An Encounter With The Other: My Neotribal Origins Story
It was the height of the global financial crisis in 2008 and stock prices were tumbling. Panic was rising and the first major cracks were beginning to show in the neoliberal edifice of late stage capitalism. I was 23 years old and nearing the end of a worldwide quest for answers to the kinds of existential questions a western education does its best to avoid. While bankers were busy pulling out their hair I was knee deep in hermetic texts in a wooden pyramid in Guatemala searching for answers to a pressing concern.
I was grappling with what felt like a distinct choice between a number of paths before me. A life dedicated to either making change, making art, making money or making meaning. Or in other words the path of The Warrior, The Poet, The King or The Monk. I wanted to make a difference in the world but I wasn't sure how best to do it and I figured that if I focussed in on one thing then I'd have a better chance of achieving some level of mastery and be better positioned to help others along the way. I was afraid that if I didn't make a decision my attention would be divided, split and diluted and my potential for making a difference in the world never realised.
That year I'd been visiting sacred sites, trekking to mountain temples, wandering in deserts and posing some of life’s more fundamental conundrums to a series of gurus, mystics, philosophers and shamans. But I still wasn't clear on which path to tread. So after a particularly intense ceremony under the full moon I decided to leave Guatemala and head south to visit the renowned psychic surgeon known as John of God. I had a sense that such a journey might help me in choosing the path I wanted to walk in life. And so a few epic bus journeys later I woke up in a dusty little town called Abadiânia in the central plateaus of Brazil.
Depending on who you asked John of God was either a mystical saint or a master charlatan. His acolytes described him as a kind of spiritual X-Ray machine as after just a momentary encounter with someone he claimed to have direct knowledge of what was ailing them and how it could be cured. Most people were prescribed a combination of medicinal herbs or directed to bathe in a specific waterfall nearby. But occasionally John would employ some of his more dramatic techniques. These included publicly scraping the eyeball of his visitors with a sharp blade and inserting some steel forceps far up into their nasal passage. This supposedly all took place under the guidance of a plethora of ‘healing entities’, disembodied doctors and christian saints that would possess John during the course of his diagnosis and treatment sessions each day. Such interventions were supposed to treat conditions as broad as spinal disorders, cancer and diabetes. I’d clearly arrived at the most fantastical fringes of alternative medicine. And I'm not sure what surprised me more, the fact that people were willing place such faith in the man or that according to a number of people I spoke to who had undergone these procedures, apparently, quite often, it worked.
After hours and hours of queuing I eventually found myself eye to eye with the heavy set psychic. As I met his gaze I was reminded of a languid apex predator, bloated with power and steeped in self importance. After considering me for a brief moment he muttered to his assistant and calmly waved me aside with his chubby ring filled hand. My friend however was invited to stand next to him and join the ranks of his psychic support team as apparently she exuded a subtle kind of power. This drew hushed gasps of intrigue and curiosity from his phalanx of minions. I was told this was a very rare event. A more cynical part of me wondered whether it had anything to do with the fact that my friend was a rather beautiful young woman. But before I had time to say anything, I was guided towards a room marked ‘Psychic Surgery’.
I found myself seated in quiet anticipation along side a number of other nervous looking pilgrims. We were instructed to close our eyes and sit quietly while the ‘current’ of psychic energy washed over us. The whole thing lasted about half an hour and I did my best to imagine an ethereal Portuguese monk from the 12th Century performing fourth dimensional heart surgery on me with a holy artefact from Atlantis. But other than the odd sob and the occasional muffled groan from my fellow pilgrims, nothing outwardly miraculous occurred. I was slightly disappointed, but not overly surprised. My travels had led me to the conclusion that characters such as John of God were mostly just charismatic personas wrapped up in a generous serving of well spun mythology, often with a dark penchant for young women. I’d discovered that more often than not the real magic occurred when you least expected it and usually once you’d stepped well and truly off the beaten path.
So wander I did and one evening found myself on the outskirts of town. I'd been drawn by the sound of percussion and had followed it to a clearing where I found a group of people gathered around some performers. They were Indigenous musicians and dancers dressed in full tribal regalia and deep in the throes of a spirited performance. I was entranced by their rawness and the visceral sound of their voices cresting together in peaks of invocation over the sound of a beating drum. It all felt a lot less stage managed than the exploitative New Age theatrics I'd experienced that day.
After they finished played I remained seated at the fire until one of the singers approached me. He was still on a high from the performance and greeted me warmly. We discovered we were the same age. But that was where the similarities stopped. From the colour of our skin to the tension in our shoulders it was obvious we came from very different ends of the human spectrum. Something in the way he held himself suggested he had access to a kind of inner composure usually only found in Kung Fu masters and resting animals. I, on the other hand, was still subtly broadcasting the neurotic hum of an overheating computer, typical of a young man freshly plucked from the 21st century urban jungle.
He went on to explain that he'd only recently begun travelling this far south of the Amazon jungle, and despite the language barrier we laughed together, inventing creative new sign language to get our stories across. He was fascinated with my iPod and after I played him some electronic music (Aphex Twin to be precise) his eyes widened and he turned to me with a look of innocent disbelief. I thought perhaps the sounds might be too jarring for him but he took to it like a duck to water and was soon flailing around the fire at 140 beats per minute. He danced like a man possessed, it was as if the ghosts of his ancestors had reached down and used the feathers in his hair to tickle his spine.
I made use of this pause in dialogue to pinch myself and ensure this was all actually happening, I was indeed hanging out with a crew of straight up bonafide tribesman who lived deep in the jungle. I began to fantasise that they would take me into their tribe like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. But then I remembered how many people died in that movie and figured we might all be better off going our own seperate ways.
Towards the end of our exchange he looked at me in earnest for a long moment before enquiring ‘When do you go to the trees?’. I was puzzled and asked him what he meant. He explained that each year no matter where his people found themselves, across the country or the continent they all returned to their tribal lands and communed with one another for up to three months. It was a time for enjoying each others company, strengthening bonds and reconnecting with the land. For resetting to the pace of nature. When I explained that this custom was foreign to me and that I didn’t really consider myself part of any particular tribe of people his energy immediately shifted and a sadness arose in his eyes. He placed his hand on my arm and we sat together for a few moments in silence. He could tell I lacked a sense of belonging and though I could feel friendship and empathy emanating from his touch, it seemed there was a deep stream of sorrow mixed in as well.
Seeing his head feathers swaying gently in the breeze and the sad, compassionate smile on his painted face, I had a strong urge to look over my shoulder and check if the documentary maker Werner Herzog was hiding in the bushes behind me, whispering into his camera in heavily accented English about the extreme contrast in cultures laid bare before him. But I dared not look away. The question had struck me deeply and put form to a dull ache in my heart. Was I living so far from my natural state? Was this the source of the deep well of unsettledness that lay patiently waiting beneath the frenetic pace of my modern existence?
Observing my new friends impressive physique, his open heart and the deep sense of presence he exuded, it struck me that perhaps humanity had known a time where it could be said to have been more advanced than it is now. Perhaps not technologically, but socially, ecologically and spiritually. Perhaps in all those areas that matter most. After all what use is all this advanced technology if it's simply driving us deeper into the abyss?
His simple enquiry had challenged a belief that was common in my culture. An unspoken assumption that our hyper-digitalised way of life somehow represented the very pinnacle of human existence. And that current generations were unquestionably the latest and greatest models to emerge from the factory of human culture, as opposed to simply the most recent. I looked back at him and opened my mouth with the intention of offering some kind of holistic explanation. But nothing emerged. It was one of the rare moments in my life when I was genuinely lost for words.
After a year of inner exploration I was perfectly primed to receive the lesson my tribal friend had to offer. And so his gentle insinuation that my whole way of life was radically out of balance immediately took root. It triggered an internal paradigm shift of glacial proportions, a relentless and slow moving realisation that would eventually transform everything in its wake.
After all the learned teachers and exulted sages I'd encountered, it was this humble conversation with a young Brazilian tribesman that most resoundingly shattered the fundamental illusions propping up my entire worldview. If John of God symbolised the bloated excesses of a civilisation based on hierarchies of domination, then this man represented the very essence of a living partnership culture.
In the days that followed our encounter I was left with a nascent desire to build a bridge between our two worlds. To work towards weaving the intelligence of my culture and the wisdom of his. To forge a synthesis of the traditional and the modern, the ancient and the new. It’s a dream that still guides my way like a quiet and persistent song that calls to me from long forgotten dream, perhaps if you listen in, you can hear it too.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook & Twitter.