Modern Day Explorers on the Shamanic Path

An Interview with Tomás by Lisa Alpine [This article originally appeared in Common Ground Magazine, Issue 97 - Fall 1998.]

Have you experienced ayahuasca?" a visitor asked when he saw my collection of Amazonian art gathered in the 1970s when I traveled extensively by small canoe through the Amazon Basin. I rebuked, 'God, no! I didn't want to be laid out unconscious on the ground for days at a time filled with hallucinations of writhing anacondas doing battle, with big-toothed jaguars!' That was my impression of the experience ayahuasca triggered when the shamans drank the bitter potion. They had invited me to partake in their ceremonies but I was alone, blond and young, so declined, believing that it was over the top for me, or any Westerner for that matter Leave the snakes in the jungle and out of my brain the real jungle was scary and dangerous enough! Oddly, that conversation triggered a plethora of Amazonian connections. I encountered many people over the next few weeks who had gone to the Amazon seeking out indigenous shamans who could guide them on an ayahuasca journey. I listened to their revelations and healings triggered by the 'shaman's consciousness-altering drink' which is what Michael Harner, who heads the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, calls it. Intrigued, I wanted, to delve further into the purpose and results of this growing interest, not only in saving the rainforest, but the shamanic traditions of many of the tribes living within its verdant, riverriddled territories. I contacted many teachers, including Michael Harner who has shaped', people's awareness of shamanism around the globe; John Perkins who uses his shamanic trips to Ecuador so people can wake up to their greater purpose in life; Christina Pratt who uses the soul retrieval work she learned from the shamans of the Amazon in her private therapy practice-, and Tom Pinkson who is adept in the ways of plant medicines and an initiated Huichol shaman. All of the people Interviewed know ayahuasca intimately and are dedicated to the "shamanic path." Tom Pinkson, Ph.D., is a Transpersonal Psychologist with an office in Mill Valley. He is author of Flowers of Wiricuta: A Gringo's journey to Shamanic Power, and he is involved in a shamanism-based community called Wakan. Pinkson is also a clinical consultant at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Sausalito, where he has worked for over twenty years with children and families facing life threatening illness. He has been initiated into shamanism by. numerous medicine teachers including the Huichol of Mexico who utilize the peyote cactus. He has also worked with other shamanic plant "allies,' including ayahuasca, in his over thirty year journey seeking the deeper truth about the mysteries of life and death. LISA ALPINE: Do you consider yourself a shaman? TOM PINKSON: I consider myself a man. I was initiated as a mara'akame which is the Huichol word for shaman. I completed an 11-year cycle of apprenticeship. The conclusion was a ceremony in the shaman's village where I had to take the life of a bull. The *meat- of the bull fed the people and the blood was taken to the cornfield to nourish the earth. it was a

very powerful transformation experience for me which I talk about in my book, Flowers of Wiricuta. Wiricuta is the Huichol holy land where each year the shaman leads a group of pilgrims to ritually seek out and hunt the sacred peyote. I am now midway into my second cycle of apprenticeship. LA: What's the purpose of the apprenticeship you are now in? TP: The Huichols say that when you do the first cycle of apprenticeship you grow one set of psychic antlers. This is your telepathic tool for attunement with the spirit world. In the first cycle you go to the 6th level, or top of a pyramid. in the second cycle you grow your second set of antlers and come down six levels, so what you learn is grounded and can be used in this life. Then you are in balance with antlers on both sides of your head. LA: Do you use your one antler? TP: Everyday. LA: Americans have a very two-dimensional idea of shamanic practices and the role of hallucinogenic plants play. Could you explain your viewpoint on this? TP: The word "hallucinogen is a culturally biased term and does not reflect how indigenous people perceive the sacramental plants they use only in ceremonial ritual. in our culture, the negative term for visionary inducing psychoactive materials, "hallucinogens", implies seeing something that does not exist. For the indigenous people, sacred plants are produced in the womb of Mother Earth and created by the Great Spirit to be used with a clear intentionality in a sacred setting. These plants can open doorways to a deeper reality which underlies the world of materiality that we are conditioned to believe is what is real. Shamanic plant use is not about hallucinating something that is not there, but just the opposite. We in the West live in a hallucinatory world based upon our mind's projection that postulates a world of separate objects, inanimate in nature and devoid of consciousness and soul. This perception of separation is a pathological one because it leads us to treat what we construe as separate and inanimate in a disrespectful way. We soil our own nest, dump our waste in places that are out of sight and out - of mind, that we think is safely separated and doesn't have anything to do with us and where we live. Since this is not based on what is actually true - a planet where everything is interconnected, our pollution comes back into our lives through the air we breath, the food we eat and the water we drink. The shamanic people I have studied with around the world, perceive through their visions a reality based on interpenetrating fields of energy. And from these visionary teachings comes an ecologicallybased understanding of how to live, a manner that promotes harmony and balance of all the components of the field, both seen and unseen. The visions take the shaman into the reality underlying the physical, the relationship of forces discussed by our subatomic physicists and referred to as quarks, leptons, etc. For shamans, these are spirit forces and they learn how to interact with them in a cooperative fashion based on respect, reciprocity and co-creative partnership of responsibility. LA: How can we have a sacred relationship to sacred substances If it Is not In our culture?

