There are aspects of life I largely keep to myself. Not because I’m withholding—but because they’re too sacred to put into words. I’m quite sure that’s true for a number of readers here. When such depth exists, wrapping finite terms around it creates the risk of trivializing. The vision or process leaks energy. The experience deflates to something more mundane. That when the culmination—tangible or intangible—is meant to take its rightful place…as a part of who you are. Not what you do.
Good poetry or prose are exceptions. Now, there is specialized language, the kind that uses metaphor and symbol to transport. Stating it directly short-circuits the journey, cutting out the opportunity for readers or listeners to hitch a ride but find their own way.
I notice as I’ve been writing, I’m struggling with how to move into the territory I want to share here. I am a visual artist and rarely talk about my work. Although, I do regularly show my art online and in exhibitions. That’s different. The viewer can experience whatever they will. I don’t typically provide much input, maybe a simple narrative. At shows, I am sometimes asked to demo my work and am quite aware of my internal response.
How can I demo a process…that has turned into a prayer of sorts? A communion built over time? From the first vague spark of inspiration to that liminal point when something else takes over and I’m merely guided? That can be a long process because the spirit of a piece has lived with me for some time before it ever begins to take form? And I don’t create artwork…or write for that matter… just to do it? That’s the sacred part.
There are the mechanics, of course. The how-to skill I can easily describe and sometimes show, taking the mystique out of the mechanics of artistry. I know someone is looking for something else when the conversation moves beyond the first question, how long did that take? To which I answer, depending on the piece, anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year or more. Then the next comment, you must have a lot of patience. To which I say, it’s a meditation to me.
If they move beyond that in the conversation, and it takes a deeper turn, I recognize someone who is on their own spiritual journey. We have more to delve into even if only for those few moments, and artwork has been the channel.
My friend Jacob Devaney, founder of Culture Collective and co-founder of Living Folklore, posted on social media about beadwork, his regalia and what it really means. I’m sharing it with permission here.
Beadwork is part of Creole Culture. It isn’t something for just women or grandmas. Not too different than Mala Beads for someone while meditating, or Rosary Beads for a Catholic. They are a prayer, each bead is the memory of an ancestor, it is presence, and it is an offering of beauty to the world when it is finished.
Beadwork by Jacob Devaney.
Life’s experiences are strung together like beads to make an expression of who we are, where we come from, and what we aspire towards. I don’t see beadwork as art, I see it as an expression of life itself, it is culture for me. In some circles, if I were to show up during carnival season with the same bead patches as last year, people would ask, “What did you do with your life since last year? We already saw these beads!” I know it sounds extreme and it is a form of teasing, but bead patches exemplify the time you spend reflecting, remembering your ancestors, being at home and giving to your community.
There are any number of devotional forms that express similar outcome. Several years ago, my friend Hilary Bee, a spiritual teacher in the UK, described to me how she was taught to make singing bowls, in the old way, by fire. That with each tapping of the small hammer shaping the bowl, a prayer was whispered simultaneously—and became integral to its structure. When I received the bowl she gifted me to carry, it was an incredible honor. I could feel the energy put into it, making its connection to me…and also release to wherever else it needed to go.
With things the way they have been for a while now…when offensive acts strike at my core values…when I find myself becoming so incensed by it all that I’m distracted and even feel sick or paralyzed…I know it’s time to step back and take stock. I know it’s time to note in what ways my life has meaning, how my own thoughts and actions matter and contribute to the beauty of the world.
Recently a good friend shared on social media Spiritual Integrity and Preservation, a 2014 article I’d written. It brought me back – front and center – to the intent that navigates the path that chose me. Acknowledgement is an important aspect of staying on track. It’s good to know where I’ve been, to draw it around me like a cloak, to shelter me and strengthen intent in the midst of the fire storm…and then keep on going.
That article was a celebration of sorts for a dream I didn’t know I had when it all began. When the dream grounded itself into reality, don’t be fooled into thinking I knew where it would lead. I had no concept at the time. I just trusted the energy it contained and somehow knew to follow it. I had to because it wouldn’t be denied, and things began to fall into place.
I believe we all have such compelling dreams living in our hearts. One just for each of us…waiting for us to say yes to the invitation. To grab it and go.
The article I refer to has to do with the work of Kenosis Spirit Keepers, the nonprofit extension of Kenosis. It tracks the evolutionary process of the work, going back to 2007, in helping to preserve Indigenous traditions. When my friend posted on social media, it caused me to look at what else has happened since 2014.
