The Allegory of the Christmas Tree
(A Clearer Understanding of Indigenous Spiritual Worldview)
In the fifteen years that I have been involved in the field of education here in Canada I have spoken to many high school and university students on a variety of subjects which include; the history of racism, the scientific perspective of racism, the psychological and cultural trauma caused by Canada’s Indian Residential School system as well as my immediate family’s personal experiences in the schools themselves. Since the entrenchment and guarantee of Aboriginal Rights and Entitlement into the Canadian Constitution in 1982 (Constitution Amendment section 35-a) there has been a noticeable effort within Canada’s education system to introduce more comprehensive and reality-based Aboriginal history and Native studies courses into high school and university curricula. When dealing with non-Aboriginal educators at all levels I have noticed that there is a general reluctance and/or inability on the part of these professionals to broach the subject of Native spirituality. This is only natural and I find no fault on the part of my colleagues. The Aboriginal and European cultural paradigms were unique and developed in isolation (from each other) over tens of thousands of years and therefore one culture’s approach to understanding the other’s spirituality should be as daunting a task as learning to speak the other’s language.
In the absence of a clear understanding and explanation of Aboriginal spirituality there is always a danger of filling the void with vague misinterpretations of what the Native spiritual world-view actually encompassed, especially with regards to creation stories, legends, totems, animism and mythology. These ancient forms of symbolism played an important role in the development of world-wide cultures in that they attempted to express in relatable and practical terms (words and images) those universal principles and deeper human qualities which exist beyond the limitations of form, ideas, concepts and imagination. Jesus of Nazareth used parables to express deeper and boundless truths which lay just beyond the limits of human cognition and he wasn’t the only one. Aesop used fables, Plato used allegories, Shakespeare used poetry and theatre, and anyone who has studied Greek mythology knows that hidden beneath its ancient pantheon of colorful characters lies a fairly accurate portrayal of universal ethics as they relate to the human condition.
The recent scientific fields dealing with a quantum understanding of the universe have only begun to grasp the limitations of the human being’s sensory perceptions and the on-board computer that analyses all the equally-limited data coming in via our five senses. We actually ’know’ very little of what there is to know… our knowledge is limited to the wafer-thin surfaces of form and the physical and theoretical properties of ’matter in motion’. The realm that exists just beyond the limits of what we ’think’ we know is where universal principles, laws and ethics reside and our need to grasp the subtleties of this realm is where myths, parables, fables, animism, allegories and even philosophy, art and belief systems come in. For many, these were the only tools available to assist them in their attempts to bridge the chasm, to define the ‘indefinable’.
(Note: Ancient symbolism, creation myths and belief systems were a means to an end and not the end itself. These tools provided a threshold/precursor to the experiential realization of a universal truth as opposed to the theoretical or conceptual belief in that truth’s existence).
The following short essay endeavours, once more, to employ the allegory as a means to define the indefinable and I have chosen the popular western icon known as the ‘Christmas tree’ to make my point. When including this allegory in high school sessions or university lectures I am delighted to see all the ‘light bulbs’ go on, not only amongst the student body but with the teachers and profs as well. Many instructors have approached me after a session and remarked how much clearer they are in terms of Native spirituality and some have even asked if they could adopt the allegory into their own lessons.
When a young child first approaches a Christmas tree, he or she may, quite innocently, assume that all the pretty multi-colored lights are separate and independent of one another. The conventional, modern-day Christmas tree is actually designed to ‘appear’ that way… it’s about as close as one can get to the perfect illusion. For anyone who looks a little closer and delves a little deeper beneath the surface elements of the tree (i.e., the pretty lights, the shining baubles and the shimmering tinsel) they will immediately notice a green electrical cord winding its way throughout the entire tree. The single green cord is inter-woven amongst the boughs and branches in such a fashion as to appear ‘invisible’ to the casual observer. (The reason the cord is painted green is to help it blend-in or camouflage with the over-all greenness of the tree… thereby adding to the illusion). Closer inspection will also reveal that each and every one of the multi-colored Christmas lights is connected to the single green electrical cord… that in fact all those blue, green, orange, yellow and red lights are not separate and independent at all but patched-into and powered by one single and all-pervasive source of energy.
