Ten years later and I can still recall the sound of ancient Mayan and Aztec drumming.
Why I have waited more than ten years to write about one of the most profound experiences of my life I am not sure.
Growing up I never subscribed to any religious ideology nor was one prescribed for me. Spirituality remained as foreign and cold to me as Antarctica.
I was in high school when someone suggested that I read the books of Carlos Castaneda. I first read The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which took me on a journey through shamanism and Indian sorcery. It was not long after that I found myself pouring through the pages of Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, A Separate Reality, and a handful of others. The books relayed the experiences of Castaneda, a UCLA anthropology student, who served as the apprentice of Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman from Baja, California.
I wouldn’t say that the spiritual void was necessarily filled by Castaneda’s words, but I began to appreciate the idea that something greater may be out there, connecting us in some way or another.
My best friend Sarah also was hooked on these books. We were shocked and awed to find a flyer posted at a local coffee shop in Pittsburgh in 2002 reading, “Don Juan Matus to give workshop.”
WHAT?! Don Juan is a real live person? And he is still alive? And we missed the workshop? No!
We called the number on the flyer. The shaman’s apprentice, Antares, was excited to tell us about Don Juan, known in the real world as Abuelo Kachora, or Grandfather Lizard. Kachora, she told us, was 93 years old and opens up his land every year to anyone who wants to come and experience the art of the Danza del Sol, or Sun Dance. The Danza del Sol commences with the summer solstice (21 June) and lasts for five days. The purpose of the Danza del Sol is to recycle the year’s energy and rejuvenate the soul by participating in this ancient practice.
“You guys should come,” Antares suggested.
And that’s exactly what we did. We booked a flight to San Diego and hitched a ride to the Tecate border where Eric, another of Kachora’s apprentices, would be waiting for us by the Subway restaurant on the Mexican side.
As we pulled up to Kachora’s property, which consisted of a one-room dwelling, a teepee, and over 4,000 medicinal plants tended to and utilized by Kachora, I could barely contain my excitement.
The custom for Sun Dance strangers like Sarah and me coming to visit Kachora and to partake in the ceremony was to have a one-on-one with the ancient shaman, where he would then give you your “spirit name.” A whole range of emotions from thrill to suspicion to honor enveloped me. I sat across from the wise old man. “Zorro,” he said as he looked into my eyes. “Travieso y intelligente.” Mischievous and intelligent. Sarah acquires, “Estrella de Plata,” the Silver Star, the earliest and brightest star one sees.
Sarah and I were among a dozen or so Sun Dancers that year. At dawn, we were greeted by the thumping coming from the dance circle. Dancers were expected to fast throughout the whole five days and also to take part in the Temescal, or sweat lodge. By fasting and sweating we recycled the year’s expired energy only to be renewed by this ancient dance.
Summer, in the Mexican desert, yet no shoes were allowed in the dance circle. We learned quickly, however, that the agony from the burning earth beneath our feet would subside into a peaceful trancelike state for the length of the dance—about an hour and a half. This happened three times a day and was followed by the Temescal, which tended to bring us back to center. Being cooped up in a sweat lodge with ten to twenty others seeking renewal, while reciting ancient Yaqui chants and being engulfed in aromas of sage and jasmine, has the power to help you find that center.
This trip has such a fervent effect on me that the following year I decided to move from Pittsburgh to San Francisco because I needed a change in my life—a West Coast way of living. I convinced my SF punk rocker friend Spider to fly to my city of Heinz Ketchup and Andy Warhol where we then charted a course for Kachora.
Spider expressed his concerns with the idea that he would have to dress himself in a skirt and do a “hippie dance,” as he called it, in the middle of the desert without eating for five days.
The ride from Tecate was trancelike, almost like doing the Sun Dance itself. On autopilot, we drove down those same thoroughfares past unnamed villages on either side of the road. Then, all of a sudden, I pulled to the side of the road.
“What are you doing?” Spider asked.
I put the car in reverse and headed through an opening in a brick wall that served as the entrance to a village. Turning down one street here, another street there, eventually we landed smack in front of a one-room dwelling shielding a teepee in the background. We’re here.
