July 19th, 2015

Books!

Walking out of the jungle ...

I have known Alberto Villoldo for a very long time, having first journeyed with him down to Peru before he founded his Four Winds Society, and having done many of his programs/trips back in the 80's and 90's. Unfortunately, while his organization was getting bigger, and more formal, my finances were dwindling (yeah, starting my own publishing house was awesome, but we never managed to break even over the years of my running Eschaton), so we sort of drifted apart over the past decade or so.

Of course, those of you keeping way too close tabs on these reviews will know that I've at least been keeping up with Alberto via his writings, having read/reviewed most of his stuff. I got early word about this coming out (following favorite authors on Facebook does have its advantages), and contacted the publisher for a review copy. I apparently had never reached out to Hay House before for one of their books, as I was quite blown away by the media kit they sent out … pretty much the most deluxe thing that I've gotten from a publisher yet (well, at least since the fun “KaChing” button that came out with Joel Comm's book of the same name)!

Anyway, I didn't really know what to expect from Alberto's new One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness … I initially thought it was going to be something of an amalgam of various culture's “ancient ways” for Medicine/Wellness, but was fairly surprised by what it ended up as. The key point here is explained in the introduction:

Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa, and South America I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of parasites, a host of toxic bacteria, and assorted nasty worms. My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites.
Now, I can't say that I'm surprised by that news … I had frequently lobbied for doing Shamanic work in nice climate-controlled hotel function rooms (which is possible - I've “mentally generated” a roaring bonfire for a fire ceremony in a suburban banquet hall) rather than out in nasty hot, humid, bug-infested, muddy, if picturesque locales … and it gave me pause as to what I might be carrying around from my trips with Alberto.

He further notes: All my test results indicated I was dying; the doctors had even said, “You should already be dead.” … which is a pretty sobering thought. He got this news while at a conference he was keynoting down in Mexico … and his wife was heading off to run a expedition to the Amazon immediately after. He says:

I stood in the departure wing at the Cancún airport, staring at my options: Gate 15, the flight to Miami where I would be admitted to a top medical center for treatment, or Gate 14, the flight to Lima and the Amazon, where I would be with Marcela in the land of my spiritual roots. … Miami was the logical choice. But in that moment I summoned up the courage to put my future where my mouth was – to live what I had taught so many.
Of course, Alberto is no fool, and he basically felt that he was quite likely heading off to his death. He quotes from his journal:

There are no guarantees here, Alberto. There is a difference between curing and healing. You may not be cured; you may die. But regardless of what happens, you will be healed. You will not walk out of the jungle into your old way of being.
There was no “magic wand” in the Amazon, he continued on to a few other locations for scheduled events, but eventually ended up back in the U.S. for medical treatment. The worst part was what was happening with his brain, the meds killed the worms, but the dying worms released their parasites into his system, flooding it with all sorts of toxins. He found that he couldn't play Scrabble, as he could no longer find the words … leading him to begin to wonder what was going to happen to him in terms of consciousness and self. His return to health took over a year, and involved Shamanic treatments, standard medical approaches, spiritual disciplines, cutting-edge techniques in brain science, and a drastic regimen of dietary adjustments.

Now, I need to insert a significant caveat here … one of the things that surprised me the MOST in the book was this latter element … I have never held “food fetishists” in particularly high regard, and there are so many “unusual diets” out there which are hawked/championed by a wide assortment of very devout believers, each contradicting the next, that I've always felt, in a similar mode to the late Christopher Hitchens' adage for religions “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all {food fetish diets} can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.” Needless to say, this preconception/prejudice on my part made the section of the book dealing with dietary issues very hard to deal with … I was even getting snarky reading it, with mental commentary like “I didn't expect Alberto to turn into Martha Stewart!” when he's suggesting menus, ingredients, spices, and cooking methods.

Fortunately, that was just one section of the book, and the others I was in considerable better simpatico with. The structure here is four sections, which Villoldo recommends working through in order:

          Part I: Discovering Your Inner Healer
          Part II: Shedding the Old Ways
          Part III: Overcoming the Death that Stalks You
          Part IV: From Stillness Comes Rebirth

The first of these, generally deals with Shamanic realities, both historically, and theoretically, from how native peoples Alberto encountered in the Amazon didn't have the sorts of diseases that the West deals with, to ideas like the Mayan concept of “acquiring the jaguar body”, and new-age (albeit utilized by the shamans) things like the “Luminous Energy Field” (“the LEF”, though most of this), and even off into the Jungian “collective unconscious”. Here also is the concept that “the mind is mad”, and suggesting that the shift from hunter-gatherer diets to grain-based agricultural diets were essentially “sugar-based” … thus appealing to the “limbic brain”, but not conducive to working with spirit … “The neocortex thrives on One Spirit Medicine; the limbic system, driven by sensation, pleasure seeking, and emotion, does not.” … and countering this with “good fats”. The rather trendy concept of “neuroplasticity” (yeah, you've heard the commercials) comes in here to set up the idea that OSM (I suppose I can use an abbreviation too) works by “Upgrading the information in your luminous energy field, eventually allowing new neural networks to form.”

