An interview with Lesley Myburgh: an Andean Huachumera (San Pedro Healer)
The following interview was written, conducted and published here with the permission of, Ross Heaven. (See bottom of article for more details.)
San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi), the sacred cactus and visionary teacher plant of the South Americas, is especially associated with the shamans and healers (curanderos) of the Peruvian Andes. It has other names among these healers as well; including “El Remedio”: The Remedy, which refers to its healing and visionary powers which, they say, can help us to let go of “the illusions of the world”.
Even its post-Hispanic name, San Pedro, embodies these qualities because Saint Peter is the holder of the keys to Heaven and the name of the cactus therefore speaks of its ability to ‘open the gates’ into another world where those who drink it can heal, discover their divinity, and find their purpose on Earth.
It is also known as huachuma and this is how it is most often referred to by the shamans who use it, who call themselves huachumeros (male) or huachumeras (female). Its use as a sacrament and in healing rituals is as old as history itself. The earliest archaeological evidence so far discovered is a stone carving of a huachumero found at the Jaguar Temple of Chavín de Huantar in northern Peru, which is almost 3,500 years old. Textiles from the same region and period of history depict the cactus with jaguars and hummingbirds, two of its guardian spirits, and with stylised spirals representing the visionary experience.
Another image, of an owl-faced woman holding a cactus, comes from a ceramic pot from the Chimú culture, dating to 1200 AD. According to native beliefs, the owl is a tutelary spirit and guardian of herbalists and shamans, so the woman depicted is most likely a curandera (healer) and huachumera.
Cactus ceremonies are held today for the same reasons as ever: to cure illnesses of a spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical nature; to know the future through the prophetic and divinatory qualities of the plant; to overcome sorcery or saladera (an inexplicable run of ‘bad luck’); to ensure success in one’s ventures; to rekindle love and enthusiasm for life; and to experience the world as divine.
The ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, wrote of San Pedro in the book Plants of the Gods that it is “always in tune with the powers of animals and beings that have supernatural powers… Participants [in ceremonies] are ‘set free from matter’ and engage in flight through cosmic regions… transported across time and distance in a rapid and safe fashion”. He quotes one Andean shaman who describes some of the effects of the plant: “First, a dreamy state… then great visions, a clearing of all the faculties… and then detachment, a type of visual force inclusive of the sixth sense, the telepathic state of transmitting oneself across time and matter, like a removal of thoughts to a distant dimension”.
Lesley Myburgh (known in the Andes as La Gringa: “the outsider woman”) is another of these shamans. She has led ceremonies with San Pedro for almost 20 years.
“It is a master teacher”, she says. “It helps us to heal, to grow, to learn and awaken, and assists us in reaching higher states of consciousness. I have been very blessed to have experienced many miracles: people being cured of all sorts of illnesses just by drinking this sacred plant. We use it to reconnect to the Earth and to realize that there is no separation between you, me, the Earth, and the Sky. We are all One. It’s one thing to read that, but to actually experience this oneness is the most beautiful gift we can receive.
“San Pedro teaches us to live in balance and harmony; it teaches us compassion and understanding; and it shows us how to love, respect, and honour all things. It shows us too that we are children of light – precious and special – and to see that light within us.
“Each person’s experience will be unique, as we are all unique, and drinking San Pedro is therefore a personal journey of discovery, of the self and the universe. There is one thing in common though: The day that you meet San Pedro is one you will never forget – a day filled with light and love, which can change your life forever… and always for the better”.
In 2008, during one of my visits to Peru to work with San Pedro, I interviewed La Gringa about her life and experiences with huachuma, the cactus of vision. Her answers show not only the healing potential of this plant but cast light on the traditions which surround it and their evolution in the modern world. For those who work as shamanic healers, what La Gringa has learned from huachuma is also of interest because it suggests where illness may come from and how, therefore, it may be cured, even by those who do not work with San Pedro themselves.
How did you come to be involved in shamanic practice?
I first drank San Pedro in the 1990s and that experience overturned everything I thought I knew about reality. During my visions, out in the mountains, I saw a stairway of light on a nearby hill and I called my shaman over to explain it.
