Indigenous and Environmental Wisdom in John Lundin's Journey to the Heart of the World

06/23/2015 06:38 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016


Photo Courtesy of John Lundin.

Journey to the Heart of the World is a parable-like novel, reminiscent of the work of Paulo Coelho, with an environmental and humanitarian message deeply rooted in the wisdom of the indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.

With the Pope's recent encyclical encouraging immediate attention to environmental issues and inherently related human realities, author John Lundin's work shows this has been a consistent theme with the world's First Peoples, and for necessary reasons.

While Lundin's first book had been a non-fiction work written in association with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it sometimes takes a parable to draw one in to bring a certain critical message home; storytelling has been universal among all traditions and cultures for this reason. Its layers of metaphor reveal truths we sometimes need to feel, for knowledge without emotion can sometimes make action far less powerful.

My interview with John Lundin follows below.

You had written The New Mandala in conjunction with His Holiness the Dalai Lama during your time in India - what were the ways that your experience there, and with His Holiness and other lamas, helped to pave the way for Journey to the Heart of the World?

First, my experience with the Dalai Lama led in a very direct way to my being invited by the indigenous Elders of La Sierra Nevada in Colombia to live with them, learn from them and to write a book that would share their environmental and spiritual message with the world. Following the publication of The New Mandala I accepted an invitation to join the staff at Menla Mountain Retreat Center in the Catskills of New York. Menla is affiliated with Tibet House US which is in turn loosely affiliated with the Office of His Holiness. While I was there, Menla hosted an historic gathering of Native American elders from throughout the Americas. It was there that I met the Elders of la Sierra, who learned of my earlier book written with His Holiness, and they asked me to do something similar with them.

Additionally, my experience in India, and the writing of The New Mandala, led me to an awareness of the profound and simple truths that are common to virtually all spiritual traditions. My personal spiritual journey has led me from the Christian tradition in which I was raised, to the Jewish tradition that proceeded it, to Buddhist wisdom which preceded that, and now to indigenous wisdom which predates all other traditions.

What knowledge or exposure had you had with indigenous cultures prior to meeting with the tribes from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta? How did meeting them at Menla Mountain affect you enough to accept their invitation to Colombia?

I had had virtually no experience with indigenous or Native American culture, except second-hand, in books. When I knew they were coming to Menla and I would be hosting them, I did some preliminary research, principally watching the BBC documentary about the Kogi produced by Alan Ereira in 1990 and reading the book he wrote about the experience. As for how my meeting them in person affected me, it's hard to explain to one who has not experienced it. These people are present to everything around them in a way only the Dalai Lama and other high lamas had ever impressed me as being. They 'figured me out,' as their leader spoke of it, right away, and their invitation and their trust in me being their messenger was so overwhelming and humbling that there was never any hesitation on my part.

What was your first impression of Colombia when you arrived? When you went to the mountains to meet with and learn from the elders?

I spent the first three months in Medellín with the leaders of a non-profit group that had brought the elders to Menla. Medellín is a very surprising city. Very clean and modern and friendly. It was a great introduction to Colombia, but also very different from the rural Colombia I would discover when I made my first trip to la Sierra Nevada and one of the principle indigenous villages. That experience was other-worldly, like traveling back in time, and served as the inspiration for the early chapters in my novel that describe the teenaged hero's experience and reaction. All I can say is that it seemed to be something of a pastoral Shangri-La. There is so much to be said for shedding what we call modern conveniences and experiencing life as I believe it was really meant to be lived. I live in a clay hut with a thatched roof when I am in the indigenous villages. There is no electricity, no running water, no vehicles of any kind. In fact, the indigenous cultures of la Sierra Nevada had developed without even the wheel until recently. The quiet is almost overwhelming, but once one gets used to it, it's conducive to living in something of a non-stop silent meditation.

How does Colombia differ from the United States in the way they approach their indigenous populations?

On the whole, Colombians are very proud of their indigenous peoples. They understand that they are a very special and uniquely spiritual people, and the ordinary Colombian typically holds them in a position of awe and respect. There are exceptions, of course - some Colombians who feel that the indigenous population is backward and uneducated, not unlike the way many in the United States regard their Native American brothers and sisters. I think part of the difference is that the indigenous peoples of la Sierra have lived the last five hundred years largely isolated and apart from their mostly European Colombian counterparts and were not, until recently, forced into participating in our capitalistic way of life nor being marginalized on its fringes. I think many Colombians realize, as I do, that the indigenous way of life is, in fact, superior to our way of life in many ways.

What inspired you the most in your time with the tribe(s)? What aspects of their culture do you believe is most important for international audiences to learn, and how did you incorporate these themes into the book?