It brought back some wonderful memories. In 2016, I sponsored a second pilgrimage from Bolivia all the way to the high altitude Q’ero village of Ccochamocco in the Peruvian Andes, finally ending in Cusco. It was a very special journey bringing Q’ero, Maya, Hopi and Aymara Wisdom Keepers together and participants from across the US. In that journey one of the Elder spokespersons for the Hopi religious leader accompanied us to further validate the discovery by Hopi Marvin Lalo the previous year of the Hopi migration petroglyph on a huge slab at Puma Punku next to Tiwanaku in Bolivia. This has great significance if you realize the story of Hopi migration paths from South America previously existed only in Hopi oral history.
A powerful despacho ceremony with Q’ero, Aymara, Hopi and Maya on the Bolivian waters of Lake Titicaca on the way to the Island of the Moon, where Inka priestesses engaged in the Great Mystery.
Q’ero friends are offering a despacho ceremony in respect to the land and its spirits, asking permission before we descend to Tiwanaku.
It’s also caused me to look to the future. In January 2019, we are sponsoring Eli PaintedCrow of Yaqui-Maya heritage to accompany us to Guatemala and Mexico for the Maya spiritual travel program. While Eli has had direct access to her Yaqui traditions, she knew nothing of her Maya lineage. When I discovered this, I invited her. I can in no way project any outcomes, but Eli has a son and grandson. I’m guessing it will be important for her to tell them of the strong, proud people they hold in their blood.
Because I’m right upon another important anniversary, I’m sharing Spiritual Integrity and Preservation here. It will link to two other articles – The Last Spirit Keeper and The Ninth Evolution of the Spirit Keepers Journey (with video) – that complete the history.
In 2009 an important tradition began, first started by Hopi elder Harold Joseph who accepted an invitation to accompany me on my spiritual travel program Entering the Maya Mysteries. As his religious leader’s emissary, the purpose was to reconnect with relations, those from Hopi migration paths…
Don Antonio Martinez and Harold Joseph at the Lacandón Maya village of Najá in 2009.
…The intent I hold for spiritual travel has remained the same from the start. It is not to co-opt Indigenous traditions. It is to offer respect through our presence and to hold space that these sacred ways continue…If in the process we visitors are deeply touched—and we are—we bring this difference home. Who we are in the world is influenced…and felt by our families, friends and communities. Core spiritual elements are strengthened…
When I was in my late thirties, I became certain that something big was on my personal horizon. I had no idea what it was but just knew it was out there waiting…and would change the very fabric of my life. I remained open to discovering what was in store because it was so compelling. But in another way…scary. It contained uncertainty. A few years passed when suddenly the threshold appeared. It happened quickly. It was palpable. I was standing before it, and all looked so much brighter on the other side…even though I still couldn’t make out exactly what was there.
I had entered liminal space, the territory that holds the material and imaginal worlds equally…until they come together as one. Once done, you can step blithely through the threshold, never looking back. To do so necessarily involves un-grounding, prying your feet off the soil you’d known in order to set the stage for a wider life. It’s uncomfortable. Depending on your nature, it can be downright anxiety producing. Then those internal looping messages start to roll and can be incessant as they attempt to keep you tethered to where you were. They may get their reinforcements from external sources as well.
But there’s another part that clearly knows the old ways no longer seem right. Stick with it and know this is a part of the process. In fact, the internal and external messages often exacerbate before they flame out and dissipate.
Even so, the new landscape hasn’t made itself quite visible yet. In this transition, the imaginal realm is your great ally. I tell people I’m working with to pay considerable attention to their dreams during these times, to inexplicable visionary experiences and insights that swim up from some place you can’t name to land solidly in your lap out of the clear blue. This is the great gift of bonding with your Core Self, learning to trust metaphoric or literal messages as guidance. Creating clarity is key at this point. The imaginal world is your friend. When you know – and recognize you know – a foundation starts to form.
In reality, the threshold didn’t appear suddenly. Coming to readiness is a required piece, getting unseated enough to wake up and discover it’s time to move. Life is happening without you. Readiness isn’t necessarily a smooth trajectory but may involve dancing back and forth until the call is just too insistent to ignore.
Rites of passage aren’t prevalent in Western culture. Whatever may once have existed has been forgotten or downplayed. Know what I’ve been discussing is a rite of passage. Call it so. The time when you are no longer who you were but who you’re becoming. This particular rite is completed when you step through the threshold and fall into the next iteration of your life.
If what I’ve written here sounds all too familiar…and you recognize you’re smack in the middle of it, just name it. You’re in liminal space. It’s sacred. Treat it so. Getting to a place of full knowing – recognizing connection with the unseen world that is more real than what your logical mind would have you believe – is integral to this rite of passage. You’re not alone in your experiences.
