Kindling the Spirit: The Point of the Arrow, Chapter 7
Deep in Central Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, the isolated tribe of Huichol Indians invited me to help them eradicate a decade-long epidemic among the children that was caused by witchcraft.
This astounding experience allowed me to cross the boundaries of culture and language to explore an aspect of my healing power that I had not previously owned. The power of that event also awakened forces within that threatened to consume me. When one opens channels into the unconscious mind and unleashes what C. G. Jung calls the place of active imagination, it can get scary. Balancing the awakenings with my everyday realities and not get hooked on the “Point of the Arrow,” as the Huichol say, became the task.
It all started in one of those serendipitous moments a beachfront bar in La Paz, Baja California, watching the sun setting over the Sea of Cortez, meeting Fernando, a civil engineer creating the right people at the right time at the right place. Ortiz-Monasterio, upon hearing that I was a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans, told me about a serious psychiatric problem he had encountered among the Huichol Indians living deep in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains.
Fernando told me that the children in boarding schools (some as young as 5) were hallucinating. It was attributed to sorcery: the children, thinking an evil spirit had possessed them, became incredibly strong and had to be physically restrained. If they got away they could run for miles. There were occasions when they became violent toward others. The problem has been going on for 10 years and traditional shaman, called marakame, had been unable to cure the disease. Some observers thought this might be the result of jimson weed intoxication. The cost of this illness, both psychologically and economically, had been devastating.
Fernando asked me if I'd ever seen such a problem, and I told him I had. I had seen spells caused by drugs and alcohol psychosis, hysteria, and by witchcraft. In my experience, it didn't make any difference if the disease was explained genetically, psychoanalytically, psychopharmacologically, or by sorcery; the affliction was real and could be treated. He asked me if I thought I could be helpful, and I said "maybe . . . let's correspond."
After many emails, shared literature, questions translated into Huichol and hand-carried into the villages, the boarding school principal sent an invitation officially asking for help. Fernando put together the Mexican team, which included his brother Pablo, a world-class photographer and author, who had worked among the Huichol, and Marta Riveroll, who previously worked among the Huichol and turned out to be a most extraordinary energy healer.
I organized the American team, which included John Koriath, a research psychologist and community organizer, and Joyce Mills, a talented play therapist, lecturer and author. Joyce, John and I have worked together in the Turtle Island Project integrating indigenous and Western healing traditions. We learned about the Huichols. Located deep in the mountains of central Mexico, this ancient tribe call themselves Wixarika. They have lived in these mountains for at least 15,000 years according to carbon dated ashes from their sacred fireplaces. The Huicholes worship at the oldest continually used ceremonial altars in all of the Americas. They were discovered and Christianized by the Spaniards and then essentially ignored because of their inaccessibility.
For more than a decade, students in boarding schools had been plagued by an epidemic of demonic possession. Children (some as young as 5) became possessed by a mysterious demonic “illness” that took over their bodies. They became incredibly strong and aggressive, roared like animals, and if they were not immobilized, would run away and attack people. Some afflicted children had even stoned a suspected sorcerer to death.
The Huicholes have systematized their knowledge of the cause and treatment of disease. Their explanation for all illnesses not caused by old age is to be found in the supernatural. The exploration of these mystical realms is facilitated by the holy sacrament, hicuri (peyote). Peyote is central to Huichol beliefs and marakame are the trusted guides who unfold its mysteries. A little hallucinogenic cactus, hicuri, many believe, is the manifestation of God’s presence on earth. Hicuri is the way to enlightenment and health. During the year, small groups make the long, difficult hundreds-of-mile journey to Wiricuta to gather this holy sacrament. It is the goal of every Huichol to make this pilgrimage because it is a stopping place on the road to eternity.
In traditional Huichol culture, spiritual pursuits and visionary experience are the central tasks in life. Huicholes eat and live, and maintain tribal and planetary balance celebrating a pantheon of ancestors and holy places. The marakame are the most highly respected leaders of the communities. The position seems to run in families, but it is also possible to be called to the work by the spirits. Most are men, but there are a few female marakame. Learning to become a marakame takes many years. The successful candidate has to absorb an enormous body of knowledge, including the use of medicinal plants; learn to recite compellingly the sacred stories and to summon the help of spirits. Not a day goes by without a marakame making the time to connect with these ancestral spirits. The marakame know the deities well and they are not afraid to serve as vehicles for their healing power. Sometimes they successfully conquer illnesses and sometimes not.
