By Roman Hanis, Paititi Institute
“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” Benjamin Franklin
Many people today are attracted to the world’s indigenous cultures, sensing these ancient ways touch the enigma of the soul which is so fundamentally lacking in mainstream society. Yet there might be a blind spot in this approach to ancestral spirituality, one that became apparent to me while living alongside indigenous elders for many years. Helping to unite this gap between worlds has since become my life’s work.
The Paititi Institute for the Preservation of Ecology and Indigenous Culture was co-founded by my wife, Cynthia Robinson, and I in 2010 with the vision to create intercultural bridges that make a meaningful difference in the world. While I’ve lived and studied with indigenous Ando-Amazonian and Himalayan cultures since 2001, Cynthia was actively engaged in the Global Permaculture movement around the same time period. Living in Ann Arbor until 2007, Cynthia also worked at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore cultivating the very inspiration that was to later blossom into what Paititi Institute is today. Currently, our non-profit organization owns and caretakes 4,000 acres of wilderness sanctuary in the Peruvian Andes acting as the buffer zone for the Manu National Park. Manu is one of the biggest nature reserves in South America where some of the last uncontacted tribes of the world are located. Because of both Cynthia’s and my unique backgrounds we’ve been able to maintain the balance of inner and outer landscapes so imperative for the protection of both the bio-diversity and nature’s organic intelligence that our civilization owes its existence to.
A friend of ours who’s been engaged in inner work for over a year with an Amazonian elder reached out to us for support recently. After extensive isolation with strict plant diets and Ayahuasca ceremonies ridden with ego death experiences, he thought the worst was behind him. Yet returning to everyday life proved to be the greatest challenge, with more disturbance and reactive behavior than ever before. Our friend asked us, “What’s the point of these traditions if they make life more problematic?”
This is a common scenario I see with newcomers to living wisdom traditions. Pema Chodron, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher, refers to this motif as “Meditation is ruining my life.”
It turned out that his perpetual anxieties made him desperate to find a “fix”. For myself and many others, the spiritual journey also began with such a motivation. Over time, I discovered that while I can’t control all that happens to me, I can control my attitude toward it, which makes a world of difference. My friend’s experience similarly illustrated to him that, although a temporary “retreat bubble” can hold off the onslaught of life-long issues for a while, it’s not the real purpose of these traditions.
The basic precept in many ancient lineages is that before you can learn, it’s necessary to learn how to learn. For the first few years of initiation, I had to release stale ideas about my societal image, future goals, and ingrained behaviors around the stories of who I thought I was.
Although we all experience “horrific” and “enlightening” events, life goes on and it’s futile to cling to what happened and make an identity out of past incidents. Which is why the ancient wisdom of childlike receptivity must develop steadily. After all, it’s those deeply ingrained tendencies of doing the same things while expecting different results that require transformation.
Purifying all the personal baggage is related to the cultivation of a beginner’s mind, though not as a blank expression of a newly-formatted brain. It’s rather a resuscitation of determined ingenuity applied to self-discovery, something often sedated by western society.
The beginner’s mind isn’t about forgetting everything that made you who you are. Instead, it allows viewing yourself and your history more objectively, thus opening the possibility of relating more deeply with others. Only by acknowledging all the issues in your life can evolution truly begin. Such wisdom, encouraged by real human examples, makes it very clear that the point is not to become someone else, but see the interconnectedness of us all.
A big part of this resuscitation for me was to understand the workings of personal and societal conditioning. My conditioned ways of engaging with the world were based on securing happiness just for my own sake. As this lifestyle only deepened my misery, I began recognizing how prevalent this is in society, encompassing everything from education, to politics, to entertainment. This isolating conditioning seems to be at the core of collective disempowerment. Humanity now possesses all the resources and know-how to completely eliminate poverty and war from the face of the earth, yet somehow the world seems further and further from these ideals.
Within many indigenous cultures, the tradition itself is viewed as a vessel carrying the essence of unconditional human potential. A good friend from the Andean Qero Nation shared how one of his people’s greatest challenges is adapting their tradition to remain practical in today’s world. The challenge is that the meeting point between ancestral and modern is beyond the customs and familiar routines. It is instead found in the capacity of human spirit to shine in the face of adversity.
My Ashuar teacher, Don Ramon, told me that in the times past, the Amazonian wise elders and healers didn’t identify themselves with any particular heritage, even their tribe of origin. They belonged to all nations, lived outside of settlements, and were indiscriminately open to both share with, and learn, from everyone.
In the history of Tibetan culture, some of the greatest spiritual teachers dedicated their lives to a non-sectarian approach for the benefit of all beings. Dalai Lama famously said, “Love and Compassion are the true religions to me. But to develop this, we do not need to believe in any religion.”
An ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus, also wrote: “The wise one belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world.”
What has maintained authenticity in these traditions thus far is sincerity and pure motivation, without which living wisdom becomes assimilated by the same conditioning it was meant to transmute. Keeping it alive for future generations means our own survival as a species. For that, we need to unite in the sparkling eye of the storm, learning from those before us, and each other, how to awaken from the sleepy habit of ignoring how related we all are.
While the essence embodied by ancestral wisdom carriers and their respective traditions is invaluable, imitating customs and ceremonies merely perpetuates the modern superficial value system. So, on a practical level, what is this “mysterious wisdom” all about?
My teachers made it clear that mystery doesn’t mean secret in a conventional sense where something is deliberately hidden. It means that realizations can be accessed based on your degree of awareness.
To accurately assess how evolved you are, a willingness to take a long hard look at yourself is essential. For me, that’s one of the greatest challenges; facing all those issues I’ve avoided most of my life. The true me hiding in all kinds of coping mechanisms went on for so long, I became oblivious I was even doing it. Unaware of any alternatives, my every creative resource was employed to evade mental anguish, emotional upheavals, and physical pain at any cost.
Reflecting on this process with my friend, it’s become clear how he approached the indigenous mystery school as a customer rather than an initiate. Expecting to simply follow the instructions without ever questioning what that meant for him was a recipe for disaster. For real transformation however, a genuine incentive is needed to ground the practice into whatever life may bring. In this reality of relentless uncertainty propelled by constant change, each of us has a choice: assume responsibility for truly living or ignore the inevitability of death.
After some time to integrate, my friend had an epiphany that his journey had actually just begun. Although it initially seemed that he ended up worse than before, in reality he just became painfully aware of all his blind spots. What finally tipped the scale was the breakdown of his lifelong struggle to find happiness anywhere but here and now. Suddenly the guidance of the elders came alive, turning his “failure” into a mystery initiation rite. Coming to terms with personal limitations brought him to the doorstep of an ancient temple, one that honors the wisdom of the shared heart.
What these direct transmission lineages continue to teach me is that love and compassion are inherent qualities of presence, capable of embracing all disturbances such as attachment, anger, and fear. Insurmountable though these issues may seem, they’re nothing more than a dirty droplet in the boundlessly radiant ocean of the heart. In a world ruled by scarcity and fear, it takes serious daring to trust in the heart’s capacity to fully open no matter what. Hence it’s invaluable to have support from real-life examples showing what’s possible.
Witnessing these real life stories of transformation in many of my friends is a continuous source of inspiration on my own path. It’s this practicality of the ancestral wisdom encouraging the reciprocity of witnessing myself in others and others in myself that keeps me increasingly more accountable and honest. What we all share under the surface is infinitely more reliable and genuine than anything imaginable. Every moment of life is both a miracle and the ultimate learning curve, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Roman Hanis has been working closely with the indigenous Peruvian cultures in the Amazonian rainforest and Andean mountains since 2001. During this time he has devoted this life to learning the ancient healing ways of these cultures while seeking possibilities for creating ecological sources of sustenance for local populations and working to preserve the rainforest and its spiritual heritage of sacred medicinal plants. Seeing the vital role that ancient cultural practices can play in today’s world, Roman honors and shares their value and wisdom through his work in community projects, healing retreats and educational workshops in both Peru and the U.S.
In 2010, Roman and Cynthia co-founded the Paititi Institute. Paititi Institute is dedicated to awakening humanity’s innate potential by providing methods of transforming life’s challenges into essential heart centered qualities. Paititi’s work focuses on the balance between inner and outer landscapes, implementing permaculture to steward Mother Earth, regenerate nature and cultivate reciprocity throughout all aspects of life.
Roman Hanis, Cynthia Robinson, and Emily Goughary from the Paititi Institute will be visiting Ann Arbor in May offering a week of programs. Details can be found in the Crazy Wisdom Community Calender on page 109 under the heading Shamanism.
Find information for Roman and Cynthia’s Workshops at Crazy Wisdom in our community calendar. Workshops include: Breathing Ancestral Wisdom Alive on May 21st, Amazonian/Tibetan Primordial Breathwork with Ceremonial Cacao on May 22. Also find a Primordial Breathwork Immersion Retreat beginning May 24 in our calendar.