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Dr. Grauer's Column - Earth Day Blessings from the Shamans of Ecuador

It’s Earth Week! Join this expedition through the breathtaking Andes led by the Kichwa shamans. This story explores the art of plant healing as our students experienced it, and the lessons of reciprocity between humans and the Earth.

Earth Day Blessings from the Shamans of Ecuador
By Stuart Grauer, Earth Day, April 22, 2024

I.
On a cool Andean morning, our group of high school students from The Grauer School set out hiking an ancient dirt path, following the sweet, soft melody of pan pipes played by our guide and personal shaman, Tua. We were making a pilgrimage to meet the true teachers we could desperately need. Nothing is more central to the reason we travel as a school. 

The Grauer School's expedition to Ecuador: before the Corazon de Imbabura - March 2019

The Santillans are a family of revered Kichwa shamans living atop a mesa overlooking Peguche, Ecuador. We approached their hilltop compound, and they greeted us with warm smiles to conduct sacred ceremonies in their outdoor circle on their high ground looking out across the watchful Imbabura volcano. The elder Santillan quickly cut through any mysticism we might expect of shamans: "In our culture, everything is alive. We talk to the trees, mountains, spirits, like children." Our 11 students were wide-eyed and still cautious.

With calm kindness, he urged us to rediscover our childlike presence by finding plants that "call to you like little friends." Meanwhile, the shaman burned sage and palo santo wood, ancient smoke offering chants carried by the mountain wind. "Walk slowly, be very aware," he guided us. “Respect the plant you find. It is not the healer that heals, it is the plant that heals and the teacher is the conduit. Healers are interpreters of what power the plant may have. The plant you choose is your medicine. Study it. Respect it and relate it to a part of your body. Respect opens the door to the plant world.” 

No overthinking, just open curiosity, we set out to find plants. Our students disperse, finding leaves and pebbles, admiring the chickens, and gathering. Back home, we were in the middle of learning how daily cellphone use rewires the youth mind. Up here we see, so does dispersing in natural spaces.

Shamans playing the pan flute and drum during a ceremony - March 2019 

At the core, our shamans teach, was "randi randi" - the principle of reciprocity between humans and Earth. "The earth knows how to nurture us if we care for it," one explained. "Plants provide remedies for our bodies if we respect and tend to them." This symbiotic dance is intuitive, yet our civilization back in fast-paced Southern California grows always more distorted and deafer to its rhythms. Our kids are getting sicker back home. So much of teaching and learning has become a race to get to a finish and not a process to go deep or cultivate appreciation or presence. There is little time for listening to intuition, nor is there much respect for this form of wisdom, close as it is to our attunement with the natural world.

The shamans revealed the living intelligence within plants, advising us to shed preconceptions and let plants guide us with empathy to their unique medicines, "whether sweet or harsh." They view plants not as objects, but as wise grandfather-beings worthy of relationship and reverence.

Now we gather together for a healing ceremony. “The plant is in service to us. You can ask anything of it. The healer-shaman enters into a relationship together with the plant and the person asking for healing. 
    
“We all can be plant healers. No plant can be evil, only the human. Everything alive gives us life."
    
“The path to becoming a shaman is intimate conversation. In this way, we start to overcome fear.” We can see that the shaman is attuned to the natural world, connecting with the spiritual energies they sense around them.
    
We are all silent. I have no reason to doubt the healing power of plants. Haven’t chocolate, coffee, and grape (fermented) been my spirit medicines for many years? And, every morning since my early childhood, hasn’t the sweet juice of oranges “healed” me?

Dr. Grauer and Grauer students with visiting students from Annecy, France, making friendships through surfing together - April 25, 2024 (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

II.    
We convene in the earthen circle with the fire pit at the center, before Grandmother Imbabura in the distance, and the third shaman brother stands barefoot on his herbal altar, laid out over a red, woven blanket. The main ceremony will begin. He looks out west to the middle of the mountain, a concave section in the shape of a heart—it is the Corazon de Imbabura: the heart of Imbabura. 

The altar is bounded on each side by dark feathers from the great condor. Sage burns in a bowl between his feet, and he attends to Devon, grade 9. He chants in rhythmic Kichwan language, dusts Devon with burning palo santo, and taps him crisply from toe to head with the feathers. Afterwards Devon says, “I don’t know what it is, but I feel great.”

Next, Chloe (grade 11) has been feeling sick (presumably from so much travel and novel food), and so he offers to repeat the process with her. Afterwards, he tells her she needs coconut water and papaya, and she smiles warmly. She seems fine and content with this remedy, recovered and feeling well. And so we are done out here. The group heads back inside, but I linger. 

I ask him sheepishly, “Will you do this for me?”

“Will you pay me?”
    
I study the shaman’s face and bearing. It is Oscar Santillan, the family patron. He is broad. He has walnut skin as though the old ways are baked into it. He has thick broad lips, and from each of his eyes wraps a long, long line coming all the way out to his ears, as though wisdom has been stretched across his face. He has taken off his brimmed, black felt fedora. 

His thick, dark hair runs down his back in a braided queue, then wraps like a scorpion tail just above a wide woven belt. “Sure, I will pay,” I say.

“What do you want?” he asks.

“I am afraid of death.” 

“Are you afraid of the dark?” 

