Stephen Covey wrote, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” Our resident Blogger and world traveler, Stephanie McCracken, explores this notion with a sacred expedition to the soul of her being. In the spirit of the coming New Year and the meaning we give to refinement and new beginnings, I offer Stephanie’s latest musing, Tezmacal: A Spiritual Journey. Enjoy and Happy New Year!
In Good Health,
Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
Tezmacal: A Spiritual Journey By Stephanie McCracken, MS
Chant, sweat, purge, purify. Tezmacal is a Meso-American ritual that is used for a plethora of afflictions. The ritual is believed to offer aid to those who are physically ill and has even been utilized to assist women with the pains associated with childbirth. Muscular cramping, arthritis and even detoxifying the body to shorten the duration of the common cold are all addressed in rituals that address the trinity of mind, body and spirit.
Tezmacal is helpful to those experiencing spiritual quandaries by working to clear emotional turmoil and dispelling negative spirits. In many Meso American cultures a person suffering from bad luck or discontent is believed to be surrounded by bad spirits, haunted in a sense, and extensive cleansing ceremonies are used to rid these “bad energies.” No matter what the curative component to Tezmacal, something does indeed happen in the process of sweating. In most American spas and fitness centers one will find steam rooms and saunas incorporated as an important component to wellness. Allow us to also remember how restorative and detoxifying the branch of “hot yoga” is known to be. Generally speaking, heat therapy is known to aid in the burning of fat, rejuvenation of skin cells, and total detoxification in the body.
With all of these promised benefits, how could I resist the opportunity to try it? Conveniently located in a small Mexican seaside town about two hours outside of the hustle and bustle of Cancun, there exists an assortment of mystical sites for travelers seeking a transcendent experience. With the hope of an ethereal occurrence, I arrive to the Tezmacal lodge. The first person to meet me was the “Temazcalera,” as is the title given to the woman leading the ritual.
“Hola!” exclaimed Maria as she gently touched my shoulder to indicate that I should take a seat on the bench. I was warmed by her large, round eyes that wrinkled on the sides when she smiled, those little crinkles which suggest genuine kindness.
The compound situated in the dense Mexican jungle, about a ¼ of a mile off of the Caribbean Sea, is embraced by lush trees and tropical foliage. All of these plants yielding abundant oxygen and leading me to a sensation of ebullience as I inhale slowly and intentionally. In the immediate compound I see three large domes which comprise the Tezmacal. There is a fire pit encased in adobe, rocks glow and logs burn with insistent crackles producing steady streams of smoke abounding upwards. From what I had learned, I know the dome itself is representative of the feminine sacred space, the womb. The participant is to crawl upon their knees, in respect, when entering “the womb” as it is in here that one may receive the great mother’s rejuvenation and healing. The birth and death cycle continues infinitely, born and reborn again, when each infant human exits the womb we do so detoxified and brimming with sacred energy. This ritual is a metaphor for the birth and death process and an effort to cleanse and restore the life.
To my left there are several buckets filled with bundled herbs which hold concocted tea-colored water. These steaming buckets are situated around the fire pit. In front of the door to the lodge, there is an altar with a large painting of the Virgin Mary and a row of candles to light her depiction. There are also several more bundles of herbs that Maria identified as “plantos medicos” for cleansing. How odd to see an altar for the Virgin Mother in what had originated as a pagan or Pachamamma, native ritual. These rituals are the manifestations of the collective intention to celebrate the feminine goddesses and their powers. The principal goddess for the Tezmacal was Teteoinan, or The Great Mother. The Conquistadors had attempted to annihilate these traditions because they involved worship of Mother Earth, something so vastly foreign from the monotheistic and patriarchal Christian God that the Spanish were promoting. Most of the Goddess worshiping people had their deities replaced. Presently most of the Central and South American people who had worshiped a pagan goddess now pay their homage to the Virgin Mother.
The time to begin finally arrived and Maria motioned for me to stand atop of a fan palm, positioned at one of the four candles that were in the Four Cardinal Directions. I noticed there were three other Spanish speaking locals. A boy in his early 20’s, an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl with loose and wrinkled skin dangling from her jaw line, myself, and Maria. We each took a place around the palm. Maria blew into a conch shell bellowing the sound of a horn to signal that the ceremony would begin.
