Falling Through Our Stories
Oct 15, 2021

21 minute read


On a 1995 trip to Peru, Jolanda van den Berg's heart was captured by the street children of Cusco. Roughly six months later she left her home in Amsterdam and moved to Cusco for good. Jolanda is the founder of the Ninos Unidos Peruanos Foundation and the Ninos Hotel in Peru. Over the last 25 years, her work has reached thousands of vulnerable children in and around Cusco through a network of community centers, funded by her three highly acclaimed hotels in Cusco. Six years ago, in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, Jolanda experienced a profound sense of dissolution of identity. Outwardly the shape of her life and work stayed much the same, inwardly a revolution of consciousness had shifted everything. Over the past few years, in addition to her other work, Jolanda has sat in hundreds of 1:1 sessions with individuals, all through word of mouth. She does not see herself as a teacher, therapist or guide. She simply holds space with people as they navigate areas of stuckness in their life stories. In her words, "I don't know anything. That's all I know."

On an Awakin Call in the summer of 2020, Jolanda chose to speak publicly for the first time about her pivotal inner experience. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. (All photographs, courtesy Jolanda van den Berg)

(Moderator) Pavi Mehta: Neither of us are quite sure what's going to flow forth, but we're trusting the emergence here. Jolanda, welcome! 

Can you describe the Jolanda who came to Cusco in 1995? What was she looking for and what did she find?

Well, I came to Peru to see the river dolphins in the Amazon, but a week before that I was found by children – children on the streets, selling things and making contact. And what I saw in the eyes of the children touched me so deep. It was seeing myself, in a way, in their eyes. It was just such a strong feeling of recognition. The minute I was in contact with them, something happened to me and I really wanted to be only with these children.

Then you went home, you picked a date at random and decided, you were going to wrap up everything in your life and buy your ticket back to Peru. Was that the way you were used to doing things in life?

To be honest, yes. From a very young age I made decisions based on feeling, does it fit or not. If it feels like I have to do it, I do it without making plans.  I always lived by what I felt in the moment, and it felt so strong, there was no doubt about it. When people asked me, "What are you going to do there [in Peru]?" I said, "I don't know, but it's going to work."

I remember you sharing something about your first day of kindergarten that speaks to the kind of person you are...

Yes. My mother brought me to kindergarten and she couldn't leave me there. Two days [in a row], she took me back home because she was crying so much. And then the idea kicked in like, "Oh, I have to take care of my mom because she's really upset." So the third day, my favorite grandmother brought me to the kindergarten and I went in and I saw all these children playing there and I said, "I think this is a mistake." And they said, "No, just go and play." And I said, "No, that's for children. I am here to learn how to take care of my parents."  And then they didn't know what to do with me of course. I ran away after three weeks, the first time and then the nightmare began. I had to do things that I didn't want to do.

Did you have a relationship to conventional religion or spirituality?

No. Not at all. My parents were Catholic and they prayed in the house, but I never believed in it. I didn't understand why and to whom, no? They never forced me. But in kindergarten [the teachers said] “Okay, we're going to be in a circle and we have to pray.” I said, “No, thank you, I don't pray.” They said, “But you have to pray.” And then I felt scared because they were pushing me, so I said,"Okay." But I folded my hands differently, and then I opened my eyes in the circle, looking for a girl who's also doing her hands differently, and thinking, "That girl will be my best friend." But of course, I never found anyone-- because I was excluding myself, of course. But I didn't realize it.

Can you say more about that? What do you mean, you were excluding yourself?

Well the group was praying and I felt,"They are obligating me to pray. I am not going to do what other people do. Because I want to be recognized for who I am as a person." [That's where] the fantasy starts, and the separation also. So the way we exclude ourselves is how we want to be found – and that repeats all the years after, until it doesn't anymore. 

Yeah --wow! And what happened as that child grew into her teenage years and adult years.

