Growing up in Belgium, chocolate has always had a very central place in my life as a source of delight. 23 years after I first set foot on planet Earth, Paulina and I were drawn to Mexico which became our homeland for many years. Here, we connected deeply with the cacao plant, grew and harvested it, and explored its power to open the heart and the joy of our being. We traveled to Guatemala, where we joined some cacao ceremonies in San Marcos, and for a long time eating or drinking cacao became an almost daily little ritual in our lives. It expanded my horizons, and I started to deeply love and honor the cacao spirit. Cacao for me, is one of those plants that have the potential to shift human consciousness and perception in a subtle, but powerful way and create more space and openness in the heart.
When we returned to Europe a few years later, we started to offer cacao ceremonies. Cacao has the potential to evaporate the mask and the 'invisible shield' we often energetically carry, and to open up to living beyond our mask, and to connect us with the power of the heart. Simply dropping our awareness from a mind-oriented sense of self to a heart-oriented awareness can bring such a shift in the way we perceive reality and experience life. And for me, this is the work in which cacao can assist in. In this usually being done in a very celebrative and joyful way:)
But throughout the years, as cacao ceremonies became more popular, it also became more commercialized, together with the business of selling ‘ceremonial grade cacao’. My love for cacao started to become mixed with an aversion to the way it’s being offered/sold, and some of the beliefs that have been created around it. Still, I have 25kg of organic cacao at home and it's one of my daily delights. But there are a couple of beliefs around the ‘ceremonial use of cacao’, that I like to explore deeper in this article:
1) The history of cacao
2) Ceremonial grade, raw cacao
1) The history of cacao
Many ‘cacao shamans’ or people leading cacao ceremonies claim to have learned their rituals from indigenous tribes in Latin America. But is there an unbroken lineage of cacao shamans? And what do we really know about the role of cacao in the Mayan and Aztec culture? Or is the cacao ceremony we know today almost a purely Western invention?
Firstly, let us go back in time...
There is plenty of evidence that cacao had a central place in Meso-American cultures for millennia. The name cacao is derived from the Mayan word ‘Kakawa’. Cacao was for the first time introduced to the Spanish court around the middle of the 16th century and has ever since captured the attention in Europe for its taste, health benefits, and delightful effects.
But how did the Mayans use and view cacao really?
The traditional use of cacao for the Mayans was very extensive, and most probably never intrinsically centered around cacao as we see nowadays in cacao ceremonies. To be honest, after having done extensive research and having lived for years myself in Mexico, I have never been able to find a ‘traditional cacao cereomony’. Although many people do claim having learned cacao ceremonies from a lineage, I highly question the authenticity of such claims. Cacao had a central role in daily life, the kitchen, as well as in rituals. But it was very far from being the cacao ceremony as we see it today. Rather, cacao was used as an offering in rituals, often together with sacred corn, beer, alcohol, chickens, etc. It reminds me a bit about the Zen quote , saying: ‘I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at the finger. Look at the moon.’
So what do we know about the use of cacao in ancient Meso-American cultures? There is evidence that cacao was at some point used as a sort of currency in the Aztec culture. The Mayans perceived Cacao as the God ‘Ek Chuan’. The mythology goes that the gods discovered cacao in the mountains, and shared it with humanity. There is also archeological evidence demonstrating cacao was an important element in offerings for marriages, funerals, and other rituals. Cacao was also extensively used as a medicine and source of food, and even nowadays you can still find it on almost every indigenous market in Southern Mexico. Many indigenous people in Mexico that I met, traveled or worked the land with a big fermented drink of cacao and corn (which was in my experience usually contained in an empty Coca-Cola bottle).
My conclusion is that most probably, there was never such a thing as a ceremony centered around cacao.
Nowadays cacao ceremonies usually involve self-exploration, practices for authentic relating, dance, yoga, breathwork, and intention setting, and it can actually take any form the creative power can give to it. Spiritually has always taken new forms, and adjusts to the modern paradigms, needs, and belief systems. So, I am definitely not criticizing new forms of cacao ceremonies. On the contrary, I love it myself when held in resonance. But I do feel the need to question people claiming to have learned cacao ceremonies from a non-existing lineage. Or at least we could say that cacao ceremonies are being offered in such a different setting and method that we can hardly speak of it under the same name. Further, using cacao as a medium without truly having a feeling for the Spirit and origin of the plant would probably harvest very limited benefits.
2) Ceremonial grade, raw cacao
Let’s begin by explaining a little bit about the way cacao is produced. Cacao grows as a seedpod on a tropical tree. Inside the seedpod, there are cacao beans, surrounded by a sweet white pulp. If you didn’t ferment the cacao beans, they wouldn’t have any chocolate-like flavor, contain certain toxins, and they would not be tasty at all. Cacao is thus fermented by placing it into big piles for several days. The sugars present in the white pulp surrounding the beans are essential for an efficient fermentation process. In Mexico, we used to wrap it into a banana leave and place it for 5 days underground in a big pile together. After 5 days we dug it up, washed the beans, dried them, toasted them carefully in a pan over a fire, peeled the beans, and then ground them by hand into a cacao paste. As far as I know, this is the method that all indigenous cultures that work (d) with cacao used to follow. It takes up the energies of earth (underground fermentation), water (fermenting the beans wet), fire (toasting over fire), and air (drying). It’s not only a tradition to toast cacao beans, there are also good scientific reasons why slight toasting is better than peeling and eating the beans raw. After the fermentation process, there may be molds and bacteria present in the cacao that can have a negative effect upon our health. Fermenting these beans can neutralize these risks. I believe that raw foods can be in certain situations, for certain people, very beneficial. But there are also raw foods that simply don’t digest well, or contain poisonous substances that are no longer present once cooked or toasted. To simply assume that ‘raw food is healthier for everyone’ doesn’t seem to take many factors into consideration. The same may be true for cacao beans.
Another popular belief I see around cacao is: ‘Don’t bring cacao to a boil, as it will destroy its properties and ceremonial effect.’ I found it interesting to find out that most cacao, even organic cacao, and cacao sold as ‘ceremonial grade’, is heated up to above 150 or 200°C when it is melted down into a paste. In my opinion and experience, quickly heating it up again to 90 or 100°C when making it into a drink, doesn’t adversely affect the quality, unless of course we strongly believe it does. Mind over matter seems to be an extremely powerful universal law.
So now what about the ceremonial grade (raw) cacao that is often sold for extremely high prices? There are no standardized criteria as to what ceremonial grade cacao is. Thus, everyone can sell cacao and sell it for higher prices by adding this spiritual label to it. It’s a very subjective matter, and to justify its use it depends for me a lot on certain conditions and the intention behind it.
-Is the intention to provide the highest quality cacao, respecting the earth, and lifting up the producers and consumers in body, mind, and Spirit? Or is the intention to make higher profits, or to have a feeling of working with a ‘spiritually superior’ product, and thus be spiritually superior ourselves?
-The quality can be determined by the health of the soil and plants, the variety of cacao, the selection of beans and the state of awareness or intention while working with it, the fermentation, and potentially the toasting and grinding process. There are many varieties of cacao. Some contain more theobromine (a cafeine-like compound), and others contain more micro-nutrients that mainly contribute to the health benefits of cacao. Criollo is generally seen as a more wholesome variety and is more commonly grown in Latin America and rarely in Africa. But there are many other less-known varieties as well.
Cacao has a very rich history and has been an essential and sacred plant in Mayan and other Meso-American cultures. Apart from having many proven health benefits, it has the power to open our heart and lift our spirits up. In this way, it’s a true master plant which I love and honor. But often when a practice becomes fashionable (just like yoga, chakra-healing, or other spiritual practices), it tends to loose it’s connection to the source while still claiming to have a lineage behind it for the sake of gaining authority, and it gets entangled with dogmatic beliefs. I believe that if a practice truly helps to experience more peace, joy, and purification of the subconscious mind in a sustainable way, it has proven to be useful and it doesn’t need any other authority to affirm this.
We are living in a multi-cultural society where intra-spirituality flourishes, a blending of cultures in which the old often becomes obsolete or blends with other forms and new forms arise. Keeping traditions and the wisdom of cultures alive is beautiful and very much needed I believe. But giving birth to new ways of living, working, and blending together also has its value. Cacao-ceremonies which often blend tantra, Hatha-yoga techniques, Bhakti or devotion, and shamanic practices all together can be very liberating, expanding and efficient in unlocking the sacred dimension of the heart. But for the sake of truthfulness, clarity and honesty, let’s not call it a Mayan ritual or a traditional cacao ceremony. This is like calling a cow, a crow. It sounds almost the same, but it isn’t, at least as far as form exists. What I truly love about cacao, regardless of its tradition, is how it can bring open the heart. For me, cacao is a medium that assists us in Pure Love and Pure existence, guided by the power and wisdom of the heart.