful, strange, at times deadly, and always mysterious world.
The Beginner’s Mind
A second challenge is that we continue to have a child’s perspective on life and the world around us as we mature, grow old, and become sadder and wiser, As Buddhists put it, we preserve and value the “beginner’s mind,” a mind that needs instruction, guidance, experience, and knows that there isstill a lot to learn. Obviously if we see the world as mysterious and ever-changing, we will never reach the end of our exploration. Since the world is constantly renewing itself, we can never say that we’ve learned everything worth knowing.
The beginner’s mind, like the shaman’s, is constantly on a path of learning. Since change is unending, we will never reach the end of new experiences or developments, perhaps not even after we leave this physical world and continue our shaman’s walk in the land of spirits. Jesus seemed to imply this when he said, “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is an affinity between the Divine world and childlikeness. Could this be why the faery world is called Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth or the Land of the Ever-Young?
Matsuwa’s second challenge has another layer of concern: namely, that in addition to holding a beginner’s mind, we must somehow integrate it into our elder mind. We must be both young and old at the same time. Perhaps it will help to think of this challenge in terms of innocence and experience.
Innocence and Experience
Sometimes youth and age are paired respectively with the terms innocence and experience. Innocence meaning “not knowing or eagerness to learn”; experience meaning “knowledge and know-how.” Children are innocent, while adults are experienced. Certainly on the shamanic path we acquire knowledge about the upper, middle, and lower worlds, and experiencing these realms gives the shaman a sense of intelligence and command. I wouldlike to suggest that the really wise shamans are the ones who, like Matsuwa, can hold both innocence and experience in their souls at the same time. This would be a shaman who is open-minded like a child and wise in certain ways like an elder. It is the shaman who has taken the counsel of “becoming like little children” as a spiritual directive, not as a suggestion to deride the qualities of adulthood, but to honor the advantages of both age and youth. Matsuwa is saying that a shaman should be secure in both innocence and experience.
Babies learn by observing, watching, and listening and thereby creating relationships with people, objects, and activities in their world. Through these relationships the baby learns. This should be the method of the elder shaman also—to enrich the events of life by consciously experiencing them, and by maintaining an open mind that continues to be amazed by the infinite beauty, mystery, and dangers of the world. If we can keep this approach alive, even into old age, we will continue to learn through our relationships with the outer and inner worlds, and the mysteries of both. When we come right down to it, our shamanic practice is about relationships.
What is awe?
I looked up the word “awe” once in a dictionary because I was intrigued by it being the root of both “awesome” and “awful.” Webster says awe is an “emotion in which dread, veneration, and wonder are variously mingled.” It is also defined as a “profound and humbly fearful reverence inspired bysomething sacred or mysterious.” I love the fact that the word suggests mystery, wonder, reverence, humility, and also fear or dread. This is a potent combination. The mystery of the world includes the dangers present in it, such as war, crime, violence, severe weather, and disease. I wonder if the phrase, “the fear of God,” that some religions use, is not just fear of divine punishment. It can also be fear of the unknown that keeps us wary and humble, and in awe before the Great Mystery filled with endless change.
So Matsuwa’s teaching here for people on a shamanic path is that we not grow proud and arrogant because we think that we are wiser or more powerful than other people, that our shamanic practices have elevated us above the average person. Hubris is unbecoming a shaman. I’m sure we’ve all been embarrassed by “shamanic know-it-alls.” In fact, over the years, I have found the most appealing shamans to be very ordinary people, marked by a gentle humility that prevents them from taking themselves too seriously or lording it over others. They retain a streak of childlikeness that is always amazed, somewhat dazed, and in awe of the mysterious universe.
The Unending Path
Matsuwa’s third challenge is for the shaman to be ever moving along the path and yet pausing when necessary to fully appreciate that path. There is constant change in both ordinary and non-ordinary worlds, and shamans need to keep up with those changes (whether we like them or not). In other words, the shaman is constantly moving, and yet standing still to appreciate the wonder of creation. Matsuwa asks us to hold what the Taoists call the “don’t-know mind” which is open to experience, and be ready to pause and learn something new even though it be frightening. Since the universe is awesome, we should not be surprised to experience both wonder and dread, both attraction and repulsion, as in this current global pandemic.
In Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (section 4), he says that in the midst of all the “fitful events” of the day (and he has a long list of them as usual), he remains “curious what will come next, / Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” Is this not an apt description of how the shaman should be in the world? Some spiritual traditions encourage us to be “in the world but not of it.” Yes, plunge into the events of the world, both joyful and sorrowful, both wondrous and frightening, but maintain a healthy distance that let’s us pause, watch, discern what is occurring, wonder at it, and, hopefully, be filled with awe.
Although Don Jose Matsuwa left this world 30 years ago, his work and vision continue in the Dance of the Deer Foundation and in the countless people who have been inspired by his teachings. His spirit is still present among us, and I don’t doubt that he is still “standing before the mystery of the world filled with awe.”