For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
One day John [Brathen’s boss at the time in Costa Rica – Ed.] told me the commune was hosting a cacao shaman at the farm and that there would be a chocolate ceremony later in the day. I had heard of chocolate ceremonies for emotional healing and I was intrigued. A cacao shaman works with special types of beans from sacred parts of South America. An ancient ritual to prepare the cacao involves roasting and grounding the beans, then mixing the hot chocolate with brown sugar or agave syrup and cayenne pepper in a large pot. Cacao increases the blood flow to the heart and frees the heart chakra. Emotionally it translates to releasing pent-up feelings, and the ritual can be both intense and therapeutic.
John and I arrived at the farm in the early afternoon and joined the group on the patio. The circle of twenty or so people, some of them new faces, sat around the big pot of bubbling cacao. I’d never met a shaman before and was intrigued to see what he would look like. I envisioned an indigenous man, dressed in beads and robes. Instead, I arrived to find that the shaman was an American man in his sixties, with white hair and a long white beard. I sat down in the circle feeling a little wary—what had I signed up for? Of all places, the shaman sat down right next to me and we locked eyes. Looking into his clear, blue eyes, I felt a jolt of electricity zap through my body. It felt as if he were looking into the depths of my soul.
“Interesting,” he said. “We’re going to do you last.” I had no idea what he meant, but I felt chills up and down my spine. We all drank the cacao and my mouth went dry from its bitter, spicy taste. This tasted nothing like the hot cocoa I used to drink on ski trips back home! My friends from the farm told me it could take some time for the cacao to “work its magic,” but it was only a few minutes before I felt myself welling up with emotion. How did I end up here? In the middle of the jungle, with people I barely knew but somehow trusted deeply? The circle felt absolutely sacred, filled with a golden glow.
For an audio excerpt of To Love and Let Go, click here.
One of the attendees was a sweet man named Jesse who lived on the farm and had come to the ceremony with his wife and kids. Jesse was a realtor in town and a friend of John’s. His last name was Angell (seriously!). I felt curiously drawn to his four-year-old daughter, Grace, who sat on a cushion— cross-legged, eyes closed, fingers in a gyan mudra—meditating. Grace wasn’t trying to be present the way the others were. She just was. Seeing her so intensely present without effort awakened something deep inside of me. We were all just trying to make our way back to what we already are! We are born this way, full of light, emanating love. We see it in children; it’s effortless. But somehow we get lost along the way. I felt a light emanate from Grace straight into my heart and, before I knew it, I had lost track of time and space. My eyes were open but I was breathing so deeply, completely immersed in the intricate workings of the moment unfolding around me. I felt one with the circle, one with the earth and the sky, one with all, and it lasted for what felt like forever. It was the most intense spiritual experience I had ever had. There was no thought, no ego, just light.
Meanwhile, the shaman worked his way around the circle, taking his time with each person, sitting with them, guiding them deeper. Eventually, after many hours, I was the only one left. Turning to me, he spoke out loud to the whole group. “We are about to enter a very sacred space together now.” I heard his voice clearly, but it was as if I were somewhere else. I felt like I was floating above the ground. “You are on the verge of something life changing,” he told me. “Everyone has a purpose in life, but it’s very rare that I meet someone and immediately know theirs. I knew it the moment I looked into your eyes. And you are meant to realize and understand it now, too.” When he said this, I started crying, but it was different from the tears I had shed in the past. I wasn’t gasping for breath or wiping snot from my nose. Streams of tears flowed, no, poured from my eyes, but it didn’t feel like I was crying. It felt like I was purging. These are not my tears, I thought. But if they weren’t mine, where were they coming from? “They’re your ancestors’ tears,” the shaman said, as if he’d heard my thoughts. “That light you’re feeling in your chest? We all feel it, too. Keep expanding it. Keep breathing into it. We are going to move into your ancestry now. It’s a dark place and you’re going to need to bring this light with you.”
I did as he said and closed my eyes. “Standing behind you are your ancestors,” the shaman said. “To your left is your mother. To your right is your father.” Behind them were their parents—my grandparents—and behind them theirs, and so on, he said, “creating an infinite triangle of generations behind you and forming the entirety of your past and your lineage. As you can feel, your ancestry is weighed heavy with pain.” Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion. I still felt the light emanating from my chest, but the rest of my body grew heavy with sadness and fear. Visions came before my eyes that felt like memories. I saw it all so clearly. Just like the tears I was crying weren’t mine, the memories I saw flash in front of my eyes weren’t mine either. I saw my dad, as an infant, being thrown across the room by his father in a fit of rage; whipped with a belt; abandoned in a sterile hospital bed. My mother as a little girl with bruises on her arms, all alone and crying under her bedcovers while her sisters ate dinner with my grandmother in another room. My grandmother as a child locked in a cold dirt basement, the space so small she couldn’t stand up or lie down. My grandfather, chased down by his dad and beaten with a closed fist. The flashes of abuse went so far back that I didn’t recognize the children in them anymore, but I felt their fear and their sadness intensely. I was witnessing abusive behavior as it was passed down through generations. I felt my whole being weighed down with pain and sadness, but if I kept breathing into the light in my heart the way the shaman guided me to, it was bearable. Vision after vision passed in front of my eyes, and although I wasn’t speaking, the shaman was able to address them all. He saw what I saw. After a while, I felt myself strangely distant from yet intricately connected to what I was seeing. A part of me understood: this all lives in me. I was witnessing pain passed down from person to person, and however awful it was, it was what it was. I couldn’t change it. It was the past I’d been given, and it was given to me for a reason. In an instant I had a massive revelation: None of the people in my family had acted with intentional cruelty. They were acting out what they knew, repeating a pattern that started long before their own consciousness, generations before they were even born. The trauma was passed on to them and, strangely, they had no other choice. This was the best they could do.
Finally, I saw myself as a child, and all of the emotional damage that was done to me. I saw glimpses of my mother’s depression, her suicide attempt, leaving me alone to take care of myself. All the separation and divorce in our family. I saw my father abandoning us to start another family. Threatening us. Yelling at me. With every flashback I felt the pain I’d been carrying for so many years. With that came the insight that I’d lived my life up to that point with the idea that my parents “should” have done things differently—as if they had made a conscious decision to bring about such hurt. Once I could see and feel what they endured as children, my own childhood began to make more sense. In one swift moment, I understood that my parents loved me the only way they knew how. They had done the best with what they were given. What more could I possibly ask?
The next breath I took was so deep it felt like the whole of the universe was breathing through me. As I breathed out, I exhaled much of the resentment I’d been carrying for most of my adult life. The pain was still there, but it was bearable now. There was still healing left to do, but the weight of my sadness was lighter. With that realization, I cried so hard it felt as if the world was crying through me. I’d been right earlier when I’d thought my tears were not mine. They were the tears of an entire lineage, of all of my ancestors combined. I cried for my mother, for my father, who were just children once, too. I cried for my grandparents and for their parents. I cried for every child who had ever felt unsafe, for every moment of pain they’d ever endured. I cried for all of humanity until, suddenly, there were no tears left to cry.
When I opened my eyes again, it was getting dark outside. The whole day had passed and the only people remaining were the shaman, my boss, John, and a woman I didn’t know. They were all looking at me with tears rolling down their cheeks. The shaman spoke to me: “It is your life’s purpose to take on the accumulated pain of your ancestors, carry it on your shoulders, and transform it to light throughout your lifetime.” As he was speaking, I felt a palpable light shining from my chest. If light was a feeling, this was it. “This all ends with you. All of this pain—it ends here. It’s a heavy life purpose to have, but you can do it. It’s why you are here. This pain ends with you. Your daughter will be the first in your lineage not to take it on.” Goose bumps suddenly covered my body. “My daughter?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Your daughter. Spirit has great plans for her, too.” I smiled. One day. A daughter. Looking at the others, he said, “Place your hands on Rachel. She needs to feel this connection.” They did as they were told, but I felt uncomfortable. My own hands were on fire—I didn’t need people to put their hands on me. I needed to put my hands on someone else. I turned around and put my hands on John’s and the woman’s backs. It felt like flames were shooting out of my palms. John later said it felt like he was being lifted off the ground.
I don’t know how long we sat there, the four of us, on that wooden deck, but I felt the need to rest, so I closed my eyes. When I awakened, I was alone. A quiet rain fell on the tin roof, and a mist rose from the grass. The light I’d felt emanating from my body earlier was still there, and my heart felt like it was swelling out of my chest. Everything was so unbearably beautiful. The silence was otherworldly, like nothing I’d ever experienced. But it wasn’t that the world had gone quiet. It was my mind. The incessant chatter I’d lived with, that little voice in the back of my head that said, You’re not good enough . . . no one loves you . . . that’s why everyone abandons you—the voice I was only ever able to quiet during moments of intense meditation—that voice was quiet. The silence was coming from within. Is this enlightenment? I wondered. With that thought came the instant realization that it wasn’t, because if it were, I wouldn’t be asking the question. I felt no disappointment. Okay, it wasn’t enlightenment. But it was damn close.
From To Love and Let Go by Rachel Brathen. Copyright © 2019 by Yoga Girl, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.