Everything was going well for me. Professionally I was at the top of my game, a best-selling author with 12 books to my credit, a researcher and medical anthropologist with a Ph.D. in psychology, a teacher and healer with a following worldwide. The Light Body School and the Four Winds Society that I founded had grown exponentially: more than 5,000 students had gone through our training in energy medicine or had accompanied me on journeys to the Amazon and the Andes. And those were just the accomplishments the public could see. Close to my heart were the many inner gifts I had received on my spiritual path, including the most precious gift of all, a beloved partner who walks the path beside me.
Just when it looked as if life couldn’t get any better, I was stopped in my tracks. Suddenly I was in a fight for survival that called on everything I’d learned in 30 years of studying with some of the world’s most gifted healers.
You see, I am also a shaman, trained in the ancient healing ways of indigenous peoples in the jungles and mountains of South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Clearly the Amazon rain forest is not the Beverly Hilton, so when I tell people what I do, they often say, “Are you nuts?” I understand their concern. The way of the shaman is not for everyone. The training is rigorous and demanding, and it extracted a heavy price. I was in Mexico, a keynote speaker at a conference on shamanism, when without warning, I found I couldn’t walk a hundred feet without collapsing in exhaustion. Friends chalked it up to my crazy travel schedule, but I knew something was terribly wrong. A few days before the trip I had received a head-to-toe checkup, complete with a battery of tests, from medical specialists in Miami.
When I called my doctors from Mexico, the news was not good. Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa, and South America I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of parasites, a host of toxic bacteria, and assorted nasty worms. My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites. When I heard the words, “It’s your brain, Dr. Villoldo,” I sank into despair. The irony was, I had just published a book entitled Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment. The doctors advised me to seek the best medical care available and immediately get my name on a liver transplant list. But where was I going to find a healthy brain?
After the conference, my wife, Marcela, was going on to the Amazon to lead one of our expeditions working with jungle shamans who have journeyed beyond death. I stood in the departure wing at the Cancún airport, staring at my options: Gate 15, the flight to Miami where I would be admitted to a top medical center for treatment, or Gate 14, the flight to Lima and the Amazon, where I would be with Marcela in the land of my spiritual roots. All my test results indicated I was dying; the doctors had even said, “You should already be dead.” Miami was the logical choice. But in that moment I summoned up the courage to put my future where my mouth was—to live what I had taught to so many. My journal entry for that night reads:
Felt like it was the last day of my life. I was overwhelmed by sadness at the thought of leaving this beautiful earth, and I had to give a talk to 150 people! I knew I had to go to the jungle with Marcela. Otherwise I would be checking into a hospital in Miami, looking for my medicine in the wrong place. Now I am with the woman I love, returning to the garden where I first found my path.
In the Amazon, the shamans welcomed me lovingly. These men and women were friends who had known me for decades. And who knew me better than Mother Earth? She received me as only a mother can. As I pressed my body to hers, she spoke to me: “Welcome home, my son.”
That night there was a ceremony with ayahuasca, a brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine that shamans use for visioning and healing. I was too weak to participate and stayed in our hut near the river. Marcela went for us both. The bond that unites us is reflected in how we say I love you to each other: “Desde siempre y para siempre”—“Since the dawn of time and forever.”
I could hear the shaman whistling, and his haunting songs wafted across the river to me as I went into a light meditation. Hours later Marcela returned smiling. Pachamama—Mother Earth—had spoken to her throughout the night: “I make everything on the earth grow. I am giving Alberto a new liver. He knows how to heal everything else.” Pachamama was expressing her love for me and gratitude for bringing so many of her children back to her. In giving me a new liver, she was giving me life. The next day I wrote in my journal:
After morning yoga a luminous being appeared to me in broad daylight. She walked out of the river, and I saw her as if in a dream—a feminine spirit who touched my chest and told me that I was a child of the Pachamama and would live many more years, and that she would look after me, as my work on the earth is not yet done.
My return to the Amazon was the beginning of a return to myself. But first there was an enormous amount of work to do. I was gravely ill. I had to become a traveler on a healing journey in a way that I had demanded of others.
And I had to remind myself: There are no guarantees here, Alberto. There is a difference between curing and healing. You may not be cured; you may die. But regardless of what happens, you will be healed. You will not walk out of the jungle into your old way of being.