The Huichol believed the demonic illness was attributable to witchcraft and turned to their marakame to treat the problem. Many marakame were called but none could cure the illness. Medical doctors who staffed the local clinic prescribed drugs for what they believed to be a “psychotic” disorder. Psychiatrists were consulted; some even visited and recognized it as a culture-bound syndrome that a shaman could treat. However, when told that it had been tried many times and failed, they offered no other solution.
The predominant opinion was that a sorcerer, who was a “man of kieri,” caused the illness. Kieri (Jimson weed) is another hallucinogenic plant that, like hicuri, has enormous power. Hicuri is the light side of spiritual deliverance and kieri has the capacity to reveal the dark side of the unconscious mind. Kieri has a dual personality; it holds a key to enlightenment, but it has the power to seduce you to the dark side of sorcery. In every healer there is a potential sorcerer. When the ego overtakes the reality of one’s flawed humanity and the healer wants to magnify his healing power, he succumbs to the black magic. Such a sorcerer can capture a person’s life force (kupuri) and destroy him or her.
The fact that this illness was so pervasive and persistent in the boarding schools made us wonder about its manifestation as the dark side of compulsory education and its impact on traditional Huichol life. Was the illness a symptomatic manifestation of two opposing forces, the clash between traditionalists and modernists?
The traditionalists maintain the Huichol way of life and lived in the same isolated villages their ancestors inhabited for thousands of years guarding the holiest Huichol sanctuaries. The traditionalists define the customs Huicholes follow to live a long and healthy life. The progressive modernists, live on the mesa-tops with access to electricity, running water, roads, landing strips, convenience stores, TVs, and computer games. Following the customs was getting harder in the new environment.
I had seen the manifestations of such clashes before: escalating violence, family discord, alcoholism, and addictions. Often the children, vulnerable because they are in the middle of this struggle, manifest the symptoms (Hammerschlag 1988, 1993). Schools are the primary source of assimilation, and few tribal groups have survived compulsory education and remained culturally intact. It is impossible to build a wall of separation that will protect a culture from the allure of modernity. When this push and pull becomes so intense, and no one side lets the other win, both get “stricken by the arrow of disease.” The Huicholes needed somebody from the outside skilled in Western and traditional medical approaches to treat illness and bring them together.
I have seen such conditions, and they were curable when the healer could mobilize a power greater than the one causing illness. This is the basic principle of all psychotherapy. It does not matter whether you call the disease-producing mechanism a monster that possesses your body/mind or the incorporation of a negative introject, a modern psychological term. The treatment for such problems is to help patients and communities find the power to confront and overcome their demons.
The organizer and moving force was Ortiz-Monasterio who was intimately familiar with and accepted by the tribe. Over the last years, he built a magnificent bridge over the raging waters of the Chapalagana River that swept away many children during the rainy season. Fernando was also instrumental in replenishing the dwindling deer population, one of the Huichol’s sacred totemic animals; he was a trusted relative. Fernando’s brother, photojournalist Pablo, would document the healing process. Riveroll, a theologian by training and an extraordinary, intuitive psychotherapist and energy healer had the exceptional ability to connect with the Huicholes on previous visits. School Director Jesus Minjares Robles, a community leader, obtained all the relevant data from previous cases and negotiated access into the community.
Dr. Koriath, a psychophysiologist, whose area of expertise is in the heart/brain connection and Dr. Mills, a child psychotherapist, joined me from the U.S. We knew each other well from the Turtle Island project and came up with a rudimentary plan.
We’d involve all the children and ask them to draw a picture to give a face to the illness and make a picture of what they thought the demon looked like. We wanted to draw it out of them and use these pictures as the foundation of a sacred healing offering at the conclusion of our work. Joyce envisioned wrapping our offering in a shawl that she would commission her Navajo sister to make. The weaver, a member of the Native American Church, whose members also use the sacrament, said she would make two of them, a big one for the offering and a smaller one to wrap around an afflicted child. I would bring a tape recorder to record our voices and songs, which could be played to the swaddled victim, in case the symptoms recurred.
It was our hope to talk to parents, teachers, community members, and, if we could, a marakame. I would bring along my medical bag with some basic instruments to listen to hearts, look into eyes and ears, and some minor analgesics and herbal teas. To break down the boundaries, we planned to conduct an evening clinic during which we would see anybody with any ailment.