Oh, one other caveat on the book … in parts of this Alberto uses “One Spirit Medicine” in nearly every paragraph … almost like he's trying to “brand” a wide spectrum of shamanic, spiritual, and scientific material with the label. It becomes irritating because he's simultaneously trying build a case that all these disparate elements pull together to MAKE “One Spirit Medicine”, while labeling everything with the name … it's like one were talking about developing an alternator, but constantly referring to it by the model of car it's eventually going to be a part of.

The second section is the one that I had the “food fetishist” issues with, although it starts out well enough, discussing the “second brain in your gut” – the 100 million neurons involved in the alimentary canal – and how Serotonin is chemically linked to DMT (synthesized by the pineal gland, and a component in ayahuasca and other psycho-active plants used by shamen). Where this takes the turn into the “iffy” area is when Alberto asserts: “Research now shows that most of the diseases of modern living begin in the gut and are related to our diet.” … in no way have I researched this, but my … uhhh … “questionable assertion” meter was certainly going off when I read that. He does a good job backgrounding environmental microorganisms and how we've evolved over millennia to interact with these, and a reasonable bit on “environmental toxins” … but this leads into the popular manias on genetically modified foods, and the “toxic effects” of grains and sugars. Suddenly we're being told “if you want to upgrade your brain to support One Spirit Medicine, you'll need to avoid all processed grains” and insisting on “cutting out fruits like watermelon and raisins, which have a higher glycemic index than a Popsicle” … which then turns into strict regimens of fasting and micro-managed meal schedules, menus, and supplementation. Something tells me that the Amazon shamans are not waking up and taking 250mg of Pterostilbene, 1g of S-acetyl glutathione, 500mg of Trans-resveratrol, and 1g of Curcumin (in its liposomal form), among a long list of other enrich-the-health-food-store supplements. The rest of this section gets into “super foods” and what to eat and not eat when (for instance, he recommend not eating fruit except in its growing season). Among the many issues I have with this section is my perception that one could probably not afford these regimens unless one was bringing home a solid six-figure income … needless to say, you may find this section just brilliant, and maybe it might have the benefits that Villoldo is suggesting it does, but I found it “out of character” for the author, and it rings like his having “found religion” in the “food fetishist” world – perhaps being the main element of coming out of the jungle into something other than his “old way of being” – although, as I frequently have to say, “your mileage may vary” from my reactions here.

Moving on, the third section deals with health issues on a more basic level … the “death clock” on a cellular level, and how things in the system start breaking down around age 35. He spends a number of pages discussing the mitochondria in our cells, and how the mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother's genes so “represents the feminine life force recognized by the ancients”, then gets into recommendations for “aerobic exercise”, “healthy fats”, and “fasting” for ways to support the internal recycling of cellular waste … and to lessen “oxidative stress”. He outlines a number of enzymes that he supplements with, BDFN (“brain-derived neurotrophic factor”), Glutathione, and SOD (“superoxide dismutase”), which are supposed to help with various of these “stressors”. This then shifts to looking at psychological stresses and “limiting beliefs”. One bit I found particularly interesting is:

From television and the Internet alone, we're exposed to more stimuli in a week than our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime. And we're continually running to keep up with new information, to the point that we're chronically exhausted. I can't count how many times I have heard someone say, “If it weren't for caffeine, I wouldn't get anything done!” Nature designed the brain to deal with one lion roaring at us at a time, not the entire jungle turning against us.
This is in the context of the “HPA axis” (Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenal glands), and the hippocampus, which he suggests is “the thermostat of the HPA axis”. He cites research that, among teenagers, the incidence of anxiety and depression is five to eight times what it was just 50 years ago, and then goes into the body chemistry, including adrenaline and cortisol, “stress” steroid hormones released by the HPA axis, and recommending omega-3 fatty acids to re-set the balance in this (which dovetails with the info on fish oil that I wrote about being very helpful with my own struggles with depression in my recent review of one of Dr. Weil's books). The chapter shifts from how one can avoid the fight-or-flight trap, and into some more psychological spaces … making free time (the hunter-gatherer societies tend to have only 3 hours a day of “work”, something that exploded into long hard days when agriculture took over), “pondering” and/or daydreaming, etc. This also leads to less fear of death and unseen things. “The invisible world is unified, nonlocal, and beyond space-time. Though omnipresent, it is invisible to ordinary perception: we know it only through its manifestations.”, yet, the limbic brain perceives separation rather than unity, creating fear, perception of threats, etc. and a significant part of OSM seems to be shifting experience away from that.