“There is nothing to explain”, he shrugged. “It is a stairway of light”.
“You mean you see it too?” I asked.
“Of course”, he said. “Take a photograph if you don’t believe it is there”. I thought he was crazy. How could I photograph a vision: something that was just in my head? But I didn’t want to be disrespectful so I took the picture anyway.
Later I got it developed, and there it was: a stairway of light, just as I’d seen it, although I had never seen it there in the mountains before and you will probably not see it now. I called my shaman and he came over to look at the picture, although he didn’t seem that surprised by it, like I was.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” he said. “These things are not just in your mind. They exist. San Pedro opens your eyes to what is already there!”
San Pedro had shown me reality as it actually was, but it had also changed what I thought of as real. I now understood the vast power we humans have, and that we can manifest anything we choose; we just have to believe we can. San Pedro teaches us how to believe.
It teaches us that we are part of everything, that we are brothers and sisters, and that nature in its true form is beautiful. It wakes us up and shows us how to be conscious of the Earth. Before San Pedro I used to walk through the world and not notice it. Now I notice everything and I have a new respect for it.
That wasn’t the only ‘miracle’ I saw that day though. My shaman was a gentle man and I felt peaceful and protected as I lay in the sun. So, when I opened my eyes and saw two children looking down at me, they were so beautiful I thought they were angels. I was in awe of them and it took me some moments to realise they were real and were crying and asking for help.
They said their father was sick at home and they had no mother so they didn’t know what to do. They were frightened that he was dying.
I went to their house with my shaman and when I saw the man I thought he was dying too. But the shaman walked calmly over to him and started to blow on the top of his head through some coca leaves he had with him. He then used a feather, running it over the sick man’s head and body; then he said a prayer.
As soon as that was done the man sat bolt upright and started to vomit like he’d never stop. Immediately he looked better. The shaman said he’d be fine after that and when we left the house he was already out of bed and taking care of his children.
That was my first experience of a shamanic healing, and all the shaman had used was a feather and some leaves and, of course, the knowledge given him by San Pedro. After that I knew that I wanted to work more with this plant.
You trained with other shamans too. Tell us about your present teacher.
His name is Ruben. I met him ten years ago in a church in the Sacred Valley, quite by chance. I learned so much from him right from the start. He is a famous anthropologist who for many years ran the Machu Picchu sacred site, but he is also a shaman so he knows why and how things work from both a historical and a spiritual perspective.
His training was very hard. He was not like my first shamanic teachers, who were much gentler. He made me drink San Pedro twice a week for several years. Sometimes I would beg him not to have to drink it! I’d sob and say I was too sick to drink, because I just couldn’t face another session. But he would say, “Good! You’re sick! That – and the fact that you can’t face the healing you need – is exactly why you need to drink it! Get your coat and let’s go!”
At the time it was agony, but now I know he was right and drinking all that San Pedro was the best thing that happened to me. I saw all the bad things in my life in a new light and was able to let them go. I cleared whole lifetimes in those years, and I learned so much about San Pedro and healing too.
I still work with Ruben and I hope I always will. But he has softened a little now and no longer demands that I drink every week.
He is an ‘old school’ shaman, though, isn’t he, with lots of ritual as part of his ceremonies – the singado and contrachisa, etc. Did he teach you that too?
Oh yes. But I never felt comfortable with those rituals and Ruben agreed that I should work differently, especially as I was now healing many Westerners who didn’t really understand the rituals anyway. San Pedro guided me and said I should keep things simple. So now I say a prayer to open the ceremony and then as much as possible allow San Pedro to do its work without me getting in its way.
I do sometimes use tobacco in ceremonies though, but not the singado [tobacco leaf macerated in honey and alcohol which many shamans ask participants to snort into their nostrils to clear negative energies]; just tobacco smoke. It is good to blow the smoke over people if they are going through a tough time or have stuck energy somewhere within them. The smoke frees it up.
