Guest Blog Post by Shayla Wright, at Wide Awake Heart, http://wideawakeheart.net
Last week I traveled by road from a small mountain town in the interior of British Columbia back home to Vancouver Island. I drove seven hours through blistering heat to reach the little town of Hope, where I was stopping on the way for the night. I arrived at Hope in the late afternoon, tired, hot and hungry. I was driving down the main street when I heard a loud bell, saw a flashing red light, and the wooden barrier at the train tracks I was about to cross came down right in front of my car. I sat there, watching and waiting, while the longest cargo train I had ever seen passed by. Car after black car rattled past me, as the sun began to disappear behind the towering coastal mountains. A little bit of blessed coolness drifted in while I sat there.
After the train was gone, I waited for the barrier to go back up, along with a line of cars behind me. The bell kept on clanging and the red light kept on flashing for a long time. Ten minutes. Then fifteen minutes.
“They are very careful in this town about railway crossings,” I thought. “They really don’t want to take any chances.”
After another five minutes, I started to wonder what was going on. I got curious. After sitting there a bit longer with the question, it occurred to me that the mechanism was broken. I began to ponder crossing the tracks without the help of the broken system in front of me. It seemed like a daring thing to do, and at the same time a sensible one, since I had seen the train go by a long time ago. I knew it was probably illegal to drive across the tracks while the barrier was down. Would someone come along and arrest me? Apparently not, because the missing authorities were what was needed to fix the broken crossing gear. I turned around and looked behind me. The other people were just sitting there inside their cars, like good law-abiding citizens.
And then one car, from further back in the line, took the chance. It was a man, who drove up on the wrong side of the street, where the barrier did not reach, looked quickly up and down the tracks, drove across them, and then back onto his side of the road. After he crossed over I sat there thinking about it for another two minutes; and then I turned my little car onto the wrong side of the road, and crossed the tracks. It felt very counter-intuitive to do such a thing: to drive on the wrong side, to go across with the bells clamouring and red lights flashing. After crossing I drove slowly down the main street of town, waiting to see if anyone else would follow me. No-one did. I realized they might not know that the system was broken, if they had arrived after I did and had not see the train go by.
I went into town, used the washroom, walked around in the park on the cool green grass under the trees, and looked for a restaurant. I was ready to go to my Airbnb about 45 minutes later. I turned on my GPS, as the Airbnb was outside of town on a river, and I had never been there before. The GPS directed me right back onto the same street, the only main street in town.
“Oh no,” I thought. “What if the barrier is still up?”
As I got closer, I saw a whole line of cars waiting, even longer than before, and realized that it was. It was clear that things don’t get fixed very quickly in the sleepy little town of Hope. I punched in ‘alternate route’ on my GPS, and found out, after circling around the town for ten minutes, that there wasn’t one. There was only one road to where I was going, and going down the main street, across the tracks, and through the barrier was the way to access it.
I drove up to the line of cars waiting behind the barrier, and saw that it was slowly moving. Some people were leaving the line by backing up and turning around, or turning and driving back through a parking lot across the street. Nobody was driving across the tracks. I was amazed. No-one was considering doing anything except going back. Not one person was rolling down their windows and saying to one of the other people waiting, “Hey, what do you think’s going on here?”
I wanted to interrupt the docility, the unquestioning obedience, to get out of my car and walk up and down the road, shouting to all of them, “It’s broken. Broken! Just go through, it’s totally safe.”
I was much too tired to do that, in that moment. I couldn’t summon the will force to embody that much boldness and vitality, so I just waited till I got close enough to the front of the line. Then I scooted my car across again, on the wrong side of the road, in the face of those very insistent bells and flashing lights, and made my way to my Airbnb.
Ever since that evening, I’ve been haunted by the implications of this simple event. My mind keeps going back to it, like a tongue to a broken tooth. It appears to me now that the incident was a little fractal, a very small event that illuminates much of what is going on in our deeply troubled human culture. It demonstrates so clearly how easy it is to believe in the warning signs we receive, when sometimes, they are actually part of a broken system, and there is no real danger at all.
How many loud warning bells have you heard lately, how many red lights have been flashed in your eyes? Sometimes the warning bells and lights come from the outside, from an authority, from people who are trying to protect us, keep us safe. If a train is really coming, these barriers and warning bells are essential. But what if it’s not? What if the mechanism is broken? We can get stuck for a long time if we never dare to question, to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts and minds, and have a good look at what is going on.
In the end, I believe it’s our inner bells and flashing lights that challenge us most deeply, that hold us most firmly in place, like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby. They can keep on clanging and flashing in our eyes, in our brains, for so long that we get hypnotized by them. We become deaf to the whispers inside us that carry another kind of knowing, the voices that have been trying to reach us through all the noise and clamour. We abandon those parts of ourselves that dare to question, dare to think way outside the mainstream, the over culture, that are brave enough, creative enough, to offer us another way.
