Dr. Anita Sanchez, Ph.D is an Aztec and Mexican-American, a transformational leadership consultant, speaker, coach, and best-selling author. Through her own difficult life lessons and priceless immersion in ancient teachings, Anita bridges indigenous knowledge with the latest science to inspire and equip women and men to enjoy meaningful, empowered lives and careers. Establishing herself in the corporate world – including Fortune 500 companies, governmental groups, and non-governmental agencies – Anita has spent four decades sharing indigenous wisdom with executives and their teams the world over. She is a member of the Transformational Leadership Council alongside luminaries such as Jack Canfield, Marianne Williamson, and John Gray. She is also a member of the Association of Transformational Leaders, the Evolutionary Business Council, and she serves on the boards of the Bioneers organization and the Pachamama Alliance.
“The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times” is Dr. Sanchez’s best-selling book based on Mohican Don Coyhis’ dream of a sacred hoop calling for all peoples to come together as one. In her book, Anita calls on us all to pause, take a breath, and remember our unbreakable human bond. In this, the first of a two-part interview with Dr. Sanchez, Face the Current explores what it means to apply ancient indigenous wisdom to our modern lives.
This Face the Current Culture Feature is published in Issue 22 / Winter 2019 as part one of a two-part interview. Order PRINT here, or continue reading this article below.
Sasha Frate: You’ve said that we yearn for wisdom, not more information, and you believe that the real human desire is to connect with the original wisdom. What are you referring to by original wisdom and how do you show in your book the ways in which wisdom is power?
Anita Sanchez: For decades I trained and consulted with people from corporations and communities all over the world. I love learning, I love knowledge, and I appreciate the technological things happening around us; however, what I began seeing is that we’re overloaded with all of that. When you talk to anyone who has kept up with their emails, social media, and the daily bombardment of information, it’s apparent that we have enough tools to solve a lot of the problems that exist in the world. What we lack is the collective will. Part of that is because we have forgotten the original wisdom. By that original wisdom, I’m talking about the understanding had by some peoples and wisdom keepers, many of whom are indigenous. These people really stay attuned to our collective connection. It’s our connection to earth, people, and spirit; it’s a connection to all beings. Whether it’s through chanting, plant medicine, dancing, prayer, or meditation, it’s about living in harmony with ourselves, other people, and nature.
When a person remembers and understands that we’re not separate, they’ve recognized the illusion. You go from a mind racing and working, bombarded with many external things, to one of stillness, truth, and original wisdom. That wisdom is a form of power – not power over, but power with. People want that; they crave it regardless of age, and that’s really heartening. That’s what I see as the power of the sacred. It’s inside of all of us and as an indigenous person who is also Mexican-American, that was what I was always taught: everything is sacred, including me.
Some people say we’re faulty human beings. It’s not that at all, it’s just that the longer you’ve forgotten the wisdom, the longer the awakening takes. There is a re-patterning to understand the illusion of separateness. You need a personal practice of the wisdom, which of course, indigenous wisdom keepers have done for millennia.
SF: I feel that thinking about something being lost over time makes it seem difficult to regain. Instead of loss, it’s a disconnect where we can recognize it and start trying to connect again. The original wisdom is still present and still with us, we’re just disconnected from it.
AS: Yes. Some people say we’re faulty human beings. It’s not that at all, it’s just that the longer you’ve forgotten the wisdom, the longer the awakening takes. There is a re-patterning to understand the illusion of separateness. You need a personal practice of the wisdom, which of course, indigenous wisdom keepers have done for millennia.
It’s not about exactly replicating theirs; rather, it’s about developing some method of your own while understanding that learning from others is part of the journey. It’s then that we can awaken and be a life-giving connection to ourselves and others.
When I was only 14 months old, I had a near death experience. I also had repeated abuse through my life and experienced the murder of my father. I had therapists tell me, “You should be dead,” but that’s something that should never be said to anybody. Instead, it should be, “Wow! You really have a reason to be here.” I tried to take my life when I was 13, and yet my first therapist at 15 still said that to me. I didn’t want to get close to death again because I realized I had forgotten. I’d forgotten the dance, the song, the silence that can be filled with so much. I forgot how to be still, to pause.
