In traditional shamanic societies the world over, respected healers undergo a rite of passage — a profound, ceremonial initiation — that acts as an acknowledgement of their wisdom and maturation. These ceremonies challenge the initiate on many levels: physical, spiritual and emotional. The experience brings them in touch with their own death and rebirth, ushering in a new stage of life.
Witnessing by the community gives the initiates formal backing and blessings, which are necessary as they embark on a new passage, confident to perform new duties. They have acquired greater personal stature, but also heavy communal responsibilities.
Some shamans may experience direct initiation by spirit in the form of intense messages and visions in dreamtime. Sometimes near death experiences, life threatening sickness, or plant medicine visions may bring about unexpected induction.
Modern society rarely conducts initiation ceremonies to mark the critical stages of life — other than school graduations and the occasional bar mitzvah. For this reason, many of us feel we have no permission from society to step into our power, which is our birthright gift, and fulfill our life mission. This can lead to emotional distress, alienation, violence, and depression.
I have experienced a few of those ceremonies, some unexpectedly in the spirit world and in what we call our reality world.
Eagle Baptism on Imbabura
It was on my second visit to Don José Joaquin Pineda in Otavalo in 1998, that I had a new, mesmerizing vision that prompted him to ask me to come back and later become his apprentice. Once again I was standing almost naked in the middle of his healing room, my feet on a yellowed Spanish newspaper showing Audrey Hepburn’s face, my favorite movie star. As the now familiar La Limpia ceremony began I found my body experiencing a total instant shapeshifting. At first I was scared to let go and let it happen. Soon I felt as if feathers were sprouting on my entire body and limbs. I realized I was turning into a full-blown eagle. With the new wide wings that grew on me, I flapped and powerfully thrust my body and ascended into the blue skies. At one point high above the earth, I descended with blinding speed into the depth of a small cold-water blue lake on a volcanic mountain. Then, as if by an unknown magical force, I flapped my wings and bolted up into the heavens, spewing the skies with tiny sparkling water drops like colorful shining diamonds. When I heard Juan Gabriel our guide say, “You can dress now,” I slowly opened my eyes. Audrey Hepburn was still there with her almond eyes smiling at me mysteriously from below. I was cold, exhausted and shaken by the experience. Don José prescribed me a few things to do when I got home, including flower baths with red and white carnations or roses.
Later, in our conversation, I described to Don José my vision and drew the mountain shape. “Oh, claro, this is the lake I take my apprentices to for their initiations,” he said seriously and shook his head from side to side. He explained that I’d had the baptism, or initiation ceremony, reserved for his pupils, in Eagle Lake on Imbabura. I was stunned. “What does that mean? How did I connect to see his world?” I doubted myself again. “Would you take me to this place one day in this reality?,” I sheepishly asked him. “Oh claro, no problema.” He smiled, as his eyes were glowing with mischief, and asked, “So, when are you coming back?” I promised him within a year, but my apprenticeship actually started in New York a few months later.
Dipping in Magdalena
In April 2000, for our children’s spring break, my wife and I accepted Don José’s invitation to visit them in Ecuador. We arrived in the early afternoon at José’s gate. Soraya, his daughter greeted us warmly and took me to meet him at the mechanic’s garage, where he was performing a healing ceremony on a broken car. Don José was determined that I must have the initiation ceremony performed that night. He laid out his plan. “We must start in Magdalena, the sacred spring that feeds the Laguana de San Pablo; it has very powerful female energy,” he said. “The next day we’ll continue to the male spring, San Juan Pukyu, near my village, Iluman.”
“Vamos, let’s go,” he ordered us. Don José packed his healing bundles; we put on our coats, packed a few towels, and got into the minivan. After a long and tortuous drive up the mountain slopes, we finally made a sharp turn to the right and rolled down the hill toward the dark body of water. There on the right was Magdalena, the sacred spring. It was a chilly and windy night, the moonless sky was filled with the brightest stars, and in the background I could feel the enormous presence of the powerful sacred volcanic mountain Imbabura.
