As a natural healer, I noticed that some clients got well in a reasonable amount of time while others, even though they might have the same complaint and receive the same treatments, never improved. This was a conundrum for me until I met Don Elijio Panti. In 1982, my family moved to Belize and I began searching for a local healer to teach me about the medicinal plants of my new home. Everyone I asked said, “You have to go see Elijio Panti in San Antonio.”
Don Elijio, a traditional Mayan healer, was already ninety years old when we met. It took a full year of visits to his stick and thatch clinic in the Maya Mountains of Western Belize before he agreed to teach healing to a gringa. Over the next twelve years, he taught me the uses of more than five hundred medicinal plants, as well as folk massage, acupuncture with stingray spines, cupping, herbal baths and prayer. Prayer, he said, was the most important tool in his work. After a year as his apprentice, I saw that Don Elijio was much more than an herbalist. He was, in fact, one of the last living Maya shamans of Central America.
During this apprenticeship, two aspects of his ancient medical system impressed me the most. The first was his attention to women’s health. More than half of the one hundred patients who trekked on foot to his clinic each week were women with menstrual complaints or fertility problems. “The uterus is a woman’s center,” he told me. “If it is not in good health, then her life will be out of balance physically, emotionally and spiritually.” He treated these women with phenomenal success, using a five-thousand-year-old method of abdominal massage that repositions the woman’s uterus in its rightful place. Now I teach these Maya Abdominal Massage techniques all over the world.
The second was his emphasis on there being a spiritual dimension to many forms of illness. People came from all over Central America to consult with Don Elijio about matters of the unquiet soul and the restless, disturbed heart. These patients, he said, were suffering from spiritual diseases.
Using an ancient kind of pulse diagnosis, he could tell within seconds if a sickness was physical or spiritual in nature. Spiritual ailments could be caused by envy, fright, grief, anger or sadness. These emotions, he said, were often the cause of physical pain, heart trouble, insomnia, indigestion, headaches and night terrors. “No doctor can cure them because their machines won’t show the sickness.”
He taught me to treat these mysterious ailments with prayers, baths and copal incense. His prayers were addressed to the Nine Maya Spirits, to Ix Chel, the goddess of medicine, and to the Virgin Mary of the Catholic Church. He adored and worshipped all of them with no concern about mingling religions. Healers must, he said, have a higher power working in their lives in order to heal spiritual diseases.
“You are not the healer, but you are the one who collects the plants, says the prayers and prepares the sacred copal incense,” he told me. “They cannot do what we do and we cannot do what they do. Faith is what heals. With our prayers and our faith people get well even if they’ve been sick for a very long time.”
Who would answer my healing prayers?
This was frankly intimidating for me. Having declared myself a fallen Catholic decades earlier, I had long felt like a spiritual orphan, with no place for my soul to call home. Who or what, then, was my Higher Power? Who would answer my healing prayers?
Whenever we collected roots, vines, barks and plants in the rainforest, Don Elijio would whisper prayers of faith and protection to Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of medicine. In time, I got to know and to feel a connection with her as deep as the one I had once felt for the Catholic saints. “She is not God,” he said, “but she is the right hand of God who watches over healers, medicinal plants and women during pregnancy and childbirth.” Ix, he explained, was the Maya word for woman, feminine or goddess, and chel was rainbow or translucent, shimmering light. Together the two words form a beautiful, poetic concept: divine feminine translucent light. Her spiritual essence is the silvery moon. She is queen of all the Maya gods and mother of all the Maya people.
To Don Elijio, praying with deep faith to Ix Chel, the Nine Maya Spirits, and Mother Mary gave his healing the power to overcome emotional darkness and spiritual disease. Here is the ancient idea of body-mind connection that has had such an impact in the 20th century.
Don Elijio passed away in 1996 at 103. Since then, the same deities he introduced me to have become my Higher Powers. Praying to them has given me a spiritual home rather than a religion, and has been the conduit for countless healings in my practice. Now, I treat the person, not the ailment, and always ask if the patient has had a fright or has felt grief since the symptoms began. Everyone, in my experience, has had a traumatic event in their past which could be the cause of their physical symptoms. Who has not felt grief over the loss of a loved one or had a broken heart over a romantic upset? These lingering emotional states affect us deeply in the physical body, but I’ve seen them cured with the Maya system of prayer, herbal baths and incense.