The following is excerpted from Cactus of Mystery: The Shamanic Power of the Peruvian San Pedro Cactus, published by Inner Traditions. 

Shamanism is a not a discrete activity like, say dentistry or ­aromatherapy, but a body of practices that have the effect of connecting the material and immaterial worlds, the worlds of man and God, matter and energy. These practices are performed by shamans who, by various means and methods (such as the use of San Pedro and ayahuasca in Peru, or a trance state arrived at by drumming in cultures like Mongolia and Siberia) are able to travel between these worlds to obtain solutions from their spirit guides and helpers, and in this way address the problems that are afflicting their patients or the community in general. These solutions may take the form of guidance, counsel, or direct and spirit-driven healing to ameliorate the sicknesses of the soul and restore balance and equilibrium.

The word shaman is not Peruvian in origin, but comes from the Tungus people of Siberia and arises from the word saman, which has a specific usage there. It literally means "priest of the Ural-Altaic people," although it is often interpreted more generally as "one who sees" or "one who knows." It has now come to be used generically for anyone who carries out healing, counseling, or divinatory work in partnership with spirit guides, allies, and helpers, and which normally involves ritual or ceremonial procedures to make these spirits manifest and elicit their help to create beneficial change.

This way of working is the oldest psychospiritual tradition known to humankind. Shamanic artifacts discovered in the African Rift Valley date back four hundred thousand years, and cave paintings depicting shamanic scenes of shape-shifting (where the shaman takes on nonhuman powers and shifts into animal or plant forms), such as those at Lascaux and Tassili, though not as old as this, certainly date back thousands of years.1

Compartmentalizing spiritual and healing approaches into various camps and specialties (such as aromatherapy, reiki, massage, herbalism, crystal healing, and so on) is a modern fascination — traditional shamans worked with all of these and more, doing whatever was necessary to provide the right medicine for their people. This is still the case in Peru, where San Pedro shamans may also use sound healing during ceremonies, for example, or reiki-like techniques to change the energies of their patients into a new and more positive alignment, or offer herbal preparations and teas to help with particular ailments.

Many of the theories or working concepts that we now accept as the inventions or discoveries of modern science and psychology are also to be found in much more ancient shamanic belief systems, and are embedded in healing traditions from thousands of years ago. For example, quantum physics now tells us that we live in a "holographic universe" where all things are part of and mirror the whole, where all is composed of energy, and where this energy can be made to change its shape and form (e.g., from a particle to a wave) depending on our interactions with it.2

Shamans have been saying the same thing for thousands of years. Black Elk, the Sioux medicine man written about by John Niehardt in his book Black Elk Speaks, was quoted two hundred years before quantum physics, remarking that "we are all one" and that all things are part of the whole, the "sacred hoop" of life.3 It is a point that La Gringa and other shamans in this book continue to make: we are all connected and we can shape the world we live in to create any reality we want. The Shuar people of the Columbian Amazon have an expression, "The world is as you dream It," which means much the same thing.

The Crisis of Shamanism

How do people become shamans? It begins with a calling — not always in the sense of a "spiritual vocation," which implies a desire on the part of the shaman-elect to become a healer, like someone who wishes to become a priest might have, but a calling from the spirits themselves who have recognized the natural gifts and skills of that person and have chosen him to become their ambassador on Earth and a partner in their work, sometimes irrespective of his own wishes.

Often the call begins as a whisper — with an awareness on the part of the shaman-to-be that the world is not quite as he has been taught to view it, that there are signs, subtleties, and shades of meaning out there, not black-and-white scientific or mathematical certainties. He may have "special knowledge" — the ability to see, hear, and know things that others do not — for example, a future-seeing awareness of things yet to happen or an "active imagination" that sees spirits where others just see common reality.

If the shaman ignores these signs and does not explore what they might mean, then the whispers of spirit may get louder until they become a roar. If he still ignores them, then typically the shaman-to-be will enter what it known as an initiatory crisis.

