[These excerpts are from BURNOUT, Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.]
From Part III, Vision Questing Somewhere in Mexico:
Dancing with the Desert
When I arrived at Jack’s house, I discovered I wasn’t the only one he had invited to spend the night there before flying to Mexico. In the living room, wearing bright orange spandex was a young model from the East Coast whom I’ll call “Precious” because I’m old and gracious. She was doing ambitious stomach crunches on the floor in front of us, her blonde ponytail swinging vigorously to and fro. Jack, sitting next to me on the couch, made a face and told an age-related joke. I quickly excused myself and went to bed early.
My travel companions were kind enough to let me sit alone the entire flight to Puerto Vallarta, so I could ponder what on earth had made me agree to go on this trip. Before we landed, Jack said, “Grab one of those (airplane) pillows, will you?” I poked at him with a big laugh, did not comply, but grabbed my journal and wrote: “I am so happy I am learning how to stand up for myself!”
When the plane landed, I exited through the hatch onto the open-air stairs descending to the tarmac, and any doubts I’d had about making this trip vanished instantly. The wonderfully warm, humid air welcomed me like a lover’s breathy kiss. In mere moments my cotton shirt stuck to my back, like sweaty sheets on a hot summer night in Texas.
As we waited in the terminal for the other campers who would join us there, I couldn’t help but notice the different vibe down here. It teemed with travelers. But it was funky and fun, not harried and hassled.
A big smile stretched my lips, and I thought, “I’m in Mexico! I’m home!”
It wasn’t long before two more campers arrived – John, a plumbing contractor from Colorado, and Bill, a corporate executive from Mississippi. Including me, Precious, and Jack, our childlike leader, our total American complement was three men and two women. After brief introductions and hug-a-stranger behavior, we headed by taxi for the home of the man who would take us on this incredible journey. I’ll call him “Prenda” to respect his privacy.
At his house in Tepic, I learned that Prenda had studied more than 20 years in Nepal with Baba Hari Das, the revered silent monk whose practice of discipline, yoga and love had inspired people around the world – the man who had not spoken since 1952! Prenda also studied in Mexico with an elder Indian shaman, Don José Matsuwa who was 115 years old when I made this trip.
Prenda’s wife, Silve, was Matsuwa’s granddaughter. She was also a shaman, as were all the adults in her family. After we presented Prenda’s family with our gifts – shanks of beads to Silve for her jewelry-making and toys for her children – we travelers strolled down the hill to explore the town. Our leaders needed some time alone to discuss plans for the journey, and we would only be in the way.
The shaman’s home was a one-bedroom house with a dirt floor and no recognizable plumbing. He said he hauled his kitchen water in jugs on his shoulder, by foot, up an incredibly steep hill! There was but a dribble of running water; obviously, there would be no showers this night. He showed me the dirt on cookie trays in his kitchen where he grew wheat grass (for juice) and sprouts (to eat). He liked to grind his own cereals and flours. I learned that he knew a lot about foods and supplements for general health concerns as well as brain power and longevity. I was fascinated that such a brilliant man had abandoned his native country with all its advantages to live in such a simplistic manner. And I was delighted to see how happy he was, how much in love with his wife he still was, even with three children, two of whom were nearly teenagers.
That evening, John, the plumbing contractor, and I took our sleeping bags onto the rooftop to sleep with two dogs that lived there all the time. There was dog poop everywhere. I learned that they were watchdogs, and suddenly I became aware that many houses had dogs living on roof tops! With dogs barking, music blaring from the cantina across the street, and John talking nonstop in a futile effort to relieve me of my “burden”, I didn’t sleep at all.
Or maybe I couldn’t sleep because I was fuming about what I perceived to be rampant arrogance on his part. “What is it about people who have a meaningful personal experience and then believe that makes them a guru, committed to changing everyone they meet with their new insight?” I thought. Yawn.
Throughout his monologue, I wondered how I was going to “show up” the next morning without sleeping, when we would leave before dawn on the next leg of our trip.
At 3 am we loaded onto some local man’s truck and headed to the bus station. I guessed that was a clue of how this trip was going to go. Prenda would go off on his own, leaving us collected and ready to move. He would find someone in town who owned a truck and he’d hire him to drive us wherever we needed to go; in this case, it was to the bus station from his house with all our gear to begin our journey to the desert. The driver, a young man, sang a song that I guessed meant something like, “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” the whole time – except when he bummed a cigarette from Jack.
