The room was filled with well-meaning, New Age seekers, all rapt with attention as Don Alberto expounded the simple virtues of a relationship with nature, the need for things to be less tense and complicated; a personal empowerment to let go of our obsessions, fears, and pessimism, so that something new can enter.
His teaching is, in the end, probably not too far off some of the material we are more familiar with from modern Western spiritual practices; but the language is different, a heartfelt, less complicated message that extols the virtues of relationship with the planet, not in the political or sentimental terms that our intellectual society gives us, but instead a call to something more direct—more practical and organic.
Skeptics, cynics, and modern medicine will undoubtedly discount what the Don Albertos of the world say; yet have they offered us anything better? It seems not. Modernism, what one might call non-traditional culture, cultivates exploitative relationships rather than cooperative ones. We exploit nature; we exploit one another. I recall one wag who said "in capitalism, man exploits man; in socialism, it's the opposite."
We forget the emotive value of our relationship with simple things like water, the forest; a soft voice singing and a thumb beating gently on a drum. There's a numbness in us, born of sensory overload, a surfeit of data, and the compulsion to shovel everything we can into our mouths, our ears, and our eyes, for fear that we might miss something.
Don Alberto's approach is, perhaps, too simple for most "developed" folks; we don't come from the mountains in Ecuador, and we're not surrounded by nature. Most of us live in the suburbs or cities, and our contact with nature is minimal at best. But his reminders are vitally important. As Edward O. Wilson has pointed out, our organisms originally evolved specifically for taking in impressions of the natural world. Starving ourselves of these impressions, he argues, actually creates psychological deficits which we are unaware of.
Those of us with a slightly less biological, more spiritual tilt might put it in other, more personal terms: only if we fulfill this duty to ourselves and the planet can we help grow a whole Being. Things have become unbalanced; and in our characteristic sense and manner of approaching the world, we create environmental movements, causes, grand gestures to push things back in the right direction. We forget the very small gestures that can be made within ourselves, in the places where real change actually might occur; as Don Alberto advised us, touching the petals of a flower. Or drinking a glass of water much more slowly, to appreciate its qualities. No extravagant claims; just a request that we place our attention where it belongs. Right here, right now.
Perhaps we have become too modern to believe in the apparent naïveté of a sacred quality in water itself; of the idea that a feather can be used to brush away negative thoughts. But if so, I think we've lost more than we imagine. A sense of the magical is needed in life, and once it's exterminated, what is left? Each one of these gestures and ideas touches an unknown that lies beyond the reach of our ordinary senses; each one of them inspires a part of us that has a wish for the good.
This is certainly the central message Don Alberto brought; we do have a wish for the good in ourselves, and we can cultivate it. We can exhale the things in our lives that create negativity, and make room to receive something new; something different.
In these small ways, in this search to rekindle our wish for the good, we can make a difference that begins at home, right here, right now; not on the scale of nations and governments, but on the scale of our own Being.
Thanks, Don Alberto, for reminding us of that so gently, and with so much love.