Ananya Sri Ram – USA
Akitu Festival: A Celebration of New Beginnings in Ancient Mesopotamia
There are little anecdotes in a calendar I have. The most recent one is about a ritual called “The Trial of the King” that supposedly took place in ancient Mesopotamia during the Akitu festival. The festival was to appease the gods and for the ruler to show humility. (It must be noted that I could find anything that mentions whether this was historically true, parts of the anecdote don’t seem to fit, but the sentiment is something to reflect upon.)
The anecdote states that the ruler was stripped of his or her crown, scepter, mace, and royal insignia and made to walk to the city square and confess all the wrong doings from the previous year. He or she then made a pledge to do better in the next year. The people chose whether or not to forgive the ruler. If forgiven, the ruler stayed in office for one more year.
There are many parts of this tale that provide food for thought. First and foremost, it would be amazing in today’s world of self-centered, short-sighted, world leaders to have one brave enough to confess their wrongdoings annually to the people of the country they lead. But the story also brings to light the importance of the relationship the leaders need with the people they govern. Do the leaders of today really know the struggles of the people in their country? Do they lead by compassion or by the money that keeps them in office and lines their pockets?
Looking at this anecdote from another standpoint, one closer to home: Are we ourselves able to strip away all our pretenses, all our defenses, and all that gives us security to live as though we are nothing? Can we live without an identity of importance? Can we drop all of our pretenses and defenses? For many, just the thought creates sheer panic. For others, a sense of freedom.
The goal of the ritual, it would seem, is two-fold: For the ruler, they must put aside all the symbols of the title held to realize that, at the end of the day, they are just another person. They must tell what misjudgments and misunderstandings they have made. This puts them on par with everyone else—even some they have punished or put to death. Like the citizens of the land, they must stand in the place of vulnerability and humility.
For the citizens who must decide whether to forgive their ruler, they are put in the place of judgment and having to choose. The question arises, does one choose revenge or does one choose forgiveness? Too often, we let our emotions decide. If we feel someone has been compassionate toward us, we are more likely to forgive them for their mistakes.
Humility is a difficult virtue to maintain in our world today. From the moment a child is born, parents strive to mold the child to “be someone.” The idea of being better, smarter, faster, stronger, and so on is drilled into us from all directions. Commercials and advertisements blare at us about the latest products that can change our lives for the better. The only way to remove ourselves from the messaging is by removing the messaging. But it is often too late because the messaging has already shaped the way we think. It has conditioned us.
Conditioning is so insidious that we don’t even realize it is happening. We think we are humble and that we are selfless, but if we take a closer look at the words we use to describe the people and the things around us, the action we take (believing we are helping others), and the various thoughts we have about people and their thoughts, words, and actions, we will find our opinions are based on conditioning. It is all very personal and therefore lacks humility or even vulnerability because our conditioning is our way of keeping ourselves safe.
Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements brings to light a ritual we can practice daily by agreeing to follow four simple rules:
Be impeccable with our words.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do our best.
While it may seem that these are simple words to follow, the actual practice of them is much harder. Impeccability with our words, for instance, means we use our words for the betterment of ourselves and the world around us. Think of how many times we speak unnecessarily, or comment about something or someone we don’t like, or say something cruel to ourselves about something we did or didn’t do.
As a therapist, I often have clients buy two different colored stones (let us say black and white), to represent negative and positive thoughts or words, respectively. For every negative thought or comment they have, they must place a black stone in the bowl, likewise for every positive thought or word with regard to a white stone. Most clients are surprised by how many critical thoughts they have versus positive ones.
The exercise is not to show our lack of compassion or to judge ourselves. It is a visual reminder to observe that we influence how we feel based on what we say and think. When we start practicing impeccability with our words, we pay closer attention to the words we use to communicate and how we use them.
While we may look at these four agreements individually, they are often intermingled with each other. For instance, we will make an assumption about another person or event without really knowing all the details. It is literally impossible to know all the details of a situation because the world of cause and effect is so vast. Yet, we make assumptions because we are taking the situation or event personally, as though it has to do with us. In reality, there is little that others do or say that has to do with us personally. They are reacting using blame, shame, judgments, and so on. We can choose whether to partake in someone else’s reactions by combatting them (making assumptions, taking it personally, not being impeccable with our words) or we can diffuse the situation by internally dropping the story and trying to stay in a place of stillness. If we are truly still, there is nothing to defend or protect.
The fourth agreement to “always do our best” seems to tie into this place of stillness. When we have nothing to prove, defend, or protect, a different energy comes about. We are no longer inundated with thoughts of “Am I doing this right?”, “What if people don’t like it?”,
“I can do this better than others”, “I hope people notice the work I am doing,” and so on. Our focus is just on the work in front of us, not on the result. It is in this space that creativity can come through which gives rise to doing our best and finding joy in our work. It is this joy that infuses our work with humility.