What I love about animism – that I don’t find in some other systems – is the idea that the enchanted world exists all around us. It isn’t confined to some Golden Age or future utopia. It isn’t confined to pristine wilderness. It is always present. In our hearts. Our homes. Our backyards. Our communities. Our cities. The earth is a single being, not only fully charged but fully enchanted. There is no hierarchy. One doesn’t need to be a priest or any kind of specialist to establish relationships with the world. There are no necessary equipment purchases. The only fee is a requirement to pay attention.
Some animists are religious but I am agnostic so my practice does not include the worship of any deities. I don’t recognize a separation between the sacred and the profane. My idea of a spiritual experience is reflecting on experience itself. If this sounds complicated, maybe I can clarify through sharing a recent experience I had with Jalapeño Pepper.
An Adventure with Sugar and Spice
It all started at the community garden. For the past couple of years I tried to grow jalapeños. They did ok but they weren’t thriving. I wasn’t sure what the problem was so this spring I planted several varieties of peppers to see if the problem was in the soil or in the variety. As I planted the jalapeño I said, “This is your last chance. I won’t plant you again if you don’t want to be here.”
Happily, it has done very well. The leaves are dark green. The plant is sturdy and well balanced. The flowers are lovely. It has reliably produced a lot of fruit.
So much fruit that I decided to make some jelly.
Spoiler: Stuff happened.
Never having made pepper jelly before, I started by reading a ton of recipes. They all included the warning: Wear gloves while handling the peppers.
I scoffed, “Whatever. I’ve lived in Texas for a long time now. I think I know a bit about peppers. The jalapeño is pretty mild.”
So I de-seeded and chopped about a pound of peppers. Made the jelly; poured it into jars; screwed on the lids; heard that satisfying pop that says the seal is good and went about life.
A little later my hands started to tingle. That tingle ignited into an invisible fire. My hands looked the same but I could feel an intense heat pressing hard upon them. My hands were panini sandwiches being grilled alive.
Because that pain continued for hours I had plenty of time to search for home remedies. They weren’t hard to find. There are a million out there for a million fools just like me: olive oil, mustard, vinegar, hot water, cold water, soap, yogurt, mayonnaise, Aloe vera, potatoes, tequila, baking soda, salt, milkweed, marijuana, comfrey, prayer … and more. The one thing all the remedy stories had in common was a little line that went something like this: After trying everything on the list above, THIS was the thing that finally worked.
I knew I was doomed. There was no remedy. There was no fix. Poison Ivy works the same way. By the time symptoms appear the oil has already penetrated the outer skin layer. This was going to be a battle involving time and patience. Jalapeño Pepper is the gom jabbar.
For those who haven’t read the novel Dune, the gom jabbar is a test of a person’s capacity to be a rational human. The test requires one to insert a hand into a box that seems to cause great pain. The pain is an illusion but feels excruciatingly real enough. If one succumbs to the instinct to jerk away, the test is failed; to pass one must maintain awareness of the true reality and remain steady through the illusion. Failure results in death by poison.
Imagining your skin crisping up and your bones becoming charcoal sounds terrible right? Except it wasn’t like that. Many of the anecdotes I read shared a nice surprise in common. The initiated know that the condition we call Jalapeño Hands is kind of hilarious. At one point as I was looking up remedies I was breathlessly snorting with laughter at my ridiculous predicament. Go ahead and tell me about endorphins. You are entitled to your opinion; I see it differently: Jalapeño is a trickster and we were both having a hearty laugh at my hubris. I wasn’t in any real danger and as in all good trickster stories, I had gotten myself into that fine mess of capsicum. This was an opportunity for self review. Lesson #1: When all the recipes say to wear gloves … believe them.
While it was a funny experience for me I can respect how some people actually go to emergency centers for help. When reaching the five hour mark and realizing that the pain actually feels like it is increasing, a person would not be crazy to wonder if it might really be a medical emergency. For the record, it probably isn’t.
Note: If anyone reading this is looking for a remedy or relief I am happy to share what I did, as I literally know your pain. I got a little bowl and put chunks of ice in it. Holding ice and immersing my hands in the cool melted water was the only thing that eased the burn. But I had to keep my hands cold for around eight hours. As soon as my hands were exposed to air or reached room temperature the pain resumed.
While I can’t offer a miracle cure I can say that cool hands and a little laughter made the journey almost fun.
What Does it Mean to Face the Gom Jabbar?
