The Lessons of Kokopelli
The farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.
Kokopelli! Kokopelli! His is a most melodic name. It rolls off the tip of the tongue like a child exiting a slide, its consonants forming notes that rise and fall as the laughter of rivers. Go ahead, say it aloud: Ko-ko-pel-lee. He comes from the south, the direction of intimacy and trust, and among the many gifts he brings is a particular lesson, especially for us.
Yes, his is the figure of the hunchbacked flute player carved on the pink and purple cliffs of southwestern mesa and canyon land, from Casa Grandes in Mexico to the San Juan basin, from the California desert to the pueblos of the Rio Grande. Petroglyphs of Kokopelli (carved into the dark surface patina to expose the lighter rock below) and pictographs (daubed on with a brush of pounded plant fiber soaked in earthen pigment) date back to A.D. 200 and earlier, recording his influence on far-flung cultures over a long period of time. He's most often found with what appears to be a horn or ant-like antennae, a hunched back and a flute in hand, knees in the air as if dancing: a pied piper of things wild and free, ecstatic and unruly. More often than not, he'll be found with an enlarged phallus, attesting to his role as seed-bearer and fertility god, as guarantor of new crops in the spring, new life in the bellies of the village women.
At the Hopi village of Oraibi, Kokopelli is said to carry a bag full of deerskin shirts to trade for wives. Other Hopi stories tell of his wife, Kokopelli-mana, exciting the villages into a night of passionate sex with the teasing gestures of her dance. Whenever we find Kokopelli-mana carved on the cliffs, she's positioned directly behind her mate, holding his back as if she were attached, supporting his every act. At San Ildefonso, he's known as a wandering minstrel with a sack of music on his back, trading new songs for old ones. Listen to these stories. Burnished on lava-burnt boulders long before gene-damaging nuclear tests and radioactive waste, toxic chemicals and deadly street drugs, the hump on Kokopelli is obviously no hunched back, no deformity. It is, rather, his burden basket.
As I walk through the winter forest, the courage that I sense is a quiet courage, not the courage for great heroic deeds, but for humility to live with loss. We need such courage to face those losses and see in them the source of new visions: a courage to nourish the seed beneath the snow.
Into the basket we place our hopes and fears; experiences and dreams; the weight of our needs; and the burdens of caring for others, for other species, and for this Earth. For the truly sensitized, it can be one heavy basket. Those who see and feel enough, those given to love, truly can be said to carry the weight of the world on willing shoulders.
The key word here is willing. One usually has the option of "keeping it light," of ignoring the gravity of unfolding events while suppressing intuition, instinct, and emotion. In modem society, illusions receive widespread support, and denial is seen as an acceptable way of dealing. On the other hand, for the most conscious and engaged, the basket may house the accumulative transgressions of our kind, the mistakes of the past and the formidable weight of our future choices. Yet, always, it's a load we voluntarily pick up and carry.
Unlike in the powerful metaphor of the cross, no authority figure assigns the burden of the basket; no vested human judge sentences us to carry ponderous awareness through the streets of a New Jerusalem. For Kokopelli, the flowers are as important as the crown of thorns from which they fell. They're to be worn not on the forehead, but as pointed messages of awakeness on those prickly bushes that line the trails of our mortal lives.
The basket also differs from the cross by being a testament to aware, voluntary participation rather than to blind obedience, but both speak of the essential ingredient: devotion. For Kokopelli, for the nonhuman world, and for primal humanity, that devotion is to sacred life, to flesh and God in unbroken unity; sensory, emotional, and spiritual interaction with the rest of the Earth-body in a glad and holy communion. The lifting of the basket is a matter of tuning in to the ecstasy as well as the agony of uninsulated, unmitigated perception. It is willing participation in destiny, the response-ability inherent in consciousness, and the acceptable consequences of our acts of love.
The nice thing about the basket is that you can always put it down when you need to. Nobody is watching, and besides, you were the one who put it on in the first place. You're trying to do everything on your list, but who wrote the list, after all? Lay down the cross for even a minute and the Roman Centurions, the dream police, the eye in the sky will see to your immediate punishment. The burden basket is a different story altogether. Set it down, and be assured that you will be the first to know when you've rested enough, and when the time has come to move ahead with it again. There's no way to post a basket in the ground, or to nail you to it. When you're not moving, it simply lies in full view in the corner. When it is really felt is when you move with it, carrying out the course of action it inspired in you, instigating through you the necessary cures to the specific malaise.
Ignorance, the developed ability to ignore and to suppress, is a successful defense against the highs and lows of a more receptive existence. The result is at least a muddling and graying, a temporary objectification, an emotional distancing from threats and challenges. While we often hear about the "blissfully ignorant" rural underclass, it is more often the educated, the financially secure, and the intellectuals who are best at this deliberate obfuscation of reality. With sufficient effort, one can avoid most primal, direct experience up until the imposing physicality of the hospital ward, and our society can ignore the worsening condition of the natural world right up until the moment when it impinges on the survivability of our own kind. The basket is a mixed blessing, containing both the high price and the ultimate reward for our willingness to feel: our willingness to share a living world's pleasure and pain, our inspiration to actively and accordingly respond.
Wherever the image of Kokopelli is found, with bent, laden back and flute in hand cast into silver earrings, misappropriated for trendy café menus, or carved into crimson canyon rock a single message cries out: No matter how heavy the load, one must dance ones dance, live ones song.
To fail to enjoin is often to fail to enjoy. Interestingly enough, those who eschew the burden of the basket are the least likely to dance, the least likely to fly. But for the load-bearers, gracefully and powerfully making their way between the obstacles and pitfalls, the delights and desires of their destined paths, every movement is a dance. For basket-wearer, every utterance is a sincere demonstration, every shout both an urgent warning and an exclamation of gladness.
As I write this, we mindfully set a match to the wood in the fire circle, practicing the vulnerable widening of perception, the opening up of our individual baskets to the instructive word around us. Tonight is a night of power, and we remain vigilant for the arrival of new experience, new revelation, new depths of compassion to pack in with all the rest. Off to the side of us, just beyond the reach of firelight, we feel a certain power entertaining the darkness. Somehow, from his place of concealment, he's able to excite our physical and spiritual engagement, able to encourage the intensity of our assigned quests. It is the spirit of Kokopelli, providing us with a magical, visual metaphor, setting the example of a basket so heavy and a heart so big.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Earth-centered spirituality and author of Kindred Spirits: Sacred Earth Wisdom (Swan-Raven,  366-0264). Wolf offers intuitive counsel, wilderness quests and retreats, and resident internships at his riverside sanctuary. To book him for university presentations, or for information on the various programs, contact The Earthen Spirituality Project, Box 516, Reserve, NM 87830, <http://www.concentric.net/~Earthway/>.