Here I am nearly three decades later, having recently passed a milestone birthday, looking back over the years I have thus lived. While the big rite of passage occurred all those years ago, putting me on the path I’ve been on ever since, there have been smaller rites along the way. They further aligned me to my intent. Be thankful when you sense your own threshold coming steadfastly toward you. I bless all of mine.
I’ve been considering lineage. First coming from Latin as linea, evolving to Old French lignage and English line to finally form lineage, meaning lineal descent, ancestry and parentage. It has to do with roots from the seed. What is the seed? Where are your roots planted, and how deep do they go? That’s underground. What is drawn up through those roots to make its way above ground? Heritage is a living entity. What does the bloodline produce?
I like this on lineage from biology: a sequence of cells in the body that developed from a common ancestral cell. I think about origins, and all the stories that are passed along a family line ⎯ said and unsaid ⎯ and those told over and over that bind a collective to each other. Influences. There are those stories best to learn from and let go. But that’s another piece of writing.
Here I want to focus on tradition as it speaks to lineage.
When we are rootless…when we don’t know where we come from and don’t hear the stories…we long for knowledge of the line that could give us spiritual grounding, heritage in the highest sense. If we never know…if we’re disconnected…then we’re left to take the solo journey toward creating a solid identity. Or, not at all and remain ungrounded. Some are fortunate to find community that sustains them. Floundering is often the norm until some semblance of foundation forms. Whatever traditions come of this quest are deeply personal and create stability through time. They give expression and instill what it means to be human.
There are multitudes across the world who can trace their lineage back hundreds to thousands of years. Most of these are tribal peoples. They are grounded in the very lands where they or their ancestors were born. Their stories are centuries old, some never written down, and endure. They know who they are at a deeply unconscious level, made visible through their traditions. Rituals ⎯ how a baby receives its name, crops are planted, dreams advise ⎯ provide the framework that guide lives. They are not alone. Ancestors are actively present. So is the community. The richness of lineage is told through dance, songs, music and art.
I say these are the sacred threads that hold the world together because it’s true. These timeless elements produce spiritual grounding and strength beyond anything material. Yet to the present-day mainstream majority these threads are unseen or valued least with little to no thought or understanding.
There are so many examples of detractors acting against the stability that we all seek at a core level. On the world stage, most of us (who would be reading these words) can name those most grievous actions and their perpetrators right off the top of our heads. The source is rootlessness, the disconnect of those who have chosen to stay ungrounded. I have to believe this because I can’t imagine that anyone who has pledged commitment to all that encompasses spiritual identity could even consider, much less act on, what tears the world apart.
The question becomes how do those of us who hold value for the planet and all beings, not only survive but thrive and stand up to what acts against all we hold dear. I don’t believe we do it by force. I don’t believe we do it by cutting ourselves off from what is going on in the world. By virtue of holding anything at arm’s length, tension is created by focusing on what we want to avoid…thereby naturally drawing it to attention.
I don’t believe we do it by allowing ourselves to be assaulted. I say this in particular because I felt that way for months in this last year when I’d learn day by day of yet another thing that went against my deeply held spiritual values. This wasn’t just an attack on my mind. I felt the attack viscerally. But going numb isn’t the answer either.
I’m writing of this because it’s been so much on my mind. It’s probably been on yours. As I have been attempting to grapple, accept, rise above…I can’t say I have answers. But in the midst of all this, something did present itself. I’ve been drawn to return to reading passages in spiritual literature, adding this practice in to my daily meditation as I did many years ago when going through difficult times. I do feel strengthened.
We find our true identity in lineage and tradition, the sacred threads that hold the world together, woven tightly and held lightly. I do believe this is what we’re called to do in these times, upleveling the breakthrough that must be on the horizon.
Synchronicity being what it is, as I was finishing up this piece, I received the weekly newsletter with an article from Yes! Magazine entitled Don’t Just Resist. Return to Who You Areby Taiaiake Alfred. I zeroed in on these words scattered through a paragraph.
In 2012 I was invited to South Louisiana by Shala Fontenot and Faith Moody, who had been on one of my Peru journeys. I still carry gratitude for their generosity. It was the start of a love affair. I quite fell in love with the people and rich culture of those lands. While there I interviewed Becca Begnaud during her monthly Healing Arts Collective gathering. Becca is a Cajun traiteur, a tradition indigenous to the area that I didn’t know existed. Not only is she well versed in her healing art, Becca is a wealth of information on Cajun and Creole history and lifeways.
