On the Edge of Life and Death: The Niños Santos Way
[At] that point, Religion was born. Religion pure and simple, free of Theology, free of Dogmatics, expressing itself in awe and reverence and in lowered voices, mostly at night, when people would gather together to consume the Sacred Element. The first entheogenic experience could have been the first, and an authentic, perhaps the only authentic miracle. This was the beginning of the Age of the Entheogens, long, long ago. (Wasson 1986).
Gordon Wasson first traveled to Oaxaca from the U.S. in 1953 to find a curandera who could introduce him to the medicine of psychedelic mushrooms. In doing so, he became America's pioneer of the Meso-American mushroom ceremony. His books opened the way for the ancient medicine of Mexico to mix with the modern medicine (and lack thereof) of the U.S. At the same time, LSD usage rose and psychedelic mushrooms became known to Americans, with the publishing of Wasson's books and the publicity and research of rogue Harvard professors such as Timothy Leary. In 1968, possession of both became illegal. Research and medicinal use continued until 1977, when even that was halted by the government until fairly recently. Recreational usage, of course, continued, underground.
In Mexico, the ancient Aztecs are said to have used Teonancatl ("Flesh of the Gods") -- another name for the mushrooms -- as far back as 5,000 B.C.E. (Grandmothers 87). In 1521, when Cortes defeated the Aztecs, he forbade the usage of all intoxicants except alcohol. Thus, a similar cycle occurred hundreds of years ago. The usage of Teonancatl went underground, during the Spanish Inquisition, for nearly four decades (Krippner 103) when curanderas led 'velantas' (all night mushroom ceremonies) secretly, away from the eyes of the invaders. The Tassili, Algeria cave paintings offer the oldest evidence of mushroom use currently known; they depict shamans dancing surrounded by images of mushrooms with pronounced imagery dating back to 3500 years before the common era.
However, despite their periodic persecution, the mushrooms, argues distinguished mycologist Paul Stamets, have occupied earth much longer than humans and are not likely to be squelched by governmental laws. As a testament to their tenacity, asphalt is constructed with depth because fungi can penetrate concrete (Stamets lecture).
Stamets claims that mushrooms were the first organism on land 1.3 billion years ago. Plants and algae evolved 600 million years later. Cordyceps mushrooms have been found suspended in amber and dated at 100 million years old. The largest organism in the world, in Eastern Oregon, is a mycelial net of 2200 acres which survives by constantly gathering information and quickly responding. Stamets argues that mycelium is the world's first Internet, a model vastly as complex and intelligent as any biocomputer, with strong mycelial resilience due to multiple nodes of crossing, and with a sentient consciousness. Mycelium responds to trees falling, to light, to humidity, to the footsteps of a hiker, and can train plants to channel nutrients in specific directions, can select microbes that feed the mycelial growth, as well as carve meadows out of forests, claims Stamets. Being "the Grand Disassemblers of Nature," who thrive on disruption, mushrooms often choose disturbed soil in which to create vast networks of mycelium (Stamets lecture).
Also, "animals are more closely related to fungi than to any other kingdom. More than 600 million years ago, we shared a common ancestry. . . Many millions of years later, one evolutionary branch of fungi led to the development of animals" (Stamets, 2,3). "We are all composites of microbes" (Stamets lecture 2007).
As the controversial ethnobotanist Terrance Mckenna claimed, fungi conceivably could have survived in outer space and sporulated the earth from elsewhere as they can withstand extreme heat, cold, and radiation. McKenna states:
We're dealing with more than mushroom spores, at least as ordinarily conceived. I think the thing that has been overlooked in almost all discussions of extraterrestrial contact is how strange the extraterrestrial is likely to be. It isn't going to be a friendly, elfin little feller with a beating heart of gold. It isn't even going to be some of the more extravagantly grotesque creations out of Hollywood. Conditions and time spans in the universe are long enough and varied enough that I would bet that the real task with extraterrestrial intelligence will be to recognize it, you see. We have no conception of how species-bound our images of life and biology are. This is a place where we have never been asked to confront to what degree the monkey within us has channeled our expectations and perceptions.
