A Journey Into Shamanism

by Alberto Villoldo

interviewed by Michael Peter Langevin and Richard Daab ( from "Magical Blend" magazine)

Psychologist Alberto Villoldo traveled to Peru to research the effects of the jungle plant Ayahuasca. Known by natives as "the Vine of Death," the plant was used by shamans to lead them to a place of power and ancient knowledge. Through ritual, ceremony, and the use of mind-wrenching potions, a renowned Incan shaman known to the Indians as Don Jicaram ushered the psychologist into a dangerous and fantastic realm of mind and body. Villoldo's book, The four Winds, provides a riveting personal account of this shamanic initiation.

Villoldo established the Biological Self-Regulation Laboratory at San Francisco State University to investigate new opportunities of healing. In addition to
The Four Winds, (Harper & Row) he is the author of Millennium: Glimpses into the Twenty-First Century, Healing States, and Realms of Healing. In this interview, Alberto Villoldo reveals the mythic journey through four cardinal points of the Medicine Wheel.

Why is it that suddenly we are digging into our past to find techniques like shamanism to help us face our future?

Alberto Villoldo: If you look at times when humanity has taken evolutionary quantum leaps, these leaps have always occurred when we were faced with possible extinction. When things are going great there's no need to change. It is out of the threat of extinction that humanity makes quantum leaps, and I think we're at the threshold of one again today. And we are rediscovering the neurological tools to do what the medicine man or visionary was able to do so elegantly---to quantum leap into the future.

About a hundred thousand years ago the human brain nearly doubled in size. We acquired a new neural computer that we are still learning how to use. I'm talking about the neocortex that's divided into the left and right brain hemispheres. I believe that the awakening of the neocortex has been the driving force of prophets, visionaries, great scientists, and great medicine men and women. Once awakened, this new brain is not bound by the ordinary definitions of time and space. This new brain is awakening in humanity at large today, and unless we learn how to master its capabilities, it begins to turn against us, creating psychosomatic disease and psychosomatic disorders. It is also giving us the ability to heal ourselves (creating psychosomatic health) and to choose our individual destinies. But above all, it's giving us the power to engage the totality of human knowledge-though rough computers, through the media, through observing nature. Shamanism is but an ancient map for mastering these capabilities.

In the meantime, we are in the process of gaining access to all the information of mankind through our computers. The access to that information in a time of crisis could propel us into a fundamental shift in the myths we live by.

How can shamanism aid in shifting our mythologies?

Alberto Villoldo: Shamanism offers a different mythology of our origins. One shift that's taking place in our mythologies right now involves renouncing the myth that we are outcast from nature. The Judeo-Christian mythology is not one of liberation but of atonement. As far as I know, it is the only mythology to kick its people out of paradise and make them win their way back through penance. Ecology comes naturally to the Native American and to the shaman because they were never cast out from the garden. It's not something you have to do. It's something you live. It's the principle of "walking with beauty" on the earth. What's happening is that we're breaking out of a mythology of control and repression into one of liberation. One of the reasons that church and state have, for centuries, hunted down shamanism is that it expounds a mythology of liberation. Shamanism offers a direct communion with the divine and the possibility to influence the course of one's own destiny. Shamanism is not a religion. There is no Christ, no Buddha, nobody who says, "Follow my footsteps." Shamanism demands that you take your own steps with courage, compassion, and vision. It requires that you learn how to learn from nature. It teaches you to meet power directly, embrace it, and claim it.

Even though one must take one's own steps, surely shamanism offers a guide.

Alberto Villoldo: The medicine wheel is such a guide. It presents the four steps to power and knowledge and ways to access the abilities of our neocortex. Each direction has a specific theme associated with it. The South is the place of the serpent-the way of the healer. The work here is shedding the past. You shed the past the same way the serpent sheds his skin-all at once. For the shaman this is an act of power. You let go not only of the pain but also of the joy of your past. In shedding the past you acknowledge and forgive those who have wronged you and whom you have wronged Psychology attempts to free you from the past by dissecting the traumatic experiences of your life. In shamanism you set free all at once the spirits from the past that are haunting you. These spirits are not necessarily people who have died. They may be people who are alive that you've trapped in some way in your psyche, and who continue to haunt you in the present.

The next direction is the West-the way of the warrior. The West is represented by the jaguar, the abilities of cunning, stealth, and total relaxation, and the ability to strike instantaneously. When I first began the work of the West, the medicine man I was studying with, Don Ramon, assigned me a task. He told me he wanted me to walk into the Amazon without having all the sounds of the jungle stop. That wasn't an easy thing to do. The first time I tried, I was only into the jungle two feet when the parrots stopped, singing and the monkeys stopped screeching. Everything stopped. Ramon said that this was because the animals could smell the violence in me. He walked into the Amazon, and the noise continued; the animals took no notice. I told him it was be cause he smelled like the jungle and that if I smelled like he did, the animals wouldn't smell me eit her. Later we happened upon two Indians at the edge of a stream who were melting the fat of an animal. I asked them for some of the fat and rubbed it all over my body.

I stank. There was no way you could smell any vestiges of underarm deodorant, shaving cream, or shampoo. I got up and walked into the jungle. I took the first step, and the animals took no notice. I took a second step, and everything was still all right. But when I took the third step, every sound stopped. It was not until about five years later that I succeeded in that task. Ramon and I had been walking in the jungle for about an hour and a half and he said, "Listen." The jungle was filled with noise, and I could finally walk in the Amazon without making the animals silent.

The third step in the medicine wheel is the North, which is the way of mastery. It's represented by the white buffalo, by the snow leopard, and by the dragon. In the North the shaman understands the workings of Heaven and Earth. According to legend, the mastery teachings give you power with the forces of nature and the ability to influence the course of our collective destinies. Rolling Thunder, the Shoshone medicine man, was known for his ability to influence the weather---I saw him produce a thunderstorm that drenched us in the desert during dry season. The North-South axis is the axis that most readily lends itself to abuse for the sake of power.

The East is the direction of healing through vision. It emphasizes the possible---not the probable, but the possible. Its animal is the eagle, and it teaches the shaman the use of vision. To the medicine person vision, is more precious than sight. It has to do with placing the cart way before the horse and seeing what you are trying to accomplish before looking at the limitations. It is an act of creation, of forging the kind of future we want our children to inherit. The Medicine Wheel is described in detail in my book, The Four Winds.

The East-West axis is the axis of compassion and vision, and is the horizon on which the shaman operates. It has direct access of power, but it is tempered by compassion and service. In Castaneda's tradition, for example, you find that dimension missing completely. Castaneda's Don Juan was a sorcerer, not a shaman. There is no instance of healing in any Casteneda books at all.

You have to admit that Castaneda caught the public imagination and foreshadowed much of the current interest in shamanism.

Alberto Villoldo: I certainly admire his writings. Story teller, but what he's writing about is not strictly shamanism. Don Juan is a sorcerer. Sorcery is the gathering and accumulation of power. Shamanism is the exercise of power with the goal of service and compassion. I think that Castaneda's writings are extraordinary even though he might have construed a lot that he wrote about. It's sad that he's not accessible and is unwilling to have his material verified. My gripe with Castaneda s that anybody who has credentials like he has, or like I do, has to make his work verifiable by others. If you don't, then it's a figment of your imagination. It becomes just another hallucinatory ex-perience. Yes, he has opened the doorways into domains of mystery for many people, but it's sad that he has personally not been more accountable for his experiences.
All of the shamans I work with are real flesh and blood- you can meet them in one of the expeditions that I lead through the Four Winds Society.

If Don Juan is not a shaman, what is?

Alberto Villoldo: The role of the shaman is split up into four different roles: Healer, sorcerer, priest, and myth maker. Narrowly defined, the priest repeats the old stories and keeps the mythology going, whereas the shaman links us directly to the knowledge contained in the myth. When the priest sits at the top of the hierarchy and withholds knowledge from the people, the shaman ceases to be a viable part of the society. That's when the shamans begin to disappear. There are some tribes in North America in which the role of the shaman is still intact, but you are more likely to find them in the Amazon and the Andes in South America where the people have not been confined to reservations for 200 years. In the classical sense, shamans are the intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. They do not dispense healing. That's the role of the healer. The shaman says you can't heal yourself until you become a healer, until you become a person of power. If you are unable or unwilling to do that, then you go see the healer and he or she will give you the herbs. The shaman is more of an instigator who brings you directly into contact with your own power. The priest is interested in the answers; the shaman is more interested in provoking you to ask the questions that will lead you into paradox and duality. The shaman helps you to learn how to step out of the monochronic time--the linear time that we're familiar with--into a polychronic time that may look linear but really folds forward upon itself.
In most non-Western cultures, you see time and history repeating itself. If you understand the cycles of history, you understand the future. If you're in tune with the seasons, you know that spring follows winter and that winter is a time of going within. Once you are able to bring yourself into tune with the cycles of nature, you can begin to learn how to step outside ordinary time into dream-time. You cannot take your ego into the dream-time, only your intent. Personality has no place there. Many of the techniques of shamanism are designed to strengthen and empower the intent so that you can move into domains with two or three coordinates in time rather than just one. These are domains that exist parallel to ours and where you have direct access to knowledge and information. You don't have to depend on narrative, be it storytelling or the printed word.

In the Amazon, before you begin certain ceremonies, everybody gets a chance to share who they are and what they're there for--what they're looking for. The interesting thing is that everybody does it all at once. Everybody talks simultaneously. The goal is to tune into the flow of information to get an impression of the totality of the group's purpose. You're not allowed to begin the ceremony until you know exactly what each person is saying without listening to them individually.