Traiteurs are faith healers, a heritage in danger of sliding into extinction. These days they have few, if any, apprentices willing to undertake a trade that involves a lot of personal sacrifice. Most are way up there in years. Traiteurs are known to selflessly give of themselves – many on call around the clock – caring for those in need. If they’re paid for services at all, it’s customarily a chicken or other practical item. They heal through what they call “the gift.” A prayer comes through them for the person it’s meant, often by laying on of hands. But there’s no requirement for the person to be present. Long distance healing is often done as well.
Below you’ll find the original interview I did with Becca during which she talks about her own process of taking on the mantle, and the origins of those who live in the area.
A few days ago, Becca sent me a note about coverage on traiteurs in a local publication. You can read it here. Her message gave me the final nudge to write this additional article, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.
Just prior to my return to Cajun Country in 2013, my friend Shala called and said a few cryptic words, “There are some folks I want you to meet.” Nothing more. After arriving, I discovered she’d set up sessions with three traiteurs. Her method: She put out a general announcement to friends and acquaintances, a request for names. When she received the same recommendation three times, she arranged a meeting. Luckily, I had my recorder with me, and they freely answered my questions. I asked each one about the same things: any criteria for being a traiteur, how they received the gift, and what effect it had on them personally. They filled in the gaps.
We pulled up to an unassuming house in the small town of Opelousas, the home of Sostain and Dorothy Lemelle. Mrs. Lemelle greeted us at the door and brought us right into the kitchen where Mr. Lemelle sat at the table. She returned to watching a TV show in the seating area just beyond, but piped in periodically as we talked with Mr. Lemelle.
He was 83 years old at the time, having begun his healing work suddenly at the age of 10 when a veterinarian was unable to staunch blood flow from a horse’s deep wound. His mother told him to point his finger at the horse and send the prayer. He did, and the bleeding stopped. He’d been doing his work ever since. Mr. Lemelle said his mother told him his daddy died six months before he was born, and that’s why he had the gift. No other reason and nothing else specifically done to learn his craft. But he was known many places in the world, regularly receiving calls from far-flung places.
From left to right: Shala Fontenot, Sostain Lemelle, Becca Begnaud and Carla Woody.
I experienced his work myself. We sat knee to knee in that kitchen, TV going in the background, as he passed his hands over me and said prayers. I felt an enormous amount of energy, a force moving though my body, flushing out anything that could be out of sorts. Later, I asked him what he felt himself. He smiled and said, “Nothing.” I queried him, was he sure he didn’t experience any sensations, any energy? He smiled even more broadly and insisted, it wasn’t for him, only for the one who sat in front of him. So he didn’t feel anything. About that time there was a knock on the door, someone else showed up for healing. We placed the chicken we’d brought on the kitchen table, thanked him profusely and left.
Mr. Lemelle, a sweet humble man, passed this life in August 2014. He was kindly remembered in the world and left a gap hard to fill. Our unedited interview is below. A bit garbled in the beginning, it’s well worth the listen (27 minutes) and gets clear the more this elder launched into recounting his life.
I’m going to call her Mrs. Benoit, then a 78-year-old traiteur who preferred to remain nameless and didn’t want the actual recording on the Internet. I’m sharing some of her story.
I come from family of 10 and have 10 children of my own. My mother was a traiteur who would treat just two things—the blood and the burns. That was back in the day of the horse and buggy. They would turn into their drive calling out ‘Madame, Madame.’ And my mother would look out the window. If she saw red, then she’d know it was a bad cut. Walking to meet them, she would already be working on the wound. I’d run beside her. I found it fascinating! When my mother got to the buggy they would be squeezing a bandage that was dripping blood. But when they unwrapped it, the wound had closed!
I said, Mama! How did you do that?
She said, it was just prayer. It’s a treatment that was handed down to me from the elders.
Mama, can you teach me?
I’m sorry. I can’t. I can only teach someone of the opposite sex.
So I had to learn from a man or a boy older than me. A woman couldn’t teach me. But they wouldn’t teach me then because I was too young, they’d say. But finally someone taught me at 7 years old. I first learned for the blood. I saw a dog get hit by a car and it was bleeding. I treated him and it stopped immediately. Thank you, Jesus!
I learned one at a time from those who would teach me.
Then my sister-in-law was somewhere and saw this old man. She asked him if something was wrong. He said he was sad because he’d traveled the world and learned all these treatments. But he didn’t have anyone to pass them to.
No one ever asked me, he said. I’d love to meet a woman younger than me who speaks both French and English that I could pass my treatments to her.
She said, Oh my God. This is my sister-in-law’s answered prayer! She’s been praying for years to meet an angel that would tell her treatments from the old days. And she’s never forgotten a treatment she learned.
