The honey of life

It was a Saturday morning. In Sedona, in the mountains of Arizona, Starry Song, the shaman who had the gift of pollinating the wisdom of his people, was sitting under the big oak tree in the backyard of his house. People came from different places to listen to his stories. This joyful ceremonial had been established for some time, ever since he had been prevented from doing it in schools due to a law that required a university degree, which he didn’t have. So he started telling the stories on the spacious lawn in front of the porch of his house. Families sat on blankets and opened the baskets of snacks they had brought. They shared their snacks while the children ran around freely and playfully, until at nine o’clock the shaman began a beautiful story. He never repeated them. This time was different. Faced with the absolute silence that arose when the shaman began to speak, Starry Song surprised everyone: “There will be no more stories. I don’t think I remember any more. I believe that all the ancestral philosophy of my people has already been passed on to you over the last few years. Now it’s time to put the knowledge we’ve acquired into action and turn it into wisdom. Inert knowledge is only erudition; it’s like an artist without a work. It’s like a bee that denies its own essence by refusing to make honey”.

At the same moment, a buzz arose that escalated until it seemed to me that there was going to be a huge uproar. Some people understood the shaman’s stance and went to thank him for all the teachings he had passed on for so long. They admitted that he had provided valuable tools so that everyone could mould their own lives with the mastery they were already capable of. They expressed their gratitude. They were being sincere, but few behaved that way. Most were angry and complained a lot. Some children, frightened, began to cry. A woman, about thirty years old, very intelligent and with a baby on her lap, was the most articulate. She declared herself betrayed. She claimed that the shaman had no right to interrupt the traditional ritual without at least preparing a replacement or warning everyone in advance. After all, those stories were already part of their routine and helped them a lot because of the well-being they provided. She recognised that Starry Song had never charged a penny for the work he did, but that didn’t absolve him of his responsibility to those people. She likened it to a father who has always fed his son and suddenly leaves him to starve. With a raised finger, she quoted a famous phrase by a talented writer, saying that the shaman was responsible for everything he captivated. She was applauded. The complaints went up many notches.

From where I was standing on the porch, I looked up at Starry Song, afraid of all that situation. To my surprise, he was impassive. He didn’t smile or show any annoyance. He just stared with the curiosity and enchantment of a boy visiting the museum or the circus. Showcases displaying the unknown, spotlights presenting the unusual. Contrary to what you might imagine, it wasn’t disregard; there was a deep respect in his gaze, like an apprentice in front of a master with an unlikely way of teaching.

After everyone had gone, Starry Song began to sweep the yard as he always did every Saturday. His face had the same serene features, as if nothing extraordinary had happened. I helped him with the task without us exchanging a word. Later, alone on the porch, sitting in his rocking chair while he lit up his unfailing pipe with its red stone stummel, I told him about that morning’s confusion. I wanted to know why he had decided not to tell stories anymore. After all, he was abandoning his gift and, to use an expression he himself used, it was like a bee refusing to make honey. The shaman’s gaze wandered infinitely, as if he saw something that no one else saw. He puffed his pipe a few times, without hurrying, and said: “The bee teaches us the value of working for the common good. However, one does not interfere with the other’s activity, nor do they harm each other. The shamanic medicine of the bee tells us about freedom and responsibility; individuality and collectivity; commitment and joy. Everything and everyone in harmony”.

“Freedom is linked to responsibility, especially in terms of the dignity of relationships. We can do a lot, we have a wide universe of possibilities, but nobody can do everything. I can’t take what doesn’t belong to me, interfere abusively in other people’s choices, treat people as if they were objects, impose my truth as if I had a monopoly on it. When I insist on these practices, I create problems. On the other hand, my responsibility to the community cannot become greater than my freedom to do things differently, to walk where no one has ever dared to go before; to understand that when the plans that others have made for me are different from those that I have mapped out for my own destiny, I have the right to decide to be who I am, and that doesn’t really make me as a selfish person. It’s necessary to maintain the flavour of individuality so as not to lose the taste for the collective.”

“If I learn from my mistakes, there’s no reason to be afraid of them. Freedom tells me that I have the right to make mistakes and responsibility reminds me that I will have to bear their inevitable effects. It’s impossible to escape this equation of learning, justice, wisdom and love. That’s why I always need to live reality in a way that’s consistent with the truth I’ve already reached. This justifies me when facing of my own mistakes and teaches me to do things in a way I never imagined before when faced with a new opportunity. And life never denies us another chance when we are in tune with it.”

