NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

The Universal Heart

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People of Orphalese, beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

But you are life and you are the veil.

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in the mirror.

But you are eternity and you are the mirror.[1]

*   *   *

For our anniversary celebration, my wife and I attended a Mesada, a Medicine Ceremony of the San Pedro cactus (or Huachuma). I was completely terrified.

A couple of years ago I underwent an entheogenic experience (without the proper ceremony or setting, of course) and it ripped me to shreds. I felt torn away from the world in a horrific, isolated way. Instead of making me better, it made me worse, resurfacing old haunts within my psyche. I opted never to go back to that space ever again.

But, as circumstance would have it, synchronicity aligned us to this juncture. As scared as I was to undergo another “psychedelic” experience, the opportunity seemed to fit just right with the stars. The shaman assured me everything would be fine, he would be there to facilitate my healing. I also have a heart condition that arises during panic, derived from when I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said San Pedro would take care of that too, calling it (what his wife termed) “a masterful lover.”

The San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) is one of the oldest entheogenic substances used in shamanic practice that we know of. Originating from the Chavín culture in northern Peru, San Pedro can be found in carvings dated as far back as 1300 B.C.E. The name San Pedro was adopted during the early European colonization of Latin America. A legend exits of Saint Peter using the mystifying powers of the cactus to uncover the hidden keys to Heaven to share with all humanity. Leading scholars of shamanic studies, Ross Heaven and Howard Charing state: “Considered the ‘maestro of maestros,’ San Pedro enables the shaman to open a portal between the visible and the invisible world for his or her people.”[2] San Pedro is known to be a great healer for all ailments mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. This may all sound baffling to the average person, but the shaman’s claim is that nature is minded: “A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it that is conscious, that sees everything, which is the soul of the plant, its essence, what makes it alive.”[3]

As we arrived at the shaman’s lodge, my fear boiled inside of me, causing my heart to throb so hard it affected my vision. There were approximately 20 people attending the ceremony, including the two auxillios (the shaman’s proxies available to assist us with our needs and hold the space as a sacred container). We waited nervously outside the main lodge as we listened to the shaman rattle and sing inside. We were called in one by one.

I was placed in the northeast section of the chamber. The shaman knows who we all are weeks in advance, spending this time preparing the San Pedro brew with our names, our prayers. As well, he has systematically configured the room to align our energies with the four cardinal points. As we were all seated, he gently explained the process of the night. Then, we opened the ceremony by charging the mesa.

A mesa is “a shamanic altar containing ritually empowered objects, which are aesthetically arranged on a sacred textile to reflect the system of medicine work employed by its carrier.”[4] The mesa also reflects the four directions, symbolizing the four elements which we paid homage to: Pachamama in the south, representing Mother Earth;  Mama Killa in the west, representing water, Grandmother Moon; Wiracocha in the north, representing air, the world of Spirit; and Inti in the east, representing fire, the Sun. Finally, K’uychi in the center is charged, the universal hub of all that is, the axis mundi. The shaman facilitated an energetic interaction between us and the mesa, which would be the central anchor of the night’s ceremony. All nourishment, even water, would come only from the mesa for the rest of the evening.

The shaman blessed the San Pedro brew and drank it first. He drinks as we drink, enabling him to energetically see, diagnose, and treat our ailments. Then, he called us up to drink from the same cup, one by one. When my name was called I almost passed out in anxiety. When I stood, I shook with catatonic fright, dizzy with heart-pounding anxiety. Maybe I can back out, I told myself. I don’t have to do this, do I? I was constantly rehashing Terence McKenna’s statement in mind: “A touch of terror gives the stamp of validity to the experience because it means, ‘This is real.'”[5] However, I recalled the shaman’s advice to me weeks before: “If you are afraid of it that means it is exactly what you need to do.” I have to overcome my fear.

I placed myself on the south side of the mesa, facing the rest of the chamber. I clasped the cup in my trembling hands and whispered my prayers into the brew: “Give me courage, San Pedro. Help me to overcome my fear, my pain. I want to know how to love. Make me a vessel for Spirit.” I held the cup up to the members of the room. “Salud!” Everyone repeated back: “Salud!” And I drank.