This journey is about putting down your phone and your computer because we can’t Google wisdom; it comes from inside us. It’s a natural, ongoing yearning and I see the awakening happening for people all over. It’s a realization that they don’t buy into the accepted worldview, the assumption of separateness. Too much suffering happens when we operate as if we’re separate. If we come from the worldview that we all belong to each other – that we are all related – then we need to think and act like many indigenous tribes; we need to talk about making decisions, both big and small, based on seven generations from now.
If we don’t think about that future, who will? We are in charge of a lot right now, so be still. When this realization happens, things begin to shift. We need to take care of the earth because we are just energy beings in earth suits. We can never forget that we can be good medicine to ourselves and others. Anything or anyone can be good medicine if it brings into alignment the spiritual, mental, emotional, psychological, and physical. If you’re not connected within yourself, this is very hard to do and sustain. The original instruction with all of this is to just test it out. Investigate.
SF: Yes, to see how it applies and where you’re currently at.
AS: Yes, yes.
SF: Would you say that the good medicine is also the “medicine” that you refer to in re-claiming all our relations?
AS: Yes, that’s absolutely good medicine. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and we were quite poor. A couple times a year we would go to the Osage Reservation in Kansas to be with my grandmother and family. When we’d come in every afternoon, we’d sit on the floor and my uncle would show us what it means to be a whole human being. He’d make his hands into a big circle and say, “To be a whole human being is to understand and live your connection to people, earth, and spirit. When you do this, it is from that place of being a whole human that you’re able to create harmony and balance in your life and in the world.” He’d continue, “If you hurt another person, you not only hurt them, but you also hurt the earth, the water, the animals, and the spirit. When you hurt the earth by polluting the water, you not only hurt the water, you hurt the spirit and the people.” When the sacredness of everything is forgotten, you hurt the spirit, the people, and the earth. He would just keep making a circle and, on the one hand, I remember thinking, “Wow. I have a lot of power.” On the other hand, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to hurt anything!”
I also grew up back in the city and went to Catholic school, and I assumed everybody was being taught these things, but that wasn’t the case. Not everybody had these valuable wisdom keepers. Even so, everyone has access to the sacred, to the wisdom, but it takes practice. So, we get to choose in every moment. Some people find that to be a lot of responsibility, and it is, but it’s such joy to know that we can discover and trust our gifts. We can become, because we are already meant to be, a life-giving connection to all.
SF: Yes. It can essentially be something simple to attain. It doesn’t have to be so far-reaching as it may seem to a lot of people.
AS: Yes, it can be as simple as sitting and eating a green bean and really being one with it and grateful for it. You’re grateful for every moment of every bite as it goes through your body, nourishes you, and fulfills its role. Then as you continue, your waste goes back to earth, and the cycle keeps going. When you begin to have this understanding at the simplest level, then some of the bigger issues that require bigger gifts, such as forgiving the unforgivable, seem more possible. Nothing is possible without the worldview that we are all one, and that’s a powerful place to stand.
SF: Yes, definitely. In your book, you describe the four sacred gifts. How, and by whom, were they created, and what exactly are they?
AS: Many of us indigenous people live in part by prophecy. Many people have visions of what could be and then attract other people to that vision. In 1993, an indigenous Mohican Elder, Don Coyhis, had a vision that showed him the building of a hoop. The spirit was telling him we’d been in a great winter and it was going to get worse. Humans had forgotten the important original wisdom about life-giving connection and being in the right relationships with each other. He called out to indigenous wisdom keepers from all over the world and in 1994, 27 elders answered the call at Turtle Mountain, Chippewa. In that weekend, they spoke their languages, prayed, meditated, danced, and chanted. They created a hoop out of a twig, just like the prophecy, and hung 100 eagle feathers from it. During a ceremony, spirit told them to put four gifts into the hoop, and if they are used, the original wisdom won’t be forgotten.