The experts assure us that the mushrooms are ancient, could possibly survive dormant in outer space for lengthy periods of time, and do contain a vast intelligence network for conveying information. Right now, there are bacteria and fungi being flown into outer space on a three year mission to test the concept of 'transpermia' -- the idea that life could survive space travel protected inside rocks or on cosmic winds. Fungi, bacteria, and algae have been found along with possible cosmic dust in ancient Antarctic ice up to 400,000 years old.
The term "psychedelic" was coined in 1956, meaning 'mind -- (or 'clear') manifesting (O.A.D). The term "entheogen" was coined in 1979, meaning 'to generate God within.' (O.A.D.) Indigenous people the world over have ingested such sacred medicinal fungi and plants for millenniums in order to heal themselves and connect with the divine.
Vocabulary and regimes of oppression come and go, but psychedelic mushrooms, as well as other entheogens, remain within native cultures.
As Doña J, a Mazatec curandera said to me recently, "you think you are studying the Niños Santos (the ‘Holy/Saint Children,' a name for the mushrooms), but they are studying you":
These little saints come out of the earth and make an analysis, a test, of the blood in the body to see what is inside of people. What they do is, they cure you, those little children. . . They do the work; they are the ones that cure. . . they go looking to see what you have inside the body, where something might be wrong -- an infection or inflammation in any organ. They can see if you ask them.
In 1995, when I first encountered hallucinogenic mushrooms and imbibed them, they showed me my archetypal self. Then they showed me my current state of being. I saw images of tattered shelters being blow apart by the wind, skeletons and bones being washed into the ocean. At the time I was 18 years old and had been alternating on and off of taking hundreds of milligrams of antidepressants for three years. When I felt addicted, I would quit. When I went into withdrawal, I would start again. In that era, SSRI (selective seretonin reuptake inhibitors) drugs were frequently given to difficult teenagers in the U.S., although banned for those under 18 in Europe. If the SSRI made one manic, the doctors called the individual 'manic depressive' and prescribed sedatives in addition. If the teenager couldn't concentrate, there was Ritalin. Many of us were experimenting and feeling the effects of this pill-popping mentality, usually completely without the assistance of any psychological therapy.
The mushrooms told me I was an addict and that the pills were toxic to me -- they showed me my soul starving in that windblown shed and they showed me an archetypal self that was vibrant. The first doctors I went to after I left home told me that I would probably need to take high dosages of SSRI antidepressants for the rest of my life after speaking with me for half an hour. Another recommended shock therapy as a useful tool of recovery from 'depression.' After being committed due to my reaction to Paxil at age 19, I decided that the mushrooms were right -- no pill could ever cure the dissatisfaction I felt. The mushrooms had a wisdom which the pills did not.
In dialogue with the Niños Santos, they told me that there were women in Mexico who held ceremonies and instructed me to visit. The mushrooms and it seemed, the women, both began dialoging with me. I had no idea that such a thing existed, as it was far beyond my cloistered worldview at the time. Eventually, years later, I did numerous private sessions with the mushrooms and allowed them to teach me how to live, allowed them to restructure my thinking from the inside, and listened with suspended disbelief as they told me to visit the women in Mexico who knew them well. Eventually, I fell in with a community that organized the Counsel of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers from around the world. As soon as I had time, I visited Doña J in Oaxaca, Mexico and met a Mazatec grandmother who holds a Niños Santos lineage of curandisimo. Because the Niños Santos had taught me how to live, I felt it was my responsibility to explore them further.
When I arrived, Doña J took me into her ceremonial room, prepared the space and setting, and placed nine fresh Oaxacan mushrooms in my hand followed by a piece of cacao. Due to a different perspective of time, I felt that I might have been there for a decade, but the clock claimed six hours.
Doña J prayed to the Sun, Moon, and stars, asking for the Niños Santos to teach us and to cleanse us (they call the ceremony 'la limpia,' the cleaning), invoking Guadalupe, Mary, Jesus, the Child, and la princessa de los estrellas (the princess of the stars) as well as the princesses of the sun and moon. She sang and prayed in Mazatec and Spanish, blowing out the lone candle on the altar when it was time to go only within.
As Stamets says, the mushrooms carry wisdom about the edges of life and death -- they grow there. They took me to that sort of edge and let death pass through many times.
