The healing power of chocolate: the cacao shaman in Guatemala

Posted By: The Wild Times


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What do you think of when someone says the word “shaman”?  For many, the image of an indigenous man with an inscrutable, wise look on his face, maybe adorned with feathers or charms, vision-questing in the depths of the Amazon jungle springs to mind. My first meeting with a shaman presented me with an affable American man, with an eminently strokeable beard, called Keith, whose shamanic journeying specialty was cacao, the base ingredient for that most addictive of pleasures; chocolate.

So how did I find myself calling upon the services of a self-proclaimed chocolate shaman? After a truly dreadful year, I had decided to spend the summer recovering on the beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, believed to be the gate to the underworld by the local Mayan population. The lake is surrounded by towering volcanoes and marine archaeologists have just discovered a lost Mayan city, hidden in the depths of the mysterious blue waters. Clusters of villages cling to the lakeshore, each one offering different atmospheres and experiences for weary travellers who brave the pot-holed roads to explore the Mayan heartland of Guatemala.

I had decided to hang my hat in San Marcos, one of the smallest villages, famous for its vegetarian food, hippie expat community, spiritual centres, peace and quiet and outstanding natural beauty An open-minded, science loving, new age skeptic, I arrived in San Marcos prepared to suspend any preconceived notions or ideas about all things spiritual and learn more about myself. One of the most interesting and illuminating experiences I had whilst living in my little spiritual bubble was my time with Keith the chocolate shaman.

I had heard many sing his praises on a previous trip to Guatemala, but unfortunately when I visited the lake before, Keith, like a rockstar, was on tour with his cacao. On my return to Lake Atitlan, I was determined to hunt him down and learn more about this intriguing figure and the magic of cacao. After arriving in San Marcos, I quickly discovered that Keith was currently conducting cacao ceremonies twice a week from 1 pm, on Sundays and Wednesday. Myself and two other chocolate aficionados decided to go along and see what cacao and Keith had to offer us, and what we could offer cacao.

After asking for directions from various locals for “Keith the chocolate shaman’s house”, we wended our way carefully down the steep hill at the quieter end of the village, more than a little nervous, not knowing quite what and who awaited us. Eventually we found a little door with the words “Cacao Ceremonies” emblazoned across it and stumbled down the path to meet our chocolate flavoured destiny.

We need not have worried. Keith and his partner were charm personified, welcoming us into the beautiful courtyard of their home and proceeded to explain to us the intricacies of cacao and what lay ahead for us in the next few hours.

Whilst the cacao was brewing, Keith told us a little more about himself. Before becoming a shaman, he used to live in Pennsylvania, where he taught students about herbalism, medicinal plants and energy work. After many years sharing his knowledge about the natural world, he decided to travel a little and ended up being drawn to Lake Atitlan and decided to base himself in San Marcos and his intuition told him this was the best place for him to work and increase his knowledge of plants and the spiritual world. A firm believer in the idea that plants have spirits and we all have a lot to learn from them, it was no surprise to Keith when one fine day he was visited by the chocolate spirit. She suggested that he explore the properties of cacao and begin this journey by finding out why chocolate was so important in this part of the world. Keith soon discovered that although cacao was very important in local Mayan culture, there was scant information and limited knowledge about the more spiritual side of this particular plant. This was the starting point for Keith’s exploration into this most well-loved of plants and his interest and research eventually developed into the cacao ceremonies that he holds today.

Of course, the cacao that Keith uses in his ceremonies is the not the bog-standard bar of Dairy Milk that you buy in the shops back in the UK. After visiting many small communities all around Guatemala, Keith employs several local families with good quality cocao plants that are processed naturally into the blocks of solid cacao that we were about to consume. The problem with the sweet, processed chocolate that we eat in Europe, the US and Australia is that around 95% of the active ingredients of cocao are missing, partly through poor genetics of the plants used, but also from the industrialised way we create our chocolate. The cacao that Keith uses is around 90% pure cacao.

After this detailed explanation we were then presented with a glass of warm, grainy looking cacao, along with some optional extras; chilli to help absorb the cocoa more quickly, panella to sweeten it (as cocao in its natural state is very bitter) and a vervain infused liquid, vervain historically being the most witchiest of herbs that has always traditionally been used to facilitate a good connection to the spiritual world. I decided to go hell for leather, and liberally dunked all three complimentary trimmings into my glass.

