Ahmed Zambarakji meets the UK's answer to Eat, Pray, Love's Elizabeth Gilbert in the form of Anna Hunt, an ex-Mail journalist who now runs spiritual retreats while also holding down a career
MEETING THE SHAMAN IN STILETTOS
It’s hard not to discount spirituality when one comes face to face with the movement’s most visible proponents. There are the obvious calling cards: bad Sanskrit tattoos, a wardrobe that consists primarily of purple chiffon and a general disdain for hard work/ politics / leave-in conditioner etc. Indeed, the stereotypical ‘incense and kaftans’ image often associated with the spiritual community can be so disheartening to anyone with a modicum of style that even a passing interest in alternate dimensions can be extinguished in a second.
And so there is a palpable sigh of relief when one meets Anna Hunt, the ‘Shaman in Stilettos’. Other than her piercing stare, there is nothing about her physical appearance that suggests she might have one designer heel firmly planted in the spirit world or, for that matter, that she is equipped to heal a range of issues from physical and emotional distress to relationships and careers in crisis. Perhaps it is her former life as a celebrity interviewer for one of the highest-selling nationals in Britain that has kept her from adopting the idiosyncrasies of the average spiritualist.
More plausible is the fact that shamanism, in stark contrast to other spiritual traditions, is not at all about going ‘upwards’. Rather, it is all about looking downwards, to the real world, at the foibles and F-ups that constitute our day-to-day-lives. In other words, shamanism isn’t about circumventing reality by taking up chanting or standing on your head in scorpion pose. It’s about tackling a problem head-on in a very practical, very real sort of way. “If you spend your time meditating on a cloud, you end up escaping reality, not enhancing it,” says Hunt. “Shamans have to negotiate both worlds – upstairs and downstairs.”
As such, there is an attractive air of humility – of realness - about Anna that is sorely lacking in many of the other gurus, teachers or therapists who I’ve met over the years. You don’t feel like a student around her so much as an equal. In fact, as a shaman she is required to live a ‘normal’ life and hold down a regular job. “Traditionally, a shaman would be a farmer or a husband or a wife and he’d spend the rest of his time serving the community,” she says. “In my case, I’m a writer and I live a normal, Western life. My social life, for example, is still very much the same as it was when I was at The Mail… and that’s the difference between shamanism and Eastern spirituality, where one is expected to withdraw from everyday life.”
The eager participants at her transformative five–day retreats at a Relais & Chateau property in Spain (most of them repeat customers) are equally down-to-earth. The regulars speak of life-changing circumstances that have come about as a result of the skills she acquired during her initiation in the Peruvian Amazon, a story she eloquently recounts in her book, The Shaman In Stilettos (£8.99, Amazon ).
“Some people come with career or financial challenges… Others are breaking up, mid divorce or starting a new relationship. Some come with depression. Many people come to me with low-level physical problems like IBS, acid reflux, headaches - the sort of persistent problems that doctors can rarely solve.” The problems may be diverse but they’re all grounded in real life; nobody here is looking to talk with the dead or seeking spiritual salvation.
I have come to curb an on-going issue with self-judgment, a problem that plagues the kind of overachievers that are endemic to London and to my industry in particular. Feeling like you’re ‘not enough’ has held me back in relationships, created some seriously self-sabotaging behaviours and, at one point, fast tracked me into addictive patterns. I’ve also come to experience the sacramental use of San Pedro or Achuma, a healing cactus that has formed a central part of the shamanic tradition for some 40,000 years, according to oral history.
The mescaline-based cactus, assimilates into your system throughout a nightlong ceremony, which Anna facilitates in complete darkness. There will be two of these ceremonies during the retreat. Using techniques that were passed down to her by her own teachers in the Amazon, Anna acts as an intermediary between the cactus – the real teacher in the process - and the client. Unlike other shamanic plant medicines that readers may have heard of (all-out hallucinogenic like Ayahuasca, Peyote or Iboga) San Pedro is a gentle medicine. There is no purging or sickness as is commonly associated with some of the more infamous psychoactive infusions. We don’t jump right in, though….