The Niños Santos taught me about medicine, old medicine, and blessed my life. English left me. Spanish left me. Mazatec was no longer relevant as eventually there was communication without any language -- just an understanding of reality as we flew through the stars. When the going was rough, Doña J would comb her long black hair to smooth the way. I can't explain what happened that night in words and won't attempt. Doña J greeted me in the morning with a mischievous smile, patting me on the shoulder with a chuckle, saying, "muy fuerte, he he. Mucho tiempo en el cielo" (you are very strong and spent a lot of time in the heavens last night). The mushrooms had long ago told me that I had survived such suffering to reach a point of understanding. This journey solidified my adult self moving forward with vision from within. The saying goes, "your suffering pushes you until your vision pulls you." The Niños Santos helped me embody that vision.
Doña J lives in the village where Maria Sabina, a world famous Mazatec shamaness, once lived before her death in 1985. Sabina became famous after Wasson published his experiences with her. The Beatles even flew into her village in a helicopter. Doña J still refers to that day with disdain -- the villagers hardly want such attention. The Oaxacan village that was, in Wasson's time, all dirt roads and huts is now a bustling town with Internet cafes. In the Catholic church nearby, there is copal burning, a handful of saints on the wall (not only Jesus, but at least three others). Mary and Guadalupe (known as Coatlique in the pre-conquest traditions) often have a more prominent display than Jesus, as the culture is more earth-based. Men stand on pine needles in copal smoke wearing the local hand-embroidered shirts depicting images of the Niños Santos. In Oaxaca, the Spaniards successfully imported Catholicism over the centuries. However, though the locals may have adapted some clothing, visit the churches, and pray to certain gods, they have no conflict with incorporating the Holy Children into the mix.
Doña J was seventeen years old when her mother-in-law began to teach her about the medicine. She says, "she never wanted to show it to people like I do -- forgive me, my mother-in-law!" In the 1960's, when the 'blonde strangers' began coming to Oaxaca in droves, Sabina exclaimed that the medicine was being defiled by these irreverent strangers and some locals proclaimed "what is terrible, listen, is that the divine mushroom no longer belongs to us. Its sacred language has been profaned. The language has been spoiled and it is indecipherable for us [now]" (Estrada 10). As Sabina often stated, "language belongs to the saint children. They speak and I have the power to translate." (Estrada 10). What the villagers could not comprehend is that the world was rapidly becoming a mixing pot of culture and that, arguably, the sacred mushrooms had begun to speak in both ancient and modern ways to people of all cultures, as they are "sentient cellular networks" (Stamets 4).
However, the concerns of the villagers were not unfounded as a sick person usually does not visit a dilettante teenager with an interest in going to medical school -- they visit MDs with a minimum of seven years of training. Likewise, dilettante curanderos may not know what is usually psychologically and physically appropriate, how to create and hold a known container for healing/ an altar with relevant archetypes, what to do in extreme cases, how to keep the work focussed on the process, how to guide and contain the work without interfering in the client's valuable inner process, or how to hold the medicine with respect.
Sabina is said to have spoken of the Niños Santos as "the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ" (Krippner 102). In regards to archetypal gods, Sabina referred to what was perceived as the Catholic Jesus as "a young man, a vigorous athlete, virile, a kind of Meso-American Apollo" (Estrada 17). The Nahautl mushroom shamans, over three centuries earlier, sang of a similar divinity called Piltzintecuhtli (or 'seven flower' -- also associated with Mercury), the Noble Infant who received the gift of the sacred mushrooms from Quetzalcoatl. In this way, the archetypes of Christianity began to blend into the ancient pre-conquest religions, camouflaging the Natives' beliefs within the symbols of Christianity and preventing the curanderos from being persecuted at times when the church outlawed them.
When questioned in 1970, Father Antonio Reyes Hernandez, of (Julieta & Sabina's) the village church, said:
The Wise Ones and the Curers don't compete with our religion; not even the Sorcerers do. All of them are very religious and come to mass. They don't proselytize. Therefore, they aren't considered heretics and it's not likely that anathemas will be hurled at them. (Estrada 18)
There is much similarity among the Mazatec, Nahautl, and Siberian mushroom cultures. In all three, the mushrooms speak and sing through the mouth of the "Wise One" (shaman), as s/he is merely a vehicle for their voice. Also, all three refer to the mushrooms as little beings -- "children, elves, clowns" (Estrada 18). It has been hypothesized that the Meso-Americans go back in direct lineage to Siberia via the Bering Strait landbridge.
