A memoir from Machu Picchu by Alberto Villoldo
In those days, when I first traveled the Andes, the train to Machu Picchu from Cusco was so unreliable that you did not even bother to ask about the time of departure. You simply inquired at the station “Is the train leaving today?” It was easier to hike through the mountains, a three-day walk I had done several times before, and on that trail I met my first student of the Medicine Wheel. He was a young Peruvian, bright but unschooled. He had lived in a mountain village his entire life, and now for some reason beyond his understanding he was called to trek to Machu Picchu. And he wanted to learn.
So I told him my story, how I had come to Peru to study the effects of the ayahuasca, and had discovered a tradition of psychology and healing that was unknown to the Western world – a tradition that had been preserved by his ancestors. I described the Medicine Wheel, the mythic journey of the Four Winds, and elaborated on its elegance as we walked side-by-side along an overgrown trail.
“It’s a psychology of the sacred,” I said. “It’s a tradition that identifies the divine as a naturally occurring phenomenon – that is to say that the divine is in nature – and it is by accessing the state of consciousness that informs life that we gain the wisdom we require to change, to evolve.” He was listening carefully. At least, I seemed to have his attention. He matched my pace and when the trail narrowed he would let me go ahead so that I never spoke to his back.
“In my culture,” I said, “The idea of accessing Divine consciousness is a blasphemy. But the rudiments of the medicine wheel have survived here – your people have secretly maintained a tradition and practice that is as old as our species itself. It has survived evolution; it has survived plagues, pestilence and wars – the Conquest . I think that it is based on an ancient memory of a state of mind that was preconscious – a state of mind that existed before we acquired the ability to reason. It was never displaced by reason, not complemented by it. Do you understand?
“It seems very reasonable,” he said. He was a very clever young man.
“The Medicine Wheel describes the journey,” I said.
“In the South, I shed my past the way the serpent sheds its skin. I enter a state of consciousness, a realm of awareness within which the most significant events and people of my past manifest before me. It is in this state of mind that I am able to re-experience the impact of these events and people, to see and feel them for what they were, and essentially to dismiss them one by one – to free myself from their grip.”
By this time I was breathless with exertion and raw enthusiasm. Rarely had the process of the Medicine Wheel so effortlessly described itself. Maybe it was because I had personalized it.
“In the West I confront fear. Fear lives in the future, and our greatest fear is death. We fear what we do not know, and by experiencing death we learn to maintain awareness and identity after death. If I am able to experience myself as a being of conscious energy – as a Child of the Sun — then death becomes a doorway only; it looses its menace. It’s a phase of an infinite lifetime.
“You know this,” he said.
“You know this or you suspect this?”
I stopped and unhooked my canteen from my belt. He waved off the drink I offered him and I took a long pull at the bottle. I would never see this man again. Why should I be dishonest. “I have experienced it. I believe it,” I said.
“You took ayahuasca?”
“And you experienced death?”
“Yes. I saw my own body decay before my eyes. I felt the loss of each sensation as it passed.”
“By honoring my past – freeing myself from its hold on my present, and by confronting death – learning that I will leave this world alive, I have acquired the ability to live fully in the present. I am not boasting I am using myself as an example.“
“I have learned,” I said, “something fundamental about my existence. I have learned that the body is a vessel of consciousness and that I do not have only seventy-odd years to live. I have, therefore, a new relationship with the Earth. I have become a steward of the Earth, for it might be my home for longer than anyone can count. And like the jungle cat that represents the West, I know that I have many lives to live within this lifetime. I have lived several of them already – stages in my life. The work of the West has taught me to leap gracefully from one life to the next without clinging to the people or the events that influenced it.
“Next is the North, where I journey to acquire the wisdom of all those who have journeyed before me. This is the most difficult leg to describe of the journey of the Four Winds. The ability to access a vast sea of information, of knowledge and wisdom, is somehow automatic. It is a state of consciousness that I have only glimpsed. This is the realm of personal mastery that I do not yet fully understand. I sometimes think that I carry a wisdom with me that I am not yet aware of – a wisdom that is not the product of my own experiences. I know that I can inhabit a place – like Machu Picchu, for instance – and know things about it, about its purpose as a religious center, a place of initiation. But this is all very vague.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Somewhere I acquired prescient skills – I can feel events of the future and often sense the past of a person or even a place. I know when there will be an earthquake, and I am sensitive to the moods –the joys and traumas—of those whom I love even when I am separated from them by thousands of miles. I feel presences – forms that are, I think, manifestations of human and nature energies, both positive and negative forces. But these things are all incidental skills. I don’t fully understand the North because it is not something that is understood; it is experienced, and my experiences are limited. But you can see that it is inaccessible to any who seek it encumbered by preconceptions or fears – the past or the future.”
“And then there is the East, which is said to be the most difficult journey. In the East I learn to reconcile all that I know with the world in which I live. The East is the return home. I have adapted the journey of the Four Winds into my practice of psychology and healing.”
“So this is your work of the East?” he asked.
Suddenly we were zigzagging down a steep hillside of scrub. Bingham had never made it this far. The Inka trail in 1915 was impassable beyond Puyupatamarka, the Temple in the Clouds and the towers, plazas, ritual baths, and fantastic flights of stairs set into the cliff side that falls to the banks of the Urubamba River.
“Yes, this is the work of the East,” I said. The journey back home.
Readers, Machu Picchu is an optional excursion trip on 3 of our Peru Expeditions. See Machu Picchu details here
We also offer an “East” course, a curriculum based on what Alberto mentions above. See “East/Life & Death Rites course details here