Michael Brownstein Interviews Margaret De Wys, author of Ecstatic Healing, published by Inner Traditions.

It’s a pleasure to talk with Margaret De Wys, who in her important new book, Ecstatic Healing, recently published with Inner Traditions, tells the story of dealing with life-threatening disease through surrender to spirit. She courageously abandoned the mindset that, when we’re sick, makes so many of us run to allopathic doctors who suppress symptoms with pharmaceuticals.

Missing is what humans have done for ages in order to heal—turn to nature herself. And nature means the sacred energy running through life. Healing takes place by connecting with that energy through ritual or prayer or plants.

Michael Brownstein: As the trance medium John of God told you, Margaret, “The entities are primarily interested in healing our soul. When that is accomplished our physical infirmities heal.”

Margaret De Wys: Indeed.  My book Ecstatic Healing includes direct experiences working with Brazilian miracle healer John of God (João de Deus), African high shaman Vuzamazulu Credo Mutwa, and Pai Lazaro an Umbanda priest from Brazil.

You know, Margaret, we both grew up in deep country. One night when I was ten years old I ran away into rural Tennessee and, like you, ended up at a tent meeting surrounded by people testifying, shaking, and speaking in tongues. What a mind-stopper! For you this became the seed of an ecstatic force lying dormant for decades, only to emerge when you most needed it.  What was it like when it re-surfaced in your life?

I first became aware of ecstatic trance when I witnessed the rapture of the Holy Rollers as a young girl. The Holy Ghost came “in tongues of fire.” That experience re-surfaced when I touched a holy Zulu necklace in upstate New York in l993.  I shook with the power emanating from it.

You felt like you could barely control what was happening.

At the moment it was happening it felt like electrocution. But really, it was a calling, like a trumpet blast raising me from the dead.

Did you feel the same kind of thing when you were seven years old and saw the Holy Rollers?

I didn’t know the word ecstasy back then, of course. As a seven-year-old I thought, if this was the way other people communicate with God — I was raised in a strict Southern Baptist cinderblock church– I wanted it. I wanted the excitement, the life-affirming thing.

Think back to your family’s response to you being there. They said, “They’re doing evil things.” This is what your grandmother told you. “That’s the devil speaking through people.” In Ecstatic Healing you wrote, “But my body responded to the quaking rhythms. I longed to shake. It seemed so lively. So free. I loved rolling on the ground. I wanted to roll and roll and roll.” I’m just wondering: it’s no accident that rock ‘n’ roll was born in the South. Elvis the Pelvis, remember?

Yeah. Unleashing Spirit.

So you have this experience of witnessing ecstasy and you don’t reconnect with it until you go to a friend’s house in l993 and you meet a charismatic named Brad, Bradford Keeney. For our readers, he’s an anthropologist and a person who’s worked with the Bushmen in Namibia whose mode of healing is through ecstatic dance. Brad brings out this necklace and says, “I received a blessing. I want to share what I’ve learned.” My question is, why out of all the people in the room did you go into possession as soon as you touched it?

I think this force, this power, had been searching for me a long time.  I realized later that I have a proclivity to go into trances state and be possessed. At an early age my parents forbade me to have anything to do with ecstatic trances, or even to think about such things. At 13 years of age I was spontaneously leaving my body, which was pretty scary. At 15 I taught myself self-hypnosis. And later, when I was pregnant, I could leave my body at will. I realized I couldn’t do that anymore because there was a person living inside me and I had to protect her. The signal was there and I was putting it off. Turning away from it. Not ready.

When Brad handed you the necklace you say, “Suddenly my head jerked. My hands started shaking, then my arms, my torso, my legs. I lurched erratically as if electrocuted. I tried to break free, but the necklace held me. I felt as if a lightning bolt was inside me, and I was fused to it.  I couldn’t break away. Grunts and low growls erupted from deep in my gut and turned into howls.  I spun around, still locked onto the necklace Brad and I held. I felt I was being consumed by a powerful, mysterious force. I felt no pain. My mind was blank.” Brad pulls out this necklace and people touch it and then it comes to you. You weren’t the first person.

Yes. Other people touched it and they didn’t feel the shock of it. I was the only one who shook like that. The necklace came from a great African sangoma. That’s a Zulu word for shaman you could say.  Credo Mutwa.

Credo came to you in a dream that night?

Right. He was in Africa, in dense bush, naked but for a leopard skin, and carrying a spear. He called me to him in South Africa.

When you had the dream of someone called Credo Mutwa you looked up the word credo in the dictionary and it said, “Believe, have faith.” Is it necessary to have faith in order to be possessed by spirits? There are only certain people who are, for whatever reason really prepared, able, and needing to go into this realm and have the capacity to do it. And you turn out to be one of those.

