Brant Secunda with Don José Matsuwa and Doña Josefa Medrano

Journey into Healing

In 1970 at 18 years old, intrigued by a book of Carlos Castenada. I left my hometown in New Jersey and set out on a journey to Ixtlan as a spiritual tourist in search of Don Juan. En route, I met a Huichol schoolteacher, who gave me the name of his family’s village – a five day walk away.

Soon, I found myself hiking through the Sierra Madre Mountains, in search of the mysterious Huichol Indians. With the sun blazing down on me, I followed a narrow deer trail hoping I was still heading in the right direction. The Mexican towns, along with the rest of the modern world quickly faded behind me.

The Brazil Trees and the thick underbrush enveloped me, as I continued deeper into the Sierra. After three days and no sign of any village, I found myself hopelessly lost. I had drunk my last sip of water and tried to calm the panic rising inside of me. Pressing on in hope of finding the village, dehydration and sun exposure overtook me. The trees around me began spinning. I collapsed, sinking into unconsciousness, as feelings of disgust, anger and finally fear overtook me.

As I lay dying on the parched earth, I dreamt of circles full of light spinning in front of me. Visions of deer and an old indigenous man appeared. Suddenly, cold water hit my face. Startled into consciousness, my beautiful dreams and visions faded. Slowly opening my eyes, above me loomed the dark faces of three Indians. They told me in Spanish of an old shaman in their Huichol village who had dreamt I was dying at this spot and sent them to save me two days earlier.

Still weak, I was led through the mountains to a clearing with mud and stick huts, the smell of tortillas cooking and sounds of children playing. Amazed at this scene and that I was alive; I was taken to their shaman Don Juan (of the same name, but not the one of Castenada fame). I remained there for two weeks. The people told me of another shaman, Don José Matsuwa, in a nearby village who had also dreamt of me: He summoned me to his rancho. The same three Indians who had originally saved me led me to his hut.

Shortly after meeting Don José I was put in a cave for five days and five nights with no food or water. I was told this was my initiation. If I lived, I would continue as an apprentice to this renowned shaman and healer.

12 years later I completed my apprenticeship. I had been adopted as Don José’s grandson. He had taught me the ancient wisdom of healing and ceremony and we had become close companions on the path of the shaman. Following my training, I was sent back to the modern world, to help share the secrets of the Huichol, to heal those in need and to conduct ceremonies to bring balance to the Earth.

Since that time I have been traveling the world, striving to fulfill the vision of my teacher. Thousands of people have come to me for healing. From every corner of the globe and from all walks of life. Many of them have tried everything western medicine has to offer before finally resorting to shamanic healing. It seems to me that people today are more in need of healing than ever before.

Personal Stories of Healing • from Marilyn Del Duca

I was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease, and antibiotics were not helping.
I went to Brant to ask for help.  He did a series of healings for me that
healed the Lyme’s with no residual effects.  Years later when I suffered a
bad fall and tore my MCL, his healings made it possible for me to avoid
surgery.  These are just two of the ways his healings have  helped me over
the years.

Another time, my niece was trying to get pregnant.  I told her not to worry – if she wasn’t pregnant by the following June, I would take her to meet Brant at the Summer Solstice, as I knew he had good luck with women’s issues.  He did a fertility healing for her, and she was pregnant within a month.  Her first baby was born the following April, and she had a second baby 20 months later, blessing me with two beautiful great-nieces.

Shamanic healing searches out the root of illness. Often a person’s ailment stems from something much deeper than what is felt on the surface. This is common with psychological and spiritual trauma, but also with physical ailments. The shaman strives to find the source of the illness and to extract it from the individual.

For many, shamanic healing may seem far-fetched or simply archaic; however, I have witnessed time and again its relevance for those very people who don’t even believe in it. I have had numerous people come to me after trying “everything else” and searching desperately for healing. One such man came to my office in Santa Cruz, California for a healing over 15 years ago. As soon as I met him, he asked if he needed to believe in the shamanic healing I was about to conduct. I said “no” and he replied, “Good, because I don’t.” His doctors had given him two weeks to live with his pancreatic cancer. He ended up in remission and lived another ten years.

