Acknowledging My Spiritual Debts

awareness CrossFit Inspirational karma Martin Prechtel personal development shamanism spirituality

[caption id="attachment_427" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Martin Prechtel"][/caption]

An old friend sent me a link to a really profound article yesterday. The article is an interview with a Pueblo-turned-Mayan-shaman, Martin Prechtel. In the interview Prechtel discusses his relationship with the spiritual world of indigenous cultures that have a respect for, and connection to, the land and environment around them. He also draws some really ominous connections between the utter lack - some would say, outright denial - of spirituality in Western civilization and the cultural malaise we experience in the form of endemic depression, poverty, loneliness, and even physical ailment.

The connection is based on the concept of spiritual debt, which states simply that if you take something from the natural world (any act of survival does so), you must repay the debt through ritual. Sometimes this is as simple as awareness and 'giving thanks' in the form of beauty and attention. Sometimes the rituals are extremely involved and costly. The price of failure to pay your debts is that the spiritual forces to whom the debt is owed will take it from your health or mental well-being.

"When we no longer maintain a relationship with the spirits, the spirits have to eat our psyches. And when the spirits are done eating our psyches, they eat our bodies. And when they’re done with that, they move on to the people close to us.

"When you have a culture that has for centuries, or longer, ignored these relationships, depression becomes a way of life. We try to fix the depression through technology, but that’s never going to work. Nor will it work to plunder other cultures, nor to kill the planet. All that is just an attempt not to be held accountable to the other world. If you’re to succeed as a human being, you’ve got to live meaningfully, passionately, and fully, so that even your death becomes a meaningful sacrifice to the spirits, feeding them. Everybody’s death was a meaningful sacrifice until people started to become "civilized" and began killing everybody else’s gods in the name of monotheism. As you grow older, your life becomes more and more meaningful as a sacrifice, because you give more and more gifts to the other world, and the spirits are better fed by your speech and prayers."

Modern civilization, of course, completely ignores any notion that taking from the world requires any sort of return, because it denies that the natural world is anything more than a stockpile of resources for the taking. Instead of limiting consumption and creating manageable debts that we actually work to balance out, we simply take all we want, create massive imbalance, and then try to fix the problem by taking out another debt (interesting connection: that mentality is mirrored in our spending habits too).

Spiritual Debt in the Real World

This is very metaphysical, but karma doesn't get much consideration from the intellectuals in our society. But it doesn't take much filling in to see the real-world effects of this spiritual debt. In fact, this spiritual debt is incurred through material actions. Prechtel uses the example of a knife. Creating a knife requires removing the iron ore, smelting it, tempering the steel, cutting the material for the handle, crafting that, and putting them together. The ore itself is removed from the ground, and the fire requires a great deal of fuel to burn, and leaves a mark on the natural world. The Mayans had a very involved ritual for knife making; it was spiritually expensive to make knives. As a result, they didn't make too many of them. We, on the other hand, have no problem tearing up massive holes in the ground to rip metal from the earth, discarding the waste wherever is convenient, clear-cutting forests to provide fuel, and manufacturing thousands upon thousands of knives. Never mind that we don't care to repay the debt to nature we incur, how could we even be able to? What kind of appreciation or sacrifice would mend that gash in the landscape?

Nature raped must have some outlet for her grief, as we do, and we are the rightful victims of her outrage. We are being poisoned by the debts we fail to repay. The pollution that chokes our waterways and our air is evidence enough of that. But what about the psychological traumas, the 'ghosts'?

Prechtel's concept of ghosts is related to the concept of ancestral debt. All of our ancestors had spiritual debts incurred simply by living. That is normal. For most of us 'civilized' folk, our ancestors never paid their debts. Nor do we especially try to repay those debts. As a result, we suffer for them, as the ghosts stick around to try to exact the debt from us (since these accounts must be paid in this world, where they are incurred). In real-world terms, this simply means old resentments are passed on. Our parents problems follow us around, because they never made peace with their own spirits. How many young people do you know who want to escape their parents? They want to get away, start their lives anew, rather than build on what their parents made. Ours is a society of young people trying to escape the problems of their parents, leading to disjointed communities and distant or even broken families. Of course, we all know you can't escape your past. Often in running from our families we cause the problems we are running from to take an even stronger hold of us.

