Book Review

Book Review: The Storyteller

Over the last five years, I’ve been periodically working with Don Alberto Manquierapa — Huachipaeri-Matsigenka spiritual leader, master of plant medicines—bringing groups to learn from his teachings of the jungle. I’ve consistently said Don Alberto carries the rainforest in his soul. In November 2019, we were with him again in the high jungle of the Manu Biosphere in Peru. For the first time, he spoke at length of the wise men of the Matsigenka (also spelled Machiguenga) and how they were married to Nature but never elaborated directly what that meant.

A few months later I was having a conversation with Jack Wheeler of Xapiri, whose relationships extend to the Matsigenka and ten other Indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He suggested I read The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa to see what I could glean.

StorytellerI was rewarded in the first chapter when a character called Mascarita, in talking to the narrator, spoke of a wise man then saying, “I’m calling him a witch doctor so you know what I’m talking about.” He also used medicine man and shaman as a stand-in. Additionally, I learned that, while the Matsigenka may practice polygamy, it appears that a wise man sets himself apart from the villages, living in the jungle, or on a riverbank, even more simply than others, distinctly in solitude, communing with Nature.

Much of the book is interspersed with creation stories, tales of survival and beliefs. We know when a story ends because it’s punctuated with, “That, anyway, is what I’ve learned.” That said always before launching into the next monologue. Clearly the discourse is relayed to an audience but not clearly who or even the identity of the one relaying…until much later. Many peoples only know of themselves, their origins and how they are to exist and survive through the keeping of oral histories taken on by a living depository. That person has a special role and designation: Storyteller.

The Matsigenka are peaceful people who hold their world together by walking, being nomadic…nonviolent men who walk. But what happens  when Viracochas* begin to intrude and impact the lands always known to them…introduce money and other foreign ways…when missionaries move into their villages? When…”The most important thing to them was serenity…Any sort of emotional upheaval had to be controlled, for there is a fatal correspondence between the spirit of man and the spirits of Nature, and any violent disturbance in the former causes some catastrophe in the latter.”

In such a case, maybe there’s finally a time when only a Storyteller can tell the Matsigenka who they are and where they’ve been.

This may be a familiar tragic tale containing elements we’ve heard all too many times before, but it’s also a mystery. The Peruvian narrator, whose name is never uttered, goes into a small gallery, while in Florence on vacation, and is electrified by what he sees in a particular photograph in the exhibition. And what of Mascarita who appears  to have a significant role in the book but then simply disappears without a trace…never to be heard from again?

The Storyteller is a complex novel. For me, it was equally disturbing as it was compelling. I believe Llosa  meant it to be so. I’ve promised myself that, in the not-too-distant future, I will reread it, thus allowing its even deeper structure to become apparent.

This book was first published in 1989 and still widely available. I bought my own copy. It’s well underlined.

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*I found it curious that the name Viracocha, commonly known as the Inka and pre-Inka creator deity, is used with a capital “V” in The Storyteller to identify outsiders, particularly foreigners having marked consequences on the Matsigenka way of life.

Categories: Book Review, Honoring the Earth, Indigenous Rights, Indigenous Wisdom | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Lose Your Skin and Be Consumed

The title is not what you may at first think. It’s not about being eaten alive in the literal sense. But I did want to get your attention. It is about being consumed to the degree that you come alive in ways you may not have experienced.

I found the work of Will Johnson through Future Primitive, a podcast co-produced by Joanna Harcourt-Smith and José Luis Gómez Soler. Joanna interviews guests using a framework: What is it like to be in sacred communion with our living Earth? Will is a Buddhist practitioner with Sufi leanings dedicated to breathing practices that wake up the body. He’s long been offering retreats and teachings through the Institute of Embodiment Training, now in Costa Rica.

What first caught my attention was a statement Will made early in the interview. He was at an event and looked out over those gathered, noticing how very still, even stiff, people were in their sitting meditation. That let him know most of those gathered were not breathing fully, nor engaging the body as part of the process. Shallow breaths.

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©2015 Carla Woody.

I reflected on my own daily practice that has evolved over 35+ years. I was all about the breath, particularly in the early days, directing it in such a way that it opened my energy field and sometimes instigated involuntary movement. Then later for several years I participated in the local Sufi circle, especially zikr, which was anything but inactive.*

Listening to Will, I began to wonder if I’d become complacent. I no longer actively use breath or chants in the way I did in the past, but sit first thing in the morning, say a prayer of gratitude, then close my eyes. When I do, I become engulfed in palpable energy that ebbs and flows. It’s always there no matter how long I sit – 5 minutes, an hour or more. I feel tremendous connection. The witness part of me has noticed there are often times it appears I’ve stopped breathing for periods, but am not holding my breath. When I do finally take another breath it’s subtle. I call it “the breath of no-breath.” I’ve read about such occurrences in literature from Kriya Yoga. My body is quite still but doesn’t feel stiff in my awareness. What I’ve come to has worked for me.

But I decided to undertake the method Will calls the Hollow Bamboo Dharma Practice that focuses on the body and actively uses breath to open six points, freeing energy. This method can lead to a state of unity he calls the Great Wide Open and being breathed by the Divine, Universe, God or whatever anyone may call the Force Field of Creation.

I’ve experienced the state he describes. I call it “losing my skin” where there’s a sense of no separation, a state of being permeated by All That Is, in a way hard to describe, slipping into it with no intent of doing so—that gives deep comfort. Time disappears. I disappear. In the times it has occurred, I’ve almost always been meditating in nature. I can remember one time it happened during a prolonged Sufi retreat. The difference is my experiences have occurred spontaneously, infrequently. I don’t know really how such a sacred unity occurred.

Because of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders and uncertainty of the world, I decided to enter retreat and use this new-to-me approach to meditation as a framework. In his generosity, Will has on his website downloadable audios of a 3-evening presentation where he introduces his philosophies related to what he teaches, and the actual practice he calls Breathing Through the Whole Body. He’s quick to state this shouldn’t be considered a technique, that it’s a natural way of breathing and will feel that way over time.

