Staring into a mug filled only an inch or so deep with warm, dark, spicy-smelling liquid chocolate, I felt anxious.
I was at a cacao ceremony, and wasn’t sure what to expect.
When I first heard the words “cacao ceremony,” I had pictured a group of people, laughing, gathered around a fountain flowing with streams of chocolate fondue. I had thought it would be a sort of extremely decadent party where no one had to be ashamed of how much they loved chocolate.
Strangely, looking back on my experience from the distance of two months, I can see that the heart of this fantasy was accurate, if not the specifics. There was no chocolate fountain. But there was plenty of unashamed heart-opening.
Modern cacao ceremonies, at least outside of Central and South America, are a relatively new phenomenon, but they are growing in number and prevalence. According to what a Guatemala-based ceremony creator named Keith Wilson (who now calls himself the Chocolate Shaman) says, in 2003 he was contacted by the spirit of the cacao plant and offered the chance to work with it and share its gifts with others. Cacao, he learned, was used traditionally by indigenous shamans influenced by Mayan and Aztec cultures, to facilitate their journeying.
Little is known about the specifics of how it was used, which allows room for individuals offering cacao ceremonies today to create their own interpretations. Keith Wilson says this is fine, and is in fact an integral part of the way cacao works with us:
“None of it is bad. Those who would use cacao to help others with their inner-work…without having done their own work…serve those who don’t really want to go anywhere inside anyway. For others, cacao fosters many hours of deep connected dancing, or creative snowboarding, as that is their choice, and they clear their own energies that way. The only improper way to engage cacao is to take too much…where all that bitter will make you really sick!”
I’d been warned before beginning the ceremony that the cacao might make me nauseous, and that was why it would first be given in a very small dose. The facilitator made sure we knew that there was no preset experience we could expect to have; the ceremony would run on our individual and collective intuition.
She had prepared a copper bowl of liquid ceremonial drink (which consisted of the cacao itself—ground up beans dissolved in hot water—plus a little honey and cayenne pepper) and placed it in the center of our circle. Then, she ladled a little bit of the liquid into each of our cups.
I had experienced many shamanic journeys before, assisted by drumming, but never before by a substance I would actually be ingesting. I still held a slight wariness: as a rule, I do not use mind-altering substances.
But there was something about the chocolate that seemed friendly. Perhaps it was the bars and bars of various kinds and qualities of chocolate I had consumed over many years. I was very familiar with the way eating an entire bar of chocolate made me feel. Usually I did it because I was trying to avoid a difficult emotion. I rarely did it for pleasure, though I loved the taste of chocolate and the way it felt in my mouth.
I would eat quickly, and shortly afterward I would feel the buzz from the caffeine moving through my body. Sometimes the inability to sleep this produced was an annoyance, since I couldn’t escape from my feelings, and sometimes it felt like a blessing, since I could be alert and creative beyond my usual limits.
Ceremonial-grade cacao produces its effects not so much from caffeine as from theobromine, one of its main active compounds. It stimulates the heart. More blood flows to the brain. Blood vessels dilate and skin becomes more oxygenated.
As well, those who work with cacao in ceremony say it opens the way for deep emotional release, creativity, and “open-hearted focus.”
Was I seeking this mind-body opening through my chocolate bars? Keith Wilson says:
“Perhaps you have been drawn repeatedly to chocolate for decades because you have a Knowing that something is supposed to be there. Hershey’s or Cadbury’s is missing 99% of the active compounds in real chocolate. Lindt or Green and Black’s are missing about 80%. It is the processing, the hybridization, and the natural variability of cacao that causes this.”
Cacao might, then, function not as an escape from my emotions, but as assistance in accessing and moving through them.
Knowing this contributed to my feeling of entering exotic and uncertain territory.
I took my first sip.
It tasted like a bitter, warm version of chili-infused dark chocolate. My wariness melted with each subsequent tiny sip, until I finally felt brave enough to drain my cup.
No great vision of the hidden underpinnings of reality came to me as I sat there. But then, cacao isn’t a psychedelic. I was taught, and the words of the Chocolate Shaman back this up, that cacao only takes you where you want to go. It opens the way, but it doesn’t force you into anything. In that way, cacao is a gentle plant.
We journeyed briefly to the spirit of cacao after we’d all taken our first dose of the drink. My experience was not earth-shattering. I only remember a series of shifting images, all of which felt like a warm embrace, complementing (or arising from?) the physical sensation of warmth that was spreading throughout my body.
We were given the option of taking another, larger dose, which I accepted. Was my lack of fear due to heart-opening? I didn’t seem to be experiencing any ill effects.
From this point on, the ceremony flowed in what felt like a nonlinear way, one activity melting into the next as the warm drink penetrated our collective bloodstream. There was group bonding and individual contemplation. I took a third dose.
I felt that time, looking into my cup, no trace of the anxiety I’d felt at first. Instead, I felt as though I were about to literally drink love into my body. It was a sensation I’ve only ever had before while walking through the woods, deep into a retreat, when my entire being suddenly quieted down and I didn’t have any mental chatter.
I was pure feeling, and that feeling was love.
The wonderful feelings lasted for a few hours, after which I began to feel tired. My body seemed to handle the cacao well. I only had one instance of feeling excessively hot, my heart rate rising and my stomach beginning to churn, and I took it as a sign that even doing dishes that evening was going to be too much for me; I needed to rest.
Were there any lasting emotional and spiritual effects? I’m not sure. The ceremony was a pleasant experience, but perhaps I wasn’t ready to go deeper.
Still, I do view my frequent chocolate cravings with a new respect: imagining them as the spiritual yearnings they may turn out to be.
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Ed: Sara Crolick