A new José Stevens Article
Pilgrimage to Huichol Land
Every year after dieting in the traditional way for a month ahead of time my family goes on our annual pilgrimage to the sacred Peyote gardens of the Huichol Indians of Mexico. It is a long journey, deep into the heart of Mexico and one that the Huicholes used to do on foot. The garden is a vast high desert plain near the Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico. It is one of the most important pilgrimages made by the Huichol people each year, to collect the medicine, to do ceremony in its mother land and to give thanks to the great blue deer in the sky, who danced across the desert, the sacred Hikuri or Peyote growing wherever its hooves touched the earth.
The sacred Peyote garden is a place of magic and great mystery. One’s perception alters greatly when walking within it. It is a void, the dark feminine womb that gives life to grandfather Peyote, the sun on earth. It is a place where the veil is thin and spirits appear with a physicality I have experienced nowhere else. The Huicholes say this land is so full of spirits, both helpful and harmful, that one must do powerful ceremony there to be protected and to attract the positive energy and receive blessings and healing from the land. Fortunately, we are accompanied by Lupe, a Huichol Maracame (shaman) who my parents apprenticed with for ten years when I was a kid.
When I was 18, I was preparing to start my own five-year apprenticeship with Lupe, but he became ill and died before I had the chance to start. I had been devastated and upset that I would never get the chance to study with him. But this year as he walked with me into the desert in his crisp white, brightly embroidered Huichol clothing smiling at me from beneath his broad brimmed hat, I realized that I had actually gotten the better deal. Not only was he my teacher and had been around supporting me and teaching me since he died, but he was available whenever I asked and I had him as pure spirit, no personality to cloud the way. I marveled at how clear he appeared to me. He was standing right there as if only a thin plastic sheet separated us. This was my fourth visit to the garden. Next year will be my fifth and the completion of the first stage of my apprenticeship.
This was spring in the desert, and the myriads of cacti were bright and abloom. As we carefully picked our way through the spines to our ceremonial circle, I saw my first Peyote peeking at me from beneath a bush on the trail. I bent down, touched it and said hello to it, thanking it for welcoming me. Peyote lives in other dimensions. One could walk this land, looking carefully within the sand for the turquoise colored buttons, and never see a one. The Huicholes say that the Peyote knows your heart and if your heart is open to it, it will show itself to you. With Ceremony, you must open your eyes and your heart to the dimension where the Peyote is, and when your eyes and your heart are open, the Peyote is everywhere.
About a mile into the desert we found our ceremonial spot and began to clean it in preparation for our all night ceremony. Then we went out in search of a certain group of Peyote one must find in order to initiate the ceremony. In Huichol ceremony, this group must be found before any individual may pick their medicine for the night. Once this has been found, ceremony must be done, offerings must be made and prayers must be said to open the ceremony and to open the heart and the eyes to the medicine. Sometimes it takes hours to find it, an exercise in patience and trust. But every year the garden provides and this year after only a few minutes of looking, the medicine revealed itself to us. We gathered around to perform the opening ceremony and then it was time to gather our own medicine.
We dispersed, wandering among the cacti on a grand treasure hunt, but before I got very far, the medicine called me back over.
I sat down beside it and grandfather Peyote asked me, “What is it that you want?”
“I want to be loving. I want an open heart. I want to be compassionate. I want to be aligned with spirit in every way. I want the power, wisdom and ability to manifest everything I need when I need it. I want to be of essence.” I said
“You know you have to give something to receive all that.” Peyote said.
I had already given many offerings of Tobacco and coins and candies, but I knew what she meant. In my hand I had with me my moviaries, Huichol feather wand tools used for healing, along with a few single beaded eagle feathers, one of which was a golden eagle feather from the very center of the tail that had been gifted to me by Spirit a couple years back in a powerful way. I knew the answer before I asked.
“What should I give?”
“The eagle feather.”
So I took the golden eagle feather and planted it with all my heart in the center of the cluster. I felt a great sense of loss as I did this. I was attached to this feather, but I gave it freely with all the love and gratitude I had. Last year I had been told to leave something as well. I had been asking for great prosperity and Spirit had told me that if I wanted to receive it I had to leave something that was a sacrifice, something that hurt a little bit. So I had left a $50 bill. At the time I hadn’t had much money and had been counting my pennies and saving up for my wedding the following summer, so it had definitely been a sacrifice. But giving this eagle feather was even harder. It was more personal. It was one of my tools and it was spiritually connected to me. But grandfather Peyote asked for it and I gave it willingly, with gratitude and went to hunt my medicine for the night.
“What should I focus on the during the night?” I asked.
“Your heart of course.” Responded Lupe and grandfather Peyote simultaneously.
The Peyote was abundant this year. Finding it is an adventure and I always feel as if I am walking in the footsteps of the great blue deer. Spotting the turquoise blue buttons brings a rush of excitement. Harvesting peyote is so fun that it is easy to forget that all the Peyote picked must be eaten during the ceremony, but grandfather Spirit had instructed my to pick 13 buttons, so I stopped after cutting the 13th. The proper way of harvesting Peyote is to cut it no more than an inch beneath the surface of the soil. This keeps the root alive and enables the plant to re-grow and multiply. Most mothers are the result of a button picked in the proper way a few years earlier.
