When I was much younger, I lived with a Native American Nation and was guided by an Elder who had given his life over to the Native spiritual path decades before we met. This commitment was, for him, lifelong and unquestioned. Because our nation was small and very isolated, every man and woman played an important part in tribal life. His was as a spiritual guide to the Elders, Chiefs, and Councils. He was not what is commonly (and wrongly) called a “medicine man.” This responsibility was taken on almost exclusively by the women in our clan, not the men. His role was as a storehouse and interpreter of what our Native spiritual path demanded of each of us. It goes without saying that his words were powerful and respected like few others in our Nation.
When I first met him, he was very old. In fact, he wasn’t sure of his own age (or so he claimed). Despite the frailties of so many years, his mind was sharp and fast, and his heart was pure and powerful. He demanded that I learn from him, and only him, the spiritual way of our Ancestors. He was not particularly interested in the daily events of our people. However, their spiritual needs were something that he never overlooked. I know he changed many lives for the better, mine included.
Life with my Elder was not easy. To call him a task-master would be a monumental understatement. There were many times I hated this wise, acerbic old man; many times that I wanted to never see him again. Yet, he drew me into his own spiritual path despite my fears, laziness, and uncertainty. His words have guided me for many decades, and now that I am near his age when we first met, my love and respect for him has only grown more profound.
Among the the most important of his teachings was that I should never exclude the wisdom of others, even though their beliefs may seem foreign and perhaps even unbelievable. He pushed me into looking at the common threads that can be found among so many indigenous spiritual paths, always assuring me that endless points in common were out there just waiting to be harvested. He considered this search to be one of the principal ways that I could be sure to be on the right spiritual path. It needn’t be Native. It needn’t be anything but true. When I found the wisdom of others that spoke to my heart, he said, I would discover that it would fit with my own beliefs like my own skin. This would be the test of its genuineness and trustworthiness.
My search for these common threads proved to be long and frustrating. There were so many false leads, so many paths that seemed to end exactly where they had started, or worse. It was only after I finally learned to “stop thinking like an Indian and think like some other kind of man” (his words) that I began to discover and collect those threads.
In time, I discovered the words of Lao-tzu, written so many centuries ago in the Tao Te Ching. Over many years, I read every translation that I could get my hands on because this was, as he had predicted, a common spiritual thread that ran though my Native heart and our most revered traditions. Lao-tzu, The Old Man, was himself a Wise Elder in a world that could easily have been my own Native home.
This book, then, is a tribute to Lao-Tzu and a remembrance of those invaluable Native lessons of so long ago that still guide my life. The truth, to my mind, is that these concepts – this way of the Spiritual Path – is singular and shared across many cultures and uncounted centuries. As a Native, I quibble with nothing Lao-Tzu has to offer. As one of the Ancient Ones, I hope he feels the same way about my interpretation of his wisdom, an interpretation drawn from a traditional but personal Native point of view.
Now, a word about pronouns. My native language is English. It is a sad but common situation that the Native tongue that should have been mine is essentially dead, although efforts have been made in recent years to revive it. Although I was taught to not think of most things in terms of gender, the English language seems to demand it at every turn. Therefore, I have elected to use the term “he” far too frequently than I would prefer. However, the term “she” applies equally and in each place that a pronoun is used and seems to fit.
Also, there are a number of characters that appear throughout this book, such as Warrior, Medicine Woman, Elder, Chief, etc. My Native brothers and sisters will immediately recognize the meaning of these characters and their sometimes very subtle nuances. For other readers, please try to find out more about the importance of these characters. They are rich in meaning and steeped in tradition.
Perhaps a polite visit to a Native Elder would be of help.
Finally, like the circle and spiral of all we know and see, this book is not meant to be read from front-to-back.