by Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the home of the earth-based traditions of the Andes, the Southern Cross constellation occupies a prominent place in the psyche as well as in the sky, much as the Big Dipper and North Star guide residents of the Northern Hemisphere. The four stars in the Southern Cross orient the stargazer and symbolically reflect the progression through the four stages of the medicine wheel that culminate in One Spirit Medicine. The journey of the healer starts in the South on the medicine wheel.
The South is considered the domain of the serpent: in indigenous cosmology, the Milky Way is the Sky Serpent. In all cultures the serpent archetype represents sexuality and the life force. Eastern traditions associate the serpent with kundalini, a vital force often depicted as a snake coiled at the base of the spine. The serpent represents the instincts and literal thinking; everything is just as we see it, without nuance or ambiguity, summed up in the expression: “It is what it is.” In this mode, feeling and emotion are not involved. Like the cold-blooded serpent, we act unsentimentally.
In some situations, seeing through the eyes of the serpent is exactly what’s needed. When you’re in danger and fear might cause you to panic and make bad choices, acting instinctually can ensure your survival. If you’re standing on an open mountaintop with lightning striking around you, it is not a time for reflection but for your serpent instinct to kick in and tell you to find safe ground.
The serpent reminds us of our connection to the earth, the source of our sustenance and support. The physical realm of flesh, soil, and rocks awakens our senses as, like the snake, we outgrow our old skins and leave them behind. The work of the healer is to shed the roles and identities that no longer serve you and trust that you can survive without them. Staying in touch with what your body is sensing, you can act instinctively without deliberating about what to do. A pregnant woman in labor doesn’t ruminate on whether or not to give birth; she trusts in her body’s innate wisdom and surrenders to the contractions.
Serpent impels us to move forward when we need to shed old identities and make a radical change. If we get stuck in serpent awareness, however, we live mindlessly, concerned with our own well-being and survival without regard for the feelings or needs of others. We cling to what we know—the identities and roles that served us in the past. Very often, these are identities shaped more by our social conditioning and the influence of our parents than by any conscious choice on our part. Because the primitive reptilian brain finds comfort in familiarity, under its influence we avoid change, even when the old roles no longer suit. A man marries yet hesitates to leave his bachelor lifestyle behind. A woman marries yet has difficulty moving away from her family to establish a home of her own. Someone recovers from a life-threatening illness yet remains a patient, vulnerable and afraid.
When our eyes are on yesterday, we aren’t able to recognize possibilities right in front of us. And just as the eyesight of a snake becomes less acute when it’s about to shed its skin, our perception tends to narrow as we resist needed change. Seeing danger, not opportunity, we miss the chance to experiment with new ways of being that might make us happier or lead to greater self-discovery.
In the journey of the healer, you have to trust that just as the serpent is protected by nature as it sheds its skin, your soft, vulnerable underbelly will be safe without the roles and identities you discard.
It’s daunting to walk away from familiar issues but it’s a crucial step in our evolution. We may not even realize that we’re holding on to past roles, continuing to blame our parents for opportunities we didn’t have and what we failed to become. But to break out of this victim identity, we have to recognize that our parents, their parents and the generations before them also faced this challenge. The journey of the healer involves breaking the chains of blame and stepping into a new role, writing a new story to free not only ourselves but also future generations.
Throughout our lives, we will continue to shed identities when, like the serpent’s skin, they become too tight. Eventually we will discover that all roles are simply suits we hang in the closet, to put on and take off as circumstances require.
Burning old roles and identities
Shamans have long known what neuroscientists are now confirming—the power of ritual to change the brain. Small rituals, like the micro-fire ceremony described below, help lift awareness out of the literal, limbic brain into the higher-order neural networks.
But first, it is essential to prime the brain to break free of old thought patterns that have kept you locked in your outdated roles. Begin by eating foods rich in Omega-3 that repair the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and acquiring new skills. Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, berries, eggs, meat (sparingly), and small wild-caught fish are excellent sources of Omega-3. You must also avoid sugar and refined carbs, and stay away from gluten (wheat) and dairy for a month.
Within days you will notice how brain fog clears, you have clarity and lucidity, mood issues go away and you feel more energetic. Follow the diet for a full month with the understanding that without first repairing your hippocampus, this exercise will be little more than a quaint gesture based on good intentions. Good intentions are easily forgotten, and willpower can dwindle away, making it extremely difficult to truly shift your mind-set or behavior.
The micro-fire ceremony is an effective practice for rewiring the brain and shedding outworn roles and identities so you can consciously release the constraints of the past by symbolically reducing them to ashes. Like all shamanic practices, it requires focusing your intent on the task. Otherwise the ceremony won’t have nearly as much depth, significance or transformative power.
Traditionally, this ceremony involves a group of people gathered around a large fire outdoors, but it can be just as meaningful as a solo rite indoors. You will need a fat candle at least four inches tall, a box of wooden toothpicks, matches, and a fireproof bowl. (You can fill the bowl part way with sand, if you like.)
Light the candle and take a few moments to quiet your thoughts. Then take a toothpick, and as you hold it, think of a role or identity that is no longer serving you. Blow gently on the toothpick, envisioning that you are transferring all the energy of that outmoded role or identity into that small piece of wood. Then hold the toothpick to the candle flame. When you can no longer comfortably hang on to the flaming stick, drop it into the bowl. Continue blowing roles and identities into the toothpicks, one by one, until you have burned up all the stale old roles and identities you need to release.
The first time I did this exercise, I began with the role of father. As I brought the stick to the fire, I thanked my father for the love and lessons I had received from him, no matter how flawed they were. I know now that he did his best. I continued the ritual by releasing the role of son, and with a prayer, thanked my children for teaching me how to be a son and father. Then I moved on to shedding the identities of husband, lover, healer, victim, and so on, until I had burned up nearly 200 roles and identities. I hope you will have considerably fewer to burn!
The above is an excerpt from One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness by Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D.
Dr. Villoldo is a medical anthropologist and psychologist who studied the shamanic healing practices of the Amazon and the Andes for more than 25 years. He is the founder of the Four Winds Society, which teaches the philosophy and practice of energy medicine. Dr. Villoldo is the author of numerous best-selling books, including Power up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment (with David Perlmutter, MD), and Shaman, Healer, Sage. His new book, One Spirit Medicine, merges the ancient healing traditions of the Peruvian shamans with modern scientific breakthroughs. www.thefourwinds.com; www.onespiritmedicine.com.