by Alberto Villoldo Ph.D.: Many prophesies in the indigenous world speak of this time in human history as a period of great transformation. In the medicine tradition of the Inca, legend tells of a great angel who looked into the future and saw that humanity would face an enormous task at the beginning of the 21st century. Extenuating circumstances in an extremely difficult and challenging time would require extraordinary effort to bring about peace and heal the heart of the world. “Who would like to volunteer?” the angel asked. Knowing we could make a difference, we jumped up and said, “Me!”
The legend reminds brings to mind a scene in The Lord of the Ringswhen the dwarf says, “No chance of success, certain death ahead? What are we waiting for!” Of course, our odds are better than those faced by the dwarf, but the problems humanity is facing are huge. It is no longer a matter of global warming or carbon emissions, but the possible collapse of the entire climate system – a catastrophe beyond imagination. At the human level, the distribution of water is a huge problem. Who owns the water? Can private interests own the water? And how do we distribute water to places that don’t have it? The problems we face are vast and overwhelming. But the problem the Earth is facing is simple: do away with the parasite affecting it. The Earth has an immune system that recognizes what is toxic and will do what is necessary to eliminate it.
The indigenous peoples have a body of prophesy that says up to two-thirds of humanity will be eradicated in the next decade, between now and 2012. There is to be a tremendous culling of humanity because the earth can no longer sustain this parasite humanity has become. But every crisis brings with it a marvelous opportunity and this is why we stood up and said, “Me!” Our work is to find new solutions, to develop sustainable ecological practices in commerce, business, and medicine. This is what we came to do.
I see the main problem as a spiritual one. Not resource problems, but the problems centered around human beliefs, the troublesome elements founded in our mythology. Our problematic mythology is collapsing all around us. It is a mythology that is predatory, that is abusive, that reaps the cream of the earth – timber, water, topsoil – and passes the furtive costs onto future generations. These greedy, rapacious paradigms that pose humans as a dominator over nature are no longer sustainable.
One day, I was walking with a medicine woman and her husband deep in the Amazon. “Alberto, go across the clearing,” they said. “Go back into the rainforest and see what happens.” So I turned and went back into the forest. From all around me, the forest was full of song. The sounds of the macaws and the monkeys and the parrots from all about were as an orchestra. First step, second step, third step, and then, everything stopped. The shamans came up to me and said, “See? They know that you’ve been kicked out of the garden. They know that you don’t belong here.”
Certain that all of nature could smell my underarm deodorant, my hairspray, my toothpaste, my athlete’s foot powder, I looked around for a way to cover up my scent. By the edge of the river, I came upon a couple of Indians cooking a boa on a spit. I asked them for the fat they had been collecting from the boa. Stripping down to my shorts, I smeared myself with the boa fat, thinking this would conceal my smell. I walked back into the rainforest. First step, the forest was full of song. Second step, the forest was full of song. Third step, and again, everything stopped. Except for the flies, hundreds and hundreds of flies swarmed about me.
It took ten years of study with the indigenous people before I was able to walk through the rainforest and have it continue singing. No longer did the forest recognize me as someone who did not belong. I belonged in the garden again.
This reveals a great deal about our mythology. Mythology creates our beliefs and those beliefs inform our reality. In the west, we have the only mythology on the planet in which we are kicked out of the garden. Nobody else was cast out of the garden. The aborigines were not kicked out, the sub-Saharan Africans were not kicked out, the indigenous Americans were not kicked out. These peoples were given the garden. They were the stewards and caretakers of the garden. We, on the other hand, were not only cast out, but as we were being cast out, a voice said, “And cursed is the earth because of you,” pointing to the woman. And to the man, condemning him to a life of hard work, “With the sweat of your brow you will take your fruit from the earth and the earth shall produce thorns and thistles for you.”
This is the original damnation. The Bible doesn’t say, “And the earth shall grow strawberries and mangoes and papayas for you.” It says thorns and thistles. This is our mythology. From the beginning, we have a hostile relationship with the feminine, with the earth itself. And if we look still deeper, even before we were cast out of the garden, we learned on the seventh day of creation that all of the food on the planet belongs to us. The animals and the trees and the flowers were created for our pleasure and for our feeding as humans. Instead of putting us in a position of stewardship with all life on the planet, it puts us in the position of the consumer. The assumption is that all of the food on the earth belongs to humans. It doesn’t. The food on the earth belongs to all living beings on the earth.
