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Excerpt from Dreams

Martin Prechtel (p. 236)

From chapter "Reciprocity"

Years ago I talked to the Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel about how he perceives offerings to other sides, such as those described above. I began by asking him what a shaman is.

He said, “Shamans are sometimes considered healers or doctors, but really they are people who deal with the tears and holes we create in the net of life, the damage that we all cause in our search for survival. In a sense, all of us—even the most untechnological, spiritual, and benign peoples—are constantly wrecking the world. The question is, how do we respond to that destruction? If we respond as we do in modern culture, by ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then that debt will come back to bite us, hard. But there are other ways to respond. One is to try to repay that debt by giving gifts of beauty and praise to the sacred, to the invisible world that gives us life. Shamans deal with the problems that arise when we forget the relationship that exists between us and the other world that feeds us, or when, for whatever reason, we don’t feed the other world in return.”

Instead of “other world” I would say “other sides.”

He continued, “All of this may sound strange to modern, industrialized people, but for the majority of human history, shamans have simply been a part of ordinary life. They exist all over the world. It seems strange to Westerners now because they have systematically devalued the other world and no longer deal with it as part of their everyday lives.”

We talked of other things, and later he said, “In the Mayan worldview, we are all born owing a spiritual debt to the other world for having created us, for having sung us into existence. It must be fed; otherwise, it’s going to take its payment out of our lives.”

I asked how one repays this debt.

He answered, “You have to give a gift to that which gives you life. It’s an actual payment in kind. That’s the spiritual economy of a village. It’s like my old teacher used to say: ‘You sit singing on a little rock in the middle of a pond, and your song makes a ripple that goes out to the shores where the spirits live. When it hits the shore, it sends an echo back toward you. That echo is the spiritual nutrition.’ When you send out a gift, you send it out in all directions at once. And then it comes back to you from all directions.”

I responded, “It must end up being a complex pattern, because as you’re sending your song out, your neighbors are also sending theirs out, and you’ve got all these overlapping ripples.”

“It’s an entangled net so enormous the mind cannot possibly comprehend it. No one knows what’s connected to where.”

I asked how this is related to technology.

He said, “Technological inventions take from the earth but give nothing in return. Look at automobiles. They were, in a sense, dreamed up over a period of time, with different people adding on to each other’s dreams—or, if you prefer, adding on to each other’s studies and trials. But all along the way, very little, if anything, was given back to the hungry, invisible divinity that gave people the ability to invent those cars. Now, in a healthy culture, that’s where the shamans would come in, because with every invention comes a spiritual debt that must be paid, either ritually, or else taken out of us in warfare, grief, or depression.

“A knife, for instance, is a very minimal, almost primitive tool to people in a modern industrial society. But for the Mayan people, the spiritual debt that must be paid for the creation of such a tool is great. To start with, the person who is going to make the knife has to build a fire hot enough to produce coals. To pay for that, he’s got to give a sacrificial gift to the fuel, to the fire.”

“Like what?”

“Ideally, the gift should be something made by hand, which is the one thing humans have that spirits don’t.”

This reminded me of one reason my muse chose me: I have fingers and thumbs, and can write things down.

He continued, “Once the fire is hot enough, the knife maker must smelt the iron ore out of the rock. The part that’s left over, which gets thrown away in Western culture, is the most holy part in shamanic rituals. What’s left over represents the debt, the hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe by human ingenuity, and so must be refilled with human ingenuity. A ritual gift equal to the amount that was removed from the other world has to be put back to make up for the wound caused to the divine. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, but only so long as it’s used to feed the deities that give us the ability to perform such extravagant feats in the first place.

“So, just to get the iron, the shaman has to pay for the ore, the fire, the wind, and so on—not in dollars and cents, but in ritual activity equal to what’s been given. Then that iron must be made into steel, and the steel has to be hammered into the shape of a knife, sharpened, and tempered, and a handle must be put on it. There is a deity to be fed for each part of the procedure. When the knife is finished, it is called the ‘tooth of earth.’ It will cut wood, meat, and plants. But if the necessary sacrifices have been ignored in the name of rationalism, literalism, and human superiority, it will cut humans instead.

“All of those ritual gifts make the knife enormously ‘expensive,’ and make the process quite involved and time-consuming. The need for ritual makes some things too spiritually expensive to bother with. That’s why the Mayans didn’t invent space shuttles or shopping malls or backhoes. They live as they do not because it’s a romantic way to live—it’s not; it’s enormously hard—but because it works.

“Western culture believes that all material is dead, and so there is no debt incurred when human ingenuity removes something from the other world. Consequently, we end up with shopping malls and space shuttles and other examples of ‘advanced’ technology, while the spirits who give us the ability to make those things are starving, becoming bony and thin. The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long time ago and said, ‘Woe to humans, the invention of steel.’”

I asked why this theft leads to violence.

He answered, “Though capable of feeding all creation, the spirit is not an omnipotent force, as Christianity would have us believe, but a natural force of great subtlety. When its subtlety is trespassed on by the clumsiness of human greed and conceit, then both human and divine nature are violated and made into hungry, devouring things. We become food for this monster our spiritual amnesia has created. The monster is fed by wars, psychological depression, self-hate, and bad trade practices that export misery to other places.

“We inflict violence upon each other as a way to replace what we steal from nature because we’ve forgotten this old deal that our ancestors signed so long ago. Instead, we psychologize and objectify that relationship as a personal experience or pathology, rather than a spiritual obligation. At that point, our approach to spirituality becomes rationalist armoring, a psychology of protection for the part of us that creates the greed monster, which causes us to kill the world and each other. As individuals, we become depressed, because the beings of the other world take it out of our emotions.”

“How so?”

“When we no longer maintain a relationship with the spirits, the spirits have to eat our psyches. And when the spirits are done eating our psyches, they eat our bodies. And when they’re done with that, they move on to the people close to us.

“When you have a culture that has for centuries, or longer, ignored these relationships, depression becomes a way of life. We try to fix the depression through technology, but that’s never going to work. Nor will it work to plunder other cultures, nor to kill the planet. All that is just an attempt not to be held accountable to the other world. If you’re to succeed as a human being, you’ve got to live meaningfully, passionately, and fully, so that even your death becomes a meaningful sacrifice to the spirits, feeding them. Everybody’s death was a meaningful sacrifice until people started to become ‘civilized’ and began killing everybody else’s gods in the name of monotheism. As you grow older, your life becomes more and more meaningful as a sacrifice, because you give more and more gifts to the other world, and the spirits are better fed by your speech and prayers.”

I asked, “How do you respond to someone who says that the notion of paying a debt to the spirit world for making a knife is just inefficient? In the time your group spends making one knife, my group will make three hundred knives and cut all your throats.”

“If you take up that strategy, then you will have to live with the ghosts of those you’ve murdered—which means you’ve got to make more and more knives, and you will become more and more depressed, all the while calling yourself ‘advanced’ to rationalize your predicament.”