Monday, May 03, 2010

My Review - Alberto Villoldo: Illumination: The Shaman's Way of Healing (Hay House)

FTC Disclosure - I received a free PDF copy of this book from the publisher. Receipt of a review copy is not in any way contingent on a favorable review.

Illumination: The Shaman's Way of Healing
by Alberto Villoldo
Hay House Publishers, Inc.
March 1, 2010
$24.95, 216 pages

I am way late coming to this book for review - school and life got in the way. Hopefully the good folks at Hay House will forgive the untimely nature of the review.

I first encountered the work of Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D. back in the early 1990s when I first began to study shamanism. The first book I read was Healing States: A Journey into the World of Spiritual Healing and Shamanism (1986), which was co-written with Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., who was his adviser for his Ph. D. in humanistic psychology. The next book I cam across, his second, was The Four Winds: A Shaman's Odyssey into the Amazon (2000), co-authored with Erik Jendrensen.

Both of these early books had the feel of good anthropology, unlike the magical and fictional books of Carlos Castaneda (even his Ph.D. work was fictional). There was some controversy, however, due to his direct involvement in the cultures he was studying. Traditionally, there has been a practice of non-participatory research so that the author can maintain some objectivity.

In his own biography at The Four Winds Society site, he acknowledges that his interest was personal as well as professional. Besides, Villoldo is a psychologist, not an anthropologist:
I set off to learn from researchers whose vision had not been confined to the lens of a microscope; from people whose body of knowledge encompassed more than the measurable, material world that I had been taught was the only reality. I wanted to meet the people who sensed the spaces between things and perceived the luminous strands that animate all life. I wanted to study with investigators who knew the energy side of Einstein’s equation E = MC2. My own journey into shamanism was guided by my desire to become whole. In healing my own soul wounds, I walked the path of the wounded healer and learned to transform the pain, grief, anger and shame that lived within me into sources of strength and compassion.
After those first two book, I did see anything from Villoldo until many years later when I found a copy of Shaman, Healer, Sage: How to Heal Yourself and Others with the Energy Medicine of the Americas (2000) in a used bookstore. Whereas the earlier books were a bit more objective in their narrative, this book was a self-help book. It did not go unnoticed that one of the blurbs on the cover was from The New York Times Book Review, in regard to The Four Winds:
THE FOUR WINDS: A Shaman's Odyssey Into the Amazon, by Alberto Villoldo and Erik Jendresen. (HarperSanFrancisco, $9.95.) A California psychotherapist becomes a disciple of a Peruvian shaman and the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca. Last year our reviewer, Bradd Shore, said "the narrative has the feel of an Indiana Jones thriller. . . . Midway between science and literature, 'The Four Winds' is a flight of serious fancy, confounding our categories of fiction and nonfiction."
Emphasis added. That was exactly my feeling. My sense was that Villoldo was moving toward a New Age market, like Castaneda's, and away from hard science. Yes and no.

Since then, Villoldo has published several more books:
His publisher became Hay House, a press more known for recovery, spirituality, and New Age books - which furthered my doubts about his work.

So when the chance came up to read and review Illumination, I was curious to see if my doubts were founded. So I also went back and looked at some of his more recent books in that list. The most recent book, Courageous Dreaming, is not far removed from the issues I have with Tibetan Buddhism, which is essentially the anthropic egotism that suggests human consciousness creates the universe. This is a popular idea in the New Age marketplace (sometimes called Biocentrism), but reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of quantum physics.

In this newest book, Villoldo is looking more at the notion of how we can transform consciousness from a shamanic perspective:
For the shamans it is a series of awakenings and realizations that we pass through again and again. These illuminations are a part of our developmental journey, and we don’t discard any of them as we ascend to the higher rungs. We transcend and include them and grow beyond our earlier levels of understanding while including each illumination as part of an integrated self. (p. X)
And this:
There are seven life passages we all experience during our lives—birth, manhood or womanhood, first love, marriage, parenthood, sagehood, and death. To experience these as initiations requires us to face and defeat our inner demons, comprehend our oneness with Creation, and understand our duty as the stewards of all life.

Anything short of illumination is not a complete healing. Shamanic healers don’t distinguish cancer, diabetes, or heart disease in their cosmology. They see these conditions and many others as symptoms of a spiritual illness—the loss of a sacred sense of oneness with the universe, and our neglecting our role as participants in Creation. (p. X-XI)
These are certainly worthy topics of discussion. His concept of repeated "illuminations" that are not unlike initiations, and which must be passed through many times on the way to wholeness, is in line with much of what we understand about stages of development - even the phrase "transcend and include" is right out of Wilberian Integral Theory.

