Author: Sacred Earth Journeys

The Splendor of Tikal

Read the final instalment by Lori Erickson about her journey to Mexico & Guatemala with Sacred Earth Journeys. Next time – a guest feature by Lori’s husband Bob!

If you’re a Star Wars fan, this image might look familiar. That’s because in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the Guatemalan archaeological site of Tikal stood in for Yavin 4, a jungle-covered moon used by the Rebel Alliance.

Tikal in Guatemala
The Mayan site of Tikal rises out of the Guatemalan jungle. (Bob Sessions photo)

But before it was used by the Rebel Alliance, it was used by the Mayans – and today Tikal is one of the largest and most impressive of all the pre-Columbian sites in Central America.

Tikal marked the end of our Maya Temples of Transformation Tour with Sacred Earth Journeys (see also Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites; Mayan Mysteries of Palenque; A Ceremony Amid Mayan Ruins; and Finding the Holy in a Tradition Not My Own). In many ways, we saved the best for last.

In Mayan, Tikal means “in the lagoon,” but its alternative name is far more evocative: “the place of the spirit voices.” This city, which was built between 700 BC and 900 AD, was once home to more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the Americas. Today more than 3,000 structures built by this civilization remain, though many are still covered by jungle.

The archaeological site is part of Tikal National Park, which protects 220 square miles of rainforest. More than 300 species of birds live here, along with jaguar, puma, several species of monkeys, tapirs, and more than 60 kinds of bats.

As I wandered through Tikal’s ceremonial plazas, temples, residences, and ruins, the sounds and smells of the jungle were ever present, from the deep grunting of howler monkeys in the trees high above to coatis (a raccoon-like animal) darting across the trails. The rich diversity of plant and animal life provided a counterpoint to the serenity of the ruins.

The heart of Tikal is its Grand Plaza, a ceremonial space bordered on the east and west by two extraordinary pyramid-temples. The Temple of the Great Jaguar (named after a carving above its main doorway) towers more than 150 feet above the plaza, its sides rising steeply to the sky. Across from it is the Temple of the Mask, a slightly smaller, but still impressive, structure. Its name is derived from a pair of masks carved into a wall on its top platform.

Jaguar Temple at Tikal
The Temple of the Great Jaguar is the most stunning of Tikal’s many temple-pyramids. (Bob Sessions photo)

Standing between these two landmarks, I was reminded of the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Both the ancient Mayans and the ancient Egyptians loved to build big, and their creations still have the capacity to evoke awe in us.

I loved, too, walking the winding paths between the ruins and temples. Because of Tikal’s sprawling expanse, it’s easy to get away from other visitors. I spent an entire hour in a set of ruins without seeing another person, a gift that allowed me to soak up its sights, sounds, and atmosphere without interruption.

That time gave me the chance to reflect on what I’d learned on our Mayan tour. I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Helen Tomei, the owner of Sacred Earth Journeys. We were visiting about the power of pilgrimage to change people’s lives, and she told me that when she was a young woman ready to start traveling on her own, she spent a lot of time looking at maps. She would spread them across a table and look at one country after another, trying to decide where her heart was being pulled.

“It’s sort of a mysterious thing, this going on pilgrimage,” she said. “The whole world is open to you, and yet you need to find the individual place that calls to you. For me, the first place was India. I kept coming back to that country on the map, especially to its Himalayan region. And that’s where I ended up traveling, which in turn set in motion a lifetime of journeys.”

If you’re a believer in the power of pilgrimage, you probably have a similar story, a time when the door to the world, and to the spirit, opened wide. In my own life, the Native American holy site of Bear Butte in South Dakota was the entrance.

Kapok tree
A huge kapok tree, a species sacred to the Mayans, stands near the entrance to Tikal. (Bob Sessions photo)

And I find it curious that the world’s sacred sites have so many similarities – not in their particulars, but in their essence. I know I experienced a similar feeling standing in the Grand Plaza of Tikal as I’ve felt in many holy places: it felt like coming home.

That said, the Mayan world still holds many mysteries for me. I was introduced to just a few Mayan sites on my trip to Mexico and Guatemala. But I learned enough to know that I want to go back to these remote landmarks filled with beauty and power. I want to hear the howler monkeys again, and to sit on the steps of a temple and imagine what it was like when it was a living place of worship.

