Brant Secunda with Huichol

Journey to the Heart

“Is your heart happy?” Don José asks the children at his rancho. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught to us. This is our life.”

Shamans throughout the world, from Tibet and Mongolia to the Americas, have been involved in healing for thousands of years, dating back to 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.

The shamanic tradition involves healing through personal transformation as well as healing our family, community and environment. 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.

The Huichols of Mexico are said to be the last tribe in North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions, little disturbed by colonialization and Christianization until very recently. I feel fortunate for having been able to study with such an amazing group of people, as an apprentice for over a decade with Don José Matsuwa, a Huichol Indian shaman-healer who lived to the age of 110.

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. 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 consciously make contact with all life, see our life in all things, so that life and health are embedded within our hearts.

Upon our first meeting Don José spoke of our mother the earth, who nourishes and speaks to our heart. The shaman learns to listen with their heart as well as their ears, and thus shamanism, as a healing art, makes a person whole and complete, a whole system integrated fully to the surrounding environment. Shamanism focuses on all life as being majestically and mysteriously inter-related and sacred. Plants, rocks, two- and four- legged creatures all have personal identities with whom the shaman develops a personal relationship. When the 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. 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 this reason the shaman acts as a bridge, drawing upon lost lines of communication with all life that surrounds him both visibly and invisibly. Shamans thus act as intermediaries between people and other life forms: the gods and goddesses and all creatures who co-inhabit the earth. Shamans also have the ability to transform themselves into a spirit entity, almost as if they had the key to the process of metamorphosis. Thus the role of a shaman has been vital to the community in which he lives, as he acts as a vital link to the surrounding world.

Shamanism as a healing art seeks to maintain or restore balance, both for the individual and for the planet. All life is ultimately one, and the responsibility of a shaman is to bring the forces of balance, harmony and intuition 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.

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 Huichols perform ceremonies throughout the year to maintain the delicate balance of our environment, of our universe, so that one may know one’s heart and feel the ecstatic joy emanating from one’s very being. The “Dance Of The Deer”, a most beautiful and intense sacred dance of the Huichols, is employed so the participants of the ceremonies may enter into a trance state of joy and ecstasy. The shaman and his assistant chant the 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 their ally or spirit helper, Kauyumari, the magical deer spirit person, to assist them in the task of transporting the ceremonial participants through the nierika (spiritual doorway), into the realm of ecstatic joy and harmony. The dancers also assist the shaman as they too, like the deer, become messengers of the gods. Through ceremony, participants allow themselves to be transformed, renewed and life force itself is transmitted in a sacred manner. The shaman and participants in the ceremony are provided a medium for reaching the realm of the gods and the heart source of life itself.

Students of shamanism must endure many hardships and show much strength, both inner and outer. Pilgrimages to “places of power” (caves, springs, oceans, mountain tops) form an important aspect of shamanic healing, as pilgrims are said to receive power and many blessings for having arrived at such places.

At the same time shamanism involves what is often seen as the more mundane and down-to-earth aspects of the shaman’s day-to-day life. Many Huichol shamans, as well as many shamans from other cultures, are farmers, who in working daily with the earth, develop a special relationship with their sacred mother.

The wisdom of ceremonial celebration, pilgrimages to sacred spots and proper daily living to achieve balance between ourselves as human beings and our environment has been lost to many people of the modern world. For this reason Don José adopted me as his grandson and trained me in the ancient art of shamanism and healing. “You are an educated person who knows and understands your world”, he told me. “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 Jose often asks the children at his rancho in the Mexican Sierra. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught to us. This is our life.”

Originally published in SHAMAN’S DRUM I FALL. 1985