I am so grateful for my journey to the Huichol. I am thankful for the countless healings I witnessed while studying with Don José, which allowed me to believe. I remember one of the first things he told me. He said, “Until you learn to believe, you will never really learn.”

You can be told the earth is sacred or that shamans can dream of the future or heal terrible diseases, but until you experience it yourself, you can never fully believe. Experience is one of our greatest teachers.

A journey into a Huichol Indian village

The Huichol Sierra

The Huichol Indian Sierra is a window into the past.  This place is a mirror of the modern world.  It is a peaceful and harmonious reflection of the stressful world in which I often find myself.  And when I become overwhelmed by life, I look to this reflection in search of tranquility and a sense of serenity.  It is this place that puts everything else into perspective.

To come to this place, I must journey into the past.  Leaving the modern world behind, I cross over into the depths of an ancient region filled with a hidden culture.  Each time I journey to the Huichol land it is mirroring my father’s first 5-day trek into this uncharted territory.  It is only because of his arduous journey, almost 40 years ago, that I find myself there.

Canoes sloshing onto the shore under the cover of night marks ones arrival into Huichol Indian territory.  We have crossed the river that separates the Cowboys from the Indians.  Hiking up the steep slopes towards the guiding light quiets the mind and creates a sense of intense awareness.  Soon enough we arrive at the burning fire, the blood red heart of the village.  Greeting faces lit dimly by the jumping flames with eyes shining brightly with the reflection of this central light creates a mysterious sensation.  Keiyaku (hello), we say to one another.

Then the ceremony begins and carries everyone through the night and into the sunrise.  As the darkness fades and slowly the surrounding mountains appear to the chorus of cock-a-doodle-do-ing roosters and chirping songbirds, the sun is pulled higher in to the now glowing sky.  And as the bright ball of fire rolls over the distant peaks, the corn silk lining the vivacious green hillsides sparkles and the stalks stretch as they welcome a new day.

Throughout the day everything else I may do in the village is interspersed with people watching.  Watching the archaic lifestyle unfold in front of me is incredibly impressive and impacting.  From the children playing with dragonflies to the elders sitting in the dirt, with the sound of a completely foreign tongue echoing from their lips.  Each one of these simple, everyday occurrences gives birth to complex thoughts of human nature within the depths of my mind.  The men climb the nearby slopes in search of firewood, while the women gather water from life-giving springs.  Another day passes.

In this place, this day could have been yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago or even a lifetime ago.  The fast paced changes that so drastically alter my life in the modern world have little affect on this distant land.  Many would jump to the conclusion to call such a lifestyle “disconnected.”  I, however; see it as far more “connected.”  Connected to the life sustaining land, both spiritually, as well as physically.

As the day continues, the western mountains above the village reach into the sky and thus shade the villagers from the sweltering heat.  The slow gentle breeze is a welcomed relief to the heat of the day and as day turns to dusk, the wafting air carries heavy clouds swiftly inland toward to the surrounding mountains.  No sooner than I get comfortable and begin to drift to sleep under the starry sky, the clouds begin to test the land.  I awaken to beads of water running down my face.  And just as I find refuge in one of the small thatched roofed huts, the clouds release their torrential cargo onto the land.  And whereas in many places around the world, people would be complaining of the “nasty” weather, here in this “disconnected” land, everyone is grateful for the blessings of this rain.  The people are content and rejoice at the prospect of the fertility, which the precipitation brings to the land.

As the rain subsides, the primordial cycle begins once again.  Darkness gives way to light and the rising sun leaves less and less place for the shadows to hide.  Now I must leave one home for another and begin my journey back the place that I left and shall leave again.

It is this village that is usually so far from me, which stays close to my heart.  The village is a home and the villagers are family.  Having known the place and it’s people since I was born, I have grown to cherish the importance of it’s meaning.  It is the symbolic place of both power and peace in my soul – the reflection, the mirror, the guiding light.

I have traveled to this Huichol village many times and each and every time I go there, my view is from a slightly different perspective.  People reveal a new side of themselves and the landscape offers a new fruit with which to quench my thirst for understanding.  It is impossible for me to imagine my life without my deeply rooted connection to this place.  My life revolves around this very connection and to sever those binding roots would be like stealing the rain from fertile land.

