Download the Information from the Cosmos
The following is an excerpt from Yanatin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru by Hilary S. Webb, published by University of New Mexico Press.
On Friday evening, I arrived at the plaza early to rent a sleeping bag and an inflatable mat from one of the tourist centers lining the square. I felt a slight nervousness wondering what the evening would hold, although now that I had made up my mind to do it, my nervousness was more excitement than fear.
The mind is a funny thing, isn’t it?
I eventually spotted Amado’s car and jogged across the street to meet him and Juan Luis. Amado’s cousin, Marco, was sitting in the driver’s seat, with Juan Luis riding shotgun. Amado sat in the back. I barely recognized them at first. All three of them were dressed in traditional ceremonial costume—brightly colored ponchos and the warm, woven chullo hats of the highland Andes. As their heads swung round to greet me, the pompoms hanging down from their chullos swung in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Princesa,” they called out. Juan Luis got out of the car and helped me put my things into the back. I climbed in next to Amado and the four of us zoomed up the mountain and out of town. Soon we were out of the city and driving through the farmlands of the valley just below Cuzco. The landscape was lush and emerald green from all the rain of the past several months. In some areas, the ground had been cut open through tilling, exposing luscious blood-red soil beneath. All the colors of the land glowed against the darkening sky. We listened to a kind of Nuevo-Andean zampoña music as we drove—traditional flute music flavored with a more modern, electric touch. It was a strange juxtaposition of old and new, and I liked it. Everything in that moment seemed heightened, including my own joy.
I turned to Amado, who met the glow in my eyes with a smile and a hug. As we embraced, I said, “Amadocito, I don’t know how this happened, but I am so glad I’m here.”
“And I am glad you are here, too, my sister from the North,” he said, patting my hand.
Later on the drive, I asked Amado, “Will the San Pedro make me sick like ayahuasca?” (A powerful hallucinogenic preparation used in the Peruvian rain forest, ayahuasca is often accompanied by a violent purging process in which anything that isn’t part of one’s basic anatomy comes rushing out in mass exodus—from both ends.)
“No, Princesa. Juan Luis’s preparation is gentle. You might feel the urge to throw up at first, but that urge will pass if you let it.”
He handed me a bottle of water and instructed me to drink it. Once the ceremony began, we would not be ingesting anything other than the San Pedro, and it was important not to get dehydrated.
Half an hour after leaving Cuzco, we reached the town of Chincheros, where Amado grew up and where much of his family still lived. It was completely dark now, and the town’s narrow road was illuminated only by the golden fluorescent glow coming from a small store tucked into a row of squat adobe buildings that lined the street. We pulled up across from it and Amado and Marco got out and ran off on some errand.
As we waited, Juan Luis and I chatted. I asked him about his life, and he told me that he was currently living in the home of his teacher and mentor don Ignacio, from whom he learned to work with San Pedro. He had married don Ignacio’s daughter, Claudia. The two of them had a little boy.
I asked Juan Luis about his work with San Pedro, how he started on the path of these medicine teachings.
“I started on this path when I was a child,” he told me. “I dreamed a lot. I used to hang out with my older brothers. I used to go to the jungle a lot. And when I got home I would tell my mother about riding with my friends on the elephants. My mother said I shouldn’t lie. But I would swear that we had ridden on the elephants. I used to fly a lot. I do not think it was all childish magic. Later, when I had finished high school, I started to study under a [shamanic] teacher in Lima. I started to appreciate my essence and my love of the unknown. I loved what I learned about what I was—my essence, my Andean roots. My teacher taught me a lot about who I was. He told me to look at myself. I felt part of something. I was not aware of what it was, but I was already part of something. And step by step, I started to walk.