In truth the most profound of wisdom is the most simple. The great truths of all the world's wisdom traditions are not rocket science. The Elders of la Sierra asked me to write a book that would share their environmental and spiritual message with the world. That message is very simple, and I began learning it with my very first teaching from the Elders:

In the beginning, the natural law was given to the original people. It is written in the colors - it is written on the stone and in the water, in the colors of the rocks and the land, the colors of the oceans and the rivers and the snows, the colors of the plants and the trees, the colors of the birds and the animals and the fishes, and the colors of the people - the brown people, the white people and the black people, the red people and the yellow people and the peoples of all colors in between. The younger brother can learn to read the colors - with much spiritual work and effort.

The answer to global warming and climate change is not driving smaller cars and reducing our carbon footprint. It will require a fundamental change in our spiritual relationship with our Earth Mother - with la madre tierra. And that requires a return to the way it was 'in the beginning.' It requires that we regain a respect for the planet and our natural environment and all the peoples and the animals and the plants and trees that share it with us, a respect we once had and which the original peoples of the Earth have never lost. We are all one. Respect for the Earth begins with that simple understanding.

It's not so much that I learned a lot that was new or startling from my indigenous friends. It's more that I was reminded of the importance of what I already knew but had forgotten.

Did you set out initially to write about this indigenous community and its message via fiction, and what ultimately caused you to make the decision that a novel was the best way to proceed?

No. My earlier book, written with the Dalai Lama and which tried to share the similarities and differences between Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian faith traditions, was decidedly non-fiction, and at first I assumed this one would be, too. On the other hand, the Elders told me specifically it was not to be a book 'about them' - in other words not a work of anthropology, for example. They actually don't want the world to know any more about them. They want the world to hear their message.

I decided early on that the book needed to be written for a young adult reader - they are the ones who need to get the message. And over time I came to the realization that I could best reach them with a work of fiction. Fiction engages the reader's imagination in a way no non-fiction book ever could. It's a vehicle for touching the heart and the soul, not merely the mind. Once I came to that realization, I jumped into the fiction genre wholeheartedly and ended up engaging my own imagination in the process.

What advantages does fiction present, as opposed to writing non-fiction when it comes to environmental issues and indigenous spirituality?

Spirituality is inherently emotional. Environmental issues are not. In fact, environmental issues can be boring, especially to a young adult. Connecting environmental issues and spirituality for a reader requires making it interesting, even fun. Fiction allows the author to do that. My goal was and is to turn caring for the Earth into a spiritual issue. It's not a nuts and bolts problem that will be solved by more technical papers on the subject. The hope for our future lies with young people falling in love with their Earth Mother all over again, and recovering the respect for the natural environment that was once second nature for all of us. That requires engaging the imagination, evoking emotion, and fiction can do that much better than mere non-fiction.

On a personal level, the thing I have discovered about writing fiction is the freedom it gives me. It's liberating! I can write whatever I want in whatever manner I wish. When I need to get the hero from point A to point B and can't think of a logical or historically-accurate way of doing so, I can just make stuff up! It's great fun.

What do you hope people are most affected by when reading the book?

My over-riding goal is twofold: number one, I want the readers to fall in love with their Earth Mother all over again - to rediscover the beauty and the mystery and the joy in our natural environment. Second, I want them to realize that they can make a difference in the world, that they are in fact the ones who can and must lead the way in caring for the Earth.

What work are you continuing to do with the indigenous communities of Colombia, and the tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in particular?

I didn't come to Colombia as an aid worker or to 'do something' for the indigenous peoples; I came to learn from them and to share their environmental and spiritual message - as they asked me to do. That being said, anyone invited into their very special world is naturally moved to ask, "What can I do to help?" The typical indigenous response is some form of, "You can leave us alone." That is really what they have been asking of outsiders and their conquerors for five hundred years. I have tried to respect that request.

That being said, I am very excited that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be going to help fund a new initiative of the indigenous youth of Colombia. They are forming a Colombian chapter of Earth Guardians, a youth movement based in Boulder, Colorado, that seeks to engage young people in the work of caring for the Earth. This new Colombian chapter, Guardianes de la Tierra, will allow the indigenous youth to take the message that has been handed down to them for generations and spread it among all the youth of Colombia and even the world.

Will you continue to write fiction? What is your next literary project?

I'm keeping an open mind about a 'next project,' but there will be one. And yes, it will be a work of fiction for all the reasons just mentioned. I have been told by readers of Journey to the Heart of the World that my next book should be about water, since I lift it up in this book as being central to everything. I think that will happen, maybe through positing my next story in a location where a river joins the sea, or by following a fictional Jacques Cousteau-type hero - or maybe both. But in the end it will once again try to weave together the themes of spirituality and love of our natural environment in an uplifting and inspirational manner. We'll see.

Journey to the Heart of the World is being initially released Wednesday, June 24th exclusively on Kindle, with print publication to follow later in 2015. A portion of all proceeds will go to preserve both the indigenous culture and the environment of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.