The questions we face today are no different than those faced by our predecessors: How do I live authentically? How do I achieve peace of mind without turning my back on those in need? How do I attune myself to the world around me?
For the ancient Toltecs and the civilizations they inspired, the highest expression of their lifeway was embodied in the mystical philosophy of Flower-and-Song.
Flower-and-Song is a difrasismo, a common form of expression in the Nahuatl language that uses two words to form a metaphor for a third, more expansive, concept. It is often translated as "poetry" but its meaning is more comprehensive than that, indicating that its practitioners strive to live a "poetic life." Examining the difrasismo a little makes this clear.
Flower in this context involves a three-stage engagement with the world. The first stage involves seeing each moment--and whatever that moment holds--as perfect as a blossoming flower. The second stage involves seeing each moment--and whatever that moment holds--as already fading and passing into death. The final stage involves bearing these two visions simultaneously in the heart, engaging the moment and what it holds with the full emotional realization that it is perfect and dying.
Far from an intellectual exercise, this practice demands the greatest courage, for to face these two soul-shattering emotions at the same time requires us to open ourselves to the profoundest joy and grief all at once. Without flinching from the perfection before us, we are filled with awe at the impossibility of spirit taking form in matter. Without flinching from the inevitable death of everything we know and love, we cannot help but burst apart with grief and empathy.
This is a lifeway, in other words, of spirit warriors, those who exert constant effort to defeat their self-defeating attitudes and behaviors. It is the lifeway of those who use death to awaken authentic gratitude for being alive and sharing this shape-shifting perfection with others. When we experience it fully, Flower evokes a kind of spiritual nostalgia for the present moment that ennobles us and all our lives touch.
Song in this context means that the most authentic act we can perform is to give expression to the dual realization attained in Flower. This is the reason that the difrasismo is generally translated as "poetry." But the deeper implication of this mystical philosophy of life means that Song involves treating every moment as an opportunity to express the truth of Flower. It involves treating this entire lifetime as a single act of expressing the continuous vision of Flower. It means using every thought, word and deed to embody the lifeway of Flower-and-Song.
Treating all things as miracles that pass away too soon, our thoughts, speech and actions take on a new caliber and timbre. We concentrate on what is present instead of what is absent and we discover new depths of patience and tolerance. Our lives take on greater meaning and our contributions meet with greater success. We treat everything and everyone more nobly and we are enriched immeasurably.
As a spiritual practice, Flower-and-Song enters each moment asking two questions: What is in front of me? How am I treating it?
What is in front of me? opens us to the ultimately unknowable nature of the world. By questioning the absolute nature of our perceptions, we come to accept the extraordinary mystery everywhere veiled by ordinary appearances. It is a question that, once taken seriously, forces to us to look closer at the world: Is this merely what I have become accustomed to seeing through daily contact--or is it the sea of spirit in all its manifest forms?
How am I treating what is in front of me? demands that we watch our inner actions--our thoughts and intentions, our wishes aimed at things outside ourselves--as well as our outer demeanor and reactions. Am I acting nobly or mean-spiritedly? Am I ennobling my life or trivializing it? Am I rising above pettiness or descending into it? Am I treating others like superiors or inferiors, all in pursuit of my self-interest--or as peers bravely facing their own death as well as they can? Am I spreading ill will, discord and sorrow wherever I go--or compassion, collaboration and joy?
In our book, The Toltec I Ching, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and I discuss the deeper implications of such a spiritual practice:
The spirit warrior breaks through the barrier separating matter and spirit. Such a barrier is erected in our minds by the constant training we receive from those who find advantage in promoting the separation of people from nature, from each other, and from their own true self. If people everywhere perceived matter and spirit to be the same thing, after all, the ignorance, cruelty, and suffering that make up much of human history would end. If we were all to experience the material form of nature as spirit, we would stop harming it by diminishing it faster than we help it replenish itself. If we were all to experience the material form of people everywhere as spirit, we would stop harming one another by acting as if our own rights and desires were superior to their own. If we were all to experience the material form of our own individual bodies as spirit, we would stop harming ourselves by doubting that every thought, feeling, and action plays a pivotal role in eternity. Breaking through such a mental barrier is a matter of constant training, as well. If we do not use every thought, feeling, and action to intensify our experience of matter as spirit, we continue to desecrate the temple of nature, the temple of civilization, and the temple of individuality.
Those following the lifeway of Flower-and-Song find that it reveals the wellspring of rejoicing forever bubbling just beneath the surface of appearances. It engages the world as a vast mystery of unimaginable potentials and aims to participate in its ongoing creation in ways that benefit the most. It is not so much something we do on our own as much as it is music we hear and feel and long to play, a dance we cannot wait to join. It arises from our depths to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Holding to such a practice for extended periods of time has certain foreseeable consequences. By forcing us to focus complete attention on appreciating the perfection of everything as well as mourning its inevitable passing, it trains us to attend fully to the moment, drop off inner talk, participate in life authentically, and honor everything as an equal knowing it must die.
But it has certain unforeseeable consequences, as well. By blurring the imaginary boundary between self and world, it opens new senses and allows us to perceive the spirit within all matter. By blurring the imaginary line between flawed and flawless, it opens our hearts to the sacredness of all form. By blurring the imaginary boundary between animate and inanimate, it opens our eyes to the formless awareness forever transcending the very form it inhabits. By blurring the imaginary line between time and space, it opens our minds to the unchanging presence through which all changing forms move.
The Lifeway of Flower-and-Song, then, is a spiritual practice of Inner Activism--it sensitizes us to our tendencies toward self-interest and alienation, replacing self-defeating habits with those of spontaneity, creativity, and good will. It shifts our focus away from personal success toward a heartfelt longing for peace and prospering for all.
And it constantly reminds us that the Golden Age of Humanity is within our reach if we but dare hold out our hand.
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.