I never going to take drugs. That was my bottom line. I’d go to psychologists, doctors, naturopaths, acupuncture, you name it – but I was certain a pill was not going to help me deal with the underlying cause of the chronic anxiety which had taken hold of my body for two years. Although I didn’t see it at the time, I was in a mild crisis of the soul: finishing a Masters, working, volunteering, striving and pushing my body until it could take no more.
My solution was to create a clean slate. I quit my job, finished the masters and packed up for a one-way flight to the Americas.
In December 2014, in a small village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, I sat in my first cacao ceremony. I had always been drawn to yoga, meditation and these more esoteric experiences and practices, but I had never sat in a ceremony, had never been to a shaman, and I certainly had not equated my favourite food with any healing properties aside from mildly satiating a broken heart.
I found myself sitting for five hours enraptured by a man called Keith Wilson (the aforementioned shaman, though he uses this term lightly), learning about the cacao plant, while feeling the effects of a strong cup of bitter hot chocolate. I wasn’t quite sure what to think; I only knew that I wanted to know more. For six months, I stayed and attended as many of Keith’s ceremonies as I could.
This period by the lake sparked a years-long journey of healing and working with cacao – one that has helped me connect to my heart and spirit. In 2017 I began translating ceremonies for a Mayan elder, or “daykeeper” as they are called. This relationship saw me sitting by the fire, interpreting ancient wisdom and growing a deep connection to the cacao traditions.
Chocolate has a deeper purpose than one might think. The Mayans see Cacao as a plant to connect with the heart, to come into deeper reverence and gratitude for life, and to honour god. The Mayan way is to always give thanks for what we receive in this life, and cacao acts as a reminder to stay centred in the heart. As it happens, cacao is physiologically activating the heart. Chemically similar to caffeine, theobromine, the main active compound, opens the blood vessels and increases blood flow. Cacao releases serotonin and contains anandamide and phenylethamine, compounds associated with our state of bliss or happiness. Cacao is also rich in magnesium, which relaxes the nervous system.
Cacao has helped clear away belief systems that were not serving me. It has opened me to an acceptance of myself and an embracing of my journey in this life. We each have our own path to walk and cacao has given me the faith that, as long as I stay connected to my heart, all will be well.
Anxiety is the opposite of this – the constant worry, being stuck in the mind, fearing the worst. Cacao has helped me significantly with these feelings, but I still have days where anxiety creeps back into my heart. For me, these feelings remain a symptom of modern life, of my heart longing to return to simpler times by the fire, in community and nature.
Since coming back to Australia, I have started holding cacao ceremonies which bring people into a space of simply being with themselves and whatever may arise. We bless the cacao and the elements before drinking from cups which were handmade by my friend in Melbourne. We then introduce ourselves, and I talk about cacao – its effects and why we drink it. This allows time for the cacao to take effect before I guide a meditation. People sit or lay down, and I do not plan what I will say so as to allow the flow of my heart to speak into the space. The meditation goes for 45 minutes, and in closing, I sing a song in Spanish and play my drum. There is a sharing at the end before we close the circle. Every individual experience is different but people tend to experience feelings of peace and calm, love and gratitude, as well more difficult emotions. Others have expressed having a busied mind, and experiencing their thoughts disappear entirely. I believe the cacao amplifies what is present and gives us what we need.
Cacao has reminded me of the importance of sacred time, of slowing down to connect and be. In these moments of stillness, deeper peace can be found. The ceremonies I run are not Mayan ceremonies, but offer a space for people to slow down and to experience the cacao plant as it was originally used: to connect, heal and release.
Written for Dumbo Feather, February 2020.