No way back now, I said to myself. Best just surrender to the ride.

*   *   *

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. (…)

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter poison by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility…[6]

*   *   *

Everyone finished and we settled into our positions. The shaman and his auxillios blew out the few remaining candles in the chamber, making it completely dark save for the faint moon glow through the windows. Huachuma ceremonies generally take place at night, in utter darkness. Mythologist Joseph Campbell asserts, “Since the yonder world is a place of everlasting night, the ceremonial of the shaman has to take place at night.”[7] Though the sudden darkness was very jarring, I readied myself for the unknowable.

Before beginning his healing work, the shaman appointed the first hour to allow San Pedro to work within us. I focused intently on my breathing, trying to calm my heart. In and out, fueling my body with the rhythm of breath. Before long I began to see and feel the San Pedro in my stomach. It appeared as a luminescent purple globule inside of me, reaching out with octopus-like tentacles. I remembered what McKenna terms the “violet psychofluid”, seen by shamans under the influence of the entheogen ayahuasca: “. . . a substance that is described as violet or deep blue and that bubbles like a liquid. (…) This violet liquid comes out of your body; it also forms on the surface of the skin, like sweat. The Jivaro do much of their magic with this peculiar stuff. (…) The nature of this fluid is completely outside of ordinary experience: it is made out of space/time or mind…”[8] This “psychofluid” churned within and around me to discover the ill inside. It was immediately setting itself to work! Of course, it was not long until it latched on to my heart which was racing in panic. As the “psychofluid” enveloped my heart, it began to race even faster. My fears became paramount: Why was I here? Can I still get out of this? What if I die? What if I have a heart attack? What if I come out of this experience with permanent psychosis?

After the first hour the shaman began his work. Each person, again one by one, was called to the mesa, the Altar Mayor, to receive the shaman’s diagnosis and given the opportunity to release whatever it was they needed to release. Once the shaman makes his diagnosis, guided by his mesa and San Pedro, he begins his treatment. The treatment can take a variety for forms, depending on what ails the individual: rattling, soul retrieval, singing, whistling, feather fanning, staffs, sucking, blowing, spitting. Whatever was happening, each of us had to sit through each person’s healing process; all of this in pure darkness. If an individual was moaning in pain, we felt that pain too. If the shaman shook his rattle, it reverberated throughout our entire bodies as if it was inside of us. What was so interesting about this process-and, at first, difficult to manage while doing our own inner work with San Pedro-was how communal it was. The message I received from this was: there is no way out, we are all in this together!

My panic at times was daunting. My heart, I felt, was going to give out. But, the logistics of the ceremony inspired me. I looked over at the black shape of my wife and could tell, somehow, she was dealing with some hard pain. I had such love for her and all I wanted to do, without any sort of return, was to comfort her. I pet her back calmly and I watched the shadowy forms of the shaman and his auxillios in the center of the chamber work on his patients. All of this began to inspire me. As terrified as I was to have my name called, this inspiration guided me to a place of sudden surrender to San Pedro.

Then, the shaman called for me: “Danielle.”

*   *   *

That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined.[9]

*   *   *

I stood. I don’t know how, but I did. Without falling, without a breakdown of panic. In absolute darkness I walked up to the northern side of the mesa, on top of a pallet of deerskin.  My shaman sat on the south end, watching me, prepping his diagnosis. Surprisingly, despite my fear, courage overwhelmed me. It was my moment to state my intention.

“I am Daniel Erin Moler. I call myself to myself. San Pedro help me thus.”