I was just about to savour my shamanic brew when Keith stopped us all with several warnings. Cacao is not suitable for everyone. If you are taking strong prescription anti-depressants, the natural ingredients in cacao will react with this and give you a massive, head-splitting migraine. Vervain is not suitable for pregnant women. Keith’s pure cacao will also increase your heart rate by around 15 to 20% of its normal rate, so it’s inadvisable to drink for those people who have heart problems. People who are fasting or weigh under 43 kilos will also absorb the cacao a lot quicker, so are advised to drink a little less. As a child of the West, these warnings were a sobering reminder that many plants that grow around us are not to be trifled with and we must treat them with respect.

I sipped my cacao cautiously and a lot slower than I would have done five minutes previously. It tasted bitter and sweet and strange, all at the same time. As we felt the odd concoction slip down our throats, Keith explained to us that it would kick in around about 30 minutes after consuming it. We were told not to expect a massive trip, as cacao doesn’t work in “an old, masculine style way”. It’s a partner for you, not a leader, and a cooperative, co-creative partner at that. Although cacao is a facilitator that helps people to get in touch with their spiritual sides, if you want to stay closed, safe and rational it will not do very much. We were advised to work with it and not suppress whatever came up over the next few hours.

Keith told us to close our eyes, sit in a comfortable position and relax. After a while, all of us began to feel increasingly warm in the depths of our bellies. I began to feel increasingly content and soothed and increasingly meditative. Several minutes later, when Keith asked us how we felt, all of us agreed that we felt exceptionally good. The best word I can find to describe it was euphoric, a little like dancing to amazing music with all of your best friends in the room. Speaking personally, after months of feeling utterly miserable and negative, it was a total release. I felt lighter and calmer than I had done in over a year, which in itself was nothing short of a minor miracle. All of the bad things were still in my head, but they seemed less insurmountable and more like issues that would pass, rather than haunt me to the end of my days.

As we meditated and rode the chocolate wave, Keith explained to us that we needed to become free of our cultural conditioning which teaches us to suppress our negative emotions as they are something to be ashamed of. But these feelings are trying to act as our inner teacher; if we ignore them, these emotions become louder and can start manifesting as real life dramas. It is only by listening, examining them and integrating our shadow sides into ourselves, realising that the whole of us, good and bad, is something that deserves love and acceptance can we truly be the person that we are intended to be. Keith then encouraged us to talk about the problems that were afflicting all of us, whether we considered them to be trivial or something more serious. The cacao definitely loosened our tongues, and it felt very safe to speak about our innermost worries. It’s a testament to Keith and the cacao that our sense of vulnerability was dispelled and we felt able to be honest about problems that we considered shameful.

We also spent some time learning about the notion of empaths, which in everyday language translates as the people amongst us who are more sensitive to their environment and the emotions of others and who tend to bear the burden of the problems of others, rather than concentrating on themselves. These energies can build up over time and create the spiritual equivalent of lugging a massive backpack around. Keith performed some energy clearing for all of us. Apparently I had a big, swirling cloud of other people’s negative energy above my head that Keith said he made a massive dent in. Fingers crossed...

After several hours, all of us feeling like we were walking on air, we had to say our goodbyes to Keith and the cacao. I felt lighter, happier and more at peace than I had done in a very long time and the feeling lasted for a good week afterwards. A month or two on, I am still not sure what to make of the whole experience. Cacao is not a magic bullet. I still feel sad and angry at times, but I don’t feel like I should feel ashamed of this part of me anymore. I have more understanding of myself, the bad sides and the good and I feel like I have been emotionally detoxified. I also have far more hope for the future than I did previously. It’s incredibly easy to be cynical and say these ideas of energy, plant spirits and empaths are a load of old cobblers. I probably would have agreed with this statement a few months ago. But now I am confused and questioning. My scientific friends would say “placebo effect”, although some would possibly admit to the idea that cocao can create extremely pleasant feelings in human beings. I say that we should never underestimate the power of plants; as Keith told us, when parrots, horses and dogs consume cacao, it can kill them. To the more cynical amongst us, well, don’t knock it until you have tried it, and also that sometimes it doesn’t matter why it works, as long as it does. For the more open-minded and exploratory, if you’re ever in Guatemala, seek out Keith and drink some cacao, because as someone who previously had both feet firmly placed in the rational, scientific world, I now tentatively place a few toes in the realm of the unknown and spiritual.

Words: Peggy Whitfield - twitter / blog

For more information about Keith, cacao, the emotional work he does, international sales and deliveries of cacao and prices and ceremony schedules, please go to his blog.

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