Featuring Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D.
...This article by Judith Hooper appeared in the Jan., 1994 issue of Mirabella magazine
From Machu Picchu to the Pyramids, t
he new "sacred tours" are waiting to take you away-y-y-y. Judith Hooper reports.
EVERYBODY SAYS THE
same thing: "I'll never be the same again." As one traveller put it, "By the
tenth day, your old belief system is irreparably damaged." Which is not what
they say about Club Med.
Maybe it is a sign of the zeitgeist-the increasingly sober, introspective nineties-that the latest travel trend is the spiritual vacation: chanting with Tibetan Buddhist monks at a monastery in the Himalayas, undergoing a ceremonial death and rebirth inside the Great Pyramids, meditating on the Grail legends in Glastonbury, England, or simply hoping to get a snapshot of an alien spacecraft near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Whether the worldview is occult-bookstore mysticism or something deeper and more scholarly, the goal is fundamentally transcendent. Spiritual voyagers travel to align their souls with a timeless geography that lurks beneath the surface of AAA maps and Michelin guides.
In a way, the sacred tour is a repackaging of one of man kind's oldest ideas---the pilgrimage. In previous centuries, travellers heard the call and headed for Mecca or Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela in Spain to receive spiritual boons, even a guarantee of heaven. For today's pilgrims, the payoff is more subtle; it's a matter of experiencing a shift in consciousness, a rearrangement of the psyche. "All the great places of the earth have been discovered the headwaters of the Nile, Lake Victoria, all of the Australian outback. The new territory we have to discover is the domain of the spirit," says Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., who leads sacred journeys under the aegis of the Four Winds Society, headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts. "What our journeys do is allow us to reclaim parts of our spirit that have been lost after taking subways and filing returns with the IRS and getting married and divorced."
A few conversations with spiritual travellers soon make it clear that one is dealing with something more than a vacation here. What happens on these "sacred tours" can never be conveyed by a slide show.
Dupraw-Anderson, a Menlo Park, California, psychologist who went on Four Winds's
Inca Trail expedition in Peru, recalls that "the first day on the trail, the
Urubamba River comes in and out of view, the very clear water reflecting the
green semitropical foliage. You hear parrots. Everything around you is alive;
you can be in deeper dialogue with nature. That first day our focus was on
learning to receive from the powers of nature what you need to do the
trail---which is also what you need to live your life."
In native terms, they are learning the Beauty Way," forming an intiate, often ecstatic bond with the natural world and thereby undoing some of the damage done by our own creation myths. "You know," observes Villoldo wryly, "we were the only people in the world who were ever kicked out of paradise."
After clambering over boulders all day, travellers take part in ancient medicine rituals at sacred sites along the trail: water purification rites, fire ceremonies (in which they symbolically throw their fears and limitations into the flames), healing rituals, pipe ceremonies with native elders. This is not merely warmed-over Gestalt. Villoldo and revered indigenous shamans guide their students through an authentic spiritual tradition that has been preserved for hundreds of years by the descendants of the Incas.
The culmination of the trail is the Western Hemisphere's best-known sacred site: Machu Picchu, the ancient city of the Incas, high in the Andes. At the stone gateway, the travellers pause to pray, knowing the spirits .will amplify whatever thoughts they bring. At night, after all the camera-wielding tourists have departed, the group has the moonlit ruins to itself.
Over the next several days, the group participates in a series of powerful rituals, during which the spirits of ancient Incan shamans---even Pachamama, the Incan Mother Earth herself---are seen, felt and heard. New York City architectural designer Hans Li distinctly remembers a choir of "ancient voices" singing something that sounded like a Gregorian chant in an unknown language. "I could sense that there were verses. It felt like a story or an epic, a story of creation of that particular place." During one ceremony, Ginny DuprawAnderson was astounded to find herself falling, "like Alice in Wonderland," down a tunnel in a shamanic netherworld. "Then I heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. It sounded like angels singing a long, sustained vowel sound. I could hear the overtones. The thought came to me that I was hearing creation sung into being.
"When I came back home my friends asked, 'Well, how was your trip?' And there was no way to explain."
Essential to spiritual travel is the "sacred site "---sometimes known as a "power place"---a spot endowed, for a variety of reasons, with a special dollop of genius loci.