TP: My understanding is everything starts with intention. Before I went with the Huichol on their sacred pilgrimage to hunt for their sacred plant [peyote] there were weeks of preparation. And for the Huichol it is months, if not years of preparation that includes fasting, deprivation of many kinds, plus ongoing rituals and ceremonies. All of these experiences open and deepen the pilgrims into a self-confrontational experience. They get to a place inside themselves where they ask: 'What am I seeking?, Why am I seeking it?, What am I prepared to give of myself in exchange for or in relationship to what I seek? How will I honor what I am given if I am given what I seek? For then my responsibility will be greater not less."Going through this process brings you face-to-face with the truth of your deepest intention and integrity. LA: That sounds a bit Intimidating TP: The indigenous people believe the spirit of the plant is listening to you and watching you. How sincere are you? How truthful? How much are you in your integrity? So the outcome of this experience with the plant is intimately connected with your intention. As the Huichols say: Your experience is directly influenced by how much you open your heart and how good your Prayers are. For Western people seeking a relationship with these substances, it is vital that they work with attitudes of respect, receptivity, humility, openness and soulful honesty. These plants are tools of power and power can turn in many different directions. When you open the doors to power it is important to be in right relationship to that power or else it can be hurtful and damaging to yourself and sometimes to others. The indigenous elders of the shamanic cultures that still survive carry on the traditions of this right relationship with power plants, and how to work with what comes through those open doors in a skillful, healing way. Our culture has a glamorized view of shamanism. One night when I was sitting with the Huichol around tatawari, or Grandfather Fire, which the Huichol people say is the first shaman, the shaman was talking to several young men and encouraging them to stay on the path to becoming shamans. Out of respect, the young men were quiet and nodded their heads but later when I talked to them alone, they said that was the last thing they wanted. There were too many sacrifices and they wouldn't be able to pursue their personal lives because the shaman serves the people. Someone does not stand up and say "I am a shaman." It is the tribe and elders that define them as a shaman. It is long hard work. A lot of it has to do with endurance and perseverance under adverse conditions. LA: What Is your connection and experience with ayahuasca? TP: I had been interested in going to the Amazon for years but didn't have the resources. I was leading a solstice ceremony at a Northern California retreat center, and, another shamanic retreat was coming in just as I left. I knew the man conducting it and left a shamanic message with stone people (rocks) wishing him good medicine with his work. A few weeks later he called me and asked if I would take his place leading people to the Amazon to study with a well known shaman named Eduardo Caulderon. Suddenly, what I couldn't afford to pay for at the time was being given to me in a way that I would be paid to

be a part of! This included the opportunity work with an ayahuasquero a medicine person trained in the use of the psychoactive drink used by indigenous peoples in the Amazon for millennia. I had worked with the ayahuasca before but never in the jungle. I jumped at the opportunity and was off to the Peruvian Amazon. In subsequent journeys to Brazil, where ayahuasca is legal within a state-sanctioned church, I have taken it many times. I find it to be helpful and a powerful teacher. It is important for us to open our minds to the fact that plants have consciousness, a language and intelligence, albeit different from that of humans. A friend of mine, Terence McKenna, likes to relate how NASA spends billions of dollars trying to find signs of intelligence in the universe, while we are surrounded by intelligence., Our cultural conditioning precludes us from attunement with the wider spectrum that is living and breathing around us all the time. The Huichols have a word Iyari which means "heart memory." They say that the industrialized nations are polluting the world based on ignorance and alienation from nature. They say that we are perdido (lost) because of the way we behave. Why else would we pollute our own nest? The Huichol shamans I work with have commissioned me to be a bridge builder between the cultures of their spirit world and our material world. My work is to awaken Iyari because within our heart memory, all of us go back to shamanic traditions wherever we come from on the planet. All of us have ancestral memories deep within, but we have lost sight of the truth that everything is in relationship and everything is sacred. I think the growing interest in shamanism comes from people's soul hunger for the sacred. It is very important that Westerners recognize how easily we appropriate and take from others without recognizing the importance of giving back. It is critical that we recognize that the lives of shamanic people is in peril. They are oppressed and discriminated against on a daily basis. Their lives and lands are continuously exposed to the violence that we perpetrate upon them, as we seek their timber, oil, and even spiritual knowledge. I think it is incumbent upon us to get involved as social activists working for justice to lead us back to the wisdom ways of right relationship with nature. It behooves readers who are exploring shamanic ways to become educated about the worldwide conditions affecting indigenous people and seek to become cooperative and respectful allies with them in preserving the integrity of their cultures. *** Lisa Alpine is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and dancer. You may contact her and find out about her other interviews and writing workshops, at