NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Multiple (and Subtle) Bodies: Entheogenic Incorporation in the Santo Daime Tradition (Part 1)

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A few years ago, I was participating in a St. Michael’s ritual or “work” (trabalho), as it is called within the Santo Daime, a religious tradition that began in the Amazonian region of Brazil in the early part of the 20th century and which now has churches and centers in countries throughout the globe.  At the beginning of the work, after a series of group prayers, I had been given a rather large serving of Daime, the entheogenic brown brew that is the sacramental focus of this religious tradition.  After downing my shot glass of Daime with a silent prayer, I joined about 20 men and 20 women, each group seated in folding wooden chairs on opposite sides of a six-sided altar in the center of the hexagonal, high-ceilinged, place of worship, and all of us began to sing a collection of hymns that are said to have been “received” from the “astral” realms by a prominent elder of the Santo Daime tradition – hymns that we all knew almost by heart and which were accompanied by several skilled guitarists as well as the rhythmic percussive sound of the hand held rattles or maracás, that were played by certain key members seated close to the altar.

After about thirty minutes of heartfelt singing, I began to notice that the Force, the subtle yet powerful energy that moves in and through the participants of a Santo Daime ritual, was becoming active within me.  Not only could I feel this Force viscerally coursing through my body, but in response to that energetic pulsation, my head and torso had begun to softly, yet quite rapidly, oscillate around the central energetic pillar of my body, accompanied at times by extremely fast, albeit rather quiet inhalations and exhalations through my nose.  Seen from the outside, it probably looked like I was rapidly shaking my head back and forth, but from within, it felt as if my body was being moved, without my instigation, by a force that was simultaneously deep within me and yet also, in certain respects, “other” than me.

These initial sounds and movements, which were accompanied by the intuitive sense that both my subtle and physical body was being prepared and opened for the next stage of the ritual – that is, for full bore mediumship – were almost identical to the bodily movements and sounds (kriyas) that I used to make, decades before, when I was a member of a neo-Tantric Kundalini yoga and meditation tradition.  Similarly, the shapes that my hands were beginning to take, and the movements that they were making (primarily elaborate circles and spirals, often while rotating at the wrist as the fingers subtly but decisively, repositioned themselves, all without any conscious effort or decision on my part) looked a lot like the “mudras” that are commonly seen in yoga or the hand gestures of classical Indian dancers.

I will admit that I am fascinated by the ways in which much of the spiritual work that I did before my exposure to the Santo Daime seems to have anticipated and/or prepared me for the experience of mediumship.  I am convinced, for instance, at least in retrospect, that I was being prepared for mediumship during the decade when I was a practitioner of that neo-Tantric meditation group that worked with the energies of the awakened Kundalini.  From that spiritual tradition I gained a familiarity and ease with a sense of a benevolent spiritual power that could and would move my body in unexpected, yet intriguing, ways. During that time I developed within myself the capacity to open up to a Greater Power; I learned how to let go, how to trust that this Power would manifest itself within me in just the way that it should.  I also learned how to watch from some calm, quiet place within me how during that process something greater than my ego would initiate movements and sounds within my body that were the physical manifestations of a deeper, more subtle, pulsation of spiritual energy, movements that I could never replicate by sheer force of will, but could always stop if they became too intense or if I was in an inappropriate social setting.  

I believe that I was also trained for my mediumship in the Daime by the extensive work that I did, about a decade after I had left that meditation group, as both a student and teacher of neo-Reichian group work. A major focus of that sort of work involves freeing up the body and voice and releasing bodily energies that, due to personal traumas or social pressure, had previously been locked down, held back, or frozen.  For many years as a neo-Reichian practitioner and teacher, I was offered a context in which I was not only trained to sense the ebb and flow of subtle energies, but was also strongly encouraged to move my body in ways that dramatically went against my own internalizations of social models of how a person should move, stand, and speak. That hard won visceral willingness to let my body freely follow the flux of subtle energies has served me well during the development of my mediumship in the Santo Daime tradition, in large part because a crucial aspect of the development of my mediumship has been my attempts to overcome my fear of exhibitionism and, as it were, “too-much-ness.”  I know those tendencies in me, so I have at times had to fight against strong inner prohibitions and complex knots of psychological defenses that say: do not act like that, do not embarrass yourself, don’t be too loud, too wild, too crazy.

