The door opened and in came another red-hot stone the size of a papaya, illuminating the small tent for a delicate moment. Steam filled the space as the shaman poured liquid onto the glowing surface of the stones. The fire ants ceased their biting for a breath and I inhaled the sweet scent of herbs deep into my lungs, fighting the voice in my head that hated me for signing up for this.
I sat half naked in the dirt, knee to knee with a dozen women inside of what’s commonly known throughout Mexico as the Temescal.
The heat far surpassed a sauna, a Bikrum yoga class, or Cambodia in April. Sweat poured down my skin with the intensity of a waterfall. Fire ants covered the ground and bit every inch of my body. But the heat and the dirt and the bites did not plague me like the darkness did.
It was darkness so deep that it removed all form from existence even in my imagination. Sound, smell, and sensation seemed to float in a realm of nothingness. It was darkness that frightened me beyond all else. It was darkness closer to death than anything I had ever felt.
In many ancient traditions, the Temescal is the portal to ancestral healing. It represents the place where we’re born and the place where we die. I guess you could call the Temescal both heaven and hell, depending on your perspective.
On a very practical level, the Temescal has kept tribes of people warm and alive for centuries. It facilitates detoxification from emotional and physical ailments. The Temescal is the original sauna.
The structure itself is typically made from clay or sticks covered in heavy blankets, the floor made of earth. Nearby stands the life of the Temescal, the fire. Nestled between the logs in the blazing fire are large stones the size of papayas.
In the center of the tent lies a small hole where the stones from the fire are placed to heat the space. A shaman pours special herbs onto the stones and guides the ceremony through what are called four doors. In each door new stones enter and new intentions are set.
Through intention, the fire represents the source of life, the stones our grandmothers, and the tent our mother’s womb. In the Temescal we bring our ancestors back into the womb to receive their wisdom and heal our ties. When we sufficiently sweat our fears inside the safety of the sweatlodge, we emerge into the world born again, free of layers upon layers of generational pain.
Of course, I had no idea about any of this three years ago when I showed up at my first Temescal in my adopted home of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. When my friends suggested we sit in a tent and sweat that rainy day in the jungle, I mentally prepared for a spa experience. I expected a more “rustic” version of the steam room at the gym.
Little did I know that I was at the gateway of a spiritual awakening.
I recall sitting in that black abyss of physical nothingness, and being asked why I came to the Temescal. We took turns sharing and when it came my turn, I remember feeling strangely detached from my own voice. The voice came from somewhere, from someone, but I didn’t know who or where.
The ceremony continued, and I remember feeling extremely confused and slightly amused as women around me howled and moaned and cried. Fortunately the screams were loud enough to drown out my awkward laughter. Though as time went on, I became swept up in it. Eventually I was singing songs I didn’t know in a language I didn’t speak.
At the final door, I remember seeing my grandmother’s face. She was as clear as day in pure darkness. I thought of all of her beliefs, her attachment to religion, her judgments, her struggles.
Then I saw my mother. My sister. My best friend. I felt them like I was them. I saw all of my friends. I saw and felt all of the women I had ever known. Tears streamed down my face. It sounds strange to say it, but I felt like I was crying their tears. I was crying for them. I was healing for them.
Then I started to see men. My father. My boyfriends. Men I met traveling. Men I’ve known my whole life. Their faces came and went like slides on a projector screen.
I sobbed so hard my body shook. From a deep place within me, I knew that I was crying the tears of all humanity. I was healing all of humanity inside of the Temescal. Perhaps it sounds overly self-important now, but in that moment it was pure truth.
I crawled out of the lodge and a man poured cool water over my head like a newborn baby. The rain had stopped and the sky was filled with millions of stars like glitter thrown across a giant black sheet of construction paper. We sat around the fire and gave an offering of tobacco in gratitude for the element of our transformation.
That night I instantly fell into a deep sleep in my jungle cabin and I began to dream.
I sat inside of a treehouse surrounded by virgin jungle. Wild hibiscus vines and primary forest stood as far as I could see. A tall ladder led from the jungle floor up into my cabin and I watched a jaguar pace back and forth at the bottom. Instinctually I felt afraid. I began throwing objects from inside of my house down at the jaguar to scare him away. But he stayed.
Then he began to climb up the stairs into my treehouse. My fear intensified and I threw down large branches. The branches abated him for a bit, but he never left.
Eventually he made his way inside of my room. Though he didn’t approach me with aggression, rather curiosity. Still, he was a wild jaguar, and I forcefully attacked him in an effort to get him to leave.
That’s when a truck pulled up outside of my treehouse and the jaguar hopped in. A girl sitting in the truck bed hugged him and he licked her face. Why wasn’t she afraid?
Of course I knew why I was afraid of the jaguar. I didn’t question that. I feared the jaguar for the same reasons I often feared the jungle and the ocean waves. I was afraid that he would eat me. What I didn’t understand, was why she wasn’t afraid of being eaten.