The understanding of quantum law holds that all of creation is generated and sustained by one universal and omnipresent field of energy. For ‘casual observers’ limited to the superficial realm of form, this field of energy is imperceptible, invisible and therefore to many, simply doesn’t exist. This unique strain of sensory myopia is benign on its own but can cause all sorts of problems if the observers begin to ‘believe as truth’ that the limited world they perceive through their five senses is the ultimate reality.
“Entelechy: The innate thirst that drives a human being
Over tens of thousands of years ancient cultures have developed unique approaches to understanding and/or ‘making contact’ with the quantum reality existing within themselves (as well as understanding the reality’s wider implications relating to the elemental world around them). These world-wide methodologies were cultivated in virtual isolation and deeply rooted in the principle known as genetic entelechy which was common to all early humans prior to the great Diaspora out of Africa 70,000 years ago. Regardless of where our distant ancestors migrated to or settled, the seeds of the innate thirst to understand extra-physical realities traveled with them.
All My Relations
Generally speaking, many North American Indigenous cultures based their understanding of the cosmos (as well as their place in it) upon the un-written tenets of quantum law… the central tenet being the universal and underlying field of energy – or life-force – that permeates all of creation. Some Aboriginal cultures referred to this life-force as ‘The Great Spirit’. For the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot (my lineage) the method developed for making personal contact with the ‘Great Spirit’ within themselves was known as The Vision Quest, which basically enabled individuals (under the tutelage of a knowledgeable teacher or shaman) to redirect their attention from the ‘outer world’ of finite/limited form to the ‘inner world’ of boundless quantum energy. Various tools and techniques, like fire, sound and breath, were used to bring the wandering, linear mind into the present moment (the only time frame in which life-force exists) in preparation for the journey into the realm of ‘self-knowledge’. A single droplet of ocean-spray embodies all the qualities and properties of the great ocean itself… by making direct, first-hand contact with the life-force within themselves the noviciates came to ‘know’ experientially the limitless, timeless and formless essence that under-pins all of creation. By virtue of this powerful revelation, the students further understood their inter-relationship to the totality of elemental life… the trees, the air, the water, the land, the animals, birds, fish as well as their fellow human beings.
Quantum law holds that, although the universe may ‘appear’ to be a chaotic configuration of individual and separate parts, in actual fact, it’s all one thing. that all those seemingly separate parts are interconnected and ‘related’ via an invisible and universal field of pure energy and light (Einstein’s Unified Field).
(Note: The Vision Quest was not for the casual or the curious and could not be learned by simply attending a couple of week-end ‘work-shops’. Throughout the ages and across all cultural distinctions the journey within one’s own ‘self’ has been a profound and wondrous undertaking but also required the essentials of patience, effort and a long-term commitment to both the process and the guide. Therefore, it was the general rule amongst North American Indigenous societies – and other global cultures as well – that only the ‘thirstiest’ chose to involve themselves in such a life-long endeavour. But regardless, the wisdom and insights gained by the few, via the Vision Quest, had a powerful influence on the over-all Aboriginal worldview which included their creation stories, totems, mythology and their time-honored respect for nature and natural law).
And thus we have the ‘short’ version of the Christmas tree allegory which is quite adequate as a basic introduction at the university and high school level. (The allegory is so simple and engaging that it inevitably triggers a lively and open discussion with the students). From the Aboriginal perspective, the cosmos was one massive and colorful ‘Christmas tree’ of lights, tinsel and baubles… all held together and inter-related by a single, underlying source of consciousness and energy… the ‘Great Spirit’.
But there is a longer version of the allegory that deals with more far-reaching and multi-layered questions relating to the history of human spirituality and that version would probably fill many volumes and require decades of research and investigation. For example, a historical and global-wide analysis of unique approaches and methodologies used by various cultures to gain a better understanding of extra-human realities (whether mythological or experiential) would be a major and delightful undertaking… undoubtedly there are many anthropologist/author types who already have this subject well covered.
