Yesterday, John and I went to the temazcal here in Guanajuato, Mexico. Each time we go to the temazcal, the experience is new and different. As Karolina cleanses our auras with smoke outside of the tiny “sweat lodge”, and I turn, arms out-stretched crucifix-style my ego is always on full-blast and my confidence unshaken. Then, I duck into the tent and take a seat and start smearing the “yuck” all over my scantily clad body: the clay, the chocolate, the tepezcohuite, and later oil, herbs, and aloe vera. It feels disgusting and uncharacteristic of “me” (as I generally like to be as clean as possible at all times). And yet, the act of going outside of my comfort zone into this elemental experience that challenges my basic assumptions about right and wrong (right=clean; wrong=dirty) seems essential for me right now. Like some sort of requisite metaphormophosis akin to the weighing of my heart against a feather.
Last night, I had a dream. In it, I was carrying around an essential oil called “BeQuest”. I told John about the dream this morning as we walked up a big hill on the way to the running track and he said, “What does that mean to you?” And I said, “I don’t know, but it’s ‘essential’.” And we laughed. I told him that I woke up after the dream with a strong and lucid thought about fear. “It’s not lack of desire that makes people go do work that they hate or to live lives that make them unhappy. It’s Fear.”
This is not a brand new thought for me, it was more of a reframing of an old, tired thought that I’ve turned over many times. But the idea of Fear and its grip on our human lives struck me differently this morning, in part because of my experience at the temazcal yesterday. The temazcal was the same. There was chanting. There was nakeness (not sexual). There was extreme heat, darkness, and steam. but there was something about me that was different yesterday. I can’t define it yet. In my normal waking life, on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis, I experience myself as The Same. And yet, my life has changed so completely since we moved to Latin America, how could I possibly be the same?
As we neared the top of a steep hill, I recounted to John a lucid, imagined conversation that I had with a childhood friend.
The conversation started with this friend saying, “You didn’t need to leave.”
And I sensed that his statement was actually a question about solving a riddle in his own life (though in fact, I was only talking to myself). That I shouldn’t respond as though it was a personal affront. And so I said, “No, I didn’t need to leave. But the people all around me were sick. And their sickness, their diabetes, their cancer, their heart disease, imprisons them. They don’t know they’re in prison. They can’t predict when they’ll be taken to prison. And they don’t know that they could be free. And maybe I could believe that I won’t be imprisoned…that no one in my family will be imprisoned. But still, I would be living in a concentration camp filled with prisoners. So I left.”
The answer satisfied me. It made sense (people imprisoned inside their own sick and ailing bodies). The conversation was imaginary, but important because most of the friends I left behind are prisoners already. But should one of them ask or probe, I want to be able to explain myself so that they can understand. It took me 41 years to understand what was going on in the United States. And now, what I have to say isn’t popular, so it needs to be make sense. It needs to be crystal clear and succinct: my life’s work reduced down to 5 sentences.
I feel weaker in some respects here in Mexico, like my personality is crumbling. My English-speaking self mostly only exists when I’m with Lydian and John. I have to grow a new sub-personality that speaks Spanish. This personality has to read and it has to know how to write and speak…in Spanish. It has to be sensitive to cultural differences. It has to respect and try to gain respect without being egotistical. What my Spanish Self says is different than what I would say in English. I have so many words in English and I’ve played with the English words so much that I never really have to think about them anymore. They come to me and I just say them. But in Spanish, I feel lucky when I can express concrete concepts fluently. Speaking about abstract ideas still eludes me. I go mute with Karolina even though I have a lot to say. I can understand her, but I can’t seem to respond with more than just bumbling grunts and half-words.
I’ve taken this as a sign from the Universe that I’m supposed to shut up and listen.
For me, it’s terrifying to be without words. The ability to speak clearly and “communicate” has been a big theme in my life. I want to understand and be understood. But after having spent years living in other non-English-speaking countries, I’ve learned that the process of communicating clearly isn’t as straightforward as just having the right Words to make complete and comprehensible sentences. Communication is a spiritual thing, at least for me. What I say to another person is a function ( f(x) ) of Me and what I think I need to say mixed with the needs, thoughts, and resistance experienced by The One I’m Talking To.
So when I’m talking to someone and I can’t come up with the right words, or when my thoughts go blank, I assume that there’s a reason why and that the reason has to do with the person I’m speaking to (unless there’s a reason that I know of that has to do directly with me). I like to listen to everything that people DON’T say, along with the things they do, and target the soft spots; the topics that can lead to roots and cores. But here, in Mexico with Spanish-speakers, I can’t do that. I’m stuck on a superficial plane in terms of what I can say with words.
Miguel Martin, Karolina’s assistant, loaded the temazcal pit full of abuelitas (hot volcanic rocks) with a pitchfork and everyone rattled off the phrase, “bienvenidas abuelitas” and I struggled to keep up with the pace of their words, ending my phrase several milliseconds after The People Who Speak Spanish (which is everyone in my world except me, right now). My tongue trips over the flips on the “l’s” and the “r’s”. And dipthongs give me fits. I have to speak slowly to pronounce the words properly and be understood. It takes forever — an eternity, in fact, to speak proper sentences that are grammatically comprehensible. Often, I lose interest in what I’m trying to say before I’m even able to finish. One thought screeches to a halt behind a jumble of words that have gotten stuck on my tongue while another thought and then another (and another, and another) rams up against the first like a tragic and bloody traffic pile-up in my brain. There are many casualties. And the ambulance never arrives. The thoughts die on a deserted highway that one might see during a Zombie Apocalypse (crickets chirping, the hot sun beating down, but there are no local services left to save the injured, the dying). The thoughts leave my brain like spirits leaving earth before their time. Some linger frustratingly as ghosts, but their moment has passed. They haunt the empty silence. And no one has any idea what I was thinking or what I might have said or what I might have meant. Back in the United States, I used words to overpower others. I used words to get what I wanted. I used words to influence, to understand, and to persuade. Right now, I can’t influence or persuade though each day I understand more and more. And it’s an interesting experience. I’m forced to be a part of what’s already here instead of trying to change it and control it.
So when Miguel lowered the blanket over the door to the temazcal and the small tent got dark, hot, and full of suffocating humid air, I was surprised at the level of Fear that I felt in the small space that was filled with strangers, most of them naked. I was afraid of puking. I was afraid of passing out. I was afraid of dying. And I cried. I cried like I haven’t cried in a long, long time. Copious amounts of snot and tears drained out of my head. The emotions were like rabid, overpowering waves of inexplicable pain/ecstasy. Was I sad?
Was I happy?
I just was — and it was…what it was: Powerful.
Some of the other participants in the circle sang and their words (I could understand them, though I couldn’t sing along, of course) were apt. One of them sang about “Earth Stories” and a cascade of thoughts pooled in front of my eyes in the darkness—an awareness that my Earth story, is not my only story. I went over these lyrics again and again and curled up with my knees to my chest against the mats to rock back and forth, my face near the ground where it was cooler. Sometimes, water would splash up from the rocks when Karolina would toss more of it into the pit. I was profoundly uncomfortable, but the music helped, like a tenuous thread; a guide. Another part of the song referred to life as a “Grand Party” or something to that effect and I considered the seriousness with which I regard my tiny human plight. Seriousness is valid at times, but flippancy and humor is valid too. Is one approach better than the other? Which way is “right”? The serious way or the flippant way? It depends. Maybe one, maybe neither, maybe both. But without one approach (seriousness) the other approach can throw me and my life off balance (flippancy). And as I sat in a gross pool of my own sweat, tears, and snot, I realized how much of my American life was lived with the seriousness of attending a funeral. Mexicans don’t live like they’re dying, but they do celebrate death. The paradox is fascinating. The more uncomfortable I am with my humanity, the sweat, the tears, the snot, and all the death involved with life, the farther I travel from the core of who I really am. This core doesn’t speak a particular language. The core has no nationality, no skin color, no ethnicity or lineage. But all of us bleed. And all of us cry. We all sweat and stink and puke and poop and laugh and yell and say the wrong things and say the right things. I have no reason to fear what makes me human. It’s much scarier to try to inch away from my humanity and try to live thirty feet above the ground as a charlatan.
I can’t recount exactly what I cried about during those three steamy hours yesterday. And I can’t say that I felt sad, but maybe just that I felt and that the feelings were overpowering. I thought about vomiting and how emotional vomiting is. I hate to puke, but as we get ready to go give Ayahuasca a try, I’ve been thinking a lot about puking. What kind of crazy person would subject themselves willingly to a bought of intense vomiting just as the mind is untethering itself from Time? (The puking would feel eternal and infinite in that state, wouldn’t it?) A person who wants to purge the pukey feelings, would do it, I suppose. A person who’s willing to visit the edge of eternity and barf enthusiastically into the void might be able to discover a kind of sanity not available to the masses who try to hold it all in and swallow it all down. It’s a theory and I’m not sure, but I’m working with it.
And it’s working with me. I’m not in control here the way that I thought I was in the states and that’s not a bad thing. Like Abremalin, or a child who’s scared of the boogie man under the bed, it’s another opportunity for me to encounter my own personal demons and master them. And that’s life, not death, though it’s easy to confuse the two.