Although this was the basic plan, it was clear to us all that some things would reveal themselves and be woven into the experience. We all came with open hearts, a loving commitment, and an abiding belief that if we trusted in the wisdom of the unconscious, we would find a way to help create a new ending to the old symptomatic story.
It took six months to make the necessary arrangements get the formal invitations from the school principal, head of the Parents Association, and the tribe before we flew to Guadalajara. On a humid afternoon in April we greeted each other face-to-face. There were lots of joyous hugs as we crammed into a Chevy suburban with our luggage and supplies on the roof. It was a 10-hour drive to Huejuquilla, the literal end of the road and gateway to Huichol country. Exhausted, we checked into the only hotel after midnight.
Whatever time we awoke was too early, but we had a breakfast welcome date with the school principal who, in full costume, had come down from Nueva Colonia to greet us. Then we continued with a four hour drive on a pot-holed cattle track until we reached the mesa-top town of maybe 1,000 people, with a health clinic staffed by senior medical students, convenience stores, church, and the big boarding school. Fernando drove into the fenced compound and parked under the only tree. The principal introduced us to Marcos, the head of the Parents Association, who would become our guide, interpreter, and counselor. We were shown to our 10 foot by 9 foot by 12 foot single room serving as bedroom for us all and our evening clinic for the next three days. We began to unpack while word of our arrival spread through the community.
Some kids watched us from behind the buildings and slowly inched closer. Joyce and her turtle puppet made friends while we unloaded the van. When the community gathered, the children were the first to welcome us, lined up in precise rows and most in traditional dress. They sang songs and clapped their hands, and we clapped back. The school principal introduced us in the Huichol language, which Marcos then translated into Spanish, and Pablo into English. Everyone knew we were the doctors, the marakame from North America, who came to heal the “illness.”
With ubiquitous translations, Fernando introduced himself, told of his relationship to the Huicholes and then he told them about us and that we had worked with indigenous people in North America. He told them we had treated children with similar illnesses. He said we had come at our own expense and our healing work would cost them nothing, but we needed their support in our efforts.
Fernando introduced me and I told them about myself, my tribe, family connections, and my relationship with their holy sacrament, hicuri (peyote). I talked about the symptoms, and explained I had treated such things before, and I came with respect and appreciation for their healing ways. I told them I knew many powerful healers had tried to cure the illness, but it continued to reappear. They were afraid of the illness and uncertain of the future, but I believed that the monster that inspired that fear could be defeated, but only if we joined to face it together.
John and Joyce outlined the plan; John redefined the concept of a hysterical conversion reaction calling it an “inside-out disease.” He explained that whatever darkness had gotten inside the victims’ bodies and minds had to come out before the healing light could get inside. Joyce then explained how the children would draw a picture of the monster and we would collect them for our offering.
Then she held up a beautiful shawl that was created by Navajo relatives in North America, also users of the sacrament peyote, and said they blessed it especially for the children. She said we were going to use the shawl to wrap up our offering. John placed the shawl at the base of the tree and asked the assembly to help us in our work by bringing something that helped them heal in the past and place it into the bundle. When we were finished with our work, we would take the bundle and offer it at a holy place.
Before closing, I said I knew many people had suffered, and I wanted to speak with anyone who was not feeling well. Each night I would open a clinic at our home and all were welcome. When I finished, nobody moved. Fernando came up to me, “they are waiting for you to sing, they want to feel your heart.” They had heard my words--it was a speech--they wanted to hear me pray and sing my songs. A marakame who could not sing was like a violin with only one string. I began to chant, slowly songs emerged, and we all sang.
We mingled, had dinner, and afterward went to the school playground where we were formally presented to the elementary school children. We explained how they got sick, how something had gotten inside them, and that we were going to get it out.
Then I did a little David Copperfield magic that I had just learned. I told them I could get something inside of them and they would not even feel it. I could blow something into their tightly closed fist without their ever feeling it. There were titters when I asked for a volunteer. One brave 7 year old girl came forward. I showed her some ashes I had brought from our cooking fire. Fire is a sacred totem among the Huichol, the symbolic energy of life. I said I could blow those ashes into her closed fist. “Do you believe me?” I asked. She did not answer and I was not so sure myself. With marginal dexterity, I managed the sleight of hand to ‘‘blow’’ the ashes into her closed fist. When she opened her fist she stared in amazement at the ashes in her palm and then walked around showing it to the others. I asked if there was still a skeptic out there, and an older boy wanted me to do it again. I invited him up and repeated the magic feat; they were all listening now.
