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Ayni - An Andean Lesson that Echoes through History

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

What is Ayni? It is the law of reciprocity. It means today for you, tomorrow for me. It tells us that in order to create harmony in the world, we must engage with the universe by being part of the natural cycle of giving, receiving, and reciprocating. And it is also the one commandment that most Indigenous people of the Andes follow as they engage with all relationships within the universe.

But life is complex, so how does having a single commandment work? In this post, we'll take a closer look at Andean Philosophy and attempt to understand Ayni while using ideas that are more commonly accepted today.

Having a single commandment for all of life works because of the way in which the universe is structured, according to Andean Cosmovision. Andean culture recognizes that the universe is all made up of energy, referred to as kawsay. Humans, plants, animals, rivers, mountains, and even the stars are all made of kawsay that comes in different forms. And the energy from each actor in the universe can interact with other energies. This is explained by Andeans as the Sun God Inti sends its warm energy down to the earth, sharing its energy with the plants and animals. The mountains also carry their energy that they share with their surroundings, which is why they were called Apus, or mountain spirits, that split the clouds and offered protection. Every being in the universe is made up of kawsay, and every being has the ability and potential to interact and work with others.

These observations are congruent with what we see in science modalities: We understand that the universe is made of atoms structured in different ways, and that the same atomic material found within us can be found in the stars and planets throughout the universe. The Andean's respect for the sun as a deity is supported by what we understand now; that its existence powers the process of plant photosynthesis, provides us with essential Vitamin D, and also powers the greenhouse effect, which has the potential to alter the climate cycles in our planet. Thanks to ecological studies, we understand that mountains provide a multitude of benefits aside from strategic safety to people all around the world. Mountains host about a quarter of all biodiversity and forest on the planet, are the origin of 6 out of 20 of the most important food crops, and provide 60-80% of the world's freshwater, as explained in the World Economic Forum. Mountains are such an important provider to life on Earth that it comes as no surprise that not only Andeans, but many Indigenous groups around the world revered them as deities, connecting to them culturally and spiritually as well.

While kawsay is universal and we share in the same components found throughout the universe, there are definitely differences between humans, plants, and planets. But regardless of these differences there is still an exchange of energy, and when we interact with others, we have an effect on the flow. Which is why Andean Philosophy recognizes that energy flows in two distinct ways; sami, which is "light energy", and hucha, or "heavy energy." This recognition of duality resonates with Yin and Yang, Negative and Positive, Masculine and Feminine, Dead or Alive, amongst other examples from both modern and traditional wisdom bodies. And in Andean Philosophy, these distinctions aren't seen as good and bad, but rather seen as in order (sami), or in disorder (hucha).

According to some Andean beliefs, when we find ourselves with too much hucha, we feel stressed, anxious, afraid, and overwhelmed by the weight of the energy we are carrying. When we find ourselves with sami, or light energy, we feel in balance and at peace, confident in who we are, and it is easier for us to communicate with others in harmonious ways. The way we turn hucha into sami is by engaging with the world with reciprocity in mind, with Ayni. In other words, we too receive, benefit, and transform, when we share harmoniously with other beings.

When beings engage in reciprocity with the world, they achieve balance by de-accumulating and redistributing energy constantly, understanding that the resources of the world are meant to be shared and not accumulated or left stagnant. This cycle of sharing and exchanging energy can be seen in nature through different phenomena. For example the bonding of atoms to form a molecule by sharing electrons, to the complexity of a forest, as trees, fungi and animals exchange resources through their own cycles of grow, decay, and decomposition. When humans engage with these cycles of reciprocity, it also increases abundance, such as through the agricultural practice of the three sisters:

The Iroquois and the Cherokee called corn, bean, and squash the three sisters' because they nurture each other like family when planted together. These agriculturalists placed corn in small hills planting beans around them and interspersing squash throughout of the field. Beans naturally absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrates, fertilizing the soil for the corn and squash. In return, they are supported by winding around the corn stalks. The squash leaves provide ground cover between the corn and beans, preventing weeds from taking over the field. These three plants thrive together better than when they are planted alone.

Hill, C.G. (2016). Pre-Colonial foodways. In Wallach, J.J., Swindall, L.R., & Wise, M.D. (Eds.) The Routledge History of American Foodways (pp. 9-22). London: Routledge Press.

Throughout nature, there are cycles of energy that engage in reciprocity, and these processes that have been refined through millennia create harmony and sami. Have you ever spent time in a place surrounded by nature and felt an overwhelming sense of peace?

Humans are a part of nature, and just as the trees engage in annual cycles of decay in the fall and growth in the spring, so too do humans go through cycles of hucha and sami, learning to lighten the weight of the world as we age. One theory states that humans go through cycles of low and high energy like the changing seasons; we use winters to look inward and process our energy for mental and spiritual healing, and summers to look outward and engage with others by trying new things and accomplishing new goals.

So, in order to help turn hucha into sami, we must engage in reciprocal relationships with the universe. But how do we identify relationships where we can practice reciprocity in a complex universe? There are a variety of rituals and practices from different cultures that can help you reconnect with the universe. One practice is provided by the Ayni School. The Ayni school is part of an institution active in the Boston Area and managed by a group of community activists with experience in the immigrant rights civil issue. These young activists are not only experienced on their own accord, but also work closely with elders in the Amazon and the Andes mountains. The activists learn from the elders, and thereby engage in a mission to help share this wisdom passed down through thousands of generations of our Andean brethren. The practice involves taking a closer look at three types of relationships: One is between you and other members of your community, working on growing trust and genuine communication. Another is between you and the history of humanity through ancestral connections, building on the knowledge one's ancestors left, developing it for future generations. And thirdly, through your connection with Mother Earth, Pachamama, and learning to live among the cycles of one's home. By seeking to achieve equal exchanges and reciprocal cycles within all these relationships, we create systems that turn heavy energy into lighter energy, consequently contributing to Ayni, or harmony. Through developing trust, communication, and equal exchanges in these differing relationships, we reconnect with the universe and flow in sami.