Our bags full of Peyote, we regrouped at our circle to clean our medicine, set up our ceremonial altar and comb the desert for any scrap of firewood we could find. It would be a long cold night and we would need enough wood to keep our ceremonial fire, Tatewari, going till morning. Our preparations complete, the sun began to sink lower and lower into the horizon and we put on our warm clothes to ward off the chill of the desert night. We drummed goodbye to grandfather sun as he dipped below the mountains in the distance and lit our ceremonial fire. The first round had begun.
During an all night Huichol Peyote ceremony, medicine must be eaten ritually at certain times throughout the night accompanied by the lighting of a candle. The medicine is bitter, extremely alkaline and filled with thick cactus moisture. As the night goes on it gets harder and harder to eat it and keep it down. But Peyote heals and as the night goes on, it cleans all the bitterness out of you. Lupe always told us to eat as much as we possibly could when in the garden because it would make us strong.
The Huicholes say that the Peyote is the sun on earth. In the desert, only trace amounts of rain falls each year. So the Peyote thrives on pure sunlight, and when you eat it that sunlight shines within you, illuminating and healing all from within, gifting the energy of the sun, making the body and the spirit strong, and reminding the heart that it too is a sun. The fire, or Tatewari, is also the sun on earth and as I stared into the flame of my candle throughout the night, I could see the flame within my heart growing stronger and brighter. The Huicholes say that if you eat enough medicine in the garden, a portal or doorway will appear in front of you and if you walk through the portal, you will be met by on old man or an old woman on the other side who will heal you and teach you many things. This is the spirit of the sun, the spirit of Peyote.
This medicine is not easy. It’s hard to eat, it makes you feel sick, and it makes you throw up. It takes determination, strength of will and steadfast commitment to stay up all night and keep eating. In the middle of the night as I tried to follow Lupe’s advice and eat as much as I could, as I vomited into bushes and all I could do was chant in my mind, thank you grandfather for healing me, I thought why I was putting myself through this again. Year after year I come down here to do an all night ceremony where on the hardest of years I am cold, tired and sick, forcing myself to eat medicine that tastes terrible and being confronted by the worst of my ego, fear and false personality. I looked up across the fire to see Lupe laughing at me and my suffering, not unkindly, but chuckling all the same.
“I feel as though I’m buried by fear, and ego. How am I ever going to free myself from all of this garbage.” I asked Lupe during one of the hardest points. “I want to be Spirit, I want to be essence, but I don’t feel like I am and it seems like such a daunting task.”
“Don’t focus on the darkness. Focus only on the light. Give no energy to the ego. Focus only on Spirit. It doesn’t matter how you feel. What matters is where your energy and focus is. Focus on your heart.” He reminded me, which I did, to the best of my ability for the rest of the night.
And sure enough as is always the case year after year, no matter how hard the night is, morning always comes. And in the morning, after many songs had been sung, many prayers had been said, many stories told and much Peyote had been eaten, as grandfather sun started to light the horizon growing brighter with every passing moment, when we began to drum the sun up and finally it crested over the mountains to the east, flooding us with it’s rays, I felt good about the medicine. I love Peyote.
I looked around at my family and our small group. We were filthy, disheveled, covered in soot, tired, windblown and sunburned, but we were clean and our hearts were bright. We walked back to our initial sacred group of medicine to complete our ceremony, give more offerings and say our final prayers before continuing on to our next pilgrimage site, the sacred deer mountain, who loomed above us in the sierras. As we packed up, and picked our way the mile back to the road where we would be picked up, I looked up into the sky and there it was, dancing, a giant blue deer, it’s antlers reaching far into the heavens. I had been blessed.
After a meal, we drove to a little town, high in the mountains at the base of the deer mountain where we would spend the night and do the second part of our pilgrimage the next day. From a distance, the mountain looks like a giant heart, or a giant deer head with it’s two antlers stretching into the sky on either side. If the garden is the mother, The mountain is the father who looks out over the Peyote fields below. It is important to do ceremony in the garden in order to be clean and prepared to do ceremony on the mountain.
After a night of sleep, we set out on foot up the trail towards the summit. It is a several mile hike from the town and when Huicholes are there in big numbers doing ceremony, it is closed to all other visitors. Today we were fortunate and had the trail and the mountain primarily to ourselves. We all had brought some Peyote from the garden for this part of the ceremony and as we walked up and up, to around ten thousand feet, we took breaks along the way to eat our medicine. The medicine tasted different that morning, and went down without difficulty. All the bitterness had been removed from us during our night in the garden and now it almost tasted sweet.
We hiked to the saddle between the two antlers where lies a giant stone circle. In the center of the circle is a place for offerings and a smaller circle in which to do ceremony. This is the place for prayer. The place where ones words hold weight, the place where each person must stand in their power, face their fear and speak their heart to the wind, to the mountain, to ancestors and to Spirit. This is a place of power. We filed into the circle and did our ceremony, each one of us taking a turn to stand alone in the center, in the face of Spirit with our hearts exposed, to speak our truth out loud with all as our witness. We left our offerings, sang our songs and then in turn visited each antler, where we did more singing, leaving of offerings, praying and receiving the gifts and the wisdom of the sacred mountain.
Later that afternoon as I walked down the mountain feeling elated, empowered and full of joy with Lupe by my side, I was already missing this place of magic and mystery. A giant red tailed hawk circled above me.
“You never have to worry.” Lupe said. “I am always here to teach you. I will always be your teacher.”
“Thank you for the gifts.” I said. “Thank you for the blessings”
I can’t wait for next year.
All names have been changed to protect these sacred places and the innocent.
By Anna Stevens
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