Many people hunt for such a place all their life and others are haunted by the mere thought of such an isolated setting.  In reality, in a Huichol village it is near impossible to find isolation.  There is no privacy.  Every aspect of life revolves around community.  A family of five or ten sleeps in one overly modest hut and the teenagers watch over the ten years olds, who take care of the three year olds.  It is partially this deep sense of kinship, which resonates in me.  When I look around in the modern world, I often see that this communal support system is missing.  I hope that as the ancient cultures of the past inevitably learn from us, that we also can find the humbleness to learn from them.

Patiently walking over a fallen log over a river.

Letting Go of the Now

It seems to me that, as Americans, we want everything NOW. Shamanism, however, has taught me patience and the investment in learning is paying off with big returns. True, I knew that from the start my path in Shamanism would be that of slow and steady growth. I had to get accustomed to the gradual process of learning but I genuinely appreciate both the grounding and visionary aspects of the steady growth. Brant has taught me to go up with my energy; to the upper world. The steady process of growth — with my heart guiding me upwards — has made me a happier and wiser man. I don’t think wisdom comes easily, no doubt, there is work involved. It has occurred to me that it would be nice and lazy-like to simply enjoy the comforts of material wealth and the fruits of modern society without seeking higher learning. Sure, I wouldn’t need to make an effort… but I’m not sure if I would feel fulfilled as an individual. More than that, sheer intellectual curiosity drives me towards the answers to questions about the nature of this world and the upper world.

Maybe one of the greatest rewards of Shamanism is clarity. Modern life allows us financial, practical, psychological, physiological, theological, phenomenological, epistemological, and other philosophical perspectives on our lives. Yet, Shamanism provides its own way of viewing and living reality — one that I find is the most primordial and presuppositionless of any that I have found. The old Shaman in the Huichol villages have such incredible depth and mental clarity…. the nonverbal communication is incredible. Brant has shown me this world and opened the doors to levels of understanding I would not have otherwise had access to.

Coming together at Mount Shasta to build a long lasting powerful spiritual community.

Building a Spiritual Community

Brant takes people to Mount Shasta annually to do ceremony, learn the traditions of the Huichols, and to go on pilgrimage to the sacred and magnificent mountain, Mount Shasta.  All the participants build a spiritual community for the duration of our visit at the base of the mountain.  We sit in circle in a pristine meadow, we learn the ancient exercises and practices that help us feel the powers of the four directions, experience the truth in the fire, water, earth and air, we celebrate life in the circle when we dance the Huichol Deer Dance and pray for our lives and the lives of all living things.  What is unique about Brant Secunda’s seminars is that you are in nature experiencing genuine Huichol Indian traditions as they have existed for thousands of years.  I feel deeply grateful that I am able to bring my children to the Dance of the Deer’s spiritual retreats, and they can learn and feel and see and dance in the circle of the Huichol traditions.  There is nothing more fulfilling for them to connect with nature and learn how to honor life in this way.  I look forward to sharing this beautiful path with my family for many years to come.

Impacts of Shamanism - Mark Allen at Zion

Impacts of Shamanism

A short while ago I was asked about my life since I first met Brant about twenty years ago. The question was something innocent like “Has your life changed much because of your studies with Brant?” It took about a half second of thought for the answer. “Studying with Brant has touched every single area of my life!” This is a question I think about nearly every day and am grateful for the answer.

I met Brant at a 10-day workshop he lead in Mexico in 1990. From the first moments, from the first chant that he sang, I felt like I had found something that I had been searching for since I was a young boy. I was always drawn to those images that we have all seen in movies where the wise elders from an ancient tradition cut through the clutter of modern life and come up with a simple nugget of wisdom that puts everything in perspective.

I had been trying to find someone or something in the real world that would connect me to that type of knowledge and clarity since I can remember. Going to college was partly an attempt to gain that deeper understanding about life. The things I did for work were also a search for an experience of doing something that was good for the world beyond just my life. The vacations, travels, trips to places on the earth that were different were again my way of seeking something that I could experience and take into my being to fill my life up with joy and purpose. Yet no matter how hard I tried to experience this ideal of how I felt life should be lived and to feel something that deeply touched my soul, I always fell just a little short. Life had been a search that led me close but not completely to peace and inner happiness…that is until I heard Brant’s chant!

