When our ancestors gazed upon an antelope, a bird, a flower, or the stars, they gazed with the intimate eyes of a lover. They knew and understood the wild things because they spent all of their days and nights in their company. They knew how the sparrow hawk holds her delicate body airborne and immobile in a stalwart wind; they knew what the bobcat feeds her young; and they knew when the salmon would return to their home stream to spawn. They understood these things because their own lives were inextricably intertwined with the lives of the animals and the seasons of the Earth. Their daily contact and reliance on nature brought them tremendous insights about the Earth, about relationships beyond the human sphere, and about life itself.
We can learn to live lives of greater meaning by living closer to nature and understanding that the sacred exists at our fingertips. I don’t propose that we throw out our modern conveniences; ancient peoples certainly faced troubles we have successfully managed to overcome with modern technology. But we can learn from people who once lived much closer to the Earth, incorporating their intimate understanding of nature into how we lead our lives and infusing life with greater meaning.
Consider the Evenk, the reindeer people who live in northeast Siberia where temperatures can drop to 96 degrees below zero. In spite of this inhospitable climate, they live and thrive by keeping close to ancient tradition. They mirror the behavior of the animals and form tightly woven relationships with the reindeer to help them survive in extreme conditions. The Evenk rely on the reindeer for most of their needs, using their meat for food, their sinews for string, and their bones for tools.
The reindeer are acclimatized to the cold and have adapted a pattern of migration, traversing large distances to find food and shelter when the cold winters have a hold on northern Siberia. For thousands of years, the Evenk have followed the annual reindeer migration from upper Mongolia to northern Siberia, living in temporary shelters until it is time to migrate once again. Although the Evenk rely upon the reindeer’s body for survival, they also believe that they share a spiritual, energetic essence with the reindeer and with the land itself. In the Evenk’s world, a compassionate spirit pervades the vast landscape. They call this all-knowing, all-feeling spirit Bayanay. Bayanay is not separate from the people, the animals, or the land, but permeates all in a “field of shared consciousness.”
By sharing their physical lives with the reindeer, the Evenk are empowered with greater wisdom about how to live in this region. Similarly, we can learn from other creatures’ ways of knowing and experiencing the world. For example, animals have incredible skills and abilities far beyond our ken. Dogs are able to tell the identity of a person who quickly walked by hours earlier by simply sniffing the ground. (Dogs have 20–40 times more smell receptors in their nose than human beings.) Some insects and birds can see wavelengths of light outside humans’ visible range. This means certain birds that appear drab to us are seen in radiant colors by other birds.
Many plants and animals are intimately familiar with the larger patterns of nature and the universe. Snow geese, which migrate thousands of miles, can see the magnetic lines of the Earth. If a human being had these animals’ abilities, we would consider them superpowers. When we develop a relationship with other living things, we begin to “see” and experience the world in the way that they do. Most important, by escaping the confines of our own consciousness, we come closer to experiencing divinity—a realm not easily entered through ego-driven perception.
The Evenk, whose ancestral lineage goes back to the Neolithic time period (eight thousand to nine thousand years ago), have gained a rich spiritual and healing tradition through a shamanic reliance upon the reindeer’s spirit. By seeing the divinity in the animals and the place in which they live, an intrinsically dynamic and intelligent universe is open to them. In the case of Evenk shaman, their soul connection with the reindeer empowers them to see the future, understand the unknowable, heal individuals, and advise the entire community.
When we adopt this way of knowing and being in the world, meaning is instilled into even the smallest daily tasks. When the Evenk’s ancestors awoke and left their summer khants, they beheld the endless plains of grasslands, the vast sky overhead, and the powerful bodies of the reindeer; they understood the spiritual and energetic dynamics that exist between them, the reindeer, and the land.
The lives of the Evenk were physically difficult in many ways, often filled with peril from the extreme temperature and the demands of a nomadic life. Yet their spiritual awareness brought richness and depth to their lives, in spite of the hardships of living in a remote and harsh region. Because the Evenk, the reindeer, the sky, and the land are united in the rhythmic dance of life, they are gifted with insights about how to live and how to heal each other, along with an abiding sense of belonging to a world of meaning, power, and beauty.
Many indigenous people have managed to keep an enduring vision of the sacred Earth as a place of beauty and connectedness. Native Americans in Alaska know when the salmon are returning to their home streams because a certain yellow flower that is native to the area first blooms in the spring when the salmon return. The blooming of this flower, which matches the color of the salmon’s eyes, is not deemed a mere coincidence but rather a sign of the link between the flower and the salmon, and as a glimpse into the workings of the Great Mystery. This singular occurrence speaks to the underlying unity between all three—the Alaskans, the flowers, and the salmon.
We don’t need to migrate with the reindeer or fish for salmon in Alaska to experience sacredness on Earth. We can receive greater meaning, beauty, and wisdom by becoming more knowledgeable about the natural world and ourselves. When we see and experience the sacred in all life, we elevate meaning, honoring the sacred in ourselves.
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