Of all his books, I chose to get his newest one, Breathing as Spiritual Practice: Experiencing the Presence of God, because the title appealed to me. It turned out to be rather synchronous. I hadn’t read the description very carefully. This book is largely from his personal journaling over his own 10-day retreat several years ago using what he teaches, with each chapter given to one day. I decided to read a chapter each day of my own retreat, usually after I’d done the meditations according to his direction introduced in the audios. When I started reading the book, I found his retreat site to be one where I’d stayed myself, albeit for a very brief time, just a taste with a promise to myself to return. So, his recounting of Christ in the Desert, an isolated Benedictine monastery of silent retreat, in a box canyon at the end of 13 miles of bad dirt road in northern New Mexico, was already alive within me.

Here I’m offering a synopsis of my own process in retreat using the methods on the audio tapes.

I normally sit on my sofa cross-legged with a straight back. To make sure my knees were lower than my pelvis per his instructions, I transferred my meditations to the floor and sat at the edge of a zafu, legs crossed with knees on the floor. I noticed it straightened my spine completely, allowed me to elongate more and sit much taller without effort. The first instruction was about body awareness. I noticed immediately that, in this posture, my sacrum was unhappy and the muscle around my right clavicle was tight, exactly the place my massage therapist always goes after. It was achy but wasn’t unmanageable. This told me I was compensating and, as a norm, ignoring discomfort. This is the kind of thing Will said would be noticeable if you’ve been numbing out pain in the body. On point.

In the audios, Will is good about gently guiding the breath, spot by spot, introducing subtle movement, until the last sequence where you’re breathing in the six directions he identifies. I soon recognized I hadn’t done really deep breathing in years, which was the second point. The idea is to begin your breath in the belly—no problem there—and continue the in-breath all the way up to the uppermost sacs of the lungs at the top of the ribs…up the neck and into the cranium. Wait, what? The cranium? Now I can tell you it’s possible. But for me, not at first…

First time out of the bag, I was able to take in breath until my chest swelled. But I hit a wall when attempting to continue to the top of the ribs. Persisting over a couple of days, I guess I finally experienced body memory. My breath then found the pathway and continued right up into the cranium. Really. Well, I’m not so sure if it was actual breath but perhaps the energy of the breath. Something physical happened though. First the base of my skull popped and then it felt like my entire cranium subtly began moving with the breath.

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©2015 Carla Woody. 

One of the other things wonderful was that, through the breath, I was receiving an inner massage that affected my outer body and relaxed those spots that were protesting. My lumbar let go almost immediately. It took more for that muscle below my right clavicle to release. But I could feel, at the end of 10 days, it was stretching outward and loosening.

It doesn’t take long to get into the state. Once learned, your body knows the way. A by-product, thought also dissipates in such a way there’s just a feeling presence. Even if thoughts return—because they will—it’s easy to return to the breath, and they release.

I did have something occur that was distinctly unpleasant but wasn’t surprised because it had happened once before. About 20 years ago, I was going through a very difficult phase in my life. In order to maintain equilibrium, I was meditating long hours a day. It had a profound impact on my wellbeing. But when you do so, it loosens things that have been trapped, or consciously shut off, deep in the psyche that can come to the surface in different ways…in order to release.

I normally do not remember my dreams. When I do, it usually has to do with some deep spiritual meaning, awe inspiring but not scary. I have so rarely had nightmares in my life, they wouldn’t number the fingers on one hand. But during that time long ago I’m referencing, I had some kind of waking dream where I was surrounded by lepers reaching for me, brushing me. Like something biblical. I felt it all. I was terrified. I started to move and leap out of bed when a voice said to me…Just go into it. Merge with it. Like the story goes, invite the demon in to tea. I did that, and the fear and revulsion released. A sense of calm replaced it.

I’ve never had such a dark night experience recur until about 10 days ago. I think I was on Day 5 of my retreat when I had another waking dream like some godawful place out of Hieronymus Bosch or Dante’s Inferno, and I was in the middle of it. My chest was heaving. I felt electrified. I leaped out of bed, my entire body shaking. The visuals stopped but my body was still there. No saving voice this time giving wise counsel. I had to walk around for a while to calm myself. I was up the rest of the night.

As if it had arrived on cue, two days later reading Will’s Day 7, he had a similar dark night. Not necessarily the same content but within the same spirit.

At least I’d had some previous experience of this territory, and wasn’t caught by surprise. I’m quite sure this was brought on by the pandemic, the global chaos, level of death and destruction of what is familiar. I’d been aware of how very calm I’d been about the whole thing, even had some remarking on that. Not at all cavalier. But stopping short of entering the horror, which as somewhat of an empath, I can easily do. So, it’s no wonder fear of the unknown and real grief for this worldwide devastation had to surface, in order to break any internal paralysis, and be released instead into the realm of compassion.

It’s not pleasant to go through such things, but I don’t at all begrudge them. It’s part of the spiritual path. It’s just good to know the possibility exists. I was glad to see Will brought that particular aspect up in his writing.

In the book, he mentioned you could do the practice of breathing through the whole body anywhere, suggesting when laying down or walking out in nature. I tried both but didn’t have the same effect as I do during sitting meditation. Laying down I didn’t feel the full energy of my body as much. Walking out my front door onto trust land may not have been the best place to try it out in nature. I was too distracted by the roughness of the trail. I suspect I will get better at these other settings with more practice, once this way of breathing is second nature.

My practice continues. I recognize what I’ve undertaken here has health benefits, increased my physical energy and my sleep is so much better. I have a keen appreciation for the spiritual aspects. I didn’t yet get to the place where I lose my skin but imagine that may come. I’m grateful for this additional way of breath, body and energy and am incorporating it into my early mornings.

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* Quoting Pir Shabda Kahn, Spiritual Director of the Sufi Ruhaniat International: “The mysticism of breath is central. Repetition of sacred sound is central. And the art of living wholesomely is also central. Our effort is to learn to live in the breath twenty-four hours a day. The actual practice is to outwardly connect with the breath, be conscious of the breath, and let the breath fall into its natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. And we combine sound and breath. We put a sacred phrase ‘on the breath.’ We do this in meditation, and we do this throughout the day. It could be Om Mani Padme Hum. So, we might put Om Mani Padme Hum on the in-breath and then again on the out-breath, and breathe it out throughout the day, throughout our life.
We recite sacred phrases out loud. Repetition is important. Sound has an effect apart from meaning, based on the rhythm it creates in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. One of the phrases we recite is called ‘zikr.’ The phrase is La Ilaha Ilaha Allah Hu. It includes both negation (there is nothing but God—separateness is a false notion) and affirmation (experience yourself as the ONE).”

To read this interview in full, go here.

 

Categories: Book Review, Contemplative Life, Meditation | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: It’s What I Do

One of my keen interests is about risk-taking—the people that take them and what underlying pull nags at them to take the leap consistently. Is it the adrenaline rush? That’s certainly there depending on how great the risk. Or is it something else that’s driving them?

It'sWhatIDoBookLynsey Addario is one of those people. Her memoir It’s What I do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War tells her story. She didn’t start out to be a conflict photographer, one who goes into war-torn areas and refugee camps, right in the middle of it. This eventuality wasn’t even on her radar when she took a job as a professional photographer at the Buenos Aires Herald at the age of 23, never having trained as a photographer. Yet, as willingness lays out a path, at 26 she traveled to Afghanistan to interview women living under the Taliban. How did she even do that? I’m guessing troubling thoughts at least flitted through her mind. She was moving into a field almost solely dominated by males and all it came with…that the course was filled with threat of all sorts around nearly every corner…that she was sacrificing any ‘normal’ love or family life. All this in addition to witnessing graphic horror, so much on a daily basis, the kind that typically gives nightmares for years to come.

Clearly, she set these concerns aside. Lynsey Addario wanted to tell the truth, what was happening in such places and times. Not the media spin or political propaganda. She had something most men in the field wouldn’t think to entertain. She had the women, and men who let themselves, willing to tell their stories, which she captured in images. She knew how to hear them and wanted the world to know. That was her calling—humanitarian issues and human rights.

Over the years, she’s twice been kidnapped and periodically in areas where troops had been ordered to kill journalists, which happened. Her photographs relayed people’s stories and the realities of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Sudan and the Congo. Sometimes her images weren’t published—too politically sensitive—she was told. And the truth remained veiled.

Sometimes she was called out by critics for the photographs she took. Too intrusive, disrespectful. Lynsey Addario’s images for Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone: The Story of Mamma Sessay (!) is the graphic accounting of a teenaged mother traveling by canoe from her village seeking medical intervention to birth the second of twins, still in her belly.  She did not get the help she needed and died a terrible death. “In Sierra Leone, 1033 women die for every 100,00 live births…This  statistic is made more tragic by the fact that the deaths are almost always preventable.” Unnecessary maternal deaths are high across much of the world, including the US. It’s because of such publicity, keeping nothing under wraps, that it can’t be ignored and prevention is more likely. As brought to its attention, the UN created Every Woman Every Child, “a long-term effort with global health partners to create a world where no woman has to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.”

I imagine this is the effect she hoped for when she took those photographs of Mamma Sessay.

Recognizing Lynsey Addario and other female photo journalists like her working for good in the midst of war, poverty and suffering. They’re a rare breed. Sunday, March 8 is International Women’s Day.

It’s What I do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War is available in print, ebook and audio book. I listened to the audio book and highly recommend.

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! A warning the images—shot by Lynsey Addario and published by Time Magazine—contained in the link are a graphic series of suffering and maternal death in childbirth. The child survived.

 

Categories: Book Review, Compassionate Action, Global Consciousness | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

I pulled the book out of the library stacks drawn by its unusual title, and then the cover with the tiny red shoes. What could Balzac have to do with a little Chinese seamstress? I vaguely remember hearing about the Cultural Revolution during the days of Mao Zedong* but I was quite young then. Too young to have much interest or understanding of what was happening on the other side of the planet to many children the same age I was. This novel educated me.

In 1968 Mao closed all the schools – elementary, high schools and universities – dictating that “young intellectuals” be sent to the countryside to be “re-educated by the poor peasants” presumably to create a great leveling. Books were banned and burned. Anything having a whiff of Western to it, or anyone, was denounced. Academics, writers, artists, any professionals were punished and sent off to labor camps to be “re-educated.” Multitudes did not physically survive and many considered themselves a lost generation.

balzac andThis is a coming of age story in a special setting under difficult circumstances. It’s about what happens when norms are stripped away. When suddenly families are forcibly separated… elements of society previously valued devalued…control wrought by fear…what arises as a result…and the ways in which humans hang onto a piece of themselves and seek to thrive.

The book opens with the unnamed narrator and his best friend Luo having already made the torturous two-day climb on a rugged path up a mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky to its summit where they were assigned to the headman’s keeping in the poorest village of all. Their lodging was on stilts, a pig sty directly underneath, with little to no protection from the elements. The narrator’s parents were doctors. Luo’s father was a dentist who wasn’t wise enough to keep the fact to himself that he’d fitted Mao with new teeth. The boys were hardly intellectuals, having only finished middle school. Daily the boys were forced to carry buckets of liquid feces on their backs, sloshing as they climbed up the mountain to the fields where it would be used as fertilizer. By the end they’d be soaked with the contents only to begin again. Later they had to work underground for two months in mines that were little used.

In the back-breaking monotony of their days they retained some spirit – subterfuge to trick the headman, have some fun, fall in love, and maintain a semblance of control over their lives where they had little. When the boys arrived in the village, they’d brought two forbidden items. The narrator brought a violin in its case. Luo brought a wind-up alarm clock that contained a rooster pecking the clock’s floor as the minutes ticked away.