I also use agua florida [a plant-based perfume with healing properties] to balance people’s energies. Mostly I ask them to sniff it from the bottle or from their hands and it helps to ground them, but sometimes I spray it over them.
And of course I also use a mesa [a cloth altar laid out in a specific ritual way], although mine is much simpler than many others. In Peru, shamans work with many different layouts of mesa, but when you have your own you learn to use it in a way that suits you. It is a living thing so you develop a relationship with it. San Pedro teaches you how to use it too.
Left: Lesley (on the right) with her San Pedro mesa and ritual items. In front of her is a bottle of agua florida for balancing energies and, in the foreground, a San Pedro cactus.
Right: A close-up of the mesa, its layout, and the ritual objects it contains.
The objects at the centre of my mesa are shells and stones which have meaning and power for me. I arrange them in a straight line, like a spinal column with the stones as the vertebrae. This follows the notion in Peru that spiritual energy is held in the small of the back and as we advance on our paths and the plants guide us it begins to rise up the spine to the head, where it resides when we become fully conscious.
In the Andes we have three sacred animals: the serpent, puma, and condor, and you will sometimes see statues of all three, one on top of the other. The serpent represents the divine energy we hold in our backs; the puma is the body; and the condor is the awakened self: the mind that soars above the world. So these statues are also a representation of energy flowing through us and bringing us into new consciousness. The mesa I use is like that.
Some shamans use chonta [wooden staffs sometimes used to beat participants to move their spiritual energies around] and swords on their mesas as well; as protections and to change the energies of patients and heal them. I don’t, because I have always known that San Pedro protects me and my participants anyway, and that there is no greater protection or more powerful healer than the plant! So why would I need to hit participants with sticks – and interrupt their healings by doing so?
Ruben is a historian and regards my approach as a form of evolution which gives people the healing they need through the correct ceremonies for our times. But it is also a de-evolution because so many rituals and objects have been artificially added to San Pedro mesas and ceremonies through the influence of the Spanish Catholics.
Before the Spanish came to Peru, Andeans believed in Inti, the god of the sun, and Pachamama, the Earth, so their rituals were simpler and needed fewer symbols, appeasements to God, or ways to keep evil at bay. The idea of guilt and a God who needed appeasing arrived with the Catholics and it was they who made our ancestors change their rituals or be killed. Before this, they were more natural and flowing.
So what I do may be an evolution, as Ruben calls it, but it is also a return to what was always done. It is as if we have evolved backwards rather than forwards in time!
Is your decision to hold ceremonies in the day instead of at night part of this ‘backwards evolution’ too?
Ruben holds his ceremonies at night and that is how he taught me, but as I grew in my understanding of San Pedro, night ceremonies – for practical as well as spiritual reasons – became another thing that did not really work for me.
Perhaps it is to do with the Spanish again and their Catholic notions of guilt and “suffering for our sins” that most San Pedro ceremonies are held at night! I always found it so cold and uncomfortable that I could never really relax enough to receive the healing of San Pedro. I mentioned this to Ruben and he understood exactly what I meant, so he began to hold ceremonies for me during the day. Then I really noticed the difference. In daylight is where all my breakthroughs have come.
For one thing, with San Pedro, you can look around you and see the beauty of the world and notice how connected you are to everything: that you are beautiful and part of a beautiful creation. You can’t do that in darkness.
What people need to understand is that San Pedro is not a hallucinogenic like ayahuasca, so they will never see images and pictures, and there is no point, therefore, in lying in the dark waiting for something to happen. San Pedro’s teaching is visionary instead, in the revelations it brings about the natural – not the spirit – world, and in daylight you can see that more clearly. That is why we hold our ceremonies in sunlight: because San Pedro wants it that way and that is how it was first done.
Above: A San Pedro shrine, with spiritual and religious objects and symbols, and three bottles of the brew to be drunk in ceremony.
Below: Participants on the author’s Cactus of Vision San Pedro journey to Peru begin to feel the loving effects of the brew.
How do you prepare your San Pedro?
