The Heyoka -Living Life Backwards

Todd F. Eklof

Illustration: David Michael Kennedy

“Why did it all turn out for me like this?” George asks, after an afternoon of self-reflection at the beach. “I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but ... I was perceptive. I always know when someone's uncomfortable at a party. It all became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I've ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat ... It's all been wrong.” Just then a waitress arrives to take his order.

At first he asks for the usual, tuna on toast, coleslaw and a cup of coffee. But then, in a moment of inspiration, he changes his mind. “Wait a minute,” he says, “I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted ... and a cup of tea.” Although Jerry argues that salmon is actually the opposite of tuna since salmon swims against the current and tuna swims with it, George’s new lunch choice marks a bold step toward transforming his life.

A few moments later he sees a beautiful woman at a table across the room. His friends encourage him to go talk to her, but he argues that she’s way out of his league. “Well here's your chance to try the opposite,” Jerry argues, “Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.”

“Yes, I will do the opposite.” George responds, “I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!” He approaches the woman and says, “Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that you were looking in my direction.”

“Oh, yes I was,” she replies, “you just ordered the same lunch as me.”

George takes a deep breath and continues with the opposite of his usual approach, “My name is George. I’m unemployed and live with my parents.”

The woman smiles, “I’m Victoria. Hi.”

As the story progresses, Victoria’s uncle helps George land a job with the New York Yankees. “This has been the dream of my life ever since I was a child,” he says, “and it's all happening because I'm completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment I've ever had. This is no longer just some crazy notion… this is my religion!”

Though George’s spiritual epiphany is only a storyline in a comedic sitcom, his experience may be worth taking seriously. Is there wisdom in sometimes doing the opposite of what we’ve been doing? If we consider, for example, that the number of people killed in warfare has increased almost exponentially during the past five centuries, including more than a hundred million during the 20th century, and untold thousands already during the first five years of this century, perhaps it’s time we begin doing the opposite. In light of the fact that our polar ice cap has melted 30 percent during the last three decades, we’re experiencing an increasing number of apocalyptic hurricanes and other natural disasters, and energy consumption has tripled since 1950, even in light of global warming, maybe we should try the opposite. In our age of unprecedented globalization, during which the most powerful nation in history has become increasingly nationalistic and supportive of an elitist economy, further frustrating and antagonizing much of the rest of the world while trying to fight terrorism, let’s try the opposite. At a time when our bad environmental habits obliterate 130 species a day, let’s go with the opposite. In the most affluent country on Earth, in which a majority of people have been more concerned with forcing their personal religious views on everyone else, especially concerning freedom of choice and marriage equality, leading to an ineffective government that can no longer cope with the devastating impact of national disasters, and has squandered our children’s future on an unnecessary war, for God’s sake, let’s do the opposite! Yes, it does seem we should begin taking opposition most seriously.

In Lakota mythology, one who lives in opposition is called a heyoka. And just as George Costanza describes his experience as religious, one becomes a heyoka only after a divine encounter. Indeed, the heyoka is associated with the great Thunderbird who defies any logical description. In most traditions it is without form and its body billows like clouds. It has claws but no feet, beaks but no head, wings but no shoulders, and a voice like thunder but no throat. In order to remain invisible, Thunderbird covers itself in robes that are as shapeless as itself; some large, some small; some black, some white. Thunderbird also lives in an anti-clockwise dimension and cannot be understood by ordinary people because it speaks backwards. It is said, therefore, that if one does encounter Thunderbird, one becomes heyoka, and also begins speaking and acting in an anti-natural manner. As James R. Walker explains in his work, Lakota Myth, “When one sees the Winged One, he is heyoka and ever after when he speaks, he says the opposite of that he would say and when he does, he does the opposite of that he would do.”[1]

In one story, Eya, the West Wind, son of Tate, the breath of life encounters the terrifying and indescribable Thunderbird. After staring at the creature for a moment, Eya begins laughing and standing on his head and walking on his hands. He then begins shouting and taunting Thunderbird, even though the more natural thing to do would be to quietly cower and hide. “You pitiful thing,” Eya says, “your small voice frightens no one. Your weak eye can hurt nothing. Your beak and your teeth are good for nothing. Your wings are only tattered rags. Your talons are nothing but blades of grass. I would be ashamed to be your companion. I do not fear you and want none of your aid.”[2]