“Later, I had the chance to travel a little around the North, which is the home of San Pedro. I did not have too much experience [with San Pedro], but I did know of the Medicine and I was very scared of it. Sometimes someone is afraid of what they don’t know. But life led me to know San Pedro, and through it I learned to see the huacas, the sacred places. I was not afraid anymore. I was feeling a lot of peace. Later, when I came back to live in Cuzco, I got a job. I returned to college. I met my wife and her father, the healer don Ignacio. I learned from him and added my new knowledge to the knowledge that I had obtained in the North. I wanted to know more. My heart called me and I started to walk with him. I followed him constantly. I learned a lot from him and everything that surrounded him. And through him I met other teachers.
“Now it is my life. I have been working with San Pedro for eight years. Only two years ago after a long preparation did I have permission [from my teacher] to give the Medicine to other people. When I am in ceremony, the Medicine flows with me. What is acting through me is not me, it is the Medicine. I am only a manifestation, a channel.”
Marco and Amado appeared out of the darkness carrying four large bottles of beer and an armload of firewood, all of which they piled in the back of the car. We continued up the mountain, winding our way around the hairpin turns. I felt grateful for the darkness, which kept me blissfully ignorant of the steep drop that undoubtedly lay below us. Eventually, Marco pulled off onto a flat area next to the road. We all jumped out, grabbed our gear, and headed toward a fire pit about 50 feet away. At 13,000 feet above sea level, it was cold up there. Really, really cold. Several years earlier, while trekking in the Andes, I had spent a night on top of a glacier at an altitude of about 16,000 feet. At that height, cold is no longer cold. It was the kind of cold that has gone beyond itself, a cold so cold that one’s body can barely register it—kind of like when a person gets an ice cube stuck to his or her finger. Here on the mountain in Chincheros, however, the frigid air sunk deep into one’s bones without that strangely comforting—though often deadly—numbness. At first, I thought it was just me, that I was simply not used to these temperatures, but then I heard Juan Luis make a joke about this mountain being the “freezer of Cuzco.”
Amado and Juan Luis set about building a fire, which, once going, took the edge off the bone-piercing chill. I wrapped my sleeping bag around me and sat down by the fire, watching and waiting. The wood must have been damp, for it crackled and steamed as it burned, spitting streams of thick smoke. Between the smoke and the thin air, my lungs had to strain to get enough oxygen, and I felt as though someone was sitting on my chest.
Marco saw my discomfort. “Don’t fight it,” he told me. “Just try to breathe through it.”
Eventually, the three men gathered around the fire and motioned to me to stand up. Juan Luis pulled a large plastic container out of his bag and poured some of the thick liquid into a silver cup. Whispering soft prayers under his breath, he held the cup up to the sky, then to the earth, and then poured several drops onto the ground. Pachamama always drinks first. He brought the cup to his lips and drank the contents of the cup down without stopping. Amado poured agua florida onto Juan Luis’s palms. Juan Luis rubbed his hands together, clapped three times, then brought them up to his nose and inhaled deeply three times. He poured another cup of the San Pedro and handed it to Amado, who then repeated the same process.
The third cup was for me. I shivered a little as Juan Luis put it in my hands. The two of us held the cup together for a few moments as Juan Luis spoke the traditional prayers:
“Pachacamac, Wiracochan, Inti Texymuyuc, Qaylla, Pachayachacheq, Tunupa Usapa, Pachamama.
“Invocando la divina presencia, del maestro Jesus, de todos los apus, de todos los aukis.
“De los seres divinales. Invocando la divina presencia, de los Canchisilla.
“Vengan, vengan, vengan aqui.
“Se manifiesten en nuestros corazones, en esta medicina sagrada, nos permitan entrar en sus mundos, en sus cuerpos, en sus mentes, en su ser.”
(“Pachacamac, Wiracochan, Inti Texymuyuc, Qaylla, Pachayachacheq, Tunupa Usapa, Pachamama
“Acknowledge our gifts that come with all our heart.
“Invoking the divine presence, Master Jesus, all the apus, all the aukis.
“The divine beings, the divine presence, the seven rays children of the sun, the rainbow lineage.
“Come, come, come here.
“Manifest in our hearts, in the sacred Medicine.