I could feel the life force draining out of me. When I gazed into the mirror in the half-light of the Amazon dawn, I saw that the luminous energy field around my body was thin and pale, not glowing brightly as it should be. My face had the same gray pallor I had seen on patients who were dying. I wiped my day planner clean, cancelling every talk, every lecture, every class. The first speaking engagement I cancelled was in Switzerland, where the renowned Brazilian healer John of God was on the program. I had never met John, but I knew the head of his organization. A few days later I got a call offering me a distant-healing session. Afterward, I wrote in my journal:
John worked on me with his entities, and I sensed a great spirit at the head of my bed. I could feel a tangle of ropes being removed from my liver, thick fibers being pulled out. Other entities worked on my heart, while still others performed a spiritual “surgery” on my brain. It knocked me out. I could not get out of bed for the next 24 hours.
From the Amazon, Marcela and I flew to Chile and our Center for Energy Medicine, where we conduct intensive workshops. The monastery/retreat is in the Andes, near Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. The mountain is the reason we settled here. In the old Inca language, aconcagua means “where you come to meet God.” This is exactly what I needed. It was time for the meeting I had been postponing for so long. I had only one focus now—healing—and I had to be wholehearted about it.
My body was a road map of the jungles and mountains where I had worked as an anthropologist, picking up the lethal critters that had taken up residence inside me. The jungle is a living biology laboratory, and if you spend enough time there, you become part of the experiment. I knew anthropologists who had died of the diseases I now harbored. Actually, the virgin rain forest of the Amazon is free of most diseases, but to get to it you have to go through filth-ridden outposts of Western civilization. The Indios knew better than to foul their nests and their drinking water.
Meanwhile, the white man surrounded himself with a sea of garbage and sewage. The spiritual medicine I received from the shamans was powerful, but I had to complement it with Western medicine. The doctors put me on a worm medication—the same type I give my dogs—and on antibiotics to kill other parasites. The problem was that the worms themselves harbored parasites, so when I killed the worms, they released their parasites into my brain, which became very toxic. The situation was dire. My brain was on fire with inflammatory agents and free radicals produced by the medications and the dead and dying parasites. I would have to detox my brain to avoid going completely mad. My brain fog and confusion were glaringly evident when I tried to play Scrabble with Marcela. That game became the barometer of my mental health. I could not access words. And then I started losing my sense of self. I panicked: What if I forget who I am? What if I lose my consciousness of self? Madness stared at me from the horizon—I saw it, felt it, breathed it. It sent naked fear into every part of my being.
Ironically, it was fear of losing myself that saved me: Over the next three months, I simply observed the madness I was experiencing. The shamans (and Buddhists) have a powerful practice of self-inquiry that starts with asking, Who am I? Then, after a while, you begin to inquire, Who is it who is asking the question? So I began to ask, Who is it who’s going mad? There was no place to hide. I saw the madness; others saw it. But, as always, there was another side to the pain. The fathomless depths to which my spirit sank were matched by the flight of my soul. I began to understand who I had been since the beginning of time and who I would be after I died. The gnawing fear was matched by divine love. I dwelt in both worlds, belonging to neither. I wrote in my journal:
Buddha left the palace of his childhood after he saw death, disease, and old age. I have lived with these three grim reapers and have struggled to leave the palace of ignorance and arrogance that I built. I have surrendered to the pain and the ecstasy.
There is no way to adequately describe the place of darkness I reached, but the 16th century mystic John of the Cross must have understood it. From his prison cell he wrote: “There in the lucky dark, / . . . darkness far and wide; / no sign for me to mark, / no other light, no guide / except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!”1 I, too, was in a prison, with my soul on fire. I had a dream:
I am in our cottage, in a kind of cloister. I am waiting for a spiritual treatment. The healing by water is already done, but the one I am waiting for, the initiation by fire, is not ready yet.
I was the patient who should have died, and now I would have to look death straight in the eye if I wanted to live. I would have to draw on everything I had learned walking the shamanic path: all the healing practices, all the techniques for growing a new body by awakening stem cell production in the brain, heart, and liver. I called my friend David Perlmutter, a renowned neurologist who was my co-author on Power Up Your Brain. Together we crafted a strategy using potent antioxidants to trigger the production of neural stem cells to repair my brain.
What followed over the next months were countless Illuminations to clear the imprints of disease from my luminous energy field, along with intravenous infusions of the antioxidant glutathione to detoxify my liver, soul retrievals to recover parts of myself I had lost to trauma, and out-of-body experiences in which my spirit took flight into the Buddha fields, the bardos, the heavens. Energy moved, flowed, met obstacles, and flowed again. I was caught up in the highs and lows of fighting for my life. Time drifted by like a sluggish river, and I stepped out of it, knowing I had to make friends with eternity. In my journal I described one soul retrieval:
I strike the drum softly and journey to the lower world to attempt to do a soul retrieval for myself. I know it’s not a good idea. The shaman who treats himself has a fool for a patient. But I know the Guardian, the Inca Huáscar, and he leads me to the chamber of wounds, where there is a pool of blood that triggers memories from my childhood of bloodshed in Cuba during the revolution. I find a little boy who tells me his agreement with God is that he will never die, and that is why he cannot leave the hell he is in. I tear up that soul agreement and draft a new one that says, “Life and death and rebirth live within me.” The child is happy and joins me. We then discover a ten-year-old boy, somber and serious, who explains that he must stay behind to look after the little one. The little one had received lifesaving blood transfusions at the age of two, when he got hepatitis C from a contaminated needle. I tell the ten-year-old that the little one is with me now, and the older boy smiles.
That night, I had another dream:
I am with friends looking at a grave full of flowers. I am buried there. My friends say I can stay there if I like. But I tell them I won’t need this piece of earth. I see my soul rise from the ground.
I found solace in my dreams. But in spite of all the spiritual gifts I was receiving, my body still felt wretched. I feared I was exhausting all the life force that remained. This is the energy meant to be used at the end of life, in order to die consciously. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Whatever the state of being / that a man may focus upon / at the end, when he leaves his body, / to that state of being he will go.” I continually asked myself, Where is my focus? I could feel my mind teetering on the edge of the precipice. A journal entry reads:
Suffering is greatest when you believe you are at the end of your existence and face your annihilation. I have discovered the spiritual world, the continuation of life, and embraced it. Today I told myself, “I’m just going back home. It might be hard—birth was not easy—but I’m going back home.” I am blessed, for I know the road. I have been shown the way so many times. In shamanic ceremonies I have died a dozen deaths, have seen my body rot and wither, and have gone to the stars. Heaven and hell are both familiar. But just as the spirits did when I was two years old, they’re saying that my time is not yet.
This time, however, I knew I had a choice. I could choose to remain in the world of Spirit. But the spirits were telling me that my work was not done. I would have to return to ordinary life. My mind led my body deeper into a state of collapse, and then into my ultimate surrender. That’s when I knew that something big was about to happen. But first I had to visit the realm of the dead. I dreamed:
Marcela and I are at a ferry terminal. There are many people waiting to board. We have a small boat just for us, one that belonged to my father. People help us launch our boat, which I know how to pilot because my father taught me. Not my human father, but the heavenly Father. I am preparing to cross the great water to the land of the ancestors in my own craft, not with all the others taking the ferry. I am making my journey to the land of the dead but not with the dying. I am going with my shaman wife.
There it was: I had a new mission in life—to be a shaman. But wait! Hadn’t I answered the call to be a shaman a long time ago? I’d even written a book about it: Shaman, Healer, Sage. But writing a book doesn’t make you a shaman, any more than writing a cookbook makes you a chef or having a spiritual library makes you a spiritual adept. For years I had been a spiritual guide but not a master. I was like the wilderness scout who can find his way through the forest but knows little of the destination. I wrote in my journal:
For years I was like Moses, helping others to the Promised Land but not being allowed to enter myself. Now that has changed. I am already in the Promised Land. I have been allowed entry. And I discovered that the door has always been open, that it was my pride and anger and fear that had kept me out.
Now Spirit was offering me another lifetime within this one. I was being called to step fully into my destiny, this time without self-importance, without the subtle seduction of worldly accomplishment. The externals of my life might not change, but my attitude had to.
A new contract with Spirit was required. I felt liberated. I was free. That night, I dreamed:
I am inside a breathing machine and friends are saying good-bye. I am unable to move or speak, but I am in bliss. They turn off life support. I have to pull myself out of the breathing apparatus to come back to life. I realize I can find eternity without dying. I rip the tube out of my mouth and breathe. I am alive. I understand that miracles organize space-time for healing to happen.
That was followed by another dream:
I am leading a group on a tour bus. We come to a monastery with many empty rooms. In one room, there are some altars with candles on them. I light a candle, leaving some coins, and then walk down a spiral staircase carved out of rock. As it descends, the staircase narrows. I reach the ground, and as I squeeze through the exit, I realize that the group won’t be able to fit through the opening. The meaning seems clear: I must find another, less traveled path. I need to go alone.
