When I Listen, Places Speak: A Story From The Andes About The Importance Of Practising Mindfulness and Respect In Nature
Have you ever visited a place that seemingly made you feel happy or even joyful? Or perhaps you felt uncomfortable or anxious? Regardless of the kind of experience you had, you came away struggling to explain logically how this place conjured such strong emotions and sensations. In this story, I explore briefly how places can ‘speak’ to us and also how finding our inner calm can help us grow respectful relationships with them.
Is it all in our minds?
Current trends in the wellness industry heavily emphasise that the key to experiencing joy and happiness as well as creating abundance is your mindset. Change your thoughts, change your life. This trillion dollar industry is thriving by selling a diverse range of products and services, including guided meditations, coaching programs, ceremonies and other practices, that aim to correct and attune your mind to abundance and prosperity, wellness, joy and happiness.
When it comes to mindfulness and wellness practices, I am not a novice. For over twenty years, I have been practising meditation, yoga, mantra and other forms of sound healing. I also know a great deal about plant medicine and ceremony. I would be the first to tell you that these techniques and traditions can enrich your life and are worth exploring with an well-educated mentor. Yet, when I became a field archaeologist, I rediscovered an essential ingredient that most wellness professionals don’t talk about in any real depth: that is, the power of places.
In recent times, it has become trendy to talk about spending time in Nature. We are encouraged to take walks outdoors to heal a range of ailments and illness, such as depression and anxiety (see Frontiers 2019, for example). While passing time outside can be relaxing and hugely beneficial to our health, I want to explore our connection with Nature from a more holistic and less self-reflexive perspective.
What is place without me?
All aspects of Nature have a design that is independent but interconnected to all living things. While we may like to think that we are the more dominant and superior species, the simple truth is we can’t exist without the Earth. We are part of a wide and intricate web and as part of the human experience, we need to learn to coexist with other living entities, which can be challenging. Notably, throughout the ages, learning to coexist and even create with Nature has been fundamental to many cultures, who then formed complex and at times, unorthodox ideas, understandings and traditions.
My own relationship with Nature has been greatly influenced by my research undertaken in Peru. Following the more traditional Andean worldview, all relationships are guided by ayni. Ayni is often loosely translated to mean, ‘you do for me today, I do for you tomorrow’. This phrase essentially highlights that our relationships are guided by reciprocity and also by responsibility. When we receive help, we are obliged to help in return. Yet, ayni has a deeper meaning, as anthropologist Catherine Allen (1997, 2015), has highlighted; in essence, it is about cosmic circulation. Ecosystems are established and maintained by labour and the flow of substances that vary in form, density and light. These systems can be disrupted and altered when flows are blocked or redirected. Humans can greatly influence these mechanisms.
In the Andes, places are perceived as alive and sentient (see Taylor 2000, for example). Just like humans, places experience a range of emotions, such as anger, joy and bliss. They also have basic needs and requirements; they become hungry and need feeding, for example. Each place has their own stories and histories, their secrets and taboos.
Visiting and living in places: different modes of being
There are different ways to experience places: we can visit or live in a place, for instance. In English, to visit means to gain access to a location and pass time there temporarily. As the verb’s meaning implies, the experience is more transient. Meanwhile, living in a place entails following a particular way or mode of being, which can grant a sense of belonging. I often think about the difference using a tree analogy. When I visit a place, I may learn about its history, customs and traditions but I grow roots superficially. I end up giving thanks for the experiences and I move on. Yet, when I live in a place, I grow a deep root system and become part of the landscape. In my experience, this process of deeply grounding myself does not always take a long period of time. I have lived among communities for rather short periods and have begun to develop genuine and heartfelt relationships with people and places. As a result, I have started to transform and attune myself to their way of life.
Living in a place requires an investment of energy, which is spent learning about and understanding its nature. This process can involve observing and interacting with the plants, animals and people who inhabit the place. Through your senses, you come to know their stories and histories; these also contain their medicine. This knowledge helps to ground you and build a sense of belonging. Essential to this grounding process is learning the art of deep listening.
So, how does one learn to deeply listen? For many, listening is simply the action of taking notice and responding to external sounds. However, in many indigenous cultures, listening is not separated but intimately connected to our other senses (see Classen 1993, for example). It is also requires us to enter a relaxed and calm state, as Australian Aboriginal elders teach us. As some elders emphasise, when you deeply listen, you hear not only with your external ears, but also with your internal senses. You need to practise patience and wait for the landscape to speak. By following this process, you demonstrate respect and care for the land.
Asking permission from places
As we master the art of deeply listening, we learn about the needs and wishes of places and how to conduct ourselves in our relationships with them. Respect needs to be demonstrated at all times and this can be done by asking permission to visit or stay and also when taking resources.
