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January 2006

Making Peace with Rattlesnakes

SNAKE! Every day for several months I walked past a broken fan belt on the gravel lane near my home. No matter that I determined on the day of my first encounter that it was NOT-snake. Every day after that the urge to run commandeered my attention until centers higher in my brain could issue a counter-interpretation: Ah, heck, it's just that danged fan belt!

One day when my dog came with me, she jumped when she saw the thing, too, and crept toward it—nose in overdrive—to check it out. Humans, dogs, birds and many other species are hardwired to recognize snakelike forms. If you own fruit trees you may have capitalized on this fact by draping garden hose pieces among the branches so that you can enjoy at least a few peaches or cherries or whatever.

How do humans beings deal with the darker side of nature? Some keep the negative at bay with a focus on positive memories of renewal, nurturance, connection. Others put their faith in technology to tame the beasts and the wilderness. Some seek a path of balance that acknowledges both sides and searches for new ways of relating. Still others, the indigenous peoples of Earth, relate to nature from a whole different paradigm. Our fantasies, attitudes and beliefs shape our relationships to other species and we can explore them for clues to our personal and collective experiences on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. But then what? What do we do with what we find out? Can we extend what we learn to the transformation of relationships with fellow human beings, and build new pathways to peace, to love, to cooperation and coordination?

To consider these questions further, let me tell you about Moses. I met Moses in midsummer of my first year in Tennessee. While raking leaves around the house, I heard an urgent buzz. In the mind gap that followed, I sensed danger. It took me a few seconds to sort the outline of a 3-foot timber rattlesnake from the pattern of leaves near the epicenter of the buzz. When I stopped moving, Moses continued crawling along the edge of the foundation, checking things out with his tongue then flowing into a coil under the electric meter. He all but disappeared again in the camouflage of leaves.

Knowing that rattlesnakes and bears and mountain lions live in your neighborhood is one thing. Meeting one face-to-face brings the knowing to a whole new level. That encounter with Moses changed my life in the hollow forever. No, I didn't kill him. Yes, I did change the way I moved around in the hollow. The level of attention that I gave to the world around me went up a couple of notches, and the space to which I directed this attention shrank to about 8 feet.

Looking back to my early encounters with Moses it's interesting to note that our paths crossed just two months before 9/11/01. Many times since then I've thought about my evolving relationship with Moses in terms of the venomous behavior that we humans can perpetrate against each other. You know, from Moses' point of view, I probably represent a safety and protection issue! That's why he rattles at me. In this case I figured it was up to me to use every means possible to see, if only for a moment, a view of the world through the eyes of the other. My observations told me that a rush to war with Moses was unnecessary. And we eventually worked things out. What could Moses teach me about holding steady to a course of peaceful relations among people and nations?

In some stories humans tell, encounters with snakes are spun to terrorize the listener. Snakes can also symbolize transformation, healing or life force (or kundalini). Accounts of indigenous ceremonies in the American southwest tell of participants who allow themselves to be bitten by poisonous snakes many times. If successful in transforming the poison in one's own body, the person then can heal poisoned bodies, minds or spirits. Of course, people who hate snakes may remind us of the fiasco in the Garden of Eden in which God reportedly put a curse on the serpent. He told Eve and the snake that He would "put enmity" between their offspring. [I'll talk some more about the Garden thing in a future post.]

Charles Fillmore understood the birth of the Biblical Moses metaphysically to symbolize the negative side of the development of our understanding of the universal laws that underpin our being, knowing and acting. "Out of seemingly negative conditions," he said, "comes the new growth." When Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, many of his people looked up at it and were healed from snakebites they had suffered. In physical embodiment we live unaware of our spiritual nature. When we shed old ways of doing things—just as a snake sheds its skin—we emerge with a vibrant self that sees more clearly and relates more wisely in the world.

This transformation stuff is tricky though. That mind gap I described in my first encounter with Moses is critical. If I don't notice it, I'm bound to enact whatever automatic instructions are already on their way to my body from the older parts of my brain: freeze, run, or kill the snake. Neither is it practical to lock myself in my house and hope to transform before I have go out where the snakes are. Sooner or later we all run into snakes, be they reptilian or human, and we usually have strong feelings about that. If we become overly anxious or paranoid, our field of vision narrows. Fantasies rather than facts about our adversaries propel us toward war even when other options may be possible. And how are these fantasies constructed? Consider the study by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton who showed that scrub jays don't bother to protect their seed caches from theft until they themselves have stolen food from other birds. Kind of puts a new spin on the US government's fantasies about who's doing what with WMD and nuclear experiments and why it can't trust its own citizens, doesn't it?

To choose a path of peaceful coexistence with the snakes in our lives is to elect to do something different, to change the way we go about our business, to explore new ways of relating to the negative as well as the positive. Think for a moment about your worst enemy, the person or group you fear most. How has life experience shaped the way these people relate to others? What do they believe? What do they fear or dream about or long for? An amazing and sometimes scary thing happens when you know all of this stuff about your enemy: You stare down into the heart and soul of them and see yourself. Troubles in the world today should bring us sharply back around to this idea. We can continue to see enemies as enemies or as agents of our own healing and transformation.