Death is sitting over everyone’s left shoulder, a witness mocking our every act.
The shaman reconciles himself with death, befriends it, turns it into his ally. Until that day, he has to fill every instant of his life with petty tasks that offer a brief respite from the icy gaze of his constant companion.
One day, he realizes that his whole life he has been hiding from the one that has stalked him since his birth.
On that day, he can settle his debt with death.
It is my sincere wish that you have such a day, where you die to all your roles and bizarre games, to your idea of being father, mother, son, daughter, doctor, tailor, teacher, soldier, and to your sense of personal importance.
From that day on, you will dedicate yourself to mapping your journey to infinity, and death will become your trusted ally.
I finished reading the note the old shaman had penned into my journal four decades earlier, when I was his young apprentice and had accompanied him to the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca.
He had come to settle his score with death.
We travelled three days by bus and fishing boat to the legendary birthplace of the Inka, to release his spiritual power to the four corners of the world. This is the act of power a shaman makes near the end of his life.
Today, I had with me the original leather-bound journal, having retrieved it from a bookshelf for this journey.
“Read it when you come here again, for your appointment with death,” he had instructed me.
I could make out the deliberate strokes of the fountain pen, and smiled after the final sentence where the ink had bled into the paper.
I had not asked anyone to join me on my journey to this island. The old man had few students and only a handful of apprentices. I have thousands of students and no apprentices. All my students are busy with their families and business and have little time to accompany a man on such a journey.
The Island of the Sun is a tourist destination now, with boatloads of visitors arriving every morning to snap a selfie by the fountain that feeds the lake. Few hike to the stone altar at the other end of the Island, or visit the Inka garrison below it, above the beach, where I am sitting now.
Tonight, I will return the stones, eagle claws, and shells in my medicine bundle to the four directions. I have completed my ayni, my agreement with Spirit. What terrible things I might have done in my previous lives I have atoned for, I hope.
Now it’s time to turn my attention to infinity, to become the cartographer of my soul and plan for the long journey ahead.
Kathmandu, September 2014
The Himalayan Bonpo still practice the original animistic religion of Tibet. Their oral history goes back 16,000 years, and although they are considered Buddhist, they still speak to the rivers and the mountain gods. They are the earliest shamans and were breeding their wisdom and their horses on the Mongolian steppes when the rest of the world was still discovering how to domesticate fire. Their wisdom is the mother of all the shamanic practices of the Americas.
They are master cartographers of the journey beyond death.
A couple of years earlier I had managed to arrange a private audience with the head of their order, the Menri Trizin, during his visit to New York. I was able to schedule a five-minute audience with His Holiness, then in his late eighties. Three hours into the conversation all he wanted to speak about was the ayahuasca, the Amazon vine that takes you beyond death.
We spoke about how shamans train to die and how the Bon practice the Phowa, the transmission of awareness at the moment of death. We discovered to our surprise that the ancient Himalayan practices and the ones I had learned in the Amazon and the Andes were strikingly similar.
Now I was in Nepal to learn the maps to the Great Beyond, during a 200-mile trek into Mustang, a region off-limits to Westerners since the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The first stop was the cave of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche, tamer of demons, who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
My old friend Roshi Joan Halifax was leading the expedition. Roshi is a Buddhist scholar now, wise and serene, but I met her years earlier when she was a wild woman, an anthropologist and expert on shamanism. We had developed a friendship over the years, even as our areas of interest diverged….
The Amazon Jungle, May 2012
Native peoples consider the jaguar the steward and guardian of the Rainforest. The black cat is the totem animal of the ayahuasca, and the lore says that once you master your fear of death, she will guide you through the many realms that we can inhabit in the great beyond.
During your training as a shaman you can acquire the jaguar body or rainbow body, a form made of strands of energy that you will take with you into the afterlife. You do this by clearing the sludge from each of your chakras so that you shine with the seven colors of the rainbow. This sludge is the result of the trauma and suffering you have experienced, or inflicted upon others, in this and previous lifetimes.
As you heal and gather your power and wisdom, you can acquire the body that will take you into infinity. If you don’t heal, you will return to a life of suffering and hardship, until you learn the lessons that will set you free.
I had to discover this the hard way, like most of us…