Sierra Madre Mountains

Power Places

Pilgrimage & Huichol Shamanism

– Originally published in the Share Guide ➔

For the Huichol Indians of Mexico, shamanism is a way of life, a way of living and being on this altar we call Mother Earth. It is a way of bridging the gap between our ordinary world and the natural world, the realm of the gods – a way of tapping in to the power of that realm. In doing so, we also tap into the power we each carry inside of ourselves, the power to transform our lives and affect change in our environment. For the Huichols, this is not a matter of blind faith, but of direct experience. Making regular pilgrimages to places of power is one important way we can share in that experience.

The Huichols have a word, Kaukuyari, which translated literally means, “dreaming god
” or  “dreaming goddess.” We say that just
 after this world came into
 existence, some of the gods and 
goddesses left the spirit world 
and emerged from the ocean.
These ancient ones then walked 
over the entire earth, and 
some transformed themselves 
into mountains, lakes, springs
 and other sacred 
places, so that we could go 
back and learn from them. By making pilgrimages to these places, we recreate the journey of the gods, and in the process also learn to recreate our own lives.

“If you want to be a shaman, watch a thousand sunrises and a thousand sunsets.”

Don José Matsuwa, Huichol Shaman

During my 12-year apprenticeship with Don José Matsuwa, I made many pilgrimages to sacred places. We went to these places so I would develop my relationship with the gods and goddesses by learning to communicate with them directly.

In the beginning, Don José, who was my adopted grandfather and close companion as well as my teacher, would take me along with a small group of Huichol apprentices. We would go together to places in nature, and Don José would say, “We will learn the language of this cave. We will listen to the cave speaking in the night.” Then we would leave offerings in the cave and sleep there.

We also went to various rock formations in the Sierra Madre mountains to talk to the different rock people, and we would go to the ocean and various fresh water springs to try to learn the language of the waters. Later I would go to these places alone. During one of my vision quests, I went 5 days alone with no food or water, dreaming and learning from one particularly powerful place, the Cave of Grandmother Growth.

In order to become empowered as a shaman, you have to go where there is power. You gain empowerment by fasting and praying at these sacred places, and by receiving a dream or vision from each place. It’s like a contract: you give a prayer and offerings to the place of power, and you get to take back the power of that place. In fact, one traditional way of learning to become a Huichol shaman is by going to a place of power for 5 years in a row. But pilgrimage is for everyone, not just for shamans.

I spend much of my year at places of power, not only seeking to empower myself, but also leading other people on pilgrimage – teaching them how to make offerings and communicate with the gods, and working with the gods to help transfer the power of these places to the people. Each year, through the sponsorship of the Dance of the Deer Foundation, I lead a number of pilgrimages throughout the U.S and Europe. We go to help heal the Earth, to take power back into our lives, and to learn the language of the gods.

For the last 13 years, I’ve led summer pilgrimages here in California to Mt. Shasta, the Healing Mountain, which is famous for its power and visions among many North American Indian tribes. Last summer, I led my first pilgrimage to Alaska – to the Tsongas Mountains near the sea, where our ceremonial chanting was often answered by the calls of humpback whales. We also make an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean in Mexico, where we are joined by my Huichol grandmother, Doña Josefa Medrano, and some of our family.

“You don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred.”

When we go on pilgrimage in the Huichol tradition, we make prayer arrows and leave them as an offering, along with a candle and some cornmeal or chocolate. Then we verbalize what it is we’re asking for. Generally, we’ll ask for a vision or for good luck, but you can also ask for something very specific such as a new job, or happiness in your marriage. You call aloud to the spirit of the place, communicating from your heart. We say, “You pray as if your life depended on it.” You leave your offerings, and you might also lie down and try to have a dream or vision of that place. Then you use that vision to help transform your life.
There are places of power everywhere. In California, there’s the Pacific Ocean – we call her Tate Haramara, Grandmother Ocean, the birthplace of all life. There’s Mr. St. Helena in Sonoma County, Cone Peak and Pico Blanco in Big Sur, Mt. Shasta, and many more. But you don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred. The Huichols make their back yards sacred places. They build a temple, an altar, and leave offerings for the gods there.

A pilgrimage is something you do once in a while, but for everyday existence, you can go to your personal place: an altar in your home; a tree; a large stone. These become places of power with the energy we give them. Don José told me the whole Earth is a place of power. He used to say, “Love the gods as you love another person. They’re your ancestors, your relatives. People love everything else and they forget the gods.” Through pilgrimage and prayer, the ancient ones can be remembered and teach us their mysteries and wisdom.

Huichol girl with a ceremonial rattle

Huichol Pilgrimage and Ceremony

How do you celebrate your life? How do you honor this radiantly beautiful Mother Earth that we call home?

For the Huichol Indians — a small tribe of around 15,000 who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains of central-western Mexico, these are easy questions to answer. For them, shamanism is a way of being — the practice of honoring all life and remembering how we relate to the world around us through ceremony, prayer and pilgrimage.

The Huichols go on pilgrimage to sacred places of power in nature. They go to pray and honor the earth, and to honor the spirit of those places of power. As humans, it is our responsibility to pray and make pilgrimages. We can help to heal Mother Earth and ourselves through this ancient tradition of pilgrimage. The Huichols say that we are surrounded by the Ancient Ones, and that it is our responsibility to stay connected with them. All places of power – kakuyari – are dreaming gods, dreaming goddesses. By connecting to the spirit of a mountain or a lake for example, we open ourselves to the power and energy (the kupuri) of that place, bringing unity and harmony into our own lives and that of our communities. And, with our prayer offerings, we in turn give love and respect back to the earth. This reciprocal interaction creates a sacred circle, what the Huichols call a nierikaThis helps us to develop more fully the connection between our hearts and the natural world, and gives our lives meaning filled with strength, healing, and love.

As the Huichols believe it is important for people to go to sacred places of power, I have led many people on spiritual journeys all over the world. Every year we go to Mt. Shasta, one of the most spectacular places of power in North America.
We go to Alaska, where our ceremonial chanting and dancing is answered by the calls of whales and eagles circling. We go to Grandmother Ocean, to various hot springs and other special places. In Europe we travel to Mt. Blanc, the tallest mountain on the European continent, and to Crete, the birthplace of Western civilization, and a place filled with power. While there, we always make ceremonies to honor the spirit of the place and tap into the life force Mother Earth has to offer at each one of these special locations.

Huichol life is a continuous cycle of ritual and ceremony designed to help them stay in touch with the Ancient Ones. In making these ceremonies, they are celebrating their lives and the life of all nature. During ceremony, with their drumming and chanting, the Huichols invite the spirits to come into the circle to be with them. The shamans guide the people through the doorway between the worlds, once again helping to empower them and their families to achieve lives of balance and integrity, and to help the universe stay in balance as well.

The Huichols say that human beings are in the middle, between the earth and the sky, and that we are mirrors of the gods. You don’t necessarily have to make special ceremonies like the Huichol do in order to connect your heart, your spirit with the natural world. But you can celebrate your lives with humbleness; celebrate the life of nature all around you. Remember and honor the sacredness within you, within each living thing. Go out and honor the sunrise and the sunset. Pray to the four directions. Honor each one of the seasons. Doing these things helps us to become one with the spirit. When we open our hearts to the beauty all around us, when we stay aware and present in the moment, we can truly connect to the spirit of all creation; we have the possibility of transforming ourselves.

Reflections of a Journey In - Woman healing her depression

Reflections of a Journey Within

I woke up gasping for breath my heart pounding.  A heavy weight sitting on my chest.  These words ringing in my ears, “Get Brant!”  This dream as real as the surroundings of my bedroom.  It is February 17, 2008.  What I remember before being startled awake was the end of a dream in which three rectangular black shapes move through the air toward me.  One, closer than the others begins to form into the shape of an anvil and I know it will land on my chest and sink into me.

I have studied dreams for over twenty years and do not take them lightly.  I thought I might be in actual physical danger including the possibility of a heart attack.  Brant Secunda was also in the dream.  The fear of the black anvil started in the dream and continued upon awaking.  I could not stop this thing from coming into me.

That morning on my way to work I called Dance of the Deer Foundation.  I have been attending workshops offered by Brant Secunda, a Huichol shaman, for several years.  I especially appreciated Brant as my teacher, the Huichols honoring of dreams, and all of the work that the foundation does to support the wonderful Huichol tradition. Brant responded that it was not a heart attack but rather a spiritual crisis.  There were some very specific suggestions about what would help at that moment.   Of course, I did them.