The next morning we would draw out the illness monster--they would make a picture of what they thought the creature looked like. Joyce told them to think about it tonight; maybe it had a face or a body, maybe a symbol, anything they imagined it might be. She would bring the paper and crayons that they could keep. We said goodnight and it was long after dark. When we approached the front door to our quarters, there were people lined up for the evening clinic.
The entire next day elementary and high school students drew their image of the illness. The pictures were accompanied with stories about the incredible creatures and designs; some were ordinary animals, others were half animal/half human creatures, and some were plants. When the children finished drawing their fear, Joyce asked them to draw a picture of what made their hearts happy. Joyce knew this was an extremely important aspect of their healing process. Not only were the children’s fears taken or offered, but it was equally important they would be left with their own symbolic images of strength which are often shrouded in the dark shadows of fear.
One 9-year-old boy had depicted the illness as a giant cactus whose out-stretched limbs became arms with long fingernails that were razor sharp, flesh-tearing spines. He said the cactus monster wanted to tear open his chest and pierce his heart. He gave the monster a name, “Eutimio,” which we later learned was the name of a well-known marakame who had been accused of being the sorcerer. This is a serious charge, and some members of the community thought he should be put to death. He was incarcerated for months in the tribal jail, but after investigation was eventually released.
The village where Eutimio lived was a 3 hour hike from the school down a steep canyon trail. We had hoped to speak with a marakame and wondered if a meeting with Eutimio could be arranged. We talked around the fire that night about how such a meeting might go. We would tell him about the boy’s picture, without any finger-pointing blame, rather only the hope for his support and a contribution to the offering. Marcos made it happen. Eutimio’s son had been at the initial community meeting and news of our presence had already spread to the village. The next day we got an invitation to meet with Eutimio.
On the way down I talked to Marcos. Between my poor Spanish and his much better English, we managed to cobble a conversation together. Warm and open hearted, Marcos had returned to the village after years in Guadalajara. Now married and with children at the school, I asked him what he thought was the cause of the illness. Marcos said there were many problems and the old customs were breaking down. The traditionalists believed the illness was punishment for federally-mandated elementary school education.
Families in the isolated villages of the Sierra Huichol were required to send their children away to school. For some it was only a several hours walk, but for others it could be a 2 day trek. Living away from their traditional observances was keeping more and more of them away for longer periods of time.
Marcos understood the argument because he left home and learned the hard ways of the city before he came back to marry and have a family. He saw the manifestations of the loss of traditional influences but he also was sympathetic to the progressive elements that wanted to avail themselves and their children of the opportunities of this new world. Marcos’ view was that his people had survived the Conquistadors. Their roots were deep, so he knew they would survive Coca-Cola and computers.
I asked Marcos if he believed the illness could be caused by a marakame’s witchcraft. He knew people could become possessed and assured me this was not just a Huichol thing, “all Mexicans believe in the evil eye.” He did not believe one man could create such an illness. Then he added that Eutimio was no ordinary marakame. Marcos respected him and was a little afraid of him. He told me he was not sure what we were doing would be helpful, but he believed it was possible because we came from the outside. We were doctors who understood both sides, maybe we could bridge the gap. Then Marcos smiled and said, “many people are watching you.”
The walk down was like traveling through a time warp. We were high up on the cliffs when the village first appeared. I imagined this is what the first outsiders felt when they discovered the Hopi mesas. As we got closer, Marcos pointed out the holy temples, which were surrounded by adobe walls that separated the sacred grounds from the surrounding homes. There was a palpable energy here.
Eutimio’s family compound was a large rancheria with at least five homes and its own religious sanctuary, a calihuey. He was 81 years old, had 14 children, 44 grandchildren, and 87 great-grandchildren. Entering his compound, we gathered under a tree where chairs, tree stumps, and blankets were arranged in a large circle. Women and children stood on the outside. I was invited to sit in one of the special marakame chairs. When we were seated, Eutimio was escorted out; he greeted us all and then sat next to me.
Marcos translated Fernando’s Spanish into Nahual. He thanked Eutimio and his family for the invitation and said that we came with respect and honor for his reputation. Then he made the formal introductions and said I had worked with native people in North America and seen this disease before. We all came at our own expense and expected no payment.
Pablo translated for me in his passionate, soulful way. We told him how his name had been mentioned and that we were not here to point blame; rather, we came to ask for his help in our efforts. We could see that the sacred balance between hicuri and kieri needed to be restored so that the Huichol circle could become whole again. We knew how much he and his family had already suffered and hoped that he would bless our work and consider making a contribution to our offering. And then, without invitation this time, we stood together and sang.