Of course, the violin and case were immediately detected and passed around to all those assembled. It was shaken, pounded, its strings nearly broken. The headman declared it a bourgeois toy and started to burn it when Luo stated, with an air of authority, that it was a musical instrument. And his friend the narrator was a fine musician. The narrator, nearly choking, started to play Mozart and Luo said the title of the piece was Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao. Smiles all around.

The headman was fascinated by the alarm clock, never having seen one…especially with a rooster pecking out the time, to the point he’d carry it around and look at it constantly. The boys were able to retain it. One morning when they couldn’t face those buckets that early, Luo turned back the clock by an hour and went back to sleep. The headman was none the wiser. When they wanted to have an early day, they’d turn it forward. Finally, they had no idea what time it was. The headman went by the clock.

But what is the connection between Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress? The boys discovered some forbidden Western classics, translated into Chinese, by Balzac, Dumas and others, hidden in a locked suitcase belonging to another “intellectual” boy undergoing re-education in another village. This, about the same time they met the old tailor in a far village whose granddaughter was beautiful beyond perfection. She was illiterate – as were all the villagers – but hungry for the education books can bring.

There are many levels to this thin novel. It educated me in an area where I knew nothing. The author-filmmaker Dai Sijie also made it into a movie. You can see it in its entirety with English subtitles on You Tube. I suggest reading the book first and then watch the film. The book contains a lot that I would have missed if I’d only seen the film. The cinematography is stunning, and the film contains an epilogue not in the book, closing an open loop. One poignant that brought back my own memories, making me feel nostalgic.

This story takes on another significance considering it’s autobiographic. Dai Sijie was re-educated himself between 1971-1974. The book was his first and became an immediate bestseller and prizewinner in France at its release. Rights were later sold in nineteen countries.

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*Commonly referred to as Mao Tse-tung, he is also known as Mao Zedong and referred to that way in this book.

Categories: Book Review, cultural interests, Film Review | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Blue Tattoo

BlueTattooI stumbled across a brief note on Olive Oatman researching something else, and read The Blue Tatoo to learn the full history relating to what occurred from 1850 and continuing on well beyond her death in 1903.  Olive Oatman’s name became inseparably intertwined with that of the Mojave and Yavapai Indians, a tragic story for all on a number of levels. The complete truth remains elusive. It varied significantly depending on who told the story and when…even becoming an episode of Death Valley Days, the old TV show. The Blue Tattoo may well be the most accurate and comprehensive account, the author Margot Mifflin having depended on historical documents, family diaries, letters and interviews.

In 1850 a large group of Mormons left Independence, Missouri headed to the Southwest. Their numbers went through several splits as different factions sought to take over and redirect their destination. Until finally, the Oatmans—with seven children spread between the ages of 1 to 17 and mother pregnant—were the sole travelers in the Sonoran Desert on a 190-mile trail well known for its extreme desolation and danger to whites, frequently attacked by tribes living in the area. The father Royce Oatman, described in the book as a reckless piece of work, knowingly put his family’s lives at great risk. His actions had dire consequences.

About 100 miles from what is now Yuma, Arizona, the family was surprised by a small group said to be Yavapai Indians, often mistaken for Apaches. They asked for food. Royce refused, and the family was massacred with the exception of Olive, Mary Ann and Lorenzo, ages 14, 7 and 15, respectively. The Yavapai took Olive and Mary Ann, along with the family’s few cows and oxen. Lorenzo, who was severely beaten, had rolled down a ravine and was left for dead.

Thus began the unfolding of events detailed in The Blue Tattoo: the terrible year with the Yavapai, their trade sought by the Mojave, Olive’s assimilation into Mojave life over a 5-year period, her “rescue” and what transpired over the next decades. I won’t go into details and instead leave them for you to read.

But there are a few things I do want to say.

The author focuses on the fact that it would be highly unusual for the Yavapai to conduct such raids except on their traditional rivals the Pima and Maricopa. She puts it to the reason of late winter hardship made more desperate by drought. But cannot say why they chose to abduct the girls since they would be more mouths to feed in dire times. They were, however, mistreated, worked to the bone as servants and last in line to receive what food there was.

The Mojave were farmers who lived tucked away in a little traveled area near what today is Needles, California. They were kind to the girls and likely saved their lives. Olive’s traditionally tattooed chin was an indicator of her assimilation. They were made part of the tribal leader’s family and taken into their clan. When a surveying party headed by a Lt. Whipple came to the village over a several-day period and were made welcome, the girls did not make their presence known or try to approach the party to escape. Within a year though, due to rumors of a white girl living with the Mojave, a Quechan messenger from Fort Yuma came demanding Olive’s return upon threat of annihilation of the tribe.

Shortly after Olive’s arrival in Fort Yuma, she was taken under the wing of Royal Stratton, a Methodist minister, who exploited her for his own gain. He wrote a book, liberally changing the story, adding manufactured details meant to titillate. He set Olive up on the lecture circuit where she traveled for years. She became famous.

It reminded me very much of the same kind of travesty befalling the healer Santa Teresita of Cabora when she was deported from Mexico to the United States, and her many years’ exploitation by a so-called medical consortium.

I understand the terrible conflict Olive must have faced brought back into a society that held the prevailing message: The only good Indian is a dead one. Having now lost two families, she must have been wondering what story to tell at all: the one white society was salivating to hear or the truth. She contradicted herself frequently.

One of the many things that saddens me so about this tragic story is her betrayal of the Mojave people who were kind to her—when she told the version that they had enslaved her. Within a couple of years, they were removed from their villages, split and confined to two reservations: one near Parker, Arizona and the other to the Colorado River Indian Reservation near Needles. Their small numbers lessened.