“How did you do that?” Spider asked as he exited to stretch his legs.
A relative of Kachora greeted us in Spanish. Through our limited Spanish we gathered that the site for the Sun Dance has been relocated and to “follow the purple ribbons” along the highway which would lead us to the new site.
Follow the purple ribbons? Really?
So, we hopped back in the Jeep and embarked on the hunt for the color purple. Sure enough, we would spot one every half mile or so until the ribbons took an abrupt turn into an off-road terrain. And there we were with my Wrangler! (I had never been off-roading before!)
After about a half hour of one of the most exciting rides of my life, we ascended a mountain. The ribbons had ended and there were no dancers to be seen. We drove upon the crest of the mountain, stopped, and scanned the valley below. We could spot the outlines of people and tents and a dance circle. I smiled at Spider. He smiled back. And we zoomed down that mountain to get ready for the festivities. It was Summer Solstice Eve.
The first four days played out like the previous year. My punk friend caught the hang of the dances and even seemed to be at ease with them. He even seemed to be at ease when a woman next to him in the sweat lodge got possessed and started speaking in tongues. One of the Indians guided Spider through helping the woman transcend the possession by tapping her lightly on the back with a bundle of sage.
But it was the following day where the real magic was waiting—when one of the most extraordinary experiences of my existence ensued.
Grandfather Lizard decided, at the protests of his kin, to allow a tribe of women from Arizona to lead the final dance, known as the “Healing Dance.” This is the dance where unwell people from Northern Mexico, Baja, and other areas, who did not partake in the Sun Dance, line up around the circle and absorb the reanimated energy accumulated by the dancers with the hope of becoming well again.
As the drumming commenced, the women were nowhere to be found. The sun was almost in position. Kachora was at his seat around the circle as were the indisposed. Kachora’s kin could not contain their dismay and talked amongst themselves: See, we knew this would happen!
Yet, as the sun crept into its locus, the women’s tribe was spotted descending the mountain in a single-file line, gracefully walking towards the northern entrance of the circle where they entered, each carrying some bundles of wild sage. The sage was distributed to the dancers, including Spider and me, and the Healing Dance began.
I still get chills when I think about what you are about to read. I must denote here that I have never taken any form of psychotropic hallucinogen at the Sun Dance, which often happens at these kinds of ceremonies. This is what happened:
An hour or so into the dance, one of the non-dancers pointed off into the desert. There were some gasps and shrieks as a large dust devil formed from beneath a tree and consciously made its way to the dance circle. There are four entrances to the circle and the dust devil resolved to enter the northern gate. From there, the dust devil initiated a clockwise motion around the circle, deluging each and every dancer in the circle. Every time the dust devil made its way to another dancer, that new dancer would jump in the air, shouting a shout of pleasure or excitement or bewilderment.
If the dust devil entered the circle at 12:00, I was at its 11:00 and, thus, last in the circle. Spider came before me and I watched as this tattooed and pierced punk rocker bounced up and down as a spiritual entity overwhelmed him. I, too, was overcome by not any one emotion when that enigma had its way with me. It literally felt like all the pain and suffering and sadness and negativity of the year had been sucked out of me and into it.
Then, just as consciously as it entered through the northern gate, it exited through the northern gate, making its way toward the Temescal before it just as consciously disintegrated into naught.
With faces glazed with stupefaction and mouths wide with astonishment, all eyes went toward Kachora, who was sitting in his chair, arms crossed, and exhibiting an expression of: I Told You So.
Kachora is now 100 years old and still welcomes anyone to his land to experience this ancient practice.
Are you intrigued? More information can be found at: http://www.gracesesma.com/id41.html
twoday magazine wants to know: Have you ever had a spiritual experience? Share with us your relationship to your higher self on our Facebook page.
Like this article? Check out other great pieces from twodaymag:
Love Potion Number Nile By Jonas Moffat-Caballero
Beltane: The Festival of Passion By Erica Velis