“Permit us to enter in your worlds, in your body, in your mind, in your being.”)
Juan Luis stuck his thumb in the liquid and rubbed some of it onto my forehead, saying, “Que hace sea, que así es” (“So be it, so it is.”).
Then he nodded at me. “Drink.”
And so I drank. The taste was not as bad as I had imagined it would be. It was bitter—yes, very bitter—but not terrible. He poured the perfume into my hands and I did as they had done, wincing a little as the sharp alcohol scent of the perfume stung my nasal cavities.
“Princesa,” Amado said in a low voice behind me, “this is your yanantin.”
The four of us sat down around the fire. There were a few moments of silence, and then Juan Luis began to speak.
“The purpose of this ceremony is healing,” he told us. “In order to heal, we must not attempt to destroy the heavy energy that we carry but to move it through us.”
He continued, “Heavy energy is a part of us. We have accepted it. These heavy thoughts are our children. You have created them. Sometimes they make you feel as if you are irritated and suffocating. Like the smoke from this fire. You can’t breathe. You always feel as if there is something else, that you lack something. The hard part is to let this energy go. You know you are healing yourself when you start to feel some freedom from that. When you free this energy, you start to feel relief. You start to relax your spirit.”
He paused for a moment, and then said, “This is very important. Not long ago we used to work just like everybody does. We thought that you had to destroy, that there was a need to cut. But with the Medicine we enter into a higher level of consciousness. The Medicine tells us that there is no need to destroy anything, because if you do, you are destroying yourself because the energy that makes us heal and the energy that makes us suffer are intelligent energies. They know our thoughts and they make us think and feel in order to feed themselves. They feed on our pain. They feed on our suffering. So, what we have to do is not to kill them, just as a father would not kill his own son. What a father wants for his son is that he be free, that he be pure. This is the mission that we have to achieve within ourselves. We have to get rid of that heavy energy and get in touch with that energy that makes us happy. We have to receive that energy. It teaches us a lot of wonderful things. That energy teaches us that we can learn from our mistakes. Through that energy we can transform ourselves. That is why alchemy exists. It’s the teaching of transformation. And what are we to transform? We are to transform ourselves into beings of peace and beings of love.”
“How do we do that?” I wanted to know.
Juan Luis nodded.
“It starts with forgiveness,” he said. “The most important part of forgiveness is beginning a new life, and not looking back. It is leaving behind all that has happened. In order to forgive properly, we have to enter into forgiveness on three levels.
“The first level is to forgive oneself, because, having accepted the garbage that someone has thrown at us with bad intention, it is now our responsibility. Someone throws it who is envious, who is angry, and who has bad energy. This garbage doesn’t penetrate but bounces off. Then we pick it up as our own. But that garbage doesn’t belong to us, although we consider it ours. Therefore, the first level of forgiveness is to forgive ourselves for having accepted that garbage.
“The second level of forgiveness is to forgive generally. There are people who harm us. They do this consciously or unconsciously. A lot of people think they are doing us a favor, but they are not. So, we have to forgive those people.
“The third level of forgiveness is asking forgiveness for our own actions, because just like all those people who threw garbage at us, we also throw garbage. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. That is why we come into this life—to clean our karma and to strengthen our dharma,8 in order to close our circle of love here. On Pachamama we have the circle of our physical family, another circle of our spiritual family, and another one of our cosmic family. We have to carry out our mission and clean these circles. After we have cleaned them, we can transcend to another level. Forgiveness helps us to do that. It helps us to clean our situations, to clean our circle, to clean our relationships with other people, and mainly, our relationship with ourselves. If we are not at peace with ourselves, we will not be at peace with the world. So, the most important thing is to clean up our relationship with our self. That is why the first level of forgiveness is to forgive oneself.”
“What happens after we do this?” I asked. “What happens when we are fully ‘healed’?”
“Then we are ready for the teachings,” he said.
“What teachings?” I asked.
“The Medicine teachings from the cosmos.”