Margot Mifflin cites, The Mojave homeland was literally wiped off the grid. Area maps printed after 1859 no longer identified the site of the Mohave villages; instead, the region, dubbed Fort Mojave, was distinguished by a military post…to protect westward bound emigrants from the Mojave Indians.

 From the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe website: There are three primary groups of Yavapai existing today – they are located at Fort McDowell, Camp Verde and Prescott.

The Blue Tattoo is widely available in print, ebook and audiobook. I read a copy from my local library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Book Review, cultural interests, Indigenous Rights | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taller Leñateros: A Tzotzil Maya Blessing

I’d just left the family-run hotel where I stay when in San Cristobál de las Casas headed to Na Bolom. I was paying particular attention to my feet due to the town’s notoriously deteriorating, uneven sidewalks with potholes aplenty. When I glanced up to make sure I was still on track, I saw a painted sign, hung over a doorway enclosed by a gate, of a Classic Maya in full regalia riding a bicycle. Its paint was peeling and had seen better days. A similar image and fanciful creatures were strung out along the adobe wall.

I crossed the street to peer into the courtyard. The long work tables lining the wall were filled with stacks of some kind of material – that I couldn’t readily identify – and wood block prints haphazardly hung on the wall. I didn’t see anyone around. It was just too intriguing. I opened the wooden gate and entered. I was fascinated by all the prints, more now visible on the inside wall, and saw a small room. It was stocked full of handmade books and journals, posters and postcards. I’m enamored of such hidden treasures.

I’d discovered Taller Leñateros. That was probably ten years ago. Since then, I stop by nearly every year when I’m in San Cris and purchase a book, postcard or poster. I have my own private collection of their jewels.

Arbol de Ojos

Tree of Eyes. José Luis Hernández, Artist. Printed by Taller Leñateros.

Mexican-American poet Ambar Past started this natural paper and bookmaking collective back in 1975. She’d been living among Tzotzil Maya women in the highland villages of Chiapas, Mexico and, with their permission, began to collect and translate their traditional prayers, spells and poetry, which had never been written down. Her efforts ultimately culminated in a truly unique illustrated book, Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women. One time when I return, I’ll purchase the handmade book. In the meantime, I own a paperback copy.

I absolutely adore one of their dimunitive books containing only one prayer. It has a place on my altar. Sacred to me, its message touches something deep inside. Whenever I read it, I’m uplifted as much as I want to cry.

MagicForALongLife

Magic for a Long Life*

Manwela Kokoroch

Elder Brother of writing:

Elder Brother of painting:

I’ve come with roses, with lilies, with carnations, with chamomile.

 

Lend me your ten masks so my years within the corral will grow longer.

My wayhel is suffering in the mountains.**

My animal soul has fallen off the hill.

She’s at the end of the rope, at the last link in the chain.

 

Lend me your ten toes, your ten fingers.

To guide my wayhel back into her tiger cave.

Back in the green cave where my Spirit lives.

 

Lift her up with a cloth that smells of roses.

With a rose, lift me up.

Lay me down in the shade of the vine.

 

Elder Brother who feeds the Souls:

Guardian of the Corral:

Bearer of time:

Spin around in a circle,

Turn around in a square.

 

Don’t let the tiger out,

The jaguar out,

The wolf, the coyote, the fox, the weasel.

 

Herd them together,

Don’t let them go.

I’ve brought you turkey eggs.

I’ve brought pigeon stones for the hand and the foot

Of She Who Sees From Far Away Through Dreams.

 

Thirteen essences of tilil

Make my day longer with the sweat of your legs,

Your hands that glow green as precious jade,

Your green, green blood.

 

Carry me, embrace me and my tiger, and my jaguar.

This is all I will bother you with in the name of the flowers.

 

Keep my animal alive for many years

In the pages of the Book, in its letters, in its paintings,

On the whole Surface of the Earth.

 

Magic-2

Atlas Obscura just published an article on the collective. For more background and photos than I’ve offered, do read it. It brought back to me the sheer magic of the place, the beauty of Taller Leñateros’ mission, and its fragility.

*****

* I attempted to contact Ambar Past to gain permission to use the prayer in its entirety, since to segment it with just a few words would do it a disservice. I have been unable to reach her over time. I was advised that Ambar had withdrawn from the world and is now living in a monastery in Nepal. The suggestion came from a friend of hers to use the prayer listing the Maya woman whose version it is, there being other similar versions in the villages. I intend respect and hope to have done it justice.

**Wayhel is a Tzotzil Maya word meaning animal companion. In the words of Ambar Past, “…associated with shamanism, the portals of the Underworld, communication with the gods and the dead. The wayhel accompanies its alter ego from the moment it is born…” If one suffers, the other suffers. If one thrives, the other thrives.

Categories: Book Review, cultural interests, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya, What Warms the Heart | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Learn the True Ways of the Maya

Early morning on December 21, 2012, I was in Palenque, back in the Cross Group, sitting cross-legged just under the eaves by the doorway of the Temple of the Sun. I was hoping to witness the recurring solar alignment there on Winter Solstice—the sun rising over the dense jungle mountain directly above the Temple of the Foliated Cross, its first rays reaching across the plaza to fall within a hair’s breadth of where I’d planted myself. Maya ruler K’inich Kan Bahlam intended it exactly so.

There was a misty drizzle at the appointed time, and the alignment went unseen that year. But I remained, not moving an inch for four hours. I wasn’t hoping to be beamed up or whatever other nonsense was predicted. I was caught entranced by the ongoing chants, drums and singing bowls of a contingent of the Rainbow Tribe that had gathered in the interior of the Temple of the Sun. Others were engaged in not-meant-to-be laughable antics below in what had become a torrential downpour.

I may not have witnessed the solar alignment, but that day was still memorable. I finally made my way out, barefoot through the water rushing like a river down the many stairs and levels of Palenque. That was the only Great Flood that day. No cataclysmic demise of the planet or en masse spiritual transformation—depending on the believers’ camp—occurred.  The year 2012 and the end date of the Maya Long Count Calendar will be long remembered for its controversies, crazy predictions and theories, and ultimate ignorance of Maya culture and tradition.