Thank you, Lord, I said. I called him until he got home. I went and spent 3 days with him. He even taught me the treatment for cancer. When someone needs to come, God sends them.
A woman came to my door. I could hear her coughing before she got there. I said to her, that’s a heart cough. Not a lung cough. She’d just spent 5 days in the hospital, but she was no good. I told her I learned a treatment from an old lady who lived with the Indians. She taught classes, and I went to all of them. I told her, there’s a treatment for that cough you’ve got with some tea. It was blue malva tea. I treat 3 days in a row, pretty much at the same time of day. If they can’t come here I treat them here [long distance]. In 3 days this woman was not coughing. I treated her [with prayer] and she drank that tea.
This lady called me one day when I was doing reflexology. She said [crying], I was making some roux and the pot fell on my shoulder. It burned so bad! There’s nobody around! I’m by myself! Can you treat me?
This lady I was working on [with reflexology] was a very religious lady. I said, we’re going to treat you. We’re going to pray for you. Me and my friend are going to hold hands. And I’m going to pretend to hold your hand. Did you remove that roux on your shoulder?
Yes, but it burns so! It burns through my body!
I asked the lady to pray with me for the burn. We did it 3 times. She had stopped crying. We did it 3 more times. She came and showed me the next day. It didn’t even blister. I’m overwhelmed when I see something like that! She said when we stopped praying it was no longer there! So it works.
Rebecca Henry is known as a Creole folklorist who runs the Creole Heritage Folklife Center in Opelousas. Located in an old home, it contains items from the early parts of the last century that document African American life of the times. But Mrs. Henry is also a traiteur, and certainly a clairvoyant. Unsolicited, she told me things about myself that she had no way of knowing. I regret not writing them down. While she gave permission for me to record our conversation, and openly spoke of hidden things the others hadn’t, I could see she wasn’t sure about my motives. And even though the recorder batteries had plenty of juice, the record light was on…and even tested prior to beginning our discussion in earnest…when I went to listen to it later, nothing was there. Blank. I tell you this was one powerful woman that I look forward to visiting again.
I have a very strong pull to spend more time in that region. The folks there were liberal with their storytelling. Still, I have the distinct sense that the stories proffered were an invitation to go deeper. I’ve been in such places before. I recognize the waters running there.
There are some things held in secrecy because they’re too sacred to tell. Or if uttered at all, are whispered in the night in silent places. There are others whose truths are hidden because to openly relate them at all risks great punishment. Or they’re distorted through misunderstanding by a culture that cannot fathom a different meaning than their own.
I’ve admitted to being greatly distressed by the ongoing acts against truth, understanding and compassion in the current political climate and otherwise. And truly attempting to find grace and balance for myself within it all. I do believe that the Universe does deliver when we open in that way. Hence, some salvation dropped in my lap.
I stumbled upon a 2009 interview by Krista Tippett, host of On Being, of Ernie LaPointe, a direct lineal descendant of Tatanka Iyotake. Closest translation from Lakota being Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down—not Sitting Bull.
In the interview, Ernie LaPointe relayed some of the oral history passed to him by his late mother, Angelique Spotted Horse-LaPointe, about his great-grandfather and their traditions. I was so moved I listened to the two-hour, unedited version of the podcast twice—and then bought his book Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy so I could return, again and again, to points that particularly inspire me.
The parts about the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 outlawing sacred practices, all the betrayals and ramifications generated a great deal of sadness for me that is hard to put aside. But within that is an example of a man who held utmost integrity and compassion in his heart. The long-term wellbeing of his people informed his decisions. History calls him a war chief when really he was a great spiritual leader. He was killed on Standing Rock Indian Reservation for who he was. But his Spirit lives on. He was humble, preferring to be known as a Sun Dancer. Not a chief. As a child he was called “slow” by some, a misrepresentation of one who notices everything, weighs all sides to come to deliberate decision.
Here’s one about knowing when to fall on your sword and the good karma that comes when rash decisions are avoided. When Tatanka Iyotake, then called by his childhood name Jumping Badger, was 7 years old he was among a band of young boys being tested for their skills. First they had to make the perfect arrow and then were told to hunt and return with a beautiful bird. He and another boy spied a bird at the same time. The other boy let his arrow fly but it missed and lodged in a tree branch. Tatanka Iyotake offered to help the boy by shooting it down with his own arrow. He succeeded but the boy’s arrow broke when it hit the ground. The boy became angry and blamed him. Rather than get into an argument about the whole thing, Tatanka Iyotake gave the boy his own arrow, which he’d labored over to perfect. When their teacher heard through others about the incident, he gifted him with a full set of bow and arrows.
