“A great man is always willing to be little.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of my students told me something not long ago that has since stuck with me.
An indigenous elder they spent time with was asked what their one wish would be for the people of the Western world. He answered simply, it would be for them to become smaller. He went on to explain what he meant by smaller, since he wasn’t referring to physical size.
It’s an understatement to say this prayer struck me deeply. I have felt its echo through me since. At the time this was shared with me I’d been reaching back into my Quaker roots and into the practice or attitude of selflessness and humility. In Quaker philosophy and silence, I had been meditating on the presence of smallness.
In our culture, we are taught to be big and do big. To have a big life, make big money, big influence, reach big audiences, have big love, own big things, have big ambitions/career, big dreams, big successful businesses, and big beauty. It is measured against other people’s bigness, otherwise your big doesn’t know how big it truly is. Those of our culture are so often assessing how big they are, or their life is in any given moment, always seeking bigger and better… hungry souls eating feasts of emptiness. Metaphorically we are always on the search for the largest ‘meal’ we can find or offer, even if for a short time to have the illusion of being full, until we then desire something bigger. The ego grasps onto this concept of big and learns quickly that there is always someone or something ‘bigger’ to try to be, to have, or create… no matter what.
The spirit of big it seems, always wants to be bigger. And as most of us have observed, it tends to consume things and other beings/people in order to get bigger. Often what is consumed are many things we see as ‘small’.
In the weeks that followed the prayer I’d received about becoming smaller, it began to seep in more and more – the spirit of small, and the spirit of big. It seemed to be the answer my soul had been seeking for many years now, always feeling that this race was not something I wanted to be a part of. The prayer to be small, for the sake of my happiness, peace, and for the happiness and peace of all beings, rose up from a place that had been residing within me for as long as I can remember. The desire to remain hidden or in the background is unusual for a confident person that feels so comfortable teaching – but there it had been nevertheless all my life, and still where I find the most peace. Slowly the understanding that trying to be big does not help anyone, had rooted deeply within my heart.
Big in our culture means many things to us – most often to be admired, important, desired, wealthy, heard, seen, intelligent, recognized, elevated, idolized, honored, appreciated, cared for, and of course, loved.
Spiritual and healing pursuits are often not handled much differently. We want big breakthroughs, big healing, big experiences, big connection to spirit or earth, big wisdom, big peace, big clarity, and to be ‘big’ ourselves – measuring how big we are by different criteria… what we feel is the highest wisdom, most healthy, most connected, or most enlightened.
In the American culture of built in self-hate that almost everyone carries around with them (in at least some percentage), there is the continual struggle to be better and bigger than we perceive ourselves to be. I’ve watched this exhaust and deeply hurt so many people that I love and have been honored to witness, including many people that appear to be very confident, or naturally ‘big’ themselves. The race to be big did not somehow pass them by… we are all swimming in the same river. The question I began to wonder is what we are doing in there together.
In the realm of the healer, and very much since Western medicine came into being (though it’s certainly found in many traditional cultures as well), the healer is seen most often as the “big” one with the power and control. Magnificent feats are performed showing just how incredible and big this magical person is, or their medicine. You know you’ve come to the right healer because look at their big results! Look at their amazing medicines! Look at the big line of people waiting for them! You know they are big because look at all the things they have that you have decided (or the culture has decided for you) are big… the big letters after their name, or their big recognition. Look at their big prayers! They must have the big medicine that will have the big effect. Just from these words it’s likely that somewhere inside you’re wanting to know who this person is so you can go to them, and quickly, for big results.
What you fail to see is they are just the same size as you. Small, as we all are, and each filled with the presence of the true Big infinite.
