“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Though I couldn’t have possibly understood it at the time, when I first travelled to Peru in 2005, I was seeking to know my own roots. The great granddaughter of a fully Cherokee woman, I had grown a deep thread of curiosity about indigenous lifeways, and ultimately had no idea where to begin to discover that. And so, in a self-designed grad school study, I set off to Peru and Bolivia in hopes of engaging with people still living in traditional ways, and practicing traditional healing and spiritual work. While I intended to merely observe these people and traditions, I found myself in the midst of learning a new cosmology and engaging with sacred temples and rituals in ways that I couldn’t have previously imagined. Though it was all strange and uncomfortable to me, I was also fundamentally open and curious, and was fascinated to be allowed to come so close to things I had only previously read about in books. Once I returned home from that journey, I was haunted by the Andes Mountains, and the whole Cusco and Sacred Valley region. It came to me in dreams, calling me back ~ the smell of eucalyptus trees in the hot sun, the smell of dusty land, the feel of smooth stones carved into sacred altars, the palpable energy of a land that was never dominated by conquistadores. I eventually followed that call back to Peru, and have continued to travel there for over a decade.
During these years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with wise teachers and healers. My life has been transformed by going deep into these traditions that are so different from the ideas that I grew up with. One of the most essential teachings in the Andes Mountains is the law of AYNI ~ sacred reciprocity. Ayni states simply that we live in a universe of exchange, and in order for life to flourish, we must enter into a process of giving and receiving that is balanced and generous. Indeed, as we breathe in the air all around us, we receive a gift of all the green growing world. And as we exhale, we give back to the trees and plants, allowing them to live. This is a concept espoused by ALL indigenous traditions the world over ~ that we will indeed receive from our beloved Pachamama, and in doing so, we must also give as generously as an expression of balance. Ayni expresses respect for all life ~ not just as a human concept of remembering to respect all of life, but as a full acknowledgement and participation in the interdependence of all life. It is a profound thread of understanding that governs the living indigenous culture that still stands in the Andes Mountains, and for a western woman schooled in a capitalist, self-interested culture of excessive materialism and growth, it was refreshing like cool water in the desert. It spoke to something deep in my bones that was already yearning to find expression, and I knew that I had found *home* in a totally new way.
Each time I returned from an extended journey to Peru, I found myself facing a deep sorrow that I couldn’t fully explain. It was akin to homesickness, though I returned home to a place that I considered my own. I noted the difference as I walked down the street: while in Peru, eyes meet, and greetings of hermanita, hermana, amiga always met me, even if we had never met before. And at home in the US, eyes darted away, avoiding contact. Ayni presumes interrelatedness, connection, and exchange. In the western world, the very opposite is true ~ we focus on independence, difference, and separation. In the Andes, I have observed women nursing children openly on a public bus, including children that weren’t even their own. It’s no surprise that here in the US, even discreetly nursing a child is seen as offensive and women are shamed and ridiculed for it regularly. In these years of journeying back and forth, I have been thoroughly unconditioned to the way of life I presumed to be the “right” one according to my upbringing and culture, and I am humbled and deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn an approach to existence that is truly life-affirming.
In the US, there is a strong shadow that continues to emerge as the new administration attempts to find its footing. Now, I’m the first to admit that in my lifetime, I have yet to see or hear any political movement that even nods in the direction of ayni, but I can say that in my own perception, people seem to want to try to do better. The underlying meaning of “try to do better” tends to change from one administration to the next, and with the passing of time. Wars that were considered justified have achieved little clear success, and much damage has been done. In the midst of economic movements that have sought to improve lives, there has been tremendous disregard for nonhuman life, as well as for the diversity of human needs. While there have been steps toward acknowledging our mistakes and trying to do better, there has also been strong opposition to the necessary force of change. This seems to have become the underlying battle of all political movements in the US: on one end of the spectrum, we are innovating and learning and growing and trying to make right what was once shrouded in ignorance; on the other end of the spectrum, a full denial of ignorance, and a vehement adherence to the beliefs and values that are being pushed into the alchemy of evolution, as they no longer stand in the light of understanding, justice, and wisdom.
