The Man and the Lake: Reflections on Sharing the Sacred
One day a lone man was hiking high upon a desolate but well known trail in the Western United States. Stopping for a break, he pulled out his map and studied it. So many people had been on this trail, he thought, as high and difficult as it was. He wondered if there was anything else to discover. It wasn’t that he was bored as much as he was curious. Using all his skills as a hiker and cartographer, he saw a ridge that went along a canyon that held a small, unnamed lake. An adventurous soul, he decided to leave the main trail and follow what appeared to be little more than a game trail into the deep forest toward his new destination.
Two hours later, the man found himself on a ridge at the edge of the canyon he had seen on the map. Looking down into it, he saw a small, perfectly round lake, glistening indigo under a sky as blue as any Tahitian ocean. The man’s breath caught in his throat. It looked like a portal. It looked like the eye of Mother Earth, or a vortex. Being overtaken with its beauty, he placed his heavy pack on the ground and sat on a great stone that overlooked the canyon and the lake with its shimmering surface, nestled as a sparkling jewel in the verdant valley below. As he did so, he felt in communion with not only the water, but the whole scene. Something akin to deep truth arose in his heart, and tears came to his eyes.
The man sat there a very long time, taking in as much as he could hold in his mind and soul. The vision of the water in particular seemed to satisfy a thirst that had been a part of him for most of his life. He welcomed the truth, which was more like a flavor or a scent than a meal or a flower. He was unaware of any bodily senses; was immune to the heat, physical hunger and thirst that had been his focus minutes before he sat, which he did for an extended period of time. A golden eagle turned overhead and a black bear investigated this unfamiliar intruder from a mere thirty yards, but the man was unaware.
As dusk began to approach, the man returned from his trance. He had a choice. He could either bushwhack his way to the campsite to which he had been travelling before his detour, or he could pick his way down into the valley and camp by the lakeshore. If he continued towards his original destination, who knows what other beautiful sights awaited him. All he had to do was to get to the campsite and he would find friends and acquaintances that were expecting him that evening or the next day. He would have company, good food and conversation, something he had not had for the better part of a week. Still, he could not fathom in his mind a greater sight than this, and his heart glowed in a way he could not describe.
The man decided to stay near the lake.
It was without a sense of urgency that he picked his way down the canyon. Still, in a corner of his mind, he knew he would suffer if he hadn’t the time to make a meal and a fire before complete darkness shushed all he could see and bid the world sleep. However, as nothing could distract him from his experience on the ridge, worry had no place in him. And he was right not to worry. He made it to his destination in time to take care of all his needs. He settled into a warm sleeping bag and slept under stars that only enhanced his sense of wonder infused with an extraordinary sense of gratitude.
The next morning, the man noticed in his breast only a slightly diminished sense of the feelings he had felt the previous evening. He felt as if he could stay there forever. But as much as he was in love with all he had experienced, he knew that his friends would worry if he remained much longer. A not-unwelcome sense of the cares of the physical world came into his consciousness. After all, it was good to be wanted somewhere, he thought to himself. He got up and stretched and stowed his sleeping gear. He made and cleaned breakfast, secured his pack and sat down on it, watching the lake awaken with concentric ripples from feeding fish dotting her surface, evidence of life beneath her surface as vibrant as the light that reflected from her meditative face.
The man took a small glass bottle from his packet that had recently been full of his last soda, a treat he was in the habit of packing on long trips. He unscrewed the cap and, shimmying out onto a log, submerged the bottle well under the surface. When he brought it up, he held it aloft to the sky and examined its contents. The man could see nothing but clear glass. The water inside was without blemish, as clear as a child’s conscience. He placed the cap back on the bottle, stowed it carefully and began his hike out of the valley of the sacred lake.
That evening around a campfire with his friends, the man tried to explain his experience with the hidden lake.
“It was awesome,” the man said. “I mean, in the true sense of the word. It took my breath away. I was blown away by this place.” He wanted to say more, to use words that were less common, but none came to mind that he felt were adequate.
A friend chimed in. “Yeah, there’s supposed to be another cool lake just off the trail a few miles. Maybe we can all travel together today and camp there tonight.”
Another acquaintance told of a different lake that supposedly was once an ancient Native American summer campsite.
The man returned to his subject. “Yeah, but this place was really something. I’ve never experienced anything like it…” his voice trailed off.
The two friends that had spoken up thought it odd that the man was playing the “better than you” game with something as common as a high mountain lake. They had all felt awe at the sight of pristine nature, had all been breathless with wonder while perched on a canyon rim. And then the man did something even stranger.
“This is the lake,” he said, holding the bottle aloft so that it sparkled in the campfire. He brought the bottle down and held it with two hands as a new mother holds an infant, with deep reverence. He gazed at the bottle like a lover. Someone tittered.
“Kinda small,” one guy joked from the circle.
