A few years ago while in Europe my in-flight magazine had this wonderful account about the ancient horse race called Il Palio which happens every year in Siena, Tuscany. Each contrada or family in Siena acquires a horse by drawing lots. There are 17 contradas that make up Siena; ten of them (by luck of a draw) get to race against each other. What caught my attention - I was already fascinated having been a horse jumper with international experience in my twenties and an absolute horse fan- was that the article mentioned that husband and wife do not sleep together under the same roof during the week before the Palio if they belong to different contradas. Apparently Italian emotions get a bit fiery if the husband and wife support different horses; so each partner takes refuge and goes to stay with their own contrada for the week prior to the Palio. Some of you might have seen some footage of this amazing race in the opening scene of the newest James Bond action movie Quantum of Solace with dashing Daniel Craig.
In the year 2000 I participated in the Nice Ironman Triathlon World Championships and planned to see an old American friend afterwards. She and I had spent time together at Michigan State University in 1980/81. We arranged to meet in Siena, where we would spend three days together. When I arrived in Siena by train from France, I saw mud being laid on the cobblestones of Piazza del Campo to prepare the surface for the Palio horse race. Either through sheer ignorance or good luck we happened to be there 6 days before the big day.
This race is always held on the 2nd of July (in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, since 1656) and also on the 16th of August (in honour of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, since 1310). The whole town was preparing for the festivities and drama of this momentous day. I learnt by asking around that it would be best to buy a ticket for this race so as to watch from a balcony overlooking the Piazza, otherwise one had to stand in the middle and be part of the mob, unable to see what is happening in the race.
So in the year 2007, a week before I was due to present my workshops at the annual Quest Festival in England, I arrived once again in Siena, by train from Florence, all excited and geared up to finally witness this electrifying race. The proof of my 400 Euro (about R4000) ticket for a race that lasts only about one and a half minutes was in my pocket. The 2nd of July fell on a Monday in 2007. On the Saturday night at seven I was part of the big crowd gathering to watch the preliminary 3 practice laps of the ten race horses around the square. I eventually, through sheer persistence, convinced a tall dark Italian in a blue shirt to sell me a 10 euro ticket on the temporary stands on the outside of the race track. The ticket sellers are all very secretive and hard to find and hardly ever sell you a ticket if you are not Italian, truly loyal to city and nation. By 7.30 pm that Saturday night Il Campo was packed; the crowd in the middle was jammed in like sardines. Before the horses and their jockeys enter (riding bareback and dressed in the colours of the contrada they represent), the whole race track of hardened mud is thoroughly swept clean with big brooms. All the onlookers that are still hanging around are directed off the track by the uniformed police to join the already big crowd in the middle, behind the barricades. A canon shot announces the entrance of the horses. I immediately fell in love with the lovely white horse of the house of the Goose (contrada del Oca). She was a 6 year old mare with a graceful stride; later I would learn her name is Fedora Saura and she was ridden by the youngest jockey, Tittia, (age 22 years). The other two horses that were known to be fast runners were a magnificent black horse (from the house of dell’ Onda – the Wave – that sported a blue dolphin on their flag) and a brown horse representing the House of the Unicorn. The symbolism of a white horse competing against a black horse made my mind wander into the field of duality. The horse from the House of the Unicorn added a mythical significance to the upcoming race. I was totally thrilled to be part of the unfolding drama. After the three practice laps each horse dispersed to its contrada and was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters. I experienced a magical moment of shared passion and union with the ardent supporters of the black horse. The House of dell’ Onda passed me as they were following their black horse through the narrow cobblestoned street where I exited the race track. They were all singing together at the top of their lungs with their blue and white scarves around their necks showing their alliance. The contrada, young and old, were singing with such abandon and passion, I was totally swept away by this wave of enthusiasm. The beautiful black horse was the hero of the moment and they were his ardent followers, totally transported into an electrifying state of excitement, togetherness and adoration.