A mysterious illness of a mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual nature — or even all four at once — may suddenly afflict him, for which there is no known cause and often no orthodox cure. Such is the story of Black Elk, who was close to death as a child and could not be saved by medical or shamanic healing, but only by the spirits themselves.

The classical literature, such as Mircea Eliade's work Shamanism,4 also describes people being near fatally wounded by wild animals or hit by a mysterious shower of rocks that falls from the sky. Being struck by lightning is also a sure sign of a calling to shamanize, and in fact the highest level of shaman in the Andes of Peru (the altomisayoq) must be struck three times in order to be recognized as a true healer. Puma, one of the shamans I work with in Peru and who features later in this book, has been struck once but comes from a lineage of shamans that included his grandfather who was one of the "lucky" ones to be struck three times. "The first time, you die," says Puma, "the second time you are taken to the spirit world. To those around you, you just vanish into the air. The third time you are reborn as something new: a healer."

All of these events may be literal descriptions of actual occurrences, but they have a symbolic or mythical quality as well. To be struck by lightning means literally to become en-lightened; to be hit by a mysterious shower of rocks means to fall beneath a heavy load, to realize that the everyday world can no longer fully sustain you. Whatever its nature, it is an event that takes the shaman-elect out of ordinary reality, sometimes physically as well as psychologically. He may have to lay in the relative isolation of a hospital bed or a healing room to recover from his injuries, giving him time to ponder the mysteries of his life and circumstances, or he may need to enter the landscape of his mind and personal myths in the case of a mental or emotional crisis. He begins in this way to see beneath the veneer of the "normal" world and more deeply into himself and the nature of its underlying reality.

What saves the shaman-to-be in all of these cases is the spirits themselves. It is they who intervene, bringing him out of decline by magical means against the odds and often in impossible circumstances. This is the "roar" of the spirits — their proof and evidence for the shaman that there is more to the world than consensus reality and that by working with them he will be healthy and empowered. Once he accepts this and agrees to work as the earthly agent of spirit his illness will mysteriously vanish as quickly as it arose, and he will be reborn with new powers of healing and new allies with which to heal.

Because the shaman has survived his encounter with death he is not only stronger but knows the "theory of disease" as Eliade puts it — the idea that all illness is merely a suggestion or a potential and that if we do not meet it or agree to its presence in our lives then we cannot be touched by it — and is also able to cure illness in others since he has had firsthand experience of it.

It is for this reason that shamans are also called "wounded healers" — they are not just dealing in concepts but in real experience as they have been hurt or ill themselves. Through this they learn about disease and how to negotiate with its spirit to make others well.

Becoming a Shaman

There are many culture-specific variations of shamanism but they are united by a set of common beliefs identified by Eliade as the "shamanic archetype":

  • The belief that spirits exist and play an important role in our individual lives and in the life and health of the community.
  • That these spirits can be good (i.e., useful to human beings) or evil (i.e., a dangerous or disturbing force).
  • That the shaman can communicate with these spirits and enter their world to take guidance from them, to locate gifts of power and healing, or to do battle with malevolent energies for the good of the human soul.
  • That the shaman can treat the sicknesses caused by spirits.
  • That to do so the shaman must enter a state of trance at will or with the aid of a plant such as San Pedro. When fully in a state of visionary ecstasy or ekstasis (being outside of the self) he is able to go on "journeys" or "vision quests" where his spirit leaves his physical body to find the answers he needs in the Otherworlds.
  • That to assist in his work the shaman is able to evoke beneficent spirits, guides, and helpers, known as allies.
  • And that with the aid of these allies the shaman can perform other extraordinary acts (such as divining the future) that those who have not undergone his spiritual initiation cannot.

The core belief of all shamans operating within this archetype is that the cause of disease is to be found in the spiritual realm. Early anthropologists took a rather simplistic view of this and assumed that shamans were talking solely about possessions by malicious spirits or witchcraft and brujeria (sorcery), but in fact things are more complex than that. To a shaman, anything that is not seen is a spiritual force; this includes beliefs, ideas, and the processes of socialization, all of them intangibles that nevertheless have an impact on the way we approach our lives. Psychoanalysts deal in the same "spiritual realm" and are experts on the ways in which our thoughts and ways of thinking can lead to unhealthy choices and illnesses in the "real" world.