My shaman verbally acknowledged my intention. Then, one of the auxillios brought to me a singado (an infusion made from tobacco leaf macerated in alcohol, taken in a shell). I was instructed to inhale/ingest the singado into my left nostril, to release whatever it was I was intending to release. (Side note: I was incredibly nervous for this moment, I’ve never so much as done a Neti pot!) He began to rattle. I ingested the liquid into my nostril, imagining my fear rushing away . . . coughing, choking, spraying bits of the juice onto my face. The rattling stopped and I confirmed the action with a whisking blow from the shell into the mesa. Then, the next singado came; I was to inhale this down my right nostril, to intention what I want to bring in to my life. The rattling started again. When I inhaled this time, imagining courage and love, it went down easier. A mighty rush overflowed me as I blew into the mesa. I felt power, such mighty and magnificent power. Not a dominating kind of power . . . the real kind, the medicine kind. A gentle power, what my wife would call “wick.”

Next, the shaman approached me. He picked out a staff which resonated with my frequency and began his work. Using the staff, he called upon great powers and spirits to assist, to remove any obstacles in my way to achieving my purpose. He used the staff to push out the hucha (heavy or dense energy from stress-related attachments) within my body . . . I noticed he specifically had to push harder around my heart area. After that, he placed his mouth on my chest many times and tried to suck out the hucha, coughing from its toxicity, and spitting it back into the mesa. This is part of the act of ayni, the sacred reciprocity of energetic interchange with the universe. Then I was showered with aqua de Florida, as he spit/sprayed it on the back of my neck, my face, and the rest of my body. Walking back to the mesa, the shaman selected one of his artes (medicine tools kept on the mesa used to cleanse the energy field of a patient) and returned to place it in my hand. It was a marble heart. “Take this heart,” he said. “Go back to your seat. Draw the energy from it for the rest of the evening. You did good, brother.”

And he embraced me.

*   *  *

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.[10]

*   *   *

I really felt like his brother at that moment. I have never been close to my family. I grew up in a very unhealthy dynamic that made it difficult for me to assimilate relationships, to love people and know how to love in return. Even my friendships have been tainted with this same venom. Now, more than ever, I need to know how to love . . . for my wife, for my children . . . for everyone in my life.  When my shaman embraced me and I held that marble heart in my hand, I felt so connected. I felt truly loved, truly grateful to the universe-for the first time ever-of life!

What was truly revealing was the image of the heart. My wife had found a heart-shaped rock on the beach almost a year ago and gave it to me as a gift. It has always been at my beside, a favorite medicine piece. The first time I visited my shaman, the artes he gave me was a small heart-shaped rock made out of the same substance as the one my wife gave me, as he found it on a beach in Hawaii. This one I got to keep assisting me in controlling my fear and anger in tumultuous situations. Then, about a week ago my wife found a heart-shaped piece carved out of wood, which has become an integral part of my mesa and (unbeknownst of the shaman) I brought to the ceremony to assist in my healing. The fact the message was so clear, that I received another heart, chimed in my spirit with a clear and strident sanction.

Now . . . I could spend hours and hours talking about the visions given to me by San Pedro that came after the healing work: the puma face cringing at me, the insectoid patchwork covering my vision, the San Pedro cacti in the windows dancing back and forth, the vibratory resonance of the universe literally (physically) shaking my body, the insight to our sacred ancestry, our connection to the Star People, my being selected by one of these Star Beings to guide and teach me for the years to come in my oncoming shamanic apprenticeship, or watching the “violet psychofluid” seep out of everyone’s pores. This is all fine and magical, but the point of the entire evening may be missed.

When the healing work was complete, we waited until dawn. As the sun slowly eked over the horizon, a creeping incandescence emanating brighter and brighter within the chamber, the shaman and his auxillios spent that time in the center of the mesa creating a refresco. A refresco is a citrusy alchemical concoction made to rejuvenate the body after a full night’s work with San Pedro. It is loaded with sugar, fruit bits, flower petals, and the playful joy the shaman and his auxillios generate while preparing it. When it was ready, the auxillios brought each patient a cup with a kiss to seal the sweetness. It is a drink to be savored, as it connected us back to the Earth from our experience.