Paul Atreides (the fellow in the video above) only faced the gom jabbar once but in real life we are repeatedly tested. Some ordeals can last a long time: Years even. The bullied kid, the rape survivor, the refugee all know what it means to suffer over the long term. I am mindful that some pain is chronic and for life. What happened to me does not come close to the torment and suffering some of us are experiencing even as I type. I recognize that my experience was a gentle reminder to put the brakes on my arrogance.
While I do not think pain makes us stronger, I do think that sometimes we can stop it from robbing us of our power. When we run away or deny a problem we sacrifice a piece of our power to the monster we fear. That is why a problem like climate change does not wither away at our neglect but grows over time. The gom jabbar asks: Can we acknowledge the existence of the things that scare or hurt us? Can we see them for what they are? Can we control our reaction and by doing so enrich our courage or will or compassion or whatever else it is that is slowly being drained? This line of thought reminds me of Rilke’s suggestion:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Of course, perhaps not always. The thing we fear might be something lovely but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a dragon is actually a dragon. Sometimes that pretty mushroom really is poison and wishing doesn’t make it less so. Experience tells us how to identify the monsters. So when someone takes a moment to warn caution, as when they tell you to wear gloves, it is wise to respect their words. Let’s prevent unnecessary suffering whenever possible.
Though some suffering may be avoided, I haven’t met the person yet who has avoided suffering altogether. Over the course of an entire lifetime, some suffering is inevitable.
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something,” says the Dread Pirate Roberts to The Princess Bride. His suggestion that it is foolish to deny what is real rings true to me. The desire to avoid pain can lead one to an even more dangerous path. There really are monsters (human or otherwise) ready to exploit our fears.
While the pirate’s words sound grim they also hint that pain doesn’t always have to be feared. Suffering sometimes visits in the form of a true messenger or teacher rather than a monster posing as a helper. Many of us have learned compassion from being able to imagine the pain of another. While the Buddha may have avoided all suffering and still learned compassion I doubt many of the rest of us would we be better people without some first hand knowledge.
At the same time, I think the Dread Pirate overstates the reality of suffering a bit. He may have been feeling a little bitter at the time. Yes, life includes pain but life is so much more; it is also exquisite with laughter and surprising assets like ice in the freezer when you really need it.
If I sound like I am saying contradictory things, I am guilty as charged. The gom jabbar can be simultaneously all of the above because life is complicated. We need friends, elders and wise beings like the Jalapeño to help us sort it all out. This is the heart of animism: We know what we know through our experience and connections with others. Nobody here has an owner’s guide to being a person. We all have to make it up as we go along. Happily, even though we may sometimes feel isolated we are never actually alone. A hospital patient might remember freedom as he watches the action at a bird feeder outside his window. The bullied child might be befriended by a neighborhood cat who lurks near the bus stop. A recent refugee torn from her home country might find solace touching safe earth at a quiet community garden. The stories are endless of how the world will try to reach out to us when we need it most.
Who is Jalapeño?
The Zuni people describe her as a grandmother with a sharp tongue. That sounds a lot like the Jalapeño I met. We’ve only just become acquainted but she seems like someone I would like. She is old — one of the oldest domesticated plants. She is popular — welcomed all across the planet. She has great taste and adorns herself with beauty and elegance. Most of all, she is wise and won’t suffer fools. She is not afraid to speak up when necessary but she does so with a twinkle in her eye; she isn’t at all mean spirited. I am inspired to try to get to know her better so I will invite her into my garden again. But, from now on I will be a whole lot more respectful.
This kind of relationship requires reciprocal effort. A lot of people speak about having plant allies but only talk about how the plant helps them. I’m inclined to think that a genuine friendship requires time and cultivation. One has to give at least as much as one gets. A genuine relationship never presumes the other is there to serve. And I don’t think a real friendship is only sugar with no spice. A true friend is willing to tell you how it is, sometimes holding up an unflattering mirror when necessary. I wonder if my honest words at her planting (last chance!) opened up the possibility for a conversation.
I don’t claim to be friends with Jalapeño. I wouldn’t dare call her an ally. I am hoping this event was an invitation to begin a relationship but time will tell. She was kind enough to deliver a stinging message about some things I need to think about. Now it is my turn.
What can I do to develop a friendship? I can start by sharing this silly cautionary tale along with my gratitude for her teaching. More than that, I will try to make it real. “Deeds not words,” I imagine her saying. So I will try to enact what I’ve learned. I think she is asking me to practice my listening skills and to consider what I can do to ease the suffering I know is all around me. And that sounds a lot like deepening my animist practice.
mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.