The Blessing and the Burden
For a number of weeks now, I have felt burdened by the responsibilities I have assumed in the collective leadership of Alianza Arkana – the nonprofit I work with here in the Peruvian Amazon. I can see there are practical reasons why I might feel burdened – a number of talented and committed long-term volunteers have recently left, who shared the responsibilities of leading a non-hierarchical organization.
Furthermore, a good friend and fellow co-founder of the nonprofit has gone away for a year to study for a Masters in Indigenous languages in the USA – his major project will be to create the first Shipibo/Spanish/English dictionary, which honors the Shipibo culture and is free of the evangelistic bias that the current and only Shipibo/Spanish dictionary has that was created by missionaries from the Instituto Verano Linguistico (in English, the Summer Institute of Linguistics) – essentially to enable them to translate the Bible into Shipibo.
I have been struggling with this sense of being burdened and at times feeling resentful that I have no time to pursue my own interests, outside of but also related to work, such as dedicating more time to learning Shipibo, finding time to read and write, and even watching Series V of ‘Game of Thrones’, which I have had downloaded on my computer for weeks now. (Incidentally, perhaps it’s debatable whether ‘Game of Thrones’ is work-related but it’s a brilliant analysis of strategic maneuverings and also interesting to see how magic is re-entering the mainstream culture)
Like many with a background in psychology and therapy, I reflect on the process of the struggle. Is the problem my attitude to the situation? Can I change my attitude to what I have to do so that it is not a struggle? Can I make the cup half-full instead of half empty? Is this a long-standing pattern I have of feeling overly responsible? Is it because I am a Capricorn? Is it because my mother suffered from depression and I felt responsible? ……… all the explanatory stories and endless fantasizing the mind likes to tell itself.
Eight days ago, a friend arrived with a group of people, to do a ten day Noyarao dieta here with a Maestra I like and greatly respect. I had first planned to just do a few ceremonies with them, especially as I thought that dieting with another healer might offend my Maestro and I did not want to risk that.
When the group arrived, however, and I had my first meeting with them, and discovered that most of them had not drunk ayahuasca before and that noone spoke Spanish well, I found myself stepping into facilitating the dieta and participating fully in it.
This was not something I had planned to do – it just happened. On the one hand, I told myself this was crazy. How could I do and help others do a dieta now, drinking ayahuasca every other night for ten days, and also including a four hour boat trip downriver and back again to Pucallpa for two days as part of the dieta, at a time when I had so many other demands claiming my time?
On the other hand, I liked the people I met. Four of them had come a long way from Australia with message sticks from the aboriginal people there that they wanted to deliver to my Maestro downriver, and they seemed serious and committed to work with the medicine.
So I entered into the dieta with them. This was the first time that I had facilitated a dieta. It involved buying the medicine and mixing it with some I already had from my Maestro that I knew was good. I found myself enjoying and taking seriously the process of mixing the medicine by cooking it carefully and gently on my stove and singing the few icaros I know into it.
The Maestra asked me to serve the medicine at the first ceremony. This was the first time I had done this, and I felt comfortable doing this. In fact the whole process of facilitating the dieta showed me how much I had learned from my Shipibo Maestro and a good friend here who is Canadian by origin but has learned from and worked with good Shipibo teachers for many years.
Interestingly, in the first ceremony I did not feel the mareación (the effects of the medicine), until about an hour and a half into the ceremony – although I drank a significant amount and it turned out to be very good, strong medicine. The mareación came when I saw that people were in the medicine, that it was good medicine, and it was working well for them. Its an obvious point but it was not so clear to me beforehand that if I was to be partly responsible for the people there, I could not be lost in my own process and unavailable to others. Without consciously thinking of this, the medicine took care of it for me – another example of the subtlety and intelligence of Madre Ayahuasca.
