Posts Tagged ‘shamanism’

In 1997, Toltec nagual (shaman) don Miguel Ruiz published a small book called The Four Agreements. The book laid out in practical terms four agreements one can make with oneself, a code of conduct to live by to transform one’s life. The idea is that these four agreements would replace or at least augment the many agreements we’ve carried with us since we were children—many harmful to our well-being—about our self-worth, our abilities, and life in general.

I learned about the book in 2000, after a particularly difficult year. I was on the brink of leaving my career. I was struggling in my marriage and with being a mother. I was unhappy and didn’t know what to do about it. My boss at the time, with whom my relationship was all but broken, gave me the book. She had just returned from a short sabbatical from work. She seemed transformed and credited the change to the wisdom of Ruiz. She handed out copies of the book to members of her staff, and then within a matter of a few weeks or months, she retired.

I remember when she gave me the book, at first I saw it as an olive branch. I had at one point before my boss left on her sabbatical become so enraged at her over matters at work that I let loose with a verbal assault that surprised even me. In my younger days I had the mouth of a sailor, but I rarely let my emotions get out of hand. Not so that year. I dropped the F-bomb on my boss like it was going out of style. In hindsight, it was amazing that she didn’t fire me for insubordination. That she could give me any gift at all seemed hugely generous.

Later, when I opened the book and saw what it contained, I took the gift as an insult. A category tag on the back of the book identified it as Personal Growth / Self-Help. I felt my former boss was trying to tell me that that I needed help; I was immature enough then to believe that I was perfectly fine and that she was the one who needed help. Reluctantly I read the book.

Fast forward to 2010. I think about my former boss now and again. I know now that not only did I in fact need help those many years ago, The Four Agreements was exactly the right kind of help. Had I been living them at the time, I would not have made the assumption that my former boss was giving me the book as way of trying to tell me something.

Recently I had the opportunity, thanks to the generosity of my good friend Patty, to see don Miguel Ruiz in Albuquerque and hear him and his son, don Jose Ruiz, talk about a new book they jointly wrote called The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. This was the first time I’d seen either Ruiz in person. I didn’t take notes during the packed talk. I sat in the back of the Unitarian church where they spoke. I listened with an open heart. After the talk, the elder Ruiz left (we learned he had only partial heart functioning after a near-fatal heart attack in 2002) while the younger stayed in the church and signed books.

don jose ruiz and pattydon jose ruiz and roma

light and love, photos of Patty (left) and Roma with don Jose Ruiz, emanating light and love, May 19, 2010, Albuquerque, photos © 2010, all rights reserved.

Don Miguel Ruiz came from a family of healers. His mother was a curandera and his grandfather a nagual. From the book jacket of The Four Agreements, “The family anticipated that Miguel would embrace their centuries-old legacy of healing and teaching, and carry forward the esoteric Toltec knowledge. Instead, distracted by modern life, Miguel chose to attend medical school and become a surgeon.”

After nearly losing his life in a car accident, Ruiz devoted himself to becoming a nagual. He has passed on the knowledge to his son, Jose Luis, and together they are promoting The Fifth Agreement. I am reading The Fifth Agreement now, and already it has hit home for me the wisdom and power of that original small book.

I have in small but perceptible ways been transformed by Ruiz’s four agreements. They’re not easy to live by. Some are harder than others. Some I recall daily. Here they are, with a short excerpt about each:

be impeccable with your word

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

don’t take anything personally

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

don’t make assumptions

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

always do your best

Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Perhaps you are familiar with don Miguel Ruiz and his books of wisdom, or maybe this is the first time you’ve heard of any of this. In either case, reflect on the four agreements and think about what they mean to you. Write each agreement at the top of your notebook and then do a 10- or 15-minute Writing Practice on each one. If this is your first exposure to this Toltec wisdom, buy the books or check them out from your local library and take the time to learn more about them and their author. Let us know if your writings about the agreements resonate with the writings in the books.

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By Carol Tombers

Shamanic Series 1, Egg tempera with earth pigments on Arches Rag 400 lb. paper, 23″x30″, painting © 2008 by Carol Tombers. All rights reserved.

It is my desire for color that calls me to the studio. Essentially, color is a vibration and its energy is stored in the mineral pigment. I am drawn to put those different vibrations next to each other and listen to how they speak to one another. And I am curious to bring together colors that are rich beyond daily visual experience.

Painting is like a meditation for me. It almost always produces a calm and alert state of mind, and puts me in touch with a universal sense of well being. It hasn’t always been like this. For many years the primary test was a struggle with what subject matter to depict.

Now I try to include all of the subject matter that interests me at once, and the challenge becomes how to represent it in a way that might be meaningful to the viewer. The image, then, is closer to how I experience the world and this gives me a sense of satisfaction.

Shamanic Series 4, Egg tempera with earth pigments on Arches Rag 400 lb. paper, 23″x30″, painting © 2008 by Carol Tombers. All rights reserved.

Five years ago I began to take classes in Medieval egg tempera painting from a master icon painter in the Russian Orthodox tradition. The theology underlying the images engages me in a mythological way rather than a spiritual way. My own studio painting changed as I began to understand that every aspect of the painted icon is reflective of a particular concept of the theological tradition. No brush stroke is made, nor color mixed, that it not significant to the theology.

For example, when an icon is gilded, the artist first applies bole, a mixture of red clay and glue, to the prepared surface. The bole (essentially dirt) symbolizes the most base aspects of human nature. The bole is polished to a mirror-like smoothness, a symbol of the spiritual work of the human. Next, the icon maker breathes a deep breath onto the bole to make it tacky before laying on the 24K gold leaf, a symbol of divine perfection. The idea of these materials symbolizing a spiritual process inspired me to put my personal mythology into my work.

About this same time I began to study shamanism, first in the tradition of the Mapuche people of Chile, and later in a more general way. It is through shamanic “journeys” and other meditation practices that I come to the imagery of my paintings.

Shamanic Series 3, Egg tempera with earth pigments on Arches Rag 400 lb. paper, 23″x30″, painting © 2008 by Carol Tombers. All rights reserved.

The paint I use is made from “earth pigments.” These minerals and plants are ground and mixed with egg yolk, water, and a drop of vinegar to preserve it. The beauty of egg tempera is that it is translucent and that light passes through the paint and bounces off of the white ground, giving an effect of a painting that is illuminated from within.

The pigment can be laid down on the painting in a pool of water so that the different mineral colors fall to the surface of the painting in patterns similar to the bottom of a dry riverbed. Up close a tension can be seen between the various pigments; but stepping back your eye blends the color together to see it unified. So there is an exciting variation in the appearance of the materials, depending on proximity.

Shamanic Series 5, Egg tempera with earth pigments on Arches Rag 400 lb. paper, 23″x30″, painting © 2008 by Carol Tombers. All rights reserved.

To support my studio work, I make color studies, practice brush strokes, and collect color combinations. I paint about six hours at a time, two or three times a week. I look at other paintings. I keep painting. I learn about what other creative people think about. I keep a journal of color combinations and their recipes, lists of books to read, and images to track down on the web. I don’t often listen to music while I paint because I want the right hemisphere of my brain available for painting. But I do listen to audio books and pod casts while I work.

I was listening to a dialogue between Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass from the Aurora Forum at Stanford University. Leonard Cohen said you (artists) have to keep going because it isn’t until near the end of the work that the brilliance of it comes out. So I urge my strategic mind to fixate on color combinations and other art elements and principles, rather than the evaluation of my work in a realm beyond my control. This allows me to keep going.

Shamanic Series 2, Egg tempera with earth pigments on Arches Rag 400 lb. paper, 23″x30″, painting © 2008 by Carol Tombers. All rights reserved.

About Carol:  Carol Tombers was born and raised in Minnesota. She began her artistic career at the age of eight by painting a picture of the garage on plywood with house paint. Later she earned a BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MA from the University of St. Thomas. She is especially delighted by travel, and has done visual research most recently in Barcelona and Bogotá.

Carol has taught visual art for ten years at The Blake School and will begin a seven-month sabbatical in January 2009. During that time she will be studying historical color systems and painting in Mexico and Colombia. Her work has been shown in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, and Ohio.

To learn more about the Russian-Byzantine Tradition of Icon Painting visit The Prosopon School of Iconology. To learn more about shamanic healing in the Mapuche tradition visit Luzclara — Chilean Medicine Woman.

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