I had gathered the materials Shaman had asked me to gather: three candles, one red, one white, one blue, and a box of wooden matches. He had prepared a private meeting space in which we could practice. He directed me to arrange a place on the floor where I would sit and perform the ritual. I arranged my materials in front of me: candles to one side, matches to another, a plate on which to stand the candles, and a small bread dish for burnt matches. I waited for the lesson to begin.
We sat there for some time in silence. Sometimes he would do this, just randomly. He would stop, do nothing, and wait for me to notice something. It reminded me of the stories of the martial arts masters who would take on a pupil. Unlike our school system, which involved a lot of talking, this form of learning involved a lot of noticing. It was a very difficult mode for me to slip into. I was used to the chatter of a classroom, not the silence of the real world. Changing gears was mind-bending.
“You have already completed the first four steps of the ritual,” he began. “Can you tell me what those steps were?”
“Um….” I looked at him blankly, my mind racing through possibilities of what he might mean. “Well, I just set everything up…” I began.
“Yes… That’s number four,” he hinted, “what else?”
I thought back, but my mind was blanking. Usually I was good at being put on the spot like this. I never minded in class when the teacher caught me off guard because I could usually talk my way out of it. I knew the teachers means me no harm. My banshee of a mother, on the other hand, she would catch me off guard and demand in tones of fire and brimstone for me to justify the smallest of activities. “Why are you sitting there?!” she would yell, as if that was the worst crime in the world, and I had to guess why. Usually it was because she hadn’t done something and was feeling bad about it and projecting it all on me, but lord knows if I was honest, I’d get back-handed across the room. Over the years I became an expert at scrambling for a plausible answer that could soothe her rage. Teachers were easy. They were not about to hit you and they actually delighted when you got the right answer. Instead of feeling disarmed like my mother, they would express joy as if I’d given them a gift. It made classroom participation easy.
I was thoroughly surprised that my mind was blanking now. Shaman’s deep voice was soothing and nonjudgmental, I knew I had nothing to fear. The only thing that I could think is that this was the first teacher I wanted to impress, not just a teacher I had to impress. And that little added pressure was enough to flummox me. I also waited to long to answer, so he spoke up.
“The first step we took together: we gathered the tools. There’s one step that I took, and that was preparing the space, that’s number two. You also prepared yourself, that’s number three. Preparing the tools for use, as you said, was step four.”
“The foundation number!” I suggested, hoping to win back some of my honor.
“Oh?” he asked, inviting me to say more with out revealing anymore himself. Shaman played his cards close to his chest, that was for sure.
“In the Tarot, Numerology, and for the East… The number four is the foundation number: a square has four sides, doors and windows have four corners, a four-legged chair is more sturdy than a three-legged chair, there are four seasons in the year, four Quarters that are called for the four cardinal directions, and then there’s the quatrain: thought, word, deed, creation….”
I was in rapid-fire answer mode now. This is how I would b.s. my way through answers when I was put on the spot at school. If I could latch on to one thought, I could start talking stream-of-consciousness, just letting my mind flow. One though would lead to another thought, which would lead to a story I could tell, or an explanation I could give, and I could watch my teacher’s reaction to know whether or not I was on the right track. Even if I wasn’t, it was an attempt that earned me class participation points. But I knew I was on to something here, as I saw his reaction. I continued on…
“The whole string is: thought, word, deed, creation, reputation, legacy…”
Shaman beamed, “I like that! Yes, we visualize the ritual, we gather the materials…”
“Like we gather our thoughts!” I added, and he touched the tip of his nose to indicate I’d nailed it.
He went on, “Now we put into action the Purpose we wish to do….”
“What’s our purpose here?” I interrupted.
“To light a candle,” he said, without missing a beat (which I took note of— he’d obviously made the decision ahead of time and kept in mind exactly what we were on about, and nothing more; there was no hemming or hawing about boundaries or perhaps doing more than he initially planned— we were about one purpose and one purpose only: lighting a candle), “and to learn,” he added, and I chuckled to myself.
“So you have your candle and your matches arranged, that’s good. I want you to go ahead and pick up the white candle, close your eyes, and just give me a sense of what you feel.”
I picked up the white candle and felt… Nothing. I tried reaching my perception into it. Nothing was there. I must have either been taking too long, or betrayed my confusion in my face, because before I could open my eyes he said: “Okay, that was kind of a trick question.” I then realized how I’d been had, so when I opened my eyes I replied, “the white candle is the blank page…”
His eyes lit up. “Exactly so!” Now try the red candle.
I picked it up and rubbed my hands over it, and started describing immediately. “The lush red velvet seats at the symphony hall, the red curtains of the theater, good luck lanterns on Chinese New Year, strawberries… Sex…”
He nodded after I had listed each thing, eyes lidded. “Mmm… Good. Yes, for us, the candle is a symbol of the body. I’ll be showing more uses for it later. And the blue?”
“Blue is Spirit, eh?” I said, cutting to the chase.
“Right. So now set up your white candle. Arrange everything how you would like it done.”
I did as he asked, arranging things much like a dinner setting. I set a small dish to my upper left, about a foot away from me, where I would be able to safely place used matches. The candle I set directly in front of me, its base was wide enough for it to stand on its own, no candleholder needed. The box of matches I set between me and the candle, with the other two candles set aside to my left. I folded my hands, and looked to him.