The driver, Jack, and I squatted in the cab of the tiny camper-truck, in my case because I feared my claustrophobia would make me get stupid if I rode in the even smaller covered compartment in the rear.
Naturally, the guys insisted that I sit between them. As luck would have it, the cab was no better than the back of the truck, because not only was it tiny, the windshield was half-covered by a scalloped, velveteen drape with dangling bangle balls and half-moons. (Gasp!)
At the bus station, my nose caught a whiff of coffee, and my laser-beam perception found the source. I was feeling quite cranky by then and decided I would kill anyone who got between me and that coffee. The others noticed my single-minded determination and gave me wide berth.
Soon we were loaded onto our first bus and my journal came out to record what was, for me, a delightful impression:
The bus driver, looking and acting very much like a matador, is a professional. He checks the clipboard of tickets taken by his assistant, scrutinizes every detail. With his meticulous attention to preparation, the man demonstrates attitude and style, communicating thereby that he is, in fact, in charge. I am impressed.
Passing vehicles on the road, he cruises right up to their bumpers and hovers until he chooses to fly out around them. I’m thinking, “It must be a macho male thing. They do it on the narrow mountain roads in Colorado, too.”
Noticing my attempts to write in my spiral journal in a weaving vehicle, Mississippi Bill read seemed to be reading over my shoulder. He told me that we see the same thing (the bus driver’s antics), but I helped him to see it differently. I smiled unexpectedly. No one has ever read my journal! Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
“It’s my way of taking pictures,” I explained, “because I do not own a camera.”
So far, even in these first few days, I was noticing how Jack wanted to be part of the crew when he wanted us to do something for him. But he didn’t hesitate to assert the privileges of being leader when it benefitted him, like taking the window seat on the “cattle bus” or the room with a private bath in the ancient hotel where we stopped en route. The rest of us had to go downstairs and stand in line at the one-seater, community toilet/shower. In that regard, he reminded me of Nemesis. Still, I envied the easy way he took what he wanted, because I’m a long-time veteran of self-sacrifice. And moments later, I recalled that the Universe will give us as many opportunities as we need to “get” a lesson…
I also noticed how Jack and I we had something in common: we were both looking for a partner. He was trying to hit on Precious, who, at 24, was 30 years younger than he was. I was dreaming of snuggling with the teddy bear from Mississippi. “We’ll probably cry together after this is over,” I thought.
My guess about the travel plans was “right on”. Those arrangements were handled spur-of-the-moment by Prenda, who rented whatever vehicle might be available at the moment – personal cars, trucks, commercial cabs or buses. We stopped several times along the way, staying in accommodations slightly better than the rooftop of Prenda’s house where I didn’t sleep the first night. I guessed this approach was partly to ensure privacy – theirs and ours – but also because that’s just how it was done in this part of the world. That perspective made the most sense to me.
En route, I had the pleasure of walking with Prenda one evening as our troupe went to find dinner, and I learned that he was a biochemist, studied in the U.S., and that he gave lectures about shamanism and the biochemical aspects of peyote. He had brought some tapes of his lectures along and offered them to me. (I beamed brightly, because that act made me feel special.)
It began to feel like we’d never arrive, that we were doomed to continue bouncing, bouncing, bouncing along dirt roads for all eternity… But then we did arrive! And as I glanced around at the vast desert that tolerated us, I thought, “So this is the end of the line,” and quickly scratched that in my journal.
We were still in the vehicle waiting for God only knows what. Prompted by chilling memories of horror stories set in such locations, I was compelled to quickly tell Prenda that I’m an escape artist who frequently travels out of body.
“Please,” I whispered, “if you find me looking somewhat unconscious, please do not give up on me and bury my body!” Whispering was preferred because all five of us were now crammed into someone’s car, and I could hear John’s tummy growling from the front seat. Fortunately, I was sitting beside Prenda when the need to share my little secret hit me.
In this dusty, isolated, Stephen King setting at the end of a train track, “all things needful” apparently would be supplied by a single shop that wasn’t even open yet; it was early afternoon. Another coincidence? Surely the shopkeeper wasn’t waiting for the sun to pass. Shaking off my movie-buff fear, I chose instead to glance around, to soak up the surroundings.
Young cowboys practiced their lariat circles in the street, and I was instantly reminded of Will “I never met a man I didn’t like” Rogers.
