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Instructions on Fearless Teaching from the Shamans of Ecuador

“The world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

I. The Santillan Family

The brothers and sisters of the Santillan family are known as taitas, papas, persons of respect among the Kichwa (Quechua). They live in a hilltop compound, a high mesa over the town of Peguche.

The Santillans offer ceremonies for anyone in the community who has a reason: new houses, weddings, Dia de los Espiritos, and even travellers seeking their wisdom.

Grauer travelers in front of Corazon de Imbabura (Heart of Imbabura Mountain)

It is a cool morning in the low Andes, a good morning for an outdoor ceremony. We set out from the village, walking up a steep, ancient dirt road that workers are now paving with rough volcanic stones the color of ash, the same kind they use to heat up the sweat lodges. Jeff is discouraged by this. He liked the ancient dirt path. We are 11 high school students, our English department chair and respected poet Christina Burress, and me, led by anthropologist and adventurer Dr. Jeff Salz and his wife, Lisa Jaffe, whom we all call Jaffe, a healer in her own right. 

We have age-mixed students from all high school grades. Age mixing is my favorite kind of mixing at school—it’s easy for each to find their own role, their own confidence as we form our own tribe far from the high school stereotypes. We trudge up the valley through the little adobe village, moving to the pan pipes of our guide, Tua.

We arrive on foot, and the Santillans receive us with great warmth. From this high place, we look out west over the town, out east over Imbabura volcano, the Taita Imbabura, guardian of the land and people, which has not erupted in 14,000 years although it is not extinct—and so it is sacred. The people here rely upon the sacred not only to preserve cherished ways of seeing and living in the world, but to endure the loss of indigenous rights, lands and spirit. 

It is an edge-of-the-hill ranch house compound fronted with a community garden open to the village locals, bounded by a eucalyptus tree grove. The family is readying the outdoor circle for us and preparing the altar for ceremony.

We gather around to hear the elder Santillan brother, a shaman, or yakchak, and he holds forth, “I am here to share, not teach.”

Later on, our guide Jeff, who has worked with curanderos from all around the world, was still astonished by the clarity and depth of the words and practices of the Santillans and he said, “I wish we could have recorded all this.” And so, some of this transcript is for Jeff. I am not sure I got all they shared, but I scribed what I could into my notebook and here it is.

“In our culture everything is alive. When we were young we knew that we lived in an enchanted world, played in dirt, stared at sky, and then we forgot. We who still live in the traditional way of life, we talk to the trees, the mountains, the spirits of them, like children.” Our students watch on respectfully.

“People say we are loco, but science is proving today that nature really feels us. We will welcome today the life and spirits all around us. Aqui estoy.” The shaman has gathered plants from around the great Imbabura, and now he pinches some palo santo from out of a half shell, drops them into the fire where they kindle. “I am here.”

We all do the same around the circle, dropping pinches into the fire to Santillan’s prayer, while he blows the conch [shell] horn. His brother beats the simple drum.
“We have been persecuted for singing to trees and talking to mountains, but our ancestors have told us to continue …and that someday people of all colors will sit with us around the fire, so this, today, with you, is the culmination of a dream….”

Santillan says we are in a high place, a tola, a place of sacred energy.

I know, maybe no more but at least throughout history, the cultivation of place is the highest role of anyone called teacher. Santillan is doing more than sharing, he is teaching in the old tradition of teaching as the sharing of reverence for place and for kith, the tradition he fears has been lost. I hope the title teacher can be restored, back to its roots. I hope my students will sing to trees!

“Walk slowly in our mountains, and be very aware.” This sounds like the walking meditation promoted by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who just turned 93 and is preparing for his own death with no fear. 

And, something like St. Francis of Assisi who preached to the birds, Santillan says “Go find plants that call to you like a little friend. Be like little kids, don’t be too serious. The baby heart is joyful, playful, tuning in to all of your life. We can always return to other parts of our life cycle.” He talks of the earth as a living, giving spirit, and a form of natural justice if only we can attend to it.  “The earth knows how to commiserate with us. Most plants are good for certain parts of our body. We look after them and they look after us: Randi randi.” One good deed deserves another.

Santillan continues with our instructions, “All our forefathers were shamans. Shaman’s role is to overcome fear with us. Fear can conquer, so be friends with it. Overcoming it can take a lot of work.” This is a topic I have not mastered, maybe the ultimate challenge in life. He says, “Meditation helps this, or coca, too. And through music and sound, this is the secret to move the stars. We have lost touch with much, but we can get in touch again with nature, and with extra-terrestrial, with our spirits. Everything in dualism is unified in the Andean reality.” I recognize the universal idea of the union of mind, body, and spirit, and recall it from the epic poem, Bhagavad Gita

“We give thanks to our grandfathers, and for shamans who teach us of nature. The yakchak helps us fall in love with nature. The heart is the brain that understands nature. The yakchak communicates with nature. The modern world has mostly forgotten about these teachings.”

Sitting here with our students in the ancient circle, I wonder where can we find a teacher of these things? Santillan says, “The yakchaks help us heal… You cannot obligate others to study the ways of the shaman, but sharing it is part of the responsibility. If you share it, it grows.”

This is shared now.

Now the sister sits and presides. She has glossy dark hair and wears a white, cotton hand-embroidered top as many women do here. She is a shaman and a midwife who moves the baby inside the mother so it will deliver well, and not be deformed. She has large hands. “The baby’s energy, it is so subtle and sensitive,” she tells us. “When we empty the bath water, we let it out slowly. The baby’s energy is sensitive.”