“Now light the candle… And describe each step as you do it.”
I could hear in his tone there were tricks he expected me to tumble over, but I had an excellent Education growing up. In my school district, they stared kids out on a planned track for high school starting in Junior High. The genius of the program was whatever you were learning in science related to what you were learning in history, which related to what you were learning in English class, which was related back to how we learn Math and Science. It was brilliant. And for our English class, in preparation for writing lab write-ups for our science class, we were asked to write up directions on how to put on a coat. It was hysterical. The teacher made us stand in front of the class and follow someone else’s notes on how to put on a coat. And because everyone knew how to put on a coat, everyone would overlook simple steps. The result was some people with coats on their head, some tangled in knots, and others got too cute by half and followed the instructions to end up with the coat on their legs.
It was a lesson in details non of us forgot.
I knew I would knock it out of the park.
“I take the box of matches in my right hand, and using the slide behavior inherent to the design of the box, I check to see which end should be up and orient the box so that when it opens, no matches will spill out.
“I take the fingers of my left hand and apply light force to the center of the smallest side of the matchbox, opening it carefully. Once opened wide enough, I then take my same hand and pull a match from the box and set the match down. I then close the box using my left hand again.
“I then trade the box to my left and and take the match in my right. Taking the box firmly but delicately, I orient it so the strike strip opposite my palm. Holding the match between my thumb and the curl of my index finger, I grip it tightly, knowing my intent is to strike the match upon the match box, grazing the strike strip enough to create a friction that will light the match but not destroy the match head.”
I looked up at him and his eyes were half lidded as though he were listening to the sound of a bedtime story. It would be the weirdest bedtime story on earth, which I guess played out was confusion on my face.
“Continue,” he said, “but don’t do anything yet,” he added.
“If the match lights, I then transfer the flame from the match to the candle, then blow out the match and set it on the pre-arranged disposal dish. If the match doesn’t light, I asses why it didn’t light, and if possible, try striking the match again until it lights. If the match cannot light, I dispose of it U lit, and try another match, as per earlier steps…”
He raised a hand to stop me, “I think you get it clearly enough. Go ahead and do it.”
I was crestfallen. Where was my big wow? No, “who taught you that” just fast forward? Okay, I get it, I thought, I knew from before that we don’t do things for the money for the reward, so I guess I don’t go for the praise for the A+ either. I get it. But I was still disappointed.
I lit the candle. He said “Good!” in approving tones. (Were my moods that obvious, or was it just coincidence?) I blew it out. I lit the candle again. He said, “Good!” in the same way, and I knew the game already. I kept lighting the candle, he kept saying, “Good!” I got it. Completion of the act alone is good enough.
In their apartment, his wife had a post-it note on their mirror. old Russian Proverb: Perfection is the enemy of good enough! I guessed that good enough is what I should be happy with. But I wanted more.
I was tired of all the reward without indication why it was good. I’d had enough of that bull. It was like being told I was pretty. I mean, that’s great and all, but pretty never saved me from being abused. It made the abuse worse. Getting praised for no reason meant the praise could evaporate for no reason. That wasn’t a formula. That was luck! And I hated luck. It never showed up when I actually wanted it to. Luck was fickle and capricious. It was not an answer.
As I was lost in thought, I kept lighting the candle. Then there was a point at which I could see that the wax had gotten hot enough where I could light the candle just by “showing” the wick the flame, meaning, I never had to actually touch the wick to light the candle. I knew this trick from, again, Junior High, where they showed us it’s the wax that burns, not the wick, and that wick is a verb, meaning to suck up, and the candle wick wicks up the wax. The wax vapor is what burns, because you can light wax when it reaches its melting point, no wick needed. But the physics of the wick creates a kind of perpetual machine. However, the way we thought it worked was not necessarily how it actually worked, and that’s why scientific investigation is so important.
I performed the wax lighting trick, and the tone of the “Good!” changed. My head snapped up and I looked at him. Why was that different this time? My eyes must have screamed. He waved me on to keep lighting the candle. Defeated again, I didn’t try to repeat the trick. It was all tricks. And I was tired of not knowing something real.
Of course, ten years later I see this with different eyes now. Oh, I had so much wrapped up around me so tight, and I didn’t even realize the pressures on me. He was trying to tell me so much more: that completion of the act is good, but a lot can happen between those start moments… “All of ritual,” he would later explain, is lighting a candle. You have to be sure to out out the match or it will burn your fingers. Did you see in that ritual how he wiped down each of his tools before placing the, back on the alter? He was putting out the match before placing it on the dish. The alter space is the space you arranged before you. It’s all lighting candles…”
One thing I never quite got the hint about, which took my disease telling me, was I needed to SLOW DOWN. I had been running at ninety miles an hour for so long being involved in the dot com industry that I forgot the world didn’t normally run at that pace. I was running hot, and I was burning myself out.
“Stillness,” he kept saying, “is the hardest lesson I had to learn, and I hated it. But it is essential to our practice.”
I thought I knew what he meant. I did, but I had no idea how much.
But that’s what being an initiate is all about.