Precious positioned herself under a tree to read a novel; the guys in our troupe followed Jack and Prenda to help with preparations. I floated between groups, wanting to be a part of everything all at once, until I caught myself studying the buildings.
I absolutely loved the architecture! Houses were boxes with courtyards inside, so unassuming from the street, so simple, yet elegant inside. Tiny wild birds in cages and tropical plants graced the courtyard with color and song.
I couldn’t help but notice the attentive stares. Apparently not many blonde Anglo women came through these here parts.
By mid-afternoon, we had loaded a flatbed with wooden rails to the max with our gear, including towers of cases in the center of … Cokes! Not only as potable liquid for the desert, but also to mitigate the poisonous strychnine effects, the barfing, from ingesting the peyote. We stood in the back of the truck amid all the gear and swayed with the dance of the vehicle as it weaved along the road that wasn’t a road and kicked up clouds of dirt. We looked like bandits, our faces covered with bandannas against the fine desert dust that ultimately would enter every orifice.
Arriving at our destination near a cornfield, a nondescript place characterized by endless desert that was, thank God, graced with two wispy trees, we unloaded the truck and waved farewell to the driver, who promised to return at the end of the week.
“Does anyone else want a guarantee?” I wondered.
Prenda pointed and announced that “this tree” is where we’ll gather, put the food and water; “that tree,” way over there, will be for meditation. Always one needing sanctuary, I was thankful for this consideration of a place to be by myself.
We set up camp. Each of us brought our own small tent, and all of them were pitched on one end by the campfire, near the food tree – except mine. I chose a desolate spot about 100 yards away, because I didn’t come to socialize. I came to do battle with fear. I was determined to get my money’s worth, and the mere act of isolating myself from the group in this strange place – I am a water baby in the high desert! Yikes! – was the perfect tactic to provoke the fear. Scorpions were nothing next to the terrors of my mind.
The sky was appropriately dark with Spielberg clouds, and as the wind picked up, I stood in the cornfield, arms reaching overhead, praying “beam me up”. Suddenly I heard this whipping sound and turned to find its source. The large tent we set up for the shaman’s family was floating several feet above the ground, straining at the tethers to take flight like a kite.
The Americans in the group scurried frantically this way and that, barking orders in the wind, grasping at whipping tent fabric and ropes that played with us like a dog who doesn’t want his leash. Silve and the kids were laughing. This was the funniest thing they’d seen all day, and it was their tent. Or were they laughing at the arrogance of battling the wind?
Finally, the wind died down, and order was restored. We Americans could relax. All tents were now set up, everyone was more or less settled in, and we were herded to the group-use shady tree to begin our ceremony by making prayer arrows.
Sitting on the ground in a circle like a kindergarten class, we wrapped brightly colored yarns around whatever arrow-like stick we’d found, and then attached parrot or macaw feathers to one end, artsy stuff provided by Jack. These arrows would carry our intentions to the Great Spirit while we travelled through the window of enlightenment on peyote.
Carrying our prayer arrows, we circled the fire clockwise several times, following the directions of Prenda, who ultimately told us to leave here, in the fire, whatever inharmonious thoughts we might be carrying.
I panicked, wondering, “You mean now? In one moment? Stuff I’ve been carrying for years?” Then I realized, gratefully, that he probably meant only the current “ickies” we had created within this group.
From there we walked solemnly to the mound for the ritual that would begin our quest. After Prenda explained the purpose of the ritual and began by sharing his own thoughts and prayers, each of us made separate quiet offerings of thanks and separate, unspoken requests. We offered gifts – cookies and chocolates, as well as coins – while we prayed. We chanted, sang and gave thanks.
Then we “planted” our arrows by jabbing them into the soft dirt, sending our intentions to the skies. My intentions were to conquer fear and to find my path with heart. “Ha!” I had to stifle my laugh. That was a 20-year wish list for most talking-head therapists.
I am the eternal optimist.
“On later days,” he told us, “people may return to the mound to see whether their arrows remain; if your arrow is missing, it is considered a signal that the requests had been granted.”
I would not look for mine. In “later days,” I needed no such reassurance. In fact, in my journal I had already committed to making the trek again in November, when my intention would be “surrender.” I defined that goal even more specifically as “letting go completely of all attachments – to ideas, things, people, beliefs, yada yada” and trusting that I would be guided every day of my life.
From the sacred mound we wandered into the desert to gather the peyote for our vision quest. Like a search party, we spread out and walked slowly, looking for the first plant. Whoever found it would call the others over, and we would have another ceremony.
