Earlier this month, I adventured in the jungles of Belize. Deep in the rainforest of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, there is a cave where ancient Mayan spiritual ceremonies were performed to make offerings to the gods. Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as ATM, was rediscovered by archeologists in 1989 and made open to the public in 1998. Artifacts dating back to 950 BC remain in the cave.
Once reaching the entrance of ATM, it’s about a mile of swimming, rock climbing, hiking and wading through pools of water amongst stalagmites and stalactites with bats flying above. It felt like Indiana Jones meets Goonies as we reached ever so closer to the ceremonial space.
Our guide, Adam Patrick*, who shared with us his lineage as half Mayan and half Kenyan (and the fifteenth-born child of his family), has two master’s degrees from the University of Colorado and is one of only twenty-two people who are legally licensed by the government of Belize to lead this tour. He speaks four languages (English, Spanish, Mayan and Creole) and is extremely knowledgeable about the artifacts in ATM because he helped conduct much of the research.
Once we reached the cathedral cavern, we removed our shoes and walked only in our socks to preserve the space and sanctity as best we could. Green and red tape marked areas we were allowed to walk to steer clear of artifacts and avoid accidentally stepping through a clay pot covered by years of calcification. Surrounding us were clay pots, which once held stews and alcohol brews, as well as skeletal remains. All were preserved by perfect cave temperatures and crystalized by the natural minerals so patiently dripping across the rocks and stones.
Through the archeologists’ research, they pieced together an understanding of the Mayan cultural practices that took place in this cavern. Water is believed to be the source of life and a direct connection to the gods. Therefore, the Mayans traveled as close to the source as they could to be as close to their gods as possible to perform their rituals.
Mayan shamans made offerings of food and alcohol by cooking them in clay pots made especially for this service and heated on three stones above a fire. The steam was believed to transmute the offering to the spiritual realm. Once given, the pots were broken to release the soul-life inside the pot. (In Mayan culture, all objects have a soul.)
There was a 250-year period where Belize experienced extreme drought. Desperate to appease the gods and bring rain back to their homeland, the Mayans escalated their offerings from food and alcohol to human sacrifice. As the drought continued, the human sacrifices became more brutal and torturous.
There is one completely intact skeletal remain at the furthest point in the cavern. Archeologists determined it was a 16-year-old female, who was disemboweled while still alive until she was finally hit with a stone across her jaw and upper neck, severing her spinal cord. A long, drawn-out death.
It seems that human nature leans toward sacrifice and pain as a form of gaining spiritual approval and favor. For thousands of years, across the world and cultures, humankind has engaged in human sacrifice. Archeologists have discovered such at Shang Dynasty sites (1600 BC), the ancient city of Ur (modern day Iraq), Mound 72 in Cahokia (modern day St. Louis), the Incan spiritual sites in Chile and Argentina, in ancient Hebrew practices of the Israelites, with the Aztecs in Mexico, at the graves of pharaohs in Egypt’s early history, and even believed to be a part of the history of Stonehenge.
In the modern day, many religions still believe in sacrifices (though less so that of human life unless we consider kamikaze pilots and Taliban terrorists). Far less extreme, Catholics practice Lent, which is fasting for 40 days as a period of penitential preparation for Easter. Christianity is based on Jesus’s sacrificed life and therefore self-sacrifice and ethical-sacrifice is lauded. Fasting is also a regular practice in Islam, Judaism and the Hindu religion, such as during Shivaratri, Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja.
Fasting is a denial of physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. Do we really need to purposely endure pain or displeasure to become closer to God/Source/The Great Mystery?
I don’t believe we do.
Yet we’re conditioned to self-sacrifice. And the more extreme our sacrifice, the more dedicated and “better” we are considered by our community. We praise mothers and label them “good” for sacrificing their own mental and emotional sanity to spend all of their time and energy on both home-making and their careers. We commend men for sacrificing rest and time with their family to work long hours and “provide.”
We expect ourselves to suffer for everything we want. Think about all the phrases that support this philosophy, such as “No pain, no gain” and “Bite the bullet.”
I looked up “inspirational quotes” on this topic, and no joke, here’s what surfaced:
“Let us sacrifice our today so that our children have a better tomorrow.” – APJ Abdul Kalam
“Every wish, every dream, every idea comes into existence only through blood, sweat and sacrifice.” – Ivan Moody
“I think that the good and the great are only separated by the willingness to sacrifice.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
“There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of sacrifice.” – Simon Sinek
“Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.” – Napolean Hill
“You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” – James M. Barrie
“Justice never comes without great effort and sacrifice.” – Shaun King
The list goes on…
Since time began, humans have believed we purposely and intentionally need to sacrifice and suffer. I don’t believe that sacrifice and suffering will improve our lives; I believe it limits them.
That’s not to say we as humans won’t suffer in our lives, I’m talking about intentionally suffering in the present as a sacrifice for what we hope to bring about in the future. And I’m also not saying we should not give of ourselves; I’m referring to giving to the extent of causing personal harm.
Where else in the natural world do we find deliberate sacrificing or suffering?
We don’t because it doesn’t exist.
Plants don’t avoid growth toward the sunlight and soaking up nutrients from the earth so that a potential future plant can use them. It uses what it needs and grows to the extent it can.
A deer won’t run directly to a wolf pack to keep the rest of the herd safe. It runs away with all the rest of the deer and takes its chances.
A camel doesn’t decide to drink less water because there’s a drought. It drinks up to 30 gallons in ten minutes for its best health.
Whales don’t breach themselves on the sand as a sacrifice to end ocean pollution. They may die as a result of it, but not to appease a higher power to change their future.
All plants and creatures live in the moment and don’t limit themselves or their current experience. They make the most with what they have…and purposely thrive! As a result, what and who they affect also thrives.
Plants give their leaves and fruits to animals and humans, and what goes unused, recycles back into the earth.
Allowing the process of natural selection for deer and wolves keeps both populations balanced, which in turn keeps the plants and other species in the ecosystem balanced.
Well-watered camels (with fat deposits in their humps) can survive in harsh climates and, due to their domestication since about 3000 BC, they’ve enabled humans to build lives in harsh climates.
Lastly, whales play a vital role in the ecosystem by helping provide at least half of the oxygen we breathe, combat climate change, and sustain fish stocks by providing nutrients to phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic plant-like organisms that, like plants on land, need the sun’s energy, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients like iron, nitrogen and phosphate to photosynthesize. Unlike plants on land, phytoplankton can’t root into the ocean bottom to retrieve these nutrients. Instead, they get it from whale poop, which whales excrete at the ocean’s surface. Whales are the ocean’s gardeners and through their migration, they redistribute nutrients across the world’s oceans.
So what’s the difference between humans and plants or animals?
For starters, we have thought and language. We have the ability to imagine a future that only exists in our thoughts. Therefore, we create stories and rules about how to manipulate and control that imaginary future.
And guess what? Despite our best efforts, we have no control over others or the future. Intentional suffering serves no one and nothing. It merely creates unnecessary pain.
Let’s take a lesson from nature and thrive with what we have in the moment. Let’s not sacrifice our happiness in the now for something we have no control of outside of now.
Let’s each be the best version of ourselves and not limit our capabilities or our needs (while also not taking more than we need). Rather than intentionally restricting ourselves of pleasure, let’s run straight toward it! Let’s bathe in the abundance of what is available to us.
Because the more we thrive, the more we enable others to thrive. The happier we are, the more light we spread. The better we feel, the more loving and compassionate we are. The more we create, the more we contribute to our society. When we give from a place of fullness rather than from a place of lack, we exponentially create more of what we give.
*Adam is his first name and Patrick is his middle name. We weren’t given a last name, and he prefers to go by Patrick.