Shamans have a knowing of the mysteries of heaven and the earth. By entering an altered state of consciousness, they are able to retrieve knowledge and information about these mysteries. Altered states of consciousness occur through repetitive movement (dancing, running, walking, etc.), repetitive sounds (drumming, chanting, singing, etc.), hallucinogenic plants, breath control, fasting, isolation, and extremes of temperature (sweat lodge, cold water asceticism, etc.). The shaman then translates this sacred knowledge acquired from spirit journeys into a set form of ritual and ceremony in order to achieve balance, harmony, and unity (oneness) within the community.
In addition to the methods listed above for entering an altered state of consciousness, there is another one I experienced in the Highlands of Mexico in the early 1990’s. A friend and I were in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casa located in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. We were seeking adventure and knowledge and possibly locating a shaman who would share teachings and ceremonies with us. When you are inquiring about a local shaman or healer, you must be careful and discerning in your questions to the local people. Imagine how odd it would be to stop a person on a street in a US city and ask if they know who the best surgeon is and where he or she may be found. Add to this that you are not American and your spoken English, to be kind, is horrible. Additionally, the person you asked may be scared of surgeons as some surgeons may practice harmful surgeries or, in other words, black medicine.
Without being run out of town, we did find a local who knew of a shaman, who just happened to be in the city that day. We were told that he was at a local school. It was a mystery why he was there since school was not in session. His name was Anselmo Perez, a Zinacantec shaman from the mountainous city of Chamula, whose patron saint is John the Baptist (interesting connection).
After a small adventure finding the school, we discovered Anselmo sitting alone in a classroom. To this day, I am not quite sure why he was just sitting there and waiting. However, in broken translation, I understood that he was waiting for us. I don’t know if someone had sent him word gringos were coming to see him or spiritually he was expecting us. After more tedious communication, we discovered that he was not feeling well and if we could heal him, then he would teach us.
A fair bargain, I thought, as we began working on him. Time became timeless as we entered that detached state of being where healing power lies. After an unknown period of time, we finished working on Anselmo as he opened his eyes and smiled. We had passed the test but were not finished with our tasks. We needed to go back into town with Anselmo and purchase a few things for the ceremony he would conduct for us at his home in Chamula. This was quite an honor for us to be invited to his home. Besides why he was at the school another mystery presented itself. He didn’t have a car and the school where we found him was on the outskirts of San Cristobal and many miles from Chamula.
Once back in town, the items we had to purchase were interesting to say the least—a live chicken (are we talking a sacrifice here), flowers, copal resin for incense and many white candles. But this was not all that was needed. The next item we would find in Chamula.
As we pulled into the outskirts of Chamula, Anselmo had us stop at a simple cement block building which had no door, just an opening into a small room that contained a plywood bar-top held up by cement blocks. Behind it sat a large oil drum with a hand crank. I didn’t know what to think until Anselmo called out and a man appeared out of a darken room next to the oil drum.
It was at that point that I noticed many old and seemly dirty bottles on a shelf next to the oil drum. The proprietor of this establishment reached for one of the dirt covered bottles. He took it to the oil drum, lifted up the hose and put its nozzle into the bottle and started hand-cranking. A clear liquid flowed into the bottle with each turn of the crank. Anselmo turned to us and said, “Posh….” I thought, “Could this be the Maya equivalent of ‘white-lightning?’ Well, if it is, it will kill anything living in those bottles.”
Not to be outdone by the dirty bottles, the proprietor used some type of corn-husk as a substitute cork stopper. After five bottles, we bid farewell to the ‘posh-man,’ (not to be confused with the post-man). However, if we did end up drinking that much ‘white-lightning,’ we would definitely be carrying messages to Anselmo’s Ancestors.
We later discovered that Anselmo was the shaman to ‘go-to’ when in need of healing and other shamanic remedies. There was no doubt in my mind that he had helped untold numbers of people. Anselmo was not one of the workshop circuit shamans who were only interested in power and money. Outside of the Highlands, few knew about this ‘bat shaman’ of Chamula.
We finally arrived at his home, which reflected his altruistic spirit—very simple and comfortable. Anselmo indicated to us to wait in a room connected to his house that seemed to be his ceremonial room while he took the chicken into his house. Definitely a chicken dinner would be served later on that night.
As much as this adventure may seem like a ‘cool-thing,’ there is always a little trepidation involved. Shamans such as Anselmo carry great spirit power. Healing or harming is the same power; it is only the intention of the shaman that is different. Run across the wrong shaman and you may regret it.
It was dusk when Anselmo began the ceremony. Certain things may not be put into print but I will give an over-view of the ceremony. Basically, it involved Anselmo doing prayers, lighting candles and pouring himself and each of us a shot of posh—sugar-cane liquor. It would be easy to understand that “a shot of posh may be a blessing on a cold winter’s night, but by the time the cup bearer[i] brings the ninth round, the gift has become a burden. The participants in a curing ceremony consume posh for the same reason they burn candles—it is a gift for the saints and Ancestors. Posh is considered a powerful healing substance and also a cause of sickness, for the hangovers are unbearable. Everyone who drinks offers the spirit of all that is joyous and terrible in life.”
For double nine rounds we each drank a shot of posh, sometimes more, while Anselmo lit candles and prayed. He would do a candle for each of us by dripping the wax of the lit candle onto the floor and then seat the candle into the soft but hardening wax. After so much posh, you would think that we would have been drunk. But the opposite was true. My senses were heightened and so was my perception of past, present and future. After the completion of the ceremony and before we departed, Anselmo looked at me with the sternness of a master and said, “Stop seeking, you have the power, go help others.”
[i] Usually an assistant to the shaman pours the shots of posh, but since it was only the three of us, Anselmo did the pouring.