He argues that each of the initiations we go through (and resisting them, he suggests, is futile - we simply ended having to face them again in some other context) offers us an opportunity to heal those emotions that remain unhealed. We may not have to deal with all seven initiations in the traditional sense. For example many of us are opting out of having children, yet we may have to deal with the metaphoric birth of a business, a book, or some other creation that we bring into the world.

I like this approach to life, and I find that statements such as the following are not very different from what we might find in a book by Pema Chodron, a Shambhala Buddhist:
Our unhealed emotions are the source of our deeply ingrained beliefs that convince us that a particular situation is a problem we are powerless to change. We can solve any difficulty in our lives—from discovering love to achieving peace in our world—if we heal our emotions and then change our beliefs. (p. 3)
In addition to the seven initiations we must pass through, there are also seven toxic emotions (once known as the Seven Deadly Sins) that we need to break free from: Wrath, Greed, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, and Pride. According to Villoldo, initiation is how shamans heal toxic emotions, and that by healing these emotions, we may not change the world (directly) but we change our little piece of the world. Through initiation, we can transform the seven toxic emotions into virtues: Peace, Generosity, Purity of intent, Courage, Compassion, Temperance, and Humility.

For each of the seven traditional initiation stages, there is an emotional experience or outcome (generally an emotional wound) if we fail the initiation, and then there are the corresponding demons (toxic emotions) and angels (healthy emotions) that adhere if we pass or fail the initiation.

For example:

Initiation stage: First Love.
Emotional experience if we fail the initiation: You search in vain for the perfect partner, feeling lonely and incomplete. You are unable to have a sexual experience in which you surrender to intimacy.
Demons and Angels: Lust, healed by Purity of Intent.

By framing these somewhat traditional growth stages as initiations, Villoldo brings in a more spiritual feel to the process - this is very similar to what I suggested a while back on this blog about how change functions as a ritual process (separation, initiation, return) in the Spiral Dynamics model (see Part Three: Change as Ritual and Part Four: Ritual Structure of Change).

In the Introduction, he offers a four-stage model of initiation (expanded on in more detail in Chapter Four) using the Buddha as a model (he assumes the traditional story/myth of the Buddha's early life and later enlightenment is true - I would refer interested readers to Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist for what may be a much more accurate telling of the story of the Buddha's life):
The Buddha’s illumination perfectly illustrates the four stages of the journey of initiation:

1. The awakening: recognizing your dilemma (“There is death and disease, and I am trapped inside a palace.”)
2. The great departure: embarking on your journey (“I am a monk and shave my head.”)
3. The tests: confronting challenges and adversity (“I sit in stillness.”)
4. Illumination: the return to bring gifts of knowledge to others (“We can all be free from suffering.” (p. 11)
For the most part, this is a useful model for spiritual growth. In that sense, I can easily recommend the book.

However, when he gets into brain science, much has changed since he was in school - and in order to make his ideas fit his model, he takes some liberties with the neuroscience. A passage such as this, still in Chapter One, sounds good but is logically flawed:
When you fail to complete one of your initiations, one of the seven deadly emotions begins to stir in primitive regions of your brain. For example, lust arises, and your mind then wraps a melodramatic story around this emotion, breathing substance into it and causing it to take on a life of its own. (p. 13)
This statement assumes that we do not feel lust until or unless we fail the initiation (First Love), which one might assume happens in our adolescence or teen years. However, I can assure that lust is not purely a craving for physical sex - although it is that - but it is also craving and attachment in general. Even if we accepted the literal definition, children who are not even close to being old enough to understand romantic love can and do feel physical, sexual cravings for pleasure (see Ruter, M. (1971). Normal psychosexual development. J Child Psychol Psychiatry; 11: 259-283.).

He then goes on, however, to use a very cogent distinction between feelings (physical, natural) and emotions (cognitive interpretations of feelings) first clarified and outlined clearly by Antonio Damasio in Descartes' Error and expanded in The Feeling of What Happens. Feelings are immediate, and if we do not become attached to them, they pass through us pretty quickly (as when a child starts crying when startled and then stops in less than a minute and carries on as if nothing had happened), but emotions are feelings that get stuck in our attachments in the form
or neural connections (the amygdala plays a large role in this process).

