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ILLUMINATIONThe Shaman's Way of Healing
By Alberto Villoldo
HAY HOUSE, INC.Copyright © 2010 Alberto Villoldo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneInitiation as Illumination
Third week in the Amazon. Everything is moist. I've put away my favorite fountain pen and started writing with a pencil. I tried reading yesterday's entry, but it was a smear of blue on the page.
The sun is breaking through the canopy, and the dewdrops on the spiderweb before me sparkle like jewels. Nature is teaching me this morning how death is essential for life, providing it nourishment. There is a spider in the Amazon that spins a silken cocoon around its prey as the creature struggles in vain to break free. This morning it has captured a moth, and the spider is darting back and forth, weaving, binding its victim, like the Lilliputians hurriedly trapping Gulliver with their tiny ropes. Once the creature is firmly tied, the spider injects it with a venom that breaks down all its tissues and liquefies its insides, and then it proceeds to suck the life from its catch. The spider has several such "meals" stored in its web. Whenever it requires food, it pierces the shell of its prey with a needle-like feeder and snacks on the fermenting proteins inside. After it has feasted, all that's left are empty husks that were once blue-winged moths and yellow bumblebees.
"The spider is the only one that does not get caught in the web," said don Antonio.
I looked up into the eyes of the old Indian who was my guide and mentor.
"That is the world you live in, my friend, a world of predators and prey, where people suck one another dry. There is another world, the world of creators, that you know nothing about."
I live in the world of predators? Or is it the world of prey, in which I am captured, consumed, powerless?
Don Antonio knew that I felt I was in an exhausting battle with life and hoped to find answers here in the Amazon.
"You want to escape for a while, and then return to your world and conquer your enemies," he said. "But you must conquer them here, because they are inside of you."
Journal Marañon River, Peru
There are seven great initiations every human being must undergo. They are the initiations of birth, manhood or womanhood, first love, marriage (and sometimes divorce), parenthood, sagehood, and death. It's possible that you won't go through all of these passages in a biological sense or at the usual time of life. For example, some people never marry or have children. Yet each of us, regardless of gender or culture, must go through them mythically at least once. If you have no son or daughter, you may write a book or produce some other creative project that will be your "baby," which you must learn how to parent. You will be "born" again as you start a new life in another city or change careers, and parts of you will "die" metaphorically with the losses and changes that life brings. Initiations are inevitable. If you resist initiation, the universe will conspire to bring you face to face with the end of a stage of your life in some other way. Resistance is futile.
Every initiation presents you with the opportunity for illumination-to awaken your divine nature, identify with the realm of the creators, experience grace, and break free of the realm of scarcity and the brutish, predatory existence that most of humanity endures. If you miss one of your initiations, your health and emotional well-being will be compromised. For example, if you don't complete the initiation of marriage, you may not be able to achieve true intimacy with a partner after the romance wears off. If you miss your initiation into manhood, you may become a puer aeternus, an eternal boy, collecting "toys" your entire life. Psychology tells us that to fix these situations, we must understand what traumas we suffered as children, or how our dysfunctional parents taught us unhealthy behaviors. But dissecting the past is a trap. The shaman knows that focusing on our wounds will only reinforce them as we begin to believe that the dramatic personal stories-tragic or heroic-that we tell ourselves about our past are who we are today.
You can only heal fully when you successfully complete the initiations presented to you by life. In later chapters you will be able to identify the initiations you might have missed, prepare to face them courageously, and next time the wheel of fortune lands on your name, be ready to respond to their hidden calling.
Our Unhealed Emotions
Initiation offers us the opportunity to heal our emotions. All the drama and suffering in our lives is brought about by our unhealed emotions, which give rise to our beliefs about how the world works. The shaman understands that whatever beliefs you hold about the nature of reality, the universe will prove you right. If you venture into the woods for an evening walk with an uneasy feeling, you will hear the branches snapping ominously nearby. If you believe that every relationship you enter into will end in disaster, it probably will. If you're convinced that you will never succeed at work, you won't. Conversely, positive beliefs help you to see the glass as always half full. If you believe you deserve to be happy, happiness will find you even in trying circumstances. If you believe the woods are safe and beautiful, they will be so.
Our unhealed emotions are the source of our deeply ingrained beliefs that convince us that a particular situation is a problem we are powerless to change. We can solve any difficulty in our lives-from discovering love to achieving peace in our world-if we heal our emotions and then change our beliefs. But we cannot simply change our minds and magically make the world be different, because our beliefs are etched into neural networks deep inside our brain. These beliefs are encrypted as emotion-laden programs that evolved during prehistoric times for dealing with survival, violence, and fear. Reprogramming these neural networks is not as simple as talking about them to a therapist. Thinking positive thoughts is a start, but you can't change your beliefs about love or abundance just by putting a new affirmation on your refrigerator door. You must rewire your brain.
