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THE MYSTERY OF SAN PEDRO
Almost nothing has been written about San Pedro or its use in shamanism and healing. Before my 2009 book The Hummingbird’s Journey to God there was little information available on it at all apart from scattered references in a few other works. Trout’s Notes on San Pedro for example is a study of the botany, chemistry and history of the plant but does not address its shamanic uses. One of the more useful books in the latter regard is Douglas Sharon’s Wizard of the Four Winds but this has its limitations too since it is more or less the story of a single individual, Eduardo Calderon, an Andean healer who Sharon worked with for a few seasons some decades ago. As such it focuses on one healer operating within the traditions of one part of Peru (the north) and is a study of curanderismo (Andean healing) in general rather than San Pedro, per se.
Frankly, I am amazed that so little research has been done on San Pedro, its effects, or its applications for healing, especially since the latter are, in my experience, real and profound. I have worked with the plant since the late 1990s and increasingly so in the last decade during which time I have taken groups of people to the Peruvian Andes so they can drink it themselves. I have witnessed firsthand “healing miracles” during these journeys and seen people cured of cancer, depression, grief, childhood traumas, alcoholism, diabetes and other debilitating and sometimes life-threatening diseases. And yet there is still almost nothing published about this plant.
At least in part this lack of information is a reflection of the fact that the most ancient healing traditions of Peru, like those of other pre-Christian cultures, are transmitted orally. Not much is ever written down by shamans so where records do exist they have tended to be made by European explorers, invaders or missionaries who have brought their religious beliefs with them and denigrated indigenous practices that did not sit well with their own notions of God.
As professor of cultural anthropology, Irene Silverblatt, put it: ‘History making (which includes history denying) is a cultural invention… History tends to be ‘made’ by those who dominate… to celebrate their heroes and silence dissent.’ Thus, one early Spanish missionary quoted by the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, for example, described San Pedro as ‘a plant with whose aid the devil is able to strengthen the Indians in their idolatry; those who drink its juice lose their senses and are as if dead; they are almost carried away by the drink and dream a thousand unusual things and believe that they are true’.
THE CACTUS AND THE CEREMONY
Trichocereus pachanoi is a tall cactus which can reach heights of seven metres or more. Its cylindrical branches produce a funnel-shaped flower of green-tinged white which itself can grow to ten inches or so. It enjoys a tough, desert-like environment and grows readily in the highest parts of Peru such as the Yunga and Quechua regions (2,300 metres and 3,500 metres above sea level respectively) between Piura, Lambayeque and La Libertad, and in the Huancabamba Valley.
It has many names among shamans and healers, including cardo, chuma, gigantón, hermoso, huando, pene de Dios (literally, ‘penis of God’), wachuma, and El Remedio: The Remedy, the latter referring to its healing powers. Another Quechua name, punku, also suggests this quality. The word means “doorway” since the cactus is considered able to open a portal into a new world so that healing and visions can flow from the spiritual to the physical dimensions.
Among healers San Pedro is also known as huachuma and the shamans who work with it as huachumeros if male and huachumeras if female. Its use as a sacrament and in healing rituals is ancient. The earliest archaeological evidence so far discovered for this is a stone carving of a huachumero found at the Jaguar Temple of Chavín de Huantar in northern Peru which is almost 3,500 years old, predating by more than a thousand years the religion that the Spanish brought with them to South America.
Some of the reasons that San Pedro ceremonies were (and continue to be) held are:
• To cure illnesses of a spiritual, emotional, mental or physical nature
• To know the future through the prophetic and divinatory qualities of the plant
• To overcome sorcery or saladera (an inexplicable run of bad luck)
• To ensure success in one’s ventures
• To rekindle love and enthusiasm for life, and
• To restore one’s faith or find new meaning in life by experiencing the world as divine
San Pedro can perform healings like these because, in the words of Eduardo Calderon, it is ‘in tune with the powers of animals and beings that have supernatural powers… Participants [in ceremonies] are set free from matter and engage in flight through cosmic regions… transported across time and distance in a rapid and safe fashion.’
San Pedro contains mescaline at around the one percent level, about a third of the mescaline content of peyote, although some San Pedro cactuses can match the peyote concentration. In my experience, however, it is usually of limited value and does not aid our understanding to equate a plant in its totality with a summary of its constituent parts and then extrapolate from these in an attempt to explain its effects. Something gets lost when we do so, which shamans know as the spirit or “personality” of the plant. By the same token, the life of a man cannot be wholly described or explained by simply performing a blood test and listing the values found there.
Nonetheless scientific studies into the effects of peyote and San Pedro (such as they are – for there are few enough of them) have tended to do just that, concentrating on the mescaline and not the plant as a whole.
Mescaline was first isolated from peyote cactus by German scientists in the 1890s. However, as Rick Strassman points out in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, ‘medical and psychiatric interest in mescaline was surprisingly restrained, and researchers had published only a limited number of papers by the end of the 1930s.’ A little while later ‘LSD made its revolutionary appearance’ and mescaline was all but forgotten.
Early research into mescaline tended to be rather ‘mechanical’ in nature. It suggested, for example, that mescaline stimulated the visual areas of the cortex and that this alone caused the brain to experience an altered state of consciousness and perception, producing “visual phenomena” that tended, on the whole, to take the form of geometric patterns, grids, lattices, tunnels and spirals.
Those who have taken mescaline themselves would surely disagree that the experience which results is wholly about ‘visual phenomena’ rather than meaningful visions or that these ‘phenomena’ can be easily compartmentalised as grids or spirals at all but those at least are the conclusions of this early research.