Nonetheless, even though I have been intrigued by the similarities of what I have learned in these strikingly different traditions, it is also clear to me that there is a unique quality, or energetic “note” to what I experience in and through the Daime.  That unique quality of the Daime became quite apparent to me when, during the period of “concentration” or quiet, meditative introspection that followed the singing of the first collection of hymns during the St. Michael’s work, I experienced the Force growing stronger and stronger until I received a powerful visionary experience, or miração.  In this miração I felt myself being “raised up” and taken into what I can only call a heavenly world – a world that was not foreign to me, but rather, a world in which I intimately belonged, a world in which I was not a small spectator, but rather, was joyfully participating in a landscape that was itself an expression my now dramatically heightened vibratory level, an exquisitely and intricately beautiful world, a world filled with Divine Light and Love.

I think that it is fair to say that these sorts of experiences are not infrequent for Daimistas.  For myself, having been given the grace to explore, with a sense of deep awe and wonder, the surreal vividness of these other dimensions of reality, and having had numerous, intense and meaningful interactions with a multitude of beings who inhabit these “trans-physical” worlds, I have to say that my previous Flatland perspective on the universe has pretty much disappeared.  At this point, for me, these alternate dimensions of reality are no longer theoretical – instead, taking this sacrament has enabled me to know, directly, powerfully, and in glorious detail, the multidimensional nature of the universe that we inhabit. I now am convinced that these alternate dimensions of reality exist simultaneously with, and overlap, our everyday level of reality. Taking the Daime, I would suggest, simply removed the psychological and physiological blinders that previously prevented me from consciously interacting with these “unseen worlds.”

Coming back to my description of the St. Michael’s ritual: I was able to revel in the beauty and power of that specific heavenly world for only a relatively brief period – probably no more than five minutes  – just long enough for the vibratory level of my energy body to be sufficiently raised so that I was prepared to take the next step forward in this ritual process, which is the collective singing of another group of hymns that have the explicit intention of invoking various “spirits of Light” (espíritos da Luz), in particular, the archangel St. Michael.  Even before my miração, I had already begun a process of inner opening and preparation – manifesting numerous bodily movements that at times made me feel like I was similar to some sort of underwater plant, swaying and undulating in a river of Light and Force, (a close friend later commented that I looked something like combination of a sweet autistic child and a Daimista Stevie Wonder).  To me, therefore, when my consciousness finally returned to an awareness of the room and the people around me, it was not at all surprising that almost as soon as I started singing the St. Michael hymns, my mediumship began to strongly open up within me, and I began to incorporate various spirits of Light.


Every Santo Daime ritual, at least to a certain extent, is mediumistic in that the Daime is said to embody the consciousness of a vastly intelligent and compassionate divine Being, a Being that, for Santo Daime practitioners, is equated with the transformative Light and redemptive Love of the Christ.  Therefore, simply by drinking the Daime within the context of a work, Daimistas consciously allow themselves to act as a conduit by which this Christ Consciousness can incarnate within human form in order, in the words of one of the leaders of the movement, “to provide teaching, comfort, healing, and spiritual evolution” to those who have gathered together to take this sacramental brew, as well as to compassionately transform the darkness, suffering, and negativity of the planet into Light and Love.  Nonetheless, there are several works of the Santo Daime tradition that are explicitly dedicated to the process of mediumship, and this St. Michael’s work is one of the most powerful. Mediumship works are opportunities, at least for those Daimistas who have this specific mission, to develop and utilize their mediumistic abilities for the sake of others. (Daimistas often say that all people are mediums, but not everyone chooses to unfold and cultivate this latent capacity, at least within this lifetime. I have been working to develop my mediumship for several years now, but I am still learning.  There are many Daimistas whose mediumship is much, much more developed than mine will perhaps ever be.)

A medium is someone who willingly permits their aparelho  (literally, “instrument,” i.e., the person’s body, mind and spirit) to incorporate a variety of spiritual beings. Numerous spiritual entities are frequently invoked within the context of Santo Daime rituals, entities who are connected to and emerge from Amerindian, Catholic, Spiritist, esoteric, and African traditions, e.g., Jesus, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Orixás (the powerful spirits of nature that come from the Yoruba tradition of West Africa), spirit guides, angels and archangels, caboclos (who are spirits of deceased Native Americans) and preto velhos (who are spirits of deceased African slaves).  And these are only the “spirits of Light” (espíritos da luz).  There are also countless nameless spirits which can appear within the context of a Santo Daime ritual that are difficult, if not impossible, to categorize, as well as those entities which are known as suffering spirits, (espíritos sofredores), the spirits of human beings who have died and yet, because of their lack of spiritual development, continue to have a negative influence upon living human beings (I will speak much more about these entities later on).    

I have to say right up front that at times it can be hard, at my level of development, to be certain as to exactly who or what is manifesting within my aparelho during a mediumship work. (More developed mediums often receive highly detailed information about the specific characteristics of the beings that they are incorporating.)  All that I know for sure is that whoever, or whatever, arrives, does so under the power and protection of the Daime. (One elder that I spoke with said that the most important thing to understand about mediumship in the Santo Daime tradition is that in and through the Daime, mediumship has been anointed with Light, so that mediumship in this tradition always functions for the highest good of everyone, unlike in some other mediumship traditions where mediumship was, and still at times is, often used for less than positive purposes, such as to gain power over others, and so on).

There are certain times during the process of my own mediumship in which I will have a clear visionary sense of who or what is arriving, especially (for some reason), when I am incorporating the spirits of Light, who I will often perceive as living, vibrant, extremely powerful, and intricately geometric forms of crystalline Light, Beauty and Presence.  At other times I have seen what might be called “doctors” of Light who gather around my (often prostrate) physical body in order to clear and attune my energy bodies. But there are also frequently times in which the only knowledge that I have of who or what is manifesting within me is gained through watching, almost from above, the ways in which my physical body moves.  And there can be a lot of variety in that movement, especially when I’m incorporating spirits of Light.

For instance, I might find myself standing up in the back of the hall, my head tilted back, feeling myself strongly uplifted, ecstatically celebrating the beauty of the hymns, bathing in Light and Presence, with my arms raised and my hands fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird. Later, I might find myself with my arms moving in front and to the sides of my body in overlapping circles, with my two middle fingers arching forward and my thumb, pointer and pinky fingers pulled upward as if they were being stretched and elongated by the lines of energy coursing through them, and watching as my hands also respond to that coursing flux of energy by rotating rapidly at the wrist, as if I was manifesting some sort of three-dimensional, ever-shifting infinity sign that interlaces itself in harmony with the rhythms and melodies of the hymns that fill the hall, all the while calmly noticing the fact that I am also deeply breathing in and out while my tongue flutters inside my mouth producing, again without thought, rapid, high pitched, whistling reverbs of sound.  

Honestly, I often don’t have a clue as to who or what is doing all of this within me, and to be equally honest, I don’t really care.  I only know that it feels inherently right and good to have my body moving in these ways, that I feel in tune and aligned with the pulsations of the Force as it surges through my aparelho and that I want to give whoever is wanting to express themselves in and through me the permission to manifest themselves within our place of worship, in order that they can transmit their blessings in whatever way they see fit.  

In many ways, therefore, my knowledge of who or what is manifesting within me is primarily a kind of bodily or kinesthetic knowing, rather than some sort of intellectual understanding. Very early on in the development of my mediumship, for instance, during one mediumship work, I was prompted from within, rather insistently, to move into the center of the circle (this particular work was more informal than some other Santo Daime ritual contexts and everyone was gathered in a large circle, which offered plenty of space for the mediums to work).  I quickly found myself hunched over while my left arm was rather insistently and forcefully bent behind my back, as if I was trying to scratch my spine, while my right hand was raised and shaking back and forth rapidly in front of my mouth which was, in the meantime, releasing a quick series of high pitched whistles. After the work ended, I talked to some of the elders, asking them if they had any sense about who or what was moving my body in this rather unusual way, and they all said, very casually, “Oh that? That was a caboclo.” (A caboclo, by the way, as I mentioned earlier, is a spirit of a native American.)  At that point I had never even heard of such an entity. But the more that I participated in different mediumship works, the more that I began to see that mediums tended to manifest a cluster of fairly predictable movements and sounds. In addition, the more that I paid attention to the typically off-the-cuff comments of people who were more experienced than myself, the more that I was able to learn which stereotypical movements and sounds were associated with which particular group of spiritual beings.