Three months later I found I was eating everything in sight, especially sugar, sitting on my couch watching TV with no energy or enthusiasm, only going to work and home again.  A friend of mine, who is a teacher and a counselor, thought it might be depression and suggested I make an appointment with my medical doctor. I did.  Her diagnosis: severe depression.  Her solution: medication.

I suddenly saw years of moving in and out of depression and how unbelievably tired of it all I was.  I truly did want out.  I finally recognized the toll that this pattern had taken on my physical, psychological and spiritual body.  I understood that I had been spending over half of my life trying to pull myself out of the depression and negativity that surrounded me.  Like living in an unbelievably thick fog bank.

I called Dance of the Deer again, fearing that the only way out would be drugs, which I had never taken and did not want to take now.  It would be three weeks until the upcoming Dance of Deer retreat in Alaska and I was asked if I could wait until after that retreat before taking any medication. I vowed to hold out until then. For the first time I remembered the dream from February and the spiritual crisis.  Was this what the dream was trying to get to my attention? How could I, by myself, change?  I was too depressed and exhausted to even think about it.

Then the magical wild world of the Alaska retreat came.  As soon as I set foot on that land I began to sink into it.  Then the quiet, peace, calm, and beautiful practice of the Huichol traditions began.  The whale, eagle, and even raven songs floating around me. The beautiful and loving Dance of the Deer community and especially for me, the children.  Slowly, I began to breathe again.  It felt as if I had been holding my breath for months or maybe even a lifetime. I returned home much better.  As the days and images began to fade, I wondered, had a shift actually happened?  Doubts returned.  I was thankful that the time for the Dance of the Deer Mt. Shasta retreat would be coming up soon.

As I arrived at Mt. Shasta I saw the mountain outlined in blue smoke and the air filled with left over haze from a huge forest fire that had recently been in that area.  I felt a deep sadness, not to see much of Shasta or the beautiful snow.  An inner shadow reflecting my own darkness and a fear that the depression might not be completely gone.

And then once again; prayer, song, dancing and the beautiful Dance of the Deer community arising.  I settled into the depth of the land, the Huichol tradition and the majesty of that healing mountain.  Brant’s teachings, the daily exercise, healthy food, the kind and loving people touched me deeply.  With each breath I began to relax and let go.  I knew I was better but should I stay longer and if so why?

Soon this shorter introductory time would end and another longer time would start.  What should I do?  We were sent out by Brant to sit, be still and just be with the mountain.  This is one of my favorites among many of the wonderful exercises that Brant teaches us.   I knew as I connected with Shasta that I was better, but I also got a sense that there was something more, something not quite finished yet. I decided to stay for the longer session.  It was a pivotal decision.

The next ten days would take me back to the mountain twice more.  The second time for an extended stay.  What a rare opportunity.  As I sat there on the mountain with my back against a large boulder, a creek running near by, the peak directly in front of me, I felt different, a sense of wholeness that I had never experienced before.  I watched the sun, clouds, light, and wind change and flow in front of me.  I felt Brant’s presence and the years of the many gatherings on this mountain.  I remembered all of the ancient ones who had been there before and Brant’s words to not forget the power and gifts of this mountain.  I felt as if I was on holy ground.

I know that staying for the longer group grounded and rooted the seeds of healing from depression, which had begun in Alaska and the beginning group time of Mt. Shasta. That in this process of staying I had been given the gift of a loving and caring community, something I desperately needed.  I had been given the strength and courage to change my life in small yet powerful ways.  I had been given the support of laughter, encouragement, and honesty so that I could actually believe my life could be different.

I am so thankful to everyone, but especially, to Brant, my teacher for his kindness, patience, wisdom and ability to hold onto his commitment to bring these teachings of the Huichol traditions into our Western world.  To the Dance of the Deer community who work so hard to show us what a Western Huichol community looks and feels like.

Each morning when I pray I give thanks for my life.  Such a simple thing and yet each time it brings me to deep humility and tears.  Brant, Nico, Barbara, Dance of the Deer, Huichols, Mt. Shasta, Alaska — I thank you for my life.