I made my first visit to Peru in the spring of 2007. My world had collapsed following a breakup. As I sat in the rubble of my designer flat in London an inner voice told me to get back on track.
I had always been called to shamanism, discovering Carlos Castaneda’s tales of power through correspondence about early lucid dreams. I had only ever heard the name Ayahuasca once, yet it was she who called at that moment.
Back then, it was unheard of to find the plant outside of her home in the Amazon. Searching for retreats in Peru, I was determined to find the least sanitised, most authentic and uncompromising journey on offer. I was that far off track.
From its first magical image to its old-fashioned white text on black pages dotted with GIFs of dancing flames, the late Don Choque Chinchay aka Howard Lawler’s SpiritQuest, Singing to the Plants exactly fitted the bill.
Four ceremonies were held over eight days, in a beautiful centre an hour or so from Iquitos on the Rio Marañon. I was the only non-American in the care of Don Howard and Don Rober Acho Jurama, the legendary Huitoto ‘man of iron’ featured in Steven Beyer’s book Singing to the Plants. I still humbly approximate his icaros today. But that’s another story.
I want to tell you here about another encounter. On that same, white on black web page another retreat, directly following Singing the Plants, was described.
I had never heard of Huachuma or mesas. The only pilgrimage in my vocabulary was the muslim one to Mecca. In contrast to the more polished websites out there — to say nothing of the slickly branded Instagrammed offerings of today — this jumped out as something authentic, challenging and raw. This was what I needed to jump me out of the dead groove I had been riding, freelancing my creative skills in the design industry in exchange for stuff and status.
Huachuma is the Quechua name for the cactus Trichocemeus Pacahnoi, aka San Pedro. The Quechua name, I later discovered, means “removing the head.”
Sat in my wonderful but empty designer apartment in Asylum Road, South London, I knew I had to remove my head and take a good look at it. Its malfunctioning had led to floundering through life self-medicating with booze and weed and pieces of designer furniture and finally to the state of wreckage I found myself in. Sure, these days tales of disconnection and ‘waking up’ are common enough.
Nearly thirteen years down the line, after many trips to the mountains and jungles of Peru, after training in a Shamanic School, five years running one of my own, and plenty of honest-to-goodness earthy ordinary ups and downs in between, I want to talk about power.
The second stop on The Extraordinary Huachuma Mesa Pilgrimage From Time was a place called El Brujo (The Sorcerer) on the Pacific coast, specifically two huacas or places of power.
It’s worth mentioning how grateful I am for that inner guidance back on the floor of my flat in Asylum Road! Don Choque Chinchay turned out to be a master huachumero and mesa ceremonialist. Had we journeyed into ancient energy fields with someone of lesser calibre, god knows what might have happened.
So, we arrived at the coast, and watched the maestro unpack his mesa from several battered suitcases and set it up on the beach. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the mesa, with its collection of stones, snake skins, chontas (carved wooden stakes) and skulls. The medicine was served, and we were invited to meditate with ocean for a few hours.
There was power! There indeed is Wiracocha, the Great Spirit of the mesa tradition, whose name literally means “sea foam.” The derivation of the name remains crytpic, mysterious. Did the ancient Moche see god in the crest of the waves? A sea god then — a Neptune, a Poseidon, a Dragon King? Certainly, the ocean, with its implacable power — the vast momentum of the waves, the awesome interplay of water, air, fire and earth — is a fitting medium for the divine. Deeply moved, I prostrated myself before that power.
Returning to the mesa I was treated to one of the most extraordinary sights of my life. Having taken LSD a few times I was somewhat used to tripping. Anxious to relate the new experience to something, my beginner’s mind was already comparing Huachuma to those experiences, and my muslim conditioning was questioning why we needed all the hocus pocus on the mesa.
If it had just been tripping, and the mesa just paraphernalia for display, then the whole thing would have been tripping, right? The skulls would have been moving, the stones would have been breathing, the ground writhing and so on. But they weren’t. The only things that were moving at all were the chontas. These hardwood stakes are totally inflexible, and are planted solidly in the ground behind a mesa “to anchor the energies,” we were told. And here they were, whipping violently, incredibly, back and forth in the throes of an invisible wind. Small, rational, beginner’s mind had to acknowledge: something I didn’t understand was going on here.
Assured that stuff was going on, we followed Don Choque Chinchay to the Huaca El Cao, back then a soft mound of greenish earth. There he said, we would find ourselves on the positive, life giving, feminine, pole of a great battery. Here was another peak experience. The medicine seemed to get stronger and stronger, opening us to ancient ecstasies. My outer vision memories of that place are something like El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal, one of my favourite paintings.
What I remember most of the inner vision was like something from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. Atop this ancient mound, I saw thousands of people gathered below. Men, women and children, their faces upturned. The green earth was suddenly red, wet and slick to the touch. Thousands of voices hissed, encouraging, beseeching, exalting. What did they want? To the left a woman lifted an infant upwards towards me, urging, Yes, yes, take it, do it!
Life. Blood. Power. It was there for the taking. In fact it was freely given.
Of course, I felt a polite, modern horror. My heart quailed in the face of this ancient fervour. In a flash I saw that the ancient world was a very different world. The meaning of being human was very different. Human sacrifice had an almost unimaginably different meaning. I saw that it is nigh on impossible to project ourselves — modern humans, with modern sensibilities — back into those ancient cultures. We might as well project ourselves into a pride of lions, a shoal of fish, or another planet.
Removing my modern head, Huachuma gave me a glimpse of a world where life — human life — was enmeshed in a very different network of values.
As the sun began to set, Don Choque Chinchay led us to the other huaca. The Masculine, the negative. Where the feminine pole of the earth battery gave life, the masculine pole took it away.
Protected from the wind and sand by a great canvas, the Huaca Cao Viejo is a Sican/Moche temple, part of a great complex whose remains date from 200 BC to 700 AD. With the sun descending, the medicine still climbing, we went in.
The Temple is famous for many carvings, artefacts and skeletons, which contribute to a picture of a successful and long-standing culture that thrived in the delicate balance between the arid coast and the towering mountains. A peculiar ecosystem that demanded intricate eco-mechanics, and constant, shamanic management.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, say the old Biblical gods. Here on the ancient Pacific coast of Peru, it was human sacrifice to forces that, unless placated, would send what we now call El Niño in retribution. It’s ironic that we call this meteorological maelstrom El Nino. Coming December, it is named after the Divine Child, baby Jesus. A life then, to save many lives. Back then they had regular, sometimes daily crucifixions.
The mural you can see above depicts chained prisoners being led into the temple and up its stepped terraces to a sacrificial platform (below).
Here we stood for some time. Through the time-travelling eyes of Huachuma, we could see the blood. Where it had soaked into the old stone. Where it had run down the sides of the ceremonial platform. We could smell it. We could feel the dread of the prisoners, the trance of their executioners, the authority of those who ruled supreme over all of this.
Later, we were lucky enough to see by torchlight the Señora El Cao, a queen interred together with her entourage, then still being excavated, now removed to a museum. I remember lingering at her grave a while. The group had moved on. It was dark. As an experiment, I switched off my torch. I had always been up for facing fear, but this time something told me to move away quickly.
But this is not a tale of power in the Carlos Castaneda sense. I do not wish to boast of shamanic achievements. Let’s not forget, all I did was listen to my inner voice when the house of cards that was my life came tumbling down. No, I am grateful to Don Choque Chinchay for an initiation into power.
We stood gazing at the blood-soaked platform for some time, each of us contemplating those distant times, where mothers willingly gave their own children for the greater good. We tried to imagine the responsibility of the ruling classes. The karma.
Maybe they were impeccable in receiving and executing these sacrifices. Masters of Huachuma, masters of the ocean, masters of Wiracocha, masters of the universe! Maybe — probably — they fell foul of the age-old temptation to abuse power.
Since 200 BC, I have set with both medicines many times. I have on occasion been presented with that temptation, that Hahaarr! as the small self grabs the reins of power. Like Phaethon, I have felt the thrill of driving Helios’ chariot! Fortunately, I have also heard the seducer’s laughter. It is they who have the last laugh.
Vast numbers of us moderns are fortunate enough to taste these ancient medicines. Times are different. Human sacrifice is still there, just it happens in a different way to the ancients. We are as removed from it as we are from the killing of the animals whose meat many of us eat.
Perhaps that removal from the old stone blade, from skin and sternum and tough pericardium, removes us from the heart of the matter. Perhaps we see power in the smoke and feathers, the calling of medicine spirits with the voice, the chacapa, the drum. Perhaps our life is a house of cards! And there in the ceremony, the astral, the moon, the stars, the forest, we see power. How many times have I heard people announce their intentions to get their power back, boost their power, come into their power.
This is all well and good. When we awaken we must expend energy to get out of bed. In other words we need power. We need to be powerful!
We also need to be careful. Just as the curve of space-time is exponential these days, making for an evolutionary bull-run, so it is possible to get carried away, to over-invest in ourselves.
Or in this age of plant medicines and shamanic power, to invest in something that is in fact not ourselves. We are — arguably if not obviously — in the end game of something. Whether that is consumerism, capitalism or humanity itself remains to be seen.
We are at a threshold. From one point of view we are becoming more human, from another less so. Either way, the meaning of human is at a threshold. Just as fluctuating markets deliver the best harvests for those in the know, so these charged times may deliver our finest and worst moments. We may make great evolutionary strides, working with the Force. We may also underestimate the power of the Dark Side.
Most of all we need to be impeccable. If we are not sure what that means we should investigate before we go in search of power!
As the sun dipped below the ancient walls of the Huaca Cao Viejo, Don Choque Chinchay turned from the sacrificial platform and asked:
‘So. Who wants power now?’
© Nizami Thirteen with great thanks to Don Choque Chinchay aka Howard Lawler and Don Rober Acho Jurama at SpiritQuest. Don Howard passed away in 2019, RIP.