The frigid air sent shivers along my body. I dreaded the thought of entering into the icy water. “Why does initiation ceremony need to be so uncomfortable? Why can’t he do it at the hot spring near my kibbutz where I grew up?,” I whined to myself. Don José asked Juan Carlos our driver to point the car lights toward the dark pool of water. Soon, he signaled me to take off my clothes and walk into Magdalena with him. With the freezing water up to our bellies we stood on the smooth, icy pebbles where the water emerged from the volcanic rocks. Don José, a crown of feathers on his head, holding a bottle of trago in his right hand, closed his eyes in deep concentration and started whistling and chanting loudly, calling on his ancestors, the mountains, the four elements, and the four directions for help in the ceremony.
To appease Magdalena’s spirit he proceeded to give her offerings of trago by blowing it onto the water, rocks, and into the air, and finally—as if it wasn’t cold enough already—on me. He then gave additional offerings of red and white carnations, agua florida (floral-scented water), and tobacco. My body shivered nonstop. I could feel the numbness spreading through my legs to the rest of my body. My teeth chattered uncontrollably. “I hope he and my family don’t notice my terror,” was all I could think of.
Don José went on chanting and scrubbed my now frozen body with his icy healing stone. Then he placed his long chunta spear fashioned from the strong Amazonian palm tree on my head, chest, and back to create a shield of protection. I was shocked when he asked me to splash the freezing water on myself, “six times over your left then the right shoulders and then six times on your head, and give offerings to the spirit of Magdalena,” he instructed me sternly. I tried to control my trembling by remembering the amazing eagle “vision” I had had the previous year at Eagle Lake on the top of the same mountain, and it all felt strangely vivid and comforting.
At once in a breathtaking magical moment I fully sensed that everything around me blended and became one with me — the crisp cold air of the dark night, the bright glorious stars above, the uncontrollable shaking of my frozen body, my soul yearning to go home to the heavens, the intense presence of Imbabura, the howling wind, the bubbling sounds of the water flowing into the huge dark lake beneath us, the presence of my family watching us from the banks, my appreciation and love for Don José — and I was okay. My spirit felt immense gratitude and my heart expanded. And then swiftly it was over. We stepped out of the water into the waiting warmth of the dry towels my wife was holding. We dried ourselves off, put on our clothes, drank some trago to warm us up, poured some on the ground for Pachamama (Mother Earth), and drove back for a warm late-night dinner in Otavalo.
Circle of the 24 Yachaks
The next day we all gathered in Don José’s healing room to watch him perform a healing on my son. We were all ready to go out when unexpectedly Don José asked my family to wait outside and motioned for me to stay alone with him in the room. I was unsure of what he was planning, but I had learned to never ask questions. He asked me to undress and stand in the middle of the room on the old newspapers. So I did. I closed my eyes and waited. “Maybe he wants to cleanse me again,” I reasoned. I heard him at his altar praying, whistling, and chanting. But soon I felt that the spontaneous ceremony was quite unlike any healing I’d experienced before. With my closed eyes I could sense a strange, powerful masculine energy building around me and in me, and then, as the chunta spears were cutting through the air around me I felt them entering my heart.
Soon I heard the sharp ocarina (the traditional ceramic flute) piercing the silence. “You can open your eyes now,” he finally said sternly. And then, to my total surprise, he said, “I decided to perform a special initiation ceremony, inducting you into the Circle of Twenty-Four Male Yachaks.” Surprised and a bit confused, I asked for Soraya to be called to translate what he had said; maybe I hadn’t understood correctly. “Yes, that’s right; my father gave you a Coronation Ceremony,” she confirmed with a big smile. “You can now wear the crown of feathers, as my father does; you are a yachak.” I felt honored beyond belief and at the same time humbled by the responsibility to carry his ancient tradition.
All of the sudden the side door opened and in walked Don José’s wife holding something heavy under her traditional clothing. Don José walked toward her and she handed him a big black rock. He took it and stood in front of me and made a chant of blessing, purified it with trago and handed it to me. I looked at him and the beautiful smooth rock total in surprise. “What is this?,” I asked him. “Your initiation gift from me,” he said proudly.
