– The Wounded Healer
March 22, 2021

The Relevance of Indigenous Wisdom for Well-being in today´s World: re-Imagining our Relationship with Nature.

Sven Doehner, October, 2021

A man of wisdom, a renowned healer from north-central Mexico, recently said to me during a sweat-lodge ceremony: “the color of your skin is not what makes you ¨indigenous¨ – indigenous has more to do with a person´s relationship with nature, outward as well as inward nature”.

What immediately caught my attention was: “an individual´s relationship with the world of nature”. He is talking about indigenous identity, better imagined as a way of “being” that implies being in, and with nature. Nature is the reference point: the beginning, the end, and the path itself.

To begin, let us recall the complex relationship that modern culture and society has always had with nature, from the beginning approaching it with the desire and intention of dominating it, harnessing it, controlling it, using it, exploiting it.

These essentially “masculine” qualities and characteristics – described clearly by C.G. Jung in his essay entitled: “Two Different ways of thinking” – are the same ones that have dominated our culture for many hundreds of years, together with what he called “lineal” thinking: measuring, metrics, looking for the cause in order to modify the effect, results oriented – a movement outward.

Modern science – like most everything in today´s dominant culture – is from the beginning masculine, struggling to control the feminine, in this case: nature.

What a contrast to Ancestral Wisdom as found around the entire globe, which cultivates such very different attitudes and behaviors toward nature. The indigenous way is to always want to learn more “from” nature, about nature itself. What is looked for is to work with nature, in an intimate, collaborative, and “co-creating” relationship with it.

A fundamental belief in “indigenous” thinking around the world is that very carefully precise observations of the laws and principles of outer nature reveal the “secret” workings of inner nature. Interestingly, both C.G. Jung´s and James Hillman´s Archetypal Psychology share this fundamental starting point.

What we call “indigenous” is a way of seeing and relating to the world, and to life itself, that transcends race, history, time period or geographical location – it is a way of seeing, and being, that values and respects our ongoing relationship with the world of nature by truly taking the “other” into account.

As we know, a language implies, involves, and demonstrates the fundamental cosmovision essential to the values of the culture that originates it. In ancient Mexican Indigenous languages, there is no actual word for what we today call “nature”. A word for it would imply an object/subject relationship – to a separation from it: nature as different from me. As if “I” were not a part of nature, and therefore can take it upon myself to name it.

An example: the way our native ancestors referred to what we today call the “Atlantic Ocean”. For them it was called “a tlan tiko”, which means “an important place where water is abundant”. The language is descriptive, rather than conceptual. Medieval Europeans referred to it as “mare tenebrosum”, implying a judgement about it and something mystical that turns it into something more that it essentially is.

More than ideas about nature, we want to allow nature to speak for itself, an approach that flows from “feminine principles”, which imply a fundamental, basic and intrinsic need to “be IN relationship”, to be involved. Different and contrary to the “masculine thinking”, as we imagined it above, “feminine thinking” follows an “associative logic”, where “relationships” are what is valued. This is a different type of logic, one based on being able to recognize “inner “correspondences” between and among “things” that are “outwardly” different.

The feminine is inwardly oriented, just like mother nature. The “mission” is to BE itself… not to be “someone”, in one´s own eyes as well as in the eyes of the “authorized world”.

For the Indigenous – and to the Archetypal way of imagining “the world of nature” – everything that is, shows itself to be what it truly is by simply being itself. Something reveals what it is by being what it is. The form of something contains and reveals its essence. The phenomenon, the experience of something, speaks for itself.

A “thing” speaks for itself by simply being itself. What follows is then how to recognize what something truly is ? Timeless wisdom says that the way to do this is by getting to know whatever it is through extremely careful observation of it, with an eye to being able to describe it precisely. It helps to keep the following question in mind: what does “it” have that makes it uniquely different from anything else ?

Counting on an ample vocabulary is desirable, and almost indispensable for developing and cultivating the art of careful observation, keen perception, and sharp discernment. Motivation is also needed, to make the effort required to truly describe a particular “something” in a very specific way. One wants to develop the habit of always being in a differentiating mode. Ancestral wisdom says: “look for the different in the similar and the similar in the different”.

All Indigenous healing and ritual practices around the globe openly depend on all sorts of careful differentiations, including what is “mine” and what is “other”, and of course: what is “outer” and what is “inner”.

The recipe then, for getting to know what “something” truly is, involves DESCRIBING it in order to DISCOVER what it is essentially.

One way to be more or less sure that one is not unwittingly fooling oneself is to test one´s ability to describe what one wants to get to know. Describing forces the “describer” to really pay careful attention.

When the precision and accuracy of the description allows “something” to really be known, “correspondences” between and among different aspects of a person´s life become unexpectedly self-evident. Suddenly, synapsis happen: connections are made, new orientations appear, new neurological paths are discovered, energy shifts, and previously unseen possibilities appear.

As we are seeing, a perspective that truly wants to get to know nature is inspired and lets itself be guided by basic phenomenological principles and practices. These demonstrate and show us how we can discover what something is by very specifically DESCRIBING it, precisely: what is it… how is it… when is it… where is it… with what or with whom is it ?

Notice that there is no “why” question. “Why” questions imply cause and effect, and fault, and all sorts of things which have much to do with our “reaction” to something, to our usually defensive, or offensive move – instead of paying more attention to what that something is, in and of itself. Let us step out of these habits that control us, in order to be able to actually meet both outer and inner nature in ways that actually DO take it into account.

Adding to the “phenomenological” observations that we have made, lets focus on how indigenous wisdom recognizes that the meeting of masculine and feminine energies is precisely what generates new life forms. While the masculine provides the “impulse”, it is the “feminine” that “forms” it. Both are required, and the meeting of the two is a creative and transformative action.

Life is energy, energy is movement, and vibration… which takes place when polar forces meet. As we know, there is no electrical current without there being a coming together of positive and negative poles. In the “Toltec” language, a culture earlier than the “Mexicas”, the word “ometeotl” points to a profound understanding of the “duality” of all that is. The dance of this duality, that we sometimes understand as polarity, generates the primordial vibration of all that exists.

My references come from the indigenous cultures that I have had the good fortune to grow up in and with, still very much alive in Mexico today, 500 years after the end of the era where the culture and the individual organized themselves in a dynamic relationship with the happenings of the natural world.

Native wisdom recognizes the need for always looking carefully at the particular way in which different forces are looking for balance and equilibrium between all “double” aspects of the energies moving within them in any particular situation. Archetypal psychology calls this phenomenon a syzygy: a pair of connected and corresponding things.

Men and woman with true knowledge of nature, nowadays called “Shamans”, know well of the need for being able to move back and forth between different worlds, as they work to restore inner and outer harmony.

One practical application of these truths is in recognizing how he work is with the “inner”, to have an effect of the outer. A classic example of this is the true story, told to C.G. Jung by his friend Richard Wilhem (the first western translator of the I-Ching), that came to be called “The Rain-Maker”. What finally brough rain and relief to the draught ridden area where the incident took place was when the Shaman was able to restore his own inner balance, very much undone and challenging when he arrived at the scene to find himself experiencing, sensing, perceiving, and inwardly “reacting” to the extremely chaotic and destructive energies that saturated the environment surrounding him.

He later reportedly said that the outer chaos – the fighting, envy, betrayals, grievances, and all the different sorts of bitter complaints that were dividing the community – was so extreme, that it took him all of three days to again find and restore inner harmony. It was only then that the external world reacted, as if entrained, responding to the renewed inner balance by on its own finding and restoring the outer balance required for the rain to return. As all Shamanic traditions reminds us, the work is with and within oneself, struggling to find the congruency needed to restore the inner balance that will in turn have an effect in the outer world.

Caring for our energy today has to do with noticing where it is in our lives, and what direction it is taking us in. Where is it excessive, and where it is lacking ? Where is it stuck, or missing, or out of control ? What is the nature of my energy ?

In the teachings of my Mexican ancestors, there exists a world of darkness, of mid-night, where memory and dreams lie, a place for reposing… it is the time when energy rests. Because of the darkness, there are no clear forms. Things are invisible, or simply cannot be seen. The direction of this realm is the north, and is represented by “Tezcatlipoca”, the fundamental obsidian mirror, enveloped in smoke. Like memory, the images mirrored from this place are rather clouded and diffuse, mostly able to be recognized as something potential.

The counterpart is the word where light shines. Mid-day is when and where the heat of life is experienced most intensely, where energy is most concentrated. Here forms CAN be recognized. This is the realm of concrete external reality. Its direction is the south, and is represented by “Huitzilopochtli”, a symbol of the tremendous effort required to create form, and actually earn a place in life.

The thorns that appear in representations of this energy symbolize the prick in the skin that brings out the blood offering that our native ancestors made willingly, in order to truly earn a place of one´s own in the world – to become a “Masehual”.

Common to all ancestral cosmovisions is that we partake of both realms, moving from one to the other, each offering different kinds of mirrors for the other.

Another “double” is the meeting of external and internal experiences and realities. This appears in the Indigenous world in the habit of always trying to recognize, and work with, the duality of everything that exists.

Indigenous wisdom includes consciousness and knowledge concerning how the boundaries between outer and inner nature are permeable, as well as “tips” on how to move between them.

They also knew and understood that everything that we do indeed know, changes.

Practically speaking, natural wisdom teaches us about the primary importance of orientation. It is what comes first. When a person is knocked off their center, when one suddenly loses control, the first and most immediate effect is dis-orientation.

That is why the native healer moves first of all to re-orient the afflicted individual. Interesting that this is often done first on an external plane. Then it is done on a personal, physical level, knowing well that the somatic experience will inevitably touch – and awaken corresponding movements in – the person´s inner emotional, mental, and spiritual life.

Re-orienting a person in itself activates processes that have the effect of dissolving what is stuck… by opening spaces… for new things to take on form.

Orientation is an animal instinct. It has to do with our reptilian brain. Simply looking intently to the north, then to the south, then to the east, then the west, then above, then bellow, then to the center… has an immediate neurological and chemical effect, one that can be called “orientation”.

It is interesting to note that today, the most advanced trauma therapies give much importance to allowing time for the central nervous system to re-orient and re-organize itself… in order to really be able to receive new information.

Ancient wisdom recognized this long before modern day trauma therapy, as can be recognized in all sorts of rituals, in which the custom is to always begin by in some way recognizing, literally, the seven directions, as a primary orientation.

One of these rituals is the sweat-lodge ceremony, called a “Temazcal” in ancient Mexico (signifying the uterus from which one emerges re-born). Most often the space is opened with the sound of a conch shell, first calling out to where the sun rises, signaling a new day, that direction which we call the “east”: associated with the element fire. Then to the contrary side, the “west”: earth the element of the concrete. Imagining oneself to be midway between the two, one turns to the right to face the “south”: the element water. And then, to the contrary side, the “north”: the invisible element we call air. Doing this with awareness triggers a felt-experience of oneself in relationship to a “center”, and irresistibly awakens a difficult to resist sense of presence.

Usually, most healing and spiritual practices involve air (masculine), fire (feminine), seeds/earth (masculine), and water (feminine). When possible, men and women do it together, so that the two parts are included and involved.

Interesting to note that for our ancestors, before there was a concept of “faith” there was the experience of “knowing” that if there were to actually be something certain, constant and reliable in this constantly changing world, it is that the sun will return at day-break of the following day.

Ironically, another side of this is that it is also an experience of knowing that in spite of all that we do know, there are things that we do NOT know – like that every day the sun changes the place that it comes out from.

Engaging and relating constructively to and with nature implies nurturing a here and now presence, and developing highly honed “listening” skills: the ability to discern what “the other” is saying and wanting. Instead of what do “I” want of “it” – what does “it” want of “me” ?

This recognition implies and acknowledges that nature is truly “other” – a subject, not an object – and in a relationship with me. Never losing sight of the fact that “I” am part of “it”. The question in the air is then the nature of the relationship. Is it one characterized by struggling with and trying to dominate nature, or is it one that tries to listen to nature and truly take it into account ?

Remember C.G. Jung emphasizing that “as important as is what do ¨I¨ want of life is what does my life want of me ?”.

How does “life” tell me what it wants of me ? By simply happening. While going about one´s business, suddenly something happens, which forces a change in plans – the “I” has no choice but to take this new element into account. There is an opportunity for the “I” to become more aware of their environment and their relationship with it, as it arises and evolves, with us as part of it – but more often than not, there is some sort of crisis.

One more or less ordinary day, something unexpectedly happens that changes literally everything. The experience is of loss. Loss of a job, a relationship, an opportunity, a significant person in one´s life, or simply of control over vitally important things in one´s life, upon which much depends.

The reaction is instant, and fundamentally defensive, containing both a strong impulse and desire to avoid something, something fearful, painful, difficult… and at the same time wanting much to connect to something essentially vital to one´s well-being. In both cases there is a drive to achieve something. The first part is more “psychological”, the second is more “spiritual” – a wanting for that which is missing to appear.

Seen from a naturalistic perspective, the “pause” imposed on the person´s life is irrevocable. What was no longer is. The individual often plunges into some sort of depression (and mania), experiencing emotions and a state of mind beyond their control. There is no way to avoid a recognition of how the old way no longer works.

The person has no idea how to proceed. The only thing certain is that the old way is no longer an option. Here is where the “creative” comes in, as one must let go in order to discover new forms along the way, for oneself.

I often find myself saying to someone in this situation: “If I tell you how to do it, you will do your best to follow my instructions, and whatever you do will not be truly yours”. Not knowing, and searching for how, is precisely what makes it possible to discover new ways for oneself, based on one´s own resources.

The call is for much inner work – the external cannot be modified, making it eminently clear that the work is with oneself.

This takes time. How much time seems to depend on the ability of the person to actually discover what he or she must let go of in order to begin to behave in completely new ways. We must DO things differently if we expect different results.

When faced with the unexpected, the most common and automatic ego reaction is to do whatever possible to restore the control that has been lost. Depending on the degree of the “obstacle”, the heroic “I” takes over, and the task becomes how to best overcome the difficulty. Being in control is not the same as being oriented. Orientation has more to do with our relationship with our surroundings. “Eco-logic” instead of “ego-logic”.

Instead of “reacting”, going immediately to “automatic pilot”… instead of struggling to “manage” the situation, how would it be different if one were to seriously ask oneself: What is life trying to tell me by what has happened ?

NOT what “I think” life is telling me – an ego satisfying interpretation. Instead, what is it trying to tell me by happening in the way that it has taken place in my life ? The invitation is to treat what has happened as a true “other” – that one sincerely wants to get to know, by describing it with a phenomenological eye and ear, and nose and mouth and skin. Describe in order to get to know.

We urgently need a new perspective, one based on a renewed faith in our senses. Let us be inspired by the indigenous way, one that listens to and trusts our senses more than our mind, what Phenomenology does.

Traditional wisdom considers sickness to be found where there is a lack of movement, where our energy – we – are stuck. The aim of the work is to restore movement. How this is done is a separate question. A fundamental truth to begin with is that in the relationship between outer and inner, while the difficulty appears externally, the work of transformation is internal.

Emotions are the key, the place where external and internal realms meet, come together and affect each other. What ensues is in fact a “co-creation”, resulting from the meeting of the two worlds, outer and inner.

Emotions are always the critical factor, as they are literally “energy in motion”, moving us in one way or another. An emotionally charged inner theme appears in the outer world as a “symptom”, be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or in some way appear in a dream, or a synchronicity, or is somehow “acted-out” in some kind of compulsive behavior.

The Greek roots of the word “symptom” bring together “happening” and “sym”: “similar to”, “coinciding”, “falling together”. A symptom is something that happens in outer reality that shares something essential and highly relevant to a person´s inner reality.

Nature always finds its way. We cannot build fences in nature – a plant emerges out of the concrete floor. We cannot prevent our own nature from “correcting” us. The outer creeps into and affects the inner… and vice versa. The natural law of “compensation” shows how what is ignored in one level appears in exaggerated forms in another.

Our own nature shows us, again and again, that the repressed inevitably makes its appearance as best it can, and in multiple ways. The degree of the repression, and its relevance to the inner life of an individual, determines how extremely it manifests itself in the outer world. Freud called this natural law “the return of the repressed.”

One good way of imagining this is in looking at what we call “Psycho–Somatic Medicine”. This perspective highlights that what is being denied emotionally is precisely what appears physically. Thanks to its appearance in the body, one can discover what is trying to be avoided in life – what demands to be taken into account and incorporated into the person´s life.