It was very difficult, complicated. Also my father was bipolar. He was diagnosed when he was 18. I certainly adored my father, but he had difficult periods of changing moods, and worse. Then it was very complicated to understand what was happening. I was observing him in his behavior and I learned a lot. So I ran away from kindergarten the first time, and then they brought me back. And then every day until I finished school all I was thinking was, “I don't want this. I don't want this. I want to go. I don't want to be here.” When I turned 16, I stopped the whole thing and I left.

In those confusing, challenging years what did you hold onto, what was your anchor?

Well from a young age, I felt like I was a mermaid. So being in the water was always my fancy. When I went in the water, I disappeared in the water. And the moment I came out of the water, I felt like I had a secret-- because, in the water, everything disappears, and that felt like my world.  I always felt like people don't know [this secret]. What they think the world is -- is just a fantasy. I didn't tell anyone because I felt like they would not believe me. But I felt like I could stay in the water for hours without breathing, because time disappeared in the water. Every child knows that. When you see children, they are playing with a train or something-- they are not actually playing with the train. They just disappear in the game. Every child has a different way of disappearing-- but we all know that feeling of disappearing and appearing.

That's so true. What did you do after you left school?

My grandmother worked on the land during the second World War because they didn't have money. She worked with potatoes. I adored my grandmother. So, when I was 16, I thought I need to work also with potatoes somehow. That was my reference point; my grandmother. So that's what I did. I worked for a year in a shop where they sell vegetables. And after that, I did a lot of different jobs. I learned everything by watching people, reading, learning languages and all these things. So that's how it went.

What made your grandmother such a beloved figure to you?

She was completely out of the box, a very authentic, very strong woman, but people didn't understand her. She made fights with neighbors, and would say things out of the blue like, “Oh, this dress doesn't fit you." Then people would say, "She's not a nice person." But she was the most loving person I ever saw. She didn't have rules in the house and things like that. I could wear her hats, her dresses, and she took me out and she would forget to fix my hair, and she didn't even notice. She was a completely free spirit. That's what I loved about her. Not [trying to] fit in in any way.

So you eventually moved to Peru and you knew that you wanted to align your life with the children. How did you go about that? 

I didn't have a plan. I just said to all my friends, family, neighbors, anyone I knew. "Okay, I'm going there. I cannot guarantee anything. I don't know what I'm going to do, but it's a good idea. Can you support me with ten guilders ($5) a month? " And they said, "Okay, that is such a little amount. Here have ten guilders." So when I had 40, 50 people giving me the ten gilders then I thought, "Okay, I'll just go. And we will see what happens."

Within three months, I had two boys living in the house that I rented. I lived with three Peruvian people in the same house. I just rented a room. I got to know the children on the street. I was with them playing football and eating bread together, things like that. Then one day when they came to my home I said, "What do you think about living here with me?" And they immediately said, "Of course we'll stay! Do you have television? Where's my bed?” Then I said, "Now first I have to know why you are living on the streets. Where are your parents?” I hadn't wanted to ask before that. And so then I found out about the mothers. One mother was in jail, and the other mother lived four hours from Cusco. So I visited them to ask for their permission, and also to do it officially with papers and things like that. So that's how it started. Then within a year, I had 12 boys in my house and we were living like a family. It was beautiful, and it was also difficult.

What did you want to offer the children? What did you want them to receive?

My idea was, they need to be seen.  Connected to my own childhood [I had a strong feeling that] a child has to be a child. If a child has to work or take care of babies when they are six years old and they don't have their own free space, that is not okay for a child. At the time, I thought like that. So, my purpose was to give them a place where they could just be children. So that was the purpose of the whole project. Like, "Let's make a space where they can play and they can forget everything and everyone and just be there."

A place where they could disappear into the water.


Was fundraising uncomfortable for you?

Yes. Because I always felt like, people want to give you money-- and then they want something from you. This is not always true but it felt like that. It felt like we were not free when working with donations. Also I prefer to be independent. My feeling is that if you give a donation, you [should] give it for yourself, so you get a good feeling or whatever you get from it. But if you give it because you think that a child needs something you believe is better for them-- then it doesn't fit. In the beginning, we were dependent, of course, because I couldn't take care of 12 children without any income.