When we finished, I sat in a marakame chair next to Eutimio. He pointed to my Detroit Redwings baseball cap and motioned for me to give it to him. When I did, he took off his marakame’s hat and gave it to me. I thought this was his offering, but he said it was for me. Then he stood up and invited Pablo and me to follow him into his calihuey. The three of us climbed up the several steps into the sanctuary, a small stone house with a thatch roof. Inside, there was barely enough room for the three of us to stand, much less walk around. The sanctuary was stuffed from floor to ceiling with sacred objects on tables, windowsills, and hanging from the roof beams. There were deerskins, painted deer skulls, feathers, masks, baskets filled with fetishes, stones, beads, peyote plants, Christian symbols, and a tiny key chain painting of him done by Diego Rivera.
One table was crowded with baskets filled with carved wooden prayer sticks called muvieri. These sacred objects are potent healing fetishes. We watched Eutimio as he examined one after another until he found just the one that spoke to him. He then motioned for me to give him my new hat and proceeded to tie the muvieri onto it. This was his offering.
Before we left, he asked if I would look into his right eye. He was going blind and added that one side of his face had also been paralyzed for several years. I could see the facial asymmetry, but other than in his face, he had no other muscle weakness. The paralysis was probably an old Bell’s palsy that would not get any better or worse. When I looked into his eye, however, he had a dense cataract, which I told him could be improved with surgery.
It was late afternoon before we left and Eutimio asked us to sing some parting songs.
We sang hymns in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Ponca, Navajo, Lakota, Mohave, and Cree--the songs of many tribes and generations. Hearing their voices reverberating off the cliff walls moved me to tears. That tingling energy stayed with me on the walk out. Hearing those tunes humming in my brain lifted me from canyon floor to the rim almost effortlessly.
The next morning we stood in a circle under the big tree around the Navajo shawl now filled with the children’s drawings, decorated gourds, weavings, beadwork, peyote, a beaded deer skull, sacred Hawaiian salt, and flat-leaf cedar from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Lots of people were there just to see if I was still standing after my meeting with Eutimio.
Pablo related every rich detail of our meeting with Eutimio with psychodramatic flair. When he finished he came to me and turned me around to show the assembly I was still whole. He then motioned for me to take off my hat and untie the muvieri, which I then gave to him. He walked it around the circle for everybody to see and then placed it into the offering.
Fernando held up the letter signed by the principal and Marcos, which described our work, our request of the tribal council to spend the night, and our plea to make this offering at the “Holy of Holies.” At the end we rolled up the offering and then held hands, sang closing blessings, and slowly walked around the circle to say goodbye to each and every person. To each child we gave a small gift--a box of crayons, soap bubbles, and coloring books--there was a lot of love.
There is only one drivable road into the capitol of the Sierra Huichol. It is a steep, one-lane trail, impassable in the rainy season. Before this road was completed just the year before, there was only a footpath in. Few non-Huichol visitors ever wandered in here. Even with the letter from the school principal and community, we knew there was little likelihood that we would be allowed to make our offering at their sacred source, the Holy of Holies. No more than a handful of outsiders had ever seen it, especially after the Norwegian explorer and naturalist, Carl Lumholtz, visited at the turn of the 20th century and took one of their sacred altarpieces.
I forgot all about our reception on the ride down because I was holding the door handle in a death grip. In this dry season the road is coated with a layer of fine powder, which makes you slide from side to side on the single lane. We were also headed directly into the setting sun. I was blinded and we often slid perilously close to the unguarded edge on the hairpin turns. Seeing me white-knuckled, Fernando smiled and asked me why I was so tense.
Halfway down, I caught my first glimpse of the village of Santa Catarina: Pueblo-style adobe homes, church, and courtyard, it may be the oldest continuously inhabited community in all of the Americas. The road ended at a convenience store with a solar-powered refrigerator. We drove into the village, past the community water tank and spigot, and parked the van next to the community house. I staggered out and kissed the ground. The Governor appeared, and Fernando delivered the customary introductions, and then read the letter. The Governor listened, but you knew he had already heard the story. He said we could stay the night, and that later they would decide at a council meeting whether or not we would be allowed in to make the offering.
We carried our stuff into the community house, a huge two-story structure. It was maybe 50 feet long by 30 feet wide, supported by three large center posts; an adobe bench surrounded the entire room.