Perhaps my favorite story is this one that foretold his future as a great spiritual leader. When he was 10 years old, his uncle Four Horns tested his tracking and hunting skills for buffalo, a dangerous undertaking with the potential of stampede. Tatanka Iyotake rode into the center of the herd, aimed at a huge bull, let his arrow fly and brought it down. Proud of his nephew, Four Horns was also angered at the dangerous risk he took. When asked why he didn’t go for the cow at the edge of the herd, he responded that he saw the cow. But he also saw her calf. If he’d killed the cow, her calf would die, too.
Four Horns guided him through the ritual to thank the Great Spirit then directed him to run get this mother and the other women to butcher the bull, which he did. But not before he asked his mother to be sure to save good portions for a widow and her children who lived nearby.
From this incident, which displayed his foresight and generosity, Jumping Badger gained his adult name Tatanka Iyotake, Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.
Stories like these and other sharing about Lakota ways were so good to hear. It was also disheartening to learn how things changed due to outside influences.
Counting coup, the striking of an enemy with a stick, was as a visual way of settling differences and gaining honor. It was after the white man came that young warriors started killing instead.
During vision quest the young men would often see colors that would then be worn as protection, a part of spiritual practice. Not “war paint”—a measure of disrespect by those quick to misunderstand. Ernie LaPointe spoke of himself and others who carried PTSD as a spiritual wounding because they didn’t wear their colors to protect their Spirit.
The reverence toward women is woven into the culture. The belief is, through their menstrual cycle, women go through a natural, monthly purification process. The wisdom they gain in the process is enlarged upon throughout their lives. So, while the men may consider a direction, the final decision is not made until it is placed in front of the women, who weigh in with their wisdom.
What I’ve shared here is only a token of all I heard and read. For the full richness, view the full interview or listen to it on Sound Cloud.
With so much appreciation to Ernie LaPointe for telling the stories of his great-grandfather, even in the controversy directed toward him for doing so. Because of him, I’ll continue to watch for the leader who Carries the People in the Heart. We’ll know that person by their name. Not because they proclaim it. But because the people have granted it by virtue of the actions that distinguished the honor.
The Horse Boy came to my attention through one of the travelers on my Peru spiritual travel program. Françoise Moreels told me she was so inspired by the story, centered around autism and Mongolian shamanism, that she was compelled to journey to Mongolia herself. With an introduction like that, of course, I was drawn to read it to see what was so remarkable. And truly it is.
Imagine a young couple completely engaged in life. Rupert Isaacson was a journalist and activist for Indigenous land rights, particularly for the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Kristin Neff was a professor in educational psychology at the University of Texas. Their young son Rowan just wasn’t developing the way other children did and displayed behaviors that led to a diagnosis of autism in 2004. The book is intimate in detailing all the heartbreak and frustration that comes with parenting a child with such a condition—the daily travails that are so difficult. My great respect certainly goes to these parents.
It became the father’s quest to find a way to heal Rowan. Rupert’s work being more flexible, he stayed home with Rowan much of the time. Unexpectedly, an incident occurred that eventually pointed to a path of healing. One day, Rowan broke away from his father and ran over to a horse named Betsy on a neighbor’s property, a mare known to be difficult. Strangely, Betsy was submissive to the child. And the child’s stemming and outbursts calmed. Rupert knew horses. He grew up with them in South Africa. He asked the neighbor if he and his son could ride the horse, and they did. Consistently.
It had such a positive effect on Rowan’s functioning that, after a time, Rupert had a brainstorm. Why not take Rowan to Mongolia, the place where horses were first domesticated and had become integral to the culture—and particularly their powerful form of shamanism? It took Rupert a few years to convince Kristin enough for her to reluctantly agree. But in 2007, the family began a physically and emotionally challenging odyssey across the remote steppes of Mongolia in hopes their son would be healed.
This is a story of strong intent played out against the backdrop of Mongolian shamanism. I highly recommend the book, also produced as a documentary. As a result of their experiences, Rupert Isaacson founded the Horse Boy Foundation working with autism and equine therapy. Kristin Neff founded Self-Compassion offering training in mindfulness and acceptance.
The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson is available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Inclement weather prevailed. Mist drifting into the small valley out of nowhere lending invisibility to what was just a few feet beyond, then dissipating equally unannounced. Splashes of rain turning steady through the night, chill creeping into the bones. Snow in the high mountains. Rays of sunshine breaking through. We soaked up the warmth when we could.