In the morning I sat with this strange dream after the potent experience of the sweatlodge.
I sat on my window seat and noticed a copy of a book that my friend had loaned me called Animal Speak. This book chronicles different animal totems in shamanistic belief systems throughout the world. It was the first time I had opened the book, and since then I’ve referenced it many times and received profound wisdom from the critters who have visited me. When I opened to the page of the jaguar, this is what it said:
“The jaguar marks a new turn in the heroic path of those to whom it comes. It truly reflects more than just coming into one’s own power. Rather it reflects a reclaiming of that which was lost. It gives an ability to go beyond what has been imagined. It is the spirit of imminent rebirth. When the jaguar bounds into your reality, it is asking you to go within, to release your fears, to heal your emotions, and to awaken your inner sight. If you choose to follow his lead, he will guide you into the underworld where the secrets of life and creation are to be found.”
Holy fucking shit, I thought.
For the years that followed I traveled all over the world in my attempt to release my fears. I began in Southeast Asia, which blew my mind and opened my heart in ways I never imagined possible. I returned to Costa Rica, completed my Yoga Teacher Training, faced deep demons, and made the uncharacteristic choice to spend the winter in some of the coldest places on Earth. I went into my shadow and learned to love many parts of myself I had rejected. Eventually I found my way back to Costa Rica, the place where my journey began and where my heart is always called.
All throughout that time, the jaguar occasionally visited me in my dreams. In particular dream I remember him blocking my path and not being able to move forward. The jaguar came again and again, but I never followed him.
Until this past October when I flew to Mexico.
I wasn’t entirely sure why I was going to Mexico. Frankly I was exhausted from leading my first retreat and uprooting myself was the last thing I wanted to do when the sun was blazing and the Caribbean ocean was as flat and as clear as a pane of glass. But a voice within whispered for months that it was time to discover the Mayan world in Guatemala and Mexico.
Days before my departure it was full moon, and I went down to the ocean to swim at sunset with a dear friend. As we bathed in the tranquil turquoise water, we saw a full moon as big as a beach ball rise up from the lavender horizon.
I looked behind me to the coastline and gasped at what I saw. Thousands, literally thousands, of black vultures had formed tornados all along the coast. More and more and more came to join them. My friend, who has lived in Costa Rica for the last ten years, said she had never seen anything like that.
These ugly, dirty creatures were always eating garbage when I passed by the gutters on the road in Costa Rica. They seemed gross and creepy, symbolizing death itself. Though the more they entered my life, the more I realized how beautiful they are. They eat what’s dead to keep the earth clean of decay. They eat what’s dead and convert it into their own life force. They turn death into life.
As I watched the vultures circle over the dark and beautiful and tumultuous jungle of Puerto Viejo, I wondered what karmic garbage they were eating, and I thanked them.
Then they followed me all of the way to Mexico.
I arrived in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead festivities, where I sat with shamans in cemeteries and learned about the underworld. Apparently it was traditional for the Zapotecs to leave the dead out for the vultures to clean, then bury their bones in the floorboards to always keep them close. The Pre Hispanic cultures of Mexico didn’t fear death, they saw it as a beautiful right of passage into true awakening.
On Oaxaca’s coast, I met a Latvian traveler and I spoke with him about the vultures. He had lived in Mexico on and off for years and considered himself a Mayanist. He explained that the Mayans believe that each person has at least one spirit animal, and can have up to thirteen if he’s a healer. These animals, called “nahuals” are always with you, keeping you safe and protected.
I asked him about his nahual. He showed me his tattoo of a jaguar and smiled.
Over time I realized that every man in Mexico believed the jaguar was his nahual. It made sense considering the jaguar is the most important animal in Mayan spirituality, as the representation of divine femininity with fierce independence and strength.
The jaguar symbolizes fertility, the giver of life, who also has the power to take life in an instant. As a nocturnal creature the jaguar can move in and out of the underworld, carrying with it the secrets of life and death.
How beautiful that the animal these men connected with most was a feline.
I considered how men have been labeled as predators in our “modern” world, when it’s actually the divine feminine who is the ultimate predator of us all. She, just like the jungle, just like the Mayan goddess of the underworld, just like the jaguar, is the provider and the taker of life. She, like all women, is both a wildcat to revere and a kitten to be cuddled.
Traveling on my own in Mexico, I met many men who asked me if I was afraid. I always smiled and shook my head no. “Soy el jaguar,” I would say. I figured if the jaguar came to me in a dream to bring me all of the way to Mexico, she must be one of my nahuals too. And she was fucking fierce.
My journey continued along the path of the jaguar, through Chiapas, into San Cristobal and Palenque, and eventually over to the Yucatan. The deeper I traveled the deeper I delved into the mysticism.
I reveled in conversations about the power of obsidian and the Mayan calendar. My eyes grew wide like a child when I heard stories of ceremonies and sacrifices at cenotes and waterfalls. The complicated puzzle of these people who believed they descended from the stars and could predict natural disasters fascinated me. I would tell them I came from Pleiades and that my nahuals were the jaguar, the sea turtle, the blue morpho butterfly, and now the vulture. They would smile and tell me about all of their nahuals.
There was nothing about the Mayans that I didn’t love.
Towards the end of my trip I reached Chichen Itza, named one of the New Wonders of the World, which draws millions of tourists every year. Of all of the ancient temples in the Mayan world, perhaps none represents sacred geometry and precision like Chichen Itza.
Though Chichen Itza is also one of the most touristic places in Mexico. The lawns are completely manicured and there’s far more people than animals. I much preferred Palenque where I walked alone in the jungle and saw the way that vines could devour entire civilizations. That gave me hope for the proliferation of our Earth.
I wandered the temple complex at Chichen Itza among hoards of tour groups and row after row after row of vendors. All of the stimulation overwhelmed me and it felt impossible to connect with the energy of the place.
Until I saw the iguana.
He sat on top of a large ruin that no one seemed to pay much attention to. Something about him caught my eye and I watched him for a long time. Thoughts came to me, and I began to question whether they were my thoughts, or telepathic messages coming from the iguana. Regardless, I listened. And that’s when everything clicked.
That’s when the path of the jaguar came full circle.
That’s when the vulture and all of the temples delivered their clearest messages.
That’s when I learned the secrets of the universe.
Though, to my amusement, they weren’t actually that profound.
I realized that the “secrets” were right there, all along, in plain view, for everyone to see. They revealed themselves in every breath of nature. Whether you knew which star system you came from or who your nahuals were or your Mayan astrology chart, it didn’t actually matter.
Because eventually the jungle will eat even the grandest of temples and the vulture will eat even the highest of priests.
Everything and everyone is food no matter how they’re decorated or named.
No matter how much we fear or resist it, something will inevitably eat us.
The earth or the worms or the water or the fire.
And we do live eternally for this simple reason. We live forever because just like the fire consumes wood and converts it into smoke, something will turn us into something else as soon as it eats us.
How’s that for humbling?
So I asked, if the secret of the universe is that we’re all food, no more important than a leaf or an apple or anything else that gets eaten, how do we find meaning?
How do we find the purpose to carry on?
Shouldn’t the secrets of the universe tell us the deeper meaning for our lives?
Then it dawned on me. Oh, duh.
The meaning comes from the absence of meaning.
The absence of meaning gives us the freedom to decide that life means whatever we want it to mean.
That’s free will.
We get to decide whether our experiences are struggles or blessings.
We get to decide how much we open our hearts or how much we hide.
We get to decide how expansively we grow and how fiercely we love.
We get to decide.
Like the fire can be the source of life and the temescal can be the most healing of all mother wombs, every breath can be an expression of gratitude and every gesture can be an expression of love.
Just as easily as all of it can mean nothing at all.
In that moment, I understood why I choose to live in a world where every animal is a wise teacher here to guide me.
I understood why I choose to live in a world where every coincidence is a divine synchronicity leading me closer to truth.
I understood why I choose to live in a world where everything is pure rainbow sparkle magic.
Because that’s what keeps me living and breathing, until the day when something decides to eat me.
So I closed my journey in Mexico in the most meaningful way that I knew how. The same way that it began, three years ago in the jungle of Costa Rica. I went to die and be reborn. I went to the Temescal.
In the heat of the fire I sweat and moaned and cried and prayed. I let the heat strip me. I let the darkness swallow me. I let the Temescal transform me. Because that was the meaning that we gave the Temescal. To burn all of our weight until only spirit was left behind.
By the fourth door I had to leave. I wanted to stay, but my body wanted out. I sat by the fire wrapped in a wool blanket and watched the fire tender prepare the next stone. Sparks flew off of it like fireflies. Wow, I thought, these stones really are made of magic.
When the ceremony finished and everyone crawled out of the Temescal, we joined hands and ran through the jungle like a winding serpent, and emerged at the ocean.
It was New Moon, and in her blackness I saw millions of stars. I felt like I had just watched the sparks from the stones fly up towards heaven and land in the night sky. Completely naked we tumbled in the waves.
I walked back down the beach to my bungalow, and as I did, I accidentally kicked a mound of seaweed. Sparks twinkled around my feet. I ran back into the ocean and found myself covered in phosphorescent plankton. Glitter was everywhere. In the stones, in the sky, in the sea. I was living in a world of glitter.
In that moment I realized
that I was living in a world of glitter
in a world made up of magic
for no other reason than because I decided
that’s what I wanted my life to mean.
What do you want yours to mean?
To read all of the things that I learned on my journey through Mexico, read these posts: