by Arnold Mindell

From THE SHAMAN'S BODY by Arnold Mindell. Copyright (c) 1993 by Arnold Mindell. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers.

The body contains many secrets, and connection to it increases your vitality and sense of presence. Moreover, body awareness is a basic element of living in the moment.

Shamans have a lot of names for body powers, such as "luminous fibers," the "will," "magic," "healing hands," and "journeying to other worlds." The exact location of body wisdom is a personal matter. You can perceive the environment with your ordinary eyes, ears and sense of touch or with other senses of your dreamingbody. Shamans experience this dream and body phenomenon as part of the environment. Sometimes it appears as a force in the belly or as fibers that attach themselves to the world. Sometimes your dreamingbody makes you notice it, as if it were an aspect of the world itself impinging upon you. Normally, you occupy or use only two or three sensory channels consciously: seeing, hearing and perhaps smelling. You can develop your capacity to feel as well. Then you develop an authentic movement awareness, connecting to others directly through your body's intent. I have met people who sense the world through their back, their neck, or the center of their forehead, as well as through their stomach.

To your ordinary mind, the body's acts seem haphazard. The body seems tired, awake, nervous, aroused, sick, or excited at unpredictable and awkward moments. According to many schools of medicine, the body is sick, wrong and in need of correction when symptoms appear. These schools teach you to relax, to let go of or repress tensions and other physical events that you cannot understand.

While these schools of thought are important to understand, the dreamingbody message is different. It is nonpathological. From this inner viewpoint, your body is potentially wise, perceiving the world directly with a will or intent. This intent attaches itself to events according to the significance they have for your overall growth and for the world at a given moment. The same energy that seems to oppose you in the form of an illness can unveil itself as an intent, a power with a purpose different from your consciousness. We have been able to prove this experience worldwide. But outer proof is not necessary, as everyone knows how the body's sudden reactions can save us from life-taking accidents.

Unless you know, test and develop this ally, however, you cannot always use the body's power when you wish. If social circumstances prevent you from following the movements of your dreamingbody because such unusual movements may upset others, you can always use other channels, such as vision. You can switch back and forth between the feeling of the dreamingbody and a visualization of this feeling, to find and follow the body's wisdom. Instead of doing something in movement, you can express somatic information visually or verbally.

I remember an embarrassing time years ago when I was first beginning my practice and I had an inexplicable urge to touch one of my clients. I had felt uneasy for several hours before I allowed myself to admit that my left hand felt compelled to touch my client's chest. I did not feel physically attracted to the woman. The impulse to touch was not sexual, but was closer to the yearning for discovery. If the desire had been to touch her hand, there would not have been a problem. But her chest? Naturally, I didn't want to follow this impulse and wondered what the reasons were behind it. I thought about it and tried to repress the urge and put it out of my mind. After a while, I could no longer repress my dreamingbody, and I told my client about the impulse.

She said that she trusted me and asked where my hand would go. Without knowing why, I told her where on her left breast I would touch her. She was open to experimenting, and I asked her to put her own hand there. To her surprise, she felt a lump that she had not known was there. A subsequent biopsy proved that the tumor was malignant. She had the lump removed and made a complete recovery.

My dreamingbody was helpful to her in this instance. But it may not have been as helpful if I had not tested it, doubted it, and at first repressed it. The ally has a truth, but can only reveal itself completely through your wrestling with it, making it as useful as possible.


The ally can appear in visions, body experiences, the environment or in relationships. Body powers even withstand death in native traditions. Following several native North American traditions, after a long and complete life the warrior allows his body energy, memories and experiences stored in the skeletal muscles to express themselves for the last time, while death stands by as a witness. This "last dance," as don Juan calls it, recalls the struggles and stories of the warrior's life.

The last dance is the dreamingbody set free to express itself. In working with dying people, I have seen how the final processes of life occur in altered states of consciousness. During the last hours of life, people transcend the idea of death and perform unbelievable acts. They put off death while deeper and more important events arise.

Sogyal Rinpoche, in his Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, shows that a central part of Tibetan spirituality is focused upon remaining aware during the altered states surrounding death experiences. This book is especially interesting to me. When I first encouraged people to use their awareness and follow their body impulses near death, many thought comatose people were more or less dead or not present. Western thought so far has made death as painless as possible, but not as awesome as possible. Shamans however, follow their breathing, their coughing, and even the fluttering motions of their face or limbs--their dreamingbody or last dance. I know of one case where a man was supposed to die of leukemia. His last dance put death off to such an extent that the man returned to normal life for eighteen months.

But the last dance does not always happen spontaneously. Without awareness, it may not happen at all. In Coma, Key to Awakening, I speak about a man called Peter who was drowning from pneumonia during his last hours of life. Peter had been given an overdose of morphine so he could die painlessly and rapidly. Amy and I worked with him even as he choked, fully comatose and near death. We encouraged him to believe in himself, to go on with his coughing, whether or not it was the pneumonia he was drowning from, and to make all the noises he wanted. After several hours, he did his last dance. He spontaneously and suddenly sat up straight in the midst of the coma and stared at us with his eyes crossed. To make the story short, he came out of the comatose state and a new consciousness arose. He talked and even sang with us for hours. As we worked further with his cough, his sputtering sounds turned into a heartwarming and ecstatic song.

It was the wee hours of the morning. The medical staff was amazed by this man's energetic activity, but also disturbed because he was waking others. Through his noises, movements and song, Peter vented all sorts of emotions--his love for the universe and for his friends and others. His dance transformed and reversed his symptoms temporarily. His throat cleared and even his kidneys began to work again as death waited while he completed his final dance.

Death had to stand aside and witness this incredible human being. As his courageous wife stood by his side, his real body was dying, but he had climbed into his dreamingbody and was living and experiencing inner stories, feelings and myths. His dreamingbody was living as never before, and just before he died he told us in a sober state that he had found the key to life.

The last dance is more awesome than can be described for those who have not experienced it. The dreamingbody has incredible powers and intent. It wants to be complete and live as the universe lives. In my experience, this last dance may not occur without assistance, just as the warrior's last dance may no longer occur without the right sort of tribal shamanistic environment.


The dreamingbody is an ally that does not always give its message or power without a courageous encounter. Shamans find the ally's secrets during vision quests in lonely, abandoned places in nature or in other-worldly visions. This means that you can find the ally in the wilderness, in inaccessible and remote spots, or in deeply unconscious and secondary processes in your life.

You can also gain access to the ally by meditating, taking drugs, overeating, smoking, or running long distance. Don Juan gives Castaneda drugs like the devil's weed and little smoke to help him gain access to the ally's world and to knock out Castaneda's stubborn, rational primary process.

All of these methods are dangerous. If you do not find the ally within them, they can become addictions. In a way, an addiction like drinking alcohol or smoking is the ally's attempt to reach your awareness. For instance, if you get drunk, you may gain access to far reaches of experience, even come close to delirium or a coma, and get out of your head to find your body ally creating poetry. But alcoholism is dangerous. That is why shamans have always suggested warrior's trainings and community support to find what they want, and to avoid the dangers of addictions that eventually wreak as much havoc as healing.

Alcohol especially is an immense problem among many indigenous peoples, including shamans. In my experience with such peoples, alcohol is a symptom of trying to find dreamtime in cosmopolitan reality. It is a symptom of a loss of rootedness in wholeness and dreaming, and of the depression and pain of oppression and disenfranchisement. Drugs are a means of getting around personal history and journeying to other realms to find the missing pieces of reality. But without carefulness, drugs become a destructive ally.

It is important to battle with the ally. Don Juan recommends that when facing the ally, you gather all of your courage and grab the ally before it demolishes you--go after it before it hunts you. You must continue this chase until you connect, and then the struggle begins. You must "wrestle the spirit to the ground" and hold it there until it gives you power.1


Don Juan's description of the battle with the ally must be related to ancient mythical Aztec stories about a terrifying god, the feared Tezcatlipoca. According to Aztec legend, the Aztecs thought that Tezcatlipoca wandered at night in the shape of a giant, wrapped in an ash-colored veil and carrying his head in his hand. When numerous people saw him, they died. A brave man seized the giant, saying he would not let Tezcatlipoca go until sunrise. The giant begged to be released and then cursed. When the man succeeded in holding the monster until daylight, Tezcatlipoca changed his tone and offered wealth and invincible power if the man would set him free. The victorious man received four thorns as a pledge from the conquered god. The brave man tore out the heart of Tezcatlipoca and took it home, but when he unwrapped the cloth in which he had folded it, he found nothing but white feathers, a thorn, ashes and an old rag.2 The archetypal ally, Tezcatlipoca, is likened to the summer sun as the bringer of life. But near the equator, the sun also becomes a killer. Tezcatlipoca appears to us as a personal spirit, but the spirit belongs to the universe, just as the sun belongs both to the earth and to the cosmos.

The archetypal and most powerful ally is different from a protective figure like Buddha, Jesus, or a dead parent; it is an impossible god of darkness. In the Aztec myth, it is portrayed as the most terrifying experience, the thing that scares you most and that is furthest from your ability to control.

According to the legend of Tezcatlipoca, you must wrestle with the ally and chase it before it chases you. You need to get its secret, but not become possessed by it. If the ally is the kernel of an altered state of consciousness, a message presaged in illness, irrational movements and impulses, then wrestling the ally means processing with it to find its meaning. Wrestle with the sense of being possessed. Pull the message out of fearful fantasies, out of the air and down to the ground, or you might lose precious information. Wrestle with an addiction to get its message. Struggle with physical pain until its gives its message. Ask the gods why they have created life as they have.

What is Tezcatlipoca's secret message? According to the myth, it is white feathers, a thorn, ashes or an old rag. These gifts symbolize spiritual qualities with no immediate worldly value. The key to life is an old rag, a feather, ashes--not something to do or achieve, but a feeling about life.

The encounter with the ally is potentially lethal. If you have ever been terrified by a possibly dangerous illness, you know what that encounter with the ally feels like. The bottom line is death. You either get the ally's information or fear for your life. On the other hand, if you become infatuated with the ally, you get carried away by it and can become addicted to its power unleashed by a drug.


This may be why the Aztecs feared Tezcatlipoca more than any other god and offered him blood sacrifices. They believed he had the power to destroy the world if he so wished. Every year, they chose the most handsome prisoner to personify that god. The prisoner was taught to sing and play the flute, to wear flowers, and to smoke elegantly. He was richly garbed and eight pages were assigned to wait on him. For a whole year, he was heaped with honors and pleasure. Twenty days before the date fixed for his sacrifice, he received four young women as his wives, personifications of four goddesses. Then began a series of festivals and dances. Finally, when the fatal day arrived, the young man was taken with great pomp out of the town and sacrificed on the last terrace of the temple. The priest opened the breast of the prisoner with one cut of his obsidian knife, and tore out the palpitating heart, which he offered to the sun.3

What is the meaning of this dreadful sacrifice of the most handsome prisoner bonded to the four goddesses (ignoring for the moment the repellent sexism in this and other myths)? The story may be trying to say that you need to serve your ally god and sacrifice your worldly good looks and your success. Since Tezcatlipoca is the sun, you must first honor or consciously give in to the impulse to burn and to live ecstatically. This sacrifices a part of your ordinary self and makes you a kind of criminal, because ecstasy is repressed in most societies. Once you serve your ally, old parts of you die as new parts connected to transpersonal experience begin to live.

If you are gifted with an ally, and do not go through this process consciously, the ally can kill you. Think of the musical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example. This great man served his musical ally genius. He wrote music, but was possessed by alcohol, which finally killed him while he was still in his early thirties. Though no one can judge another human, I often wonder what would have happened to Mozart had he lived more with his ally and slain the good-looking, worldly part of himself as Aztec myths suggest. Instead, he tried to live a middle-class, bourgeois life (though his alcoholism made this almost impossible). Saying no to alcohol and yes to its divine manifestation might have meant saying yes to creativity and no to his standard lifestyle.

It's easier to speak of this battle than to live it yourself. If you have ever felt inspired, you know some of the good feelings of being driven by a powerful ally. You also know the toll that ally takes on ordinary living and friendships.

Meetings with allies are presaged in nightmarish childhood dreams in which you barely escape the monster's clutches. Often, these early dream figures catch you, predicting the crises that will occur periodically later on in life. At every point as you continue through life, monsters seem to threaten your ability to adapt, by provoking behavior that seems unacceptable. There are the crises of your school days, when the ally makes you act more complicated than your school system or parents wish. Then there are your twenties, during which you tussle with choosing a profession; the ally is always convincing you to change professions or to choose one that seems unrealistic. The ally is there again in the crisis of midlife, threatening to overturn your whole life, disturbing relationships and throwing life into apparent confusion. Finally in old age, the demon appears again, making you irritable and impossible, reducing your tolerance for worldly pursuits and meddling in the affairs of friends and relatives.