This was the backdrop for four days in the Hatun Q’ero village of Ccochamocco in the Cusco Region of Peru. People in my group kept asking, “Is it always like this?” No. The last time it was mostly sunny with a brief snow shower. We played outside in light jackets with the children and freely roamed the land.
This time we were clothed in as many layers as we could stuff under our heavy coats. Mufflers. Hats. Gloves. Meanwhile, nothing altered much for Q’ero waikis (term for brother, sister or friend). The children still wore sandals with bare feet as did the adults. Layers of sweaters, yes. Heavy coats, no. Bare legs on the girls and women. Their homes: tiny one-roomed huts of local stone with thatched roofs, dirt floors, most having no hearth inside with appropriate ventilation. These things have changed little over the centuries in this high Andean village at nearly 15,000’.
More fortunate, we were housed and fed in the large room of the new community hall that sported a wooden floor. No heat but solid walls and roof. The waikis brought plastic, alpaca hides and blankets from their own homes for us to place under our sleeping bags, barriers from the cold seeping in through the ground.
That was the background. The foreground was this…
The men busily cooking in the entrance room designated as the kitchen producing three remarkably tasty meals a day from simple ingredients. Their constant laughter punctuated the air.
Despacho ceremony. Modesto Machacca Apaza breathing prayers into a coca kintu (prayer offering). Photo credit: Cécile Sother.
A communal despacho ceremony where we all placed prayers for family, friends, global consciousness…our own path… the bundle later taken and burned outside—somehow in the pouring rain—by my compadre Modesto, the father of my godson. But not before, by their request, we visitors formed a tight circle which the waikis entered singing, touching our hearts and hands, wiping down our bodies to release any last vestiges of heavy energy that may have remained. I can think of no words to describe the love in which these actions were given. The transmission remains imprinted in my soul.
Lisa Flynn of Santa Fe, NM with her face paints. Photo credit: Cécile Sother.
The children…of all ages. Bright. Curious. Well-behaved. Raised to be happy and free. It shows. There were always at least a handful among us. Sidling up to one or another of us. Reaching out a hand to be held. Lots of laughter during face-painting or hair-braiding time.
Communing with the mountains and my morning coffee in Ccochamocco. Photo credit: Cécile Sother.
What to say about the land? It’s not in the background. The very terrain, dotted with alpaca and sheep, dramatic, sweeping: Its vibration permeates everything. I know I’ve brought it home, reinforced once again.
Every moment there was filled with magic against the backdrop of hard living—at the level of survival—unlike anything any of us visitors have experienced in our own lives. This was the true initiation presented on this pilgrimage that began in Bolivia…preparing us for its culmination in Ccochamocco, where the highest concentration of paq’os—Andean mystics—reside. Where, in their tradition, an alto mesayoq is chosen by the lightning itself to work with cosmic energies. Where a pampa mesayoq undertakes many years of sacrifice and apprenticeship to learn the ways to honor the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Where the community lives in ayni, sacred reciprocity.
The morning after we returned from Ccochamocco to Cusco I awoke with intense feelings and recognition that I shared with the group as we closed our circle:
I’m feeling much gratitude this morning. After a hot shower and having slept in a warm bed with a good mattress…instead of the hard floor on top of an alpaca hide and a blanket to keep the cold at bay. Q’ero waikis have such fortitude to live in extremely difficult, unpredictable conditions—subsistence—and yet theirs is also a life interlaced with laughter and sheer joy. It’s also evident to me that their connection to the Pachamama, Apus (sacred mountains) and community is their source. Our culture has much to learn. After yet another reminder of their ongoing gratitude, I can’t help but be humbled again.
And I can’t help but think our initiation, the opportunity always orchestrated by the Universe to be accepted or put aside by each individual, is in what we choose to focus on and how we integrate what we’ve been presented.
Tomorrow I will have been home a week. I’ve only ventured outside my home once to get a few groceries. I placed all other life on hold as I can do little but stare at the distant mountains and landscape outside my own home. Integration has its own way with everyone. This is mine. Tomorrow I begin re-entering my daily life, lunch with a friend and a meeting in town…and see what else the Universe has in store.
With many thanks to the gracious, courageous people who joined me in this pilgrimage, making it possible. I continue to be honored by your trust.
Heart of the Andes 2016 bringing together Q’ero, Aymara, Hopi and Maya spiritual leaders, and other intrepid travelers. Pictured here the 3rd day of the pilgrimage after ceremony off the waters of the Island of the Sun at a hidden sacred site. Photo credit: Stacy Christensen.