Let me end with a story from our friend Brian, who traveled with us on our Mayan journey. When he came back to the bus at the end of our second day in Tikal, he told us about an experience he’d had earlier that afternoon.

“I was on top of one of the temples, not saying anything, just looking out over the scene,” he told us. “And there was a guy sitting a few yards away, saying nothing, just looking out at the landscape like I was. And when he got up to leave, he turned to me and said, ‘This is the best day of my entire life.’”

That interchange crystalizes for me one of the reasons why we go on pilgrimage, whether it’s to Tikal or Egypt or Bear Butte: we go because of those shining moments, the ones that we store in our treasure house of memories, the ones that give depth and meaning to our entire lives.

Here’s a little video I took on top of the Temple of the Masks at Tikal (the sounds in the background are howler monkeys):

~ Lori Erickson

This post was first published at Patheos.com: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2017/03/08/12584/

A Ceremony Amid Sun-Dappled Mayan Ruins

Read Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson’s third instalment about her journey to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

When you visit a sacred site, how can you figure out what makes it holy? This challenge is doubly difficult, of course, if the people who built the holy site lived hundreds of years ago.

Mexico tour leader Miguel Angel Vergara
Miguel Angel Vergara leads a prayer at one of the Mayan sites on our tour with Sacred Earth Journeys. (Bob Sessions photo)

On our Maya Temples of Transformation tour with Sacred Earth Journeys (see my previous posts on Palenque and Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites), we were fortunate to have Miguel Angel Vergara and Freddy Silva as our guides. I especially appreciated how Miguel–who is a living link to ancient Maya traditions–led ceremonies at each of the sites we visited. He helped us enter a very different spiritual world.

Of the three major Mayan sites we visited, Yaxchilan was the smallest, but in some ways it was my favorite. This was partly because of the Indiana-Jones-style in which we traveled to it: a 45-minute boat ride on the Usamacinta River on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Along the way we passed mile after mile of dense rainforest, with occasional crocodiles sunning themselves on the river banks. At the end of our river trip, we hiked up a steep hill and then walked down a winding forest path until we finally arrived at the archeological site.

It was worth the effort.

boat ride in Mexico
The Mexican archeological site of Yaxchilan is accessible only by boat or airplane. (Bob Sessions photo)

Yaxchilan was the capital of a jungle kingdom that reached its height during the reigns of Lord Shield Jaguar and his son Bird Jaguar, two evocatively named Mayan leaders of the eighth century. More than 120 structures were built here, though only a small fraction have been excavated. Surrounded by forest, the site has a central plaza area flanked by a mixture of ruins and partially reconstructed buildings.

As we approached the entrance to Yaxchilan, Miguel gathered our group of 15 people into a circle and filled our cupped hands with a small amount of scented water. As we splashed the water over our heads, I recognized a classic rite of purification, a common feature of nearly all religions. Next Miguel gave us a few drops of an aromatic oil, which we used to anoint our foreheads–again, something I was familiar with in my own Christian tradition.

Yaxchillan in Mexico
Temple 33 at Yaxchilan is reached by climbing a steep flight of narrow stairs. (Bob Sessions photo)

Miguel then directed us to put out our hands once again. “We will make an offering to the spirits of this place as we enter their home,” he said, going around the circle to pour a small mound of corn kernels into our hands “As you walk into Yaxchilan, you can honor them by the throwing the kernels along the path.”

Then we filed, one by one, into a shadowed passageway of stone, which wound around in the darkness for a number of yards before we climbed a small flight of steps. As we ascended, I could see the brilliant green of the jungle framed by a doorway ahead of us. The transition from darkness into light felt mythic and ancient.

At last we emerged into the full expanse of Yaxchilan. Though much smaller in size than Palenque, it nevertheless had a similar air of grandeur. With each step we took, the sounds of the forest became louder: the shrill caws and melodic twittering of birds and the rasp of insects. The greenery pressed close to the buildings, as if it was eager to overtake them once again.

After passing by several sets of low-lying ruins, we saw a temple on a hill above us, a landmark reached by a set of narrow, steep steps.

“Before we explore, let us gather together for a ceremony,” Miguel said.

stone mayan tablet
Elaborately carved stone tablets hint of the complex society that created Yaxchilan. (Bob Sessions photo)

We formed a circle around him, close to the base of the large temple, and watched as he took out the elements of the ritual–small wooden bowls that he filled with water, a drum, incense, pieces of brightly patterned cloth. He invited us to place our own sacred offerings in the center of the circle. People came forward with stones, crystals, and other symbolic items.

I looked around at my fellow travelers, most dressed in the white clothing that Miguel had suggested we wear that day. I could see how seriously people were taking this ritual, though for many of us it was likely a departure from our own traditions. I was struck, too, by the silence that had fallen upon us–a sure sign of the holy approaching.

And then–I kid you not–the howler monkeys began a chorus. From the treetops nearby they began to vocalize, a primal and wild sound unlike any I’d heard before. I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of church services would be greatly enhanced by the addition of some howler monkeys in the choir.

During the next half hour, Miguel led us in a ceremony that had echoes of shamanic ceremonies from around the world. He invoked the four directions and then the power of sky and earth. He led us in prayers and chanting, our songs accompanied by the rhythmic beat of the drum, which formed a hypnotic counterpoint to the sounds of the monkeys and the other forest creatures. He invited us to enter into the spirit of the place with our hearts, not just with our minds.

It was one of the most powerful ceremonies I’ve ever attended (and I’ve been part of a lot of rituals). It made me think, too, of the many holy sites I’ve been to where the sacred takes a back seat to tourism. It was a rare privilege to be led by Miguel into a deeper experience in this isolated forest oasis. His quiet wisdom helped us see that while Yaxchilan’s glory has faded, it is still a living spiritual site.

sacred site of Yaxchillan Mexico
The sun-dappled ruins of Yaxchilan are surrounded by dense jungle. (photo by Bob Sessions)

For the rest of the afternoon as I wandered amid the ruins of Yaxchilan, the ceremony led by Miguel framed my experience. It gave me a glimpse of why the Mayans created these remarkable landmarks of stone, here in this forest inhabited by creatures seen and unseen.

~ Lori Erickson

This blog was first published on www.patheos.com

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2017/02/22/12517/

 

The Mayan Mysteries of Palenque

Read Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson’s second instalment about her journey to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

mayan ruler pakal
The Mayan ruler Pakal was buried with richly ornamented and highly symbolic finery (Bob Sessions photo)

Striking, isn’t it?

And maybe a bit unsettling?

I came upon this figure at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Bob and I and our friend Brian spent several days in Mexico City before starting our Maya Temples of Transformation tour with Sacred Earth Journeys. Our time at this museum—one of the world’s greatest—gave us an invaluable background for what we would later see on our Maya trip.

Of all the marvels we saw at the museum, the figure pictured above most intrigued me. The jade mask and jewelry were found on the body of a Mayan leader named Pakal, who ruled the city-state of Palenque for almost 70 years in the seventh century. Every part of his elaborate burial finery had symbolic significance, from the number of strands in his necklace to those peculiar ear pieces that jut out from his head. Note, too, that the mask has crossed eyes, which were considered beautiful in Mayan culture.

I stood transfixed by this mask for quite some time, though I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the sheer weirdness of it, as well as the beauty of its craftsmanship. There was a haunting quality about it as well, something that seemed to speak in words I couldn’t understand about a culture very different from my own.

A few days later, I stood in front of Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions, the place where this mask was found.

temple of inscriptions at palenque
The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque is one of the masterpieces of Mayan architecture (Bob Sessions photo)

Located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, Palenque was founded around the year 100 BCE. It reached its height between 600-800 CE, and then declined in the early 10th century, for unknown reasons. Today it’s one of the most studied of all the Mayan sites. Though smaller in size than Chichen Itza or Tikal, it has exquisite architecture and carvings. Only a small fraction of Palenque has been excavated, but what’s there is marvelous indeed.

As at all Mayan sites, the temples here were likely built to align with astronomical phenomena. Working without telescopes, the Mayan nevertheless had an amazingly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mapped the movements of the stars and planets with great accuracy. They also kept multiple calendars geared to various celestial cycles and developed complex writing and mathematical notation systems.

