This article appeared in Zento Magazine, Spring 2004
Vaughn Paul Manley, M.A.
What’s in a cloud? It may be a lot more than just fluff. Many cultures around the world, both ancient and modern, have believed in signs and omens as a source of valuable information about life. To the native Hawaiians, a rainbow (anuenue), or an owl (pueo) appearing at just the right moment may help them make an important decision. Other cultures in the East, for instance in India, have developed elaborate systems of inducing answers from their immediate environment, like cracking open a coconut to see if a student is worthy of learning from the master. Mere superstition? Perhaps, but it may be worth a second look.
The study of omens, or what the native Hawaiians call ho’ailona, is based on the idea that our external world is constantly reflecting what we need to see in our internal world – if we choose to pay attention. It may be a direct communication from a higher spirit or an ancestor; it may be giving us confirmation that we’re doing the right thing or warning us of an impending danger. Whatever form it takes, and whatever purpose it has, it’s not just a coincidence. It’s most likely a pivotal event that can shift our perspective and connect us deeply with spirit. Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, wrote about this phenomenon extensively and coined the word ‘synchronicity,’ which he described as meaningful coincidences that reveal the ultimate oneness of the universe.
For some people, interpreting omens can be confusing. Sometimes the message is huna or a secret and we may need to consult one who understands the secret, the kahuna. Recently I asked Kahu Kapiiohookalani Lyons Naone, called simply Kahu, a respected teacher of ‘Hawaiian culture and spirituality’ at the Maui Community College, about the Hawaiian view of how to read signs correctly. He said, “What’s important is how we are on the inside. That’s where the answer is. If the sign gives you chicken skin or a blissful feeling then chances are it’s a good omen, a good communication. If it gives you a frightful feeling then it could be a warning of some type. That’s the basic rule of thumb, but we may need to prepare ourselves to receive a sign. For instance, if I’m preparing a spiritual event that connects with a higher purpose, I must first do a cleansing and purify myself (hiuwai). Normally Hawaiians go into the ocean which really means to die and be reborn. Afterwards I may sit on a rock and do a series of chants. If at that time a certain animal appears, particularly one that is connected to my genealogy (aumakua), like an eva bird, a shark, or an owl, it’s a very good sign.”
Similar to how Hawaiians consulted kahunas, people in India have looked to astrologers for guidance since ancient times. The study of omens is called nimitta and is an integral part of their ancient system of astrology, called Vedic astrology. In 1993, I studied with an old Vedic astrologer in south India, Sri Ranganatha Rao, who had his clients throw cowry shells after asking an important question. He would then analyze the shells and give his answer. This is a common divination system that induces a meaningful coincidence or synchronicity. One day a distraught man came in and said, “She’s left me again!! Will she ever come back?” As usual, the client was asked to throw the cowry shells. To my amazement one shell fell off the table, rolled along the floor, and went out the door! My teacher looked over at me and winked to see if I‘d gotten the message. This time she was ‘out the door’ and not coming back.
However, you don’t need cowry shells or any divination system really, because the external world is always communicating with us – at least according to omenology. Kahu explains, “There’s a constant communication going on, spiritual messages, and the language of nature (haloa naka), but we’ve lost the ability to hear the communications and interpret the language. Kahuna philosophy is that everything is there to teach us, to assist us, and to offer themselves up to us. This is the beginning of understanding where we are. Once we realize that we are the student and everything else is the teacher, then we start paying attention, we start respecting all things. This is the first step: to pay attention and have respect. Then we’re able to receive the communication.”
This is very similar to what I learned from another contemporary spiritual teacher, Byron Katie, who said:
Then Katie had us do something quite radical. She had us take a question to anything, absolutely anything that called to us in the moment. Some people chose to stay inside and ask their question to an inanimate object like the rug, or a lamp, while others roamed outside into the natural world. When we came back together we were amazed by people’s experiences. One man shared how the wall had taught him how to be ‘firm in his boundaries,’ while a woman said that a leaf had inspired her to ‘expand in new directions without losing connection to her roots.’ Most people had very profound experiences that bordered on life-changing revelations. I’ve realized, since talking with Kahu, that what Katie was doing was showing us how to pay attention and have respect.
Usually when you receive a communication it’s accompanied with a feeling of awe, but it can also be rather startling. “We’re not in control of how or what is communicated,” Kahu explained. “That’s up to the higher level. You may go sit on a rock and look around and realize that all of nature has a divinity – every single rock, every single leaf, every single animal and eventually something is going to reach out to you. It will appear, it will come.”
Recently I was quite surprised with an omen that appeared. At my home I have a bird feeder outside my window and sometimes the neighbor’s rooster comes over and steals all the birdseed. Usually I get upset and have to chase him away. But one time, during an astrology reading, the rooster jumped on top of the bird feeder and began crowing repeatedly. – louder than ever! It was the perfect message for my client who was just talking about needing to stand up for herself, and claim her space!!
Another time a client began to tell me about the boy that she had just become the legal guardian for. Just as she was saying how difficult his relationship was with his father I heard a loud thud on the floor. I looked down and saw two geckos fighting with one gecko’s head in the other’s mouth! I turned to her and asked, “Do they have a hostile or even violent relationship?” She said, “Extremely. His father said if he didn’t leave he was going to kill him! which is why I’m now his legal guardian.”
In our fast paced, modern world it’s not always easy to create time and space to pay attention and recognize that a valuable communication is happening but when we do, the results may be rewarding, if not life changing. “It may take patience, and openness and humbleness,” Kahu went on to say, “but in an internal, spiritual way you’re going to bond with whatever appears. The kahuna realizes that patience and respect is the greatest part of the practice.”
Enjoy experimenting with these ideas. You may be surprised. The next rainbow you see might just be the answer you were looking for.