Sometimes too it is the circumstances of our lives and the moods they evoke in us (again unseen and intangible) that can lead to problems. Stress is a modern example. There is no such thing as "a Stress" of course, in the sense that we can touch one or hold it up for examination, and yet it is the cause of many physical problems that have real and detrimental consequences, such as cancer, hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. In the shaman's definition, stress is a spirit (a mood or an atmosphere), and it is this rather than the symptoms of stress that needs to be dealt with during a healing.

In this way, as La Gringa puts it, all illness is psychosomatic: it is of the body and the mind or soul, never one without the other. This is a notion long recognized by healers and philosophers — including Socrates who even in his day was chiding the reluctance of some physicians to accept this fact: "The cure of the part should not be attempted without treatment of the whole" he wrote. "No attempt should be made to cure the body without the Soul. Let no one persuade you to cure the mind until he has first given you his Spirit. For the great error of our day is that physicians separate the heart from the mind and the mind from the body."

Shamanism in Peru

In the Andes, shamanism is more properly known as curanderismo (from the Spanish curar: to heal). It is a form of folk healing that includes various techniques such as prayer, herbal medicine, healing rituals, spiritualism, and psychic healing.

As with other forms of shamanism, the curanderos' knowledge of healing may be passed down from relatives (as is the case with Puma whose grandfather was the highest form of shaman) or learned through apprenticeships (as is the case for La Gringa and Michael Simonato, two of the shamans we will hear from in this section). In other cases healing powers may simply arise spontaneously in a curandero or curandera and be described by the healer as a don, or divine gift. Such was the case with Julia Calderon, the daughter of Eduardo, one of Peru's most famous healers. While her father was alive Julia never paid much attention to his healing work. On his passing, however, she spontaneously received the don of healing and knew how to cure. She feels that in some way the knowledge or spirit of her father passed into her at his death and she, in turn, has become a well-known healer in Las Delicias and northern Peru.5

However they have learned the arts of healing, all curanderos believe that their ability arises from divine energy being channeled through their bodies.

In addition to curanderos, the shamans who often (though not always) work with San Pedro to affect their cures, there are various specialist healers within this field. Yerberos are herbalists, parteras are midwives, and sobadors or sobadoras use massage, bone manipulation, and acupressure to treat physical ailments.

Curanderismo in Peru is usually the first point of call for anyone suffering from an illness or problem. It has proven effective for thousands of years and there is still some suspicion of orthodox medicine, precisely because its physicians refuse to treat the whole person or to acknowledge the existence of God and the soul.

Curanderismo, by contrast, can be used to treat a wide range of social, spiritual, psychological, and physical problems-everything from headaches, gastrointestinal problems, back pain and fever to anxiety, irritability, fatigue, depression, "bad luck" (mal suerte), marital discord, and illnesses caused by susto (fright or soul loss). In contrast again to orthodox medicine, treatments typically involve spiritual, emotional, and mental approaches as well as more physical means.

Some of the more common causes of illness in the Andes in fact are almost entirely spiritual in nature, such as mal de ojo (the evil eye), susto, and empacho (a blockage of the digestive tract caused by envidia: "jealousy") and since medical science cannot treat these it is another reason why a healer rather than a doctor might be sought.

In all of the cases above the curandero may perform limpias or barridas (ritual cleansings) to rebalance the body and soul of the sick person, or else recommend them to a San Pedro ceremony where the spirit of the plant will perform the healing for them.

The Andean Cosmology

If all things, including ill health and well-being, stem ultimately from the world of spirit, what then is the Andean view of the spiritual universe? What does this realm look like and where are the spirits to be found?

