The following is excerpted from The Gift of Shamanism: Visionary Power, Ayahuasca Dreams, and Journeys to Other Realms, published by Destiny Books.
From high above, watching like a bird gliding in the sky, I followed a tall, slender young woman. She walked all by herself on the edge of what seemed like a large, immaculate square green lawn surrounded by a row of tall, groomed poplar trees on all sides. Her footsteps were unstable, unsure, almost floating, as if afraid to bother the ground she was walking on. She seemed highly sensitive, disturbed, and frightened. Her honey-colored hair was pulled under a wide-brimmed white sun hat, and her long-sleeved white cotton dress hugged her slim figure as it softly brushed the fresh-cut grass. She moved as if in a dream. It was a bright and crisp spring day with an uncanny stillness in the air, like the calm before a brewing storm. A few feathery white clouds floated in the blue skies. Standing in the background was a large modern white building that had two floors with two big glass doors in its center and many windows on both sides, for each of the many rooms that overlooked the grounds. I recognized it as a mental institution, a sanitarium. There seemed to be no other human beings in sight. I hovered closer to get a better view of her. Somehow, in an instant, and without a doubt I recognized the woman. At first I refused to accept it, but then I realized: She is me. Chills ran throughout my body.
It was I who was walking dreamlike toward the tall, black wrought-iron gates, as an unseen hand led me to the edge of that grassy lawn in total indifference. She hardly even noticed the two bearded men dressed in black suits with black top hats who were waiting for her at the gate. As she came closer the gate seemed to open silently, all by itself. The two men firmly helped her climb up into a waiting carriage where she settled into the back seat. There were no words exchanged. Instantly the carriage took off, pulled fast by the two black horses. They drove through tree-lined roads, quite a long distance. All she could hear was the sound of the horses’ hooves clicking on the road, like Chinese water torture. They arrived in front of her family’s townhouse and stopped. She did not wait for them to help her down. Instead she threw open the carriage door in a panic. As her heart pounded violently, she threw open the black iron gate and dashed into the open door of the house. The two men behind her yelled at her and tried to hold on to her but she did not pay any attention to them. She ran breathlessly upstairs, climbing the narrow, winding staircase, pulling at her dress as it dragged heavily behind her.
She entered her bedroom in the small attic on the fourth floor and without any hesitation she held on to the windowsill, looked down to the street below—the trees, the triangular shingle roofs under her—leaned out, and in a last-ditch effort, threw herself out of the window. In midfall she felt the gushing air suffocating her and she couldn’t breathe anymore. Floating from above, she could see, as if a witness, her body slowly falling down, weightless, like a falling yellowed leaf, until she reached the sidewalk. She was finally, oh God, in complete peace.
From this vista I noticed that even the familiar busy street looked calm and beautiful now. I could see clearly the beautiful row of trees that grew alongside the cobblestone avenue, the horse-drawn carriages, the small beautiful houses, and most amazingly, every small detail of the clothing worn by the men and women who were strolling leisurely on this weekend afternoon. At once droves of startled people rushed toward her lifeless body that lay face-down on the sidewalk. I noticed their clothes as they were crossing the avenue to reach her—the men with elegant black suits, white shirts, and black top hats, carrying their walking canes, the women in long, heavy gray dresses with tight waists adorned with black buttons and gray hats. Then the ringing sound of emergency bells came closer, and soon a horse drawn ambulance arrived and stopped by the dead body. Four men in black uniforms picked up her body and carefully placed it on a simple stretcher, lifted it, and laid it inside the ambulance. The ambulance jerked forward, the bells continuing to ring their emergency sounds, and I followed the ambulance as it started to move up the street until it reached the city hospital. I was totally oblivious to the panic other people around me were expressing. I saw them unloading my lifeless body and passing the stretcher to the waiting medical crew, and then watched them carry me into the building.
Then I left, but before I did, I wanted to know who I was and where this had taken place. I called out and asked her. A message came back to me clearly: “My name is Margaret. I was born in the 1890s and lived in a highly respected section of Vienna, Austria.”
Slowly I opened my eyes. I was still standing barefoot, clad in my white underwear on the mud floor of a semidark healing room. The strong smell of cow manure, alcohol, and tobacco smoke in the room had brought me back to my surroundings. Jorge Tamayo was still whipping my head with a bunch of dry leaves, chanting an old Quechua prayer. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like someone had knocked the air out of me. My eyes filled with salty tears. I felt deep mourning for the dead Margaret, and for myself.
At the end of the session I slowly got dressed and sat on a bench leaning against the white wall, gathering my thoughts and feelings. I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. Was it a past-life experience? How long did it last? A few seconds? Minutes? An hour? How could I see every detail, sound, and emotion so vividly and clearly? Did I make it all up? I sat there contemplating, trying to make sense of it all. Don Esteban, the miniature elder shaman, wearing a colorful feather crown, snored loudly in the other corner of the room, completely drunk and tired from working straight around the clock. I needed space to figure this all out. I excused myself, got up and went outside and made my way through the herd of cows and busy chickens to the cornfields. There behind the outhouse I stood and watched the beautiful valley below. It was still early afternoon and the setting sun painted the fields in magical colors. Everything looked so unusually unreal and at the same time utterly peaceful. I contemplated: Okay, I was a young woman, not a man, with depression. I committed suicide.