So it's a matter of retraining your senses?

Alberto Villoldo: I look at it as a way of developing a kind of common sense. It's not a matter of bridging ordinary senses, but of developing crossover senses so that, for example, I can hear something I see. What happens is that the five senses begin to meld into a common sense. Musicians often develop this. They see a flight of geese three miles away and can hear the flapping of their wings, or they hear music, and they can see eagles soaring. With this common sense you can learn to literally see with your skin. For example, when I look at you in the dream-time, I'm not just looking at your face as I am now. I'm looking at you from the front, the back, and the sides simultaneously. In the dream-time, you perceive globally. It's an oceanic kind of perception that is totally disorienting until you learn to focus your intent. Once you learn how to decipher that common sense into your other senses, you begin to perceive outside ordinary time. You can hear voices that were spoken 2000 years ago. You're sensitive to this flow of information that is all around you. I think it's a sense that's dormant in everybody.

It sounds similar to lucid dreaming, of learning to maintain a point of consciousness in the dream state?

Alberto Villoldo: That's the first stage of it. Shamans say that there are two kinds of people: people that dream and people that are being dreamt. The dreamers are those who can consciously guide their dreams. Lucid dreaming is an excellent way to enter the dream-time. In shamanic traditions you are taught to see, to use your vision to see into these realities. In seeing them, you enter them, you're in dual realities simultaneously. You do that through learning to see concurrent realities. If you can teach yourself to develop the common sense perception that we were speaking about before, then you can hear twelve conversations at the same time. Perception is really the key to entering these realities. You learn to perceive and recognize what's happening concurrently all around you all the time.

How do you go about entering the dreamtime?

Alberto Villoldo: I used lucid dreaming to become aware of myself in my dreams. Castaneda wrote about achieving this awareness by looking at his hands while in the dream state. What I did was to bring a small crystal I owned with me into dream-time. When that crystal appeared to me in my dream, I became conscious that I was dreaming. Then my task became to will myself to places of power I had visited, such as Machu Picchu or the Anazasi cliff dwellings in Arizona. In the dream state, one has access to teachers who are not in the flesh. They are not even in our time frame. If you can cross the curtain of time, you can sit at the feet of ancient Mayan masters and hear their stories.

What about time in the shamanic realms?

Alberto Villoldo: The shaman's perspective of time is not strictly linear. One of my interests is how shamanism looks at the future. The future is something you can influence in the same way the chaos theory claims that a tornado ripping through Texas may have been started by a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing. The same concept applies across time. The master shaman who has completed the journey through the medicine wheel can call forth a higher destiny for his/her people. Those who have completed this journey have predicted many of the crises and challenges that we face today. Their prophecies include the return of the jaguar people and the return of Quetzlcoatl, Lord of the Dawn to the Mayans.

What are these prophecies?

Alberto Villoldo: One of the Mayan prophecies goes like this: Seven heavens of decreasing choice, and nine hells of increasing doom, and then the Lord of the Dawn shall return. Each of these heavens or hells is a 52-year cycle of the Aztec calendar. At the end of the seventh heaven of decreasing choice, the conquistadors came to Mexico, and the Aztecs thought it was the god Quetzlcoatl coming from the East. That was the beginning of the nine hells of increasing doom. The last hell started in 1942 with the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Almogordo, New Mexico. The end of the ninth hell is going to be in 1994. The Inca prophecies speak about the return of the jaguar people, people who have gone beyond death, violence, and territorial conflicts. The jaguar people are no longer burdened with or hunted by death. They do not need to bring death to others to placate the hungry gods that live within them.

What about history after these nine hells?

Alberto Villoldo: They speak about the return of Viracocha, the creator god that walked among men. They talk about a time of peace, prosperity, and the return of the god of the Sun, the Lord of Light. Once we conquer death, once death no longer lives in us, it will be a time of long lasting peace.

You mean fear of death, or death itself?

Alberto Villoldo: They prophesy the end of death. I can't be any more succinct than that. That lends itself to many different interpretations. Whether we should read that as symbolic or literal, I can't say. Perhaps they are referring to a change in our perception of death. I read that prophecy as also heralding an end to violence.

As if we, as a people, have been wearing blinders and are about to remove them?

Alberto Villoldo: That's what the rites of passage through the medicine wheel are: Learning how to see when the blinders are removed without being overwhelmed. And that's where shamanism can help. The blinders are off for us as a species and we are overwhelmed. It used to take years of training to be a yogi, or a medicine man or woman, or a shaman. Many people alive today were born with those faculties fully awakened, yet poorly trained and developed, and so all they can do is inhibit them. The brain is masterful at inhibition. When you put your shoes on in the morning, you don't want to be reminded all day that your shoes are on, so you inhibit that signal. You inhibit everything you don't want to be bothered with, whether its wind chimes or traffic noise.