You learn that what can appear to be very small and simple can be what is most treasured and precious to one’s soul and heart. I’ve also witnessed that as we become smaller, we become translucent enough to allow something much bigger than us to shine through… the presence of peace, or of compassion. It does not take becoming a ‘big’ enlightened being that has done ‘big’ spiritual work, it most often means erasing your self enough in order for something to be seen through you. This is when the deepest nourishment and healing seems to occur, when the ego self dissolves and the divine is allowed to shine through. A prayer I’ve often held as a teacher is let me only be seen and felt as much as needed so that the student is not distracted away from themselves and spirit by the image/presence of me in the way. I pray to become hidden and small enough, so that as I fade into the background of nature and spirit, that is all they see… as if they were alone in a room with the spirits, unable to see me there.
In healing practice I’ve noticed more and more the ego at play, especially as natural forms of medicine and holistic living gain more attention and respect. Unfortunately it means that it’s also swept into the arms and influence of Western culture, consumerism, and paradigms of thought… Western ideologies on who the ‘healer’ is, and what ‘medicine’ is seems to take over. We hold the local traditional healers in our hands and try to make them ‘big’ so they will be noticed and respected. We don’t see at times the damage that can be done when we try to make small into big, or take what has been invisible and make it seen by as many as possible. Often some of the magic, spirit, and integrity is lost along the way… as well as invisible things that have no name. Sometimes what is hidden needs to be brought into the light, but it’s important for us to understand that many things are lost on the journey from small to big.
Medicine comes to us in an infinite number of forms. Healers come to us in an infinite number of forms, not just in the form you would recognize, and often not very big. Sometimes in the forms of those who challenge us or make us uncomfortable. Sometimes in the one you barely noticed in the room… In an ant, or a shadow, or something you overlooked because you were busy trying to find something else.
“Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less.” – Ken Blanchard
To most of us in this culture, small is misunderstood. We have experienced it only as the state of not being big, not being enough, and not being able to take up space (often due to others trying to be big). Instead of thinking of small as the absence of bigness, I began to invite the true nature of small into my consciousness.
I started observing within myself this presence of small and big. I spent time with the energy of big in my own consciousness and ego. I spent time with the presence of small, trying to set aside judgment about either, open to just observing how I am affected by them. Small seemed to silence my ego and nervous system, make it feel comfortable, content, loving, and gentle. It has simple needs that are easily fulfilled and enjoys silence. It does not seem to worry. Big I noticed in contrast, seemed to rile up my ego and make it feel excited, frantic, uncomfortable, loud, charged, needy, and harmful.
In my spiritual life I came to understand and experience true ‘bigness’ as a kind of merging with something bigger than just my small self. ‘Bigness’ of the individual continued to remain uncomfortable, as it seemed to always mean the oppression of others in some form I noticed – an unequal sharing of space, energy, and resources. I’ve never felt that everyone needs to have the same existence or way of being in the world, I know that is not the nature of things… but I was interested in how the presence of ‘big’ and ‘small’ affected me internally and others around me. I also felt the compassion and peace I experienced from the presence of ‘small’ was something I wanted to cultivate in my life.
I came to see quickly that being ‘big’ does not help others, not my students or anyone looking for support in their healing. Teaching or reinforcing the culture and presence of false ‘big’ does not tend to help others find peace or wholeness. Small can be the greatest gift and teacher, often because small does not overshadow or fight with you for space or things to consume, but helps you to see and look out for all those beings we can knock over or overlook in our fight to be big. I have learned that Grandmother/Grandfather shows up most often in those who are ‘small’ (an elephant has very deep wisdom of ‘small’) or the ones least often seen and heard. I watch them, silently experiencing their beautiful energy and presence… watching them unaware of themselves, simply lost in the present moment, not trying to be any bigger than they are.
I invite you to look at your relationship to big and small. How you are affected, and how it affects others around you. Are you allowing your basic nature to be what it is? Or do you find yourself trying to be bigger? When you try to be bigger, do you notice how it affects yourself and others around you?
When you’re having a bigness crisis, try on small. See how she feels.
She holds treasures that most of us have yet to discover.
Thomas Moore wrote, “Humility, that low, sweet root, From which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
May your sweet root grow deeper.