The Gifts Of One Spirit Medicine

You can grow a new body. You know you can, because you have already grown a body once before. Ten fingers, ten toes, all of the exquisite beauty of your physique grew from an egg and a sperm following careful instructions. And to grow a new body, all you have to do is break in to the password-protected regions of your DNA to switch on these same codes.

I know this is possible because I did it.

You see, I had no choice.

At the time of this incident, everything was going well for me. Professionally I was at the top of my game, a best-selling author with 12 books to my credit, a medical anthropologist with a Ph.D. in psychology, a teacher and healer with a following worldwide. The Four Winds Society that I founded had grown exponentially: more than 5,000 students had gone through our training in energy medicine or had accompanied me on journeys to the Amazon and the Andes. And those were just the accomplishments the public could see. Close to my heart were the many inner gifts I had received on my journey, including the most precious gift of all, a beloved partner who walks a spirited path beside me.

Just when it looked as if life couldn’t get any better, I was stopped in my tracks. Suddenly I was in a fight for survival that called on everything I’d learned in 30 years of studying with some of the world’s most gifted healers. You see, I am trained in neuroscience but I am also a shaman, initiated in the healing ways of the indigenous peoples I studied with in the jungles and mountains of South America.

Clearly the Amazon rain forest is not the Beverly Hilton, so when I tell people what I do, they often say, “Are you nuts?” I understand their concern. The way of the shaman is not for everyone. The training is rigorous and demanding, and my extended stays in the jungle exacted a heavy price.

While I was in Mexico as a keynote speaker at a conference on science and consciousness, without warning I found I couldn’t walk 100 feet without collapsing in exhaustion. Friends chalked it up to my crazy travel schedule, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

A few days before the trip I had gone for a head-to-toe checkup, a complete battery of tests from medical specialists in Miami. I got my test results in Mexico; the news was not good. Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa, and South America, I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of deadly parasites, and a host of toxic bacteria. My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites.

When I heard the words, “It’s your brain, Dr. Villoldo,” I sank into despair. The irony was I had just published a book entitled Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment. The doctors advised me to get my name on a liver transplant list. Maybe my heart would recover, but where was I going to find a healthy brain?

After the conference, my wife, Marcela, was going on to the Amazon to lead one of our expeditions through The Four Winds Society. I stood in the departure wing at the Cancún airport, staring at my options: Gate 15, the flight to Miami where I would be admitted to a top medical center, or Gate 14, the flight to Lima and the Amazon, where I would be with Marcela in the land of my spiritual roots. All my test results indicated I was dying. Miami was the logical choice. I boarded the plane and eased into my seat. Just as the flight attendant offered me a moist towel, a primal instinct made me sit bolt upright and summon up the courage to put my future where my mouth was—to live what I had taught to so many. My journal entry for that night reads:

I knew I had to go to the jungle. Otherwise I would be looking for my medicine in the wrong place. Now I am with the woman I love, returning to the garden where I first found my spiritual path.

In the Amazon, the shamans welcomed me lovingly. These men and women were friends who had known me for decades. And who knew me better than Mother Earth? She received me as only a mother can. As I pressed my body to hers, I felt her speak to me: “Welcome home, my son.”

That night there was a ceremony with a brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine that shamans use for visioning and healing. I was too weak to participate, so I stayed in our cottage by the river. Marcela went to the ceremony for both of us. I could hear the shaman whistling, and his haunting songs wafted across the water to me as I went into a light meditation.

Hours later Marcela returned smiling. Mother Earth had spoken to her that night: “I make everything on the earth grow. I am giving Alberto a new liver. He knows how to heal everything else.” The next day I wrote in my journal:

After morning yoga, a being appeared to me in broad daylight. She walked out of the river, and I saw her as if in a dream—a spirit who touched my chest and told me that I was a child of the Pachamama and that she would look after me, as my work on the earth is not yet done.

My return to the Amazon was the beginning of my healing. But first there was an enormous amount of work to do. I was gravely ill. I had to hack my biology to switch on the genes that create health and that would help me to grow a new brain, a new heart, and a new liver. And I had to remind myself: There are no guarantees, Alberto. There is a difference between curing and healing. You may not be cured; you may die. But regardless of what happens, your soul will be healed.

From the Amazon, Marcela and I flew to Chile and our Center for Energy Medicine near Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. In the Inka language, aconcagua means “where you come to meet God.” This is exactly what I needed. It was time for the meeting I had been postponing for so long.
My body was a road map of the jungles and mountains where I had worked as an anthropologist, picking up the lethal critters that had taken up residence inside me. The jungle is a living biology laboratory, and if you spend enough time there, you become part of the experiment. I knew anthropologists who had died of the parasites I now harbored.

Actually, the virgin rain forest of the Amazon is free of most disease, but to get to it you have to go through filth-ridden outposts of Western civilization. The Indios knew better than to foul their nests and their drinking water. Meanwhile, the white man surrounded himself with a sea of garbage and sewage.

Shaman's lagoon.The spiritual medicine I received from the shamans when I was in the Amazon was powerful, but I had to complement it with Western science. The doctors put me on a worm medication—the same type I give my dogs—and on antibiotics to kill other parasites. My brain was on fire with inflammatory agents produced by the medications and the dead and dying parasites. I would have to detox my brain to avoid going completely mad.