This passage clarified his perspective:
All emotions are viral programs running in the subconscious recesses of our brain. And every emotion creates suffering for ourselves and pain for others. Feelings are new, fresh, and of the moment. Emotions are old, tired, and programmed into neural networks in the archaic brain. We believe that we cry because we’re sad or lash out because we’re angry, but in reality these emotions arise from the depths and grab hold of us: we’re sad because we cry, we’re afraid because we flee, and we’re angry because we strike. The belief that we cry because we’re sad arises because we’ve wrapped a sentimental and false story around that emotion. (p. 15-16)
Again, I tend to agree with this perspective and find it useful in my own training as a psychotherapist. Too many people are trapped in dysfunctional emotional patterns and confusing those stuck feelings as who they are as human beings.

Throughout the book, he offers a series of exercises that seems useful for rewiring the "primitive neurocomputer" in our heads. What Villoldo is suggesting is similar to what Dan Siegel suggests we can do in his new book, Mindsight, i.e., healing faulty emotional patterns through meditation and mindfulness.

The only real difference I can see in this book and some other recent books on personal transformation is the framing of the process within a shamanic worldview. This "secularization" of shamanic practices for a Western audience has cost him some support among those with whom he taught in The Four Winds Society (especially in regard to the fabricated 9 Rites of Munay-Ki).

It seems he has pulled back a bit from that questionable behavior, so the new books makes the most useful material he has learned more accessible to a mainstream reader - the people who need this information.

A few last thoughts:

* There is no index, and only a few end notes. I am sure he is not writing for an academic audience, but it would a LOT of legitimacy to his work to actually site some sources or even give credit to those whose ideas he is presenting here.

* The tone of the book is very, shall we say, New Age. Among those in my circles, this is an insult, but among those who read books of this nature it is probably a recommendation. But there is certainly little of the scientist left in Villoldo's prose.

This deserves at least one example:
Once, while hiking in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, I met a Navajo medicine woman. When I asked her name, she replied, “The red-rock canyon walls am I, the desert wind am I, that child who did not eat today at the reservation am I.” (p. 91)
Having been there, and having known a few Hopi, I am pretty sure that would never happen. Although maybe I just never met the right Hopi.

* Lastly, there is good and useful information in this book, and while I think many of the exercises are very safe for most readers, I would have some concerns around trauma victims, who prone to dissociation, doing some of these exercises. As often as not, these are the people drawn to this kind of work because they have serious wounds to heal. But there is no warning about safety or psychological grounding, working with a teacher, or about the risks of working in isolation.

Take all of this for what it's worth - one man's opinion.


John said...

The philosophical view that is nearly universally considered supreme in Tibetan Buddhism is madhyamaka but the anthropic egotism you describe does not correspond in any way that I can see with either the prasangika or the svatantrilka interpretation. Neither do I see any way to reconcile zhentong or rangtong madhyamaka with the views of Chopra and Lanza described in the linked article.

The only Buddhist philosophical school which could potentially be confused with the new age/ pseudo quantum philosophy is the yogacara aka cittamatra (called "mind only") and often called "idealist". But both of those labels are misunderstandings. The second is an artifact of the attempt to understand Buddhist philosophy using western categories. Here it basically consists of thinking that Tibetan Buddhists are making ontological statements, when what they are talking about is more similar to phenomenology (viz. H. V. Guenther) The first is simply an oversimplification, albeit one that Tibetans themselves make. Even if the oversimplified, distorted notion of cittamatra as idealist were true, no Tibetans any longer subscribe to the pure citttamatra view. A minority combine it with madhyamaka, an approach with which I have some sympathy, though I have some doubts about it's coherence. Once again I think it is unfair to reduce the combined view to "your mind creates reality." If you can find any quotations from Nagarjuna or his numerous commentators that sound like anthropic egotism I wish you would share them.

WH said...

Thanks for the clarification, John - I'm happy to be wrong.

My understanding that Tibetan Buddhism holds a "mind only" view largely comes from B Alan Wallace and his efforts to combine Buddhism and physics (I'm more a Theravadan Buddhist, although most Buddhists object to me calling myself a Buddhist because I reject reincarnation). It always seemed wrong to me from the physics perspective, now I know it's wrong from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective as well.

Thanks for sharing.


John said...

Sorry if my tone was a little condescending in my original reply. Its just that I read your blog every day and have on occasion disagreed with some of your comments on Tibetan Buddhism while still respecting your opinion. But this just seemed like a complete misinterpretation, even if it is one that some Tibetans make when explaining how the madhyamaka view is superior to cittamatra.

I haven't read any B. Alan Wallace, but for a long time I've thought, as you say, that Fritjof Capra was "wrong from the physics perspective and wrong from the... Buddhist perspective as well"