The Temascal

The Temascal in Yerbabuena is a dome-shaped structure built for ritualistic purification, typical of the Indian Temascal, but this one owns the distinction of being in complete harmony with the wooded surroundings of the volcanic hill where it is located. It is believed by the shaman who lives there that the volcano of Colima gives the land its mystical power and the Temascal its wonder, mystery and magic. And standing there while the four of us waited for the rocks to become hot as fiery embers, with the raucous chichalacas screeching in the nearby trees, we dug our toes into the volcanic ash and waited for the process to begin. I could well understand the potency of the place upon the Mexican mind, and those of us as well, for there were forces at work beyond our conscious grasp or understanding. I imagined such a place could exist in my own country, but with another history and mind-set. It was beautiful in its starkness, dusty yet fiercely alive. It had kind of a dark yet entriguing energy.

Comfortless I stood. Then I addressed the shaman in Spanish, Don Antonio, the curador ( the healer ), because I wasn’t sure I could withstand the heat – I imagined myself wilting in a blazing furnace of live coals. He turned his dark eyes on me, sparking like flint, and he told me I needed to believe I could, and to open my heart to its cleansing influence and ready myself for a transformation. That’s what I wanted: to receive a cleansing that would make me fit for the struggles of this world accompanied by a physical strength that I’ve been missing for a while.

Fire has always commanded reverence. It has long been known that diseases and spiritual evils can be driven off in the ritual of the Temascal; bacterial and viral agents do not survive in temperatures higher than normal body temperatures and damaged cells repair themselves faster due to the increased metabolic rate the body experiences. Recovery from illness, therefore, becomes quicker and easier. Sweat draws out lactic acid which causes stiff muscles and fatigue, and it flushes out toxins like copper, lead, zinc and mercury which the body absorbs in polluted areas. I was ready for the fiery trial.

While Don Antonio shovelled rocks into the Temascal, we crawled in and sat down on the black dirt floor. The rocks are called “abuelas”, or grandmothers, symbolic for earthly endurance. With reference to the spirits that represent the nature of fire, water, air and earth ( fuego, agua, aire y tierra ), he poured a brew of sage leaves on the rocks and up roared the steam. Resin from the coral tree had also been rubbed on the stones. The pleasant sounds of hissing and spattering filled the darkness and chanting began. More and more water was poured, sending off another rush of sage scent and engulfing us in steam. I opened my heart, wishing to rise above my petty fears and desires, preparing myself for creative contemplation. Don Antonio began eliciting positive responses from the 4 of us until we gave thanks for what we were grateful for. When the mind is cleansed the spoken words of thanksgiving can come easily. A spiritual power lifted me up a ladder with its first rung planted into the soft black earth; the warm, dark moist ambiance inside the Temascal felt like the womb. Here was something more than just an emotional trip, and suddenly I realized I didn’t want to leave. With affirmations like “Soy sanado” ( I’m healed ), “Soy amado” ( I’m loved ), and “Soy perdonado” ( I’m forgiven ), all was being made new. Don Antonio prayed and sang, ministering spirit and light. I felt free and clean inside and for a while at least I knew it would no longer be possible to investigate the world of creation without wonder, observe without joy, understand without humility and reflect without wisdom. Our leader spoke strongly in favor of breaking strongholds ( “romper ataduras” ), areas of demonic activity causing woundedness which can become a spiritual atmosphere blanketing an entire community or even country. It can also be a core problem we have held for years, unconsciously. It’s grown like an old friend inside the soul and we ask ourselves: how would we live without it? Although it’s a rock that weighs us down, we’ve polished it like a precious stone – we have ‘possessed’ the ‘rightness’ of it for so long that it’s difficult to give up.

For a while afterwards I sparked with a lively hope. I felt clean and as humble as a slab of earth, a vessel fit for the Master’s use. ‘Real life’ returned quickly enough though, like a breath of brimstone.

So I seek another Temascal, smoking hot this time. Don Antonio’s Temascal may not be number one in the guidebooks, but I nevertheless recommend this experience, not for the tourist who wishes to cover Mexico in three weeks and knows no Spanish, but for the thoughtful traveler, accustomed to giving attention and being receptive to the world around us. There’s an urge for the traveler to say, ‘I was there, I saw that and it mattered to me’. But beauty and mystery are fugitive, being found in places to which we may never return or else find it hard to return with the same conjunctions of season, light and weather. How to possess then then?