As soon as I entered Palenque, the Temple of the Inscriptions immediately drew my gaze. It’s the largest of the many buildings at the site, with steps arranged in nine levels. Built during Pakal’s reign, it’s named after the hundreds of glyphs located on the temple walls at its top. Originally it was painted red, with its carvings detailed in bright colors. But even with its present appearance of weathered, gray limestone, it’s a exquisite building, perfectly proportioned, beautifully designed.

In 1952, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier made a remarkable discovery atop this temple: he uncovered the beginnings of a stairway that led down through the center of the structure. After four years of excavation, he at last came to Pakal’s tomb, one of the greatest treasures of pre-Columbian archeology. This is the New World equivalent of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

And while the jade mask in the museum was stunning, I was even more amazed when I learned what covered Pakal’s sarcophagus (see below).

pakal sarcophagus
The sarcophagus of the ruler Pakal is a roadmap to the complexities of Mayan spirituality (Wikimedia Commons image)

This massive lid of limestone, 12 x 7 feet in size, is covered with an intricate, carved design that people have been trying to interpret ever since it was discovered. The image shows a man either descending or ascending a World Tree, a symbol that has roots in the underworld, a trunk in this world, and its branches in paradise. The man is wearing garments similar to those of the Mayan Maize God, and surrounding him are sacred symbols of many kinds.

If this all looks vaguely familiar, it’s because you might have seen it on a late-night TV program on ancient aliens. The craze started with a 1968 book by Erich von Daniken called Chariots of the Gods. When he looked at this image, he saw a space man being propelled by a rocket ship, a theory that’s been giving anthropologists headaches ever since. “No! No! Don’t believe him!” they collectively say, pointing out that Mayan culture was perfectly capable of creating its many wonders all on its own without the help of overlords from the stars.

Thankfully, you don’t have to buy the ancient aliens thesis to appreciate this remarkable work of art (which we saw only in pictures, since you can’t get inside the tomb without special permission). But there is indeed something otherworldly about this image, which shows a spiritual transformation of some sort, a movement between realms.

Today Pakal’s body rests underneath the Temple of Inscriptions, while most of the items found in his tomb are safely ensconced in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I felt fortunate to have seen those treasures, because it made me fully experience what I experienced at Palenque.

palenque palace reliefs
Reliefs in the Palace courtyard at Palenque bring us face to face with the Mayan world (Bob Sessions photo)

On our tour of Palenque, I also greatly appreciated the fact that we were given time simply to be. Too often tours try to cover so much information and territory that you’re left exhausted. But if you’re going to truly experience a sacred site, you need some time to settle in. I was grateful to spend much of the afternoon wandering on my own amid the temples, climbing up steep steps to perch on platforms overlooking the green lushness of the surrounding jungle, drinking in the vistas.

Here’s a curious thing, one that I’m a little embarrassed to admit. Our group had arranged to meet back at the entrance gate late in the afternoon, and I stretched out my time at Palenque as long as I could. Nearing the departure time, I realized I needed to hurry.

A shortcut led through a dimly lit tunnel that we’d walked through before as a group, a passageway that wound through the ruins of the palace. I started to enter it, and then stopped.

The light had shifted from earlier in the day, and it seemed darker than I remembered. There were no people around, not even voices in the distance. And I realized that I was scared to go into the passageway. I didn’t fear other humans, but instead I wasn’t entirely sure that spirits weren’t hovering around. Something about the way the walls loomed high around me, perhaps. Or maybe it was just an over-active imagination. But I took the long way back to the entrance, even though it entailed much more walking.

I smile when I think back to that moment now, because it sums up to me the essence of Palenque. This is a place that exudes the Mysteries of the Maya. Palenque is both dead and alive. No one lives there, and yet perhaps they do.

Next post: Yachxilan, where I learn about Mayan ceremonies.

~ Lori Erickson

 

This blog was first published on www.patheos.com

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2017/02/14/the-mayan-mysteries-of-palenque/

 

Return to Vaidyagrama, Ayurveda Healing Village

The Ayurveda Health & Healing Retreat in India hosted by Ayurvedic Consultant Jaisri M. Lambert has just wrapped up. In this guest blog article Jaisri shares a diary of her time at Vaidyagrama, gifting us with an insightful glimpse into an authentic panchakarma cleansing program.