For ten days I had the good fortune to experience what life had been alluding to through all my previous wanderings. I felt a connection to that magical indefinable world of nature that connects one’s soul to all of life and to the part of time that is timeless. I experienced a joy from life that came not from achieving results but that I could feel already inside of me and that then became my jumping off point to go out into the world. I was in the presence of a real human being, not a character in a movie, who had done what it takes to possess that enduring knowledge about all things seen and unseen that we have lost in the modern world, and that remains hidden until we do take the time to step away and allow our hearts to finally open and remember why we are truly here on earth…to live a sacred life connected to all life.

This may sound pretty ethereal, but the practice and tools that create these incredible feelings are so grounded and easy to do that they may sound too simplistic to be profound in their effect. Let me try one out for you. Go watch a sunset! Sounds easy doesn’t it. It is! But what it can do for a human being could take a month to explain. Let me give you an example from my life of using this ancient tool of transformation that Brant has us do in just about every workshop. I think you will probably be able to relate to it.

I had a day recently that was a good one except that it kept being interrupted by some nagging questions that I had been pondering for some time. Of course these questions went unanswered once again. But this particular day was one of the special ones where I could not distract myself from thinking about them. By day’s end I felt worn down from going around and around in the same mental circle, never feeling like I was any closer to a solution. The result was that I just didn’t feel much of that inherent joy I had experienced in Brant’s workshops. I couldn’t seem to shut down the mental chatter that leads to nowhere.

Then sunset came. With the mix of the ocean near my home, the clouds moving in from the west and the low angle of the winter sun, the show was setting up to be spectacular. So off I went, troubles unsolved and not feeling particularly excited about life. Ah, the modern world! But then it happened.

The sun began to set, the sky shifted and a band of pink mixed with orange became framed perfectly by the deepest of ocean blues below and a shimmering silver in the clouds above. Earth and sky seemed to be talking, and I was in the middle taking it all in. I was able to stop thinking, and there it was…a sense of simple pure joy that comes from witnessing amazing moments in time like this one.

The troubles of life drifted away in that slow shifting show of nature. No problems, no needs, only expanse and a sense that everything was just right. How many times does that happen in front of my computer or when I am on the phone? Rarely. When does it happen when I watch at a sunset? Always! Simple yet powerful. As Brant says, “Don’t be tricked by the simplicity of shamanism. It can transform your life forever”. And indeed it has transformed mine!

Stephanie's family on a Dance of the Deer pilgrimage retreat in Zion.

The Path of Life

Huichol shamanism has opened my life, and my children’s life, to the world of nature in a manner that I could never have imagined.  I always wanted to find a path that gave me an ancient indigenous method to honor nature and the elemental powers, to teach me how to live as a human being on Mother Earth.  The Huichol way resonates with me because it is a path of the heart.  The Huichols never had a warrior class, so all their energy went towards spiritual development, and all their spiritual journeying is through the heart.  Brant Secunda has taught me and my family how to open our hearts and learn to listen to the world of nature, to listen to, and internalize the forces of life that keeps us connected to the happiness, health and balance of life.  One of the most incredible aspects about learning Huichol Shamanism with Brant Secunda is that he takes us on pilgrimages to sacred places of power in nature.  We walk as the Huichol Indians walk on pilgrimage and learn how to leave offerings to sacred places in nature, and in exchange Brant blesses us with the power that is brought forth during the pilgrimage.

Don José Matsuwa with Brant Secunda during a Huichol ceremony.

Dreamers of the sun: Huichol Shamanism

In 1970 at 18 years old, intrigued by the books of Carlos Castaneda , I set out an overland trip to Ixtlan as a tourist in search of Don Juan. Enroute, I met a Huichol school teacher, who gave me the name of his family village – a 5 day walk away. Early the next morning, with the sun blazing down on me in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Central Mexico, I set out on a narrow deer trail leading toward the village. My night’s lodging quickly disappeared form view, my feet tracing deer foot prints up the steep path.