There may be mysterious geological features, such as artesian wells or anomalous currents, enchanted groves or cliffs with strange carvings. Perhaps Druid sorcerers are buried there, or Incan kings and queens, or Pythian sibyls, or a great saint or bodhisattva. Maybe there are pyramids, monasteries, dolmens, sacred serpent mounds. Whatever the reason, these sites-including Delphi, the Egyptian pyramids, Machu Picchu, parts of the American Southwest and the entire island of Bali, to name a few-are seen as cracks in the universe where the eternal is revealed.
"These are places of loaded essence," explains human-potential pioneer and author Jean Houston, Ph.D., who has led sacred journeys to Greece, India, Egypt and other places of loaded essence. "Because of what the Chinese refer to as feng shui--water currents or the electromagnetic forces or the way the land lies---these places have a charge. And people go to be utterly receptive to that, the same way they used to go to Santiago de Compostela."
These days, the hypercivilized capitals of Europe take a backseat to the spiritfilled landscape of prehistory or of tribal cultures: pre-Celtic dolmens, aboriginal hunting grounds, the cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi people of the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The sacredsites crowd tends to focus on the earth religions---Native American shamanism, pre-Christian paganism, the Great Goddess movement---and many tours are organized around equinoxes, solstices and other celestial events. And, as always, planeloads of Americans are continually disembarking in Bali, everybody's choice for Eden before the fall.
Ordinary tourists come for the beaches, of course, but Jean Houston's pilgrims to Bali don't have much time to work on their tans. They spend every afternoon apprenticed to a master craftsman, learning woodworking, mask-making or temple dancing. "My trips are very arduous, physically, mentally and spiritually," Houston cautions. "They are not for people who just want to have a good time."
Nor is an authentic spiritual journey just a bit of superficial saint-hopping or guru
shopping. "When we go to these sacred places we don't just go there to wave at the Dalai Lama," says Villoldo. "We work with some of his head monks, who train us for three days in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. We stay in the monastery and eat with the monks, sleep with them, meditate with them at three in the morning."
Houston is undeniably the grande dame of the mythic tour. Each of her sacred journeys is fashioned around a great spiritual tale: the Ramayana in India, the stories of the Drearntime in Australia, the life of Christ in the Holy Land. In Bethlehem her group "held the Holy Child," she says, and took turns "becoming magi for each other." In the Garden of Gethsemane, they prayed for hours "about those things that seemed inevitable but they wished hadn't happened." Egypt a la Houston was an intense course in the psychology of the Neters, "the archetypal structures that are embodied in each part of ourselves."
Cuban-born Villoldo---who is a psychologist, shaman and author of several books on South American shamanism---began running sacred tours fifteen years ago. "I got frustrated seeing how people would have these wonderful breakthroughs in our fifty minutes of work together and then go back into the very toxic and dysfunctional environment they lived in---all our breakthroughs would be lost. But when you spend two weeks looking up at another star system at night, being exposed to some of the most extraordinary teachers and teachings of the earth, it's more transformational than five years of psychotherapy."
In the early 1970s, fresh from California's humanistic-psychology movement, Villoldo went to South America for a rather harrowing apprenticeship with jungle shamans who are descendants of Incas. Compared with the native spirituality of the Americas, traditional psychotherapy began to seem increasingly pallid, so he designed a kind of travel that could transform a merely geographical journey into a quest for a primordial lost paradise. "It has to be a mythic journey," he says. "We step into the mythologies of Native Americans who were able to stand with grace between heaven and earth."
During shamanic journeys---a form of psychic travel induced by the repetitive rhythm of rattles, drums and chanting---Villoldo's tourists frequently have experiences that veer off sharply into the paranormal. That moment came for Betty Kovacs, a college teacher from Claremont, California, during a ceremony at Lake Titicaca (which the Incas considered to be the seat of creation, the birthplace of the sun and the moon). "There was a moment in which I looked up at the mountain," she recalls, "and saw dozens and dozens of people rushing into it. One figure wearing a cape stepped off the mountain and walked out into thin air. This was something that cannot be explained in the rational world. I had stepped through a door that would change me forever."
Supernatural occurrences are common in the mountain, and I sav something that cannot that I knew would chan the land of the pharoahs, too. On a trip to Egypt with Houston, two tour members were married at the temple of Isis at Abydos. During the ceremony, the groom, in his role as Osiris, lay on the floor of the temple, as if dead, until resurrected by his bride, as Isis. He had an out-of-body experience, as did several other members of the group who "died" and were "resurrected" in the sarcophagus in the King's Chamber. Margaret Molinari, who does organizational development for corporations in Detroit, went into a full trance in the presence of a statue of the lion-faced goddess Sekmeth in the temple of Karnak. "The whole Egyptian experience is a way of coming back to essentials," she muses. "Layers of myself were eaten away, the parts of me that were no longer relevant-games I played, walls I built, defenses I used. I felt I was being devoured."