The excitement, intensity and eager sense of expectation continued on the Sunday. The whole town was packed with people having one big party together in anticipation of the historic race the next day, and the small old town behind the high walls was the hub of frivolity, celebration and hilarity. I don’t think there was anybody that was totally sober by sunset that evening – myself included. On the day of the race, Monday, I went into town by one o’clock. The agency through which I had booked the ticket, told me to be at the McDonalds on Matteotti square at 2 o’clock; we would receive our precious tickets for the Palio from the agent then. Here a good crowd of us was already gathered expectantly. While waiting in suspense, we got to watch the pranks of a chestnut horse belonging to the house of the Dragon. This was the horse that was destined to be blessed by the priest of this contrada in their church down the road at 3 pm. This was a traditional ceremony that was part of the pre-race preparation for each contrada. The house of the Dragon horse was pawing the ground, reared a couple of times and generally had an air of total restlessness, unknowingly doing justice to the name of the house it was representing. At 10 minutes past two, the agent finally turned up and dished out our prized tickets. We were all seated on the east end of Piazza del Campo above the bar Key Largo with an entrance to the square below us. By now I was thoroughly swept up by the air of anticipation in the whole town. While having a quick lunch overlooking the rolling hills of the Tuscany landscape, a few drops of rain fell; much to my dismay! Should it rain, there is of course no Palio on that day; it would be too dangerous for the horses to race in slippery conditions. All around Il Campo the contradas were already marching in their traditional costumes, waving flags and playing music. Fortunately the weather cleared up and by 5 o’clock, sipping a cold Heineken beer from the bar Key Largo below, I was sitting in bright sunlight in my allotted little space on the balcony. During the race, all 25 of us squashed into the confined space, had to stand so as to fit in. However, we had a wonderful view over the whole Piazza. The parade was in full swing; the ceremony of waving and throwing the big traditional flags were performed a couple of times in front of us. The centre of the square was packed by 7 o’clock, leaving no space even for a mouse. Traditional banners and flags hang from the balconies, but no glaring intruding modern advertisement could be seen in the whole square. The Sienese pay tax right through the year so they can keep the tradition and sacredness of this race as it has been held since the year 1310 AD. We saw people being carried across the track by first aid helpers on green stretchers a couple of times. These were the unlucky ones who fainted in the congestion and claustrophobic conditions in the middle. I could sympathize, having felt faint myself a couple of times on the Sunday pre-race night when I joined the crowds in the centre, standing near a corner.
The parade went on until about 7, then the sweepers came in to clean the track and behind them the rope bearers entered with the starting rope. This is also according to tradition. The 10 horses in the race must line up behind this thick starting rope. One of them, by luck of the draw, has the privilege to actually start the race. It is only when this jockey decides to move forward, that the rope will be lowered for the race to begin. At 7.30 pm the canon shot was fired and the horses entered through the white marble arch amongst loud cheers of the 60 000 excited spectators. The jockey who controlled the start made full use of this privilege to unnerve the other jockeys. It took about half an hour before the rope came down to signal the start of the race. During this time the huge crowd was completely silent; the atmosphere was totally electric and the suspense palpable. My favourite white horse immediately took the lead and was already 3 lengths ahead of the rest at the dangerous corner in front of the Key Largo bar, about 200m into the race. This corner is very sharp and slants downhill; the barricades are cushioned on the outside to protect the horses and riders from undue harm. It was right in front of us that the first horse fell; his jockey rolled, covering his head with his hands, while the rest of the horses stampeded past at a blistering pace. The horse got up and continued to run without his jockey. On the second lap, Fedora Saura was still in the lead, now closely followed by the House of the Unicorn, one length behind. This was riveting stuff, no time to take photos! But 50 meters before the end of this lap, the jockey of the House of the Unicorn took the corner too sharply and tumbled down with the horse, amongst loud exclamations of disappointment from the crowd. With one lap remaining, the black horse of the house of dell’ Onda was leaving the others behind and was gaining on the leader from the house of Oca. The gap was closing each second and around the last corner the black horse was one length behind the white mare. From my position I saw the white horse passing the finish flag one bare face length in front of the black horse, but the flag of the house of dell’ Onda was raised! Later I would hear that this was the first time in the 700 years of the race that the judges made a mistake. Fortunately, they realized this and within 2 minutes the flag of the house of the Goose was raised. Total pandemonium broke loose before our eyes; some spectators down on the track even started to fight so hyped up were the emotions of these Italians. The Palio (flag) that goes to the winner was raised by the House of Oca, they had the jockey on their shoulders. The ebullience, the sheer joy of winning was expressed in victorious shouting and singing on the track underneath us.
I felt totally transformed by the passion of the Sienese people. That night you could watch the winning contrada celebrating their victory on channel 3; the TV coverage of the race is shown for 24 hours after the race at regular intervals. Some members of the contrada were crying, so happy were they; others were laughing and talking incessantly, reliving the moment of triumph. What a race, what a glorious event!