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As seen on a street in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Photo: Carla Woody.

Early in 2012 I joined the Maya Research Discussion Group on Facebook as an interested observer. The members were a mixed bag but largely comprised of academics. The posts were often heated, pompous, sometimes nasty. Before I got tired of it and left the group, I did notice something pointedly. Maya members were few and those were mostly silent, maybe laughing up their sleeves or not wanting to enter the fray in this mostly Western group.

During that time, I was doing research to write an article on seed preservation and wanted Indigenous perspective. I’d privately asked an approachable member of the group if he could direct me to a Maya person who would be willing to speak with me about the subject. He connected me with Apab’yan Tew, a silent member, and advised he was open. After speaking with him via Skype for over two hours, I found him to be sincere and profoundly knowledgeable in the true ways of the Maya. His input ended up framing the article Seed Intelligence I wrote.

What started as a consult evolved into a continuing conversation, to the point that we’ve now been working together for the last six years. He’s become integral to the spiritual travel programs in Chiapas, Mexico and southern Guatemala I sponsor and other related undertakings. Apab’yan Tew is a K’iche’ Maya Daykeeper, spiritual guide, ceremonialist, male midwife, dancer and musician. Perhaps due to all the continuing misinformation, he has taken an active step forward in the last few years to become an educator on Maya traditions and the Maya calendar. This year brought publication of his first book The Birth of a Universe: The Maya Science of Pregnancy, which has been translated into K’iche’, Spanish and English. French and Hebrew are coming soon.

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Apab’yan Tew during fire ceremony in Guatemala, January 2019. Photo: Carla Woody.

 

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Blessing during fire ceremony. Photo: Carla Woody.

 In the last month, he has started offering short You Tube videos through his Brazilian friend Eduardo Ferronato, who produces and hosts them. For those who seek accurate knowledge on Maya cosmology, the traditions and practices of the Living Maya directly informed by their lineage and ancestors, this podcast is an excellent option. Each video is between 5-9 minutes, enough focused content for you to chew on and not too much so as to become overwhelmed with information. They plan for an initial season of 20 videos. Nothing offered is a misappropriation, an offshoot that diminishes the contribution of traditional Maya ways. Most importantly, you can trust Apab’yan to be true to his lineage.

Listen to the first video here. At this writing there are 3 available with another coming shortly. To subscribe and receive notices of new videos, go here.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Caring for Precious Lands

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. It’s been a good companion over these last couple of days’ flights home. Particularly in long delays or crammed up against fellow passengers, it serves as a reminder that I’d rather be anywhere than where I am at the moment. And it takes me there.

I’m envious. Notified by a friend of an opening for fire lookout, he quit his job in Manhattan where he was a journalist and during the fire season lives in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in a small box held up by stilts. He watches for fires and calls them in.

In some directions, the gaze settles on nothing but vast wilderness. It must have the same effect as gazing into a night sky unobstructed by human-made light. The more you gaze, the more the night sky invites, catapulting you into never-ending depth. There’s the sense of our small place in the universe and ancient knowledge we’ll never know. I imagine it could be a lonely job if you’re not cut out for this kind of solitude and little outside human contact. But for those who instead make friends with nature, find solace in silence and discover meaning in the wind, it must be pure heaven.

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Monsoon season. Photo: Carla Woody

Connors focuses on the 2009 fire season and walks us through his daily life, controversies through the years about the service natural fires perform, the cycle of nature, prescribed burns, what happens in drought years, and philosophical thought. I particularly found interesting his detailed description of sighting tendrils of smoke when he was out on the trail, knowing he was the first to see it, how he sent the alert and the actions taken from that point by wildfire fighters. Considerations if the fire got too close or overwhelming, what options he had to save himself.

I’d never heard of fire lookouts until I moved to the Southwest. Now the possibility of fire hovers in the back of my mind during the season. It’s come quite close to me a few times and otherwise engulfed local areas, leaving devastation and lost lives. And I always think of the animals.

One year — I think it was 2002 — I had a chance for a small taste of what it was like to be a lookout. An acquaintance had been one for years on Mount Union, the highest point at 8,000 feet in the Bradshaw Mountains of the Prescott National Forest.  He’d been inviting me out for some time. One weekend I decided to drive up there, quite the feat for the car I had at the time, especially as it had started to rain and fog was rolling in. Unbeknownst to me, it happened to be the weekend he was going down to Phoenix. I arrived just as he was leaving. He encouraged me to stay anyway.

The clouds had by now enfolded all. I could see only several feet beyond where I was standing in any direction. I was completely alone.

I went inside the cabin, having thoughts toward dinner. Choosing one from the many books Jon had, I carried my plate to the small table in front of the west window, which normally held a view level with, or above, far mountaintops. At the moment, I saw nothing but a solid white wall. And by now, the gentle rain had turned into a storm.

I glanced out the window and couldn’t believe what I saw. An immense fiery ball seemed to be hovering just beyond, in the ravine. I went out onto the porch to investigate. There it was—huge and blazing. How could the sun be coming to me in this way through the now torrential rains and impenetrable shrouding of clouds? I stood watching, awestruck, until the last remnants of this light finally disappeared.

Even though the storm was raging, I was compelled to sleep in the tower. I lugged my sleeping bag and a flashlight up the steep metal stairs, along with some water and Saint Thérèse’s book. After arranging my bed for the night, I stilled myself and just watched the scene before me. From an altitude of around 8000 feet and the further height of the fire tower, I had a sense of being on top of the world. The clouds had raised enough that I could see the panorama of lightning dancing across the land. I’d never seen such a demonstration of raw power. Some strikes seemed too close for comfort and the thunderclaps vibrated the tower’s cabin. But I just stood witness and found an uncanny metaphor in the stormy night to some of the inner turmoil that I’d brought with me to that place. Finding myself distracted and unable to read easily by flashlight, I lay listening to the sounds of thunder and raging wind for the longest time, feeling somehow perfectly safe. Peace was penetrating. I finally slept.

