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The Road to Peace in a World of Rattlesnakes

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SNAKE! Every day on the gravel lane near my cabin I walk past a broken fan belt. I determined on day one that it was NOT-snake, but no matter. My body jumped into reverse daily until centers higher in my brain had time to suggest a counter-interpretation: Aw, heck, it's just that danged fan belt!

For me this experience delivers a larger question about human relationship with the dark side of nature. Do we merge with light streams of renewal, nurturance, connection, avoiding shadow-thoughts of "nature red in tooth and claw?" Should we put our faith in technology to tame the beasts and the wilderness? Maybe we explore paths of balance that acknowledge polarities and seek new ways of relating to both. If so, can we extend what we learn to the transformation of relationships with fellow human beings, and build new bridges to peace, to love, to cooperation and coordination?

To consider these questions further, let me tell you about Moses. I met Moses while raking leaves near midsummer of my first year in Tennessee. I heard a loud buzz, sensed danger. It took a few seconds to differentiate the outline of a 3-foot timber rattlesnake from the pattern of leaves near the epicenter of the buzz. Once I stopped moving, Moses crawled along the edge of the house then flowed into a coil under the electric meter. He all but disappeared again in the camouflage of leaves.

Knowing that rattlesnakes 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.

My path crossed that of Moses just two months before 9/11. Many times since then, noting how venomous we humans can be toward one another, I've thought about my evolving relationship with Moses. From Moses' point of view, I probably represent a homeland security issue! That's why he rattled at me. Once I figured that out, a rush to war was unnecessary. Over time and with caution we worked things out. What could Moses teach me about holding steady to a course of peaceful relations among people and nations?

Some storytellers spin snake tales to terrorize the listener. Snakes can also symbolize transformation, healing or life force (kundalini). Accounts of indigenous ceremonies in the American southwest tell of participants who allow themselves to be bitten by poisonous snakes. If they can transform the poison in their own body, the person then can heal poisoned bodies, minds or spirits of others. 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.

Charles Fillmore understood the birth of the Biblical Moses metaphysically to symbolize the negative evolution of our understanding of 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""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. The potential space between feeling and action 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 older parts of my brain: freeze, run, or kill the snake. Neither is it practical to lock myself in my house to avoid dangerous encounters. Sooner or later we all run into snakes, be they reptilian or human, and we usually have strong feelings about that. Anxiety and paranoia narrow both our field of vision and range of feeling. Fantasies about our adversaries, rather than facts, propel us to war even when other options are possible.

How do we come to see the enemy out there? Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton 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 lens on our 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 embrace something different, to change the way we do business, to explore new relationships to life's polarities. 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 and mirrors of our own healing and transformation.
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Cathie Bird, MA, PsyP, is a psychoanalyst, writer and citizen scientist in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. She currently chairs the Strip-mine Issues Committee of SOCM - Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment -- and is also a (more...)
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