The first gift is the power to forgive the unforgivable. How we define something that is unforgivable is up to us. The second gift is the power of unity. We are all connected, so we’re meant to be of service to support evolution, rather than the destruction of human beings, other species, and the earth. The third gift is the power of healing. It’s not about the pharmacy or going to the doctor, although those can be valuable. It’s about getting hurt and broken and finding a way to repair that. The fourth gift is hope in action. Hope is an energy source. However, it feels like the world is so focused on consumption that we forget about hope. Without hope, you just sit on the sidelines, paralyzed and not doing anything.
I’ve been using all of these gifts for 25 years now, not only for myself, but with executives, community leaders, families – many different kinds of people.
Going back to the gift of hope: it can be given away, but nobody can take it from you, and I know that firsthand. I was sexually abused from 4-13 and I kept it a secret. At age 9, I thought that there was no way I’d ever be free. However, on one especially painful afternoon, coming through the window of our little house, in the middle of a black ghetto in Kansas City, was a ray of sunshine. As the sunshine landed on me, I knew that I was part of something bigger. Even though I was experiencing a crushing moment, the moment wasn’t me. The sunshine helped to remind me that there’s always something bigger: there’s hope.
But when I was 13, my father was murdered. It was a racially charged murder; he was mistaken for a black man in a bar one day after work. A white man came into the bar looking for a certain black man, and because my father was sitting in the place where he had been, the man shot him in the head. My father was my abuser, but I also loved him. This was very difficult for a 13-year-old. At first, I thought that since he was gone, the memories and pain would go too, but they didn’t go away. I eventually tried to kill myself, but in that time, I asked my grandmother and my elders for help, and they responded. I have shared this story everywhere and haven’t cried until now. Thank you for giving me this space.
AS: I think you’re carrying the energy where I can just open right up. In my moment of almost dying, where my sisters, brothers, and mom were standing around me and begging me not to go, I saw two things. I saw my rocking chair that my grandfather had made me. He only made two in his lifetime and one was for me. It’s a small toddler’s rocking chair and it reminds me of love.
The second thing I saw was from a story my mom had told me of when she was a little girl. My grandmother came to the States after having one child and was told she wasn’t going to be able to have more children. She went on to have eight more. My mom would help her during deliveries by getting hot water and rags. I asked my mom how she was able to do that as a little girl. She told me it wasn’t hard; it was like something was helping her to carry the water up the flights of stairs. She would press her ear against the bathroom door when her mom was laboring in the bathtub and hear voices. She said she could hear many voices calling on my grandmother. They were calling on the ancient ones, on the power of spirit. That story came to me as I was laying on the floor hoping not to die.
I continue to understand and embrace the fact that we’re all connected. No one is ever alone. It’s a human condition to feel lonely, but it’s a lie that you’re ever alone. That knowing caused me to assertively, intentionally, lovingly, drop the illusion of separateness. I dropped the armor that I had, and I think a lot of people wear heavy armor. My armor was so heavy it could stop anything from hurting me. However, the problem was that it also kept out the good stuff.
After I lost my grandmother and I hadn’t been going to the Osage Reservation anymore, I came to Colorado. There are so many indigenous people here that I got to reconnect and experience pipe ceremonies. I’ve been the keeper of a pipe for over 20 years now. I’ve understood that I will still have hard times, but I have amazing relationships here that will always support me. This allows me to walk without the fear that most people have – the fear of power in other people and the fear of death.
I volunteered with AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) for many years. At the gatherings, I would give away knowledge for free that I would have charged corporations for. I’d talk about how to keep our values, culture, and worldview even if it was antithetical to what was around us. By 1994, I was starting to lose hope. I’d been consulting on diversity and inclusion, trying to help women and people of color to rise up, for over 20 years. I felt I had to do something else because it wasn’t happening fast enough. One night of volunteering, Don Coyhis used a hoop surrounded by 300 of us in concentric circles to explain the four gifts. The wisdom is not just for indigenous people; it’s for everyone. It’s so essential to know that to get us to the springtime and ensure humans are present. That re-energized me, and now I’ve just celebrated 42 years of my work. I would never choose a different life.