For much of the following ceremonies, I was attentive to and focused on what was happening for other people. I had a fantasy that maybe I would experience in a more visionary way what the Maestra was doing by seeing the patterns of energy she was working with, but this was not the case. The people on the dieta had extraordinary and intense experiences. There is a great satisfaction in being in service to this.
At the same time, outside ceremony, I was needing to work hard, answer countless emails, attend meetings, put together the annual report for 2015 and think how to deal with the situation where I seemed to be holding the weight of responsibility for the NGO on my shoulders – all with a few hours or no sleep.
However, I experienced again what I have written about before on dieting and working at the same time – that the medicine was very helpful in enabling me to get the work I needed to do done. The days after ceremonies seemed remarkably productive. I could focus well and seemed intuitively to know what needed to be said or written. I started, in my mind, to develop a strategic plan for the organization based on conversations I had with people about my predicament. The feeling of being burdened, though, never went away completely.
Then, on the evening after the fourth ceremony, (where I had not slept at all), after a productive, flowing day I saw something on Facebook of all places (almost enough to restore one’s faith in spending time on Facebook) that took my breath away.
The quote on Facebook was from the end of an article by the Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations.
“Know that you yourself are essential to this world. Understand both the blessing and the burden of that. You yourself are desperately needed to save the soul of this world. Did you think you were put here for something less? In a Sacred Hoop of Life, there is no beginning and no ending.”
This phrase “Understand both the blessing and the burden of that” succinctly, uncannily and powerfully contained everything I had been thinking about and feeling before and during the dieta. I have seen in myself and many friends who work regularly with the medicine, that La Madre Ayahuasca demands a lot of us – and the more we are able to fulfill her demands, the more she asks of us.
The more we become aware of the depth of the interrelated economic, social, environmental and spiritual crises about what is happening in the world at this time, the more we are asked to feel, and hopefully stand, the burden of that. And it is a burden. As I once heard the writer and environmentalist Paul Hawken say: “If you are aware of what is going on in the world and you are not depressed then you are in denial”. Being alive, conscious and aware now means opening yourself up to this burden and working out how to carry it. Or, alternatively, numbing yourself with alcohol, prescription drugs and television or many of the other ways late-capitalism offers us to stay asleep.
Yet at the same time as more is demanded of me, and the burden intensifies, I have never felt so blessed in my life, to be doing the work I want to do and to be privileged to work with the Shipibo and a number of their healers possessing great knowledge, skill and integrity.
(I’m not sure, though, that this process of increasing awareness of the predicament of the soul of the world inevitably happens to everyone with the medicine. I came across a recently published article in the New Yorker caustically titled ‘The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale’, which ends with a funny yet terrible account of an ayahuasca ceremony in Williamsburg, New York that shows some of the worst aspects of the appropriation of ayahuasca as it gets assimilated into a hedonistic, fashion-conscious and psuedo-spiritual culture.)
What this quote from Chief Arvol Looking Horse brought home to me is that, especially in these times we live in, the blessing and the burden irrevocably go together – unlike in the forms of new age spirituality I encounter in some people who come to drink ayahuasca here where they only want to experience and see the blessing. I also often revert to the childlike and naïve idea that I just want the blessing. But stepping into the role of elder means being better able to carry the burden without being brought down by it.
All this reminds me of a poem called ‘All the Fruit is Ripe’ by Friedrich Holderlin that I have always liked and which comforted me in some of my darker days. I’ll end with this poem as translated by Robert Bly.
All the fruit is ripe, plunged in fire, cooked,
And they have passed their test on earth, and one law is this:
That everything curls inward, like snakes,
Prophetic, dreaming on
The hills of heaven. And many things
Have to stay on the shoulders like a load
of failure. However the roads
Are bad. For the chained elements,
Like horses, are going off to the side,
And the old
Laws of the earth. And a longing
For disintegration constantly comes. Many things however
Have to stay on the shoulders. Steadiness is essential.
Forwards, however, or backwards we will
Not look. Let us learn to live swaying
As in a rocking boat on the sea.