Finally came the flowering. We each received a white rose and were told to put them by our bedsides at night, to eat one of the petals before sleeping so that San Pedro can continue its work in us. The shaman put on an almost goofy headband with puffy balls trailing the back in a spritely array. We all stood while he playfully danced from person to person spraying aromatic waters on the women’s breasts, on the men’s tummies, pouring flowery essences down our shirts, and spraying us with powder. We all laughed and giggled like children, soaked to them brim in oils and smelling like a pungent, exotic garden. Our connection to each other was unbound and intertwined . . . a great serpent eating its own tail, the infinite ouroboros, T’eqsimuyu Amaru. We will always have this experience together. San Pedro will always be in our system, fused into our very DNA. It will always be our Great Teacher, our “Masterful Lover.”

So, what did I learn? Because it’s all about learning, isn’t it?

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”

Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”

For the soul walks upon all paths.

The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.[11]

*   *   *

It surprised me to realize how unengaged I was with the visionary appeal of the experience. Given my interest in psychedelic phenomena and art, I thought the visionary aspects of San Pedro would be the primary catalyst of my journey. How wrong I was! I was 100% focused and engaged on the ceremony of the night, not San Pedro’s visionary affects.

What San Pedro taught me was how to love.  The shaman is the pure embodiment of Love. Whatever we had to go through that night, the shaman went through as well. He drank from the same cup as we. Where we had time to be with our inner work while on San Pedro, the shaman spent every waking moment on San Pedro giving of himself. If it was bad enough we had to inhale singado down our nostrils, the shaman did it twice over. While we were sitting on the floor, he was always up and working . . . every minute containing space, every minute extracting hucha, every minute healing our spirits. Tirelessly he gave himself throughout the entire evening: the true embodiment of the llama, of self-sacrifice. The shaman has become my shaman. The true embodiment of the Christ Consciousness. I understand now why the Peruvian shamans had no issue with adopting the Christ story into the Pachakúti Mesa tradition. The crucifix generally lies in K’uychi, the heart of the mesa, the Universal Heart. Jesus Christ has the same message, lived the same life.

The shamans continue that story with the work they do; giving their lives over selflessly to the healing experience, they embody the Universal Consciousness of self-sacrifice. This is how to love: without fear, without anticipating return. Giving oneself to another endlessly and selflessly is the only true to way to heal, to evolve. San Pedro taught me that no good will come from festering on the hurt and pain. That will only breed more hurt and more pain. To give of yourself to others, unbound, without fear, without limitation, is how one heals one’s heart. How one grows into the man or woman one wants to be.  Thus, like the shaman prescribing each patient to their own individual needs, so must I love the people in my life each to their own individuals needs . . . not-as it once was-to my own.

Am I enlightened? No. Has my life suddenly changed for the better? No. All of that work has to be on my own. What I did walk away with from San Pedro’s teachings was a firm gratitude and confidence of what I must do and how I must do it . . . a deep, energetic self-assurance I never could have received from a book or a class, or any other external source. San Pedro infused itself within me and I have no doubt it will continue to teach me in mystifying ways for many years to come. As well, it cemented a human and cosmic connection with my shaman, my curandero, as teacher, guide, and brother.

“Shamanic mastery is attained not in radical insight of universal truth and order, rather, it is discovered over and over again through joyful surrender to the process of accretive growth.”[12]

Happy Anniversary, my wife, my Love. My commitment to growth remains forever strong.

*   *   *

We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered.[13]


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949. Reprint, New York: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. 1925. Reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

Heaven, Ross and Howard G. Charing. Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006.

Magee, Matthew. Peruvian Shamanism: The Pachakúti Mesa. Kearney, Nebraska: Morris Publishing, 2005.

McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelics Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

McKenna, Terence. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.

Image by Marshall Astor, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

[1] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 76.

[2] Ross Heaven & Howard G. Charing, Plant Spirit Shamanism (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books), 92.

[3] Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent (New York: Penguin Putnam), 104.

[4] Matthew Magee, Peruvian Shamanism (Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing), 39.

[5] Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers), 37.

[6] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 52.

[7] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Princeton University Press), 99.

[8] Terence McKenna, True Hallucinations (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers), 69.

[9] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 92.

[10] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 11.

[11] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 55.

[12] Matthew Magee, Peruvian Shamanism (Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing), 18.

[13] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A Knopf), 82.

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