At this point for instance, I think that I can say that I’m fairly familiar with what it looks and feels like to incorporate a caboclo during a mediumship work.  I want to be clear that I don’t always incorporate caboclos. In fact, it’s crucially important to me that, as a medium, I never force anything. I’ve made a promise to myself to stay seated and to keep singing the hymns until the inner tug comes so insistently that I simply have to respond.  But when I feel that clear-cut, albeit often extremely subtle, inner prompting, I’ll take off my glasses and then quietly go to a place in the salão or worship space where I can move more freely.  Then, rather quickly, I’ll find myself bent over, my eyes partially shut, one hand arched behind my back, the other hand vibrating extremely fast in front of my face like some sort of energetic antenna, and then I’m off: whirling around the room like some sort of entranced martial artist, sinking my weight down in one leg while rapidly circling my arms in ways that echo my Tai Chi background, all while my tongue is making loud sharp clicking noises, or while forceful exhalations or inhalations of air move in and out of my body as my tongue moves back and forth in my mouth producing quick percussive surges of sound, or as I make loud whoops or cries while stomping my feet on the ground and/or rapidly clapping my hands together.  

I think that it is safe to say that these sorts of dramatic physical manifestations demonstrate, very vividly, not only to the mediums themselves but also, equally importantly, to the others in the worship hall, that something intense, grippingly vivid, and clearly significant is taking place – that through the power of the Daime, an awe-inspiring Otherness is entering into the community and manifesting itself.  In a very tangible way, those Daimistas who might not be mediums, can watch, fascinated, albeit with perhaps just a touch of apprehension, as the various mediums, seemingly sparked by the energies and rhythms of particular hymns, and/or riffing off of each other in what might be called the “contagion” of mediumship, begin to shake and rock and stomp and cry and whistle and howl, clearly demonstrating to everyone present in the hall that this Divine drink that everyone has taken is full of Power.   

Throughout this influx of dramatic bodily manifestations, which believe me, was happening quite powerfully during the St. Michael’s work, those who are not mediums continue to do their role, which is equally, if not more valued than mediumship; that is, they remain “firm,” grounded and centered while singing the hymns, and in this way, they work to hold the space so that the mediums can do their own unique spiritual task.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that while mediumship is valued in the Santo Daime tradition, it is also looked upon, at least by some, with a complicated mixture of admiration, anxiety, envy, concern, and perhaps even, at least in some, a hint of veiled contempt. (I have heard some Daimistas wonder out loud about the level of egoic involvement that they perceive in the mediumistic manifestations of others.) In many ways, the Santo Daime tradition deeply values those who can and do control their bodily movements, those who remain calm and still and focused, and it is these more reliable, more dependable, Daimistas who are typically seated up front, close to the altar, whereas those Daimistas with mediumistic tendencies, while perhaps admired, are also often seen, especially at the beginning of the development of their mediumship, as unpredictable and potentially disruptive.

As a medium, I completely understand this need to pay close and careful attention to those who are developing their mediumship.  I recently heard one Daimista elder (who is himself a highly developed medium), say that mediumship has three parts: inspiration, ego, and drama. It is important, therefore, for a medium, while acknowledging the inner inspiration that she or he is receiving, to also try to minimize their ego and drama as much as possible, all the while knowing, with humility and self-acceptance, that these somewhat less-than-positive aspects of mediumship will always be present, at least to a certain extent.  (In fact, I would suggest that the mediums to watch out for are those Daimistas, usually rather new to the tradition, who can at times become rather puffed up, self-certain, and self-righteous about their mediumship, those Daimistas who will at times, rather loudly, assert that everything they say or do is fully and perfectly guided by God or some other equally divine Being of Light.)

Nonetheless, I am deeply sympathetic with the difficulties that those who are new to their mediumship often face. Each medium has to navigate a highly dynamic, interactive, relational, extremely intimate, ceaselessly shifting spectrum of “me” and ”not me,” and it’s sometimes easy to get lost.  Mediums discover that the universe is thronging with countless beings who do not have the same clearcut physical boundaries that we normally use to mark out the delimitations of the material space that we tend to believe that we inhabit. All of the beings that a medium encounters are clearly “not me” in that they are not products of the medium’s ego.  Nonetheless, especially if they are spirits of Light, they can also feel very “self-like,” in that they seem to be, in some mysterious fashion, higher level “notes” in the “chord” of one’s own being.

There are other beings that a medium can encounter, however, that can feel very, very foreign, extremely “other”; they can literally feel alien (I’m especially thinking here of a time period when I kept incorporating these clicking, mantis-like, insectoid beings who seemed to be deeply curious about me.) Nonetheless, even when undergoing the challenge of having to deal with the rather eerie and starkly “non-me” quality of these types of beings, mediums still get to know this “otherness” in a way that is very intimate, in that these charged interactions take place in and through the medium’s own experiential field – that is, in and through her or his mind, senses, and body.

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