Today this powerful ancient smooth Inca lava rock is the center of my healing altar. It empowers my work and connects me to my teacher’s old family tradition and to the spirit of Imbabura Mountain. I use its mirror-like surface for reading the candle flame’s reflection in the course of the diagnostic process, to absorb negative energies and for the empowerment of my clients.
A War Dance in Taruma
Shoré the Kanamari Pagé (shaman) was pacing in circles in the center of the open-sided thatched roof hut covered with dried palm leaves. It was yet another hot day in the Brazilian Amazon. I admired his decorated tribal clothing, the large colorful macaw feather headpiece, his old face painted with the black marking of a jaguar. “He is as real as it gets,” I thought. With him was his younger apprentice and his whole family all dressed the same.
I was very tired and super-charged, as the night before, around three in the morning, I had woken up with a jolt. Sleeping lightly, I heard some unexpected sounds. From my hammock, five feet away from the thick jungle, I had a strange feeling a jaguar just passed by me. “Was it a dream?” I doubted myself. The moon was full and bright and I peeked out through the mosquito net trembling in fear. I dared not move, waiting for the sun to come up. Finally two hours later I climbed down from my hammock and carefully walked to the place where I heard the voices coming from. There, close to the path that led into the jungle, I saw jaguar footprints, electric eel bones and fresh poop. I held my breath and thanked God it wasn’t my bones.
Ipupiara, my mentor and teacher, translated Shoré words from kanamari, his native dialect, as he spoke to us while watching our group of twelve North Americans intently.
“Come, to the center,” Shoré pointed at me. I stood up from the wooden bench and joined him. He then went on to signal three other men from our group, Leo, Daniel and John. We stood there not knowing what to expect.
Earlier, when he introduced him, Ipupiara had explained that Shoré is not his real name; in their language it means “best man, or best shaman.” He said that Shoré received this name from other elders in recognition for his vast knowledge and the power of his healing. His tribe is located in the area close to Venezuela’s border, so it took him and his family three days, by boat, buses and another boat to arrive at Taruma where Ipupiara and his wife built this Eco Center on the banks of a lagoon in the Rio Negro tributary that used to be an old boatyard.
Shoré took a few steps and pulled a stash of four red Pau-Brasil (Brazilwood) spears from under one of the benches. This rare solid wood, which Brazil is named after, is used for warfare and other tools in place of metal, and by law is no longer allowed to be cut. Only natives can gather fallen branches to be used.
We stood in line facing him, and he handed one spear to each of us. He was talking as Ipupiara translated. “I chose to initiate you and gift you part of my personal power. I recognize that you have special power and commitment,” he said. “But before I bless you, you each need to pass a test.” He then asked the other three to sit down on a bench. I stood alone in the center confused, aware of the many eyes that were watching me. “What is he going to do to me?” butterflies started flapping their wings in my stomach. “What if I fail the test in front of all these people who know me so well? Maybe I’m not worth his trust? Maybe I’m not a powerful enough warrior to hold that sacred spear?”
I was deep in my self-doubts when Shoré, that old man in his seventies, faced me and fiercely struck the spear in my hands. Somehow that blow triggered an unknown energy surge; it shook me to the core of my being, and by instinct I attacked him back forcefully. He struck back from a different angle, with surprising agility and force, and so I found myself grounding my feet in the pressed clay floor in a battle for life and death, now not just protecting myself but also smacking him back. We were engaged in a forceful dance of war and wills for many long minutes. Suddenly it was all over. We stood facing each other, breathing heavily. He looked me in the eyes and smiled with approval. I bowed to him, thanked him and went back to sit on the bench, catching my breath. “What just happened?,” I asked myself. “Where did this wild uncompromising warrior energy in me come from?” At that moment I was so thankful to my son for taking me to Kung-Fu classes many years ago.
When the other three ceremonies were completed, Shoré invited the entire group including his family to join us in a traditional ceremonial dance, welcoming the new initiates, taking his place at the head of the line.
“Think of me whenever you use this spear and I will help you in spirit,” Shore told me as he embarked on his way back to their village. I do so quite frequently, as part of him is in me forever.
Imbabura photo by Dottie Day, courtesy of Creative Commons license.