My brain fog and confusion were glaringly evident when I tried to play Scrabble with Marcela. That game became the barometer of my mental health. I could not access words. And then I started losing my sense of self. I panicked: What if I forget who I am? What if I lose my awareness of self? Madness stared at me from the horizon—I saw it, felt it, breathed it. It sent naked fear into every part of my being.

Ironically, it was fear of losing myself that saved me: over the next three months, I simply observed the madness I was experiencing. The Buddhists have a powerful practice of self-inquiry that starts with asking, Who am I? Then, after a while, you begin to inquire, Who is it who is asking the question? So I began to ask, Who is it who’s going mad?

There was no place to hide. I saw the madness; others saw it. But, as always, there was another side to the pain. The fathomless depths to which my spirit sank were matched by the flight of my soul. I began to understand who I had been since the beginning of time and who I would be after I died. The gnawing fear was matched by divine love and a dawning experience of oneness I had never felt before.

I called my friend David Perlmutter, a neurologist who was the co-author of my book Power Up Your Brain. Together we crafted a strategy using potent antioxidants and extreme ketosis (where the body uses fats instead of sugars as fuel) to trigger the production of neural stem cells to repair my brain. Over the next three months, I began to understand how unhealed emotions create disease, and how I had to heal my anger and my fear in order to recover my health. Energy moved, flowed, met obstacles, and flowed again. Time drifted by like a sluggish river, and I stepped out of it, knowing I had to make friends with eternity.

That night, I had a dream:

I am with friends looking at a grave covered with flowers. I am buried there. My friends say I can stay there if I like. But I tell them I won’t need this piece of earth. I see my soul rise from the ground.

In spite of all the spiritual gifts I was receiving in my dreams, my body felt wretched. I could feel my mind teetering on the edge of the precipice.
I knew I had a choice. I could choose to remain in the world of Spirit. But a voice was telling me that my work was not done. I would have to return to ordinary life.

First I would have to visit the realm of the dead. I dreamed:

Marcela and I are at a ferry terminal. There are many people waiting to board. We have a small boat just for us, one that belonged to my father. People help us launch our boat, which I know how to pilot because my father taught me. Not my human father, but the heavenly father.

I am preparing to cross the great water in my own craft, not with all the others taking the ferry. I am making my journey to the land of the dead but not with the dying. I am going with my shaman wife.

I had a new mission—to be a shaman. But wait! Hadn’t I answered the call to be a shaman a long time ago? I’d even written a book about it: Shaman, Healer, Sage.

Now Spirit was offering me another lifetime within this one. I was being called to step into a new destiny, without self-importance, without the subtle seduction of worldly accomplishment. The externals of my life might not change, but my attitude had to.

I felt liberated. I was free. That night, I dreamed:

I am inside a breathing machine and friends are saying good-bye. I am unable to move or speak, but I am in bliss. They turn off life support. I have to pull myself out of the breathing apparatus to come back to life. I realize I can find eternity without dying. I rip the tube out of my mouth and breathe. I am alive.

I realized that I did not have to die. I could stay and heal myself so I could help others to heal. Once I made that choice, I felt my spirit extending roots into my body once again. Awe and wonder returned as my brain fog began to clear and I experienced Oneness, where life and death flow seamlessly into each other and where I reside in infinity.

My good friend Mark Hyman, who wrote Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, helped me put together a nutritional plan for healing my body. Mark and I co-lead seven-day detox programs for our clients in exotic locations. His plan for me included green juices in the morning and superfoods and supplements that detoxify the liver and brain.

Today, I’m fully recovered. More accurately, I’m beyond recovered. I’m a new person. My mind is functioning at a higher level than it has in decades. My brain is upgraded and so is my heart. And I have a new liver—not a transplant, but my own liver, fully regenerated. I was able to grow a new body.

Surgeons have long known that you can remove 80 percent of a person’s liver, and it will grow back within two months. The liver’s amazing ability to regenerate probably comes from being exposed to toxins back when our ancestors discovered which fruits and plants were edible through trial and error.

The liver isn’t the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself. You grow a completely new heart every 15 years, your bones are only 2 years old, your lungs and skin are around 2 to 4 weeks old, and your intestines have changed all their cells within the last 3 days. With my own recovery, I began to understand that aging is what happens when your body loses its ability to regenerate itself, when healthy cells no longer replace sick and dying ones. Imagine what might happen if you could direct your body to grow only healthy, vibrant new cells.

The secret was in the healing plants from the Amazon. I found that the plants most treasured by shamans in the rain forest could help you to break in to the password-protected regions in your DNA where the instructions to grow a new body are stored. But the phytochemical properties alone were not enough; they simply opened the vault where the codes were kept.

Excerpted with permission from Grow A New Body, Alberto Villoldo’s latest book, which offers shamanic practices alongside cutting-edge science, detox strategies and power plant foods that can switch on every cell’s ability to regenerate and repair.

Alberto Villoldo, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and psychologist who has studied the spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes for more than 25 years. Author of numerous best-selling books, including Shaman, Healer, Sage, The Four Insights, Courageous Dreaming and Power Up Your Brain, Alberto is the founder of The Four Winds Society, and directs the Center for Energy Medicine in Chile, where he investigates and practices the neuroscience of enlightenment. Visit