A second element unique to western culture is that we have practically the only mythology on the planet in which the masculine gives birth to the feminine. Eve is made from the rib of Adam. Nowhere else, except in Greek mythology, does this appear. As the ways of the feminine began to be lost, Zeus became the dominant god. In the early Greek mythologies, the goddess, the “creatrix”, was predominant. As she began to be eclipsed by the masculine principle, Zeus became predominant. And though Zeus took the goddess Hera for his bride, she refused to submit to him. Thereafter, she was known in mythology as “the bitch” because you cannot repress the feminine without ill effect. Eventually, it becomes deadly for a culture, and this is what has happened to us.
The paradigms of the west are the paradigms of the masculine. This is at the core of the problem. We have to break free of this mythology that sees the earth as ours to consume and sees the feminine as damned. These mythologies express themselves in our economic, political, social, and educational systems. Even our medical practices are, by their very nature, hostile and aggressive. These paradigms hold that all the food and resources on the planet belong to us. Not to the other animals, not to the plants; it all belongs to us. We can rape, loot and pillage, we can spoil the earth and postpone the price of clean-up to future generations. We have been in the grip of a mythology that has exhausted itself. Our economy, our political system, education, and even our relationship paradigms – all show signs of collapse. The old mythology has taken us as far as it can.
Now we must look for mythologies of sustainability, of collaborative relationships with the earth. This new mythology has yet to emerge, but we have the traditions of the Earth Peoples to provide us with models of the kind of world our children’s children can truly inhabit. The Earth People have an animistic relationship with all of life. Animism is practiced by people who believe they can speak to the rivers and to the trees and to the canyons and to the mountains and to God. This is what we were able to do before we were cast out of the garden. We were still in relationship with Spirit and with the natural world. Spirit is actually talking to us all the time. But we, in the west, don’t open our ears to hear. If we are to find that self that still walks with beauty on the earth, that speaks to the rivers and to the trees and to God, and to whom the rivers and the trees and the voice of spirit talks back, we need a great kind of soul retrieval.
I embarked on my study in shamanism nearly 30 years ago as a result of my frustration with western psychology and my inability to discover the workings of the mind. I spent 25 years, first as a medical anthropologist and psychologist, and then becoming a student of the shamans, immersing myself in the ways of the shaman. I began to study the techniques, methodologies and practices of the earth peoples who have developed a body of knowledge for stepping beyond mind, for living mindfully, but outside the visceral grip of the mind.
My studies led me to South America, to the rainforest, to study with medicine men and women of the Amazon. These traditions had been neglected by anthropologists and by students of religion because they had left no body of writing. Modern prejudice says that if you do not learn to read or write, you are illiterate and therefore, not intelligent. These traditions were dismissed, whereas students of religion and anthropology have been studying the other world traditions, ones that left the Vedas and the Sutras and the Koran and the Bible, for hundreds of years. The indigenous practices of the Americas were neglected because writing is largely absent. Only since Margaret Meade and the advent of experiential anthropology have we begun to discover the true wealth and beauty of the indigenous teachings of our land, of the Americas.
The shaman believes that we live in a benign universe. Evil exists, but only in the human heart. We live in a collaborative, benign universe that will actually go out of its way to conspire on our behalf. But you have to be in proper relationship with it. In the medicine traditions, the shaman sees no difference between being killed by a microbe or killed by a jaguar. To us, one of them is an illness, and one is an accident, “Poor boy, he went to the river at dusk, and got eaten up.” For the shaman, these two are identical. You have to be in proper relationship with microbes and with jaguars, otherwise they both begin to look at you as lunch. When you’re not in proper relationship, the universe turns predatory. It begins to stalk you. When we come out of proper relationship, the universe becomes adversarial – we hit obstacle after obstacle – but when we are in proper relationship, it conspires on our behalf. The most unlikely possibilities line up to make things work for us. This is an essential aspect of the healing process in the medicine way: to come into proper relationship. Not to medicate, to treat, to intervene, but to come into proper relationship through an energetic process.
The shamans of the Americas understand that we have a luminous energy field that surrounds the physical body. It informs the physical body in a way similar to the energy fields of a magnet that organize iron filings on a piece of paper. In the paradigms of the west, we are intent on shuffling and moving the iron filings about, trying to change at the level of the physical. Shamans possess a body of ancient energy healing practices that move and shift at the level of the energetic – moving the magnet – and the physical body follows. The shaman works at the core, at the essential level and healing happens.