With that, I had to be satisfied. The four of us lay down in our sleeping bags and closed our eyes, waiting for the San Pedro to take effect.
Time passed. I must have fallen asleep, because I was suddenly jolted awake, feeling as though I had just remembered something important, something essential even—as if a thousand dreams that I had ever had but then forgotten had returned to me all at once. There was a brief moment of awareness, and then it was gone. Frustratingly gone.
And then, in the next moment, another sensation overcame me, one that can only be described as a simultaneous splitting and a joining of myself. While on the one hand I was aware of having a very strong sense of emotion—many emotions, in fact, perhaps even all emotions—another part of me felt completely detached, almost clinical. It was as though I could observe my emotions in a completely objective way while at the same time be fully subjectively saturated with feelings—ecstatic and painful and everything in between.
I heard a rustling as Juan Luis got out of his own sleeping bag and came over to me. Although I hadn’t moved or made a sound, he had somehow known that I was awake. Later, when I asked him how he had known that I had begun the journey, he responded, “San Pedro opens up a connection that is usually unconscious. That connection is always there, but often we are not conscious of it.”
He knelt down beside me and lowered his face to mine.
“What feelings are you having, Princesa? What thoughts?”
I struggled for words, partially for words in Spanish to explain what I was feeling but mostly for words in any language to try to describe the sensation.
Finally, I said, “I am happy and sad all at once. But I also feel nothing. Nothing at all. How can that be?”
Juan Luis nodded, as if pleased. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. There are no contradictions. This is the foundation. Everything is complementary. Being sad and being happy are states of mind. It’s best to be in the middle. Not too hot, not too cold. You have to look for a balance point. It’s like when they take your temperature. If you are in the middle, you are fine. Try not to feel too sad or too happy. Seek peace of mind.”
He poured another cup of the San Pedro and handed it to me, nodding for me to drink. After doing so, I lay back in my sleeping bag, looking up at the colors of the moon. It was exquisite—light pinks and greens and golds all swirling together in a misty haze. How had I never seen that before? The sky itself was nothing less than miraculous—crystal clear, like a big dome placed over me. How amazing they were, those streaks of constellations. Had I ever seen so many stars at one time?
And then, as I watched, the stars began to move, to dance. I closed my eyes, expecting them to be still when I opened them, but even then they continued to hop around the sky like fireflies. I was overjoyed. I felt as though I had been let in on the deepest secret of the cosmos—that the stars move when no one is watching them.
And yet, at the same time that I watched them dance, seeing this unfold with my eyes wide open, there was a part of my mind that knew this was not real, that it was an illusion created by the San Pedro, that the stars do not really move. As much as I wanted them to move—as much as I wanted them to be conscious and alive and joyful—another part of me reminded myself that this could not be. But then I would look back up at them again and they would be moving anyway, despite the insistence of that logical voice. And then I would wonder again if maybe they really do move
Which was real? Both seemed real, and while on the one hand I felt euphoric, at the same time I feared that my mind would split in two from the weight of the contradiction.
Moving or not moving?
Real or not real?
The tension created in my consciousness by these two opposing thoughts reached a kind of critical mass, a tinkuy, one that I thought might be too much to withstand. But then, suddenly, the two thoughts in their fight for dominance seemed to wear each other out. It was then that I understood.
It was both. The stars both move and don’t move, all at once. In that moment, I accepted fully and completely the stars’ movement and nonmovement as equal realities, without question or doubt or the need to make it one or the other.
And then, another Eureka! moment.
For years, I had been trying to understand the quantum physics theory of “Schrödinger’s Cat.” Schrödinger’s Cat is a thought experiment that is often used to illustrate how, at the subatomic level, the laws of Newtonian physics—which are based on principles of noncontradiction—cease to apply and paradoxes abound. Here, subatomic events both take place and do not take place all at once.
