In a recent conversation, young adult Kyle Steele sought counsel from Asheville NC (USA) Sacred Fire Firekeeper, Patrick Hanaway. The two spoke about many things, including how the courage to learn from mistakes helps to foster wisdom, and how this wisdom can be passed on to future generations.

Kyle: Patrick, what is the most important thing that you have learned at your age?

Patrick: The most important thing that I’ve learned is that everything is in relationship and connection. And when I say that, I don’t just mean between us as human beings; I mean us as human beings in relationship to all of the other-than-human beings also. Everything that is here: this beautiful tree, the air, the frogs that we hear in the background, the air, the weather, everything…we are meant to be in conscious relationship to it. We are, in fact, intimately connected to the world and it is so easy to forget that. I think that we know this when we are really young and then it gets taught out of us, and we forget by the time we are 2 or 3 years old. And yet this kind of relationship holds the seeds of our healing as humans.

Kyle: Can you say more about the value of relationship: how can that help me become who I am meant to be?

Patrick: It is everything! We are in relationship to each other and to all that is around us, human and non-human. The thing that is really stunningly important to me is, it is not simply conceptual. For instance, having a relationship with this tree right here is not a conceptual relationship. It means actually connecting with the tree. I don’t mean, “Oh, I am going to hug this tree, and then I have a relationship with it.” Instead, it is looking at the branches, listening to the wind moving through them. It is being present with the tree through all the seasons, talking to it, listening to it. For me, that is having a relationship. And I do this as I move around in the world. I go by this tree right here maybe 4, 10, even 50 times a day, and I have a relationship with it.

So when you ask about the value of relationships, it is a way that allows us to really feel and hear what is happening in the world. We get out of our mind and we get into our heart and we connect through those relationships, and that allows us to begin to really hear, to really be able to see and understand the world in a different way.

Kyle: How do you orient yourself to your path in life?

Patrick: I think it is the opposite; I think it is my path that orients me. You know, when I was little, I wanted to be a doctor, right away. I am one of those odd ones. I set my path to do that. I got into medical school, and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that. So I spent time traveling in Nature, living in a national park for six months, really connecting with Nature. From that experience, I realized, “Yes, I want to be with people. I want to do this. This is a good thing.” So I set about doing that, but then when I finished medical school, I had an experience that drew me into something deeper. It involved meditation and Buddhism. I had no idea that existed; it found me and was shouting at me, “This is what is important.” Next, I found my beloved, my wife, and our life unfolded. Before I knew it we were living and working in Alaska with the native Yupik people on the Bering Sea.

How do I orient myself, you ask. Life is unfolding and I am allowing myself to be in the River of Life and I am being present to wherever it is taking me. It is taking me to places I do not know. In coming here to North Carolina, I didn’t know what would happen. At first I grieved being away from New Mexico, where I thought I would spend the rest of my life. It took me a long time, almost two years, to actually get over what my expectation was and drop into living here. And when I got over that, we found this place, our home, where we are right now. We have been here for the past 22 years and have had the opportunity to really connect.

I didn’t know I would have a teacher and work to become a traditional healer in the way of the indigenous Wixáritari people of the Sierra Madres in Mexico, and that I would spend time there. Nor did I understand until more recently that a diagnosis of cancer would change my view and my connection to the world in a way that deepened my own awareness and personal healing. Today I relate to that illness as a blessing, whereas 8 months ago, I was stunned. How could I think that stage 4 cancer is a blessing? Yet now I do, because it has helped me to see what is really important, and the places where I was moving in a way that was out of balance. It is not a mistake or setback; it is just the opportunity to learn. So the path orients me.

I am in the path, in the River. It is taking me to places that I never knew existed in myself and it orients me how to be in the world in a different way. I don’t know how else to say it, but this new way also makes me have ‘total wonder’ about “What is next?” There are more things happening in this world around us than we can even begin to understand and that is so cool to me.

Kyle: You mentioned mistakes and setbacks. How would you advise working with these?

It is interesting in our culture because we look at and talk about mistakes as though it’s a problem and yet what we find is when we have experiences, then we are able to develop knowledge. We develop that knowledge from what we learn, through our mistakes…through doing it well, yes…but we actually learn more when we do it wrong, and then we can understand how to correct that. So wisdom comes from experience and experience often comes from making mistakes.

There is no real setback. Setbacks are related to what our expectations are. If I move in the world, going forward and doing the best that I can, and sometimes it doesn’t work out or sometimes it goes in a different direction, listening to what that direction is and being able to learn from that, is not a setback. And so many times when things aren’t moving forward in the way that I thought they would, or the way I ‘needed‘ them to in a particular situation, then I recognize, “Oh, I’m not engaging this situation in the right way, either with the right attitude or with the right behavior or with the right set of support and help.” How do I begin to do that? How do I look to find what is the world telling me. The world is telling me, it’s not working the way I want or need it to work. And so, am I going to listen to the world and recognize it’s time for me to change? The world is just being the world; it’s doing what it does. It is me, with my expectations, that’s the problem. So how do I learn and course correct? That is never a setback. It’s only an opportunity for learning.

Kyle: You mention the opportunity for learning. What is wisdom and how can I become wise as I grow?