A NEW SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM FOR EXPLORING THE SAN PEDRO EXPERIENCE
When the English novelist Aldous Huxley was first given mescaline by Dr Humphrey Osmond in 1953 he concluded that it allowed man access to mystical states by overriding the brain’s ‘reducing valve’. Huxley was quoting the ideas of the 19th century French philosopher Henri Bergson who hypothesised that the brain acts as a filter for memory and sensory experience so that our conscious awareness does not become overwhelmed by a mass of largely useless information which is mostly irrelevant to our survival.
Bergson developed the concept of ‘multiplicity’ to explain his theory. This suggests that our moment-to-moment experience of the world is built (or invented) by us through our selection of specific information from les données immédiates de la conscience (‘the immediate data of consciousness’). This data is both internal and external and includes the memory of every experience we have ever had along with the perception of everything that is happening anywhere and everywhere in the entire universe.
Most of this data is unimportant to us however and some of it is even contradictory so it would simply overburden and confuse us if we had to try to make sense of it all. It may even be detrimental to our survival if every split-second, life-or-death decision had to be made consciously while pondering the millions of options available to us.
Bergson believed therefore that the primary role of the brain, in the face of this multiplicity, is to act as a filter or gate for memory and sensory experience so we select what is useful from the range of data available according to the situations in which we find ourselves. In this way we construct the world by rejecting some of its information and embracing that which remains.
In a nutshell what Bergson was saying is that the mind is capable of knowing everything so that clairvoyance, psychic abilities, self-healing and encyclopaedic knowledge (amongst other things) are all perfectly natural and available to us. Knowing what Julius Caesar was thinking at the moment of his death, however, or what is happening now on the furthest star in our solar system is of no use to us if our objective is simply to safely cross a road. To protect us the mind therefore ‘gates’ this information so we are left with what is useful to us now.
Literally, therefore, we are self-limiting beings and there are things, forces and energies around us at this very moment which we cannot under normal circumstances perceive because our brains do not allow it. If these filters were bypassed however we would be capable of remembering and experiencing everything from a richer, fuller and more ‘cosmic’ perspective.
Huxley applied Bergson’s theory to mescaline, suggesting that it does in fact override the reducing valve of the brain, bypassing the filters that limit us. He paraphrased this notion by quoting the English poet and mystic William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Recently Bergson’s ideas have come back into prominence in modern psychology. Dr David Luke, lecturer in psychology at the University of Greenwich London, for example, is currently undertaking research with mescaline to explore Bergson’s theories and has provisionally concluded that the mescaline experience does indeed give us access to areas of our brains which we do not ordinarily use but which, when activated, allow us to perceive the cosmic order and know our place within it.
Dr Luke writes that ‘Recent research into the neurochemistry of psychedelics lends some support to [Bergson’s] simple notion through ‘a wealth of collectively compelling anecdotal, anthropological, clinical and survey reports, along with a body of preliminary experimental research... Mescaline is one substance in particular that, according to the historical, anthropological and anecdotal evidence, is known to induce psi experiences. Ever since the use of peyote was first documented in the mid-16th century by the personal physician of King Philip II of Spain, Dr Francisco Hernández, it has been reputed to have prophetic qualities. “It causes those devouring it to be able to foresee and to predict things…”
‘San Pedro has been used traditionally by the indigenous people of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador for the same type of magico-religious practices, such as divination… a sixteenth century Spanish officer stationed in Cusco, Peru, described how the natives “take the form they want and go through the air in a short time; and they see what is happening”. This literature is backed up by experiential reports from non-indigenous mescaline-users, like that of the French researchers who gave mescaline to six subjects, one of whom temporarily developed very detailed and accurate clairvoyant abilities.’ After his mescaline experiences in 1951, Humphry Osmond also claimed to have successfully transmitted telepathic information to a fellow researcher, Duncan Blewett, who was also under the influence of mescaline, ‘leading an independent observer to panic at the uncanny event.’
Dr Luke concludes from the research so far that ‘mescaline did indeed give rise to reports of telepathy and precognition among those using it’, along with ‘the perception of auras, the experience of encountering the plant’s spirit, and a sense of unity.’
‘For scientists, whether or not these experiences are ‘real’ is a matter of ongoing debate between those who believe that these phenomena may be possible and those who reject them out of hand because they do not fit within their confined ‘physicalistic’ worldview’ writes Dr Luke. ‘For the people who experience these phenomena, however, they are often considered “more real than real”, and, although they challenge what we think we know about the world, those experiencing these extraordinary events often find it very difficult to reject them as mere hallucinations’.
On the evidence of this, another gift of San Pedro may be the expansion in awareness it gives us. Through it we may come to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of the universe, the flows of energy within it and how we connect to them so we can learn to become “the true human”; that is, to know what it really means to be alive, to approach our lives accordingly and to find the balance and healing we need.
Ross Heaven’s website can be found at www.thefourgates.org. Ross is a healer, therapist and author who runs workshops with medicine plants in the UK and Europe and trips to Peru to work with San Pedro and shamanic healers. Email email@example.com for details of these. His book on San Pedro, The Hummingbird’s Journey to God, is the first to be written on this plant and its healing abilities.
About the author:
Ross Heaven’s website can be found at www.thefourgates.org. Ross is a healer, therapist and author who runs workshops with medicine plants in the UK and Europe and trips to Peru to work with San Pedro and shamanic healers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details