An incomplete book on shamanism

“The Heart of the Shaman: Stories and Practices of the Luminous Warrior” by Alberto Villoldo

This is a whole other world, a seemingly bizarre practice that at first defies modern logic but could potentially make sense once we dig deeper under the surface and understand it well enough.

The book is written by Alberto Villoldo, a medical anthropologist dubbed by the New York Times as “the Indiana Jones of the spirit world.” He earned this nickname by looking for an alternative to cure age-old illnesses and found it in the deep jungle of Peru by befriended Q’ero shamans (including his main source for this book, Don Manuel) or by actions like accessing Machu Pichu’s citadel at night.

While he was already accustomed to the Afro-Indian healing tradition practiced by his nanny during his childhood in Cuba, it was during his doctoral years at San Francisco State University when he really explored about mind-body medicine and neurophysiology of healing, though his travels to Southwestern United States, the Andes, and the Amazon. He then stayed for 4 decades in Peru, blending science and spirituality, teaching about shamanic energy medicine while producing 17 books about shamanism.

Hence, it is not an exaggeration for having such a high expectation for this book. But I’m afraid this is where the honeymoon period stops.

The book continuously written in the borderline between a coverage about shamanism, his own semi-autobiography, and one of those self-help books that based themselves in the law of attraction. It has the feel of “The Secret” element to it, where tapping the creative power of the universe means “when you hold a sacred dream, the universe begins to actively conspire on your behalf to make the impossible doable.” Which is fine if this is indeed a form of practice by shamanism, but Villoldo rarely clarify whether what he’s specifically writing about at that instance is a shaman practice or a personal view.

This makes the book quickly turned from the exciting prospect of teaching us everything about the mysterious shamanism, into one that “borrows” some of the ideas from it and then expanded using the author’s own judgement and experience outside shamanism. But I read on.

To keep the focus on the subject matter, this is what Villoldo wrote that is actually inline with shaman belief: he argues that we’re more than just flesh and bone, that we’re also made of spirit and light surrounded by a Luminous Energy Field (LEF), which is an unending source that exists in every cell of our bodies. And in this book he teaches us how to tap into the creative power of the universe. Sort of. “When you find your sacred dream,” Villoldo remarks, “the creative power of the universe, known by the shamans as the Primordial Light, becomes available to you to create beauty in the world, and to heal yourself and others. You become a luminous warrior.”

So the key question is, what is a sacred dream? There are 3 types of waking dreams: the nightmare, the daydream, and the sacred dream. Out of the 3, only sacred dream can help you fulfill your mission in life.

While a nightmare does not offer you much hope for things to change (such as poor health, growing old, frustrating job or failed marriage), a sacred dream “encourages you to explore the mysteries of life and of love, to glimpse a reality beyond death and discover a timeless truth for yourself. It demands that you act boldly and courageously, and not collude with the consensual—that which everyone agrees on and no one questions—even though it is a popular story that traps us in daydreams that become nightmares.”

So, how do we find our sacred dream? As explained by Villoldo, “[y]ou find your sacred dream by transforming three common dreams many of us are convinced are true and cannot seem to wake up from. They are the dream of security, the dream of permanence, and the dream of love that is unconditional.”

And what do the Shamans do to transform these three? “The shamans do not practice prayer as we know it. They do not meditate. Instead they go on vision quests and practice journeying. They go into nature and fast, drinking only water. After a few days of not eating, once they have burned through all the sugars in their system, they slip into that state between sleeping and waking, where reality ceases to be objective and becomes fluid. In this realm time seems to stop, to warp and fold onto itself, just as it does when we are dreaming.”

“You could be at the foot of a mountain one moment,” Villoldo continues, “and next magically on a beach, the warm sand beneath your feet. An ordinary person might experience this as a mild hallucination induced by starvation. But shamans retain their awareness and focus in these states, so they can meet masters devoid of physical form who offer their wisdom to them. These beings are made of light, since their nature is identical to that of the Primordial Light, and they offer their boundless generosity to anyone seeking help. The closest image we have of these beings is that of the angels we read about in the Bible—numinous, translucent, heavenly.”

If all of these look vague and confusing to you, you’re not alone. At this point, it is vital to point out the importance of the plant hallucinogens that the shamans consume as a key element of the ceremony, a somewhat LSD-like transcendental experience. Which would make this whole seemingly bizarre experience a perfect sense. But Villoldo omitted this massive detail entirely from the book, which was baffling and even misleading.

This incompleteness can be found throughought the book, which creates knowledge gaps between the many different lessons and a difficulty to see the relevance between shamanism and other topics such as his failed marriage (which you will read a lot about in the book). So much so that after reading the book I still have an unclear idea about what shamanism is about. It is such a missed opportunity, given the calibre of the author on this subject. 3.5 stars out of 5.