Machu Picchu Keeps The Spirit Of The Incas Alive

11/27/2012 07:00 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013

I just returned from my first trip to Peru. I like to travel, and have done so a fair amount, but it's been a while since a trip has left me so reflective.

Of course the rugged geography and the hand hewn, astrologically precise stone architecture are stunning and amazing, but I was most taken by how much the people and the culture are still influenced by the spirit of the Incas, and how relevant the messages of that heritage are for us today.

The Incas believed in three levels of life experience and represented them through totems of the condor, the puma and the snake. The condor, the world's largest bird with a wingspan of six to 10 feet, connects us to our spirit, or eternal self above, and points the way to ultimate freedom or illumination. The [uma, a four-to six-foot-long, sleek, black nocturnal hunter, rarely seen in day light, represents the manifest self, or the guardian and embodiment of wisdom in daily life. The snake, or the great anaconda of the jungle, represents our inner self and the ability to transmute and transform through reflection and self-awareness. The Incas also believed that through the practice of love, self-knowledge and work, we align this trilogy of existence in our being to grow and model wisdom in this life.

In visiting Machu Picchu, our guide pointed out how this trilogy is symbolized in the site itself. First, the site is bounded by four mountains roughly corresponding to the four cardinal directions of the Chakana -- the Inca version of the medicine wheel or mandala of life. In the saddle between the North and South-facing mountains is the center of the town where most of the religious practice and rituals took place. This was the condor. Second, the Urubamba River far below majestically winds around the foot of the East-West facing mountains in a U shape, separating them from the North-South and providing the nourishing waters, or Kundalini, of life. This was the snake. Finally, the people, who lived there as a spiritual society, were devoted to practicing love, self-knowledge, and work in service to and fulfillment of their beliefs. This was the puma.

Seeing how they attempted to align nature, self and spirit with the universe, the whole place before me came magically to life.

In reflecting back, I asked where I might have experienced any of this meaning on the trip, especially the puma.

As in many countries, there were street vendors on the streets of Cuzco, Peru, and like many American travelers I easily grow frustrated with their constant harangue. While sitting with Jennifer having a beer, one approached selling a beautiful musical string instrument he had made himself. I don't play anything so I had no use for it, but he persisted, and I grew annoyed in saying no over and over again. Finally he said, "I will trade it for your watch." I brushed him off again, but then I turned, opened and really looked at him for the first time. I felt a connection. Given the circumstances, I was not willing to give up my only way to tell time, but I was somehow moved. So I said, "How about I just send you a watch instead and you keep the instrument." He was very surprised, and so grateful. It made my day, and also I believe it made his. I took his name and address and later today I am off to get the watch.

The lesson for me is that the puma available to us all through very simple acts of openness in everyday life.