The oak and brazil trees and the thick under bush soon closed in behind me, no human habitation in sight as I hurried along. After a 3 day trek, I found myself hopelessly lost. I had drank my last sip of water and tried to calm the panic rising inside of me. Pressing on in hope of finding the village, dehydration and sun exposure overtook me. The trees around me began spinning. I collapsed, sinking into unconsciousness, miles from my start.

As I lay dying on the parched earth, I dreamt of circles full of light spinning in front of me. Visions of deer and an old Indian man appeared. Suddenly, cold water hit my face. Startled into consciousness my beautiful dreams and visions faded. Slowly opening my eyes, above me loomed the dark faces of three Indians. They told me in Spanish of an old shaman in their Huichol village who had dreamt I was dying at this spot and sent them to save me.

Still weak, I was led down a narrow path to a clearing with mud and stick huts, the smell of tortillas cooking and sounds of children playing. Amazed at this scene and that I was alive, I was taken to their shaman Don Jose, in a nearby village who had also dreamt of me. He summoned me to his hacienda . The same three Indians who had originally saved me led me through the thick woods to his hut.

I became Don Jose’s apprentice, eventually completing a 12 year apprenticeship and being adopted as his grandson. Over these amazing years, he trained me in the mysteries of the world of Huichol shamanism.

“The dream world brings together the past, present and future. It helps us to remember who we are now, who we were, and who we will always be. This is the power of dreams.”
– Don Jose Matsuwa

One of the aspects of this cosmology, is their belief in “dreaming reality into existence”. In ancient times, the gods dreamed themselves into existence at the birthplace of Grandmother Ocean. Form emerged from formlessness as they dreamed, spinning visions into physical matter.

The gods dreamed they should make a pilgrimage to the east to Mt. Raunasha, “The Lord of Dreams”. The Magical Deer Spirit dreamed the gods in their way to the sacred mountain. When they arrived at the ancient volcano, the Magical Deer Spirit dreamt they should throw a young girl form the top of the mountain in to the molten fire below.

All the gods were there: Grandmother Eagle, Grandfather Fire, Mother Earth and the Deer. The Deer took the terrified young girl to the top. At the edge of the volcano, he pushed her into the flaming cavity. But the molten fire flung her back out, intact, into the sky.

The young girl could not fly. Her mother, Grandmother Eagle, swooped down and caught her daughter pushing her higher and higher in the sky. As she rose above the earth, the young girl transformed into a man, then gradually beginning to shine brighter and brighter until condensed into a burning ball, the sun. The sun is man who retained the heart of a young girl.

Every year, the Huichols return to the sacred Raunasha in pilgrimage retracing this original path of the ancients re-dreaming the birth of the sun.

During my twelve year apprenticeship, dreaming was emphasized daily. The Huichols put me in the hut of an old woman. Every morning, before the sun rose, she woke me and sent me to Grandfather Fire to tell my dreams to him. I worked with my dreams every night. I learned to remember a dream by staring at a part of the body of a god or goddess, animal or human to become conscious in the dream. In this way, the gods began to speak to me in my dreaming.

I was on a fourteen month fruit fast during my apprenticeship. This fast increased the intensity of my dreams. The Huichols also took me places of power – caves, lakes, mountains, and rock formations in the cave of Grandmother Growth. I went five days with no food or water, dreaming the dreams of her cave. At the other caves, we spent a night in each one again to dream the dream of the “Kaukuyari” or places of power. For in ancient times the gods and goddesses transformed into new forms and became these lakes, caves, mountains and rock formations. Through pilgrimage and dreaming, the ancient ones can be remembered and can teach us their mysteries and wisdom.

After my apprenticeship with Don Jose, I returned to the United States. The Dance of the Deer Foundation — Center for Shamanic Studies — was founded to support the Huichol Indians in keeping their shamanic traditions alive and to bring the power of joy of this ancient wisdom into our modern lives. The Foundation is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

Huichol Indian Boy with Rattle. Learning shamanic traditions from childhood.

Shamanism: The Healing Way of the Heart

For those who are concerned about the growing rift between the human race and the natural world, and the tragedy that results from that rift, shamanism may provide an answer.