Again and again, the ally appears in your moods and disturbs relationships. Since your problems come from other dimensions, you never feel that you are the cause of your troubles, while others think you are. Meanwhile, you insist that they are the difficulty.

Your most ancient human task is to recover everything that makes you whole, to find your soul, and to discover your demon. This means noticing where that demon is, and then processing its uncanny energies. To seek the ally's secret--finding the key to existence before you are driven to madness or ilness--takes a lot of courage.

The ally, the ghost that spooks you, is more than your personal demon. Like Tezcatlipoca, the ally is a cosmic star, a universal deity, and something in the atmosphere everywhere. It is in your family, your group and your nation. The ally is a neglected collective spirit. It is the outlaw, the shadow of your whole community, reflecting that aspect of culture that will not abide by the present system.

Thus, the demon is everyone's disorder, and also everyone's potential future renewal. It acts out an important role in the world, a role typically missing in culture. It is the mad you, the perverted you, the ecstatic you, the rebel, as well as the suffering and wise you. From earliest childhood, you have dealt with not only your personal demon, but the world's most unacceptable psychology. The battle with your personal ally is simultaneously global work.

The gods and spirits are everyone's. You suffer from fantasies and body problems that not only plague you, but are found in everyone's dreams at about the same time. Your suffering is the mythic conflict between the spirit of the times in which you live and the unknown demon of renewal. That is why if you are a successful warrior, your battle not only turns the demon into a helpful adviser, but will relieve the atmosphere around you. As you forge your own basic nature anew, you change the world. You become a shaman who battles with demons to protect her community.

With each battle, you come closer to something eternal, and dropping your personal history becomes easier. The ally demands not only momentary change, but a total reappraisal of your personal identity and worldview. Your gods and goddesses demand you accept your mythical nature and undertake feats that you think should be left to the gods.

Remember Peter, the dying man I mentioned earlier? As he came out of his coma, he yelled again and again, "I have found the key to life!" Amy and I never did completely understand what that key was, but the last dream he had before dying gave us a hint. In that dream he was lost, but he found his way by following the gigantic footsteps of a mythic figure through the snow. He was following the footsteps of his ally through the unknown, across the threshold of physical life. The ally, appearing in the gyrations of his own incredible dying body, was showing him the way to eternity.


1. When you feel ready to work with the ally, consider the events in your life that have been most difficult, terrifying, baffling or blocking.

2. Choose one such difficult accident, symptom, relationship problem or nightmare.

3. Study the threat. Feel its nature. Focus upon it. What does it feel like to be its victim?

4. Now prepare for a switch. Experiment with leaving your old victim identity behind for a moment and stepping outside the problem. When you are ready, experiment with becoming the creator of your problem. If it was an accident, feel or imagine a powerful force or ally that could have created it. If it is a symptom, feel or imagine the nature of a spirit that created the symptom, whose power you have been feeling, and then imagine being that spirit. Feel the symptom maker, and make a picture of it. Try creating a human face. If your problem is a relationship difficulty, imagine or feel some being that could make this relationship so difficult. Paint or draw this spirit; play it or ask a friend to play it for you.

5. When you are ready, confront the spirit. Get its message. Wrestle with the ally by questioning it as you play it. Feel its message, finding out what aspect of yourself, if any, it opposes in your personal life. Can you change in some small way? Can you sacrifice or transform your personal life to incorporate the power of this demon so that it is your ally? How could the ally eventually enrich the culture in which you are presently living?

6. Feel the energy of the ally and imagine employing it usefully in a worldly task right now.

7. Take some time to get ready to sing and dance. Finally, get the ally to dance and sing. Move with its energy, getting it to make sounds in accordance with your movements. Get it to sing a song with words. Don't forget to record its song. After all, if you have gotten this far, you have wrestled the ally to the ground and found its secret.

1. Castaneda. Separate Reality, 234.
2. Larousse. Encyclopedia of Mythology, 436-37.
3. Ibid., 437.