A look at the rich and powerful spiritual legacy of the Andean civilization which is only now being properly recognised after 500 years of obscurity. This interview of Doris Rivera Lenz, was conducted by Howard G. Charing & Peter Cloudsley. This interview appeared in Sacred Hoop Magazine Issue 57, and the book Plant Spirit Shamanism (Destiny Books USA).
Doris has lived in Cusco for many years conducting ofrendas and reading coca leaves for dozens of people every week – both local as well as from far flung places.
Millions of Indians have chewed coca on a daily basis for many hundreds of years, yet never has a plant been so misrepresented and its use so controlled by prejudice and ignorance, including up to the present day. The Conquistadors considered it an idle and offensive habit to be prohibited, but it was soon seen that the Indians could not work without coca even when forced to do so.
Chewing coca has continued to be a custom not because it is a ‘habit drug’, but because it is a part of Andean culture which, most importantly, knows how to make work a sacred activity. The Indians chew coca just as they do everything else, very deliberately and systematically. A mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from an exquisitely woven coca bag or chuspa. Llipta, or lime, is intermixed with the leaves while chewing to liberate the active ingredients.
The Incas regarded coca as ‘the divine plant’ mainly because of its property of imparting endurance, nevertheless its use was entwined with every aspect of life; the art, mythology, culture and economy of the Andean civilisations, including the Inca Empire.
Even today, distances are measured in ‘cocadas’ – how far an Indian carries his load under the stimulus of one chew of coca. But the ceremony which brings out the essentially shamanistic dimension is the mesa, and this unites the whole community.
The mesa may begin with discussion of pressing social and political issues, this too, is accompanied by ritual coca chewing. Later offerings are made for Pachamama or Mother Earth. In some places the mesa can also be an all night session, held secretly indoors. After this, divination with coca leaves is performed on a specially woven cloth. In the Andean world there is no split between the spiritual and practical sides of life. Their concept of health is much more holistic and ecological than ours; it means keeping the balance between the individual, his community and the environment.
A harmonious individual is happy and healthy and can work hard so there is abundance for the community. A happy and healthy community without internal conflicts, can care for the children who do not produce. A willingness to do community work means that terraces and irrigations systems are maintained, while storing seed crops for the next year and other community efforts make the environment healthy.
What is your understanding of divination?
It is meeting with the spirit of the element that you are working with, whether it is coca, tarot cards, maize or a mountain. In the case of coca, you meet the mother spirit, soul or power of the plant, which is the sacred part which never dies.
The practitioner must be in total communication: spirit-to-spirit. It is more like listening to the coca leaves than reading them. It is a higher state of consciousness. You have to be prepared to integrate yourself spiritually to help another spirit.
Human beings are sacred cosmic seeds in evolution. The coca is a sacred seed like us, only of the vegetable kingdom. As with ayahuasca, wilka, or San Pedro, they have been created by mother earth to guide and heal their younger brothers: ourselves. Similarly we have been created to help other people. As we become more open we discover plants like coca, for example. Not everybody sees the spirit of coca, ayahuasca, or San Pedro, but they are here to help us.
What is your understanding of the cause of disease, and how is it cured?
Illnesses do not exist, we create them with our minds according to our attitudes and the things we do… our karma. Resentment for example, causes cancer, a woman whose ovaries are unwell may be resentful of being a woman and suffers trauma. People who do not have the freedom to express their feelings, suffer from throat problems and so on.
So how do we heal them? First we need to look at them through the coca leaves, to know what has happened. Why are they resentful, fearful or anxious? What is causing their problems? Difficulties existing outside our bodies, such as a theft, disillusionment, or being lied to, affect us because we are predisposed to have this pain. Such people get ill because they are not in equilibrium with themselves. The coca shows when and how this began, it tells the story of how they got ill.
Is there a difference between the kind of condition which develops over a long period of negativity, like cancer, and a disease which you can catch from someone very quickly? The first seems to be created by oneself, the latter is biological.
Human beings are always predisposed by their attitudes, this is why you need to know their story. Someone who has a superiority complex or is aggressive and violent is on a downward spiral, they are weakened in their heart, stomach, and solar plexus: the ñawi or naira (equivalent to chacra) where emotional attitudes are held. So for example, you eat a dirty apple, and immediately you are ill.
A person who harbours feeling of hate may feel perfectly well for a time but problems with their children, their husband, or lack of money, intensify their emotions which degenerate their body on a cellular level. So they create their illness because they were already out of equilibrium. This is why two people might eat the same apple but only one falls prey to the illness.
Can you explain the Andean concept of the Hindu word chacra?
The nearest word in Quechua is ñawi, or in Aymara, naira, and it means ‘eye’ or energy centre of the body, but curiously chacra is a very common word in Peru, and is Quechua for piece of cultivated land or field. I believe it has the same linguistic root as the Hindu chacra. Just as some fields have lots of stones, and others are very fertile, so our bodies, also part of nature, are similar.
In the Andes, people will frequently consider an aching stomach to have been caused by sorrow. Less than a generation ago, people would make offerings, before preparing their fields for sowing. They would chew coca leaves, drink chicha or maize beer, and even play music – a whole ceremony. The ancient healers or shamans would give floral or smoke baths to people, curing them of illnesses, fright and so on – the ‘health’ of the land and the people were treated as though interrelated.
When they remove weeds from their chacra, they see it as removing negative emotions from their person. So they identify themselves with their fields and with nature, a little like Feng Shui: you feel better after you have had a Hoover up at home! When you are feeling desperate, the people of the Andes will benefit from going to a wild place or some ruins to scream and shout so that even the mountains will hear. You align with natural forces, this puts you back into equilibrium.
Soul retrieval can be found in many parts of the world. How do they deal with it in the Andes?
When a child falls suddenly, its soul can leave its body and it may get ill. If this happens, an offering is made in the place of the fall, to heal the child.
There are many ways to ‘call the soul’. You can get hold of a piece of the person’s clothing and make a little doll and decorate it with flowers or whatever the person likes, and you call his soul in the place where the fright took place. You can call up elements like herbs, a dove’s nest, rabbits’ droppings, feathers, tobacco, coca, or whatever.
Before any session, first you must ask permission from Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
What if there is no fixed place where the problem began, eg. when someone has been oppressed by someone?
It doesn’t matter, you go to the highest mountain or near to a river.
Howard G. Charing, is an accomplished international workshop leader on shamanism. He has worked some of the most respected and extraordinary shamans & healers in the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Philippines. He organises specialist retreats to the Amazon Rainforest He is the author of Plant Spirit Shamanism (Destiny Books USA).