Throughout the world, from Tibet to the Southwestern United States, shamans have been involved in healing since the Paleolithic times.

“Perhaps as old as consciousness itself, shamanism is an ancient healing tradition that has reflected the changing cultures of the surrounding world throughout the ages,” according to Brant Secunda, shaman, healer and director of the Dance of the Deer Foundation Center for Shamanic Studies in Santa Cruz, California.

“The shamanic tradition involves healing through personal transformation as well as healing our family, community and environment, he says. “Central to this healing tradition is the belief that we must heal and honor our mother the earth, who is viewed as a living conscious organism. Shamans say this sacred female Goddess, the earth, who nourishes our very existence, must also be nourished with our prayers and ceremonies.”

Secunda is a shaman and ceremonial leader in the Huichol Indian tradition of Mexico. He completed a 12-year apprenticeship with Don José Matsuwa, a renowned shaman who passed away in 1990 at the age of 110. Secunda is the adopted grandson of Don José, and was chosen by his grandfather to take his place in helping to carry on Huichol Shamanism.

“The Huichols of Mexico are said to be the last tribe of North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions, little disturbed by colonization and Christianization until very recently,” Secunda says.

“The Huichols taught me that healing is a way of life, a way of being that permeates our very existence. Healing is something to be practiced constantly, not just when we are ill,” he says. “Moreover, the shamanic tradition of healing does not limit itself to healing of the physical body, but rather involves the maintenance of the harmony and balance of the universe. We must constantly make contact with all life; see our life in all things, so that life and health are embedded within our hearts.

According to the shamanic tradition, all life is interrelated and sacred. Plants, animals, and even rocks have personal identities with whom the shaman develops a personal relationship.

“When a shaman prays, he prays not only for himself but also for his sacred relatives: our mother the earth, our father the sun, our grandfather and giver of light: the fire; our grandmothers, the eagle and the winged ones,” Secunda says. “Don José often told me never to forget that my relatives are the earth, sky, rivers, birds, animals, stones, gems, mountains, caves, springs, and lakes.”

According to various shamanic mythologies there was a time when paradise existed and all life was one. For example, fire communicated freely with people. Now this is lost and for that reason the shaman acts as a bridge, drawing upon lost lines of communication with all life that surrounds him both visibly and invisibly.

In this way, shamans act as intermediaries between people and other life forms. Shamans also have their power to transform themselves into spirit entities and to link others to the spirit world.

As a healing art, shamanism seeks to maintain and/or restore balance, both for individual entities and for the entire planet. All life is ultimately one, according to shamanic belief, and the forces of balance, harmony and intuition must be brought into resonance with one another.

“If we celebrate our life as one with our environment, then our environment will give thanks to us with the proper amount of sunlight and rainfall,” Secunda says.

“Embedded within the traditions of shamanism and healing are techniques of achieving ecstasy. Ecstasy is sought by shamans to experience unity with all things. Ceremonial celebration for the attainment of ecstasy utilizes ancient forms of ceremony and ritual.

The ‘Dance of the Deer’ is an intense sacred dance of the Huichols in which the participants enter into a trance state of joy and ecstasy. The shaman and his assistant chant ancient songs as the others dance about them. “All enter together as one heart into a sacred doorway known to the Huichols as ‘Nierika,’ face of the divine, or link to other realms of consciousness and being.”

At ceremonies the Huichol shaman calls upon his ally or spirit helper, Kauyumari, the magical deer spirit person, to assist him in the task of transporting the ceremonial participants through the Nierika into the realm of ecstatic joy and harmony. “The dancers also assist the shaman as they, like the deer, become messengers of the gods. Through ceremony, participants allow themselves to be transformed, renewed. Life force itself is transmitter in sacred manner.”

Secunda recalls the teachings of Don Jose: “You are an educated person who knows and understands your world,” he says his grandfather told him. “Now you will know our world too and use the two so that modern people may once again know what we have tried never to forget. There is a balance between our two worlds, grandson: that’s the way it is.”

“Is your heart happy?” Don José often asked the children at this rancho in the Mexican Sierra. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught us. This is our life.”

Originally printed in the Sonoran News • written by Gail Dudley