Alberto (left) gestures to Echan in summer 1995 during interview
We are in the Rainbow Jaguar Temple of PUMAMARKA at almost 4,000 metres, overlooking tranquil Peruvian farmland below. Twelve of us sit in a semicircle around the shamans as they chew coca leaves, incant in the Quechuan (kechwan) language and spread out their sacred MESA-altars composed of cloth and stones used in all ceremonies. Five of the shamans are from the legendary Quero tribe, the last pure descendants of the Inka. They have maintained their culture at high altitude in the Andes but are extremely poor ( having no money economy at all ) Their 600 or so remaining members represent the world's last living link with the high spiritual Empire which the Spanish almost totally destroyed during the 'Conquest of the Inka'. Night is falling as we silently wait for them to complete preparations for a TRANSMISSION ceremony during which they will directly pass on their shamanic knowledge to we westerners via a symbolic blessing (touching our heads, trunks and limbs) from their Mesa.
But one of the shamans is not short and dark skinned, with that typical strong hooked nose, like the others. He is tall and obviously Caucasian. He is the one responsible for this unequalled meeting of minds and cultures. He is the man who has been studying Inka shamanism for over 20 years and who forged this historical contact with a dying tribe of proud and beautiful people. When the transmission ceremony begins and the Quero bless us all by pressing their Mesa to our heads, hearts and limbs, he blesses us too. And then something unprecedented happens. The Quero ask the white man to bless them! This means he has become their equal, though he considers himself a humble student. He is certainly the leading western student of what they have to share as well as being our much respected teacher on this Inka Trail. His name? Dr. Alberto Villoldo-anthropologist, psychologist and vital bridge to the magical world of the INKA.
Previous to meeting with the Quero we had hiked for four days through high Andean landscapes on the INKA trail -an ancient pilgrimage route leading into the fabled city of Machu Pichu. While most visitors take the bus UP to Machu Pichu we had walked Down into the stone citadel from a maximum high point of 4,200 meters. After completing shamanic ceremonies there at night ( he received special permission just for our group to be there in the moonlight! ) in the temples within Machu Pichu, we had gone down to the ramshackle town which exists around the train station at the foot of the mountain. It was here that I did an exclusive interview with this esteemed and very funny student/teacher of shamanism. Like all good teachers he considers himself a student!
Just as I asked the first question about the Inka trail a nearby rooster started to crow at full volume as if in answer, and repeated the feat as I asked the question again! Alberto quipped," Next question?" Our entire group was roaring with laughter because this type of synchronicity was quite common during our trip. It was a sign perhaps for us not to think too seriously for this was shamanic work we were doing-not intellectual work.
However in the interview that follows Alberto gives some excellent pointers to assist us in understanding the powerful processes that our medicine journey involved and which are still very active in all of our lives after our return.
ECHAN: What is the Inka Trail to you?
ALBERTO: There are 4 trails into Machu Pichu but only one is now accessible-the ceremonial part of the trail about 60 kilometres long and divided into 4 parts. These represent the four directions of the medicine wheel. Between them are three Inka temples.
ECHAN: What is the first direction and what does it represent?
ALBERTO: It is the South where we engage the work of the serpent. It is about shedding the past-just like the snake sheds its skin-all at once-not little by little like we westerners do. In this tradition shedding the past is an act of power and an act of love. We call on heaven and earth to bear witness to us not just shedding the painful elements but also the joys and the wonderful elements too. Things that happened when we were 12 or 35-we have made them into addictions and hobbies. The task is to shed the underlying mythic structure that makes up our self. This structure is shaped by a modern mythology that denies the feminine, denies the Earth, the magical and the mysterious.
ECHAN: Yes but people will say it's not that easy to shed the past-some have been in therapy for years trying to deal with that! I am interested in finding out what makes our way-walking the trail and using Inka shamanism-different and powerful as compared to a psychological or therapeutic way.
ALBERTO: Medicine people work with 4 levels of reality: The Somatic or literal level, the Symbolic, the Mythic and the Energetic (essential). For us in the modern world all our processes are INTRA PSYCHIC
( they happen in the mind only) but in shamanism you also have EXTRA PSYCHIC ( outside of the mind) processes too. You can engage these processes and they will stalk you and work with you!
ECHAN: Give an example of one that will stalk you.
ALBERTO: You call the spirit of Sachamama-the serpent-and you have a mythic engagement with an archetype, a LIVING luminous being that has been known by many names in many cultures ( in the East it is the Dragon of course) Or you call the jaguar and it follows you and challenges you when you go up the mountain. This is what makes the medicine person different-an ability to have a dialogue with the archetypal forms in Nature.
ECHAN: What happens to people who invoke this energy without knowing about shamanism?
ALBERTO: It would backfire and perhaps create physical or emotional illness. The mot dangerous person at Machu Pichu is one who comes with a little knowledge. It is the same at any Native American power spot. In Hopi canyon lands one participant picked up a skull from an old burial area and began to do Hamlet jokes. This healthy guy had Lymphatic cancer 2 months later and it took us 4 years of healing to get him back! You must have respect and honour the four directions when you do ceremony at these places.