Kicking and screaming ensues. Just like the small child that wants a toy in the toy store or the candy bar for breakfast, there are those who want what they want, damn it, and they simply refuse to hear anything to the contrary that would tell them no. Intelligence is utterly invalid. Reason and understanding are the enemy. Facts, figures, statistics, and research are lies, as they represent the opposite of what the child in the candy store wants to hear. When the perception of”truth” becomes simply hearing what one wants to hear, then it makes perfect sense that anything contrary to that would be considered “fake news” or even treason. The maturity of that child is simply not developed, and the capacity for fully adult understanding and responsibility is missing. For a little child who wants only what he believes is right for him, what makes him happy in the moment, and what makes him feel safe and good about himself, the big picture of interdependence is simply too complex, too scary, and too overwhelming.
This is where our leadership is right now in the US. Imagine what could happen if there was an alliance of five-year-olds that took over operation of the candy store! There would be no information about the known risks of eating too much sugar. There would be no oversight that would enforce the consumption of fruits and vegetables to balance out the diet. There would be no one to police the team of children running the store, and they would take whatever they wanted without paying – after all, they don’t have to pay for it, it’s *theirs* for the taking! Responsibility and intelligence sound like bossy parents and teachers, and if those voices were finally banished, those kids could do whatever they want. Finally!! The candy for our current leaders is money and power, and they have indeed taken over the “candy store.” As they continue to form alliances, they support each others’ desires for money and power, and the furthering of ideas that allow each of them to feel like the kid in charge of the candy store, finally having the freedom to do as they wish without so many annoying restrictions.
One question that so many progressives are still grappling with is *how* this happened. How is it possible that these people came into power? Because inside of each and every human being is an insatiable shadow desire for freedom to do as we see fit with no responsibility or oversight. While most of us understand that there are certain responsibilities that are simply a necessary part of living and maturing, there are still strong desires for a less restrictive way of life. Less “have to” options and more free and fun choices. Humans tend to want to escape responsibility in as many ways as possible. Some seek wealth so that they can buy their way into a feeling of freedom. Some seek to grow in power so that they can be the one at the top of the ladder, having no one above them to dictate their actions. Some seek to escape financial obligations and just ignore them, others feel justified in stealing what is not their own, and still others seek to find ways of living that are free of those obligations altogether. There are countless methods of trying to find a way around what seems heavy and required about living in these times, for sure. Knowing ourselves to a degree, humans have also come to understand that this desire for freedom can be dangerous when combined with blind self-interest, as many people want their own freedom at the expense of others. Power can be very seductive, and the checks-and-balances systems in place in contemporary western governments are all an effort to hold humanity to the high road. We have already seen many times what happens when greedy and unwise humans are given too much power and control: they run rampant with their own twisted vision of an ideal reality, and cause an immense amount of suffering to others.
What happens when multiple levels of the checks-and-balances are taken over by stunted minds, determined to be liberated from any remaining threads of obligation to the whole of life? When those systems are infiltrated by those who are invested in a destructive agenda that prefers to cover its ears and eyes when presented with valid information about the harm that their ways will inevitably cause? When the movement toward growing, learning, and doing better, based on intelligent and thorough research, is denied as irrelevant? It is crazymaking to attempt a conversation with these people, as they use every tactic possible to deny the validity of any information they are given. And what’s even more crazymaking is watching the way that these immature leaders draw other people into their fold. They speak to other wealthy and powerful people, acknowledging their mutual desire to rise to power in unbridled disregard of the whole, making promises and alliances. And they speak to people who are living in economic hardship and struggle, people who dream of being able to live free and clear of the heavy burdens of responsibility, even though they will never see the kind of wealth, freedom, and power. These leaders speak to their longing and desires, their call of freedom, and assign blame to various “others” as obstructing forces. Caught in the emotional swell, they are bought on feeling alone, and are unwilling to see the full picture. As we have heard from the masses of middle American working class people, this administration speaks to their situation, strategically playing the moral card in order to capture their attention, and making hopeful promises that it is unlikely to deliver. And these followers sit idly by, ignoring the reports of the lavish lifestyle of the leadership, and having little comprehension that it is their hard-earned tax dollars that are paying for that excessively free lifestyle. Perhaps because they dream that one day they, too, could have that for themselves.
