A World of Healing: The Adaptation of the Andean Mesa Tradition into Western Shamanism
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I am a carrier of a mesa, a beautiful, multicolored bundle containing various power objects and stones used for moving energy in service of healing. A more commonly known term in the West might be a “medicine bundle”. This powerful shamanic healing tool has been brought from the Peruvian Andes and elsewhere in Latin America to the outside world through a variety of western teachers. I myself have been studying in the Four Winds Society Healing the Light Body School founded by new shaman, Alberto Villoldo. In the 1970s, he went in search of a curandero, translated as shaman or folk healer in Peru, and found Don Antonio Morales. They worked together to adapt the healing practices and rituals of the Q’ero people, ancestors of the ancient Inca, into a format that would convey in the West. Villoldo is only one of many other western trained anthropologists and psychologists, such as Oscar Miro-Quesada and Elizabeth Jenkins who have helped preserve and translate this potent source of healing for a world sorely in need.
The mesa is the shaman’s primary healing tool. Representing the world in sacred balance and wholeness, whenever it is opened, energetic forces are activated to move a person into ayni, or balance. The energy medicine of the Q’ero and other indigenous peoples from around the world is based on calling on and manipulating an elemental power infusing all animate and inanimate matter. Known as 'waca' in Quechua, it is more commonly known in the West from the Asian words, qi or chi. The concept of 'waca' was chronicled by the Spanish conquerors of South America and persists to this day as “the localization of power…in an object, a mountain, a grave, an ancestral mummy, a ceremonial city, a shrine, a sacred tree, cave, spring or lake of origination, a river or standing stone, the statue of a deity, a revered square or bit of ground where festivals were held or where a great man lived” (Brundage, 1963, 47; cited in Sharon, 1978). Waca thus can be found in greater abundance in some places and objects from those places will be infused with this life force and can be harnessed in service of healing. Anthropologist Edith Turner describes it this way: “energy gives power to our bodies, even to our brains and endocrine systems, and we are healed….healing power is like a wave, a strong force or vibration, and then one feels it as an overpowering effect setting one ashiver, and people call it energy or vibrations” (2006, 25-26).
Mesas may be portable bundles or they may be fixed shrines or altars where there is a concentration of this kind of power. I carry my mesa with me in a shoulder bag. Compared to some mesas carried by indigenous healers, mine is very modest, despite being extremely heavy. Across Central and South America, they can be several feet long and wide and cluttered with myriad staffs, stones, crosses, pictures of saints, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, bottles of medicine, and other amulets and sacred objects.
My mesa contains 13 stones that have been transformed through a lengthy training and ritual process into kuyas, or power stones into which energy, or magnetismo, has been called and harnessed in service of my own and others’ healing. Prior to attending these shamanic trainings, I collected a few of the stones in rock shops. Others come from places I have visited and known to have a high concentration of 'waca' such as Chaco Canyon in Northwestern New Mexico and a local mountain in my hometown known alternately as Mountalto or Brown’s Mountain.
I have also collected other objects in my mesa that are significant to me, such as a bear claw gifted by a friend and a sterling silver cross studded with a piece of turquoise. In shamanic traditions, amulets from living animals are often used to invoke the particular energetic quality of that species. The bear carries the medicine of awakening into one’s true self, fierceness, and the ability to cross from one world to the next (Andrews, 1997, 250). The crucifix, of course, invokes the sacrifice of Christ, but it is also a perennial symbol around the world of the Axis Mundi, the Tree of Life, the central organizing principle of the universe (Eliade, 1964). The healer travels along this axis to find what is needed to cure disease and create spiritual and psychological balance for her patient. When we are in balance, we are like the great tree whose roots reach down into the Earth and whose branches go up into the sky so that our bodies and minds are a clear vehicle for this pulsing, universal energy.
My power objects are wrapped in or sit on a colorful woven fabric called a mesa cloth with regular, geometric patterns. Usually, there is a column looking like a zigzag of lightning running down the length of the middle of the cloth. This column mediates between the two sides of the mesa and represents the inherent duality of life: the bottom represents hucha, or the “heavy” energies, sometimes translated due to western, Christian influence into “evil”; the upper part represents sami, or “light” energies. A more neutral interpretation of the bottom and top of the mesa is that they represent a complementarity between the “Underworld” and the “Upperworld” or from a western psychological standpoint, between the shadow and the ideal, or the subconscious and conscious, which are in a dynamic dance in the psyche. The column in the middle represents the balancing of these two polarities as they are expressed in physical action here in the "Middle World."
The mesa also holds the energies of the four cardinal points of the compass, North, South, East and West. Like the philosophy of the Medicine Wheel in many indigenous cultures, each direction represents a particular energy. In the system I teach, South is youth and growth, West is darkness, decomposition and death, North is balance and wisdom, East is light, regeneration and rebirth. At the center of the directions, with Earth below and Sky above, is the point of mediation or the Axis Mundi. Like the Axis, or the Great Tree, we want to stand at the center of this wheel and have the fluidity to be able to access the complementary energies of each part of the mesa as needed in service of our life journey–whether of healing, accessing our highest possible destiny, or manifesting a particular outcome in the world. Therefore, the mesa holds this potentiality within it for both the shaman who carries it and for the clients he serves.
When I use my mesa in work with a client, I am actively engaging my own Luminous Energy Field (LEF) with theirs. Villoldo describes the LEF as “an invisible matrix that informs the anatomy of the body” (2000, 44). In Eastern healing and spiritual traditions, it is called the “aura”. Our aura is imprinted with all our life experiences, both good and bad, as well as the experiences of our family of origin, our ancestors, society, culture, and, in our global society, the world as a whole. Therefore, we can reach into the LEF to shift patterns of illness and imbalance. In the West, in the wake of institutionalized Christianity and scientific rationalism, we sadly lost our awareness of the presence of this energy interpenetrating all sentient and non-sentient being and forms, from rocks to human bodies. Luckily, due to the work of Villoldo and others, the spread of Eastern and indigenous religions in the last 30 years into the West has reawakened this ancient knowledge.
The basic principle of western shamanic healing is that all matter, time and space can be manipulated in the LEF when we invoke power through engagement with the mesa and its associated objects. Working in and through this field of magnetism and power, we can more easily change conditions and circumstances. In contrast, in the mainstream Western world, we attempt to change conditions within and around us solely through manipulation of the physical or mental realms of experience. We all know, however, how difficult it can be to do this, such as when we want to quit smoking or lose weight. We might try to avoid keeping certain foods or cigarettes in the house and to count calories. In the world of the mesa, we can instead work more powerfully and fluidly at the level of the mythic and the energetic.
The mythic is the realm of experience that we might associate with symbols and rituals. For instance, when Christians eat the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist, they are accessing the perennial, archetypal energy of Christ through time and space through ritual context. Even though Christ does not live in the body in present time and space, we can energetically tap into his essence in the sacred space of a worship service and through the physical medium of the bread and wine. His 'waca' is called down into the physical.
In the same way, if we have an addiction to sugar, we can work with the mythic dimensions of the literal, physical substance. From this perceptual state, as the mythic is called, the desire for sugar might point to an emotional and spiritual craving for more sweetness or love in our lives. In what is called the imaginal dimensions in Jungian psychology, the wish to unceasingly eat pies, cakes and cookies are actually symbols for something more intangible just as objects, people and qualities appear in our dreams at night and so point to elements of our psyche seeking resolution and transformation. In the same way, using the mesa and its power objects, we can work in these imaginal, dreamworld dimensions in a wakeful, aware state to shapeshift and alter our perceptions and reality.
To engage in the mythic and energetic dimensions of life in service of a client’s healing, I ask her to choose a stone from my mesa. Her choice gives me diagnostic information, as I know the association of each kuya with a particular story and energy. The stones also sit in particular quadrants of my mesa. Where the kuya comes from on my mesa tells me if the issue at hand may be related to an old trauma that needs to die (South and West), a lost part of self needing to be retrieved or an unconscious, energetic connection to a deceased family member or friend (Underworld), a need for connection to higher realms of knowledge (North; Upperworld), or a movement towards new inspiration or growth (East), among others. Sometimes, I can sense ahead of time which stone the client is going to choose, as information also comes to me through images, emotions, sounds, and sensations in my own mind and body. I might feel a pull from a certain stone in my mesa that then is mirrored by the client’s choice.
