Mayan spirituality at Age of Wonderland

October 26, 2016

Bringing together thinkers and creative doers from throughout the world: that is what Hivos, Baltan Laboratories and Dutch Design Week’s Age of Wonderland programme does. The aim of Age of Wonderland at the Dutch Design Week is to devise innovative answers to problems, like inequality and environmental degradation. Mayan philosopher and spiritual leader Branly Lopéz from Guatemala – one of the six Age of Wonderland fellows – may seem out of place in this circuit. But is that so?

At home everywhere

We are sitting over coffee in Age of Wonderland’s spacious workshop in the Baltan Lab in Eindhoven, formerly the renowned Philips Physics Laboratory. Branly Lopéz – Branly from now on – feels at home. That is to say, he feels at home everywhere. That feeling is based on thankfulness, ‘for whatever the circumstances may be’. That attitude to life opens doors, literally. Branly (born in 1975, with a degree in urban planning from Poitiers, France) was in Amsterdam for a few days, among other things for a short reading at a festival. He struck up a conversation with a woman there. An hour later she calmly handed him the keys to her house: “I have to go abroad today for my work, but you can stay in my house for a few days if you like.” The spiritual leader smiles but does not give the impression that he found this occurrence particularly surprising.

Journey more important than destination

A conversation with Branly is like cruising along a river in a boat: it’s about the journey itself, and not so much about the destination. What you feel and experience during the journey is more important than your flow of thoughts. Above all you have to let yourself go with it. Anyone who desperately tries to hang onto the edge, or who is only thinking about the destination, will experience less on balance and won’t get nearly as far. But if you allow yourself to go along with the flow you will experience wonderful things and you are likely to learn a few things along the way. “Many people focus on creating certainty and stability in their lives. The result is rigidity, hanging on to things, and certain ways of thinking. That way we are not open to the many possibilities and opportunities that life offers. We can only really start to learn when we open up.” Not all the statements that are to follow this afternoon will be quite as crystal clear and incisive: “Uncertainty – the opposite of certainty – does not really exist, but sits in our mind, and blocks innovative processes.”

“My teachings are not new – all of it is inside us”

Developing an open mind and rejecting ballast, material things – these are insights that we encounter in many non-Western cultures, among Eastern philosophers like Krishnamurti in Buddhism. Branly is the first to admit it, “My teachings are not new. All of it is inside us. We pass on knowledge from previous, numerous lives, whose memories are tied in with our intuition.” That whole idea as well, new. Not just mankind, but also the universe and the cosmos house elementary knowledge.

Cosmic data harbours stories about each individual

Enter big cosmic data! The old Mayas from Central America were obsessed with space and time, with the position of the sun and the moon. At the end of the day they are what determine the changing of the seasons, which is important in turn for the natural cycles of sowing and harvesting. By studying the movement of the heavenly bodies the Maya developed a highly sophisticated cosmic calendar. A great deal of knowledge was lost, but together with the so-called Tzolkin calendar, a treasure trove of information has been preserved – cosmic data that harbours stories about each individual, about life itself. According to Branly, the paths of astrology and astronomy have become artificially separated at some time in modern history, “whilst they are both one and the same.” A crying shame, he believes. “Because, due to that separation, we have become obsessed with obtaining proof. Here is where uncertainty begins, which hinders the search for yourself.”

Artificial separation between value and truth

The separation that he refers to conjures up associations with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a cult book from the 1970s that talks about the difference between quality or value on the one hand, and ‘truth’ on the other hand. The author argues that the de-coupling of both concepts, which once formed a symbiosis, is indeed artificial and has led to a great deal of frustration, suffering and unhappiness in the modern world.

Innovation not possible without creativity

Branly’s native Guatemala certainly has experienced plenty of frustration and suffering; lawlessness, drugs gangs, corruption, you name it. Which brings us to the key question: how does Mayan spirituality relate to these earthly matters? Branly: “Spirituality remains. It makes people resilient and ultimately stronger, and it is an infinite source of hope.” The fact that he is perfectly placed to leave the well-trodden path and explore new ground, or at least to inspire others to do so, explains the value of the Mayan philosopher to a programme like Age of Wonderland, based on the idea that innovation – great ideas and new solutions – is not possible without creativity.