“No wonder you haven’t caught any fish,” another giggled.
“As hot as it was today, I’d have drunk that sucker,” one slightly inebriated young man spoke up.
“In fact, I’m kinda thirsty now,” he joked as he lunged for the bottle. “Gimme that!”
“No!” the man yelled, far louder than was necessary. His voice echoed in the darkness. Silence reigned as they all stared at him.
A couple stood up to make their ways to their tents. One muttered, “ok, this is weird…” The rest gazed at the man as he held his bottle, who was chagrined and surprised at their reaction to something so important to him.
One by one, the small group filtered quietly off to their tents. Eventually, the man was left alone, except for an attractive young woman he did not know that just happened to be in their camp for the evening. He kept his eyes down, staring at the bottle, trying to remember how he had felt near the lake just twenty four hours before. He’d felt so “held”, so connected. Now he just felt lonely. If he closed his eyes, he could still place himself near her, could still feel her truth. Instead, he felt empty inside because of his inability to share his feelings adequately. He felt like a fool.
The young woman stared at him intently from across the campfire.
“Where was that lake?” she asked.
The man paused, trying to gauge her sincerity without looking up. “Well, it was a few miles back and off the main trail,” he finally answered. “You’d have to backtrack a long ways and I can’t even tell you how to get there going the direction I came into camp. I had to sort of bushwhack to get here.” He hadn’t taken his eyes from the bottle.
The young woman considered his words. “Well,” she said, “I’m not on anyone’s schedule out here. I have plenty of food. Why don’t you just tell me what you can? I want to see the lake for myself.”
The man looked into her eyes. She was sincere. What a relief! He told her everything he could about how to get to the lake. They thanked one another sincerely, hugged, bade each other goodnight and went to their respective tents.
In the morning, the man arose before the others. He thought it best to just get on the trail to avoid any further needling about the uncomfortable situation the night before. The thought of that idiot using his water to make coffee or something terrified him, anyway. Plus he wanted to see that nice young woman again, to at least say good morning. He looked in the direction of her campsite. She had already gone. Her tent site held the imprint of her tent. A big heart was drawn into the pressed earth. Small footprints went in the direction he had told her to go.
The man smiled.
Later that day, the man camped alone by another lake much further down the main trail. As he suspected, as beautiful as it was, it held none of the power of the Sacred Lake. He kept the bottle, which he had further sealed by dripping candle wax around the bottle cap, under his pillow. He dreamed of the lake. He dreamed of the young woman.
Miles away, the young woman gazed at stars that seemed to have multiplied in the face of a lake so still it mirrored the sky without a flaw. Her lower legs were scratched; a result of bushwhacking through the forest underbrush. One knee was skinned and dirty due to a fall caused by a hidden root. Yet in spite of her injuries, a single, grateful tear coursed down a slightly trail-worn cheek and landed with a small thud on the dusty, thirsty earth.
In her hands, she held a bottle of water as clear as the sky itself.
PART 2: QUESTIONS
How did the man come to wonder about the lake?
Where was the lake hidden?
Describe his experience to yourself. Do you think he would describe the experience differently? Why?
What happened when he tried to describe the experience to his friends and acquaintances?
What are your thoughts about the man’s decision to introduce the bottle of water as the lake itself? What impact had his choice of words on his audience? How are the bottle and the lake the same? How are they different?
By the end of the story, only one other person was in a position to relate to the experience of the man. Who was this person, and why were they able to comprehend it?
What effort did it take for her to make that journey? How was she prepared to do so?
In Matthew 7:6, Jesus is recorded as saying, “” How is this concept, (as harsh as it may sound in our culture), applicable in the story?
Are spiritual concepts adequately presented in spoken or written language? Explain.
Are there more appropriate ways than speaking to teach spiritual concepts? Explain.
PART 3: EXPLANATION
The point of the story is to explore the concept of sharing the sacred. Most of us have had the experience of being unable to accurately relate an event that is dear to us. “You kind of had to be there” is something we’ve all said, which is usually followed by an awkward feeling of disappointment felt by both the one attempting to relate the experience and the audience until someone mercifully changes the subject.
Sharing the sacred, however, is another topic.
For starters, concepts or ideas of this sort are by nature outside the consciousness of most of us. If they can be easily explained, their ability to stretch our souls is likely not that great. It’s an unintended application of Kirkegaard’s words, “Once you name me, you negate me.” Once a powerful spiritual truth, one that has the power to change the course of one’s spiritual life, is “explained” it is deflated. That is because any spiritual truth that would promote change is outside the natural and current understanding of the audience. A fish, after all, doesn’t know he’s in water. It requires a shift in perspective, a shift in paradigm. This is the property of spiritual truths.