Fernando had an old friend in the village with whom he had built the bridge and made arrangements for us to have dinner at his home. Fresh hand-pressed tortillas accompanied an exquisitely flavorful stew of indeterminate substance. Afterward we strolled through the village; the beautiful church had been built three centuries before. In front of it was a walled courtyard that contained a life-sized statue of Christ--dressed in a traditional peyotero’s costume with long skirt and feathered headdress--it was stunning. The “keeper of the flame,” who saw that the fire inside the church never went out, guarded the entrance.
Catholic Priests conduct Mass here twice a year on Easter and Christmas, but the Huicholes come here to pray on every important occasion (harvests, hunting expeditions, and pilgrimages to the sacred peyote gardens). They dance all night in the courtyard, stomping hard on the earth to awaken the spirits of their ancestors asking them to keep their circle whole.
It was after dark when we were summoned to the tribal chambers. The council room was long and narrow. Inside the entrance, a high wooden table was set in front of an elevated adobe bench behind which all the council members sat. In front of the table was an open fireplace, and at the other end of the long room was the prison cell in which Eutimio had been incarcerated. The council members--men and women, young and old, some in traditional clothing, others in blue jeans and T-shirts--passed around the letter of introduction.
Fernando told the whole story again; how we came together, what we had done with the children, our visit with Eutimio, and his contribution to the offering. When he finished, a passionate exchange ensued replete with tears and angry outbursts. Some wanted to see what was inside the offering; others did not because they were afraid once opened it might unleash a dark force which would be the sorcerer’s revenge for his incarceration. The discussion became so passionate that at one point I whispered to Fernando that we had other options. He whispered back that they had to go through this, if they were going to give permission.
When a consensus developed, the Governor called the question and they decided to open the offering. First, an official cleansed the entire chamber with Copal incense and waved the fragrant smoke over everyone and over the closed offering bundle. Then he walked down to the jail cell where Eutimio had been held for months. Finally they opened the bundle and purified its contents. The council carefully examined the children’s drawings and Eutimio’s muvieri. An official took pictures of the contents with a Kodak Instamatic.
More intense discussion followed and then the Governor turned to me and asked, “what did you see when you looked in Eutimio’s eye?” When Fernando translated the Governor’s question, I thought it was a clinical question, like what was wrong with his eye. I responded that he had a cataract that was blinding him. Fernando clarified that the Governor’s question was not an anatomical one, it was one of soul; what did I see when I looked inside his eye? Could I see Eutimio’s soul, and did I believe him to be sincere? Did I trust him? Was his muvieri a healing offering? I said I believed him; I believed he wanted this illness to end. He was an old man who had suffered much, as had his entire family. He did not want the memory of this illness to be his legacy, and I believed both he and his offering were sincere.
More discussion ensued, and finally they decided we could bury the offering at the Holy of Holies. The suffering had been so long-lasting, and the need so critical, that they agreed to let us go. However, it was with the proviso that six officials--including the Governor and his wife--would accompany us, watch us perform the ceremony, and then escort us out. It was over. We were exhausted and after washing up at the communal spigot, slept side by side in our quarters.
I slept fitfully and was awakened from a dream in which I was on horseback. Startled by a hissing snake, the horse bolted and I was thrown off. But one foot got stuck in the stirrups and I was being dragged toward a precipice. It was hard to fall back asleep . . . the floor got harder and my uncertainties intensified. Among the ancient Jews, when the High Priest entered the Ark of the Covenant on the Day of Atonement to ask for blessings on behalf of the people, he went in with a rope tied around his ankle. If he was found unworthy by God to make this plea, he would be struck dead.
Since no one else could enter that sacred space, they pulled him out by the rope. I was surely unworthy, but I would do the best I could, and that would have to be sufficient.
At daybreak we gathered outside the community house. The Governor came over and sat next to Fernando and me, and his mood seemed lighter. He said he had been dreaming all night; in his dream he saw Eutimio walking toward him, and they approached one another until they were eye to eye. The Governor looked inside Eutimio’s eye and said he, too, believed him to be sincere. I thought it a good omen for our trip.
We were led down by the tribal judge and followed by the policeman who carried a rifle. The descent was leisurely, but I knew the walk up would be harder. The deeper into the canyon we got, the more lush the landscape. It took an hour to reach the dry riverbed; in a month this would be a torrential river. Sitting on its bank, a dragonfly suddenly appeared in front of me. The dragonfly has mystical significance among Native people--among the Siletz band of Salish, the dead return as dragonflies; among the Hopi they are shamanic wizards whose complex eyes allow them to see the past, present and future--I knew this would be no ordinary journey.
