A scientist embarks on an Amazonian adventure to discover the shamanic wisdom behind enlightenment.
Stinky five-gallon vats held all kinds of brains—sheep brains, cow brains, human brains—but it was the only laboratory space I was able to wrangle from the biology department at San Francisco State University. Under the stench of formaldehyde, surrounded by hundreds of brains, I conducted my research into how the mind creates psychosomatic health or disease and how shamans are able to cure illness.
But I was sure of one thing: I would not find answers about the mind in a laboratory.
One day, two years into my research, I realized that I had been viewing the mind through the wrong lens. I had been trying to understand a spiritual tradition of indigenous America by looking at changes in brain and blood chemistry. The following week, I resigned my post at the university and shut down my lab. And before the month was over, I had purchased a one-way ticket to the Peruvian Amazon to study the shamans in their own environment. My best friend, a medical student, gave me a very large hunting knife as a gift, with a note that said, “You might need this in the Upper Amazon.” Everyone I knew, including my own family, thought I was mad to throw away a promising career in academia to follow a harebrained dream of being an explorer and adventurer. I had my own doubts and reservations, but I shared them with no one. I was a city boy who had never set foot in the jungle. But I was sure of one thing: I would not find answers about the mind in a laboratory.
I spent the next quarter of a century traveling and studying with the most renowned sages of the Americas. During that time, I witnessed extraordinary cures—persons whom Western medicine would have long given up on returned to health through ways I could only ascribe to a miracle or spontaneous remission. Over time, I became an apprentice to the shamans and learned their healing practices and methodologies. Yet part of me always felt like an outsider.
One old Indian I worked with for many years, a man who eventually became my mentor, explained to me: “That’s because your God is a descending God. He comes down from the heavens on rare occasions to touch those of us here on the earth; whereas our deity is an ascending divinity who rises from the earth like the golden corn and resides among us. Our creative force is known as Pachamama, the Divine Mother.”
The Divine Mother is a force that infuses all of creation—a sea of energy and consciousness that we all swim in and are part of. I came to understand that our Western notions of the Divine are perhaps a masculine version of this life force that infuses every cell in our bodies, that animates all living beings, and that even fuels stars. The shamans helped me to develop an original and fulfilling relationship with the power of Pachamama, an energy or intelligence they were capable of interacting with to heal their patients.
The sages believed that we ourselves are this divine energy embodied in matter, much like ribbons of sunlight that wrap themselves around the trunks of trees and then release their light when we place a log into the fire. They claimed they were able to see emanations of this energy around the body of a person in the form of a luminous matrix. Dark spots in the matrix indicate the presence of disease, they said, even if the illness had not yet manifested in the physical body.
The sages believed that we ourselves are this divine energy embodied in matter, much like ribbons of sunlight that wrap themselves around the trunks of trees and then release their light when we place a log into the fire.
After many years, I learned to sense this luminous field and to comprehend the shamans’ concept of all life being interconnected through strands of light. In the beginning, my scientific mind had to grasp this notion by explaining to myself that we eat animals that eat grasses that feed on sunlight. I reminded myself that chlorophyll turns light into carbohydrates, such as wheat and other grains, and that we turn carbohydrates back into light inside our cells for fuel. With time, my logical brain relaxed its vise-like grip on my awareness, and I was able to perceive more directly the luminous weave of all creation.
I learned that trauma leaves an almost indelible signature that a healer can perceive in her clients’ luminous field. Healers believe that this marks a person’s experience of health or disease for their entire life, like a cross that each of us has to shoulder. A shaman can help people to lighten their load, perhaps even help them understand the lessons they needed to learn from the original trauma they experienced, but it is up to each person to choose whether they carry their cross lightly, discard it altogether, or become burdened and overwhelmed beneath the weight. According to the shamans, the way to clear these marks and shed this burden that defines our personality and our health is by healing our toxic emotions via energy medicine. If a person wants to be healed of disease and be truly free and enlightened, then it is essential to strengthen the feminine life force within through fasting, prayer, and meditation, combined with the use of healing herbs and plants.
The Light Body
Shamans believe that the world seems real only because we perceive it as such and that everything we perceive is a reflection of an internal map that we ourselves, along with our culture, have constructed about the nature of reality. These maps are stored in what shamans know as the light body, and what scientists call neural networks in our brain. Shamans know that if they wish to change the outer world, they must begin by changing the inner maps, by healing the imprints of disease and trauma from the light body. They believe that the light body is the blueprint that creates health or disease.