This approach might seem ridiculous to some, especially to certain scientific groups and I can understand this reaction. I am an archaeologist who was taught to study ancient places neutrally and without cultural bias. I learnt to describe and record places in meticulous detail, but was encouraged to ignore my own responses and those of others. The idea that places are alive seems to negate the tenets of objectivity. But, as I see it, there are several major problems with our scientific approach. First, it is rigid, overlooking fundamental aspects of human nature. Each one of us experiences sensations and emotions, while we also possess the capacity to think logically and intuitively (granted, some more than others). Second, our approach relies on the notion that places are merely objects to be studied intellectually. While working in the Andes, my scientific approach was often at odds with their way of being. This conflict offered me a choice; I choose to observe and consider their beliefs and understandings instead of treating them as interesting but irrelevant anecdotes.
In the Andes, when passing through, staying or working at a place, it is customary to ask permission through ritual and ceremony. Places then communicate their answer through signs and portents. Despite one’s sincere and good intentions, some places will reject the request. If a place refuses consent, it is important to honour their answer and move on.
What happens when you don’t listen
So, let me share with you a short tale that demonstrates what can happen if you fail to listen to a place. Some years ago, I worked on an excavation at an important prehispanic shrine just outside of Cusco city. Today, the shrine is an archaeological park that includes agricultural fields worked by a Quechua-speaking community. The archaeological project was expected to uncover the shrine’s infrastructure, including the foundations of ancient buildings.
From the very start of the project, there was trouble. The day before the excavation started, I walked the site with the Director. It began to rain. The Director immediately became nervous. This was not a good omen. A few days before, he had paid a shaman to make an offering. When preparing it, the shaman considered the nature of the place and since it was home to a powerful deity, he advised that a larger than normal ceremonial bundle be offered. In a secret location and in the presence of the Director, the shaman burnt and buried the bundle, which contained a baby camelid, among other things. Now, the sky was grey and rain was falling. Winter had just started and rain was unusual this time of year, as it was also the dry season. If the rain continued, it would not only cause difficulties during the excavation, but, according to the Director, it also was possibly a sign that the place had not accepted the offering.
The rain did cease, but problems of all kinds continued well into the excavation season. Professional relationships and friendships blew up and collapsed over minor concerns, objects mysteriously disappeared and archaeological trenches were randomly flooded with irrigation water from a nearby agricultural field. Meanwhile, I overheard one morning some Peruvian field assistants quietly speaking of odd and strange dreams and experiences they were having. One dreamt of a female spirit who had tried to seduce and attack them. This dream was interpreted as a dark omen: our presence was not welcome and this is why the project was not going well.
Was the place speaking to the assistants in their dreams? Or was it simply their subconscious minds trying to map out and work through the current state of affairs? You decide. But no matter which interpretation you choose, it was clear that the excavation had gone rather badly and had affected everyone involved.
I returned to Cusco a year later and saw a coca leaf reader. Coca leaf reading is a traditional divination technique. During my reading, the maestro offered me an unexpected and alternative perspective of the events that had taken place the year before. As he threw his bundle of leaves across a flat, colourful textile, he looked at me and began asking questions about where I had worked in Cusco. I named this shrine. He began to shake his head furiously, ‘No, no, no, señorita, this place is not for you!’ Then, in his mind’s eye, he saw something that disturbed him; he began to frown, the lines across his forehead forming deep trenches.‘This place is a powerful Earth deity and doesn’t want this work to take place.’ He went on to describe qualities of the shrine that I can’t confirm or deny. ‘I can see that at this place, a gas rises up from deep underground. It makes people crazy and sick!’
The words of the maestro did not logically make sense, but as I listened to him, I acknowledged a thread of truth; sickness, material loss and misfortune had taken hold of the team during the season.
Offering the bundle of mindfulness and respect to Nature
So, while my story shared here seems unusual and dark in nature, there is a bundle of gifts that can be carefully untied and extracted. First, learn to deeply listen while spending time at places. Remember they are living. Practise entering a relaxed state when you arrive. Once you are calm, offer your respect by asking permission and then wait, for the place will answer. Some places don’t want to be disturbed and will convey their answer to you in a way you will recognise. It is important to acknowledge their request. When you honour it, you show care and you also ensure your own wellbeing, safeguarding yourself from misfortune.
Allen, C. 1997. When pebbles move mountains. Iconicity and symbolism in Quechua ritual. In. R. Howard-Malverde (ed.) Creating Context in Andean Cultures, pp 73–84. New York: Oxford University Press.
Allen, C.J. 2015. The whole world is watching: New perspectives on Andean animism. In T. Bray (ed.) The Archaeology of Wak’as. Explorations of the sacred in the Pre- columbian Andes pp. 23–46. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Classen, C. 1993. Inca Cosmology and the Human Body. Utah: University of Utah Press.
Taylor, G. 2000. Camac, Camay y Camasca y otros Ensayos sobre Huarochirí y Yauyos. Lima: IFEA (Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos).