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Still pondering what I’d learned from our stay in Mexico City, I next headed south to make the acquaintance of the Maya, another culture that has profoundly shaped Mexico. I was curious to learn what the Mayans could teach me about mortality and death — and more than a little happy to leave the Aztecs behind.

Flourishing between the third and ninth centuries in cities located deep in the jungles of Central America, the Mayans were master mathematicians and astronomers who mapped the movements of the stars and planets with great accuracy. They developed complex writing and mathematical notation systems, and had multiple calendars geared to various celestial phenomena. The New Age fuss in 2012, when some predicted that the world was going to end, was related to the completion of a 5,125-year Mayan calendar cycle.

Carved stone reliefs at the Palenque archeological site bring visitors face-to-face with the Mayan world.

Bob Sessions

Bob and I had signed up for a tour called Maya Temples of Transformation, a weeklong adventure offered by a company specializing in spiritually oriented journeys around the world. I knew we were in for an interesting trip when on our ride from the airport to the hotel, a couple of our fellow tour members had an extended conversation about their personal interactions with archangels. Bob looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I shrugged my shoulders. While I was enthusiastic about the trip, he’d been more skeptical, an occupational hazard of having a PhD in philosophy.

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But the description of the tour had intrigued us both. Instead of seeing the Mayan sites from a solely historical perspective, the tour was designed to be experiential, introducing us to contemporary forms of Mayan spirituality, as we explored three major archaeological sites that were once capitals of powerful city-states: Palenque and Yaxchilan in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.

That evening we met the rest of our dozen comrades, who hailed from Australia, Canada and England, as well as the United States. While their ordinary lives were filled with the mortgages, jobs and other accoutrements of middle-class life, on vacation they sought out spiritual mysteries in exotic locales. “I’ve visited pyramids all over the world,” one man told me. “I’ve been to Egypt once and Machu Picchu twice and three times to Mayan sites in Mexico.”

As the evening went on, I fought a growing sense of disorientation. Usually I’m the designated spiritual person in any group, the one who has all the surrounding holy sites on her radar and is most likely to throw around references to energy. But in this crowd, I was a rank amateur. I listened with a green flicker of envy as a woman told a story of being in one of the Great Pyramids at Giza. Instead of feeling claustrophobic and germ conscious in the pharaoh’s burial chamber, as I’d been, she’d been swept up in a vision that included rocketing up to the heavens, and then growing in size until she was the same height as the pyramid.

When she heard I’d been in that very chamber, she asked what I’d experienced.

“It was very ... interesting,” I said weakly. “I’m not sure I can even describe it.”

She nodded. “I know. The power there is overwhelming. It’s beyond words.”

Members of the Sacred Earth Journeys expedition listen to tour leader Freddy Silva.

Bob Sessions

My dilemma grew as the week went on. At each of the Mayan sites, many of my fellow travellers had remarkable experiences. We’d be standing together in front of a temple, gazing upward, when suddenly they’d get a flood of past-life memories that had happened at that very spot. Meanwhile, I’d be thinking about whether I should reapply sunscreen. At dinner one night, a woman told me that the Egyptian god Thoth had sent her a message earlier in the day. And one afternoon, a woman started using words I didn’t understand and then explained to me that she was speaking Galactic, a language she’d received from space several years before.

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Bob was having his own issues. At dinner on the second evening of our tour, he got into a metaphysical tussle with another group member over the lost continent of Atlantis and the Akashic Records (which are said to hold a description of all human events, thought and emotions). Bob persisted in arguing against the existence of either, despite my repeated kicks under the table and the pitying looks of our companions, who were clearly wondering how a seemingly well-educated person could have such big gaps in his knowledge.

Back in our room that night, we had our first — and I hope our last — argument over the existence of Atlantis.

“It’s a harmless belief,” I said. “And besides, no one wants a philosophical lecture on their vacation.”

“Philosophers do.”

“We’re not travelling with philosophers.”

We went to bed in stony silence.

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The next morning, however, our tempers had cooled. Bob pledged to keep his mouth shut, even if people were violating his understanding of the laws of rationality, and I reassured him that he could believe anything he wanted privately, as long as he didn’t lecture people about it in public.

But a funny thing happened to us as the week went on: We got into the spirit of the trip. The New Age vibe started to feel, well, perfectly comfortable. For one thing, our fellow tour members were so good-hearted and friendly, despite their unusual beliefs. It helped, too, that those who were having incredible spiritual experiences weren’t lording them over us.

The Mayan archeological site of Yaxchilan is accessible only by boat or airplane.

Bob Sessions/Handout

“It’s actually a bit of a burden getting past-life information at unexpected times,” one of them told me. “It can make it hard to concentrate on my job in a real estate office.”

We were warmed, too, by the kindness of our tour leaders, especially Miguel, a Mexican shaman who had studied with Mayan spiritual teachers for decades and whose unassuming manner masked deep wisdom. At each of the sites he led us in ceremonies, inviting us to enter into the spirit of the place with our hearts, not just our minds.