And so, we return to ayni, which teaches us that we are all interdependent. No action is separate from the entire web of life, and each decision either supports the flow of living, or it obstructs it. In our movement of liberation and standing for what is right and just, we are already representing the desire of life to return to balance. The desire to embrace the understanding that *all* humans are equal, and deserve to have the same quality of life. The desire to protect the animals, the land, the waters, the air, the whole planet, no matter what. The desire to understand our beliefs in an objective way, and to revise the parts of those belief systems that promote ignorance, discrimination, hatred, bigotry, violence, and superiority. The desire to create systems that are based in equality, justice, and fairness ~ and the desire to isolate, understand, and change the ways that our current systems have been erroneous and blind. The desire to care for each other, and the desire to understand the ways that we have refused to care for what we perceived as “other.” The desire for all to have their needs for health, love, and well being met, and understanding the illusion of competition that encourages one to meet one’s own needs, while ignoring the needs of others, as if there is never enough to go around. From the perspective of wholeness and interdependence, there is enough. There has always been enough. There will always be enough. We must simply work to heal the sicknesses of the human mind so that we can return to this understanding.
When I’m in one village in Peru, I always visit the same woman to buy fresh fruit. She always has a beautiful stock of pineapples, mandarins, plums, grapes, and mangoes, and she always greets me with a smile and familiarity. When I first started going to her stand, I was taken aback by the extra few pieces of fruit she would put in my bag. I would attempt to refuse them, saying that I didn’t need them, that I already had all I wanted. I distrusted the gesture, believing that she was trying to get a little more money out of me, or trying to sell me something I didn’t want. Over time, I came to understand that this is the very gesture of ayni in action: an act of gratitude, saying thank you to the forces in life that provide for our very needs. In giving me that extra couple of mandarins or bananas, she was saying, thank you Life, I know that you will continue to meet my generosity with generosity in return. And in understanding that, my entire worldview was transformed: gratitude comes first, and is offered with a deep trust that life will continue to take good care of us. It has challenged me to let go of the tendencies of my culture to say “Me first, and I’ll believe it when I see it.” To look within myself and see the ways that childish fears and subsequent self-interest has been the basis for much of what I have learned from my family and my culture, and to make it a priority to see things in a new way.
This is difficult stuff to transform on a cultural level. Primal fears and the conditioning that stems from those fears tend to hold very deep and tightly. This is especially evident as we see the ways that people will defend gun regulation as a violation of basic freedom, and how they are truly incapable of seeing the bigger picture. And so many of those same people are utterly unwilling to consider the poisoning of the lands, waters, and air, or the violation of basic human rights, as a worthy conversation of equal or greater magnitude. It is a full denial of wise responsibility. The divide is deep: on one side we have legions of people leading the way to meaningful and important change, and on the other side we have people fighting that change with all of their might. For those of us who have seen the errors of our human ways, and are committed to moving forward and righting our wrongs, moving back into “traditional values” is simply regressive and we are not willing to slide back into willful ignorance. The forces on the opposing side are just as immovable, and no evidence, reasoning, or understanding has yet to make any meaningful impact. Healing this rift is truly the essential question of our time, and while there is no clear way forward right now, we must continue to seek understanding and live our way into the answers.