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Rubén Orellana is an expert on the historical and contemporary aspects of San Pedro shamanism and healing in Peru. As well as his academic credentials as a historian he was for many years curator of the Machu Picchu sacred site and is a curandero (healer) and huachumero (San Pedro shaman) himself. In this interview he discusses the role of San Pedro in the ancient and modern world, the role of the healer and the nature of healing itself. He also touches upon contemporary trends and practices such as the “globalisation” of ceremonial healing and the impact of this for Peruvian and Western healing and culture.

Thank you for talking to us. You are healer who works with San Pedro but you are also a successful academic. How did these two worlds meet?
I studied in the 1970s at the University of Cusco, majoring in chemistry and then in social sciences. After I graduated I began work with a team of archaeologists and anthropologists at the national park of Machu Picchu. My first job was to find the original name of the place, a mission in which we succeeded. I was also employed to discover new archaeological sites in this area. In 1986 we found 44 new sites at the sanctuary and in 1989 we produced the seminal report on its history. After 30 years of working here I now know exactly what Machu Picchu is and what its purpose was. It is very different to what people think.

Alongside my work as an archaeologist I am a healer. I was trained in these arts since I was young but I do not call myself a shaman as this is not a Quechua word but one which comes from the Tungus people of Russia. I studied with the healers of the Andes who have their own tradition from Incan and pre-Incan times. In Quechua paqo is the name of the healer. This work is a spiritual path which I chose to follow so I could be of service to others. Nobody pushed me into it. I work with local people and with those from other countries. I make no distinction between them because my job is to work with human beings - people who need help and give me responsibility for their healing.

When these people come to me I first spend time with them to find out what they want and need. There is a big difference between the two! I give people what they need because what they want may be irrelevant to their healing or may even be harmful to them. It might in fact be the cause of their problems!

When we talk about my career at Machu Picchu and my calling as a healer we are speaking of two different things. To be a healer is a vocation of the heart. To be an academic is a way that I play my part in society. What I have discovered through archaeology and anthropology though has supported what I know as a healer and both paths have led me into what you call shamanism.

What was your shamanic training like?
I started with my mentor when I had seven years of age, 49 years ago. But even now I am still at the beginning because there is so much to know. Every day I learn something new about San Pedro and spirit and healing and I connect with my intuition a little more. In this way a healer can never really finish his training because every client is unique. There is no standard approach and no textbook to consult because we are dealing with individual emotions and thoughts, so every person is different.

I have worked in ceremonies for many years and it is difficult to know how many I have done – many hundreds I know - but healing with San Pedro is not about numbers in any case. It is not about linear time; it is about cycles.

How do you prepare San Pedro and teach others to make it?
How I cook San Pedro is on an esoteric level; it is not a formula which can just be passed on or written down on a page, nor is it a simple recipe which you might find on the internet! ‘Esoteric’ means that you must be a serious student of San Pedro and form your own relationship with it because there is no standard way to prepare it. You need to be ready for it and want to know more then the medicine will itself teach you all that you need to know. This is what I tell my students. It is not that I want to keep secrets from them; it is simply that the medicine speaks for itself.

There is a great mystery about San Pedro and its origins just as there is with ayahuasca. It seems strange after all that anyone in ancient history would cut down a cactus and brew it for its effects. How did they even know it would have effects or what those effects would be... or how to prepare it in the first place? Because of this mystery we cannot say where our healing tradition began or who the first shaman was or even, in linear time, when San Pedro first spoke to us. But it is clear that San Pedro itself called that first healer and passed on its secrets and in the same way each person who drinks it must come to San Pedro alone and learn its language, develop a personal relationship with it and find a way to befriend the plant. It will then teach them and gradually reveal its mysteries. Then when the healer finally connects with the wisdom of this beautiful medicine is the moment when they really know truth.

Can you give an example of how San Pedro might speak to a healer?
Yes, one example is that when I cook San Pedro I often see images in the brew of the people who will come to drink it. I see in the liquid the parts of their bodies where healing is needed, like the heart or the kidneys. Or maybe the messages are more symbolic and concern a feeling or state of mind. In this way I receive premonitions of who will drink and the particular conditions they have. This is one of the ways that the plant might speak with us. As people develop their own connections with San Pedro and learn its secret language they will also see these things and it helps them to prepare as healers.

For this reason whenever I cook San Pedro I carefully watch the brew. When you do this you also send energy to it so you empower the medicine with your intention and tell it what you want from it so it can learn from you too. I always cook fresh medicine for each patient – I do not have bottles on my shelves like a pharmacy – so the thoughts that I send are uniquely about that person and the healing they need and the plants can begin their work as soon as they receive my intentions. They tune in to the patient and begin the process of arranging their qualities and powers in accordance with that person’s needs. The energy of intent is a very powerful force and all healers must master it because the plants respond to it in their own language.

How frequently do you hold ceremonies and what conditions might you treat?
I provide ceremonies whenever they are needed so there is no rule to it. I know some healers say that ceremonies should only be held on certain days like Tuesday or Friday because those are when San Pedro works best and when the powers of the fates are strongest but that is to forget the most fundamental teaching of San Pedro: that there is no such thing as time! Linear time does not exist so there is no calendar, no special days of the week – no weeks! Instead we should follow natural cycles. If someone has a very grave problem and I need to work deeply with them for example then I will hold a ceremony at the full moon because the energy is very high.