“No, I am not. Fear is this pit deep inside me and I want to access it and to know it better. I want to understand where it is. I want to get down in there and know it, and maybe dissolve it.”

Oscar tilts his head a bit to the side like he has a hunch. I understand I’ve given a strange request, for a California teacher. He studies my face, then kneels before me on his altar of red, woven, native blanket. I study all around the edges of the blanket. There are fresh flowers in glass vases, eucalyptus branches flush with fragrant leaves, a couple of Tibetan bells, dark-smooth stones, many large local kernels of maize, some candles, and a small, glass flask with a whiskey-colored fluid inside. 

Oscar begins. Kneeling, he waves a tuning fork all about my feet, then holds it up and, in conversation with the sky, he looks up and around, and smacks the fork on the ground in a soft thud. The sage is still smoldering in its bowl. The students are inside, consumed with their drum making. He chants and slaps me repeatedly all around with the condor feather, pauses, then slides a cool, carved stone knife under my belt. Is this weird?

He works his way up to my head, chanting, and at last, sips from the flask until his cheeks are round, and then with great force sprays this out in a whisky-scented mist across my face and upper body. I’m paying for this.

We are finished and he understands my condition, stating the prognosis. Perfectly: 

“You are tired.”

Yes, I am. And suddenly, as though I had not seen the mountain right before my eyes, this becomes the most obvious thing in the world to me. I slow and deepen my breath.

“Have flax seed sprouts in a blender with fruit for breakfast. And you will need royal honey.” 

For most of history, connection with all creation was called: medicine. Still today, a quarter of today’s pharmaceuticals are plant-based. The majority of these plants are native to the Amazon, south of here in the Andes Mountains. Many western scientists have turned to remote indigenous communities and their resident shaman to guide them to plants possessing healing properties. 

“Every day, royal honey,” Oscar concludes.

“But what of the fear, the death? What of this deep fear?” I probe him again, feeling neurotic, and he brushes this question off.

“You are tired. Every day, a spoon of royal honey from the king bee.” And I am overwhelmed at having not only clarity but permission for what I knew intuitively: I am exhausted, and not from the days, but from the years, the relentless relentlessness.

Grauer students surfing with the visiting students from Annecy, France - April 25, 2024 (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

III.
After drum making and practice, the shamans walked us back to their apiary where we could observe their gentle rapport with the bees pollinating their garden. "We never wear the bee veil or netting. They sense kindness, so they give kindness in return," the beekeeper sister assured us – the ethos of randi randi, amidst the bees giving their honey. Even the act of birthing is sacred to the people high up here in the natural world, with the midwife shaman tenderly guiding each newborn's "delicate energy" into the world. The midwife shamans up here have generations of traditional birthing knowledge, providing what they find to be a safer womb-to-world transition for newborns compared to more clinical, impersonal hospital births in cities.

In the days after, I realized the greatest remedy was being granted permission to pause and realign with the Earth's cadence. 

The shamans' wisdom is simple and the heart of anything a real teacher can teach: participate in each day with humility, pause, and a childlike curiosity. Take a moment to find any reciprocity, however small, that allows all beings to thrive. Take time to allow your mind to experience plants and animals as beloved relatives. Let the Earth be our teacher, before it recedes still more. This is the shaman’s Earth Day wish I brought home, for whoever is reading.

IV.
The next night, our night before departing for home, Tua led us though a traditional chocolate ceremony in a village roundhouse as it began to rain. Our students lay back for the ceremony and the weather moved in. At last, there was no time to count even a second between the flashes of lightening and the thunder pounding the village into utter submission. Some of our students are trembling, there were some tears and confessions, and no student on that trip will ever take the natural world for granted.

The shaman’s worldview could be dismissed as quaint by modern cultures drunk on taking from the earth with no thought of giving back. As we witness intensifying climate unraveling and increasing exhaustion, it's the intuitive attunement of Earth-honoring philosophies we need to revive, especially in schools.

A view of The Grauer School's campus at sunset - April 18, 2024 (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

Each year on April 22, many communities, schools, organizations, and governments plan special Earth Day events, campaigns, and initiatives to draw attention to pressing environmental issues and encourage actions to protect the planet's resources and ecosystems. My story of the Santillas and the respect for their ways is my Earth Day and Earth Week gift. We do not need to travel to Ecuador. This Earth Week, let’s have fun with a cookout with a solar cooker, or create found art from items in nature, or have a clothing swap. More important, let’s remain open to the grounding wisdom of indigenous guidance: be present, humble, and discover remedies through empathy and sacred reciprocity. If something in nature draws you, hold it in awe—take time for it. This simple openness, even for a moment, is ceremony as I learned it high in the Andes. Through longstanding shamanic traditions, the Santillans became the fearless Earth teachers we needed. Today, I think we need their lessons even more.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

The Grauer School's expedition to Ecuador: before the Corazon de Imbabura - March 2019

Shamans playing the pan flute and drum during a ceremony - March 2019 

A view of The Grauer School's campus at sunset - April 18, 2024 (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

Dr. Grauer and Grauer students with visiting students from Annecy, France, making friendships through surfing together - April 25, 2024  (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

Grauer students surfing with the visiting students from Annecy, France - April 25, 2024 (Photo by Stuart Grauer)

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer


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"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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