Disconnected Communities

Generally, I agree with Prechtel. I find our society is spiritually hollow, and that hollowness is having very non-spiritual repercussions. His analogy of debt is also a good one, though I fear that it can be taken too literally and thus discarded. I think the main point, illustrated well by the knife example, is that there are more important things than taking what you want and forging a world as you please. Harmony and balance are two such things. Community is another. Prechtel cites the example of the Mayan tradition of intentionally building houses that are less sturdy, so that the community must occasionally come together to repair every individual's home. In this way, the community is brought together through manufactured crises. Upon colonization, Mayans were forced to build sturdy homes, and the colonizers thought they were doing the Mayans a favor, but as a result, the communities fell apart.

We are so self-sufficient in our societies that we no longer have communities unless we seek them out. Large corporations and governments provide for our needs without the need for human contact. Literally, it is now possible to work from home, have your groceries delivered, and never need to leave your house. And society is heartsick for it. We try to fix these problems with various tools and distractions: TV, World of Warcraft, online communities, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, alcohol, fashion, etc. But this is like treating the symptom, not the cause. It is the same as treating allergies with medication instead of balancing the improper diet that created the hypersensitivity in the first place. I use blogs and social media a lot, and even I feel that they are feeble substitutes for real community interactions. That is why I spend so much time at my CrossFit gym, where I have a real community and face made-up crises with my friends every day.

So, I have to wonder, why don't we fix the problem at its source? Why don't we build local communities with social supports? We know the cost of our disconnected society: depression, malaise, social isolation, murder, etc. We know the cost of our environmental destruction, and we certainly know the cost of our approach to food. We have been running from these ghosts created by our unpaid debts for so long that we can't turn and face them. Perhaps there are too many at this point.

A New Workout Plan

Personally, I know I've been neglecting my spirituality. This blog is itself a way for me to contemplate the spiritual and how it relates to my life, but it is only the slightest nod in the right direction. But what would it take for me to start living with a balanced spiritual checkbook? Cleaning my room would be a start. I move through my life, leaving litter and disorganization simply through the act of getting dressed in the morning and eating breakfast. The mess represents my debt to my environment, incurred by living. In keeping things tidy, I am going through a ritual to repay that debt and set things right again. And is it any surprise that keeping a tidy environment makes me feel stronger, more alive, more balanced, and simply happier? Besides the practical advantages, there is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from living 'debt free.' You simply feel unburdened.

It's so trivial, but until I read this article, I never really realized just why my messy room depressed my mood, even when I wasn't in it. I don't really believe in a purely metaphysical version of karma or spiritual debt, but I do believe that our psyches are much more finely tuned to our environments than we give them credit for. The ritual of taking care of my environment would strengthen my spiritual faculties, which largely are composed of the drive to be aware, pay attention, and take care. Just like exercising makes us physically stronger, simply by going through the motions our muscles were intended to go through, which in turn makes us healthier, practicing awareness and consideration can strengthen our spiritual muscles, which in turn makes us healthier, more lively, confident, and balanced.

Going back to yesterday's post on connection, I don't want to imply that one cannot achieve spiritual balance through physical exercise, for example. But it must be approached with great attention to detail, as explained in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Just as cleaning my room involves physical motions (which can be performed sloppily and thus make things worse), exercise involves mental and spiritual presence which, if lacking, can result in injury. But if there is a debt outstanding, it must be repaid, either in taking care of my body or in inhabiting my room. You can't substitute one for the other. I think that's the key point I must keep in mind going forward.


Thank you Lisa for the article. When I first met you, you seemed like you were a shaman to a lot of us, looking out for our spiritual debts and helping us find ways to patch the holes. You have certainly lived up to that description since I've known you.

Image source: