Elder Sonny Diabo, (Mohawk, Kahnawake)The group I was working with in Montreal this week is assisted by the man pictured above, Sonny Diabo, an Elder from Kahnewake, a First Nation across the river from Montreal. Sonny is a marvelous and generous teacher, and is invaluable to the group.
In the contemporary world, we don’t always get time to spend with Elders and so when I have the opportunity, I try to take advantage of it by asking about teachings in certain areas of my life that I am currently thinking about. Recently as evidenced here at the Parking Lot weblog, you will have noticed that I am preoccupied with how we know our truths, how we discover those things and what practices and teachings are out there that serve to instruct us in this subtle art of introspection.
I had a chance to speak with Sonny for about an hour on this and he related a teaching about wayfinding based on this diagram:
This represents how people move through their lives. The path is straight and true, and several Elders have related that there is an ideal life path that we attempt to follow. For those familiar with Eastern philosophy, think of the Tao.
One of the ways we know if we are on the path is by our rites of passage. Through rites of passage we engage in introspection on our lives and we also get community confirmation of our true path. In traditional communities, this might include things like naming, whereby an Elder confers on us a name that helps to set our path.
Sonny talked to me about two ways we deviate from this true path, and he described them as right side and left side paths, although he didn’t know why these specific terms are used. Evidently, this teaching is based on the patterns on a turtle shell (as is the I Ching by the way – more Taoist parallels), so the shape might be explained that way. Right side diversions are those, like addictions, which are so easy to take that one hardly knows one is out there until one’s life intersects with one’s true path again in an experience which can be as traumatic as it is healing. It is traumatic because it makes one realize how far one has strayed from the path, but it can be healing to finally “come home” to one’s true nature. Sonny used the example of a long time alcoholic who sobers up and who suddenly realizes how far he has strayed. This experience sometimes coincides with a rite of passage, such as becoming a parent or a grandparent, or perhaps grieving the death of one’s father. All of these situations throw one’s true nature into the light.
The left side diversions are, unlike addictions, full of obstacles that we are forced to struggle against. Sometimes we know we are off our path when we hit a wall and it seems impossible to move without introspection and retreat to find our path again. Shifting jobs from something you hate, with no prospects to something you love and is full of possibility is an example of these struggles and how they can return us to something truer if we take time to reflect on what they mean.
Sonny therefore advocates an approach to life that he calls “two steps forward and one step back.” There is an implicit distrust of easy progress, requiring one to ensure that one hasn’t strayed into a right hand side diversion. Building in periods of reflection serves to confirm progress and also make retreat easier, should that need to happen. It’s a prudent approach.
Sonny alludes to this in his openings to meetings, and also frequently during the meetings themselves. He invites people to work slowly and carefully and not to rush things. “Whatever we don’t finish today,” he says, “we can finish tomorrow or do another time.” This has the duel effect of focusing people on what is really important while at the same time seeming to expand the time available for completing tasks. This is even true in a situation like the one we are working together in, where there is a short deadline for the work to be completed. Especially in a situation like this, it pays to be sure that what you are doing is the right work, because there is no time to correct wildly divergent mistakes.
The approach is all about conserving energy, which of course is the secret to working with spirit. Elders and others who help us on the spirit and energy level are there to ensure that we spend our energy wisely, that we don’t burn out and that we stay focused on what really matters.
It’s a great teaching.