What conditions do I treat? Any may be possible. No matter what the problems of a particular client most diseases are psychosomatic in origin because when people break the balance of their emotions their immunological systems are always affected and in this way they lose power so the body will accept any disease. The purpose of ceremony is to strengthen the emotions and bring the patient back to equilibrium as well as empowering the body with medicine plants.

To be a healer I must also put myself in the place of the patient so I become in a sense the person who needs my help. One example is a man who comes to me to cure his alcoholism. The solution is not to say “Well OK then, don’t drink”; it is for that person to fully accept that they are alcoholic and acknowledge the problems it is causing in their life. The next step is to identify the true cause of this disease and find healing for that. I know healers who will simply give a patient like this plants and herbs that make him sick if he should drink alcohol, assuming he will therefore avoid it. But this does not solve the problem. Instead he may just stop taking the herbs if the spirit of alcohol is stronger than his desire to be well. I put myself in the position of the alcoholic to see what has caused his condition because such diseases are a response to circumstances. A healer must have empathy in this way and be clear about the responsibilities that are involved in healing.

You also use San Pedro to heal conditions that Western medicine finds difficult, like cancer. If disease is a response to circumstances why do people get sick with conditions like cancer and how they can heal from it?
One of the big problems for modern society is stress. It has been there from the beginning of course but our ancestors had rituals to release it. In today’s world nobody is doing that. You take a pill or you drink alcohol or take drugs and you think this solves the problem but it does not release the energy of stress; it merely suppresses it so it stays with you, hidden by the effects of the drugs or the alcohol you’ve consumed. The ph levels of your body start to change because of the stress itself and the ‘cures’ you have taken for it and so you become more acid. As a result your body will automatically accept any disease.

When you use alkaline to restore the body’s natural ph it makes a big difference because then it will start to heal itself. So the idea with San Pedro is not really to provide a “cure” but to create balance in the body and emotions and in this way cancer and many other diseases will start to disappear.

Just to be clear, are you saying that San Pedro heals because it contains chemicals that change the ph of the body - or that it de-stresses and relaxes you so the body functions differently and releases its own chemicals which will restore the natural ph balance?
Both! First of all the medicine itself switches the body to alkaline. Secondly, San Pedro relaxes you and brings new understanding of your problems so you have a resolution in mind. For both of these reasons your body changes and becomes more alkaline.

San Pedro also teaches you why your problems exist. What I mean by this is that there is no ‘cancer’ in itself – or ‘diabetes’ or ‘heart attack’. All of these conditions are messages from the body about the true origins of the problem and by-products of an underlying mood or state of mind which I am calling stress. Once you know what is really wrong the problem is more easily solved and the body can return to balance and health. More importantly, San Pedro releases the stress itself so you don’t really need to do anything but accept its healing and the information it gives you.

Medicine ceremonies are not like Western psychoanalysis because San Pedro does not show you how to control stress or find a way to cope with it. Instead it removes the stress so you don’t have that problem anymore. The information it provides you with is about how to stay free of stress by bringing your life back into balance. With San Pedro you can no longer lie to yourself. That is one of the great differences between medicine and psychoanalysis.

You have said that once a person drinks San Pedro it is always in them and they will feel it working on them even if they never drink it again. What do you mean by this?
We are talking about two different things when we speak of San Pedro. Western society puts emphasis on the chemicals it contains but its other aspect is the special energy of this plant. The chemicals and their effects – the dizziness and dilation of your pupils etc – will eventually leave your body but the energy will always stay with you, as will the wisdom of the plant which becomes a part of your brain. The medicine wakes up your memory so you remember who you are and this knowledge is yours for the rest of your life so you can never forget the most important truths. Your awareness will then connect with the other experiences you have so you see the world in a different way and through San Pedro you continue to learn and grow.

That is why when people ask me how many hours they will be affected by San Pedro after they drink it I tell them it will not be hours but the rest of their lives!

Does that also mean for example that if you drink San Pedro and at some point in the future you have a child the effects of San Pedro will be passed on to that child?
Not the chemical effects of course but the unique vibration and teachings of the plant, yes. Then that child will begin life with a special advantage because within them there will be a divine connection which others do not have. This connection is a potential but it must still be activated by the child itself so in this way freewill is preserved.

What do you see as the future of San Pedro? There is a lot of interest in ayahuasca these days and perhaps less so in San Pedro. Why do you think that is and do you foresee any change in this?
First I must say that I do not agree with the globalisation of these medicines. I believe that every nation and every group must find the roots of its own spirituality and work with their own medicine plants because each tribe has its own wisdom. Globalisation destroys individual traditions. Tribal wisdom however remains.

Peru calls to many because our traditions are still alive and we can therefore offer those who come a shortcut so they can reconnect with their spiritual selves. But they must also rediscover their own traditions in order to be truly whole. Fortunately it is possible because on this planet we have thousands of medicine plants that can help people to heal and feel better about themselves so they find peace and freedom within their own culture. This is wisdom which should not be lost or swallowed up by globalisation and the modern desire for instant fixes.

People want shortcuts because they are thinking only in linear time. We need to teach them that they can step outside of this and return to their divine origin wherever they are.

Ross Heaven’s website can be found at Ross is a healer, therapist and author who runs workshops with medicine plants in the UK and Europe and trips to Peru to work with San Pedro and shamanic healers. Email for details of these. His book on San Pedro, The Hummingbird’s Journey to God, is the first to be written on this plant and its healing abilities.

About the author:
Ross Heaven’s website can be found at Ross is a healer, therapist and author who runs workshops with medicine plants in the UK and Europe and trips to Peru to work with San Pedro and shamanic healers. Email for details


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