As for myself, there are a couple aspects of the allegory that interest me more than others simply because they appear to address the deeper and subtler nuances of the human condition and those aspects are; the inner-working and dynamics of the Christmas light itself and the bulb’s relationship to the green power cord.
Using our imagination, let’s create a simple scenario that portrays a few moments in the life of a typical Christmas tree. If we were to isolate a single Christmas light (let’s say the bright blue one at the forefront near the bottom row of boughs) and endow it with consciousness, a modicum of intelligence and a sense of self, just what would the tiny bulb think about the world in which it exists? First of all it would probably be awe-struck by the beauty of the other lights, the shining baubles and all the tinsel that appear to fill its little universe. Secondly it would, via a basic sense of self-awareness, understand itself to be a Christmas light similar to the other pretty and multi-colored lights positioned throughout the tree. Having not the slightest inkling as to the complexities of electricity or the inner workings of the tree, and further sensing some distance between itself and the other Christmas lights, the shiny blue bulb would likely come to view itself as independent and self-sustaining… a completely separate and glowing entity within the vast green expanses of the tree.
Following this imaginary thread a little further, if we were to place a mirror in front of the glowing blue bulb, our subject would surely be quite taken by its own beauty and the uniqueness of the color it radiates. In fact, our little blue Christmas light could not be blamed for feeling a certain sense of pride and self-satisfaction with its identity, its form and its ability to play such an important role in the ongoing life of the tree.
Yes, for an imaginary Christmas light inhabiting an imaginary Christmas tree ‘life’ just couldn’t get any better. All the other lights are joyously radiating, the baubles are reflecting and the tinsel is shimmering in the darkness of the night.
It all seems so peaceful, so perfect and so safe.
But all of a sudden, in the flash of a moment, something happens that completely shatters the blue Christmas light’s sense of security and order. For some inexplicable reason, a pretty red light dangling only a short distance away, stops glowing. One moment it’s a dazzling orb of brilliant outrageous red and the next moment… nothing… dead. And what is most disconcerting to the blue bulb is that it all seems so final and so absolute. The little blue Christmas light is quite upset and confused, to say the least. And in the ensuing moments, while pondering the extraordinary event it has just witnessed, a second event occurs that is just as shocking and unexplainable as the first. Two massive and unrecognizable forms appear to enter the world of the Christmas tree and while one form secures the base that the ‘dead’ bulb is fastened to, the other ‘unscrews’ the lifeless bulb from its socket and transports it away from the tree and into the darkness of the night.
(Note: The joy of working with an allegory and an open-ended stream of consciousness is that one can pursue this kind of thread ‘for miles’, exploring the deeper and universal truisms hidden just beyond the superficial elements of the story. Threads have the potential to overlap and intertwine with other threads and at the same time generate new pathways of their own and pretty soon you have entire essays and even a book or two on the intrinsic meanings contained within a simple allegory. To conclude this essay I would like to extend this process a little further by creating yet another new and unique thread of understanding that not only helps explain Indigenous spirituality, but further elucidates the subtle inner workings of this complex creation known as the human being).
Returning to the scenario, the little blue Christmas light has probably learned by now that the apparent ‘death’ of the red light bulb is a common occurrence… that it happens to all the Christmas lights and will eventually claim the life of the blue bulb as well. No one seems to really know for sure why death happens or where the ‘dead’ bulbs go when they are removed from the tree but that hasn’t stopped some of light bulbs from developing strong beliefs and opinions on the subject.
At this time I would like to introduce a new element, a new imaginary character into the tableau who actually does know what happened and who can explain the unsettling events that have just unfolded in the Christmas tree. In every way, shape and form this new Christmas light is indistinguishable from the other lights… it doesn’t shine any brighter or dimmer, isn’t any bigger or smaller and exhibits no outward signs or traits that would qualify it as ‘learned’ or ‘wise’. The new Christmas light’s only remarkable feature is the clarity and conviction with which it speaks when unraveling the mystery and confusion surrounding the enigma of life and death in the Christmas tree.
The new Christmas light’s explanation is simple and, with the aid of a chalk-board displaying the basics of how electricity works and how Christmas lights are manufactured, relates as follows:
Each and every Christmas light has two distinct natures; an inner and an outer, a permanent and a temporary, a limited and a limitless, a finite and an infinite. We are manufactured with an outer glass bulb or shell that is coated with a particular color that gives us our distinctive personality but what we don’t see is that on the inside there is a little device called a filament that glows brightly when electrical energy is passed though it and this inner light allows our outer bulb to radiate our colorful glow. The energy that powers all the filaments in all the bulbs comes from that long green cord that threads its way discreetly throughout the boughs and branches of the tree. This single source of unlimited energy supplies ‘life’ to all the Christmas lights which means that, deep down, we are all directly related to each other and inseparable parts of one whole.
We were originally conceived and manufactured to be temporary beings… expend-ability was built right in to our design. This includes our tinted bulbs, our filaments and the screw mounts that connect us to the long green electrical cord. The delicate coils in our filaments can only endure so much wear and tear and after having a powerful electric current forcing its way through them they eventually ‘burn out’ thereby causing each Christmas light to ‘burn out’ as well. When a light bulb burns out or ‘dies’ it is unscrewed from its socket by forces outside the tree and its many components (atoms and molecules) are broken down and recycled, (i.e., returned to the elements from whence they came).
You may be asking yourselves “so what’s the point to all this… we come into this world, glow brightly for a few moments and then disappear never to be heard from again. It all seems so meaningless”. Although this line of reasoning is valid and understandable, I am here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. There is a deeper meaning and a higher purpose to our lives – as short and as fleeting as they may be – and I will clarify this if you will just bear with me for a few more moments. I mentioned earlier that part of our nature is temporary and part is permanent. Our bulbs and filaments are definitely temporary but the energy and life that flows into us from the green cord is permanent. That very same energy flows throughout the Christmas tree and holds the cosmos together as well. This life force has no beginning and no end, no future and no past and therefore exists in an eternally state of ‘is-ness’. This energy is exquisite, beautiful and profound… and it constitutes the true essence of who we really are. We only have these temporary bodies for a short time but it is just enough time for us to awaken to the ‘knowledge’ of who we are and to realize that we are not these pretty glass bulbs at all but the pure and limitless energy that flows through them.
The journey into this pure and limitless energy and the direct experience of its existence has brought many Christmas lights a sense of peace and fulfillment that they never thought possible. By the virtue of this profound experience many questions about life and death, the purpose for our being and the reason we have this temporary body have been answered.
The Christmas light and its fleeting beauty will burn-out and die… the universal energy-source that gave the bulb its brief existence will not. Gradually ‘un-become’ the colorful yet temporary glass bulb and more and more ‘become’ the boundless, formless and eternal energy that permeates the individual Christmas light during its all too brief life-span.
Over millennia and transcending all cultural boundaries, this simple wisdom has endured like a glowing thread of pure titanium piercing through the strata of the human history. This was essentially the same message imparted by a shaman or guide in North American Indigenous cultures when helping noviciates grasp the subtleties of their journey into the realm of the ‘Great Spirit’ via the Vision Quest. When the first Europeans began arriving on our shores four hundred years ago they found a simple, down-to-earth culture of human beings who didn’t have a lot of the modern conveniences, books, advanced tools or weaponry like their European cousins had… and for that reason the local Aboriginal cultures were summarily written-off as savages. Native spirituality was also vilified as paganism and heathenism back then but today there are many, especially in the fields of anthropology, applied science and the humanities, who marvel at the advanced but understated intelligence underpinning the Aboriginal’s traditional values and spiritual worldview. The admirable qualities of egalitarianism, social and environmental ethics, restorative justice and especially their respect for nature and the Earth were directly influenced by their spirituality which was deeply rooted in a practical and experiential understanding of quantum law.
Perhaps we could learn something from them.
March 26th, 2014