The shamans discovered that time runs in figure 8s, that it loops in wormholes back and forth. The way we can know that is by breaking free of the grip time and experiencing infinity. The core healing practice of the medicine way – the illumination process – happens outside time, in infinity. It happens when we access a self that never entered the stream of time, that cannot be affected by disease, that cannot be touched by ill health. Once having made contact with the infinite, we can re-inform who we are today. We can grow bodies that age differently, that heal differently, that die differently.
In times like these we are constantly challenged to face little deaths in our lives: who we once were, a relationship ending, loss of a loved one, a career, a cherished time in our lives. During transitions, we have time to reinvent ourselves. When we don’t, a deadening happens. That deadening causes us to age instead of becoming the sage. If we go through these little deaths consciously, they become opportunities for new life. Instead of being wounded by transitions, we become inspired by them if we have the prerequisite courage. How we respond to adversity turns us into courageous beings. Courage can come out of frustration, illness, from many sources, sparked by adversity or by the divine.
I remember when my daughter was thrown from a horse at age six. The horse stepped on her and ruptured her liver. She was very close to death for three days. I was in the Amazon at the time. It was the longest journey of my life coming back to upstate NY. When I arrived at the hospital, she was in pediatric ICU, hooked up to tubes and IV’s. We didn’t know if she was going to make it. I sat beside her, crying, praying to God that she be saved, when an immense clarity came over me. My sadness disappeared and I spoke to her soul. Although she was unconscious, I said to her, “Sweetheart, I love you, and you have to make a choice if it’s time for you to go or not. It’s your choice. I love you, your soul knows if your journey is done.” Three minutes later, she regained consciousness. She chose yes.
To go from victim to hero we go into the feminine, into the earth, the mother, the great one. There is no way to make a personal journey without embracing the greater journey of the planet. The heroic stories are the stories of accepting that call to the hero’s journey, accepting the calling to a destiny. While we all have a future, only a few have a destiny. A destiny is something you must make yourself available to by saying yes to life, yes to God, yes to your own growth, your own spirit.
The medicine way is as contemporary today as it was 50,000 years ago. My mentor believed that the new shamans, the new caretakers of the earth would come from the west. We are the ones who can bring healing and transformation to our families, to our communities, and to the earth. This is a critical time in history, a time for a reawakening of the earth and of our own feminine. It is a time of tremendous transformation. All our old models are being reinvented, in every facet of society. And we are the change agents. That is what the shaman has always been. The shaman is a map-maker. We need new map-makers. Essential maps do not simply lay out the territory, but are a guide to the territory. So we must make new maps.
The nature of the dialog that the shaman has with nature is one of life speaking to life, life connecting with life, life responding to a call and responding to life, to us. We call on four great archetypes: the serpent; the jaguar; the hummingbird; and the condor, the eagle in the east. These are the four organizing principles in the medicine tradition. They are known by different names among the Hopi, among the Shoshoni, among the Navajo, the Maya and the Inca. The important thing is not what you call it, not whether it’s the jaguar in the west or the buffalo – the important thing is that when you call it, it comes. That is the shaman’s agreement with spirit. Our agreement with spirit, that each and every one of us has made, is that when you call, spirit comes. Not 60% of the time, not 90% of the time, but 100% of the time.
Each of the four archetypes is the embodiment of organizing principles in the universe, described in animistic fashion. Each one of the directions represents one of the steps that the shaman must go through to become a man or woman of knowledge. The shaman differentiates between information and knowledge. Information is what we are flooded in every day. Knowledge is wisdom. Information is knowing that water is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Knowledge is being able to make it rain.
The shaman is a person of the percept, of perceptual traditions. In the west, we are people of the precept. We get precepts, laws, rules. We get the ten commandments, elect legislators and law makers that make more rules. When the shamans want to change the world, they work at the level of the essential to bring about a shift in perception. By shifting perception, we dream the new world into being and the world changes. That is our task, to dream with our eyes open.
Through this great transformation, a new human is emerging on the earth. I call this new human “homo luminous.” Shamanic traditions understand that evolution happens within generations. In the west, we believe evolution happens in between generations: maybe your children will be smarter and more handsome, maybe the indigo children will climb to the next rung on the evolutionary ladder. The shaman understands that evolution happens within generations. It is for us to take that quantum leap into who we are becoming. We can become homo luminous in our lifetime. This is our greatest task: to take that quantum leap individually because as we do it for ourselves, we do it for the entire planet. Each and every one of us, when we choose truth, when we choose life, when we choose light, we are transforming the world.