There is a great deal of preparatory work to do before any of us even see the cactus. Over a series of one-to-one and group sessions, our prevailing issues are brought to light, unpicked and analysed in a manner that’s not a million miles away from traditional therapy. This is not the sort of stuff a shaman in the Amazon would do and yet it forms part of Anna’s unique Western spin on the tradition. She has the keenest insight into anyone that I’ve ever met and ably describes my ‘stuff’ in terms of Jungian psychoanalysis, metaphysics, subtle energy and even quantum mechanics. “My clients tend to be professional people who are extremely intelligent. The preparatory work is designed to get them out of their heads before the ceremony.”
By the time we’re ready to drink the cactus, I am already over it. The sheer exhaustion of having run around in mental circles during the preparatory work has left me less eager than I was when I arrived. I’m less certain about what I believe to be the solution to my problems or that my issues are particularly bad at all. I poetically describe this state as a ‘brainfart’ and Anna assures me it is ideal as it will disassemble any expectations and leave me more open to what the cactus can teach.
Preempting any misguided eagerness, Anna hastens to add that the goal of the ceremony is not to “get high”. Indeed, where recreational drugs are used to escape life, San Pedro – when taken during a shamanic ceremony – turns you inwards, more deeply into your feelings and your life circumstances.
The ceremony itself is prop-heavy. Throughout the night there is ample use of crystals, a rattle (the sound of which causes the cactus to awaken in your body) and, weirdly, Florida water, a citrusy-herbal eau de cologne that is used for cleansing, healing and grounding. The theatre is entertaining enough to pass the time as I lie there waiting for the cactus to kick in. Part of me is unconsciously holding out for the kind of internal lightshows I’ve heard people in tie-dye shirts describe on YouTube.
After four hours of lying in complete stillness, I’m convinced it’s not working. Watching everyone else writhe about and have what I assume is some kind of out of body experience, I come to the conclusion that the adventurousness of my youth has left me with some kind of Herculean resistance to even Shamanic medicine.
And then Anna comes to my side to check in with me. I tell her I’m not feeling anything and she insists the cactus is working just as it should. In a one-minute exchange that still baffles me, she manages to see what I’m seeing. It’s as though her internal vision and mine have become one and she is able to refer to the memories I’m reliving in my head. I’ve not told her any of the gory details of my past and yet she seems to know me intimately.
Perhaps it is the sheer emotional-charge of this exchange that causes the cactus to ‘wake up’ and almost instantly, I feel a heaviness in the centre of my head. I begin to sense a sparkling river of energy running all the way from my third eye down into my heart, causing the pain of an old emotional wound to resurface and clear. The cactus continues doing its thing over the course of the night as I remain wide awake, mesmerized by the sensations in my body. It’s not an overwhelming or uncomfortable feeling. If anything, the feeling of energy running through my body is a lot like the pins and needles one gets from a wine buzz or after a deep massage. Only I’m incredibly present and fully engaged with even the minutest internal movement.
Different people have different experiences with the cactus and my experience doesn’t match up with some of the grander stories shared by other participants in the aftermath. “Some people get intense visions, which are usually followed by the release of intense emotions,” she Anna. For me, San Pedro was imperceptibly subtle, gentle in an almost maternal, caring sort of way – exactly what self-judgment needs to heal. No lightshows, no grand visions, no express lift to Enlightenment.
Days later and I’m starting to see the effects back in ‘real life’. Circumstances suspiciously realign themselves to diffuse the issues I initially brought to Anna. In fact, it’s still happening. As she points out, “music isn’t formed from the notes but by the pauses in between them. Equally, the cactus isn’t just about the ceremony but the events, things and opportunities that come afterwards“.
I seem to have taken things down a gear since the ceremony. I am considerably less hard on myself, I’m genuinely more accepting of my imperfections and, perhaps most importantly of all, I’m no longer wearing myself out to gain the approval of others. I’ve also spontaneously bleached my hair and booked a holiday to India, all in the spur of the moment – neither of which seem to fit a life that used to revolve around the minute-to-minute instructions in my Google Calendar. And I don’t doubt there is more to come, either.
For more info about Anna's work, please visit annahunt.com
Shaman in Stilettoes (Penguin) is available now from shamaninstilettos.com