I opened my eyes very early the next morning. I heard no sounds of wind or rain. All was silent. I sat up. There were no clouds anywhere. Peace had come to the landscape. I could smell the fresh scent of washed pines coming to me through the small crack I’d left in one of the windows close by. My eyes came to rest on the mountain range toward the east. First light was appearing. I watched as the same fiery ball rose into view, smaller now, but its appearance just as profound to me. The cycle of renewal was complete.

— Excerpt from Standing Stark: The Willingness to Engage

 

That night was so precious to me. I’ve never forgotten it. In such environments, things are more real somehow than at any other time.

Connors’ recounting also made me recall the years I lived in Germany. Especially those couple of years in a village where the road by the house ended several feet away in pasture, then shortly in forest. Forests in Germany always seemed manicured to me. Beautiful, but pristine and tamed. Each village has a forstmeister, or forest master. I wonder how their role compares to the fire lookouts and forest rangers here in densely forested lands of the US. I appreciate the wildness.

Fire Season will be of special interest to those in the Southwest and other such forested lands. He wrote of places I know. And for those who live in places like Manhattan, it may ignite something similar like it did in Philip Connors.

Widely available in print, ebook and audio.

Categories: Book Review, Contemplative Life, Honoring the Earth, Solitude | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Fierce Devotion of Noor Inayat Khan

For nearly a decade I was involved in the local Sufi community. I studied the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan who first brought Sufism to the West in 1910 – directed to do so by his own Sufi teacher in India. I attended zikr, a devotional chanting practice, regularly and, in the late 1990s, went to India with a group led by Pir Shabda Kahn, now spiritual director of the the Sufi Ruhaniat International in San Francisco. In Delhi, we paid our respects at the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan and, encircling his grave, raised our voices in zikr. The vibrations of this dogma-free Path of the Heart remain with me.

Noor Inayat KhanYet never did I hear of his daughter Noor Inayat Khan in all that time I was so immersed in Sufi practice and study. Somehow, I came across a reference to her on the Internet. Curious because of her name, I did some research and was baffled by what I found.  The source said this first-born child of Hazrat Inayat Khan had been an agent for the Secret Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage agency known as “Churchill’s Secret Army.” I thought to myself, how could a young woman raised within that sacred lineage become a British spy? I delved more deeply and could clearly see what drove her.

Noor’s father — descendant of Indian nobility, Indian classical musician, Sufi mystic — met her mother Amina Begum né Ora Ray Baker — niece to a US Senator, cousin to Mary Baker Eddy who founded the Christian Science Church — at a public lecture he gave in San Francisco. Their love came quickly, but their courtship and prospective marriage were unacceptable to their families. They left the US and married in London. Four children quickly came along.

The family moved frequently and was largely dependent upon the generosity of followers. Her father traveled widely much of the time introducing Sufism to the West and forming centers. The family finally found a home in 1922 in Suresnes, close to Paris center, purchased for them by a wealthy Dutch devotee. Fazal Manzil, meaning House of Blessings, became their home and, for three months each summer, a Sufi school that overflowed with followers. There Noor grew up surrounded by family and community steeped in Sufi mysticism. She was a musician who played traditional Indian instruments and a singer of ragas, taught by her father. She was a poet and writer of children’s stories. Noor was consistently described as gentle, dreamy and shy even into adulthood. In some ways, it was an idyllic, if insular, upbringing. But her life changed dramatically when her father passed in 1927 while in India. Then in 1940 even more so when the family was forced to flee to London as the Germans advanced.

That was the significant point of departure from her former life. This introverted young woman, a practicing Sufi, was set on doing something to defend France. She volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was randomly chosen to train as a wireless operator. Noor was noticed by the SOE and subsequently invited for an interview, then offered a position.

At times she gave her superiors fits for she refused to lie, that necessary tool of a secret agent. They had to reframe the requirements of the job and relanguage things she would need to say in order for it to be palatable for her sensibilities. However, she wasn’t tricked into what she was about to encounter.

Radio operators had about a six-week survival rate in German-occupied territory. Their job of tapping out coded messages back to England made them prime targets by the enemy. Noor was the first woman to be dropped into occupied France, making her way to Paris. She had to move frequently to avoid detection, and faced danger continually. The radio had to be carried in a clunky briefcase, readily noticeable and an instant giveaway if cracked open.

The SOE espionage networks fell apart. One agent after another was caught, interrogated, jailed, executed or, worse, shipped off to concentration camps. Finally, she was the only remaining radio operator. Noor was alone. She was told to evacuate by her superiors back in England. She refused and persisted radioing coded missals on her frequency, Poste Madeleine.

How she remained calm in the middle of terrible danger can only be due to the great spiritual strength she carried. She steadily gave the Gestapo the slip until she didn’t. Enduring lengthy interrogation and torture, she gave away nothing. Dachau was the final stop.

She called out one word in the split second before her execution. Liberté!

Noor is a sacred Sufi word meaning light.

***

There is much to this story not mentioned here. Although posthumously awarded the honors, the George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre by France, Noor’s incredible bravery and all the lives she saved by such fierce devotion went otherwise unsung for years. She was in the company of many equally as courageous but outside mainstream. She wasn’t a white man.

But over the last 15 years she is being given her due. The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust was founded in London to “promote the message of peace, non-violence and religious and racial harmony, the principles Noor Inayat Khan stood for.” And her memorial was unveiled in 2012 in Gordon Square by Princess Anne.