Patrick: I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m not trying to be trite. Wisdom, it’s that aspect of what we learn in relationship to the world, of opening ourselves up. I’m not necessarily an elder, yet some day I aspire to be. But we have opportunities to learn from wise teachers, including indigenous elders who are willing to share with us. I think of Sam Proctor of the Muskogee people. When he visited our Land, we asked him about his People and their values. He said, “Our values are about humility, integrity and humbleness.” I said Sam “I don’t get it, what is the difference between humility and humbleness?” He said, “Well, humility is how we are in relationship to each other, humbleness is how we are in relationship to ourselves.” Like, wow, you know, those are aspects of wisdom. I say, seek out those people who have been living in the divine natural world, connecting to the natural laws that are around us. Spend time in nature, just listening to nature itself. Those are ways to be able to cultivate wisdom, and over time you not only learn it, but you earn it, because it becomes part of what you are living and part of what your Being is. So the progression that we talked about, of making mistakes and having experiences, that allows you to learn and eventually to be able to gain wisdom, as you put it into context of life itself.

Kyle: With that in mind, how can I be a good learner, so I can grow in a good way into the next phase of life?

Patrick: Hmmm, “How to be a good learner?” That is a great question. I think of my friend Dan Sprinkles and the work he does regarding “The Enemies of Learning”* and how to be able to own up and move through the barriers. There are many steps in the process. The first thing in learning is about being curious. It’s that curiosity of a child, of investigating, and saying, “What is really happening here?” You may know I work as a doctor but I also do some research. I love when I am doing research and looking at the data and it completely doesn’t match up with my expectation of what is supposed to happen. It tells me right way, “Oh, I’m thinking about this in the wrong way.” Some people say, “Oh, the data is wrong,” but it is just information. So how do I become curious and begin to learn and let that unfold? The aspect of curiosity is essential. When we think we know something is when we get into trouble. There is a great Mark Twain quote; he says “It ain’t the things you don’t know that get you in trouble; it’s the things you know for sure that just ain’t so.” So how do you have that attitude, that openness to be able to investigate? When you think you really know something, that is when you need to check yourself, because chances are you are closing yourself off to other information that is coming into your awareness. You are choosing not to include that information as part of your learning.

I am so often arrogant as a learner, where I think I already know. I also found that many times I can be arrogant as a teacher, where I want to teach the things that I am just learning that are really cool to me, but I have evolved in my current understanding. I didn’t get to the understanding of a really deep and detailed level; whether we are talking about the specific strains of a fungus, or we are talking about the branches on a tree and how they relate to each other, or we are talking about some human condition. Rather, I need to teach about it from a more fundamental place. That is, how do I teach the things I’m actually ready to let go of, that have been such a deep part of me that I know them and I am sharing and giving them away? That is an aspect of learning as well, because what I find is that when someone is a student and is not understanding something, that is my responsibility as the teacher. It means I am not listening and I am not learning to say, “Where is this person at, so I can help them?” Even as a teacher, I become a learner and I have to suspend what I think I know in order to really be able to listen.

Kyle: Where do you find meaning and purpose in life at this time in your life?

Patrick: For me it comes both in the relationship and connection, but also in my career and what I’ve been called to do, which is my healing work. So I find meaning and purpose in being able to help people in that way, helping to heal and become more whole. In the process of caring for others, however, what I have also begun to learn, and this is much more recent, is that I actually have to take care of myself. I am finding it is just as important for me to care for myself, and allow other people to care for me. And so that actually expands what I was talking about in terms of relationship, because now it is not just about giving. It is about giving and receiving, and that exchange, that’s relationship as well. This actually adds to the meaning of how all these things are connected.

Kyle: You are a Firekeeper as part of the international Sacred Fire community. What about that word “community?” What can you share about the value of community in helping me become who I am meant to be?

Patrick: Community is… (chuckling) I’m laughing because community is necessary, and it is hard and it is messy and it forces us to be able to deal with stuff that we don’t want to have to deal with it. Maybe I’m not having a good day and I’d rather not connect with people. But when I am not having a good day, that is actually the most important time for me to connect to other people. When I isolate myself from that, I am actually isolating myself from the ability to feel heard, to connect, to learn or, if necessary, to be challenged around something I am holding on to that is getting in the way of me being able to reach my full potential. So those aspects of community, as we sit in circle around the fire, or as we just gather to have a meal, is vital. You know, we have a potluck sometimes, and in the middle of summer it happens that everybody brings tomatoes and squash because that is what is growing. We can lament or we can laugh about it and have a wonderful meal with that food that we have been gifted with. The aspect of community, of how we come together with each other, that is the way we actually are able to learn and grow in the world. It is connected back to that aspect of relationship.

Community is different than tribalism too. It is not just about finding a tribe of everybody who thinks like I think. Because in fact sometimes I need to be challenged in the way I think. So people will have other views than me and it is coming back to learning and being curious. I want to learn, I want to understand what makes that person tick. What matters is that we begin to relate to each other through our hearts and come together as a community to share. It is in the diversity where our strength comes. The strength in our environment and the diversity in our people, that is where our strength comes from.

I’ve heard it said that the culture of genius emerges when there is diversity, dialogue and discernment. We have to be able to have a diverse coming together, and we have to be in dialogue with each other, in order to be able to learn, innovate and grow. And we also want to have discernment. We do not want to take everything as truth. We want to be able to use the capacity of our mind to support our heart; it is there as a tool that helps us. Mind is not guiding everything, as it does so much in our culture these days, but rather it is there as a tool to support that connection of the heart. So that is what community can support and why it is so important.

Kyle: Thank you Patrick. I really appreciate everything you have shared here. I hope one day it will be me passing on some wisdom to the next generation.

Learn more about Sacred Fire Lifeways programs, including young men’s and young women’s initiations into adulthood, women’s and men’s retreats, and other experiences to support people in becoming their best self through all of the cycles of life.