The Seven Passages
Every culture on the planet recognizes the seven passages or initiations that human beings have undergone since the dawn of time. Each initiation marks a break with the past that invites you to step into who you are becoming, and thus attain illumination.
These initiations can be experienced as only hormonal and physiological changes that accompany each passage, or they can be lived mythically, with full attention to the emotional and intellectual landscapes that they open up. A mythic initiation requires the death of a personal story and an archetypal rebirth into a new and greater personal myth. Carl Jung is credited with developing this concept in the context of the psychology of the unconscious. The archetypes manifest in symbolism, or imagery in dreams and fantasies, art and literature, mythology and religion. They may be personified characters such as the Great Mother, or the Wise old Man; or processes such as death, rebirth, and the marriage of opposites. With each passage you discover that you do not die, even when you think the heartbreak is going to kill you, or the loss of your youth is going to devastate you. Eventually, your initiation leads to the discovery of peace, generosity, compassion, and illumination.
If you're able to recognize when you're on the threshold and bravely surrender to the process of initiation, you'll come through the pain and stop feeling that life is something that happens to you. When you experience your initiation, your feelings of powerlessness and fear dissipate, and in their place arise courage, curiosity, and creativity. You can finally break the spell that caused you to be drained by all the dramatic events of your past.
There are seven toxic emotions that must be confronted during initiation and that give rise to every limiting belief we hold. For some strange reason, nature programmed these emotions into the human brain. They were once known as the seven deadly sins, and even personified as demons, because of their extraordinary power.
Wrath Envy Greed Gluttony Lust Pride Sloth
When we break free from these deadly emotions and the beliefs they create about scarcity, powerlessness, intimacy, and fear, we discover that although there is violence in the world, we can live free of violence in our home and in our relationships. We learn that although greed and gluttony are rampant, we can live in abundance without developing obese bodies or avaricious lifestyles. We discover that although it is very difficult to change the world, it is not difficult to change our own world.
Initiation is how shamans heal toxic emotions and transform them into fountains of power and grace. A rite of initiation makes it possible for you to grow without getting mired in adversity and suffering. It allows you to heal through your own power, instead of recruiting others to be bit players in your emotional dramas. I once heard a wise old man say that if you do not discover the lessons that toxic emotions have to teach you, you'll end up marrying someone who will make sure you learn them. Until we heal these deadly emotions, we will continue attracting people who share the same emotional wounds and stories we play out. Opposites may attract in the world of physics, but in human relationships fear breeds terror, and generosity attracts plenitude.
Initiation brings even greater blessings than the healing of negative emotions. It leads us to illumination, which allows us to know our divine nature and to encounter Spirit in action, in the great playground of Creation. At last we have escaped the web of predators and prey, and entered the world of creators-a unified world where we are both the canvas and the artist, the landscape and the paintbrush.
Although all cultures have elaborate rites of passage for young men and women, these are seldom profound initiations. Birth is too often merely an occasion for a social ceremony or a homemade video, while death is something to avoid confronting at all costs. Similarly, the deep union of two souls is not achieved by an elaborate wedding party; the entry into manhood is not accomplished by shooting an animal, nor is womanhood achieved by getting a menstrual period; and conceiving a child does not make you a parent. No single event can prepare you for the challenges you will face in a significant new stage of life. True initiation is a response to an inner calling; it requires that you face personal challenges heroically and experience a genuine rebirth into a new way of being.
Initiations often force you to defy convention, as in the historical love affair between the Roman general Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt-a relationship that brought embarrassment to the Roman Empire and inspiration to many lovers as in Shakespeare's dramatization of it in the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. Like Mark Antony, even ordinary people sometimes risk everything they once valued to follow love, succeed in a career, or in be good parents. Initiation is an invitation to discover the real significance of existence and play the game of life at a new and higher level.
Once your initiation is under way, your toxic emotions will heal as you transform them into the seven virtues, known as "angels" during the Middle Ages:
Peace Compassion Generosity Temperance Purity of intent Humility Courage
Life invites us to be initiated through many means: through the possibility of love, the death of a parent or friend, the birth of a child, or a serious health crisis. When we succeed in our initiation, we become illumined with the light of wisdom and understanding. We are able to perceive reality as it truly is, unclouded by our emotional wounds and hurts. But when we refuse the call to initiation, we become caught like a moth in the spiderweb, struggling to escape a predicament filled with pain and drama. Wouldn't it be better to enter the landscape of inevitable change willingly and gracefully? If we succeed, initiation can be the doorway through which we step onto a path that leads to a life of passion, authenticity, and grace. But it requires that we say yes again and again to our initiations and boldly explore unknown territory.