We can use this to examine the societal systems of today, such as Capitalism. Through the philosophical principle of Ayni, we can see Capitalism as the culmination of centuries of relationships that do not practice reciprocity, but instead practice unequal exchanges of energy. Throughout history, humanity has formed systems based on the idea that one group dominates another through the use of force or control, and then benefits from the production of others. We see it with the idea of city mobsters taking money from their localities through fear or force. If a the group decides to continue getting that money through exploitative means as opposed to cooperation and reciprocity, then they must find a way to continue to control or dominate the city through fighting off other interested parties or by manipulating the oppressed.

Over time, these systems grow into nation-states that oppress individuals and benefit a select few. This system is referred to as Empire by the Ayni School. The system of Empire grew with the invention of currency, and by creating economic systems that do not reciprocate. To better understand the interrelation between empire and currency we start with the beginning as told by Historian Fabian Scheidler:

"In the sixth century BC, market relations still played a minor role in Greece, with farmers producing mainly for their own needs. A few large landowners lived in cities and let administrators and slaves operate their farms. Labor markets in which the dispossessed offered to work for market prices were virtually unknown, and trade was looked down upon by the higher classes. Aristocrats used their wealth primarily for display, or for giving generous gifts to gain prestige and political influence. There was no interest in investments, trade projects or even in production facilities. Minted currency was unknown although precious metals were used as currency in long-distance trading.

With the introduction of coinage in the mid-sixth century, however, the picture changed. The first coins were minted in the Kingdom of Lydia in western Asia, the home of the legendary King Midas, who purportedly starved to death because everything he touched turned to gold. It was no coincidence that the oldest Lydian coin was worth 12 sheep. This was exactly the annual wage of a mercenary. Coins then found wise usage in the Greek polis. Starting in the fifth century, the city of Athens used coins to pay city employees, and more importantly, the military. However, the widespread introduction of coins as a means of payment only made sense if officials and soldiers could buy something with them. In other words, they needed markets.

Scheidler, F. (2020). The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. University of Chicago Press."

As financial systems developed, they adopted the non-reciprocal concepts of Empire. Nowadays, Capitalistic culture is founded on certain principles that stand opposite of Ayni and Reciprocity. We see this in the Pillars of Capitalism, as explained by the International Monetary Fund. Instead of sharing resources, we accumulate resources for private property. Instead of seeking solutions that benefit the whole system, we resort to self-interest. One could argue that nonetheless, these uncoordinated individuals end up benefiting society as if, in the words of Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations, they were guided by an invisible hand. However, this invisible hand does not hold individuals accountable in the wider effect they have within the relationships they engage in. And instead of building bonds that grow stronger through trust and cooperation, we seek success through market competition and firms’ freedom to enter and exit markets.

These foundations of modern society impact the energy of the world. Our individualistic hunt for wealth has been prioritized over our ability to develop bonds between one another, and this act of isolation is mirrored by the increasing number of reported feelings of loneliness in the world: Science of People reported in 2018 that 30% of older adults reported loneliness. Survey data from 2019 show that 58% of Americans often felt like no one in their life knew them well. We can see that the capitalistic practices of the Anthropocene have created a world that has too much heavy "hucha" energy, and therefore is in a state of constant conflict, as it not balanced within the cyclical, reciprocal flow of nature. Due to this imbalance, the world is reacting in unusual ways, which has continued to alarm Indigenous populations around the world.

Indigenous Populations have developed strong bonds with nature from thousands of years of engaging with it. They have been observant of changes within the cyclical behaviors of glaciers, animals, plants, and how the effects of climate change have disrupted many of these cycles. These shifts in natural cycles have signaled that something is wrong, and many of them are raising their voices to advise. The advice is Ayni; to create a world of reciprocity where we support each other, to hone our abilities for collaboration and communication with all aspects of the universe. And if just one person decides to act more reciprocally, the world is already better for it.

Now as I relay this message to you, I am not asking you to specifically devote yourself to the philosophy of Ayni, or to join the Andean Cultural Community (Although you are always welcome, we are friendly and seek to build Ayni with all, including you). But instead, I ask you to take the time to learn the philosophies and teachings of other cultures as a way to help you better understand your own. By tapping into the wisdom of thousands of generations of people that have interacted with the earth before us, we equip ourselves to better handle the challenges of today. Our ancestors have spent entire lifetimes carrying, testing, and adding to these stories through time, culminating in wisdom.

Ayni is one such lesson that has endured through time, so I believe it is a lesson worth learning. By writing this, I hope I am engaging with my ancestors in a reciprocal way, as I receive wisdom passed down through their culture. I share it and give it to you, with the belief and hope that it brings peace and sami your way. #ayni #kawsay #hucha #sami #sustainabledevelopment #climatechange #AndeanCulture #Capitalism #philosophy #apus

This post was written as a summary of the presentation "Ayni and Indigenous Knowledge to Equip Tomorrow's Environmental Leaders" by Joao Vilca Soto (@javeous), Indigenous Peruvian, Environmental Activist, Entrepreneur, Sustainable Development Graduate Student and Founder of Ruta Verde (@rutaverdesustainability) as presented at the 2023 Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference WOHESC and at the Rachel Carson Forum at Evergreen College on Earth Day 2023. If you felt connected to the reading, please share. Special Thanks to Mish Pennoni for helping with edits.

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