Examples are many, like the young person that wets their bed at night while asleep. It is a phenomenological truth that piss contains a very high concentration of our essential salts. It is therefore not a surprise to discover that in daily life, the kid´s parent´s overriding expectations for the youngster do not allow him or her to be their essential selves. The need cannot help but make its appearance, literally, while the ego, the “I” is asleep. When the parents are able to step back from the intensity of what they want and expect of their son or daughter, to instead discover and value who he or she truly is, wants and needs, the uncontrolled pissing at night stops.

Then there was the case of the woman with persistent throat difficulties that required, according to allopathic medicine, much medication over a long period of time. When instead of this, she was confronted with the reality that she was without a doubt having much trouble swallowing certain things in her life (something to be worked on), and that she was tired of not expressing and defending her own truths, as best she could, she could not help but react. While attending to these themes, the symptoms disappeared. They were no longer necessary to maintain a kind of balance, once she found the courage to swallow the truth of her reality, and dared to express and fight for what was for her of vital importance.

Another kind of example is when we are able to discover the words that express what is being said with a repetitive or extreme action. I recall a situation with a 19 year old adolescent whose relationship with his father consisted mostly in transactions that involved money. Of course the son began to do everything possible to spend that money, feeding addictions to drugs, speed, risk, gambling – until the day arrived when he was caught, and brought to me for therapy. It quickly became apparent that after failing to catch his father´s attention in other ways, he had resorted to trying to tell him by way of this actions.

It did not take long for us to make the connection: “if the only way to relate to your father is through money, of course you get back at him by spending it recklessly, as a way to get back at him, with the hope of his getting the message – and if not, at least make him pay for his omission and disinterest”.

When hearing this, the young man reacted immediately, responding with a resounding “yes” ! The task then became how to include the father in these reflections, with the invitation that he develop a different kind of relationship with his son, one that went beyond the exchange of money. In this case, father responded well and the direction that the life of the young man was taking shifted dramatically, allowing him to break his addictions and to begin to be both constructive and successful in life. Father was also deeply touched, and moved to look sincerely for new ways to nurture a different kind of relationship with his son.

So, a “naturalistic” perspective recognizes that rather than the symptom being something that we want to get rid of (the allopathic route taken by today´s science), the aim is to discover what the symptom is trying to call our attention to, by happening in the way that it happens. The call is usually for a response that involves letting go of something, letting something in, and doing something critical in a way that it has never been done before.

As seen in the examples above, the task, to be much practiced, is to describe whatever it is that is of particular interest… clearly, specifically, precisely – highlighting what is critical and essential to it. When the metaphorical implications become clear, one can ask oneself, sincerely: “how does what has just been described correspond to another aspect, or plane, of my existence – of my life ?”.

A vision in tune with nature includes nurturing the habit of recognizing the metaphorical aspects of what happens literally in our daily lives. We do not want to forget that whether we pay attention to it or not, in reality we are always and all the time living in two parallel worlds, simultaneously: one is visible and “conscious” – outer, and the other is invisible and “unconscious” – inner.

What James Hillman was fond of saying about Archetypal Psychology, that: “more than a “thing”: it is a way of looking at things” applies as well to Indigenous wisdom. More than a theory, Indigenous wisdom has to do with how we look at, and relate to, nature.

Different from contemporary society, where we present ourselves announcing “here I am”… in the indigenous world authority is invested in those who are able to perceive and appreciate things from many different points of view. Another characteristic of those “who know” is that they speak in images, far more than with concepts. And they are great story-tellers.

As is well known, the first white, “modern” European man said to have arrived in what is today called America was Cristopher Columbus, in 1492. Before that, our continent was called: “Ixachilan”: “the immense, vast territory”.

It took until the late 1700´s, early 1800´s for the American Continent (mostly the central and more southern latitudes of it) to be seen differently from the way it had been taken by those who had come to colonize it, by Alexander von Humboldt, the renowned German naturalist.

Humboldt, as he liked to be called, was the man who for years eloquently and vehemently argued with all who would listen for the urgent need for Europeans to learn the local languages and customs, rather than to obliterate them and impose their own. He advocated for a meeting of cultures, more than for one to dominate and exploit the other. He was also the first, and last, well known “modern European” to value and work to recover a sense of the spirit in nature.

