Ayni - An Andean Lesson that Echoes through History
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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. It is also the one commandment that most Indigenous people of the Andes follow as they engage with all relationships within the universe.
In this post, we'll take a closer look at Andean Philosophy and try to explain and relate to it with ideas that are more commonly accepted today. So, how does having a single commandment work?
This 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 the same energy, referred to a kawsay, and humans are a part of it by sharing in the energy and components that make up the plants, animals, rivers, mountains, and the stars. And all this energy interacts with one another. Which the Andeans noticed as the Sun God, Inti, sent its warm energy down to the earth, energizing the plants and animals that live on this earth. Or as the mountains split the clouds and offered protection. The mountains seen in Andean Culture as their own entities called Apus, or mountain spirits. Every being in the universe is made up of kawsay working together, and every being has the ability to interact with others.
These observations are also congruent with what we see in science, as we understand that the universe is made up 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. Additionally, Andean's respect for the sun as a deity can also be understood since science has shown all the benefits the sun brings us. The sun powers the process of photosynthesis that helps our plants grow and it also powers the greenhouse effect which alters the climate cycles in our planet, and it provides us with Vitamin D, which is an essential component of living a healthy life. Additionally, thanks to ecological studies we understand that mountains provide a multitude of benefits aside from just strategic safety to people all around the world. Mountains host about a quarter of all biodiversity and forest in the planet, they are the origin of 6 of the 20 most important food crops, and they provide 60-80% of the world's freshwater. The mountains are such an important provider to life on Earth, which makes it no surprise that not only Andeans, but many Indigenous groups around the world revered them as deities.
Lastly, Andean Philosophy recognizes that the energy flows in two ways. They understood that there is a duality in life referred to as sami which is considered "light energy" and hucha, considered to be "heavy energy." An idea that resonates with the Yin and Yang, Negative v Positive, Yes v No, among other ideas. But in Andean Philosophy, there isn't a concept that the energy is good or bad, instead it is seen as in order, or in disorder.
According to some Andean beliefs, when we find ourselves with too much hucha, we feel stressed, anxious, afraid as we feel overwhelmed by the weight of the energy we are currently carrying. When we find ourselves with sami, or light energy, we feel we are more at balance and at peace, we feel more confident in who we are and it is easier for us to communicate with others, working towards harmony. And the way in which we turn hucha into sami, is by engaging with the world with reciprocity in mind, with Ayni. In other words, reciprocity is the process of sharing to create harmony in all things/beings/relations.
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 phenomena like the water cycles and wind currents are meant to exchange materials/energy/kawsay around the world. It can be seen in a forest, as leaves grow, die, decompose, and then they feed the next season of leaves. And when certain creatures within nature work together further reciprocity, amazing things happen. For instance, 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 exchange reciprocally, and these processes create harmony and abundance for the beings that engage in reciprocity. And just like the trees engage in annual cycles of decay in the fall and growth in the spring, so do humans go through cycles between hucha and sami, learning to carry the weight of the world more easily as we age. One theory states that humans go through cycles of low and high energy like the changing seasons. Using winters to look inward and process our energy for mental and spiritual healing and summers to look outwardly and engage with others by trying out new things or accomplishing new goals.
So, in order to help turn hucha into sami, we must engage in reciprocal relationships. But how do we identify relationships where we can practice reciprocity? There are a variety of books sharing different rituals and practices. For example is one tool put together by The Ayni School, an institution active in the Boston Area 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 they also work closely with elders found in the Amazon and the Andes mountains, learning from them as they engage on a mission to help share this wisdom passed down by thousands of generations of our Andean brethren. Their tool helps us to better understand our relationships by 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 our ancestral connections, building on the knowledge our ancestors left, developing it for future genrations. And thirdly, through our connection with Mother Earth, Pachamama, by learning to live among the cycles of our home. By seeking to achieve equal exchanges and reciprocal cycles between all these relationships, we create systems that turn heavy energy into lighter energy, achieving Ayni and harmony in the world. By seeking to develop trust, communication, and equal exchanges in these relationships, we reconnect with the universe and flow in sami.
This philosophy can also be used to examine the societal systems of today, such as Capitalism. Through the philosophical view 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 neighborhood gangs taking money from their localities through fear or force. If a gang decides to continue getting that money, they must find a way to control or dominate the neighborhood by fighting off other interested parties or by manipulating the oppressed. Instead of exchanging cooperatively and evenly between parties, one group seeks to dominate others, receiving the energy of others without reciprocating this energy back.
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, and the system of Empire grew with the invention of currency 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 soliders 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 pillars that stand opposite of Ayni and Reciprocity. We can see this in the Pillars of Capitalism as explained by the International Monetary Fund. Instead of sharing resources, we seek to accumulate resources through the idea of private property. Instead of seeking solutions that benefit the whole system, we rely on our self-interest, through which people act in pursuit of their own good, without regard for sociopolitical pressure. 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. An invisible hand that does not hold individuals accountable in the effect they have with the relationships they engage in. And instead of building bonds that rely on cooperation, we seek to manage our system on market competition, through firms’ freedom to enter and exit markets, without taking the time to build the trust and communication that makes relationships strong.
These characteristics of current modern society have effects on the energy of the world. Our individualistic hunt for wealth has been prioritized over our ability to develop bonds between one another. This act of isolation can also be seen with the increasing number of reported feelings of loneliness in the world. Science of People reported in their 2018 loneliness statistics show that 30% of older adults reported loneliness. Additionally, survey data from 2019 shows that 58% of Americans often felt like no one in their life knew them well. In the duality of hucha and sami, the capitalistic qualities of the Anthropocene have created a world that has too much heavy energy,"hucha," and is in a state of constant conflict as it behaves in cycles that do not resonate with the cyclical reciprocal flow of nature. Due to this imbalance, the world is reacting in unusual ways which has alarmed 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 the changes in the cyclical behaviors of glaciers, animals, and plants. Now that the effects of Climate Change has disrupted many of these cycles, they know that something is wrong, and many of them are raising their voices as they seek to share some advice. The advice is Ayni, to create a world of reciprocity where we all support each other and develop our abilities to collaborate and communicate with all relations in our life. And if only one of you decides to behave more reciprocally, the world is already better for it.
Now as I bring this message to you, I am not asking you to 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 leaning on 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. People before us have spent entire lifetimes carrying these stories through time, testing them along the way as they interact with the world and adding to that wisdom.
Ayni is one such lesson that has been tested 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, reciprocating the knowledge in the hopes it brings peace and sami your way. #ayni #kawsay #hucha #sami #sustainabledevelopment #climatechange #AndeanCulture #Capitalism #philosophy #apus