As a way of depicting the Andean spiritual belief system it is helpful to imagine the universe as like a series of eggs nested one inside the other (the egg in Andean healing also stands as a metaphor for the soul).

The first of these "eggs" — and the purest form of reality — is Jatun: "the great force of life." It is a dimension so mysterious and unmanifest that it can only really be known by God, and it is here that all of his plans for — and the true reality of — everything resides.

In this dimension everything that happens (or does not happen) to us — whether "good" or "bad" in our terms and whether embraced and accepted by us or wholly and completely rejected — has a healing and evolutionary purpose. This purpose may elude us completely because it is so beyond our understanding, but it nevertheless flows through all things as an energy that stands for what is ultimately right, even if it manifests as unwelcome fates that befall us as individuals.

If we are wise, therefore, we accept our lives for what they are, expressions of the divine, and renounce our need to comprehend and control everything around us. By letting go we find peace. If we are not so wise (and, therefore, more or less like every other being on the planet!) we may rail against God for our "misfortunes" or against the world in general and refuse to accept anything but our own position or point of view. Such actions are futile because human beings are not God, and we are bound to fail if we try to do battle with a force so powerful that we cannot even comprehend it and that in the whole scheme of things has our best interests at heart in any case.

As La Gringa puts it: Every "bad" thing that happens to us is a gift from God because it is an opportunity for learning and growth. If we accept it as that we transmute it and it becomes a force for good; it is only if we cling to what we have lost or what can never be that we begin to engage with misfortune. The answer is often a case of simple gratitude.

In situations of loss for example be thankful for what you had, be thankful for what was lost and be thankful for what remains. In this way we do not stand in God's way and His work for us can be done.

To be healthy, that is, we must abandon our fears and let go so that the plan of the universe can unfold and carry us with it. San Pedro is our ally in this because it allows us — even if it is fleeting and ever so distant — to understand the will of God and remove ourselves from the fight.

Within the egg of Jatun is another called Wirococha, which is described by some as a lake of memory and wisdom, similar to the collective unconscious imagined by Jung. It contains the spirit-essence or soul of every being on Earth and it is to this place most commonly that San Pedro takes us to draw from the knowledge and experiences of those who have walked our path before us: the ancestors, the "soul of the world," and the spirit allies to be found there.

More subtly, within the Wirococha is another egg: Pachamama, the world as we perceive it. Pachamama is the most tangible of energies because it is the one we belong to, the one we recognize, and the one most manifest. It is soul in its bluntest form: physical reality and its spiritual or energetic shadow. This reality is the point at which we enter San Pedro ceremonies so we can be blasted free of form and enter the next level of being: the realms where our healing takes place.

Andean healing practices are addressed first to Pachamama in the hope that they will make their way through the power of prayer and vision to the ultimate realms of the intangible, where true blessings are found.

In fact, since Andean healing does not really embrace the concepts of duality and separation, its philosophy of healing is even simpler than this because a change at the individual level of Pachamama also changes, in some small way, the nature of Wirococha and Jatun. As our energies become clearer and more pure, God is better able to recognize us, or perhaps we become more "God-like" ourselves, in a way similar to that proposed by the religious philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, where we evolve through our actions until we merge once again with "the Godhead."

Within Pachamama there are three levels that broadly correspond to the shamanic cosmology of the "three worlds" (upper, middle, and lower) that provide a means of understanding the universe for many traditional cultures.

In the Andes they are known as Ukupacha (lower world), Hanaqpacha (upper or divine world), and Kaypacha (the middle world). The latter includes physical reality as we know it and its spiritual counterpart so that every material thing has its energetic parallel or, as science now tells us, is made up of energy and has very little that is actually solid about it.

In Andean psychology these three realms are also planes or states of consciousness, in some ways similar to Freud's notion of the makeup of the psyche. The first, Ukupacha, in Freudian terms, would correspond to the id, the place of primal experience and the shadow self where our instincts, intuitions, and fears hold sway. The second, Hanaqpacha, is the superego, the moral or divine self that drives us to act in an ethical and compassionate way toward ourselves and the world we live in. The last, Kaypacha, is the ego, the moderator between the two that enables us to make choices so we can operate effectively in the world.

