Tourism in Mayan Mexico with a spiritual slant.

by Kathleen Grassel 

Dear Justin,

Salutations from Mexico! I would like to wish you the happiest of birthdays and the best of all possible returns. I hope your life is unfolding as it should. As your pal Paul Reps would say, "Waterfall... no trouble at all." Reps did have a way with words-of-no-words, didn’t he?

How is your vegetarianism coming? I hope those shameless flesh eaters haven’t swayed you from the path. If nothing else, you have to admit that a sentient diet is better for meditation. It’s very easy to be vegetarian in this part of Mexico. I’m in Chiapas now, living in San Cristobal de las Casas. The land is very fertile and produces from whatever seed you throw down. I eat lots of beans, rice, tortillas, cheese, fruits, vegetables, and sweets. The food is wonderful, fresh, plentiful, and inexpensive. People are poor but there’s always a little something to eat. I have not lost weight. Meditation has been wonderful, the fertility of the land and the friendliness of the people contributing to my progress. I have considerable rowing to do before I’m gone, gone, gone to the other shore, but how wonderful that this kind of rowing is the progressive awakening of consciousness.

That Vibration

I should tell you the story of my meditation among the Mayans. The Mayans are the indigenous people of this part of the world. Once a week I like to meditate in a public place to make up for group meditation that I haven’t found here. I asked the locals if there was some kind of sacred space where foreigners could go. The advice I got more than once was to go to the church in a nearby pueblo called San Juan Chamula. It’s said that the Mayan Indians have been practicing their religious rituals and ceremonies on this site since time immemorial. When the Spanish came in the 16th century, they recognized its mystical quality and built a church over it and named it St. John the Baptist. The church still exists, but the church is no longer a part of the Diocese because the native people don’t want priests in the church. Church officials compromised. In return for bringing their infants for baptism, the people would get the church for their practices.

To get there, I got in this old rickety mini-van in San Cristobal. These are nine-seaters that provide bus service in the city and for the surrounding communities with local people commuting daily to work or sell in the markets. Judging from the curious looks I would get, foreigners favor taxis or tourist vans over these minibuses. In the front with the driver were two adolescent boys smoking cigarettes and eating peanuts spiced with lemon and red chile. In the seat with me were six other people, three of them children unaccompanied by a parent. We careened up the mountain, the van belching and backfiring, but we made it. The village square in front of the church was littered with all the trappings of the market that was just finishing. Orange peels and papaya seeds and corn cobs and greasy paper and peanut shells and chicken fat and coke bottles were everywhere; in this mix were dozens of little kids begging for a peso. At first I wondered if this were the right place, but when I stepped into the church, I nearly fainted. The first thing that hit me was the vibration. It sucked me in like a centrifuge. There were thousands of candles burning on dozens of floor altars, and what seemed like hundreds of people--men, women and children--sitting and chanting in front of their dozens of candles. The floor was covered with long evergreen needles that I would later see in other churches and for sale in the markets. Supposedly the needles absorb the smell of incense that would otherwise be overpowering. They also catch the tons of melted candle wax that would otherwise have to be scraped off the floor. Candles are colored white for God, yellow for the harvest, red for blood purification, and black to place a curse.

The interior was dark except for these pockets of blazing candlelight illuminating the intense faces of the people who were rocking, kneeling, sitting, standing, walking, reciting, pleading while dust particles floated in the light shafts. The shamans and the curanderas were there, rolling eggs over the bodies of their patients, pinpointing the source of their ailment where the egg would break. They would then pour "posh," an incredibly potent alcohol that connects the patient with the gods, and Coca-Cola. Coke is considered a miracle spiritual elixir because it’s full of fizzy bubbles that cause the patient to belch out the evil spirit causing the sickness. Belching is of utmost importance in the healing process, as my own curandera in San Cristobal would explain to me later. Everything in this town is grown or produced locally; everything except Coca-Cola, but its belching quotient is so high compared with anything produced locally that it is almost worshipped in its own right.

The Mayans believe in reincarnation and that each human spirit inhabits the spirit of a particular animal; thus were figures of painted clay animals all about on the church floor. The walls were lined with statues of saints in gilded glass cases, lots of saints crowded together looking like the basement of a wax museum. When the Mayan customs reasserted themselves and the Catholic faded away, the people kept the saints but dressed them in colorful, glittery Mayan clothes and assigned them Mayan duties. So San Miguel might be the keeper of the sheep, San Antonio watches over the corn, Santa Lucia safeguards the yarn for spinning, another cures sore throats, and so on.

But I am here for meditation, right? I’ve heard said that one day in a sacred site is worth a thousand days of meditation, and while I didn’t know if that were true, now I was a believer. Usually I have trouble meditating in a lot of commotion, but in this place I was in meditation instantly. I was pulled straight into dhyana for I don’t know how long. When I finally opened my eyes, my eyelids were heavy like wet snow and dozens of people were standing in a half circle a few meters away, staring at me, not moving. I would have been worried but some were smiling, and besides, I was in that blissful state. I looked, they looked, nobody moved. Out of my control, I closed my heavy eyes and went back into meditation. When I opened them again, maybe a half hour later, they were STILL THERE, in the same position, still smiling at me, like a freeze frame. Maybe they thought I was some god returned. Maybe they thought I was dead. I certainly hadn’t moved, even twitched, for a long time, and my breath would not have passed the feather test.

The most likely reason, though, is that I shouldn’t have been there. It’s one thing for a herd of tourists to buy a ticket, go in, look up and down, listen to the guide talk about this or that architectural detail, and a couple minutes later file out, but to have someone come in and tap the vibration and stay for two hours has probably never happened. They’d simply never before seen anything like it.
How I stayed in meditation with all the commotion is a miracle. While I was trying to recover, bleary-eyed, a few meters away was one of the curandera healers who suddenly pulled a live chicken out of her shawl. I just looked blankly, thinking, "She just pulled a live chicken out of her shawl." She took the chicken by its feet and neck and passed the chicken all over the body of her patient. Suddenly the chicken squawked-squawked-squawked and flapped and flapped, obviously locating the source of the illness for the curandera. I remember thinking, "Please don’t kill the chicken." She didn’t. What a way to end meditation. Might be an alternative to that gonging thing you have in your meditation room, Justin. Because the meditation was so profound, I’ve been burning to go back, but first I want to find out if I was stepping, er, sitting, on their culture. If so, well, I’ll just have to find a nice park somewhere.

The prettiest shawl

One day I took the minibus to another nearby town called Zinacantan known for its culture of flowers. It’s a village somewhat more affluent than others because of the demand for cut flowers in the cities. It’s also known for its beautiful weaving and embroidery. In stark contrast to neighboring San Juan Chamula, it’s lovely and clean and the children are forbidden to beg from tourists. The men and women all wear vibrant reds, pinks, and purples with lots of tassels and flowing ribbons, so the entire village is like a blast of color in the landscape. I was walking down an unpaved street where the women and girls have their stands. They saw me coming and immediately unfolded their blankets and mantles and serviettes and shawls, so on both sides of me was all this waving color, everyone vying for my attention. I hadn’t planned to buy anything. I was really spent out, but one of the young women’s eyes caught mine and burned into me as if to say, "Please buy something from me or I will surely die." Hers were the eyes of 1,000 pleadings. She showed me everything, all very beautiful, explaining how it was made and how long it took. I asked her which shawl was her best. She brought it out, smoothed it and stroked it. It was a careful work of art and a labor of love. "Yes, it’s so beautiful, I’ll take it," I said. "But, you know, the one I really want is the one you’re wearing." Hers was pretty, too, a little worn, much simpler and thinner than those she was selling. She was startled and confused. I repeated in three or four different ways until she understood that I was trying to buy the shawl off her back, or rather, trade her the pretty one that I had just bought. Finally we made the swap. So she had the money and the shawl, too. She could resell the shawl, but I’m hoping she wears it. The others had a disbelieving look on their faces. Possibly they thought I’m not a very smart tourist, but I think I’m the smartest one of all.

Like the swan and the mantra, hansa, I am living on the wing, no way to think of life in any settled condition in material things. Interesting how this connects with the first stage of the upward way, giving up resting on anything, or wishing to have anything forever. I’m getting the good out of everything, extracting the soul’s benefit from the mixture of experience.

Mexico is very rich in contrasts. Chiapas is very rich in poverty and beauty. The people of Chiapas don’t have much money; many have none at all, but there is a life and happiness here that I don’t often recognize in the United States. I think Americans think they have a lot to lose materially and it causes them worry and insecurity and fear for what they are going to lose anyway someday, sooner or later. I include myself in that cohort. Here there is nothing to lose materially so there’s an absence of that kind of worry, insecurity and fear in their lives. There is a fragile difference between the words, "scared" and "sacred." How closely they are spelled but how far from each other in life. I like to see all things and people as friendly and sacred, all events fruitful, all days good days.

Your pal,

(Justin Stone is a tai chi master and instructor of the meditative arts for nearly 40 years. He’d been a stock trader in the financial world before beginning a spiritual quest that would take him to Japan and India where he traveled and studied extensively. On his next birthday, he will be 85 years old.)

Kathleen Grassel lives in New Mexico, where she is a technical writer, editor and graphics designer, as well as a teacher of Tai Chi.

This article was printed in New Renaissance Volume 10, Number 3, Issue 34 (Autumn, 2001)