Small wonder, then, that spiritual travellers often experience a certain culture shock upon their return to the land of leveraged buyouts. They tell of mystified friends, disorientation at the office, a deep nostalgia for the rarefied realms they left behind in Tibet, Peru or Bali. "The most difficult part is making bridges to the 'real world,' " acknowledges traveller Hans Li. "I have old friends who think I have gone off the deep end." Yet many do manage to make bridges. Working with executives threatened by company reorganization, Molinari has found it helpful to refer to the dismemberment and subsequent re-memberment of the god Osiris.
It would be too facile to dismiss cosmic tours as a pastime for the sort of people who believe that everything will be cool on the planet after we get through the next negative Saturn aspects. However, there is an undeniable New Age patina to many spiritual-travel companies: brochures may refer to participants as Awakened Ones or Planetary Lightworkers and allude to occult missions such as "aligning the cylinders" under the Pyramids. The guides themselves often have disturbingly vivid memories of Atlantis or are acquainted with an Inner Earth Kingdom reached via Mt. Shasta. However, most of the travellers I interviewed were not Light and Love people,
which is what made their stories so compelling. It sometimes seemed as if these tourists, in the course of a two-week, $3000 package tour, had slipped into the luminous realm of myth.
"In every pilgrimage," Houston tells me, "you have two main forms: the outward journey, travelling from place to place, and the inward one, travelling amongst ideas and influences and archetypes." The myths and archetypes of sacred tours are drawn from a wide range of cultures. Gothic Image's Magical Britain trip features the landscape of King Arthur, the Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathea and Gwyn ab Nudd (Celtic lord of the otherworld)--with plenty of time spent around holy wells, enchanted forests, stone circles, fairy mounds, ancient abbeys, spiral mazes and--naturally--Stonehenge. ("Everyone comes back enchanted," reports Gothic's U.S. liaison Helen Lake, who may not be speaking metaphorically.)
Visions Travels and Tours, of Los Angeles, offers goddess-oriented trips to Greece, tours of "sacred France," ancient Egyptian ,'mystery schools," and a dolphin swim that is billed as "an adventure to the lost temples of Atlantis." Mindful journeys, of Santa Monica, California, will lead you to the eastern Himalayas and a sacred water vessel--said to belong to great Tibetan saint Padmasambhava--containing sweet water that performs miraculous cures.
Four Winds journeys will get you an audience with the great living masters of India and Nepal-Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and "India's living saint," Sai Baba. "Everyone tells us it's impossible to see these people, but every time we've been, we've seen them," says Villoldo. "It's like having the opportunity to be with one of the Magi or with the Buddha."
I can't help reflecting that the last time so many felt the urge to go on pilgrimages was during the most unsettled period of the Middle Ages. Is the current sacred-travel boom a sign of similar collective unrest, a fin-de-millennium malaise? Perhaps. Business at Power Places Tours, in Laguna Beach, California, has increased twentyfold in the last decade; Visions Travels and Tours doubled its number of customers between 1990 and 1991. Visions's owner Abbas Nadim notes that while in the early 1980s these metaphysically oriented tours drew all their devotees from the New Age watering holes of California and New England, today many people from the Midwest and other parts of the country are also hearing the call. So fashionable is sacred travel, he says, that many "fake New Age tours," led by people with no particular credentials but often endorsed by a photogenic celebrity, are springing up to cash in on the phenomenon. "Read the brochures carefully," advises Nadim. "And ask for a list of participants on a previous tour so you can call them to check things out."
Certainly, the travellers I spoke to were all convinced that we are on the cusp of a new age of some sort, perhaps fulfilling the Incan prophecy that we're entering the end of history-although cognoscenti say this does not necessarily mean the end of the world. "I don't think we're being driven by despair to yeam for a simpler time," says Villoldo. "I think we're reclaiming what we have denied ourselves in the past." Houston points to an "exponential rise in yearning" and believes that "people go to a sacred site to recover the place where the original patterns are."
But maybe, in the end, a sacred vacation is just a vacation-with a return ticket to Cleveland at the end of it. Even after experiencing the seven hells and thirteen heavens of Quetzalcoatl, one must still come home to make peace with the culture of Beverly Hills 90210.