During San Pedro ceremonies, within this model of understanding, the shaman and/or the spirit of the plant leads the patient from Kaypacha (ego) — a situation that is not working for him because of his unbalanced interactions with the spiritual and material forces in his life — to Hanaqpacha (superego), the transcendent plane where the human spirit meets the more universal forces and subtle energies that surround him. These energies can then be experienced, directed, and integrated so they play a more central role in his life, and he can move from denser ego-led concerns to a lighter and more expansive way of being.

In order to reach this state, however, it is often necessary for the patient to descend into the more shadowy world of Ukupacha (the id), because it is here that he can unveil and best explore the hidden forces of his unconscious and see the beliefs, patterns, and complexes that are driving his behavior and leading to unhealthy outcomes.

You will see this journey described in most of the accounts in this book by those people who have been healed by San Pedro. In one way or another all of them were led by the spirit of the cactus out of the mundane world to a deeper understanding of their thoughts, beliefs, life stories, causes, and effects until they arrived in a new world, which was touched by God. At the end of it they felt healed and at peace.

A similar journey taken by a more conventional Western route might have meant years of psychotherapy or spiritual study to arrive at the same place: the knowledge that pain, fear, anger, and sadness all stem from a feeling of being alone and that our salvation comes from opening our hearts and reaching out to the people and the spirit around us, because they are we; I am That.

This understanding of the human condition is fundamental to Andean shamanism, which is sometimes called "the path of the heart" and is guided by the desire to find beauty in life moment by moment. The principles on which it is based are as follows:

Munay: "Doing the little things" with compassionate and loving intent so that every day is infused with a sense of beauty and when we close our eyes at night we can rest in the knowledge that as far as we were able and aware we hurt no one by our actions, including ourselves.

Yachay: An informed wisdom that is greater and deeper than simple "knowledge." The former is provided by spirit while the latter is a function of the more limited rational mind that is led by ego, habit, and shadow. Yachay is one of the gifts of San Pedro that helps us  to understand the truths of our lives at a more soulful level and-if we choose-to live in beauty.

Llankay: Taking appropriate, wise, and compassionate actions so we build a soul that is powerful and light. In this way we also become good ancestors and helpful spirits when we move on from this world, and the energy we leave behind is healing in itself — a "good wind" — even if it is only a beautiful memory for our lovers and the knowledge that they were loved. In this way the world becomes less fearful and more loving for us all.

Kawsay: Respect for all life in the awareness that we are connected, one, and part of the whole or, in the words of Henri Michaux, that we are all just "a passage in time." Knowing this, we understand the fragility of our condition and the need for love and forgiveness because whatever we do in the world or to others we also do to ourselves.

Ayni: Perhaps the best-known and most important of Andean principles, ayni is the way of reciprocity, a form of giving without the desire to receive in return but in the awareness that we will be rewarded for our actions as the energy they create continues to circulate. Again, in the words of Michaux, it is the realization that "one is nothing but oneself" and at the same time, everything: part of a shared fate.

The Origin of Disease is Spiritual

In this way, according to curanderismo, disease is not just caused by physical processes but by social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual factors too. Thus, "there is a natural form of diabetes and a form caused by a supernatural agent, such as a brujo (witch or sorcerer). The same is true for alcoholism, cancer, and so on." Curanderos therefore "manipulate the supernatural world as well as the physical world" to effect their cures and "on the spiritual level, illness can be caused, diagnosed, and cured by spiritual forces called corrientes espirituales (spiritual currents)."6

Bilis (rage) is one example of a disease that is both physical and spiritual in nature. It arises from emotional causes and is common in people who feel themselves wronged by another and so excluded from justice that they carry their anger like an energy within them, which is strong enough to lead to stomach upsets or ulcers unless it is released. Their burning desire is for the wrongs they have suffered to be recompensed and while they are not, a churning acidity is felt in their guts — an impotent or repressed anger at wrongs that go unavenged.

