12 Life Lessons from the Mayans (Before their Calendar Ends!)

For centuries, Mayan culture has been a focal point for historians and futurists alike. The mysterious disappearance of the Mayan people has been a fascination throughout history, and their long-count calendar, which ends a 5,125-year cycle on December 21st, 2012, has become emblematic for an emergent culture that believes we’re experiencing an imminent, unparalleled shift for humankind, and the planet.

Our human fascination with doomsday and apocalyptic scenarios latched onto the Mayan calendar’s end date, which just also happens to coincide with a major galactic alignment. Hollywood made a movie about it and scores of experts have offered their “predictions” about what may lay ahead for us after this prophesied time. According to John Major Jenkins, a Mayan expert, “The ancient Maya believed that the years around 2012 would be attended by great changes and, in accordance with their World Age Creation mythology, the transformation of human beings into something completely new.” While it’s unlikely that the earth will implode, poles will shift, or ancient aliens return to Mayan pyramids next month, there’s no question that major changes are upon us—they always are. If anything, we can reflect on some of the Mayans attributes that made them such a remarkable culture, and possibly even integrate some of these lessons into our lives.

While the Mayans were known for some not so great things like patriarchy and human sacrifice, there are some valuable lessons still relevant today that can help us move towards whatever it is that happens after December 21st. Here’s a few:

1. Holistic medicine

Mayans used a complex complimentary system of healing. Shamanic practitioners blended religion, ritual, science as well as healing the body and mind in treating illnesses. Unlike Western medicine, they focused on the root cause of the illness, not just alleviating symptoms.

2. Maximum nutrition

The staple diet of the Maya inlcuded corn, beans and squash. They figured out how to maximize the proteins in corn by soaking the kernels in water and lime. Exposing the most nutritious part of the plant helped them stay healthy and vibrant. They also relied on superfoods such as pure, raw chocolate for additional health benefits.

3. “Organic” food distribution

Community markets were developed during the Mayan civilization to help get food to the people. Like today’s farmers markets, the Mayans were able to connect with their growers and get the freshest foods available. It made for healthier diets and a strong market economy.

4. Natural painkillers

Psychedelic plant medicine, such as peyote, played an important role in ritual and in daily life. Along with other potent substances including certain types of mushrooms and tobacco, Mayans dealing with chronic pain often utilized these potent plant medicines, which helped not only abate acute pain and discomfort, but treat the larger underlying illness. They took many of these medicines through enemas, which is still believed to be a powerful healer today.

5. Detoxification

A crucial part of the Mayan culture was saunas or sweat baths. Just like modern spas and saunas, extreme heat can help the body to eliminate toxins and revitalize itself. It was often relied upon when an illness was coming on, or in the recovery process to aid the body’s natural healing systems.

6. Play

Ballgames were a fixture in the Mayan culture for more than 3,000 years. The games and ball courts were gathering places for the community. And while some of the competition was associated with decapitation (severed heads offered as ritual or punishment were rumored to have been used), the communal face-to-face games (as opposed to our modern fascination with isolating video games) were paramount to a strong network and the survival of the culture.

7. Art

Mayan art is still revered today as being some of the most beautiful and sophisticated work in history. The culture’s appreciation for artistic exploration is an important reminder that expression is a key element to the human experience.

8. Structures

Mayans are known for their pyramids, which still survive today in places such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. They’re a profound reminder of the value of patience and intention—a great lesson in our fast-paced disposable culture.

9. Climate change

New research has come to light that indicates climate change may have played a significant role in the collapse of the Mayans. Changes in rain patterns over centuries dried up food and water supplies leaving many humans and animals without the necessities for survival. Sound familiar?

10. The big picture

Skilled astronomers and cosmologists, the Mayan calendar systems (there were serveral) were based on the starry night skies. While we have a much different relationship with modern time-keeping and astrological significance, it’s always helpful to bear in mind just how vast and mysterious the universe really is.

11. The power of rumor

The Mayan long-count calendar never predicted an apocalypse. But because it does seem to end abruptly, and when there’s an important cosmological event, many historians predicted that it meant a massive end for earth. It’s an important lesson on just how easily facts can become altered and even dangerous. Be impeccable with your word to avoid these types of mishaps.

12. The power of story

The Mayan calendar and much of the culture thrived on stories, such as the creation myth. While they didn’t have Facebook or Tumblr back in early A.D. days, the Mayans did perpetuate culture through oral traditions and even some written stories. Imagination, of course, influenced each retelling and most stories are likely vague adaptations (such as the end of the world story). They evolve, just like all things on earth. It’s an important lesson in the power—not just of storytelling—but in allowing new stories to develop and unfold without being too attached to the outcome.

Keep in touch with Jill (until December 21st, at least) on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Ted Van Pelt