From the river, it is a short walk to the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The gateway is a serpentine cleft that splits a huge boulder. The crack is only big enough to let one person through at a time. The Huichol say the cleft was created by a giant snake that let them emerge here into their new world. We will be at the belly button of the Huichol world. This is their Temple Mount, or Mecca.
Before we walked through, the judge stopped to pray. He asked for permission to enter, prayed for all of us, for the healing of the children, for the Earth, his people, and gave thanks to the Creator for all the gifts that had sustained them until now. Then he cut small twigs from a bush he said was the actual wood used by the Creator to make the first fire. He gave us each a few pieces and told us to offer it with our own prayers when we came to the Cave of Light.
It took only a minute to get through the crack, but during the short passage I felt a cold shiver go through me. We prayed at the Cave of Light, each in our own way, and then moved on to more caves and pools, each one with its own altars and power. On either side of the trail, bushes were stuffed with fluffy, white, cotton puffs, the prayer offerings of generations of pilgrims. As the path got steeper, I had to hold onto the cliff walls, and when I did I could feel a hum in the stones. I have felt this before: in the Grand Canyon, and underneath the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when I touched the cornerstones of the First Temple.
And then suddenly, the altar and fireplace at the Holy of Holies opened up before us. It sits on a cliff ledge perhaps 30 feet wide and 100 feet long and faces a sheer, 100-foot wall. Ashes from the altar fireplace have been carbon-dated 10 to 15,000 years old which makes this the oldest religious shrine in all of the Americas. We placed the offering in front of the altar and stood there quietly to take it all in.
The ledge is big enough to hold seven little calihuey (temples), each big enough for a single person. We each crawled into one; I stayed a while, prayed to be forgiven for my shortcomings and hoped I would not have to be dragged out by my feet.
When I emerged, I walked over to an alcove that contained a pyramid of deer skulls placed here by pilgrims offering their prayers. I returned to the altar, entranced by the fireplace, the Guardians, the smoke-stained cliff wall until Fernando tapped me on the shoulder and got me out of my reverie. He said it was time to pick out a place to bury the offering, and I should pick out a spot that spoke to me. There was a flat area on a narrow point near the cliff’s edge which seemed right, and that is where we dug the hole.
When we finished, we returned to the offering in front of the fireplace. We formed a circle around it, and I lit a cornhusk cigarette filled with tobacco given to us by our Navajo relatives. I spoke about its significance and the intention with which it was given to us.
Then bending over the offering, I blew smoke all over it and opened it up. I said I would pass the smoke around so each of us could take a puff, bless ourselves, and add our personal prayers for the healing work. In sharing our breath with each other in this way, we would speak as one voice, one heart, and one mind. I said what I said, stood in awe, we had done the best we could, asked that our prayers be heard, and the sacred circle be made whole again. Everybody took a puff, said something, and passed it on until the smoke returned to me. I put what was left of the tobacco into the offering and then invited everyone to roll it up with me. We carried it to the burial pit and gently placed it in; I sprinkled water from the Spring of Life that flowed through here, cedar from the Black Hills, and sacred salt from Hawaii. I recited the threefold final benediction in Hebrew, and finished with some closing songs.
We did not hang around long afterward; the governor’s wife began giving signals that it was time for us to go. Before returning through the cleft, we stopped for lunch on a broad ledge overlooking the Cave of Light. When we finished, the Governor invited us to cross the riverbed and go into the cave. Inside the spacious cave were several flat ledges that could accommodate a dozen people comfortably; the walls were covered with glyphs, and there were small altars in every crevice containing fetishes and candle remains. At one end of the cave, a deep cistern held perpetually fresh water.
From where we were sitting we would be able to see a step-laddered series of seven waterfalls. The place was overwhelming in its intensity. Slowly we all began to sing; I saw the faces of the children at the closing circle, and could feel their suffering and their strengths. We sang Amazing Grace in three languages in this magical place, and with the sunlight peeking in; I not only heard the tune but also could see the words bounce off walls like sparks. Thinking about that moment of spiritual clarity, the feeling of being one with all that is, still gives me goose bumps when makes me shudder. I can bring myself into that consciousness when I want to experience deep contentment.