That was a long way of explaining the four gifts; thank you for letting me do that.
SF: Absolutely. The strength of the human spirit and using that energy source of hope can be really profound. It can really help us to transcend experiences, especially when they become so layered. It’s hard to see when you’re in a traumatic situation or experience. It’s hard to see past it or understand how or why something so horrible could happen to us. How could we be something wonderful, beautiful, with an incredible purpose, and have to endure something like that? So many people have such traumatic experiences in life. How can we use them like a chapter in our book, to learn from them and forgive? It sounds crazy to say but having gratitude for something like that can take you far.
AS: It can take you very far. The danger is doubt. I spoke last December at the NAIS People of Color Conference in Anaheim. There were 6,200 people there, 80 percent of whom were people of color. At first, the energy toward me seemed like they expected me to tell them what to do; however, when they heard what I’d been through, it gave me credibility. I explained that indigenous people all over the world have faced genocide, yet we are the people who are saying to forgive the unforgivable. You do that by using the gifts. It’s easy to get mired in the everyday, by what we’re bombarded with on the news, but the practice for dealing with that is hope. You find hope by being still in gratitude and by dreaming.
Every year I lead a group for the Pachamama Alliance at the sacred headwaters of the Amazon in Ecuador. We stay with two different cultures, the Sapara and Achuar people. They don’t separate anything; they are one. They don’t separate dream time from waking time. They have more than enough; they’re healthy and they’ve got everything they need because they live as one with the forest. They don’t live in the forest – they are part of the forest.
That’s why I go every year to the Amazon. I lead a group for the Pachamama Alliance as a volunteer; we go to the sacred headwaters of the Amazon in Ecuador. We stay with two different cultures, the Sapara people and the Achuar people. They don’t separate anything; they are one. They don’t separate dream time from waking time. They have more than enough; they’re healthy and they’ve got everything they need because they live as one with the forest. They don’t live in the forest – they are part of the forest. They begin every day with a beautiful ceremony around 4 a.m. where they all drink caffeinated tea. They share their dreams from the night, from the smallest member to the eldest; based on those dreams, the community decides what will happen that day. Sometimes the dreams are so long, they dictate full months. They dreamt my going there, in terms of following the soul’s journey.
Around the time I wanted to quit my career, I received the gift of volunteering with these indigenous youth. I ended up staying involved with my corporate work and it’s what I continue to do. In 2007, I learned about the non-profit, the Pachamama Alliance, and I decided to take my family to Ecuador. We met some amazing people there and we were instructed to read many books before we left. Something struck me in one of the books because it was about one of my former clients. I had worked with this corporation on diversity inclusion and helping to raise up women in the organization. The company wanted to drill in sacred waters in Ecuador and the CEO requested the signatures of indigenous leaders before they began. They were not able to get the signatures, so they left. When I was training these executives, they told me they treat everyone the same. I pushed them on that and asked if they got signatures or contracts from indigenous people or poor people when they wanted to use their land. They were silent. I explained that they’re taking — and if they keep taking, it won’t be sustainable. I’m sure there were many factors involved in this company leaving Ecuador, but in the midst of me doubting myself and my mission in life, 13 years after the fact I felt like I really had an impact. Again, separateness is an illusion. We must understand there’s far more outside of ourselves.
Post-traumatic growth is a real thing and it’s about what happens afterward. We get to choose to use the gift of hope to grow. They coined the phrase “post-traumatic growth” in the 80s, and it perfectly captured what was happening to me. That thinking is needed now. We’re manufacturing reality; we’re creating it.