It was a thankfully uneventful journey from Delhi where I awoke on Dec. 14, the day long planned for me to arrive at Vaidyagrama for the second time of my life. Touching down at Coimbatore airport just before sunset felt indeed like a type of coming home, though I’ve only been here once before – last year when I accompanied a small group of patients from the US & Canada for an experimental experience of ‘authentic panchakarma’.

For years, I had searched for a suitable place to give westerners confidence in traveling all the way to India, effectiveness of treatments and a learning experience for all levels of commitment to Ayurveda. The investment is perhaps a third that in north America, so the 41-day classical program was out of reach for me and others who wanted/needed a longer rejuvenation program. Here, however, it’s feasible and moreover compelling, I feel.

india
Jaisri (second from right) with our 2016 group at Vaidyagrama, Coimbatore, India

Right away on stepping off the aircraft, the air was warm and tropically humid, certainly compared to the cold of Delhi and more so to the cold of Surrey, presently under snow! My taxi driver remembered me and my family details, the doctor was present to greet me at the splendid entrance to the hospital campus and the walk to my same room was like returning to my childhood bedroom. This time, though, pink hibiscus flowers were laid out for my welcome – oh, the sweetness!

Last year it was all new to me – how does the shower function? (then I’d learned the water heating system is entirely solar powered here, as a model of green, sustainable development). What are the toileting practices? (last year I learned about the superior sanitation of spray hoses). Do I have the right converter/adapter? (three different ones and none seemed to work consistently). So many new and wonderful discoveries, and this year I feel more habituated, seasoned even!

India has its own traffic patterns – please don’t expect drivers to remain in their lane or to stop at red lights or to go one-way on a one-way street. Just close your eyes and you’ll very probably arrive safely, if a little later than hoped. Line-ups are a way of life with such large urban populations. Please don’t expect people to respect a queue or to throw their trash into a designated container.

Do, however, (except in line-ups) expect respect and honesty from pretty much everyone. Refreshing change from Broadway in Vancouver, where you can be dissed or worse just for walking down the street.

Tomorrow I’m looking forward to seeing the tree I planted last year and its interim growth, meeting my doctor from last year – the amazing Dr. HariKrishnan – and to greet the first two of my group arrivals. The others arrive on Friday and our program begins on Monday. I’m looking forward to seeing the huge botanical garden again – it covers almost the entire campus of 4 1/2 acres, except the buildings and walkways.

ayurveda garden
Part of Vaidyagrama’s huge outdoor healing garden

From last year, I discovered the importance of allowing time-zone adjustments to unfold on their own schedule. Having been in Delhi for two weeks prior meant I had already adjusted, which took perhaps 5 days or so for bodily routines to adapt. Ayurveda always considers the basic bio-rhythms of sleep, appetite and elimination, whether travelling or at home. These are the cardinal indicators of the balance of Vata (elimination), Pitta (appetite) and Kapha (sleep).

While in Delhi, I had the golden opportunity to meet with the AYUSH ministry officials to make connections between Canada and India with a view to bridge Ayurveda education into B.C. Now we have a clear path to our Ayurveda conference for 2017-18 and opening our college in 2018-19, thanks to the kind receptivity, enthusiasm and support of our officer! Lots of volunteer time will be needed to realize this intention together.

If reading this, you’d like to be a part of creating new pathways in Ayurveda education in Canada, dear reader, please contact me with your skill base and availability, OK?

ayurveda food india
Preparing delicious Ayurvedic meals at Vaidyagrama

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Awakening early morning after a fine long sleep following yesterday’s wearying day of travel, I found meditation to come easily and naturally in this atmosphere of timelessness. By sunrise, the familiar morning prayers from the temple resounded, echoing such a long history of Tamil Nadu state customs of worship and devotion. South India is known for some of the oldest temples still existing, some dating back over 3,000 years. Amazing.

Today’s satsang touched in part on how the ideal sustainable model for living is best in a village population of about 500. Overcrowding of cities and even towns has led to stress, conflict, disease and environmental degradation. Dr. Ramkumar Kutty, one of Vaidyagrama’s founders, presented statistics that if each family of 4 has 1/4 acre to live on, there will still be sufficient land on this planet for forests, rivers, lakes, mountains and other natural features. It’s a mathematical image, but gives pause for thought, eh? See the work of John Jeavons.

This day has been a delight of birdsongs, flowers and an atmosphere of Ayurveda living. At home, I’d been increasingly simplifying my life, though from today it’s becoming so much simpler yet, and I love it. This evening two of my group arrive from the west. How marvellous to anticipate watching them become introduced to this place of healing, and all that lies in store for them through their personal healing and learning.

Friday is the day for the weekly ‘gho puja’ or the ceremony for honouring cows, special not only due to the reverence for the integration of all living beings for food and material support for all, but also to acknowledge our human intelligence and capacity to choose sustainable living in harmony together with all living beings, large and small. Each has a God-given life-cycle, unique characteristics and gifts to bring to the whole.

Saturday is now international community night at Vaidyagrama, when people share their talent and culture from all over the world. A violinist has been heard practicing her contribution, evidently an original piece composed to express her love for this place and its transformations.

Last year, our group had created a participatory round to sing together with all the patients, and once I did a duet with a young woman from Quebec – we both felt so comforted to hear French again! Another couple from the England theatre world created a skit spoofing the changes we westerners go through during PK – very funny! It’s a special night.

ayurveda in india
Jaisri and the group enjoying some real relaxation time at Vaidyagrama

‘Tapasya’ from Sanskrit means in part, austerity or restraint, to observe inner sacrifice. Panchakarma is already revealing to me how giving up what is not in my long term best spiritual interest can lend positive support to this purification of body, mind and consciousness, and the program has not even officially begun. However, my intention for purification is already presenting ample opportunity for reforming my thinking and habits.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

‘My’ pretty little tree planted last year has grown three-fold! Such an example of faith, simplicity, being true to oneself, surrender to nature’s wisdom and growing upward! Yesterday, we completed three of our five medical intakes and already people feel more seen than ever by a medical practitioner. Now the benchmark has been set in our lives for medical care. Today will be our last two intakes and treatments will begin Sunday.

To hear more of Jaisri’s wonderful experience at Vaidyagrama including the next stages of her cleansing program and how the group bonded over shared cultural experiences, Read her full article here.

Want to join Jaisri at Vaidyagrama starting December 1st, 2017 for a life-changing Ayurveda cleansing and healing program? Full program details are now on our website – secure your space now! 

Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites in Mexico and Guatemala

Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson shares her recent experience of travelling to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

palenque mexico
Tour Leader Freddy Silva exploring sacred Mayan sites with the Sacred Earth Journeys group

For years I’ve been getting press releases from Sacred Earth Journeys, a company that specializes in trips to spiritual sites around the world. So much about the company appealed to me—its focus on spirituality, its expert guides, and the locations of its trips. But the timing was never right and there was always a good reason I couldn’t go.

mexico guatemala tour
Bob and I spent a week on a Sacred Earth Journeys tour of Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala

But last month, I finally got the chance to travel with Sacred Earth Journeys—and the experience more than lived up to my expectations. A tour called Maya Temples of Transformation immersed me in the culture and spirituality of pre-Columbian Mexico and Guatemala. During the week we visited three major Mayan sites: Palenque, Yachxilan, and Tikal. Along the way we trekked through jungles, took part in ceremonies with ancient roots, and listened to howler monkeys in the treetops above. It was a marvellous trip! And over the next posts I’ll be telling you about what I experienced.

I was accompanied on the tour by my intrepid husband, Bob, and our equally intrepid friend Brian. But during the week I also got to know our fellow travelers, who hailed from Australia, England, and Canada as well as the U.S. Some had been part of Sacred Earth Journeys before; others were newbies. All of us shared an interest in the spiritual side of travel, and all of us wanted to truly experience the places we were seeing, not just skip across the surface.

misol ha mexico
Misol Ha Waterfall in Mexico (image by Cronoser, Wikimedia Commons)

My week with these people made me realize that in all my years of spiritual journeying, I’ve missed one of the classic elements of pilgrimage: being put together in a group with complete strangers, fellow pilgrims who during the course of the journey become friends. Though we hailed from far-flung corners of the globe, we quickly formed bonds. During conversations over breakfasts and dinners, on bus rides, and walking down forest paths, I heard their personal stories and learned from their insights and wisdom. It was a little like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a moveable feast of spirituality and camaraderie.

Bringing like-minded pilgrims together is one of the missions of Sacred Earth Journeys, according to its founder and owner, Helen Tomei, who also was part of our group. “Traveling solo can be wonderful,” she told me. “But there are things that happen in groups that you can’t get when you travel on your own. When you travel to sacred places together, you benefit from hearing about other people’s experiences, and they can help you process your own experiences. You learn from each other.”

Helen sees many transformations among the groups she coordinates. “Most of us live in a world of endless distractions, especially because of the overwhelming presence of technology,” she told me. “On trips like this, we’re given the chance to disconnect, slow down, and look inward. I think that’s one of the reasons why interest in spiritual travel is growing. My hope is that people will come home from a journey with us changed in some way, and that their lives will be better once they return to their ordinary routines.”

tour leader freddy silva
Freddy Silva (Photo: Lori Erickson)

During our week together, we were fortunate to have two leaders with great experience in guiding people through spiritual transformations. Freddy Silva is one of the world’s leading researchers of sacred sites, ancient systems of knowledge, and the interaction between temples and consciousness. His books include First Templar Nation and The Divine Blueprint. And Miguel Angel Vergara is a native of Mexico who studied for 17 years with Mayan elder and wisdom keeper Don Vincente Martin. Today Miguel teaches seminars in Mexico and abroad on Mayan shamanism, traditions, and culture and is also the author of The Sacred Knowledge of the Maya.

The two were a powerful combination. Miguel led us in ceremonies and provided a deep background in the spirituality of the places we were seeing. And Freddy was our trickster teacher, making us laugh, inviting us to consider new possibilities, and sharing his knowledge of similarities between sacred sites around the world.

As the week went on, I especially appreciated Miguel’s deep kindness and his unassuming way of teaching profound truths. One day as we entered the jungle on our way to the Guatemalan site of Tikal, for example, he made an off-hand comment that is one of the most profound pieces of spiritual wisdom I’ve ever heard. “You know, the most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart,” he said. “If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. And if you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you do them.”

During our trip, Miguel did a masterful job of leading us in rituals designed to open our hearts to the spirit of the sacred places we toured. On our first day, for example, we visited Misol Ha Waterfall, a gorgeous cataract in the forest near the Mayan site of Palenque. On the bus ride there, he told us that many sacred sites have a cave of some sort associated with them. They provide a direct connection to the divine spirit of the earth, the mother who sustains us all.

“Surrender your ego and be humble,” he told us, echoing the message that spiritual teachers of many traditions give. “Ask yourself: what do I need to give up? What do I need to heal?” At the site, we got out of the bus and walked down a slippery path leading to the waterfall, then passed behind its torrent on our way to the cave itself. In darkness lit only by a few flashlights, we made our way into an inner chamber, where another, smaller waterfall cascaded into a pool.

“Water is a connection to the Spirit,” Miguel told us. “Enter the water if you’d like. Ask for healing for yourself and for others.”

I watched as most members of our group slid into the water. Fighting a cold, I felt it would be unwise to join them, because as much as I believe in the power of the Spirit, I’m also a believer in the power of a virus to make a trip miserable. So I sat there with my feet in the pool, savouring the sounds of the waterfall, watching as my fellow pilgrims immersed themselves in holy waters that have drawn seekers for millennia.

Palenque in Mexico
Miguel Angel Vergara is a master teacher of Mayan spirituality.

It was one of my favourite moments of the trip. And if I’d had some paint supplies with me, I’d have drawn animals on the walls, just like in those French caves covered with prehistoric paintings. It was that kind of moment, a time-out-of-time when I felt I could have channelled something wild and mysterious.

In my next post I’ll take you to Palenque, one of the greatest of the ancient Mayan sites. But let me leave you with another comment made by Miguel, one that summarizes much of his perspective on the world. He told us that the traditional greeting exchanged by the Maya translates as, “How is your sacred path today?”

That’s a question we all can ask, whether we’re in a sacred cave in the middle of a jungle, or sitting at a desk in Iowa.

~ Lori Erickson

This blog was first published at www.patheos.com