In some South American countries, people have certain ideas about the origins of illness. Among these are mal ojo—bad eye, mal aire—bad air, and envidia—envy. Before heading to Ecuador in early February, I had become a little familiar with the concepts of mal ojo and envidia through the writing of herbalist Rosita Arvigo in Sastun, her account of working with a Maya medicine man in Belize. Mal aire—bad air—I had not heard of. About all of these things I wondered: How often can illnesses be attributed to these? Is it simply a South American or African or old European or Mediterranean concept that doesn’t really translate to the States? Or do we have our own versions? I was not prepared to write off these concepts to “superstition,” but rather, wanted to learn whether we suffered from them in our own ways. If everything is energy, and properly flowing energy equates to health and improperly flowing or stuck energy equates to dis-ease, then we can create a context for mal ojo and mal aire in our own culture.
One of the healers we spoke with said mal ojo can be as simple as looking at someone intensely, even without ill intent. I guess I can understand this. If the eyes are the proverbial doorway to the soul, then looking intensely at someone can certainly release some of the soul of the looker to the one being looked at. I myself look pretty intensely at most of the world. Not that I wasn’t brought up otherwise, but I often feel that people are too insular. I want to behold the world in all is beauty and ugliness—to stare intensely at a sunset that changes second by second, as if a master painter starts out subtly, then amps up the intensity, the sky going from light blues, orange, lilac to raging orange, hot pink and near-red. With people, too, I’m intensely curious: What are they doing? How are they doing? What are the things that help them get through their days, their lives?
By my intense looking, do I create mal ojo around others? And what of “bad air”? Traveling with a group of mostly herbal healers gave me a chance to see and feel what caregiving would be like if more people were caregivers. Thirty of us, including our “money person” and bus driver, all pitched in to care for whomever needed caring at any given time. Obviously, for those who give (and give and give), it can be quite exhausting. The husband of one such person on our visit said his wife would feel energetically drained after the trip and he would be the one to look after her when they got home. It’s hard for people who really care about others not to give care. On the other hand, as one of the curanderos (healers) said, people exhaust themselves with caregiving—this can create mal aire, when there is too much caregiving and too little self-tending.
Envidia is probably more of an extreme concept. I say this based on what the curanderos told us: Most all of us suffered from mal ojo or mal aire or a combination of the two. Envidia is an interesting concept to me, not just because I’m familiar with the Ten Commandments’ admonition, Thou shalt not envy, but because I think that has a corollary that people usually miss: Don’t inspire envy in others. Easier said than done, I suppose, especially because we are not always conscious of how we may be igniting someone’s envy of ourselves. Not only that, but we cannot honestly control someone else’s reaction toward us—we can only control our own. But envidia as an underlying cause of illness is more extreme than mal ojo or mal aire in that someone envies another with bad intent—resents what the object of envy has in material wealth or happiness or what they’ve achieved. And of course, envidia is an energy drain not only for the object of envy, but also for the one who envies.
In Ecuador, as in other South American countries, plants are used to cleanse the body of mal ojo and mal aire and envidia. We had the privilege and honor of working with native healers who used plant limpias—cleansings—to purify our bodies and our spirits. It was a key part of our journey and is one of the healing techniques I hope to work with as an herbalist in the future, but to align with our own plants here in the Mid-Atlantic, many of which are European natives that do quite well in Ecuador. Doing limpias for others involves deeply protecting oneself so that one does not take on any of the “bad eye” or “bad air” that is trapped in the subject of a limpia. And that requires a long apprenticeship, something I’ve yet to have. Still, there may be ways to implement the idea and the ideal of a limpia so that one can help rid oneself of the “bads.” This is something I intend to explore.