And then you started the hotels-- how did that come about?

It was a logical decision, like, "Okay, I'm in Cusco now. With what kind of thing can we can have income?" Because of Machu Picchu this is a tourist town. So a hotel was a nice idea. How difficult can it be? You buy a house, you put a shower, a bed and you put a name, 'Hotel.' Okay. Then we have a hotel. It's just that simple, very practical. 

The one hotel turned into another hotel and another, now you have three and you support the children's restaurants, which are so much more than just restaurants.  You have horseback riding, you have karate classes, you have an organic garden that they get to help take care of. How did you find the right people to help support you?

It just happens as it happens, no? But, in the storyline, you could say, “Okay. I started with 12 children in my house, and then I started a house for girls. And then it was like, "Okay, the family construction is really very complicated and difficult because they are not real brothers and sisters." So I thought, "Okay, then maybe a day program." So they live in their own homes, and they can come here to be a child and play. And just little by little people get to know you and, "Okay, we need – someone who can cook." And then someone knows someone else. In Peru, everyone knows everyone. So it's not so difficult to find people, no?

Do you feel like that, within the type of environment you provide, that a kind of healing is possible for the children (many of whom have experienced trauma)?

Now you ask a very difficult question because ever since five years ago, I see that no one is doing anything anyhow. For healing-- you need to [perceive]  someone who needs healing. But that's not the way I perceive the world. So, for me, [healing is just] a concept. It doesn't exist for me.

Now we're really at the heart of this aren't we? Is this what you meant by, "No victims. No heroes. We are each other."

Yeah. (laughs).

Could you describe a little bit about what transformed the way you see the world?

What happened five years ago is that I saw that there is no one to see anything. It's all just appearance. It looks like something is happening, but that's the illusion. It's very complicated to explain. What I saw five years ago is that the Jolanda character was really never there. That's the illusion of existence you could say. But whatever name you give it, can never describe what it is. So it defines you. You can never define it the other way around. It's too complicated [to put in words]. But I can tell you, it's not only too complicated, it's impossible.

What happened five years ago was difficult because it's a story in a story. If people think that [something] happened to me, then that's not true-- because there was never a person experiencing anything. 

But in the storyline way of speaking, five years something very traumatic happened to the Jolanda character. And, after that event, (I'm not going to talk about it specifically because other people are involved and I don't feel it's appropriate,) I went home by train and I started to shake and to cry. I was living in Peru, of course, but I was visiting my friend in Amsterdam and she was not home. I was alone there and at night, I felt like I fell through myself. The physical reaction showed the crying and shaking, but also all my beliefs were crumbling down. I couldn't grab any belief anymore about myself, about my past, about my family or whatever. The last thought I remember having was, "Oh, I'm having a brain attack. I'm dying. My brain is completely collapsing....I give in."

The next morning I woke up with my clothes still on. I was upside down on the bed, my feet where my head [should have been]. And I didn't remember a lot, I only had the feeling that I had to go to the beach. So I went to the beach and it was weird. I couldn't remember my name Yeah. It's difficult to explain. But I was taking off my shoes and I was walking in the sand and then suddenly, I looked at my feet in the sand, and I thought, "There's no difference. There is no line between the sand and my feet." And then I looked at the sea and thought, "I am the sea" and then "But, where am I?" Like I was gone, but not gone in the usual way. It was like I realized that I was never really there. Like I never existed before. And it all became clear. And then I thought, "This is all like a cosmic joke. No one knows that this is just a joke!" And I started to laugh, thinking,  "It's so simple. How could it be that I never saw this before?" 

I couldn't stop laughing. I saw that I never did anything. What I see or what I experienced is me, but not me as a person. There is no difference between me and the beach or me and another person. And that's the whole joke. 