I ask the client to focus her attention on the feeling and mental state in the body and mind related to the presenting issue. I then instruct her to blow it into the stone using the breath. The breath, that essential and finely tuned bridge to life and energy in the body, is also a conduit for energy when attention is focused with a particular intentionality. In this way, through the breath, the kuya, already super-charged and receptive through previous rituals to be of service in the movement and transformation of energy, is temporarily imprinted with the client’s issue. I then take it, and, holding a small pendulum in the same hand, I test to see which of the energy centers in the body are affected.
According to the Q’ero people, there are 7 energy centers in the body, also known as “chakras” in Eastern healing systems: one at the base of the spine, the second just below the belly button, the third in the center of the solar plexus, the fourth at the heart, the fifth at the throat, the sixth in the center of the forehead just above the eyebrows, and the seventh at the crown of the head. Each energy center manages and represents certain aspects of the self and of life, from physical to spiritual. When they are healthy and balanced, the energy centers are supposed to spin clockwise and to be full-bodied and vibrant. When unbalanced, the centers will spin counterclockwise. Or they may be clogged, sluggish or collapsed. If this is the case, then the chakras are improperly channeling raw universal energy, or huaca, into the whole LEF and thus into the physical body. This state of affairs can lead to mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical imbalance and even illness.
After I have identified the affected energy center, I put the kuya on the lowest one and start working with the LEF of the client. I spin open the chakra by rotating it counterclockwise. Eventually, heavy energy begins to rise to the surface of the LEF, as a whole, and up out of the chakra itself into the stone. I support this process by using rattling, singing, drumming, whistling, fanning, or using incense. In the meantime, my mesa lays open near the client and I may be called to take other stones or objects from it to help move the process forward. The movement outward of heavy energy then allows natural light energy to more fully occupy the LEF and thus the body/mind of the client.
Throughout this process, the mesa works with and through me in service of the client. Because it has been ceremonially blessed by my teachers, my mesa connects me to all the keepers of the stone shrines—all healers in my tradition down through time, both past, present and future. In this way, my mesa is a kind of radio receiver transmitting the knowledge and power I need to see and feel my way on the journey needed in the present moment to bring the client back to balance. As the session progresses, I can use any of the power objects to remove blockages, spirit intrusions, retrieve lost soul parts and soul gifts, move and focus heavy or light energy, or to engage with any of the multiple dimensions of reality, energy and power that make up the pulsing universe of a life, for better or worse. Most importantly, within the sacred space invoked by the mesa, the natural inclination of the organism towards balance and wholeness is supported. The client then leaves my office feeling invigorated, refreshed and lighter, if not occasionally radically transformed.
As an academic anthropologist, it was not easy to come out of the closet to admit that I was aware of the presence of energy and powers beyond the material and physical or that I now work with them in a healing practice. However, when I see often profound and dramatic changes in my clients' lives, health, and well-being, there is no doubt in my mind about the power and sacredness of the mesa I carry and the great lineage of healers and spiritual beings to which it connects me through time and space.
We in the West can be very hidebound and myopic in our belief that our worldview is the only “real” or “valid” one. The fact that these healing principles invoking the elemental powers of the universe have been found for millennia throughout the world among peoples of many cultures and systems of belief should be proof enough that there is something to them beyond mere superstition or belief. All of us, including scientists, medical doctors and psychologists need to pay attention. The world urgently needs healing.
I believe that we will soon have to admit that we have hit the limit of what Western medicine and psychology can provide. While pharmacology and talk therapy have tremendously helped hundreds of thousands of people for over a century, there are still many who continue to struggle with the demons of depression, grief, anxiety, panic, apathy, and even rage. The shamanic healers of Peru and other places in the world have come forth to offer us “new” alternatives distilled from ancient knowledge. In this pantheon of tools, the mesa is a powerful source of the healing, transformative life force of the universe. May we use it wisely and well in service of our own and others healing!
Brundage, Burr C. (1963). Empire of the Inca. Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press.
Eliade, Mircea (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Sharon, Douglas (1978). Wizard of the Four Winds: A Shaman’s Story. New York: The Free Press.
Turner, Edith (2006). Among the Healers: Stories of Spiritual and Ritual Healing around the World. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Villoldo, Alberto (2000). Shaman, Healer, Sage. New York: Harmony Books.