Don Heriberto Cocum, the Maya healer I’ve journeyed to Western Belize to find, pads lightly across the dirt floor and stands directly over me. His heavily lidded eyes gaze down upon the space just above my body as he lifts his rugged palms in front of his chest and rubs them together as if he’s trying to breathe fire from between them.
Placing a calloused hand flat across my exposed belly, he holds his position, and I wonder if he’s trying to read my vital signs through his fingertips. Seconds pass and in spite of myself, I can almost detect the presence of energy transpiring between his leathery palm and my thin skin.
Am I reading too much into things?
My self-doubt is a knee-jerk response. Until recently, I wasn’t what you’d call a great believer in the benefits of holistic therapies. Wary of any practice favoring energy fields over X-rays and not backed by reams of clinical evidence, I remained convinced that only treatments administered under the cold fluorescent lights of a doctor’s office had the power to “fix” medical problems.
That closed-minded view had served me well, until my body decided to have the last word. Over the course of a year, chronic abdominal pain had forced me to visit doctor after doctor, none of whom could offer a real cause or remedy for my problem. In frustration, I decided that I either had to live with my discomfort, or explore new ways to address it.
After several months spent exploring alternative options, my search led me to Western Belize, where I learned that a small group of spiritual healers still practiced the ancient art of Maya abdominal massage and bodywork. For centuries, the doctor-priests and priestesses called H’men (meaning “ones who knows”) used these core massage techniques to open blocked energy paths and release negative energy from unexpressed emotions. The most famous of these H’men, Don Elijio Panti, shared his vast knowledge of the practice with Rosita Arvigo, an American doctor of naprapathy, before his death at age 103.
It was after reading Rosita Arvigo’s book, Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer (Harpercollins, 1994), that I became fascinated with the idea of seeking out my own healing experience within the Belizean rainforest.
I’d arrived during early summer at the Mopan River Resort, a snug twelve-cabana lodge that hugs the banks of the rainforest waterway in the Cayo District of Belize. Pam Picon my American-expat host at the resort, agreed to help me track down one of the few healers who practiced in the nearby jungle community.
On this steamy Saturday afternoon, we traveled to the ancient ruins and active archeological site of El Pilar to visit Don Heriberto Cocom, a healer who had also apprenticed under the powerful Panti. At the site, we met archeologist Annabel Ford, who revealed that the healer was working nearby in his rainforest garden, a living pharmacopoeia of trees, vines, and flowers that provide remedies for various ailments.
Initially, the concept of using banana tree sap as a skin salve and treating swelling with red mangrove bark struck me as a bit primitive, but Ford gently reminded me that most of the active ingredients in the pills packaged at my local pharmacy originated in the rainforest. Although an unassuming shrub or clinging vine might seem like just another part of the lush landscape, either one may provide the antidote to modern man’s most persistent ailments.
To help us find Heriberto, she pointed us towards a rocky track that penetrated the dense forest trees near the ruins. After only a few hundred yards, a small hand painted sign indicated that we’d reached his rainforest garden. As we got out of the car, a slight stab of adrenaline forced me to acknowledge that I was nervous to meet the healer face-to-face.
As we hiked slowly up the trailhead, we encountered the slight figure of Heriberto and my mild fear dissipated. He turned from his work, as if expecting us, and offered a nod in welcome. While he wasn’t much taller than me and was dressed in contemporary clothes, (complete with a lopsided white baseball cap), he commanded the respect typically reserved for great spiritual leaders.
After we introduced ourselves, Heriberto motioned for us to join him inside his freestanding hut, little more than a thatched roof affixed to a frame of several sturdy tree trunks. Twigs and branches tied together with twine hung down from the ceiling, bowls and jars spilled over with leaves, sticks, and other offerings. On the flat plane of a wooden table, a series of carved, hand-painted snakes comprised the only other visitors.
We found spots to arrange ourselves inside his hut and I explained the symptoms that prompted me to see him. In slow, deliberate English, he said that he believed the source of my troubles was an ailment that roughly translated to “loose navel.” He agreed to work on me, explaining that he must call upon both the mystical and physical realms in order to administer effective treatment.
“It does no good to conduct a massage or recommend tea made from a certain flower if it does not have the blessing of the Maya spirit world”, he said.
In order to begin our session, he motioned that I should lie back on the low-lying bench at the edge of the hut and leave my belly exposed. I followed his instructions, feeling a bit self-conscious to reveal my skin. It was only after the H’men laid his palm upon me, and I noticed the flow of energy, that I felt my tense muscles relax.
He then paused to invoke a spiritual presence, and began to move his hands, dragging them from the sides of my stomach together towards the imaginary meridian running down the center of my body. Rather than using the gentle kneading strokes administered by Swedish massage therapists, he applied gentle, constant pressure in a linear motion. He then changed direction, dragging his palms down from my solar plexus to my lower abdomen. It didn’t hurt, and actually made me feel more centered.
Heriberto had explained that the Maya feel that there are particular resting places within the body for our vital organs. When things shift, they create internal conflict, resulting in many of the ambiguous, yet troubling, abdominal pains that plague us. Correcting this imbalance was a simple matter, loose parts simply needed to be reintroduced to their proper spots. The cause of my troubles, he explained, my loose navel.
I was still having trouble with the idea that my belly button was wandering about aimlessly, but I remained still as Heriberto placed his thumb atop my navel and slowly turned it, as if he were winding the key on a clock. Every few moments he would pause to put his palm upon my stomach, checking to see if the work had been done. After a few more turns and another assessment, he lifted his hand away, looking satisfied with his work.
According to Heriberto, I had been healed.
For good measure, he led me a short distance along a path into his rainforest garden and cut a few twigs from a Bay Cedar tree. “Use the bark from this plant to brew a strong tea, which will ease any lasting pains.”
I thank Heriberto for his kindness and I try to pay him for his services. He refuses my money and instead offers me one of the carved snakes I’d seen as I approached, an icon meant to ward off bad spirits. I gratefully accept his gift and descend with Pam back through the rainforest. Over my shoulder I look back and see Heriberto holding up his hand in a silent farewell.
“So, did it work?” Pam whispers as we return to the car. I tell her that it’s still too early to tell. Over the following few days, however, I get discouraged as I realize that I’m still experiencing mild pains. But as the weeks pass, I’m even more surprised to realize that my symptoms are actually subsiding. A month after my trip, I hardly feel any pain at all.
It’s hard to say whether Heriberto, the tree bark tea, or time itself played the biggest hand, but I seemed to be on the road to recovery. A coincidence? Possibly. I’d still like to think that it was my brush with the Maya medicine man that made the difference.
By Amanda Pressner
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