And so, suddenly, I understood art. I understood religion. I understood everything because all of it is referring to the same thing. And it is fantastic. And from that moment on, it was never ever, it couldn't be ever, the same. I could remember how it was before, because my memories came back --and I went through my most traumatic memories of my father, and what had happened to me the night before. And it felt like-- it's all just energy. It's just .. but calling it energy is giving it a name also. So it's difficult, because whatever name you give to it, then it becomes a concept again. And that's exactly what it's not. It's just--- what happens, happens. And there's no one ever doing anything. It's just appearance.

It sends tingles through me just hearing you, I know you can't put words to it, but there's something being communicated here from your experience. You are also a mother of two. How did this realization and this experience play into how you showed up as a mother?

Well, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with autism when she was three. I struggled a lot with her in the past of not understanding."Why is she like she is? What is her way of thinking?" I couldn't get her way of dealing with things. And after that "beach moment," I completely got her. Her brain just works in a different way. She doesn't have a reference point in the fantasy, of "me" and "the world." So for her, what comes in the picture is who she is. And when I went home, I could translate to her, like, "Okay, you know why people don't understand you? Because they think that they are a separate person, they think that a separate person is doing something, and they can even think about the future. So, that's their fantasy." And she said, "Yes! That's true!" And so, with her, I could communicate. We laugh a lot together about all these people who think that they are doing things and it's very beautiful.

And my youngest daughter, she’s extremely smart, and she understands too. She realizes at the same time, "Okay, I didn't have an experience like you had, but I feel that it's right what you're saying."

But in the end, [the words make it] all a storyline. What I'm telling you now, this is not what I'm doing. This is just what comes up.

I had the opportunity to look through your Facebook posts while preparing for this call. You have a way of seeing beauty in the little things. What is your relationship to beauty?

 Beauty for me is like a feeling. For me, there's nothing more beautiful when someone is falling through herself or himself. I's like, there's the identification as a person, and then when someone falls out of the identification, then you see the beauty. And it's the same beauty as the light in the trees at 5:30 in the afternoon, and it's the same beauty of seeing someone in love with whatever  is. It's all the same beauty for me.And it's also storyline, of course. But that's what fits. For me... everything is just what it is. That's beauty, that's beauty. Just beauty.

(Host) Kozo Hattori: We've got a great question from Steven, who's in London. He asks,"Can we do anything to drop this identification with the separate self? Does it need a traumatic event or only happen spontaneously? Do you guide others in this no self?"

No, I don't guide anyone to anything. It's more the other way around. I only exist by the image of a seemingly other person. No one can guide anyone. If people think there's a way of being guided to it, that means that there needs to be a person who's doing the guiding. When people think from a personal perspective, then it feels like you have to reach something or you have to change something or you have to be someone or whatever. That's the contradiction in believing from a personal perspective, like most people seem to do. When I do these sessions with people, it's not I who am doing it. It just happens. It's a game for me, I'd say it like that, it's a very beautiful game.

It's like what's happening now is happening. In my perspective, everything that seems to come in the picture is what I am. And without that, I wouldn't even exist. Or even imagine that I exist. That's more precise maybe. It's like the word “fascination.” Like you become the fascination itself ... to say it like that.

That's beautiful. You become the beauty itself. You become the fascination itself. But you also become the sorrow and anger and everything. Right?

Yeah. But without taking it personally. And at the same time, it's all fantastic.

So we have a question from S. "As a former school social worker, what you have done in Peru is very interesting to me. I would like to become involved in something like this in the next few years, in some healing/ helping capacity to others. Any thoughts or ideas?"

I would turn it back to her like, "What do you want to find?" I don't have any tips, tricks or lists from these 24 years of living in Peru. I had so many people ask me for a list-- eight steps to how I did this. And I said, I don't even have a plan for the next minute so I cannot tell you anything. Because it just happens. Now you know how I see it. 

Okay, so we have another question: When you have sadness. What's your role or responsibility to transmute or transform that energy? 