The theory of Schrödinger’s Cat proposes a scenario in which a living cat is placed in a steel chamber containing a vial of poisonous acid and a small amount of radioactive substance. A device is set up so that if even a single atom of the radioactive substance decays, a hammer will break the vial of acid and kill the cat. Because the box is sealed, the person observing the experiment cannot know whether the vial has been broken. According to rules as they are said to apply at the quantum level, because we cannot know which outcome has occurred, there comes a point at which the cat is both alive and dead. This presents us with the question: When does a quantum system stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other? According to many quantum physicists, it is only after we as conscious observers open the box and look inside that the cat becomes either dead or alive. This situation is sometimes called “quantum indeterminacy” or the “observer’s paradox.”
This whole concept had never made sense to me on either a logical or an intuitive level. But now, staring up at the stars and witnessing their equal movement and nonmovement, I understood how such a thing could be.
Schrödinger’s cat is dead!
Schrödinger’s cat is not dead!
The stars move when no one is watching!
The stars do not move . . . ever!
That was it. Yanantin. Captured by this vision, life took on new significance for me. It became clear how much time and energy is wasted trying to determine what was true or untrue; whether we people are wonderful or terrible, splendid or savage; or, on a more personal level, whether I myself was lovable or entirely unlovable. These roles that we create for ourselves, the divine and the demonic . . . at what point do we stop existing as a mixture of both and become one thing or the other? It is when we are in the process of observing ourselves, of self-reflecting, of trying to figure out if we are one thing or the other and act accordingly.
I was thrilled. I had to tell someone, if only so that I wouldn’t forget it. Amado was asleep, snoring, on the other side of the fire. I tried to explain it to Juan Luis, but in my excitement my Spanish got all jumbled up and all that came out was a nonsensical, “A cat! In a box! And a hammer! The cat is dead and not dead!” Although I could tell he was trying hard to take me seriously, Juan Luis burst out laughing. I began to laugh, too. Feeling ecstatic, I lay back and tried to get the stars to move again, but they didn’t. The moment had passed, though the teaching still lingered.
Eventually, I fell asleep, and the next time I awoke it was morning. I sat up in my sleeping bag, pushing my hair out of my eyes and squinting in the sunlight. Because it had been dark when we arrived the night before, I hadn’t seen anything past the ridge that we were camped on, and here in the morning light the sight took my breath away. Directly across from me were the snow-capped peaks of Apu Veronica, Apu Wakawillka, and Apu Chicón. Although miles away, they were such imposing features of the landscape that in that moment I had an understanding of a form of consciousness that acknowledged them not just as living entities but as lords and deities. It was hard not to just sit and stare at them, completely mesmerized by their existence.
Slowly, Amado, Juan Luis, and Marco began to emerge from inside their dew-soaked sleeping bags. The four of us gathered around the now-smoldering campfire. Amado pulled out a glass from his backpack and opened one of the bottles of beer. He passed it around, with each of us taking turns finishing off a glass and then passing it on to the next person. An hour later we had finished off all four bottles of beer.
Standing around, waiting for my turn to drink, I combed my hair with my fingers and found my first white hair. I showed it to them.
“White hair is a sign of wisdom,” Juan Luis said with a teasing smile.
“But there’s only one!” I laughed.
“Yes,” Amado said, “but it is a beginning.”
At 8:00 a.m., we grabbed our things, cleaned up the campsite, and piled back into the car. We drove back to Chincheros, stopping at Amado’s in-laws’ house where we were met with a delicious, steaming meal of choclo, chile relleño, and pollo al horno. By 9:30, we were on our way back to Cuzco.
As they dropped me off in the plaza, I hugged and kissed each of them in turn. I gave Juan Luis an extra big hug and thanked him for his guidance the night before.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “Perfect.”
Holding me by the shoulders, Juan Luis looked deeply into my eyes and said, “Now you can have trust again. Not in me, not in Amado, but in yourself.”