Most shamans peel and cut the cactus then boil it for between four and eight hours. They may also add alcohol and sometimes other plants or ingredients. I cook mine for twenty hours, however, so it is much stronger and also means that people are less likely to vomit when they drink it. Other San Pedro brews feel weak to me now and rarely give the same visions.
Some shamans say you don’t really need visions for a healing to take place with San Pedro. They have a point, but I still think they are important, because as well as the healing people receive, they also need to know they have been healed. When the visions come they can feel it, then they understand it is real and pay attention to what they are shown… about how to protect themselves and stay well, or their place in the world and the beauty of their lives. Without the visions they can’t know this.
There are some other things to consider when preparing San Pedro. I only work with cactuses that have seven or nine spines because they produce the most gentle and beautiful brews. Those with six or eight spines are not so strong, while elevens and thirteens can be very intense but also sometimes dark. I never use either with patients.
Those with four spines are only ever used for exorcisms, and the patient and healer must both drink. You don’t ever want to try a San Pedro like this though. It is horrible and the visions take you straight to Hell.
While the cactus is cooking we often sing songs to it or offer our prayers that it will produce good healings. Every time we stir it we offer a new prayer, so maybe twenty prayers go into each bottle.
Sometimes the spirit of San Pedro shows up while we are cooking it too, in patterns on the surface of the water which tell us who will be coming to drink it and why. I have seen patterns in the form of ovaries, for example, complete in every detail, or hearts enclosed by circles. Then the next day a woman has arrived for help with a fertility problem and brought with her a man whose heart was closed to her dreams. In this way San Pedro can show us what people need before they even arrive.
What healings have you seen from San Pedro ceremonies?
One that meant a lot to me was for a woman who had always said she would never drink San Pedro, so her story shows in a way that you don’t even need to believe in the plant for it to heal you – although it is better if you do.
This woman’s husband had died a few years ago. He was a strong man but his disease meant he had wasted away to nothing. It took him a year to die while the woman nursed him. Then, just three months after that, her son was killed; murdered in South Africa, stoned to death and left to die. He was just 26.
The woman was shattered. She became like the walking dead. Soon afterwards she had a stroke which paralysed her arm and, from the shock of all she had been through, she got diabetes as well.
Finally, despite all her reservations, she asked me if she could drink San Pedro. I gave her the tiniest amount but it was just perfect for her, as San Pedro always is, and then she lay in my arms and cried her heart out for five hours.
That is a good expression for what happened actually, because I had drunk San Pedro too and through its eyes I saw strands of energy coming from her heart and circling her chest and arm like a tourniquet. I began pulling them out of her and throwing them away.
The next morning was like a miracle. Her arm, which had been totally paralysed, had regained all of its movement. When she got home she saw a specialist who tested her diabetes too and that had gone as well. Now she has no problems at all.
I asked her about her San Pedro experience later and she said she had felt a lot of pain in her heart, which is where I had also seen the energy of grief that was binding her. So as well as curing her physical problems, San Pedro showed her why she had them: because of the
emotional distress she had been unable to let go of before.
What I have learned from San Pedro is that illness is never a “thing” that is in us; it is not “diabetes” or “a stroke”. It is a belief that we carry: that we must mourn for the ones we have lost, for example, or for ourselves, through a pain or disability that makes our suffering visible and “real”. So illness is a thoughtform; a negative pattern we hold on to and reproduce. San Pedro not only heals us but shows us this thoughtform. Then, the next time it arises, we know it and can make a conscious choice to think and act differently.
The woman you described sounds like she had a “psychosomatic” problem, a term that has lost much of its power in the West today. Can you elaborate?
Every illness we have arises from our minds and souls. Another woman came to me after she was diagnosed with cancer and had been receiving chemotherapy. She looked so ill that I took her in and she spent the next seven days with me. She vomited constantly. At the end of the week she realised that her doctors were not helping her and decided to work with the plants instead.
She phoned her doctor to cancel her appointments and he was extremely angry. He told her she couldn’t do that, that she was stupid and would die as a result of her decision – which, incidentally, is a curse.
