As a seeker of truth, enlightenment, knowledge, or “seeing,” it is natural to expect that asking questions is an important tool to help us arrive at where we say we want to be.
The following story shows the fallacy of that belief.
The story also shows the power of animals to be teachers.
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On a faint dirt trail in Poway, California, I walked along peacefully. I’d been on the land that housed the sweat lodge for the weekend. Early Sunday morning, before the sweat ceremony got under way, I wanted to steal away for a short while to center myself. I also carried a pail with me to gather sprigs of white sage. The sage would be soaked in water for use during the sweat when the heat became unbearable. We would place the wet sage under our noses and breath through it as a means of managing the high heat, steaming off the hot stones in the center of the lodge.
I looked down at the ground before my feet to see a large circle of tiny sienna flowers arranged in the shape of an erupting volcano. The circumference of the circle traversed the width of the trail itself and was created by hundreds and hundreds of minute, dried flowers. The wreath was stunningly beautiful in shades of carmine, old gold, rust, and cadmium, and I stopped walking to stare.
In the center of the circle was an opening and ants were marching in and out, in and out, with the incoming ants being unaware of the outgoing ants, or at least that’s what I thought until I looked closer.
The longer I watched the more I began to observe the individual actions of the ants. Each ant was doing something different than the ant immediately following or preceding it, but I observed that the ants were communicating with each other as they traveled along.
The ant carrying the twig stopped momentarily to touch the ant carrying a small pebble and the ant dragging a wing stopped to communicate with an ant that had a fellow ant on
its back. I was enthralled with the ants, their individual tasks, their communication with each other, and their beautifully-constructed environment.
Something compelled me to be still, transfixed by these common insects that usually didn’t grab my attention for even one moment.
I imagined that underneath the surface of the volcano-shaped mound were hundreds of thousands of ants all contributing in like-minded ways to the livelihood of their colony. I wondered about their communal tasks and whether or not all of the ants contributed fully to the community’s needs and wants. I wondered if there were ants that rebelled, deciding they no longer wanted to be part of the anthill, and took off by themselves.
Were human beings like an ant colony? Did we have free will or any autonomy that set us apart from the “collective hive”? I was intrigued. I was also disturbed.
The angst I felt tore at my being. I stared at the moving creatures. Was being a member of a colony enough to direct an ant’s behavior—assuming that the ant had consciousness to make such a decision? Or, did they all follow in lockstep and throw individuality out the window? Did they decide what job they would do, or did they just do their job?
Over and over I returned to that moment of angst, because I couldn’t answer the questions that observing that anthill evoked in me.
What is my responsibility as a student, as a teacher, and as a human being to the world at large? How was I to conduct myself given that responsibility? What system and/or whose system provided the best means to carry out that responsibility?
I spent the next few years trying to answer those questions for myself—sometimes I was fairly successful, and sometimes I felt just as stumped as the moment I stood there watching that ant colony.
What I’ve learned is that the answers to my questions aren’t as important as the manner in which I go about getting the answers, if I get them at all. I want answers, but they’re not as needful or as necessary as I’ve always imagined them to be. It is the action I take that is the critical element to a fulfilled life, rather than the questions asked.
My task that day on the dusty little trail in the Poway hills was to gather white sage and to prepare for the coming sweat lodge ceremony. What intervened in the midst of that task were questions humanity has asked for ages: “Who am I? What is my role in the universe? How do I go about fulfilling that role?”
The answers for the immediate moment were easy: My name was Jessica. I was a mother-yet-no-longer-wife middle-aged woman, counselor, and Shamanic student, performing as a fire tender at a Poway sweat lodge. I was gathering sage before the ceremony.
The larger questions took a much longer time to discover the answer to: I-AM complete, whole, one with everything around me. My role is mine to determine (even if it’s only my belief in free will that makes it so). I fulfill that role each day amidst the choices available in my life. I am autonomous and yet I’m not. I choose to be a part of what faces me on a daily basis. I choose to join and to contribute. I am content and at peace.
What took me all those years to answer the larger questions?
That question drives me back to the image of the ants. Those ants got the memo on how to live life: join the tribe, serve the community, be productive, play together, be well, do no harm unless threatened. When I stood stock-still and stared at those ants, I was not able to behave as they were acting. They weren’t asking any questions; they were living life. And once I became aware that their action was an option for me, too, I wanted what they had intensely enough to go after it. What I found was that regardless of the time it took me to answer my questions, living life from an ant’s perspective was a worthy endeavor.