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The Language of Fire

Brant Secunda
Dances With Deers: Modern-day shaman Brant Secunda lends the respect and awareness of nature he learned from his Huichol shaman teacher to those attending his shamanic workshop this weekend in Soquel.

Photo by Dan Coyro

Santa Cruz shaman Brant Secunda walked a few more miles of this earth than most North Americans in search of his psychic guide and 'spiritual address'

By Chuck Thurman

LIKE A LOT OF OTHER metaphysical adventurers from the '60s and '70s, Brant Secunda was influenced by Carlos Castaneda's writings. Unlike so many others, he took things to extremes. Instead of becoming a yuppie with an interesting past, the Soquel-based Secunda became a practicing shaman and international spiritual teacher.

Secunda says that his adventures and apprenticeship with an ancient Huichol shaman taught him the world would be a better place if more people were better- connected with the world around them.

"This is what I feel we have forgotten in our modern world," says Secunda, "our connection. We separate ourselves entirely from our environment. And by doing so, according to Huichol shamanism, we make ourselves sick. Make ourselves disjointed, disconnected. And this brings anxiety. Why do people feel anxious? Because they don't feel connected. You can look at it from a real practical way. We don't feel connected, and that leaves the door open for fear and anxiety and so forth."

While other late-in-the-generation baby boomers were trying to define themselves through sex, cocaine and disco, Secunda was holed up in a small village outside Ixtlan, Mexico, learning his trade from Don Jose Matsuwa.

In 1970, 18 years old and fresh out of a New Jersey high school, Secunda traveled to Mexico in hopes of finding Castaneda's fabled Don Juan. Following the advice of a schoolteacher in Ixtlan, Secunda set out on a five-day trek to find a Huichol tribe that might be able to help him complete his quest.

On the third day out from Ixtlan, Secunda passed out from dehydration.

Secunda was rescued by Huichol Indians who took him back to their village, from where he was soon summoned by Matsuwa, who said that he had foreseen Secunda's coming in a dream. Secunda hadn't found Castaneda's Don Juan, but he had found someone just as good (and, arguably, more factual).

Secunda spent 12 years as an apprentice to the Don Jose, who died in 1990 at the age of 110. Secunda says he spent the first six years of the apprenticeship full-time with Don Jose and the last six years commuting back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. He established the Dance of the Deer Foundation Center for Shamanic Studies in 1979 and based it in Soquel in 1981.

Secunda first encountered the Santa Cruz area on his seminal trip from New Jersey to Mexico. "The ocean is a very powerful place here," he says, "and the mountains. There's a power in beauty."

Recognizing and remembering to honor that beauty in nature plays a big part in the Huichol way of life. And it's central to the seminars and ceremonies that Secunda conducts.

"Every day there's a sunrise, and every day there's a sunset," Secunda points out, "no matter if you live in a cave somewhere, or if you're here even in the city. So we teach people to be really aware of nature and their relationship to nature and to each day. And also to the four directions.

"Don Jose always used to say, 'That's your spiritual address, the four directions. Always know where you are. Always know where the sun will rise and the sun will set. And always remember your heart is the fifth direction.' And so we feel shamanism is very relevant in the modern world, where you can use the drums and rattles and different tools that are ancient tools of transformation. You can use them also in the modern world as a way to improve your health and well being," Secunda instructs.

Ceremonies of the Day

SECUNDA SAYS THERE are three ceremonies he observes each day. He greets the sunrise, honors the sunset and tells his dreams to the fire. If the first two ceremonies seem simple to grasp, at least in concept, the third, according to Secunda, is a lot more difficult.

"You can't really describe it," says Secunda. "It's an exercise where you learn to communicate with the fire. Basically, it's learning the language of the fire. You have to learn the language of the spirits of nature. It's like learning any language, really."

Secunda, as a teacher of that language and ceremonies, has developed an international reputation. He teaches seminars and leads pilgrimages around the world, and maintains a second headquarters in the Cevennes National Park in southern France, where his neighbors are three Buddhist monasteries and Tina Turner. ("Now there's a little balance," laughs Secunda.) Secunda says that his students cut across a broad demographic swath of society.

"I have students who are judges, professors, people we would call very normal people, but they are using the tools of shamanism to enhance their life," Secunda says. "Like, for instance, learning how to go on a spiritual, or what we might call a magical, journey to contact their spiritual reality using a drum or a rattle. A lot of my work also involves taking people to places of power, such as the oceans or mountain tops, that really give people a feeling of being connected to their environment.

"I make it very clear in my workshops that no one is going to be a shaman at the end of one weekend," says Secunda. "But I also think that I give people a lot of tools for transformation, because people have to change in order for the world to change."

When Secunda talks about our human responsibility to the environment, he does so with a passion that should shame armchair environmentalists and turn Earth First!ers green with envy. And while some of the most dedicated tree huggers can only beat people with sticks of dread devastation and bleeding-heart sentimentality, Secunda makes it clear that he believes a close relationship with the environment has more practical, personal impact.

"One way to connect ourselves is to perform ceremonies to make prayers and to think positive thoughts, not only for ourselves and our families and our fellow human beings but for all of creation--for all the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds and the winged ones and the trees and the flowers and for the mineral kingdom," he says. "We have a responsibility as human beings to nurture, to think positively and ... to pray for the earth and to perform ceremonies for the balance and the harmony of the earth.

"The Huichols see themselves maybe not as solely responsible, but as part of the process that makes the sun rise every day and makes the sun set every day because of their ceremonies and their prayers," Secunda continues. "Don Jose always used to say, 'We make it rain with our ceremonies.' Which impressed me a lot. And then he said, 'But I'm not stupid. Before I make it rain, I wait for the rainy season.' So, you know, you work in harmony with the seasons.

"You become a part of the whole process," Secunda explains. "Being a part of the process, you are bringing harmony to the earth. By being part of that process you help heal your spirit, your body, your heart. You become healthy, in a sense, because you're living a healthy life by being a part of community, a part of your environment, not separate."

Brant Secunda will offer a workshop in shamanism this weekend at his Dance of the Deer Foundation, P.O. Box 699, Soquel. The cost is $185 for the weekend. For reservations or more info, call 475-0960.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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