How and why is this related to my current life? Why was this past life revealed to me now, here in the High Andes of Ecuador? Is it related to my mother’s depression or her maiden name, Margalit? Margaret was from a well-to-do family—is this why I have an aversion to money in this lifetime? Was this is the source of my present-life fear of heights?
Since my early childhood I have always had an inexplicably strong fear of heights, specifically, falling from roofs. My legs stiffen, my breath shortens, and my palms begin to sweat when I am up high. No wonder when I saw a picture of a hanging cable bridge built over a deep river in Dream Change’s trip brochure I was terrified. The bridge was relatively narrow and had no railings or ropes to hold on to. Seeing it made me worry that my legs would become paralyzed, as had happened to me when I was at the top of the Duomo in Milan, Italy, many years before. I was sure that I would fall down into the deep, gushing waters. Did Margaret’s story and her jumping to her death uncover the source of that deep fear? If so, maybe I don’t need to repeat that experience again. Was that experience my healing?
A week later, in Miazal, in the heart of the Shuar jungle territory, while on our way to the sacred twin falls, we had to cross that very bridge. My heart started to pound heavily with anticipation. I took a big breath, remembered Margaret, made a few cautious steps, and lo and behold, my legs were relaxed and my breath flowed easily. I got to the center of the bridge and started dancing, laughing and cheering uncontrollably.
But even then I still had this nagging question: Was it really real or did I just made it up? No way to know. I needed proof, but how? Should I go to Vienna to look for historical records? Nah . . . I dismissed it.
A few years later, on a cold September night at the Omega Institute, a group of us sat outside on a bench, some of the same people who had taken that trip to Ecuador with me, as well as a few others who had joined our noisy reunion. We were all sharing memories from our trip, storytelling, with a lot of laughter. “Hey Itzhak, tell them your Margaret story,” my good friend Ariel Orr Jordan encouraged me. Reluctantly, I agreed. When I finished telling my story, a woman said from the darkness, “You know, I’m from Vienna and I know that sanatarium. And, you know, it’s still there.” My heart skipped a beat. “What a confirmation,” Ariel said. Maybe I need to go to Vienna after all, I thought.
Fast-forward nine years. Cramped in my Italian host Alessandra’s packed car, Isabel, Maria, and I were heading back to Florence from Baratti, a beautiful resort beach town where I had just finished teaching a shamanic seminar. Isabel was hurrying to take the train back to her home in Vienna for the weekend. The weekend traffic made the trip even longer than expected, and to pass the time I asked Isabel if she knew of this sanatarium. “Can you describe it?” she asked, and so I described it to her. “Why do you want to know?” she asked suspiciously. I then told my companions the Margaret story. “Aha,” she said seriously, her eyes concentrating, trying to think of the sanatarium’s name, “there are few possibilities, but you know, I’m working at the Vienna Museum; why don’t you come there and we will find out if your story is true?” Isn’t that a coincidence? I thought—I was on my way to Vienna to teach.
Vienna had been on my mind for the longest time. My wife’s most admired dance teacher, one of the most influential artists in my life, Gertrude Krause, a Dada dancer, was Viennese. It was an excellent opportunity to visit the places she always reminisced about. I wanted to see those artist and intellectuals’ cafes and taste the best Viennese coffee and strudels and see the palace where Gertrude brought the house down when she wildly danced at the first Dada Congress.
At 10 a.m. sharp a few days later, I entered the Wien Museum on the famous Karlsplatz. I walked into a modern three-story building that was filled with every item of the city’s rich history. I asked the receptionist if I could see Isabel. A few long minutes later, a beautifully dressed woman showed up to greet me, very different-looking from the wild shaman she was in Italy. “Hey, is that you?” I asked laughingly. She giggled and led me to her quarters, where her stern-faced associate interrogated me again and again about the details of my story. There was a short discussion in German, and then a plan of action was formed.
For sanatariums we needed to search the Internet. To find out about the ambulances we would have to go downstairs to the transportation department. For street scenes there was another department. And so after three hours of searching flat drawers, deep drawers, and opening old envelopes, we found it all: pictures of the sanatarium, the stretcher, the horse-drawn ambulance, the bells, the hospital, the townhouses, pictures of men and women walking the streets, and even their exact clothing. We made photocopies of it all. But the most emotional and confirming moment for me happenedwhile looking again at the photo of the sanatarium in Purkersdorf. In the photo it had three floors, not two as I had seen in my vision. I started doubting myself again. Reading the picture’s caption we found the explanation: “The famous architect Josef Hoffman designed it in 1906. In 1935, a third floor was added to the original building.” That meant Margaret was in her mid-twenties at the time. “Only very well to-do families used to send their members there, many from the Jewish community. At that time it was built quite far away from the city,” Isabel continued reading. It was hard for me to keep cool on the outside. I started to have heart palpitations, fear was growing in my stomach, my palms were sweating, and I was shaking and short of breath. “Do you want to visit the place?” Isabel softly asked. “It is just a few train stops outside the city; I can show you how to get there.” I consulted my spirit. “No, that’s enough for me now,” I said.