Anyway, she stuck to her decision and now, through San Pedro, she is healed. The plant again showed her why she had cancer – which no Western medicine can do – and told her she had a choice: in blunt terms that she could die or change her mind and live the life she wanted. I know that sounds too easy but it really is as simple as that. She decided not to have cancer anymore because her realised that life was just too precious once she had seen it through San Pedro’s eyes.
I have also worked with women who have been sexually abused as young girls and are carrying the energy of that in their bodies, and usually a sense of guilt or shame as well, as if it was somehow their fault. This energy is also a thoughtform and it is making them ill and, sometimes, suicidal.
They need to drink San Pedro three times. The first is terrible, even for me to watch. They just lie in a foetal position and scream. The second time they are more relaxed but there is still a lot of crying. I usually drink San Pedro with them so I can connect to what they are going through and the plant can teach me what they need to heal.
The third time they drink everything changes and it is an experience of total joy. Afterwards they are so different that not even their friends recognise them! San Pedro shows them another way, a new belief about themselves, and helps them reconnect with love and the beauty of life which has been lacking for so long in their own.
That sounds like soul retrieval, but instead of the shaman performing it, the intelligence of the plant does it for them.
That’s right. It is soul retrieval or, rather, life retrieval. We hold our negative beliefs about ourselves as tensions in our bodies. If we don’t eventually release them, they become hardened and manifest as physical or emotional problems. At the same time, our good energies are blocked so that the fullness of our souls is not expressed and parts of us stay buried. San Pedro removes our negative beliefs so the positive ones shine through. So it is a form of soul retrieval; one where we return ourselves from ourselves.
Above: Participants on the author’s Cactus of Vision San Pedro journey to Peru, as the ceremony begins. For those who might say that the effects of San Pedro are “all in the mind” or the result of imagination, the dog, Loba, was a stray that had been abused and was nervous around people before drinking San Pedro that was accidentally spilled during a ceremony some years ago. Now she joins every ritual and loves to be part of the circle.
Below: Some of the participants on the author’s most recent (2008) Cactus of Vision journey. The author is in the white shirt. Behind the group is a painting by a Peruvian artist of San Pedro cactuses.
Can you say more about how negative beliefs affect us?
In the Andes, shamans talk about “good” and “bad ideas” and these are, in a way, what I mean by thoughtforms. When someone says, for example, that you have “good ideas”, they don’t mean you are a creative genius! They mean you have good or spiritual thoughts or that you are at one with the truth and goodness of the world.
Sometimes they talk about a “good” or “bad wind” as well. These “winds” are an accumulation of thoughts or energies which are attracted to each other and share a common affinity. The good energies of many people having positive and uplifting thoughts can create a good wind but, by the same token, negative thoughts can band together to create a bad wind. In both cases, they are a sentient force which circulates in the world.
Thoughts like these have physical effects. I recently took a horse ride with a friend, for example, to visit the Q’ero of the high Andes and, some way into our journey, miles from anywhere and from medical help, my friend swooned and fell from her horse. She lay on the ground shaking and not of this world at all.
Luckily we had a shaman with us who knew what had happened and, taking out his coca leaves, he placed them on her and blew through them into her crown. She stopped shaking straightaway and then began to come round.
When I asked him what had happened, he just shrugged and said “a bad wind”. She had been hit by a thoughtform which had, in a way, possessed her. He had blown a different energy into her to remove it and fill her with light.
But, imagine: if stray thoughts can do this much damage, how much stronger are our own ideas? Our beliefs about ourselves, our sicknesses and our powers or weaknesses are not random, after all; they are personal to us and may have been with us for years. So it is literally true that our thoughts can kill or cure us. We must be careful, then, about how and what we think. San Pedro helps and heals us by showing us how to do that.
Is there anyone you wouldn’t hold a ceremony for?
I once thought so. A few years ago some young people who were travelling through South America asked me for a ceremony. When I told them what it involved, they said not to worry, they’d taken a lot of drugs in the past and had heard about San Pedro and wanted to try “a new drug experience”. I must admit that I judged them in a bad light because they were trivialising San Pedro and saw it as “just another drug” – which it is not. It is a powerful spiritual medicine.