Again, I was at a choice point. I did not have to stay on earth; I could return home. The last time I had been offered this choice, I was just a child, scared and in pain, but now my fear of the Great Journey had passed. And then I realized that I did not have to die literally. I could die symbolically. I could stay and heal myself so I could help and heal others. Once I made that choice, I began reinhabiting my ordinary senses. I felt my spirit sinking roots into my body once again. Awe and wonder returned, as my brain fog began to clear and I saw that stewardship of all life and the earth was my path. My return to health lasted more than a year.
My good friend Mark Hyman, a physician who wrote The Blood Sugar Solution and 10-Day Detox Diet, helped me put together a nutritional plan for healing. It included green juices in the morning and superfoods and supplements that boost the body’s self-healing systems and detox the liver and brain. I completely changed the way I eat.
Today, I’m fully recovered. More accurately, I’m beyond recovered. I’m a new person. My mind is functioning at a higher level than it has in decades. My brain is repaired, and so is my heart. And I have a new liver—not a transplant, but my own liver, fully regenerated.
In Power Up Your Brain I wrote about the science of neuroplasticity and how we can trigger the production of neural stem cells that repair the brain. During my health crisis I became my own experiment of one, in the process discovering that it’s not just the brain that produces stem cells. Every organ in the body does, and we can learn to turn on these repair and healing systems to grow a new body that’s healthier and more resilient.
At the same time, I also drew on the energy medicine taught to me by the shamans, removing the imprints of disease from my luminous energy field and guiding my body toward optimal health. I’ve been reluctant to share my healing journey until now. People tend to be skeptical of “miraculous” recoveries. When anyone asks, “What brought you back from the edge of death?” I usually say, “The grace of Spirit.” That’s true, but I know there’s more to it than that. If grace were the only factor in getting better, we would all be in outstanding health. What brought me back from the edge of death was One Spirit Medicine—and you don’t need a miracle to be healed by it.
My new book, titled One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness, is based on ancient shamanic healing methods going back to our Paleolithic ancestors 50,000 years ago, backed by the latest breakthroughs in modern neuroscience. I first encountered these practices many years ago, during my fieldwork in the Amazon and the Andes.
But these traditional practices are being confirmed today by what we’re learning about the body and the brain. For the last decade, together with physicians Mark Hyman and David Perlmutter, I’ve offered this program to clients who come to our weeklong retreats for detoxification and healing. They leave with body and brain restored. Now, in One Spirit Medicine, I offer you an opportunity to grow a new body using the same techniques. My health crisis was more extreme than most. But the fact is, we’re all in a life-and-death struggle with the toxic forces of modern life that throw our health and well-being out of balance.
Many of us feel stressed-out physically and emotionally, and wonder why, with all the antianxiety and antidepressant medications and relaxation techniques available, we don’t seem to be able to fix the problem. Meanwhile, obesity, diabetes, ADHD, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease are increasing at an alarming rate. Close to 70 percent of Americans are overweight, and one in three children born in America today will develop type 2 diabetes by the age of 15. Fifty percent of otherwise healthy 85 year olds are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is being called type 3 diabetes, linked to a gluten-rich, wheat-based diet and a stressed-out brain. And these are just a few of the diseases that are killing us prematurely and compromising our quality of life. Our ancestors in the Paleolithic era, as well as many of the tribal cultures I have lived with in the Amazon and the Andes, did not, as we often assume, lead short and brutish lives. They enjoyed healthier life spans, fewer incidences of warfare and violent crime, and less stress than the people who came after them, including us. What accounted for their health and well-being? A primarily plant-based diet and One Spirit Medicine.
One Spirit Medicine can help you avoid the illnesses that are ravaging civilization today. The shamans of old were masters of prevention. You do not have to be gravely ill to root out physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering and restore balance to your life. Using the principles and practices offered in these pages, you can feel better in a few days and begin to clear your mind and heal your brain in a week.
And in just six weeks you can be well on your way to a new body that heals rapidly and ages gracefully, and a brain that supports you in forging a profound connection with Spirit and experiencing a renewed sense of purpose in life.
One Spirit Medicine can give you all that, just as it gave it to me.
Teaser image by Temari 09, courtesy of Creative Commons license.