Empacho and pulsario are similar conditions that also result from emotional causes. Both are blockages of energy at the top of the stomach that prevent its normal function and cause digestive disorders. Shamans describe such conditions as a form of crystallized pain, sorrow, or anger. They are more frequently diagnosed in women and may be related to hormonal imbalances, but men can experience them, too. Symptoms include restlessness, anxiety, and irritability.

Illnesses in both sexes and especially in children can also arise from mal aire. This is literally "bad air" although it refers more to a "bad atmosphere" surrounding an individual or family. Children are particularly susceptible as they are more sensitive to moods and environments. It can result in colds, shaking, and earaches, all of which may have a symbolic meaning as well as a physical presence (earache for example might result from a desire not to hear what is being said to, or around, the child).

Problems arising from social factors include envidia, "envy or jealousy," such as when a neighbor desires what is yours or resents you for your success. Instead of seeing you as an inspiration and working to achieve the same things themselves, they direct an unhealthy energy toward you and this becomes a form of spirit intrusion, which works away at your soul. Mal puesto (hexing or cursing) and mal d'ojo (the evil eye: staring intently with the desire to harm) are related to envidia and can result in vomiting, diarrhea, fever, insomnia, and depression in the person who receives the attack.

A more spiritual problem can also arise, known as mal suerte or saladera, "bad luck," where the sufferer's energy becomes so low or they become so disheartened that they cannot achieve anything positive. A related condition more common in the Amazon is daño (harm), a magical illness that is often sent by a sorcerer working on behalf of a client and is, therefore, a serious attack. Its symptoms include pain, fatigue, problems with breathing, and, over time, the appearance of tumors or other diseases that take physical forms in the body. Daño must be treated magically to remove the spiritual poison or virote — the "evil thorn" or dart-that has been sent to the sufferer and return it to its source.

Susto is soul loss: a condition where we lose part of our spirit or our energy becomes so blocked and depleted that we no longer have access to our full power or to aspects of ourselves that we need for our well-being and to get on with our lives. It may arise from shock, trauma, abuse, or injustice, and its symptoms can include nervous disorders, feelings of fear and panic, loss of appetite and energy, lack of trust in or engagement with the world, or a general malaise and decline as if from a broken heart.

Jean-Pierre Chaumeil makes an interesting observation about illnesses like these in his work, "Varieties of Amazonian Shamanism."7 In the jungle traditions of the ayahuasca shaman, he says, diseases are more often diagnosed as having been sent to the sufferer by a neighbor or sorcerer (as in cases of daño). The cure normally involves removing the problem and returning its energy with full force to whoever has sent it. In the modern urban setting and in the Andes where San Pedro is the medicine of choice, such approaches have become softened — or in Chaumeil's word, "moralized" — so that the healer is more inclined to locate the source of suffering not wholly in the spirit world or with an external enemy but within the patient himself.

This is congruent with the teachings of San Pedro: we must not blame others for what they have done, but face ourselves and our responsibilities so we find our salvation within — because that is where true healing lies. By doing so we understand the connections between us and the imbalances that have led to our illnesses, and we find that these often relate to some moral or social transgression on our parts as well, which has caused our problems or at least contributed to them through a chain of events that gave rise to a negative energy, which caused our disease. Thus, even if the illness has been deliberately wished on us by a rival, we as sufferers must ask ourselves honestly what we have done to provoke this attack; we are not absolved of all accountability just because we are victims, but are part of the web of interactions that led to it.

Mal aire is an example of this. It is commonly diagnosed as arising from a bad atmosphere in a home, so it is not an entirely spiritual problem but also relates to the social and psychological makeup of the people who live in that household. If they were happy and powerful they would not attract such an intrusive force. So the questions arise: What is the true nature of the problem? Why is there discord in the home? And what, practically, can be done to resolve this? The onus is also on the patient to identify and correct whatever he has been doing to weaken his spirit and put himself at risk. By taking responsibility for his illness he also gives himself the power to heal it.