It was San Pedro that told me to relax. It reminded me that it can handle things for itself and make its own decisions about who can drink it, and to remember that I was the guide, not the healer! So after that I didn’t judge them and I gave them San Pedro.
Afterwards, they came to speak to me about their “drug experience” and told me their encounter with San Pedro had been the most humbling of their lives. San Pedro had told them straight, they said, that: “I am not LSD! I AM SAN PEDRO!” They learned from that and for some it changed their lives. They no longer take drugs at all.
So now I am humble too because I know that San Pedro will always give people what they need – even if it is not what they thought they would get. I like the expression you use: that with plant work you should have intentions but not expectations. That seems a good approach. But, in any case, I trust San Pedro and I know it will act with integrity towards everyone, so now I no longer discriminate.
There is a diet that goes with San Pedro, just as there is for ayahuasca. But with San Pedro it is easier. Can you say something about it?
All teacher plants require some ritual precautions prior to and during the ceremony. This is what we call the diet. It refers not just to restrictions around food and drink, as the name might suggest, but to other behaviours as well so we approach the plant with a pure intent. So when we talk about the “diet”, it is really more like the ancient Greek understanding of “dieta”: a change in lifestyle, not just in what we eat.
Ayahuasca demands preparation some days before, including food and behavioural taboos, sexual abstinence, fasting and meditation, but San Pedro does not ask for such major changes. Nevertheless, for a day before it is drunk, food and drink should be as bland as possible and contain no alcohol, meat, oils or fats, spices, citrus fruits or juices, and there should be no sex.
For about twelve hours before the ceremony, there should be no food at all. This means a day of fasting if you are drinking San Pedro at night or no food from about 8pm on the night before if you are drinking it the next day. For a few hours before the ritual I also suggest a period of quiet reflection so you can think about what you would like to heal or learn about yourself.
That is really all the diet requires, although there are some specific conditions where a consultation with your shaman and medical doctor is recommended in advance of drinking San Pedro. These include problems with the colon, high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes, or mental illness. None of these will necessarily prevent you from drinking since the condition itself may be the very thing that you want San Pedro to cure, but your shaman and doctor must know.
A general rule with plant work is: the purer your body and spirit, the more powerful the medicine and its teachings. The diet helps with this.
I’ve heard it said that the ‘processes’ (set and setting) involved in ceremonies can contribute to the effects; that the shaman acts as a sort of hypnotherapist, for example, and offers healing suggestions to the patient, while the ritual contains practices like meditation which are relaxing and healing. What do you think of that?
I sometimes get asked things like that, mostly by scientists and academics. They want to know what the “make up” of San Pedro is, what its “active ingredients” are and “how it works”. I tell them I don’t know and don’t care! For me, it is not San Pedro’s “mescaline content” or “properties” that are important; it is a healing spirit which produces miracles that I have seen with my own eyes. So I really don’t know or care how it works. I can’t explain a miracle any more than those who ask me about it can! But I know this: if you needed a miracle because your life was in that much pain and if – by the grace of God and San Pedro – you got one, you wouldn’t care how it worked either!
Part of the disease, it seems to me, is to want to understand the world in terms of its “mechanisms” when its nuts-and-bolts really don’t matter at all. It is the beauty of the world that should attract, engage and inspire us! When we drink San Pedro that is one of the first things we learn – and then our questions become irrelevant anyway. So the real answer, for those who want to know the hows and whys of San Pedro, is simple: drink it and then you will see!
The “what” of San Pedro is that it heals lives. Let us leave the sleepless nights of the whys and hows to the academics for whom such things seem to matter.
Ross Heaven is the author of more than 10 books on shamanism and shamanic healing, including Plant Spirit Shamanism, Plant Spirit Wisdom and The Sin Eater’s Last Confessions. He runs workshops on these subjects too, as well as journeys to Peru to work with the shamans, healers, and plant spirit medicines (ayahuasca and San Pedro) of the Amazon and Andes. For more information on Ross and these events, visit www.thefourgates.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.