05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Healing the Nation's Soul

"I believe your President Obama is a shaman," my teacher's saying, "and that he is trying to perform a soul-retrieval for your nation."

We're sitting on the edge of the cloud forest in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico, watching the first rays of the sun glance the glacier atop Pico de Orizaba. Mists cling to the tops of the upper canopy trees in the wide valley below and a line of snowy egrets make their way through the last shadows of night toward some secret lagoon. Tropical birdsong comes alive all around us, the barking of roosters and dogs drift up the mountainside from the town.

We are far from the beaten track but there is nowhere anymore that is far from news of the world. It's with a real sense of pride that I share the news with him that the United States had just passed Health Care Reform into law the day before.

His reply strikes me as both spiritually and politically astute: I believe your President Obama is a shaman and that he is trying to perform a soul-retrieval for your nation. It reverberates within, sending me off along paths I hadn't thought connected.

Susto is thought of as a kind of sudden unexpected fright or shock that causes part of a person's soul to fly off, leaving them to feel and act not at all like themselves. Many anthropologists feel that susto is a folk version of schizophrenia and some therapists note its similarities to post-traumatic stress disorder with all its attendant symptoms, especially a detachment from others.

The traditional cure for the soul-loss incurred by those suffering from susto is a soul-retrieval, in which the shaman or shamaness, through speech and ritual, induces the missing soul part to return and make the person whole again. I'd heard and seen this this practice applied to individuals for many years but this was the first time I'd ever heard it applied to an entire nation.

It made me wonder. Had the United States suffered some deep trauma that had caused a part of its national soul to fly off, leaving us detached from others in a strange kind of cultural schizophrenia?

Was it the assassination of President Kennedy? Vietnam? The youth movement of the 60s? The assassination of Martin Luther King? Civil Rights? Feminism? The resignation of President Nixon? Certainly there were other candidates before these but they were before the advent of instantaneous communication that made for shared traumas. And just as certainly, there have been others since these but we seem to have lost the innocence to ever be so deeply shocked by events again. Any one of these might be enough but so traumatizing were the cumulative events of the 60s and 70s that the current cultural war between the Right and Left seems like the inevitable, predictable result of a national susto.

It's all fresh in my mind from this morning and I just share it the way it's come to me here on the side of a mountain with the mists burning away and Pico de Orizaba gleaming in the brilliant morning light. What do you think? Have we reached a turning point in our detachment from others and schizophrenic Right-Left self-defeating dramas? Is President Obama the kind of symbolic figure who can draw out our flaws for us to see so that we might remember the nobility of our national character? Is this health care reform the first step in our national healing? Is our sense of compassion toward one another being re-awakened?

From here, the morning looks bright and filled with promise.


The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Click here to go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.