Copyright © 2016 by Sergey Baranov. All rights reserved.
The cactus thrives at around 3000 meters above sea level and flowers between October and March with beautiful flowers gifting the lucky observer with a gentle scent. Its flower opens for just one day and closes at some point over the next two days. After this the flower gradually dries out and forms a cocoon with new life-seeking seeds. Then it is the turn of the grown cocoon to dry out while releasing the seeds to the will of the wind. Thus new cacti life is begun.
The most commonly used botanical names are Echinopsis Pachanoi (spineless) and Echinopsis Peruviana (spineful) but these names, of course, are only a shadow of the real essence of the plant. To know the latter, takes more than knowledge of names and classification. My introduction to this ancient mystery 10 years ago in December of 2005, was nothing less than a life-changing event; a fact that has slowly revealed itself to me over time. Back then, I was a spiritual seeker, who intuitively knew that plant-medicine shamanism held the key to a form of knowledge that could not be found in books. This type of knowledge was experiential, not intellectual. I was not satisfied with reading about the experience; I wanted the experience. Led by a burning desire and a spiritual thirst that up until then had resulted mainly in disappointment, I was fortunate to find people in Peru who had practiced shamanism for many decades, and were dedicated healers. This new acquaintance and introduction to an ancient path became a new starting point in my life. I felt my thirst satisfied, my spiritual hunger fed. A path of self-discovery ahead was now opened to me with a friendly and welcoming gesture. I kept coming back to work with the same people for three and a half years before I made the decision to move to Peru, which I did in April 2009, after feeling the call to serve the medicine. This of course did not come without a price as I discovered with an encounter with my own near-death experience in Mexico. This did not happen in a vision but here in the ‘real’ world when during Peyote ceremony I was stung a number of times by deadly scorpions. I describe this experience, which served as a precursor to my new path, in my book ‘Path’, along with other relevant stories along the way, which I have felt like sharing. I moved to Peru five months after this event, to the Sacred Valley in the Andes, which although was not a place I knew, felt like home from the start. I knew I wanted to build my new life here around this sacred medicine.
Shamanism was something I had been drawn to since my early childhood. But living under the Soviet regime, this prospect did not look hopeful. Already as a kid I felt sharply the pain of separation from the sense of life being a miracle. And ‘growing up’ seemed to threaten this further. I didn’t want to grow into the belief that life is a process of collecting stuff and saving for retirement. This prospect seemed rather too bleak.
Fearing death as a child, and seeking self-fulfillment from an early age were significant factors in the formation of my spiritual quest. This quest led me eventually to shamanism in Peru, where sacred medicinal plants were not only legal, but embedded in the culture, reaching back as far as the dawn of history.
‘San Pedro’ is the post-colonial name given to the psychoactive Andean cactus known under different names. ‘Huachuma’ is the old Qechua name, which means: ‘vision’ or ’that which makes one drunk’. It is a visionary cactus with an amazing potential for healing. Seeing the world through its ‘eyes’, is like being born again, but this time consciously.
With the invasion of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, native shamanic traditions of Peru faced the very real threat of extinction. The brutal intolerance of the Catholic clergy would allow only obedience and conversion, and certainly not ‘paganism’ and ‘devil-worshipping’ practices, as they viewed them. How exactly some of these ancient traditions survived, nobody knows, but I have been entertaining the following thoughts for a while as potential possibilities. There could have been a deal made. And this was simple – the natives could continue their use of their sacraments whilst worshiping Christian Saints. San Pedro was an apostle who, according to the biblical story, received the keys to Heaven from Jesus Christ. A ‘heavenly’ experience of the San Pedro cactus would naturally lead one to the choice of this name. Perhaps this allowance from the Church was seen as an act of mercy and a way to find favor in the eyes of God and the indigenous population.
Another thought is that the Indians simply hid their traditions under the cloak of Christian terminology, taking it underground. In support of this thought, we can see parallels in the way the Incas hid their mommies inside the wooden statues of Christian saints during the Corpus Christi feast – an annual liturgical solemnity and celebration of the body of Christ. Thus, while on the surface they worshiped the Christian saints, they were in fact, revering their own.
In any case, the traditions have survived to this day, albeit of course, in a syncretic form. Coming to this with my own spiritual baggage, which mainly comprised of reading eastern philosophies and contemplating upon them using psychedelics, was a good thing. I had a context in which this new teaching from the mescaline-containing cactus could spread its roots.
Although my love for wisdom and for the joy of understanding, were my early allies, I never suspected how deep this spiritual path could go. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I realized that plant-based shamanism was ‘the real deal’ – an authentic path that actually works and is open to those who are willing to step beyond the visible reality as perceived by the ordinary consciousness. The world that is seen through the sacred cactus was beyond belief. Besides its beauty, there was a knowing that does not require a belief.
Shamanism is a very broad name given to diverse practices of healing. Not all of them include the use of psychoactive plants. In Siberia for example, the invocation of ancestral spirits for the purpose of healing is achieved without using plants. For me however, this aspect of shamanism was not of such great interest. I was after an altered state of consciousness in which as I hoped, I could perceive the world in a different way, learning and spiritually growing from it directly and experientially. It is hard to describe the feeling when after a long search a person finds a path that is actually fulfilling. And this is what the sacred cactus means to me; an oasis full of spring water in the middle of a desert, drinking from which, one realizes that this is not a mirage.