Martín Prechtel: Secrets of the Talking Jaguar.
“We live in a kind of dark age, craftily lit with synthetic light, so that no one can tell how dark it has really gotten”
We might add that not only is everything lit with artificial light which stops us from seeing the stars at night but also our senses are further numbed by spending hours on the internet, loud, dumbing-down pop music, the gross superficiality of most television, constant exposure to vicarious violence and the general ugliness of shopping malls and other features of the built environment. I’m sure readers of this blog must know this.
Prechtel does not, though, end on a pessimistic note. He concludes:
“But our exiled spirits can tell. Deep in our bones resides an ancient, singing couple who just won’t give up making their beautiful, wild noise. The world won’t end if we can find them.”
Apart from the fall I had, which I described in detail in my last blog, during my last dieta I also re-read Martin Prechtel’s book “The Secrets of the Talking Jaguar”. This is actually the first of a trilogy of books, which I read in the past before drinking ayahuasca. Four years of drinking ayahuasca help to give an added and enriched perspective on this trilogy.
As the American poet Robert Bly says:
“It’s a precious thing this book. I’ve never known another like it. It’s a great encyclopedia of beauty…it’s a treasure house of language in service to life.”
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is exquisitely written and documents the first part of the extraordinary story in which Martín Prechtel travels from his home on a native reservation in New Mexico to a Tzutjil Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala and becomes first an apprentice to the well-known village shaman and then a Mayan shaman in his own right.
What particularly stood out for me the first time I read the book was how Martín, in his early twenties, had a series of eleven vivid dreams in eleven days when he was nearly dying from pneumonia. In these dreams, he saw with an acute clarity scenes from village-life involving people and places that he later came to know well.
A couple of years later, after an adventurous journey through Mexico and Guatemala, in which many times his life appeared to be hanging by a thread, he arrived at the Mayan village of Santiago Atitlán and recognized the scenes from his dreams. After a few days of wondering around the village, he meets a central figure who appeared in his dreams – Nicolas Chiviliu Tacaxoy – who later becomes his teacher. ‘Chiv’, as he then refers to him, asks him why he had not been to see him and what had taken him so long to get there.
This is the first moment in what becomes a profound homecoming for Martín. When I read this the first time, I remember thinking how wonderful to have that strong sense of calling, destiny, and genuine sense of home that we lack so much in the West.
In fact, one of the central themes of this book is how modernity is not only destroying the richness and beauty of indigenous cultures, in the name of progress or Christianity, but is also destroying the ancestral, indigenous soul within each of us. This is a terrible loss, which the book documents with precision and poetry. One of the many benefits I have experienced with drinking ayahuasca is recovering the path to my own wild soul and being able to feel a strong connection with my indigenous maestro and his family that crosses the not-insignificant barriers of vast cultural difference.
On page 281, Prechtel says:
“Since the human body is the world, every individual in the world, regardless of background or race, has an indigenous soul struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment created by that individual’s mind, which subscribes to the mores of the machine age. Because of this, a modern person’s body has become a battleground between the rationalist mind and the native soul.”
This last sentence is a powerful insight. I have seen both with myself and many others drinking ayahuasca that we often have to engage in a wrenching struggle with our strongly conditioned, Western, ego-centered minds that can act like steel straps to constrain and block the experiences that La Madre Ayahuasca can offer us.
Part of what she shows us – as many people experience too in meditative practices – is how we are overly dominated by our minds and that this is a kind of madness, albeit a very acceptable form of madness in Western culture. Friends have told me how they have felt their minds cracking into parts or experienced a frightening, engulfing paranoia in ceremonies, which I think is an effect of this over-reliance on our minds.
Really, René Descartes has a lot to answer for when he laid one of the foundations of our Western minds with the words: “I think, therefore I am”. He leaves us trapped in the labyrinth of our minds as the only secure, trusted way of knowing.
In his own way, using his own language and based on his years of experience as a shaman, Martín Prechtel holds the eco-psychologists’ perspective – that our minds and nature are co-terminous and that what we do to the earth we also do to ourselves.
On page 282, he states,
“When I divine the earth bodies of many people of today, their worlds look like a post-war country, bombed-out, dry, flowerless and tired.”
To complement the alchemists’ famous saying, “As above so below”, we can add: “As outside so inside.”
This is in tune with my intellectual hero James Hillman’s idea of the animus mundi, the soul of the world, which, following Jung, he did so much to reintroduce into Western thought. Indigenous people, of course, have known for millennia that the world is ensouled and that each plant, animal, rock, mountain, spring etc. is alive and has its unique spirit.
Part of what I enjoyed in Martín Prechtel’s book is his original and lyrical way of experiencing and describing this. On page 278, he writes:
“We knew, too, that the whole world was spiritually endangered. Shamans knew this because we were shown during our training and our initiation how the world is actually one big body. The world is also a sacred building called the House of the World, and our individual bodies are made like it and are also called House of the World. Inside the other world of our bodies, everything that can be found in the outer world also exists. When the spirits see us, they see a beautiful house, a temple. When we see them, we see the world.
A shaman sees both. To the shaman, all the places, animals, weather, plants and things outside the world are also inside of you as your twin, and everything makes an immense four-dimensional series of concentric cubes: the layers that stretch outside and inside simultaneously to create the House of the World, or World Body.”
Part of the beauty of this book is the description of the world of the spirits as seen from within the Mayan Tzutjil cosmovision. In being able to write so well about the beauty of this world and the need to make offerings to the spirits, Martín Prechtel helps to recover this world from its destruction and banishment to the outer edges of our culture.
As Robert Bly indicates, this book is indeed a treasure house of riches. The ten pages of the epilogue, from which all the quotes cited here have been taken, could stand alone as an indictment of what modernity has done and continues to do to indigenous people and to our own indigenous souls.