Regarding faith, if you say, “I don’t believe in Spirit,” it will be cut off from you because even though it exists, you can stop it from entering just by not believing.

The interesting question is, does faith result from experience, or do you need faith in order to have that ecstatic experience?

Experience came first. Faith wasn’t a part of the equation for me.

So at that time, in 1993, you didn’t have faith.

I didn’t feel I had faith. I was circumspect, skeptical. I was resistant. Coming from a Southern Baptist background I didn’t like any kind of community thing that had to do with spirit and religion.

But you made an end run the moment you touched the necklace.

I did, and who would have guessed? But once you know possession is true, once you experience it, you begin to realize that you are more than your physical body.

In the course of the book, you get involved with an Umbanda group in Brazil, and finally in South Africa, years after dreaming about him, you meet Credo Mutwa. Was what you experienced in those different times and places the same? When you were in spirit possession with the Orixás in Brazil, the deities in the Umbanda ceremony, you become possessed to a greater or lesser degree.

Let me describe what possession is. For example, when Exu possesses me during an Umbanda ceremony, a powerful male energy penetrates me. It isn’t a conjunction of two souls, but the overpowering control of a divine presence over me.  I feel his incredible joy and ecstasy inside me. Being with spirit energy is like a gift.

But are the cultural surfaces different, while what you experienced the same?

That’s one of the reasons I wrote Ecstatic Healing because I wanted to clarify how these possessions related. Ultimately, my conclusion for myself is that another conscious entity comes through me. That force entering a person can take on the form of an African Orixá or show up as an Amazonian spirit.

In South Africa it was different. What you experienced there with Credo Mutwa is what’s called Ncumu, basically pure energy. There are no deities. It doesn’t enter you in the form of a nature spirit or a snake from South America. It’s not an African god. It’s just pure energy.

True. That’s exactly the point. I came to the conclusion that this pure, vital energy — whatever you call the thing that keeps our cosmos running — can take the form of a human being. It can take the form of an African deity or a bear spirit, anything. It can be an automobile!

Yes, like chi or light or vibratory resonance, a universal force without any cultural baggage. And this energy healed you when cancer reappeared in your life. Amazing. But, let’s return to when you were in Brazil working with Pai the Umbanda priest. You had overwhelming possession experiences. And there came to be a limit to your involvement with the spirits because you were invited to become an Umbanda priestess and turned it down. As you say in the book, “planting my feet on the ground helped me remember I was of this world not the ethereal world of spirit.” And you add, “My worst fear was I would disappear and become a nonentity.”

That’s true, because for me the confusion was if you have another consciousness inside your body, what happens to you? When Exu possessed me it was the most perfect thing that could happen. It was only afterwards when I was ruminating over these other beings inside me that I got worried. What did it mean? Was I going to lose my personality? My consciousness? Were they going to take over my body and use me?

As you say, “What gave me pause for serious consideration was that I had to deal with the fact that there was me and there was them. I was Self. They were Other. My self had given way to other. This separation into two parts seemed a spiritual dilemma. My worse fear was that I would disappear and become a nonentity. That’s what seemed to be what happened during possession.” But it’s your thinking mind, your reassembled egoic identity that’s giving you that feeling, that hesitation.

Absolutely. When I’m possessed I don’t have those feelings.

On the other hand, after an Umbanda ceremony you say, “The Holiness came alive in me. My desire to be possessed by the Holy Spirit knew no bounds.” So really, which was it?

It’s a rational thought dilemma. For people born into that society and culture it’s not a dilemma. Ultimately, I wanted it. I’d wanted it since I was a little girl. The holy power. The Force. And it recognized me, too.

So there was a hesitation, a fear, that wasn’t really dealt with until you got to South Africa and worked with Ncumu and pure spirit.

It had a lot to do with faith, because during that time I had that second bout with cancer, remember. My acceptance of possession turned out to be my spiritual path. That was my choice and it wasn’t an easy one. That path is anything but gorgeous. It’s just one rock after another. It was all an initiation, if we want to use that word, where I had to keep examining my faith.

Speaking for myself, to whatever degree I’ve been moved or pushed away from consensus reality, from the received opinions of my culture, I’ve only done so accompanied by pain, suffering, resistance, and difficulties.

I always went ahead, got the shock. Exactly. It doesn’t come easy and the process is never complete. I went through a number of possession experiences. I was living with the best healers in the world and then I got cancer again. It’s like, “Wait a minute, damn it. Why is this happening? I’ve been praying hard. This is totally messed up.”

You go to Ecuador with breast cancer and return without it, as described in your first book Black Smoke. Not only was the cancer gone after being treated with ayahuasca, your entire life turned upside down. Marriage over. Comfortable secure existence gone. My question is, can real change take place without a formidable shock?