When we heal our light body, we can access knowledge that is available to all human beings. In doing so, we could interface with the biosphere in ways we’ve never imagined, to upgrade the quality of natural information available to us, and install it in the hardware that’s been in our brains all along.
When we heal our light body, we can access knowledge that is available to all human beings.
Shamans discovered that once our light body was free of trauma, our awareness could be refined to identify both favorable and dangerous events in the future. Those who developed these dormant skills were able to guide hunters to where buffalo would be grazing the following day, forewarn their villagers about an approaching tsunami, and lead fishermen to their catch—which gave them an elevated status of sages among their peers.
One of the most renowned examples of shamans foreseeing beneficial opportunities for their people occurred in the 1800s when the U.S. government displaced the Osage nation from its traditional hunting ground in Missouri. The holy men of the Osage led them to settle on land in Oklahoma that consisted primarily of rocky meadows and barren hills, habitat undesirable to European settlers. Yet the Osage sages assured their people that the earth would look after them for many generations if they were to settle there.
One of the factors that made the land particularly unappealing was a black sticky substance that oozed from between the rocks and poisoned springs. Only later was it discovered that the Osage had settled on one of the richest oil and gas deposits in North America.
The Neuroscience of Enlightenment
Shamans believe that, to interact with the vast information fields of the biosphere, you must enter a state of clear perception. Your mind must be at peace in order to perceive the true nature of the world and not merely the reflection of your own below-the-surface drama created by your destructive emotions.
Shamans believe that, to interact with the vast information fields of the biosphere, you must enter a state of clear perception.
In humans, the prefrontal cortex—the newest part of the human brain—takes on critically important significance as our link to the future, our key to enlightenment, and the answer to those ancient questions: How can we live long and healthy lives, unaffected by debilitating illness and degenerative brain disease? How can we turn the dense lead of human awareness into the gold of enlightened consciousness? How can we program the brain for life, health, and joy?
The prefrontal cortex is associated with loftier brain functions such as reasoning, inventing the alphabet and music, discovering science, and engaging in creative thinking. Many of the functions of the prefrontal cortex remain a mystery, but we know that it is associated with personal initiative and the ability to project future scenarios, and it is quite likely the place where our individuality and sense of self developed.
When our brain functions synergistically, our prefrontal cortex is fully awakened and we have the ability to develop the very highest form of intelligence and creativity and remain grounded and effective in the world. We understand who we are in relationship to our village and our history. Able to think originally, we recognize what holds us back from achieving a higher level of consciousness and what will help us to attain it. We recognize how we can survive and thrive.
On functional MRI scans, people who meditate regularly are shown to have developed brains that are wired differently than the brains of people who don’t meditate: they are better able to remain calm and stress-free, live in peace, and practice compassion. Curiously, their prefrontal cortex is the most active region in their brain during the states they describe as samadhi, or enlightenment.
In order for the prefrontal cortex to create functional pathways for joy and peace, the entire body and brain need to be healthy, fed with the proper nutrients, and trained with an inner discipline. We must heal our bodies and minds to empower the prefrontal cortex, which is biologically programmable for bliss, extraordinary longevity, peace, and regeneration.
Once this new region in the brain is brought online, brain synergy is possible. Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Brain synergy signifies a neurocomputer whose circuits are all turned on, tuned in, and operating collaboratively, each region attending to its functions, creating a system that cannot be defined or even described by its component parts.
Regardless of the term used to describe the process, the challenge is to dis-identify with your limited sense of self that was created by destructive emotions.
People in the East say the path to brain synergy is through the practice of meditation. Shamans use the term clear perception. Regardless of the term used to describe the process, the challenge is to dis-identify with your limited sense of self that was created by destructive emotions.
Once you heal your emotional brain and create the state of brain synergy, the gifts of your prefrontal cortex will come online naturally. You will no longer need to pursue happiness through artificial means, because happiness will arise from you with ease. Happiness is not the result of good luck or happenstance. Happiness is a treasure of clear perception that can be eternally yours.
Alberto Villoldo, PhD, has trained as a psychologist and medical anthropologist, and is the founder of the Four Winds Society, where he trains professional practitioners in shamanic energy medicine.
David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, is a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition.
Adapted with permission from Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment by David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, and Alberto Villoldo, PhD (Hay House, 2011).