“The construction of a virtuous individual is the indispensable pillar for building a fair society. There is no legal code capable of harmonising a city where the population is made up of unhappy or unbalanced people. At most, it will be able to intimidate them through fear and terror. It is impossible to pacify a people who are addicted to hatred and rejoice in violent news and scenes. No one will have a healthy body if their cells are sick. On the other hand, no activity that is not in some way aimed at social well-being will benefit the individual in the long term. The part needs to stimulate the improvement of the whole, even if it is not understood by its peers in the initial movements. The new is often frightening when it first arrives, but after the impact caused by the changes that emerge, it proves to be fundamental to the regeneration of life.”

“There can be an existence without commitment, never a life. A euphoric existence is very different from a joyful life. Euphoria is about having fun out in the world; joy is about being enchanted by the universe. Joy arises in the realisation of each evolutionary stage we reached, however minimal. It is also present in the sensitivity refined by the relationships that present themselves in our lives. Both those that delight us with the beauty of present love, as well as relationships that teach us about absent love, the one we don’t yet have. They push us to go where we’ve never been before. This is cause for joy. Life expands at the pace of each individual. Only in this way do societies advance. Any other way is mere make-up.”

“Everyone, in one way or another, is fundamental. And they need to become sources of joy. Otherwise, we’ll hear music without melody; we’ll see rush without movement. You won’t know the sweet fruit of joy until you understand that the root of this tree is commitment to evolution. Without love there is no commitment, only obligation. Then there will only be tiredness. The days will continue to be heavy with the bitter taste of a life without transformation. You’ll look for moments of euphoria in an attempt to forget a reality that is empty of meaning.”

As if guessing my next question, he said: “The responsibility I have towards those I love cannot be out of step with the commitment I have towards myself, otherwise I’ll be inconsistent with the truth that serves as my beacon. The responsibility I have with you is limited to the commitment you must have with yourself to move forward of your own free will. Love that creates unnecessary dependencies is not love, but abuse and domination; foremanship and servitude; burden and fear.”

“Love does not flourish far from freedom and dignity; without it you will not live in peace or know happiness. Love is the sail that propels the boat towards evolution, will is the wind. Wisdom is the helm that prevents you from drifting.

I wanted to know why he no longer told the stories that kept his people’s philosophy alive. Starry Song surprised me: “Have you ever seen a bee stop making honey? I haven’t stopped, it’s my gift. I think I’ll keep telling stories until the day I travel to the Great Mystery”. Stunned, I remembered what had happened that morning. The shaman amazed me: “Some of the best stories are those in which the spectators participate as characters.”

Curious, I asked about the next events. He shrugged and said: “This is one of those stories where even the narrator doesn’t know the ending, because he too has agreed to take part as one of the characters.” The shaman put his finger in front of his lips as if asking for a secret.

The days passed. Everywhere I went, people commented on Starry Song’s decision not to tell his famous stories anymore. Like that Saturday in his backyard, some were grateful for the good he had sown for so long; others were bitter and considered him selfish or lazy. Some labelled the shaman vain, believing that his aim was to make people beg for the ceremonies to return. I decided it was for the best if I told the shaman about what I heard so that he’d be prepared for all kinds of reactions. Star Song arched his lips in a smile and said: “Indignation portrays someone’s interests and certainties. It reveals the contents of their heart. Although it deserves my respect and consideration, it has no power to coerce my truth.”

He looked up at the star-filled sky as he turned to me and reminded me: “No one’s hatred will have the strength to diminish the love I carry within me.” He waited for me to understand the sentence and warned: “Never forget that. It will always be necessary”. Before I could make any comment, he excused himself and went to sleep.

The following weekend one of Sedona’s most traditional festivals took place. At the top of a hill, where the town’s aerodrome used to be, a stage was set up for concerts and, around it, there were several stalls with typical treats, drinks and food. On Saturday afternoon, the festivities began. I went there with Starry Song, but soon lost sight of him. I didn’t take much notice. Local bands played regional music, alternating with dance performances. Everyone was in high spirits and I was having a great time with a group of friends. In the middle of the night, the town’s friendly mayor took over the microphone to give his usual thanks. Then, to everyone’s surprise, including mine, he announced a well-known local artist. Yes, it was him, Starry Song. I was worried when I heard a huge boo. Many people were still upset with the shaman. I watched as the same articulate girl who was in his house shouted: “Get out of here! You’ve abandoned us. We don’t want you anymore! Go away!” This led to other people joining in the protests. Although we don’t always realise it, hate is a drug that has a huge number of addicts; it spreads quickly and is widely accepted when offered. The most serious thing is that its adherents don’t recognise they´re using it, because it is a substance ingested without matter, which doesn’t need to be bought or prepared for consumption. It has been ready for centuries and is available in certain astral bands; all we have to do is connect. Most people don’t even notice their addiction.

Worried, I rushed to the front of the stage. The serenity of Starry Song remained unshaken. In that instant, I realised the power that is born when we stand on the axis of intrinsic truth, the one that doesn’t mix with the fear of others, the darkness of the world or petty interests. A power that isn’t frightened by the impulsive reaction of the herd or the shouts of those who use words as if they were stones. Souls like the shaman’s have chosen freedom as their path of evolution. There is no freedom without love. At that moment, I realised the personal dimension of truth as the determining factor in who wears handcuffs or wings. The degree of truth (at the level each person knows it) applied to life establishes the coherence we have with ourselves and the attunement we maintain with the Light.

Unfazed, sitting on a stool, the shaman gently beat his two-sided drum. Nothing could be heard over the din. He didn’t seem to mind and continued to play softly. Gradually, the protests subsided and we realised it was an ancient song with a well-paced melody. As many people knew it, they accompanied the shaman when he recited the poem that was part of the song in native dialect. I didn’t know the meaning of the words, but I knew it was about the honey produced by a bee and used to feed the entire hive. It ended by saying that the honey explained the meaning of the bee’s life. Exercising the gift gives this power; no one practises the gift without love. I realised a pleasant and growing feeling. Some people sang emotionally to themselves, as if they could embrace the stars through that song.

At the end, when everyone was waiting for other songs, there was a marvellous surprise. The shaman began to narrate: “When the bison were still countless on the plains of this land, there was a village…” and was interrupted by a thunderous applause. A young couple next to me, holding hands and tears in their eyes, were celebrating: he’s back, he’s back. If you’ve never been to the mountains of Arizona, you might think it’s crazy how much emotion and feeling was involved that day. The fact is that most of those people had the philosophical basis of their lives grounded in the stories told, for decades, by Starry Song. Although few people realised it, that simple, routine activity had built the existential pillars of several generations. However, while some were grateful, others felt abandoned when he told them he had made a different choice. Perception and sensitivity. The difference was explained by the lenses and filters that each person was able to use to live.

Starry Song waited for the silence to return and continued: “It was a very prosperous and peaceful village. All the inhabitants were dedicated to growing wheat, duly organised in their roles. Soil preparation, fertilising, sowing, germination care, pest protection, irrigation and harvesting. Then baling, transporting and selling some of the wheat to other villages. They also threshed the ears to make bread, which was then eaten or sold. The money raised was used to buy other food and various utensils for the village. Everything worked well and everyone was happy.”

“One day, at one of the tribe’s meetings, one of the inhabitants spoke about the importance of diversifying their crops, not only as a form of investment, but also for protection. Each product has its own characteristics of strength and fragility. He argued how important this was, not only in the face of the weather, but also in terms of the impermanence of life, which changes so that we can move forward. His ideas were immediately rejected. The most common argument was why change something that has always worked?”

“They also said that bread was the staple food of all peoples and would never stop being eaten. There was nothing to worry about and no reason to change. Manitú, as this man was called, reminded them that understanding change and being adaptable to it is an indispensable reason for self-improvement that no one can escape for long. Respecting change teaches us about freedom; it is also its best exercise. What’s more, diversifying means broadening possibilities, it doesn’t mean turning your back on tradition or denying the goals that have been achieved. To deny coexistence with differences is to make the world smaller; to close oneself off to the new is to restrict life.”

“There was no way round it, nobody understood the need for movement and change. After all, life was comfortable. Finally, the proposal was rejected. This inhabitant decided that, despite the tribe’s understanding, he would grow maize, albeit alone. There were many protests and allegations of misconduct; behaviour that broke the unity of the village. He argued that it wouldn’t alter the harmony of the tribe, since growing maize wouldn’t affect the routine of growing wheat. He would be using land that was not used by the village. He therefore felt that he had the right to make this choice. After much discussion, it was decided that he could dedicate himself to the new activity, as long as it didn’t disrupt the village’s routine. Not without first reminding him how benevolent they were being. They also decided that he would no longer be able to partake of the blessings provided by the wheat or share in the bread produced.”

“Although he wasn’t expelled from the tribe, there was a silent banishment, also known as marginalisation, meaning that those who don’t fit in or don’t seem to fit in with the dominant course of a society are placed on the margins of ordinary life. Not infrequently, they become the target of malicious criticism, stone-throwers and the like. They remember the inconvenience they cause without bothering to understand the reasons for it. It’s incredibly easy for us to restrict other people’s choices so that we don’t have to leave our comfort zone”. He paused briefly, looked at the audience and said: “I’m speaking purely from inference, because none of us would be capable of such a practice.” Absolute silence.

The shaman continued: “Manitú went through enormous difficulties in his first year. He felt isolated because of the discrimination he suffered. People even refused to talk to him. Even though he had some savings, he often had to buy food from neighbouring tribes or from merchants who visited the village, because the members of his own tribe refused to do any business with him. He experienced hunger and abandonment, but he didn’t give up.”

“Then came the harshest winter ever known. Not even the elders remembered such a cold and inhospitable season. Most of the wheat crop was lost. In spring, along with pollination, that year also came a plague that wiped out what was left of the wheat. The imponderable happened. Everyone was frightened and desperate. The village revolved around growing wheat. That year there wasn’t a single ear of wheat to thresh.”

“When a meeting was called to discuss solutions, none of the proposals seemed encouraging because they had more negative aspects than positive ones. However, a decision had to be made, even if it was the least worse one.”

“That’s when Manitú asked to speak. Although they were surprised that he was there, as a member of the tribe he had the right to be there and, more importantly, to speak out, even if it was against everyone’s will. In fact, the people were so discouraged that they didn’t even care. In a serene tone and with great clarity, Manitú said that because maize was more resistant to the cold and immune to that kind of plague that had ravaged wheat, it had come through that difficult period unscathed. He explained that the region’s soil was very favourable to its cultivation. The crop had grown dramatically and as it had a shorter agricultural cycle, it allowed for more than one harvest each year. To everyone’s surprise, he said that he would need help, not only with the harvest, but also with the sowing, which would soon begin. He proposed that part of the village’s wheat crop be turned into maize and offered to teach the management techniques he had learnt in practice, as they were useful for increasing productivity.”

“Without a doubt, it was the best proposal put forward at that meeting. Embarrassed, they asked Manitú how he would enforce labour relations. The good man proposed the unexpected: I’ll share my plantation with you and for the next few years I’ll be part of the village’s wheat harvest. It was a deal I couldn’t refuse, because it wouldn’t generate debts or relations of dependence, vassalage or, worse, submission with the neighbouring tribes.”

“Thanks to Manitú, that year the tribe did not experience hunger and misery. A long time later, when the village had returned to prosperity, a new leader had to be chosen for the tribe. His name was remembered and acclaimed. However, another surprise. Manitú refused. He proposed that, instead of power being centralised in the hands of a single person, it would be wiser to form a group of men and women who, because of their experiences and legacies, would be able to guide the future direction of the tribe. Everyone was delighted with the idea. This is how the Council of Elders originated in the native tradition, which has as its backbone the commitment to individual freedom as the source of social well-being.”

He paused briefly to conclude: “Respect for individual behaviour and choices is the basis of collective freedom. Without it, there will never be freedom”.

Moved, people smiled and applauded at the same time. Those who had been at the shaman’s house on the day he said he would end his career as a storyteller had the sensitivity to see themselves as characters in the story he had just told, done with such subtlety that, even though they understood the role they were playing, they didn’t feel offended. On the contrary, they were enchanted by the delicacy of the learning. In gratitude, Starry Song just smiled with joy. As he was leaving the stage, he turned to the audience and reminded them that he was waiting for them the following Saturday: “I’ll be sitting at the foot of the oak tree”.  

Later, on the porch of his house, the shaman was lighting up his customary pipe with a red stone stummel, when I remarked that it was one of the most interesting stories he had ever told, in which fiction and reality blend to teach a valuable lesson. Starry Song shook his head and revealed: “There will be no honey without a bee, just as there will be no joy without freedom. This is the foundation of Bee Medicine in shamanic philosophy.”

“Contrary to common belief, and despite the name given, a beehive is not dominated by the queen bee. The queen has the important function of maintaining the species. Just that. Each bee understands exactly how much freedom it has, but it also knows that it must not deny the hive prosperity. These aspects coexist in harmony because, in return, no bee will be forgotten or abandoned by the hive.”

“To do the right thing is to act in coherence with your truth, the way you already understand it, even if no one else does. Believe me, this is no small feat. However, don’t forget that the honey of life, that ingredient that enlivens your days and strengthens your wings, cannot be denied to anyone.”

I wanted to know what was the honey of life that he was referring to. Starry Song said: “There are many marvellous things in life. But for the days to be joyful, it is necessary to understand the meaning of each one of them.” He puffed once more, looked up at the sky, shrugged and finished: “Without love, no one will find the meaning of anything.”

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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