It is interesting to note that the book that Charles Darwin took to read on his journey to the Galapagos was precisely von Humboldt´s work, which he openly acknowledged to be a great guide and source of inspiration for him.

Highlighting the other side of the argument, the thinking that gave birth to modern science and ultimately “won” the “argument”, is a quote from a letter sent by an early European settler of North American to his family and sponsors, writing, literally: “There is nothing here besides some local Indians, and some amazing wonders of nature, just waiting for us – with our superior technology – to come to exploit and take advantage of”. Imagine, nothing here but what is already here, which is for our use.

What is urgently called for in today´s world is a new way of looking at and imagining things, and naming them, one that re-news our faith in our senses, and implies both reflection and a call to action. To this end, I will share some fresh images.

Regarding the relationship between spirit and soul, let us imagine a grandfather taking his young grandson to the fair. The grandfather (representing the “spirit”, the “eternal”) invites the little boy to choose something special to eat, and to select a handful of rides to go on. But the young boy (representing the “soul”) wants to eat everything that catches his attention, and to literally go on all the available rides, more than once. The old man spirit exclaims: “what is the hurry, it will all be here tomorrow”. The young boy soul responds: “who cares about tomorrow, I want to experience it all right now !”.

In the words of a dear master healer, teacher, friend, Sr. Enedino: “if the SOUL is the way we experience life, SPIRIT is what brings and gives the spark of life to the soul”.

A few years ago, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen responded to my request that she share how she, one of the most recognized experts on the physical body today, understands the spiritual to actually be.

As is her way, she proposed an experience in response to the question. She first described how the embryo opens a space for the center to develop, moving outwardly, from the inside into the outside.

Then she invited half of us to put an arm inside the sleeve of a t-shirt, just where the opening for the sleave is. From the outside space, a partner in the exercise begins to tickle the space, awakening curiosity in the fingers of the hand inside to peak out of the sleave, teasing it, inviting it to come out, to meet the outside world. That is when the form of an arm begins to appear, moving out into the space that is inviting it.

What I experienced was: “Space can be imagined as an experience of the Spiritual” – without a space for it, nothing could be. Awareness of feeling the awakening of the desire to enter into that space, in order to grow into it, can be seen as an authentic spiritual experience.

Spirit gives life to matter – but space awakens curiosity in it, and a desire to become something, to become what it is – so that matter can give form to the space around it. This is nature´s way of experiencing the dance between space and the material world, between spirit and soul.

Another image of the “double relationship” in action comes with the recognition that the process of growth implies a two-way task: of being able to put what Carlos Castaneda called one´s “personal importance” to one side in order to experience “other-ness”, and what happens in one´s life when there is a deep awareness of being part of something profoundly human.

Another image of the “meeting of two” that can be transformative is when an individual actually meets the “non-personal”, the experience of being part of everything that exists around us – this too can be recognized as spiritual, particularly when each affects the other in a dynamic relationship of co-creation.

We have grown at the expense of nature. It is never too late to give back to it, taking the natural law of reciprocity into serious account. The point is to participate in an exchange of energy.

More than anything else, nature wants, and is, about renewal. Renewal involves and implies transformation. Personal transformation allows life to move through us, to help transform us. If we do not adapt and transform, we become bitter and rotten, and begin to wilt.

Beyond a more or less superficial “hello, how are you ?”, the indigenous way of greeting someone in Mexico to this day is to ask: What has changed in your life ? How have you grown ? How has something in your surroundings changed ? What have you been nurturing ?

An individual´s personal growth imitates the way nature grows. We are space and material, and inseparable from nature. Growth implies balance and wellbeing, not use and exploitation.

We human beings are co–creators with the space that surrounds us.

We know that what we call “I”, our sense of identity, is a mental construction, designed to satisfy cultural and personal needs, including being accepted by others. Many live their lives according to formulas that refer to social standards of what is “right”, and acceptable, or fails to be acceptable to the demands of the “authorized world”.

As we do this, we lose our connection and involvement with our own natures – in the language of Depth Psychology, we lose our soul.

When we lose our connection to nature… we lose ourselves.

When we restore our connection to nature, we discover ourselves and become co-creators with all that surrounds us.