I was instructed to repeat the words that our Temazcalera was speaking while turning to face the south, I shout words which are strange and unfamiliar to me but somewhere deep in my unconscious they resonate. Then Temazcalera handed me the conch shell and I blew into it, invoking all of the strength and power of The South, The Pathway of the Dead.
After making a verbal contract with the “Powers of The Earth,” Maria knelt down in front of me clutching a bowl. She threw some golden powder from the bowl onto the heated pebbles; the powder began to spark. She gently fanned the smoke near my legs, my torso, and then shaped a serpentine around my upper body in order to sooth my spirit. With each of the participants she repeats the same practice until we have received the collected energy of The North, The East, The South, and The West.
It is time to enter the womb; one by one, we placed our feet into the tub of flower water at the base of the dome. A young boy gently poured water upon our legs as a final touch of purification before we enter the Great Mother in a clockwise fashion. This rotation is a rhythm that is vital as it represents The Evolution of Life, from birth to death.
I take a seat inside and cross my legs following Maria’s lead. The boy on the exterior of the dome shovels in stones that have been heated by the flames of the fire pit. With each stone, Maria chanted a welcome then passed a rock of resin around the group. She indicated that we should have a turn marking a cross upon the stones to bless their energy. The resin bubbles and cracks upon the hot surface of the rocks decanting a mild scent. I drew a cross atop, but the stones are so hot it was difficult to keep my hand near them for more than a moment.
The heat of the dome is immediately perceptible and the temperature quickly rose. The boy continued to fill the pit with stones until Maria signaled that there were enough for now. She closed the exit by draping a woven blanket across the circular hole. The heat was sealed in and now rose even more rapidly. The chanting begins and the ritual moves in cycles. Maria throws a gourd of the herb water atop the rocks. The water evaporates and changes to steam after sizzling and crackling; this is the metamorphoses of the elements. The earth baking in the center of our circle as it emanated its absorption of fire; water turned to air, the air heated our bodies causing the creation of sweat. The cycles were in perpetual motion.
I felt the sweat pouring from deep inside my core, my chakras begin to glow with energy and blessings, and the fire is purifying me. Maria asks that we take a moment to speak with our deceased ancestors. I smiled, remembering my grandmother, and I thanked her for this life and the power of her breath that still flows within my thoughts, I always remember her soothing words when I am troubled – she had a way to tell me that everything would be ok. I learned so much about generosity of spirit from my own Great Mother, the angel who used to tell me that I was her soul mate. I once again offered, “Thank you my dearest Grandmomma, thank you for all that you were and all that you are still in this moment, you will always remain in a place of honor inside of me.”
The sweat continued to pour as the fourth and final round of rocks were brought into the dome, the heat has consumed me. I lay upon the ground trying to find the coolness that had once risen from the earth. Maria noticed this and came to my side, fanning me with her palm and pouring some of the herbal water upon my head. We were each asked to take a moment to talk with our own spirits, the past and the present. I tell myself, “Be patient, trust in the Rhythms of the Universe and continue growing, you deserve this contentment which is an outgrowth of the rightness contained in the direction that you are walking.” I inhaled, filling my lungs, and then I assessed my thoughts, smiling to realize how at peace and grateful I am for everything exactly as it resided in that moment.
It had been several hours and it was time for the circle to close. We each repeated a chant after Maria, giving thanks to The North, The East, The South, and The West, and for each of The Elements, always remembering that above all else give we must honor and give thanks to The Great Mother Earth. The last of the water was doused upon the rocks and the whirling steam filled the womb with sweet air.
We were instructed to be still and allow the heat to leave us in the restful process of cooling down. A ceremonial cup of water was passed around and we were each given a portion to drink. The water was so refreshing and became yet another source of gratitude. In its own time, I noticed the heat leaving my body, the thought of time is a challenging concept, but I suspected an hour or so passed until the balmy Caribbean air gave me a chill. So much contrast from the heat, from warm to cool, from wet to dry, from liquid to air, breathing inward and outward, far and near, life to death, she continued infinitely cosmic rhythms of life. I felt whole, complete and one with the soul of the world.