Naturally we might think Thunderbird, who can devour entire whales in a single gulp, and destroy anybody with the lightning bolts that shoot from its single eye, would become enraged over such insult, but because it lives in a backward dimension, it’s response is opposite of what we might expect. “You have pleased me,” Thunderbird tells Eya, “for thus I would always be addressed in terms the opposite of intention of one supplicating me.”[3] Thunderbird then invites Eya to place his tipi beside Thunderbird’s lodge on Thunderbird Mountain. “Together with you, I will purify the world from all filthy things. We will sweep it and wash it and water the ground. We will cause all that grows from the ground to flourish and bear leaves, flowers and fruits. We will give nourishment to all that breathes and cause their growth. We will combat the Unktehi the monsters that defile the waters; the Mini Watu that cause things to stink; and Gnaski the demon who delights in filth. This has been my province from the beginning and now you will aid me and all that breathes will be grateful to us.”[4]

The message here is clear, that if we are to join forces with the divine Creator and purify our air and water and heal our poisoned land, we must become heyoka, we must do the opposite of what we’ve been learning from our larger culture, from those who make our water, air and earth toxic through their greed and shortsightedness. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God,”[5] wrote the Apostle Paul, and if we are to tap into divine wisdom, we must become fools to everyone else, living contrary and in opposition to what the larger culture says makes sense.

Like Thunderbird, the God of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—is without form and cannot be described. The Kabalah says, “Every definition of God leads to heresy; definition is spiritual idolatry.”[6] In Jewish mythology, furthermore, Moses is only allowed to see God’s “backside” because it’s considered impossible for any individual to fully comprehend the fullness of God. And when God leads the children of Israel through the wilderness, “the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.”[7] A cloud, to sound redundant, is a very nebulous image,[8] and fire is the element Heraclites chose to symbolize his philosophy of constant change (i.e., “You can’t bathe in the same river twice”). Cloudy, ever-changing, nameless—these are the divine attributes that give context to Moses’ peculiar encounter with God as a burning bush—a God who answers, “I Am Who I Am,”[9] when asked its name. This term, ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, is itself rather nebulous in that its precise meaning is unclear. Some scholars suggest it would be more accurately translated, “I will be what I will be,” or “I exist,” or “I am present,” or “I will be with you.” Erich Fromm translates it as “I-am-becoming,” meaning, “God is not finite, not a person, not a ‘being.’ The most adequate translation of the sentence would be: tell them that ‘my name is nameless.”[10]

Hence, though it may seem backward to those who foolishly try to define God, and force their definitions on the rest of us, a genuine encounter with the Divine defies all definitions. The first step in becoming a heyoka, then, is to let go of all our ideas and explanations about what is God and what is Good. Tapping into Divine wisdom means letting go of what we’ve been taught makes sense and begin questioning our paradigms—those patterns and habits that lead us blindly into destructive folly. Becoming a heyoka means admitting we are fools, we don’t know, we don’t have all the answers, and we need to keep questioning and looking for even better answers, just as, in the Tarot, the Fool is represented as the beginning of wisdom.

In his book on the Tarot, The Hanged Man, psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp shares the writing of one of his patients who began to understand the importance of facing her shadow, that is, her opposite self.

I know I’m better because I feel worse.

The nicer you are, the harder it gets.

The stronger I grow, the weaker I feel.

You can’t give it to me because I already have it.

I can’t be littler because you’re not bigger.

The more lost I become, the clearer it gets.

I’m feeling confused, I must be in the right place.

I move furthest when I am stuck.

The worst part is knowing that I can make it.

The safest places are the most dangerous.

The more I cry, the harder I laugh.

The more I love, the more I hate.

The more I fight, the more friends I have.

I can’t make you love me, you already do.

I can’t be special, everyone/no one is.

Given permission to rest, I work harder.

When I rest you call it work; When I play you call it work; When I call it work you call it work. I can’t mess up.

Since I can’t please or displease you, guess I’ll just have to do what I want.

I don’t get to win, but I don’t have to lose.

There is no winning or losing, but I get to keep what I have.

Erich Fromm referred to this sort of insight as the paradoxical logic that exists in Taoist, Hindu and Socratic philosophy alike, and is contrary to our western Aristotelian logic that rejects the possibility of opposites. In western logic, A cannot be both A and not-A—there is no room for contradiction. Yet the Tao tells us, “To know and yet [think] we do not know is the highest [attainment]; not to know [and yet think] we do know is a disease.”[11] Yet, in paradoxical logic, in the backward-speak of the heyoka, opposition makes complete sense. It is not conflicting and dualistic, as in western reasoning, but is completely harmonious.

Becoming a heyoka, then, is crazy wisdom and divine wisdom at the same time. It is backwards in that it begins with answers and ends with questions. And if we, as a species, are going to heal our Earth and our Communities, which seem to have strayed so far from the harmony of the Universe, doing the opposite seems like just the place we must begin, and, as George Costanza put it, it must no longer be just some crazy notion, if must become the basis of our religion.

♣ ♣ ♣



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