Initiation as Illumination

Once, when I was doing research in the South American rainforest, the shaman I was with suggested that I spend a night alone at the sandy shore of a tributary of the Amazon River. His one instruction was not to build a fire, because it would keep the animals away and prevent me from being fully immersed in the experience of the rainforest in the darkness.

That night, I experienced the jungle as a terrifying music box. Sound carried for miles. After sunset, the melody of the evening songbirds was replaced by the grunts of the howler monkeys. Soon, it became pitch black. The canopy of the forest blocked out the stars, and there was no moon. I could not even see my hand in front of my face.

I began to hear branches snapping nearby. I was convinced a jaguar was closing in on me and would make me its evening meal. I could feel my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my body tensing itself to run blindly into the night. I tried to turn on my flashlight, but the batteries were gone. The old Indian had taken them! A frozen eternity went by as I listened to the rustling of branches drawing nearer. Then I reached into my pocket for the pack of matches I always carried with me. My hands shook so badly that I could not strike the light. I thought I could smell the creature that was stalking me, until I realized it was the smell of my own fear. Finally, as the head of the matchstick burst into flame, I saw a startled and terrified tree monkey staring at me from a few feet away.

I spent the entire night imagining every horrible way to die in the jungle, and whenever I dozed off, I was awakened by dreams of giant snakes. The following morning, when my mentor came for me, I was angry and exhausted, and accused him of irresponsibly putting me in harm’s way. He looked at me with a smile and said, “The most annoying creatures here are the bugs.”

The next time I went out alone into the rainforest at night, I allowed myself to experience anxiety in every cell of my body, to completely immerse myself in it. I noticed as my palms began to sweat and my heart to pound. I kept the attention on my body instead of imagining what might be out there. I was surprised that after a while, instead of being consumed by my despair, a part of my awareness was able to separate from it and witness my experience. I felt myself becoming calm. Images from my childhood appeared in my mind, reminding me of the past times I had experienced fear, and I bathed these images with the feeling of safety that I felt. At last a deep peace settled within me, and I could enjoy the symphony of the rainforest.

The Initiation

All emotions are viral programs running in the subconscious recesses of our brain. And every emotion creates suffering for ourselves and pain for others. Feelings are new, fresh, and of the moment. Emotions are old, tired, and programmed into neural networks in the archaic brain. We believe that we cry because we’re sad or lash out because we’re angry, but in reality these emotions arise from the depths and grab hold of us: we’re sad because we cry, we’re afraid because we flee, and we’re angry because we strike. The belief that we cry because we’re sad arises because we’ve wrapped a sentimental and false story around that emotion. Once we recognize emotions as viruses in our primitive neurocomputer, we can choose not to use them as our primary response to disconcerting situations. Then we’ll cry when we are happy, when we are sad, or for no reason whatsoever.

Unfortunately, we learn to cling tightly to our dark emotions and the behaviors they generate, finding ways to justify and even ennoble them. In the West, greed is good, lust is essential for advertising, and fear sells life insurance and puts politicians in power. Despite all our self-help books, we haven’t discovered how to liberate ourselves from our disempowering emotions and access the seven angelic qualities of our higher brain.

Exercise: Dissolving Emotions

Acknowledging that his true demons are within, the shaman knows what to do when his emotions take hold of him. He enters a state of awareness in which he experiences raw, pure emotion, then allows it to detach from his story. Once the emotion has dissipated, there is no longer “sad,” there is only crying. There is no longer “scared,” there is only running. By separating the emotion from the story, he transforms the destructive forces that, unchecked, would eat away at him. Try this practice the next time you feel anger at someone or something or lust after something you would like to have. Experience pure anger without the story of why you are furious, or who you are angry at. Experience pure lust without directing it at someone or something. When you experience pure anger or lust, it soon dissipates. Experience pure envy and desire, without the tale of why this person or that dress or this house would make you happy. When you experience pure envy, devoid of the story attached to it, it soon dissipates. As soon as the emotion dissolves, call in the angel of peace, of courage, or compassion, and allow this feeling to wash over you.

Find out about upcoming programs with Alberto Villoldo at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from The Illumination Process: A Shamanic Guide to Transforming Toxic Emotions Into Wisdom, Power, and Grace  (Hay House, Inc.) © 2010, 2017, by Alberto Villoldo.

Alberto Villoldo, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and psychologist who has studied the spiritual practices of the Amazon and Andes for more than 25 years.

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