My conversations with Miguel elicited my own philosophical conundrum. According to him, the Mayans did not practise human sacrifice, or at least not very frequently — an assertion that contradicted what I’d learned about Mayan history from my own studies, as well as the exhibits at the anthropology museum in Mexico City. When I quizzed him about the discrepancy, he didn’t seem overly concerned with the historical record.

“The Mayans knew that a spiritual seeker’s ego has to undergo a symbolic death in order to be reborn,” he explained. “The problem with the Aztecs is that they took these mystical truths literally, but the Mayans always understood them as metaphors.”

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As the week went on, I found myself caring less about historical accuracy myself. Even if the ancient Mayans did practise human sacrifice, their descendants today don’t follow their example and the magnificent temples they built can still be holy sites for contemporary seekers.

I was reminded, too, of studies I’d read about how psychologically healthy people often rewrite their past. They don’t forget the tragedies and hard times of their earlier years, but with the perspective of age they often recast them into something less problematic. Perhaps cultures can do a similar thing. Miguel may have been liberally reinterpreting parts of Mayan history, but it was in the service of a good cause. He was keeping the parts of his tradition that are useful and meaningful. We don’t need human sacrifice, so he left it behind.

A temple at Yaxchilan shows the Mayan mastery of stone carving.

Bob Sessions

Of the three Mayan sites we visited, Yaxchilan — the smallest — was my favorite. This was partly because of the Indiana Jones style in which we travelled to it: a forty-five-minute boat ride on the Usumacinta River on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Along the way we passed mile after mile of dense rain forest with occasional crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks. At the end of our voyage, we hiked up a steep hill and then walked down a winding forest path until we finally arrived at the archaeological site.

Miguel explained that Yaxchilan had been the capital of a jungle kingdom that reached its height during the reigns of Lord Shield Jaguar and his son Bird Jaguar, two Mayan leaders of the eighth century who made me wish contemporary politicians had animal names. More than 120 structures were built here, though, only a small number of them have been excavated.

As we approached the entrance to Yaxchilan, Miguel gathered our group into a circle and filled our cupped hands with a small amount of scented water. As we splashed the water over our heads, I recognized a classic rite of purification, a common feature of nearly all religions. Next Miguel gave us a few drops of an aromatic oil that we used to anoint our foreheads — again, something I was familiar with in my own Christian tradition.

Miguel then directed us to put out our hands once again. “We will make an offering to the spirits of this place as we enter their home,” he said, going around the circle to pour a small mound of corn kernels into our hands. “As you walk into Yaxchilan, you can honour them by throwing the kernels along the path.”

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Then we filed, one by one, into a shadowed passageway of stone, which wound around in the darkness for about 50 feet before we climbed a small flight of steps. As we ascended, I could see the brilliant green of the jungle framed by a doorway ahead of us. The transition from darkness into light felt mythic and ancient.

At last we emerged into the full expanse of Yaxchilan. With each step we took, the sounds of the forest became louder: the shrill caws and melodic twittering of birds and the rasp of insects. The greenery pressed close to the buildings, as if it was eager to overtake them once again.

After passing by several sets of low-lying ruins, we saw a temple on a hill above us, a landmark reached by a set of narrow, steep steps.

“Before we climb up to the temple, let us gather together for a ceremony,” Miguel said.

We formed a circle around him and watched as he took out the elements of the ritual — small wooden bowls that he filled with water, as well as a drum, incense and pieces of brightly patterned cloth. He invited us to place our own sacred offerings in the center of the circle, and people came forward with stones, crystals, and other symbolic items.

I looked around the circle at my fellow travelers, all dressed in the white clothing that Miguel had suggested we wear that day. I could see how seriously they were taking this ritual. I was struck, too, by the silence that had fallen upon us — a hint that the holy was approaching.

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And then, as if on cue, howler monkeys in the trees above us began a chorus. The guttural, loud sounds were unlike anything I’d heard before — the essence of the jungle, distilled in sound.

Those monkeys continued to serenade us during the ceremony, which Miguel led with graceful dignity. After lighting some pieces of incense in a bowl, he walked around the circle, stopping before each of us so that the scented smoke could briefly envelop us. Next he picked up a drum and began to chant, his voice rising and falling in unfamiliar cadences. When he nodded at us to join him, we took up the chorus, echoing the simple, repetitive phrases. For quite some time we chanted, the song rising in volume and then declining, so that the sounds of the monkeys could be heard again. Miguel stood silent and motionless, his eyes closed, his expression serene. The energy slowly dissipated, seeping back into the earth from which it seemingly had sprung.

For the rest of the afternoon, as I wandered amid the ruins of Yaxchilan, the ceremony led by Miguel framed my experience. It gave me a glimpse of why the Mayans chose to build temples here in the midst of the forest, places where the spirits of the earth could be honoured.

At the end of our visit, as we walked through the jungle on our way back to the boat, I complimented Miguel on the beauty of the ceremony he’d led.

“The most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart,” he replied. “If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. And if you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you do them.”

Excerpted from Lori Erickson’s Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper (2019, Westminster John Knox Press).

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