By Heriberto Escamilla
A few weeks ago, I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a temazcalli, (from the Nahuatl temaz for “bath” and calli for “house), a sweat lodge. Using steam for cleansing or purification is of course, not new or unique to the Americas, but it was a common practice among the indigeneous people of North and Central America. The temazscali was traditionally used for therapeutic or healing purposes. Accompanied by ritual, prayer, song and music it becomes a ceremony.
Through time and practice our forefathers learned that following a specific set of procedures converted the lodge into a sacred place that connected them directly with the poderios, the creative spirits that animate fire, water, wind and earth. In modern words we could say that the ceremonial temazcalli helps induce a state of awareness or attention that differs from our ordinary way of seeing the world. In this different state of attention we have access to thoughts, images or ideas that are not available to us during our ordinary state of awareness.
As we were preparing to enter the lodge, people spontaneously gathered in small informal circles, talking and sharing stories.
As I listened, I caught a few of the words exchanged between two young men a few feet away from where I sat. They were talking about school. They were treading on familiar ground. The younger of the two, a tall, lanky man with closely cropped hair was lamenting his dilemma. At about 17 or 18 years of age, he was at a transition point in his life, eager to leave the carefree halls of high school for the wider world of adult responsibilities. Unfortunately, after four years of work he could only produce five of the 22 credits needed to graduate. Hermanos, does this story bring to mind anyone that you know? Sitting there in front of me, he represented a multitude; strong and capable young men ready to bring their gifts to the circle, but at the same time so ill-prepared to do so.
Five out of 22, repeated his friend incredulously, his voice involuntary intensifying and attracting the attention of others gathered around the lodge. What’s up with that?
I don’t know, the young man sheepishly replied, a shadow of embarrassment sneaking across his dark face. After a brief moment of reflection, he offered an explanation “I guess I am lazy or something”.
Now, through the course of my lifetime, I have been a student of life, an observer. Ordinarily I listen to people, form judgments, and then selfishly hold on to my thoughts and opinions. “Your opinions, they are not important, not worthy of attention”, those were my words, that’s what my own voice would say to me. It’s been a silent voice, but insidious and sinister nonetheless.
But the words spoken by others touch me more these days, my heart more easily moves to happiness and sorrow. Perhaps it’s because the days grow shorter or maybe the creator’s voice has somehow grown more clear and compelling. Hermanos, did you know that our forefathers, the ones that walked on this very ground that we tread gave us words, they also handed down directives by which to live? We have learned about Moses and the Christian commandments, and they are good. Stop any 12-year old on the street and more than likely he will know about Moses. But ask him of Quetzalcoatl’s, who through deeds and words had as much influence on the development of a culture, and on this same continent and what do you hear? Silence.
Historians tell us that Quetzalcoatl was actually a title and not a personal name. According to Victor Sanchez, author of the Toltec Path of Recapitulation this title signified a person who had achieved a high degree of spiritual development; one that had integrated our dualistic nature. Quetzalcoatl was a man of integrity, whose words and behavior harmoniously expressed the air-born eagle, the spiritual aspect of our being and the serpent that crawls along the ground, our more earthly nature.
The most recognized Mesoamerican man of in-tegrity was Ce Acatl Topiltzin, one of the ruler/priests of the Toltecas, a nation of people that inhabited Tula in the present state of Hidalgo around 900 A.D. According to Diaz in his book the Gospel of the Toltecas, Ce Acatl, the Quetzalcoatl, entrusted his followers with 3 commandments. The first was to “try with all of your eagerness to make friends with the one who is everywhere in everyone at each moment, for he is night and wind and lord of the intimate living.”
The second commandment was to “be at peace with all men; do not offend anyone, respect everyone. Do not shame another man for any reason. Be calm; let others say of you whatever they will. Be quiet and do not respond, even if they attack you. That is how you will show your virile condition and your nobility, and everyone will know that you are a trustworthy representa-tive of me. All of this is accomplished by actively training yourselves in the practice of peace.”
The third however seems unique to me. In closing his discourse, Quetzalcoatl tells his disciples “Don’t waste the time that Ometeotl has given you on earth. Busy yourselves night and day with that which is good. Do not despise time for you do not know if you will live again or if you will recognize your own faces there. Make the best of your lives.” Amazing wisdom isn’t it? We could write volumes about the implications of these simple words, but for now let’s return to the lodge, the young man, his companions and the words that I could not contain.
“Mijo, it’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that it’s not good to use words against yourself; that’s violence. From where I sit, I don’t see any laziness about you. But if you continue speaking those words to yourself, you will eventually believe them and lazy is what you will become”. Sometimes it starts with misguided words spoken by parents or other relatives, “eres un pendejo, un baboso que no sabes hacer nada.” Other people and eventually you reinforce these commands.” “That’s true, added a white-bearded elder, sitting firmly on the rocks that surrounded the lodge. You’re with your friends, you do some stupid little thing, the police call you a gangster, and after a while you are living la vida loca.” That’s the way commandments work. Have you taken the time to listen to words you tell yourself? Which commandments do you really follow?
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo León, México, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.