When the blinders go off, fear rushes in. For example, sometimes when I'm going to sleep, I start going into sort of an out-of-body experience, and my immediate response is intense fear or panic. It feels like a very primitive, animal-like fear of going into these other states.

Alberto Villoldo: Yes, I know that fear. Some psychologists have speculated that it might be a response to an old genetic memory from when our ancestors lived in trees. If we fell to the ground in our sleep, we might be devoured by animals. A medicine woman or man will say that your task is eventually to learn how to leave the physical body gracefully. Then, when the time comes, your departure is an act of courage that will lead you to the land of the ancestors.

In the shamanic traditions that I was trained in, fear is the great enemy. You learn to use fear as an early warning system rather than as a response mechanism. When this happens, the centers of the brain associated with violent response are disengaged. One of the key teachings of the shamanic tradition is that you cannot free yourself from the grip of fear until you exorcise violence from yourself. The fear that lives within us is basically the fear of death, but we don't die all at once. We die a little bit at a time. So, by exorcising fear you are exorcising death. You will die, but you won't be claimed by death if you've already been claimed by life. In shamanism, fear and violence are denials of life. They are two harsh sides of the same coin.

"I tell people I'm working with on a one-on-one basis to change nothing in their lives. I think we're addicted to change. The only thing we need to change is our perception."

Could you address the role of hallucinogens

in shamanic practices? Some people think that's the only way you can reliably get to these other spaces, and others think they're something you should never touch.

Alberto Villoldo: In my training I have used the Ayahuasca, a very powerful hallucinogen. It's not the sort of thing I recommend. The name Ayahuasca means the rope of the dead. It takes you beyond death to face every fear that you ever had. It's not an easy experience. I didn't know what I was getting into when I first started working with the plant. Personal and collective horrors were coming to me, and my worst dread at the moment was that I would not die. Definitely not a good high. I was terrified that I would continue to live seeing this horror. My training was to learn to observe both horror and beauty and neither deny nor identify with them. Then when you look at the horrors around you they become a very small and encapsulated part of one reality that coexists with many others.

I think that the medicines, as they're called, are valuable and powerful when used in the right context. I have seen much abuse of hallucinogens, and I don't advise anybody to work with them unless they're working with a master. Otherwise, I think it's a lot of escapism. I know so many people who have extraordinary mystical visions and communion with the divine, but their lives are a dysfunctional mess. They're struggling to survive doing something they don't like. Their relationships aren't working. They're living in adversity. To me hallucinogenic escapades are a pseudo knowledge that mimics but forestalls the kind of knowledge that a shaman truly seeks; it is the greatest trap in the shamanic training.

What about teachers? Is it necessary to study with a medicine man or woman?

Alberto Villoldo: I don't necessarily advise people to find a medicine man. I do encourage them to go to nature and learn from nature. There are many great teachers around today, both native and non-native. But above all, you must know yourself. Lao Tsu, talking about the art of war, said that if you know yourself and you don't know your enemies you will be victorious in half your battles, but if you know yourself and your enemy, you will be victorious in all your battles. Well, if you don't know yourself and you don't know your adversary in the shamanic sense of calling out the best in you---then you will lose all your battles.

I tell people I'm working with on a one-on-one basis to change nothing in their lives. I think we're addicted to change. The only thing we need to change is our perception. It's like the story of the two 16th century stone masons that are chipping away at two stones. Asked, "What are you doing?" the first mason says, "I'm squaring out this stone." When asked what he's doing, the other mason says, "I'm building a cathedral." They're both doing the same thing, but their perspectives are totally different.

How does one go about developing and keeping that larger perspective?

Alberto Villoldo: I think it's vital do your work of the South, to make an act of power with your own past, and to complete all the I love you's, all the I forgive you's. Come up with your own rite of passage for shedding the skin of the past, but make sure that it's more than just a mental exercise. Go through your rite of passage-design it, devise it, and do it. That's what brings the sacred into your Iife. The task of the shaman is not to pursue meaning but to create it, to bring the sacred to an otherwise profane and mundane reality. That takes a daily act of courage and a willingness to make mistakes.

You need to live your life with power, honor, and dignity. To do that may be as simple as placing yourself ten years from now and asking yourself: What is it that I wish I had attempted-not necessarily attained but attempted---in those ten years? What would make you the type of human being that you want to grow into?

Shamans say that everybody has a future, but only a few people have a destiny. A destiny is something you have to summon. You do this by embracing a mythology where you're never cast out from paradise, where you still walk with beauty on Earth. You do this by living your life with mastery and vision, seeing what everybody else sees and thinking something different about it. This is a personal ecology; this is the practice of shamanism.