ECHAN: So it's like we are opening dimensional doors then.
ALBERTO: Doorways, yes. Many people just walk the physical Inka Trail and sure they can feel the energy of it, but we are after the Knowledge content of that energy. We tap into an ancient structure of knowledge and it transforms us, it brings us face to face with the Mystery.
ECHAN: Where did we go after the South?
ALBERTO: When we got to the circular temple of Runkurakay we engaged the work of the West-the work of the JAGUAR. The work there has to do with stepping beyond violence, beyond anger. It is also about facing fear, which is the warrior archetype. But our model of the shamanic warrior is one who has no enemies in this world or the next. The work of the jaguar is to step beyond death.
ECHAN: Tell us why the animal is a jaguar.
ALBERTO: The city of Cusco is actually built in the shape of a jaguar. It is an animal representing the primal energy of the rain forest and one who leaps between the worlds.
ECHAN: That's the image I was looking for-leaping between the worlds!
ALBERTO: He can gracefully leap from one world to the next. Our task is to leap gracefully into who we are becoming-without fear. The jaguar is also connected to the rainbow-you walk across its back to the world of the spirit.
ECHAN: We each took a stone from each temple on our way and left it at the next. What does that symbolize?
ALBERTO: In Inka tradition this is called SEKAYS-they were irrigation canals but the shamanic meaning is energy lines that connect temples. By carrying stones we have the continuity of energy building up on itself. We create energy pathways all leading to Machu Pichu and these pathways keep our work strong at the energetic or essential level earlier mentioned.
ECHAN: So we could continue to walk the Inka Trail for months at that deep level, because our stones maintain the energy?
ALBERTO: Absolutely yes!
ECHAN: What about the work of the North?
ALBERTO: That is where we must step beyond power. You have to have power first though, before you can shed it! To embody power is to know that you can create a world in which Nature answers you. For the shaman, information and knowledge are different-to know that water is H2O is information, but to be able to create rain is knowledge. We engaged the North work at Sayaqmarka temple and there we stepped into a different relationship with life-a more synchronistic one. This means stepping outside of ordinary time into sacred time, that turns like a wheel. Doing the work of the North means you can find yourself in a situation today that is caused by something that will happen two months from now-you can summon destiny from the future. By stepping through the portals of time you call who you are becoming.
ECHAN: As our perception of Time rapidly changes and it appears that Time is speeding up the work of the North seems even more important. What animal represents the North?
ALBERTO: The Hummingbird and also the (South American) Dragon-flying beings that you can see on the Nasca plains. This is the symbol of emergence, of transformation. In the teachings of the North there are three key elements:
1) invisibility-you go through life without leaving a gigantic wake! In this way the shaman steps beyond power.
2) mastery of time-stepping into synchronicity you align your vision and your intent. The universe then actively conspires on your behalf!
3) the ability to keep a secret even from yourself
ECHAN: What does that mean?
ALBERTO: That took me a long time and still I do not fully understand! It means that if you can step outside of time and taste your destiny you will be able to know things that will happen. You have to hold that knowledge as a secret from yourself so it does not spoil your actions.
ECHAN: It is like you know the entire story of your book of life but you still have to write it?
ALBERTO: Yes, absolutely. In the work of the North what you do is tap into the collective memory of our species-and the body of ancient knowledge becomes directly available to you. The stones tell you, the APU ( sacred mountain guardians ) tell you, Pachamama ( the sacred Earth ) tells you and the Stars tell you.
ECHAN: We began the East work at Phuyupatamarka ( temple of the clouds ) What is the symbol of this direction?
ALBERTO: The Condor. In North America it is the Eagle. The Maya tradition has Quetzacoatl-the feathered serpent. These all represent the way of VISION. Some medicine people in the Andes as well as Hopi sit in council envisioning possibilities for the entire planet. They summon the highest possibilities from the 'future' through doorways in time. They are miracle workers
ECHAN: What about us at the individual level on the Inca Trail. Is it about finding our own vision and connecting it to a communal vision too?
ALBERTO: It is about planting seeds (visions) -we can choose to tend them or not. If we let them grow our connection to the archetypal motifs continues to unfold. You are vision driven. This means you have the opportunuty to create a new body-one that ages differently, heals differently, dies differently-or maybe even one that does not die!
ECHAN: What is the connection with these new bodies, who we are becoming on this medicine wheel, to the INKA?
ALBERTO: INKA means 'child of the SUN'. That is someone who recognises their nature as a luminous being. The seeds we planted are ultimately seeds of becoming INKA. They believed our species has come to an end already. The next species to evolve is HOMO LUMINI-that is what an INKA is-a luminous being. We are being influenced now by forces that are far beyond our ordinary comprehension. They transform us from the inside out. Spontaneous change will occur.
ECHAN: What changes can our group expect from now?
ALBERTO: Your sense of humour will improve!
This was to be the first of many trips to Peru. I am very thankful to Alberto for properly connecting me to this culture.