Before we left, Fernando called me over to the cistern where he scooped out water, poured it over my head, and took me as brother. We gathered our things and walked back through the fissure. The three hour climb out was exhausting, alleviated by thoughts of a cold beer at the journey’s end. I had clearly emerged from the world of the sacred into the profane.
We rested, packed up, heard the music, and walked to the church whose courtyard was now filled with dancing peyoteros who had just returned from their pilgrimage to the sacred peyote gardens in Wiricuta. We watched as they placed the sacrament at the feet of the skirted Christ in the courtyard. They danced, stomping their feet to speak to their ancestors and reaffirm their place and purpose in this world. The Huicholes see themselves as the carriers of the light into humanity; a chosen people honoring a commitment to the Creator to keep open the channels to the mystical unconscious to heal themselves and the world.
We exchanged gifts and waved goodbye. I slept on the ride out.
In the months following our departure, some minor manifestations appeared. A couple of children became agitated, but without violent outbursts. A year and a half after our visit, the Mexican team returned welcomed and thanked by the community, but also informed them they had taken control of the situation and no further external work was needed.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is the rainy season, travel is difficult and instead of the dust of last year we move through mud and roads that sometimes seem like rivers. We miss you, but feel your presence, even the old truck started coughing in despair at your absence . . . We were greeted warmly in the village just like old acquaintances. There is universal recognitin of the radical decline in cases (only two or three mild cases), and the change is noticeable to all. The community has come together, the Extraordinary Assembly (the highest authority in this community) appointed five marakame to serve as the guardians of the healing of the children. Support groups among friends and parents have been formed to address the childrens' needs as well. There is no question that the community senses the probem of the children is something from the past. The Navajo shawl you brought last year as a protective covering for sick children is no longer at the Nueva boarding school. It has found its way to another boarding school, where it is kept as a protective omen. In the Calihuey of Pochotita, we sang, performed blessings, and presented gift. On our way home we sang The Doors' "The End." We are grateful beyond words and worlds for our connection and the blessing of our work together.
The evening before we left, we celebrated in Guadalajara when we met with Rocio. She is a naturopath and Fernando’s guide on the Huichol spiritual journey. Rocio has worked among the Huichol for 30 years and runs a hospital/rehab facility for them in the city. Rocio told us that what we just experienced was an initiation into our own power. With our new awareness we became “points of the arrow,” the place where shaman gain access to their unconscious minds and which magnifies their therapeutic power. Then she cautioned, “be careful with what you take away from here because living in this state of mind could get you hooked on the point of the arrow. I didn’t know what she was talking about, and asked her what she meant. Rocio said, when you see the world from such an open channel into the mysterious mind, you may see things that you don’t want to know, and then drown in the wonder of its gift. If you cannot balance your new awareness with your outer reality, then the gift that has been given you will be taken away.
I still didn’t quite understand; but it wasn't long after returning from the Sierra where we were opened to the healing magic of our collective unconscious. All of us to varying degrees became sick with life threatening catastrophes. We were possessed by illnesses and losses; possessed by our inability to defend against things bubbling up inside us.
Four years after our visit the disease had disappeared, the community healed, but we the healers, we did not emerge unscathed. Something happened to all of us down there. We were so totally involved in that energy, so opened to seeing life from this extraordinary, unrehearsed, free-flowing perspective, that all the material bubbling up was consuming us. We could not separate ourselves from the unconscious awakenings to deal with our everyday realities. We all in our own way over those four years, became ill, or as the Huichol call it, “hooked on the point of the arrow.”
Possessed by energy more powerful than anything we could do to defend against it; when you open yourself to the magic of cosmic awakening, sometimes things bubble up that you don’t want to see. If you dwell on those things then the sound of your own wheels can drive you crazy because you lose your connection with your whole self. The task, when we are bombarded by an unrestrained access into the unconscious, is to hang on while it flows through you, until you can find a way out of the swamp of your demons and find peace with who you truly are.
Healers are always faced with the dilemma of seeking to expand their healing powers without becoming seduced by them. The task is to wrestle with this mysterious, spirit world while maintaining support in your everyday reality. These powerful forces are part of our nature and indispensable in healing others and ourselves . . . but, the task is in appreciating the magic of what you see without becoming possessed by it. If you live entirely in the unconscious you become a sorcerer. You become hooked on the Point of the Arrow by arrogance, pride, and ego.
Healing. It’s all about balance, keeping yourself and the process in perspective, don’t take yourself too seriously, and give up control of what you never had control of anyway.
Photos courtesy of Pablo Ortiz-Monasterio.Tweet