I would think not. I felt at each moment I had a choice. I could say, “No. I’m not going to Ecuador.” “No, I’m not going to Brazil.” But, I always said, “Yes.” I always went ahead, got the shock. When I first went to Ecuador I was terrified. Doctors in New York had gave me a treatment protocol — radiation, chemical, and surgical therapies. But, instead I went to a Shuar medicine man in Ecuador. It was scary. Was I going to live? Was I going to end up in some god-forsaken hole in the middle of the jungle? I always knew I was taking big steps. That’s the shock you are talking about.

Let me quote you again. “I accepted there was a great unknown. I believed in greater than self influences.” Maybe what you’re saying is that you abdicated from a reductive, fearful ego running your life. You wanted to open up to unlimited, universal energy. Was this necessary to get rid of the cancer?

It was necessary for me.  But healing is a very personal matter. It is also a life path. It puts you face to face with death. I’m not going to tell people “Don’t have the chemo.” If they think that’s going to save them, if it keeps them alive, by all means, do it.

Let’s move on to John of God. You know I went to John of God’s Casa in Brazil in 2009. I spent a most difficult month there. After every spiritual surgery I got weaker and weaker. I collapsed on the way to the waterfall, weeping. Let’s talk about what happens there because your book’s about spirit possession and Joao is certainly possessed when the entities speak through him. How does healing occur there and how does that differ from you yourself being possessed?

I’ve spent a lot of time with different healers all over the world and one thing I’ve learned is that a healer never heals another human being, John of God included. The Life Force or Spirit that’s working through the healer can open up the possibility of healing for you. Healers can create the atmosphere where you can get into the place, which allows healing to occur. It’s the singular person, the consciousness and the wisdom of the body that actually does the healing. If you go to John of God, it’s you that is going to heal yourself.  But that’s very hard for most people to really understand. Especially, when there are these great spirits and miraculous surgeries happening, you see people leave wheelchairs and walk.

You’re saying you are the one who heals yourself.

You don’t have to know that consciously. But healing is going to change you. Or not. You might get stuck. When you’re in the Casa as a medium, like I have been for a dozen years, you can see doctor spirits working on people. But the spirits, or entities only work through John of God. They never enter the mediums.

Yet healing takes place there. The entity inside Joao is connecting to the deepest place inside you — what will or won’t effectuate healing for you — and that happens instantaneously. The entity sees the core part of you immediately. It’s outside of time.

I’ve seen several operations where Joao cuts into people, operating on a person’s brain, taken out an appendix without sterilization. You ask him why and he says he does the physical surgeries to raise people’s faith. On the other hand, a lot of people who go to the Casa are not cured. Every healer I have met is capable of healing anything. Does it mean it’s going to happen for you? No, because they are not God. You are not immune to death. There’s a karmic element. People want a miracle. It’s the American fantasy of popping a pill and receiving instantaneous health. It can work that way. Or not.

I keep coming back to Ncumu. I keep coming back to the force that’s underneath all of this. That’s finally what we’re holding onto. And it’s faith that allows us to keep returning to that force.

Ncumu is a Bushman word that is almost impossible to pronounce correctly because it’s got clicks and kisses and mmm sounds. I have preserved the sound of this on audiotape. I dare not play it because boom! I’m going to be in there. I’m going to be possessed. I’m connected to it.

Another interesting thing: mediums around the world work on healing diseases but as you’re told over and over, they also are working on their own spiritual evolution through serving those of us still here in the physical realm. This reminds me of the plant spirits. Shamans say that it’s much harder for the plants to work on you, the healer, rather than it is for them to work through you for the benefit of someone else. A shaman naturally is of service to others. It’s harder to heal him or herself. This reveals the reciprocity governing the universe. Gifting, sharing. It’s huge. In fact this whole process is more than just about healing. It’s the very thing missing in our competitive, atomized culture.

Yes. Spirits need a physical presence as a vehicle for them to work on us. In John of God’s Casa there are 200 mediums. The human “vehicle” there is strong.  You need a physical body, a person, a tree, something material for this actual manifestation to come into play because these energies have to be stepped down to come to us. They can’t be stepped down if there is no anchor that will accept them. That’s just a law of manifestation.

The Umbanda priest told you that’s why you go barefoot during the ceremony to connect with the earth.

A most important thing and I didn’t write about this in the book is I’ve really understood that I’m a dense physical being. We all are. I am dense material who’s working with spirits that are not so dense, who are vibratory. But because every human being is on the earth, we have to honor that we are the only ones who can bring the spirit to earth to heal. Once we leave our bodies we won’t be able to do that. This is a big deal, to be able to manifest. Spirits don’t do that. They can heal through us, through a shaman, a medicine person, a saint. We can use the analogy of the shaman as a vessel pouring energy into a patient. One asks, can a cup pour into itself? Or do you need a container, the sick person to pass it along?