This is shared now. I know midwife practice is as old as human nature. In many places in the U.S. and world over, because of fear and dominance over women, these practices have been driven underground, barely sustained in whispers and chants, or lost entirely, but here they continue as a sacred practice to welcome new life to earth. 

II. Plant Spirit Medicine

Now the second brother shaman begins a talk about plants and plant spirit medicine. “The plant has a variety of uses for various people. We look at the plant as a grandfather/wise-being in the community… just the plant you are drawn to is the one you need, not the one that you are told is good for you. First, have empathy for it and the information you need will start to come your way. But, note, some plants are very powerful, and some are only internal or external. Some are empathy [feeling] and others are information [fact]. Today, our education separates us from empathy for plants. Plants have intelligence. If we open our heart, the plant will respond and give us what we need, sweet or harsh …from what we give them. Randi randi.” Hearing this, it seems plain that plant wisdom and healing must be a part of any education, inasmuch as passing down a sense of place and ecosystem is fundamental to teaching, and I also know that it could be risky to say this today in our digital world, risky to cast teachers as healers or as the bearers of a culture, even though I will.

“Respect the plant. 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. The plant is in service to us. You can ask anything of it. The healer shaman enters into a relationship with the plant person asking." 

“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 are all silent. I have no reason to doubt the healing power of plants. Haven’t chocolate, coffee, and grape been my spirit medicine for many years? And, every morning since my early childhood, oranges and their sweet juice.
It is lunchtime. The Santillan brother says, “As we were shared with, we will share with you.” They serve us corn pancakes from their field with honey from their bees.

After lunch, we walk over to on the other side of their compound, nestled in the eucalyptus grove, where the Santillans have a dozen or so beehives that produce their honey. Santillan’s sister tells us, “The bees sense your energy, will stay enough away from you. Here we wear no bee outfit, just the mask. They have never stung us. They sense kindness, so they are kind in return. [Randi randi.] They are pacifists. They provide for us.”

Kichwan shaman taking Devon on a spiritual journey before Imbabura, with the (heart-shaped) Corazon de Imbabura mountain just by his right elbow

III. Healing

We convene for ceremony in the earthen circle with the fire pit at the center, before Imbabura in the distance, and the third shaman brother stands barefoot on his herbal altar, laid out over a red, woven blanket. He looks out west to the middle of the mountain, which is concave in the shape of a heart-- it is the Corazon de 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 a rhythmic Kichwan, 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.” This was to be Santillan’s demonstration, but Chloe (grade 11) has been feeling sick, and so he offers to repeat the process with her and, afterwards, tells her she needs coconut water and papaya. 

She seems fine and content with this remedy, recovered and feeling well. And so we are done out here. The group heads back inside for drum making, but I linger. “Will you do me?” I ask him sheepishly. 

“Will you pay me?”

I study the shaman’s face and bearing. This is Oscar Santillan. He is broad. He has walnut skin as though the old ways are baked into his skin, and thick broad lips, eyes each with two long lines 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 and his thick braided queue tapers to down his back then wraps like a scorpion tail just above a wide woven belt. “Sure, I will pay,” I say.

He wants to know if I have something specific for him to look at, or do I want a general healing.

“I am afraid of death.” 

“Are you afraid of the dark?” 

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

Oscar tilts his head a bit to the side like he has a hunch. I understand I’ve given a strange request. He kneels before his altar of red, woven, native blanket. I am standing in the middle of it. All around the edge of the blanket there are glasses with fresh flowers, 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. 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, smacks the fork on the ground in a soft thud. The sage is still smoldering in its bowl. He chants and slaps me repeatedly all around with the condor feather, pauses, slides a cool, carved stone knife under my belt. 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 mist across my face and upper body. I’m paying for this.

We are finished and he is clear: “Have flax seed sprouts in a blender with fruit for breakfast.” This is the “licuar” we call smoothie back home. “And you need royal honey.” 

Once, connection with all creation was called medicine. Still today, it’s known that over a quarter of today’s pharmaceuticals are plant-based. The majority of these plants are native to the Amazon. 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.” You are tired.”

“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.”

This is not the exhaustion from staying up late or partying on a weekend. In my case, maybe, like the indigenous, I think I am exhausted from struggling to preserve a simple and real community in an age of bigness and exploitation, exhausted from the noise and ego of these times, and from the streaming digital feed we are all in. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it like this, “And day to day, life is a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”

The next day we all went off to explore the Imbabura, the beautiful earth, and I had plenty of energy, but then the next week, back home, I began experiencing bouts of exhaustion. By midweek I felt even more so, went home from work at 2 PM, and went to bed. I was a little shaky, it was like a pit of exhaustion was deep inside me, and I started listening to my own body more patiently, letting it calm down and settle. 

I started on the royal honey the next day. And I bought some plant trays so we could start growing sprouts at the school. I could not get up before 9 AM for another week, not even to surf. Fortunately, now I had permission to take this time, which could be the main thing great teachers and healers give us. I am recording all this for Jeff, but I also hope to pass this permission along to my students and all their teachers, many of whom are overprogrammed like me and I think need more time for rest and reflection, for singing to trees, and for finding the shape of the ineffable. I want them to be fearless going forward.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer travelers in front of Corazon de Imbabura (Heart of Imbabura Mountain)

Kichwan shaman taking Devon in a spiritual journey before Imbabura, with the (heart-shaped) Corazon de Imbabura mountain just by his right elbow

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