The 2013 film Enemy of the Reich gives a good overview of her war years. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

If you really want to understand how this unlikely young woman was so inspired, risked her life and maintained her unshakeable courage to the very end, read the 2006 book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu. Available in the public library and wherever books are sold.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Sacred Reciprocity, Sufism | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your Personal Universe: Through the Maya Lens

The human condition is such that it’s not uncommon for people to wrestle with one or more aspects of their nature, those they strive to resolve but just can’t seem to get beyond. Something chronic that causes continual grief. Something so strong they feel hijacked from the life they were supposed to have. Or, everything is going well. But then that tendency, thought, behavior, internal voice, physical symptom…raises its unwelcome head. Intervenes. Again. Out of nowhere. Just when they were getting somewhere. Stopped short of the threshold to freedom.

I’ve long described this state as bumping up against a membrane. A diaphanous substance that gives to a point but springs back to regain its integrity, its strength reinstated, the barrier retained.

I ask if the aspect has been with them for some amount of time. It’s not unusual for me to hear: For as long as I can remember. Bringing the unconscious to consciousness, I take them through a process where they can identify to me its make-up: how it’s being held internally in the way of sensations, energy, internal dialogue or other auditory manifestations, visual input, even smells.

We use this data as a guide to go back to the first time such things manifested. That’s the pinpoint in time where we center the healing work. That’s where resolution is possible.

It’s not unusual for the person I’m working with to go back to the womb — or even before. And they’re able to identify a number of things. Physical sensations, sound, emotional impressions of their fetus self…and the state of their mother and father, who is there or absent, any number of things. If the person has been transported that far back, then the aspects of their life they’ve been grappling with…got a start in the womb. Or even as they’re hanging out in the ether…a potential awaiting conception…there’s awareness. I can say to them, This is not yours but something you ingested…that you’ve been carrying all these years. There we begin the healing process. Necessarily, we may even work back through the family line reframing, releasing limiting beliefs or traumas, trapped energy, whatever is necessary to bring them to a place of balance and wellbeing.

ApabBookSo, when I read Apab’yan Tew’s book The Birth of a Universe: The Maya Science of Pregnancy, I found myself saying, Yes, yes and yes. Some of the Maya science he documents is well familiar to me through my own work.

His occasional use of a K’iche’ Maya word at crucial points, and its translation, calls in the beauty of metaphor and poetic prose. Thus, it allows the quintessential meaning intended to sink in more deeply and take its rightful place.

Now begins the Maya perspective on the process and elements of pregnancy known by just a few remaining specialists within the ajq’ij — spiritual guide and Day Keeper — discipline. While there are a good number of ajq’ij and midwives still in existence, with this now rare, specialized knowledge the ajq’ij and midwife can work with precision for their client.

In K’iche’ the word uxlab’ means exhalation, steam or breath producing a vital force that becomes a separate entity from its source. Potential parents have their own state of being, and understanding or response to the nature of their relationship, which they carry into the act of procreation, intercourse. If conception occurs, the mother and father transfer their own unique make-up — lineage, underlying beliefs and developmental history, as well as the essence of their relationship in the moment — to the being they are creating. Their “exhalation” intertwines, conveying all the elements mentioned, into its own unique mixture, to the embryo. Now a separate entity, the uxlab’ ingested from the parents the decoction that forms its first tendencies. Creation of an individual universe is set in motion. The uxlab’ is also fully aware and conscious of what occurs outside its cocoon. The membrane being permeable in certain ways, much enters that fully matters.

Hence, the mother’s state of being during the entire pregnancy is paramount. The uxlab’ takes testimony directly from the mother, just as it takes sustenance, and absorbs the communications and resulting emotions, a completely invisible process that takes hold within the womb. Whether the act of conception was pleasant, indifferent or violent matters. Whether the mother is stressed or calm matters. Whether the father is emotionally and physically present or absent matters. Whether the baby is wanted or unwanted matters. It all gets through.

These truths are becoming accepted in some circles of Western healing methods. But Maya science deviates from Western understandings at this point and becomes quite remarkable, even a mystery.  When consulting an ajq’ij for any matter, they will ask for your birthdate according to the Western calendar in order to convert and compare against the Cholq’ij calendar, referring to the one containing 260 days having to do with human life. From a birthdate your nawal is shown. The nawals are divided into the masculine and the feminine, not according to attributes of biological reproduction, but to their substance. Your individual nawal documenting the path of your life can be seen clearly with great detail. If something is generating an issue, the ajq’ij will know exactly how to conduct a healing, through which prayers and ceremony.

But what of a fetus in the womb? The one not yet born? The ajq’ij or midwife with the specialized knowledge asks for the birthdate, which shows the nawals, of the parents so predicting the lifepath and tendencies of the baby. If the mother is stressed or the fetus is positioned in such a way to make a birth difficult, the spiritual guide enters into ceremonial singing using the vibrations of song to move the baby and calm the mother.

I’ve painted broad brushstrokes across a Maya science that is complex and yet straightforward to serve as a brief introduction, and how I could readily relate through particular similarities in my own work.

Apab’yan Tew is one of those few remaining as a Day Keeper, spiritual guide, male midwife, and bone healer who retains the depths and practices of this specialized knowledge, passed on to him by his own teachers, over years of apprenticeship and great hardship in his own life. When a calling comes, the road is rarely one of ease. It is a gift to the world that he has chosen to document a measure of this knowledge so that it doesn’t slip into time and lapses completely.

The Birth of a Universe: The Maya Science of Pregnancy contains wisdom anyone can use. It’s a book to delve into thoughtfully to glean how it relates to your own life.

Available in English, Spanish and K’iche’ Maya through Jade Publishing, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere.

*****

Tat Apab’yan will be with us the entire time during our travels in Chiapas, Mexico and southern Guatemala for the Maya Mysteries program in January. Aside from the fire ceremony, he has gladly agreed to share more on Maya midwifery, the Maya Calendar and esoteric practices of the Living Maya.

You are invited to join us for this very precious time⎯a rare opportunity to experience Maya traditions so deeply. For more information and how to register, go here.

 

Categories: Book Review, Healing, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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