For that, you need to be first someone, you know ... The word responsibility already points to -- there must be someone responsible. And that's a complete personal identification. Not so for me...My role as Jolanda, is not about who's responsible for whom. It's more like ... "Does it fit or does it not fit?" 

And of course-- when my child hurts herself, of course I feel it. It would be weird if I wouldn't feel anything anymore, because then there would be someone who changed. For me nothing changed. It's all exactly the same. I still feel, of course, I feel maybe more intense, but I don't take it personally anymore. So in that moment when I feel sadness, then there's just 'sadness. Not, "I feel sadness."

Hmm. In Buddhism they call it the first dart and then the other darts that you cause yourself. So something causes you pain or sorrow or suffering, but then you add more pain or suffering by how you react to it.

Yeah, the story in the story. That's not happening anymore for me. I experience it, but I don't believe in it anymore at the same time. It's like a double thing.

I think most people are not used to being in a dialogue with people who have your perspective. 

Yes, and I understand that. That's also happening, just happening. That's also completely okay. And beautiful. The same beauty...So thank you for the question.

I've been well versed in spirituality for a long time. And I had this interesting situation where my wife and I were experiencing very difficult times. And I said to her: "You know this is all illusion, right?" I said that, and it didn't go over well. How would you navigate this? 

If you say it's an illusion, then you make it a concept again. And, of course, that's just another story in the story. So, of course, your wife gets upset if you say, "You're just an illusion." [laughs]

That's me talking the talk without having walked the walk – using the terms without having the exact experience of it.

It's so difficult. That's why I also didn't talk for five years about this and it’s still difficult. I notice now that because people think it’s me and, “Okay, she had a special experience, so she knows about death and about illusion.” That's not true because I don't know anything. That's all I know.

Here's another question that came in, "Why did she decide to speak about her experience for the first time on Awakin?” 

Well, that also just happened. Zita worked for our foundation for years and she did publicity and things like that. She sent me an invitation saying, "Oh, I think you would be a great guest in an Awakin program to talk about the foundation." Zita didn't know that I had this experience at the beach. I'm not interested in interviews or talks in any place. But because I love Zita very much, I thought, "I’m going to do this for her." So, I said yes. And then I started to read about Awakin and I thought, "Oh, that's funny. Maybe, this talk is not especially about the foundation but it's about what happened to me." And it fit. I felt, "Oh, this is a good moment to be open about how I perceive life now in 2020." 

Beautiful. How does love fit into all of this?  I just would love to hear you speak about love-- or hear Love be spoken.

For me, love means everything that seems to appear. That is love for me. So, the one you are with in this moment, the seeming one you are with, is your biggest lover. That can be a cake; that can be your wife; it can be the Sun. This is what love is for me. Or it can be a thought, or the sadness of someone you lost and you're still very identified with. That is what love means for me. And so.... There is only love – for me.

What a beautiful way to end. There is only love. So, the final question we ask to all our guests is how can we as the ServiceSpace ecosphere support your work or help you in your passion in this world.

Ooph, I have no idea. Maybe come to our hotels and have a beautiful night in Peru. Enjoy the sun on the beautiful patio and enjoy life. That’s the most beautiful thing we can be for each other, just open and loving. I think that's the most beautiful thing you can do.  I think everything is perfect exactly the way it is. 

Wow. This is beyond – this is over my head, but the feeling I have is just lightness and tingling. I just feel really good right now.Thank you Jolanda, you brought so much beauty. Or you didn't bring beauty-- so much beauty arose and so much love arose and so much fascination arose. So thank you.

Thank you very much. And, also everyone who were asking these questions. Thank you very much everyone.

Her little hat and school books firm on her body
We cross and I see it in her eyes;
The dark brown morning stones with the sparkle of the Sun.
We smile and both know this is going to be a day with lots of fun
We, as these shadows playing dancers, in the Sun.

-- Jolanda van den Berg


Join an intimate, interactive circle with Jolanda later this month, "Falling Through Our Stories." More details and RSVP info here.


Syndicated from Awakin.org.