With that, the experience closed and the three of them drove off. I returned to the store where I had rented my sleeping bag and mat. The owner seemed unconcerned about my disheveled appearance and the dampness of the bag. Afterward, I hailed a cab and returned home. I was sad that this “perfect” moment was over and that the connection that I had felt—to myself, to the cosmos, to my three friends—felt so distant. During ritual, a link is established—between you and the other people in the ceremony, and between you and the cosmos. And when that is gone, there is a deep sense of loss, even loneliness. Only later I would realize that it was the same feeling of having spent all night with a lover and achieved an ecstasy that comes from great intimacy and communion with another person. When the lover leaves the next morning, there is a tragic emptiness.
I left Peru at the end of April and returned home with more than 100 pages of field notes and more questions than answers. Not long after I returned home, I was doing some reading of the literature on Andean cosmology, and I came across the Quechua word chaupin or chawpi. Literally translated, chaupin/chawpi means the “middle region” or the “intermediate zone” (Platt, 1986, p. 232). It is described as a center point in which two things come together. It is, the literature seemed to imply, meant to indicate a place where the initial opposition of disparate elements is neutralized.
During a conversation I had with the noted Peruvian anthropologist Jorge Flores Ochoa, he suggested that in order for a yanantin relationship to occur, “There needs to be a chawpi, a middle, an intermediate unifier between the two. An axis. . . . It separates in order to unite. Chawpi is a medium. It is the interaction between the two.”
The description of chaupin/chawpi is not unlike the descriptions given of the Hindu-Buddhist conception of nirdvandva, or what Watts (1969) described as “a state of consciousness to be found in the interval between two thoughts” (p. 197). Likewise, in his cartography of the psyche, Jung (1953/1956) wrote about the “midpoint” of the personality, “that ineffable something betwixt the opposites, or else that which unites them, or the result of conflict, or the product of energetic tension” (p. 242).
Was this what I had experienced staring at the stars that night? A reaching of this midpoint in which two thoughts came together and then finally resolved their tension by entering into a state in which both possibilities—the stars’ movement and their nonmovement—could exist simultaneously? Perhaps so. While I can’t say for sure what it was, the psychological effects of the experience were profound. In the days and months afterward, I found myself approaching the world and my own existence in a different way. Most notably was a lack of attachment to my own thoughts and judgments. Or to anyone else’s, for that matter. Gone was the need to determine in every given moment what was “right” and what was “wrong.” I noticed that during this time my interactions with people were easier, and I spent much less energy contemplating the minutia of my own existence. Whether the world was splendid or savage, or whether I was splendid or savage, did not really matter. These things now coexisted in a way that they could not before. And it felt great.
In discussing this experience and its effects with a colleague, he argued that this lack of attachment, lack of discrimination of what is “good” and what is “bad,” would lead to a dangerous complacency. But I disagreed. On the contrary, it seemed to me that when we let go of our attachment to proving one thing over the other, we are suddenly freed and left with massive amounts of energy with which we can engage with the world in a very harmonious way. Choosing between the two becomes unnecessary—one just acts. One just is and then does. That, as Juan Luis said, is healing. It is ultimate psychological freedom.
After returning home from this first fieldwork trip, I came across a passage in my reading that reflected the experience I had in ceremony so exactly that it gave me epistemological chills:
"The Andean does not experience her gazing at the rising of a particular constellation in a particular region on the horizon as a unidirectional act on her part. . . . Rather it is experienced as the constellation and gazer being united in a conversation. These conversations lead to wisdom rather than knowledge; wisdom emerges from the body-world interface; it is not an intellectual, conceptual, or symbolic “knowledge” or set of “beliefs” held in the mind." (Apffel-Marglin, 1998, p. 32)
Reading that, comparing it to my own experience, I suddenly understood what Amado had meant during that first meeting when he told me I needed to “download the information from the cosmos.” Through an experience with San Pedro, I had become “united in conversation” with the cosmos, not metaphorically, but at a very literal level. In this way I had come to “know” yanantin in a way that I could integrate it—even just a little—and that changed my psychological sense of myself in a truly profound way.