The fourth section takes up as much space as the first three, which is a good thing, as I was on much more “agreeable” ground here, as it deals largely with the concepts of “mythologies”.

The values and beliefs contained in myths are so stong that once you find your personal guiding myth, you feel compelled to change your life to conform to it. Change the myth and your values and beliefs change – and the facts of your life change acordingly.
Villoldo notes that the Judeo-Christian tradition has engrained myths that “operate in the psyche like computer programs running continually in the background” but that “at this point in our history, it's pretty clear that the human species needs to be more collaborative, creative, and cooperative – qualities that are aspects of the archetypical mother figure” … which suggests that a “Mother Earth”/Gaian mythology would be more beneficial today. At this point, the classic shamanic tool of the Medicine Wheel gets put in play:

Though the practices associated with the medicine wheel vary among the different indigenous groups of North and South America, the way I was taught by my teachers in the Amazon, we begin in the South, with the journey of the healer and healing our past wounds. We then move to the West and the journey of the Divine Feminine, facing the fear of death. From there we move to the North, the journey of the sage, where we learn to be still, like the surface of the lake that reflects everything and disturbs nothing. Finally, we reach the East and the journey of the visionary, where we practice dreaming the world into being and participating in creation.
The South is represented by the serpent, with the implied parallels of “shedding skin” with growth and change. In an odd twist to the typical narration of this, Alberto brings in the myth of Parsifal and the Grail, with the over-tones of the feminine force. The West is represented by the Jaguar … and here the author asserts that this, in its indigenous American context, represents healing power much the same way that the caduceus does in European traditions. In the West, we meet the Goddess and face the fear of death. Greek myths are referenced here, Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche (the latter in substantial detail). Alberto notes:

All initiation involves a journey to the ream of death and a meeting with the Divine Feminine from which you return renewed. … There is no rushing the journey of initiation. Mastering the fear of death is a lifelong process. You may be challenged and tested many times, although with each time the way becomes easier.
In the North is the realm of the Sages (this relates to certain “topographies” of the “otherworld”) and is represented here by the hummingbird (although in other traditions, such as the Lakota, this is represented by the buffalo), with the sense that the hummingbird can hold still mid-air, and exhibits a calm within frantic action (hovering while its wings are rapidly beating). “In the North we learn that what we call reality is an illusion, albeit one we are jointly re-creating every instant.” To provide a second perspective on this, Alberto brings in the story of Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita … where it's revealed that “everything we do can become an offering to the divine and that we shouldn't be fixated on achieving specific results” … and with the suggestion that in stillness we can be guided by Spirit.

The East is represented by the Eagle, and the theme is that here “you come to see that the consciousness that observes your experience is an inextricable part of a larger consciousness”. Appropriate to that, the myth that is presented from another culture is that of Siddhartha, becoming the Buddha.

The last part of this section is an extensive piece on the “Vision Quest” … in this Villodo discusses the turning points for a handful of his previous patients, whose difficult life situations were overcome, largely through doing a vision quest. He presents a plan for a 3-day vision quest in which one finds a “power animal”:

In shamanic cultures, when you do a vision quest, traditionally a power animal will appear to you in a dream or waking vision. The word animal comes from the same root as anima, Latin for soul, breath, the life force. Carl Jung used anima to refer to the feminine principle. An animal, then, is an expression of the feminine aspect of the soul of the world. … When you connect with a power animal you are in effect connecting with the psyche or soul of nature.
This is followed by the “conclusion”, in which Alberto ties up the various parts of his OSM “system”, putting them in context of a number of settings, from healing to inner harmony, and evolution and brain development. Again, One Spirit Medicine is a shift into new areas for Villoldo's teaching, while certainly grounded in what he's been working with over the past 30 years, it's moving into a whole new space – evidently based on his experiences with nearly dying from the various ailments that he'd picked up on his journeys.

Obviously, I have some issues with the new stuff, but this is, I think, the most “organized” form that he's generated yet. I may be misremembering, but it seems to me that up till now, he'd been good with people interfacing with his teachings to the extent that they were called to … and this has changed to something more structured and linear (although he does preface his “I recommend reading the chapters in the order in which they're presented and trying the practices and exercises.” statement with a “to get the most out of the process” caveat). Needless to say, I have significant disconnects with the new material he's inserting in the middle of that process, and I wonder how many people would be willing (or able) to go to the extremes of diet modification (and extensive supplementation) that he outlines therein. This has only been out a couple of months, and so should be available in the local brick-and-mortar stores carrying metaphysical titles, but the on-line big boys have it at the moment at a whopping 45% off of cover price, which is probably your best bet for picking up a copy.


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