One of my favorite tales of initiation is the biblical story of Jonah, who is called by God to go to Nineveh and teach the people there. Jonah is comfortable at home raising his children and dealing with everyday domestic affairs. When he hears God's call, his response is to run as fast as he can in the opposite direction. Jonah is not interested in heeding this calling; in fact, he's horrified by the thought that he could be more than a simple fisherman. He believes he doesn't have it in him to be a messenger of hope and doubts that he could ever amount to anything more than a simple man who guts fish every morning. Terrified that he might fail at the task he has been given, Jonah boards a ship to get as far away as he can from his calling. When the vessel encounters heavy storms in the Mediterranean, the sailors suspect that someone has defied God, and they toss Jonah into the sea, where he is promptly swallowed by a whale. He remains in the whale's belly until he is finally spat out-on the shores of Nineveh.
The moral of the story is that life will drag us kicking and screaming to our destiny if we try to escape it. Our choice is to be delivered in grace and beauty, which happens when we say yes to our initiation, or covered in whale spit, which happens when we reject it. The whale in the story represents our emotions, a huge and irresistible power that threatens to swallow us and keep us trapped for days or years. Remember how long you were stuck in a painful relationship, angry with yourself and your partner, long after you realized it was time to leave? We can spend many years in the belly of the whale dealing with our rage; or our sense of not having the right partner or the right life; or our envy for the youth, success, or wealth others have that we might lack. Eventually the whale spits us out at the shores we were meant to reach. When Jonah arrives on the shores at Nineveh, he is ready to follow his calling, unhesitant and fully able to access his power and to understand his mission. The shaman understands that there are more elegant ways to get to Nineveh than in the belly of a whale.
During my travels in the Amazon as an anthropologist, I witnessed many rituals that initiated young men into manhood and young women into marriage or motherhood. But these, like our own Western ceremonies, were often choreographed festivities disconnected from their deeper meaning. Initiation, by contrast, is nothing less than an invitation to an unimaginable destiny. It is fraught with danger and opportunity. The outcome is not guaranteed. It requires a courageous response, and invites us to become the hero of our own journey. Initiation can take place within the secret confines of your heart, where you go to meet the Divine within, or in the exterior realm, anywhere in the world. Regardless of whether it is an inner or an outer journey, if you're successful you will be blessed and graced. If you fail, you may live to regret it, and die the slow death of an empty and hollow life.
The Four Steps of the Buddha's Journey
When we succeed in our initiation, we attain illumination. For Buddhists, illumination is a state free from suffering and rebirth known as bodhi, literally "awakening." In one school of Buddhism, the ideal is to become a bodhisattva, a man or woman dedicated to the awakening of all living beings.
The Buddha, who had lived a sheltered life of luxury as the young prince Siddhartha, was called to his initiation at the age of 29 when he first left the palace and traveled into the countryside. Along the way he saw a bent old man, and asked his charioteer if age would befall all people. When his driver said yes, the prince was disturbed. As he continued, he witnessed disease, hunger, and death in the form of a rotting corpse. Siddhartha was confused and distraught, for the "ugly" side of life had been kept from him during his youth. Now his innocence was shattered by the reality outside the palace walls, and no doubt he realized that he too would share the same fate as his subjects. In what is known as the Buddha's "great departure," the young prince renounced his life of ease, shaved his head like a monk, and went into the streets to beg for his food. The great departure represents an essential element of every initiation-leaving behind the comfort of the familiar, a difficult renunciation even when the familiar is painful, as in a bad job or relationship.
The Buddha could not have attained his illumination sipping tea in the palace gardens. He had to step into the unknown world outside the palace. The king sent servants to entice the prince with food and drink, but the young Buddha-to-be refused to return home. He did not allow himself to be seduced by his previous life. Instead, he sat in silence under a fig tree and turned his attention inward in meditation until he found the answers he sought: Why must we suffer? Is there any way out? Imagine sitting under the shade of a tree in the blistering Indian heat-not an easy task, with flies landing on your face, attractive young women strolling by, lepers sleeping next to you, and children shouting and playing around you, not to mention the gnawing hunger in your gut. Siddhartha confronted all of these challenges internally. He must have faced every fear and every demon conceivable to man.
Excerpted from ILLUMINATION by Alberto Villoldo Copyright © 2010 by Alberto Villoldo. Excerpted by permission.
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