This is not to imply that there is no need for spiritual teachings. Not at all. Nor am I implying that there is no value in reiteration of truths the student feels she already knows. Our limbic brain is wont to recall and rehearse past events of all kinds; we evolved that way and in some cases the habit of looking back serves us well. With this habit we can see past actions and beliefs from the perspective of evolving understanding brought by the natural events of life, our experience. Sometimes we have simply forgotten teachings we once knew, and the looking back can bring them to us with new applicability. This habit has served us well in many ways. However, there are limits to the usefulness of restated teachings. In general, they are tragically overused and, in some cases, create a pathological dependence upon and identification with belief, effectively shutting off further epiphanies that might be beneficial.
So how can spiritual truth be communicated?
In the story, the spiritual truth was represented by the man’s experience of the canyon and particularly the lake. It is significant that the inspiring scene was off the beaten trail and that he had to use skills he had already mastered, coupled with natural curiosity, to get to it. Truths that stretch us are always off the beaten trail otherwise they would not stretch us. Also, there is a type of hierarchical order to revelation – it always builds on the well-used skills of the individual. Just as the man needed to be curious, a cartographer, adventurous and out in the wild in the first place in order to be in a position to experience the lake, we need these skills, speaking metaphorically as well as literally, in order to find our own lakes.
So again, how can spiritual truth be taught? I submit that deep truths cannot be taught at all. They must be experienced. To teach a powerful spiritual truth – one that has the ability to positively influence ones connection to Life – the student must be placed in a position to learn, within a sacred space, and allow Spirit to teach what the student is ready to hear, something that any helpful and competent spirit working with Creator already knows. A teacher knows from experience how to create that portal, that space, so that the student can walk alone to the altar. I submit that for the teacher to do otherwise is an egoic act of self-congratulation at worst and ineffective at best. What follows this “instructional misbehavior” are people acting out in moral or ethical ways but without a spiritual foundation that would actually make ethics and morals a part of their souls. In other words, good actions and habits are hollow and without benefit to the soul if they do not spring from it. Their roots do not reach the heart, and this is where the soul resides. And when deep tests arise that challenge that persons ideas about the value of those actions in relation to other “good things” that a truly ethical and moral person would dismiss out of hand, the person who simply is in the habit of “acting good” will choose the path that most appeals to whatever “good” the mind, rather than the soul, can construct. We see this constantly in the actions of otherwise good people that seem to turn on a dime to do things that are unethical or even scandalous.
In the story, the man hopes to share his bliss with a disparate group of hikers. First he uses words to no effect other than to bring to the minds of a couple of his acquaintances some experiences they’d had in the past; there was no “expansion” there. Seeing that was insufficient, he brought something even more sacred than the words he’d used to describe his experience out for the audience to behold: the bottle of water. This had an even worse effect, for now there was an object for the disinterested to ridicule, rather than simply rudely ridiculing the man himself. In the end, the only way to communicate the experience he’d had was to instruct the one party prepared to experience it on the subject of how to potentially have the experience herself. This is the point of the story. He did not offer to guide her there, to halt his own journey and retrace his own steps. After all, the teacher is on his own journey. He told her how she might find the place and left the rest to her and, if you will, luck or Creator. Whether she had the skill to do so or not was based on her own preparation physically and emotionally. Her ability to sustain her desire to reach the site when she encountered obstacles would also come into play. As is the case in all spiritual quests, she had apparently experienced some by the time she reached the site. Her skinned knee and scratched legs were testaments to her determination and the rigors of the way. There is no easy path to the growth of the soul.
I am not affiliated with any religion, but I have a rich personal and familial history in a well-known Christian sect which I left of my own accord nearly eight years ago. I was involved in administration for a few years, but usually I was called to be a teacher while in that sect. I taught for almost two decades. My students varied from the very old to the very young and every age in between. Now, as a shamanic practitioner and full-fledged Lakota Sun Dancer, I have the opportunity to teach spiritual concepts to people who are looking for ways to connect to Creator and Life outside of conventional religion. Drawing on my own experience while completely re-learning a spiritual paradigm with a minimal amount of dogmatic intervention, noting the amount and intensity of foibles that have come as a result, I am convinced that the only way to teach spiritual concepts is in the most general and least dogmatic way possible. Generally these involve solitude and intended privation such as fasting. They involve copious, specific, dedicated preparation by the aspirant as well. In my case, words and advice had very little effect (just ask my teachers, Mike Masterson, Jim “Redtail” Collins and Eddie James). I had to experience for myself the truth, the lake.
I suspect that when it comes to truths that have the ability to transform us, deep spiritual growth, we all share that commonality. It is time the spiritual teacher put her effort into creating space and stepping back from the student, rather than ascending to a pulpit and teaching without discrimination. Whether we are formal or informal teachers of transcendent truths, and whether the space is a temple or sweat lodge, a living room or a camp fire, may we be cognizant of the power of experience and the limiting character of the spoken language. Let Creator determine what salve to apply to each soul.