Each spring our shamanic community embarks on a pilgrimage to work with the Huichol tribe in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. I am fortunate to be returning from my third journey as I write. This was Deva’s sixth journey and we were blessed with the opportunity to bring our child along with us for her first pilgrimage as well.

The pilgrimage involves visiting sacred sites that the Huichol indigenous have been paying homage to since prehistoric times. One of these sites is in a desert valley, followed by a trek up a mountain whose peak is just shy of 10,500 ft. elevation. So as not to diffuse the power of the experience, I will not go into much detail around the ceremonies themselves. Instead, I will share a bit of my personal experience and the ways in which the journey between the ceremonies, the pilgrimage itself, is cooking me, so to speak.

I find this trip incredibly demanding — mentally, physically and emotionally. In addition to the challenges inherent in crossing the border and navigating a country whose language I barely speak, this trip requires a commitment to a month of other observed and somewhat demanding austerities. Among them is a special diet which requires only eating foods that are personally prepared and can travel well with little refrigeration. In short, lots of cooking before we leave and no eating out once we hit the road.

The trip itself requires several days outside in wide-ranging temperatures, with intense sun in the day and the cold winds of desert valleys and mountain heights in the night. We keep a rigorous pace throughout, involving little sleep, lots of packing and unpacking, and a fair amount of hiking with all of the clothes layers, ceremonial accoutrements, food and water necessary carried on the back.

Interestingly, each time I’ve made this trip, perhaps because I am stretched and challenged to such limits, it brings up incredibly intense and uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. I get a chance to experience my unsavory beliefs and false personality in all it’s myriad voices and expressions. Impatience, victimization, judging myself and others, aversion, resistance — they all come out to play.

Last year, as I made the trek up the mountain, I was able to walk alongside a dear friend with whom I was able to catch up for the first time in a while. It was sweet, I was happy and light hearted and very much enjoyed the climb. However, once I arrived to the top of the mountain, as we prepared for ceremony, seemingly out of the blue I was overwhelmed with waves of self-deprecation and insecurity. Surprised and baffled, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings and recognize what was happening.

This sacred mountain is a place of immense power, revered by the Huichol for thousands of years. It contains veins of silver and is said that it has a gold core at its heart. The Huichol recognize it as the birthplace of the Sun. It is incredibly high frequency and those lower frequency thoughts, fears and emotions, the hucha (as the Q’uero of the Andean highlands refer to it) that I was carrying did not resonate here. The power and frequency of the mountain was expressing it, as a doctor expresses a wound, pressing the negativity out of me, giving me the opportunity to clear it away.

This year, I started the journey out with a bit of a deficit.  I did not physically train in the months prior to this trip as I have in the past and I didn’t get much sleep the three nights before we arrived to our first destination, primarily due to preparation demands for both myself and a child. Traveling with the child into the desert valley for the first ceremony proved an additional emotional and physical taxation that made the mountain climb that much more daunting.

This time, as we headed out in the wee hours of the morning with the intention to reach the mountain peak before sunrise, I immediately began experiencing ‘my stuff’ in all of its ugly glory. Deva and our child rode a horse up the mountain, while I elected to hike up on foot. I was sore, tired, hungry, a bit dehydrated, both hot and cold, uncomfortable in my layers and pack, and in a generally negative, grumpy state overall. I attempted to mostly keep to myself because I didn’t want to inconvenience my fellow travelers with such negativity.

I remembered my experience with the frequency of the mountain from the previous year, how it expressed my hucha, how my negativity, fear and internalized self-hatred bubbled to the surface as I reached the top. I recognized the opportunity and set forth on this journey with a prayer. I asked the spirit of the mountain, the medicine of this land, my allies and the wind to take away all of the negativity, old thoughts, beliefs and fears, the hucha, and to dispose of it properly. I asked for safe passage and protection along this journey. I asked to be filled with light, love, strength and power from both the mountain and the sea of stars overhead. I asked Mars, who hung bright red and low in the sky, to support me with the dynamic, aggressive perseverance needed to make this climb for which I felt ill prepared.

Being a low-lander these past few years, at various points the elevation hit me like a hammer. Moving slowly, I became a bit separated from the group, with people both a decent distance before and behind me. Away from the shared headlamps it became more challenging to see. I found my heart beating rapidly and my breath struggling whenever I exerted myself to catch up.  As I stumbled up the mountain twisting ankles in the dark, I found myself in moments of fear and deep resistance, wondering why on earth I or anyone else would put themselves through this — was it sadistic, egoic, necessary? Was it really worth all of the sacrifice and effort?

Luckily, I have internalized the voices of my Shamanic mentors, who have reminded us often enough that, “the Shaman and wise elders of the world know that the price of power is discomfort.”

I was able to recognize that it is in these challenging moments that I am able to put all of the spiritual work I’ve done over these past decades into real practice. Gratefully, I was able to slip into a witness state of consciousness to watch, be with, and even be amused by all of these thoughts and emotions as they arose. I was able to practice Shunya, as Pema Chodron say’s, “the practice of not making a big deal out of things.” I remembered the various other mountain adventures I’ve been blessed to be challenged by and was able to tame the impatience and regulate my breathing and heart rate by taking the most minuscule steps up that mountain.

Poco a poco, little by little, I climbed and as I did the fear and negativity were shed and my heart began to fill with joy. As I reached the summit, daylight was dawning and I was able to look out at the vast beauty that had surrounded me the entire time. I was blessed with a new perspective, both literally and metaphorically. I could look down and see the desert valley where we had spent the night in ceremony just a handful of hours before and I felt so incredibly blessed by such perspective.

In the car ride, on the way both to and from Mexico, I was reminded that the archetypical  journeys in mythology always involve a sacrifice in exchange for deeper wisdom, power, love and harmony. I was reminded that the solo descent into the underworld is necessary before ascending to greater heights with new perspectives and redeeming gifts for the world.

As the eloquent activist, astrologer Caroline Casey say’s,  “We vote for reality with our imaginations,” and “ritual and ceremony are the language used to communicate the new realities that we envision with the gods that dwell both within our psyche and in the outer spiritual world,” or something like that.

It occurs to me that to create a new reality, to broaden our imagination, we have to give ourselves extreme and radical distance from the current reality in which we find ourselves enmeshed on a daily basis. We have to shake ourselves awake from our current dream, seek new perspectives and expand our notions of what is, as uncomfortable as it may be.

THIS is why I put myself through this, why my fellow travelers do as well, why so many pilgrims have for hundreds of years before us. As one of the ceremonialists reminded us, “beyond politics and government, this work is an impactful way to affect real change.”

To answer my own question, is it really worth all of the sacrifice and effort? A resounding YES, it is indeed a worthy endeavor. My deepest yearnings are to realize a dream of kinship, beauty, unity, prosperity, love and harmony for all of my relations and for future generations. I am intent to repeat this pilgrimage, and as many others as I’m blessed with the opportunity to make, in the name of that vision. I vote for that possibility with my whole heart and being. I love you, humanity, the earth, the whole world that much.

If I were to sum up in one word the theme for this particular pilgrimage for me, it would be POWER. I experienced time and again the power of the land, the power of plants, the power of the elements and the sun, the power of committed action, the power of surrender, the power of forgiveness, the power of trust, the power of alignment, the power of community and support, the power of ceremony, the power of love and compassion, the power of will, intention and imagination to renew, release, heal and transform.

I am so deeply grateful for this path, these realizations and all that is. May we be empowered to invoke, invite, create and become the change that is calling us, for the greatest good of all. May our dreams and actions be enlivening. May our paths and hearts be beauty-filled.

It is so – Aho!