It could be argued in view of this that Andean curanderismo is more sophisticated than jungle medicine. It does not involve just one cause and effect or one action and counteraction, but necessitates a deeper examination of our psychology, including our morals and motivations, behavior and underlying beliefs. In this way we come to understand the wider pattern of our interactions and the subtle flows of energy that influence our lives. The San Pedro shaman, then, as well as being a plant alchemist and spiritual expert often becomes a sort of psychologist, priest, confessor, or therapist who can help us see our behavior and how it fits into the wider universe.

The Process of Healing

The spiritual cosmology of the Andean healer is one where invisible forces are born from unseen worlds that exist both within and without us. These forces, although immaterial, can affect us not only emotionally but physically and bring us good fortune or ill health depending on our alignment to and relationship with them. The work of the curandero is to restore the patient to balance so he is in harmonious standing to these powers and not acting against them or allowing them to overwhelm him.

To create this necessary balance three things are important:

1.    Faith. Convincing the patient that a cure is possible and enlisting his help to find it in the diagnosis and treatment that follows. This may require a confessional or psychotherapeutic approach on the part of the healer to discover what the patient has done to contribute to his own ill health, a process that in curanderismo is known as placitas, "a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul discussion" in the words of curandera Elena Avila.8

Once the patient's role is understood, part of the cure may then be for him to make amends in a practical way to those he has offended — even if they have also done him harm. In this way balance is at least restored between the patient and the cosmic forces that act upon him, and he can also let go of the event itself and the energy of it within him. He can know that he has "done his part" and is not resisting or holding on to things from the past but allowing the energy of God to flow more freely into the present.

2.    Hope. Persuading the patient that his mind, spirit, and other resources are powerful and, with the help of the curandero, his greatest assets for dealing effectively with his problems, that "one frightens oneself" or "the mind makes one fly," as Eduardo Calderon put it.9 Knowing this, the patient is empowered and has a new and vital hope that things can change for the better, and, as psychotherapists like Viktor Frankl have found, hope is the most powerful medicine of all.10

3.    Love. Enabling the patient to become more aware of the forces around him, his relationship and responsibility toward them, to others, and to himself so that continuing good health is assured. And through it all, to understand that he is loved by God and never beyond redemption or well-being.

San Pedro is of help in all of these areas but it has special significance in the latter for, as David Luke says in chapter 6, there is research to suggest that the mescaline cactus gives us access to areas of our brains that we do not ordinarily use, but that when activated allow us to perceive the entire cosmic order and experience ourselves within it.

More than this, however, as La Gringa continually makes clear, San Pedro is "the medicine of love," so what better means could there be for us to realize how loved we are and, no matter what we have done or what has been done to us, how precious we remain in the eyes of God?

In this section we hear from three San Pedro shamans about their healing work and see how some of these principles are enacted in the real world of ceremony and curanderismo.


1.    Ross Heaven, The Journey to You (New York: Bantam, 2001), for more on the archaic nature of shamanism and the artifacts and cave art that prove its long-standing historical roots.
2.    Ibid., for a full discussion of the holographic universe concept and how it relates to shamanism.
3.    John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, annotated edition (New York: State University of New York Press, 2008).
4.    Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
5.    For an interesting independent documentary on curanderismo in northwest Peru, which features Julia Calderon, visit (Munay Productions). Current as of July 21, 2011.
6.    Robert T. Trotter and Juan Antonio Chavira, Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
7.    Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, "Varieties of Amazonian Shamanism. Shamans and Shamanisms: On the Threshold of the Next Millennium," Diogenes (Summer 1992, no. 158).
8.    Elena Avila, Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health (New York: Tarcher, 2000).
9.    Eduardo Calderon, Richard Cowan, Douglas Sharon, and F. Kaye Sharon, Eduardo El Curandero: The Words of a Peruvian Healer (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1982).
10.    Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).