A star shines more brightly now. A week ago I received word that Don Miguelito—pa’qo and ever-present guardian of Salk’awasi—transitioned this planet and took his place in the sky.*
I write this to honor him. He touched a multitude of people, both literally and figuratively, in his 90-plus years. For sure, all the people who traveled with me in Peru will not have forgotten him. Memories of him are carried within us.
Doña Maria and Don Miguelito, 1996. Photo: Carla Woody
Looking back I realize the many things I learned from him over the years. I never knew the kind of things that are common if we’ve known someone long: his last name, if he’d had a wife or children, if he was born in the village of Mollamarka above where he’d lived. He was a solitary fixture, sometimes appearing in front of his small adobe, hand in his coca bag, when visitors arrived at Salk’awasi. Watching.
But I did know that witches from the small village on the next mountain made their way over to consult with him periodically. We called him Miguelito, an affectionate diminutive, which did not at all express the power he held. Although, it did note his small physical stature. I’d be surprised if he’d brushed 58 inches. He did not demand recognition as some do. He was not flamboyant. He spoke few words. Yet, if you paid attention, you’d be aware of the teachings he conveyed.
If you were fooled by appearances, you’d think he was the gardener. In worn, simple clothing, we’d see him raking one of the many paths that wind through the compound with a handful of branches. He built magic ‘rooms’ where given opportunity by a fallen tree and nearby vines to drape. He kept the flowers
Don Miguelito, 2011 Photo: Bobbie Owens
neat. In his last years, he tended them less. The land suffered his absence, going back to nature—perhaps symbolizing Miguelito’s own symbiotic journey. Nevertheless, he touched the Pachamama, Mother Earth, and created sacred containers, leaving his imprint on the land that will never dissipate.
It was only during certain times that his outward appearance gave a hint of who he really was. We would invite him to the circle. He would come—always at night—dressed in full regalia: brightly colored poncho and hat, carrying his mesa.** We’d make sure he had a small table on which to open his mesa, candlelight and pisco to refresh himself. Contained in his mesa were coca leaves for divinations and smooth black stones that had been struck by lightning. He used them for limpia.***
Miguelito had been struck by lightning himself—twice—a known shamanic initiation in many indigenous traditions. He ran his lightning stones over our bodies removing hucha, or heavy energy.
His coca readings were spot on, seeing things in us that we needed to attend to in order to further the journey and foretold futures perhaps not even a blip on our own radar yet. The coca leaves told him so. My own first experience with Miguelito is forever emblazoned in my mind. I was a real newbie, not really knowing which end was up, feeling my way on an invisible-to-me path. I wrote about it in my first book Calling Our Spirits Home. A bit is excerpted here.
Miguelito was bent trance-like over the leaves, sifting them with his gnarly fingers, muttering under his breath…he picked up a few coca leaves and began chewing them…he spit them out on the table. Moving his hands…he seemed to be noting where the pieces fell…he began to speak…Stopping, he turned and looked me directly in the eyes as though searching for something…Miguelito’s words [translated from Quechua] seemed quite unlikely to me. ‘That storm we had the other night?’ I nodded. How could I not recall it? I had started awake in the middle of the night…Lightning lit up the room from its savage dance across the mountaintops right outside my window…’The lightning was for you and its filaments are inside you now. I’m surprised that it was for you.’ No more surprised than I was, unclear of his meaning…Abruptly, he got up from his chair, came over to me and started rooting through the hair on top of my head with his fingers. ‘Ah, there’s where it went in.’ Seeming now satisfied with his finding he sat back down.
Don Miguelito, 2009 Photo: Shelley Wolfe
He went on to tell me of the work I would begin to do, a large part of it bringing groups to Peru with spiritual intent. That was in 1996. Indeed, the reading held true and has evolved from there to include other Indigenous traditions and countries. The last reading I had with Miguelito was in 2011 when he told me that my work would continue to be difficult. This was not something I wanted to hear but recognized what is typically so when anyone is going against the grain of the status quo and mainstream culture. My intent is in holding the challenges lightly.
Miguelito was not afraid of being blunt. In fact, he used no filters in advising what was causing obstructions. Sometimes I saw people wince. It was always interesting to me in that the same issues would come up for the person to deal with during our travels. He also instituted healings. I wrote of one in the recent post Collective Resonance and Healing how the jungle absorbed a woman’s chronic condition.
He was often out in the dead of night. Perhaps he was communing with the mountains, stars and planets, perhaps spirits that best showed themselves in the wee hours. Now he may show himself in just that way.
On June 23rd I wrote my longtime friend Oscar Panizo and told him of the news none of us wanted to hear. He wrote back, “The glaciers are melting and the times are a-changing. Salk’a energy is returning home.”
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via email@example.com. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
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