Of course, Prenda found the first plant. He showed us how to harvest it without hurting the plant, how to say prayers and give thanks. Then each person ate a tiny part of the cactus. After that, armed with the tools and the correct approach to harvesting, we were on our own to gather whatever we wanted for the experience or simply to return to the campsite. I grasped the importance of this ceremony right off the bat and whipped out my tiny journal:
Whereas before I could not see the plants, even when they were pointed out to me, now, having ingested a small portion – or was it the ceremony? – the precious plants call to me. Like iridescent emeralds, they call to me, glimmering just beneath the dusting of sand.
“Psst! Over here!”
“No, you’re too small; not ready yet.”
“Ah. Just right!”
Everyone agreed to return to the camp when each is ready, and magically, it seemed, we were are ready at the same time. We sat in the dirt under the “food” tree and participated in the ritual of preparation – removing the spiny tufts from the tops of the plants, trimming the cactus. The others used knives, but having none, I used my fingernails, which, magically, had grown to the claws some women see as glamorous.
Previous visitors had abandoned, had wasted, a pile of peyote, and we processed that, too. Kids wanting only to get high had no idea what they were doing when it came to peyote – certainly not about the spiritual significance of the practice. They didn’t know how to harvest it so they not only wouldn’t kill the plant, but instead would encourage it to replicate. And they obviously didn’t know that peyote is a slow-growing cactus that can take 10-20 years from seed to maturity!
When we finished removing the spiny tufts, Prenda buried the refuse with more ritual. When the ceremony was over, we were free for the rest of our stay in this place – about a week – to spend our time however we chose.
Generally, members of the group clustered under the food tree, shared stories, and listened to music courtesy of Jack’s boom-box and cassettes. Sometimes they sat in silence with their pain. But I was not sad and did not choose to be around sad people. Nor was I inclined (ever) to do the “group thing.” Instead, I followed my own path, walking barefoot because I could not put on my shoes with the humongous blister on my heel that appeared as soon as I took my shoes off. Prenda told me it was from walking such a distance in the desert with thin, sweaty socks. Never having had a blister like this before, I freaked out, knowing we’d be here for days and days. I asked him, “What should I do?”
Smiling, he replied simply, “Go barefoot.”
And I discovered my feet…
I smiled when I inadvertently noticed my footprints, soft indentations in the talcum-powder quality dirt. I observed how they resembled the Birkenstock footprint logo and smiled again. I danced, performed a graceful pirouette, and flew through the air as I journeyed all around the cornfield – all the while keeping the others in sight, never directly, but always in the corner of my eye. (I might be a free spirit, but I am not stupid.) The whistle Prenda gave each of us to wear around our necks in case we got into trouble was now a necklace for a fairy princess dancing with the desert in her imaginary tutu…
_____end of Chapter 9_____
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About the Burnout to Bliss Series
Book 1, BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, was written to help educate others about extreme burnout. I wanted the reader to feel what I had felt in that time — a kind of madness that included psychotic visions which might occur even while I was teaching — and the chaos of doing my job while trying to understand what was happening through the lens of a spiritual seeker. I tried to achieve that by grouping events by topic rather than writing the entire book as a timeline story of this happened, then this, and then this.
The first get away from that extreme situation was to a “sanctuary” in California as related in Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY. That get away apparently was presented simply to heal myself enough to take the next step.
In Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY, I wanted to share the experience of “loss of self” — like not being able to do even familiar things like riding a bicycle after extreme burnout — and how I fought back, how I got my self-confidence and self-esteem back. That led to wanting to show others how they could make whatever change they wanted to make, so it ended up being written in two parts.
The real story of the ego surrendering control began when that sanctuary was no longer available and I became like The Fool (Tarot card, pictured here), jumping off a cliff with a tiny knapsack and a little dog for company…
Book 3 is a full-length book, currently sitting at 70,500 words. It’s a tale of trusting God (or the Universe if you prefer), of letting go and trusting that life is good and safe and that all my needs will be met even before I realize I have them. It is the final story of an awakening experience, my two-year journey with one modest paycheck and no plans that was launched with BURNOUT. (Working title is “Practicing SURRENDER.)
Want to know when Book 3 is out?
Click the BURNOUT TO BLISS tab on the far right at the top of the page and scroll down, and then follow the directions OR simply click the link below:
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Coming up next: Chapter 10, Meet the Shamans
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi