One of the biggest doses of wisdom I’ve ever experienced came from a man who left school at 14.
A man who had no qualifications to his name, but more life knowledge and knowing about the natural world than I have ever found in another living soul.
I was but a child at the time, riding in the passenger seat of a mid blue Austin Maxi with tan faux leather seats.
My grandfather nodded towards my window and asked if I noticed what was happening over in the distance. I don’t remember my exact words, but I was probably caught up with something else – most likely one of those old Rubik’s Globes or a Choose Your Own Adventure book – I shrugged and replied that I saw fields and trees.
I remember feeling my grandfather’s disappointment as he shook his head. “You look,” he said, “but you don’t see.”
It took years and years for me to understand what he meant.
In my thirties, seeking answers, looking for more than the greyscale, painful world I’d landed in, I sought out and began learning from a shaman.
This wise medicine man hailed from Denmark and had spent decades learning direct from First Nations people across the Americas, before bringing authentic teachings to our shores.
One of the first tasks he asked of me was one that seemed simple on the surface, yet held answers to so many questions.
This medicine man – Chris Lüttichau – told me to go outside, into the fields, and choose a square foot of ground. From there, I was instructed to focus on that tiny patch of earth and notice all that I could, for at least ten minutes.
For someone who was, at the time, ensconced in a brain-based, high-level corporate career, this simple exercise opened doors I hadn’t even realised were closed. That tiny piece of the world carried within it the entire universe: green shoots pushed through next to brown mulch – the cycles of life and death, right there, beneath my feet.
Ants held their focus and carried on with the task they set out to achieve, despite a 5’6” interloper staring at them – utter determination, strength and attention to detail, despite a very large opportunity to call ‘squirrel’.
Flexible shoots of grass made way for more rigid plantlife which, in turn, seemed to be supporting weaker stems; daisies lived harmoniously amongst grasses, moss and the occasional fallen leaf – diversity and teamwork right under my nose.
A tiny spider scurried along at ground level, occasionally using a blade of grass to bypass an obstacle or making last moment changes of direction to ease its journey – again, no distractions, just ingenuity, thinking on all eight feet and holding his goal in mind.
Suddenly, my grandfather’s words made sense and those shades of grey began to shift into a landscape of colour.
It took more than three decades to realise that so many of the answers we seek, the lessons our souls need, really are right in front of us in the natural world. The world we take for granted. The world that passes us by in a blur of random greens, browns and sky-blue hues as we give our focus, instead, to technology, the media and how many likes we get on Facebook.
In this world we live in, it’s too easy for us to become just a head dragging around a body. It’s too easy for us to become disconnected from our heart, from our gut, from the beauty, the enormity and the teachings of the natural world.
It’s too easy for us to look, but not see.
My grandfather had not a qualification to his name. He wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with an iPhone were he here today, yet he could tell you the breed of finch purely by listening to its song. He was acutely aware of the changing seasons and, even all those years ago, spoke of his fears of them blending into one – not through scientific acumen or knowledge of what we now speak of as global warming, but by paying attention to the natural world – the world we miss, not through Rubik’s Globes and Choose Your Own Adventure books, but by giving ourselves to algorithms, smartphones and reality TV.
My grandfather – the man without a standard qualification to his name, but who held the attitude of a hungry learner – the same attitude I’d learn about from a medicine man years after my grandfather’s passing.
My grandfather – the man who frequently defeated the brightest of brains at Scrabble, and was known to ‘accidentally’ knock the board on the rare occasions he lost the lead, then belly laugh and deliver a devastating lesson combining sportsmanship, not taking ourselves too seriously and walking lightly through life.
My grandfather; the man who had no degree, yet was a demon at general knowledge and hugely artistic – the man who could tap into natural instinct to create anything from a beautiful flower arrangement to a three course chef-worthy meal to a piece of furniture.
My grandfather – the man who won war medals but didn’t like to speak of them, who saw lives lost to save even more, and who survived a broken back caused by an enemy bomb.
The man who saw so many atrocities, yet still found so much beauty and wonder in the natural world.
The man who desperately wanted me to grasp the miracles of Mother Nature, the man who would sit watching storms with me on his lap, point out constellations and sit quietly in wait to show me the owl that visited a tree in our neighbourhood.
William Blake spoke of seeing a world in a grain of sand. I found a world in a square foot of earth – a tiny piece of our planet that delivered teachings on holding to our intentions, focusing on the task at hand and not being distracted, recognising and embracing our place in the world, teamwork, tolerance, diversity and the entire cycle of life and death.
It is my hope that in this world full of so many wondrous technological and scientific advances, we remember to pay equal attention to the earth beneath our feet, to the beauty of a sunrise, seen not only on Instagram, but in real-time and with our own eyes, that we tap into that hungry learner attitude and realise that teachings come not only from our mobile devices and TV shows, but from the world beyond our doors, away from our sofas, our offices and our laboratories.
It is my wish – and I hope you will join me – that we all learn – or re-learn – to look and really see, not just with our eyes, but with our hearts, our guts and the memories of those wise people who walked before us and impacted our lives in ways we probably didn’t notice.
Have a wonderful solstice season and a beautiful 2018.
Walk in truth and beauty, Taz!