The indigenous people in Ecuador allow outsiders in a couple times a year and when the outsiders are asked about their lives, they will start unloading. The Ecuadorians always look puzzled and say, “You need to dream a new dream. You need to change that dream.” This rings true to everybody; it goes right through the heart. We can pretend other people can’t understand the complexity of our lives, but we know the truth.
AS: There’s hope! There’s hope in action.
SF: I think there’s also hope in recognizing our potential and that our life, our path, can completely change on any given day or moment. Being open and receptive to new connections and opportunities really helps people land on their purpose and their right path. Even when you’re in the most tragic situation in the present moment, it’s just a moment. The next day can be an entirely different life and path. We have to be open to realizing that our potential is huge.
AS: I agree with you and it is changing. Since 1990, Hewlett-Packard has been one of my clients. Back in 2005, their ink print sector – just that one small piece of HP – was a $25 billion business. They hired my firm to complete a year-long strategic plan for them. It was part of an initiative to ignite leadership all over the world. We used positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. We connected to the idea of belonging to each other by pulling them apart to let them see the reality of who and what they are as individuals, and what they could be together. They moved from $25 to $29 billion in a flat market after that and people wondered what happened. See, it’s not about pushing difficult or challenging issues to the side, because they will eventually pop up anyway. We must take a hard look around us and decide what we want to do. Asking “why” can often get the brain cycling and fabricating stories. Focusing on “what” and “how” catapults action. There is hope in action and the power of unity. People can hurt each other a lot in the workplace so it was about forgiveness.
It’s not always about these big examples, though. It’s about the little ones, too. Name the issue and let it go because we are all worthy of love. Use our gifts and our path becomes about loving and caring for ourselves. Because we’re part of the hoop of life, it means that we must love and care for others. It seems like a heavy responsibility, but we don’t do any of it alone. It’s actually a lot of freedom. I can’t say there isn’t anything unforgivable, including the genocide of my own people, but it doesn’t mean I forget. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re weak or that you’re being disloyal. Without forgiveness, the hurt end up locked in a prison. When you begin to listen, find supportive relationships (including animals), and embrace unconditional love, you move toward action – and the result is amazing. It changes your definition of freedom.
You can see people all over the world who are struggling, but they have each other. They laugh, meditate, and pray; they’re with nature.
We have everything we need to solve our issues. I’m forever learning but I’m really grateful to spirit, the universe, energy, God, Allah, Buddha, whatever energy it may be that came through for the 27 elders to give the four gifts, because it transformed my life.
I’ve now authored four books in the last few years. The one we’re talking about is my first solo book, “The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times.” But before that, I was writing a book for my mom; when she died, I grieved for two years and couldn’t write. When I started writing again, her book wasn’t coming out, it was mine. I believe it was my sacred self. My head and heart were racing but I knew I needed to speak my truth to the most influential group I knew. At that time, I had recently become a member of the Transformational Leadership Council, which is comprised of about 140 people including Jack Canfield and Marianne Williamson. Twice a year, they accept proposals for talks so I put mine in, knowing I wanted to talk about the four gifts. I was accepted, and the talk was in Mexico. That didn’t feel like chance; I think the universe and my ancestors did that. I gave my talk and people were moved to tears and happiness exploring the four gifts. They were so glad I brought that forward. Afterward, a young woman approached me and told me that everything I spoke about should be a book. She told me she was a new member and said, “I’m a publisher for Simon & Schuster and we want your book.”
SF: Oh, wow!
AS: I’ve never had an agent and it became a big book. As it turns out, they had done a vision-board a couple months earlier, saying they were looking for someone like Don Miguel Ruiz but they wanted a Latina woman who was ideally indigenous. The world was calling me forward. Don Miguel Ruiz wasn’t an immediate sensation and the publisher knew it would be a 20-year tail for me as well. People will begin to use the gifts.
Things continue to unfold for me. Whatever it is we’re supposed to do, large or small, it’s about finding joy and meaning, and seeing the ripples. The indigenous people knew about me in their dreams but now I’m in with them, continuing to grow in enlightenment.