I was reminded of the race of life; that white mare shot away at the start of the race with such determination and commitment, going for a win; no hesitation was visible. She and her jockey’s goal were clear; and she hung in! Even though it looked, for a short moment, as if the black horse won; the white conquered the dark. Similarly, how many of us set out, with iron will, to win the race of life? It is our conscious minds that set our targets and goals. The greatest battle is to conquer the lower self: the greatest victory is victory over ourselves, not over others. Yet others are necessary for our own growth, the most rigorous spiritual practice comes through our relationship with others. It is also our minds that allow us the joys of life. Amidst the passion and the total dedication of each member to their contrada, I could feel the pulse of life, to be completely swept up in the moment and to fully enjoy it. It is through our minds, by making the right conscious choices, that we then experience those feelings and sensations of real life in our bodies too. It is our choice to decide to tune into the channel of joy or into the channel of sorrow. We are as happy as we make up our minds to be. In their total dedication, the Sienese held nothing back. The life of victory is also a sensual one, to experience the body and its feelings and sensations fully rather than to deny oneself these pleasures. I’ve always been convinced we can live a 200% life; 100% normal material life and in addition also a 100% spiritual life. To deny ourselves the sensations and pleasures that our body can enjoy – as some spiritual traditions suggest- invariably means we support the reality that we are not okay; that as we are, we need to be changed or fixed. The Palio showed me the joy of commitment, the joy of being who we are in our essence and to love who we are. Even the Sufi poet Rumi said that we should embrace our mind and our body to experience life to the full: “The body is a device to calculate the astronomy of the spirit, Look through that astrolabe and become oceanic.”
The passion I was exposed to convinced me yet again of the truth in the saying, “waste no time”. The real Palio was a one and a half minute race, very short in comparison to our human life span. For us to be vibrantly alive, even one minute of following a career/job/profession that is not fulfilling or satisfying is too long. We should follow that hero inside of us. This we do when we pursue the wonder of the mystery of being ourselves; when we find the most challenging job, the best diet, the ultimate exercise program that fits our specific unique make-up. In the words of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.” All spiritual teachers talk about a preliminary life purpose and then an ultimate purpose. These two life choices during our time on earth can only be good for us when it fills us with real enthusiasm. It is heartening to read that our preliminary purpose will always serve our ultimate purpose. Our spiritual progress is supported and advanced by using our specific talents.
I remember seeing the winning horse again at the festivities of the winning contrada on TV that night in my hotel room 3 kilometers outside the walls of the old city. She was utterly calm, almost regal in her phase of rest after the hard effort. One contrada member offered her a bucket full of water; she lowered her head and sipped calmly until the bucket was empty. She was totally at ease with all the noise and celebration around her, a true champion and the epitome of peace amongst the festivities. I reminded myself of the unruly behaviour of the replacement horse to be blessed for the house of the Dragon. How is it possible for us to support a worthy champion, what helps us discern truth from falsehood?
Dr David Hawkins, the well known Western teacher of Enlightenment to ultimate bliss, maintains again in his latest book (2008) that through kinesiology, we have access to the truth. A strong muscle response to testing a certain statement will signify the truth; the universal matrix only recognizes the truth. A weak response will signify a not-true statement. Hawkins maintains that for us to ascertain we are following worthwhile teachings/teachers, we should calibrate the teacher or teachings according to his Map of Consciousness: 0 – 1000 where 500 is the Level of Love. A true guru should at least calibrate over 540, the level of Joy and Unconditional Love, to have any beneficial effect on his/her followers. Incidentally, former world famous state president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was calibrated at 540. [NOTE: This technique of calibration is well described at the back of all Dr Hawkins’ books.] This latest book also reveals, according to Dr Hawkins and his team, that the top 1000 people on his consciousness scale in the world today, are actually carrying us as a human race into the positive energy field to an overall consciousness level of 204 (below 200 is false or negative). If we should remove these 1000 individuals of high consciousness, our current human race of 6.4 billion would drop below the level of Integrity at 200, to 198. There are so many spiritual or religious paths on the offer today. It is probably better to ascertain whether one is following the house of the Unicorn (we can call this adolescent spirituality) or whether one is truly on a worthwhile, beneficial and blessed path. Where there is certainty that one is following the white horse, it is possible to gain victory at the end of one’s life. Even more enticing, by following a strict spiritual path of truth with dedication, one might ultimately reach the Level of Enlightenment (700). Dr Hawkins says it is now a 1000 times more possible to become enlightened than it was 100 or 1000 years ago.
While walking back through Porta Tufi to my hotel room that night after the day of excitement and drama, a yellow full moon was hanging on the eastern horizon. Peace filled my heart, the knowledge that I can live with passion and experience serenity made my steps light and effortless. The real miracle, as Zen Master Lin Chi so wisely said long ago, is not to walk on water or air or fire; the real miracle is to walk on earth.
- Hahn, Thich Nhat. 1987. Being Peace.
- Russell, Peter. 1976. The TM Technique.
- Johnson, Will. 2003. The Spiritual Practices of Rumi.
- Khan, Hazrat Inayat. 1989. The Alchemy of Happiness.
- Hawkins, David. 2008. Reality, Spirituality and Modern Men.
This article was published in Odyssey in the October/November 2009 issue.