There are times when it’s very intelligent to obey, to follow, to listen to whatever the authorities are telling us, if we have good reason to trust and respect them. But we can only trust them if we have taken the time to find out who these people are, how much heart and integrity they really have, and where their information is coming from. If we just go along with whatever we have been told, we are living like a child who needs an adult’s hand to cross the street. If we cannot find the energy, the freedom, the maturity, to examine and digest for ourselves the information we are being fed, the rules we are being asked to follow, then we simply fall asleep. Real democracy cannot flourish under such conditions, nor can a healthy family, or a neighbourhood, or an organization. Without the energy of dissent, of our burning questions, of our ‘no’, we cannot grow and evolve, or find our way into a new future. We settle for obedience, for safety, for conformity, for being good, instead of daring to listen to another voice, wilder, deeper, braver:
”Maybe I can just go across. Maybe I really can step outside this narrow place I have been living in without even noticing.”
This kind of exploration evolves and unfolds in us over time. We learn how to trust something sane and grounded inside us. Doing our own research doesn’t mean getting on the internet and following clues from someone we have never met down into a wild rabbit hole. People have to earn our trust and our respect; it cannot be blindly given. If we want to listen to someone and learn from them, we need to have a good sense of who they are as a human being, how much respect and compassion they offer to everyone around them, how they move and function in their everyday lives. This kind of discernment has become more more difficult since Covid 19, which is why we need more awareness about this than ever.
Charles Eisenstein came to speak at an eco-village here a couple of years ago. He offered his radical teachings on climate change and the environment that evening. At one point, an older man in the audience, a long-time passionate environmentalist, stood up and attacked him verbally, calling him a climate change denier and his message a threat to our shared future. Charles listened to this man without reacting or defending himself at all. I watched him really taking this man in, making space for his experience, his outrage and distress, inside his own heart. Charles told this man that he really understood why he might feel such things, and then he listened to his response. After a few minutes of dialogue, the man sat down. At the end of the evening, he came forward and threw himself into Charles’ arms, where they shared a long embrace.
I don’t think Charles is perfect. He is deeply human and he has his own struggles, conflicts and biases. Witnessing him that evening did make it clear that for me he is trustable, that he is walking his talk, embodying a deep integrity.
We need good friends and wise mentors like these to travel with, to give us courage, hope, inspiration. It can feel frightening and dangerous, to cross the lines we drew for ourselves, so long ago. If we don’t want to just sit here and wait until all the bells and lights stop flashing, we all need companions to make ‘good trouble’ with, as John Lewis puts it, to awaken the living, radical nature of the intelligence inside us.
To honor, protect and awaken the diversity of our intelligence is one of our primary tasks, if we want to heal and transform our human culture. Children are bursting with brilliant curiosity, until they are shut down and taught to inhale information without questioning, without listening to their own inner wisdom. The unschooling movement recognizes this intelligence as one of our primary resources, as something sacred and essential to our survival as a species. Forest schools and other new ways of educating our young ones allow children to remain connected to their bodies, to nature, to their joy and playfulness, as they grow and develop in a whole new way. Children in these schools do well, on a social level, as well as academically. If we can stay curious, if we can discover how to keep on learning for our whole lives, a vast field of possibilities opens up. We remain alive, open, tender, and full of humility. We don’t close down and harden, like so many brittle old people we see these days.
To respect the way this sacred intelligence moves and breathes in each one of us is a remarkable and deeply healing way of being. A friend who did not do well in academia told me recently that she got a very high score when she was tested for her capacity to discern patterns. One day, during a session, a client who communicates with trees asked me a question. I invited her to ask an oak tree that she loves. That tree gave her an answer far beyond anything I could ever have come up with.
Another client, who works at a very demanding job at a university in the US, told me that she can’t make lists anymore. “Nothing feels linear,” she said, “ it all feels fluid, amorphous. And it doesn’t feel like it’s just mine, it feels like it belongs to something larger. ” We sat together and felt into the kind of intelligence that is emerging in her at this time, asking to be embodied. I told her it feels like a river delta, flowing, complex and fertile.
When we can embody the flow of this kind of intelligence, it is profoundly pleasurable and fulfilling. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tracks how good this feels in his famous book, “Flow.” When our nervous system is in a natural, healthy, connected state, this seems to be the way we are designed, for optimal functioning. I want to help us find the courage to be this way with each other, to begin to deeply honour and respect new ways of knowing, ways that have been hidden and suppressed in our mainstream culture for a long time. I pray we can stand with each other in questioning deeply much of what we are being told, so we can discover what really feels true, in every cell of the body, in every beat of our heart.
Hope is more than a town. It’s a place inside us, that is not based on fantasy and dreams, that comes alive when we can begin to follow the light of our embodied wisdom. As we begin to embody these new ways of being here, we touch the people around us, and transmit this energy out into the world, sometimes without saying a word..
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
~William Stafford, ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’