Getting back to the reciprocity governing the universe, I wanted to ask if you known the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner? He was in Africa starting in the 1950’s. He found among the tribes he worked with that healing occurred only in the presence of what he called communitas, which means love, fellow feeling, and the benefit of another. That healing occurs only within true community. Isn’t this a key element for what’s missing for us today? And how do we find that again?

Vusazmazulu Credo Mutwa taught me that whenever you do healing work, if you can get more sangomas together, then the energy is stronger. There’s a sharing that takes place that doesn’t occur if you’re doing your own private healing or personal fifty-minute session.  It’s way more powerful in a group, like what happens at Joao’s Casa. During group ceremonies the more joyous you are with the spirits, if you are singing for instance, the spirits look down and say, “Hey, who are those people down there?”  Spirits want to come and be among us. They’re invited, enticed. They want to help. If you’re crying and moaning and dark they’re reticent to approach.

In all ancient cultures, if the spirits aren’t honored, they withdraw. This comes into play in the circles in which you’ve experienced spirit possession in Brazil and South Africa.


One of our challenges in our world of gated communities and crude violence, essentially, is that we live in a nation of strangers, as I said in World on Fire. This nation is the biggest militarily and all that comes from a place of paranoia and fear. It’s a hell realm. And the missing ingredient is communitas.

Yes. I go to the southern hemisphere because there is real community there. I can be possessed. Here, that’s not so easy among my peers.

What about the healing work you do now?

At present, I’m learning healing methods, powerful ones, from people whose names I cannot say. For lack of a better word, I do hands-on-healing. I send people to other healers if I can’t handle something.

Do you enter into spirit possession when you’re working on them?

No. But I am connected with spirits that do that kind of work. In possession, I have pretty much always been in a community that can raise the energy. The main issue is to allow yourself to become vacated so the spirit can work through you. That is a necessary element.

So you’re not in spirit possession in the ecstatic sense, but you are going into a vacant space where the spirits can come in and work through you? Is it like Reiki or something?

I’ve never done Reiki. I don’t know it. During healing there’s a transfer of vital energy going into the other person.

Do you see into their body?

No. I absolutely refuse to do that. That’s not a good thing to do. There’s no reason to connect to disease. Just let the cosmic force work.

Where do your hands go?

Somebody will say it’s his or her spleen or his or her liver. I go to a place on the body that works on those areas.

Which is in some sense where the disease is?

It might not necessarily be there. Whatever it takes to wake up the cells. Have them sing in unison for the liver. For instance, if liver cells migrate to the bones they still hold the energy and the mindset that they are liver. This confuses the bone cells. The harmony gets lost. Who’s the boss? That kind of thing. It’s a clear analogy of things going out of balance and becoming erratic and losing whatever that decency is that constructs the liver and bones.

Let’s finish with Credo Mutwa in South Africa. First of all, you don’t tell him when you first see him you have cancer. In the book he says, “Most honorable one I’ve had cancer three times. It was not just one kind of cancer. It was different kinds of cancer.”

It’s so beautiful. He had melanoma and the doctors were going to cut off his leg, and instead he begins to work on an enormous statue of a pregnant mother goddess. He says, “At the time, my friends had to tie me to a ladder so I could finish the sculpture. I put everything into her, all my fight and joy. In my obsession to create this thing of beauty, my cancer ran away.” Then he says, “Cancer is afraid of ecstasy. When the human being is in a state of excitement, in a state of joy, then that human being becomes free of cancer because cancer doesn’t like the human soul and body.” That’s amazing.

And you say. “It felt like he was shining bright, clear light in the face of darkness. Here was the greatest healer in Africa articulating and affirming what had been forming inside me.”

Credo goes on. “If the mind is occupied by something exhilarating, the body has a better chance to heal. Power of mind can conquer the unseen serpent, the black smoke in the heart. Cancer is a hungry animal. It feeds on fear. If there is nothing to feed on, the cancer will run away. It is not the unseen serpent that kills the person but the mind that surrenders to it.”

That was a defining moment for me.  Credo told me that joy cures the heart and can cure disease.

Do you somehow communicate to the people you are working on about joy and disease? I mean you don’t want to say, “Be joyful.”

It depends on the person and if I can reach them. I’ve been told that if the person can’t accept the truth, then telling them something they cannot hear is the same thing as telling them a lie. It can be a fact for me, but for someone else it can be very different. The energy opens the heart, the organ that can receive joy and give joy.

Do you sometimes feel you want to verbalize that to people? Most courageous of all is that joy makes cancer run away.

It’s one of the most difficult things for a lot of people. Joy. We need to be free to express it. We need to have it inside us.

Image by marcelomdrs, courtesy of Creative Commons license.