When Maria Sabina was a child of "five, six, or seven" (Estrada 30), she witnessed a mushroom ceremony which cured a family member. Upon seeing the mushrooms, she recognized them and began to pick and eat them often with her sister. Their parents would sometimes find them in the woods and carry them home "laughing, singing, crying." The child Maria ate them because her parents had said they helped them speak to God and because she wanted to sing beautifully as the Wise One (curandero) had. Her parents never scolded them, as they understood that the mushrooms instructed people and spoke with the voice of the universe (Estrada 39,40).
Typically, la limpia begins with burning copal in a thurible and the lighting of 13 beeswax candles, the 'Aztec number of realms one has to go through to reach the divine layer of consciousness' (Grandmothers 88). Sabina says, "the saint children cure the wounds of the spirit. The spirit is what gets sick" (Estrada 56). Sabina claimed to be neither a sorcerer nor a curer (one who gives potions), but a Wise Woman who cured with Language only. Sabina says:
I have never seen the demons, although to arrive where I should I pass through the dominions of death. I submerge myself and walk down below. I can search in the shadows and in the silence. Thus I arrive where the sicknesses are crouched. Very far down below. Below the roots and water, the mud and rocks. At other times I ascend, very high up, above the mountains and clouds. Upon arriving where I should, I look at God and Benito Juarez. There I look at the good people. There everything is known. About everything and everyone, because there everything is clear. I hear voices. They speak to me. It is the voice of Little One Who Springs Forth [the mushrooms]. The God that lives in them enters my body. I cede my body and my voice to the saint children. They are the ones who speak. (Estrada 93)
The process of the velada is roughly formulated as follows: 1.) the client is usually instructed to develop a specific intent, 2.) trusts the curandero's magickal container and pathway of their altar, 3.) allows the action of ingesting the mushrooms and the intent to mix within them, 4.) experiences the gnosis of realizations and visions of the peak experience, and generally 5.) magnifies the intention through the intensity of the experience, and 6.) finally, is suggested to take time to not think or speak too much about the process -- thus, allowing the unconscious mind to carry out the work without interference. This process of transformation mirrors the burgeoning concepts of modern quantum physics especially concerning the idea of using focussed intention to alter our very cells. For instance, "contemporary researchers, however, speak with increasing frequency of explanatory models based on molecule-specific energetic signatures that with homeopathic succession, may imprint a water solute" (Hammerschlage 350).
Doña J instructs people to chew the mushrooms with only the front teeth, out of respect, as they are not food to be swallowed quickly, but vehicles of pure intention. She tells her clients to begin a dialogue with the mushroom. She works with people with AIDS, cancer, emotional problems, digestive disorders, skin conditions, all kinds of imbalances, and, sometimes, with entire families to restore harmony within the household (Grandmothers 88). As did Sabina, Doña J says, "Some people are not able to feel . . . and not able to open their hearts or minds to enter the world of the journey" (Grandmothers 90). Sometimes sacred tobacco helps these people. But, mostly, "when my patients leave, they feel very satisfied, happy, feeling good. When they thank me, I say, 'thank God'" (Grandmothers 90).
Doña J also rubs crushed San Pedro (tobacco), lime and garlic on her patients where they are ill and occasionally does basic bodywork, pushing points along the spine. In the big picture, in doing this healing work, she works for peace. She says:
All of us here want the same thing. We want to walk in peace, and we want no more war. We don't need war. All the suffering and pain that is going on in the world, especially of little children and elders, really hurts me inside. Our Mother Earth is hurting. They are destroying our Mother Earth. We need to have respect for Her. We need to walk with respect, especially in these times we are living in now. I pray hard all the time for this to change. (Grandmothers 91)
These are the women who seek to heal the spirit, what they see as the source of all physical ailments, by interacting with the divine wisdom of the Niños Santos. In Oaxaca, when I told an old man that I was going to their village, he said, "this is very good for you. The Niños Santos helped me when I was sick. They will heal you."
Recent studies have revealed that the human body is closer in chemical makeup to cosmic dust than to the Earth's surface. Perhaps the mushrooms, as possible 'alien' lifeforms, only serve to guide us back to our original home, the universe, and inform us with some form of universal intelligence. Stamets reminds us, we evolved from fungi (Stamets 2). In fact, research done by scientists at the University of Arizona showed psilocybin experiences to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and OCD-related clinical depression resulted in -- "sending people into complete remission for months at a time compared to modern medications which have both limited efficacy and frequent undesirable side-effects." Numerous other studies have shown LSD and psilocybin to be two of the only effective treatments for cluster headaches and to frequently promote spiritual experiences. Also, "Enough research has been done with psilocybin, starting in the 1950s, that we can be reasonably confident that it is not physically toxic in doses humans normally use. This is consistent with the fact that psilocybin-containing mushrooms have not, in millennia of use, acquired a reputation of being physically harmful. Traditions that use psilocybin mushrooms do, however, caution about psychological and spiritual risks of using them haphazardly."
In our culture of rampant prescription medication usage, the spirit is often overlooked. The Niños Santos teach us to find divine wisdom within and without, as a source of healing. When I left Doña J's house, she gifted me with a handful of mushrooms, saying only 'viaje con Dios' ('go with God' or ‘happy trails). As she says,
Because we don't have money for doctors, we heal ourselves with the mushrooms. It is believed that God gave the mushrooms to the peasants and those who could not read in order for them to be able to have a direct experience of Him. One does not have to be afraid of taking them. These sacred mushrooms give you light. They give you the light of understanding, of knowledge, and the light of truth, wisdom, and wonder. (Grandmothers 87)
The mushrooms remind us of the awe and mystery of our lives. As Dr. Matthew Genge, from Imperial College of London's Department of Earth Science and Engineering says after the return of NASA's Stardust expedition, regarding cosmic dust,
This research is the first time we have successfully demonstrated a way to locate the home of these important little particles. The answer to so many important questions, such as why we are here and are we alone in the universe, may well lie inside a cosmic dust particle. Since they are everywhere, even inside our homes, we don't necessarily have to blast off Earth to find those answers. Perhaps they are already next to you, right here and right now.
"I am the woman of the Sacred Sun, says
I am the woman of the Lord Sun, says
I am the shooting star woman, says
I am the shooting star woman beneath the water, says
I am the lady doll, says
I am the sacred clown, says
I am the Lord clown, says -
Because I can swim
Because I can fly
Because I can follow tracks. . ."
Casimiro, Julieta (2005-2008). Personal conversations and encounters.
Estrada, Alvaro (1981). Maria Sabina; Her Life and Chants.
Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson Inc., Publishers.
Hammerschlage, Richard & Zwickey, Heather (2006). "Evidence-Based Medicine and Alternative
Medicine: Back to the Basics." Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 12,
Number 4, pp. 349-350).
Hine, Phil (1995). Condensed Chaos.
Tempe: New Falcon Publications.
Krippner, Stanley (1976). Realms of Healing.
Milbrae, Ca: Celestial Arts.
Schaeffer, Carol (2006). Grandmothers Counsel the World.
Stamets, Paul (2005). Mycelium Running.
Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Stamets, Paul (2007). Lecture. Shelton, Wa.
Site for information on history of psychedelic mushroom usage
www.fungi.com - Fungi Perfecti webpage with suggested links to
http://deoxy.org/mushman.htm for Stamets' history of mushrooms and reference to cave paintings in Algeria.
www.intuition.org/txt/mckenna.htm Ethnobotanist Terrance McKenna's ideas about panspermia.
www.maps.org For information on legitimate psychedelic research. (Multidisciplinary Association for
Article about cosmic dust and human body chemistry.
For quote on cosmic dust and alien life forms.
Stardust mission of Jet Propulsion Lab. Concerning origins of life.
Quote of Roland Griffins, lead researcher at Johns Hopkins University studying psychedelic usage and its spiritual effects.
L.I.F.E. Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment. Information on current missions sending microbes into space.
Cosmic dust along with fungi, bacteria, and microbes found in ancient Antarctic ice.
Article about banning SSRI pharmaceuticals in those under 18 years of age.
Psychology Today article on addiction and withdrawal from SSRI pharmaceuticals.
Interview with Doña J
Observer affects experiment. Science Daily discusses the concept.
Image by Dr. Brainfish, courtesy of Creative Commons license.